Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Harper, 2011

 ‘The Prisoner of Heaven’ is the third novel in the series that started with ‘Shadow of the Wind’. In this book, while it’s told from the point of view of Daniel Semper, we learn the ‘origin story’ of Fermin Romero de Torres.

Fermin featured in ‘Shadow of the Wind’ as an accessory character who, while being strong and supportive, provided a comic relief. In ‘Prisoner’, set years before ‘Shadow”, we learn of his past and the true depths of the man. This is a man who is unjustly imprisoned in a hideous place (like many during the Franco rĂ©gime) and barely escaped with his life, but never lost his humanity or his sense of humor. The horrific prison is probably a pretty good description of what really existed at the time, as well as the corruption, greed and fear.

Unlike ‘Shadow’ and ‘The Angel’s Game’, the second in the series, this is a very fast read; it doesn’t have the intricate plotting that those two have. Sadly, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books is barely mentioned, there is no magical realism, and Daniel Sempere is acting a bit of an ass in his personal life. But Zafon’s writing is so beautiful that I would forgive him anything; it’s like the prose version of a piece of fancy, but tasteful, jewelry. 


Secret Lives, by Barbara Ardinger. 2011

While described as a novel, this book is more like a series of vignettes, linked by common characters. In each chapter, the main characters- a group of aging women of magic and power- face a different issue or problem. And they are big issues, issues that face the baby boomer generation more all the time: aging and how it affects both body and mind, illness, homelessness, sexuality, prejudice, death, but most of all,  friendship and love. While these women all are witches, their power doesn’t shield them from these issues. They may be able to do a lot of healing, but they can’t stop time.

Getting to know these women over the course of the book- over 600 pages- was a delight, although there are so many characters it took a while for me to be able to remember who was who. Thankfully, there is a cast of characters in the front!  Not everyone in the cast is a crone- there are also some middle aged offspring and even one teenager, whose initiation into the magical group is one chapter. There are men in the lives of some of the women, as husbands, sons, nephews, lovers. Then there is Madame Blavatsky, reincarnated as a cat with magical powers and a great sense of humor.

There is no story without tension, and there are a lot of characters to provide that. The people that run the retirement home some of the women live in are horrible. One is a busybody, intent on micromanaging the lives of the tenants and the other hates women with a passion. The doctor on staff (there is a hospital floor to tend to the needs of the tenants) is greedy, incompetent and soulless. Teens in the neighborhood are harassing the elderly. When some new neighbors move in who also have magical powers, all hell breaks loose. And throughout the novel, one question keeps coming up: whether or not to come out of the broom closet. The story is set in the 1980s, when there was a huge growth in the number of modern pagans, so it’s not inconceivable that they could have done it. But one of the women’s grandmothers was attacked more than once for being a witch and was finally burned to death in her house. Things like that make some of the women absolutely refuse to let out the secret that they are Goddess worshipers and witches. In the end, each woman has to make the decision for herself; whether to come out, and possibly share her knowledge, or stay safe and risk letting her knowledge die with her. If you like magical realism, fantasy, or pagan fiction, give this book a try. 


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

City of a Thousand Dolls, by Miriam Forster. HarperTeen 2013

Sixteen year old Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City as a toddler. She has only the vaguest memories of life before she came there. Unlike the other girls in the City, who are assigned to one of the seven houses that specialize in certain types of education (medicine, music, beauty, combat, discipline etc), she has been trained in several. As the assistant to the head of the City, she is used to gather information on all the goings on in the City. When one of the girls dies, Nisha’s job is to find out more about it. When a second girl dies, Nisha is sure it was connected and it was murder- but can she find out who is behind it? And will the young man she has met- a member of the ruling family- speak for her when the yearly festival comes around, the festival where the sixteen year old girls are married or sold off?

It’s an enjoyable novel with a lot of intrigue. It has an Asian feel to it; in some ways, it seems Japanese with the martial arts and girls being trained in one house as geisha like companions; at times it seemed Indian. There are people who are clearly Romany. But the girls hair, skin and eyes span the range of human coloration. Then there are the cats who communicate telepathically with Nisha….

In some ways, the novel reminded me of Andre Norton, but a beginner Andre Norton. The characters are somewhat flat, and the main suspect for the deaths is Sashi, a blind novice in the house of medicine; some of the things the killer does could not have been done by an unsighted person unaided. It’s obviously a first novel, but the author shows a lot of promise. 


Morpheus Road: The Blood, by D.J. MacHale. Aladdin 2012

This is the conclusion of the Morpheus Road trilogy, and I’ve been waiting for it eagerly. The author built up an incredible sense of suspense with the first two books. The first book, ‘The Light’, was told from the POV of teenaged Marshall Seaver. The next book, ‘The Black’, the same events were narrated by his lately deceased best friend, Cooper Foley, and we got to see what was happening on the other side of death. In ‘The Blood’, we get a third person viewpoint that brings them together in a tremendous battle for the universe as we know it. Two thousand year old Damon, the person who killed Cooper and is stalking Marshall, is still trying to find the Poleax, a mystical weapon that has been hidden from him. His intent is to rip open the road between heaven and hell, all for the sake of his ego.

The book is an adventure novel, and a coming of age- for the dead Cooper as well as the living Marshall- and a battle between good and evil. But Marshall and Cooper learn that people- even monstrous ones- don’t tend to fit easily into sharp divisions of good and evil, and sometimes you have to make deals that you never thought you would for the good of all.

While ‘The Blood’ was confusing at times (I was wishing it hadn’t been a year since I’d read ‘The Black’), it was very satisfying. Marshall and Cooper make a good team, even if Cooper had a hard time learning to stop mother henning Marshall, and we learn a lot more about some of the other characters introduced earlier. The story is non-stop action. My only complaint was that Sydney, Cooper’s sister, was almost left out of the story. She’s a strong, kick-ass character, and to leave her as the lady in waiting was a disappointment. 


Monday, February 18, 2013

Shakespeare’s Tremor and Orwell’s Cough: The Medical Lives of Famous Writers, by John J. Ross, M.D. St. Martin’s Press, 2012

The writer of this book, John J. Ross, is a doctor who put his medical knowledge to work to try and figure out what ailments plagued ten classic authors- and what killed them.

Everyone talks about their health, and authors are no different. Letters by and about them give lots of clues as to their medical state, and they, along with articles and biographies, have given Ross their symptoms. Modern medical training has given him the means to decipher them. Shakespeare’s hand tremor was probably from mercury poisoning, a treatment for venereal disease (and a lot of other things, right up to the 1950s) in the Bard’s day. Nathaniel Hawthorne had social phobia, and almost certainly died of a blood clot, which his advanced stomach cancer put him at high risk for.

The book is a bit like episodes of House (minus the massive bleeding scenes and the snark) set in the past. The author explains, in plain language, how the various diseases operate in the body and how he came to his conclusions. So it’s a bit of a disease primer, as well as a history of medical treatments, some of which are truly horrifying. I found it fascinating, both entertaining and educational. 


The Total Cat: Understanding Your Cat’s Physical and Emotional Behavior from Kitten to Old Age, by Carole C. Wilbourn. Quill, 2000

Despite the title, this book is more about the psychological side of the cat, rather than the physical, although the physical is certainly in there. The author of this book had been a cat therapist for more than 20 years at the time she wrote the book, so this is a natural for her. She discusses feline emotions and personalities, dealing with problem behaviors, introducing new members to the family- be they cats, dogs, babies or adults, and even socializing feral cats. It’s sound in most spots, but I had a couple of disagreements with her; one is the use of homeopathic remedies for fear and anxiety, which while harmless I don’t feel work; and her method of bringing a new kitten into the house with an existing cat which involves leaving the kitten alone in the house with the new kitten for several hours the first day, trusting the existing cat to take care of himself and the kitten. I feel that can be very traumatic for the kitten, who has not only a new cat to deal with but a new environment and a loss of it’s former family. 


Monday, February 11, 2013

Kiss My Aster: A Graphic Guide to Creating a Fantastic Yard Totally Tailored to You, by Amanda Thomsen. Storey Publishing 2102

This guide to basic gardening has two things that set it aside from most gardening books: it’s put together like a webpage, full of graphics and references to other pages, and it’s funny. Author Thomsen has a blog of the same name as the book on the Fine Gardening website, so I was happy to find she had a book out.

This is a book for the beginning gardener, especially for one with a new yard to deal with. Thomsen walks you through the process: the idea stage, mapping the existing space, deciding what you can realistically grow, hardscaping, planting. Every section points out that you don’t have to do it all alone; you can always ‘hire a guy’ for what you feel uncomfortable with, whether it’s design, digging, or maintenance. My favorite section is the planning one; the author encourages you to put down *everything* you’d like, no matter how wild and crazy. After all, if it turns out to be impossible, it’s only on paper, and who knows? You might be able to do it! And above all, make the garden for YOU, not for the garden magazines, the designers, or the neighbors. It’s your space, make it to give you pleasure and reflect your personality. This book won’t tell you how to prune roses or divide peonies, but it’s a good start.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Riverhead Books 2013

The story starts in 1878 Paris, in the slums where the van Goethem sisters live with their alcoholic, recently widowed mother. Sources of income are few and far between; the mother works long hours of hard labor at a laundry and doesn’t make enough to feed the family. In the France of this era, there is no safety net for the poor and young girls are pretty much regarded as useless, evil parasites. The girls go to the Paris Opera, taking ballet lessons and hoping to get hired by the Ballet, where they will not only be paid a semi-decent wage but will be exposed to men that can afford to keep them, a way out of the gutter.

Antoinette, the oldest at 17, has had her chance and proved not a good enough dancer. Now she must find another way to earn money, and her two younger sisters, Marie, 14, and Charlotte, 7, will make their attempts at the Ballet.

Marie gets lucky, in a way: Edgar Degas, not yet a famous artist, wants her to model for him. She is paid well for this, although it exposes her to a man who says he is an artist but never seems to actually draw during modeling sessions. Antoinette finds various employment, and finds herself in her first love relationship with a young man who gets accused of murder. The story is told from Antoinette’s and Marie’s points of view in alternate chapters, and their stories twine around each other as they try to find happiness in a world that despises them and are tested to their limits of what they’ll do for love. Through the story runs the theory of the time, that a person’s facial features show their inner selves. People with low foreheads, bad teeth, and forward thrusting jaws are branded as stupid, lazy, and natural criminals.

The van Goethem sisters were real; Marie was the model for Degas’s famous sculpture ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’. Charlotte danced with the Ballet for years, advancing to the rank of sujet, a part time soloist. Antoinette’s lover was also real, although chances are the two never met in real life. There are two main themes in the book: sisterly love, and the way the poor were treated at the time. The girls and the streets of Paris come to life in these pages. I rooted for them all the way and stayed up late reading. 


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, by Franny Moyle. Pegasus Books, 2011

There have been a lot of books written about Oscar Wilde, but this is the first about his wife, Constance Wilde, nee Lloyd. Usually portrayed as puritanical and unforgiving, this book, which utilized a lot of unpublished letters, shows a very different picture, one of a loving, intelligent, forgiving and forward thinking woman who was a talented but forgotten writer.

Constance’s life was difficult from the start; her father died when she was young and her mother was emotionally and physically abusive. Constance thought poorly of herself and never expected to marry or make anything of herself. Thankfully, when her mother remarried, Constance was farmed out to relatives in favor of her new step-sister living with the new couple. Her life turned around at that point; she came out of her shell and became considered a beauty and a flirt. Oscar Wilde fell deeply in love with her. Letters he wrote show that the marriage was not a cover; he really did love Constance, although his idea of marriage seemed to have a lot of showmanship to it, an idealized setting for him to act in.

From fairly early in the marriage Constance and Oscar spent time apart. He went to clubs and to the theater by himself frequently; she went to visit friends and take recuperative rests and was a social activist. But they worked together on writing projects, entertained, and were a sought after couple socially. When Oscar first started having sexual relationships with men, Constance didn’t realize it at first because he’d always had close friendships with men, especially younger ones. Things might have gone on like that indefinitely, even though Oscar was starting to neglect both Constance and their sons, if Lord Alfred Douglas- Bosie- hadn’t come into his life. Unlike Oscar’s other boy friends, Bosie was not willing to share Oscar with Constance and his family. He wanted to be the only person of importance in Oscar’s life, and it led to Oscar’s social ouster and imprisonment for homosexuality. Constance and the boys had to leave England because social condemnation damned them, too.

While Bosie painted Constance as a bitch, she continued to support Oscar, both morally and financially, throughout most of his trial and prison term. She was not a vindictive woman. She did not think Oscar was evil. Her moral conscience, and probably continued love for Oscar, would not allow her to feel that way. This book finally sets the record straight on that.

It also chronicles Constance’s chronic illnesses and physical problems, her activities in the newly formed Order of the Golden Dawn and interest in theosophy, her abilities as an artist, her championing women’s freedoms (especially in the area of rational dress), and linguistic abilities. The book also points out that despite all this, she was no saint. She neglected her younger son seriously and even sent her beloved first born off most of the time (although in that era, that was fairly normal for the upper class), over spent for a lot of her married life, and made a lot of bad decisions despite the information staring her in the face. This book presents her as a multidimensional person rather than the caricature she’s been. It also shows Oscar and their marriage in a new light. 

Kindle edition: