Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent Series #1) I have to admit, I didn't have high expectations when I picked Divergent off the shelf.  Maybe it was just a symptom of young adult dystopian overload.  In any case, it was the January selection for my book club so I was willing to give it a try.  Still, I waited until the last minute - the Monday before the Saturday when the book club meets - to begin reading the 400 plus page story.  I was worried I had waited too long and wouldn't finish in time.  Turns out there was nothing to worry about.  At the end of day one I had made it to page 130.  I would have finished it on day two but one of my resolutions this year is to get up and exercise before work which requires going to bed at a decent hour, so I reluctantly put the book aside.  I picked it up as soon as I could on day three and finished it.  It only goes to show just how wrong preconceptions can be.

At the center of the story is sixteen-year-old Beatrice "Tris" Prior.  She lives in a society that is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful) Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave).  The story behind the factions is that once there was some sort of war and after the war ended people divided themselves into the above groups based on ideas about the causes of war and conflict, what is most important in life, and what is the best way to live. 

The beliefs held by each faction run deep.  They permeate every aspect of an individual’s life.  The Candor faction, for instance, believes that dishonesty leads to conflict, suspicion, and evil and so they strive to be completely honest and transparent, no matter the consequences.  Others may see their brutal honesty as rude or unkind, but for those in the Candor faction, even lying to spare someone’s feelings is doing that person an injustice.  Initiates in Candor must reveal their deepest, darkest secrets on the basis that an omission is as dishonest as an outright lie and that truth prevents misunderstandings (which can lead to conflict).  Those in Abnegation attempt to avoid all temptations of self-indulgence.  They avoid mirrors, dress plainly, eat simple food, and don’t seem to believe in free time (or strangely, art) as such time could be spent helping someone else.   

At age 16 girls and boys must take an aptitude test aimed at helping the teen choose which faction they wish to join as an adult.  Regardless of what the test says or what faction a person was born into, the teen gets to pick which faction they want to be a part of.  Beatrice was born into the Abnegation faction.  Her test results are inconclusive – the only faction that is conclusively ruled out is Candor.  (Funny how kindness and selflessness conflict with honesty.)  This makes her, gasp, a Divergent.  The woman who administers Beatrice’s test cautions her to tell no one about her test result as her life would be in danger.  Beatrice doesn’t understand why.  The only thing she knows is that she isn't cut out for Abnegation.  For one thing, she is too curious to be so selfless.  (Asking too many questions can be considered to self-indulgent in the Abnegation faction).  So Beatrice chooses Dauntless and renames herself Tris.

Much of the story follows Tris as she tries to gain a foothold in the Dauntless tribe.  It turns out the Dauntless don’t just accept everyone who chooses them.  They make their initiates prove why they should be allowed to join the faction.  Smaller than most of the other initiates and with a natural instinct towards kindness and cooperation, Tris struggles to prove herself.  At the same time she tries to figure out what being Divergent means and why it is considered so dangerous.  Meanwhile, unrest is brewing among the five factions.  Each faction controls a different aspect of societal life.  Because they are considered selfless, only members of Abnegation serve in the government and the Erudite are none too happy about that.  It would seem that dividing into five factions isn’t working to prevent conflict quite as well as everyone had hoped.

I thoroughly enjoyed Divergent and am eager to read the next book in the trilogy, Insurgent.  In particular, Veronica Roth did a great job in creating the world in which Tris lives.  It felt real.  Perhaps it felt that way because essentially this is a coming of age story (at least in part) in which a young person has to figure out who she is and if she is willing to be that person even if it means defying her parents or society's expectations.  I love the idea of the five factions, all of which are great virtues to strive for.

Of course, I can guess where this going.  Eventually the inhabitants of this world will come to understand that bravery, honesty, selflessness, kindness, and the pursuit of knowledge are all valuable and valid virtues, and further, that each on their own is often not enough to prevent conflict or maximize happiness.  Honesty without kindness can be cruel.  Bravery without intelligence (or the other way around) can lead to more death and destruction that not.  A willingness to be kind at all cost can lead to nothing getting done, among other problems.  Even though I can guess where this headed I am looking for the journey to see how it gets there.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor (Dublin Murder Squad Series #4)  Broken Harbor is the fourth novel penned by Tana French.  It is part of her Dublin Murder Squad series, if you can call it a series.  Each of the novels in the series are loosely connected.  The main character in Broken Harbor played a minor role in the previous book, Faithful Place, and the main character in that book played a minor role in the book before that, The Likeness, and so forth.  It is an interesting way to do a series, having a different detective at the center of each book.  Another common thread linking the books together is French's habit of making her detectives revisit some place in their past where they suffered a loss as a young person.  Broken Harbor is no exception.

Detective Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy is the lead detective in this entry in the series.  He and his rookie partner Det. Curran have the daunting task of figuring out who attacked Pat and Jenny Spain and their two children, Emma and Jack, in their home.  The detectives arrest a suspect pretty early on but you just know the case is going to go sideways.  It's just matter of how and when.  I figured out who the culprit was but I was surprised at how the case spun out of control, even though French left plenty little clues.

As much as anything, this is a story about the economic recession and its effects on people.  As with any murder investigation, the detectives delve into the lives of the victims.  They find two people who seemingly did everything right, and still it all went so very wrong.  Pat and Jenny were high school sweethearts.  According to all their friends they were the good ones, the lucky ones, the ones with a plan for how their lives were going to go.  They got married, had a couple of kids, and bought a house.  The house is where things first started to go wrong. 

Eager to get on the "property ladder," as they told their friends, the Spains bought early into a luxury development in Brianstown.  They were promised a beautiful house on a luxury estate with childcare facilities, a beautiful view of the sea, and who knows what else.  Then the recession hit and the developers left town.  The Spains got their house and a view of the sea.  They also got a bunch of empty and half-built houses as neighbors.  But the Spains were not easily discouraged.  They remained optimistic about their future.  Then Pat lost his job.  They told themselves not to worry, that Pat would find a job quickly.  After all they were good people who worked hard, so of course things would work out for them.  Much of Broken Harbor is about Pat and Jenny's struggle to survive as their carefully constructed world falls apart around them.

Det. Kennedy is more or less a typical murder mystery detective - a loaner with issues.  He's divorced and apparently has few friends.  He has two sisters, one of whom has several issues of her own.  His time with his new partner gives him a glimpse of what it might be like to have a true confidant that he could rely on.  Det. Kennedy also has ties to Brianstown.  He and his family used to vacation there when he was kid, back when it was called Broken Harbor.  Broken Harbor holds some of his best and worst childhood memories. 

I would put Broken Harbor into the category of mystery thriller, with an emphasis on the thriller part of the equation.  The mystery is good but the main draw is the psychological mystery.  Some of the best parts here are when French details the different ways Pat and Jenny dealt with stress of watching their savings and dreams drain away.  With Pat it is all about saving his family from some mysterious animal that seems to have found its way into the house's attic.  For Jenny it is all about keeping up appearances.  There's also Det. Kennedy's struggle to deal with his younger sister and his need to categorize things as black and white.  There is no room for gray in his world.

I heard Tana French is working on the next book in the series.  I can't wait.  I've read the three previous books in the series, In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place.  The ending of the first book annoyed me but aside from that I have loved her books.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel  When web designer Clay Jannon can’t find a job designing websites due to the Great Recession he lands a job at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  Very few people actually purchase books from the store, but many borrow big heavy volumes whose pages are covered in an unknown code or language.  It is not long before Clay finds himself on a quest.

A bookstore with bookshelves so high clerks have to use ladders to reach the uppermost shelves, old books, a centuries old mystery, plus Aldus Manutius - it’s almost as if Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was written for me.  I should have loved this this book, but I didn’t.  I liked parts of it but for long stretches I was simply bored.

As I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I could help but think of Ready Player One, another story about a young man on a quest to solve a sort of puzzle.  Both take place amidst a “Great Recession.”  In Ready Player One Wade seeks to find three keys and pass through three gates.  If he succeeds not only will he become an instant billionaire, but he will effectively save the internet (and by extension, the world) from an evil company that given the chance would monetize every use of the internet.  Said evil company is even willing to kill to get what it wants.  In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore Clay seeks to figure out what secret Aldus Manutius left for the world discover, and if he can uncover the secret as we know it will continue.  If Clay can't uncover the secret then, life will still continue more or less as we know it.

In Ready Player One there was a real sense of urgency. Whether or not Wade was able to find the keys and pass through the gates had consequences either way.  One of the main problems with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is that nothing was ever really at stake.  There is never any real danger.  There is no real sense that uncovering the secret is all that important.  The revelation of exactly what Mr. Penumbra and his customers and colleagues were hoping to find was especially disappointing.  If the story had more fantastical elements it might have made sense, but since the story is set in the present day (more or less) what Mr. Penumbra and company hoped to find was less a mysterious quest with life changing consequences to a kid playing dress up and pretending to go on an adventure.

Another aspect that contributed to the lack of urgency or importance of Clay’s quest was that everything came too easily.  Clay just happens to have a best friend who is a millionaire who can fund whatever Clay needs to finish the quest.  Clay meets a pretty girl who not only happens to work at Google and can provide Clay with access to all of her employer’s tools, but who just happens to get a promotion shortly after she and Clay meet.  Said promotion enables her to officially devote Google’s resources to Clay’s project temporarily.  When everything comes so easily, it really isn’t much of a quest.

I loved the idea of this book, I just didn’t love the execution.  If author Robin Sloan writes another I would be willing to give it a try.  The bookstore, the underground library, and the people who cross Clay’s path - there is potential here.  With deeper characters, real stakes, and substantive obstacles that the hero has to work hard to overcome, this could have been a five-star story.  Maybe next time.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

When Will There Be Good News? (Jackson Brodie Series #3)  When Will There Be Good News? is the third in Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie series.  I was first introduced to Atkinson's work in a review of Case Histories (the first book in the series).  The reviewer described the book as a mystery and since I have an affinity for mysteries by British women (Agatha Christie, P. D. James, Tana French, to name a few), I rushed to my local bookstore.  After reading three books in the series, I am not sure how to describe these books but mystery doesn't seem quite adequate.  There are mysterious elements but they are not conventional mysteries.  There is a detective in the form of Jackson Brodie.  He is a former police officer turned private detective who continues to find himself in strange and mysterious situations even after he retires.  Still, the category of mystery doesn't fit.  It is like putting in a oval shaped peg in a circle.  The shapes closely resemble one another but are not the same.

Describing the plot of Good News is even more complicated than trying to determine the genre.  There are multiple characters and story lines, so many that for the first 100 pages or so I kept getting confused and having to go back and refresh my memory as to who was who.  There's Jackson Brodie of course but he is absent for much of the action in the novel after ending up in a horrible train crash.  He nearly dies in the train crash but luckily for him a young girl called Reggie gives him CPR until the paramedics arrive.  Reggie is a sixteen-year-old on her own.  Her father was never in the picture, her mother recently died, and her brother is a never-do-well who causes Reggie trouble even when he is not around.  Reggie is preparing for her A-levels while working as a mother's helper (babysitter) to Dr. Joanna Hunter and her husband.  When Joanna was just six-year-old a madman attacked her and her family as they walked down the street.  Detective Chief Inspector Louise Monroe informs Joanna that the madman who attacked her thirty years earlier has served his sentence and will soon be released from prison.  Soon thereafter Joanna Hunter leaves town to tend to an ill aunt.  Only Reggie doesn't buy it.  She's convinced that something bad has happened to Dr. Hunter, that maybe her husband did something her.  Mr. Hunter is a bit shady, with the police questioning some of his business practices.  Monroe and Brodie are old friends/acquaintances/lovers who could have been but never were.  See what I mean - multiple characters and story lines.

Despite the multiple characters and story lines, or maybe because of them, I really enjoyed Good News.  Somehow all the story lines came together in a convincing way, but ultimately it was the characters that drew me in.  Atkinson is wonderful at describing how people think and act in both ordinary and extraordinary situations.  It did take a bit of time for me to get fully into the book, but once I was in, I was all in.  I especially loved Reggie.  She was a tenacious, resourceful character who kept fighting no matter how many people dismissed her.  Joanna was another strong character, a true survivor.  Jackson played a relatively minor role this time around, that is until the end, which was rather surprising.  I'm looking forward to the next book in the series, Started Early, Took My Dog, to find what strange situation Jackson finds himself in next.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff

             I often read mysteries and recently, have also been reading a great deal of paranormal / supernatural, dystopian / post-apocalyptic, and thriller / suspense novels.  In reading such stories it is easy to forget how simple stories about ordinary people can be wonderful.  A Vintage Affair reminded me of that.  The story centers around Phoebe Swift who after a dozen (successful) years working at an auction house decides to open her own shop selling vintage clothes.  Phoebe has recently suffered a devastating personal loss.  Throughout the novel we (the readers) follow Phoebe as she learns how to live and love after the loss.  We also get to meet a variety of people that Phoebe comes into contact with through her shop.  It is a delightful and simple story and one that I very much enjoyed reading.

As a librarian-archivist something that interests me is objects other than books or other forms of writing as a form of communication.  Objects carry a history.  Aside from their functionality, objects remind people of the past generally and specifically.  By generally, I mean a particular dress may contribute to the understanding of the past by later generations.  For example, the availability of textiles may influence fashion during a period of war as much as social tastes and trends.  On a more personal and specific level, objects often remind people of a specific time or event in their life.  For instance, one of the characters in the novel looks at her old dress and remembers attending a movie premiere and dancing with Sean Connery.  In this way objects, in this case clothes, communicate a personal and a general history, both large and small.  That is a large part of what appealed to me about A Vintage Affair.  In particular, there is a story line involving a blue coat that connects to a very large and very personal World War II story. There are also smaller story lines, like one involving a woman who buys a pink 1950s cupcake dress to help remind her happiness exists during a very sad time in her life.

About the pictures of the cover above, there are two covers that I've seen.  I love the first one, with the red gown on display and a selection of dresses in the background.  It is elegant and timeless.  It very much captured the spirit of the book.  Forget about not judging a book by its cover, what initially attracted me to this book was the beautiful cover.  I realized later that I had heard and seen this book previously but the version I initially saw had the cover with the the pink dress on a hanger against a turquoise background.  That cover did nothing for me.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Wicked Autumn by G. M. Malliet

Wicked Autumn (Max Tudor Series #1)   Wicked Autumn is the first in a series by G. M. Malliet in which each book is tied to a season (after Wicked Autumn there is A Fatal Winter and Pagan Spring).  The series is set in a bucolic English village and centers around Max Tudor, a former MI5 agent turned Anglican vicar.  He is not a detective, amateur or otherwise, but when a woman is killed in the village Max can't turn off his spy instincts.

Wicked Autumn was a nice, cozy mystery, albeit a little slow to start.  There was a lot of buildup waiting for the victim to hurry up and get killed.  It was obvious who the victim would be from the get go as she was an abrasive woman who offended nearly everyone she crossed paths with.  Once the victim was finally dispatched, the story picked up the pace as Max went about trying to figure out who was responsible for introducing the evil he had escaped when he left MI5 into his picturesque village.  Along the way bits and pieces of Max's MI5 past is revealed.

This is not a challenging read, but I liked it for what it was and look forward to reading the rest of the books in the series.  I look forward to learning more about Max Tudor, his MI5 past, and his transformation into a man of the cloth.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Matilda by Roald Dahl

Matilda   Choosing the first book to read in the new year is always a big decision for me.  It is important that the year start off right.  I'm sure I read this a child, Roald Dahl was one of favorite authors as a child, but I didn't quite remember it. With all the good reviews surrounding the Broadway musical version of the story, I thought I would pick up the book and refresh my memory.  It was a fantastic choice.  Matilda is brilliant! 

Matilda is a simple story.  The book's young namesake is a brilliant and precocious child who not only teaches herself to read, but manages to read all the children's books in the library by the age of five.  She is also quite gifted at mathematics.  One would think parents of such a child would be quite proud of their daughter, but Matilda's parents could care less.  They adore their son but treat Matilda like she an unwanted pest they have been forced to feed and shelter.  They are never physically abusive but they take every opportunity to belittle the little girl.  Matilda, however, is not easily intimidated or scared.  She even finds ways to get her parents/tormentors back for their horrible behavior.

At age five-and-a-half Matilda heads off to school.  Her teacher Miss Honey quickly spots her young student's genius.  Like Matilda's parents, the school's headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is not at all impressed by the five-year-old who can figure out the answer to 14 x 19 in her head in two seconds.   In fact, Miss Trunchbull hates small children.  Though Matilda makes friends and allies at school, in many ways school is no better than home.

This sounds like a terrible story, right?  Who would have their child to read a book in which adults - parents and school officials no less - are really, really mean to small children for no good reason?  And yet, this is a brilliant story for kids.  The children in Miss Trunchbull's school are terribly afraid, but they also fight back in small ways.  Moreover, Matilda is a spirited little girl whose spirit never falters in the face of the ill treatment she receives.  In fact, it only serves to make her stronger and braver than ever.  She is small child who uses her intelligence (and special powers) to fight back, and in the end she saves the day.  I loved this book and think I'll find myself visiting the children's section of the bookstore for more of Roald Dahl's books. 

Another great thing about Matilda is that it satisfies all four of my 2014 reading challenges:
What a great start to the reading year!

Happy Reading in 2014!

Finally, it is 2014!  I have been waiting for the new year to start so I could get started on my reading challenges for this year.  I expect good things in 2014, reading and otherwise.  I am also glad and grateful to continue writing this blog.  It began in 2012 as a challenge to myself to learn about blogging and writing book reviews.  It has been challenging and loads of fun.  There is still a lot I have to learn about blogging and hopefully I'll learn a few of those lessons in the coming year and will be able to make the Passport Books blog even better.

In addition to blogging, I hope to write more generally.  For the last two years I have participated in National Novel Writing Month.  I wrote over 50,000 words in November 2012 and again in November 2013.  Now it is time for editing.  With some luck, this year I'll get around to editing at least one of the novels.  Who knows, maybe I'll post a few excerpts on this blog.  I would also like to include posts on other pop culture and/or lifestyle issues (like exercise as I try to train for a half-marathon), or maybe posts about the culture and business of books more generally (as opposed to just book reviews).  There are so many possibilities to consider.   While those possibilities take time to form, I'll get started on my reading goals.

Happy New Year and Happy Reading