Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tigers in Red Weather
by Liza Klaussmann

Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Like Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan, which I posted about earlier this month (see post), Tigers in Red Weather concerns itself with an extended family and their interpersonal relationships using time spent together at a summer cottage (this time on Martha's Vineyard) as a catalyst.  The novel is also told variously from the perspectives of the individual family members, but Tigers in Red Weather has a series of first-person narrators rather than one third person omniscient.

While Wish You Were Here takes place over a single week, Tigers in Red Weather unfolds over twenty-plus years. From the end of World War through the late 1960s (with a bit of a flashback to the war years), Tigers in Red Weather follows first (female) cousins Nick and Helena (and Nick's husband Hugh) as they adjust to post-war and married life. Their children Ed and Daisy join the narrative as they reach the age of reason, spending their summers at Tiger House.

Throughout the novel there's an air of mystery and deep-seated secrets. One summer there's a murder on the Vineyard, and while that adds to the intrigue, it's never really a question of whodunnit. Rather the focus of Tigers in Red Weather is on interfamilial deceptions, the lies individual characters tell themselves and each other.

Unfortunately, it was difficult to connect with any of the central characters. Two of them were repugnant the majority of the time. The others ranged from generally likeable to vaguely incomprehensible, but all suffered from some level of inconsistency within their characters that made them at best unsympathetic, but at worst unbelievable.

I will say that the novel's ending is unexpected and quite well done.

The poem that no doubt inspired the novel's title, and which appears in part at the very end of the narrative: "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" by Wallace Stevens (1915)
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.
"Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" was first published in the collection, Harmonium.
disclosure: I received a review copy of Tigers in Red Weather from Little Brown & Co. via NetGalley.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Richard Guy Wilson and Edith Wharton

Yesterday I had the opportunity to here noted architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson (he of America's Castles fame) speak at the incomparable Montgomery Place estate in Annandale-on-Hudson (near Red Hook, NY).

The introduction mentioned Richard Guy Wilson's new book, which I think will be of interest not only to those who appreciate architecture. Its focus is on The Mount (now a historic house museum) and Edith Wharton's life there. Because the publication of Edith Wharton at Home is timed to coincide with Wharton's 150th birthday, I first suspected that the book might be a commissioned anniversary publication, but now that I've learned that Monacelli Press is associated with Random House that doesn't seem likely. But, even if it Edith Wharton at Home was a commissioned anniversary publication, the caliber of its author and subject practically ensures a quality product.

Edith Wharton at Home: Life at the Mount by Richard Guy Wilson
(forthcoming September 2012)

Completed in 1902, The Mount sits in the rolling landscape of the Berkshire Hills, with views overlooking Laurel Lake and all the way out to the mountains. At the turn of the century, Lenox and Stockbridge were thriving summer resort communities, home to Vanderbilts, Sloanes, and other leading families of the Gilded Age. Edith Wharton at Home connects The Mount to that milieu and details Wharton's design of the house and landscape. Embodying principles set forth in Wharton's famous book The Decorating of Houses and her deep knowledge of Italian gardens, The Mount is truly an autobiographical house. There Wharton wrote some of her best-known and successful novels including Ethan Frome and House of Mirth.
Published to coincide with the celebrations surrounding the 150th anniversary of Wharton's birth, Edith Wharton at Home presents Wharton as a writer, as a designer, and as a hostess. Authoritative text by Richard Guy Wilson, Commonwealth Professor of Architectural History at the University of Virginia and host of the popular series America's Castles is illustrated with archival images as well as new color photography of the restoration of The Mount and its spectacular gardens.

The Sportsman by Dhani Jones

I do so love watching the Olympic Games. While I prefer the winter games and Canadian coverage,1 I'm making the best of things with NBC-group coverage this year. In any case, the XXX (modern) Olympiad seemed like the perfect excuse to post about a sports memoir that I should have reviewed last year.

The Sportsman: Unexpected Lessons from an Around-the-World Sports Odyssey
by Dhani Jones with Jonathan Grotenstein

I need to open my comments on The Sportsman with the admission that I did not finish the book. Regular readers will be aware that I prefer fiction to nonfiction and that I don't often post about memoirs or sports-related books. Lest any of you think that my preferences yielded to bias against The Sportsman, I submit this confession: I am a huge Dhani Jones fan.2 When Time Warner dropped the Travel Channel from our Buffalo cable package, Dhani Tackles the Globe is the show I mourned the most. If anything, my love of Dhani likely predisposed me toward his memoir.

I was excited to get my hands on a review copy of The Sportsman and couldn't wait to get an extra dose of that endearing Dhani personality. The memoir's subtitle, "Unexpected Lessons from an Around-the-World Sports Odyssey," left me expecting a narrative built upon Dhani's experiences making Dhani Tackles the Globe and presented in a style like referenced the television show.

The memoir starts from the beginning ("my parents took two years to name me," 3), explaining how Dhani developed a love of sport and how he came to play football despite his mother's objections. Dhani's first person narrative is a bit too informal (in describing his teenage attitude problems he uses "mofo" and "suck my left nut"), but I was willing to give him (and his coauthor) the benefit of the doubt. But, on page 5, the narrative is interrupted by "A note from Commander Samuel L. Jones a.k.a. Dad". This I did not like at all. Yes, it did give an alternative perspective on Dhani at that period of this life, but it was jarring and odd (shades of helicopter parenting). And, couldn't Dad's viewpoint be shared in Dhani's own words? When a note from "Dr. Nanacy Jones a.k a. Mom" cropped up on page 14, I knew that I wasn't going to make it through The Sportsman. I gave up shortly thereafter.  

I was originally reticent to post about The Sportsman since I hadn't actually read very much of it.  I wondered whether I'd given the memoir a fair chance.  And, I held out the hope that I could get Russell to read it and offer his perspective (that didn't happen, I wasn't a very good salesperson). But, going through the early pages again, I realize that I still have no desire to keep reading The Sportsman. Maybe it gets better, but there were just far too many turn-offs in the early pages for me.

But, just because I didn't like The Sportsman, doesn't mean that you won't. The Sportsman has a 4.7 star rating on Amazon (16 reviews) and a 3.55 on Goodreads (70 ratings).
  1. CBC did it well, CTV does it even better. Access to Canadian Olympic coverage is one of the things I miss most about living in Buffalo.
  2. And, Russell and I both went to University of Michigan where Dhani played college ball. Russell actually saw him play in The Big House, though Dhani was already playing for the Giants by the time I got to Ann Arbor for graduate school.
disclosure: I received a review copy of The Sportsman from Rodale via NetGalley.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sync this week: Pinned and Locomotion

Sync's offerings this week (Thursday, July 26 through Wednesday August 1, 2012) are:

Pinned by Alfred C. Martino and
Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

In this gripping story, wrestling dominates the lives of two young men. Ivan Korske and Bobby Zane come from very different backgrounds--yet they both have the drive, determination, and commitment of a champion. And both are determined to have successful wrestling seasons despite having to grapple with their own demons.
But their personal problems won't matter when these two teens meet on the mat to compete for the title of New Jersey State Wrestling Champion. Both Ivan and Bobby have put in grueling hours of practice, endured intense hunger to cut weight, and sacrificed themselves for the sport they love--but only one of them is destined to win.

Each kindness makes the world a little better.
Chloe and her friends won't play with the new girl, Maya. Maya is different--she wears hand-me-downs and plays with old-fashioned toys. Every time Maya tries to join Chloe and her gang, they reject her. Eventually, Maya plays alone, and then stops coming to school altogether. When Chloe's teacher gives a lesson about how even small acts of kindness can change the world, Chloe is stung by the lost opportunity for friendship, and thinks about how much better it could have been if she'd shown a little kindness toward Maya.
This unforgettable book is written and illustrated by the award-winning team that created The Other Side and the Caldecott Honor winner Coming On Home Soon. With its powerful message and striking art, it will resonate with readers long after they've put it down.

Go here to get this week's downloads.

Note: these books don't expire like the e-audiobooks you get from the library. So, be sure to download the books even if you don't think you'll get around to listening to them right away.

More information about Sync is available in this post.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dungeons & Desktops by Matt Barton

Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games
by Matt Barton

I haven't read Dungeons and Desktops, but it comes recommended by Russell, who has it checked out of our public library.  He's already foisted the book off on my gamer father.

As is painfully obvious from its subtitle, Dungeons and Desktops explores the history of the CPRG genre. Lest other gamers feel left out, the book does discuss console games and MMOs and how they are related to CPRGs.

Barton is an English professor by trade and Russell reports that Dungeons and Desktops is well-written, easy, engaging read. In addition to being informative, the book brought back lots of good memories of playing the games it discusses. He also appreciated that Barton fills out the story of the games, describing how the games were designed and who designed them.
Holy acronyms, Batman! (and lots more in the book)
CRPG: computer role-playing game.
MMO: massively multiplayer online [game].

Monday, July 23, 2012

quotable Ursula Le Guin

I've had this quote up on my sidebar for a little while now, but since I know many people (such as myself) click through from their blog readers only irregularly, I'm sharing it in its own post. It's too good not to share. From her February 2008 Harper's Magazine article, "Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading" -
The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.
– Ursula Le Guin

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Sync this week: Cleopatra's Moon and Antony & Cleopatra

Sync's offerings this week (Thursday, July 19 through Wednesday, July 25, 2012) are:

Cleopatra's Moon by Vicky Shecter
Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra

The Luxe meets the ancient world in the extraordinary story of Cleopatra's daughter.
Selene has grown up in a palace on the Nile with her parents, Cleopatra and Mark Antony--the most brilliant, powerful rulers on earth. But the jealous Roman Emperor Octavianus wants Egypt for himself, and when war finally comes, Selene faces the loss of all she's ever loved. Forced to build a new life in Octavianus's household in Rome, she finds herself torn between two young men and two possible destinies--until she reaches out to claim her own.
This stunning novel brings to life the personalities and passions of one of the greatest dramas in history, and offers a wonderful new heroine in Selene.

The twin empires of Egypt and Rome mingle and clash in this towering tragedy. Impulsiveness, passion, mistaken identity and dark humor all color the fascinating dalliance between Antony and Cleopatra, the larger-than-life pair at the center of this play.
A BBC Radio 3 full cast production.

Go here to get this week's downloads.

Note: these books don't expire like the e-audiobooks you get from the library. So, be sure to download the books even if you don't think you'll get around to listening to them right away.

More information about Sync is available in this post.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

steampunk style

Steampunk has gotten quite a bit of attention on the blog (see posts), but the focus has always been on the fiction. While steampunk is at heart a literary subgenre,1 for many it is first and foremost a design aesthetic. And one of the things steampunk aficionados like to do most is dress up to attend steampunk-themed events.

Items characteristic of steampunk fashion are under-bust corsets and goggles adorned with decorative metal elements. Individuals beginning to craft costumes are often admonished to begin with a items that are historically accurate to the period and then add shiny and creative details. Steampunk costumes often require a trips to both the local thrift and hardware stores before they are complete.

When I think of steampunk style, the word that often comes to mind is a made-up one, reproaesthetical. In Megan McCafferty's Bumped, reproaesthetical is a slang term meaning "having good genes" or "worthy of breeding with".  Obviously, that's not what I mean, but if one imagines the combination relying on historical reproduction (or the use of replicas) rather than sexual, my use of reproaesthetical likely begins to make more sense.

Steampunk style is a riff on historical style.  Historical reproductions (and authentic period items) can serve as a foundation, becoming steampunk with the addition of anachronistic decorative elements.  They can also inspire something completely new as illustrated by the images below (click on them for a bigger version of the images).
A friend's reproduction Victorian sewing box and tools

First, we have a portable 19th century sewing kit. Vintage implements (a delicately hand stitched pin cushion, threads both in the skeins and on thread winders, a silver-covered steel thimble in porcelain case, a pair of sharp metal scissors, and a variety of fancy needle cases made of bone and wood) are contained within a varnished wood case that is padded to protect its more fragile contents and set with a mirror that was used to reflect light onto stitchwork--an important feature in the perpetually dark, candle- or gas-lit world of the nineteenth-century.

Steampunk bracer constructed by R.H Mardigan Enterprises

The above is a streamlined steampunk version of the same tools. A workaday wooden needle case, brass thimble, miniature pincushion,2 fancy brass scissors, and wooden spools of thread are mounted on a leather wrist guard. This "Tailor’s Assistant" is a compact solution that utilizes the "latest" Victorian technology (wooden spools were first introduced in the 1840s) to make a forearm-mounted sewing kit both stylish and practical.
  1. Historical science fiction set often (though not exclusively) in Victorian London.
  2. The tomato-shaped pincushion dates to the Victorian era when tomatoes were placed on the mantle of a new home to guarantee prosperity. Tomato stand-ins (red-fabric stuffed with wool or sawdust) were needed when the fruit was out of season. While tomatoes would be discarded when they started to spoil, the fabric substitutes were retained and put to use for pin storage. (Why are pincushions frequently made to resemble tomatoes?)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

Wish You Were Here by Stewart O'Nan

After her husband Henry dies, Emily Maxwell decides to sell their vacation home on Lake Chautauqua. Wish You Were Here recounts the last week that the family (Emily, her two children and their families, and Henry's sister Arlene) spends at the cottage.

While the action of the 500+ page novel takes place only over the course of eight days, it never feels unbearably long because the story is told (by the third person omniscient narrator) in turns from ten different perspectives (one chapter is given over to the dog, but the rest cycle through the three generations of vacationers). This allows the author to delve deep into an ordinary family (and the characters do feel both ordinary and real), exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each member and of the family as a whole. I most appreciated being able to see the differences between individual characters' self-perception and how they are viewed by those closest to them.

I do wish that I read Wish You Were Here when I still lived in Buffalo. I would love to drive around Chautauqua now, trying to pick out all the landmarks featured in the novel.

Some passages that struck me while I was reading -

Ken (Emily's son): "He feared, in the future, some crippling repercussions from these early indulgences, and thought that was due to his own childhood being for the most part idyllic, the hard facts of life reaching him only in his mid-twenties, as if until then he'd been swathed in a cocoon of his parents' making, composed of equal parts love and money" (27).

Meg (Emily's daughter): "Just waking up made her tired, her brain incredibly heavy, a cloud filled with rain" (58).

Lise (Emily's daughter-in-law):" She wondered what her life would look like in a book. Now there was a depressing idea" (477).

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace
by Kate Summerscale

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady
by Kate Summerscale

Until the introduction of the Matrimonial Causes Act in 1857, divorce was a privilege granted only to England's elite requiring as it did a private act of Parliament. In 1958 the newly created Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes began to grant divorces to couples where adultery (in the case of the wife) or multiple "matrimonial offences" (in the case of the husband) could be verified.

In Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace Summerscale turns her lens to one of the most titillating of the court's early divorce proceedings, the suit of Henry Oliver Robinson against his wife Isabella (and one Dr. Edward Lane) on the grounds of adultery, which began on Monday, June 14, 1858. The chief piece of evidence in the case was Isabella's diary, long passages of which were read during the trial and excerpted in the press to the scandalized public's great delight.

Though the press no doubt loved the fodder provided by the spate of divorce proceedings, it was not necessarily in favor of the new court and the relative ease with which couples were receiving divorces. The Saturday Review insisted that,
in the interests of the greatest happiness of the many, [...] a judicial separation should be granted only in the "gravest emergency": "a married couple should endure a very considerable amount of discomfort, incompatibility, personal suffering, and distress, and yet should continue to live together as man and wife." (217)
Women were expected the bear the brunt of that personal suffering. A custody battle decided in 1858 by the Court of Chancery yielded this insightful comment from Vice-Chancellor Kindersley:
I believe it is the common case that very few wives do consider sufficiently their solemn obligation of obedience and submission to their husbands' wishes, even though they be capricious. However harsh, however cruel the husband may be, it does not justify the wife's want of that due submission to the husband, which is her duty both by the law of God and by the law of man. (196)
These quotes1 really do show how much times have changed.

Fascinated as I am by Victorian social mores, I was intrigued by the premise of Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace and was thoroughly engrossed while reading it. I heartily recommend it to people interested in the Victorian period, gender studies, legal history, social change, and even archives. While I think that some lovers of historic fiction may enjoy Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace, I'm sure others will dislike it simply because it doesn't read like a novel.

Isabella Robinson was trapped in a loveless marriage to a man whose work often took him away from the home for long periods of time.  Profoundly unhappy, she channeled all her energy into remaining composed in front of company, expressing her true feelings and desires only to her diary.

Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace is not a simple presentation of Isabella's story as told in her diary (1850-1855). Summerscale uses the diary, the Robinson divorce suit, and the public reaction to each to give a fuller picture of Isabella's life and the world in which she lived. Of course, that's not to say that there is a dearth of juicy, adulturous thought and action, whether real or imagined.
  1. And this one, which I couldn't bear to leave out, considering the fact that this blog is facilitating the "culpable neglect" of my "most important [wifely] duties":
    She who is faithfully employed in discharging the various duties of a wife and daughter, a mother and friend," according to Thomas Broadhurst's popular manual Advice to Young Ladies on the Improvement of the Mind and Conduct of Life (1810), "is far more usefully occupied than one who, to the culpable neglect of the most important obligations, is daily absorbed by philosophic and literary speculations, or soaring aloft amidst the enchanted regions of fiction and romance. (82-83)
disclosure: I received a review copy of Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace from Bloomsbury via NetGalley.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Sync this week: short stories

I'm not particularly excited about the Sync offerings this week, but I do want to get back into doing this these reminder posts.

Sync's offerings this week (Thursday, July 12 through Wednesday, July 18, 2012) are:

Guys Read: Funny Business, edited by Jon Scieszka

Here it is! Volume 1 [of the Guys Read Library of Great Reading]. A lot of something funny for everyone. 10 original short stories by Mac Barnett, Eoin Colfer, Christopher Paul Curtis, Kate DiCamillo & Jon Scieszka, Paul Feig, Jack Gantos, Jeff Kinney, David Lubar, Adam Rex, and David Yoo.
You should be able to find something you like in here. This volume is guaranteed to contain an intro joke, a sneaky friend, a super-villian, an origin story, an idiot friend, a cranky author, a homicidal turkey, brother torture, a crazy grandpa, parents who give their kid's bedroom to a biker, self surgery using rusty pliers, and lots of laughs.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is a wild yarn involving a case of mistaken identity, a gambler who’d bet on anything, and a very unusual frog named Daniel Webster. First published in The Saturday Press in 1865, the tale was immensely popular, and in 1867 an expanded version was published with 26 additional short stories, told as only Mark Twain could tell them.

Note: these books don't expire like the e-audiobooks you get from the library. So, be sure to download the books even if you don't think you'll get around to listening to them right away.

More information about Sync is available in this post.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

the best thing about summer

Summer is without question my least favorite season, mostly because I hate the weather. I don't hold up well in heat and humidity.

There's one thing I do like about summer though--
Sync, a program that provides free YA-appropriate audiobooks all summer
--and I was horrified to realize that I'd missed the first few week's of this year's program.
So, this is a belated public service announcement.

The Sync-week is Thursday-Wednesday so be sure to download this week's titles (Anna Dressed in Blood and The Woman in White) today or tomorrow.

Another important note, not mentioned below,1 is that these books don't expire like the e-audiobooks you get from the library. So, be sure to check in each week to download the books even if you don't think you'll get around to reading them right away.

Sync YA literature into your earphones with
two free audiobook downloads each week
June 14 - August 22, 2012

Teens and other readers of young adult literature will have the opportunity to listen to bestselling titles and required reading classics this summer. Each week from June 14 to August 22, 2012, Sync will offer two free audiobook downloads.

The audiobook pairings will include a popular YA title and a classic that connects with the YA title's theme and is likely to show up on a student's summer reading lists.  For example, Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the first book in a new series about a girl who opens a door to two otherworldly cities at war,2 will be paired with Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities.

SYNC Schedule:

July 5 – July 11, 2012
- Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake, Read by August Ross (AudioGO)
- The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Read by Ian Holm (AudioGO)

July 12 – July 18, 2012
- Guys Read: Funny Business by Jon Scieszka [Ed.] et al., Read by Michael Boatman, Kate DiCamillo, John Keating, Jon Scieszka, Bronson Pinchot (Harper Audio)
- The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories by Mark Twain, Read by Norman Dietz (Recorded Books)

July 19 – July 25, 2012
- Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter, Read by Kirsten Potter (Oasis Audio)
- Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare, Read by a Full Cast (AudioGO)

July 26 – August 1, 2012
- Pinned by Alfred C. Martino, Read by Mark Shanahan (Listen & Live Audio)
- Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson (Brilliance Audio)

August 2 – August 8, 2012
- Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Read by Khristine Hvam (Hachette Audio)2
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Read by Simon Prebble (Blackstone Audio)

August 9 – August 15, 2012
- Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, Read by Rupert Degas (Harper Audio)
- Dead Men Kill by L. Ron Hubbard, Read by Jennifer Aspen and a Full Cast (Galaxy Press)

August 16 – August 22, 2012
- The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, Read by Jay Laga’aia (Bolinda Audio)
- The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Read by William Roberts (Naxos AudioBooks)

And, just for documentary purposes - titles from previous weeks

June 14 – June 20, 2012
- The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, Read by Dan Bittner (Scholastic Audiobooks)
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Frank Galati [Adapt.], Read by Shirley Knight, Jeffrey Donovan, and a Full Cast (L.A. Theatre Works)

June 21 – June 27, 2012
- Irises by Francisco X. Stork, Read by Carrington MacDuffie (Listening Library)
- Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, Read by Wanda McCaddon (Tantor Media)

June 28 – July 4, 2012
- The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud, Read by Simon Jones (Listening Library)
- Tales from the Arabian Nights by Andrew Lang, Read by Toby Stephens (Naxos AudioBooks)

More information about Sync is available on the Sync website
  1. An ever so slightly modified version of their press release
  2. I really enjoyed Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which I read recently. See my post about it.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Emily Dickinson, 254

It's been a few months since National Poetry Month (see posts) and this blog is in need of a bit of verse. Yesterday, while watching reruns of Criminal Minds,1 I was reminded of this gem.

Emily Dickinson, Untitled Poem 254:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Read more Dickinson:
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
  1. One of the quotations featured in Mosley Lane (season 5) was the first stanza of this poem.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Daughter of Smoke and Bone
by Laini Taylor

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Read by Khristine Hvam
Series: Daughter of Smoke and Bone (trilogy), Book 1
Karou leads two lives. One is in the tangled streets of Prague, as an orphan and art student; the other in a clandestine workshop, overflowing with jars of teeth and wishes, run by the ram-horned magician, Brimstone—the closest thing to family Karou has ever known. She doesn't know where she came from, but she's about to find out. When Karou meets stunning, haunted Akiva, she finds a love whose roots drink deep of a violent past, and an ancient war that is far from over. Master storyteller Laini Taylor imagines a wholly unique fantasy about a forbidden love, an epic battle, and hope for a world remade.
The above is the synopsis that my library system provides for Daughter of Smoke and Bone in its digital media catalog (ie. the site I go to for e-books and e-audiobooks). I was in need of a new audiobook (and I'm endlessly fascinated by Prague) so I decided to check Daughter of Smoke and Bone out even though I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it as I often lose patience with high fantasy.

It did take me a little while to get into Daughter of Smoke and Bone and its story, but I never got overwhelmed by or irritated with the world Taylor created even though it includes seraphim and I usually have no patience with angel novels. Daughter of Smoke and Bone takes place primarily in the world as we know it today, though a series of portals provide access to a shop, manned by a group of chimaera,1 that seems to exist as part of a mysterious parallel world.

The novel's protagonist, Karou, is an usually-skilled, blue-haired teen, who was literally raised by monsters.  Karou's foster-father, the mysterious Brimstone (whose features read as human, lion, and ram, among other things) is the proprietor of the not-of-this-world shop.  Brimstone sells wishes and buys teeth.  Karou's job is to act as his agent in the human world.  In addition to meeting Brimstone's regular suppliers who are unable or unwilling to visit the shop, Karou travels all over the world to procure particularly rare specimens.  When she's not running errands for Brimstone, Karou attends art school in Prague where she leads an only somewhat extraordinary life.

While Karou has a love-interest in Akiva, their relationship is not your typical young adult-novel romance. Karou and Akiva's relationship is exceedingly complicated as a result of complex external factors, not because of a love triangle or teenage angst. Their relationship is a significant part of Daughter of Smoke and Bone (and likely the entire trilogy), but the romance's role is to reveal the larger picture and serve as a catalyst for Karou to discover who she really is.

Even though Daughter of Smoke and Bone is the first in a trilogy, set-up and world-building don't overwhelm the narrative. The world Taylor has imagined is complex and well-constructed. The plot of Daughter of Smoke and Bone and the overarching, series-wide storyarch are well-balanced within the novel, and, while the novel's ending leaves readers wanting more (in the way of a sequel), there is sufficient resolution for them not to feel completely untethered.

In any case, I really enjoyed Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I highly recommend the audio version. Khristine Hvam does a wonderful job narrating it.

Days of Blood and Starlight, the sequel to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, will be released in early November.
  1. chimaera / chimera:   a monstrous creature composed of several different animals.  Also, per OED, an unreal creature of the imagination, a mere fancy; an un-found conception.
    The origins of the word lie in Greek mythology.  The creature chimera--a fire-breathing goat-lion-snake hybrid from Lycia--is referenced in the Iliad among other places.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy

The All Souls Trilogy follows the story of Diana Bishop, a historian and reluctant witch, as she solves the mystery of Ashmole 782,1 falls in love with a mysterious vampire named Matthew Clairmont, and learns how powerful it can be to accept who you are. - author website
Shortly after reading A Discovery of Witches, the first book in Deborah Harkness' All Souls Trilogy, I read this post on the Perfume Posse blog. The post mentioned scenting the series' main characters as part of the promotion of Shadow of the Night, the trilogy's second title, which will be released on July 10. I'm not familiar with either of the perfumes selected,2 but I love the fact that the author and publisher were on board with the character-scenting project. Harkness is very detailed about how things and people smell/taste throughout A Discovery of Witches between the vampires and their heightened senses and the female protagonist learning about wine tasting so this character-scenting is an ideal fit for the series.

I have to admit that I was sure that I was done with the All Souls Trilogy after I finished A Discovery of Witches.3 I liked the premise of the novel4 and the world Harkness imagined, but was underwhelmed by the execution. I found A Discovery of Witches overlong at nearly 600 pages (it's not a standalone title after all). The narrative was often bogged down by too much detail: detail about insignificant things, which would have been less irritating if important aspects of the story like the mechanics of the supernatural elements were not left unclear or completely muddled. I wished Harkness had worked with a more ruthless editor.

I am happy that I decided to read Shadow of the Night after all because Shadow of the Night is a much better book than A Discovery of Witches. There's a time-travel element that makes Shadow of the Night feel a bit Outlander-ish. The way magic works and the relationships between the various metahuman5 groups become more clear. The novel does not stand alone because readers really do need quite a bit background information to understand it, but Shadow of the Night's plot is a nice novel-sized package. It is blessedly more focused and the occasional narrative jump to secondary characters not involved with the action of Shadow of the Night is surprisingly well done and adds to the story arch rather than distracting from it.

My biggest complaint about Shadow of the Night is that I would have preferred less in the way of important-historical-personages-as-significant-secondary-characters. A Discovery of Witches suffered from an excess of name-dropping,6 but Shadow of the Night takes it to a whole other level.

In short, I enjoyed Shadow of the Night, but I don't want to recommend it wholeheartedly since reading A Discovery of Witches is a prerequisite for understanding Shadow of the Night.
  1. A alchemical manuscript referred to by its catalog number.
  2. Etro Messe de Minuit for Matthew and Ginestet Botrytis for Diana.
  3. As much as I like to claim otherwise, I'm still not all that good at giving up on books that I'm not enjoying.
  4. Not the romance, mind you. I'm not terribly keen on the otherwise-perfectly-capable heroine falling for/needing to rely upon the overprotective-to-the-point-of-violence hero. I would have giving put up with the romance for the overarching storyline.
  5. I'm not sure metahuman is the right word, but it's the one I'm going with right now. The groups I'm referring to are witches, vampires, and daemons.
  6. Of course our 1500-year-old vampire had met practically every famous figure in recorded history.
disclosure: I received a review copy of Shadow of the Night from Penguin via NetGalley. I got A Discovery of Witches from the library.