Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Series of Books

The problem with a top ten book list is that it doesn't make room for series. How do you decide which Harry Potter book to include when all seven books are required for full enjoyment? Here's my list of favorite series...
  • Poldark by Winston Graham - 12 books
    • My most favorite books of all! I have read the first 7 books about once a year since I was 17 years old. A historical fiction saga of the life of Ross Poldark, it takes place in Cornwall, England from 1783 through 1820. I thought this series had only 7 books but as I was browsing the clearance racks at a Crown Bookstore in the mid-1980s I found Book 9!! Jackpot! Mr. Graham eventually completed the 12th book about a year before he died at the age of 95. The BBC/PBS miniseries from the 1970s is good but it takes great liberties with the plot.
  • Harry Potter by J.K Rowling - 7 books
    • I read the first book after my husband received it as a Father's Day gift from his mom. She heard it was similar to A Wrinkle in Time, the classic by Madeleine L'Engle, and thought he would like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. At that time it was not yet the phenomenon it soon became. I bought the next 2 books and then the universal frenzy began. As each book came out my family followed this rule: whoever was the fastest reader went first. For a long time I got to go first, then my son, then my husband. By the end it went: son, me, husband. (The movies are pretty good too.)
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon - 7 books so far
    • A series that defies categorization: a little bit of romance, time travel, historical fiction. These are HUGE detailed works, about an English woman who steps through ancient standing stones in Scotland just after WWII and finds herself living about 200 years earlier. Her romance with Jamie, the Scots laird she meets, drives the story. By book 7 they are living in America before the Revolutionary War. There are at least 2 more books to follow.
  • A Song of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin - 4 books so far
    • The epic fantasy series will be an HBO series starting next year. Each season will be based on one book. The fictional world of Westeros is filled with kings, intrigue, sex, murders, sword fights, narrow escapes, captures, executions, and dragons. The last book came out in 2005 and readers are anxiously awaiting book 5.
  • The Tripods by John Christopher - 4 books
    • I first read these during my junior high years so probably my first experience of a dystopian or post-apocalyptic story (a fave genre of mine). In this case, the alien tripods have taken over control of Earth (they used TV to brainwash the people of course!) with the help of caps placed on everyone as they reach age 14. Caps make people docile and compliant. The main characters, 13 year old boys, set out to meet the human resistance cell living in the Alps. The boys infiltrate the tripod cities, and plot the end of human enslavement. 
  • Thursday Next by Jasper Fforde - 5 books so far
    • In an alternate timeline (i.e. England is still fighting the Crimean War in the 1980s when the actual war ran from 1853-1856; dodos, mammoths & Neanderthals have been genetically recreated) book characters are real and Jurisfiction agents can enter the books to solve crimes against literature. It's very hard to describe these books and make them sound sane, but they are funny, witty and perfect for someone who enjoys books as much as I do. Mr. Fforde also has a couple of other series: Nursery Crimes, where nursery rhyme characters are real and Detective Jack Sprat is on the case; and Shades of Grey, a society where people are sorted into classes depending on their ability to see colors.
  • Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares - 4 books
    • A sweet tale of four friends and their magical pair of blue jeans that fits each girl no matter their size or height. Very popular with teen girls until the whole vampire thing started. The movies are cute.
  • The Vampire Chronicles by Anne Rice - 12 books, give or take
    • I really only love the first 3 books because they purport a "history" of how vampires came to be. And it's historical fiction with vampires in it! Ms. Rice's vampires are nothing like the current crop of teen vampires. Her books are full of sex and death. Plus, because she lived in both San Francisco and New Orleans at various times, much of her story takes place in those locales, which is great because those are the 2 big cities I know best. The Mayfair Witches series (3 books) is good too and some of the later of the 12 books overlap with those tales.
  • Earth's Children by Jean Auel - 5 books so far
    • The story of Ayla, a Cro-Magnon girl who grows up with Neanderthals, is wonderful. The flaw is that it has taken 30 years for these 5 books to be released! The 1st came out in 1980 and the last in 2003. The series still seems incomplete (there are always hints of Ayla's great destiny but nothing has happened yet to indicate that fate has been realized) but there is no word on when or whether any other books will arrive. The other flaw involves Ayla's significant other, Jondalar: These two have sex all the time and I would be perfectly happy if I never had to read, "Jondalar, ohh, Jondalar!" again. Really, characters, get a cave!
  • Flowers in the Attic by VC Andrews - 5 books
    • Ms Andrews died before the series was complete but that didn't stop the publishers! There are dozens and dozens of other books attributed to Ms Andrews written by others, no doubt for the sake of the almighty dollar. Anyway, her books are all potboilers, Gothic in tone, and full of evil, mainly in the form of some forbidden love, notably in an incestuous relationship. Flowers and its sequels feature more than one taboo relationship (uncle-niece, brother-sister, etc...) but still, I read these books during my impressionable teens and I still love them.
  • Masters of Rome by Colleen McCullough - 7 books
    • From these historical novels I learned that there was Roman history before Julius Caesar even arrived on the scene! Marius and Sulla were real Roman generals and set the stage for much of what Caesar would accomplish. And Caesar is covered too!
  • Barker/Llewelyn by Will Thomas - 5 books
    • Cyrus Barker is a Scottish private enquiry agent, or a detective. Thomas Llewelyn is his Welsh assistant. The stories take place in the mid-1880s and involve mysteries in London's seamy underbelly. Barker would have been played by Sean Connery had the role existed about 30 years ago. 
  • Others:
    • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Timeless and comforting.
    • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: But I like the movies better. Sorry, purists.
    • Foundation by Isaac Asimov: Its all men in the old science fiction novels but that doesn't mean the stories aren't classics
    • Bio of a Space Tyrant by Piers Anthony: Another sci-fi series but a little more modern
    • Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace: I've only read these once (and plan to read them again soon) but I love them because they are so dear to my best friend, Lady Chardonnay. But has she read Poldark?! Hmph. (I kid! It's hard enough to find time to read the books we want to without trying to read what everyone else thinks we should!)
    • Septimus Heap by Angie Sage: A children's fantasy series that I read this year and really enjoyed. Looking forward to the next books!
Maybe it's time to hit a new category: movies and hang my head in shame for loving "The Wedding Singer" so much, or music, where my Cassidy Boys fetish will surface??

Monday, April 12, 2010

Desert Island Books

I have often considered my list of the 10 books I'd like to have with me should I ever get stranded on a deserted island. Obviously I need to get a life. Or at least read some more books.

Anyway, I could never narrow it down to just 10.  So here's a list of some faves that I just love no matter where I get stranded:
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
    • I'm not sure why I identified so strongly with Francie Nolan, given that I was not poverty-stricken nor Brooklyn-born at the turn of the 20th century. But she read a lot and wanted to be a writer so I guess that's enough. The details of this story certainly made me think that being poor in Brooklyn was a wonderful thing.
  • The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
    • Such an epic Arthurain tale and told from the point of view of the women. I got to meet Ms Bradley at a book signing once. She seemed highly medicated and out of it, unfortunately, which I am assuming was due to her ill health as she died not many months later. I've read some of the sequels and they are also good but not nearly as compelling as this book.
  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
    • I cry at the end of this book every damn time! LOVE Fiver and Hazel, Bigwig and Kehaar. A thrilling tale full of close calls and near escapes and heart. Wonderful rabbit tale for grownups.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
    • A highlight of a trip to Massachusetts (second only to visiting with my BFF Lady Chardonnay who lives in New England; okay, maybe third after the chocolate brunch we went to!) was seeing Orchard House where Little Women was written. As a teen I thought the book was a little wordy and I skimmed a lot of it. As a "mature" reader, I enjoy the verbosity of old-style books much more than I used to! The story is just wonderful and also makes me teary every time I read it. I still don't like Amy though because of the whole incident with Jo's book.
  • Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
    • Another "old-style" writer but after seeing the amazing 1995 miniseries I was able to understand every little thing more easily (also the secret to easier Shakespeare reading: see a visual version first, then read). I was also helped by a book called What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew which explains the minutia of life then. I now know P&P almost by heart and it is my go-to book when I need something to read before bed and I'm between books. 
  • ...And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer
    • From 1866 until the 1930s, this book covers the lives of the members of a ladies club formed in Ohio. Epic in scope and detail, I was able to appreciate this book more once I had a better American history background. The story is mainly character driven against the backdrop of the various political crises of the times. Ohio was once a powerhouse in sending men to the White House: seven presidents from Ohio were elected during the period of this novel.
  • Circle of Friends by Maeve Binchy
    • Ms Binchy's books are wonderful in that you always get to know a little something about so many wonderfully drawn characters, from the heroines to the villains, from the shopkeepers to the marginalized people. This books is the tale of an Irish girl and her best friend in the 1950s. I love Benny and her struggles to fit in and adapt to college life despite her large size. She's such a strong character; the ending is absolutely right. The movie version, while lovely in its way, does NOT end the same.
  • The Stand by Stephen King
    • A superflu virus is accidentally released and most of the world's population dies. (Note: not really a spoiler as this happens right at the beginning of the story.) The survivors band together and the supreme battle between good and evil commences. Excellent. The miniseries is quite good too.
  • Sarum bu Edward Rutherfurd
    • Mr Rutherfurd's books follow a general pattern: introduce a set of characters, tell a complete story about them and then move on a few years, decades or centuries and tell a new story featuring their descendants. We get to see traits passed down through the years. Families intermarry, the mighty fall, the little people rise. This tale concerns the area located near Stonehenge and the modern English city of Salisbury. I always want the individual stories to continue! Historical fiction at its best!
  • The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
    • Another great romance and another epic tale, this one occurring in the Australian Outback. I was able to read this concurrently while watching the miniseries when I was in college. 
  • Honorable Mentions
    • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell: Yes, it's racist but it's still a damn good story.
    • The Human Comedy by William Saroyan: The movie is amazingly faithful to the book. Such an amazing look at small town life in the 1940s.
    • It by Stephen King: The other big epic novel by Mr King, scary and engrossing with an evil clown!
    • Fatherland by Robert Harris: A thriller taking place in an alternate history where Hitler won WWII.
    • Class Reunion/After the Reunion by Rona Jaffe: Not very well written but still wonderful tale of the women of Radcliffe College, the reunion (duh) and their lives afterward.
Hmm, I did seem to come up with a plausible top ten after all. But what about books series?! How does one pick a favorite Harry Potter novel or the best Captain Underpants tale?! A list for another day...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Pride and Dreck

I finished a book last night called The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet by Colleen McCullough.  The author is most famous for The Thorn Birds which I adore and I have also enjoyed several of her other novels over the years, mainly the historical Rome series.  But this one, a "sequel" to Pride and Prejudice, was beyond horrible.

In the last decade or so, P&P sequels, prequels, modern reimaginings, and "sideways" versions have been published.  Bridget Jones's Diary is probably the most famous of the reimaginings. It's a cottage industry and writers continue to churn them out at a fast clip. Pride, Prejudice & Zombies is one of the most recent. I have read several of them.  Most were harmless and usually written in a style imitative of Jane Austen's.

I therefore looked forward to Ms McCullough's take on the genre. Be forewarned: There be SPOILERS here...

To get us started, Darcy (referred to now as "Fitz" by all and sundry) and Elizabeth have had 20 years of a horrible marriage, brought on by his inability to tolerate her teasing ways (the thing that drew him to her in the original) and her horror of the realities of wedding night sex (described as "rape" in at least Darcy's thoughts).  Darcy is even more arrogant and prideful than ever and Elizabeth is rendered a frigid and shrewish wife.

Major characters are killed off --- the novel starts off with the death of Mrs. Bennet --- or murdered (Lydia). The facts of Jane Austen's original story are completely disregarded and turned completely around.  Darcy's father, always described as the best of men by dear Jane, is revealed as a criminal mastermind whom his son despises and fears. His affair with a prostitute produced a half-brother for Darcy who is a major character in this novel. We are not informed of the relationship until the end and during the novel we wonder if half-brother Ned loves Darcy with what McCullough refers to as Socratic love (opposite of Platonic, I guess, but I have not come across this euphemism for homosexuality before).

Ned murders on Darcy's behalf though without Darcy's knowledge or consent.  He murders drunken, widowed Lydia to rid the family of the embarrassment, after Lydia shows up and rails at Darcy with the F word AND the C word in front of his upper class guests.

Jane Bennet, who married Charles Bingley for love at the end of P&P, is worn down by more than 15 pregnancies and blithely recounts details of Charles' black mistress and his children with her while he visits his Caribbean plantations. Oh, and he's also a slaveholder!

Georgiana Darcy is described as "perfect" but we never actually get to see her in the novel to see for ourselves. Caroline Bingley is still around, even more acid and cruel than before despite "paying off every arrear of civility" to Elizabeth in P&P.

Mary becomes sensible and utterly beautiful and has men asking for her hand in marriage at the ripe old age of 38 (very unlikely in context of the times).  She is kidnapped by a deranged cult leader of children for a huge chunk of the story.  She is held in a cave located under the Derbyshire countryside.  We are told several times that, even though most characters assume she is dead, she MUST be held in a cave somewhere. Search parties search and thus is Mary saved and able to create orphanages with the gold the old cult leader squirreled away from --- you guessed it! --- Mr. Darcy's criminal father. Mary also gets married but has sex with her intended in a most wanton fashion before their wedding.

Why, you may be asking yourself, did I continue to read until the end? It was a train wreck and I had to see it out.  I am perfectly capable of stopping a book that is horrible.  I couldn't finish The Bridges of Madison County, The Celestine Prophecy, or The Lord of the Flies, crappy novels all, for example, and I am having a hard time considering picking up The Group again any time soon. But this sequel started out so vilely that I had to know the depths to which the author descended. We are talking Marianas Trench here.

I think this novel might have worked had Ms McCullough started from zero and created her own story. I love a 17th, 18th or 19th century potboiler as much as the next reader (Forever Amber or The Crimson Petal and the White come immediately to mind) but taking beloved, naive characters and making monsters of some of them, well, that's unforgivable.

I will dispose of this book as soon as possible. Don't read it. Reread Pride and Prejudice or even The Thorn Birds again. Hell, read the sequel to Gone With the Wind called Scarlett. While also terrible in its own way, it's a masterpiece compared to The Independence Of Miss Mary Bennet.