Monday, November 26, 2012

Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon

Finding Camlann by Sean Pidgeon is, according to the author note, “the product of sixteen years of research, writing, and rewriting, and a lifelong preoccupation with the story of the ‘real’ Arthur.” I’m not particularly entranced by the story of Arthur and Camelot, but I loved the book’s cover (a raven playing with a red ribbon and a heavy gold ring) and a comparison on the jacket to A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (I read an advance reader copy, so I’m not sure the cover will be the final cover.)

Finding Camlann did indeed remind me of Possession, a book I loved. However, Possession was about two scholars researching the lives of two dead poets, a topic which interests me more than Arthur. Still, I did enjoy Finding Camlann.

The book is set in and around Oxford and the Bodleian Library (another plus for me) and Wales. One of the two main characters works on the Oxford English Dictionary; that fact alone would have made me give this book a try. The romance between two of the characters is subtle and never takes center stage. The focus is on scholarly research.

Since I am not an Arthur scholar, I have no idea how much of the information in this book is true, how much is speculation, and how much was completely made up. However, I believed everything that was laid out (although I did get lost in the details). I found the plot about the Arthur research very believable. There is a bit of a twist at the end that seemed far-fetched, but not so much as to impact my enjoyment of the book. I do not know how Welsh sounds, so I did find myself stumbling over the many Welsh names, words, and phrases.

If you are a fan of Arthur and Camelot, literary detective fiction, fiction set in Wales, or A.S. Byatt’s Possession, I recommend Finding Camlann. The book is due out in January 2013.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

I own a Sony Reader, and Sony is starting an online book discussion group. Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the first book that will be discussed, which is why I checked out a copy to read.

I read this book in about four hours while taking the train. It certainly made the miles fly by. I found it totally engrossing. I only stopped reading because I reached my destination and had to wait until the trip home to resume reading.

I enjoyed the snappy writing and the relationships between the characters. I liked that the main character had spine and gumption. I'm a little tired of the Twilight/Fifty Shades of Grey/Discovery of Witches type relationships.

It definitely lost a little of its sparkle after the Big Reveal, and I was not happy with some turns of events at the end. However, as it "to be continued," I will withhold judgment on the ending until the series is finished.  If you like fast-paced, well-written fantasy with a strong heroine, I recommend Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Goat Song by Brad Kessler

With tensions high during the presidential political campaign, I decided to pick a decidedly nonpolitical and noncontroversial book for the library's Tuesday and Thursday book clubs to discuss in November 2012. I already had Goat Song on my list of potential books and moved it to the top.

The book’s subtitle tells a potential reader a lot about what to expect: “A seasonal life, a short history of herding, and the art of making cheese.” Author Brad Kessler and his wife left New York City for a remote farmhouse in Vermont, where they decided to raise dairy goats and make cheese.
I am not a huge reader of nonfiction, and this is not a book I would normally have chosen to read for myself. However, I enjoyed it a great deal and learned a lot about farm life and raising goats. Although the author can wax poetic, he is factual and straightforward about the challenges of farming today. (Indeed, he is very frank about the behavior of goats; don’t be put off by the graphic goat sex that takes place early in the book.)
As a writer, I particularly enjoyed Kessler’s notes on the words we use that have goat connections. For example, “A caper. A capriole. I never really saw where the words came from but now their origin was clear: capra, the goat.” (p. 11) “[T]he cry of a goat is so haunting and dramatic our word tragedy comes from it: tragōidia in Greek – the cry of the goat.” (p. 17)
Kessler also introduced me to a great word from the Kalapalo Indians of Brazil – “ifutisu, a lack of shyness, that which we share with our house pets, our dogs and cats, a physical intimacy we rarely have with other humans”.
Goat Song is a thoughtful, pastoral read that will encourage you to slow down and appreciate small, day-to-day pleasures in life. It will also make you want some goat cheese – I recommend you have some on hand to enjoy as you make your way through Kessler’s seasonal life.

Argo by Antonio J. Mendez

On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants took over the American embassy in Iran. The Americans inside the embassy when the takeover occurred were held hostage for 444 days. The drawn-out crisis made President Jimmy Carter look weak, and he lost the next presidential election to Ronald Reagan. 

A dozen or so Americans managed to exit the embassy during the siege. Most were captured and brought back, but six ended up on the run. Eventually, they were sheltered by Canadian diplomats in their homes for weeks of boredom from nothing to do and terror at the risk of being discovered. 

Antonio Mendez and others at the CIA created an outlandish scheme to explain why the six were in Iran and as cover to get them out. Even in the midst of a military crisis, Hollywood rolls on, and Hollywood execs are crazy enough to visit war-torn countries seeking places to film. Using a script for a science fiction movie project that had fallen through a few months earlier, the CIA created the elusion of a production company scouting locations in Iran. 

The logistics of such an operation seem overwhelming. The book is thorough without bogging down. Without getting lost, I understood the incredible amount of coordination and attention to detail that was required. One of the parts that struck me had to do with acquiring Canadian passports. The six Americans were to pose as Canadians, and Mendez expected getting permission from Canada to create fake Canadian passports to be a major obstacle. Instead, on arriving in the office of a Canadian official, he and a colleague were astonished to discover that the Canadians had already done the background work necessary to make that happen. 

Canada emerges from this book as a true friend of the United States, something that is always true but taken for granted by most Americans. The Canadian assistance provided in Iran was incredibly dangerous for the individuals and for diplomatic relations.  

Some of the information in Argo is recently declassified. The text is not always politically correct – one of the Americans in hiding is described as having “a small-town librarian’s wholesomeness,” for example – but this is a nonfiction book that reads like fiction. The movie version is playing in theaters now. It is an excellent movie, but it has been a bit “Hollywooded” up. If you enjoyed the movie and want to learn more about what really happened, check out the book. I recommend Argo for anyone with an interest in the Middle East, American history, and spy thrillers. This is the real thing.


Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan

Friends Don’t Let Friends Date Vampires
If you have a love/hate relationship with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and a good sense of humor, I predict you will enjoy Team Human by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan.

Like the Twilight series, Team Human features a teenaged girl in love with a much older vampire. Unlike the city of Forks, however, New Whitby was founded by vampires. Vampires live in their own part of town called the Shade and work as cops and in other useful professions. The main character, Mel, is determined to keep her best friend Cathy from giving up her humanity so she can become a vampire and spend the rest of eternity with her vampire love Francis.
There are many obvious pokes at Twilight. Upon meeting Francis the vampire the first day of school, Mel reacts: “A vampire who wants to go to high school? That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” The vampire “siblings” who repeat high school over and over in the Twilight series are subjects of derision even by fans of Twilight.
Mel and another friend, Anna, decide to break into the high school and take a look at the vampire’s file, certain they will find out some secrets about him that will end his relationship with their friend Cathy. Anna is frightened; to calm her, Mel suggests, “Pretend it’s an eclipse” (Eclipse is the title of the third book in the Twilight series). When Mel convinces Francis to leave Cathy “for her own good,” Cathy sits depressed in her chair in her room for days (just like Bella in New Moon).
At one point, discussing a celebrity vampire/human couple, one of the characters says, “Their relationship is a stunt for the movie. Almost all celebrity hookups are.” Given the nonstop coverage of the recent Kristin Stewart/Robert Pattinson breakup, this seemed like a particularly prescient observation.
When Cathy goes to find Francis in the vampire neighborhood, the story moves away from satirizing Twilight and finds a plot of its own. Francis’s family has raised a human baby who was left on their doorstep. Now a teenager, Kit doesn’t know what it likes to be human. Something mysterious is going on at the high school, something involving the principal and the husband who left her for a vampire, and Kit and Mel join forces to investigate. Mel finds romance and sees her own prejudices in a fresh light along the way.
Team Human is a quick and enjoyable read, light and funny but touching in spots as well. If you’d like a fresh look at a teenage vampire romance, I recommend it.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Full disclosure: I read very little mystery. I also read very few cheerleader books. It’s a testament to the muscle of Megan Abbott’s newest work of modern noir that in spite of my partisan inclinations, I couldn’t put her book down. Our narrator is Addy Hanlon, a proud ‘lieutenant’ to her best friend and cheer captain Beth, a 94-pound waif who builds her reputation on manipulation and intimidation. When a new coach claims leadership of the squad, as well as Addy’s attentions and affections, a perfect storm of surprising adolescent viciousness begins to swell. An unexpected murder provides the requisite narrative thrust, but Abbott’s exceptional development of character performs puppet master duties on our shifting allegiance as readers.

On the surface, this isn’t an overly realistic portrait of modern adolescent life or even of cheerleading culture. It is, however, an at times brutal, but welcomingly insightful and hyper-literate mystery built on the strength of its protagonist’s (antagonist’s?) voice and the collision course storyline at the novel’s core. Much like the 2006 film Brick (another high school noir), Dare Me presents an insular, stylized world populated by impossibly articulate, dangerously cunning pubescents, made all the more terrifying for their flawed understanding of consequence and overwrought psychological underpinnings. Addy, for instance, speaks and thinks with a cadence and verve foreign to youth, but the precision of Abbott’s words and observations of her chosen demographic are of such a level as to forgive such petty grievances as the authenticity of teenaged linguistic habits. In considering the combination of the natural high she gets from cheerleading and a pharmaceutical high she gets from uppers, Addy thinks:
                        That feeling, it is God’s greatest gift. Just like that adderall. Found that
                        morning in the corner of my hoodie pocket from some long ago act of
                        Beth’s generosity, it gallops through me, and I know I can do anything.
                        When you have nothing inside you, you feel everything more, and feel you
                        can control all of it. With Jesus in my heart, and with that seismic blast,
                        who could stop my ascent? Any of ours?

But don’t let the novel’s chic superficiality mislead you: these are real, recognizable teenagers, complete with equal parts insecurity and solipsism. These girls’ worlds end at the tips of their powdered noses and the apexes of their flying basket tosses, and author Abbott captures that feeling, that fleeting existence, with impeccable realism (“That was a long time,” I add, setting my arms up for another tuck. “That was last summer.”). In this way, the book smartly mirrors its characters, offering up something sleek and easily digestible on the surface, but more subtly reveling in the nitty-gritty of its dark truths. The confusion of forgotten desire; the blurred divide between social and sexual relationships; the all-consuming thrust for excellence and approval – these struggles are the hidden gems of Abbott’s mystery. Beneath its carefully cultivated facade of sur-reality, Abbott’s book captures the greater truth of teenagedom: the beating heart beneath the sheen.