Category Archives: Book Review

Mini-review clearance: Nonfiction

Continuing my wrap-up of books read in 2012:

Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne

I grew up believing that (macro) evolution was not true because it didn’t align with a literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account. This was the only valid interpretation according to my parents, my church and most Christians I knew. There was a man who sometimes attended that church who believed evolution was true and I regarded him with astonished curiosity. Later, as an adult, I rejected the idea that evolution and Christianity were incompatible with each other, but felt I needed to learn more before officially changing my own view. I’ve had Coyne’s book on my to-read list for several years and finally got around to reading it last year. Coyne, a scientist whose primary field is evolutionary biology, outlines evolutionary theory in an intelligent but accessible way. He references recent research (the book was published in 2009), and includes fascinating and entertaining examples from the natural world. I especially enjoyed the chapters on the fossil record and vestigial organs / embryonic development.

Coyne’s main stumble is the awkward inclusion of sentences along the lines of, “why would a beneficent creator have done such-and-such this way” (I don’t have the book with me, so forgive the paraphrase). The book’s focus is not theological, so sentences pondering the motives of God just come off as clumsy and distracting. But overall, I really appreciated this book for giving me a good understanding of evolutionary theory. I felt like something just clicked in my brain after reading Coyne’s book and made me look at the world with fresh eyes.

(While reading the book, I sought out writings by Christians who view as evolution is true and found this great article by a biology professor who used to support the Intelligent Design movement.) Obviously I came to this book with issues of faith in mind, but I recommend Why Evolution is True for anyone who wants a refresh on evolutionary theory.

Ox Travels: Meetings With Remarkable Travel Writers – introduced by Michael Palin

If you’ve been reading this blog for while, you may know that I have a penchant for travel writing. When I was in Portland, Oregon last year, I raided the travel section of Powell’s Books, and this was one of the books highlighted by the store. Ox Travels is a collection of 36 travel essays, and proceeds of the book go toward supporting the work of Oxfam. Some of the essays are adapted excerpts from books, especially in the case of well-known travel writers such as Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. I hadn’t read any of the source books, so the re-use of this material didn’t bother me. As with most books of essays, there were a few weak links, but overall this was a fine collection. There is “The End of the Bolster”, a little romantic tale from Sara Wheeler and “A Cave on the Black Sea” which is a story from an unfinished book by the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor. There is a story which tells of a Brazilian Rastafarian who travels to Benin, the land of his ancestors; another story describes a tense encounter in the diamond fields of Zimbabwe; a street performer works a bit of magic on a desperate crowd waiting for a plane in Freetown, Sierra Leone in “The Beggar King”.

Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum

The subtitle of Ghost Hunters pretty much gives the premise for this book, although I would qualify that the book focuses on many researchers and not just William James (brother of author Henry James!). Ghost Hunters chronicles the efforts of these scientists to investigate mediums and others who claimed to bear messages from the dead, whether through sittings, seances or letter-writing. Blum focuses on the scientists’ work of the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Unsurprisingly, the scientists are derided by the rest of the scientific community for this line of research. The researchers often found possible psychics to be frauds, but occasionally there was an incident that seemed genuine and not a trick. It was methodical work with few rewards and about halfway through the book, I felt like that could somewhat describe my reading experience as well. I won’t blame Blum, as I think some external factors contributed to my declining interest in the book, but I was really dragging along by the end. That said, one of the aspects I did enjoy about this book was the parade of Victorian movers-and-shakers that had connections to psychical research: there were a lot of familiar names, from authors to philosophers to inventors.

This book was recommended to me by Eva.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi

This is a short memoir by Islamic feminist writer, Fatima Mernissi, about growing up in Fez, Morocco during the 1940’s. As the outside world is shaken by World War II, young Fatima learns about harem life. While her grandfather had many wives, the generation of Fatima’s father tended to be more monogamous. The household Fatima lives in is a harem because the women are not allowed outside, except on escorted visits. Another aspect of harem life is the multi-family dimension: Fatima grows up with cousins and aunts and uncles around. An aunt comes to live there after separating from her husband. Fatima observes how the women around her negotiate this cloistered life. Some abide by it strictly, while others test the boundaries. Fatima also compares this harem life to the harem life experienced on her grandfather’s farm, where the rules are a little more relaxed because it is in the country. I thought Mernissi occasionally laid it on too thick with metaphorical / inspirational passages, but I loved how Mernissi captured the details of this life and the personalities of her family.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who studied abroad in Morocco when she was in college.


Filed under Non-Fiction

The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs

After Doomsday Book sucked me in and broke my heart, I was having a hard time getting into a new book. I had a non-fiction book I was slowly working through, but I needed a fictional story to settle me down. So I turned to re-reading a favorite series, the Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs. There are currently six books in total and the above photo shows them in chronological order, with the first book on top.

This urban fantasy series features a Volkswagon mechanic named Mercy Thompson, who also happens to be a coyote shapeshifter. Raised by werewolves in Montana, she now calls the Tri-Cities area of Eastern Washington state her home. The area is heavily populated by various supernatural groups. Besides werewolves (and Mercy), there are vampires, fey and ghosts. Humans live there too of course. Some are Mercy’s friends, some are her enemies, and some are unpredictable.

I read the first book, Moon Called, in early summer 2008. It is a true fact that Moon Called was in the same library haul as Twilight, coincidentally another urban fantasy book featuring vampires and werewolves in the state of Washington. I started Twilight first, but when my interest lagged a third of the way through, I picked up Moon Called. I happily zipped right through Moon Called and didn’t look back.

This summer was the first time re-reading the series and let me tell you that a Mercy Thompson marathon is the way to do it. Over a period of several weeks, I read all six books in a row. This experience melded the individual books together, and I become much more attuned to the story arcs and character development spanning the entire series. For instance, in the first book, Mercy has friends but not really much in the way of family. Though she grew up with werewolves, she definitely didn’t feel like she was one of them. Her foster werewolf parents died when she was a teenager. She’s on good terms with her birth mother and her step-sisters and step-father, but they aren’t a regular part of her life. As the series progresses, we see her acquire a family in the form of the local wolf pack. It’s not an easy transition for her or for them, but in the later books, there is a definite sense that she belongs with them.

One of the things I love about the Mercy Thompson series is that Briggs creates platonic relationships that are just as interesting and important as the romantic relationships. Raise your hand if you’ve read several books where the romantic relationship trumps all, and all other relationships are perfunctory and filler. Not so here. The secondary characters of Briggs’ books are awesome, have their own concerns and stories, and Mercy’s relationships with them are not static, but also develop and change over time. At this point, I’m particularly interested in where the story is going for Ben, the British werewolf packmember with a troubled past; Stefan, a vampire who is incredibly loyal but also possesses flexible morality; and Jessie, Adam’s unsupernatural teenage daughter who has started taking on larger roles in the story.

Reading the series in a row helped me understand why I was slightly disappointed in Silver Borne (#5) the first time around. Its plot and emotional impact were greatly enhanced by fresh familiarity with the events of the previous books. While Briggs’ refreshes the reader’s memory with little expository tidbits, the best reading experience means not depending on those tidbits for full context.

I had forgotten some of the details and so I got to enjoy some of the twists and turns again, and some genuinely creepy moments. Vampires crawling up basement stairs, Mercy realizing a friend has turned into a zombie, monsters hiding in rivers. I’m just saying, could make for some great October reading. Wink wink.

Anyway, ignore the terrible covers (there’s a reason the photo is of their spines), and check this series out. This summer, as I finished reading them, I lent them to my friend Cindy who had never read urban fantasy before and she lapped them right up. My sisters are fans too. Looking forward to number 7 which is out March 2013.


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George

2008. Bloomsbury. Hardcover. 328 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is a retelling of the Nordic tale,”East of the Sun, West of the Moon”. The youngest daughter of nine children is unnamed by her mother, who did not want another daughter. The unnamed girl one day receives a gift of understanding animals. When an enchanted polar bear arrives at her family’s home and asks her to live with him in his palace for a year, she goes with him, and encounters mystery, which will lead to a final confrontation of evil in the place that is east of the sun and west of the moon.


I have read another book based on this fairy tale, Edith Pattou’s East, which I hardly remember, an outcome I foresaw when I reviewed it. So I can’t really compare the two, similar though they are.

I read Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow quickly, wanting to see how it would all turn out, even though I recalled the fairy tale’s original plotline. In this version, I really liked the reveal about the backstory of the girl’s brother, Hans Peter. Hans Peter was the hope of the family, handsome and kind, until he came back broken after unspecified events during his brief seafaring career. Hans Peter is the one who calls the main character “lass”, a term he picked up from his travels, and she is called “lass” for much of the book. (I actually came to prefer it over the name she is given and then reveals later in the book.)

The lass is a likable heroine, for she makes some (understandable) blunders, while being very kind at heart. I liked her connection to her family, even the less admirable of her family. Several times, including at one crucial crisis, she attributes her success to being brought up well by her family.

Probably one of my favorite little moments is when the lass rides the north wind to the palace of the troll queen.

The north wind roared as it charged toward the speck that lay between them. The speck grew, reaching out taller and wider as they approached. It was a palace, made entirely of gold, sitting on an island of silver snow at the very top of the world.

For some reason, I was hearing the Ivory Tower theme from The NeverEnding Story when I read this.

It’s not a book that I feel like gushing over, but I liked it all the same.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Angieville – “[Jessica Day George’s] deft touch with Norse traditions, language, and everyday life adds a welcome layer of warm reality to this icy tale.”

Never Jam Today – “The novel had the feel of McKinley’s Beauty—slow-paced, in a good way, taking time to enjoy the journey, without charging ahead toward a climax. George’s prose was lovely, just as a fairy tale’s should be—running smooth, like a stair banister, from years of use.”

Reader Rabbit – “Jessica Day George does an excellent job of following the tale to the letter but she also gave just enough depth to the characters that it was easy to sympathise and root for the them.”


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell

2011. Little, Brown and Company. Paperback. 470 pages.

Under the Bright Lights. Originally published 1986.

Muscle for the Wing. Originally published 1988.

The Ones You Do. Originally published 1992.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This omnibus contains Woodrell’s Bayou Trilogy: three books set in the underbelly of St. Bruno, a fictional city in Louisiana. Detective Rene Shade had a troublemaking childhood and a boxing career that ended in a locally-famous defeat. Now he’s a detective whose work and life brush him against the gamut of criminality. His older brother owns a bar and his younger brother is a lawyer. His father skipped town a long time ago, and his mother runs a small pool hall out of her home. Under the Bright Lights follows the fallout of a black city councilman’s murder; Muscle for the Wing tells the story of when a small group of ex-con outsiders, aided by the hard-as-nails wife of their jailed pal, clash with Saint Bruno’s established crime boss; The Ones You Do sees the return of Shade’s father to Saint Bruno, a ten-year-old daughter in tow, with trouble not far behind him.


I loved Daniel Woodrell’s book Winter’s Bone, both times that I read it. I saw this trilogy at the library and decided to follow up on Woodrell. Under the Bright Lights was his first published book.

My last few books have all been quite British, and I felt in the mood for this: something a little seedy, something a little down-and-out Americana. And there’s certainly nothing genteel about The Bayou Trilogy. If this was a film, it would be a hard ‘R’, provided a few things were moved off-screen.

For all that the books are about a detective, Woodrell has a knack for writing about people on the wrong side of the law. Plot-wise, I think I liked Under the Bright Lights the best, because I liked seeing the shake-down of Saint Bruno’s criminal hierarchy. At the bottom of the heap is a cocky hick named Jewel Cobb, used as an unknowing pawn by his city cousin. The thoughts in his head were fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way.

Character-wise, the third book The Ones You Do might have had the best payoff. I never really warmed up to Shade as a character, but the cluster of new characters in the last book intrigued me. Shade’s returned father, John X. Shade was a nicely-drawn portrait of a man who’s lost his game but can’t quite admit to what aging is doing to him. That said, I wavered on whether I liked the side plot involving him and an old Saint Bruno acquaintance with a grudge. As far as other characters, I also liked the scenes with Rene Shade’s odd half-sister, ten-year-old Etta, and Tip’s new girlfriend, Gretel, who was a child of hippies.

Woodrell’s writing didn’t consistently please me in The Bayou Trilogy as it did in Winter’s Bone. There was some figurative language that I thought tried too hard, as can happen with noirish books like this one. But when Woodrell is on, he’s on. There is a chapter in Muscle for the Wing that begins with a sketch of St. Bruno’s past and then sweeps through time cinematically to land on Detective Shade as he rides in an El Dorado driven by an estranged childhood pal named Shuggie Zeck. There was such an effortless skill to it that made me go ‘wow.’

The Bayou Trilogy is not something I’d quickly recommend to anyone. Winter’s Bone was my kind of gritty, but I cringed at parts of The Bayou Trilogy and there are a couple of passages I wouldn’t mind unseeing. But at the very least, let me try and sell you on Woodrell’s writing. Here is an excerpt from Under the Bright Lights where Detective Shade is trying to track down a perp.

Shade began to trot down the streets, knowing that he was most of an hour behind. The retail businesses had closed as a rule, and only taverns, the Woolworths, and video arcades were open. He paused to ask questions in the arcades, thus giving every would-be wiseass and nascent tough guy the chance to define himself by his response. Adolescent drollery and derivative insolence. Shade didn’t have the time for it, so he turned toward the river and began to lope . . .

Rousseau Street flanked the river. It was a street of warehouses, flophouses, and Jesus missions, peopled by winos, the perpetually hard of luck, and one or two who were roughly saints. Coal bins lined the tracks, providing a haven for those rambling men who couldn’t spare a buck for a flop and refused to perjure themselves on the God issue for the payoff bowl of soup and green-blanketed bunk. Urban Darwinism was at work in the grim light of this place, where the mean got over with their no-limit rage, while the weak went under, silently.

p. 101

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book’d Out – “Woodrell’s characters are all boldly drawn with attention to detail and credibility.”

Linus’s Blanket – “While the point is for Shade to solve his case, the novel is just as much a sociological study of both the investigators and crime perpetrators – where they come from, how they live and their motivations.” [This is a review of the first of the trilogy].

Rundpinne – “Rarely do I come across a writer who can so deftly create an atmosphere that I believe I know, even though I have never been to any place even remotely resembling St. Bruno.”


Filed under Book Review

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

1961. HarperPerennial. Paperback. 187 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Miss Jean Brodie is a charismatic teacher of Juniors at an all-girls’ school in Edinburgh. Most of the book’s events takes place in the 1930’s although the book jumps around in time. Miss Brodie has cultivated a group of six girls, nicknamed the Brodie set by other disdainful teachers. She inculcates the girls with her own opinions, takes them on outings, and tells the girls that the administration is trying to kick her out. Early on, the book tells us that Miss Brodie was, in the end, betrayed by one of the Brodie set and it’s not until near the end that the reasons for the betrayal are made clear. (The identity of the betrayer is revealed about a third of the way through.)


The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a book whose play and film versions have made it a pop culture reference. So I knew, even without having seen the film or play, that the book was about a charismatic teacher and her special group of students and that she was betrayed in some manner. But really, other than that, I was a blank slate going into my reading of Muriel Spark’s book.

The writing in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is very economical. At first, I thought that maybe it was too slight, especially in the way that Spark describes the six girls. Each girl is assigned one or two signature traits by which she is introduced at the start of the novel. For example, one is known for sex-appeal, another for her stupidity, and another is known for her small eyes. Each girl and her signature trait are forever coupled together for the rest of the story, repeated again and again. This could be annoying, but by the end of the book, I was convinced that what Spark was portraying was the reductive nature of others. Sandy Stranger is the girl with the small eyes, which physical trait is mentioned constantly. But the story is told mostly from her perspective, and so the reader is privy to her interior life in a way that the other characters are not. The other characters may have reduced her to “the girl with the small eyes” but the reader knows better.

What I also liked about Spark’s economical writing is that the crucial reason for the betrayal of Miss Jean Brodie is mentioned just once and not in a “big reveal” sort of way. Several strands of the story come together in the moment of the betrayal but Spark isn’t showy about it, because she doesn’t need to be. I felt rather respected as a reader in that way. The betrayal scene is definitely my favorite part, because the slow burn of the rest of the novel so nicely comes to fruition.

The tone of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is slightly aloof, but also funny. The following excerpt is from Sandy’s tenth birthday tea party with her best friend Jenny. (When the conversation mentions “prime”, it is referencing the fact that Miss Brodie often asserts that she is in the prime of her life.)

“Yes, they are always saying that,” Jenny said. “They say, make the most of your schooldays because you never know what lies ahead of you.”

“Miss Brodie says prime is best,” Sandy said.

“Yes, but she never got married like our mothers and fathers.”

“They don’t have primes,” said Sandy.

“They have sexual intercourse,” Jenny said.

The little girls paused, because this was still a stupendous thought, and one which they had only lately lit upon; the very phrase and its meaning were new. It was quite unbelievable.

[The girls have some more conversation on the subject which I’m skipping so that the excerpt is not quite as long.]

Then Jenny said, “You do it on the spur of the moment. That’s how it happens.”

Jenny was a reliable source of information, because a girl employed by her father in his grocer shop had recently been found to be pregnant, and Jenny had picked up some fragments of the ensuing fuss. Having confided her finds to Sandy, they had embarked on a course of research which they called “research,” piecing together clues from remembered conversations illicitly overheard, and passages from the big dictionaries.

“It all happens in a flash,” Jenny said. “It happened to Teenie when she was out walking at Puddocky with her boy friend. Then they had to get married.”

“You would think the urge would have passed by the time she got her clothes off,” Sandy said. By “clothes,” she definitely meant to imply knickers, but “knickers” was rude in this scientific context.

“Yes, that’s what I can’t understand,” said Jenny.

p. 26

As they get older, this cute naivete does slowly slip away, not just about this subject but other aspects of life as well.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a good and quick read. I’m not sure it’s a book I love necessarily and I wonder if I’ll think much about it in the future, but I went in with no expectations one way or the other and was left impressed.

Excerpts of others’ reviews:

Bibliographing – “This novel has some of the most effective flash-forwards I’ve ever read. But this chronological omniscience is tempered by impressive control over perspective.”

Booking in Heels – “Miss Brodie herself, a middle-aged individual with romantic ideals and mildly Fascist leanings,  is an extraordinary feat of characterisation. I fully expect to see her walking down the street towards me tomorrow, she seems that real.”

The Mookse and the Gripes – “I could sense the depth of psychological insight and I could capture some of the themes, but nothing came to life.  I didn’t care about the characters, neither wishing them well or ill, though I enjoyed watching them interact in their terribly flawed lives.”


Filed under Book Review

A Look Back at Books read in 2011

Okay, so this retrospective on my 2011 year of reading is posted a little farther into January than is usual for such posts. Hopefully, there are some readers out there still interested in reading this type of post.

Subtracting out books I did not finish, I read 66 books this year. Of the 66 books read, three were re-reads and five were graphic novels. I don’t set goals for number of books to read in a year, but I did note that this was less than 2010 (which was 86 books). The lower number is probably due to the fact that I read six books that were each over 500 pages long. Long live the chunksters!

I didn’t apply a rigorous statistical analysis to my books read, but I did see that I was about even with male vs. female authors. In 2010, I definitely read more books by women than by men. However, I was more curious to see how I did with non-fiction vs. fiction reads. In 2010, I was surprised that I read only 17 nonfiction books compared to 68 fiction reads. The ratio was much more pleasing to me in 2011: I read 23 nonfiction books and 44 fiction books. (If you’re wondering why that adds up to 67 instead of 66, it’s because I threw in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul since I was more than half done with that book before I gave up on it.)

And now let’s get away from the numbers and down to the good stuff – the highlights and trends of my reading year.

Harrowing Nonfiction Reads:

I think of 2011 in some ways as the year of the harrowing nonfiction read. I read books about post-Katrina New Orleans (Zeitoun), Ebola virus (The Hot Zone), and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia (Safe Area Gorazde). Probably the top two harrowing nonfiction reads of the year were And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (the early years of AIDS in America) and We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch (the 1994 Rwandan genocide). They were both such compelling works that really took me deeper into the details and facets of the incomprehensible tragedy they each describe.

Not-so-harrowing nonfiction

Other nonfiction reads deserving of mention: the juicy and addictive Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (about the 2008 U.S. presidential election), the thoughtful undercover project of Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, and the engaging, highly informative The Hole at the Bottom of the Sea by Joel Achenbach (about the BP oil spill).

Books older than myself

I have an informal goal to keep reading books older than myself, and I read about 13 that fit the bill in 2011. The top two of this fine category were Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens and Claudine at School by Colette.

Fantasy reads

Connie Willis’ absolutely fun timetravel romp To Say Nothing of the Dog was one of the first great reads of 2011 for me and the last book that I finished in 2011 was China Mieville’s inventive Un Lun Dun. I feel that my year was nicely bookended by these two wonderful books.

Not-so-great reads

Going back over my list of books read in 2011, a few titles stood out for me because I’d nearly forgotten that I’d read them: Tess Gerritsen’s The Surgeon, Georgette Heyer’s Frederica (sorry Heyer fans!) and a couple of others. On the flip side, I remember all too well, the slog that was Justin Cronin’s unnecessarily enormous The Passage.


I re-read three books this year and they were all superb and deserve a special shout-out. I hadn’t read Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey since I was a teenager and had thought them to be okay books at the time. I loved both of them this time around. In addition, there was the excellent Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell which I’d read five years ago and thought one of my favorite books of the year back then. It was just as good this time too. The one flop in the re-read department was Eva Rice’s The Art of Keeping Secrets which I had found utterly charming several years ago, but just didn’t sparkle as much in my re-read and I put it away before I finished re-reading it.

And the winner is .  . .

There are a lot of worthy books that I’ve left off mentioning, but I’ll content myself with the fact that I gave them good reviews during 2011. It wasn’t hard, though, to think of the number one book that I read last year and that was:

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves by Adam Hochschild [my original review here]

Bury the Chains is a beautiful example of how well history can be written. I especially marvel at how the author showed the flaws of revered heroes and still managed to deliver an inspirational historical figure in abolitionist Thomas Clarkson.


Filed under Year in Review

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

2007. Ballantine. Hardcover. 432 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Two school friends, Zanna Moon and Deeba Resham, have been seeing some strange things – a fox that appears to greet Zanna, and a broken umbrella that appears to be sentient. One night, Zanna leads them both through a portal to an alternate version of their own city called UnLondon. There they will discover that Zanna has been expected by the inhabitants as the one to defeat the growing power of the Smog, an enemy with the desire to consume all things, starting with UnLondon. But what was expected – what was predicted – will fall away to be supplanted by a set of heroes whose journey is quite unpredictable.


One of the first reviews I wrote for this blog was for China Mieville’s book, The City & The City. I was fascinated by the mind-bending setting that Mieville created. I have meant for a long time to read another Mieville book, and finally settled on Un Lun Dun, which I read with delight over the holidays.

I went in knowing very little about Un Lun Dun (I didn’t even know the title meant UnLondon). The book jacket is refreshingly reticent on plot details past a certain point in the narrative. As with The City & The City, Mieville’s skill at world-building was at the forefront. Once the characters reach UnLondon, it’s wall-to-wall with the strange, imaginative and whimsical. There are trashcans that know martial arts (called binjas) and people who live on roofs, and feral trash that roam the alleys in packs. And that is just a tiny tiny sample of what’s in store for the reader. There are also drawings by the author scattered throughout to help us see a sampling of the things that the characters see.

The whimsical setting is what kept me interested for the first hundred pages. Because otherwise, I was feeling that the characters and story were lackluster.  Zanna, the one that is regarded as the savior of UnLondon, was kind of bland. She and Deeba get shepherded across the alternate city by various oddballs, which showed off more of that Mieville imagination, but was so far not a plot that made me sit up and say “please sir can I have some more.” I also thought (throughout the book, actually) that Mieville’s dialogue sometimes had problems sounding natural.

But then, a little over 100 pages in, the story suddenly changed. It turned out not to be a story about the Chosen One (Zanna) and her prophesied victory at all. Rather, it’s about her friend, Deeba and the real story is a subversion of the story that was expected.

Deeba Resham’s rise to protagonist status reminds me, as I’m writing this, of my realization that Samwise Gamgee had become the hero in Return of the King. Deeba and Sam are both incredibly loyal characters and it’s their loyalty that leads them onto their adventure. In the case of Deeba Resham, it’s her curiosity and feeling of responsibility for the people of UnLondon that cause her to continue the adventure, even when she could have bailed out.

For those of you who salivate over those stories which are themselves about storytelling, Un Lun Dun has some delicious stuff coming your way. My favorite moment was when Deeba finds out she was mentioned in the prophecy only as a sidekick to Zanna. She is upset by the entire concept of sidekicks and says “That’s no way to talk about anyone! To say they’re just hangers-on to someone more important.” There’s also a great critique of the quest structure which I’ll leave readers to find out for themselves. And that’s not all: Un Lun Dun is chock full of clever wordplay and allusions to other stories (a little Narnia reference here, a little Harry Potter there, etc.)

And this is not something I’d normally appreciate about a book, but I think the weapon that the good guys use is one of the most awesome weapons ever. It was the perfect weapon to accompany the building climax and the final confrontation.

One of my favorite aspects about Un Lun Dun was Mieville’s emphasis on the value of life, in whatever form life takes. The deaths of even briefly-met characters in the book were not glossed over or seen as acceptable losses. Deeba in particular did not let these deaths become forgotten, even as the events piled on to each other and things got chaotic.

There are so many awesome details to the world of Un Lun Dun that I could list, but they’re probably better as discoveries within the story than as something told in a review.

Clearly, I should not wait as long between Mieville’s books as I did with The City & The City and Un Lun Dun. I think Kraken might be the next one, or maybe I’ll go for Embassytown. Either way, I feel like Mieville’s going to be an author I can trust for a good read.

Excerpts from other reviews:

The Black Letters – “The characters are all likable enough, including the quick-thinking, occasionally snarky heroine, but few are really memorable enough to be lovable, and I had about the same feeling about the book as a whole.”

Book Monkey – “The whole concept of taking stereotypical fantasy tropes, and breathing a much-needed bit of fresh air into them, really made this story its own, for me. I laughed inwardly many a time, acknowledging just how clever and original Miéville always is, without fail.”

things mean a lot – “You know when you can feel that an author is really having fun with a book? Un Lun Dun very much gave me that impression. It’s quite a dark story in some ways, but it’s also very playful”


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

1817. Signet Classic. Paperback. 221 pages.

(Cover is from a different edition. My book’s cover image is not worth searching out or scanning in.)

In a nutshell:

One of Jane Austen’s earliest works, Northanger Abbey concerns seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a good-hearted but naive girl who is taken by friends of the family to stay with them in Bath. There, she is introduced to the witty and warm Henry Tilney and his equally warm sister, Eleanor. Catherine also becomes fast friends with a shallow girl named Isabella Thorpe, and forms an acquaintance with Isabella’s brother, John. Between the Tilneys and the Thorpes, Catherine’s social experience broadens considerably, culminating in her invitation to the Tilney’s family home, Northanger Abbey.


I first read Northanger Abbey when I was about the age of its protagonist, Catherine Morland. Strangely enough, I think I’m of a better age to appreciate it now. That Jane Austen uses Northanger Abbey to poke fun at the gothic tales popular in her time is fairly well known. But her satire does not just have this object alone; romantic tropes and the naivete of teenage girls are also the targets of Austen’s pen. And when I was a teenager reading Northanger Abbey, I had not yet exhausted myself with romantic tropes and could not quite see the affection underlying Austen’s gentle satire about Catherine. I was not yet a reader with the experience and distance to fully appreciate what Austen does with Northanger Abbey.

But now, almost a decade later, I fell in love with Northanger Abbey. Almost every conversation involving the Henry Tilney is a treat, as he is rarely serious, and his humor is always good-natured. The banter between Henry and his sister comes off as very natural and affectionate.

Although she is, in the novel, too socially inexperienced to rapid-fire respond to Henry’s banter, Catherine did get in a few nice rejoinders.  But Catherine’s charm is mostly in her complete lack of affectation. This is in stark contrast with Isabella Thorpe, who is so practiced in the art of affectation, she gets careless. I liked that Catherine was honest about her opinions and her ignorance of certain things. She wasn’t trying to pass herself as anything other than what she was. (I liked her complaint that reading history was dull, partly because there were no women in it).

While Isabella and John Thorpe are not admirable characters, they were a lot of fun to read about. Catherine’s slowness to realize Isabella’s true nature just serves to make Isabella that more transparent (and ridiculous) to the reader.

As with Jane Austen’s Emma, Northanger Abbey has a hinging moment where the heroine gets carried away in a situation and makes a mistake for which she is soon ashamed. Emma sacrifices kindness for the fleeting pleasure of a witty, but mean, comment. Catherine lets her imagination run away from her and comes to an outlandish conclusion about Henry Tilney’s father. In both cases, the male ‘hero’, who in both books is older than the heroine by some years, gently shows them their error. What I love in both Emma and Northanger Abbey is that neither man makes overmuch of the mistake. They both trust so much in the good character of the heroine, that they only need make her aware of the stumbling moment for her to set herself back on course.

For all that Northanger Abbey is a satire and features witty banter, there is a real sweetness to it too that I found endearing. I am encouraged by this experience to begin re-reading all the other Austens as well. Mansfield Park might be the next one as the time I read it is so long ago, although my new beautiful copy of Pride & Prejudice also beckons.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bibliofreakblog – “If there is one thing that bothered me, it is that when Catherine’s love interest returns her affection, I didn’t see much basis for it.”

Literary Omnivore – “The narrator in Northanger Abbey is a character unto herself; she even goes through a character arc of her own, evolving from a Gothic narrator thwarted by her solidly middle-class and normal subjects to an efficient narrator who doesn’t twist and overanalyze the facts of her story. It’s utterly charming.”

Steph & Tony Investigate! – “Northanger Abbey still isn’t my favorite Austen, but I acknowledge that I was remiss in considering it a spiritless ghost of an Austen novel.  It’s diverting, charming, and features that classic Austen wit and sense of humor.”


Filed under Book Review

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

1940. Houghton Mifflin. Paperback. 359 pages.

(Cover Image is from a different edition).

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

John Singer is a deaf and mute man who lives in a Southern town whose only friend, another deaf and mute man, is sent away by relatives to an institution after some trouble.

Singer moves to a boarding house and while he quietly goes about his life, longing for his friend’s company, he attracts the attention of several lost souls. There is the communist drifter; the black doctor whose ideas for the advancement of his people are rejected; the teenage girl whose passion for music is threatened by her family’s poverty; and the recently widowed cafe owner.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter deserves more than the review I’m about to write. But some time has passed since I finished it, and I figure I better just get down what I can. McCullers’ book is quite remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the times in which she wrote. She was apparently only twenty-three when she wrote the novel, and yet is able to brilliantly capture a diverse array of characters.

That said, I liked some characters’ sections less than others.  Jake Blount, the communist and Dr. Benedict Copeland were interesting but they were also men ruled by their ideas, rendered angry and antisocial because of their commitment to their ideas. I was glad that McCullers showed Dr. Copeland’s interactions with his daughter and his other adult children, because that helped balance out the passages that consisted of Dr. Copeland’s ruminations.

But John Singer and the teenage girl, Mick, are characters to stick in my memory. The start of the book, which was solely the story of John Singer and his friend, was magnificent, almost like a fable somehow. Or it was kind of like the first ten minutes of Pixar’s “Up”, by which I mean, it’s the emotional origin of the character John Singer, the necessary foundation for the book. For although we will see John Singer interact with other characters, who John Singer is, really, all leads back the portrait of the relationship that we saw at the beginning of the book.

I loved that John Singer is not the deaf equivalent to the “magical Negro.” Although the others come to him with their problems, he doesn’t bestow upon them miraculous wisdom or become a mysterious conduit of self-understanding and personal growth. Even the widowed cafe owner perceives that the other individuals are projecting onto Singer the kind of listener they want, without knowing who Singer is at all. For Singer is quite private about his own sorrows and is bewildered by but relatively patient with his visitors. He is really a tragic figure of loneliness, even more so than all the other characters, especially in his visits to his friend in the institution.

Mick is such a splendid portrait of a teenage girl in all her complexity. She’s devoted most of all to music and savors every scrap of classical music she runs across. She tries on roles, such as being a party hostess for her classmates, and stumbles into sexuality with a boy from her neighborhood. She looks after her brothers, and in such capacity, witnesses a terrible accident with a gun, an accident that will indirectly seal her own fate.

McCullers’ writing captures these characters and also does well in evoking the shabby places where they reside – dilapidated carnivals, institutions, and rented rooms. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Excerpts of other reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “McCullers has lent a voice for those who are forgotten, oppressed, rejected, and exploited. In narrating the struggles and enunciating their profound loneliness she has not only communicated their feelings but also gives them dignity.”

Fat Books & Thin Women – “This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.”

Sycorax Pine – “It is tremendously easy to become immersed in this novel of infinite detail and flowering cynicism, just as it is very easy to become confused and offended by its politics (in my case, more by its less examined assumptions than by its explicit rhetoric).”


Filed under Book Review

Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (DNF)

2004 (Translation copyright). Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover. 384 pages.

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Orhan Pamuk, author of Snow and My Name is Red, writes about the city where he’s lived his whole life: Istanbul. He tells anecdotes about his childhood, and also analyzes the works of other writers and artists who depicted Istanbul.


Although familiar with the name of Orhan Pamuk, I have not read any of his novels. I saw this book at my library and was intrigued by the book jacket’s description: “Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and, now and again, a fanciful tale . . .”.

I definitely loved all the photographs and pictures of Istanbul scattered throughout the book. I also liked the window into another life and culture that was provided by Pamuk’s more detailed stories of his childhood and life in Istanbul.

If – as happened once every forty years – my fat grandmother had to go outside or was invited out, the preparations would go on for days; until the last step, when my grandmother would shout for Kamer Hanim, the janitor’s wife, to come up and pull with all her strength on the strings of her corset. I would watch with my hair on end as the corseting progressed behind the screen – with much pushing and pulling and cries of “Easy, girl, easy!”

p. 119

In one chapter, he describes the relationship of Istanbullus to the Bosphorus and the various ship disasters that occur there.

When I told people I was writing about Istanbul, I was surprised at the longing in their voices when the conversation turned to those old Bosphorus disasters. Even as tears formed in their eyes, it was if they were recounting their happiest memories, and there even some who insisted that I include their favorites.

p. 214

Despite these interesting tidbits here and there, Pamuk spent a lot of time discussing a parade of authors (both Turkish and Western) who had Istanbul as their subject. I guess I hadn’t expected such a large chunk of literary criticism. It might have gone down better if I was familiar with the works discussed, or if I had some personal familiarity with Istanbul, but I wasn’t and I had not. Eventually, I realized that reading the book had become a chore with no sure reward at the finish, so I gave up reading at about page 250 or so.

Excerpts of other reviews:

Amy Reads – “It is brilliantly written, full of incredible pictures that show the scenery which he describes. I could see what he was describing and feel it. I felt like I was there, or had been there, or at least that I very much wanted to go there.”

Mirek’s Blog – “The best of this book is in showing the relation between our lives and the places we live in.”


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays