Books I’ve Read – May 2012

Sacre Bleu – Christopher Moore

(**** of five)

I’m not entirely new to Christopher Moore. In fact I have a very devoted friend. But, the only one of his books that I’ve read before was ‘You Suck’, which wasn’t even the first book in it’s series. I liked it, a lot, it was pretty hilarious and I sped through it with all the vigor of amusements. But still I didn’t run out and find a new Moore to read. Until this one, of course. As a rather big fan of late nineteenth century artists in general and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in specific I couldn’t not read this. I was so intrigued, in fact, that I immediately put myself on the list for it on the library. I wasn’t disappointed.

The plot of this book is obviously in the fantasy/sci-fi realm. Lucien is a painter in the only real place to paint, Paris. At least that’s what he WANTS to be, so far he hasn’t let go of his day job at his family’s bakery. At the beginning of the novel Lucien receives news of his friend’s, Vincent van Gogh, suicide. Convinced there’s more to the story Lucien hastens to the brothel to pick up his other friend, Toulouse-Lautrec, and the two start to uncover a mystery surrounding the color blue, which seem to have some strange and mystical properties. To get too much into the plot of ‘Sacre Bleu’ is sort of difficult so I will just leave it at that. But lets just say this is the weirdest and most fun story I’ve read in a long time.

This was really imaginative. That’s really the main thing about it. When you have something that involves a personified color, an ancient Colorman, and pretty much every French (and some other) painter you can imagine, it would have to be. Moore certainly knows how to create something like no one else can. There were times when it was a bit silly and the writing a bit too precious, it was fully enchanting from beginning to end, not to mention amusing, raunchy, and full of people I wish I could have met.

Distant Waves – Suzanne Weyn

(*** of five)

For a book that only received three stars from me, I certainly have a lot to say about it. The main problem with this book is false advertising. The subtitle is “A Novel of the Titanic”, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Oh, yes, the great ship makes it’s appearance as does the fateful iceberg but the focus of this book is really elsewhere. Basically, there was no way I wasn’t going to read this book once I had heard of it. With my combined passion for Spiritualism, Tesla, Conan Doyle, and the Titanic it seemed to have it all. That’s what probably saved this novel in my eyes.

This is, essentially, the story of Jane Taylor, the second eldest daughter of spiritualist medium, Maude Taylor. When their husband and father dies Maude packs up Mimi, Jane, twins Amelia and Emma, and Blythe and moves the lot of them to Spirit Vale (based on the factual enclave Lily Dale), New York, a sleepy town near Buffalo. The main industry in Spirit Vale is, as the name suggests, the dead. More specifically, spirits. With post-Victorian spiritualism in full swing Spirit Vale is a town of mediums, a tourist attraction where the world can travel to speak to their dearly departed. As the children grow some start to show promise of “the gift” themselves while others can’t wait to venture into a world where the dead stay dead. Jane longs to be a journalist and take an opportunity to travel to New York City where she comes into contact with Nikola Tesla, for the second time in her life, and his young assistant, Thad. And her sister, Mimi, fatefully meets Ninette Aubert, mistress to Benjamin Guggenheim, who invites her traveling. The characters weave through history mingling with the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini at a London Spiritualist conference and fate intervenes to bring all the girls together for a return voyage on the White Star Line’s brand new luxury liner.

This book is not bad. That being said, it’s not great. At times it’s too ambitious. There are a few too many famous people to be realistic, but it’s fun to recognize them.

But the thing is this; as an avid fan of the Titanic there were a lot of glaring errors. The characters move seamlessly between the first and second classes, they eat at the à la carte restaurant when they have no cash and the dining rooms were included with the fee of travel, and after the collision some of the characters go down to the cargo hold to retrieve something, which would have been under water. Not to mention that almost immediately the characters are literally shot forward in time to when the ship has already sunk beneath them. The whole experience on the liner really was the dumbest part of the whole book, complete with a lavish last minute wedding (gowns designed by the Lady Duff Gordon and sewn by the third class seamstress passengers). It was just, simply, unbelievable. And not in a good way. The writing, also, wasn’t great.

But there were good things, particularly the setting at Spirit Vale and the Spiritualism aspects of the story. In the end, it wasn’t a good book, that was obvious even while reading it, but it was a fun ride, if you like that sort of thing. Proceed, if you will, with caution.

Arcadia Falls – Carol Goodman

(**** of five)

It’s impossible not to compare this book to Carol Goodman’s earlier novel ‘The Lake of Dead Languages’ (still LOVE that title). Both involve women who move to a desolate school to teach after their marriage ends (one way or another) toting their daughters behind. Both involve secrets kept in the very setting of the school in Upstate New York. While the lake in ‘The Lake of Dead Languages’ obviously takes center stage, the woods and a clove play a similar role in Arcadia Falls. Both involve pagan rituals and students who become obsessed by them. And both have twisted family trees that result in the outcome of the story. Yes, there are great many similarities between these two books, almost to the point where one has to ask why Goodman felt the need to write the same book twice. But while engaged within the pages it starts to not matter because they really are fun reads. Neither are perfect novels, they both have a level or gossip and scandal that seems left best to tabloids but they are both well written books that ultimately work, even if you’re not sure why. That being said, I liked ‘The Lake of Dead Languages’ better. But perhaps that’s just because I read it first, and liked it enough to pick up a similar book by the same author.

Meg Rosenthal moves her daughter to the small town of Arcadia Falls from Great Neck after the death of her husband, Jude. Since he poured most of his assets into a hedge fund that didn’t have time to mature Meg finds herself in dire straights and falls back on the only thing she has; a nearly completed PhD in Folklore. She gets a job at the downtrodden school, Arcadia, a former artists colony started by Vera Beecher and her ‘companion’ Lily Eberhardt. They started the colony, and the school, trying to give women more options in life. They collaborated on several fairy tale, including one called The Changeling Girl that inspired Meg greatly as a child. Their stories are exalted but their story is legend; in 1947 Lily attempted to leave Vera for her lover, the painter Virgil Nash, and fell into a rocky clove in the woods where her body was found some weeks later buried in snow. Meg has long been fascinated with the story and once she arrives she nearly immediately discovers Lily’s lost diary and begins to learn the story from the inside, the parts that no one else knows. What she uncovers is a story far different from the one that’s told. Secret babies, betrayal, perhaps even murder. All the elements of a great tale. But this isn’t just the story of Lily and Vera. The first night of Meg’s arrival is the night of First Night, a pagan festival celebrated to chase away summer (literally in the form a chosen girl dress as the summer goddess) and ring in autumn, tragedy strikes when one of the brightest students at the school plunges to her death in the same clove where Lily died. Are the two deaths related? Well, inevitably, it’s a book, but I wont give anything away.

I really did like this book. I suspected I would given my enjoyment of her earlier book, but I did expect a bit of rehashing. And, yes, the elements are all there, like I said above, but there was enough to keep me guessing until the end. It’s clear that Goodman loves scenery, this book was positively thick with it. The woods are described so lovingly that it’s difficult not to almost smell the sap in the tree and feel the branches snap back as you walk by. The setting really is as much a character as any of the people. I would recommend this book. There’s nothing world changing here but it’s a fun, quick read that isn’t nearly as silly as it could have been.

Turning Japanese – Cathy Yardley

(**** of five)

I’ll be honest. I did not want to read this book. A co-worker gave it to me, as she sometimes does for reasons that I don’t know. Just looking at the cover made me want to roll my eyes. It’s pink and there’s a little anime girl hanging out on the bottom with bubble hearts. I was pretty sure that it wasn’t for me. But, since I haven’t read a single one of the books she’s ever given me (I still intend to!) I thought I should probably pick it up. It’s chick lit, I couldn’t possibly take that long. So, you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that this was actually a great book. There’s not all that consequential in the subject matter or plot, but the message was a good one, the writing good, and the characters top notch.

The horridly titled ‘Turning Japanese’ is about Japanese-Italian-American Lisa Falloya, a simple girl from Groverton, NY who works at some sort of industrial plant, has a boyfriend who’s busy all the time, and the same best friends from high school. Suffice it to say she’s set in her ways. But then Lisa wins an internship at a Japanese manga company. Soon Lisa has relocated to the other side of the world where she comes up against culture shock so fierce that she’s not sure she’ll last the week. But then again, no one ever said changing your life was easy. Lisa learns that there’s a fine balance between

Lisa’s experiences in Japan were really fun to read. I’ve never been to Japan myself, but my sister has and I’ve heard a few stories, it’s both funny and fascinating at the same time. Starting fresh in a new place is something that holds appeal for me and with such extremes between Japanese and American culture the change is just that much different. I think that Yardley managed these parts of the book, or, I mean, pretty much the whole book, without managing to be insulting. There were characters that really got on my nerves, but they were handled well enough that in the end I had no problems with them.

Basically, this book was far better than I could have ever expected. Well worth a read.

Titanic: A Survivor’s Story – Archibald Gracie

The Sinking of the S.S. Titanic – John B. Thayer

(**** of five)

Rating and reviewing this book is sort of difficult. It was an incredibly interesting and very detailed first hand account of the most famous maritime disaster in history, but at times it seemed a bit… too detailed.

The first part of Colonel Archibald Gracie’s portion of this book read almost like a novel. He told his experience, splashing in details he learned later. Then he rewound and accounted for the experience of every single lifeboat, often times from many different accounts. I don’t doubt that this information is invaluable to history and I commend Gracie for taking the initiative, in the few short months he had to live after the disaster, to collect all these stories from so many different perspectives. But, to read it flat out is a bit dry. Gracie was a military man. He wrote books about is experiences besides this one, so he was clearly no stranger to words, but his style is informative. I took this slow, reading it over about a month. This is the only real way I can imagine reading this torrent of information. But if you’re interested in the Titanic this really is an invaluable resource.

The second portion of this edition, I dare not say half as it takes up only about forty pages, is written by John B. Thayer who was seventeen at the time of the sinking. Both he and Gracie survived by clinging to the overturned collapsible lifeboat B. Thayer’s account is really far more compelling to me, it’s told relatively linearly and only includes his experience of things. He also does not shy from his opinion that the ship broke in two (a fact we now know to be correct) before plunging below the waters despite the insistence from the crew and decision of the inquiries that it did not.

Gracie died of illness relating to his night of exposure awaiting rescue from the Carpathia on December 4th, 1912 so his account was written very soon after his rescue. Thayer’s account was not published until about 1940. Take from that what you will. Both these tales are extraordinary. I’d recommend them to anyone, but perhaps only in small doses.

The House of Lost Souls – F. G. Cottam

(*** of five)

I had a hard time rating this book. I liked it, mostly, but it had some major flaws and would have benefited from a hefty edit. Honestly, though I could see where the author was coming from, it had far too many layers of narrative. People telling stories about stories they heard about reading diaries. It was too much. But, the basic striped down story was pretty good. And I’m a sucker for a ghost story.

The book starts, not ideally, with Nick Mason who’s secretly attending a funeral of a friend of his sister, Sarah, who committed suicide after the girls entered the Fischer house on the Isle of Wight. Soon Sarah too is in full collapse and Mason turns to the only other living person who’s been in the house, Paul Seaton. The book then moves, nearly exclusively, to Seaton, who’s still haunted by his experience. Seaton tells his story; about love and one halcyon summer when he agreed to help his girlfriend track down information about a one Pandora Gibson-Hoare (seriously underused character for how much she sets in motion), a photographer in the twenties who committed suicide after years of obscurity. His research takes him to her lost diary, which tells of Satanism and experiments in the occult, Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley, and ultimately human sacrifice and the Fischer house.

The parts with Pandora were fantastic. They were clearly showing how a place of evil got to be a place of evil, which I think for this sort of narrative is necessary. Pandora, herself, is likable, despite the company she keeps. Seaton, as well, is clearly of importance and his discovery of this mystery and how it grips him for the rest of his life are essential to the plot. So, I can’t understand for the life of me why the author decided to bog it down with more characters. Yes, they come into play and the girl’s breakdowns after visiting the Fischer house clearly set the plot of the story into motion, but it seems like the author could have come up with a more streamlined way of doing this. More characters and more plot do not necessarily add. Also, I read another review that mentioned how just as we thought we were getting somewhere the plot takes a turn and we visit France and Wales. I agree, this is a problem. Wales, perhaps, is fine, but taking all the time to travel to a monastery in France is unnecessary. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the informative monk to be local.

But, I did like it. The first hundred pages or so were a bit plodding and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it. But once Paul’s story set in the pace picked up and things started to connect. Not to mention we got to the heart of the story; the Fischer house. I’d recommend it, but only to someone who likes ghost and demon stories and is willing to bog through a lot to find a gem.

Normal People Don’t Live Like This – Dylan Landis

(*** of five)

This book was good, there was no doubt about it. It just wasn’t all that enjoyable or meaningful to me.

‘Normal People Don’t Live Like This’ was basically about Leah Levinson, a teenager growing up in Manhattan in the seventies. The book is broken up into what could essentially be ten short stories. Some of which are written from the lead character’s point of view and some aren’t, but all collect to create a somewhat full story.

I did enjoy reading this, but I find that writing the review, a little over a week later, the story didn’t really stick with me. Even while I was reading I knew it wouldn’t. It was pleasant, but it didn’t do much for me and now it just seems to be another tick in another box in my yearly Goodreads goal. But, it’s clear Dylan Landis is a talented writer, I’d be interested to read something else of hers that could go a little deeper than the surface these stories seem to scrape. And I think that’s the main problem I had, while we’re given clues to Leah’s life and personality (my favorite interlude was clearly the one where she ventures to Paris with a college boy she hardly knows) we aren’t given enough. Ultimately, this feels unfinished, as if she could have much more to say.

The Fear Street Saga: The Betrayal – R.L. Stine

(**** of five)

I was cleaning out some shelves and came upon this book, along with the second and third books in the trilogy. Let me just state that I loved the Fear Street books when I was little. So much so that when I got my weekly allowance I would rush off to buy more editions. And, being the history lover that I am I was generally ecstatic when the Fear Street Saga was published, recounting the three hundred year feud between the Goodes and the Fiers that cursed the street in Shadyside up to present day. I was not disappointed at the time. In fact, I think I read these books several times, so when I came across them again I decided to sit down and read a couple of pages. A couple hours later I was done with the book. And, surprisingly, it holds up! I mean, yes, the story is somewhat overwrought and the writing is for readers around the age of thirteen, but that’s exactly what these were supposed to be.

In this first story we’re introduced to Nora Goode who’s recounting the tale of her family and that of her love, Daniel Fear. It starts in 1692 when, to prevent a marriage, Susannah Goode is knowingly falsely accused of witchcraft by Benjamin Fier. Her resulting murder is the catalyst for a curse that will follow the Fiers for generations to come.

These are just fun, and while I couldn’t possibily recommend them to anyone my age now I’d be surprised if they hadn’t picked up one at some point in their childhood.

The Fear Street Saga: The Secret – R.L. Stine

(**** of five)

I figured it was only appropriate to continue my sojourn into my adolescence and continue this trilogy to it’s completion. ‘The Secret’ is the second installment in the Fear Street Saga, the explanation into all the evil that occurs on that particular street in Shadyside in R.L. Stine’s book series Fear Street. There’s really not a lot to say about this that I didn’t say about the first book, ‘The Betrayal’ so I wont go into it. But, when I was younger there were two factions; Christopher Pike fans and R.L. Stine fans. That’s not to say they couldn’t cross over, certainly they could and did. I liked Christopher Pike but I LOVED the Fear Street books. And I didn’t love any as well as I loved the Fear Street Saga.

This book focuses on two generations of the Fier family. First we have Jonathan, who’s father, Ezra, is so obsessed with revenge against the Goodes that he brings disaster upon his family. Determined to break the curse forever Jonathan buries the family amulet (with the cheery engraving ‘Dominatio per malum’, honestly you don’t need to know Latin to know that’s not good) under an apple tree. A hundred years later Elizabeth Fier discovers it and the horrors begin again.

I honestly only remembered part of this book from reading it when I was a kid so I suppose that’s the one that stayed with me. Unfortunately that story only takes up about sixty pages of the book. But that hardly matters, I’d still recommend this for a preteen looking for a tale about things that go bump in the night.

The Fear Street Saga: The Burning – R.L. Stine

(**** of five)

I remember when I was little waiting, very impatiently, for this book to be published. It November of 1993 and this was the third, concluding, book of the Fear Street Saga, the historical horror trilogy that explained why Fear Street, in R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series of books, was so haunted. I got it for my birthday, immediately tore in, and was not disappointed.

This book continues the story of the Fears (who have now changed the spelling from Fier) and the Goodes, two feuding families not opposed to using the “dark arts” to exact revenge upon each other. This book mostly deals with Simon Fear and his immediate family. In the previous book, ‘The Secret’, Simon’s two sisters both fell in love with the same Goode and paid the price, now Simon’s heart is hardened. When he meets Angelica Pierce in New Orleans he knows she’s for him, he just doesn’t realize how much. But the curse follows them, even when they settle into the notorious Fear mansion in Shadyside.

So, I mean, was this written in, probably, a month and then released only in mass backs for a bunch of thirteen year olds to pour over? Yes. Is it good? I’m going to go ahead and say yes. This whole series is good. It’s creative. And to a kid who liked ghost stories, I couldn’t have asked for better.

The Marriage Plot – Jeffery Eugenides

(**** of five)

This is the sort of book that makes me wish I’d given other books less than four stars. I loved it, but it wasn’t perfect. The views on this particular novel seem to be divided quite strongly. A lot of people seemed to find it pretentious. I suppose that’s fair. It does talk about a lot of academic things and takes for granted that it’s readers are well read and able to educate themselves without having to explain every little things about, say, Derrida. This book relied heavily outside source material. Religious studies, biology, semiotics, and nineteenth century literature are all strewn throughout the book. I’m not an expert in all these things and I don’t think Eugenides expects you to be. Personally, I didn’t find it pretentious at all. I enjoy it when a writer imagines that I know things that they know, because I usually do. And if not, there’s this thing call Google and it generally gives me enough of an idea. Reading about ideas prompts me to look up those ideas. I enjoy this. Maybe that makes me pretentious too.

I’m not new to Jeffery Eugenides. I read both ‘The Virgin Suicides’ and ‘Middlesex’ and loved them both for their creativity and perfect characterization. ‘The Marriage Plot’ is not those books. It’s not as creative as a book about a group of teenager sisters who all kill themselves over an Indian summer and it’s not about the sprawling life of a hermaphrodite trying to discover their identity. ‘The Marriage Plot’ is much simpler.

Ostensibly, ‘The Marriage Plot’ is about a love triangle. Madeleine Hanna, Leonard Bankhead, and Mitchell Grammaticus are all graduating from Brown University in 1982. Both men, wildly different, love Madeleine. The story begins with Madeleine, herself, who seemed more a character to me than a lot of people seemed to think. In some ways, she’s a catalyst. A foil to the marriage plots of both the men of the story. But, she’s also a skilled academic, aspiring Victorianist, and has a lot of plans of her own. Senior year she meets Leonard in a semiotics class. The two begin to date, fit each other into their lives, but are then faced with the major obstacle of his manic-depression, which would, of course, now be called Bipolar Disorder. I found this aspect of the novel to be really quite interesting as I’ve lived with debilitating depression before and always wanted to explore, in fiction, the effects of that on a relationship.Mitchell, who’s studied religious studies and shows enough promise than his professor has suggested the scholarly track at divinity school, has been kept in the holding pattern of “friend” since nearly the beginning of his and Madeleine’s academic careers. After graduation he heads to Europe and India for a year of soul searching, but still holds onto the feeble hope that one day he and Madeleine will get together.

Another thing I noticed was people complaining that this book was about something as boring as heterosexual marriage. Honestly, that astounds me. Perhaps I just enjoy quiet stories about the human condition, but I find nothing boring about love or marriage, heterosexual or not. Stories are interesting not because of what they are about on the surface, but because of what the storytelling brings to the reader. It’s probably difficult to come back with a new book after winning the Pulitzer for the last one, but I loved all these characters and fully enjoyed my time with them. I’d wholeheartedly recommend.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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3 Responses to Books I’ve Read – May 2012

  1. Emma says:

    R.L. Stine brings me back to my childhood but I never read the Fear Street series.

    • Lindsay says:

      Fear Street were the BEST. I was too old when Goosebumps came out, they were just silly, but Fear Street were perfect with the murders and the maiming and the melting faces. I loved them. I still might.

      • Emma says:

        I was too old for Goosebumps too but I read The Last Vampire and Fall Into Darkness and all the Point Horror books. Melting faces? Sounds gross and epic 🙂

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