Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Creating Cormoran and his "Career of Evil"

The Blue Oyster Cult and a severed leg.  These are the only two clues that face Cormoran Strike in a perplexing mystery that will force him to examine his past and potentially lose his future.  Strike is back for the third installation of Robert Galbraith's hit series featuring the veteran-turned-detective and his clever, resilient assistant, Robin Ellacott. Career of Evil is the latest installation in the seven part series by British author, Robert Galbraith (what a magical name!).  This is perhaps the most twisted book in the series so far; Cormoran and Robin are directly targeted in a mystery that will reveal both Cormoran and Robin's inner demons and force them to reevaluate their lives and each other.

Staying true to form, Career continues Galbraith's gritty, edgy style, with crimes that turn the stomach and suspects that come from all walks of life but all have twisted inner demons and leanings towards evil.  A severed leg is delivered to Robin; this sets off several alarms for Robin, who is convinced that it is not the work of a random psycho but someone who is targeting Cormoran and mocking his amputation.  Cormoran, although slow to agree, comes to the conclusion that there are three main suspects who would have enough resentment towards Cormoran to target him. Cormoran and Robin begin to track down and investigate the three men, discovering that all three have the potential to descend into madness and all three having a burning hate for Cormoran Strike. The novel culminates in a fall that leaves readers anxious and waiting for more.

This might be the best novel of the series so far.  The whodunit was a bit obvious as the novel went on; however, a surprise twist packed a punch so fierce that the reader is almost forced to flip back and read specific passages again.  The journey was definitely the best part about this novel. A lot is revealed about the mysterious Cormoran; these revelations about him force Robin to examine her relationships with him and in doing so, Robin's character is developed to resemble the strong female characters from Galbraith's past works. The Cuckoo's Calling was a refreshing appearance on the mystery scene in 2013, a lackluster year for the genre, and promised a lot more to come from this brilliant author; Career of Evil delivers on that promise and leaves enough cliffhangers to entice readers to anxiously await next year's installment.  

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

"The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane."

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the final installment in the series that captivated the world and changed children's literature forever.  By this point, the movies had been smash hits, the series had reached rock star levels of fame, with the midnight book premier being more of parties and celebrations than just a book release. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at universal Studios in Orlando, Florida was already being rumored (it was true!) and the last book was heavily guarded, with only two people in the world knowing the exact reasons for everything (JK Rowling herself squealed to British actor who played Severus Snape, Alan Rickman).  The world was hooked.  The Harry Potter series had become so real for so many people that it was hard to imagine a book that would not only satisfy the masses, but that would wrap up everything that had happen in the last six books.  Yet, Rowling delivered. 

Deathly Hallows encompasses all that made the series great: action, mystery, suspense, love, wit, and an ever present sense of hope.  It is needless to say that this book is dark; Voldemort has taken over and the good guys are running out of time (and people) to find the way to defeat him. Rowling creates the deathly hallows, a mystical fable of objects that would overcome death (seriously, the movie version of this part is better than the book).  These objects,  along with another set of darker, more evil objects, drive the story forward. This is the book that, in my opinion, finally showcases Rowling's ability as a fantasy writer.  She has created her own canon of magic, not borrowed and tweaked previously known items; she solidified a new idea of magic in literature.  Deathly Hallows is difficult to classify.  It is not the best book out of the series; there are parts that seem choppy and out of sorts, almost like Rowling was postponing the end herself.  Nonetheless, this is the book that makes the series, that makes the world black and white, and illustrates to the reader Rowling's overall message in the series: redemption, forgiveness, love, and honor will triumph even in the face of the darkest foes.  
Chapter 33 "The Prince's Tale"

There are several things simply wrong with this book.  Several  things made readers cry, rage, throw the book down in disgust.  Things that broke our hearts.  Things that were paramount to reveal the ugliness of war, the brokenness of evil, and the heartache that accompanies taken the hard road, the righteous road.  Rowling did not make a mistake with this book, despite what readers still debate.  The things that seemed wrong, seemed awful, were realistic and relevant.  War and death are not rational, which Rowling stressed to point out.  She took a war (wars are not all that different, even in a magical world) and showed us that divided along good and evil, people die, places get destroyed, lives are changed forever, and things that people dread can happen. Yet, in this book, in life, good triumphs.  There will always be someone to stand up for what is right,  even in the face of death.  Those least likely will be the heroes.  Love conquers all. Always. 

"All was well,"

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

“It was nearing midnight and the Prime Minister was sitting along in his office, reading a long memo that was slipping through his brain without leaving the slightest trace of meaning behind.”

Straight from the get-go, Harry  Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is probably the most entertaining and most mesmerizing book of the series.  The other books build up the story, enticing you to keep reading to find out what happens next and to continue the journey to the climax of the story;  Half-Blood Prince draws you in by sheer force of storytelling, by the way Rowling weaves the story in a way that you are in the moment, not wondering how this is all going to come together, not wondering what is going to happen next,  but just simply interested in the story plot at hand.  Everything has lead up to this book; all the unanswered questions, not yet solved problems, and the gray areas of loyalty are all made painfully clear in this book.

The book opens with one of the most realistic, most darkly enjoyable  scenes of the series.  The Muggle Prime Minster is in a near panic from all the inexplicable disasters occurring in Great Britain. While in a state, he is visited by the recently sacked Minister of Magic, who explains that all the disasters are related to the revitalized power of the most powerful dark wizard of all time.  This meeting does not go well. Yet, this opening leaves reader caught up with the events since Voldemort's going public at the Ministry of Magic.  We meet Harry once again at Privet Drive; the Dursleys haven not changed much, but Harry sure has.  Quiet, often brooding, and still simmering with the agony of Sirius's death, Harry is quite startled to be relieved of his time at Privet Drive by Dumbledore himself.  A whirlwind manipulation of a former teacher later, Harry is reunited with his friends and they off to Hogwarts for harder classes, complex love affairs, general shenanigans, and to be faced with a plot so simple, so driven with fear, that it entirely changes the course of Hogwarts and of the mission to defeat Voldemort.

Chapter 27-
"The Lightening-Struck Tower"
There are several points of humor in this book (which is turn led to a highly entertaining movie) that balance out the dark forces that are simmering under the surface. The dialogue is more natural and more mature.  For the first time in the series, Rowling finally makes use of flashbacks; however, it is not your typical flashback, since the scenes are memories stored in a Pensive (most useful item in the series after wands!)  When not written correctly, flashbacks can seem campy, unnecessary, or can throw the plot off completely.  This is not the case for Half-Blood Prince; some of Rowling's best writing in the series are these scenes.  They are almost separate narratives in a story, all contributing to the present day situation.  Rowling weaves in tragedy, determination, evil, madness, beauty, and mystery throughout the stories.  The flashbacks propel the narrative forward, revealing Voldemort's past, present, and future. Rowling writes her more mature teen characters with witty dialogue, amusingly accurate portrayals of love, angst, and everything in between, and, most importantly, a near-complete revealing of what exactly is going on.  Why does Harry have to return to the horrid Dursleys every year, what happened to Dumbledore's hand, how was Voldemort able to cling to life, and much, much more, including the revealing of several characters' true intentions.

As I said in the third post about this series, this is the second best book, in my opinion.  It has the elements that made this series great; ingenuity, adventure, fantasy, family, love, great dialogue, and historical intrigue.  This is the most heart-pounding book in the series, the book that ushers readers to the beginning of the end.  The beauty of Half-Blood Prince is that it leaves you sad, hopeful, and completely immersed from beginning to end.  You question gray areas of characters and sitautions: what would you do?  That is the question Harry is asking himself in the beginning; by the end, he has his answers and is preparing to face his greatest foe.

“His hand closed automatically around the fake Horcrux, but in spite of everything, in spite of the dark and twisting path he saw stretching ahead for himself, in spite of the final meeting with Voldemort he knew must come, whether in a month, in a year, or in ten, he felt his heart lift at the thought that there was still one last golden day of peace left to enjoy with Ron and Hermione.”

The end is coming. Wands ready!


Monday, August 17, 2015

“The hottest day of the summer so far was drawing to a close and a drowsy silence lay over the large, square houses of Privet Drive.”

Courtesy of amazon.com
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be called the turning point for the series.  It is completely gloomy, dark, and our wizards and witches are growing up.  I will tell you right now, it is not a feel good book.  It signals the now darkness that the British wizarding world is enveloped in and now the gray areas of loyalty are becoming black and white.  The good guys and the bad guys are distinguishing themselves and the underground war is just getting started.

We had been left on a depressing cliff the last book, and we now meet our wizard hero being 15, bullied by his cousin, and blossoming into an angst filled teenager. After being attacked by dementors in Muggle London, Harry is whisked away into hiding with the Order of the Phoenix, the revived group of wizards and witches dedicated to fighting Voldemort.  There we learn more about Sirius Black and his past, the new members of the Order, and what exactly are the odds of success against Voldemort and his growing number of followers.  At school, Harry is faced with new challenges: a teacher who is down right evil, a vengeful Severus Snape, his raging hormones and emotions (angst being the absolute worst part of this book- yet, Rowling masterfully manages to fully annoy the reader with Harry's teen drama, exactly like a real teenager), a sad Cho Chang who needs a shoulder to cry on, upcoming O.W.L.s, and the creeping darkness of Voldemort's forces closing in.

British author J.K. Rowling takes pains to signal that the series is now departing from the feel-good, whimsical first book.  Order is angrier, edgier, and much more adult than the previous books. There is new magic introduced, but is either dark magic or defensive magic.  New characters are also introduced; several of them are endearing, but their very presence is evidence that Dumbledore is padding the ranks with highly trained, deadly, and morally good wizards and witches, preparing for the eventual grand showdown.  On the flip side, we are introduced to a new villain that is most definitely worse and more anger-inducing than Voldemort himself: Dolores Umbridge. American author Stephen King (who knows a thing or two about villians and evil) summed her up perfectly: “The gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, is the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter.”  She is mind-numbingly terrible, dripping in pink, cats, and hate for Harry Potter.  She is possibly the best part of the book.  Any interactions with her are written sadistically and cruelly; Rowling's writing genius shines through Umbridge in that any interaction with Umbridge will fill the reader with anger, indignant rebellion, and a realization that sometimes, the real evil is in the weaker people who flock to the powerful.

Chapter 36: The Only One He Ever Feared,
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
In what has become the most horrifying, terrible, tragic part of the series, Order ends with a death that literally hurts.  I have no shame in admitting that my mother and I cried throughout our entire vacation after reading the book (much to my father's chagrin!)  The final blow in the book is devastating; many still criticize Rowling for it.  However, it was necessary.  It warned the reader that war is not for the faint of heart and that good people, people who you love, die.  Fans hated it, but it was the perfect way to initialize what was to come.  This book divided the men from the boys, women from the girls, among the Harry Potter fans.  Order of the Phoenix tested your ability to love the series despite the tragedy, the hurt, the pain, the angst, and Cho Chang.  If you could excuse this book, you would make it to the end.

“Instead he smiled, raised a hand in farewell, turned around, and led the way out of the station toward the sunlit street, with Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Dudley hurrying along in his wake.”

Only two more to go!  Check back for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (my second favorite!)

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

“The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it “the Riddle House,” even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.”

Courtesy of goodreads.com
I will admit, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the third best book in the series.  It also gives me the most anxiety.  I tear through the other books, not being able to put them down until I triumphantly finish and then throw it aside to militantly start the next book; this one usually takes me about two weeks to read.  I obsessively read through the beginning and then trickle down to a couple of chapters a day, and then, at the end, I am putting the book down every few pages to reel from the shock (the shock which never gets old.)  By the time I am finished with the book, I am stunned all over again.

Why? Goblet of Fire is perhaps the most critical book in the series. It not only signals a shift in the narrative, but also a shift in Rowling's writing style. The narrative is darker, most complex, with more twists and turns. Rowling's writing is more mature, more detailed, and her crafted plot twists and characters were much more refined and succinct. However, probably the most distinct departure from the previous books is how little Rowling focuses on the school aspect of Harry's life.  Instead, Goblet focuses more on the expansiveness of the magical world beyond Hogwarts, the deep political tension growing due to seemingly truthful whispers of Voldemort's return, and on secrets that threaten many characters.

Goblet opens up with a murder of a Muggle by Lord Voldemort, letting the audience know immediately that he is back (thanks to a rat traitor...).  He is on the hunt for Harry. Harry, on the other hand, is snug (and miserable) at the Dursleys', awaiting news about the impending Quidditch World Cup.  Tents, snitches, Morsmordre, and accusations all accompany the international event and it is in a somber attitude that our favorites magical people return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  However, the previously fatal Triwizard Tournament is being held at Hogwarts this year and two other European magic schools will be staying at Hogwarts to compete in the event.  Things are not as simple as they should be though, and Harry is once again the target of a murky, but dangerous plot, one that will have cataclysmic consequences and will forever change everything that Harry knows and threatens everything he loves.

Chapter 28, "The Madness of Mr. Crouch"
Most series struggle to keep up with themselves in the middle of the series. The middle usually signals a turning point, with the conflict already being introduced earlier.  However, Rowling chose to do things differently.  She used the first three books to set up the scene.  The readers receive the first major plot whammy in Goblet:Voldemort has returned and it is definitely not good.  With this new development, Rowling takes the reader away from the smaller details of a magical school (readers are in the classroom less and are more involved in the going-ons of the larger magical world) and plunges Harry and the readers into a plot line that had been threatening to explode since the first book.  Rowling is at her absolute best in this book; she manages the flow of several different plot lines beautifully, all while keeping up with witty dialogue, quirky new characters, unique magical elements, and, in the end, tying everything together so surprisingly and so deftly, it will leave the reader shocked (this lack of the element of surprise is what made the movie inferior).  Goblet just has a different feel to it than the previous three books.  It is markedly more mature than the previous three; this is the first time the series seems more geared towards adults than kids.  Rowling masterfully wrote a type of slow building suspense that builds the narrative all the while keeping up with Rowling's concepts of magic. The twists and turn throughout the plot seem to blend in perfectly, and do not hit you until one tell-all chapter towards the end.  Only then does the reader see the entire picture; only then does the reader realize that this is the real beginning of the series, the introduction of the main plot that will drive the rest of the books.  

Goblet of Fire is a force to be reckoned with as far as books go.  There is a fun, albeit slightly apprehensive undertone throughout the entire book, only to be quickly extinguished by horror, tragedy, and a looming power of evil.  Rowling leaves both the characters and the readers heartbroken but with a renewed sense of good and determination.  Goblet is the start of something big, and Rowling does not spare the readers the angst of what Voldemort's return means.  The future looks bleak and the ultimate war against Voldemort is beginning.

"As Hagrid had said, what would come, would come … and he would have to meet it when it did."

Stay Tuned for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

“Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways.”

Courtesy of goodreads.com
There is a character in every successful series that pulls at your heartstrings in a way that no other character does.  That character will have the love, admiration, and adoration of the readers.  There are several of these characters in the Harry Potter series, but none quite wooed the audience like Sirius Black.  A bad boy with a heart of gold, a dog with unending loyalty, and the fortitude to stand up for what's right no matter the consequences to himself; this is Sirius Black and readers met him for the first time in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  The third book in the series, Prisoner is, without a doubt, one of the two best books in the series (the other being Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, which we will be reading about soon!)  Prisoner introduces us to new characters, new magic, new places, and begins to crack open the larger story line arc of the series.  It gives us a history that had been previously just a blank slate to both Harry and the reader; these revelations start the turn the machine that will propel the rest of the series.

Prisoner finds our now 13 year old hero counting down the days until he can return to Hogwarts.  However, a magical disaster shortens the countdown, and Harry finds himself staying in Diagon Alley while people whisper about the prisoner breakout from the wizarding prison, Azkaban.  Harry, Ron, and Hermione's third year at Hogwarts is marked by Firebolts, hippogriffs, crystal balls, a dying rat, and the infamous Sirius Black.  Sirius Black is a criminal on the run, accused of blowing up a street full of Muggles, killing the heroic Peter Pettigrew, is now on the hunt for Harry... and was Harry's parents' dearest friend.  Harry struggles with this knowledge throughout, only to be startled by the revealing of a more sinister plot at hand.  Readers are finally treated to a more concrete backstory of what happened during those last weeks before Voldemort's fall; this backstory makes all the difference for the story and sets the stage for the ultimate showdown to begin.

It is evident that Rowling had finally found her definite writing style by this book.  Her descriptions still remain vivid and concise; yet, the development of the story and the flow of the events are much, much better.  She departs from the formulaic story line of the past two books.  Rowling takes the reader away from the everyday classrooms and Great Hall that the majority of the last two novels took place in; Prisoner is jammed packed with Quidditch matches, intrigue, wanderings throughout Hogwarts, and a new location (Hogsmeade).  The dialogue is much more realistic and the emotions of the characters seem more engaging and, perhaps, indicates more maturity on their part.  Prisoner also sees Rowling blossom with magical ideas of her own.  Before, we had seen new ideas mingled with cliche ideas of wizards and witches.  Now that the story has moved past those introductions to wands, brooms, spells, etc., the reader is shown new aspects of magic.  There is a
great deal of magical creatures, many Rowling borrowed from lore and made her own.  However, what makes this book not only just a great story, but also a great showcase of Rowling's talent, is the flawless weaving in of the past with the present.  She does this without using flashbacks, a literary device that (in my opinion) is vastly overused.  Not only is the idea of past and present clashing rarely used in children's literature, but to be done so well is unprecedented.  She introduces characters that turn on a dime; Sirius Black goes from being vilified to glorified in a masterful (and heartbreaking) chapter.  Rowling manages to create a hero out of someone who she spent the entire book making terrifying.  The introduction of Sirius Black and Remus Lupin now ties the reader to the past; they are living remnants of Harry's past, and that alone romanticizes them and their interactions with others.  The reader is now confronted with just how deep the terror and tyranny of Voldemort ran, foreshadowing how future books will grow darker and darker as Voldemort's rise gains traction.

This is by far my favorite book.  I was in love with the series before Prisoner.  However, after Prisoner, I was properly bewitched (pun totally intended.)  The writing was captivating and the characters were seemed more realistic.  The action was enthralling and the history of before Voldemort's fall was breath taking.  As a history major, I cannot help but love a good back story.  Rowling provided just this.  Things are starting to slowly fall in place and, for the first time, it becomes obvious to the reader that Voldemort is not going to be a thing of the past.  The novel has a dark tint and that alone lures the reader to continue on.  I cannot sing enough praise for this novel.  I have went through three paperback versions (my hardbacks are untouched of course) of this book; it is always my go to.  Prisoner is the gateway for the real story and is a wonderful example of what yet is to come.


"And, grinning broadly at the look of horror on Uncle Vernon’s face, Harry set off toward the station exit, Hedwig rattling along in front of him, for what looked like a much better summer than the last."
Can't get enough?  Check out Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, coming soon!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

“Not for the first time, an argument had broken out over breakfast at number four, Privet Drive.”

Courtesy of goodreads.com
By the time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets arrived on the scene in 1998, the formerly unsure readers were ready.  The book skyrocketed to the top spot in bestsellers in both the UK and the USA; Rowling became the first author to win the British Book Awards Best Children's Book of the Year two years in a row (Philosopher's Stone winning her first award); and Harry Potter fever was officially here to stay.  Movie rumors were being confirmed and, arguably the sign of a great book, people were challenging the series, due to witchcraft.  However, no amount of protests could slow the rampant Harry Potter craze.

The beginning of Chamber of Secrets finds Harry miserable and lonely with his Muggle relations.  A series of mishaps later (a flying car! a mysterious elf! a tree that fights back!), Harry, along with his friends, are back off to Hogwarts.  They endure tougher classes, dive deeper into the history of Hogwarts, and once again are thrust into a battle of good and evil.  The reader is introduced to everyday magic; the Weasley home alone is enough to make you wave that pencil around JUST ONE MORE TIME to make sure you're not magical, to make sure you cannot hightail it to the magic world. The conflict between the good and the bad that was only touched upon in the first book is more widely revealed.  The reader is left at the end of the first book to believe that Voldemort is a thing of the past, but Chamber reveals that idea to be misguided.

When I first read this book, I did not like it.  It was structured almost exactly the same as the first book and the action in it seemed almost forced and too convenient to make sense.  Overall, it is the weakest book in the series.  These flaws still ring true, in my opinion.  However, once a reader has read the entire series, Chamber can be much more appreciated.  Chamber introduces us to a facet of the overarching story that is absolutely crucial for the series; however, the reader cannot possibly know that by the end of this book.  It is not until book 6 that the ah-ha moment arrives, which will send you diving for your copy of Chamber to dust up on the past.  Chamber is that book in a series which is critical; it drives the plot along and begins the slow process of delving into the more foreboding side of magic.  Chamber first introduces the darker elements of the series, which becomes darker and darker as it progresses.

The Heir of Slytherin, Chapter 17 of Chamber
One of perhaps the best thematic elements in the series stems from this book.  The topic of magical racism and elitism arise with the clashes between the different groups of people and creatures in the magical world.  The very real debate of the pure-blooded magical folk and the 'Mudblood' folk (those with Muggle blood) is introduced and quickly elevated to a serious problem.  The blood status is a wonderful parallel to our world and can be related to by readers.  Rowling uses blood status as a crux between the good side and the bad.

After all is said and done, we could not have a Harry Potter series with Chamber.  It is slow going at times and very cookie cutter style wise.  However, the information that is given throughout the book plays into the series so much that it is hard to not reread it.  We are introduced to characters that will be incredibly important later on.  We are also treated to more magic than in the previous book.  The descriptions are more interesting and the ideas are wonderful.  The dialogue is mediocre... but what else could we expect from 12 year old wizards and witches?  Rowling's best talent in this book is the absolute flawless way she ties the entire novel up in the end. Everything has a place in the end and it makes absolute utter sense, just like this book ties in with the entire series perfectly.

Check back for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (my favorite!!!!!)
“And together they walked back through the gateway to the Muggle world.”


Friday, July 3, 2015

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

A good book is an escape.  It is a teacher.  It is a gateway to the corners of our imaginations that we never knew even existed.  A good book twists our mind, reshapes it, imprinting itself on us in ways that we would have never been open to otherwise.  A good book makes you want more.  Very very rarely do you get six more.  And yet, that is what British author, J.K. Rowling did for us.  She wrote not just one good book, but seven.  Literature and lives were changed.  The seven book journey of a boy and the fight between good and evil resonated with everyone.  That's why, during the month of July, Harry Potter's birthday month, I will be reviewing all seven books, the good, the bad, and the magical.  Rowling ushered my generation into a world of imagination and magic, during a time where we were awkward (preteen years are NO fun) and life seemed to be getting more stressful by the minute.  The Harry Potter books mean so much more than just chapters in a book and words on a page; they have meant escape when people needed it and imagination when life was almost too dull.

Courtesy of goodreads.com
The Harry Potter series changed literature, a fact that one cannot argue with, despite liking the book or not.  It revamped the fantasy genre, which had been previously reserved for 'geeks'.  It also opened the floodgates for the Young Adult category of literature; previously, YA literature was very narrow and not too interesting.  However, with the advent and wild success (to put it mildly) of Harry Potter, everything changed.  Children's books, which everyone believed to losing out to television, made an astonishing rebound worldwide.  In 1997, Rowling blasted away the doubts and the old traditions of children's literature with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Sorcerer's Stone in the States.) Rejected by twelve publishers, Harry Potter was finally picked up by Bloomsbury.  The rest is history.  An entire generation of children grew up, hoping and praying for a letter from Hogwarts, but easily placated with a new book, the new releases themselves being something akin to a ceremonial party for fans. Reading, an activity that had been previously a sure sign of unpopularity, became the thing to do.  Everyone was reading it, children and adults, captivated by the boy with the lightening scar on his forehead and the school of magic inside a castle.

The reader meets the world of Harry Potter when he is still an infant, famous unbeknownst to him.  We get our first taste of magic in a woman who can turn into a cat and a man who has a long beard, robes, and twinkling eyes, and a giant who rides a flying motorcycle. The reader is then fast forwarded 10 years later, to the same boy who now lives in the cupboard under the stairs and is about to discover he is a wizard.  The reader is then catapulted (along with Harry) into the world of robes, brooms, spells, owls, wands, Chocolate frogs, intrigue, and loyalty.  Harry Potter is accepted to the wizarding school, Hogwarts, a school with moving staircases, ghosts, and more history than you can shake a stick at.  Once you enter the world of Harry Potter, it is extremely hard to leave.

Courtesy of theguardian.com
One of the best parts about Rowling's writing is that she does not exactly 'dumb' it down for a children's book.  She uses big vocabulary, wonderful sentence structure, and achieves a rhythmic syntax that keeps the reader immersed in the story.  A healthy splattering of English slang throughout is possibly one of the most charming parts to her writing; it not only gives a sense of genuineness to the wizarding world of Britain, but it also opens up a new world to readers, especially young readers who have possibly not been exposed to the dialect of other countries.  At first description of the novel, a person might think it can be nothing but cheesy.  Moving staircases? Knowing cats and magical brooms? A hook nosed bad guy who might be good?  CLICHE!  No. Not at all.  Rowling took the cliches of fantasy novels, and spun them into gold.  Her succinct dialogue pulls the reader in, almost like they are apart of the conversation.  The exact and colorful settings are easily imaginable.  Rowling's characters are easy to relate to and are expressive, illustrating to the reader a  redundant normalcy of magic to the wizards and witches of 'old wizarding families', but also of a new and exciting life for Harry Potter and his fellow magical Muggles. There is not a dull moment in this first, wonderful book.  Everything is new and exciting and Rowling perfectly captures the anxious excitement of a new chapter in a young boy's life.  Rowling easily conveys the power of good in this book. She sets up the classic good versus evil battle, allowing for many young readers to be exposed to the seduction of evil and the triumph of good.

I will admit, these books changed me.  I vividly remember opening the copy that my British librarian in our public library had somehow snagged.  It was the Philosopher's Stone and I was immersed in the English slang, the vivid descriptions, the intrigue, and the magic.  Six more books later, and I was still in love with the series.  It had done something to me.  It had moved me beyond reading simple children's books.  My eyes were opened to a more mature type of book, one that forced me to use my imagination, one that kept me thinking long after I had closed the book. I was 9 years old when I first read it and secretly hoped I would get a letter to Hogwarts.  I still do, after all this time.

Stay tuned for the next installment!
“I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer… ."

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Autobiography You Never Read... But You Should

There is something to be said for reading books that are not the most currently published.  You pick up a book, read it, LOVE it, and then wonder 'Where was I when this came out?!'  You then start to wonder what else you're missing out on: next thing you know, you have spent hours looking for books by that author and then checking out others that are similar to that book.  You have embarked on a whole new literary journey.  Death: A Life is that book.  I was laughing until tears ran down my face, was fascinated by the underlying facts throughout the book, and was overall delighted.
Courtesy of goodreads.com

Published in 2008 to apparently no fanfare, Death: A Life is everything you could possibly want from a satirical novel.  It is simply the autobiography of Death.  Born to neglectful parents, Satan and Sin, Death has a sub par childhood in his home, Hell.  His family eventually emigrates to Earth, where they proceed to help usher in the fall of man and the general chaos of Earth.  Death fulfills his role faithfully, shepherding souls to the Darkness.  Until he becomes hooked on life.  His curiosity of the living leads to a nearly fatal addiction, with Death experiencing all the triumphs and tribulations of what life has to offer.  

There is a certain mischievousness about using anthropomorphism in a concept such as death;  it forces the reader to view it in a different light, not just in the natural 'fear of death' light.  Death: A Life also explores history as we know it in a different way.  Adam and Eve are pretentious and arrogant, God was on vacation during the polytheism periods of civilization, the Industrial Revolution ruined religious fervor, and the lines between demons and angels are much more blurred than we thought.  Through the satirizing of well known events and established facts, the reader has to reconsider what they thought they knew: what if history was not as clean and precise as we are taught?  What if things were messy, historical people were cantankerous and whiny, and the historical record was thoroughly cleansed of all the nuances of life?  Death: A Life can almost be considered alternative history... almost.
Author George Pendle,
courtesy of goodreads.com

Part of the charm of the novel lies with the nationality of the author: George Pendle is British, thus the novel is filled with British phrases and the syntax of the novel's language is very very British. The descriptions are wry but pithy, and the dialogue manages to be hilarious but plot driven at the same time.  Death: A Life is not a long read and it is not a serious, in-depth look at life.  Instead, it is thought-provoking, entertaining, and well written. There is nothing that is off limits in this book; everything is fodder for ridicule and the author makes sure to cover all the death related insanity of civilization.  Death is reverent and irreverent; he is a being like everyone else, but is a driving force in life... and in death. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Teetering on the Edge of Reality- The Novel Worlds of Neil Gaiman

Author Neil Gaiman, courtesy of
The New Yorker

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds... Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

It is hard to describe English author, Neil Gaiman. He knew he would be an author when he was a child; he fanboys over Ray Bradbury; he is a beekeeper.  He is also is an award winning author (I lost count after 75) and has had several books conquer the bestseller list.  Gaiman cannot be pigeonholed into a single genre; he has written fantasy (Stardust), comedy (Good Omens, with late author, Terry Pratchett), graphic novels, collections of short stories (Trigger Warnings is his newest book, published February 2015), children's books (some of the books lovingly referred to as "Kid Goth"), screenplays, music, general fiction... you get the idea. He has become an almost cult-like figure in the literary world; fans wait for hours, in any weather conditions to meet Gaiman, who will sign autographs and chat with fans for hours on end; his books are wildly and highly anticipated; and he makes an effort to reach out to his audience through social media, book talks, and countless interviews. He has become a major champion of libraries, leading the crusade to stress importance of libraries to our society. He loves the arts and encourages people to explore their creative side; he is not afraid to discuss and embrace his own failures. He has become the poster boy for weird. And it is magnificent.

The thought above, taken from Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman, encapsulates the overall
Courtesy of goodreads.com
thread that pervades all of his works . His books, his comics, his screenplays, all of them revealing the secret worlds of Gaiman, worlds that teeter on the edge of reality and blur the lines between what is real and what is purely in our imagination. There is rarely a full blown mythical fantasy land in Gaiman's works. Yet, Gaiman writes of worlds that a reader can easily relate to. These are worlds that we live in day to day, but somehow, are twisted. People have magic, places are blurred between the here and other dimensions, animals are not what they seem, the dead are more alive than we think. Gaiman's classic style is to lull the reader into a sense of normalcy and then... the big reveal: things are not what they seem. Gaiman has the gift of making the seemingly ordinary- whether it be places, people, or things- become eerily otherworldly. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2001's American Gods, which won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Science Fiction. However, American Gods is not like any science fiction that you have ever read. In a nutshell, American Gods is a story about a recently released inmate, who continues to get slapped by life even after he gets out of prison. Shadow, the former inmate, stumbles into a conflict that has been raging for centuries on the borderline of reality. Surrounded by gods of old and new, Shadow (and the reader!) will wade through thousands of years of egos, battles, and the ultimate struggle to stay relevant. American Gods is arguably Gaiman's best novels. The research on mythology is intense and well-done; readers will be constantly Googling who is who (his sneaky way of making readers learn!). As with all his work, the prose is excellent; Gaiman truly has mastered the balance between dialogue (witty, subtle, and colorful) and description (thorough, elegant, and sparse.) American Gods was and is an instant classic. It's thought provoking premise is timeless and will make the reader reflect on modern society and the things we tend to leave behind in the name of progress.

Gaiman's children's books are also beautifully crafted and equally thought-provoking (even for an adult reader.) Winner of British Carnegie Medal and the American Newbery Medal for children's literature, The Graveyard Book is about an orphan who is raised by spirits that live in a nearby cemetery. Their powers keep him safe. Yet, there are forces at hand which are working
Courtesy of goodreads.com
against them, working to try to lure Nobody Owens out of his 'home' to attack him and finish the job that started with his murdered parents.  Coupled with stark illustrations that reminiscent of graphic novels, The Graveyard Book is children's storytelling in its best form.  It harks back to the Grimm's Fairy Tales, with darkish story lines; yet, Gaiman manages to keep the actions, dialogue and characters light, developing a sense of family and love in the cemetery and humor in the strange situation.  There is still action, which keeps the story going.  It is written beautifully, with the descriptions being succinct and the dialogue witty and filled with the heightened vocabulary readers have come to expect from Gaiman.

No matter your favorite genre, you cannot deny the exemplary vocabulary and prose that permeates Gaiman's work.  One of the best parts about reading his stories is that you are guaranteed to learn a word you did not previously know.  Gaiman makes writing seem easy.  The flow of the diction in his stories is lyrical and spell-binding.  Throughout all of his novels, comics, short stories, screenplays, etc., there is a sense of consistency.  One knows that when reading Gaiman, you are guaranteed a story that will be sharp witted, tight, informative descriptions, and excellent dialogue.  I have never read a Gaiman work that wandered or seemed lost in thought.  Every word he writes has a purpose and plays a part in the overall scheme of the story.  Whether the ending leaves you hanging or not, Gaiman's intended ending is always achieved.  If you are still thinking about the story days after you finished it, then the goal was achieved.

Courtesy of philly.com
What exactly does Gaiman mean to the literary world?  For starters, he is just the hero the book world needs.  He embraces change: this is evident in the dabbling in different genres, different audiences, different media, and embracing the social media world as a way to connect with his readers.  However, Gaiman also embodies what the book world also holds dear: a good story that will take you away from your world and into his.  He continues to write intoxicating books that transport readers into worlds of magic, morals, and the never ending fight between good and evil.  There is always a strange sense of justice in his stories- there is never a character who meets a fate that either the universe bestowed them with from their actions or a fate that they themselves purposely created. Gaiman believes in the power of words.  For evidence of this, you need not look any further than his own books.  Words are power, destiny, and a form of magic that a reader can make be whatever they want or need them to be.  This, in the end, is Gaiman's world: a world where words are power and can impact you in more ways than you know.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Art of a First Novel

Courtesy of goodreads.com
Literary critics are always looking for the next big novel; they're looking for the next Scarlet Letter, the next Great Expectations, the next To Kill a Mockingbird, even the next Harry Potter series.  Yet, it appears that critics are missing the point of literature.  They look for the weird factor, the shock factor in your face, the factor that makes a novel seem edgy and hip.  However, edgy is not always what a novel needs.  A classic is supposed to capture the feeling of the moment, to reveal to an audience a timeless concept, to resemble life and human error and triumph.  A masterpiece novel is supposed to make you think, to make you feel, to stay with you long after you have put the book down.  A reader will learn something without even realizing it; you will be slightly uncomfortable, but the pull of finishing the story is too great to ignore.  The Art of Fielding (2011) will make you slightly uncomfortable; but, in the end, it will make you think, it will make you feel, and you will not be able to put it down.  Rarely has a novel seemed so contrived, yet so beautiful.  It is difficult to classify The Art of Fielding into a genre; it mixes romance, drama, and baseball, which is the default Americana coming of age formula.  However, American author Chad Harbach manages to take this overdone motif and make it into something more.

The Art of Fielding, simply, is a story of self-discovery.  The main, twisted archetype is of self-discovery and the pains of trying to imagine yourself on a different life path.  The novel starts off with the audience meeting Henry Skirmshander, a poor, country kid who has an incredible talent for playing shortstop. He is recruited by (sheer luck) by Westish College's baseball captain, Mike Schwartz.  The Westish Harpooners flourish under Schwartz's lead and Skrimshander's brilliance.  The novel's main thread is about the, at times, parasitic, relationship between the two men.  Harbach does a wonderful job at contrasting the love and hate between the two; the reader can feel the adoring animosity between the two, the warring emotions of self-absorption and helping your friends.  Yet, just like in life, the story is not driven by the two alone.  Other characters come along, and their trials and triumphs are deeply intertwined with Henry and Mike, creating several threads of stories that weave into the culmination at the end.  The variety of characters, an estranged daughter, a lonely and conflicted college president, a confident lover, all collide on a path started by a single action of Henry's that changes all of theirs lives, good and bad.

The novel is written in a style that could be considered a near homage to baseball.  Baseball becomes another character in the novel, one that is lived for, revered, despised, and most of all, surviving.  The descriptions in the novel are sparsely written... unless its about the baseball games.  Then Harbach writes intricate, descriptive narratives about baseball, whether it be the practices or the games. Despite having the novel revolve around college baseball (something that most people do not experience intimately), Harbach manages to convey a story that is full of realistic human emotion and conflict.  Readers can easily relate to the characters; we have all been in a place of self-doubt, rebirth, rock bottom, and the hard journey to get back on your feet. Harbach propels the novel with realistic dialogue and mosaic character reflections.  His prose is elegant, but not highbrow. There is never a time where the reader is not learning something new about a character. This constant stream of revelations is at times overwhelming.  Yet, this in itself is reflective of life.  You cannot put life on hold because it is overwhelming; one must roll with the punches, just like the characters learn to do.
Author Chad Harbach

There was a lot of controversy from literary circles concerning this novel.  Some felt it had been too played up and received too much acclaim, that the accolades only stemmed from the fact that Harbach is a co-founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1.  Many criticized the perceived 'pointless' interactions between characters, saying they were not helpful to the plot and came off as almost purple prose-ish.  However, I do not buy into these arguments.  Many of the critical reviews harped on the fact that Harbach is a part of an elite literary circle, a fact that for some reason discredited him as an author to people.  Who he is as a person and an editor should not take away from this FANTASTIC novel.  It has all the elements of a classic: the emotions, the timeless struggle to be great, the sense of despondency and then triumph. Although perhaps not a masterpiece, The Art of Fielding should definitely be considered a great for this generation.  Harbach perfectly captured the sense of panic in college (and life) and worry of the future in all his characters, themes that definitely resonate with today's readers.  For a debut novel, The Art of Fielding is beautiful, haunting, and entertaining.    It is simply a story. The Art of Fielding, although revolving around baseball, is really all about living and how people have to make the choice to either embrace life and roll with it or be eaten alive by anxiety, pressure, and life itself.  And isn't that the story of life?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Into The Debate of "Into The Wild"

Courtesy of goodreads.com
In 1992, hikers found an emaciated body of a young man, huddled in a broken down bus.  In 1993, American author, Jon Krakauer, wrote about the man, Christopher McCandless, in a story for the magazine, Outside.  In 1997, Krakauer wrote a book, Into the Wild, detailing McCandless' life, adventure, and death.  In 2007, the highly anticipated movie version debuted.  A nonfiction account, Into the Wild, is now recommended reading both high schools and college; it has become the pinnacle of what it means to live life to the fullest. And now, 23 years after his death, the story of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild continues to enthrall, enrage, and captivate readers, inspiring fierce debates on freedom of spirit, the pressure of modern society, and the never-ending back and forth between responsibility to society and the timeless yearning for a greater meaning in life.  He was raised in an upper middle class (albeit dysfunctional) family on the East Coast; he was an Emory graduate, an athlete, a young man with the world at his feet.  Then, at 22, he donated all his savings (more than $20,000) to charity, bade his family goodbye, and then set off on a two year trek around the country, living with little more than a backpack and food and goods he worked for and bartered for, with the entire trip culminating in his lonely death in the Alaskan wilderness. His tragic demise only continued to add fuel to the roaring debate, whether or not he was reckless or actually achieved the ideal life, lived while adventuring for more.  

Courtesy of amazon.com
To put it simply, Into the Wild is a biography.  It is written in a frank, straightforward manner.  There is no flowery language or special grammar tricks to make it stand out from a literary aspect.  Jon Krakauer was an assignment journalist for the nature magazine, Outside, at the time of Into the Wild; thus, his writing style is reflective of that background, with his books reading more as long articles and exposés rather than in-depth academic nonfiction.  This is not a book that gained acclaim from it's contribution to literary style; instead, Krakauer focuses on crafting an account that is not only highly engaging, but also makes the reader think.  Krakauer did his research: he tracked down people that McCandless had encountered throughout his journey, he did interviews with his family and friends that he left behind, and he attempted to follow the same routes that McCandless took in hopes of finding reasons why McCandless went where he did. Krakauer took care to document McCandless' travels, interactions, and actions as best as he could, allowing the reader to almost experience the journey as McCandless did. Krakauer's landscape descriptions are breath-taking, but the reader can always sense the underlying dangers in nature.  Krakauer, who is also an expert mountaineer, has a healthy sense of fear of nature and understands how quick it can kill you.  The entire novel has the fear of the elements hanging over it.

Yet, one pitfall of the novel is the lack of detail in McCandless' personal life, details that Krakauer admits haunted McCandless and probably played a large part in driving him to abandon modern society.  Whereas family drama had the potential to take focus away from the journey, exploring the motives, including the severely flawed McCandless family, would have enlightened the reader to McCandless' thought process.  It wasn't until more than a decade after the book publication that the revelation emerged from McCandless' sister that Krakauer was honoring his promise to her to not reveal damning family problems.  This knowledge almost ends up saying more about the family and about McCandless' antagonism towards his family than anything Krakauer could have written.  However, never does Krakauer allow drama to take attention away from McCandless and his philosophy.  He does a noble job of balancing McCandless' inspiring journey and thoughts and the glaring mistakes that he made that led to his death; this writing approach contributes to the uncertainty of the entire journey and whether or not it was worth it in the end to McCandless.

In spite of the enormous amount of speculation, fact gathering, and talk concerning McCandless, it is difficult to figure out how to unpack the story of Chris McCandless. He wrote in his journal that he was driven by anti-materialism and a blossoming sense of anti-society leanings; he endeavored to achieve a higher sense of life and to commune with nature on an almost religious level.  This sense of altruism and his death has sparked two decades of controversy, reverence from a cult-like following of sojourners, faithful to McCandless' ideas and spirit of wandering, and anger from Alaskans and naturists who consider McCandless to be reckless in his endeavor and disrespectful to the force of nature in his naivety about living off the land.  Since the publication of the book, thousands of people have been inspired by McCandless' belief in a society free of stress and the belief that life should be lived to be an adventurer.  On the flip side, hundreds of those people have tried to make the Alaskan trek to the bus in which McCandless died in, resulting in millions of taxpayers' dollars worth of rescues and several deaths.  Educators, parents, police, park rangers, doctors, scientists, the McCandless family, even Krakauer himself have all warned about the dangers of making the trek, stating that even expert naturists struggle with the trail to the bus.  However, this has not scared the hundreds of people who make the trip every year.  They connect with the sense of wanderlust McCandless embodied and they admire the tenacity he had that pushed him to Alaska.  They do not care of the cost, even if it means their lives. This faithful adherence to trying to live a life unbound by societal constraints is noble; however, the question is at what point does noble translate to shortsightedness?  This is the ultimate question that Krakauer poses and is the ultimate take away for the reader to consider.  This is a book that will stay with you; McCandless and his conviction that modern society had taken the joy and adventure out of life will stay with you, no matter what side of the debate you stand.


Chris McCandless
Every generation has a book that divides them.  It causes frenzied debate, with each side convinced that they are right and that the other side is delusional.  These books become the Slaughterhouse-Five, the Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye of literary history; you either love it or hate it and no matter what, the debate continues on about the actions of the characters, the meaning behind the story, and what the author's aim really was.  Into the Wild is possibly one of the most haunting books you will ever read.  It is hard to ignore the impact of this You cannot help but be drawn into McCandless' idealism; his hopes and dreams for the world are nonsensical, Despite being almost 18 years old, the book continues to inspire and at the same time, draw skepticism.  The reader cannot help but wonder the degree of truth in McCandless' crusade and also the degree of absurdity.  Into the Wild will become a book that reflects the overall divide in society.  The debate will roar on and the story of Chris McCandless, an adventurer and a dreamer, will continue to inspire the dreamers and exasperate the pragmatists.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Almost Real Look At "Almost Famous Women"

Courtesy of http://www.mayhewbergman.com/
almost-famous-women.html
There is a subtle art to masterfully writing a collection of short stories.  You have to pack background stories, character development, dialogue, a story arc, and some type of ending all in 20,000 words or less.  Some people succeed at it; others do not.  Make that arduous task even more daunting by throwing in some little known historical figures and you have Almost Famous Women.  The 2015 release by American author, Megan Mayhew Bergman, is a collection of thirteen fictional stories about real women who only skirted on the edges of fame.  These women loved, mourned, won, lost, lived, and died; however, almost all strove for recognition that would never fully materialize. Whereas most historical figures in fiction are poorly written or catastrophically caricatured, the women in these stories are masterfully written.  The reader will glimpse the fictitious lives of women from various points of view; from a nurse, a lover, a maid, a neighbor, a person who has contact with the woman, but does not really know her.  Bergman does not make any pretenses about actually knowing what these women thought or felt; instead, she crafts her stories through the public perception of these women, making them even more enigmatic than they already all.

There is a definite edginess to Almost Famous Women.  Bergman does not shy away from the rumors/facts of selfishness, anger, sexual deviance, promiscuity, rebellion, history, and idiosyncrasies of the women.  Bergman has done her research; each story will have the reader reaching for the internet to research these women and the ancillary characters in their lives.  There is a certain refreshing quality about Bergman's writing style; she is stark without being offensive and sensitive without being sappy.  She has the ability to weave a tale that is overabundant with information, emotions, and suspense by utilizing only minimal words.  Bergman's greatest gift, perhaps, is her use of dialogue to propel the stories forward.  The dialogue is a standard amount for a short story; however, the crafting of the dialogue reveals so much in so little.  The settings also help to formulate stories in which immense pain, joy, and self-reflection happen; the settings could almost be consider another character.  So much is revealed in these settings, whether it be an island, a town, or a cluttered, long-ignored room of a dying prima donna.  There is pain, love, life, and death in these stories, so much so that the reader will almost forget that they are reading fictional accounts.
Author Megan Mayhew Bergman

Read it!  You will discover the failed genius of Dolly Wilde, the secrecy of Allegra Byron, the flamboyancy of Joe Carstairs, Butterfly McQueen's rebellion, and who exactly was Tiny Davis.   These were real women.  They were ahead of their times, tortured by their blossoming genius, held down by society's rules.  What Almost Famous Women does is capture the essence of being a woman who does not fit society's mold.  These stories are not preachy or driving home a feminist message.  However, they are feminist in the way that these women are driven to prove themselves in a world that does not understand them, thus they become more and more outrageous until they fail completely.  These are the forgotten women, the women that were either driven out of society for their behaviors or cast aside because they were not what society wanted to see.  Bergman does a breathtakingly beautiful job at reviving these women.  She gives them emotions, feelings, power, and redemption from their mistakes. She forgives them for their sins and makes them people again; during their lives, maybe the expectations were too high.  Maybe, through Bergman, some of these women can receive the acceptance they had craved so badly.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Remained Was A "Dead Wake"...

Ever heard of the Lusitania? How about it's overarching historical significance?  Or just the fact that 1,198 lives were lost during the sinking? Eventually overshadowed by the infamous sinking of the Titanic and by World War I which was just starting to pick up steam during the same time period, the sinking of the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, was a catalyst event in the war.  Nonetheless, due to exaggerated propaganda accounts of the event, the USA's eventual entrance into the war,and the stronger disaster legacy of the Titanic, the true story Lusitania has faded into history, earning just a paragraph or two in most historical account of World War I.  However, the Lusitania tragedy means so much more to history: it was the turning point in the United States' attitude towards the conflict and introduced a new type of subterfuge warfare to the spotlight: the submarine, perfected by the Germans and called the U-boat.  2015 marks 100 years since the sinking: 2015 also marks the debut of Dead Wake, the newest book from American author, Erik Larson.

For those who do know about the Lusitania, you know that it sank on 7 May 1915, after being struck by a German U-boat's torpedo.  The victims, which consisted of an unusual amount of children and infants for a voyage, were a variety of nationalities.  This included Americans.  At the time, the US was still neutral in World War I.  However, the sinking of the Lusitania and the loss of American lives put the US on a path that would lead to their joining the war in 1917.  The political scenes in Germany, Britain, and the US were tense, angry, and bound to erupt.  Which they did.  This is the part of the tragedy that most history books focus on.  However, in Dead Wake, Larson explores the event from the beginning.  He traces the history of the Lusitania, while exploring the parallel history of the world and the boiling tensions that would erupt into a full scale world war.  Reading Dead Wake, one will find stories of cowardice and heroism; there are descriptions of historical fact, along with eyewitness and news accounts.  Like all of Larson's other books, by the time a reader is finished, they are thoroughly well versed and highly engrossed in the subject matter.

Courtesy of http://eriklarsonbooks.com/about-the-author/
Larson's acclaim as an author comes from his master storytelling talent: he has perfected the ability to make nonfiction (usually a genre viewed as academic and boring) come alive and become almost fiction-like in it's telling. Author of the highly successfully and critically acclaimed The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) and In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011), Larson has done it again.  He has taken another obscure historical event (the obscure and peculiar are his specialties)and turned it into a gripping thriller, one that weaves in fact, scandal, violence, love, heroics, and politics, only to create an account so spectacular the reader will want more.  Larson is a perfectionist in the best and worst senses of the word.  Readers can be assured that he has fact checked and researched each and every solitary detail throughout each book.  He has the uncanny ability to research things down to the exact detail; however, instead of becoming tedious as in most nonfiction, the details only enhance the story, lending it beautiful descriptions and settings that a reader can get lost in. The perfection can be bad though because most nonfiction books are now ruined for you.  Larson has changed the nonfiction game; his books can be understood and enjoyed by people who do not know much about the subject or about history or nonfiction at all.

Erik Larson also is a skillful historian; he is able to put into words the complex and often overwhelming political happenings of the particular time period in question.  This almost on-the-spot recounting is wonderful and educational. Yet, it can be terrible as it leaves the reader constantly reaching for Google to further investigate into situations that Larson writes about! The political intrigue of the book is possibly the most fascinating part.  The constant back and forth between different nations is suspenseful. Larson deftly illustrates how the strain from the seemingly endless war and the rapidly changing methods of warfare caused all governments to be divided.  On one hand, there are those who are skeptical of the new methods of warfare, namely the submarine.  They do not believe that subs can do any large-scale damage.  On the other are those are painfully aware of what the introduction of submarines will do to modern warfare.  This back and forth heightens the tension and suspense- all while the telling of the voyage itself is interspersed throughout the book-  that leads to the event itself.

I know what you are thinking: you do not like nonfiction and history was and always will be boring. This is most definitely NOT the case in Erik Larson's books.  He has the exceptional ability to make history relevant and exciting, to make even the most mundane details seem important and interesting. This is history at it's best.  It's history stripped down of all the monotony and dull repetition that plagues history classes.  This is history how it really was: uncertain, intriguing, devastating, and hopeful.  Dead Wake and, honestly, any of Larson's other books, are more than worth the read.

Dead Wake is available for library check-out 
and personal purchase 10 March 2015.

Special thanks to Crown Publishing Group and Erik Larson for my ARC!  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Desert Noir

Courtesy of goodreads.com
There is something haunting about the American Southwest.  It has a landscape that is unrivaled in the world; vast rugged deserts, with mountains, sparse vegetation, and incredible skylines that are famous worldwide.  The landscape is only added to by the people that inhabit the area; the various Native American tribes that live there have been romanticized by history, thus giving their ancestral homelands an aura of mysticism and endurance that does not exactly apply to modern times.  It is this setting in which author CB McKenzie set his first novel, Bad Country.  

Winner of the Tony Hillerman Award for best fiction set in the American Southwest, Bad Country combines several different types of mystery and suspense, weaving two different problems into each other.  Using elements of noir, action, western, and classic mystery genres, McKenzie manages to have two different mysteries going at once.  The mysteries themselves are also unique in style.  One is a run-of-the-mill serial killer, which seems racially fueled; however, the issue becomes much larger than what it appears and much more sinister and desperate.  The other is a brutal murder, which seems to stem from a mix of family secrets, angst, and revenge.  In both issues, McKenzie explores the racial tensions of the American Southwest today; tensions often boil over from disputes between Caucasians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, leading to murder, gangs, and cities divided along racial lines.  All racial groups are captured perfectly and distinctly; these are not caricatures of racial groups, but based off McKenzie's relationships and interactions with different people from his time spent there.  McKenzie also uses racial tension to explore the income gap in the American Southwest, a problem that has plagued the area for decades.  The poverty in the area seems to contribute to both crimes, but contributes to both so differently that it hardly seems like the same issue. McKenzie, despite being in a long line of authors writing about the American Southwest, manages to weave all the social issues into the story without seeming preachy or biased.  There is no guilt complex associated with the setting of the novel; McKenzie does not point fingers in any direction for the plight of the area.  Instead, he expounds that the problems surrounding the American Southwest is EVERYONE's fault. Both crimes are intricately tied to a wide range of characters, varying in sex, race, and age.  This alone makes the book a must-read.

McKenzie adds to the racial mix by having a racially ambiguous protagonist, Rodeo Garnet, who is the other reason to read the novel.  Rodeo is a beautiful mix of the mythos of the American Southwest and of  the actual version of today's tech savvy Native American; he uses the internet to research, but at the same time, has the ability to survive in the rugged landscape.  He is painfully self-aware, yet manages to use that to his advantage.  He essentially is the best type of renegade detective, working outside the system and within his own networks to solve seemingly impossible crimes. His past sparingly haunts him, yet when the full-force of memory hits him, Rodeo uses the emotions to aid to his investigations.

Courtesy of us.macmillan.com
Rated as one of the top mystery novels of 2014, Bad Country takes a departure from the usual mystery formats concerning Native American characters; McKenzie's mystery does not involve Native American culture, artifacts, or tribal disputes.  Instead, McKenzie focused his novel purely on the human element of crime and did not let the setting of the novel dictate the nature of the mystery or the story in general. There is no message of Native American victimization, no preaching on the attempted survival of the culture, all messages that usually pervade Native American fiction.  However, McKenzie does not shy away from the poverty, despair, and tension of the area.  He embraces it and has it play a large part in both crimes.  The social issues make the novel more dramatic, more complex, and more heartbreaking.  Bad Country will leave you pondering, anxious, and more than satisfied.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Long Live the Queen of Mystery!

Quick! Name a book genre!

Did you guess mystery?  If so, then you picked the second most popular genre of fiction books (it just cannot beat that steamy ol' romance genre).  Mysteries range from espionage mysteries to fantasy mysteries to themed mysteries to horror mysteries; the sub genres go on and on. However, in the end, there is no mystery like the classic mystery, with a plucky, eccentric sleuth coming upon a problem (almost always murder) and then proceeding to solve said problem with cunning and little outside help.  This is the tried and true method for writing a mystery and it has endured since the debut of the mystery genre.

Courtesy of collinder.com
However, no one has quite mastered the art of turning the simplistic formula into a complicated and articulate story like Dame Agatha Christie.  Born in 1890, the English author began her lengthy career during the "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" (1920's and 1930's).  However, where many, many others quit, lost steam, or faded into obscurity, Christie continued to be a roaring force of mystery fiction, producing some her best works later in life.  Her personal life read as a mystery/romance novel as well, from her vastly publicized disappearance in 1926 (the stress of her husband's affair and demand for divorce left her distraught, thus prompting her flight), her eventual marriage to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan (she loved him because "the older I grow, the more he appreciates me,"), to the international whirlwind success of her writing career.  Christie was not only confident in her success, she also served as a figurehead for female authors breaking into the mystery genre, a book form which has been previously dominated by men.  Christie wrote books that appealed to both men and women, both in England and abroad. Her books have been published in at least 103 languages. 

Christie came onto the literary scene in 1920 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles.  The novel also marked the debut of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective with the egg-shaped head, who brought Christie international literary fame and remains today what she is best known for.  Poirot starred in thirty-nine of Christie's novels.  The novels were marked with a flair of international jet-setting and class; the mysteries revolved around the rich and the famous, those desperate to keep their crimes and secrets to themselves.  However, as Poirot reminds the reader again and again, "Papa Poirot" sees everything. Everything about Poirot is lovable yet antagonizing; he is able to deduce solutions from his keen sense of awareness and his brilliance at being able to tailor a situation to work in his favor.  Despite the fact that the ingenious but often haughty detective vastly annoyed Christie towards the end of her career, her last published book during her lifetime was Poirot's final Curtain in 1975; early on she had recognized the fame of Poirot, thus had written his ending book early on, while she was still physically able.  By the time the novel debuted, Poirot had become so internationally popular, his literary death received an obituary from The New York Times, the only fictional character ever to receive such.

Christie did the same for her other literary sleuth, Miss Marple, an English spinster whose quiet observations of her English village give her great insight into the human psyche.  Sleeping Murder was published in 1976, the year of Christie's death.  However, Christie did not live to see her favorite sleuth's literary journey end.  Marple was the star of twelve novels, starting with The Murder at the Vicarage (1930); yet, to some readers, Marple's legacy as the amateur sleuth is overlooked most mystery readers. The tone of the Marple novels are different that the Poirot ones; these are more simple, quaint, and tend to less complex plots, yet retaining their signature Christie twists and turns.  There is a much greater cosmopolitan sense in the Poirot novels, yet the Marple novels exude a distinctly English feel, luring the reader into the eccentricities and dangers of countryside English life.  Miss Marple is the perfect English gentlewoman; however, she is cunning, sly, and uses anecdotes and her deep understanding of the human condition makes her a different sleuth than most.  She is not worldly or fancy.  Yet, in her simplicity lies a genius that makes her more interesting to read about than Poirot.

So, yes, I am telling you to read mysteries from the 1920's to 1970's (Christie kept busy).  Why? Several reasons.  There are no modern frills with these novels; the lack of modern communication and technology makes the mysteries very exciting and twisting. Without technology dating the novels, the stories are able to be timeless, with the crimes and solutions based entirely on human emotions, passions, and folly.  It is solely up to the smarts and observations of the sleuth to deduce the solution, therefore bringing forth the quintessential strength of Christie's talent.  The context in which Christie was writing is also worth the attention.  The life of England past is filled with servants, mansions, manners, class distinctions, and speech that is indicative of times past.  The reader is transported to a world and lifestyle that reigned not even a hundred years ago, yet is so different from modern times it nearly seems fabricated.  The historical aspect of the novels is also interesting.  The publications span from the end of World War 1 to past World War 2, offering glimpses into how people lived and thought during Christie's time periods.  Clearly, real life and culture are infused in fiction, so it is only natural to connect with history through Christie's characters and settings.  Lastly, and most importantly, Christie's novels are intriguing.  They remain relevant in today's world.  The whodunit is almost always a surprise (READ THE BOOKS!), yet Christie manages to engage the reader in the cat and mouse game that is and will always be the classic mystery.  She is a writer for the ages and her books, although short, will thrill to the very end.