Wendy R. (wendybird) - Reviews

1 to 15 of 15
American Gods
American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 402
Review Date: 12/20/2010


I'm not sure if I under-appreciated this (popular) novel, but I'm relieved to be done. The vibe I got while reading was similar to watching a movie based on a comic-book, which is hardly surprising, really, considering Mr. Gaiman started out writing and illustrating graphic novels. The overall mood is dark, and if the characters were illustrated, I picture them all with sharply-contoured facial expressions and inhabiting a sharply shadowed, edgy world.

Shadow (the name fits the mood, doesn't it?) is released from prison and goes home to Indiana only to find that his wife has been killed in an accident. Unsure of what to do and with nothing to lose, he takes a job as an errand boy for a mysterious man named Wednesday. Shadow soon finds himself mixed up in a war between the dying "old gods" of traditional world cultures, and the "new gods" that are replacing them, represented by various anthropomorphic embodiments of the Media.

Overall, an interesting idea, but the greater pulpy feel rubbed me the wrong way, possibly due to mere personal tastes. I found the prose repetitive and tiresome: a character's every movement is described in great detail--to make up for the fact that this isn't a "graphic novel" with illustrations? A character takes a bite, chews, swallows, puts down the sandwich, wipes his mouth, picks it up again...really? What is the purpose of inflating a book in this manner, with all that meaningless detail? There are also some overly-gruesome scenes whose presence can only be explained by the physical shock value, as they fail to propel or be relevant to the story. These too I could have done without. Glad to be finished.


Atonement
Atonement
Author: Ian McEwan
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 371
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 1


There were a lot of things I liked about this book; not the least was how the author drew believable characters and gave me so many reasons to identify with each one. Young Briony, who loses herself in her fantasies, writing stories and plays to impress her family, particularly her older brother. And her later experiences as a trainee nurse, writing in her her journal every day as the only way to preserve her individuality in her institutionalized life. Her older sister Cecilia, agonizing over the few choices an independent woman has in 1930's Britain after college. Robbie trying to understand where his relationship with the child Briony went wrong. Somehow, McEwan turns what might have been a mundane tale in another writer's hands into a page turner. His writing is smooth, detailed and evocative, but never feels overwritten. he painstakingly constructs the viewpoints of various characters and de-constructs many miscommunications. He keeps the drama taught--Briony witnesses a sexual assault and fingers a family friend as the perpetrator--yet keeps the right amount of humor present, such as when Robbie sends the *wrong* love note to Cecilia. Only the ending felt a bit out of place and contrived, if unexpected. Highly recommended.


Bel Canto
Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 868
Review Date: 1/20/2011


At last, a story that pulled me in immediately with that lyrical description of the kiss on the first page. I struggled to put this book down after that. The premise of this novel is of South American terrorists (in a country very much like Peru) taking over 50 international guests hostage at a party, to include a Japanese businessman and his translator, an American Opera singer, and the host country's own Vice President. The violence and chaos of the attack unfold with poetic confusion, in scenes that seem to float passed in slow-motion, broken by small bubbles of internal dialogue. One unusual aspect of the book is its relentless omniscience, head-hopping mercilessly from one character to another, hostage and terrorist alike, even within the same sentence, and sometimes encompassing one collective point-of-view of everyone. This works to a point, but the sheer number of characters is a disadvantage. Patchett desperately wants to accommodate all of them and inhabit as many distinct minds as possible, diluting the reader's ability to form attachments to voices that fall away as quickly as they appear. I liked the concept of music as this magical healing force and of the hostages'/terrorist' surreal drift into a bizarre sort of unsustainable utopia, but I missed the dark edge a hostage situation demands. After the initial takeover, the terrorists suddenly appear too "nice" to actually kill anyone, the hostages too complacent to push their boundaries and "get away" with with things. Oh, and I'll just pretend that misplaced epilogue never existed. Overall, though, the story was captivating and intense, the prose made me green with envy, and I struggled to put it down.


Der Schimmelreiter.
Der Schimmelreiter.
Author: Theodor Storm
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 1


The schoolmaster of a northern German coastal town narrates the tale of Hauke Heien, the highly driven dykemaster who haunts the road along the dyke that bears his name.

As the story begins, it is earthly and normal: young Hauke Heien becomes the apprentice to the former dykemaster, secretly woos his daughter, and eventually inherits the prestigious position himself (raising a few eyebrows in the process). Hauke's latent sinister side is foreshadowed as a boy by the killing of a cat, and later manifests itself in the growing cruelty that ekes from his seemingly sensitive character. His idea to create an enormous new dyke causes the locals (who provide the physical labor) to despise him all the more.
Elements of the supernatural emerge later when Hauke acquires a bony, starved white horse from a mysterious man (the devil?). The eeriness of a horse skeleton coming to life at the dead of night is the pinnacle of the story.

This is a beautifully drawn portrait of man and the pathological changes he undergoes, which are expressed outwardly by the supernatural. Though it has its (few) humorous moments, it is not an uplifting book. I HIGHLY recommend reading this book in its original German, but even the English version won't sacrifice the high drama of this book.


Der Vorleser
Der Vorleser
Author: Bernhard Schlink
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 5
Review Date: 1/20/2011


This book worked best for me as a sort of "parable", although I'm not certain to what extent the allegory--if any--was intended. Naive 15 year old Michael Berg is sick on the street and a woman cleans him up and guides him home. Later Michael's mother sends him by to thank the woman with a bouquet, and the pair begin a steamy, illicit (and illegal?) affair, part of their ritual being that Michael reads aloud to the woman, Hanna, until she mysteriously disappears. Years later Michael sits in on a trial for war-crimes and recognizes Hanna as one of the defendants. In terms of allegory, Michael seems to represent an idealistic German people besotted with--yet ignorant of--the alluring, dangerous fascist state and must come to terms with this love affair for the rest of his life. Also fascinating is the take on the postwar German generation who must grow up doubting/questioning the authority of their parents, the generation who allowed the holocaust to happen. For all these lofty themes, Michael's story is (mostly) related in simple, pared-down, stark prose that matches the subject matter well. Michael's occasional digressions into philosophy and law slow things down in the middle. Some of it comes off as authorial self-indulgence, perhaps, but also touches on some important and relevant aspects of guilt and laying blame. It can be difficult at times to identify with the perpetually moping Michael and cold Hanna (whose secret is fairly obvious early on). The ending left me rather cold and numb--the author's intent?--but I actually prefer the way the novel has recently transferred to the screen, especially the semblance of closure the film offers versus the open ending here.


The Elegance of the Hedgehog
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (Translator)
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
 447
Review Date: 12/20/2010


This book has made me question my toleration of hyper-intelligent narrators--especially children--in literature. First, this phenomenon, rather like amnesia, occurs much more frequently in fiction than in real life. I suppose this is so the author can use an "adult" voice to examine a child's world; this can be done well, if the child's underlying naivete offsets the intellect and big words (The Last Samurai). It is not done well here. I draw the line at a twelve year old girl waxing poetic on war and military service which she experienced, I can only guess, within the pages of War & Peace. For example: "Don't we deal with life the way we do our military service? Doing what we can, while we wait either to be demobbed or do battle?" (86). I found this world-weary voice off-putting, coming from a child's mouth. Just where does the "prodigy" voice end and the author's own self-absorbed elucidations on life begin? There is no child in this voice at all. It is not a good thing when the voices of our two narrators, a 54 year old "autodidact" concierge and the aforementioned nauseatingly precocious child, are so similar their POV must be indicated by different fonts.

A good story and well-drawn characters a reader cares about can still save a story; sadly, neither appeared in this book. The narrators are hypocritical, hateful people. They complain that the well-off people around them are stupid and unappreciative. I especially loved how the concierge Renee dismantles the argument of a philosophy student's thesis which she reads secretly, and attacks the study of theoretical concepts that do nothing to make society better. Meanwhile, she hides her own intellectual prowess for astoundingly stupid and outdated reasons, which are supposed to create the only "tension" and plot semblance of this novel. When a Japanese sensei-guru-stereotype character with no discernible flaws arrives on the scene, he does his best to draw out our two precocious intellects. By the time the narrators acknowledge that they still have the capacity to learn something new, I had stopped caring.


The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel
The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel
Author: Edward Abbey
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 13
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 1


To be honest, I was concerned while reading the opening scenes and almost put the book down: Henry Lightcap treats his current wife miserably. when she decides to leave him for a computer engineer, he is so distraught that he takes out a .22 and shoots the refrigerator (the culmination, as it turns out, of his hatred for technology and "modern civilization". Oh no, I thought, a self-absorbed misogynist tells his sufferings. For the most part, I was wrong (there is plenty of suffering). This was one of the best books I've read in a good long while.

The main character Henry, I learned later, is a close representation of the reclusive author. Abbey apparently reveals much of his own life through this "honest novel", but to what extent...I wish I knew. Henry grew up in the West Virginia backwoods, submerged in nature, and later rediscovered the even more intense wilderness of the West.

The flashback chapters to the past are interspersed with the Henry here-and-now, older, in his sixties, and harboring a grim secret. Like him, his truck is on it's last odometer rotations. The dog, Solstice, is also old and sickly, and is one of the few beings Henry is tender toward, and makes for some of the more touching scenes.

What initially perplexed and repelled me at first was Henry's treatment of women. Throughout his life he only falls for the bombshells who, ultimately, have nothing in common with him and his love of the wilderness. When he drags is first wife from NYC to barren New Mexico, things do not bode well. After so much trouble with women, evidence of Henry's first real love comes as a shock. Henry is more complex than he seemed, and I began to empathize with him.

This book seems outwardly like it would be a simple semi-memoir, but Abbey's descriptions, especially of nature and wild places, elevate it to something more. The tone is bleak, of a man looking back on his life and contemplating his regrets, but is not without humor (a certain Grand Canyon scene, for example, or his arrest in Denver). When I read Abbey, a (para)phrase from his Desert Solitaire comes to mind: get out of the car and walk, better yet crawl through the dirt and rocks and cactus. You can't get the full experience any way else--this philosophy sums up A Fools Progess well. Highly recommended.


The French Lieutenant's Woman
The French Lieutenant's Woman
Author: John Fowles
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 26
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 1


This is not what you think it is! ...but go ahead and let the book blindside you for the full effect.

People would ask me what I was reading, and I respond with a typical "oh, it's about a young gentleman who begins to reconsider approaching marriage when he notices a forlorn young woman who wanders the beach, pining for her lost lover..." And person who had posed the question would say "how nice." NO! This book has nothing to do the gentle, romantic, Victorian plot, setting, and mood that the author so carefully crafts before...well...you'll just have to read it to get the full effect, as I said. I suspect i was lulled into an unsuspecting state by trying to focus on the plot of the story, and I honestly still haven't sorted the ending out. If there's an answer to the mystery of the French Lieutenant's woman, I completely missed it. A mind-blowing, if frustrating reading experience.


Going Postal (Discworld, Bk 29)
Going Postal (Discworld, Bk 29)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 4.4/5 Stars.
 129
Review Date: 1/20/2011
Helpful Score: 2


The charismatic swindler (forced to take on the Ank Morpork Postal System as the only alternative to a hanging) Moist von Lipwigg ("I'm Moist, please don't laugh...) is right up there with Captain of the Night Watch Samuel Vimes in my list of Terry Pratchett's top characters.

The brilliant, narcissistic and ambitious Moist (I still can't get past that name) is saved from the gallows through a lucky--but not altogether uncalculated--reprieve from Lord Vetinari, and soon finds himself trying to shovel the old post office out from its present heaps of undelivered 50-year old mail, and similarly bounteous piles of pigeon guano.He is aided by Mr. Groat, descendant of the Olde post office families and with an eye for regulations and knack for natural remedies, and by Stanley, an orphan raised by peas (don't ask) and an avid collector of pins (ditto on the asking). Moist soon finds himself in a bitter rivalry with financial pirate Mr. Gilt and his Grand Trunk Company, a Discworld version of an unreliable internet provider that constantly overcharges. Things come to a hilarious head when Moist challenges the Grand Trunk to race his own post-coach to Genoa ("good luck coding those pictures in binary"). The most quotable quote is when Stanley finally goes "unpinned", and holds much relevance to all collectors of random junk": "Ahh! They're all just pins!"

Terry Pratchett continues his bizarre, hilarious, and above all readable commentary on modern society, blurred slightly through the lens of a parallel universe. Fans won't be disappointed, and newcomers should be delighted as well.


The Mysterious Island
The Mysterious Island
Author: Jules Verne
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 9
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 3


Do NOT use this book as a survival manual!!

Right, now that we have that straightened out...what a book! I write this review with tongue in cheek, just as the author must have written this book. Why? well...

Five Union prisoners of war escape Richmond, VA in a Rebel spy balloon, and a mere five days later end up on a remote island in the Pacific. Being very resourceful (not to mention absolute geniuses) they do what anyone stranded on a deserted island would do: they forge their own iron and steel tools, make glass, an elevator, nitroglycerin, and even a telegraph using 100% natural materials (think the professor from Gilligan's Island). But in the course of their struggle against nature, strange incidents convince them that this island may not be as deserted as they thought...(insert ominous music)...

Be prepared for a kicker ending that will leave you chocking on your lithodomus!


Outlander (Outlander, Bk 1)
Outlander (Outlander, Bk 1)
Author: Diana Gabaldon
Book Type: Mass Market Paperback
  • Currently 4.3/5 Stars.
 1554
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 2


I began this book because I liked the concept: a nurse in post-war 1945 warps backwards in time to 1743 Scotland where she finds love and adventure in the Highlands...why did I finish the book? Most likely due to a sense of literary masochism (although I suffered through the S&M kind too in the latter pages--be warned!). The tragic irony is that in the beginning I had assumed the story would actually go somewhere, instead of looping around the same track multiple times, where nurse Claire and her kilt-clad lover gallivant, fight, make love, get captured, beaten, rescued (not necessarily in that order) over...and over...and over...

Jamie, the hot-blooded Scot, was probably the best developed character (relatively), although it may have been just the brogue. And he had the tendency to say the most inane things sometimes (a particular metaphor involving duckweed comes to mind...gag!). Claire is "feisty" and "spunky" (read: annoying), very erratic in behavior, and overall not very likable. At one point, potential intriguing material is wasted--Jamie must punish Claire, who has endangered the lives of his clansmen with her stupidity. This could have been a psychologically interesting scene, but instead it turns into a kiss & make-up/out session while the characters remain static. Another interesting time-traveling character is wasted later in the story, disposed of without answering some intriguing questions about the consequences of time travel. Issues remain simplistic and complexity, though tantalizingly dangled, is never pursued.

I could rant for pages about what I didn't like--long exposition sections containing important "clues" to the story, lots of superficial description of people/places, but nothing that develops the characters. And mistakes--picking fruit in April? Really? Am I the only one who noticed this? And finally, the bland language that served merely to record the action as if narrating a movie. But for all my griping, the book didn't really plunge into the abyss until around page 300 when the situation takes a really ridiculous turn, and the ending, smacking of religious-Freudian-voodoo did NOT do it for me at all. Blah.


Skeletons at the Feast
Skeletons at the Feast
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 100
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 6


I'm not sure how I feel about this book. I love WWII fiction and couldn't wait to read it...once I started, I couldn't put it down, it pulled me right along to the end. It's supposed to be quirky, but some of it I just don't buy: Anna's romance with the POW (not the fact that it happened, but they WAY it develops), or the fact that a POW would be able to travel across Germany with a family and never be questioned once. I also found the writing to be all over the place, quite repetitive, and the emotion never subtle. For example: "a stain the color of rotting cherries was waxing imperceptibly into a moon around the crater in the lieutenant's chest." huh? And the love scenes...Anna is a young girl growing up in the thirties? Her gallivanting about unchaperoned with an enemy prisoner, and the extent of their "secret" dalliances: I didn't believe it for a second.

There were two characters I really empathized with: the boy Theo and Uri (Anna and the Scottish prisoner, on the other hand, have the depth of cardboard cutouts). Uri is a Jew who escapes a death train, disguises himself as a German officer, and wreaks havoc on any Nazi he can find--to the extent that his revenge is just as odious as the wrongs he is responding to. His joining up with an aristocratic German family, although unexpected, prompted some of the more interesting character interactions. Uri's presence begs the question of morality, and who is to blame for war crimes: the state? It's citizens? And how much revenge is then justified? By default, Uri's history casts him the only character whose bloody hands are deemed acceptable...but is this *gasp* cliche?

I became rather attached to young Theo, a compassionate boy who loves animals, cares genuinely about people, and is slowly becoming "Nazified" by the culture he is exposed to. One of my favorite scenes was when Theo wrote letters to German soldiers on the front. His innocent chatter tinged with patriotism, and his "heil" sign-offs, is a disturbing reminder of cultural and national influence and control. Should we feel guilty for liking Theo because of what he may be becoming?

The side story of the Jewish women, although illustrating an important part of history that shouldn't be forgotten, didn't mesh well with the rest of the story (because it is still not socially acceptable to write a book about WWII and NOT have a side story about the holocaust. Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks did this too, to similar effect). The subject is heart-wrenching, but I felt it belonged either in it's own book, or needed to be more closely tied to the main action. At any rate, it was thoroughly disturbing...which is not a bad thing.

I liked how the author Mr. Bohjalian used a different viewpoint--that of a German aristocratic family--to show the war from "the other side", a side I'd be interested in reading more about. Overall, a fast paced, gut-wrenching, if a far-fetched and emotionally heavy-handed read.


Therese Raquin (Penguin Classics)
Therese Raquin (Penguin Classics)
Author: Emile Zola, Leonard Tancock
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 15
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 1


Dark, creepy, intense, disgusting...I like. If you want a classic read with adultery, murder, and corpses, try this one. Two desperate, adulterous individuals murder the one person that stands between them. Instead of finding happiness, the couple is haunted by insane terror. The book reads like a ghost story, although by 19th century standards it was labeled a "psychological study." Also, considering that it was written in the 1860's, it is rather explicit and graphic in some places. One thing that annoyed me was that, due to the translation, some words are repeated over and over (because many French words have only one English equivalent). Also, sometimes the changing tenses are hard to follow, as is the chronology of the flashbacks. Nevertheless, I agree with the blurb on the back cover: "This book has lost none of its power to shock!"


The Uncommon Reader
The Uncommon Reader
Author: Alan Bennett
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 46
Review Date: 12/20/2010
Helpful Score: 1


In my opinion, this novella didn't quite live up to the incredible reviews it has received (as a 25 year old, I don't think I quite fit the target age demographic, if that says anything). I won't deny that the book was certainly good, but slightly duller and less "spoofy" than the reviews I'd seen had led to believe.

The titular "reader" of this book is none other than Queen Elizabeth II. One day she follows her barking Pekineses into a portable library, and ends up borrowing what turns out to be a barely tolerable book out of politeness (the author had been made a Dame of the Empire , so the Queen assumed it had to be good, since she had already done the honors...). Luckily, the Queen's second book is a page turner, and thus she becomes an insatiable reader, to the dismay of the household, equerry, and the Duke. There are some amusing tidbits here: the queen perfects the art of waving from a coach while hiding a book beneath the window. She hires a homosexual kitchen boy--another patron of the portable library--to suggest new reads (some of the titles he suggests one would imagine to be quite shocking to a grandmotherly monarch). It is obvious that the queen begins to think about her duty and her people in new ways as she is exposed to literature (which says much for the value of fiction), although I imagine that using a contemporary and very much alive public figure as the central character would prevent the author from trying anything drastic, unexpected, or *gasp* the least bit unflattering. Which he doesn't. An interesting premise, some humor, a very understated (borderline yawn-provoking) style, and nothing earthshaking. Unlike the books the queen devours, I don't feel this one changed me all that much.


Zorro (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
Zorro (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
Author: Isabel Allende, Blair Brown (Narrator)
Book Type: Audio CD
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
 11
Review Date: 12/20/2010


I was looking for a clever retelling of this fictional American homegrown hero, something with an interesting feminine twist. What I got was indeed a retelling, but not as clever or interesting as I had hoped.

This is a "tale of origin" explaining how Zorro became the masked avenger. He is born Diego de la Vega, son of a Spanish hidalgo and a fierce Shoshone she-warrior. Apparently, the author took great pains to research this book. Kudos. Despite all the research, there seemed to be something a little off. It wasn't so much the facts that were suspect (although I'd like to check if the Shoshone values of "Okahue" were created to serve the plot), but the way the facts integrated--or failed to integrate--with the story. At one point Diego is bitten by a rattlesnake. "Diego remembered some of the facts he had learned about rattlesnakes..." The facts that follow may as well be numbered, taken from some text or scientific article. The fencing scenes are even worse. You might as well read from a manual. I listened to the audio-book, so here is my best paraphrase: "He held his arm 180 degrees in front, foil pointed forward, left arm raised 90 degrees over his head for balance." Yes, that makes for quite the thrilling fight scene. The gripes go on. Every other word is a cliche (the translator's fault?), there is hardly any dialogue, the prose is bland, the characters flat and impossible to sympathize with, as they have as much pep as are papier mache.

This is my first Allende book, and I hear she is renowned for her well-drawn female characters and ability to write emotional drama. I can't speak for her other books, but here I found Julianna a distressed damsel, and Isabelle just annoying. Nuria, the girls' chaperon, is religious, superstitious and narrow-minded, which makes her the most interesting of all. As for the men...Bernardo the mute Shoshone is sympathetic, mainly because of some emotional manipulation on the writer's part by making him an orphan who refuses to talk due to his suffering. She tries to make Zorro a sort of "scarlet pimpernel" type who behaves flamboyantly while defending the downtrodden from behind his mask. As with all her descriptions, she never gets more specific than saying he "dressed well" and "behaved flamboyantly". No "show", all "tell". She also tends to spell things out in case the reader wasn't observant enough to figure out something themselves.

I'd like to end on a positive note. Scientific discussion of rattlesnake bites aside, I did enjoy Diego's and Bernardo's Spirit Quests with the Shoshone tribe. I thought the two boys' respective experiences finding their totem animals did more to establish character than any other anecdote in this book.


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