Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Pumpkin Seed Massacre by Susan Slater

The Pumpkin Seed Massacre by Susan Slater
World Wide Mystery, 1999
Mystery; 252 pgs

Completed: 06/30/2007
Rating: * (Good)

First Sentence: The owl winged noiselessly across the moon’s path and settled on a pine bough above his head.

Reason for Reading: I have had Susan Slater’s Ben Pecos mystery series sitting on my shelf for some time now and thought the Summer Mystery Reading Challenge would be a great way to finally dive into the series and try an author I had yet to read before. The Pumpkin Seed Massacre is the first book in the series. This is also my first selection for the Medical Mystery Madness Challenge.

Synopsis: Native American psychologist Ben Pecos reluctantly takes an internship with Indian Health Services, returning to his birthplace and early childhood home. He has been away for a very long time. A mysterious virus claims the lives of several elderly pueblo residents, including his own grandmother, raising suspicion of a possible epidemic. Joined by television reporter, Julie Conlin who hopes the story will advance her career, Ben is asked to look further into the deaths and find the root cause.

Because one of the victims of the virus was the tribal governor, who had been opposed to the construction of a casino, Ben and Julie entertain the notion of possible malicious intent but cannot be sure. After all, why kill so many others if only one person was the target? The pair have their work cut out for them, and it could mean putting their own lives at risk.

Comments: Three years ago, my husband and I took a road trip through the Southwestern part of the United States. Our time was limited, and so it wasn’t quite as leisurely as we might have liked, but we had a wonderful time. One of the states we visited was New Mexico, which I fell in love with instantly. The earth was rich both in beauty and tradition. Susan Slater’s The Pumpkin Seed Massacre took me back to New Mexico, this time to locations I had not visited as well as some that were more familiar.

The author artfully weaved Pueblo Native American belief and superstition into the story. She did so with respect and careful consideration. At various points in the novel, the clash between the old ways and the modern come into play. While traditions must be upheld and respected when the elders in the pueblo begin to die, the need to investigate further through science becomes a medical necessity. There is also the issue of the gambling casino; while some people, particularly the new tribal governor, are eager for the change and the promise of wealth and jobs it may bring, others remain skeptical and are strongly opposed to the changes such a public attraction would bring to their lands.

This is not a mystery where the players are completely unknown. Readers follow the progress of the investigation from several different viewpoints, and so there was not a lot of guesswork needed on behalf of the reader in figuring out who is beind what. Just from the description on the back of the book (not included in my review), so much of the plot is given away, and yet there are still many questions posed in the novel worth getting to the bottom of.

Ben Pecos is a charming main character and Julie Conlin, the television reporter, who also takes part in the investigation holds her own. Her ethical approach alone was enough to earn my respect immediately. My favorite of all the characters, however, would have to be Lorenzo, an elder of the Pueblo Indians. He was an endearing character, and even in his innocence, he pops up in the most unusual places.

Susan Slater not only has written a suspenseful mystery but also has captured her setting in such a way as to remind me of what I loved about New Mexico so much. I will definitely be continuing on with the series.

Visit the author's website for more information about her books.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Field of Fire by James O. Born

Field of Fire by James O. Born
Putnam, 2007 (ARE)
Mystery; 340 pgs

Completed: 05/31/2007
Rating: * (Good)

First Sentence: He looked over the dash of the new ford Taurus, already littered with PowerBar wrappers, thanks to his partner.
Reason for Reading:
I was curious about James O. Born’s novels and when I saw this one among the books available for review through Curled Up With a Good Book, I couldn’t resist requesting the copy. This is my first selection for the Summer Mystery Reading Challenge (Liz, the hostess, said participants could get a head start on this one, and so I took advantage of her offer).

Comments: What better way to begin summer than with a novel full of mystery and intrigue? Field of Fire is a good place to start. Stepping outside of his Bill Tasker series, author James O. Born presents a new protagonist, Alex Duarte, a special agent with the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Agency, otherwise known as ATF. Alex walks the straight path, intent on doing good and seeking justice. He is hardworking and ambitious, wanting to move up in the department. He earned his name “Rocket” because of his focus and determination once he is set on a task.

When the man Alex recently arrested proves to be the intended target of a bombing that killed innocent people, including a young boy, Alex is pulled into a complex investigation involving the assistant attorney general's office. Alberto Salez had been picked up on gun charges. He agreed to help the ATF uncover the identity of the possible bomber only to escape from custody himself. Now on the run for his life and from the authorities, Alberto Salez will stop at nothing to stay one step ahead.

Alex is determined to track down the man he let get away. However, Department of Justice attorney, Caren Larson, has been assigned to work with Alex to help her with her own investigation, that involving the bombing at the labor camp as well as two other related bombings and murders believed to be the result of labor union disputes. Trying to catch Salez's trail and uncovering the motive and identity of the bomber are first on Alex's agenda.

Attorney Caren Larson is an enigma to Alex. She is smart and beautiful. They make a good team, and seemingly balance each other out. However, Alex is not completely sure what part Caren plays in the investigation and what her motives are. As the investigation continues, the more tangled the web appears to be. Is everything as it seems or is there more to what is going on? Alex is determined to get to the truth.

The novel follows the movements of three main characters throughout the novel, that of Alex and his investigation, the hired killer as he continues to hunt down the designated victims and Salez's flight for survival. With each perspective, the layers of the mystery are revealed and the intensity builds, coming to a dramatic climax at the end.

Within the framework of the story, the author deftly explores the personal side of his characters, offering insight and depth into their lives, exploring their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The author subtly weaves in social issues, including that of race and ethnicity and the struggles a war veteran may have in coming to terms with his past.

Alex Duarte may seem too good to be true upon first glance, but once you get to know the guy, he’s not only likeable but he’s admirable. Haunted by his experience in Bosnia, not trusting his own ability to read people and his confidence and pride in the work he does only add to his charm. He’s a man of action, whose honesty and dedication make him stand out.

The author takes great care with the details. James O. Born’s research and personal experience play a large part in crafting a novel that has a realistic feel to it, even in the more unconventional moments. Field of Fire is both entertaining and gripping. It will make a great summer reading experience. Originally published on Curled Up With a Good Book at © Wendy Runyon, 2007

Favorite Part: As confident as Alex is doing his job, his lack of confidence in his social skills was endearing.

My favorite scene was when Alex and Caren faced the men outside of the bar. I could just see that scene played out in a movie.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Shakespeare's Landord by Charlaine Harris

Shakespeare’s Landlord by Charlaine Harris
Berkley Prime Crime Mystery, 1997
Mystery; 214 pgs

Completed: 06/28/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: I gathered myself, my bare feet gripping the wooden floor, my thigh muscles braced for the attack.

Reason for Reading: I enjoy reading Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire series and decided to branch out and try her Lily Bard mysteries. This is one of my selections for the Southern Reading Challenge.

Comments: I was not quite sure what to expect when I picked up Charlaine Harris’ Shakespeare’s Landord. Maybe I thought I would find myself reading a cozy little mystery set in a small Southern town. What I got, however, was a darker, more edgy mystery set in that small Southern town, which was even better. Some readers, including the author, have called the author’s Lily Bard series a cozy mystery series with teeth.

Lily Bard is a woman with a secret. She left behind her old life to get away from painful memories. With her hair cut short and dyed, often wearing baggy clothes, all in an effort to disguise herself, Lily wants nothing more than to keep a low profile and live her life in the small quiet town of Shakespeare, Arkansas. Lily, working as a cleaning woman and doing odd jobs for her clientele, finds the body of her former landlord on a late night stroll through her neighborhood. When Chief of Police, Claude Friedrich begins digging for suspects, Lily’s past makes her a suspect. She becomes determined to find the killer herself, hoping to preserve some of what she had built in that small sleepy town of Shakespeare.

The novel is full of colorful characters from the elderly but astute Mrs. Hofstettler to the spoiled Deedra Dean. As their cleaning lady, Lily probably knows more about them than they know themselves, including some of their secrets.

It is Lily herself that adds the edge to this mystery. She is tough as nails, a karate expert, sarcastic and a bit antisocial. She does her job, keeps her mouth shut and leads a relatively safe and peaceful life, which suddenly changes with the murder of the landlord. Lily begins to wake up from the fog she’s been living in, realizing she is a part of the world, that people notice her, care about her, and maybe she can still live rather than just merely exist.

With its southern charm and easygoing atmosphere, Shakespeare makes the perfect setting for Charlaine Harris’ novel. It adds gentleness to the story while at the same time revealing the rough edges under the surface. Small town gossip may flourish, but there’s a genuine friendliness and concern for each other, almost everyone looking out for each other.

Shakespeare’s Landlord is only the first in the Lily Bard mystery series, and I definitely plan on stopping by Shakespeare again. Charlaine Harris continues to be one of my favorite series’ writers.

Favorite Part: I most enjoyed following Lily around while she went about her various jobs. It was through that method that readers get a close up and personal glimpse into many of the characters of the novel. Bobo Winthrop and the condom incident had me chuckling out loud. Mrs. Hofstettler was full of southern charm and I enjoyed the moments spent with her. I got the impression that she has a little spitfire left in her despite her health problems. Chief Friedrich was another of my favorite characters. He was always such the gentleman.

Note about the Author: Charlaine Harris is a born and bred Southerner, having been raisd in the Mississippi Delta and now calling southern Arkansas home. Check out the author's website for interviews, a biography and bibliography.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sula by Toni Morrison

Sula by Toni Morrison
Plume, 1973
Fiction; 174 pgs

Completed: 06/26/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.

Reason for Reading: It has been years since I read my first Toni Morrison book, The Bluest Eye. Sula was a gift from my parents, and although I had every intention of getting to it, it sat on my TBR shelf for 2 ½ years. It became one of my choices for the TBR Challenge because I felt it was time I got to it. This is my 6th selection for the TBR Challenge and my 7th for the Reading Through the Decades Challenge.

Comments: The novel Sula paints a vivid picture of a black neighborhood known as Bottom even though it is set high in the hills of Medallion, Ohio. Toni Morrison's writing is beautiful. She captures a moment, a person, and a mood so eloquently, sometimes with imagery and at other times quite bluntly. Sula is rich in complexity, satire and all the while tragic.

Sula is one of those novels that inspires analysis and discussion, and it is no wonder it is a favorite as required reading for literature courses in the United States. The novel weaves several different themes throughout the story, including that of racism, motherhood, friendship, and values.

Racism was rampant during the time period the book is set, beginning in 1919 and ending in 1965. As Nel travels by train with her mother, Helene Wright, from Ohio to New Orleans to visit Helene's dying grandmother, I was struck by the contrast between the train stations the further south the two traveled. Although segregated, the train stations at the beginning of their journey had restroom facilities for everyone. By the time Nel and Helene drew closer to their destination, the facilities for blacks were non-existent. Instead, they were expected to go out in a field. Other hints of racism were sprinkled throughout the novel, impossible to ignore.

The contrast between the lifestyles of the two friends, Nel and Sula, is extreme. Nel comes from a strict and proper upbringing, raised by a mother who was traditional. Sula had a much different childhood, living with her matriarchal grandmother who was strong and eccentric. Sula's own mother was loose with her child just as she was with the men. Nel and Sula's attraction to each other seemed natural, despite their differences. They had similar natures, both seeking escape from their own realities and finding in each other the part of themselves that they desired most to be like.

Even with the years of separation after Sula disappeared from Medallion, upon her return the two women picked up their friendship where they had left off. They settled into each other’s lives and hearts as if nothing had changed. And yet it had. Nel was married with children. She had adopted a similar life to that of her mother, a more traditional lifestyle. Sula wanted no part of that kind of life, enjoying her independence, and not wanting to have to rely on anyone or have anyone rely on her, a lesson she learned early in life. This would ultimately cause a rift between the two friends and tear their friendship apart.

I am in awe at how gifted a writer Toni Morrison is. She captured the essence of the era, the town, the neighborhood and her characters in all their complexity. Sula is the most complex of all of the characters. She fights against tradition, setting her own path. Unlike her grandmother who was a respected woman in the community and her mother who, while a free spirit herself, had a complacency about her that endeared people to her, Sula instead earned their wrath. Her confidence and arrogance seemed to spurn others in the community. Yet there is a naivety in Sula, buried deep down and difficult to see.

Sula is not a novel that should be rushed through (which is unfortunately what I did); there is a deeper meaning behind so many of the events that take place within the novel. The imagery and symbolism make this book a literature course gold mine. I read this novel for the sheer pleasure of it, not as a scholarly endeavor, and as you can see, my thoughts about the book reflect that. Overall, I enjoyed the novel and perhaps will one day reread it and appreciate it even more.

Favorite Part: The writing itself is one of the best parts of this novel. I cannot stress that enough.

Aside from that, one of my favorite characters was Shadrack, who readers are introduced to almost immediately. He is a war veteran who had been greatly affected by the war, watching those around him die. He is an eccentric character, not one that ignites warm and fuzzy feelings, but is an enigma. He walks through town with a cowbell every January 3rd, the day he has designated as National Suicide Day. While the townsfolk shake their heads in disgust and wonder, the day takes on a special significance even to them, although perhaps not with the same intent that Shadrack had in mind.

The story of how the 3 Deweys came about is another favorite part for me. The three boys were orphans that Eva Peace, Sula’s grandmother, took in, each unrelated and looking nothing alike and yet no one could tell them apart. They were an interesting set of characters, although relatively minor.

Note about the Author: Although not a personal website for the author, Anniina has set up a website that includes a bibliography of all of Toni Morrison’s work as well as links to interviews with the author and biographies. Take a look!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich

Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich
St. Martin’s Press, 2007
Mystery; 310 pgs

Completed: 06/24/2007
Rating: * (Good)

First Sentence: For the last five minutes, I’d been parked outside my cousin Vinnie’s bail bonds office in my crapola car, debating whether to continue on with my day, or return to my apartment and crawl back into bed.

Reason for Reading: After a serious reading material streak, I thought something light and fluffy was in order. What better way than to visit old friends in the Burg?

Comments: Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is in fine form for the 13th installment of Janet Evanovich’s popular series. Stephanie once again finds herself in the middle of trouble when her ex-husband, Dickie Orr, goes missing soon after she paid a visit to him that got a little out of hand. She had gone to his law offices at the request of Ranger who suspected Dickie and his partners may have been involved in some shady dealings. As a result her burst of temper, Stephanie is the prime suspect in his disappearance. Not only do the police have her in their sights but so does Dickie’s girlfriend, Joyce Barnhardt, the woman he cheated with while married to Stephanie. And if things weren’t bad enough for Stephanie already, she soon finds her own life on the line.

Lulu fans will be happy. Ranger fans will swoon. Morelli is as sexy as can be. Grandma Mazur is hotter than ever (read the book and you will know what I mean). Joyce is her usual annoying self, although she earns a little of my respect this time around. And Stephanie is, well, Stephanie. She fumbles her way through most of the book in her usual style. The fur certainly flies, and she’s still not sure which man is the better catch. There is plenty of action, slapstick comedy, and Ranger sightings in Janet Evanovich’s latest novel. Although the story itself is not that strong, with a loose main plot that gets somewhat lost with everything else going on in Lean Mean Thirteen, the narrative was entertaining and funny. This wasn’t the best of the Stephanie Plum novels, but it was still an entertaining and fun book to read.

Favorite Part: I just adore Grandma Mazur. She’s such a pip and can always pull a laugh out of me. Lulu is a hoot in this one too, and I was glad to see she too had such an active part throughout the novel. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments, but I truly think they are better left for the reading of the book than my spoiling them here.

Miscellaneous: My husband and I are watching the first season of The Wire, and I have to say, I love that show! It’s edgy, has an awesome cast, and a great story line. Does anyone else watch this show?

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
Harper Perennial; 2005
Fiction; 142 pgs

Completed: 06/22/2007
Rating: * (Outstanding)

First Sentence: It is starting like this.

Reason for Reading: After reading Wendy's (Caribousmom) review of Beasts of No Nation, I was instantly intrigued. This is my fourth selection for the New York Times Notable Book Challenge.

Comments: Uzodinma Iweala first came upon the idea of writing a story about a child soldier after seeing an article in Newsweek. He wanted to get inside the mind of a child soldier and understand what the child goes through. Eventually, after careful research and drawing from his own background, Beasts of No Nation was created.

This novel may seem small in size, however, its content is quite powerful. Beasts of No Nation is the story of a young boy in western Africa whose mother and sister have fled from their village with the war’s approach and who witnesses his own father’s murder. Agu is discovered hiding by a young boy soldier and soon finds himself fighting among the guerrilla fighters in a civil war. He is awed by the commandant’s posture and strength. The commandant can be gentle and kind, ruthless and brutal. Throughout his training and the fighting, Agu remembers his past, his relatively simple life. He loved school and books, he liked playing with his best friend, and dreamt of being an engineer or a doctor someday. His new life was vicious and hard.

Uzodinma Iweala captures the voice of his young narrator, creating a story that is both raw and authentic. The child’s fear and anguish can be felt on every page. I had no difficulty being pulled into the rhythm of the narrative and dialogue and it turned into a surprisingly fast book to read even with the unique nuances in the writing style. However, the subject matter itself was quite disturbing in parts; the experiences Agu had to live through are the kind no human being, much less a child should have to experience.

Favorite Part: The author did a wonderful job at giving his character Agu a voice. Several times throughout the book I wanted nothing more than to wrap my arms around Agu and save him from the hard life he had to live. I was grateful he and Strika had each other. I think their friendship got them both through the most difficult moments.

I also liked the way the author weaved myth and fable into the novel, specifically the story about the leopard and the ox and then the story of the greedy cloth seller. Such tales offered an insight into the events taking place in Agu’s life, part of which he may or may not have fully understood.

Note about the Author: Here is an interview with the author.

Miscellaneous: I read an article earlier in the week about three Sierra Leonean military leaders being convicted of a variety of crimes, including conscripting child soldiers. This could have a major impact on future cases involving similar charges, something that is long overdue.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Machete Season: The Killers In Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak by Jean Hatzfeld
Picador, 2006 (originally published in 2003)
Nonfiction; 253 pgs

Completed: 06/21/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: In April the nocturnal rains often leave in their wake black clouds that mask the first rays of the sun.

Reason for Reading: Machete Season came recommended by a friend a little over a year ago. It was described to me as a disturbing book, but one well worth reading. It is my second selection for the Nonfiction Five Challenge.

Comments: In the spring of 1994, approximately 800,000 Tutsi people were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors in Rwanda. The massacres came on the heels of the assassination of President Habyarimana. The killings lasted for about 100 days. Despite initial excuses that the uprising was the result of anger and blame, it is believed that the genocide of the Tutsi people by the Hutu had been in the planning for quite some time.

The seeds for prejudice and hate were long ago sowed against the Tutsi people. Propaganda played a large part in that as the radio and government perpetuated negative images and stereotypes of the targeted ethnic group. In the years before the genocide movement, property and land had been stolen from a select few of the Tutsi people, and small massacres had already been carried out. When no one protested or spoke out against the perpetrators of these crimes, it gave them further confidence as well as bolstered the confidence of those who would later take part in the massacre the spring of 1994.

Jean Hatzfeld, the author of Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide—The Survivors Speak, had no intention of writing a book about the Hutu killers. His only interest was in telling the story of the survivors of the genocide and letting them share their story. As time went on, however, he wondered, along with many of his earlier readers, if perhaps it would be possible to get the killers’ version of events, and so he set out to do just that.

In choosing his subjects, the author took special care. He knew that focusing on individuals would too easily be opened to lying, however, by taking a group of people who were a part of the same gang, killing together and looting side by side, he would have a better chance. In this way, the accounts could be compared and the interviewers were more likely to speak the truth knowing their colleagues could say anything at all about them. Each man was interviewed individually, the questions not given out in advance to avoid conversations and preparation by the killers in what to say.

Jean Hatzfeld interviewed various individuals, focusing on ten Hutu men, all of who were in the same gang with the exception of one, Joseph-Désiré Bitero, who was facing death for his crimes, which included genocide, crimes against humanity with premeditation. Joseph-Désiré had been a political leader and organizer during the genocide. All were from the village of Nyamata, which is where all of the interviewed men participated in the killings of Tutsi women, men and children.

After the assassination of the president, the military and political officials mobilized the civilians for the murder of their Tutsi neighbors. In no time at all, the men were organized, being told to grab their machetes or whatever other weapon was handy, and then sent out to kill any Tutsi they encountered. The Hutu were the hunters and the Tutsi the prey.

The author points out that the term “genocide” has become overused and misrepresented in recent years. Genocide is the complete annihilation of an entire ethnic group, and it is not uncommon for women and children in particular to be targeted because they are considered to be the future. In the case of Rwanda, the move by the Hutu to kill the Tutsi was clearly an effort to wipe out an entire ethnic group. While the word genocide was not spoken, it was a known fact that that was the intention by those who participated in the killings.

It is interesting to note that none of the Hutu men interviewed had had any real disagreements with their Tutsi neighbors. In fact, they often ate meals and drank together, worked side by side, played sports together, and sat beside each other in church. This was not the case of strangers killing strangers. They were not soldiers fighting in a war, shooting at an enemy who fought back. Of all the men interviewed, not one had anything bad to say about any of the Tutsi that they knew personally. The propaganda that had been so ingrained in them over the years was not confirmed in fact by the actions of their Tutsi neighbors, and yet there was still an underlying prejudice, perhaps in part borne in jealousy or greed.

The killings were not altogether voluntary. The Hutu who hid a Tutsi family or was married to a Tutsi might pay with his or her life, but more often than not the price of refusing to participate was ridicule by peers and fines that grew heftier with each refusal. There were those who bought their way out of participating by paying hefty fines; these men were usually the wealthy. Those who could not pay the price or were too infirm or old, sent a son or other male relative in their place. Sometimes the women picked up the machete, although in general the women’s role was pillaging, looting the houses and property and stealing directly from the dead.

Jean Hatzfeld at one point in the book describes the differences in reaction to the interviews by the survivors and the killers. While the survivors are more emotional, their stories raw and vivid, the killers told their story in a more controlled manner, with hardly any expression or emotion, and their words were chosen with care.

The statements made by the Hutu killers are at times difficult to read. I was most disturbed when the killing involved children and infants, although all of it was horrific. Although there is a glimpse at the motives and reasons behind the killings, I did not come away from this book with a better understanding as to why civilians like the farmers interviewed would so easily and readily slaughter their neighbors. Perhaps that is not possible at all. One of the killers said that he knew it was difficult to judge them (the killers) “because what we did goes beyond human imagination.”

The interviewed killers seemed unaware of the extent of their crimes. They had no real understanding or insight into just how terrible their crimes really were and how much of an impact their actions had on their victims and the survivors. This becomes especially clear as they talk about their own remorse and regret as well as the hope for forgiveness, which most of them believe will be the path for forgetting the past by both themselves and the survivors.

I have written a lot here, but in truth this is just the tip of the iceberg, more of a general overview. Jean Hatzfeld’s interviews with the killers, observers, and survivors paint a very real and ugly picture of a true-life event. This was not the first time in history neighbors turned against neighbors because of their ethnicity or some similar reason nor will it likely be the last. The genocide in Rwanda is eerily similar to the Nazi’s genocide of the Jews and gypsies in Europe.

Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak is disturbing in content. Jean Hatzfeld anticipates readers’ questions and does a good job of answering them throughout the book. The author certainly gives the reader food for thought. Susan Sontag said it best in the preface of the book, “To make the effort to understand what happened in Rwanda is a painful task that we have no right to shirk—it is part of being a moral adult. Everyone should read Hatzfeld’s book.”

Note about the Author: A brief biography of the author can be found here.

Miscellaneous: My darling and very patient husband got an earful as I read this book. I often discuss the books I read with him, testing my theories and thoughts on him either as I read or when I complete the book. He never seems to mind, fortunately.

I made the mistake of reading this one well into the night before I settled into sleep. My dreams were haunted by images and thoughts of the events in Rwanda during that terrible spring of 1994.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward

Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward
Random House, 2007 (ARE)
Fiction; 238 pgs

Completed: 06/19/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: Nadine hears the parrots.

Reason for Reading: I signed up for a chance to preview this book through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program and was one of those lucky individuals selected to read it. It goes along perfectly with the current Africa kick I am on.

Comments: Amanda Eyre Ward takes difficult subject matter and writes in such a way that makes it easy to digest while at the same time, not taking away from the gravity of it. Forgive Me is the story of Nadine, a journalist who is used to being on the front line. She is a proud woman who leads an exciting life chasing down stories and putting her life in peril. She rarely takes time out to actually live her own life and face her own fears.

Her mother died when Nadine was a young girl, after which her father spent more time working than raising his daughter. Nadine longed to leave Woods Hole, Massachusetts where she grew up, wanting to see the world as her mother once longed to do. Nadine made that dream come true, never looking back.

When a brutal assault leaves her in need of bed rest and healing, she finds herself back in Woods Hole under the care of her father and his girlfriend. Nadine wants nothing more than to get back to work. Befriending the local doctor, Hank Duarte, Nadine finds a comfort she had not expected to find, and yet she still feels confused and alone.

When news reaches her that the parents of Jason Irving will be traveling to South Africa to argue against amnesty for one of their son’s murderers, Nadine’s mind is made up. She is determined to travel to South Africa to follow the story that she had first reported on all those years ago. During a time when apartheid was at its height, Jason Irving, an American teacher, was beaten to death by a group of angry youth. His murderers did not care that he was against apartheid, they only cared that his skin was white and believed his death would lead to the end of their oppression. Several years later, in an effort to promote democracy in the country, the new South African government enlisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to revisit old crimes of violence. Victims could come forward to seek justice and perpetrators of violence could request amnesty.

With her return to South Africa, Nadine is forced to face her own past, the tragedy and pain that she has had to live with all the years in between. Forgive Me is the perfect title for a book that in many ways speaks of redemption.

Amanda Eyre Ward’s story is multi-layered, each character being complex and their stories just as much so. She has created a cast of characters who are interesting and real. At one point in the novel Gwen, Nadine’s father’s girlfriend, comments that Nadine is like an onion with multiple layers. The author deftly demonstrates this as the story unfolds, the narrative weaving from the past to the present (present being the late 1990’s), with an occasional journal entry that adds an unexpected and more complex layer.

The author’s easy writing style makes this book a quick read, however it is not one that will sit lightly with the reader once the last page is read. The racial issues and violence of apartheid from both sides are explored as well as the recovery and healing process once that period in time has come to a close. Forgive Me is a moving novel that has heart and punch. It is well worth reading.

Favorite Part: I most enjoyed getting to know Nadine’s friends from her initial trip to Cape Town, George, Maxim and especially Thola. I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with Thola and her family, perhaps even getting to know Evelina, Thola’s sister, more. George and Maxim were once Nadine’s roommates while Thola was George’s African girlfriend.

I also liked spending time with Lily, Nadine’s best friend, particularly when she was putting Nadine in her place.

Miscellaneous: Out of the 7112 petitioners that went in front of the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission seeking amnesty for violence crimes during the apartheid era, 5392 people were refused amnesty and 849 were granted amnesty.

Take a look at Puss Reboots review of Forgive Me.

Spring Reading Thing 2007 Wrap Up

Katrina at Callapidder Days hosted the Spring Reading Thing 2007 this year. She offered readers the opportunity to do a little spring cleaning with their reading by finally getting caught up, getting to those books that just seem to lanquish of the shelves, or to read a book a friend recommended a long while ago that you never got to.

My own list was a compilation of titles I had planned to read either for other challenges or because I knew I had put them off too long as it was.

Spring Reading List
1. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2. The Rest Falls Away by Colleen Gleason
3. The Inhabited World by David Long
4. The Angel of Forgetfulness by Steve Stern
5. April Witch by Majgull Axelsson
6. The Nazi Officer's Wife by Edith Hahn Beer
7. I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
8. Atonement Ian McEwan

What was the best book you read this spring?

I was able to fit in 19 books this spring, all but one of which I enjoyed reading without a doubt. The two books that stand out above the rest this season just happen to be books I read for the Spring Reading Thing 2007 Challenge.

Ian McEwan's Atonement is a well-crafted and beautifully written novel and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a powerful and moving book. Half of a Yellow Sun was the most gripping and emotionally charged of the two, the one that had me enthralled from the very first sentence. In the end that is why Half of a Yellow Sun will go down as my favorite book this spring.

What book could you have done without?

The Angel of Forgetfulness by Steve Stern was my least favorite. It was based on an interesting premise, and I am sure will find an audience who will love it, however, it did very little for me. It had it's good moments, but I was too often bored and wished it would end so I could move on to the next book.

Did you try out a new author this spring? If so, which one, and will you be reading that author again?

This spring I took on several new authors. In fact, of all the books I read this spring, only two are ones I have read before. For this particular challenge, there was only one of which I'd read before, that being Wally Lamb. All the rest were new to me. I most definitely will be seeking out more books by several of the authors I was introduced to during this challenge: Ian McEwan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Colleen Gleason, David Long, and if possible Majgull Axelsson.

What did you learn -- about anything -- through this challenge? Maybe you learned something about yourself or your reading style, maybe you learned not to pick so many nonfiction books for a challenge, maybe you learned something from a book you read. Whatever it is, share!

Well, I learned that there is such a thing as biting off more than you can chew in regards to reading challenges! The advantage to this challenge was that I was able to read books that crossed over into other challenged, otherwise, I would have been drowning by now. And to be honest, I am still having difficulty treading through the water I call books. Don't get me wrong though; I am in no way complaining.

What was the best part of the Spring Reading Thing?

I felt I had been neglecting the New York Times Notable Book Challenge and the Spring Reading Thing gave me the perfect excuse to remedy that situation. Since the NYT Challenge is so open, I think I needed the structure this challenge offered to get a kick start.

All in all, the Spring Reading Thing was an enjoyable experience. Many thanks to Katrina for hosting the challenge.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Knopf, 2006
Fiction; 435 pgs

Completed: 06/18/2007
Rating: * (Very Good +)

First Sentence: Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings and had too much hair.

Reason for Reading: I was drawn to this novel from the very first time I heard about it several months ago, and the more I heard about it, the more I was sure I wanted read it. And so it was with great anticipation that I opened the book to the first page and began to read. This is my third selection for the New York Times Notable Book Challenge and my eighth and final selection for the Spring Reading Thing.

From the Publisher: With the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Adichie weaves together the lives of five characters caught up in the extraordinary tumult of the decade. Fifteen-year-old Ugwu is houseboy to Odenigbo, a university professor who sends him to school, and in whose living room Ugwu hears voices full of revolutionary zeal. Odenigbo’s beautiful mistress, Olanna, a sociology teacher, is running away from her parents’ world of wealth and excess; Kainene, her urbane twin, is taking over their father’s business; and Kainene’s English lover, Richard, forms a bridge between their two worlds. As we follow these intertwined lives through a military coup, the Biafran secession and the subsequent war, Adichie brilliantly evokes the promise, and intimately, the devastating disappointments that marked this time and place.

Comments: Between 1967 through to the beginning of 1970, Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war. A coup over the government by the Igpo people was short lived when another coup by the Hausa followed hot on its heels, becoming a nightmare for the Igbo people in Nigeria. On the back of a massacre that would continue throughout the war, the southeastern provinces of Nigeria declared themselves the Republic of Biafra and attempted to secede from the rest of the country. Although atrocities occurred on both sides, the use of starvation as a weapon to the isolated and war torn Biafra has become one of the grim trademarks of that vicious war.

A number of books have been popping up recently describing life and war in Africa, from a variety of cultures and perspectives. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel is one among many; however, it is one that stands out. The author is a gifted storyteller and her novel drew me in from the very first page and did not let go until long after I breathed in the last word. I am struggling with what to write about this book. The story moved me beyond words. I found myself chuckling during the lighter moments of the book, bubbling with anger at the atrocities described, fearful for the lives of characters I had grown to care very much for, and as if covered by a great veil of sadness, knowing that although Adichie’s novel is a work of fiction, there is much truth there as well.

The author’s words breathe life into the characters. How typical Ugwa was as a thirteen-year-old boy! There was Olanna with her kind heart and self-doubt; Odenigbo, so full of passion for what he believes; Richard whose outsider status never held him back from believing he belonged and yet whose uncertainty made him unsteady on his feet; and Kainene, who stood apart and kept her distance more often than not, hiding behind her sarcastic comments. It was Kainene I was most fascinated by, surprising even myself. I would have expected to be taken in more by Olanna’s gentle but tough character for she is the character I could most identify with.

Adichie painted a vivid picture of the brutality of war and the impact it had on her characters. No one went unaffected in some way, whether they paid the ultimate price or were oblivious throughout most of the war. I especially remember the scene near the end when a woman visits the Nsukka home searching out her old friend, Odenigbo. She makes a comment about how life had gone on for her almost like normal during the war and that she had no idea the extent of the war on her Igbo friends. She only learned of the terrible conditions her Igbo friends endured by reading a London paper while attending a conference. The irony, the dichotomy, of the situation was like a hammer hitting a nail home.

From the interactions of the characters and their relationships, and in the war itself, the author was able to touch up the issues of race and class struggles, the prejudices surrounding them. One aspect I found intriguing throughout the novel was the underlying influence the British colonization had on the various tribes and cultures in Nigeria and how much of that played into the events that would unfold in that country as well as in the book itself. It came as no surprise, mind you; however, it is a reminder of how all actions have consequences, some of which are unforeseen until they completely unravel.

The morning after, I still feel the affects of this marvelous book. Half of a Yellow Sun is a haunting story that took me right into the hearts of the characters and a country torn by jealousy, greed and hate. The story of Nigeria’s Civil War is not so unusual in the grand scheme of things, but it is a story that needs to be told and remembered. Still, Half of a Yellow Sun is not just about the war, it is about the people, their relationships, and their struggle to survive.

Favorite Part: With a novel like this, it is hard to pick out one favorite part, or even two or three. There was not a moment while reading this book I was not riveted to the words on the page. The characters were well drawn and interesting and the story flowed so smoothly that I was surprised at how quickly I moved through the book.

I liked how the author divided up her sections, at times going back and forth in time. The break from the war to return to the pre-war period was a short reprieve from the darker moments in the story, while at the same time proved quite revealing in better defining the characters and their relationships with one another.

Miscellaneous: There is a section on the author's website where people are allowed to share their own experiences regarding Biafra, which I spent a little time perusing and hope to revisit again to read at more length in the future.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Chunkster Challenge Wrap Up

“A big leather-bound volume makes an ideal razor strap. A thin book is useful to stick under a table with a broken caster to steady it. A large, flat atlas can be used to cover a window with a broken pane. And a thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.” - Mark Twain

I have nothing against big books, however, they do tend to linger on my shelves longer than their shorter counterparts. Nancy over at Bookfoolery and Babble provided the perfect opportunity for me to finally dig into some of those heftier volumes.

Because of the six month time frame, I decided to only challenge myself to read 3 books, each over 800 pages. Initially, I had hoped to read three shorter chunkster books in between my offical selections, however, that was not meant to be. You see, I went reading challenge crazy and suddenly my plate was too full to fit in the extra books.

Chunkster Challenge Book List
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pgs)
2. The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald (820 pgs)
3. I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb (894 pgs)

Not one of my choices in this challenge turned into a disappointment. I expected them to take awhile to get through, however, they were so engrossing that I flew through them. Each one held its own magic for me and earned high ratings from me in the end. The Way the Crow Flies is perhaps my favorite not only for this challenge, but of all the books I have read so far this year. Anna Karenina is not too far behind.

Having tackled these three books, anything less than 800 pages should seem like a breeze, right? Well, maybe not, but I imagine I will not wait so long to pick up the next chunkster just because of its size.

Many thanks to Nancy for hosting this fun challenge.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Once Upon a Time Challenge Wrap Up

“Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.” - Terry Pratchett

The Myth, the Folklore, the Fairytale, and the Fantasy. Carl V. from Stainless Steel Droppings asserts that these four elements are the very foundation of storytelling. In honor of those four elements and of the story itself, Carl V. challenged readers around the world to a simple task: to take on a quest of their choosing which would include a reading journey through one or more of the basic elements mentioned above. I selected Quest Two, which was to read read at least one book from each of the four genres of story-Mythology, Folklore, Fairytale, and Fantasy.

My selections included:

Fairytale - The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey
Fantasy - A Wizard of the Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
Folklore - Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Mythology - American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I had difficultly getting my mind around the difference between mythology and folklore, and so my chosen book for the folkore category is a weak fit, although I could probably reason my way into making it fall into both folklore and mythology, however much of a stretch it might be.

Although I am not new to fantasy or the variety of types of stories this genre offers, the Once Upon a Time Challenge was a reminder of just how diverse it can be. Fantasy fiction can be set in an entirely different world or right here in our own backyards. The characters can be as human as you and me or as different as an elf or dwarf. Events can take place in the past, present and even the future. For a look at what other participants read, visit the Once Upon a Time Challenge blog.

Three of the authors I read for this challenge are new to me: Ursula LeGuin, Robert Holdstock, and Neil Gaiman. I will be reading more by them in the future. Of the three, I was most impressed by Neil Gaiman's American Gods, although that did not come as a surprise considering the praise he has received from so many fellow fantasy readers.

I enjoyed spending time reading one of Mercedes Lackey's novels as it had been far too long since I cracked open the last one. Her story, The Fire Rose, based on a favorite fairytale of mine, was perhaps my favorite of the four.

I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Carl V. for hosting this great challenge.

And they all lived happily ever after . . .

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Dessert First & Page 161

Booking Through Thursday

Do you cheat and peek ahead at the end of your books? Or do you resolutely read in sequence, as the author intended? And, if you don’t peek, do you ever feel tempted?

For a good part of my childhood, my father worked the night shift. My brother and I would wake up early on Christmas morning but would not dare venture beyond the end of the hallway that would eventually lead to the living room where the Christmas tree and all of our presents would be. Not once do I remember us crossing that invisible line to sneak a peek at what Santa had brought us. We waited for dad to come home from work and give us the okay. It was only then that we would race to see what was in our stockings near the fireplace and then to the tree to see what lay beneath.

Reading a book is somewhat like that experience for me: the waiting and anticipation to see what will happen next. Like most everyone, I have moments when I let out a cry, "Oh! I can't wait anymore! What happens next?" And yet, the temptation to actually take a peek at that final chapter or that final page never comes. Instead I may grip the book harder; stand up and pace as a I read; bounce a little in my chair; or perhaps I will simply sit quietly as still as can be, staring intensely at the pages as my eyes fly over the words, taking them all in and losing myself so totally in the story. Do I peek at the end of a book? No. Knowing how a movie ends does not bother me for some odd reason, but I like to discover the end of a book for myself.

It is not the holiday gifts themselves that stick out in my memory of all those Christmases long ago. It is the moments leading up to them. With books, sometimes that's the best part of all.

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

I have been tagged again! Melody over at Melody's Reading Corner tagged me for the page 161 Meme and so I thought I would try again. The last book I chose for this one obviously did not impress anyone (although the book is definitely worth reading).

The Rules:
1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open it to page 161.
3. Find the fifth full sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence to your blog.
5. Don't search around for the coolest book you have, use the one that is really next to you.

This one is that never gets old because it's always changing. If you'd like to play along for the first time or give it a try again, consider yourself tagged!

"They're writing some stupid slogan that's going to run on the front page every day until the cows leave, aren't they?" - from Sacred Cows by Karen E. Olson

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rainbow's End by Lauren St John

Rainbow’s End: A Memoir of Childhood, War, and an African Farm by Lauren St John
Scribner, 2007 (ARE)
Nonfiction; 269 pgs.

Started: 06/09/2007
Completed: 06/11/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: They weren’t supposed to be there.

Where Book Came From: Simon & Schuster, Advanced Reader's Copy

Reason for Reading: This book fit in perfectly with my planned African-themed month (which has gotten off to a late start and will be occasionally interrupted by an off topic book or two), and so it’s arrival came at a good time.

Warning: I fretted over whether to include a vague mention of the current state of Zimbabwe and Mugabe's leadership in my thoughts below. Is it too much of a spoiler? For some it may well be, however, it is not truly a spoiler for Lauren's own story, although it holds a sort of irony in its own way. Rainbow's End is about Lauren and her family, their struggles during a tumultuous time in Africa. The politics and leadership of Zimbabwe are well known, written in history and very much a part of current events in the world today.

Comments: Lauren St John was born and raised in the African country of Rhodesia, in the country that would eventually become Zimbabwe. She was the forth generation living in Africa and yet she will never be considered as African because of the color of her skin.

A child born into a culture and a society adopts the beliefs and values of that culture without much thought. The child is taught to believe and think in much the same way as his or her parents and the society he or she is exposed to. Lauren St John was no different. She is a fourth generation Rhodesian and Africa is very much her home. Rhodesia was in the middle of a Civil War during most of Lauren’s childhood. It was a way of life for Lauren, and she coped by turning the experience into an adventure of sorts. At one point in the book the author likened the war to being like "the Old West, where lone ranchers defended themselves against shadowy but well-armed assassins who came in deadly bands of three or six or ten." She further explained that it was nothing like the war in Vietnam or with tanks and explosions everywhere. Still, she did not see or experience the worst of the war, although there was still great risk and fear among the farmers in the area where Lauren grew up. The Rhodesians took precautions as necessary, but still held onto hope and a sense of safety, whether it was real or not. There was a sense of community and everyone looked out for one another.

After several moves and new beginnings, Lauren’s family settled on a farm at Rainbow's End, a beautiful place that bordered on a river. From Lauren’s descriptions, it was an enchanting place that attracted all sort of wildlife and was full of happy memories. Yet there was a shadow that hung over Rainbow's End. Several months before Lauren and her family moved into the farmhouse, four members of the Forrester family were murdered in that house by terrorists in the night. One of the victims was an 11-year-old boy whom Lauren sat next to in school. It was his room she would later occupy. The constant fear that terrorists would return and kill her family lived with Lauren throughout the rest of the war.

Despite the grimness of the war, Lauren led a relatively happy childhood, taking in animals of all kinds. Lauren was very much a tomboy and preferred to live her life on the edge, taking risks and trying to keep up with the boys. She enjoyed the same dreams that many young people have, dreaming of fame and recognition. Like her father, Lauren was in love with Africa and felt pride in her country. Although she did not fully understand everything about the war effort, she knew that her side was fighting for democracy and opposed to communism. Her side was the good side. Or so she thought.

It was not until the end of the war that much of what Lauren believed about the war, the cause and the motives, suddenly came crashing down. Her reality was shaken to its core. And as all she knew and thought about her country was brought into question, her family also began to disintegrate.

There is no pot of gold to be found at the end of Rainbow's End. As the war came to an end, people around the globe cheered and the majority in Zimbabwe celebrated an end to oppression. No one could foresee the direction elected officials would take the country in the years to come. The once lauded leader, President Mugabe, would eventually begin his own reign of terror, one that to this day includes allegations of fraud, violent repression, and murder. I came away feeling a great sadness for the people of Zimbabwe and all they have had to suffer at the hands of bad leadership, be it the white oppressors or the black.

Lauren's words painted an amazingly beautiful picture of a land and its people while at the same time, capturing the tragedy of war, regardless of the side a person is on. The book is above all Lauren St John’s story and that of her family during a tumultuous time in Zimbabwe’s history. It is a story that captures the essence of a girl who survived the best way she could, finding normalcy and courage in a difficult environment, always adapting as needed to the events in her life. The Rainbow’s End will make a perfect discussion book for book clubs and is one that inspires further research into the history of Zimbabwe, including the struggle of the freedom fighters and the political leaders, both past and present.

Favorite Part: One of my favorite scenes was Lauren’s first ride on Charm. It was comical in its own way, but I especially liked how Lauren adapted her dream to fit the horse and didn’t linger in her disappointment that Charm wasn’t her black stallion.

I also loved the scene where Lauren is reading while leaning against the tree, and Jenny the giraffe peers around the tree at her.

The most moving part of the book is when Lauren pours out her thoughts about her newfound knowledge of what the war was really about and everything she believed begins to come into question. Instead of pleading ignorance, Lauren takes ownership of her own blindness and prejudices, even those that might be forgiven a child who was raised to believe no different. As Lauren saw it, she should have known.

Miscellaneous: I love the cover of this book. Had I seen it in the store, I would have most likely picked it up to read the blurb inside the cover to see what it was about (and then bought it).

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey

The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey
Baen Fantasy, 1995
Fantasy; 433 pgs
Completed: 06/09/2007
Rating: * (Very Good)

First Sentence: Golden as sunlight, white-hot, the Salamander danced and twisted sinuously above the plate sculpted of Mexican obsidian, ebony glass born in the heart of the volcano and shaped into a form created exactly to receive the magic of a creature who bathed in the fires of the volcano with delight.

Reason for Reading: This is my final selection for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I added this title to my TBR collection in October of 2004, along with a few others of this author’s books. I am a big fan of her Valdemar series and was curious to discover what other treasures she had written.

Comments: I had almost forgotten how entertaining a novel by Mercedes Lackey could be. In The Fire Rose, the author takes a favorite fairytale of mine, “Beauty and the Beast,” and adds her own flavor and spices to it.

Rosalind Hawkins, a medieval scholar, has just lost her father and learned that he was in great debt. She’s soon to be out on the streets with hardly anything to call her own. When the offer to become a governess to the two children of a wealthy railroad baron comes, it seems too good to be true. However, after careful consideration she decides to leave the city of Chicago where she grew up for the western city of San Francisco. Upon her arrival, she quickly learns that she has been deceived. There are no children to tutor, no wife to the baron and only one servant in the mansion where she now resides. She is asked to read manuscripts and texts to her employer, Jason Cameron, through a speaking tube, whose hope is that she will lead him to uncover the key that can unlock him from his prison. Rose is not the kind of woman to be kept in the dark for long. She soon puts two and two together and discovers her employer’s deep dark secret just as Jason’s enemies turn their attention to Rose.

San Francisco in the early 1900’s is the perfect backdrop for the novel. Women have their place in society but are making definite movement towards beginning their struggle for equality. Rose is a woman who has never been content in the traditional role, wanting to get a doctorate and stand on her own two feet. She wears glasses, thinks herself rather plain and is a bookworm. The perfect heroine.

Amidst the magic and glamour of wealth, there is a darker side to the novel. Mercedes Lackey takes readers into the cribs and opium dens of San Francisco’s Chinatown, the whorehouses, and slave trade of women.

The Fire Rose is a worthwhile read in more ways than one. Its touch upon history and the more fantastical elements make it an engaging novel that is difficult to put down. It is always risky to take a favorite traditional story and make it your own, however, Mercedes Lackey succeeded marvelously.

Favorite Part: It always warms my heart to read a book in which at least one of the main characters is a booklover, and so I found a kindred spirit in Rose Hawkins right from the start. I like strong female characters and Rose certainly was that—as well as intelligent. My favorite character, however, is probably Jason Cameron’s personal Salamander. Although he wasn’t much of a character in presence, his loyalty, intelligence and manner drew me to him. Of the humans, Master Pao was one of my favorites and I wish I we could have gotten more into his history. Alas, this wasn’t his story.

What better place to learn more about the author and her books than her website? Do stop by!

Miscellaneous: This week we celebrated Anjin's birthday, but because it landed on workday, we decided to extend it through the weekend. After a brief excursion to the mall, we had a birthday lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. This was only my second time ever going there. Let me just say the White Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle cheesecake is to die for. Very yummy.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Inhabited World by David Long

The Inhabited World by David Long
Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006
Fiction; 277 pgs

Started: 06/01/2007
Completed: 06/03/2007
Rating: * (Good +)

First Sentence: When he looks at his hand, he sees the hand he remembers—ropy branching veins, a ridge of waxy skin on the inside of the wrist where he fumbled a glowing iron rod at his father’s forge one afternoon in 1966.

Reason for Reading: This is my second selection for the New York Times Notable Book Challenge and my seventh for the Spring Reading Thing. I first came across this title through Kookiejar at A Fraternity of Dreamers. The author had visited her blog to recommend she consider reading his book. Out of curiosity, I did a little research and discovered that the subject matter intrigued me, and so onto my list it went.

Comments: The Inhabited World is not an easy book to describe. It is not quite a ghost story. It is more of a story about life, redemption, and moving on. The main character just happens to be dead. It is about a man, Evan Molloy, who died by his own hand. He is stuck in a state of limbo, unable to leave the property his Washington house is set on, and so his days and nights are spent observing the new residents as they come and go. Evan does not understand where exactly he is or why.

Maureen Keniston is the most recent tenant, a woman who is running away from her old life, trying to reestablish herself and find her footing after a long affair with a married man. Although her story is an important part of the narrative, Evan's story is the main focal point throughout most of the novel. As Evan watches Maureen and begins to understand her situation, all the while wishing he could offer her some solace, he is lost in his own memories, the recounting of his life and how he ended up where is today, including what led him to pull the trigger.

David Long's novel had an "it could happen to me" feel to it right from the very start. Evan was an average man whose life did not stand out much beyond the norm. His families, both in childhood and adulthood, were no more dysfunctional than most in today's society. Evan was really never made out to be a victim of his circumstances, which is a definite strength in this novel, fitting in with the overall atmosphere set by the author. I never felt sorry for Evan, although I could empathize with his plight.

I was most drawn to Evan's experience with depression, including the onset and his cycles in and out of it. Although it's named, the illness is never fully accepted by Evan for what it is, which itself is not too uncommon. There is a stigma about depression in its many forms and other mental illnesses as we see with not only Evan, but his stepdaughter, Janey as well. Physical health problems have always been more acceptable; those of the mind, even if the root may be physical, are still hard to accept.

There was a constant layer of melancholy that settled over the novel, both in the author's prose and woven into the lives of his characters. The Inhabited World is not one that stands out in the sense of climax and melodrama, and yet there is a quality about it that lingers because of the subtleness and the realness of it.

One side effect of having read this book is that now I find myself wondering if I am truly ever alone. Is there a spiritual being sitting in the pink (Anjin says it's brown) armchair, watching as I write this?

Note: You can learn more about the author and his other works by visiting David Long's website. Lovers of book lists might especially enjoy reading through the author's own lists.

Miscellaneous: It didn’t take long to fall asleep once my head settled onto my pillow for my afternoon nap today. I had a blog related dream in which I was writing a very long and involved post in which I had hoped to challenge an unnamed blogger to read a particular book (title and author of said book unknown) and write a review. I could not get a hold of the blogger and so I decided to instead offer the friend of the blogger a chance at the challenge. I only hoped that The Literate Kitten would agree. As with most of my dreams, I awoke before I could see the outcome and no attempts to recapture the dream worked.