Friday, October 24, 2008

The Host

Stephanie Meyer breaks away from her vampire romance juggernaut to introduce a new story involving alien parasites called "souls"- shiny centipede looking species, that invade planets around the universe, take over the dominant species and, in their altruistic view, make them better.

As they overtake Earth, and secretly begin invading the bodies of humans, relationships are torn apart as loved ones bodies remain in tact, but the person inside is replaced with a higher evolved and peace-loving soul - the only physical evidence of takeover being eyes that are now reflective. Humans struggling to remain human take desperate measures to hide and survive. Melanie Stryder and her younger brother, Jamie, both human, are discovered stealing food when another rogue human, Jared, discovers them. Jared and Melanie form an intense bond and the three become a tight-knit family. When Melanie is discovered by a Seeker, a member of this alien race whose main purpose is to discover, catch and transform any remaining humans, her body become inhabited by a soul who goes by the name of Wanderer. Wanderer struggles to control Melanie's being as flashes of Melanie's memories, feelings and urges all complicate the normally peaceful process. Eventually, Wanderer chooses to leave her peaceful peers and, using Melanie's memories, discovers where Jared and Jamie are now hiding with other human rebels.

First of all, this book should never have been given the title The Host. The host is Melanie and this is not Melanie's story. It is Wanda's (the name Wanderer is eventually shortened to). Melanie is a strong character and certainly influences the direction of the plot, but as Wanda is developed more and more, and establishes her own relationships with supporting characters, the conflict, climax and resolution all focus on Wanda and her journey. Call it The Wanderer. Or The Soul. Or The Beautiful Shiny Centipede-looking thing.

Secondly, the entire story was too long. Wanda, separate from Melanie, falls in love with another human, Ian. But she looks like Melanie and is influenced by Melanie's feelings so she's attracted to Jared. Jared hates Wanda, because she essentially killed the woman he loved. Except that she looks like Melanie. And he is attracted to Melanie. Ian falls in love with Wanda, and her gentle altruism, and becomes convinced he'd be attracted to Wanda regardless of what form she takes - even her shiny centipede form. I don't think so, but Ian was one of those good-all-the-time-guys so...I guess. Ergo conflict. Jared-Melanie-Ian. Jared-Wanda-Ian. Wanda-Melanie-Ian. Wanda- Melanie-Jared. I found this love triangle storyline interesting and complicated. Unfortunately, it was too drawn out alongside several other different story lines, including Wanda's life being in danger from angry humans, Wanda's realization that her species was wrong to eradicate human beings, descriptions of Wanda sleeping on hard dirt (again and again), the angry Seeker who inexplicably won't go away, the plot to get medicine, the plot to get food, the plot to recover other humans, the plot give Melanie her body back and on and on and on. By its end, I was tired. Overloaded with perhaps interesting, but too much, information. The idea of sequels makes me shudder.

If it sounds like I'm Stephanie Meyer bashing, I'm not. I think she comes up with unbelievably original ideas. I simply don't like how she tells them. I think her stories are better suited for movies, or - if she would really, really try - shorter books. There should be a really good reason to justify publishing over 600 pages and this doesn't seem to have one. Except that all parties involved must have known that based on the Twilight series success, this book would sell like hotcakes. Why not make it heavy and charge more?

In the end, this is an average book. Not awful but not great. For me, the ride ends here.

Anna Karenina

At the conclusion of Karenina's 800 plus pages, I add my name to Tolstoy's long list of admirers. What a thinker! Like a talented photographer, Tolstoy has an eye for realism and his writing inside the heads of his characters is perfection. For a book where nothing really happens (besides wealthy people hanging out in various places...and a few people dying) to still manage to have such a fascinating effect on readers takes a certain kind of genius. So many times, while reading, I thought to myself, "Nothing is happening. How did Tolstoy get away with writing this and why are we all convinced it's one of the greatest novels of all time?" Continued reading converted me, as it has the masses, but it reminds me of an old movie, where the story stands alone, without being propped up by special effects and dramatic music. It's good - naked.

These are my take-away overall impressions. But, there were some very frustrating moments that happened along the way. Sometimes, my eyes blurred as I waited for Levin, a wealthy land-owner who has no understanding or appreciation for insincerity and falseness (characteristics that run rampant among his aristocratic peers), to finish his conversation with the peasants or friends about farm management. The amount of time Tolstoy dedicated on a Russian painter living in Italy, and his opinion about art and technique and style seemed wholly unnecessary to me. Almost like Tolstoy introduced the portrait, knowing he'd need it later in the story for contrast, but couldn't simply write leave it at that. Instead, he had to include whatever obscure experience or knowledge he had about art too...throw it into another character. I felt, a bit, like I was being taken on a ride.

Obviously, I am a modern reader, and need my greatest-novels-of-all-time written modernly! Imagine, me...little reader from nowhere, thinking, "This Russian guy needs an editor!"

I include the critical thoughts along the way, because I don't think I'm alone in thinking Anna Karenina is, perhaps,a little bloated. However, bloated or not, this is an incredible, incredible book. Embarrassingly incredible. Like, how in the world does Tolstoy see the ridiculous inside everyone's head? How does he know how insecure a man like Levin is - a man, who from the outside, appears to have everything? How does he understand how a woman can be instantly irritated and irrational from something that her lover has said, or...more frequently, has not said?

It's not only the realism that makes this book famously good. It's the artful way he makes his case against falseness. Through one of his dual protagonists, Levin, he cleanly paints his case with soft, muted colors - conversations, thoughts, and actions - that reflect,ultimately, a very likable character. Levin does the right thing, usually thinks the right thing - so his thoughts are beautiful, enjoyable thoughts. If Levin hates falseness - well...I will hate falseness too!

Then, on a canvas located directly beside the pretty picture, he paints Anna, with dramatic boldness - including the vividness but also the awful, the disturbing, and chaotic result of a woman, who, every bit as passionately, hates falseness too. Whereas Levin is ultimately rewarded for his inability to accept hypocrisy, Anna, a woman we know isn't really bad, but who makes choices that aren't sympathetic either, is punished for it.

It may seem bizarre to review a book named Anna Karenina and only now mention her. I was surprised that this isn't more her book. Her story, along side Vronsky's, is certainly the most intense and tragic, but the novel's overall point isn't limited to her infidelity, or about her choice to leave her husband and child (which is what I thought it was going to be about. Even my husband, when he saw I was reading this said, "Oh. Reading the adultery book, huh?").

In fact, it's about a group of Russia's aristocratic upper class, and their motivations and justifications about the way they live their lives. Their stories are all tangled together and each of their decisions and actions create shock waves throughout the group. Tolstoy shows how, even within a privileged group such as this, where access to information, money, justice etc., supposedly is the same, how differently they think and choose to behave. There's the brilliance. I read a quote from another famous author who said that if the world could speak on it's own, it would sound like Tolstoy. Exactly.

Thousands of reviews have been written about this book, and I certainly have nothing new to add, but, if you have hours and hours of spare time or a penchant for 19th century Russian socioeconomic exposés or simply enjoy the thoughts of a great mind - read this book.

Ellen Foster

When I was eleven years old, and in sixth grade, I remember getting a bloody nose during school. While I was holding the tissue to my hemorrhaging nostril, a mean-spirited girl, whose mom had already picked a fight with my mom because I didn't invite her daughter to my birthday party that summer, commented loudly to the rest of the class, "I bet she was picking her nose!"

I still remember the humiliation I felt as several people started chanting "nose picker! nose picker!" Humiliation remembered, 22 years later, even though mixed with that memory is a sixth grade full of good friends, a wonderful home to go home to, and eleven, equally drama-free years preceding it.

This memory of mine was triggered last night after reading this short book (only 144 pages) and I was left wondering what Ellen Foster would categorize as "humiliating" from her eleventh year, twenty-two years later.

Eleven year-old Ellen's entire family existence is the very definition of dysfunctional. Alcoholic and mean spirited father. Helpless, sad and sick mother. Cruel, angry and spiteful grandmother. Ellen finds a way to survive in each and every situation she unwillingly finds herself in, without any friends to lean on for support except a young black girl named Starletta.

Confused by the racial segregation and stereotypes that, while no longer enforced by law, are still enforced by popular belief in the South, Ellen observes a loving family in action while spending time with Starletta's family, her hippie art teacher and husband and later with the woman she calls her "new mama" - a foster parent.

Even though it created some frustration for me when normal details, like the names of the story's supporting characters, were left out, the author, Kaye Gibbons, never veers from her narrator's eleven year-old perspective. We readers are never privy to the background story of her parent's eroded marriage, the subsequent abuse and health problems, or what Ellen's world looked outside of Ellen's own view. It is Ellen's story, and she tells what matters to her - holes and all.

We stand by and watch Ellen going to more than her fair share of funerals, being made of fun of for her dirty clothes, uncombed hair, and crazy father who shows up for school drunk, holding money and shouting, "I'll pay you for it!", being forced by the court to go live with her grandmother who makes her go work the fields picking rows of cotton alongside her other "niggers" and then, finally cheer for her as she learns what it means to be loved and safe.

Honest, tragic, triumphant and heartbreaking - if only Ellen knew that she was supposed to be heartbroken, this is a fantastic glimpse into a young girl's horrifying world and how she fights to find a better one.

Breaking Dawn

I've decided that as rich and famous as Stephanie Meyer is, I would never want to be her. I don't believe I've ever read about any other author who has sold as many books as she has, but has also been as harshly criticized as she has been. As likely as it is to find someone who stays up all night to finish her books, it's just as easy to find someone who hates her writing, hates her characters and pretty darn near hates anybody who reads her books.

As in most areas of my life, I am a Stephanie Meyer moderate. The right makes me shiver with their extreme obsession and devotion and the left gives me a head ache from all the eye rolls I'm forced to do after reading overly critical reviews.

Breaking Dawn brought the Twilight series full circle for me. I'm not even going to bother with a recap because if you don't know what it's about by now, then you can't possibly care about what I'm going to write. I excuse you.

With all my up-to-date hindsight, I can say that I really enjoyed Twilight, was disappointed with New Moon, was slightly confused and cared less about Eclipse and thought Breaking Dawn did a satisfactory job of tying up some of the more important loose ends.

Finally, finally....Bella gets to have sex with Edward. Phew! I'm so glad Meyer got it over with at the beginning of the book instead of drawing it out for another 500 pages. She writes it modestly, honestly and kept it what all married sex should be....private. I could say more, but suffice it to say, I appreciate Meyer keeping it real. The passion was there, the awkwardness and anxiety ever present, but most importantly, the love and fun were there too.

Like a lot of readers, I found the "Jacob" chapters boring. I have never felt the connection between Bella and Jacob and only believed it because the author kept telling me, again and again and again, that they had one. So they had one and it felt even more unbelievable and creepy after Bella was married. Considering the ending and the birth of Edward and Bella's baby, Reneseme (worst baby name ever, I believe) I understand the need; we need to believe Jacob's devotion to Bella and live through his own confusion over it, in order not be completely disturbed by Jacob's subsequent devotion to Reneseme. Still, it didn't make for great reading.

I really liked the end. I liked the happy ending. I liked the other vampire characters and the description of their cool gifts. I liked that the good guys won. That is young adult literature. Good triumphs over evil! Stand up to the bully! Work together and accomplish the impossible! Mostly, I liked Bella being a vampire. Finally, she was comfortable in her own skin and it actually made her likable. Perhaps, Meyer meant to have Bella annoy us readers through three long books so that we could see the improvement when Bella makes the transition from mortal to immortal, although I doubt it. Meyer is a genius at writing conflict - not characterization.

My greatest complaint was that Edward never got back to being Edward. I'm going to have to accept the character she gave me in books 2, 3 and 4 and forget about the interesting and better developed Edward from Twilight, who has never reappeared in any of the sequels. Oh well.

Oh, and the word, "Ugh". Nothing screams false like an angry teenage werewolf feeling frustrated and shouting, "ugh!". I'm not promoting obscene language or anything, but...really? Ugh?

I'm glad she releases her books in the summertime, because Breaking Dawn is an enjoyable summer read.

The Birth House

I should have known better than to read this. One thing I am not is pro-home birth. I'm not anti- home birth, but the more I read about the "exquisite, spiritual, satisfying" birthing of their babies, the more turned off I am by the usually-not-said-but-rather-implied understanding that any other kind of birth is not.

I know it's not true. Birthing a child is exciting and scary and hard and wonderful and one of the most memorable things any woman will do in her lifetime. But, the variety in which we can, and choose, to do it is wide and, thankfully, available. Writing that glorifies one means over another annoys me.

With that being said, it was impossible for this book not to annoy me. With a protagonist that is an ever understanding, compassionate, holds-to-her guns midwife and the villain a heartless, thoughtless, passionless.....MAN, the story was too black and white to be good. Yes, it had other merits including its vivid Nova Scotia backdrop, the emerging gain of independent, feminine thought during and after WWI and a somewhat interesting love story, but the bias was clear even when the writing was not (which, with all of the journal entries and articles occurred frequently).

I think women who line up on the home-birth side of the debate will love this book. It champions their clear superiority. Unfortunately, it doesn't really champion the beauty of all birth, or the most important thing of all...the availability of options.

I Am The Messenger

Excellent writing. Superb. So superb that if this story were to be turned into a film, the movie would be awful. Dull. Banal. In fact, I think the film's interpretation would be a commercial and critical flop because people would think it was so cheesy and predictable.

But...when read, the characters are so real, so satisfyingly flawed that I didn't care about Ed, Marv, Ritchie and Audrey's mediocre lives and stunted emotional maturity. Zusak writes Ed so convincingly and with enough honesty that I hurt when Ed hurt and felt a little giddy with each of his successes. I don't know any actor that could "emote" Ed's depth, especially when he seems so simple upon first glance. Sometimes (o.k....most of the time in my perfect world), you need words and an author that knows how to use them, to really know a character.

The book begins with Ed, Marv, Ritchie and Audrey, four hapless young 19 to 20 year old friends, lying flat on the floor of a bank while it is being robbed. Following some rather entertaining bantering, Ed becomes a very unlikely hero after he uncharacteristically foils the bank robbers escape.

The chapter is perfect. The setting is vivid and with limited prose, the personalities and relationship between the four friends is immediately drawn. Following Ed's heroics and subsequent attention in the press, Ed receives a mysterious playing card, an Ace of clubs, with three addresses and different times of day next to each. Ed realizes, with a little help from two thugs who break into his apartment and threaten him, that someone is watching and waiting for each message to be delivered. After he figures out what to do at each address, the ace of diamonds is delivered, with an even more mysterious message. Because Ed has to figure out what the messages are and who to deliver them to each time, the story has a suspense/mystery feel to it, even though most of Ed's missions aren't scary or dangerous (notice I say most. Some of the messages are downright "Aw, shucks"ish, but he also has to figure out how to stop a drunk who rapes his wife every night and eventually does it with a gun. Not exactly Hallmark material).

In spite of my love affair with Zusak's writing, which truly has me gushing, the plot is flawed. Preceding the book's lame-before-I-understood-and-even-lamer-after-I-understood ending, I couldn't help but think while reading, "who would do this?" Who would act on coded messages on a playing card, without contacting the police, without knowing how or why or when or who? It wasn't as if Ed was some super sleuth. His James Bond/Ethan Hunt make-over seemed a bit of a stretch. I simply didn't believe that Ed, in his 19 years of living without confidence or ambition, would even act on the first card. How did Ed, who cannot tell the girl he loves how he feels, or his mother to be nice, suddenly have the nerve to hang out with an elderly woman pretending to be Jimmy, her husband who had died in the war? The leap seemed too great. Buying an ice cream cone for a poor single mother, yes....I could believe that (although I have to admit that each time the message was this simple and and easy to deliver, I wondered, "who is bothering with this elaborate ploy?" Kind of a lot of brou-ha-ha for icecream/lights/telling your friend to get a job.

From it's ending, I get it. Zusak is. He is the messenger and the book is his message. He created Ed and Ed's story because he wanted us to know, whether great or small, we should help each other. More than that, we should be the kind of person who is willing and available to help each other. Because by doing so, we help ourselves.

Fine and great, but by inserting himself into the story, after writing in such a typical, fiction-like manner, the whole book became kind of space age. I guess I felt duped. The strength of the book came from Ed being so real, but the author took that away from me by the end. I felt...manipulated. I mean, I didn't realize I was reading the Wizard of Oz. At least that book had flying monkeys and talking lions.

Bad ending. Great book.

Remember When

Having never read any of Nora Roberts or J.D. Robb's work before (they're the same author, in case you didn't know), I quickly found myself enjoying the tempo and intrigue Roberts managed to establish in the very first pages of the book.

Laine Tavish, formerly Elaine O'Hara, has changed from being the talented young thief working alongside her father, into a respectable antique shop owner in a small, close-knit community. When an accomplice of her father's runs into the street and is killed by a car right in front of her antique store, and is later discovered to have been a part of a 28 million dollar diamond heist, her safe new world no longer exists and she must decide, who to trust and if she's really Laine or Elaine.

Throw in a romance with the sexy insurance detective,Max Gannon, an all-evil-all-the-time bad guy, and some safe sidekicks, and you have the first part of the story.

The second half, is set in 2059 where life is pretty much the same, except for the frequent mention of 'links and people going "off-planet". A quarter share of the diamonds was never recovered from the half-century old theft, and when Shannon Gannon, the granddaughter of Laine and Max Gannon (awww...they stayed together!) writes a book about her grandparents and the diamonds, someone seems to think Shannon, herself, must have the lost diamonds and murders the woman house-sitting for her. When another murder connects the two, detective Eve Dallas sets out to find the murderer, and perhaps the diamonds as well.

I don't know if it was the two-book-in-one that didn't fit, but both stories seemed rushed, simplified, and predictable. I was hoping for something easy....light...quick, and it was, but I was also hoping for something good, which, unfortunately, I can't say that this was. Sorry Roberts/Robb. You didn't gain a new fan.

Summer's Child and Summer of Roses

I have been in a major summertime rut. Even coming on Goodreads depresses me because it seems like everyone is reading, and reading well, and I either have no time, or attention span, because I just can't get through a book! In a desperate attempt to get back in the game, I checked out an old favorite, Luanne Rice, to see if I could get the novel reading juices flowing again.

Unfortunately, I picked up a two-for-one deal, and while the stories were connected, the whole effect was unsatisfying. I didn't want to start over when my thumbs told me I was halfway through. With that attitude, I felt annoyed when Rice told things over again, things she had just gotten done telling me in the first half of the book. So, this idea...this joining of half stories, gets a big ol' "meh" from me.