Review: Come Sundown by Nora Roberts

Come Sundown

As a rule, I had decided never to review books by authors that have been lifelong favourites. This was mostly because I often found my choices not holding up under any sort of critical scrutiny, Also, I believe that overthinking why you like something a lot just takes away from the simple joy of it. I broke that rule when I reviewed a few Judith McNaught books and was pleasantly surprised by the positive response. But I still never thought of reviewing a Nora Roberts romance until last week when I picked Come Sundown as a holiday read/to celebrate 11 years of reading NR. If this post comes across as too restrained considering how I am obsessed with the woman, please know I would write a 10-star review in all caps if I wasn’t worried about losing all but two of my readers.

Come Sundown opens in 1992 with a disheartened 21-year old Alice Bodine hitchhiking her way back home after a runaway bid for independence three years ago ended in shattered dreams and disillusionment. Unsure of whether she will be welcomed back, she hitches a ride from a nice-looking middle-aged man just miles outside her family ranch, unaware of just how much this action will change her life.

The story then takes a 25-year leap and we find ourselves in present-day Montana. Bodine Longbow, the niece of the long-lost Alice, is the manager and boss of her family’s upscale resort. The latest in a long line of entrepreneurial bad-ass women who get shit done, Bodine is smart, self-reliant and loyal to her amazing and loving family. Her two brothers, her loving parents, and kickass grandma and great-grandma are all secondary characters I fell in love with instantly and was only slightly disappointed at Come Sundown not being Book 1 of a trilogy.

When Bo’s childhood crush and her brother’s best friend, Callen Skinner, comes back into town to work at the ranch after making a name for himself in Hollywood, she is surprised by the instant attraction that flares up between them. Being a consummate professional and his boss, she tries to push her feelings for Cal aside as circumstances keep forcing them together.

It’s not my fault you grew up so damn pretty. How about this: You and me make a date. First of May, that’s a good day. Spring’s come around, and you won’t be my boss anymore. I’ll take you dancing, Bodine.”

The fire crackled in the old potbelly, a reminder of heat and flame. 

“You know, Callen, if you’d given me that flirtatious look and that smooth talk when I was twelve going on thirteen, my heart would’ve just stumbled right out of my chest. I had such a crush on you.”

Now his grin didn’t flash. The smile came slow and silky. “Is that so?”

“Oh my, yes. You with your skinny build, half-wild ways, and broody eyes were the object of my desperate affection and awakening hormones for weeks. Maybe even a few months, though at the time it seemed like years.”

Callen Skinner, like almost every Nora Roberts hero,  is a walking feminist dreamboat. He left home shortly after his father gambled away his birthright and killed himself. When he returns to work the land his family once owned, he holds no resentment toward the Longbows. Growing up, he was considered an honorary son by them and they were the only family he had outside of his mother and sister. Most importantly, Cal respects Bo’s authority as his boss and doesn’t try to undermine her just to show that he is the hero in the equation. This, the way her protagonists always have relationships where they view the other as a true equal, is why I love Nora Roberts. And the fact that the banter is top-notch doesn’t hurt a bit.

“You ought to have your eyes on a woman.”

“As they keep roaming your way, are you offering, Miss Fancy?”

She let out a hoot. “It’s a damn shame you were born fifty–oh, hell, sixty years too late.”

“But I am an old soul.”

She laughed agin, patted his cheek. “I always did have that soft spot for you.”

“Miss Fancy.” He took her hand, kissed it. “I’ve been in love with you all my life.”

The women rode through, a sedate walk. Then Miss Fancy looked back, sent him a wink. And leaped into a gallop.

“That’s all right,” Cal mumbled. “I didn’t need that year of my life.”

Things take a sinister turn when two women are found dead not far from the Bodine property, and it becomes obvious that a serial killer is loose in the Montana countryside. A police deputy with a long-held grudge casts suspicion Cal’s way, but Bo and her family remain steadfastly loyal to him. I really loved the way the characters pull together here, rather than allowing mistrust to get in the way of what they know is right. And then, a link is found to Alice’s disappearance, plunging the family into a web of darkness that will threaten everything they hold dear.

Most of the story takes place in the present, but flashbacks offer some insight into Alice’s plight. Eventually, the two storylines merge, and this is where the novel really starts to shine. Come Sundown contains a darkness and intensity that isn’t present in all of Ms. Roberts’ books. She doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker side of humanity here, and, while some readers might find this off-putting, I loved it. I like my suspense on the gritty side, and Ms. Roberts definitely delivers.

Perhaps this novel’s greatest strength is its characters. Most of them, especially the grandmas, are the kind of people I’d love to hang out with in real life and the author’s depiction of family life is heart-warming and authentic. These are not the kind of people who let silly miscommunications and misunderstandings get in the way of their love for one another. They argue sometimes, as all families do, but the reader never doubts they’ll be there for one another when the going gets rough.

The writing is so lush and atmospheric, I felt like I was right there in the story. Ranches have played prominent roles in a few of Ms. Roberts’ other books, and it seems she must have quite a bit of first-hand experience with ranch life because she always brings them to life beautifully.

A word of caution, though. If you’re someone who is troubled by graphic violence, you might want to give this a pass, as a large part of the story is spent detailing the horrific abuse that Alice suffered for over 25 years.  But whether you’re already a mega fan of Nora Roberts’ writing, or someone picking up one of her books for the first time, I can’t recommend Come Sundown highly enough. The suspense is engrossing, the romance is delightful, and the characterization is superb.

 

Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

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When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

Review: “The Last Anniversary” by Liane Moriarty

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Having read quite a bit of chick lit this year, I’ve found that these novels tend to vary widely upon where they fall on the spectrum. On one end, you’ll have you’ll have your traditional gooey romances where a happily ever after is a given. On the other end, you’ll have darker stories that could just as well be called literary fiction or mysteries or thrillers. Liane Moriarty’s early novel, The Last Anniversary, belongs to the latter category and confounds a number of genre expectations.

Sophie Honeywell always wondered if Thomas Gordon was the one she let get away. He was the perfect boyfriend, but on the day he was to propose, she broke his heart. A year later he married his travel agent while Sophie has been mortifyingly single ever since. Now Thomas is back in her life because Sophie has unexpectedly inherited his great-aunt Connie’s house on Scribbly Gum Island — home of the famously unsolved Munro Baby mystery.

Sophie moves onto the island and begins a new life as part of an unconventional family where it seems everyone has a secret. Grace, a beautiful young mother, is feverishly planning a shocking escape from her perfect life. Margie, a frumpy housewife, has made a pact with a stranger while dreamy Aunt Rose wonders if maybe it’s about time she started making her own decisions.

I have to admit that, having heard so much about the hype surrounding Liane Moriarty’s books, I was expecting something very different from this story than what it turned out to be. While the novel does spend time dwelling on the existential angst that apparently comes with being single and childless at the age of 39, it’s far more than one woman’s race against her biological clock. In addition to some of the more lighthearted fare encountered throughout the narrative, Moriarty engages with a number of challenging themes thoughtfully and unflinchingly. The most prominent of these was the postpartum depression experienced by the outwardly unflappable Grace, presented in a raw, unrelenting yet sympathetic way. While other issues like rape and emotional abuse were also raised, they were addressed in a rather superficial manner. However, it is evident that Moriarty has a knack for balancing challenging themes with the less confrontational parts of the narrative in a way that doesn’t trivialize them.

While the story itself follows a rather predictable path, what’s special about this book are its characters and its setting. The setting of Scribbly Gum Island is beautifully rendered, and Moriarty’s evident attention to milieu is augmented by a cast of characters who slide perfectly into it, with the two bridged together by the author’s profound understanding of what being an Australian means. Moriarty avoids the ponderously overt approach to “doing Australian” injected with such painful determination into so many Australian novels (or worse, novels that aren’t Australian, but try to be), and instead allows her characters’ culture to shine through in a number of snippets that will have readers familiar with the plight of the aspirational classes nodding along.

Despite having a rather large cast for a novel this size, Moriarty’s skill with characterisation ensures that each of them leaves an impression. However, some of the male characters in the book did seem to be left rather one-dimensional and comparatively underdeveloped. Given the diversity of female characters in the book and the balanced approach taken to their actions present and past, the condemnatory approach taken towards the male characters is all the more noticeable.

While The Last Anniversary is, for the most part, a rather well-written novel, with a style that veers from fluffy to astonishingly cruel as needed, this sense of authorial control is not displayed so well at the narrative level. The mystery surrounding Scribbly Gum Island is perhaps played up a little too much, particularly given the fairly mundane (and easily guessable) truth behind it, and I can’t help but feel that the book could have been streamlined a little by reducing the emphasis on this particular plot point. Similarly, there’s some redundancy in Sophie’s quest for love and romance, and this results in a certain amount of tedium that detracts from an otherwise quick and zippy plot.

The Last Anniversary  turned out to be a mostly pleasant surprise for me. While it’s certainly not a flawless work, it’s certainly thoroughly engaging and readers will find themselves getting easily caught up in the complex familial machinations of the residents of Scribbly Gum Island. Moriarty has a considerable knack for characterisation and works hard to balance the darker elements of the plot with moments of delightful levity, resulting in a read that is somehow both insouciant and thoughtful at the same time.

Review: “Sharp Objects” by Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects

If you have read Gone Girl or even seen the movie, you know Gillian Flynn is a genius. Or maybe absolutely disturbed. Either way, the products of her mind continue to fascinate me. Gone Girl was the perfect story for those of us who are somewhat put off by the extreme sappiness that is Nicholas Sparks, yet aren’t quite ready for the horror of Stephen King. While tying in an unconventional yet sexy relationship with a shocking mystery, it went from a random grab off the shelf to a favorite book. When I picked up Sharp Objects a few years later, I knew it wouldn’t disappoint.

Camille Preaker, our sardonic anti-heroine, is a journalist for the Daily Post , the “fourth-largest in Chicago,”  a newspaper with its head barely above water, and whose editor, Frank Curry, mines the cold-case files for the next human interest tale sure to snag a Pulitzer. When the disappearance of a second girl occurs in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri, he dispatches the reluctant Camille at once to get the scoop.

There’s only one problem: Wind Gap is Camille’s hometown. Wind Gap hasn’t been good to Camille, a place she has shunned for eight years. A place she describes as “one of those crummy towns prone to misery.” She says this not from dread, but from a quietly haunting intimacy with torment. At the start of the novel, we learn that Camille’s been freshly released into the world after spending several months under psychiatric care. She’s a cutter. Her body is a monument to insecurity and anger, starting at the age of thirteen with Wicked carved into her left hip, and stopping at twenty-nine with Vanish. The only unmarred spot on her body is a circle of perfect skin the size of a fist, on the small of her back which she could never reach.

As with most self-mutilation, it’s but the physical manifestation of deeper emotional traumas, in Camille’s case prompted by the death of her younger sister, Marian, from an ambiguous illness. The tension surrounding this mysterious passing serves as a lynchpin for her strained relationship with her mother, Adora, Wind Gap’s unspoken matriarch and Amma, her sexually hyper-developed thirteen-year-old half-sister who heads a clique of equally spiteful girls, and who in many ways is her mother’s equal in cruelty and malice.

Rattling between the warring factions of her mother and sister, Camille attempts to investigate the abduction-murders in Wind Gap. When the missing girl, Ann Nash, turns up dead not long after her arrival in town—found strangled within a cleft between two buildings, her teeth yanked out (a virtual carbon-copy of the first victim, Natalie Keene)—Camille finds little help from the male authorities. Men view her as suspicious, an outsider with a dubious agenda, yet the scorn doesn’t surprise or upset Camille. She’s used to it. Other than her boss, Frank, who’s a well-meaning but scattershot father-figure, men are often portrayed as dichotomies rather than with any subtlety or depth. They’re afterthoughts, fleeting, a part of the scenery. This isn’t a detriment to the book; they are as Camille sees them based on her experiences.

It isn’t long though before Camille realizes that her best chance to secure clues or leads resides within the secretive cliques of female enmity prevalent in Wind Gap. It is a private world where women hurt each other both overtly and passively, even at funerals. Where gossip is both weapon and shield, wielded for social advancement. This antagonism lies at the core of Sharp Objects. The book is less murder mystery and more an exploration of the cruelty that women inflict upon one another, be it a friend to another friend, classmate to classmate, sister to sister, or mother to daughter—all of which play a role, often spanning multiple generations.

This book is not an easy read. The prose is well written, although not quite yet developed to Flynn’s later flawless standard, and the pace is good, but the subject matter quite simply makes you squirm. That is, however, the intention. This book was not written to be enjoyed. It is about some deeply serious psychoses and the ways in which mental illness affects not only the people who suffer from a condition but also those around them. Camille, we discover early on, is a cutter (hence the title). Yet Flynn is not simply portraying this aspect of her character as it has so often been seen in the past – an almost childish cry for attention, or a result of extreme depression – she has truly explored the root causes of Camille’s condition and fully demonstrated just how destructive it is to every aspect of her life.

The plot may not be scintillating, in places it is downright predictable, the prose might not be perfect, the characters may be inordinately unpleasant, and the topic may be brutal, but the story is brave. It is a subject that many skirt and most will balk at; Flynn, however, has explored it to its outer reaches and revealed not only the ugly truth of it but also the depths to which most people remain ignorant of that truth.

Although I would love to enthusiastically recommend this novel to every single person I meet, unfortunately, I can’t do this – for quite a few reasons. The most obvious of these reasons is there are certain people who just won’t be able to digest the kind of darkness and gore that the author adds in generous helpings to her work. Many murder mystery and thriller novels have perfectly normal, well-functioning people who are thrust into not–so–normal situations as a result of a psychopathic antagonist or a villain along those lines. Here, the protagonist herself is enough of a mess before this even messier, more frightening series of events begins to occur.

There are vivid descriptions of self-harm, substance overdose and animal abuse. Death and terror are elements of the novel discussed in a nonchalant, matter of fact tone. The relationships between people are satirical, almost as if happy, well–settled people were being made fun of. For these reasons, readers who want happy endings and a story that ends in hope and the promise of a better future for the protagonists, this isn’t one for you. However, if you do decide to take the plunge, you’re in for a journey like no other – icy, eye-opening and unforgettable.

Review: “The Virgin of the Wind Rose” by Glen Craney

Virgin of the Wind Rose

While investigating the murder of her fiance in Ethiopia, rookie State Department lawyer Jaqueline Quartermane becomes obsessed with a magical word square found inside an underground church guarding the tomb of the biblical Adam. Drawn into a web of esoteric intrigue, she and a roguish antiquities thief named Elymas must race an elusive and taunting mastermind to find the one relic needed to resurrect Solomon’s Temple. A trail of cabalistic clues leads them to the catacombs of Rome, the crypt below Chartres Cathedral, a Masonic shaft in Nova Scotia, a Portuguese shipwreck off Sumatra, and the caverns under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Intertwined with this modern mystery-thriller, a parallel duel is waged. The year is 1452. One of the most secretive societies in history, Portugal’s Order of Christ, is led by a reclusive visionary, Prince Henry the Navigator. He and his medieval version of NASA merged with the CIA scheme to foil their archenemies, the Inquisitor Torquemada and Queen Isabella of Castile, who plan to bring back Christ for the Last Judgment by ridding the world of Jews, heretics, and unbelievers.

Separated by half a millennium, two conspiracies to usher in the Tribulations promised by the Book of Revelation dovetail in this thriller to expose the world’s most explosive secret: The true identity of Christopher Columbus and the explorer’s connection to those now trying to spark the End of Days.

I liked Craney’s style of writing for the most part. However, I felt he had a tendency to over-dramatize the negative, especially by using unnecessary adjectives. In addition, I had a lot of issues with his portrayal of Jaq. In the beginning, she is portrayed as this pious virgin with a “Caribbean figure” and “luscious sable hair with wild Medusa curls.” If that isn’t sexist enough, she is engaged to marry a missionary who was “impressed enough with her potential for obedience” and voluntarily enrols in a Christian cult a.k.a. “rehab” just because her father-figure says so. I confess, what I know of evangelical Christians and “true believers” of any kind is heavily biased. But, if you choose to pit Muslims and Christians against each other in your story, why is the Christian made to sound rational in his piety and the Muslim a deranged lunatic, when it is understood that their faiths have largely similar origins?

In terms of historical content, it is obvious that Craney spent a great deal of time and effort researching the different events and characters that pop up in the course of the story. However, the descriptions often become long expositions and include a lot of obscure details, making them a difficult read, even though the reader knows they exist to provide context. Even the characters often rely on an archaic vocabulary to make their point, using words like ‘carnaptious’, ‘druthers’ and ‘troglodyte’, making the entire setting seem anachronistic.

Despite being based so firmly in real history, Craney never makes you forget the story’s a work of fiction with his conspiracy theories that border on the implausible. They don’t take anything away from the novel per se, and end up paving a truly epic path for the protagonists to follow. We get treated to secrets guarded by Prince Henry and the Order of the Christ, Queen Isabella’s hunt for them, the Spanish Inquisition’s lesser-known purposes, cryptographic tablets with orders passed on them, End-Time cults… all in all, things definitely worth suspending one’s disbelief for.

The balanced narration ensures that the mystery is exposed at the right pace, switching between the present and the past at the right times, with Craney revealing just enough to pique our curiosity while keeping the really jaw-dropping revelations until the climax. The way the whole thing evolves is rather reminiscent of Dan Brown’s style (or Brad Thor, as some prefer to compare), focused on keeping the mystery alive and prominent until the end, and perhaps even after that.

Overall, The Virgin of the Wind Rose is an enthralling page-turner that will keep you glued to the couch despite its flaws. It’s a largely logical and well-developed mystery and anyone who enjoys reading about globe-trotting treasure hunts will certainly love this book.

P.S. I was provided a copy by the author. The views expressed are honest and personal.

Review: “Looking for Alaska” by John Green

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Looking for Alaska, wildly successful author John Green’s debut novel, is about a Florida high-school student Miles Halter and his foray into what he calls “the great perhaps,” a reference to writer Francois Rabelais’ last words. Before Culver Creek, Miles’s life was boring. No real pain or pleasure seeped into his days; no friends or enemies or challenges of any kind. Culver Creek throws him into a different world, one with all that he lacked before.

His first real friend is Chip, his brilliant white-trash roommate also known as “the Colonel.” Chip heads up the gang of kids that Miles falls in with, the most stunning and hypnotic of these is the gorgeous, sharp, troubled, sweet Alaska Young. Miles and his friends plan elaborate pranks against the “weekend warriors” (the rich kids who commute home every weekend) and the headmaster, eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, struggle to pass pre-calc, and maintain a steady level of drunkenness on strawberry wine and a concoction of milk and vodka dubbed “ambrosia.”

The novel’s chapters are split into “Before” and “After”, which lets you know something dramatic is going to go down (and by the time it happens, you can easily guess what it’s going to be). If you’ve read other John Green books, you know exactly how this book works. Quirky protagonist? Check. Profound lessons learned? Check. Awesome friendships? Check. Cool girl? Check. Personally, whenever I hear the phrase “cool girl”, I am reminded of Gillian Flynn’s spot-on quote from Gone Girl about how there is no such thing as a cool girl.

At this point, I want to talk about my biggest criticism of John Green’s writing. Even though Looking for Alaska is my first Green novel, I am familiar with his overuse of the manic pixie dream girl trope. To those of you who don’t know what it means, a manic pixie dream girl is basically someone that is injected into story lines to teach the male protagonist about life, freedom, love and all things that make one feel alive and connected. This girl thrusts the brooding hero into unfamiliar situations to force the emergence of self-identity in an effort to cope and adapt, confesses the darkness buried in her being of light, makes him feel unique, makes him question life, and gets him to do something completely freeing.

Looking at Alaska Young, it is glaringly obvious that beneath her vivacious facade there’s a troubled teenager dealing with depression. This was an opportunity for Green to really explore the complications of depression among young adults, but ultimately Alaska’s depression gets sidelined as she serves in her obligatory manic pixie dream girl role of helping Miles become a real boy.

I’m not going to say that John Green should have written this story differently, but I am going to say that he had the potential of breaking out of the mold and really exploring the complexities of Alaska Young. Alaska never becomes an actualized character, she always exists as others need her to for the sake of their own development.

As with all the other stories of Green’s, there is a strong literary component that exists as a running theme with the main action of the story. Yet, in Looking for Alaska, I felt that it was forced and tacked on in an effort to imbue some greater sense of meaning that could have just come from allowing an exploration of the full character of Alaska Young. Miles is desperately in love with Alaska and she is desperately in love with her college-aged boyfriend, except when she doesn’t want to be – then she lets loose and embraces spontaneity over commitment. Conveniently.

Miles has an interesting character quirk in that he is a collector of final words. He and Alaska have a conversation in which she mentions her fascination with Simon Bolivar’s final words: “Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” And so ensues a pseudo-philosophical and spiritual quest to uncover what the labyrinth is and how one can escape it. The quote holds meaning for Alaska, the kind of meaning that is worth concern if anyone knows anything about depression. And this once again leads me to the loss of potential for Green to really expose this underbelly of depression; how it impacts not only the individual who is depressed, but also everyone around that person.

The message at the end of Looking for Alaska is actually something I really appreciated. However, I just couldn’t really make myself care about any of these characters, or the plot for that matter. I know a lot of people love this novel, and I know this is John Green’s first book, which entitles him to some wiggle room I guess, but I just can’t help comparing it to other, better YA stories. Maybe Green’s brand of realistic fiction just isn’t for me. If it wasn’t my second book of the year, it’s possible that I wouldn’t have finished it. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but I couldn’t help feeling bored with the same old teenage drama that took up the majority of this book.

Overall, if you enjoy the sort of YA contemporary literature that is inevitably made into a teeny-bopper movie, and you’ve somehow skipped this book—I think you will find Looking for Alaska enjoyable. As for me, I don’t think I’ll be checking out any more of John Green’s books until he writes something new. This one just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Review: “The Family” by Mario Puzo and Carol Gino

The Family

Let me begin by saying that I am a die-hard Mario Puzo fan. Unlike a lot of people, I was introduced to his writing through The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of The Godfather, a book so insanely popular it created an entire subgenre in American literature. Culturally speaking, it was one of the most influential film series until a young English boy arrived at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Nevertheless, here I will be talking about Puzo’s last book, The Family, which was completed after his death (July 2, 1999) by his longtime companion, novelist Carol Gino. It is the part adventure saga, past historical romance that Puzo reportedly spent the last 15 years of his life researching. Unfortunately, while the research is excellent, the novel is not.

The story centres on one of history’s most fascinating families, the Borgias. It begins in 1492 as Rodrigo Borgia, utilizing the bribery and political intrigue that were to subsequently mark his reign, becomes Pope Alexander VI. Quickly, Alexander moves to consolidate his family’s power, and thereby its future, by placing his four illegitimate children in positions of authority and privilege. The children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofre, are simultaneously spoiled and corrupted by their father, who is portrayed as a forerunner of the Mafia dons Puzo had previously written about.

Yet neither the Pope nor his children ever realize their full potential as rich historical characters. Although all of them played prominent roles in Italy’s history, none of them rose above cardboard stature in the novel. Their lives, which were dominated by murder, intrigue, war, rape and even incest, are presented in The Family with soap-opera dialogue in scenes that become increasingly repetitious. At no time do the characters come alive; at no point do they take over the novel. In an effort to portray the historical richness of the Renaissance, the book is stuffed with unnecessary details. Time after time, scenes are presented that add nothing to the central characters or the story itself other than to accommodate the appearance of such historical figures as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, da Vinci and the fanatical Florentine monk Savonarola. Regrettably, the novel fails at even this level.

The Family does not read like a Mario Puzo novel, even a lesser one. A work of such historical depth requires strong, interesting dialogue and even stronger characters to deliver it–the very qualities that always raised Puzo’s work to a higher plane. Neither exists here.

So we are left with two questions. How much of this novel did Mario Puzo actually write? How badly did his talent atrophy during the years of illness that preceded his death? In a touching afterword, Carol Gino writes lovingly of her long relationship with Puzo. She also informs us of his longstanding fascination with the Borgias and the years of research he devoted to what he hoped would be his finest novel. On the final page of the book, Gino tells how she came to complete it.

Two weeks before he died, though his heart was failing, Mario was completely lucid. And one day, as I was sitting in his study across from his desk, he reached down and pulled a bunch of pages, handwritten in red felt marker on yellow lined paper, from the bottom drawer of his desk. I thought it was something from Omerta, but it wasn’t. “Read it,” he said, and handed it to me.

And as I read I began to cry. It was the last chapter of the Borgia book.

“Finish it,” he said. “Promise me.”

And so I did.

I feel like a complete bitch saying that Mario Puzo would have been better served had Gino returned those pages to the desk drawer. But yeah.

Review: ‘A Burnable Book’ by Bruce Holsinger

A Burnable Book Cover

London, 1385.

A book and a cloth prophesy regicide.

Two aspiring poets hide their dark secrets.

Two ambitious men plot revenge.

Two fallen women aspire for a better life.

In his debut novel, medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger creates an intricate plot set in 14th century England during the reign of Richard II, a king I knew existed only because Shakespeare had written a play about him. The story opens with Agnes, a maudlyn (prostitute) receiving a book from a girl she had just met outside the city walls. Minutes later, the girl is brutally murdered, leaving Agnes wondering what is so special about this book that someone was prepared to kill for it.

Our hero, John Gower, a prudish middle-aged poet and ‘trader in information’ (such a nice term for blackmailer), hears about this book from his close friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who asks John to find it for him but refuses to explain why. As John starts searching for the book, he finds out that he is not the only one looking for it and the prophecy in the book could implicate some of England’s most important noblemen in a plot to kill the king.

As the story moves from London to Southwark to Oxford to Florence and back, the history of this ‘burnable’ book is slowly unraveled. It crosses a continent and a sea with a young woman who is both warrior and lady; is passed into the hands of a lowly maudlyn; stolen by a transgender prostitute; sold to a high-ranking lawyer; and passed off to an earl. In the meantime, John Gower is using up the last of his favour among friends. His estranged son turns up out of nowhere and appears to be connected to the whole mystery. Gower’s search takes him from the palaces of the nobility to the seedy back alleys teeming with prostitutes and butchers. Seemingly insignificant details reveal themselves as key clues to finding the answers John Gower seeks: What are the origins of this book? Where is it? And why does Chaucer want this treasonous work for himself? In A Burnable Book, nothing is as it seems–not friendships, not family relationships, not political alliances.

Holsinger presents a distant and disdainful John of Gaunt, a cold and calculating Katherine Swynford and a narcissistic Chaucer. John Gower himself is full of grief and deep regrets, like a grizzled detective doing a job he’s too good at but tired of. There is a huge roll of characters, with an index provided at the beginning of the book (GoT style). But my favourites were Edgar/Eleanor Rykener, “a man in body, but in soul a man and woman both“, based on an actual transgender prostitute from those times, and all his/her friends from Gropecunt Lane (yes, that’s where the hookers lived).

Holsinger’s London is gritty, dirty, violent, and hostile. Descriptions are vivid, not always palatable, but utterly convincing. It was a time when activities matched their street names, and Holsinger spares us no blushes. This is tremendous writing.  Most of these observations are delivered in the third person, as we are taken around with the cast of characters, whereas the protagonist, Gower, is delivered to us in the first person.  I am a fan of the first person narrative, but in A Burnable Book it jarred for me, as the narrative switched viewpoints between scenes in the book.

A Burnable Book is hugely plotted. There are a lot of twists and turns, and sub-plots seem to cascade throughout the story. It shows 14th-century England as a society deeply rooted in a class based hierarchy in which moving above one’s station requires luck, connections, and money. I had fun with this book, and was sad when the adventure ended. If you’re up for reading an intriguing and gritty historical thriller, read A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger.