Friday, August 31, 2012

Bad Little Falls

Bad Little Falls by Paul Doiron (2012)

Game warden Mike Bowditch has clearly displeased his superiors, and finds himself transferred to "the unpeopled hinterlands of Washington County." During a snowstorm Mike is called to a residence where a local couple is trying to save a half-frozen man who claims his friend is still out in the storm. What appears to simply be an accident soon turns into a murder investigation. Mike, who apparently doesn't learn from his mistakes, ends up involved with the sister of the murder suspect, a young mother of a strange little boy. Meanwhile, someone is playing nasty tricks on Mike, seemingly trying to send him a warning message to mind his own business.

I wanted to try Paul Doiron again after listening to The Poacher's Son on audio, and when I heard that his new novel takes place in Machias, Maine I knew I had to read it. Bowditch describes the area as "a place known for its epidemic drug abuse, multigenerational unemployment, and long tradition of violent poaching" but it's also the place where I grew up. My town is not far away from Machias (and was mentioned a few times in the novel), but it was so small that Machias is where we had to go for any supplies other than basic groceries. So I know the area. Doiron apparently does too.

As with his first novel, he expertly captures the feel of rural Maine, making his characters and situations seem genuine. He doesn't live in Washington County as far as I know, but he's clearly spent some time there. Details like the McDonald's "Cafe" and the very tall mailbox with the "Air Mail" sign are not made up. He also included an Indian doctor at the Machias hospital, noting how out of place he was. There are, in fact, one or two doctors from far-flung countries working at that hospital. I'm always afraid of getting a tourist's-eye view in books set in Maine, but Paul Doiron knows the real thing.

Although the unusual and well-drawn setting make this novel stand out, it's also a good story. The plot was complex enough to easily hold my interest, and if the solution to the crime wasn't a complete shock, it was still a satisfying conclusion with small surprises along the way. The characters were varied, three-dimensional, and entertaining.

I like Mike Bowditch. I like his sense of justice and his need to set things right. He's as weak as any human being though, and manages to muck things up for himself just a bit now and then, but in a believable way that's easy to sympathize with. His empathy for others, and self-deprecating sense of humor make him both more realistic and appealing. You just can't help but root for him.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Gathering Storm

The Gathering Storm (The Katerina Trilogy #1) by Robin Bridges (2012)

In 1880s Russia, a young duchess named Katiya tries to hide her secret power: she can raise the dead. But what she really wants to do is become a doctor so she can help the living. Unfortunately, this isn't in the cards for a young lady like her and she is forced to dress up and attend balls so she can find someone to marry. At the elite Smolny Institute one of her classmates is Elena, whose family members all have frightening powers. Even worse, Elena's brother Danilo is interested in Katiya and reels her in with his otherworldly charm. Katiya soon realizes there is much more at stake than her choice of a husband.

I had a couple of problems with this novel. First, I found it difficult to keep track of the characters because they all had titles, and it got confusing when someone was only referred to as "the grand duke," for instance. Also, the spelling of the names "Katiya" and Dariya" were odd, as they are usually spelled and pronounced "Katya" and "Darya." But those are fairly minor annoyances.

More importantly, I struggled to understand Katiya's motivations and fears sometimes. She could be downright dull-witted. She didn't want to speak of vampires or supernatural occurrences for fear she wouldn't be believed - and didn't believe in her mother's seances and tarot - yet there was a Dark Court and Light Court which each included faeries and that seemed to be totally accepted by everyone. Eventually I just accepted these strange inconsistencies and moved on.

As the story went on, Katiya would learn that she couldn't trust someone, but then later expect them to help her. Even more frustrating was when a particular Terrible Event happened and Katiya was all "Gah! We must run and tell the tsar immediately!" and then other things happened and life went on and she seemed to forget about it. Then Danilo, who had been present at the Terrible Event, said to Katiya "Hey, this Terrible Event happened" and she cried "The tsar! He must be warned!" Did these two characters completely forget they were together when the Terrible Event happened? Were they smoking crack afterward? I don't know how else to explain this.

But for the most part, I was able to look past these problems and get pretty engrossed in the story. What is most appealing is the setting, and lots of cool details were included, like the fact that it was fashionable during that period in Russia to speak French, something I learned while studying Russian in college. Russia in winter - as it is described here - really lends itself to a story with otherworldly elements. The paranormal somehow fits in quite well with that particular time and place.

Most of the book takes place during the winter and there are sleighs and ice skating and opulent furs and sparkling snow - and I know damn well it's actually freezing and miserable because I grew up in Maine, which is almost as bad - but this book made it sound exquisite and charming. The wonderful Christmas Eve scene with Katiya's family included descriptions of decorating the Christmas tree and eating mushroom soup and blini and sweet almond cakes and rice and tea from the samovar and warmed cherry brandy and I want to go to Russia immediately!

I also liked Katiya, despite the fact that she was a slow learner. She was determined to study medicine no matter what everyone around her wanted, and was willing to remain single all her life to do so. Amusingly, her distaste for domestic life rivaled - even exceeded - her distaste for the much-larger problems she faced. At one point she says, "I did not want to be a necromancer. I did not want to be killed by vampires. And I most certainly did not want to be stuck in a loveless marriage with nothing to do all day but change dresses and take tea with other bored women." I hear you, Katiya!

Since I've always found Russia so appealing and fascinating I just can't tell if this would have the same pull for others, but I think it might. Just don't focus on the inconsistencies I mentioned above, if possible, and let yourself be engrossed in the story. The Gathering Storm is the first in a trilogy and it is likely that I will read the next one when it comes out. This series holds promise.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Dead Until Dark

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris (2001), narrated by Johanna Parker

Sookie Stackhouse is a cocktail waitress in a small town in Louisiana, and she has a troubling "disability": she can read minds. You'd think this would be a great power to have but on the contrary it can be downright aggravating, not to mention that it makes dating pretty much impossible.

In her world, vampires are real and through the development of synthetic blood they are now able to come out of hiding and try to become part of mainstream society. When a friendly vampire named Bill moves to town, single Sookie realizes she can't read his mind and becomes pretty smitten with him. But when local waitresses start turning up dead, blame is aimed at vampires and suddenly everything gets complicated for Sookie.

It took me a long time to make the connection between this series and the TV version, True Blood. These books look so light and fluffy from the covers but the TV show is neither, filled with violence and hateful, angry vampire sex. I couldn't even watch an entire episode of the show because it was so unpleasant, but the book has a very different tone. There's still murder and there are still "fang-bangers," vampire groupies who enjoy being bitten, but there's also humor and romance and Southern charm.

I picked this up because a co-worker recommended it when I told her the sort of book I listen to on audio. The narrator was great, getting just the right tone to capture the humor. I'm no expert on Southern accents and have no idea what a genuine one sounds like for that part of Louisiana, but the narrator's accent wasn't over-the-top as they can sometimes be.

This was a fun blend of humor, romance, and mystery. Even if you're turned off by True Blood, as I was, this may be a great choice.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (2012)

After sickness has wiped out most of the population, Hig lives in an airplane hanger with his old dog Jasper. His wife died, seven months pregnant, of the flu several years ago. Later came a "blood sickness" and there are still survivors, including a small settlement that Hig occasionally visits in his old Cessna. Mostly he sticks to himself, socializing only with his neighbor Bangley.

The atmosphere of the novel is one of loneliness, at least for the first half. Hig has little interaction with other people, just living day by day, not knowing what the future holds. He muses, "Would I stand on a train platform and wait for a train that hasn't come for months? Maybe. Sometimes this whole thing feels just like that."

The distinct narrative style is characterized by many sentence fragments, keeping the pace slow, but not in a bad way. Hig explains that two straight weeks of fever had "cooked my brains." His thoughts can be scattered and unfocused, but they are illuminating.

My only small complaint is that the dialogue can be difficult. Without quotation marks it's always a little confusing and mostly he used other means to convey speech, but the few conversations between more than two people were hard to follow. It was also sometimes hard to tell if Hig was thinking something or speaking out loud, but it was hard for him to tell as well, as used as he was to being alone and talking to himself.

I've always loved a good post-apocalyptic novel, and this is indeed a very good post-apocalyptic novel. Not as bleak as The Road or as difficult as Riddley Walker, it embodied some of the best aspects of this kind of writing, without the nightmares and with a bit more hope. The ending left me wondering if there would be sequel. As much as I'm tired of series right now, for this I would welcome a follow-up.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Big Ray

Big Ray by Michael Kimball (2012)

Ray's defining characteristics were his size and his temper. When his son Daniel first learns of his father's death, he is relieved. But clearly Daniel has a lot of unresolved and conflicting feelings, as revealed in the many brief passages that make up this slim volume.

His father's death permeates everything, and is worthy of mention regardless of what the narrator is doing or thinking about. The writing style is simple and straightforward, in brief sentences that pack emotional punches one after the other.

Daniel has a few good memories of his father, but most of them are bad, many of the worst held back until late in the book. But they inform his behavior towards his father, who he ignores in the last months before his death. Big Ray would call Daniel's house and leave messages every day, some more coherent than others, until Daniel and his wife considered changing their phone number to avoid him. I don't think Daniel feels very guilty about this, nor do I think he should.

Not that he didn't feel sympathy for his father. Indeed, Daniel considered how his father must have been influenced by his own childhood. It also occurred to him how much his father must have hated being reminded of how fat he was every time someone called him Big Ray. He certainly must feel pity when he says "I don't know if my father ever realized he was having an unhappy life."

Though fewer than 200 pages, a lifetime is summarized and conveyed in prose which, though not emotional itself, certainly evokes emotion. I highlighted many passages in my ebook copy, and went back and reread many pages. This isn't a plot-driven novel destined for popularity, but rather a quiet narrative that will stick in its (probably few) readers' minds long after they've finished.

I keep thinking of Daniel's description of the stench of death that permeated his father's apartment: "It was difficult to get away from my father whether he was alive or dead." It's quite apparent that thoughts of his father continue to follow Daniel, just as this book will continue to haunt you after you've read it.

My review copy is courtesy of NetGalley. Big Ray will be published in September.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I almost didn't have anything to post about today, but then yesterday I was suddenly inspired to cast on for the Jack-in-the-Box Mittens from Robin Melanson's book Knitting New Mittens and Gloves. I love looking at all the lovely pictures in this book, but this is my first project from it.

The yarn is some Cascade 220 that I bought sometime last winter when I decided I needed to make mittens and a hat to go with this scarf. I have no idea why I would make a scarf without also buying coordinating yarn for the other accessories I'd be wearing with it, but I've done that sort of thing over and over again. I also bought some bulky yarn in the same color for a hat, and hopefully I'll be able to wear it all together this coming winter.

For reasons I cannot explain, I forewent my usual magic loop method and actually began the project on double pointed needles. You may be aware that my hatred of dpn's burns with the heat of a thousand suns, so I do not know what possessed me to use them. (What next? Will I join a religious cult? Apparently anything is possible.) I don't even have both the sizes required, so I didn't bother starting with a smaller needle size. I find this isn't usually necessary anyhow, though only time will tell if that's the case with this pattern.

After the swearing that accompanies casting on and working the first row on double points, I settled into the project with moderate success. As always, it was extremely awkward and every now and then I realized I was using only 4 needles instead of all 5. This is why I prefer working with only one - or at the very most, two - needles.

The cuff is made with an unusual pattern, but I think I like it. I'm quite happy to have a quick little project on the needles.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Lady Awakened

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant (2011)

Hello and welcome to my new trashy romance blog. Bear with me; I'm sure it's just a phase.

Recently widowed, Martha Russell will lose her estate to her late husband's lecherous brother if she doesn't produce an heir quickly. Ever the shrewd business woman, she devises a plan to hire a neighboring ladies' man to secretly impregnate her. Stern, practical Martha refuses to take any pleasure in the task but as she develops a friendship with her hired stud, Mr. Mirkwood, it becomes more and more difficult to resist his charms.

For a romance novel, the premise of this story was a bit surprising. Usually the conventions of the genre require that there's no sex without commitment (or at least that's what I've heard from genre guides) but apparently things have changed. Not only is there sex without love from the earliest pages of this novel, but there's a hell of a lot of it.

What I liked most was the way her friendship with Theo Mirkwood developed. A London man at heart, he's been exiled to his family's Sussex estate because of his irresponsibility and now he must learn about things like land management. Mrs. Russell is interested in such subjects and during their afternoon sessions, sex is generally followed by discussions in which Martha teaches Theo about these subjects that he initially finds so boring. He is charmed by beauty and sexiness; she is interested in his growth as an estate manager.

Martha is an admirable character. Though she schemes to thwart the rightful succession of her husband's property, it's hard not to admire her sharp mind and kindness towards her tenants. She can certainly be a bit stubborn and stiff, finding it difficult to connect with people, but her heart is certainly in the right place.

I found the ending unnecessarily complicated and a bit cobbled together, but it still turned out the way it should. It's strange to read in a genre where you know how the book will end. Of course Martha and Theo will end up in love and will get married - but how exactly will they get there? That is the fun of the romance genre. I couldn't read these books all the time, but they are great for occasional fun summer fare.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (2012)

Freshly graduated from Mount Holyoke, Elizabeth Endicott travels to Syria in 1915 to help distribute aid to Armenian genocide refugees. She meets a young Armenian engineer named Armen, who has already lost his wife and daughter, and they develop a close friendship. It is only as he leaves to join the British Army that they realize how strong their affections have grown.

In 2012 New York, Laura Petrosian has never thought much about her Armenian heritage, but then a friend calls claiming to have seen a photo of Laura's grandmother advertising an exhibit in Boston. She travels to view the exhibit and conduct a little research, and finds out much more than she bargained for.

The novel moves back and forth between time periods, following several characters. In addition to Elizabeth and Laura we get to know refugees Nevart and Hartoun, and follow Armen into the trenches.

Genocide does not make for a happy story. The amount of death, starvation and rape in this novel can be staggering at times, especially when you consider that it is based on history and it's a history that most people know little about. I knew there WAS an Armenian Genocide, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Bohjalian did a great deal of research (as an Armenian, this is a very personal novel for him) and I suspect it's not exaggerated. Still, there is room for romance. The heart of the story is the growing relationship between Elizabeth and Armen and how they are able to overcome loss and make a new life for themselves.

I may be influenced by all the rave reviews, or because this is his most recent book and it's fresh on my mind, but this may well be Bohjalian's finest work to date. The lush language and strong sense of place further elevate this beautifully told story about characters whose lives are painfully real. Fascinating and absorbing.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Jellicoe Road

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta (2006)

When she was eleven, Taylor Markham was abandoned by her mother on the Jellicoe Road. She was taken in by a stranger named Hannah who brought her to the Jellicoe School where she's lived ever since. When Hannah very suddenly goes missing at the same time that blast-from-her-past Jonah Griggs comes back to town, Taylor is thrown into an emotional whirlwind. She continues to read a manuscript that Hannah left behind, slowly realizing its significance and how it fits into her life.

Taylor has been through a lot for such a young person, and has dealt with it through a selective memory. She makes allusions to traumatic events in her past without explaining them fully - like the mysterious Hermit who shot himself in front of her, and the time she ran away with Jonah Griggs and was caught and brought back before she had time to find her mother. Haunting her throughout are strange dreams of a boy sitting in a tree who seems to want to talk to her.

Just as Taylor wants to find her mother again - as screwed-up and drug-addled as she remembers her - so all the characters are missing someone or something. They are desperate to connect, which is perhaps why they formed such strong friendships, the kind you always remember, the kind that last forever even if you are apart. Taylor and her friends were, in a way, an echo of the characters in Hannah's manuscript. Their story may not be as tragic, but I picture them having the same life long bond.

The story takes place in Australia, which I kept forgetting until I came across an occasional reference to  wearing a singlet (is this an Australian thing? I don't even know) or the word "gaol" instead of jail, or a mention of how far they were from Sydney. Then I'd suddenly start picturing the characters speaking with Aussie accents. Even though it wasn't full of references to kangaroos or Marmite, I liked that it was set in a place that seems so rare in novels.

I also liked how the bits and pieces of Taylor's past and the snippets of Hannah's manuscript were sprinkled throughout story, slowly piecing it together for Taylor and the reader at the same time. It all came together gradually, not in shocking reveals but in little glimpses and bits from which you can guess what's happening before the truth is confirmed. Though the story is heartbreaking, it's also hopeful and beautiful and haunting. Classic young adult fare.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Hard Times

Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854)

Mr. Gradgrand wants only facts. He is not a man of sentiment or feelings or whimsy. These ideas he instills in his children as the very core of their education and it affects their lives greatly, though maybe not in the way he wished. The first hundred pages or so are just setting the stage and are pretty slow, and I don't want to recount much of the plot as most of it happens fairly late in the book.

The backdrop is the bleak, industrial Coketown. One of the mill owners is Josiah Bounderby, a man who enjoys bloviating about his harsh upbringing and how he had nothing and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. If ever a working hand complains about anything, he exclaims at how they all want to eat turtle soup with silver spoons. He was a great character who I enjoyed reading about but actively disliked. (He reminded me a lot of someone from my hometown; I'm pretty sure I've heard him hold forth in similar ways, minus the turtle soup.)

This may be the shortest Dickens novel, at only around 300 pages, and though I liked it, it's probably my least favorite. As I mentioned, Hard Times started quite slowly, and was hard to get into. There were also a couple of characters, mill hand Stephen Blackpool and circus owner Mr. Sleary, whose dialogue was extremely difficult to understand. Blackpool's dialect was impenetrable at parts, and Sleary spoke with a lisp. If either was a major character with lots of page time, I'm not sure I could have made it through.

As with many of his novels, Dickens explored themes of social class, highlighting the working conditions of the poor mill hands while portraying wealthier characters as morally corrupt. The lives of our main characters were fairly bleak, and many situations resolved in a way that I found disappointing and in some cases unjust. Still, I'm glad I read it and enjoyed his humorous characters as always. Next time though, I'll be picking up one of the longer novels I've been wanting to read but putting off, like Bleak House or David Copperfield.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday Knitting

I've begun another pair of socks, now using the third and final skein of my practical-colored sock yarn. This is my new favorite sock yarn, Cascade Heritage.

The Ribbed Lace pattern is from Sensational Knitted Socks, my go-to sock pattern book. I've made SO many socks from that book!

This one is a relatively complicated pattern. The 24-row repeat means I have to really pay attention to what I'm doing, and I need to use the book (rather than just scribbling the pattern on a scrap of paper) so I can't knit this one on the bus. Which is fine, since I'm still working on the Les Miserables wrap on the bus.

I should be finished with this pair by the time sock-wearing weather arrives. I've also finished all my outstanding darning so I should be in good shape when fall comes!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner (2012)

Ruth Saunders, orphaned and disfigured in an accident when she was three, has moved to Hollywood with her grandmother in hopes of making it big. But when the sitcom she's written gets chosen for production, she soon finds that many forces are conspiring to crush her dreams. The actress chosen to play the lead is nothing like Ruth pictured, the grandmother in the show is portrayed most unflatteringly, and the end result is completely different from what she wrote. Meanwhile, she is pining away for her boss and feeling helpless and hopeless.

The premise was pretty good, the beginning was promising, and I liked the ending. But I struggled with what came between. I'm not the best person to judge a book that revolves around Hollywood and tv since I view them both pretty unfavorably (though I share Ruth's love of The Golden Girls), but I found the shallow, spoiled characters and bad behavior all rather boring and annoying. Of course people in Hollywood are shallow, of course the network wants a skinny actress, of course you don't have complete creative control over your show. I know that and I haven't even visited that city; you'd think Ruth would know it after working there for several years.

Being unbelievably naive is only one of the ways in which Ruth was difficult to like. I quickly tired of her pathetic mooning around Little Dave who also wasn't appealing at all. For the longest time I didn't even think he was the real love interest because he was portrayed in such an unflattering way; I thought he was there temporarily until Ruth met her real love interest. In fact, I think the only character I liked was Ruth's grandmother.

Poor editing was also a problem, the inconsistencies proving distracting. In one scene, Ruth's outfit for a party is described as pants and a top, but later in the evening she is wearing a dress. Similarly, a character described as being in her early 40s got pregnant when she was 39 but her son is already 8 years old. I'm not the most observant reader when it comes to details, so if I'm noticing these things, there's a problem.

Occasionally, I spotted traces of the Jennifer Weiner I know and love. This description of Ruth's grandmother made me smile: "She shrugged, muttering to herself, and went to her bedroom to begin moving clothing from one plastic bag to another, a trick that served as the Jewish woman-of-a-certain age's version of meditation."

But these moments were too few and far-between. Jennifer Weiner can do better than this. I know this because I've read every single one of her books, and every single one is better than this. I expected more, especially since the novel is based on Weiner's own experience in Hollywood making her short-lived sitcom "State of Georgia." What I've liked most about Weiner's writing is how consistently good it is, so I'm especially disappointed in this half-hearted effort.