I won an Advance Reader's Edition of The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas on Goodreads.
These days, I often find myself a bit of a GoldilocksI won an Advance Reader's Edition of The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas on Goodreads.
These days, I often find myself a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to books -- most of what I read is lacking in some way. The Oracle of Stamboul comes pretty close to "just right" for me. A touch of magic, a dollop of history and exotic locale, and a preternaturally smart young girl ... well, I found myself seduced and transported.
Yet it's not a perfect book. Sometimes, it seems to me that authors deliberately restrict interaction amongst characters in order to simplify their job. Eleanora, the child "oracle," rarely speaks, either through dialogue or through mention in the narrative. While this is part of her character -- another character comments on it in fact -- it leaves her curiously static and living in her head. Not necessarily unbelievable for a savant, but I'd like to imagine that her future is much more dynamic and that she experiences her emotions more viscerally. And, savant though she is, I suspect that her emotions would be immature, more in keeping with her chronological age; in fact, that dissonance would have been an interesting thread to follow (though I can't be sure, not knowing any child prodigies myself).
As a backdrop, Stamboul (Istanbul) is curiously washed out, flat and featureless. Most of the characters are as well. Ruxandra, Eleonora's aunt, for all her unfeeling treatment and brusque manner, at least comes closest to becoming real. The others are only smudges, vague and indistinct. Perhaps it's just me, but I wanted to feel the heat of the sun on my face, smell the clean mineral tang of the Bosporous underlying the pungent scent of clove, cardamom, and cinnamon from the bazaar, hear the incessant call to worship ... those details were there, but they weren't as vivid as I would have liked.
And there seemed to be loose threads. Or perhaps they weren't loose, but I was supposed to draw my own conclusions and they weren't the simple ones I'd like to draw. That's not a bad thing, but I'm not sure I responded to the story deeply enough to ponder it further. In the end, the The Oracle of Stamboul has all the substance of a pleasant dream. ...more
I much prefer a romance in which the main characters actually interact for much of the narrative. Emma satisfies thisMy favorite Austen! Hands down.
I much prefer a romance in which the main characters actually interact for much of the narrative. Emma satisfies this need, unlike the other Austen novels I've read (and that's most of them; I have yet to read Northanger Abbey). And, while I know that "forming an attachment" must have been the proper and polite way to describe the way individuals of Austen's day fell in love, I was gratified to have her actually use those words in Emma....more
In an unplanned course of reading, I've managed to read three non-traditional detective novels in a row -- and I don't usually detective novels. It beIn an unplanned course of reading, I've managed to read three non-traditional detective novels in a row -- and I don't usually detective novels. It began with Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union, set in an alternative history in which Israel doesn't exist and Jews are consigned to a temporary Alaskan settlement. I followed this with Neal Stephenson's Zodiac, a fast-paced story of an eco-detective living in Boston working to expose the toxic dumping of a fictional chemical manufacturer. But my favorite of the three has to be Jasper Fforde's clever, imaginative and extremely funny The Eyre Affair, which is set in a fantasy world where art and literature are universally valued and meaningful.
In The Eyre Affair, Fforde introduces us to Thursday Next, a seasoned, tough literary crimes detective. Of course, evil geniuses stealing original manuscripts from highly secure museum settings does not a compelling story make without a man who can stop time, a soulless operative from the powerful corporation with its tentacles in every level of government, an absent-minded old inventor of the Prose Portal, vampires, werewolves, an endless war, a bow to steampunk conventions (people travel on dirigibles), and crazies who wait for meteorites to shower Earth. And much, much more.
Fforde's wacky world and bizarre narrative hide biting social and political commentary too varied for me to describe well or without ruining the story. However, I will say that I cheered when Thursday Next, in the course of her duties, manages to cause a literary classic, Jane Eyre, to have its ending rewritten. In Thursday's world, Jane originally leaves Rochester and marries St. John, traveling with him to India to be a missionary. Everyone, except the scholars at the Bronte Society -- and Fforde includes Jane and Rochester -- finds this ending abrupt, unmotivated, and unsatisfying. When Thursday's work enables Jane and Rochester to end up happily married, she initially suffers the criticism of the Bronte Society, but average readers cheer her.
I'm looking forward to more Thursday Next mysteries....more
Zodiac is a wild ride about an eco-detective named Sangamon Taylor who lives in Allston, a suburb of Boston. Although written in the late 1980s, the bZodiac is a wild ride about an eco-detective named Sangamon Taylor who lives in Allston, a suburb of Boston. Although written in the late 1980s, the book's themes of corporate negligence, exploitation, and emphasis on the bottom line are still relevant -- and perhaps not so eye-opening or unique today. What gives this book so much interest is S.T.'s narrative voice. He's a brilliant, foul-mouthed young scientist who tracks down the bad guys dumping PCBs and genetically modified chemical toxins into the Boston Harbor. The story is a page turner, but sometimes I found myself totally lost and taken advantage of. Sure, S.T. -- and by extension Stephenson -- is so smart he's almost prescient, but I wish he'd filled in the dots a bit more. Sometimes I felt a bit sideswiped by the narrative. Also, while S.T. is a great character, most of the rest are not. Since it's told from first-person, this is somewhat understandable; however, S.T.'s love interest, Debbie, is a non-entity. Even for a rather plot-driven narrative, a bit more characterization would have been nice....more
For readers who enjoy historical romance and fairy tales, James spins a delightfully familiar yet satisfying tI won this book in a Goodreads Giveaway.
For readers who enjoy historical romance and fairy tales, James spins a delightfully familiar yet satisfying tale. Her heroine, Kate, is feisty, smart, and funny and her hero, Gabriel, is smart, loyal, and kind. In this version of Cinderella, the young lady stands in for her stepsister, who must be presented to her fiance's uncle, a German prince, for approval. The German prince, meanwhile, is hosting his own betrothal ball to a Russian princess he's never met and whom he's marrying for her fortune (there are mitigating circumstances, of course.
I enjoyed this "what-if" drawn from a single line in a legal register from 1582 that had Shakespeare applying for a marriage bond to a woman named AnnI enjoyed this "what-if" drawn from a single line in a legal register from 1582 that had Shakespeare applying for a marriage bond to a woman named Anne Whately the day before he applied for one for Anne Hathaway, who was pregnant. Harper, assuming that the first Anne was no mistake and was a love match, imagines what might have happened if Shakespeare had two wives.
Having recently read Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare, I recognized many of the details known about his life and milieu as well as the Ackroyd's influence in guessing at Shakespeare's character. Harper mentions two other scholars who have previously argued for a second wife, so it's an old theory -- one with some teeth, given what little we do know about him. Unlike others in the London drama scene at that time, for example, Shakespeare was singularly focused and not known for wild living. Having a London wife would explain his lack of general carousing.
Still, I would have liked for a story with a bit more grandeur and sweep. After all, this was the Elizabethan age and Shakespeare. ...more
**spoiler alert** As much as I adore Austen and enjoy the privileged peek into early 19th-century English drawing rooms, I would have liked more inter**spoiler alert** As much as I adore Austen and enjoy the privileged peek into early 19th-century English drawing rooms, I would have liked more interaction and dialogue between Fanny and Edmund, especially at the end of the novel. And, their final match lacks a lot when compared to how much Edmund waxes poetic about Mary Crawford. To wait with Fanny through much of the story for Edmund to wake up and recognize the woman under his nose and then to have Austen leave us with an oblique description of what sounds like a rebound affair of the heart on his part is quite deflating. Beyond that, I dislike the notion that Fanny's steadfast character could have redeemed the flaky Henry Crawford if only he hadn't allowed himself to be pursued by an "imprudent" woman while Edmund's equally sterling character would have been made miserable through the irredeemable flaws of Mary Crawford.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Mary Crawford. Spoiled and self-serving, she nevertheless wasn't a complete termagant who only acted in her own interests.
An aside: given that it's Austen, I was able to withhold any queasy feeling regarding the relationship between Fanny and Edmund, raised in the same home, but it could be an issue for some modern readers....more
**spoiler alert** I've been putting off reviewing Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union for days because I'd hoped that time would give me perspective an**spoiler alert** I've been putting off reviewing Chabon's Yiddish Policeman's Union for days because I'd hoped that time would give me perspective and insight into why I finished it feeling less than satisfied. After all, I admire his stylistic grace and I believe that he is a big thinker who imagined an alternate history and place so well that he made it seem simple and completely believable. In fact, I've come to think of Chabon as one of my favorite literary writers, a brilliant man who apparently enjoys genre fiction enough to co-opt and enlarge it until it becomes worthy enough to be shelved among other literary classics.
I found it lackluster. Chabon sacrificed some of the page-turning tension every good mystery holds in order to tell a larger story with characters I couldn't connect with, no matter how willing I was to connect. Meyer Landsman, the prototypical alcoholic detective with a broken marriage, hardly elicits much sympathy even when we read about some terribly grievous events in his past.
After a few days of thinking about it, I realized that Chabon's novel reminded me of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov, at least the chapter that I read as part of an introduction to philosophy course I had in college. The chapter is titled The Grand Inquisitor, and in it Dostoevsky's cynical brother character Ivan tells a story, a parable in fact, of Christ's return to earth, specifically to Spain during the Middle Ages to his faith-filled brother Alyosha. I don't remember the whole story, but I do recall that a high-ranking inquisitor of the Catholic Church recognizes Christ and imprisons him to prevent him from performing miracles. The Grand Inquisitor then explains to Christ how the Church has determined what's best for humanity and that He is only going to muck things up for people (and them, of course).
In The Yiddish Policeman's Union, whose underlying themes include very Jewish beliefs about faith, salvation, and redemption, Chabon introduces readers to a potential messiah, the Tzaddik-ha Dor, born once in every generation. Unlike the Church in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamozov, however, the ultra-orthodox Jewish establishment in Chabon's detective novel plans to use its messiah -- in a plot to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslims through bloodshed and violence. Being a man without sin or even the desire to sin, Chabon's potential messiah chooses to take himself out of the game.
I didn't remember how Dostoevsky had Christ handle The Grand Inquisitor until I researched it in writing this review, so I'd prefer to consider only how Chabon's Tzaddik-ha Dor and his actions affected my response to the novel. I guess, in the end, I didn't find him very inspiring. Perhaps, as Chabon writes, each generation gets the Tzaddik-ha Dor that it deserves (and so far none of them have deserved a messiah), but that leaves the world of his novel, and us as readers, without much hope. Although Landsman gets a measure of redemption and peace at the end of the novel, it's a very reduced, resigned, depressing sort of peace that all the stylistic grace he employs can't dress up....more
I long ago decided that novels featuring novelists as characters didn't interest me, but I picked up Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game at Barnes and NobleI long ago decided that novels featuring novelists as characters didn't interest me, but I picked up Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game at Barnes and Noble after browsing the tables there anyway. I think that the words "dark, gothic Barcelona" and the description a "breathtaking tale of intrigue, romance, and tragedy" must have convinced me that there was more to The Angel's Game than an angst-ridden writer's life.
Ruiz Zafon manages to tell a literary story as a highly suspenseful mystery set in a dark city with lots of foreboding atmosphere. As with almost any mystery, I found myself trying to figure out the plot and, happily for me, couldn't. At one point, I considered that it might be a twist on Great Expectations, but I didn't remember enough of that novel to see more than a few connections. Then I wondered if the narrator was insane -- well, yes, he probably was -- he was a pulp fiction writer after all. But more than usual? Towards the end, I wondered if perhaps it was a spin on the movie Angel Heart.
As for how "literary" this novel is, I think it misses a bit in characterization. It's told in first-person and most of the time the narrator, David, is on his own, so I never really got to know the other people in his life. As a character, David is still something of a mystery himself, even if I can relate to his love of all things literary. But I think the twists and turns, the allusions to writing and art, and the atmosphere more than make up for the limitations of viewpoint....more
A Newbery-winner, Freedman's Lincoln: A Photobiography brings Lincoln to life as a living, breathing person who did more than get born in a log cabin,A Newbery-winner, Freedman's Lincoln: A Photobiography brings Lincoln to life as a living, breathing person who did more than get born in a log cabin, split rails, and free slaves. Lincoln and I share an obsessive love of reading -- I sometimes read while walking the dog; he apparently treated himself to snatches of reading at the end of a row of plowing! And his courtship of Mary Todd had enough drama to spur a historical romance. Even while dealing with the burdens of politics and leading the country during its darkest era, Lincoln had to deal with personal tragedy.
A fine biography even for adults -- perhaps especially for adults, who may not have the time to read an adult work but know little more about our greatest president than the myths handed down about him....more
Lucky by Alice Sebold isn't a book that one likes or dislikes. In fact, I found the quote on the cover that says this memoir is "Exhilarating to read"Lucky by Alice Sebold isn't a book that one likes or dislikes. In fact, I found the quote on the cover that says this memoir is "Exhilarating to read" rather an astonishing thing to say. I don't even know what that means. How can anyone be exhilarated to read about a brutal rape? I will say that Sebold's matter-of-fact, unsparing tone prevents the story of her violent coming-of-age from trapping the reader in a dark mire. Perhaps the reviewer referred to Sebold's incredible strength of character and ability to hold fast through the challenging prosecution of her rapist. That exhilarated me....more