Friday, December 25, 2015

Door Stop: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

It has been awhile since I have used the actual heading of "Door Stop" for a post, so I decided to go with a book that I read a long time ago. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas is one of those stories that many know about, and understand the general gist of, but few have actually read, mostly because it is over 600 pages long. So I thought I would take the time to write about it here and go over the grand adventures in the novel in some detail.

The Situation: It is France in 1625, and D'Artagnan, a poor nobleman, has left his home and intends to join the Musketeers of the Guard. On the way, he is insulted by an older man, beaten unconscious, and ends up losing the letter of introduction meant to be given to the commander of the Musketeers. Without it, he will not be able to join the ranks of the Musketeers, and now he is also bent on revenge against the man who insulted him and had him beaten. If that were not enough, he eventually ends up scheduling duels with each of the current Musketeers, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. It is only when the Cardinal Richelieu, whose agent it was that first insulted D'Artagnan, shows up to arrest them all that the four gentlemen band together and end up fighting as one.

The Problem: It would seem that D'Artagnan has already had plenty of adventure before the real plot of the novel begins and the more epic adventures start to take place. But befriending the Musketeers is only the beginning, as D'Artagnan will end up being repeatedly attacked by the Cardinal, and having affairs with both his landlord's wife, and the beautiful but dangerous Milady, with the latter affair nearly costing him his life. Meanwhile the three Musketeers have their own separate problems, but the primary focus of the entire story is always on D'Artagnan as he pursues his ultimate goal of being a Musketeer, while avoiding the schemes of those who both wish him dead and plot against the throne.

Genre, Themes, History: The Three Musketeers is an historical adventure novel written in the 1800s, but set in the 1600s. The story is full of sword fighting, adventures, plotting, scheming, manipulative people, power hungry nobles and clergyman, seductive women, and a fair amount of witty banter. The novel is also somewhat political as the dangerous but smart Cardinal Richelieu attempts to advance his own power, while undermining the throne the entire time. The serialization of the novel took place four years before the French Revolution, when France's Second Republic was firmly established. Dumas would be no stranger to political tension and managed to insert it into the story, while still maintaining the sense of grand adventure that came with scenes of sword play and romantic distractions. And something else Dumas includes is the power of a beautiful face, as the villainous Milady is able to get away with most anything simply because of her beauty and charm. It is a beauty that would make her even more dangerous and manipulative than the Cardinal. In short, this story has everything that could be desired in an historical adventure.

My Verdict: Despite having been written in the 1800s and being a door stop, The Three Musketeers is worth picking up, even with all of the movie adaptations available as an alternative to working your way through a 600 page book. The story is rarely boring, and the villainous Milady was enough to keep me involved through to the end, wondering if she would get away with all she had done, and if the Musketeers would end up the triumphant heroes in the end. And while many of the longer classics tend to be confusing due to the massive amount of characters that are often introduced, the only confusion I sometimes experienced was in telling Athos, Porthos, and Aramis apart, but even that becomes clear early in the novel. Dumas' story can still holds its own against the many adventures we have available to us today, and there is a reason many attempt to make their own adaptations of it, despite there being plenty already in existence.

Favorite Moment: When D'Artagnan finally realizes who and what Milady is, and manages to escape her grasp and her charm.

Favorite Character: I assume everyone has their personal favorite Musketeer, so I pick Aramis. I don't have any real reason really, I just enjoyed reading about his personal struggle between wanting to someday enter a monastery, and his love of the ladies. 

Recommended Reading: Had I read any of Dumas' other works I would most certainly recommend one here, but unfortunately I have not had to opportunity to do so. Therefore I recommend Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. It is certainly a different kind of adventure story, entertaining in a different way and with a hero that only imagines that he is on a noble errand. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip

I was sent The Witch's Market by Mingmei Yip in exchange for a review, mostly because last December I had agreed to review her previous novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. Instead of focusing on 1930s China, The Witch's Market takes place mostly in the modern day Canary Islands, and deals with witches, spells, curses, visions, and even fortune telling.

The Situation: Eileen Chen is a Chinese-American assistant professor living in San Francisco and trying to make tenure. There is a rumor among the student body, and some of the faculty, that Eileen is a witch; a rumor that does not surprise her as she is the one who started it and still encourages it. She focuses on witchcraft in her classes, and is now looking for that big project that will allow her to secure tenure. After receiving some encouragement from a fellow professor, Eileen decides to travel to the Canary Islands to continue her research and eventually turn it into a book to be published. She does not know what she will find exactly, or what kind of adventure this will lead to. But she does have some experience with the subject matter as her grandmother made her living as a shamaness and taught Eileen many things. With only her background and the research she has done, Eileen sets out alone to the Canary Islands.

The Problem: Almost as soon as Eileen arrives, strange happenings and even stranger people begin to show up around her. She first hears about a dog and a man being swallowed up by the earth. Then she meets Cecily, who is supposedly a real witch, but is warned by others not to get involved with her. But it would seem even Cecily is the least of her concerns, as Eileen begins to have dreams of an unfamiliar woman attempting to speak with her. Soon, Eileen finds herself involved in the lives of a wealthy older gentleman, his vengeful and heartbroken ex, a young but handsome furniture maker, and two spirits who have something they desperately want her to know. Filling in the gaps of the information she receives requires Eileen to lean on the knowledge her grandmother taught her. She came to the islands to learn more about witchcraft, and had no idea that she would end up fending off would-be suitors, while investigating a 20 year-old murder.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that deals with witches, witchcraft, folklore, Buddhist teachings, and fortune telling, among many other things. Eileen has traveled to the Canary Islands in order to do research for a book on witchcraft she hopes to publish in order to secure her tenure. She not only ends up learning about witchcraft and meeting real witches, but she also becomes entangled in the lives of a few of the locals, and before she knows it she is investigating a potential murder. Plus, there is Ivan, the on again/off again boyfriend that she left back home in San Francisco. Both Ivan and Alfredo, the older man she meets on the Canary Islands, try to win Eileen's affection with charm and money. But she finds herself more drawn to the young Luis, who has neither. And then there is the bitter but worn out Sabrina who tells of a different side to Alfredo, but she hasn't exactly been the most innocent person either. Eileen enters a small community where everyone has their secrets, but they all seem to want to share them with her and have her in their lives. And she hopes to uncover enough of them that will both bring people together and allow the restless spirits of the dead to have some peace. 

My Verdict: It is an interesting premise: a Chinese-American professor with some knowledge of witchcraft goes to the Canary Islands to research the subject, and ends up using what she knows and what she learns to help the people she meets. I just wish it was executed better. The dialogue is often awkward and much of the plot is either confusing because of the timeline, or unbelievable. It was one of those stories where I found myself saying "of course" quite a bit. Of course Eileen knows Spanish. Of course a rich older man wants her. Of course another rich older man also wants her. Of course a young furniture maker also wants her. Of course she gets to say in other people's houses for a seemingly indefinite amount of time. Of course people just open up to her and tell her everything. You get the idea. On the other hand, what I did enjoy are the characters and the settings. Also, when Yip describes the travel to and from certain locations, I could only be reminded of some of my own trips and how sometimes just getting to a location was enough to drain your energy before you can do what you set out to do. 

Favorite Moment: When Eileen is able to explore Alfredo's castle and its many rooms.

Favorite Character: This is hard. They were all at least a little irritating to me at one point or another. So I think I'll just walk away from this section, something I rarely do.

Recommended Reading: I do recommend Yip's previous novel, Secret of a Thousand Beauties. Although I did have some of the same issues with it that I do with The Witch's Market, I feel like it is a stronger novel with a better storyline.    

Friday, December 11, 2015

Contemporary Fiction: Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera

Yuri Herrera's Signs Preceding the End of the World is a Spanish-language work translated into English by Lisa Dilman. I first took notice of the work after it was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award for the Best Fiction category, although sadly it did not make it to the final round. Only a 107 pages long, it is a story that packs in a lot in a small amount of words.

The Situation: Makina has decided to cross over into the U.S. from Mexico in search of her brother, who crossed over some time before. She is not sure what would happen to her job at the switchboard while she is gone, as she is the only one who can switch between the different languages and dialects with ease. But she is set on crossing over, and her mother Cora has handed her a message to give to her brother once she sees him. After meeting up with various "businessmen" with whom Makina knows how to converse, who have interests of their own as far as her trip, she heads out with vague directions and not many supplies.

The Problem: When Makina is told what she should do, there are rarely any specifics, even when it comes to the people she is to meet along the way. Plus, there is always the chance she will be caught and either detained or sent back. The one thing that will not be an issue for Makina are the young men who think they can easily take advantage of her. Makina is street smart and knows her own mind, but the U.S. is still a strange place, and she has very little idea as to where to actually find her brother. Each clue seems to lead to another clue, which often leads to a dead end or an unforeseen danger. It is a trip full of questions and very few answers. And even if Makina does successfuly cross over, there is no guarantee she will be able to make it back.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novella that was originally written in Spanish. It is a surprisingly complex story to be only a little over 100 pages long. It is of course about immigration and language, but also about the epic journey, family, death, survival, and the end of the world. The story begins with a sinkhole opening in the earth and swallowing someone alive, and throughout the novel the landscape is blurry and unclear and nothing is for certain except that Makina is on a journey. And just like with any story that is being translated, there are phrases in Spanish that just would not translate the same into English. And even for those words and phrases with a direct translation, the meaning still is not quite the same. Even so, Makina's story still manages to come across the page as almost anyone can relate to the uncertainties of her trip and the hope she takes with her.

My Verdict: Even if it was a terrible story, it was not long enough to feel as if any time was wasted. Fortunately, it was not a terrible story. In fact, it was quite good, and I would recommend it to everyone. It was a bit outside of the box for me, and I only took notice of it because of the Goodreads Choice Awards. It is the kind of story that does not come along very often, so when it does it makes a huge impression. Makina is the type of heroine you care about, but do not necessarily fret over and wonder if she will be okay, because she can take care of herself and does not have to wait to around for someone to save her. And while some of the details that a reader is usually handed come off vague and unclear, it is not in an aggravating matter that feels as if the author is being intentionally withholding. The entire story is told with a mastery that most writers only hope to achieve throughout their career, and I look forward to future works by Herrera.

Favorite Moment: When Makina takes down a young man attempting to make a pass at her on the bus.

Favorite Character: Makina is the only character the reader gets to spend a considerable amount of time with, but even so, I think I would still end up picking her. She can take care of herself, and has a fierce determination that is not overdone or obnoxious.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez. It tells the story of a small community of immigrants living in Delaware, focusing on the two young teenagers trying to live "normal" lives in the U.S.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Science Fiction: The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

Any books with zombies immediately fall under the category of books I choose to ignore, but when a book has a book jacket synopsis as short but still as powerful as M.R. Carey's The Girl With All the Gifts, I find myself wanting to know more, while also being incredibly apprehensive as to what I will find. It helps that while zombie stories follow the same general idea, each one executes it in a different way. And if the synopsis was any clue, this story would not disappoint in originality and execution.

The Situation: Melanie spends the majority of her time in her cell, away from the other children, and away from the adults that supervise and teach her. Monday through Friday, she is strapped down into her wheelchair and taken to the classroom where one of several teachers leads the class. On the weekends she takes a bath and gets to eat, and then the cycle starts all over again. She does not know much about who or what she is, but does know that Sergeant Parks does not like her or any of the other children very much, and that Dr. Caldwell is not someone to trust. The only adult she does like is Ms. Justineau, and the days that she teaches are always Melanie's favorite. Having no memory of what it is like beyond the other end of the hallway, the end opposite the classroom, Melanie does not know enough to miss the outside world. As far as she knows, her life as it is at the base will be her life forever. Until one day, when it isn't.

The Problem: Things are continuing as normal at the base where the children, who are anomalies that were captured and brought there so Dr. Caldwell could study them, are taught and kept in cells, when the once secure fence surrounding the property is suddenly under attack by hungries. The hungries are being forced forward by junkers - people living off the land who refused to evacuate to safety when the infection took over the planet - determined to break through the fence and into the base. Within minutes, Melanie is no longer secured down by straps to make sure she doesn't bite anyone, and everyone inside the base, including her favorite Ms. Justineau, is in serious danger. But even when they manage to make it out together, Ms. Justineau is now stuck in close company with the cold and unpleasant Sergeant Parks, and the condescending and single-minded Dr. Caldwell. Survival within their small group would be hard enough even without the Melanie, the small genius-level zombie, tagging along.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel that I at first had placed under the heading of horror. It is normally my natural inclination to put any book dealing with zombies under a horror heading, but I relented as I got further into the story. Don't get me wrong; there is plenty of blood and death and severed limbs and attacks by zombie hordes, but there is also a lot of science behind the entire story, mostly coming from Dr. Caldwell's clinical approach to the children she had captured for the purpose of studying them. The first part of the novel gives most of the scientific background to the story, over an underlying tension that comes from fear of the unknown. But once the characters are on the run, the science may still there, but these people also have to figure out how to survive and keep from being eaten. Oh yeah, and one of the hungries they are trying to avoid happens to be right there with them. Imagine running for your life with an overbearing sergeant, a woman who sees no issue with cutting up children, another woman who can barely keep herself from hugging something that often wants to eat her, and a zombie child. Carey paints a pretty good picture of the type of circumstances that cause many people to go it alone. But as much as the small group may despise each other, their chances are better together than alone. And strangely, their chances are best when Melanie is with them.

My Verdict: For someone like me who is more inclined to avoid stories with zombies, there were definitely some tough moments, and not necessarily because of all of the blood and the eating. Sure, that was awful, but what was downright creepy was Carey's descriptions of the ways the zombies operate. Melanie was different: she may have been a zombie who at the end of the day desired to feed on living beings, but she was at least aware of herself. It was the ones that chased after you if the saw or heard you, and then stopped and stayed where they were, for years if they had to, until something else came along that was worth chasing. Even Dr. Caldwell's clinical descriptions of what was happening didn't help. As a zombie book, this was done well. My only real bone to pick with the novel was some of the plot gaps that come with attempting to use science to explain exactly what is happening in a zombie apocalypse, and why children like Melanie are even possible. It is an ambitious idea, and one that may have been too big to explain in a believable way.

Favorite Moment: When Ms. Justineau walks over to Dr. Caldwell and punches her in the face. They both got on my nerves, but this scene felt right to me.

Favorite Character: I never would have thought so at first, but Sergeant Parks ended up being my favorite. He is the only one with any real skill to survive. And while he was a complete jerk, he didn't have any delusions about the situation and planned accordingly.

Recommended Reading: I am limited in my knowledge of zombie books, but I can recommend This Is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. It is a young adult novel that follows a group of high school students as they attempt to live together in their school while zombies wander around on the outside.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Winners of the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards

It is officially December and the winners have been announced for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards. Find out who won, who lost, and how your own personal favorites fared among some of the best books of 2015.

Despite my own personal thoughts and predictions, Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee took home the prize for Best Fiction. I of course had voted for Sara Nović's Girl at War, but it looks like it was just meant to be for Lee's recent book. Honestly, I am pleased that a book I managed to cover on this blog in the past year took away the ultimate prize, but I still wonder if people were voting more for Lee rather than the actual book. 

I am definitely excited that Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins won for Best Mystery & Thriller, somehow managing the impossible of beating out the literary juggernaut that is Stephen King. Not only did it win, but it completely blew the rest of the competition out of the water by gaining more than three times the votes of the second place finisher. But really, I am not all that surprised. The book is that good. 

Looks like neither A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson nor In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume had enough fans and followers to win for Best Historical Fiction, as the ultimate honor was given to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. 

In another category where two Door Stop Novels missed out on the top prize, Golden Son by Pierce Brown has been named Best Science Fiction for 2015, beating both Armada by Ernest Cline, and The Heart Goes Last by the prolific and forever loved Margaret Atwood. 

And while I am not surprised by the loss of Armada in the science fiction category, I am somewhat shocked that Brené Brown's Rising Strong didn't finish higher than 10th place for Best Nonfiction. But I am not shocked that it ultimately lost out to Aziz Ansari's Modern Romance, with Humans of New York: Stories close behind in second place. 

When it comes to Best Debut Goodreads Author, it is all about Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, so Sara Nović's Girl at War loses yet again, along with Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes. This is always a tough and fairly unpredictable category, although the popularity of Red Queen is pretty well-known and widespread, so I knew it was going to make a strong showing regardless.

But despite her own popularity and massive following, Sarah Dessen was unable to come away with the win with Saint Anything, losing out to All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. 

So far only two books that have appeared on this blog have managed to win first place, and there is only one category left: Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction. And it appears the seemingly impossible (at least to me) has happened and Rainbow Rowell's Carry On did not win first place. Instead it came in second to Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas. In my small world, this would qualify as an upset, only because Rowell has been such a powerhouse in past Goodreads Choice Awards, one year even managing to take both the first and second places in one category.

In any case, congratulations to all of the winners. Once again, I set off on a year-long journey to find and read the next year's winners. As always, even if I don't succeed in reading winning novels, I will have a hell of a lot of fun trying.