Sunday, September 6, 2015

95. "All that Remains" by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. All That Remains. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992.

373 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

In the third book of the Kay Scarpetta series, Dr. Scarpetta unravels the thread connecting a series of murders that leads her to a political mess. Couples are being murdered across Dr. Scarpetta and Pete Marino’s jurisdiction. One of these couples happens to include the daughter of a prominent political figure. The more she digs, the closer Kay gets to a killer who has been trained to kill with scary military precision.

The plot in this novel is pretty linear but it kept my attention nonetheless. As readers, we learn more about Kay’s relationship with FBI agent, Mark James, and Pete Marino becomes more manifold as well as we learn more about his personal life including his strained relationship with his wife. It is clear to me, as a reader, that Cornwell is passionate about doing good research and paying attention to detail. I’m no forensic expert, but the plot points and forensic science in the book are believable.

One thing that I’ve really loved about the Kay Scarpetta series so far is the way in which it is a bit of walk back in time for me. I was a child of the 90s and these books were written in the early 90s when DNA research was still young and computers were still a novelty. The descriptions of the technology and the fashion of the time make me nostalgic and happy. In general, this series is not literary genius, but it’s certainly a fun ride. On to the next!

This book is FOR: readers who have already read earlier books in the series, people who like quick, fun mysteries.

This book is NOT FOR: readers who have not read earlier books in the series, those seeking a piece of literary fiction.

3 darts out of 5.

Reviews of earlier books in the series:
1. Postmortem
2. Body of Evidence

Monday, July 27, 2015

94. "Swamplandia!" by Karen Russell

Russell, Karen. Swamplandia. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

316 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

A family of four lives in the Florida everglades running Swamplandia! an alligator wrestling theme park. Swamplandia! is narrated by Ava, the youngest and most precocious of the three Bigtree siblings. She is joined by her older sister Ossie and oldest brother Kiwi as they try to save their family’s park from financial devastation.Their mother has died within the past year leaving the family emotionally devastated as well. Kiwi takes off for the mainland with the intention of saving Swamplandia. Taking a job at The World of Darkness, a competing Florida theme park, Kiwi finds himself facing culture shock and alienation.

The plot starts to dissolve when Kiwi leaves home. The narration splits at that point rotating between first person Ava and third person limited (Kiwi and Mr. Bigtree). Things get messy here. Ossie elopes with a ghost, Mr. Bigree heads to the mainland to get funding for his new venture “Carnival Darwinism” that he thinks will save Swamplandia and Ava is left on her own with the seths (the family term for “alligators”) only to be lead to the “gates of hell” by a “bird man”.

The larger plot is fairly unique and certainly kept my attention. There could be some improvement of the micro plot points. Holes in the minor details pepper the larger plot. For example, in one scene Ava and Ossie are complaining about how hungry they are and how bare their kitchen cabinets have become since their father left for the mainland. A couple scenes later, they are packing their bags full of food in preparation for their next adventure….but with what food? Where did this food magically come from? The book is littered with little inconsistencies like this, so much so that it can pull you out of the story and you’re reminded that you’re reading a book. If a book is a good book, that never happens. You should stay immersed in the story, the language, and the characters from beginning to end.

Russell is clearly a talented writer. At certain points, her use of language dazzled me. I read and re-read certain paragraphs to absorb the juiciness of her prose. Russell is a wordsmith whose exposition is rich and haunting. The language can’t act as a replacement for good development, though and the conclusion was a flop for me. The conclusion of the book is as murky as the swamp waters through which Russell’s characters trek. It’s like when you eat a bite of something delicious, but it leaves a bitter aftertaste in your mouth. It just misses being satisfying. That’s how I felt at the end of Swamplandia!.

I am a fan of dark stories and I’m not against bad things happening in stories. In fact, I really like it when bad things happen and the writer dives into the complexity of that trauma. Russell failed to do this. Just before the end of the book, readers are hit with a trauma and then Russell doesn’t deal with it, doesn’t dive into it at all. It’s glossed over as if it were no more important than having cheerios for breakfast instead of oatmeal or something. I can see the message she might be attempting here--that when faced with trauma, some choose to live in denial of the trauma BUT that denial wasn’t even dealt with or explored. It was “this very bad thing happened and now, the end.”

I am really excited to see what else Karen Russell does. This was a great first novel, even if I didn’t love certain aspects of it. I think she truly has some real potential as a writer and I will gladly pick up her next book.

This book is FOR: people who want a beautifully painted picture of life in the Florida everglades, and experience with a new contemporary writer.

This book is NOT FOR: People looking for a plot driven story, those who are triggered by scenes of sexual assault, or people who don’t like flowery, cerebral, language.

Three darts are awarded to Swamplandia! Three darts for the language, the unique characters and delicious setting. A higher rating was impossible in light of the bitter aftertaste.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

93. "Fallen" by Lauren Kate

Kate, Lauren. Fallen. New York: Delacourt Press, 2009.

452 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Lucinda arrives a Sword and Cross training school scared and sad and homesick. She’s recently gotten into trouble for starting fires and she’s trying to cope with what she thinks are hallucinations--dark shadows that seem to follow her everywhere and get stronger when something is about to catch fire. At Sword and Cross she meets Daniel, the guy of her dreams, but he insists on paying her no mind. Eventually, his resolve is worn thin, and readers learn the truth about the connection between Daniel and Lucinda.

If I could pin down a formula for successful YA urban fiction it would be this: Character A moves to a new school and falls for Character B. There is something mythical and magical about either Character A or Character B. The discovery of this mythical side of the character is discovered and kept secret. Adventure ensues. Twilight followed this formula. The Vampire Diaries followed this formula. Now Lauren Kate has also nailed the winning formula for a successful YA urban fiction novel.

This book is a fun read, albeit a bit too dramatic for me at times. The intensity of Daniel and Lucinda’s love for each other sometimes had a “gag me” effect but this is quite possibly caused by the fact that I’m no longer a teenage girl. When reading this genre it is so important to keep the audience in mind. I’m not necessarily the target audience but if I put myself back into my teenage frame of mind, I would have eaten this book up and loved, like, everything about it. *hair flip

This book is FOR: people who want a fun, quick, urban fantasy teen romance.

This book is NOT FOR: people looking for in-depth, accurate angel and demon representations or literary fiction.

3 darts out of 5

Monday, April 6, 2015

92. "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. New York: Wings Books, 1980.

462 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

John Kennedy Toole has only one published book, A Confederacy of Dunces, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The award was given posthumously since Toole died of suicide in 1969. The book was presented to publishers posthumously as well when his mother contacted Walker Percy by letter asking him to look over her dead son’s manuscript. If the story of the novel’s publication elicits sensitivities, this is nothing compared to how incredibly sensitive people are when defending their position on A Confederacy of Dunces.

In A Confederacy of Dunces, readers are introduced to Ignatius J. Reilly, a very fat, very bored, and very complicated master meddler. Ignatius meddles in everyone’s business and is tied up in a weave of stories and characters brackish and static. There isn’t much that happens in the plot; basically, Ignatius’ mother gets in a drunk driving accident and is fined so she asks Ignatius to find a job to pay off the fine. Ignatius is a thirty something unpublished writer with a master’s degree who won’t be trapped in the “system.” In every job he lands he causes problems, uprisings, and treason (effectively dressed as a pirate for one gig).

The book takes a close look at working class New Orleans. Toole’s use of language was brilliant and while most readers pinpoint the humor of the story, I continually found myself keyed in to the underlying sorrow. Humor in this story, for me, isn’t the point. Toole was illustrating sorrowful characters with tragic stories and he used the humor to break the monotony of dead-end lives and days dragged through the mud of poverty.

I’ve never seen a book as divisive as this one. Discuss a book with a group of people and you will get strongly emotional reactions. Book clubs are disbanded after disputes over Ignatius. Friendships are altered after breaking down “who” are the “dunces” in the title. I’ve never seen a book have such a direct impact on how people judge others. In book reviews I’ve read lines like: “If you don’t like this book then we definitely aren’t on the same page,” or “I know I’ll like someone if their favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces.” I haven’t seen this happen so frequently with other books I’ve read. Whether you did or didn’t like the book, it clearly leaves an impression on people and that is worth noticing.

This books is FOR people: who like quirky characters, interesting illustrations of dialect and language, or who are interested in literature set in New Orleans.

This book is NOT FOR people: who are expecting a fast-paced story, who are expecting a mystery or romance, who are expecting all loose ends to be tied up.

5 darts out of 5

Saturday, January 31, 2015

91. "Cinder" by Marissa Meyer

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012.

390 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

Linh Cinder is a cyborg. She can detach her cyborg ankle and it’s during the process of attaching a new ankle that she meets Prince Kai, the smoldering emperor-to-be of New Beijing. Kai must figure out a way to protect his kingdom and the rest of the earth from the evil Lunar Queen who has left her moon-based home to pay respects to the death of the emperor (Kai’s father). The emperor died from Letumosis, a plague infecting many people across the planet, including Peony, Cinder’s stepsister. It is up to Cinder to fix Kai’s android that contains important state secrets, and work with leading scientists to find a cure from Letumosis while attempting to avoid the stiff curfews and rules set by her unrelenting step mother. All in a day's work.

Cinder was a fun read, like, really fun. It is, in fact, one of the best young adult books I’ve read in a long time. It is also the first book I’ve read in a long while that I missed reading when I wasn’t reading it. I found myself wanting to read it any spare second of time I had. I loved the way Meyer skillfully injected several fairy tales into one futuristic sci-fi, fantasy novel. I picked up on elements of Anastasia, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella with Cinderella being the predominate fairy tale. I’m sure if I read it multiple times, I would find more fairy tales that I didn’t catch the first time. Maybe it’s the nostalgia of these tales eliciting emotions, but I found the characters to be wonderfully real and satisfying. Cinder is worth loving, her stepmother is worth loathing and Kai is worth rooting for.

Meyer did a great job creating Cinder’s world and all the gadgets therein. It’s sci-fi without being suffocated by the typical "alien invasion" theme. The plot was believable and it is easy to see Cinder’s world as a potential future for us all without having to suspend our disbelief much. Cinder was Meyer’s debut novel and I’m excited to see how she develops as a writer in her future novels. The next book in the Lunar Chronicles has been added to my reading list!

4 darts out of 5 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

90. "Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay

DeRosnay, Tatiana. Sarah’s Key. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2007.

294 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

In Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay writes a fictional account of one of France’s most horrific moments in history. In July of 1942, more 13,000 Jews were arrested and taken to the VĂ©lodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycling arena. There they were housed in very poor conditions with very little food, water or sanitary facilities and then were shipped to concentration camps in Pithiviers and Beaue de la Roande, among others. Families were split apart and most of the babies and children were sent to camps separate from their families.

(The Velodrome d'Hiver. Image Source)

In Sarah’s Key, readers follow the story of Sarah, a young Jewish girl whose family was arrested in the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Rotating between 1940 and what I presume to be the 2000s, Tatiana de Rosnay introduces readers to Julia Jarmonde, a writer who is assigned the story of Vel d’Hiv at the magazine where she works. At the same time, Julia and her husband are working to renovate an apartment that has been in her husband’s family for a few generations. In doing her research, Julia discovers that a young girl named Sarah once lived in the apartment and the connection between Julia and Sarah’s stories becomes intricately bound.

There is simplicity in de Rosnay’s writing style that has lead some critics to give the book a fairly low rating. I don’t disagree with critics observations that the writing is simplistic and the relationships (particularly between Julia and her husband) are a bit forced. I gave this book five stars because Tatiana de Rosnay took a bold chance in writing this story.

France has a hard time with its World War II history. It is an incredibly touchy subject. I learned in my time living there for a short while in 2005, that it isn’t a subject you bring up without extreme caution and trepidation. As a result, in my experience (and also according to other sources), the French generally don’t talk about the Holocuast. It’s a very hush-hush subject. Tatiana de Rosnay is a French citizen who dared to break the silence about the more painful points of French history. Not only did she illustrate the horrors of Vel d’Hiv but she criticized the French for the silence on all things related to the Holocaust. This was brave. This is the kind of brave that leads writers to be forced to flee the country and seek asylum elsewhere. That’s why I gave this book five stars.

This book is FOR: people interested in the Holocaust or French history.
This book is NOT FOR: those who are sensitive to the subject of the Holocaust or who are expecting complex or artistic writing.

5 darts out of 5 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

89. "A is for Alibi" by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. A is for Alibi. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1982.

308 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

A is for Alibi is the first book in the “alphabet series” of mystery novels written by Sue Grafton. The main character is Kinsey Milhone, a private detective living in Santa Teresa, a town that is a thinly veiled fictionalized Santa Barbara. Kinsey is approached by Nicki who has just finished her prison sentence for begin convicted of murdering her husband by poising him with oleander. Nicki wants her name cleared and hires Kinsey to do just that.

The pace of A is for Alibi was a bit plodding. Very little happened for quite a long time until the end when everything crashed together at once. While I can’t claim that this was a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, I liked Kinsey just enough to be curious about reading the next book. One of my favorite mystery writers is Tess Gerritsen. I especially like her “Rizzoli and Isles” series, but her first book in the series was pretty terrible. I feel like it might be the same case with Grafton’s series. The first book was underwhelming, but I’m willing to give the next a try.

The one thing I did love about the book was the way in which readers really got an up-close-and-personal picture of Kinsey’s day-to-day life. I admit to having some voyeuristic tendencies, nothing freaky or weird, but I have always been insatiably curious about how people move through life from one day to the next. I’m not necessarily interested in extremes or scandals but I find people’s regular choices fascinating. What does this person wear and why? When do they eat breakfast? How much sleep do they get? How much time do they spend doing X, Y, Z? This book satisfied that voyeuristic curiosity a bit by taking readers through the minutiae of Kinsey’s day. We get to know what she eats, what she wears, how often she sleeps, how she spends her free time, etc. This would drive some readers absolutely nuts but I really liked it…because I’m odd.

Overall, this book gets a two rating, but as I said before, I’d give a lot of first books in a series a two rating, so I still have a lot of hope for this series.

2 darts out of 5

This book is FOR: people who are ok with slow moving mysteries.

This book is NOT FOR: people looking for fast-paced, suspenseful reading.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

88. "The Crucible" by Arthur Miller

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

135 pages.

Reviewed by J. d’Artagnan Love

This review may be a trigger for those who have PTSD or related disorders as a result of religious fanaticism/fundamentalism.

In the introduction of Act One of The Crucible, Arthur Miller writes, “When one rises above the individual villainy displayed, one can only pity them all, just as we shall be pitied someday. It is still impossible for man to organize his social life without repressions, and the balance has yet to be struck between order and freedom” (7). This passage suggests that what happened in Salem during the witch trials is the enacting of an attitude that still crops up today. It’s the spark of panic that causes mass hysteria and paranoia. It’s the point at which we stop thinking for ourselves and just try to blend in to avoid persecution.

The Crucible is a dramatic depiction of the Salem Witch Trials. Broken up into four acts, The Crucible slowly builds in tension until the climatic and gut-dropping final scene. The Crucible was Miller's thirteenth published play and it examines the darker parts of human nature: fear, blame, and collective delusions. Literary theorists argue that the play is an allegory of McCarthyism. 

This paly is powerful not only for the way in which it brings history to life, but also for the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that something like this is possible and could happen again. I couldn’t help but think about some of the fundamentalist claims made in recent history and how those claims sounded a lot like the claims being made by the fanatics in The Crucible.

Similar to Animal Farm, The Crucible is an important piece of literature not just for its artistry but for its reminder to us that we should never forget the past, lest we end up repeating it.

5 darts out of 5

This play is FOR: people who like gritty, tense stories and historical fiction.

This play is NOT FOR: people who may have PTSD triggered by religious fundamentalism/fanaticism.