Books I’ve Read – October 2012

The Rule of Four – Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomas

(*** of five)

There were a lot of polarizing reviews for this book. Plenty of people despised it as a more convoluted version of ‘The DaVinci Code’ and others were riveted by the mystery. I could easily see both sides. This was a very compelling mystery when we were getting it. I sped through this book easily and my interest was kept the entire time. I enjoyed all the characters, even the one who weren’t quite flushed out as much as they could have been, and I enjoyed the setting. In fact, since I live quite a bit through books, I read this in the first place to get a sense of Princeton, and this novel did that in spades.

Ostensibly, this novel takes place around the Easter holiday at Princeton University, 1999 (?). Four roommates, narrator Tom, studious Paul, popular Gil, and kind Charlie, are on the edge of graduation. Most have already turned in the theses that are required of all underclassmen before graduation, except Paul who has been working on his since Freshman year. He is trying to unlock the secrets of an ancient text, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii. Written in fifteenth century Italy the text has baffled scholars for centuries. No one is really sure who exactly is the author or why he’s written a somewhat nonsensical, graphic, multilingual text, though all are sure there was a reason. Paul is on the brink of discovery, but he needs help and there is none better suited than Tom, whose own father was nearly driven mad by the enigmatic text. Throw in a pair of aging, feuding scholars, a fedup love interest, and the upcoming Ivy Club ball and let simmer, sometimes for too long.

First off, I’m not sure I have ever read a book that took place somewhere quite as much as this book took place at Princeton. I have read atmospheric books, to be sure, and books that held such a strong sense of place that I could imagine the surroundings even if I had never been there. This wasn’t exactly that. What was clear was that at least one of the writers of this novel had attended Princeton University and thus knew all the lingo and street names and secret hideways that were needed for this sort of story. Which is good, when done well, but there are plenty of points in this story that feel like the authors are trying very hard to drum facts about the location into the readers head. By dropping names but not describing the street, for example. A good description goes a long way that a set of Google Maps instructions just can’t do. Perhaps that’s not fair, I never felt lost in the setting, but I did feel like sometimes they were trying too hard.

There were a lot of subplots in this book as well; friendship, relationships, obsession, college days, and the sort of heightened sense of academia that exists only in the proudly intelligent. The latter can easily come off and smug and self satisfied, but usually only to people who don’t care much about intelligence. Still, with a book that was geared towards mass appeal like this one, it was a very risky move that I’m not entirely sure paid off in full. Especially judging from the many negative reviews. For me, it’s enough of a reason to read one. Perhaps I’m a little self satisfied myself, but I like those sorts of characters and I love a good literary mystery.

It’s clearly the mystery that draws the reader in. A mystery some complex I am really not going to get into it. I will say that I was satisfied with the outcome, though I can see how others would not be, and I never felt let down by the clues. No, I did not get all the references, I am not a scholar of Renaissance Italy and the many connotations that derives, but I could appreciate the information I was given. I’ve heard this described as ‘The DaVinci Code’ for smart people, and that I think that’s apt. But I also think it does the book a diservice. I like this book a lot, though I only rewarded it three stars; mostly for writing and pacing. There were many parts that could have been better but I did enjoy what I was given.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec – Jacques Tardi

(**** of five)

This was the second collection of Adele Blanc-Sec graphic stories that I’ve read. I started a bit backwards when I came across Volume II at the library and decided to give it a go, hoping it wouldn’t make too much of a difference that I hadn’t read part one (it didn’t). But then, of course, I thought it would be a good idea to seek out this volume and did so.

These two fifty page stories chronicle the extraordinary adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec. The reader basically gets exactly what it says on the tin. In the first story Adele travels to Paris under an assumed name and becomes embroiled in the bizarre tale of an awakened pterodactyl. Story number two involves a cult, a demon, and more than a few disguises.

I will start by saying I did like both these tales. They were quick and entertaining (despite many of the male characters looking exactly the same). I never felt bored and I eagerly awaited the conclusions. So I gave this four stars. I think it’s worth four stars for the art, the ingenuity, and the bizarre plotlines. However, I wouldn’t say I loved this.

I have seen Luc Besson’s movie version of Adele Blanc-Sec and loved it. I loved it so much, in fact, that I was slightly disappointed that the stories were so different. I felt like Besson’s Adele was much more flushed out with a back story that made the audience understand her. Not to mention Louise Bourgoin’s perfect portrayal that made her feisty, smart, and inventive. I felt like the original Adele, the Adele of the graphic novels, was not quite a full. As if she was doing things for no reason other than she could. I would have liked a little more. But perhaps that comes from watching the film first. It’s difficult to say. But it is not often that a movie exceeds a book for me, so there is that.

Overall, yes, I would recommend it, but I would probably recommend the movie more.

Wolf Pact – Melissa de la Cruz

(*** of five)

First off, let’s just say I didn’t applaud Hyperion’s decision to only publish this as an ebook. Yes, I read what de la Cruz wrote about the decision, and I understand it. However, I don’t have an ereader, and, while I have people from whom I could borrow, the idea was less than appealing. I like books, I like holding things in my hand. I like being able to flip back and go over things I read before. I admit I have never used an ereader and would probably not find the experience completely disagreeable, but I don’t care to find out quite yet. So I wasn’t actually going to read this, even though I’d been waiting for it for awhile. But then I discovered that it was published in paperback in England.

After the events of ‘The Van Alen Legacy’ Bliss Llewellyn has been stripped of her vampiric powers and tasked by her mother to search out the Hounds of Hell to help fight the upcoming battle which will likely take place in the final Blue Bloods novel, ‘The Gates of Paradise’. Lawson and the rest of his wolf pack have been enslaved in Hell since Roman times, forced to be turned into a Hellhound at age eighteen. But when Lawson stages a break out and a group of wolves take refuge, now in human form, on Earth the Hounds are not far behind. Soon Bliss and Lawson’s pack team up to retain timelines, find Lawson’s lost love, and perhaps find a family along the way.

This book took Melissa de la Cruz something like four years to write. I have no doubt that when she started she was brimming with fabulous ideas for this (second after Witches of East End) spin off from her popular Blue Bloods series (I’m a fan, it’s my guilty pleasure, hardcore). Unfortunately, while I did mostly enjoy this book, I could tell she had a hard time writing it. When we first got a glimpse of this story it was in 2009’s ‘Keys to the Repository’, a guide to her Blue Bloods series. That short story was exciting and interesting to see what she was going to do with the werewolf myth, after she’d turned the vampire myth on it’s ear. But what we have here is vastly different from that original idea. That’s fine, I guess, but it’s a wonder. It seemed, at points, that she wasn’t sure where she was going and many parts read as if her publisher was breathing down her back telling her to hurry the hell up. Now, don’t get me wrong, de la Cruz’s books are worth waiting for. But, we do have to wait. She’s relatively notorious for delaying publication dates and stopping what would be series because she’s done with them. It was clear she had something here and she wanted to continue Bliss’s story, but I think, had she taken all the time she wanted and not publicized this book since 2010 it might have come out better.

But that’s enough with the negatives, because there was a lot to like here. The wolves were all rich characters that you cared about. Bliss, who I always liked but feared she couldn’t carry a story on her own, was more developed. But what impressed me the most was how well she incorporated a full new mythology into what was already laid out in Blue Bloods and Witches of East End (characters from both are present and work well).

Fans of both series or either, will enjoy this. They may not like it quite as much, and they shouldn’t, but it’s a perfectly complimentary piece.

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton

(***** of five)

This is the sort of book that doesn’t really need a review. Chances are, if you read books, you’ve heard of ‘The House of Mirth’ or at the very least its author, Edith Wharton. I was always aware of this book, understood the intricacies of its plot, mostly from the film version of it with Gillian Anderson from the year 2—-, but also from that sort of osmosis that occurs with most English majors. Like plenty of books before it and many afterward people just know what happens. And so, upon entering this novel I already knew what happened to our heroine, Lily Bart. What I did not expect was that she would come so alive for me that I would start to believe she was capable of making choices other than the ones I knew she made. This is, perhaps, the sign of a true classic. Or at least something that deserves to be.

In ‘The House of Mirth’ our protagonist, Miss Lily Bart, is of the precarious position of being twenty-nine years of age, unmarried, and possessing very little money of her own. As a child Lily was raised by her mother to shun the “shabby” and look down upon those who are not able to achieve a certain standard of living. But when Lily’s father loses everything her mother is not long for this world and she ends up in the care of her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, who gives a her a home, some dresses, and a small income. But when one is rubbing elbows with high society, for whom money is never a concern, a small income is not quite enough. Lily travels from place to place on the charity of her friends inviting her to their luxurious mansions, giving her their hand me downs, and introducing her to all the right people. On the outside Lily is as smooth and collected as the rest of them but on the inside she is scrambling to pay her dressmaker to keep up with the constant fashions and pay her debts from the customary playing of bridge for money. This need sends Lily on a trajectory of bad decisions; starting with accepting money from a friends husband, and continuing with the sabotage of several potential good marriages at the thought of a one Lawrence Selden, who Lily has already deemed inappropriate for her lifestyle because of his working background.

I will admit, though I finished this novel loving it thoroughly, it took me some time to get into. The first half of the book is very good and put me right into the scene, but I found that, while I loved it while in hand, I wasn’t aching to go back to it. And then I would read several pages and start drifting off in my thoughts, safely ensconced in an imaginary friend’s Gilded summer cottage. I loved the idea of the setting and the characters and even the circumstances, but I wasn’t enjoying reading the book as much as I had anticipated. Still I made my way through to the midway point where I discovered I was unable to put the novel down. I sped through the second half, anxious to read the specifics of what would happen year and fume in the injustice of it all. This, I am sure, was Wharton’s intention. And when I thought back I realized, quite easily, that the first half, though not as fervent, was necessary in setting up for the fall. The whole story floated by as if a dream and even though it took me longer to read than anything else for quite some time, every minute was worth it in the end.

The House on Tradd Street – Karen White

(**** of five)

I picked up this book in the dollar bin at Half Priced Books. I have always been very impressed with the clearance shelves there because of the quality of the material that can be found there. I am not entirely sure what makes the quota for putting something in the dollar section, but whatever it is I hope they keep it up because I always come out with piles of books. This one I picked up because it sounded interesting. I had never heard of it and I’d never read anything by Karen White before, but I am sure glad this caught my attention because I really liked it. Oh, it’s nothing ground breaking or even all that original. I found myself figuring out mysteries before the characters did, and was thus apt to shake my head at the characters, but the ride was a fun one.

Melanie Middleton has always hated old houses. She’s never seen the point in pouring money into something that will continue to need work and never appreciated the history surrounding a home. Though that might have something to do with an ability Melanie has denied since her mother abandoned her as a child; much to her chagrin, Melanie can see ghosts. Now a successful Realtor living in an ultra modern condo furnished by Pottery Barn Melanie is able to tune out the dead who haunt her native Charleston, South Carolina. But when she abruptly inherits a house she never believed to have any claim over Melanie is thrown into a new role, caretaker of history and charged with solving an eighty year old mystery, of when Louisa Vanderhorst, a loving wife and mother, abruptly disappeared with local gangster Joseph Longo in 1931. Her son, Nevin, has never believed she abandoned him and trusts Melanie to discover the truth after his death. Melanie is reluctantly propelled into a world of ghosts and secrets, entities both good and evil, and mysteries long considered closed. Along for the ride are Jack Trenholm, a disgraced local writer, Sophie, Melanie’s eccentric architecture professor best friend, Colonel Middleton, Melanie’s estranged father, Marc Longo, the grandson of Joseph, and Chad, a university lecturer and client.

There were a hell of a lot of cliches in this book. I saw most of the twists coming from miles away not to mention most of the characters were unreasonably annoying at times. Jack is so self assured that if I were Melanie I would have ordered him away immediately, no matter how good looking he was. Melanie, herself, was pigheaded and ridiculously opposed to learning about the past. Basically, the very opposite of me. Sophie could be cartoonish and the Colonel too typical. But. Yes, there’s a but. I loved them all. I could not really even tell you why. They were all the sort of friends that you’ve been friends with for so long that when they do seriously annoying things everyone just laughs and goes “Oh, haha, that’s John!” Reading this book is like watching an old episode of “Dawson’s Creek”, you know all the characters and you know they are all going to do terribly stupid things, but you want to be there when they do them.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

(*** of five)

I am going to have a very hard time reviewing this book. It’s not that I didn’t like it and it’s not as if I thought it was extraordinary, but both those things are true. I think, perhaps, the best part of this book is trying to decipher how I feel about it.

Trying to come up with a summary is almost impossible but I’ll give it a go. In the 1800s Adam Ewing travels the South Pacific on a schooner called the Prophetess with a motley crew, including his friend Dr. Henry Goose and a native stowaway named Autua. In 1931 Robert Frobisher leaves his native England in attempts to get an apprenticeship with the great composer Vyvyn Ayers at his estate Zedelghem near Bruges, Belgium. While there he falls into an affair with Ayers’ wife and love with his haughty daughter, Eva, all the while cataloging his experiences in letters to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith. In 1973 Luisa Rey, daughter of a great reporter, has taken a job at a trashy tabloid and investigates a nuclear reactor off the coastal Californian town of Beunas Yerbas. Now, Timothy Cavendish goes through a series of farcical and maddening instances that include witnessing a murder, being threatened whilst on the toilet, and being held against his will. In the near future Korean, fabricant, dinery server Somni-451 gives a testimony to an Archivist regarding her awakening intelligence and subsequent role in an eventual revolution against the horrifying status quo. In the far future Zachry Bailey, an oppressed native Hawaiian, meets a stranger, the Prescient Meronym from a more civilized culture who comes to learn the native ways.

What do all these stories have in common? Well, a thread of struggle and oppression weaves through them all, whether they’re fighting against a dystopian society or a tyrannical nurse. There is also the vague idea that they’re all the same person, reincarnated with the same comet shaped birthmark, Luisa Rey knows Frobisher’s music and recognizes the docked Prophetess. There is also the fact that in Zachry’s world Somni is worshiped as a god, Somni watches the film of Cavendish’s exploits, Cavendish reads a story about Luisa Rey, Luisa Rey buys the album of Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, and Frobisher discovers the diary of Adam Ewing. But, is this enough to connect these stories? Eh. It was amusing to see where they would connect, sure, but aside from that, it mattered very little. The problem, for me, was that there wasn’t enough recognition between them. Luisa’s story rang with the echos of the others but there was hardly any of that in any of the others. If it had been more often and a common theme I would have appreciated it more. This book was, essentially, a collection of short stories, which is fine, but not what I wanted.

So is it right to condemn a book because it wasn’t what I wanted to be? Surely not. And this book was mostly enjoyable. I loved Somni’s story, though this is hardly surprising given my proclivity for dystopia. Timothy Cavendish’s tale was hilarious and enjoyable to read. Luisa Rey, also, kept me on my toes. I found myself liking Frobisher quite a good deal, and though his story wasn’t always as compelling as I would have liked it to be, it was solid in the end. Adam Ewing’s story had it’s moments but could have been half the length. Now, Zachry Bailey. I hardly made it through, and since this was the centerpiece of the story I felt like it would be important and have some resonating effect on the rest. Still, this section took me three days to get through because I simply did not care. This section was approximately fifty pages, by the way.

So, it’s not like I didn’t like ‘Cloud Atlas’. I found it entertaining at times, heartwarming, frightening, humorous, and sometimes very profound. But as I waded my way through the five hundred pages that it boasts I found myself anticipating the end not because I believed it would give me some sort of new perspective on the world, but because I couldn’t wait to be done with it. I am very glad that I read this, truly, but I am glad that the task is in the past. I very much wanted to love this book, I very much thought I would. Perhaps that was part of the problem, but I don’t think it was all of it. The most astounding part of this story was the ambivalence it arose in me.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz – A.S. King

(**** of five)

There were several things I was relatively sure of going into this book. First; it was going to be relatively dark, second; it was going to speed by, and third; I would like it. I’m glad to say that I wasn’t disappointed on any account. I’ve been wading my way through several dense books lately, good books but ones that don’t go by quickly. I needed a complete change before going back to it so I picked up this one because I’d heard some very good things. I agreed.

Vera Dietz is an otherwise completely normal teenage girl. Except for the fact that she holds down a full time job, is harboring a drinking problem, and her best friend, Charlie, (who abandoned her to a larger crowd earlier in the year) is dead. We follow Vera as goes to work daily, falls into lust with a college dropout, keeps and exhumes Charlie’s secrets, drinks too much, and tries to get over the past and deal with the death of a best friend who she hated and loved at the same time.

Emotions were really the high point of this book, and understandably so. This isn’t the sort of book that’s about grand sweeping struggles or heroes and villains  This is a book about real life, which is rare in the Young Adult section these days. But I don’t see why. I found this book while looking for other titles like ‘The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks’, a book I loved. This isn’t really like that one, but enough people read them both that it came up. And there’s a personified Pagoda so how could I resist?

Vera was a solid character. Even though she was confused and often self destructive, doing the sorts of things I wouldn’t have ever even thought of in high school, but it felt understandable given the stress she was under from all sides. Vera’s relationship with her father was forefront in this book. She doesn’t have very many friends and her mother is persona non grata after she abandoned her husband and child when Vera was six years old, so her father is a large force in her life. But, I wasn’t one hundred percent sure his attitudes were healthy. He wanted Vera to learn responsibility, understandable, but he did so by insisting she hold down a full time job. I can’t even think of a parent who would go this route. A job, sure, but full time pizza delivery is quite another story. If he needed her to help with household expenses that’s fine, but that wasn’t the case here. And then, when she started casually seeing one of her co-workers at Pagoda Pizza he flipped out. Yes, okay, the man in question was twenty three to Vera’s seventeen, and there was drinking involved, but his jumping to conclusions and not trusting his daughter, basically at all, seemed in complete contrast to his insistence at her full time job. But, his differences were not so erratic that he was unbelievable. In fact, it made him seem as lost as he likely was supposed to be.

Charlie was as much a character as Vera. Through plenty of flashbacks and several orations from “the dead kid” we got to know Charlie pretty well. By the end I think it’s relatively fair to claim the reader knew him better than his best friend, given his proclivity for secrets and manipulating his own emotions due to two horrific facts of his life: his father routinely beat his mother, and Charlie has turned to, what he sees as, manipulating a local pervert who purchases his dirty underwear.

Yes, I said this book was dark and I meant it. There are dangerous and heartbreaking threads weaved all through this story. But it was also sort of hilarious. It was written in a way that doesn’t quite make light of these topics but presents them in a matter of fact way that allows the audience to understand that these issues will need to be dealt with but we can enjoy the narrative as it goes. This is a tough book to categorize but I’ll go ahead and give it one adjective; good.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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One Response to Books I’ve Read – October 2012

  1. Emma says:

    I remember seeing The House on Tradd Street online a few years ago but I forgot all about it. I like what you say about the characters being like friends. I’ve added it to my TBR list. Thanks for spotlighting it.

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