Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Killing Frost (The Tomorrow Series #3) by John Marsden (1995)

Dr. M got this book free at the end of one of his teaching classes, and while I don't usually like to start a series in the middle, I wanted to put the book in my "sell" pile* and just couldn't let myself do that until I'd read it. It's really kind of a compulsion.

I didn't know until I started exploring things that A Killing Frost (1995) (originally titled The Third Day, The Frost) is the third book in Australian author John Marsden's extremely popular Tomorrow Series.

In the first book in the series, Ellie Linton (our narrator), a rural Australian teenager, and six of her friends go camping in the bush outside of their small town. When they get back, they quickly notice that there are no people around and all the farm animals are starving. After finding a warning from her father, Ellie and the other teens learn that the country was invaded by a foreign army (never named in the book) who wants to imprison the Australians and colonize the country. They go back into hiding and end up fighting a guerrilla war against the invaders, with their actions building up and becoming more and more ambitious.

By the time we get to this third book, some of the group is dead and some are imprisoned. Ellie and the remaining friends are extremely bored in hiding and decide to walk to the big regional port, which is being used by the enemy to bring in people and weapons. They come up with a plan to attack the port, but at great risk to themselves. And if they survive the explosion, they realize the enemy won't be able to ignore them any longer.

While I almost certainly would have enjoyed this book more if I had read the first two books in the series, Marsden gives enough background that the book works reasonably well on its own. Motivations and emotions are sometimes spelled out a little too clearly, and sometimes the characters and dialogue are pretty broad, but I think that can be forgiven in a young adult book. The action and suspense scenes are very well written and make the book hard to put down -- I can see why the series has been such a success with young readers. I didn't like the book enough to seek out the rest of the books in the series (which was initially supposed to be a trilogy, but ended up having seven books plus a follow-up series called The Ellie Chronicles), but if one landed in my lap I'd probably give it a read.

[* holy shit, I just looked the trade paperback version that I have of this up on Amazon and its going for at least 50 bucks! Mayhaps I will get lucky...]

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1962)

My good friend Corie recently lent me a pile of books which included Diana Athill's 1962 memoir Instead of a Letter. I hadn't heard of Athill, who has had a long career as a editor and publisher in England, but I've definitely heard of the authors she has worked with, including Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Simone de Beauvoir. While she has written several other memoirs, this one, her first, doesn't focus on her publishing career. Instead, it tells the story of her growing up, her young adulthood, and her relatively lonely life up until her early 40s when she writes the book, all of which hinge on a devastatingly failed relationship.

Athill grew up in a well-off family in East Anglia that didn't have nearly as much money as it used to, but still had its name and a big family estate in the country. She was always a big reader, but never that interested in school. Still, the family decided she would go to Oxford and when she was 15 they hired an Oxford undergraduate to come tutor her and her siblings. This was Paul, and Diana fell in love with him before she even saw him. Her adolescent admiration turned into friendship and later a mutual love. They slept together, went to parties and pubs, and eventually, when Diana was herself at Oxford, they got engaged. Paul joined the Royal Air Force and went off to spend a year abroad while Diana finished up school. They had a passionate correspondence which suddenly stopped on Paul's end. Diana kept sending letters -- pleading ones, angry ones, questioning ones, but he didn't write back. For two years. And when he did, it was a cool letter requesting that she release him from their engagement because he was going to marry someone else.

This confusing and cruel treatment would be a blow to anyone, but particularly so to a passionate young woman who had seen her life goals as marrying Paul, being a military wife, and having children. Her confidence was shocked and her ability to enter into another open and trusting relationship was hurt. Even more so when Paul dies in the war and she never gets to confront him or ask him why.

The book goes on and Athill gets a job at the BBC, meets her friend and publishing partner André Deutsch, travels, reads, thinks, and eventually starts writing. The back of the book (and honestly, my description of it above) makes this sound like it is about nothing but her relationship with Paul, whereas the book is really much more philosophical and self-reflective than that. Athill has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about her personality, her actions, and her desires, and that thoughtfulness is spread thickly amongst the anecdotes and happenings of her youth.

While Athill's experiences as a young woman are unique, very British, rather upper class, and happened in the 1930s, her descriptions of adolescent longing, sexuality, intellectual exploration, and family dynamics are relatable and universal. The book has a distant, well crafted tone that is missing from many memoirs (which today tend to be much more flashy and winky), which made it relaxing and enjoyable to read.

I'd definitely like to check out more of Athill's autobiographical work, including her most recent book Somewhere Towards the End about her old age. Here's to classy British ladies of letters!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie (1959)

The always amazingly awesome Dan likes to read Agatha Christie books, and since she wrote so many of them, he sometimes accidentally buys one he already has. This worked out great for me, because he recently gave me his extra copy of Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons (1959), and I've really liked all the Christie I've read so I was quite happy to read it.

Cat Among the Pigeons takes place at Meadowbank, an exclusive English girls school run by the formidable Miss Bulstrode. But it starts in the middle eastern kingdom of Ramat where the ruling price is about to be ousted in a revolution and asks Bob Rawlinson his best friend, pilot, and friend from his school days in England to take care of his family nest egg -- a small but very valuable cache of exquisite jewels.

At the start of the new term at Meadowbank there are many returning students and staff, as well as a few new faces. However, not everyone is what they seem on the surface, and at least one of them is a cold blooded killer. When a school mistress gets in between the killer and the treasure, the murders begin.

Christie does a wonderful job of drawing a convincing proper boarding school and juggles the personalities and motives of a couple dozen characters masterfully. The key to the mystery isn't too hard to figure out, but there are a couple of secondary twists that are very satisfying and no pesky loose ends are left at the end of the book. This is billed as "A Hercule Poirot Murder Mystery," and Poirot does show up in the last third of the book to perfunctorily sift through clues and explain it all for us. I really like the character of Poirot, but in this book his presence seems tacked on and unnecessary and he really isn't given much to do.

So, don't read this one for the Poirot angle, but do read it for a satisfying mystery with a complex stable of characters and an oh-so-British setting. Thumbs up!

[Note: this isn't the cover of the book that I read, which is an 80s-tastic Pocket Books edition, but I like this one better. Photo credit.]

Friday, January 14, 2011

tweet tweet

If you like that new-fangled Twitter thing that is all the rage amongst the youngsters, you must follow @DrMystery99, who happens to be both the funniest man on Twitter and the love of my life. You will not be disappointed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Achewood Volume 3: A Home for Scared People by Chris Onstad (2010)

I don't like book signings, author readings, or literary events. I just like sitting and reading books. And yet, I did walk to a local comic book store with my husband (and had "nerds!" yelled at us by some dudes in a car) so that I could stand in line for a couple hours, briefly meet Chris Onstad, and have him sign a couple of books. And it was totally worth it. Achewood is one of the best parts of the internet, and it just keeps getting smarter and more elegant with every strip. Plus there are still cuss words and the occasional crude joke.

Achewood Volume 3: A Home for Scared People is the third Achewood collection put out by Dark Horse Books, and includes the strips from May through October 2002. This happens to include my favorite strip of all time. Just look at it -- I defy you to find anything else as funny on the entire internet!

Much like Volume 2, all of the strips are presented with the alt text from the web site, and annotated by Onstad. And, once again, the strips are accompanied by a few wonderful character-based prose pieces -- one of Onstad's biggest strengths is the depth of his characters and their voices, and his ability to bring out those voices both in the comics and in the longer pieces.

If you like Achewood, or even if you just like very nice looking books, then Achewood Volume 3 should probably find a place on your shelf right next to Volume 1 and Volume 2. I know that's where I'm putting mine...

[note: I realized after looking up my review of Volume 2 that I opened it with the same story of going to the comic store, but its a pretty good story, so it won't hurt you to hear it twice.]

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Lost Lustre by Josh Karlen (2010)

I received a copy of Josh Karlen's collection of biographical essays, Lost Lustre: A New York Memoir (2010), as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Despite some flaws, and a rough beginning, I ended up liking this one.

Karlen was born in 1964 and grew up split between his father's place in the bohemian, intellectual, and relatively well-off Village, and his mother's place in a new housing development right in the middle of Alphabet City, a poor, drug-filled, crime-ridden neighborhood that wouldn't really be gentrified for another twenty years. He went to an arts-focused public high school, flunked out, drank a lot, did some drugs, went to lots of punk clubs, graduated from an alternative high school, worked some crappy jobs, briefly visited the Amazon, and then was accepted to a college program in Wisconsin. He eventually went on to work as a journalist and then a lawyer, get married and move back to the city, and make some time for some serious reflection on his childhood, adolescence, and the nature of memory itself.

Karlen is at his best when he describes the experiences, people, and places of his youth. Sometimes his descriptions can get a little out of control, but for the most part his narrative is evocative and intriguing. Where he falters is when he gives into his overwhelming desire for self reflection and philosophizing on the nature of his life, the passing of time, and the act of remembering (particularly in the first essay, "My Sixties," which made me think I wasn't going to like the rest of the book at all). Of course any memoir springs from a need for self-reflection, but the best ones walk the balance between sharing experiences and ideas that reflect the human experience and devolving into "me me me me me me me."

The essays in this memoir seem to have been written for different purposes and collected later under one title, and there is some repetition of details between pieces which leads to a choppy flow for the book. On the plus side, this means that each essay can pretty much stand on its own, including the title piece, the longest and most developed part of the book, which describes Karlan's relationship with his boyhood friend who grew into a charming front man for a band and a horrible alcoholic who ended up dying when he was 29. Karlan loses touch with his friend and doesn't find out that he died until 14 years have passed, at which time he looks up all their old friends and tries to reconstruct the magic of their friendship and the downhill slide that Karlan missed while he was living his life and assuming that his friend was doing fine.

Having never even been to New York, I'm not sure how Karlan's descriptions and experiences compare to other city-dwellers, but for the most part I found them interesting and this would be a fun and quick read if you are a big fan of memoirs, self-reflection, or New York City.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir (1998)

I have a bit of a thing for royalty, particularly English royalty, and most of all, the queens. I've read quite a few fiction and non-fiction books that cover the reign of the Tudors in England, but I've never read a whole biography just of the exceedingly influential and interesting Elizabeth I until I picked up Alison Weir's The Life of Elizabeth I (1998).

This book primarily covers Elizabeth's time as queen of England, starting at the age of 25, although there is some discussion of her early life and her life under the reign of her sister, Mary Tudor. Those interested in more information on Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth's parents) will have to turn to another book, and although their story is pretty damn interesting, Elizabeth's reign is full enough to fill multiple volumes so Weir made a wise decision to limit the scope of the book.

Weir's book is well researched and very readable -- giving you enough social and political context to understand Elizabeth's actions and motivations, without drowning you in dates, details, and battles. Weir seems to focus more on the personal life of Elizabeth than the political one (although in many cases they are inseparable) and much of the book is devoted to Elizabeth's "will she or won't she" negotiations of marriage.

Beyond the question of marriage, a big focus in Elizabeth's life was her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who she corresponded with extensively, imprisoned in England for 17 years, and eventually executed. Since I read a rather comprehensive biography of Mary of a few years ago, it was really fascinating to see their relationship described from the other side.

Overall, Elizabeth comes off as a very smart, funny, vain, powerful, and private woman who kept peace in England for 45 years during a period of religious upheaval in Europe, a task few other sovereigns could handle, and Weir's book provides a comprehensive and engaging look at both the woman and her reign.

Of course, it isn't all fighting the Spanish Armada, flirting with courtiers, and saving Shakespearean theatre from the Puritans. Weir makes sure to throw in some pretty amusing anecdotes. Like the time an Italian pyrotechnics expert had to be dissuaded from shooting live cats and dogs into the air as part of a display honoring a visit by Elizabeth.

Or this one:
When the Earl of Oxford broke wind when bowing before her, he was so ashamed that he went into self-imposed exile for seven years; upon his return, Elizabeth warmly received him, then said, with a mischievous twinkle, 'My Lord, I had forgot the fart.'