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Archive for April, 2011

A Severe Mercy

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Sheldon Vanauken. 240 p. Published by Harper & Row, 1997.  Borrowed from the San Francisco Public Library.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Non-Fiction – Memoir

Not-so-Short Bio (from Amazon):

A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken, is a heart-rending love story described by its author as “the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers.” Vanauken chronicles the birth of a powerful pagan love borne out of the relationship he shares with his wife, Davy, and describes the growth of their relationship and the dreams that they share. As a symbol of their love, they name their dream schooner the Grey Goose, “for the grey goose, if its mate is killed flies on alone and never takes another.”

While studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy develop a friendship with C.S. Lewis, under whose influence and with much intellectual scrutiny they accept the Christian doctrine. As their devotion to God intensifies, Sheldon realizes that he is no longer Davy’s primary love–God is. Within this discovery begins a brewing jealousy.

Shortly after, Davy acquires a fatal illness. After her death Sheldon embarks on an intense experience of grief, “to find the meaning of it, taste the whole of it … to learn from sorrow whatever it had to teach.” Through painstaking reveries, he comes to discover the meaning of “a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love.” He learns that her death “had these results: It brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealously of God. It saved her faith from assault. …And it saved our love from perishing.”

Eyewitness Account: This was our April book club selection.  The piece that was most interesting was hearing a guy so articulately describe his love for his wife – how rare is that?  Also, it was extra-intriguing to hear his “pagan” philosophy on how to have a love/marriage that lasts forever, and then hear how that view was challenged when he and his wife became Christians while at Oxford.  He concludes a beautiful love story by saying that he came to accept his wife’s death as a mercy wrought by God for his own best interest (pretty ballsy).

Unfortunately, those bits were wrapped up in too much slow-moving memoir for me to find it an overall engaging book.  I’ll caveat that by saying that memoir is not one of my favorite genres, and those who enjoy reading bios or autobiographies will probably get a whole lot more enjoyment out of this book.   Also, you might like it if you 1) read poetry, as Vanauken has his poetry peppered throughout the story, or 2) like reading anything by C.S. Lewis, as his letters to Vanauken are also scattered throughout.

A side beef – I thought the book would have been better if the guy hadn’t been pushing his relationship with C.S. Lewis to the forefront throughout it.  Even if Lewis really was such an influence, I continually felt like Vanauken (or his editors) stressed it more than he would/should have in order to make it a selling point for the book.  I’m an avid Lewis fan, but the constant interjection of the letters kept annoying me because this was not supposed to be Lewis’s story – it was Vanauken’s. Just my two cents :).

Notable Quotes:

“Under the surface of the visible world, there is an echoing hollowness, an aching void — and it cuts one off from the beloved.  She is as remote as the stars.”

“Considering the prayers and their answers and considering the events . . . I cannot escape the impression that Somebody was being very gentle with us.  Perhaps she had to die — for me, for our dear love, for God.  And I had to live with grief, for God.  But He was, perhaps, as gentle with us both as He could be.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? What’s Wrong With the World, Lisa Notes, Reading to Know

Rating:

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Organization

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


Camera Obscura

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Lavie Tidhar. 416 p. To be published April 26, 2011 by Angry Robot.  Advanced review copy provided courtesy of the publisher in electronic format through NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Steampunk (Victorian Era Alternate History)

Not-So-Short Bio: There is no good short bio of this book out in the interwebs . . . probably because the plot is so quirky that it doesn’t distill well into a blurb!  So, I’ll give it a shot myself:  Milady de Winter (of Dumas fame) serves the “Quiet Council” of the French underworld as a secret agent  in an alternate Victorian era full of familiar literary figures (Viktor Frankenstein and Quasimodo to name a few) as well as characters who are rather unfamiliar (unless you’ve read Tidhar’s previous novel, The Bookman).  Milady’s directive is to track down a murderer and locate an object stolen from the scene of the crime.  She quickly realizes that the Council must not be telling her the entire story as other factions begin to gather in Paris who hold the same objective.  Milady must ultimately decide whether to fulfill her own personal quest for vengeance or complete the task set before her by the Council.

Eyewitness Account: So, personal caveat: this is my first “steampunk” novel – if you’re new to the genre, it describes a mesh of fantasy and historical fiction (usually set in Victorian-era industrial age) with the key element of including machines/automatons/robots that rival humans.  Camera Obscura is actually the sequel to The Bookman, but it can be read as a stand-alone (it took me about half the book to realize that Vespuccia was the alternate name for America, which was probably introduced in the The Bookman.)

Added to the coolness factor: strong and mysterious female protagonist, literary characters galore, alternate history revisions, eastern oriental secret societies, and nuns with guns

Didn’t quite float my boat: female protagonist didn’t sound or act female (most male writers seem to struggle with this, especially in action/adventure stories), most characters felt shallow/underdeveloped, and plot was too slow at the beginning and too fast at the end (now don’t I sound picky?).

This was a pickle of a review for me to write.  For all the clever and creative pieces of the story I liked, there were an almost equal number of things that either annoyed me or just fell flat.  Ironically, the closest books I can compare them to are not steampunk at all – Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.  Fforde also writes a female protagonist in an alternate history with a plot full of literary characters.  However, where Fforde’s books are chock full of wit and whimsy in addition to evil villains and mass mayhem, Tidhar’s writing relies heavily on plot while skimping on dialogue and characterization.

So, if what you love is a good action film where lots of things get blown up and the superhero defeats all odds to save the day – definitely grab this book!  You’ll be astounded by the unusual mix of plot elements that Tidhar throws at you, and he should really try to market it as a film script.  If characters and writing style are really your thing, you should probably pick up The Eyre Affair instead.

Notable Quotes:

“The corridor was dark. As she ran ghostly figures materialised at the end.

Nuns.

Nuns with guns.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? Traveler’s Steampunk Blog, Ramblings of a Borderline Misanthrope, Cybermage

Rating:

★★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★☆☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


Diagnosis Death

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Richard L. Mabry, M.D.  288 p. Published April 2011 by Abingdon Press.  Advanced copy provided in electronic format courtesy of the publisher, through NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Medical Mystery / Inspirational

Short Bio: After the death of her husband, Dr. Elena Gardener finds herself struggling to find a job that will pay for her late husbands medical and funeral expenses – as well as escape the rumors that she euthanized him and another comatose stroke victim.  She gets a seemingly golden opportunity to move away from the rumors in Dallas to a small family practice in Dainger, TX.  However, picking up the pieces of her life in a small town isn’t as easy as it seems – as Elena discovers when she finds herself dealing with a tight-fisted hospital administrator who wants to strip her of ICU privileges, fending off the local womanizer, and tracking down the person who is stalking her with creepy phone calls.  When yet another comatose patient dies and circumstantial evidence points to Elena, the doctor decides the only way to clear her name is to catch the perpetrator herself.

Eyewitness Account: This was a great book to sneakily read on my Kindle during an EXTREMELY BORING training class – a fast-moving plot, easily identifiable characters, and enough mystery to keep you turning pages.  Even though it is the 3rd book in a medical mystery series, it works well as a stand-alone.  I’d still categorize it as “mental cotton candy” though – a fun story to read, but not terribly thought-provoking or deep. Even though it is primarily a medical mystery, it includes the fairly typical romance and other overly coincidental circumstances (Elena’s love interest just “happens” to get a job in the same small town, Elena just “happens” to work at the same hospital as her dead husband’s long-lost sister, etc.).  Given that blurbs often highlight this book being about the question of “mercy killings”, the book might disappoint you if you expect it to really delve into the meat of the question – rather, the narrative assumes that mercy killings are, in fact, wrong (unless you are the person authorized to pull the plug on a comatose patient’s life support) and the plot centers around discovering who did the killings.

Other Books Read by This Author:  None, this is the first book I’ve read by Mabry.

What are other people saying? The Friendly Book Nook, Just One More Paragraph, Lis Carey’s Library

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★☆☆ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


The City in the Lake

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Rachel Neumeier.  294 p.Published 2008 by Alfred A. Knopf. 

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? YA Fantasy

Short Bio (from Booklist):  The City in the Lake is a robust, prosperous kingdom until Prince Cassiel vanishes. Beloved by all, the prince represents the kingdom’s heart, and after his disappearance, life withers throughout the land. In a remote village, 17-year-old Timou’s father, a mage, departs for the city to search for the source of the kingdom’s malaise, and when he doesn’t return, Timou sets off after him. Her journey requires her, for the first time, to draw heavily on her own mage training, and as she circles closer to the kingdom’s mysteries, she finds shocking personal connections and, ultimately, love. 

Eyewitness Account: I picked this up because The Book Smugglers both rated this a “9 – Damn near perfection.” Its got a great title (the City IN the Lake?), beautiful cover, and intriguing plot summary.  Maybe my expectations were a little too high – I thought it was good, but would have given it a 7 or 8 on the Book Smuggler’s rating scale.  Neumeier’s writing is purely beautiful; I had written down 5 different quotes before I even got to chapter 3!  The story is engaging, full of interesting characters and a plot that isn’t wholly predictable.  However, I finished it with a slight sense of disappointment – the story didn’t feel fully developed.  The idea of a single City “anchoring” a multitude of other Cities was a brilliant idea that wasn’t fully fleshed out.  Neumeier had some AMAZING content that I think could have been more perfectly and satisfactorily relayed in a longer book (or perhaps expanded into a series).  Overall, worth reading for her writing style alone!  As this was Neumeier’s first book, I’d imagine her later writings are definitely worth picking up.

Notable Quotes:

“So Timou learned how to catch fire and the memory of fire in glass, how to contain the quick fire in a coal and how to let it loose again, how to find the fire that waited to spring eagerly forth from the heart of dry wood.  And how to try again and again to find such fire when at first she could see nothing but wood, trusting that, because her father said it was there, eventually she would find the heart of it that wanted to burn.”

“She loved these books … she loved their heft in the hand, which so contrasted with the brittle fragility of their pages. She loved the graceful or angled or tightly looping scripts that filled those pages.”

“I am not afraid to have this darkness lie before every step I take, because once I saw into darkness and it was glorious.  Grieve for your father because you lost him, it’s right we should grieve for those we lose, but don’t grieve for him because he’s here, Timou!”

Other Books Read by This Author: None!  Will definitely try “The Floating Islands” next, though.

What are other people saying? The Book Smugglers, Wands and Worlds, The Well-Read Child

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★


Ember and Ash

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Pamela Freeman. 528 p. To be published        May 1, 2011 by Orbit (Hachette Books Group).  Advanced copy provided in electronic copy, courtesy of the publisher through NetGalley.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? YA / Adult Fantasy

Short Bio: Fire has unexpectedly shown Himself – and demanded a dangerous task of Ember, daughter of warlord Arvid.  Together with small group of Arvid’s trusted family and soldiers, Ember embarks on a journey to bring fire back to her people before they perish from winter.  Along the way, she and her traveling mates are confronted with the Great Powers that had, until now, remained aloof from the “new blooded” descendents of Acton.  At the end of her journey, she faces an impossible choice – a future for herself with the one she loves, or a future of peace and prosperity for her people.

Eyewitness Account: Pamela Freeman can definitely spin a tale!  Fantasy can be hit or miss – it’s usually either very clever or a cheap knockoff of some other popular idea.  Ember and Ash was definitely in the former category.  It was a little slow to get into at first, but that’s probably because I hadn’t read her Castings Trilogy, which precedes Ember and Ash and appears to cover events about 20 years prior to it.

I loved Ember – someone who not only had flaws, but also didn’t know her own mind half of the time!  Her journey to the Fire Mountain is also her own personal journey to finding out who she is and what her place/purpose in the Eleven Domains is.  I loved how she found herself out of her element at times, how she depended on her companions for their expertise, and how she boldly stepped up to take the consequences of tough decisions that she had to make.  Ember makes some very wise observations through her journey – one of my favorite was the distinction between lust/desire and love.  Most of all, I loved that the decision she made at the end of the book seemed true to who she was.

I also appreciated the way Freeman wove together so many people’s stories in with Ember’s – Ash, finding his own purpose and identity, Arvid and Martine dealing with the breach in their marriage, and Nyr looking for a better life for his people.  I found that even the secondary characters who didn’t get much stage time were full of personality – of dreams, aspirations, emotions, and complicated motives.  Lastly, the story of the Powers themselves was purely delightful – not at all predictable, and very clever.

Themes of unity, identity, and honesty are well-developed throughout the story.  One of my favorite passages is listed below, as it talks about how we have a tendency to reject change – but that the growth that change brings is well worth it.  It’s a book I’d love to give to teenagers, except for the overly graphic love scene at the end.  Well done, Ms. Freeman!

Notable Quotes:

“Heavy, inimical, a brooding presence envious of and hating everything the braid contained: life, love, warmth, fellowship.  Difference.  She . . . understood what it was He wanted, could feel His desire for the unchanged, unchangeable permanence of Ice.  For ice which never melted, for form which stayed, immutable.  For an eternity of sameness, safe and solid and forever.

She knew that feeling.  Every mother knew the feeling of wanting time to stop, wanting the child to stay a baby, wanting the youth to stay a child, wanting the moment when the little arms came around your neck to last forever.  Every human knew that feeling, of wanting tomorrow to be the same as today, so that you could just go on being who you were, without the pains that age brought.

But as a mother, as a human, she knew the stupidity of that.  Knew that the child could give more joy than the baby, as well as more grief; knew that age had its compensations; knew that growth always hurt.”

“. . .all he had was himself, the center of himself, which was, after all, just a single arrow in flight.”

Other Books Read by This Author: None, but I might eventually pick up Blood Ties (first in The Castings Trilogy), as I enjoyed Ms. Freeman’s writing so much.

What are other people saying? Thoughts of a Scot, Aurealis Xpress

Rating:

★★★★★ Plot Development

★★★★ Characterization

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★