Books! a ghost in joyland #cbr5

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel in many years. Probably the last was It. Even that is hard to say 13596166because he is so prolific. My favorite work was always “The Body” in Different Seasons. Admittedly Pet Cemetery  and Misery were much scarier, but The Body is a beautiful atmospheric coming of age story with a bit of the creepiness (and the basis for Stand by Me). With his new novel, Joyland, part of the Hard Case Crime series, King creates another fine story about the fall of innocence.

Joyland is about a young college student in the 1970s who decides to spend a summer away from his northern university and his lukewarm girlfriend. He gets a job at an amusement park called Joyland (more like a carnival) in North Carolina that also happens to have a dark story lurking in its horror house along with a ghost.  After the summer season, he decides to take a break from school (and seeing his ex) and stays on at the park. In the meantime he meets a local family that has a big impact on his life and on Joyland.

Again, this is the atmospheric coming of age Stephen King at his best. It is nicely edited, the perfect length, and avoids most of the typical King excesses (see It).  Not much more I can say beyond that you should read it.

Book! the white princess #cbr5

My first negative review of the year was for a Philipa Gregory novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter (The Cousins’ War #4)Keep in mind that I’m not a Gregory hater, but I fully realize that she is a certain type of historical novelist and there are certainly better writers out there. She can spin a decent yarn and they go by quickly.  This one just goes quickly.

So, The White Princess is the newest in the series. I had to finish out The Cousins’ War series just because I can be a purist. The Cousins War is a fictional retelling of the War of the Roses from the perspective of the primary women–Jacquetta, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, and Elizabeth of York–each book dealing with a different woman. Elizabeth of  York who marries Henry VII is the subject of The White Princess. Apparently there will be one more book on Margaret Pole, Elizabeth of York’s sister.

While Elizabeth of York is a much more compelling character than Margaret Beaufort (windbag) and Anne Neville (dull, dull, dull), there are some definite flaws in the telling. For one thing, Elizabeth constantly talks about how she was born to rule and Henry VII wasn’t and yet she seems amazed that a king in a troubled kingdom might want to dispose of some pesky rival heirs to his throne.  Plus she seems amazed to find out that, yes, her mother, Elizabeth Woodville probably did scheme against Henry VII. Even if you could overlook Elizabeth of York’s lack of worldliness, the paltry love story doesn’t hold much interest for them or the reader. I didn’t even feel sorry for Elizabeth and Henry when they finally realize they hate each other. Basically I could see why.

I applaud Gregory’s tenacity in wanting to tell the story from all sides, but some historical figures just don’t make for interesting reading. Elizabeth of York in The Kingmaker’s Daughter was an interesting minor character, especially when she begins her affair with King Richard III. But after she marries Henry VII she turns into a mind-numbing doorpost. She’s just there to help tell the larger story and, oh, to have Henry VIII. That’s it.



Beach read. Maybe. Goes by quickly.

Books! TransAtlantic #cbr5

Writing about the books I love the most is difficult. I feel like I can’t convey the way it made 16085517me feel to read such an amazing book. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is definitely one of those. Although I loved Bring up the Bodies I think this is by far my favorite novel of 2013.

To be honest I am not one of those readers who can sit and read a book all day, who stays up all night trying to get through one more chapter, and one more. I read in short spurts because my mind wanders and my body gets restless. But McCann’s novel grabbed onto my pathetic attention span and wouldn’t let go. I stayed up late reading from sheer enjoyment for the first time in ages.

The beauty and economy of his language grab you first. He can say in 10 words what I would say in 60. Plus his language is gorgeous and I couldn’t stop reading it. It flows like a poem with every word chosen for its perfection.

The characters are the second highlight. In a sense this is historical fiction because his four main characters in the first half of the book are prominent figures–George Mitchell (diplomat of the Good Friday Accords), Frederick Douglass, Alcock and Brown (pilots of the first non-stop Transatlantic flight)–but it is amazing how human he makes them. George Mitchell was especially an accomplishment considering he is still alive and able to tell his own stories. The second half of the book focuses on a fabulous family of women whose lives touched and intersected with these famous men.

Finally there is the story. He is describing the crossings and connections in our lives, in terms of our transatlantic heritage (huge academic buzz word nowadays), but also how individuals influence and impact each other. While at times it seems he stretching a bit to make these lives intertwine, I liked the people and wanted to know what would happen so much that I was willing to go along. The last chapter in particular felt a bit slow because he is trying to set up a new crossing, but by then I was willing to let him take me wherever.

This is my favorite book of 2013 so far. I’ve been recommending it to everyone. Worth the read and it is not a trilogy.

Books! The life of a “Tongue”

I came across The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak while 11149173browsing a Goodreads list of new historical fiction. Even though it had some strong praise from the Washington Post and others, the cover was a bit bodice-ripper looking for me and I almost passed it up. But I’m glad I did not.

Stachniak tells the story of the rise of Catherine, who becomes Great, through the eyes of Varvara, a young ward of Empress Elizabeth. Varvara comes to live at court as an orphan and is recruited by the Russian Chancellor to become a “tongue” or a spy. Her job is to be the eyes and ears for Empress Elizabeth in the large and unruly court that surrounds her. When Catherine arrives to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, and subsequently is used and abused (by everyone), Varvara allies herself with the young (future) Grand Duchess.

Stachniak descriptions of the court are well-written and imaginable. In some historical fiction works, the research seems laid on top of the narrative without the two meshing well. Stachniak interweaves what is obviously a tremendous amount of research with a strong and engaging tale. She does this not only with the chronological history but also the “set” in St. Petersburg. During the story, the palace is undergoing renovations that will make it into the grand Winter Palace. Her narrative makes it easy to imagine their surroundings.

I think the book does not have the correct title though as in many ways it is more about the life of Empress Elizabeth than Catherine. Because it is focused on Catherine’s early years and because it takes a really long time for her to become Empress, at the close of the book I felt I knew more about Elizabeth as a character than I did Catherine. I even know the name of Elizabeth’s cats. This may partly be intentional because the story is told from Varvara’s perspective and Varvara is ultimately burnt by her benefactress. In other words, we only know as much as Varvara does and in the end she doesn’t seem to know enough about Catherine and the power of court intrigue.

If you like historical fiction, this one is a keeper. Intrigue, power, sex, and … cats, lots of cats.

PS: Just noticed that it is listed on Goodreads as Catherine #1. Oh dear, another trilogy …

Books! Hot Lava #cbr5

Woodcut of Krakatoa

After reading Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, I am embarrassed to admit that I learned about the volcano only after hearing the B-52’s song Hot Lava sometime in my college years. I’m ashamed because Winchester says many times that Krakatoa was the volcanic event that everybody learns about and remembers. Well, not this gal. Thank you Fred Schneider and company for sending me to the encyclopedia to look that word up (these were the days before Wikipedia, although not pre-Internet, thank you very much).

I picked the book up because I have a strange obsession with disaster stories, Into Thin Air being a favorite. Winchester’s book is much more than just a chronicle of the 1883 volcanic explosion though. He deftly combines natural history, geology, political sociology, history and more to create a full picture of Krakatoa’s place and importance. Each chapter takes on a different piece of the story, from the colonial history of what would become Indonesia, to the development of the Wallace Line, to an excellent chapter on the discovery of plate tectonics and much more. While he of course chronicles the disaster itself he does so as a detective trying to piece together the exact happenings rather than sensationalizing the events.

The only place he falters slightly is in the political history. He argues that Krakatoa’s eruption helped to create the conditions that led to the rise of anti-Western Muslim fundamentalism, but honestly I think the Dutch and the colonial project did that just fine without Krakatoa’s help. While the eruption definitely created chaos that destroyed daily life, many factors went into the widespread anti-colonial insurgencies throughout Asia. Luckily he reins it in before drawing direct causation, but this chapter was the weakest. As the book was written and published after the Bali bombings in 2002, he was probably trying to draw in a wider audience.

My other criticism is why I give the book four our of five stars on Goodreads. I appreciate a good map, even in location-heavy fiction, but especially in nonfiction. The maps in the paperback version of this book are horrendous (I only hope they are better in the hardback). For example, the map of Indonesia doesn’t even have Krakatoa labeled! I had to go to Google to figure out where the island was located. I would overlook one editorial mistake but the rest of the maps are equally as bad (no legends, difficult to read). I guess they were going for a period (Victorian) look by having them hand-drawn. That is what I like to believe at least.

Nevertheless, this is one of my favorite books of the year. It is very well-written and covers extremely difficult science in an understandable way. Although he covers a wide-range of topics, he weaves them together to form a very coherent story of a volcano.

PS: After reading this book I now know why the lyric is “Krakatoa, East of Java” (when Krakatoa is west of Java). They may have been fans of the film, Krakatoa, East of Java.

Books! Every book is a trilogy #cbr5

I seem to start every Cannonball Read review with an apology or a lament. I have yet to hit 52 books and 2013 is looking no different. But the year isn’t over yet!

A while back I finished Fuse by Julianna Baggott, #2 in the excellent Pure series. The story is set in a post-


apocalyptic world in which a series of large explosions destroy much of the earth and leave it a wasteland. A select few escaped to a sterile world in a dome (think Logan’s Run). Those who survived the explosions became disfigured (many of them fusing with their surroundings or nearby objects/creatures) and had to learn to live in the harsh new world.

My favorite part of Baggott’s writing is her world and creature creation. The fusings of man and surroundings are quite surreal and fun to imagine. The main character’s hand, for instance, is fused with the doll she was holding at the time of the explosions. Her love interest was outside near a flock of birds and has several birds fused to his back. While it sounds grotesque, Baggott describes these beautifully but leaves room for the reader to imagine the exact look of the world. I expect that the series will be made into a movie(s) and I can’t wait to see how this world is realized.

If I have any criticism, it is only that I wish this wasn’t a trilogy. I hate waiting for each installment. When I started Fuse I had some difficulty getting into it because I couldn’t remember what had happened in the first book, Pure. I know this is the new trend of publishing and sometimes it can be a good thing–the story is much more developed and intricate in this case– but sometimes it is just an excuse for bad editing (or not editing as in The Discovery of Witches). While Baggott does not fall into that last category, as a reader you sometimes just want a good story that ends.

To close, this is a beautiful series. If you like post-apocalyptic sci-fi, this is a great addition, but it is also a solid story with engaging characters. If you are impatient like me, wait until next year and read them all at once. You won’t regret it.

Books! Everyone is named Thomas

Oh Cannonball, how I have missed you! Usually spring semester is not so busy but usually I am not taking a class while teaching and working full-time. Oh well. Here’s to summer…

The one fun book I read this semester was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I bought the book when it first came out and just now got to it as part of my Mount TBR Challenge. It was definitely a highlight of my semester though.

Thomas Cromwell is our guy in this chronicle of the early years of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s love affair. From humble beginnings, he starts his professional life as an assistant to Cardinal Wolsey but after Wolsey’s death he becomes a minister to the King. Along the way he meets Cranmer, Anne and Mary Boleyn, the rest of the Boleyn gang, Thomas More, and a very young Jane Seymour. As it is a planned trilogy, with Bring up the Bodies out now of course, it ends on the cusp of the shift in Henry’s feelings towards Anne and the disgrace of Thomas More.

The book reads beautifully and Cromwell is an extremely sympathetic character. Mantel’s writing has a nice cheekiness to it that often feels self-referential. The quote “Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories” is  a nice commentary both in relation to action in the story but also to the process of telling this particular story.  While she absolutely must take liberty with the characters’ comments and actions to tell this story, she tries to stay true to life as much as possible (very much unlike the tv show The Tudors that took many liberties). In contrasting the two approaches, I prefer this Thomas Cromwell to his small screen counterpart, but I was surprised at how petty and irritable she made Thomas More as he is typically portrayed with more nobility. Honestly, it was quite fun.

The book slows a bit toward the end, but most of it has a nice pace. If you know nothing about the Tudor period at all, it could be potentially difficult to read, especially keeping track of the characters. Nevertheless, it is one of my favorite of the year. Historical fiction at its finest!