Sunday, November 30, 2008

When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Sooo...I was sitting here on this cold snowy sort of day contemplating whether or not the roads might be too bad to go to church since I don't get my good tires on until tomorrow. Oh wait, I was actually thinking about how I was going to write two lovely posts about how I was going to "clean the slate" and stop reading two books. Then I went in search of pictures for the posts and was distracted by the plethora of good reviews for the one and how maybe I didn't want to stop reading the other in the first place even though I was getting impatient with it. The one I find so unbelievable but like the writing, the other I'm not so into the author's writing but still want to hear the rather interesting stories he's collected. So, I've reached an impasse. Is it these books that I really want to give up on or is it me and the fact that I'm kind of in a depressed, whiny mood and eager for some sort of change even if it's just a total clean slate when it comes to the books that I'm reading? Being prone to indecisiveness in all things, I can't seem to make up my mind. This leaves me with but one possible action, and that's to review a book that I actually did finish and very much enjoyed, though there were some tense moments at the beginning when I thought I just wouldn't be able to get into it.

That book is When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale. At its beginning, I wasn't sure if maybe it would drive me crazy, but by the end I was quite certain that Kneale had done something brilliant.

When We Were Romans is the story of Lawrence, a nine-year-old boy from England, as told by Lawrence himself. As the story begins, Lawrence, his younger sister Jemima, and their mother have just returned from a triumphant trip to a distant grocery store where they were forced to go because Lawrence's mother, Hannah, is certain that her ex-husband and the children's father is stalking them with evil intent. Even a trip to the grocery store without any unfortunate happenings is cause for celebration. Still, though, Hannah is distraught that her ex is lurking around every corner turning the neighbors against her and her children and lying in wait to do them some unspeakable harm. In an effort to escape this lingering terror, she packs up the two kids and shuttles them off to Rome, the last place she remembers being happy where the small family moves from place to place to stay with Hannah's old friends.

Lawrence renders the tale of their trip to Rome in possibly the most authentic nine-year-old voice ever executed by a grown man. At the start, it's a bit of a struggle to get used to, seeing as Lawrence's spelling and punctuation errors are included. Dialogue isn't separated out into the lines but included in the larger paragraphs along with many of Lawrence's thoughts which are marked as quotes. Then, however, something happens and you might well find you've been swept away by this short novel.

Lawrence's quirks and idiosyncrasies with spelling breathe as much life into this novel as does the story itself. His narration is full of the petty concerns of a nine-year-old such as his irritation with his little sister, his obsessive desire to acquire an army of Roman soldiers despite the fact that his mother apparently has no money, and his conviction that the young son of one of his mother's friends is going to steal his hamster in throw him in the trash. More significant, however, is that the narration is also fraught with the keen perception that children have of even those things that should be beyond their understanding. Lawrence knows when his mother is getting a bit too close to one of her old friends, he picks up on the subtle change between his mother and her best friend when the friend starts to doubt the truth of Hannah's stories, and he even knows, though he hesitates to admit it, that there is something a bit askew about this whole trip to Rome.

So the Romens never did say that it was strange to do a trial for a dead body, in fact they didn't say anything at all. But after, when they all went home to their houses, when they sat down and ate their dinner and it was really quiet, so they could hear their knives go "clink clink" and the clock go "tick tock" then I think they all knew.

As with other well-liked books such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the unique narrator of When We Were Romans allows Kneale to add many layers to the story that couldn't exist if we were given a "typical" narrator. The story as filtered though Lawrence's eyes is one of excitement, mystery, and horror which leaves it to us to uncover just what lurks beneath the surface of seemingly ordinary events. Additionally, Kneale cleverly intersperses the real-time happenings with Lawrence's recounting of the things he's been reading, alternately tidbits about space for his school report and his reading from his Hideous History books about Popes and Caesars. These reveal yet more about Lawrence's personality and his uncannily perceptive way of thinking while at the same time proving all too relevant to the things that are happening to Lawrence and his family. (If can't guess, both of the quotes I've chosen are from these instances.)

There is lots of dust by the event horizon, its like a big disk, it goes round faster and faster until it falls in, so it is like water going down the plug hole. And d'you know just because its about to fall down the dust does a funny thing, it spits out lots of rays, they are X rays and radio waves, scientists can see them through their teliscopes, and they are awful actually. It is like the poor dust is screeming, its saying "oh no I'm getting sucked into this black hole, I will never come back, nobody will ever see me again, I will get squoshed flat, this is terrible" its like it is saying "help me."

Honestly, this is a great book that can't be captured by any review. It's short and it's sweet and even a bit sad, and it's also very smart and totally believable. Another of my favorite reads of the year.

Read other reviews at:

A Striped Armchair

Friday, November 28, 2008

It *knows*!

Wow, here's a post that has nothing to do with anything. I found this link to The Typealyzer over at Book Zombie. You type in your blog URL. It "reads" your blog and tells you your personality. Now, usually I try all these things that I find, get a laugh over them and move on to other things, but this thing totally has me pegged. Therefore I feel I must share because I find that it's a bit on the astounding side that it can "read" my blog in like half a second and pretty much spit out an utterly accurate description of my personality. I also think that it's cool that I must really come off as me on my blog if this thing is any indication. That's probably a good thing...

ISFP - The Artists

The gentle and compassionate type. They are especially attuned their inner values and what other people need. They are not friends of many words and tend to take the worries of the world on their shoulders. They tend to follow the path of least resistance and have to look out not to be taken advantage of.

They often prefer working quietly, behind the scene as a part of a team. They tend to value their friends and family above what they do for a living.

Seriously, it's kind of creepy.

Anywho. Hope all the rest of you folks in the US had a fabulous Thanksgiving and got to spend lots of time with the people you're thankful for doing the things you're thankful for! =D

Sunday, November 23, 2008

London Calling by Edward Bloor

So, once upon a time (okay, um, like a week and a half ago...), I had this brilliant (if not wholly original or especially imaginative) idea. Here I sat at my computer pondering the vastness of Google Reader and how uhm, every other blog seemed to be reviewing the same book. Now, I totally understand this - publishers and authors are looking to create a lot of buzz about books so that they can move some copies when it hits the shelves. This is perfectly understandable, as is the book blogger's desire to be "with the times" and reading and reviewing these newer books. And I've become a totally huge "offender" in this respect, too. I can hardly say that being a new book hound hasn't been an enjoyable experience. I've discovered a few gems in that way and stand to discover a fair few more. But all this other reading material that I've been busy accumulating over the rest of my life has really been getting the short shrift.

Well then, I thought, I kind of miss reviewing books that everybody on the earth isn't also reviewing at near about the same time. Hey, I bet books that were published before this year or even next year are probably still quite enjoyable. Huh, (now here's where the bright if unoriginal/unimaginative idea comes in...wait for it...), I should really read some of that stuff that I had sitting about on my shelves before I became a psycho "me want spiffy new books" book blogger. So (aha! I've got it!), I thought, you know what I'll do? I'll alternate - one spiffy new read (and review!) for every one equally valid book read from the great pre-exising Mountain of TBR lurking in every corner waiting to crush me. This, of course, only works if I actually comment in some way on the blog about the book I managed to pluck off Mount TBR and read. Oops. Now that I've actually gone ahead and finished my next "spiffy new book," it seems that I should really, in good conscience, should go back and say something about the very respectably decent Mount TBR read that I completed some time ago.

Of course, I intended to review it sooner. Alas, this past week was dysfunctional as every single week of mine seems to be lately. Somehow I managed to accomplish nothing especially meaningful "real life-wise" and yet still not A) keep up with the blogs in my Google reader (thought I did leave a thoughtful comment or few on the ones I *did* manage to peruse) or B) post a single freakin' word on my blog or C) finish another book. Okay, I just made the cut on that last one. That moves me up a bracket from abject failure to uh....average failure. But, please, that's enough about me and my complete inability to use my time wisely (unless of course, you count the daily two hour naps and the watching of things like "Top 15 Child Star Mug Shots" on TV as being a wise use of time...). I really must talk about this book so I can begin to assuage my feelings of failure before someone comes back to house to interrupt the peace and quiet that will hopefully enable me to so.

Edward Bloor's London Calling is a sweet YA read featuring the young John Martin Conway. Martin is stuck attending the private school where his mom works in order to give him the best of educational opportunity, but he'd just as soon go to public school rather than dealing with the rich, entitled jerks that terrorize him at All Souls Prep. The toxic atmosphere for a "scholarship" kid at All Souls combined with the death of his grandmother with whom he seemed to share a special spiritual connection are the straws that break the camel's back. Martin adamantly refuses to return to All Souls and resigns himself to residing in his basement bedroom after an embarassing altercation with Hank Lowery, grandson of General Henry "Hollerin' Hank" Lowery, a somewhat ambiguous figure of World War II whose family has done whatever could be done to cement his good, if possibly false, reputation.

Martin's existence in his basement bedroom is dismal and unlike living at all, that is, until the old fashioned radio he inherited from his grandmother begins to transport him back in time to London during the Blitz. There he meets Jimmy Harker who is determined to convince Martin to do "his bit." Whatever "bit" that might be, it's up to Martin to discover. Soon Martin finds himself doing extensive research to discover whether his encounters with Jimmy are, in fact, based in fact, or if he has begun to have elaborate historical dreams. In the process, Martin begins to live and enjoy life again, repair family ties, and even discover what he can do to help Jimmy even from the distant future. What emerges is a page-turner of a time travel story, a sweet coming of age story, and a good lesson about the significance of family ties and the importance of "doing your bit" to make a difference in the lives around you.

This was an enjoyable read for me as an adult, and I'm sure if the book had existed when I was in its target age range (probably the junior high age group, if I had to guess), it would have been one of my favorites. I always was big into historical fiction and a total time travel nut, so this was (and would have been) right up my alley!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

As the Civil War tears a nation apart, Sweetsmoke gives us a glimpse into the life of Cassius, a clever favored slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. While countless lives are lost on both sides of the conflict, Cassius is concerned for only one, that of Emoline Justice, a woman who stepped in to save his life when he had hit rock bottom. Emoline nursed Cassius back to health both physically and mentally and in the process gives him the dangerous gift of literacy. Knowing that even in the best of times no one would care to seek the killer of a freed slave like Emoline, Cassius knows that if justice is to be done to Emoline's killer, he must do it himself. Cassius's single-minded quest to find Emoline's killer takes him to many places fraught with danger including the secret outpost of a hunted spy and even north to the front lines of a major Civil War battle between men who, in Cassius's experience, are altogether too similar.

Cassius is a supremely engaging character. He is a bold and intelligent character who with his keen perception can surmise the motives and the drives of those around him. He knows his value and yet he struggles with what it means to be only property, someone whose life can change completely depending on the failure of a crop or even bad luck at a hand of cards. With the relationship between Cassius and his master, Hoke Howard, Fuller explores the backward thinking behind the institution of slavery in which the benevolent slave-owner provides for the slave who, by his very nature, could never provide for himself. Using Cassius, a perhaps unusually clever slave, and Hoke, a perhaps on occasion unusually morally conflicted owner, Fuller turns this myth on its head as Cassius cunningly manipulates those around him and appears to be the smartest of all the characters. And yet, we never lose sight of the fact that despite the considerable liberties he might be able to take, Cassius's existence is fragile, and that he is, at the end of the day, lacking one crucial aspect - freedom.

If Mr. Plume was ever to become Cassius's owner, Cassius would never again have the opportunity to consider independent action. He would be driven night and day and if he exhibited reticent behavior, this Mr. Plume would reach down inside Cassius with a sharp-edged spoon and scrape out of him any small dreams of freedom that he might have accrued. He was relieved when Mr. Plume looked away, but felt a raw sensations inside his chest that lingered.

Fuller spares no detail in his depiction of the Civil War era south. Though obviously carefully constructed with extreme care shown even down to the punctuation of the dialogue (quotation marks for the free, none for the slaves), the writing never feels forced or contrived. Instead, Fuller's Civil War south leaps off the page exposing a world populated with fragile southern gentility perched precariously on their clever, if oppressed, chattel. Through Cassius's eyes and Fuller's evocative writing, we can feel the heat of mid-summer in Virginia, smell the sweet scent of tobacco on the air, and even hear the sounds of a raging Civil War battle as if we were experiencing them first-hand.

This was killing on an impossible scale, and Cassius could not wrap his brain around the images in front of his eyes. He tried to remember that each one of these men had a life, a family, mother, father, children, fears and hopes and ideas; each one worked and dreamed and had once been a child, and now screamed in astonished agony. He lost his sense of reality, as if his intelligence shut down to preserve him from such madness. Unable to comprehend the meaning of such an immense horror, he began to see falling men as unreal, no different than the soldiers he carved. These were white men being killed by white men who were the same but for the color of their uniforms; mindfully, purposefully slaughtering one another by the dozens, by the score, by the hundreds, by the thousands. Cassius saw how easy it was to devastate a man's body and rob him of his valuable life. And yet, those who survived remained on the battlefield and fought on.

Cassius's mystery comes to an unexpected and satisfying, if not pleasant, conclusion. However, the heart of this book is not in the mystery. The heart of it lies in the character of Cassius and in the world in which he lives which is brought fully to life. Sweetsmoke does just what great historical fiction should do. It transports us to a time and place that we will never be able to experience and makes us feel as if we are experiencing it, not just being told about it in a book. Well done.

Definitely one of my top reads of the year.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Week or So in Books

Argh! It's been a week since my last post. Where does the time go? Seriously? D'oh, I've got to get rid of this job and this social life, really. No, just kidding. I actually rather enjoy making an idiot of myself attempting to learn to country line dance despite my lack of any dancer-ish skills. I'd do it again in a heartbeart or a week. But I digress.

Last weekend, I took a chunk out of my precious reading time to go more books. Oops. Well, the Barnes & Noble gift card was burning a hole in my file cabinet drawer right next to the Old Navy gift card that I...ahem...forgot that I had. Isn't that great? Finding money (or equivalent) that you totally forgot you had? That Old Navy Gift Card brought a smile to my face and some pants to my butt. Really, though, we all know you're not here to hear about pants, so I'll get to the goods. Yes, everybody, I popped over to Barnes & Noble and bought some books that, well, everyone else already has. Without intending to, I also went all Sesame Street and stuck with the theme letter "R."

Let's see, I picked up a copy of Cormac McCarthy's The Road which I've wanted since before it was an Oprah book, I'll have you know. Everybody's forever talking about this and how awesome it is. Even the people who didn't think it would be awesome. So I had to have it, of course. Besides, I've got to read it before the movie comes out now, don't I?

Then, another that I had my eye on, Run by Ann Patchett. I don't count myself a "fan" of many authors because I don't revisit many authors. This is not intentional, it's just the way things usually shake out. Anyhow, Ann Patchett is among my favorite authors. I really liked Bel Canto, The Magician's Assistant, and even Truth & Beauty, so Run was obvious pick for the unintentional "R" themed book shopping day.

In keeping with said "R" theme, the four dollar copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid on the remainder table jumped into my hands despite the fact that I'd already used up my gift card money. It's been on my wish list for a while, and I think the concept sounds very interesting.

So, that's all of the book purchasing. I also got a few oldies but goodies in the mail from some lovely Bookcrossers - Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes, Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult (one of the titles that has been languishing on my wishlist the longest!), and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

Election night was a challenge for me because I was just about to finish the first book I've really loved in quite awhile. So I had to alternate myself between watching the election returns and devouring the last 50 or so pages of Sweetsmoke by David Fuller. I was so in the mood to read some historical fiction and this was the perfect selection. Yes - I really liked this one, which serves many purposes. It provides a brilliant exit from my stay on the book blogger leper colony, breaks me out of my book funk, and gives you a break from my grinchy "this was just okay" book reviews. So yeah, look for that this week.

I'm also reading another book sent to me via the Early Reviewer program at Library Thing - In the Country of Brooklyn by Peter Golenbock. It's quite a tome, weighing in at about 300 more pages than I could ever have expected at a vast 661 or so pages. It's oral history about the significance of Brooklyn in, I don't know, say, the social evolution of the United States. It's an interesting concept letting the people tell their own stories, which are very engrossing, but all the filler narrative is badly in need of an editor to cut out all the redundancy and maybe give Golenbock some tips on organization. The jury's still out on this one, as I've still got oh, two thirds of it to go. But I will review it. Someday. When I finish it. I promise.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Aberrations by Penelope Przekop

All right. Here it is. The book that planted me solidly on the book blogger leper colony. The book everyone seems to have written glowing reviews of but for one or two people. It's even got a very respectable 4.12 out of 5 star rating on Library Thing. There are people out there saying this is one of their favorite reads of the year. So what's wrong with me? Oh well, here I go with the review, as promised. Please be gentle when throwing the rotten fruits and veggies, mmkay?

Angel Duet has problems. Her mother is dead leaving only photographs of clouds that serve as a centerpiece for Angel and her father's lives and an empty space where all the feelings associated with mother should have been. Her father, she discovers, is a liar. She suffers from debilitating narcolepsy that leaves her dependent on her father and her irritating would-be stepmother, Carla. She wants people to know and understand her intimately, like a mother would, but she holds people at arm's length afraid to let them into her life for fear that they won't understand her or will attempt to define her in terms of her illness. She's lonely and confused and searching for anybody who will help her fill up the hole in herself that can only be filled by mother. Her search leads her into the arms of a married man, the lesbian cousin of a friend, and into the arms of the boring and self-involved Christian who will ultimately give her a reason to look her own life in the face and fill in the blanks of her story that have plagued her for so long.

How I wish I had really liked this book like the rest of the blogosphere seems to have liked it. It's the first book that was ever sent to me for review that someone came to me to offer it. I sat down to read it with high hopes, and out of the gate found it, well, difficult. To be quite honest, had I purchased this book and plucked it off my enormous TBR pile, it probably wouldn't have passed the 50 page test. The first fifty pages are rough, filled with convoluted descriptions of the, at first, very unlikeable Angel's overdramatic thoughts and daydreams. Awkward and abrupt transitions combined with Angel's struggle to divide what is reality from what is dream confuse the narrative and make the story hard to get lost in. The seeming self-consciousness of the writing combined with the use of "cain't" and "thang" to communicate the characters' southern accents make the writing seem almost amateurish to me. Good writing is supposed to be a vehicle for a story, but the writing in the first fifty pages of Aberrations feels like just writing.

That said, by the time I reached the end of the book, I was almost glad I hadn't given up on it. As Aberrations progresses, the narrative sheds a good deal of its awkwardness, revealing a more heartfelt story with a main character that we have begun to sympathize with despite her many mistakes and weaknesses as she begins to rebuild from the ashes the life she thought she knew. Watching Angel grow into a character readers can care about and a whole person who has come to grips with the secrets of her past and the realities of her present is what gives this book a soul that will appeal to readers. Przekop has created a cast of characters that start out very shallow and unlikeable but end up as real people who have faced real problems for better or for worse - people that we can ultimately understand and sympathize with despite their many failings.

Oh, and since I usually go out of my way to note the effect of bad cover art on my desire to read a book, I definitely want to point this one out as an example of really great cover art. It's eye-catching, it highlights stuff from the book, very nice. Definitely something that I would take a closer look at if I cam upon it at a bookstore.

While I wouldn't exactly classify Aberrations as my cup of tea, many (okay most) book bloggers enjoyed it much more than I did. I would encourage you to read their reviews for a second (and third and fourth...) opinion that is wildly different from my own.

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From My Bookshelf
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