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Joyful Girl

Andrea Blythe's blog about writing, reading, and everything else


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Books Read in September and October
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1. The Robber Bride (audio book), by Margaret Atwood
2. Bellweather, by Connie Willis
3. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama
4. Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami
5. Blackout, by Mira Grant
6. All About Emily, by Connie Willis
7. Rues (poetry), by Philip Kobylarz
8. Carnage Road, Gregory Lamberson
9. The Clan of the Cave Bear, but Jean M. Auel
10. Mr. X, by Peter Straub
11. Seraphina (audio book), by Rachel Hartman
12 Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses (poetry), by Ron Koertge, illustrated by Andrea Dezsö
Also, "The Call of Cthulhu" (short story), H.P. Lovecraft


READ REVIEWS:

1. The Robber Bride (audio book), by Margaret Atwood
I found it slow going in the first couple of chapters, but before long I was enthralled by this tale of three very different women who share one thing in common — all three have had their lives and loves upheaved by Zenia.

The story begins by the three women sharing mutual relief when they learn of Zenia's death, only to have her rise from the dead and appear before them, ready for battle. Atwood lovingly describes each of the three women, dipping back into their pasts and forward into their present. Each is wounded in some way, and though their bonding over Zenia is the impetus for their friendship, the seed that is planted grows into deep companionship and trust.

Zenia, however, remains ever on the outside, a wanderer, a mystery. She is beautiful, sexy, and in her associations with each of the other women, she becomes something slightly different, a reflection of what they need, what they want her to be. Zenia is shifting, changeable as wind, and someone who can never quite be nailed down. Questions about her are never really answered, and that's how it should be. No force of nature so fierce should ever by fully defined.


2. Bellweather, by Connie Willis
After reading Calico Reaction's review of Bellweather, I found myself dying to read it again. Bellweather is a humorous story about Sandra Foster, a scientist studying fad patterning in a corporate research firm headed by irrational management and an apathetic trend-obsessed, chaos causing mail clerk. Calico Reaction pretty much sums it up well. This is a fun and funny book about trends, chaos theory, and sheep, which I loved even more the second time around.


3. The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, by Farahad Zama
(This was an ARC provided by LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.)
In order to stave off his boredom (and avoid pestering his wife) after retirement, Mr. Ali decides to start a marriage bureau to help well-to-do families find suitable matches for their sons and daughters. As his list of clients grows, each asking for specific and occasionally peculiar characteristics of their spouse, Mr. Ali decides to hire Aruna as an assistant, a young women with a sorrowful past.

This book started out a bit slow for me. Zama has a somewhat sparse style, which at first felt a bit blunt in its directness, and the dialog sometimes feels a bit old fashioned, but his style grew on me as the story went along and as it resembled more and more a comedy of manners similar in style to Jane Austen.

Another aspect that slowed me down at first was the introduction of so many characters in a short amount of time, from Mr. and Mrs. Ali to their housekeeper to Aruna to the many new and interesting clients that come in the door. However, Zama manages to bring together the fluttering threads and weave them together in a sweet tale that touches upon various religions and the politics of the cast system, while also looking at marriage and love and where the two meet in a country of arranged marriages.

Zama shares the ins and outs of the culture, occasionally comparing Western views to Indian Islamic and Indian Hindi views of family and marriage. He presents intimate looks at two marriages, one Islamic and one Hindi, and incorporates cultural traditions naturally into the storyline. Though I can't be sure of his motives, its as though Zama wants to show how though these traditions are different, they can coexist without conflict, and like Mr. Ali, he doesn't judge anyone for their beliefs.

So, despite the slow beginning, by the final chapters I was enthralled and couldn't put it down. When I finally finished it, I did so with a smile and I am looking forward to see what stories Zama produces in the future.


4. Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami
Discussed elsewhere.


5. Blackout, by Mira Grant
Since it's the third and final book in the Newsflesh trilogy, I won't go into the plot. I will say that good old fashioned zombies along with zombie bears were involved, as well as nifty science, virology, and complex government conspiracies.

My only complaint is that the ending/climax felt a bit abrupt to me. After loving all three novels and all that's happened, all of a sudden it was just over, much to my shock. I went back and reread the climax, because it wasn't enough; I wanted more. I didn't want it to be over. That said, this book was an entertaining and mostly satisfying conclusion to the Masons' story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the series as a whole.


6. All About Emily, by Connie Willis
What starts out as a tale about an aging actress afraid the innocent looking Emily will replace her, turns into a story about free will and Broadway and what it means to be human. Being a novelette, this is a short and quick read. It is also delightfully fun with a smattering of pop culture references between bouts of witty humor. And though short and funny, Willis manages to delivery and emotional impact that had me crying at the end. Loved it.


7. Rues (poetry), by Philip Kobylarz
When I picked up this book, I assumed "Rues" meant "repentance" or "regret." Until I began reading and realize the author uses French words and lingo throughout the book, therefore "Rues" in this case probably means "streets." I imagine that Kobylarz wrote this poetry on a trip to France (though I have no idea if that's true or not). Each poem in this series is short, ranging from 4-8 lines, like a postcard, a snippet of another place, a metaphorically charged snapshot. He manages to pack a lot into the small space of each poem, which is quite wonderful. This is a collection I would like to have on my bookshelf.


8. Carnage Road, Gregory Lamberson
What the FREAKING FRAK! I was definitely into this story about two former members of a biker gang, Walker and Boone, who decide to take a post apocalyptic across a zombie infested America. The characters were interesting, the world as presented was cool, and the writing was good (except for a few and far between spattering of really bad grammer mistakes). I liked seeing the different people and groups they met a long the way, most blaming others for the apocalypse (some blaming the liberals, some blaming the conservatives, etc.). It was all great and fun, right up until the freaking ending.

Look, I'm all for open ended endings. If an author wants to leave some questions unanswered, that's fine by me. Heck, more often than not, I tend to enjoy it. BUT there is a huge difference between "open ended" and "cliffhanger," which is exactly what this story ended on. And again, I don't have a problem with cliffhangers, providing they are part of a series or trilogy, and therefore, I know the story will continue at some point. But NO, this is meant to be a stand alone novella, and the writer MIGHT at some point tell more Walker and Boone stories. Un-bleeping-believable. Gah!!

I give this one three stars, because despite how much the ending annoyed the frak out of me, it was a really good story right up until that point. *sigh*


9. The Clan of the Cave Bear, but Jean M. Auel
This book has probably been sitting on my bookshelf since high school (about 14+ years), but I remember it being very popular when I first grabbed it and having conversations about the series (how ridiculous it is, but still enjoyable in other ways) with my college mates. When I travel, I like to grab easy reads that I don't mind leaving behind (this book was left in a hostel in Füssen), so this seemed like an excellent choice in that regard.

Set in the ancient world, The Clan of the Cave Bear tells the story of Ayla, who is orphaned after a giant earthquake and taken in by a group of cave dwellers who call themselves the Clan of the Cave Bear. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed Ayla is one of the Others and is considered ugly by the short, bow-legged, dark colored, neanderthal Clan people. Over and over again in the story, Ayla (either by accident or design) comes up against the traditions of the Clan people, who are set in their ways and unable to change.

I was kind of fascinated by the culture of the Clan, which believes in and worships animal spirits and has a strict hierarchy with men as entirely dominant over their docile and obedient women. The clearly sexist culture of the Clan seems to have been designed to show that this is the stone age and thus be "realistic," while setting it up for Ayla to be more progressive as a woman capable of being equal to men. It's an oversimplification in order to easily play on the reader's sympathies, but for all of that (and for Broud being a single minded and one-dimensional villain), there are some lovely characters in the the clan, such as Creb, the deformed shaman, and Iza, the medicine woman who takes Ayla in. Both, but especially Creb, had some wonderful complexities of character that I rather enjoyed.

Ayla her self was a little too perfect. She's good at just about everything she does, except for being docile and submissive. She screws up again and again in terms of Clan traditions, but these screw ups are positives from a modern mindset, so as readers we are clearly meant to take her side against the less evolved Clan. Also, the story got to be a bit repetitive as she screws up, is nearly rejected by the Clan, and then is fogiven..., several times.

There were a few things that made me very uncomfortable while reading this book. One, was the concept of racial memory prevalent in the book and the idea that the Clan cannot change their ways, because their culture is genetically endowed in them, a rather disturbing concept, especially in regard to continuing discussions of race. Two, is that Ayla, as blonde and blue-eyed, is set up as the future of the human race, while the dark hair and eyed Clan people are doomed to death because they can't change. I don't care that they are meant to be less evolved and that this is the stone age, the author didn't have to set Ayla off by making her so starkly blonde. It could have been just as clear that she was more evolved by showing her height and body structure as by her coloring.

Another thing that was far more minor, and something I'm note entirely sure of, is that I kept scratching my head in terms of the mixture of geography, plant life, and animal species. I mean, I associate the lynx with either Europe or North America and lions and rhinos with Africa, and I'm not entirely sure they ever mixed in natural settings. Maybe they did and I just don't know it, but I kept getting confused about how certain animals ever came in contact with each other.

So..., this book is flawed in many big ways, but it was also compelling enough to keep me reading to the end, which left me wondering what the heck happens to Ayla next and willing to pick up the next book The Valley of the Horses to find out. So, I would say, the author has done her job in terms of keeping things entertaining.


10. Mr. X, by Peter Straub
From the back cover: "Every year on his birthday, Ned Dunstan has a paralysing seizure in which he is forced to witness scenes of ruthless slaughter perpetrated by a mysterious figure in black whom he calls Mr X. Now, with his birthday fast approaching, Ned has been drawn back to his home town of Edgerton, Illinois, by a premonition that his mother is dying. On her deathbed, she imparts to him the name of his long-absent father and warns him that he is in grave danger. Despite her foreboding, he embarks on a search through Edgerton's past for the truth behind his own identity and that of his entirely fantastic family. But when Ned becomes the lead suspect in three violent deaths, he begins to realize that he is not the only one who has come home!"

At heart this dark fantasy novel is about the twisted truths that lie at the heart of one's family history and whether it's better to leave secrets buried or dig them up. Peter Straub does an amazing job of unraveling pieces of information that slowly form into at larger picture. His characters are complex and fascinating, which makes the story absolutely compelling with an ending that kind of blew my mind and makes me want to go back and read it again. Fantastic book.


11. Seraphina (audio book), by Rachel Hartman
Discussed Elsewhere.


Also, "The Call of Cthulhu" (short story), H.P. Lovecraft
After the mysterious death of his anthropologist uncle, a man goes looking into a mysterious and terrifying cult that worships Cthulhu, a tentacle headed creature with a scaly human-like body and massive wings.

This story was more readable than some of Lovecraft's other stories, but oh, my, the racism. The evil cult is followed by mostly African and other native cultures, along with mix-blooded people, which the narrator calls degenerates. It's very clear that white folk are the good guys and other races are the wicked ones with their voodooism and pagan worship and sacrifice. (I was going to give this four stars, but can't bring myself to do so, because of the racism.)

It's easy enough to follow the story and it was kind of cool to read the story that sparked the Chtulhu mythology. The Old Ones are interesting and frightening creatures and the "wrong" angles and up is down insanity aspects are certainly creative.

But I think I prefer the pop-culture versions of Cthulhu that have spawned from Lovecraft's originals far more than I enjoy the originals. There is such delightful play surrounding Cthulhu now with plushies and new books and games and videos and fun all around, which fills me with joy.

12. Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses (poetry), by Ron Koertge, illustrated by Andrea Dezsö
I'm a huge fan of new twists on old fairy tales, and Koertge present 23 such classic tales in free verse poetry (definitely geared toward young adults) along with some simple but wonderfully disturbing illustrations by Andrea Dezsö. Unfortunately, I was hoping he would push the boundaries a bit more and present some really interesting points of view.

That said, I adored his beautiful and chilling poem, "The Stepsisters," and I also enjoyed "Memoirs of a Beast," "The Little Match Girl," and "The Emperor's New Clothes: An Afterword." Typically, the poems where he stretched himself the furthest, and took the least expected viewpoints were the ones that I enjoyed the most. As a whole the collection is good, but not one I am personally in love with.

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I wonder if the reception for The Clan of the Cave Bear would be different if it was published today? Or did people question back then its portrayal of race?

I'm a bit Atwood fan and I enjoyed The Robber Bride. I think there's a movie out there...

Also a Peter Straub fan - his novel Julia is one of the best ghost stories ever written I think - will definitely add Mr X to my wish list!

I'm sure there was some discussion about the racial stuff, but I don't think it was as wide spread then as it would be today. The internet was next to none existent back then and so there wasn't the power to massively spread discussions as there is now.

There's a Robber Bride movie?? I'm going to have to look that up!

I'm definitely looking to read more Peter Straub, so I'll put Julia down as the next book of his that I need to read. :)

Oh, you haven't read Julia?! You are in for a treat...

It also has a film version, starring Mia Farrow, but I haven't heard good things about it.

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