Never having read anything described as "pulp fiction," I had to look up a definition to match the 10 stories by Thad Brown in The Smoking Gun Sisterh...moreNever having read anything described as "pulp fiction," I had to look up a definition to match the 10 stories by Thad Brown in The Smoking Gun Sisterhood, which are actually labeled "new pulp." Of course, when I searched online, the Wikipedia entry to the movie "Pulp Fiction" showed up. The image of Uma Thurman on the movie poster, a cigarette in one hand, a gun on the pillow before her, and wearing black stilettos, could grace the cover of Brown's story collection about tough women who pack heat.
That idiom, "pack heat," 1940s underworld slang for carrying a concealed weapon, perfectly suits the nature and tenor of these 10 stories. Though set in modern-day America, the stories have a decided retro feel. Except for a laptop or desktop computer here and there and a few cell phones, the only ubiquitous technologies are guns and cars. More than that, the protagonists -- ranging from a biker "angel" to a mafia capta to a secretary -- all share a clear code of honor and old-fashioned values that previous generations of readers would find familiar. Add in the nearly universal smoking, the restrained, if graphic, violence, and the clean language, and the overall effect pays homage to the hard-boiled crime novels of the mid-20th century.
Of the 10 stories, "Sisters, Dark and Light" stood out for the evil nature of the villain, a female psychopath as nasty as they come, whose exploits, while only touched on, disturb the reader in a way that gun battles don't. My personal favorite is "'Tis the Season," in which a hitwoman named Candace Gunn makes a monumental decision after watching a movie version of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol."
Though they all operated under a personal honor code, not all of the heroines made choices I would make. I do however admire the courage, grit, and resolve with which each of them made those decisions.
Disclosure: the author provided me with a review copy of Iditarod in exchange for an honest review.
I very much enjoyed this tale of adventure, romance...moreDisclosure: the author provided me with a review copy of Iditarod in exchange for an honest review.
I very much enjoyed this tale of adventure, romance, and danger on the Iditarod Trail. Set in 1985, the heart of the story is an impetuous bet between one Rhodes Delaney, a sled-dog racer from Colorado, and James Whitbury, an Olympic gold-medal skier who also happens to be an MIT-trained engineer and inventor with a trust fund. (Yes, James is a bit too-good-to-be-true, but I'm happy to let that slide. After all, I actually know a few young men who could satisfy at least some of these traits. Mostly it's the trust fund part that doesn't convince me.)
Jute carefully establishes the main characters, including a monstrous wolf pack, before the actual Iditarod race begins, deftly weaving in details with a light hand. Initially misunderstandings and unfamiliarity color the nascent relationship between Rhodes and James (they met by chance at the outset), who train for the race of a lifetime in very different ways. Rhodes, the daughter of a Colorado rancher, will eschew corporate sponsorship to keep her father's hand-carved wooden sled unspoiled with advertising; instead, she'll work 12-hour days in a salmon-processing factory to raise the $20,000 to compete. But at least she's bred and trained her own dogs and has half a lifetime's experience racing. James, on the other hand, can afford to train and race, but he accepts sponsorship from Frontier Construction, getting dogs, training, and other elite help in return for designing and testing a lightweight alloy sled. He spends the better part of his training-year prototyping and testing a sled for production, but that's okay. He's got an experienced dog breeder and coach, along with the best nutritionist and gear that money can buy.
Once the race begins, so too does the story. Jute skillfully paces the writing to match the events. Though it moves quickly, the story never gets ahead of itself. At first, the story is told from Rhodes's point of view, but at a critical, terrifying moment, it switches to James's and then to a third-person view of the wolf pack, a distant but clearly festering problem. As the two racers face growing dangers and challenges on the 1200-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, the wolves circle just outside their awareness but never far outside the reader's. The viewpoints continue to alternate until settling down with Rhodes'. Jute ups the ante as the race draws to a close, heaping exhaustion and terrifying danger upon his two main characters. The final harrying sequence of events, while not nail-biting, does require sitting up straight, scooting to the edge of the seat, and paying attention very closely.
I particularly enjoyed the story because of its realistic, and thorough, description of the Iditarod race, its history, the trail, and what it takes to compete. For a brief (and irrational moment), I wistfully wished I could experience the thrill of riding on the runners behind a sled pulled by a dozen well-trained dogs. However, I'm not so keen on facing angry moose, bear, or wolves, nor do I wish to ride into the teeth of 40-mile-an-hour wind. And I'd prefer to sleep more than a few hours at a time, especially on a soft, warm bed.
I must also say that I found the romance between Rhodes and James both charming and a bit quaint (though I don't mean anything pejorative by this). James has a gentleman's manners from another era: he politely requests permission to be excused by an elderly woman at the beginning, and he gallantly charges into a blizzard to help Rhodes, then camps chastely with her.
It isn't simply the romance that calls to mind a different, more genteel, era. There is a clear sense of propriety and duty throughout, a stiff-upper-lip sort of stoicism in the face of grievous difficulty, the understanding that the race takes precedence over everything else for Rhodes and James because they have said that they will run it, and their honor and sense of self are bound up in completing it to the best of their abilities. I personally am attracted to such characters. (less)
While reading The Rosie Project, I found myself laughing, cheering, and swallowing around a lump in my throat. Did I ever find the hero, Don Tillman,...moreWhile reading The Rosie Project, I found myself laughing, cheering, and swallowing around a lump in my throat. Did I ever find the hero, Don Tillman, deserving of pity, mockery, or sarcasm? No. Indeed, he felt every bit like a hero: caring, smart, strong, brave, willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others, and defined by a strong moral code. However, I happened to read a few Goodreads reviews prior to writing my own, and I realized that the words of caution against humor given by one of my graduate professors holds true: humor can easily be misunderstood and lead to hurt and offense. So that said, I'd venture to suggest that anyone unfamiliar with the formula of contemporary romantic comedy or who has a friend or loved one struggling with the challenge of Asperger's Syndrome should pause to consider before reading The Rosie Project. For some of the reasons I outline below, I believe it is a charming, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming story, but I also believe that some won't.
I bought The Rosie Project knowing that it is a contemporary romance written with a scientist as hero. I happen to be married to a scientist and know many scientists and technical people. I have a little (very little) knowledge of and experience with individuals with diagnoses on the autism spectrum (there are others besides Asperger's). Given the constraints of the genre -- happily-ever-after, first-person narrator who learns to grow and change during the process of falling in love, misunderstandings and miscommunication between the hero and heroine, and situations that invite empathetic laughter -- I found Don Tillman to be sympathetic and believable. I became attached to him and wanted him to succeed with his goal: to find a life partner.
Although Don rarely mentions his emotions, that doesn't mean that he doesn't have any (in fact, that is explicitly one of the lessons that he learns). His narrative provides ample clues to his emotional states. Don's way of conveying his feelings at certain points holds a greater punch than if he'd said, "I was embarrassed" or "I was devastated." During a scene involving his awkward efforts to dance with a partner, Don looks to see who in the crowd isn't laughing because he knows that they are true friends. Reading this, I felt sympathetic anguish. Don makes it very clear that he can count his friends on one hand, and this incident highlights a history of painful lessons on the cruelty of people. When Don states matter-of-factly that his parents had stopped visiting him in anything other than a ritualistic way once they realized he could live on his own successfully, I felt the echo of his pain at being abandoned. Another time, Don mentions his cheeks being wet even though rain only threatens. Obviously, he's crying, but he doesn't know how to express his grief. I could have wept with him.
At other times, Don describes his thoughts and actions in a way that an astute reader can interpret to mean that he's feeling powerful emotions, but that he's unable to describe them using the language of emotion. In these cases, he describes going mentally blank, shutting down from an overload of stimuli, and needing quiet time to reflect logically and rationally on his situation. Given the context of the situations he finds himself in, readers shouldn't need to have Don spell out that he's confused, lonely, angry, upset, grieving, excited, joyous or any of a number of other emotions that logically attend the events he experiences.
Even though Don realizes he has Asperger's (another one of the lessons he learns), he also realizes something else that many people don't: how much he has in common with other people. In this way, Don is a much larger hero than that of his own romantic comedy and The Rosie Project achieves more than being a genre romance. Don becomes something of an everyman and his condition (if that is the right term) can be understood as simply a degree of the human condition. The message of The Rosie Project --that love and affection, both from friends and a mate, can be the catalyst for greater understanding and enlarging our humanity -- also lifts the novel above its genre. (An example of this is when Rosie helps Don understand how much he has in common with other men. When she asks him if he'd ever thought about having children, he says no because he didn't want to embarrass them. Rosie laughs and tells him that all children are embarrassed by their fathers.)
My husband knows my reading tastes pretty well. He recommended Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus to me, noting that it had elements that reminded hi...moreMy husband knows my reading tastes pretty well. He recommended Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus to me, noting that it had elements that reminded him of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (another book that he recommended to me). He was right: there are certainly some similarities. Each book features a set of magicians whose individual systems of magic are at odds with one another. In The Night Circus, however, there is a second set of magicians, students of the first set, whose rivalry evolves into a competition to win the other's love. Both books are also set in the 19th century, although Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell opens it in England (Jonathan Strange enlists with Wellington's forces to help the British defeat the French in the Napoleonic War), while The Night Circus closes it, largely set in London and Concord, MA. Celia Bowen, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter in The Night Circus, resembles Jonathan Strange; both magicians are intuitive, natural talents who learn their craft in the real world (so to speak). Unlike Jonathan Strange, who comes to Mr. Norrell for tutoring (if I recall correctly), Celia Bowen finds herself unhappily left with her self-absorbed father, who recognizes her as the potential champion of his approach to magic. Celia and Jonathan's rivals, Mr. Norrell and Marco Alisdair, learn magic from intensive academic study. While Mr. Norrell is an unlikable pedant who learns from books because that's where knowledge of this craft largely resides in his day (organic magic use having been lost in the mists of legend), Marco Alisdair is an orphan taken in by Mr. A. H--, Prospero's rival, and trained in lonely seclusion as an illusionist.
That is probably where the similarities between the two novels leave off (though I can't be sure since it's been years since I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I thoroughly enjoyed, as only a nerdy academic can, the historical footnotes used throughout JS&MN, and I marveled at the imagination that constructed such a familiar and yet strange world. Even now I can't say exactly what drove the narrative engine of JS&MN, but the alternative world drew me in and kept me going until a strange sort of creepiness took over whenever a particular character arrived (it's not for concern about spoiling that I'm leaving his name out; rather I can't recall his name, only that he was a fairy). The creepiness turned into full-blown horror at some point, as unexpected as it was thrilling.
No creepiness or horror motivates the narrative in The Night Circus; instead, an innocent wonder at Morgenstern's fantastic world draws the reader in and pulls her along for much of the story. Le Cirque des Rêves, The Circus of Dreams, truly feels magical and mysterious. Save for a handful of domestic scenes with Bailey, a young boy in Concord, Massachusetts, who falls in love with Le Cirque des Rêves, dreaminess wafts through the narrative like an intoxicating fog. The reader becomes, along with Herr Thiessen, the German clockmaker, a riveur, a dreamer who finds the circus more compelling than the ordinary world. Much of this dreaminess is owed to the vivid, coherent images of the circus environment and its entertainments, which make it feel both real and yet tinged with the impossible. From the star-filled tunnel to the winding paths among the black-and-white-striped canvas tents, from the crisp apple cider and chocolate-covered popcorn to the ever-burning bonfire in its whimsical, cast-iron cauldron in the circus's courtyard, Morgenstern sets the stage with so much finely chosen sensory detail that I swear I can smell caramel-scented air and wood smoke.
The narrative engine of The Night Circus is the methodical, inevitable running of a clock, in this instance an automaton clock, a type of mechanical clock popular in the Victorian era. The timeline swings like a pendulum between the beginning of the contest between Prospero and his enigmatic long-time rival Mr. A. H-- in 1873 and the first time that Bailey visits the circus in 1891. At the beginning, the swings between timelines is slow and leisurely, but gradually the swings shorten and the motion between the two timelines quickens, bringing the magic competition to a dramatic finale with a dilemma for the future of Le Cirque des Rêves. Too, the novel's characters and their scenes resemble an automaton clock's figures and their actions: they appear and disappear as if on cue and with predictable and planned movements. While on some level, I would have liked the characters to be less static, on another level, this wondrous structure, which is echoed in the clock that Herr Thiessen creates for the circus, reinforces the fairy-tale nature of the story. (less)
To be honest, my ten-year-old son rates this 5 stars. He enjoyed it very much. I too enjoyed it, but it's a rare book these days that I'd rate a full...moreTo be honest, my ten-year-old son rates this 5 stars. He enjoyed it very much. I too enjoyed it, but it's a rare book these days that I'd rate a full 5 stars.(less)