Monthly Archives: May 2013

Review: The Weird Sisters

I finished The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown, several days ago, but I’ve been hesitating to write the review; I couldn’t really figure out what to say. Today, I decided my lack of strong feelings or opinions is my opinion: the book is fine, but certainly not something that has me jumping up and down. The Weird Sisters

The novel follows three sisters, each named after a Shakespearean heroine — Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia — who come home after their mother is diagnosed with cancer. Ostensibly, they’re home to help their parents while their mother is in treatment, but each sister has her own personal catastrophe sending them running for the sanctuary of their childhood home. Rosalind’s fiancé has moved to England to pursue a career at Oxford, leaving Rose wondering whether she should still be planning a wedding or not. Bianca has been fired from her job in New York after her employers discover she has been embezzling. Cordelia, after living a nomadic lifestyle for years, is pregnant, with no desire to ever see the father again.

The novel traces each sister’s path home, then steps back and observes the tumult of their reunion. Each sister keeps her reasons secret for much of the novel, until they burst out of each woman one way or another. While I can’t say much else for the novel, I can say this: the sisters’ interactions and relationships with one another are occasionally overblown, but for the most part ring astoundingly true. I knew both the unconditional love as well as the all-encompassing rage sibling have the uncanny ability to elicit from one another. While many other relationships in the novel seemed one-note, Brown depicted the ups and downs of family dynamics with honesty and zest.

Brown’s novel is not quite comedic nor dramatic. It heavily references Shakespeare, but neither in a way that feels educational nor makes informed readers feel “in the know”. I was hoping for more in this department, but the references are mostly discussion of the characters for which the sisters are named, as well as their professorial father’s tendency to quote the Bard.

As I said before, this novel was definitely not bad. However, I just felt sort of underwhelmed. It’s a quiet novel of a family’s interactions in the face of major change, both good and bad. It could almost be a slice-of-life novel, provided that the life in question is rather dramatic. This isn’t really my favorite type of book, though I respect it when it’s done well. This one isn’t done poorly, I just think Brown could have done more with the characters and situations she created.

While I wouldn’t classify this as a total disappointment — as I said, it’s not poorly written or unforgivably dull — I’m hoping my next read has a bit more verve and excitement.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Inferno

I am currently basking in the glow of smug self-congratulation. I didn’t figure out the whole mystery in Dan Brown’s latest novel, but I figured out where the characters needed to be — and well over a hundred pages before the protagonist, Robert Langdon, did. I suspected it even earlier, but my personal confirmation still came well before Langdon sorted through everything. High fives all around!

Confession: I do feel a tiny bit like I cheated, though, simply because this mystery was firmly in my wheelhouse. My specialties are Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance history, with a sub-specialty in history of the Crusades. Even more specifically, the disastrous 4th Crusade. No spoilers, but if you read this novel, you’ll see why I nailed it. Plus, on top of all that, I’ve even been to the place where I knew they needed to go. I have photos of it and everything.

InfernoPoint is, I felt right at home in Inferno. The novel features Robert Langdon, who Brown also chronicled in Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol. Out of the previous novels, my hands-down favorite was Angels & DemonsInferno is now a rather close second favorite, and it more than made up for my disappointment with The Lost Symbol.

The main plot of Inferno opens with Langdon’s mysterious awakening in Florence, Italy, after what seems to have been some sort of catastrophic incident in which he was non-fatally shot in the head. Langdon is suffering from retrograde amnesia, and has lost two days of his life. He has no idea what he’s doing in Florence, or why he’s carrying an artifact that doubles as a concealed projector of a painting depicting the levels of Hell described in Dante’s Inferno section of The Divine Comedy. Langdon soon finds himself groping blindly to figure out not only what he is investigating, but why. Along with a doctor who was treating him at the hospital, Langdon begins unraveling a complicated riddle centered on the famous poet Dante Alighieri and his enduring masterpiece, The Inferno.

Much like the previous novels, Langdon is a sort of academic James Bond. However, where The Lost Symbol veered too far into spy/action-hero territory, Inferno stays believable. Everything Langdon does has grounding in his background as a professor and well-known speaker and author, and the stunts he pulls — while impressive — are not out of the realm of possibility for any fit adult. Langdon focuses on the mysteries embedded in the poem and the myriad art it inspired. The number of parties involved in the hunt is large, and their allegiances shift more times than I could count. Hidden motives abound. There are twists upon twists, and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Brown yanks the rug out from under you by revealing yet another red herring. While I did guess the correct location, the characters, I admit, stumped me; the final reveal caught me quite off-guard.

I enjoyed Inferno immensely, and not just because the mystery fell within my areas of study and (minor) expertise. The novel is smart, fast-paced, and engaging. It manages to be thrilling both in terms of pure entertainment and the scholarly bent for which Brown has become famous. Each of his novels feels like a tour through the various locations, and I always come away with a vivid impression of the art, architecture, and culture of the novel’s respective city or cities. Personally, I think this is one of the best things Brown has written to date.  In a recent interview, Brown discussed his writing methodology, part of which is a focus on what he withholds from readers, saying, “A reader’s desire to guess what I’ve hidden is always more exciting than anything I can show.”

Dan Brown certainly kept me guessing, and kept me hooked. This novel is a continuation of the best traits of his earlier novels, and happily it purges the excesses that plagued The Lost Symbol. On top of the surface entertainment value, Brown poses some very interesting ethical questions, and draws readers’ attention to some serious issues that the world is facing today. Even after finishing the novel, I’ve been thinking — and thinking hard — about the problems highlighted, and the potential solutions proposed by the various characters. The novel ends without definitely answering any of the questions, so I feel safe in assuming that I’m doing exactly what Brown wants from his readers: thinking about not only the novel, but the broad implications of a pressing social issue. Kudos to Brown for both the novel and the considerations that I’m sure I’ll be mulling for some time to come.

Happy Reading!

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Review: Dead Ever After

(NOTE: No spoilers for this novel, but there will be spoilers for books #1-12.)

After fourteen years, Sookie Stackhouse’s adventures are over. Charlaine Harris’ thirteenth Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire novel is the last, as the title — Dead Ever After — indicates. I’m sad the series is over, but I think Harris was right to end it on her terms, the way she always envisioned, rather than dragging it out simply for the sake of producing more novels.

Dead Ever AfterThe novel begins at a crossroads, where two men are meeting a devil. The men, who remain nameless for some time, wait in the French Quarter of New Orleans to sell their souls, each for a distinct price.

The action then jumps to Mexico, where two men — also nameless — collaborate in a scheme to exact revenge against Sookie Stackhouse for some unknown reasons.

Harris, as you can see, starts the action immediately, but the reader is left in the dark about who these men are or what motivates them. Though Sookie is mentioned, we don’t get to her familiar narration and storyline until roughly twenty pages in. Sookie’s narrative begins the morning after [*MAJOR SPOILER FOR BOOK #12!!!*] she uses the cluviel dor, a magical relic from her fairy relatives that has the power to grant one wish, to raise Sam from the dead.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, Sam is stunned and overwhelmed by the experience, and is acting like a totally different person, especially  around Sookie. Meanwhile, Eric, Sookie’s vampire boyfriend, is furious at her for not using the cluviel dor to benefit him. Eric is still bound up in the negotiations for the marriage contract for his impending nuptials with Freyda, the Queen of Oklahoma, a process that hurts and humiliates Sookie every step of the way.

With all of this already straining her sanity, Sookie’s life gets immeasurably worse when her former friend Arlene shows back up. Arlene, though never a good friend to Sookie, broke all bonds when she tried to help her new anti-vampire/were/magic friends crucify Sookie. Luckily, Sookie evaded their cruel plan and Arlene and her accomplices all went to prison for attempted murder. Now, though, she was bailed out for reasons unbeknownst to her or Sookie; they quickly become apparent, however, when Arlene turns up murdered, with evidence planted on her body that points to Sookie as the perpetrator.

The bulk of the novel focuses on Sookie’s attempts to exonerate herself, alongside a group of her friends, including Amelia, Bob, Mr. Cataliades, Diantha, Quinn, and Barry. I really enjoyed this book; I flew through it under two days. The one facet that surprised me somewhat is how small a role the vampires played in this novel. Bill, Eric, Pam, and the usual assortment are present, but remain mostly in the background. Even the shifters take a notably smaller role. Unlike the previous installments in the series, this book is not about a vampire and/or shifter mystery adventure that spills over into Sookie’s life, but rather entirely Sookie-centric in both the focus and scope.

Without going into any spoilers, I will say that it ended the way I pretty much always expected it would. I was pleased with this ending, because I really do feel like Harris hinted in this direction throughout the dozen books leading up to this one. I wouldn’t say things were completely tied up or closed off, but it’s very clear how things will play out in Sookie’s future.

I’ll miss looking forward to a new Sookie Stackhouse novel every summer, but I’m sure I’ll find another series that will hook me in no time. (Plus, there’s still the bulk of my Masters’ Exam reading list to work through…)

Happy Reading!

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Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls

I just finished my first year of graduate school, and in celebration, I am treating myself to a week of pure pleasure reading. My first book is David Sedaris’ newest collection of stories and essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, etc. The book contains twenty or so short stories from Sedaris himself, and six short monologues meant for students doing “Forensics” exercises, which apparently are a form of competitive speech-giving. (I personally had never heard of this until Sedaris brought it up at his reading back in November.)

Let's Explore Diabetes with OwlsMy initial response to the essays and monologues is this: Sedaris’ essays are as wonderful and hilarious as always, while the monologues meant for forensics are amusing, but not nearly as good as his memoirs. In the author’s note preceding the text, Sedaris explains the monologues and points out that they are easily distinguishable from his other stories.  I definitely agree; especially after the first couple monologues, they become readily apparent as different from his other stories.

I absolutely loved so many of the stories in this volume, it’s incredibly hard to pick a favorite. My least favorite of the stories is easy, though: “Loggerheads.” I’ll come back to the high notes in a moment, but the one sour note is the story that I just couldn’t like. “Loggerheads” is generally about Sedaris’ childhood attempts to keep wild animals as pets, though it meanders on to other related subjects, as so many of his stories do. Sedaris is upfront about the fact that his attempts to “save” wild animals invariably killed them, and so from the outset of this story my animal-loving heart was uneasy. When he gets to the episode in which he took five baby sea turtles from the beach, my stomach sank to somewhere around my ankles. I know he was just a child, but I felt irrationally angry at his choices — as well as the fact that none of the adults stopped him. I was rather depressed and sickened by this story, and I all I can really say is that, in hindsight, Sedaris does recognize how awful his actions were.

Apart from this story, I uniformly loved the stories. Some of my favorites included one that he read when I saw him, “The Happy Place”, as well as “Easy, Tiger”, “Author, Author”, and “Standing By.” There were many other great stories, but I think these were some of the best. “Standing By” is about delays and mishaps traveling, and how strangers are thrown together into brief communities. I could absolutely relate to Sedaris’ feelings of wanting to scream at fellow passengers, as well as being casually judgmental of just about everyone you see in the airport.

I really love Sedaris’ books, as every one feels like a privileged peek into the life of someone with whom I’d love to be friends. The stories about traveling with Hugh, living in the countryside, and even getting a colonoscopy all are laughingly confidential, as if being shared over a cup of coffee. I love Sedaris’ writing style, and the way he can wring humor out of just about every situation, as well as transition from bitingly sarcastic to heartfelt and vulnerable and back again. Even in outlandish situations, Sedaris manages to seem absolutely relatable.

For more hilarity, watch the video of David Sedaris on The Daily Show the other night, which you can see here. He literally has Jon Stewart laughing so hard he can’t talk at one point. (Also, Sedaris makes fun of people who come to his readings in shabby clothing, which makes me preen even more over the fact that he complimented my dress and thanked me for dressing nicely when I saw him!)

I cannot recommend this book enough!

Happy reading!

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