Rites of Spring (Break): Ah, College

September 28, 2008

Rites of Spring (Break) is the third installment in Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl Series.  Amy Haskel and the rest of her “Digger” members in Eli University’s Rose & Grave secret society head to the society’s private island for spring break.  Amy has had a bad spring semester with escalating pranks between Rose & Grave and another secret society, pranks that turn personal very quickly as well as the uncertain return of her former boyfriend, Brandon, so naturally, she is looking forward to a few weeks of R&R on the island.  Alas, it is not to be.  As soon as she and her friends arrive, strange, sinister events begin happening, including Amy almost drowning and belongings becoming defaced.  And is romance with an unlikely member in the air?

Every time I get one of the books in the series, I can’t put it down.  I feel so juvenile reading the series (since there is a good 10 years between me and Amy), but Peterfreund writes so well that the books are elevated beyond what they might be in the hands of a lesser writer.  And frankly, I just enjoy them. Maybe it’s because they take me back to college where like Amy, I was a lit (English) major.  Maybe it’s because I am intrigued by secret societies, and it is no secret that the Rose & Grave is based on Yale’s Skull and Bones (Peterfreund’s alma mater).  These books are just soapy, clever fun.  The worst part is that Peterfreund plans only one more book in the series 😦

My verdict:  excessively diverting


Cocktails for Three: the Drinking was the best part

September 28, 2008

2000 was a busy year for Sophie Kinsella.  In addition to publishing the first book in her Shopaholic series, she published Cocktails for Three under her real name, Madeleine Wickham.  Cocktails for Three is about three friends who work for a London magazine and meet regularly at the Manhattan for drinks. Writer Candice is naive and trusting, believing everyone needs a helping hand while trying to deal with her guilt over the crimes her dead father committed.  On the eve of giving birth to her first child, editor-in-chief Maggie prides herself on her ability to manage any situation and person but finds herself overwhelmed with life in the country with a newborn.  Travel writer Roxanne regularly jets off to exotic locales for the magazine, yet finds herself tied to London by her married boyfriend, hoping fervently that he’ll make a life with her.  Little do they know that their lives are about to change drastically.

This book was ok.  I was surprised by how “ok” I found it since it had received pretty good reader reviews.  I think part of the problem I had with the book was reading it with my 2008 sensibilities.  In 2000 when the book was written, chick lit hadn’t peaked yet.  The situations likely seemed fresh in 2000 but seem a little dated now.  Interestingly, I wondered if Wickham borrowed some of Candice’s background for the protagonist’s background in Remember Me, the novel published in 2008 under her Kinsella pseudonym.  I noticed definite similarities.

All in all, just ok.  It’s fairly well-written though a little dated.  It sort of feels like a novel by a writer discovering her genre (though it was her 4th or 5th).

Panic in Level 4: Passionless Tales about Science

September 20, 2008

Richard Preston’s Panic in Level 4: Cannibals, Killer Viruses and Other Journeys to the Edge of Science reads like Preston decided he needed to publish another book and threw together a bunch of old essays.  Preston is well-known for his science writing, including his thriller Hot Zone.

Panic in Level 4 combines essays on the Chudnovskys, genius brothers who built a supercomputer in a cramped NYC apartment in order to calculate pi as far as possible in their quest to discern some sort of pattern; Preston’s old friend Ebola and his visit inside a Level 4 lab and own brush with the virus; the Unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters and the incredibly difficult attempt to render them digitally for preservation; self-cannibals; Craig Venter’s part in decoding the human genome; and insect parasites destroying huge parts of American forests. 

Some of the essays were more interesting than others.  I enjoy a good killer virus tale, so I liked the Level 4 essay, and the Cloisters one was pretty interesting.  I found the Chudnovskys’ attempt to find over a billion digits of Pi confusing and quixotic, but I’ve stated before that I’m no mathematician.  You can’t argue with how well-written the essays are, but they have little relationship to each other and it’s jarring.  The book isn’t cohesive at all, which I guess is acceptable since it’s not a narrative.  I wonder if the book could have been structured differently.  For example, there was a reference to the self-cannibalism disease in the Venter essay, and then the last chapter of the book was about that disease.  It was jarring to me to read the mention of the disease and then discover the full story later on.

The book simply wasn’t what I thought it would be.

Death of a Writer: the Sick, Sordid World of Academia

September 20, 2008

Michael Collins’ Death of a Writer asks which is the bigger crime, plagiarism or murder?  Society might say murder, but academia might say plagiarism.  In this literary detective story, E. Robert Pendleton started off well and appears to be headed nowhere fast.  After early literary success, he is rotting as a literary professor at a small, elite liberal arts college in the Midwest.  After bringing his successful nemesis to campus, Pendleton attempts suicide but fails.  Directionless graduate student Adi Wiltshire is bequeathed his estate and uncovers a little-known manuscript of Pendleton’s called Scream, which is an existential exploration of the world with a gruesome murder thrown in.  As the republished Scream climbs the charts while Pendleton remains unaware in a coma, cold-case detective Jon Ryder notices parallels between the murder in the book and an unsolved murder in the town.  Did Pendleton murder the young girl and use the material for his book?  If he did, does it matter in terms of the reception of the book?  Ryder seems to be everywhere at once, uncovering the town’s secrets while his primary reason for being there, the murder of Amber Jewel, appears to remain unsolved.

Death of a Writer was an odd book.  At times I loved it, and at times it annoyed me, which I suspect was Collins’ goal.  He structured the book in such a way that everything had a purpose and a meaning.  For example, the Ryder, the detective, appears at times not to be a very good detective and overlooking in-your-face clues to pursue flimsy suspects.  At first I wondered if this was poor writing, but I came to realize that it was a intentional part of the book.  Collins meant for Ryder to be absurd.  

Collins effortlessly savages the academic world AND the detective novel in one fell swoop, and it is marvelous.  Everyone is a suspect for the flimsiest of reasons while the real villain remains unmasked. Oh, and let’s not leave out the German philosophy.  I never read much Nietzsche, but after this novel, I consider myself well informed.   It’s interesting because you are tempted to dismiss the novel as a satire of academia, but then it becomes a very hard-boiled and grim detective novel.  Bad things happen and often without any real rhyme or reason other than that’s the way it was, which is true to the existential spirit of the book.  It’s sad and funny and grim and awful and infuriating all at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book.  It’s slim, yet about 15 different complex things are going on in it.  If you look plays within plays and things like that, then you’ll love this book because it’s like a book within a book within a book:  an novel about academia within a detective novel within a book making fun of both.

Sandstorm: More like a, um, another kind of storm

September 14, 2008

Shitstorm.  That’s what I wanted to write for this post’s title.  My innate prudishness got in the way however.  James Rollins is one of those authors who infuriates better, typically unpublished writers.  He’s a writer who comes up with a wild plot idea, proceeds to write it quickly and with little finesse, publishes it and watches it become a bestseller. I feel qualified to pass this judgment because 1) I can read and 2) I’ve somehow read more than one of his books.

Sigh.  Blame it one the library booksale.  I wanted a quick, mindless, fun read and plucked this gem off my shelf.  It wasn’t exactly quick at 464 pages, and I didn’t find it particularly fun, but it was fairly mindless.  Sandstorm has a ludicrous plot, and that’s saying something coming from me, an admitted reader of conspiracy theories and alternative histories.  Anyway.  Sandstorm introduces Painter Crowe, a combination of brains and brawn who goes on with his Sigma group to star in Rollins’ next several books.  The plot such as it is: During a horrible storm in London, ball lightning is observed to interact weirdly with an item in the Kensington Gallery.  Minutes later the gallery explodes, and almost everything in it is completely destroyed.  Washington DC detects the residue of antimatter in the debris and dispatches Crowe and his new partner (his former partner betrayed him spectacularly) to London to investigate.  Meanwhile, in Londa, the gallery’s curator, Safia Al-Maaz and her patroness and childhood friend Lady Kensington have discovered something related to the lost city of Ubar in the debris…something related to the antimatter readings as well.  Crowe, Al Maaz, Lady Kensington meet up with the annoying archaeologist Omaha Dunn and his paleontologist brother in Saudi Arabia, and it quickly becomes clear that they aren’t the only ones seeking the lost city of Ubar. Just what lives out there under the desert sands?  And who are the mysterious women who appear to be stalking the group’s every move?

I know what Rollins intended to do.  He intended to tie the legend of the Queen of Sheba and parthenogenisis to Biblical tales. But it didn’t work.  I was hopelessly confused by the antimatter part of the story and exactly how the ancients manipulated it.  Or how it got there.  And once they got to Ubar?  I was completely unable to visualize the lost city.  Every character was one dimensional.  Poor Lady Kensington was a druggie with daddy issues.  Safia’s guilt complex verged on a martyr complex.  Omaha Dunn was clearly supposed to be an Indiana Jones-type figure but instead made me wonder how he managed to survive.  Poor Painter Crowe was left to wander off like David Banner at the end of the book, alone again.  I practically heard the music.

Definitely not worth the time, and I’m glad I paid on 25 cents for the book.

Lady Julia is Silent No More

September 6, 2008

It’s probably not a surprise to any readers of this blog or anyone who knows me in “real” life that I have a weakness for aristocrats, nobility and royalty that goes back very far (like 3rd grade).  I enjoy reading biographies about them but even more I enjoy historical fiction.  I recently stumbled across Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries and found them quite enjoyable. 

  • Silent in the Grave: In which we meet Lady Julia.  The book opens with the death of Lady Julia’s husband and introduces both Julia and the reader to Nicholas Brisbane, the physically diverting private detective who stuns Julia with the news that her husband’s death may not have been from natural causes.  Julia insists on helping him investigate and as she investigates, she learns sordid facts about the husband she apparently didn’t know.  Widowed young and left wealthy, Julia begins to find herself and establish her identity while confronting truths about the life she thought she knew. 
  • Silent in the Sanctuary is the second book in the series.  Lady Julia has spent the last few months in Italy with two of her brothers, recovering from, well. everything in the first book when they are summoned back to spend Christmas in England with their father. Ostensibly, they are summoned due to their father’s displeasure with one of her brother’s sudden marriage, but Lady Julia discovers that her wily father is up to something.  They arrive at their family’s country estate to find a house full of relatives and friends…including Nicholas Brisbane…with a fiancee.  Soon, the joys of family are eclipsed by a murder in the old sanctuary in the house.  And Lady Julia discovers that everyone in the house appears to be hiding something.

Apparently, widowed aristocratic women becoming involved in mysteries is a trend. I can think of one other author right off the bat:  Tasha Alexander whose writes the Lady Emily mysteries (though I wasn’t a huge fan of the first novel in the series And Only to Deceive.  Writing about wealthy widows makes sense, though.  If you write about unmarried women, your novel might begin to resemble or become categorized with historical romance (which of course MUST mean the novel has no redeeming literary value since everyone knows romance novels are a blight on the literary world).  The widowed aristrocratic woman had freedom or at least much more freedom than an unmarried debutante did. 

Ok, so maybe one other author writing similar novels does not a trend make, but there are other similarities between Raybourne’s and Alexander’s books besides the widowed women and the mysteries:  the widows are rich and attractive; they both experience an awakening of the soul or intellect after the spouse’s death.  They discover the spouse was not who they thought he was.  A new, somewhat mysterious love interest is introduced almost immediately.  The widow soon travels to another country (France for Lady Emily and Italy for Lady Julia).  The heroine’s parents or family are prominent though in Lady Emily’s case, her family (at least her mother) disapproves of everything she does while Lady Julia’s family is bohemian (though protected by their wealth and privilege).  I feel like I just wrote a comparison/contrast essay!

I definitely prefer Lady Julia to Lady Emily.  If I recall correctly, I was not a fan of Lady Emily’s character in Alexander’s book.  She seemed very brash to me…too used to being the center of attention.  Lady Julia’s character seemed to have a true awakening.  Growing up in a wild, unconventional family, she wanted convention and not to stand out.  As the books go on, she begins to appreciate the freedom she has and take stands on she wants and deserves to be treated and to express herself.

The Lady Julia mysteries deftly explore some grim, sordid topics:  sexually transmitted diseases, incest, racism, etc.  Sometimes novels set in other eras fail when they attempt to explore topics that would have been a huge scandal in the designated time period because those topics and events just aren’t scandalous anymore.  It’s difficult to appreciate how shocking they would have been to an inhabitant of the era.  Raybourn does this well, however.  I felt Lady Julia’s shock and was just as shocked myself at some of the revelations. 

The second book in the series was not quite as good as the first.  It seemed like Raybourn tried to do too much in it, and some storylines and characters seemed extraneous.  But overall, I highly recommend the series.

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