Category Archives: Fiction

The Romance of King Arthur

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This is the copy I read as a kid. The publication date on this is 1977 – so, buying it secondhand, I was probably 12 or 13.

Ah, Arthur. Who was he? Did he really exist? Was he a resistance fighter, or a true king? Or were the tales really stories of a “Cave” Arthur, a legendary leader that predates history? I don’t care, actually. I just love the tales and all their glorious retellings. My first introduction to Arthurian legend was through the novel The Once and Future King by T.H. White, like so many other readers. I read this wonderful account of King Arthur when I was a young teen, reading an ancient paperback that threatened to lose its cover before I finished it.

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If you enjoy Arthurian legend, you must read the source material in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s chronicle.

At university, I explored Arthurian tales in my classes, reading Chretien de Troyes’ romances, and the histories of the Venerable Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth. After graduating, my mind was blown by the brilliant reimagining of Arthur through Morgan le Fay’s POV as told by Marian Zimmer Bradley in The Mists of Avalon. That novel gets a place of honor on my permanent bookshelf in the sky.

3104570Then Bernard Cornwell’s novels (The Warlord Chronicles) appeared on the scene, and I was once again amazed at the way another author could take these legends, put them in a blender, and come out with a completely different atmosphere, making different thematic choices and focusing on different pieces of the legend. I thought it couldn’t get any more interesting than Bradley’s amazingly powerful Arthurian women, but Cornwell’s dirty, gritty stories just as powerful, and you can smell the manure – and the magic.

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I just enjoyed reading The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland, an Arthurian interpretation for a young adult audience. Crossley-Holland sets his tale in 1199, on a lord’s estate close to the English-Welsh border. The narrator of the tale, Arthur, is the second son of Sir John. He’s thirteen, not very good at tilting or swordsmanship, but has a gift with words. Merlin, a mysterious man who resides on the estate, gives Arthur a stone of obsidian, and cautions him to never mention it to anyone. Arthur discovers that this stone gives him visions, where he sees another thirteen year old boy named Arthur, whose story strangely echoes his.

The story was very well told. Crossley-Holland takes the Arthur of legend up to the momentous sword in the stone moment, leaving room for a few more novels which I think I may have to read. My only complaint about the novel is that Crossley-Holland’s chapters are so short – at the most 3 pages – that the narrative feels choppy and jumpy. I wish he had taken the time to extend some of the chapters, exploring the emotions in a deeper fashion.

I think the book I need to add to my book bank is Thomas  Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, but I’d love some additional suggestions. Are you a reader of Arthurian fiction? What would be on your Arthurian reading list?

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

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I find it interesting that many readers who don’t regularly read science fiction, do read Stephen King’s novels that are categorized as scifi. King’s novels The Running Man (originally published under the name Richard Bachman), Cell, The Stand, and Insomnia are what I would call “soft” science fiction, that is, scifi without a heavy reliance on scientific description or concepts. The novel 11/22/63 is a perfect example – a novel that went to the top of the bestseller lists, and stayed there for 17 weeks, yet it is a novel that starts with the revelation of a time travel portal.

But, of course, it’s more than just a story about a time traveller trying to change history. It’s about doing a bad deed in order to accomplish a greater good. It’s about the “butterfly effect” that time travel stories often discuss. It’s a heartwrenching love story. It’s a story of inspiring others to do great things.

The plot is long reaching, and takes time to develop, but it doesn’t meander. The main character, Jake Eppler, is given a task by his friend Al Templeton, who has discovered a time portal to 1958 in the storage room of his diner. Al convinces Jake to travel to 1958, and stay there until 1963 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which Al has determined to be the precise moment that the US started down a bad path. Jake agrees, after he travels to 1958 and is able to prevent the murder of a local family. Al has kept copious notes about his time traveling adventures, where he gathered details on the daily activities of Lee Harvey Oswald and his associates. Jake travels back in time, and makes his way to Texas, where he finds work as a high school English teacher.

Jake blossoms and discovers a zest for life in Texas of the early sixties that his life in 2011 had never given him. He finds love with Sadie – the librarian at the high school, and satisfaction in his work, and companionship in the small town where he settles. But Dallas, 1963 is always hanging over his head, and his preparations for that day in Dealey Plaza begin to dominate his life, upsetting his love life and happiness.

I thoroghly enjoyed this novel. King has a gift for creating characters that you could swear you had already met. They are believable, and react in realistic ways, even when placed in a strange, time travel fantasy. As always, King’s writing communicates  a rich world, this time the US in the late fifties and early sixties, where, to Jake the world is “full.”

This fifty years-gone world smelled worse than I ever would have expected, but it tasted a whole hell of a lot better. Stephen King, 11/22/63, p.38

King gives the reader a few key phrases to hang onto in this novel. First,

The past is obdurate.

And the other:

Dancing is life.

King ends the novel on a perfect, sweet-sad note that moved me to tears. Highly recommended.

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The Dinner by Herman Koch

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The Dinner by Herman Koch was the June selection for the AMBC (Awesome Members Book Club) and it was an amazing choice that sparked a terrific conversation. This novel was originally published in 2009 in the Netherlands, and the translation was released in February in the United States. Many reviews compare this novel to Gone Girl, and while it does have some similarities to the thriller by Gillian Flynn, Koch’s novel is much more subversive and satirical.

The Dinner is the story of a dinner, two couples at a fancy restaurant meeting to talk about their teenaged sons. The husbands of the couples are brothers with a long history of mistrust and resentment, and their sons have committed an atrocity that needs addressing.

Koch plots the book through the courses of the meal, from aperitif to appetizer, all the way through to after dinner espresso. The narrator, Paul, tells the story, piece by piece, revealing the disturbing and horrific details through flashbacks. Paul’s opening affability and talk of “happy families” deepens into something darker. The seeming ignorance of the wives is skewered. Serge’s popularity tries Paul’s impatience. Each flashback exposes another layer, and the reader understands that Paul is not the most reliable of narrators.

The contrast between the painstaking descriptions of artistically prepared, artisan sourced food with the brutality and morally reprehensible actions of the characters takes the novel to a level of satire that I have not experienced in a very long time. Paul takes a perverse delight in asking the restaurant manager the provenance of the grapes garnishing his plate. The manager describes the grapes to a level of ridiculous detail but is unaware of Paul’s scorn.  Similarly, Paul describes his own episodes of violence to the reader, evoking a response of horror and disgust from the reader that Paul would not understand.

As I read the novel, my opinions of the characters evolved to such a degree that by the end, the “bad” characters were the only ones with any redeeming qualities.

Koch satirizes many of the aspects of post modern life – the ridiculous obsession with food, the culture of celebrity, reality tv and YouTube sensations. And underneath it all lie the age old questions of nature vs. nurture and how far parents will go to protect their children. Moral bankruptcy is the final item on the bill at the end of The Dinner.

This is a fast read that will draw the reader in quickly, almost too quickly – but I think that’s Koch’s intent. He draws you into a satirical black comedy, and then suddenly the reader realizes they are in the middle of a psychological thriller. This is a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it. If you enjoy a good story, it’s here. If you want deeper questions about morality and responsibility, they’re here too. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

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Awkward Book Inscriptions #2 – Just in time for Father’s Day…

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My copy of American Pastoral by Philip Roth

I have on my to-read bookshelf another gem I picked up at a used book fair: American Pastoral by Philip Roth. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. While I have yet to read it, I know that it takes place in the midst of the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s a quote from the dust jacket:

For the Swede is not allowed to stay forever blissful inside the beloved hundred-and-seventy-year-old stone farmhouse, in rural Old Rimrock, where he lives with his pretty wife –the college sweetheart who was Miss New Jersey of 1949–and the lively, precocious daughter who is the apple of his eye. The apple of his eye, that is, until she grows up to be a revolutionary terrorist bent on destroying her father’s paradise.

That’s some daughter, don’t you think? And as a gift, hmmm. I’m not sure this would be a good choice, particularly to a father. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a MORE inappropriate book for a daughter to give her father. (Except perhaps Lolita.) But Anna, dear Anna, did indeed give this to her Daddy. The inscription reads, “Dear Daddy, Happy Birthday! Love Anna.” I hope Daddy didn’t mind. IMG_1475

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The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer

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Celebrity memoirs can be a guilty pleasure. A bit more highbrow than a supermarket tabloid, but possibly just as titillating, celebrity memoirs consistently make the bestseller lists. But what about celebrities that aspire to be authors of fiction, rather than having a ghost writer help them hash out their life story? The only celebrity fiction authors that quickly spring to my mind are Carrie Fisher and Jamie Lee Curtis. And let’s face it, Postcards from the Edge (Fisher) was reportedly based on Fisher’s own experiences. And Curtis’ very respectable entries in the world of fiction are picture books written for the elementary set.

So my experience with the celebrity-as-writer-of-fiction is limited, which is why I was very intrigued to see The Wishing Spell by Chris Colfer on the new books shelf at my local library.  Colfer is the very talented actor who has risen to fame firstly on the strength of his performance as Kurt Hummel on the television show Glee, and then through his activism, particularly through his very personal message to teens shared on The Trevor Project. I find him very inspiring, and extraordinarily charming on screen.

Colfer credits his grandmother for inspiring his deep love for story, and dedicates The Wishing Spell to her. He’s definitely a fan of traditional fairy tales – so many traditional tales like Cinderella, Snow White, Goldilocks, and Jack and the Beanstalk feature prominently in his tale. Colfer uses the familiar tales as a background for the main story of Alex and Connor, girl and boy twins that accidentaly travel to the Land of Story not long after their father dies.

Alex and Conner want to get back to reality, and find a journal describing the Wishing Spell. They decide that using the spell is the only way they’ll be able to get back home, so they undertake the arduous task of assembling its ingredients, which include Cinderella’s glass slipper, and a piece of the basket Red Riding Hood carried to her grandmother. Finding these elements requires them to travel all over the Land of Story, a journey made even more difficult by the pack of wolves that are pursuing them, plus the servants of the Evil Queen who are also chasing down the ingredients to the Wishing Spell.

The fairy tales are all pretty familiar, with some amusing fractures, such as Goldilocks’ portrayal as a persecuted vigilante. The main plot device of assembling the ingredients for the Wishing Spell is very similar to the plot of Into the Woods, the Broadway musical written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. The main characters, Alex and Connor, step into fairly stereotypical roles. Alex is bookish and brainy, with no close friends, and Connor is brawny and popular, and hates school.

The Wishing Spell plays it safe, not overly stretching the reader with anything difficult. Where the story does gets interesting is in the original fairy tales Colfer includes and refers to in the novel, intriguingly titled the tale of the Walking Fish, and the tale of the Curvy Tree. Unfortunately, these tales are not explored as deeply as the familiar tales. Hopefully, Colfer will return to these original tales in the sequels he has planned.

Colfer’s prologue to the story is also nicely done, challenging the young audience to rethink their ideas of a villain. Snow White visits her stepmother in prison (no death by hot shoes in this version) to try and get some answers on the Queen’s motivation for targeting Snow White. The Queen offers this:

But what the world fails to realize is that a villain is just a victim whose story hasn’t been told.   The Evil Queen, The Wishing Spell, p9

Colfer is not an especially gifted writer of dialogue. In fact, much of the dialogue reads like a Disney sitcom and made me grimace. You can just about see the double-takes and camera mugging. But, I am not the intended audience. I know that this type of dialogue, with silly retorts and putdowns, is considered very funny by the third grader in my house.

I would recommend this novel to a child who enjoys familiar fairy tales, particularly the prince and princess-y stories. Late elementary grades are probably the best audience – I would say third grade to sixth grade would probably be the most entertained. There are some incidental illustrations by Brandon Dorman that add to the mood of the novel. The illustrated map is particularly well done.

Colfer’s first outing as a novelist hasn’t broken any new ground, but it is entertaining. Hopefully the next installments in the Land of Story series will improve upon the first, and I’m hoping that Colfer’s original fairy tales take a greater role.

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Plodding Through a Good Book: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

262065Why do some novels take you forever to read, and others you zip through in hours? What is it that calls to the reader, “Keep reading! Don’t put me down!” or “Do you really want to keep going with this one?”

My father-in-law used to say that he felt guilty about not finishing a book, particularly if a friend had recommended it. He also felt he had an obligation to the author to finish reading their work, even if he wasn’t really enjoying it, simply because they had worked so hard to write it. I’m not sure I feel so strongly about finishing a book if it’s a clunker of a novel, but how to approach a novel that is critically acclaimed but not singing to you?

Recently I worked very hard to finish The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem, a novel that I had been looking forward to reading for a quite while. It had been recommended to me by several friends who have similar reading taste to mine, which is always a good sign. However, I found the first section of the novel tough going. I found myself appreciating the novel rather than getting sucked in and enjoying it, which is never a great sign. When I find myself self-consciously overanalyzing my reading rather than simply reading, I know something hasn’t clicked.

So what was it in The Fortress of Solitude? I think for starters, I felt physically lost. Lethem sets the first part of the novel in Brooklyn of the 1970s, and I felt physically lost. I have no idea what the neighborhood looked like, and my visualization felt inadequate. But honestly, that can’t be the whole reason. I’ve read plenty of novels where I have no personal familiarity of the location, such as Anna Karenina. I certainly have no learned understanding of the farms and cities of 19th century pre-Revolutionary Russia – but the novel captivated me anyway.

I also felt lost, culturally. I am a suburban kid, with only a passing acquaintance with American city life. And the racial struggles of the 1970s are a piece of history that I read about, but never really confronted in the way that Dylan and Mingus, the main characters, do. The escalation of the drug culture through the novel, progressing from the pot smoking of the 70s to the crack addiction of the 1990s is another slice of American life that I have not experienced. But again, elements of cultural differences did not slow my reading of other books like The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan.

Perhaps I was misled by the jacket blurb, which says:

This is the story of what would happen if two teenaged boys obsessed with comic-book heroes actually had superpowers: they would screw up their lives.

I think Dylan and Mingus were well on their way to screwing up their lives before the superpowers ever make an appearance in the novel. The superpowers are incidental, and not the big game changer that I thought they would be.

I also found myself distracted by all the music references. I lost many hours of reading time searching for recordings online. This gem of a song plays a strong role in a  scene, which I found on YouTube: 

When the novel ceases to be about their childhood, and explores the effect of their childhood on their adult lives, that’s when my reading speed increased. And more interesting than the teenage approach to the superpowers is Dylan and Mingus’ adult approach.Lethem writes of the evolution of Dylan and Mingus’ superpowers, and it’s brilliant. Mingus puts away the ring that gives him the power to fly. He’s flying everyday, smoking crack, flying from high to high, from score to score. When Dylan uses the ring again, it does not give him the power to fly. Instead, he is invisible, an outward manifestation of his desire as a white kid to walk down the street without being hassled or “yoked.”

So while I plodded through The Fortress of Solitude – it took me a month to finish!- I am glad I did. The difficulty I had with the first section of the novel was secondary to the pleasure of the insights in the rest of the novel.

Please let me know your thoughts! What keeps you going in a novel if it seems to be going slowly? Do you keep reading, or set it aside?

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World Book Night 2013

Hi res WBN logo 2013There are few things more satisfying than sharing a good book with someone. I would rank “sharing a book” above “my mother-in-law’s chocolate bread pudding,” and trust me, that is saying something. One of my favorite book sharing memories comes from when I was just out of college, trying to figure out how transition from college friend to adult friend. My friend Judy and I had a very grown up, meet your friend for lunch get together, but we needed something more. At that time there was a wonderful independent book seller on Main Street in Newark, Delaware, and Judy and I stopped in to browse together after lunch. We each decided to buy a book – for the other person. I cannot remember what book I bought Judy. I hope it was a good title. Judy bought me The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which rocked my world and changed me, and has been on my list of favorite books ever since.

I also love sharing books with my kids. When they were small, I read to them favorites from my childhood, like The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It’s thrilling when they love the books I have chosen, and even if they don’t love my choice, I learn something about them and their personalities. When I get a book recommendation from my kids, I always give it a try – I know if they want me to read a book, they are sharing a private world and inviting me in to take a look. That’s important.

My strongest book sharing relationship is with my friend Julie. For the past 10 years, we have passed books back and forth, and we have developed a code for our book sharing. If Julie tells me she doesn’t want the book back, I know it’s a good book, but not a great book. If I tell Julie that she needs to give the book back when she’s done so my husband can read it too, she knows it’s a fast paced, exciting book. And if we hand a book over to share and it’s a library book with a week left on its checkout, it must be an amazing book that is too good to wait for the library bureaucracy to process. Read it NOW.

5302888I was in England in the spring of 2011 when I first heard about World Book Night, reading a poster in a W.H. Smith’s. Amazing! A night devoted to sharing books, especially with people who might not be enthusiastic readers. And then in 2012, World Book Night was introduced to the United States. Last year, I was a book giver for World Book Night, and the title I gave out was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I picked The Hunger Games as my first choice, because I felt it was a title that crossed genres  – young adult, fantasy, girl heroine, science fiction – and could appeal to many readers, particularly people who don’t choose to read very often. The editions given away on World Book Night were printed for the occasion, and were donated by the publishers and authors.

I applied again this year to give away books, and this year I will be giving away Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. I have not read this book yet, and it feels strange to give away a book that I don’t have a personal connection to yet. Mudbound won the Bellwether Prize, awarded to unpublished manuscripts that support social responsibility, which is the reason this book was my first choice to give away. This year, as I did last year, I will be giving my books to the residents and staff of Epiphany House in Wilmington, Delaware, part of the ministries of Friendship House. Friendship House does amazing work for the homeless in my hometown. I hope that having a good book to read will make a difference to the women of Epiphany House.

Sometimes having a good book to read can make all the difference in the world.

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