Tag Archives: Book Reviews

“The Voyage Out” [A Review]

Virginia Woolf Smiling? Surely not…

Miss Virginia Woolf (Image by spratmackrel via Flickr)

If there’s one thing I love it’s a bitter cup of hot Earl Grey tea. And also Virginia Woolf.

My love for Virginia Woolf has grown to the point where I can honestly say that even my least favorite work of hers that I’ve read (Jacob’s Room, in case you were wondering) is on my top 100 Books Ever List. I’ll be the first to admit that this love runs the risk of making me a terrible reviewer of anything Miss Woolf wrote. I will try, however, to give a level-headed and concise reflection on this novel.

First, let me just say: GAAAAHHHH!!!! THIS BOOK IS SO FUCKING AMAZING!!!!! I WANT TO MAKE LOVE TO IT AND MARRY IT AND GO TO A NURSING HOME WITH IT AND BE THERE FOR IT AS IT DIES AND THEN KILL MYSELF BECAUSE I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT IT!!!!!

Now that that’s out of the way, let me say this:

The novel begins with Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose, a nice couple who set sail with a small collection of family and friends from London, but the cast of characters quickly opens up as their boat arrives in a resort town in South America. The closest that this novel comes to having a main character is Rachel, the niece of Mrs. Ambrose. A young woman who has been brought up in the strict society life of her widower father she follows her aunt and uncle to South America. Her journey introduces her to new worlds, particularly the more liberal world of her aunt. This of course runs the risk of being the physical journey that is a perfect symbol for the character’s emotional, a trope that is often quite stale, but Miss Woolf’s deft use of language and her insight into various types of personalities makes this feel fresh and sprightly. Far from feeling like yet another self-discovery story The Voyage Out feels electric, a characteristic that I find common in Miss Woolf’s writing.

I had several highlights in this book. One of which was the use of Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway. I had fallen in love with this couple in Mrs. Dalloway and it was a treat to see them again, particularly to see them through Rachel’s biting eyes. The Voyage Out introduced me to another couple to fall in love with. Mr. Hirst and Mr. Hewet are young, intellectual male friends staying with each other in the hotel near the house rented by the Ambroses. As a person who likes to project LGBTQ* diversity into every nook and cranny of his life Mr. Hirst and Mr. Hewet are nearly as great a treat as Holmes and Watson are. While Mr. Hewet does indicate his heterosexuality throughout the book (or, as I like to think of it, his bi- or pansexuality) Mr. Hirst definitely read as homosexual to me (or possibly asexual…) I also took delight in trying to decide how much of herself Miss Woolf put into the character of Mrs. Ambrose (the book’s Wikipedia article does say that Mrs. Ambrose is more likely based on Miss Woolf’s sister but I can’t let that ruin my fun).

In The Voyage Out we are given a unique and engaging coming of age story that has Miss Woolf’s characteristic style while still being accessible to new Woolf readers. It also gives us this wonderful quote from Mrs. Dalloway (Chapter 4):

How much rather one would be a murderer than a bore!

5/5 stars.

The Voyage Out. Virginia Woolf. 1915.

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“The Song of Roland” [A Review]

Eight stages of The Song of Roland in one picture

Not the book's cover but it is depicting a scene from the poem. --Image via Wikipedia

Few things make you feel better about yourself then realizing that you just picked up an eleventh-century Norman poem for light reading. And can I just say that The Song of Roland (my edition was put together by Glyn Sheridan Burgess) is extremely light reading. In fact, if I was to translate it into cinema terms I would say that The Song of Roland is the, I don’t know, Transformers of books. Yes, it’s fun, but it’s also pretty mindless, full of action, and with very clearly defined bad vs. good guys.

As opposed to Autobots vs. Decepticons The Song of Roland gives us Emperor Charlemagne’s Franks versus King Marsile’s Spanish Arabs, or, as the poet likes to refer to them, the pagans. As the story begins, Charlemagne and his army, who, according to this poet, took over the British Isles, are in Spain, trying to expand their territory. The protagonist of the story is Roland, a relative of the Emperor, and a loyal knight, with one hell of an ego and a scheming uncle. Due to some duplicity on the part of Roland’s uncle, Roland is asked to lead the rear-guard, the knights who will soon be attacked by the Spanish Arabs. There’s some fighting, people die, and then the Franks run through the Spanish. (In all fairness there’s more to the underlying structure of the story- for example, its political implications- but since I’ve done little reading about this time in history I’m sticking to the literary appeal. I would strongly recommend reading the introduction to the book as it provides some fascinating back story. Though there are some spoilers in there, so if you might want to read it after reading the poem itself.)

Perhaps my favorite part of The Song of Roland is realizing that though we’re separated by a thousand years or so, we humans are barely different then the humans of Roland’s day. The poem reads like a cheap political rally, I could just hear the cheering crowds listening to the descriptions of the Frank supremacy. Rather similar to a crowd shouting: U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! In fact, if you substitute the word “Frank” for the word “American”, who basically have a season of 24, complete with Arab stereotypes. It was rather comforting for me to be reminded that narrow-mindedness and a tendency to generalize the “enemy” aren’t new phenomena- Throughout the poem it is asserted that the Muslims worship “Muhammad” and “Apollo”.  Another great example of this is the fact that the leaders of the Arabs refer to their own followers as “Pagans”.

That little spiel shouldn’t deter you from reading The Song of Roland. My point wasn’t to make you think, “Racism, let’s not read that.” I was just pointing out an interesting anthropological perspective that should enhance your reading experience. Mr. Burgess also does a fantastic job of translating it into understandable English so if you’re worried about a language barrier of any kind, don’t. If you’ve got a day, and trust me, at 128 pages of poetry this won’t take longer, and you want some fluff I’d recommend this with a smile.

3/5 stars. 

The Song of Roland. Edited by Glyn Sheridan Burgess. 1990. Penguin Groups.

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“The Thirteenth Tale” [A Review]

Cover to the first edition

Image via Wikipedia

A proper book tells a tale which sweeps you up, tumbles your emotions around, and then sets you down hours later, a changed reader. Dianne Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale does just that, and it does it in the twisting style of the Victorian Gothic story.

Set sometime in the 20th century (I thought ’50s, an online reader felt it was the ’70s, you can make your own call),  the story is as straight forward as a Fusilli Bucati Corti noodle, sure it’s got a direction but it’s got its twists along the way. Margaret Lea is a youngish woman who’s grown up in her family bookstore, a childhood that has left on her the mark of the weight of the stories we tell. A few pages in, her quiet, almost sad, life is shaken to the core when she receives a request from Vida Winter, the most popular writer in the world. Now the novel begins to spin the life story of Ms. Winter, a story in the vein of the Brontës and their contemporaries. As the story of the octogenarian writer unfolds itself, so does the story of Maragaret Lea, a personal, tragic, Woolfian story.

Now, I will not say that Ms. Setterfield is a particularly brilliant writer (as one reader pointed out on Goodreads– she’s quite fond of repeating phrases, particularly “hot, sweet tea”) but she does have quite the intricate brain in her skull. The myriad of subtle twists and turns that Ms. Winter’s personal history takes, the secrets that are quietly revealed, are cunning  and full of misdirection.

She also does something that I personally feel is quite important when writing mysteries. I don’t know about you, but I think that writers need to let us figure somethings out for ourselves. Not the whole enchilada, of course, just little plot points that, when worked out, make us go, “Oh! I am clever, aren’t I?” For example, the information revealed to us on page 349 was something that I was speculating at a few chapters earlier, though the true implications completely shocked me. The fact that I was able to guess made me feel all the more engaged in the novel, made it more relatable.

You really can’t read a review of The Thirteenth Tale without hearing comparisons to the great Victorian Gothics and it does raise the question of whether it’s a worthy comparison. Well, I’m going to cop out of answering that by saying: It’s worth making your own call. I mean, it has the style and personally I found it gripping, but I don’t want to assert anything that I can’t prove. So, pick it up, read it yourself, make up your own mind.

4/5 stars.

The Thirteenth Tale. Diane Setterfield. 2006. Atria Books. 

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“Freak Show” [A Review]

Cover of "Freak Show"

Cover of Freak Show

When Perez Hilton gives a book a rave review (or at least a rave blurb on the back cover) my neck-hairs go up. It’s not that I don’t like Perez Hilton, it’s that I don’t see us having many similar interests (besides men). As it turns out, it wasn’t a bad thing that I didn’t put down James St. JamesFreak Show but if I had, I wouldn’t have missed anything big.

I’ve always felt that the GBLTQ* community has been underrepresented in books, particularly the TQ portion and specifically in the young adult genre. As books about gays, lesbians, bisexuals have increased books about gender diversity have stayed fairly marginal. There was Julia Anne Peters’ lovely 2004 trans-focused Luna and there was of course… er, none else spring to mind. So what I’m saying is that we need more gender-diversity centered books for teenagers.

Freak Show bravely steps into where few other books go and it does it with feather boas, glitter and deliciously campy references. The story it tells is of Billy Bloom a, well, he’s not a cross-dresser or a transvestite (as Billy makes very clear on page 212) so we’ll use one of my favorite descriptions he uses: GLITTEROID! As a young male who sews his own costumes that screw with gender Billy really doesn’t fit into his Floridian high-school into which he was recently replanted after an episode with his mother. The plot meanders around during the first two-thirds of the novel but in the final bit it turns into an empowering story that skews the traditional school outcasts rebelling against the status-quo.

While the story is endearing I found Billy Bloom to be… I wanted to throttle him. I’m a fairly no nonsense sort of Lady and so dealing with Bloom’s hyperbolic narration (it was like being shouted at) was something that I personally found grating. Now I will say that Bloom is written to have mood swings which Mr. St. James pulls off wonderfully, though it will sometimes result in a brain cramp as you try to keep up with his highs and lows. My slightly homicidal feelings for Bloom did wear off during the climatic student rebellion during which point I was cheering him and his posse on.

There were some delightful scenes that made me chortle happily, particularly the ones full of references to various dramatic woman that have inspired homosexual America (Liza Minnelli, Martha Stewart, Zelda Fitzgerald, etc.) And when you come across lines such as:

I LIKE THE WAY THIS DAME THINKS! (201)

Really! How indelicate! In front of Flossie! And giving Flip an eyeful, I’m sure! (108)

He’s got that white-hot blond hair, with those killer bangs…a nose like a ski slope…those blazing, dragon green eyes…and  smile so white and so bright, it guides Santa’s sleigh in dense fog! (119)

you can’t help but chuckle.

Despite having a frantic pace and an off-the-wall narrator that’s hard to pin down the story is sweet with moments of  charm that are pulled off in a sometimes vulgar manner. Not one of the decade’s great books (though it was among this year’s Green Mountain Book Awards finalist) Freak Show is a fun read if you’ve a few hours to kill or if you feel the need to get in touch with your inner fabulous, fierce, flaming Queen.

3.5/5 stars.


*Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, Transgender/Transsexual, Queer/Questioning. I’m aware that there are many variations on this acronym but for simplicity’s sake I’m afraid I’ll be brief, explaining all the various pairings of letters can go on for years.

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Star Trek Enterprise: The First Adventure [Review]

A stylized delta shield, based on the Star Tre...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always really disappointed when I read a Star Trek book and declare it to be a flop. While reading a poor book in general is always painful I’m constantly jonesing for Star Trek so I crave each moment that I actually get of it to be perfection. Vonda N. McIntyre’s Star Trek Enterprise: The First Adventure is far from perfection.

Thousands of years before the most recent Star Trek movie there wasn’t a strong back story for the Kirk-era crew and in 1986 Ms. McIntyre provided one. One which Gene Roddenberry is quoted on the back of my edition as saying, “I heartily recommend ENTERPRISE: THE FIRST ADVENTURE as a most creative and enjoyable tale of Star Trek’s beginning…”

I heartily don’t recommend it.

I’m sorry to say that it all comes down to Ms. McIntyre’s poor writing and story pacing. While reading through this 371 page soft back novel I couldn’t stop thinking that I was simply bewildered.

Ms. McIntyre’s writing struck me as blocky and awkward. Take this little block of text from page 101:

At the captain’s table, Leonard McCoy got tired of making up excuses for Jim’s absence. After all, it was Jim’s idea to invite the company to sit with him tonight.

“Pardon me just a moment,” he said. “I’ll be right back.”

A minute later, the lift let him out in the officer’s territory. He headed toward Jim’s cabin. He felt in better physical condition than he had enjoyed for years. Even the ache of his deeply bruised thigh muscle reminded him of a moment of sheer, terrified exhilaration.

He knocked on the door of Jim’s cabin.

I’m sure that we can all agree that the writing is blocky but the question that I feel needs to be raised is the following: What’s up with McCoy’s thigh? Doesn’t it seem a bit strange of a place to start suddenly talking about McCoy’s physical condition? I can personally say that after reading the novel myself I really can’t answer where the heck that came from. So I’m not a big fan of Ms. McIntyre’s writing, next point.

This novel has a bizarre plot. While the sketchy premise of it is sound (the first adventure of Kirk’s crew, a first contact, tense Klingon hostilities) the actual plot is painful. Each scene feels disjointedly stuck together and the pacing strikes me as one-legged (you know, hard to balance and awkward and all that). Also, there’s too much going on. Here are all the plot points that Ms. McIntyre tries to push out:

  • Kirk and his crew have to adjust to each other.
  • Kirk falls in love with a younger women (shocker!) who doesn’t love him back (actual shocker!).
  • A rogue Klingon stealing a ship and going after the Federation.
  • A first contact.
  • Klingons pursuing said rogue Klingon.
  • A vaudeville company on the ship.
  • Janice Rand’s history.
  • Spock’s potentially homosexual love affair personal issues.

While some authors could pull it off Ms. McIntyre doesn’t really get it together and everything just kinda fizzles around.

There are some elements that are nice. I did enjoy most of the Uhura-Rand backstory and Sulu provided a nice background and McCoy was well-written for chunks of the novel (like I said, she was able to do a few good dialogs between him and Spock) and I felt that this new species provided an example of exactly what Star Trek can do with aliens.

I am so sorry to say that I personally can not recommend this novel.

2/5 stars.

And just in case you want some more prose that’s painful to read here’s some that also happens to feature Bones:

McCoy called the Enterprise. He fumed at the delay of getting a ground-to-space frequency. Why hadn’t he brought along his communicator?

The he though, You didn’t bring your communicator on purpose. For one thing, it’s against the rules. For another, you can’t hear it beep and not answer it. Don’t let the universe drag you back into its modern state of hyperactivity.

He smiled to himself and waited.

Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura here.”

“This is Leonard McCoy, chief medical officer. What’s the plan?”

“Dr. McCoy! What are your transporter coordinates?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” he said.

The manager recited a set of numbers.

“Stand by to beam on board,” Lieutenant Uhura said.

The cool tingle of dislocation caught him and sucked him away.

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“Unfamiliar Fishes” [A Review]

”]New book

My first brush with Sarah Vowell occurred on This American Life where she is a somewhat frequent commentator. When I first heard her I thought she was amusing, well spoken and quite intelligent. The first book of her’s that I read, Assignation Vacation, reinforced my opinions of her (only change well spoken to kick ass writer) and reading The Wordy Shipmates really reinforced this. Unfamiliar Fishes has only really, really reinforced this.

Unfamiliar Fishes will be Ms. Vowell’s third history book (her other three were about her own life) when it’s published on March 11th. It’s story is one that I think is far too often brushed over: The story of how Hawaii lost its independence and was brought into the U.S. of A. My advanced reader’s copy is only 233 pages but it manages to convey a good hundred years worth of history with ease, starting with arrival of Captain Cook, the social changes that his arrival brought, the arrival of New England based missionaries, the social changes they brought, then the various meddlings of the American business interests (side note: sometimes I have trouble eating Dole bananas) and finally Hawaii’s annexation into America.

Weaving in her own history with the history of her subject is something that I’ve come to think of as a trademark of Ms. Vowell and she repeats this once again, and once again I find that it makes her writing all the more engaging.

Think of that really awesome teacher who’ve had. The really awesome teacher who managed to take History/Chemistry/Shop and turn it into a fascinating class where you didn’t even realize you were learning. The one who’s lectures were hard to stop paying attention to because you found yourself strangely committed to. That’s how I think of Ms. Vowell’s writing. She never becomes more complex then the situation requires, something that I think makes her easily accessed by most. And unlike some non-fiction writers who seem to view themselves as mini-gods with perfect facts Ms. Vowell acknowledges her own opinions and that sometimes the observer effects the results (or so I feel.)

Unfamiliar Fishes is another well written and highly informative text from Sarah Vowell and since she’s still young I think we can hope for plenty more to come.

4.5 stars out of 5.

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Star Trek: TOS (Tons Of Sexism)

As Orion slave girl "Marta" in the S...

You're only proving my point, Marta--Image via Wikipedia

I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Original Series (often shortened to the lovely sounding acronym TOS) and when my buddy offered to lend me Star Trek 8 (Six Exciting Adventures From The Award-Winning Television Series Created By Gene Roddenberry), adapted by James Blish I nearly hugged him. Star Trek 8 belongs to the class of books that are the grandparents of our modern DVD collections of television series. Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Tricky Dick was still the Vice-President iTunes downloads, DVDs and VHSs didn’t yet exist so television shows hired writers to adapt the screen plays for their shows and publish them so the general public could relive their favorite episodes of Buck Rodgers and The Honeymooners (to be fair, I don’t know if those shows were ever adapted but I would totally read them). ST 8 is the adaptation of Spock’s Brain, The Enemy Within, Catspaw, Where No Man Has Gone Before, Wolf in the Fold, and For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky (which wins for the best title ever.)

A few things struck me while I was reading this delightful collection:

  1. Grammar is not optional, people. Seriously, if I had come across one more misplaced quotation marks I would have returned the book all smeared in feces.
  2. The sixties were an awesome time for dramatic writing. I think the last time I encountered the word Cain it was in the comedy Year One but in The Enemy Within we get sentences like, “His Cain was roaming the Enterprise in a mindless, murderous search for a vengeance that would appease the bitterness of years of denial-the years it had spent as a prisoner of conscience, of duty, of responsibility.” My stars and Garters, The Drama! (And “Cain” is used thrice in that story.)
  3. Three cheers for sexism! Now I know that Star Trek did in some ways represent a step forward for women given the time period it was produced in (Number 1, Uhura, Nurse Chapel (my love),  and a few other instances) but can we just set that aside and look at how it appears from the modern eye?

The modern eye finds the sexism in Star Trek a bit startling, and if you and I share modern eyes we also find it a bit humorous. There simply isn’t an instance where we have a woman who isn’t overly emotional and completely irrational (alright, Uhura is pretty stable and Nurse Chapel does stand up for herself in For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky but just barely).

I think my favorite moment is when we have Kirk tell “Sylvia” in Catspaw that “When you took the form of a woman…you also assumed the female compulsion to talk too much.” He might as well have added, “Now make me a sandwich and get me some natty brews.” (Yes, in my mind Kirk basically is a bro.)

Let’s run through the female main characters in these six short stories:

  • Kara the Leader (Spock’s Brain): Mindless and gorgeous, just how Jesse James likes his women (oddly enough for me I became really fascinated by the Bullock-James divorce and for weeks was defensive of Sandra and spent hours each day raging at Jesse), Kara is completely incapable of doing anything for herself. Take this conversation between Bones and Kirk: “[Bones said] ‘One thing is sure. She never preformed the operation.’ ‘If it required intelligence, she certainly didn’t,’ Kirk said.” Zing! And that’s their leaders.
  • Janice Reed (The Enemy Within): Poor woman, it’s not her fault that she fell in love with the captain and when Kirk’s Cain tries to take advantage of her she just can’t say no. And then when the real Kirk talks to her about it later she tries to apologize!
  • Sylvia (Catspaw): God, women, they’re irrational controlling bitches who just can’t shut up. Stupid witch. (Basically just transfer my previous quote regarding her and bring it down to this bullet.)
  • Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Where No Man Has Gone Before): “[T]all, slim, in her mid-twenties, a potentially beautiful woman if she cared to be one, which she didn’t.” First of all I’ve seen this episode and thought that Dr. Dehner was gorgeous, mostly because she wasn’t all dolled up like Marta (picture, top right hand corner of this post). Second of all, Dr. Dehner meet Hillary Clinton. At one point Gary Mitchell actually goes, “It’s a walking refrigerator, by gum!” Basically Star Trek: TOS has a hard time creating women who are good at what they do and are professional but can’t seem to do so without sacrificing their humanity. Oh yeah, she also goes emotionally crazy and does everything for a man.
  • Kara (Wolf in the Fold): Erotic dancer. Murdered.
  • Sybo (Wolf in the Fold): Sensual empath. Murdered.
  • Karen Tracy (Wolf in the Fold): “Extremely attractive shape and features”. Murdered.
  • Yeoman Trancis (Wolf in the Fold): Murdered.
  • Natira (For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky): Remember Kara (no not the murdered one, the first one)? Yup, it’s Kara. And while this lady does question her heritage and the general authority she is still a child. Which makes Bones falling for her all the more creepy.

But like I said, this is cultural. TOS broke several barriers: A black woman on the bridge, the first interracial kiss, the first interspecies kiss and a few others. I mean their pilot had Number 1, that kick ass female Commander (yes, I do have the tiniest crush on Majel Roddenberry), and while they did have to cut her at least they managed to work in some strong female characters.

But Kirk is still a bro.

 

"Let's make me a sandwich, hoe"

 

 

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