Saturday, November 29, 2014

Review: "The Thief" by Megan Whalen Turner

"I can steal anything," the thief Gen claimed--and proving it has already landed him in the king's prison. Now the king's advisor, the magus, wants to put Gen's boasts to the test.

With the magus and his apprentices, Gen is dragged across the mountains and into hostile country where discovery will mean death. The magus believes Gen can steal a sacred stone from the altar of the long-forgotten gods. With the authority of the gods behind him, the magus could dictate the future of alliances and wars for years to come.

But Gen has plans of his own. And he is is used to playing a very long and risky game to get what he wants.

3.9 out of 5 stars

(grump + breakdown below the cut)


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" by Stephen King

Nine-year-old Trisha McFarland only stepped off the hiking trail for a moment, just to get away from the argument between her divorced mother and her embittered older brother. That moment is enough, though, for her to lose her way back. The supposed shortcut Trisha takes leads her off into the dense wilderness of the northern Appalachian Trail.

Hours of uneasy wandering turn into days. As Trisha's hunger and her injuries mount, she finds comfort in listening to the radio, where ballplayer Tom Gordon's victories seem to predict her own rescue. But the lost girl begins to believe that she is not alone in the woods. Something is accompanying her, leaving her grisly calling cards, as if to say that she is not only lost... she is hunted.

3 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

The 2014 "Books Read" List Has Been Updated At Last!

As you may not have noticed, dear reader, I took a few months' vacation from updating my Goodreads account, as well as my own list of completed books in the sidebar. A little racking of the brain (and of the library's "past checkouts" list) later, I've filled in the months from June to November. The total number of completed books is currently one hundred thirteen on Goodreads, or one hundred twenty-five by my own reckoning.

I'm not sure where the discrepancy lies there. One way or another, though, I've succeeded in my annual goal of one hundred books read, with one month still to go before the year comes to an end.

If you're not a member of Goodreads, you can still check out the list over in the right-hand sidebar. I've linked to every book for which I've completed a full review. If there is a particular book in the list you'd like me to go back and review for your enjoyment, or a book you think I would enjoy reading, let me know in the comments or by email!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: "The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing" by Mira Jacob

The second version of the cover is jaw-droppingly
beautiful, like the book itself.
Amina Eapen tries not to go home too often. She finds her immigrant parents difficult--too much at odds with her own American dreams, too eager to set her up with nice young men from other Indian families, too hobbled by the memory of her brother's death.

When she hears that her father is hallucinating ghosts, however, Amina knows she has to go.

Amina's trip home raises a flurry of her own memories. Of her family's last fateful visit to India, when her grandmother's angry love for her emigrant son drives him into exile; of the bizarre narcolepsy her genius brother experienced in his teenage years that led to his death; of photograph of the bridge-jumper which both made Amina's career and drove her away from photojournalism forever, afraid of her own instinct for witnessing ruin.

This unwilling homecoming digs up all the buried wounds which the Eapens have kept hidden for years. But while her father's condition worsens, there remains the hope that they may lay these ghosts to rest at last.

5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Biographies and Memoirs

The artist and writer Mervyn Peake,
the subject of  both memoir and biography
in this post.
This little compare-contrast is purely for my own amusement, dear reader. I expect there are very few people in this world who share my love of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books (although those that exist tend to be remarkably passionate about it.)

I read Gormenghast in high school for no reason that I can now recall. In A. Langley's proposed division between
those who wallow in the murky shadows of Gormenghast like hippos in the mud, and those who listlessly let Titus Groan fall from their fingers in the middle of the first sentence

... I was one of the former. I read that entire gargantuan puzzlebox of a book, then I tried to make my friends love it like I did. I watched the terrible BBC miniseries. I wrote Peake-themed essays for my college applications. I sought out every scrap of his writing I could find and plunged into his biography, as if I could trace this man's imagination and somehow find another story.

More recently, just for kicks, I picked up A World Away, the memoir written by his wife, the artist Maeve Gilmore, about her life with Peake. I had read the memoir before, but forgotten--or perhaps, never fully respected--what a remarkable storyteller Gilmore is in her own right. (It may also be possible that I was not an unbiased reader.) I reveled in the details Gilmore shares and mourned with her as her brilliant lover fades into early senility and untimely death. I made my roommate sit still while I read her the last few pages, in which Gilmore abandons the detached tone which she has been using and instead writes an direct and heartbreaking narration of a visit to him in the nursing home.

Immediately afterward, I picked up Peake's official biography, Malcolm Yorke's My Eyes Mint Gold, with the intention of using the two back-to-back to further my understanding of Peake and on his novels, which I planned to read again afterward.

Mervyn Peake and his wife Maeve Gilmore.
The experience of reading these two books--about the same subject--could not be more different.

While at first, I appreciated Yorke's more expanded view of Peake's life (as Gilmore begins her story with their first meeting, and only summarizes Peake's early life later), I soon became disappointed in Yorke's execution. My Eyes Mint Gold is exhaustively researched, and the exhaustion carries over to the reader. At far too many points, the narrative of Peake's life devolves into Yorke listing off the other quasi-famous figures with whom he may have had the briefest of contact. It is as if by this tedious name-dropping, Yorke attempts to persuade the reader of Peake's significance. A better portrayal might have let him stand alone on his own two unusual feet, rather than tying him to a laundry list of other nearly important people. It makes for very dull reading, and fails to convey any meaningful depiction of the subject.

Moreover, Yorke takes a bizarre bent against Maeve Gilmore. When he cannot elide her presence from the record of her husband's life, he castigates her as a "spoiled little rich girl" and blames her for Peake's abysmal money management, at one point demanding to know why it did not "occur" to her to get a job to support her struggling husband. In Yorke's telling, Gilmore's own artistic career is overlooked as a babyish imitation of her superior partner. He also suggests repeatedly that Peake was unfaithful to his wife, although he eventually admits that no one he interviewed in the course of researching his biography could substantiate such rumors. It is as if Yorke deliberately wished to besmirch his subject's legacy.

The experience of reading the two books one after the other made Yorke's bias shockingly apparent. With A World Away still fresh in my mind, I could see how [name] quoted selectively from Gilmore's own memoir, leaving out key contexts or even changing the meaning of entire sequences. It's a cruel treatment and one which has me far more alert to the less-obvious prejudices held by other biographers--the information they deliberately withhold, misrepresent, or present in damning fashion.

Mervyn Peake surrounded by his paintings. His wife
was the muse and model for most of his work.
My Eyes Mint Gold claims to be the most "factual" telling of Peake's life, shading certain of Gilmore's personal memories as being unreliable or impossible. It is nevertheless a bone-dry and soulless account of a man's colorful and brimming life. Its most tantalizing contents are the excepts from Peake's less popular works, both poetry and fiction, and the descriptions of his art, most of which is not actually reproduced within the pages. As an attempt to convey the life of Mervyn Peake, however, I would have to say that it fails. 

Perhaps one could take these two divergent tellings of the same man's life as the difference between autobiographical writing and memoir.

Or, perhaps, the difference between a book that was written out of love and one that was commissioned for a paycheck.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: "The Curse of Chalion" by Lois McMaster Bujold

This is the least artistically
insulting cover I can find.
Facebook visitors: this is the book I was yelling about last month.

I almost didn't bother with this book because the cover was uninspired and the title was insipid. (Bujold has a problem with lackluster titles, though all the books of hers I have read were more than competent.) Dear reader, do yourself a favor and take this book on faith, as I did. I hadn't read the synopsis. I didn't know what I was getting into. All I had was the recommendation of a few friends I trusted.

By the fifth page of The Curse of Chalion, I had almost given up.

By page 24, I was head-over-heels in love with the story and making little screeching noises of glee.

With that out of the way, let me proceed with the usual synopsis + grump.


When Cazaril is freed from the slave galleys of his enemies, the old soldier wants nothing more than to rest, far from war and the political machinations that betrayed him.

Homeless, friendless, and broken, he throws himself on the mercy of the old Provincara in whose house he served as a young man. By the grace of the gods, the Provincara has a place for him. Her granddaughter stands in line for the throne of Chalion--and will need every advantage she can get to survive the treacherous Chalionese court, which drove her own royal mother mad. Cazaril's varied and ugly experiences as soldier, diplomat, spy, and prisoner makes him an ideal tutor, if not an eager one.

As Iselle's tutor, Cazaril means to teach her to avoid the snares that ruined her predecessors. He believes that Iselle has the chance to turn the bizarre chain of bad luck which has plagued the royalty of Chalion for generations. But the responsibility comes with risks. Protecting Iselle means following her to the court, where certain old friends are less than pleased to find Cazaril back from the galleys, living proof of their treachery.

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)