May 2nd, 2010


Books 46: The Mapmaker's Opera by Béa Gonzalez

Book 46: The Mapmaker's Opera
Author: Béa Gonzalez, 2005.
Genre: Historical Fiction. Magical Realism (?)
Other Details: Paperback. 306 pages.

Gonzalez structures her novel as an opera in terms of prelude, three acts and list of dramatis personae. It is the favourite story told by a grandmother to her grandchildren "full of forbidden love, unbearable grief, a country lost and another one found and moments of true transcendence."

Act I is set in Seville, Spain in the late 19th century and recounts the early years of Diego Clemente. His mother was a governess, who became pregnant by the head of the household and turned out. A chance meeting with Emilio, a bookish young man whose mother desires him to enter the priesthood, leads to a marriage of convenience. Emilio raises Diego as his own and instils in him a love of books, language and maps. Diego in particular is strongly drawn to John James Audubon’s Birds of America. He longs to travel to the New World to see these amazing creatures for himself. His dreams come true after the death of his parents when his skill for drawing birds gains him a recommendation for a position with Edward Nelson, a naturalist mapping the birds of the Yucatán..

Act II & III are set in Mexico in 1909 with the Mexican Revolution brewing in the background. Diego's work with Nelson brings him into contact with Sofia Duarte, the daughter of small plantation owner who has fallen on hard times. Her father also owns a bookshop where Sofia assists him when she can. He is a close friend of Edward Nelson and shares his love of nature and birds. Sofia's mother and aunts are concerned with her independent thinking and are seeking to make a proper match for her, ideally with the son of the local henequen magnate to whom her father is in debt. Sofia finds herself initially antagonistic to Diego as she longs to be able to travel and work alongside Nelson. However, as might be expected this soon turns to a hesitant, unspoken love between the couple that sets the scene for the forbidden love promised by the storyteller.

This is a lyrical and elegantly told story that aside from its central poignant love story skilfully interweaves aspects of Mexican history and the social conditions that led to the Revolution of 1910. I also have a love of birds and the many rich and detailed descriptions of these were very inspiring. I would have loved the novel to have been illustrated. Collapse )

My only minor quibble was why the publisher's elected to identify the novel as a work of Magical Realism as aside from its Mexican setting, it just didn't have that ambiance. Perhaps they felt the operatic/story-telling structure made it so? Still it was a beautifully written story that totally captivated me from start to finish.

Béa Gonzalez's essay on the writing of 'The Mapmaker's Opera'.

Books 26-36 of 2010

26. The City and the City by China Mieville (312 pgs)
I'd been wanting to read something by Mieville forever. My first surprise was that China was a man. My second was that this was a crime novel combined with speculative fiction. I'm not sure that combo worked (but I tend not to enjoy crime novels in general, Larsson excluded). I read lately that he wrote it for his mother who loves crime novels, so I guess I can look past it and definitely try something else he has written. I was fascinated by the idea of these two cities that exist in the same place and the people living in them are trained not to see the other one, lest they have to deal with Breach.

27. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro (304 pgs)
I'm on a big short story kick this year. The first few stories in this set are the kind where Something Bad Happens, which always feels forced to me. I prefer the stories where events are more subtle and unexpected, or at least the characters are. It is almost harder to write subtle than dramatic, and Munro does manage to accomplish this in stories like Face, which is probably my favorite of the set.

28. That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo (261 pgs)
You know, I really do love Russo. He can take a plot that would otherwise be mundane and bring the characters to life. I find myself enjoying his novels even when I could care less about the subject matter. I loved this one and its exploration of long-term marriage, and family.

29. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (333 pgs)
More stories. Lahiri continues to be one of my favorite authors, so much so that I put off reading this book for a while when it first came out. She is a master of short story writing, and her characters are rooted in India (Bengali, Calcutta usually) but living in the northeastern United States.

30. Selected Poems by Mark Strand (152 pgs)
I read almost everything by Strand last year, but this anthology had some I was unfamiliar with. It includes some of my favorites, published the year he was selected as the Poet Laureate, now 20 years ago! I loved Eating Poetry with the foot-stamping librarian, The Room, Lines for Winter, and of course - The Remains and Coming to This, two of my favorites.

31. Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte (224 pgs)
This book was in such high demand at the library, I had to wait six weeks to check out a copy. It is an interesting philosophy of which plants do well together, and which plants you should plant far away from everything else (fennel does not love anything, apparently). It is hard to give the book a rating without having tested out its advice, but I plan to put dill where I harvested radishes, and next year will try some of their suggestions to keep cabbages healthy. A lot of things love tomatoes, it seems, including basil and carrots.

32. Queen of a Rainy Country: Poems by Linda Pastan (77 pgs)
This is a book of poems reflecting the poet's life. My favorite was Par Avion. I read half of them in the drive-thru at Starbucks this morning.

33. Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom (201 pgs)
I was a little bothered that two of the stories were in the last book of stories I read by Bloom, and that seemed a little unnecessary in 200 pages, but this is a good volume if you are new to her.

I loved, LOVED, the stories of William and Clare. They are the epitome of what I love about Bloom. Her characters are so human and imperfect.

34. PM/AM: New and Selected Poems by Linda Pastan (112 pgs)
Most of Pastan's poems, at least in this volume, are about mundane life, but from time to time she truly does find something incredibly insightful to say. And who says poetry can't be about mundane things too?

My favorites were We Come to Silence, Dido's Farewell, Waiting for my Life, and What We Want.

35. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (374 pgs)
Really great, fast-paced, interesting young characters, impossible death-game situation in a post-apocalyptic former USA. I should have just bought it instead of waiting months to get it from the library, and I can't wait to read the next in the series.

36. Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (219 pgs)
There are interesting threads going throughout these stories, like lonely people and black ice. I loved the pairing of the last two stories - The Children and O Tannenbaum - demonstrating the "both ways" concept.

39 and 40

I managed two fairly easy books, which I justify because they are necessary for English literature teaching. Book 39 of the year was Gary Paulsen's Hatchet in which a 13-year-old boy and his hatchet find themselves, after a plane crash, in the Canadian deep north. He survives and learns about himself. A very good book for the age group.
Moving away from boys to girls, Karen Cushman's The Midwife's Apprentice was well set historically, explaining the difficulties of a girl in the times of Edward Longshanks (about 1300) and her life, and focussing on being a midwife. The plot was fine but the historical accuracy made this useful for teaching.
So 40 books so far this year, but a mere 11,023 pages.
bear jew

(no subject)

Title: Beautiful Creatures
Author: Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl
Year of Publication: 2009
Genre: YA, fantasy
Pages: 563
First Line: "There were only two kinds of people in our town."
Summary: Lena Duchannes is unlike anyone the small Southern town of Gatlin has ever seen, and she's struggling to conceal her power and a curse that has haunted her family for generations. But even within the overgrown gardens, murky swamps, and crumbling graveyards of the forgotten South, a secret cannot stay hidden forever.

Ethan Wate, who has been counting the months until he can escape from Gatlin, is haunted by dreams of a beautiful girl he has never met. When Lena moves into the town's oldest and most infamous plantation, Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to uncover the connection between them.

In a town with no surprises, one secret could change everything.

Source: Back of book

Review: Fail. This book felt like the biggest waste of time. The only thing going for it, I felt, was the fact that it was told from a new point of view (not that the POV was very authentic -- one of the girliest boys I've ever read). In any case, rather than having the story told from the POV of the supernatural being (usually a girl), it went for the girl's boyfriend. BUT WAIT, you say, isn't that what Twilight is? Well, yes, but at least this one has a boy for Bella! HOLD UP, you continue, Lena moves to a new town -- that's what BELLA did! Yeah, also true. Okay, so this is basically Twilight with witches. Except somehow worse. Definitely not worth the time.

Worst part: So. Long. The book was unnecessarily long -- details that were worthless were put in and then important stuff was tiny. And even though it was all over-detailed, I don't know how the book got so big, because it didn't say much of anything.

Best part: I liked the flashbacks. That's about it.

Grade: D

Other Books by This Author: None. But I expect a sequel.

31 / 50 books. 62% done!

Book 47: Trades of the Flesh by Faye L. Booth

Book 47: Trades of the Flesh
Author: Faye L. Booth, 2009.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 19th century. Erotic Romance.
Other Details: Paperback. 294 pages.

Faye Booth's début novel Cover the Mirrors (my 2009 Book 1) continues to be joked about in my reading group along the lines of 'great cover, shame about the book'. So when I spotted her second novel at the library, again with luscious cover art, I decided to give it a go.

Trades of the Flesh is the story of Lydia Ketch, a young woman who turns to prostitution after her mother, a former workhouse inmate, dies. Happily for Lydia, she is taken on by the motherly madam of an 'introduction' house in Preston, Lancashire. This work provides her with a good income and allows her to support her younger sister. Then one evening into the brothel strolls a group of young men out for night of Victorian naughtiness including the handsome Dr. Henry Shadwell. He is very taken with Lydia and hires her to serve as a model. You see aside from his doctoring he is a keen photographer and figures there is money to be made in soft-core pornographic photos for 'discerning gentleman'. Of course, after the photography sessions they have wild sex. So much more fun than her usual clients where she basically closes her eyes and thinks of England! Henry introduces her to this strange thing called 'orgasm' . After all he is a doctor and knows what all these bits are for!

Later on Henry also enlists Lydia's assistance in procuring fresh corpses with which to teach his private students in anatomy. Hold on a minute, am I reading a remake of 'The Dress Lodger'?

So yes, as with her first book this was somewhat of a historical shambles. At least Booth does acknowledge that corpses for medical research are now available but apparently not enough of the workhouse poor were kicking the bucket to meet the demand and Henry has a deadline. So let's go dig up a grave or two! Of course, this is pretty dangerous if they are caught and this awareness as well as other events, like running into Henry and his fiancée, led to Lydia feeling rather disillusioned with her life as a prostitute.

As the novel is set in 1888, the Ripper murders in London are mentioned in the publicity material and briefly in the text though no serial killer appeared to prey on anyone. I was rather hoping for a murder or for zombies.

Despite my rather tongue-in-cheek response, I did feel this novel exhibited improvement on Cover the Mirrors in terms of writing though it did not evoke an authentic sense of Victorian England for me. It felt more of an erotic Victorian romance with plenty of soft focus and none of the grime. As with her first novel I did feel Booth handled the erotic aspect with considerable skill. I also quite took to Lydia as a character and admired her determination to survive and to see both her sister and herself freed from the stigmata of poverty. Her solution, given her background, was inspired and made me smile as I closed the book.

Book 2: Push

Push by Sapphire [link]

I saw the movie Precious a few months ago and was curious to read the book on which it was based. Precious seemed to follow Push very closely, even word for word at many parts. I'm a person who usually likes the book much greater than the film, but in this case I think I may have enjoyed both equally. I do have to say that I liked how the title "Push" was worked into novel in a variety of ways.

From Amazon: "Claireece 'Precious' Jones endures unimaginable hardships in her young life. Abused by her mother, raped by her father, she grows up poor, angry, illiterate, fat, unloved and generally unnoticed. An intense story of adversity and the mechanisms to cope with it."

Up Next: Another update coming in a few minutes...

2 / 50 books ~ 4% done!

438 / 15000 pages ~ 3% done!

Book 3: The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold [link]

I first heard about The Lovely Bones when I saw a preview for the movie. It looked like an interesting film, and I wanted to read the book first, and only got around to it recently. This story was extremely sad, yet at the same time, uplifting in a way. I couldn't put the book down, it was very engaging. My only gripe is with the last third of the book or so, but considering the first two-thirds, I really did enjoy this read.

From Amazon: "On her way home from school on a snowy December day in 1973, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a makeshift underground den in a cornfield and brutally raped and murdered, the latest victim of a serial killer. The Lovely Bones unfolds from heaven, where Susie narrates and keeps watch over her grieving family and friends, as well as her brazen killer and the sad detective working on her case."

Up Next: Took a bunch more books out of the library for summer. Who knows what'll be up next! :)

3 / 50 books ~ 6% done!

766 / 15000 pages ~ 5% done!

Books 17 and 18

Book 17
A Little Trouble With The Facts - Nina Siegel

This quick read appeared right up my alley. Siegel is a former reporter who crafted a hybrid chick-lit/mystery about a recently demoted journalist who must try to piece together whether a recent obit she wrote contains an error of her making or if there is more to the could-be suicide of a 1980s graffiti artist.
I did get a kick out of some of the descriptions of newsroom life and politics. But this forgettable book mostly served as a reminder for why I tend to read nonfiction more than fiction. The plot and characters were rather flat and contrived, and there was enough holes in the story to make me cringe.
Good for a former reporter finding a publisher for her book. But boo on wasting my time making sure to finish this one.

Book 18
Skin Tight - Carl Hiaasen

This is more like it.
If you're going to read a former reporter, go with one you know can deliver on believable characters, quick pacing and who knows a good thriller can always use some dark humor.
Perhaps if I hadn't lived in Florida for eight years, I'd find some of this tale about eccentric motives and slimy characters a stretch. But it's dead on, especially as satire.
Reynaldo Flemm, the Latino-wanna be schlock journalist, a la Geraldo? The corrupt county commissioner meeting a grisly end in a confessional? Crisply written and clever, and Hiaasen never loses sight of the plot. It was a perfect palate cleanser for my recent other forays into fiction.