Wednesday, June 21, 2017

East Of Eden by John Steinbeck


East Of Eden is a moral fable played out as the American Dream.  It is set in the Salinas Valley of California in the late 1800's to around the time of World War I.  It follows the life of the Trask family.  Adam Trask came to California after growing up in the Northeast.  He was the son of a famous military man who favored his other son, Charles, over Adam.  The boys grew up in a state of rivalry that they never managed to get over.  When Adam married Cathy, a woman who showed up on their doorstep, he had to leave when Charles would not accept her.

Adam and Cathy moved to California where Adam, a rich man, bought a large farm.  Cathy had never loved Adam as she had never loved anyone.  She used him to escape a situation.  The couple had twins and as soon as she was able, she left Adam and moved out.  Cathy became a whore and later the madam of the most infamous brothel in town.  Adam was crushed, more or less ignoring his sons, Aaron and Caleb.  The family's servant, Lee, basically raised and loved the boys.

Aaron and Caleb played out the same sibling rivalry as Adam, never learning from his own upbringing, played obvious favorites.  Aaron was blonde and everyone loved him for his sunny disposition and good behaviour.  Caleb was brunette, full of contradictions and a more complex child whose let his bad side emerge sometimes.  The boys loved each other yet Caleb would sometimes hurt Aaron just because he could.  The story ends with a major confrontation that had far-reaching consequences.

This is considered one of Steinbeck's master works.  The retelling of the old Cain and Abel story from the Bible relocated to America touches the American reader as it was intended to.  The story is full of Steinbeck's identification with the working class and his belief that man must make his own moral choices in life.  Cathy is one of the most memorable villains in literature.  The reader must make their own choice of who will have their sympathy, Caleb or Aaron.  This book is recommended for literary fiction readers.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt


Babel Tower is an exploration of England in the 1960's, when so many things in society changed.  It focuses on two plots.  The first is the story of Frederica.  She had been an intellectual child who went to Cambridge when that was still not the norm and became very popular and the center of attention of a group of young men.  Afterwards, rather than marrying one of them and becoming an author as everyone expected, she instead married a man from the landed gentry, Nigel.  Her sister had died in a freak accident and she wanted a complete break from what she had known.  The couple had a son, Leo.  But country life in a house full of Nigel's relatives soon palled.   Frederica felt stifled and that her intellectual life was stymied.  When she met her old crowd by happenstance, things came to a head.  Nigel forbade her to see them and when she didn't agree, started to physically abuse her.  She fled in the night, taking Leo with her.

Nigel insists he wants her back and storms around trying to find her and terrorizing her friends and family.  The book explores the themes of women who want to work outside the home, the difficulty of doing so as a single mother, spousal abuse, society's changing mores about women, religion, sex, education, the best environment for a child and work.

The other subplot is about freedom in literature and the changing setting of society and what it will accept in the name of freedom of expression.  It revolves around a novel written by a thoroughly unpleasant man named Jude Mason.  The novel is about a dystopian society that falls into one of sexual excesses and cruelty and is considered obscene and charged as such.  There is a trial in which the limits of society are explored.  The Moors Murders case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley serves as backdrop for this case.  It was the most prominent child murder case of its time and many considered it a bellwether of how society changes were taking the world into dark, wretched places.

This is a huge novel that attempts to explain all of life in a specific time period.  Readers may or may not like Frederica who is not a very sympathetic character but she is a model of how society has changed in considering a women's role.  Most facets of society are portrayed along with the changes the sixties brought to each.  The author, A.S. Byatt, won the Booker Prize for her novel Possession and that intellect and ability to explore society is a real reason for her success.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Friday, June 16, 2017

In The Name Of The Family by Sarah Dunant


Few family names reverberate through history like that of the Borgias of Italy.  The head of the family is Rodrigo Borgia, a Spanish Cardinal who comes to Rome and rises to become Pope Alexander VI.  He delights in the machinations of the Church and in his illegitimate children whom he disdains to hide.  Instead they are given prominent places in society.  His first son, Juan, is assassinated, a crime that marks Rodrigo's life ever after.  Cesare is a former Cardinal who turns instead to military matters, conquering city after city in the Borgia's quest to extend their power.  His daughter, Lucrezia, is used to solidify the family's power and influence through marriage.  She is married three times by the time she is twenty-two.

This novel follows the family in the last year of their power, 1502.  Lucrezia has just become the Duchess of Urbino, her husband Alfonso much the same kind of man as her brother Cesare.  Cesare becomes increasingly erratic as he pursues a campaign of conquest, perhaps as the aftermath of what is known as the French pox.  There is no alliance he won't make or break as it suits him, and both he and Pope make sure their enemies come to a bloody end.  Pope Alexander is at the end of his life and concerned about his legacy.  Finally, an outsider is also part of the story.  Niccolo Machiavelli is a diplomat from Florence who is sent to the court in Rome to discover what he can of the Borgia plans and how his city can best position itself.  He is fascinated by the Borgias, later basing his most famous book, The Prince, on Cesare.

Yet Dunant is interested in not just wars and betrayals but the life of women.  Lucrezia is maligned throughout Italy as a courtesan and faithless wanton woman, but the reality is closer to that of a woman used as most women were in titled families, as a pawn to consolidate power.  Her life in a forced marriage is explored as is the relationships within the family she married into, and her struggles to produce an heir.  She loves her father and brother but fate moves her far away from them where she rarely gets to see them and must carve out a life for herself.

Sarah Dunant is considered one of the finest names working in historical fiction today.  She is fascinated with Renaissance Italy and the powerful families that battle for supremacy.  Yet she also takes time to examine everyday life.  The influence of sickness, the fevers that annually take scores of lives and the new disease of syphilis, or French pox, is explored.  The interplay between the powerful families and the Church is discussed.  She skillfully dissects the connections between families and the alliances and betrayals that made the Borgia family name infamous.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

White Fur by Jardine Libaire


Her name is Elise Perez.  His is Jamey Hyde.  She is a mix of cultures and races, brought up in housing projects where she had to scrap for everything she had.  He grew up in Long Island mansions, Vail and Europe vacations, Manhattan townhouses.  She grew up with a single mother who had her at sixteen and half-siblings from various men her mother lives with.  He grew up the scion of an investment banking family with a famous actress mother.  They couldn't be more dissimilar.

Jamey is in New Haven attending Yale and living with his best friend who he has known his entire life.  Elise is in New Haven because that's where she ended up as she drifted away from Bridgeport, Connecticut looking for something, anything and living with a gay man who found her sleeping rough on the street and took her in.  They are from different worlds and should have nothing in common.  And yet, and yet.  There is an immediate spark, an almost visceral attraction.  Jamey has everything but has never felt that anyone really saw him.  Elise has nothing but she knows about love and sees Jamey behind his facade for the man he really is.

Soon they are spending every moment together.  Everyone they know is appalled.  His friends don't know what to make of her and suspect that she is sizing him up to rob his apartment.  Her friends suspect that nothing good can come from this, that Jamey is just slumming and will break Elise's heart.  His family is simply appalled.  Elise is like nothing they could have expected and the difference is more than they can accept.  They try various methods of breaking the two apart, things that have always worked, threats of money being cut off and scandals that will shame the entire clan.  Nothing matters.  The love between Jamey and Elise is so incandescent that it outshines every difference, every obstacle.  Or does it?

Jardine Libraire has written a modern love story that burns it's way into the reader's mind.  Elise and Jamey are characters who will not be easily forgotten and their love is the memory each of us has about the first time we really, really fell into love.  This is Jardine Libaire's second novel.  She attended the University of Michigan's MFA program where she received the Hopwood Award.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and anyone who wants to remember how love feels.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Booksie's Shelves, June 13, 2017

Mid-June already and summer is heating up.  We just got back from a lovely wedding and got to see family and friends again which is always fun.  I've been busy sprucing up the entertainment room, buying a new couch and finally getting rid of one fondly referred to as The Vomit Couch from our cat's loving attentions over the years.  I've read some great books lately and ready for more great reads!  Here's what's come through the door lately:

1.  A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter Miller, sci-fi/fantasy, purchased
2.  The Offering, Grace McCleen, literary fiction, purchased
3.  The Confusion Of Languages, Siobhan Fallon, literary fiction, sent by publisher
4.  The Sport Of Kings, C.E. Morgan, literary fiction, purchased
5.  Emma In The Night, Wendy Walker, suspense, won in contest
6.  The Bones Of The Earth, Rachel Dunne, fantasy, sent by publisher
7.  Under Majordomo Minor, Patrick DeWitt, literary fiction, purchased
8.  In The Cold Dark Ground, Stuart MacBride, mystery, purchased

Here's what I'm reading:

1.  Commonwealth, Anne Patchett, audio
2.  Blood On The Tongue, Stephen Booth, Kindle Fire
3.  East Of Eden, John Steinbeck, paperback
4.  Babel Tower, A.S. Byatt, hardback
5.  White Fur, Jardine Libaire, paperback
6.  In The Name Of The Family, Sarah Dunant, paperback
7.  The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride, paperback

Happy Reading!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone


Dark days have fallen on the city of Alt Coulumb.  Kos, the Fire God who keeps the city alive, has died.  An influential law firm is called upon to figure out what killed him and what can be done going forward.  Elayne Kevarian is the law partner sent to head up the case.  She chooses Tara Abernathy as her associate.  This will be Tara's first case but Kevarian has high hopes for her although her past is shaky.  Tara was expelled from the Hidden Schools where all Craftsmen are trained.   She dared to go up against a powerful professor there and expose his corruption but as often happens when novice goes against entrenched power, she lost.

How did Kos die?  It appears that too much power was drained from him.  As with most gods, Kos was involved in a series of contracts selling off his excess power.  Elayne and Tara must go through all his contracts and determine if something was wrong in one of them and if they underlie his death.  To do so, they must draw on allies.  Abelard is a young priest who was the one on duty when Kos died and who discovered it.  He is in the service of the Cardinal and the entire religious hierarachy.  Another ally is the vampire pirate who brings them to the city and who seems to have knowledge of the various contracts that Kos was involved in.

But there are enemies as well.  Cat is part of Justice, the group that sees that all is well in the city and which punishes wrongdoers.  They don't trust Tara and her investigation.  Then there are the gargoyles who believe both Justice and Tara are their enemies.  They serve a goddess who used to rule in Alt Columb but who disappeared eons ago.  Most deadly is the opposing counsel in the court case.  It turns out to be Professor Denovo who is the professor Tara battled in academia only to be bested by him.  The stakes this time are much higher.  Can she prevail?

This is the first novel in the Craft series and Max Gladstone's debut novel.  It shakes up fantasy by borrowing from several genres and adding in new twists such as the entire legal overlay, the concept of gods that can die and the explanation for creatures such as gargoyles and vampires. There are alliances and betrayals and one can never be quite sure what is happening.   It is a complex world without being overwhelming and the many layers provide Gladstone with lots of room for surprising twists and turns.  This book is recommended for fantasy readers.

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Dark So Deadly by Stuart MacBride


Scotland Police has a long proud history of competent officers working in concert to solve crimes and keep the city and countryside safe.  Then there is the Misfit Mob, a collection of officers that for various reasons have been shunted to the side and work on nonessential cases.  There is Detective Constable Callum MacGregor who had a promising career until his girlfriend messed up a crime scene and he took the blame for her, leaving most people sure he was a bribe taker.  DC Rosalind Franklin is a touchy feminist who is quick to believe that most men don't give her credit and only want her around for her body.  DC John Watt is a curmudgeon who no one wants to work with.  Detective Sargent Dotty Hodgkin is in the unit as she now rides a wheelchair after a work-related accident.  DS Andrew MacAdams is dying of cancer but hiding the truth from his family and doctors.  Finally, DCI Malcomson, or 'Mother', has been shunted to the group to recuperate from her own health issues.

Callum is called to a nuisance case.  Someone has found something strange at the dump.  When he arrives, it turns out to be a body, but one that is mummified.  He is put on the job of calling all the local museums and science organizations to see if it is theirs.  But the autopsy shows that the corpse is recent and soon other mummies start showing up; bodies that have been brined and then smoked like fish.  The Misfit Mob retains the case as all the others are overloaded, although no one expects much from them.

Concurrently, there are strange incidents regarding Callum's own past.  He was deserted at five years old, his mother, father and twin brother disappearing at a rest stop on the way home from a family vacation.  He grew up in a series of care homes, each more devious and cruel than the next.  His family's case has never been solved and as best he can tell, not given very high priority or worked on very hard.  There seems to be some movement to cracking the shell of neglect and inattention the case received as it gets linked to a more current case.  Can Callum discover the truth about his past as he works on the murder case?

Stuart MacBride is one of the most famous mystery writers working today.  His prime character is DC Logan McRae and he has an extensive series of books about Logan, each a success.  This book starts a new series, or at least readers can hope it does.  These characters sing and meld into a hopelessly inept group that somehow manages to do everything right.  The breezy style and 'just get on with it' mantra is exhilarating.   The reader is carried along with twists and turns where least expected.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler


The Whitshank family is a typical Baltimore family, one of blue-collar workers whose hard work has brought them success.  Red is the head of his own construction firm while Abby was a social worker.  Their four children are grown now and Abby and Red are slowing down as they age into their sixties.  Although the children are grown, that doesn't mean there are no more sibling issues.  There are resentments about who is doing more, which child was loved most, and who will help with their parents as everyone realizes that the couple may not be able to live alone much longer.

The novel veers back and forth in time over the family's ages.  We get the backstory of Red's parents and how they overcame a scandal and the Depression to come to Baltimore from the hill country to carve out a living.  We learn how Abby and Red fell in love.  We learn that even with decades of marriage, there are still secrets in the family that threaten its stability as they are revealed.  We also learn about the fourth generation of Whitshanks who are Red and Abby's grandchildren.

Anne Tyler is a recognized master at character development.  Almost all of her books are set in Baltimore and most unravel the complexities of family life and the relationships that both sustain and threaten us.  We see how families react to various events, how they are formed and what pressures can split them apart.  A Spool Of Blue Thread was a Man Booker nominee as well as an Orange Prize nominee.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction and those interested in families and their relationships.