Wednesday, August 1, 2012

July 2012 Books

Another month where I read very few books. Part of that was a backed-up magazine pile which will be less of a problem going forward because all our free subscriptions have run out. And I really wanted one of the books to last so I kept putting it down so I wouldn't finish it in one fell swoop (or "one swell foop" as Pops would say).

  • New York by Edward Rutherfurd
    • I have read all of his other books and loved each one, especially Sarum and the 2 books about Ireland (The Rebels of Ireland and The Princes of Ireland)
    • This one covers the history of Manhattan from the 1600's when the Dutch settled it as New Amsterdam through the events of September 11, 2001.
    • Like in his other books, he introduces various families whose stories we follow through succeeding generations. We get to learn a lot about Manhattan and how it developed over the centuries. The characters interact with real people and live through some of New York City's greatest events.
    • I was only disappointed in one small thing: at the start one of the Dutch characters has fathered a Native American daughter and she presents him with a wampum belt that then gets passed down through the men of the family. He meanwhile presents her with a Dutch coin which apparently gets passed down through her family. 
      • I was really hoping to find out more about the Native American daughter's family but since the Indians were pushed out of Manhattan so they are out of the story. You get some sort of resolution about the belt but none about the coin. A small matter but I was disappointed about it.
    • I really enjoyed it but I wouldn't rank it as high as Sarum, one of my all-time faves.
    • If you like historical fiction, you will like this book.
    • Grade: B+
  • Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
    • This is a sequel to Shanghai Girls, wherein the two main characters, sisters Pearl and May escape from China in 1937 and settle in Los Angeles. 
      • May was pregnant (by the artist both sisters loved) when they left China. Once the daughter, Joy, is born May gives her to Pearl to raise as her own while May pursues a Hollywood career.
      • Joy finds out once she grows up and this sets the sequel in motion.
    • Joy has finished one year of college where she joined a student group who support the communist revolution in China.
      • Joy is angry at her mother and aunt once she finds out that they are actually her aunt and mother and takes off for Red China to find her birth father.
    • She finds her father relatively quickly and quickly becomes enamored of the new China.
      • Her mother (actually her aunt) Pearl follows her to bring her back home. May stays in Los Angeles to run their restaurant business and send money and supplies to Pearl in China.
    • The two women are in China for several years, with Joy embracing communism then realizing how naive she is. But then the huge famine instigated by Mao's foolish agricultural and industrial ideas sets in.
      • One of China's goals was to increase the output of steel so that they could beat Britain and the United States. There were backyard furnaces where all metal implements (including farming tools) were melted down to create an inferior steel. By the time this policy was abandoned all the farm implements were gone (policy expected the peasant farmers to use their hands for everything, including digging trenches).
      • The government advocated something called "close planting" where seeds were planted close together in order to create higher crop yields. The flaw is that the seeds then competed for the same resources and the crops turned out to be inferior in all ways.
        • Commune leaders were still expected to send the larger amounts of crops to the government who then exported them, leaving the peasants to starve. Which they did in the millions.
    • Joy is pretty much an idealist idiot, which she eventually realizes, so she redeems herself somewhat. Her mother Pearl, even though she didn't give birth to her daughter, does everything she can to save her from starvation and she is the much more admirable character. She does what she can to fit into Communist China all the while secretly plotting to leave the country.
    • A fascinating light on a part of China's history I knew very little about.
    • B+
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
    • This was my reread of the classic novel about Becky Sharp.
    • Becky starts out as a poor girl who moves up in society while her friend Amelia moves from rich to poor.
      • Becky is almost a sociopath in her behavior but she is an interesting character. Amelia is sweet and kind but overall an idiot who wastes her love on the wrong man. 
    • I read this on the Kindle, downloaded free from the Internet because it's in the public domain.
    • I like the Reese Witherspoon movie from 2004 but I haven't seen the Miriam Hopkins version from 1935. I'll need to catch it next time it's on TCM.
    • B+
  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
    • Part one of a three-part series (don't get me started on book series --- see below!) about a witch named Diana, a vampire named Matthew, their forbidden love and a mysterious, bewitched manuscript.
    • I really liked it but it's not really a complete story as it really only sets things up for Books 2 and 3.
    • I haven't personally read the Twilight books so I can't make any sort of comparison to those. I read a few book reviews and people bring those books up. One reviewer referred to the book as a "very solid mix of Harry Potter and Twilight" which I can see but this is a more mature story. The Harry Potter portion refers to the alchemy, witchcraft and ancient manuscript and the Twilight to the forbidden love of the vampire and the woman he stalks.
      • The characters are in their 30's rather than teenagers (and yes, the vampires are actually older than dirt, but their physical bodies look similar in age to their respective paramours)
      • Diana can be an idiot but she's strong and certainly tries to maintain her independence from Matthew and doesn't always expect him to rescue her.
      • There's a certain "romance novel" feel to portions of the book but there are no dumb sex scenes to get in the way (if you've ever read the Ayla books by Jean Auel then you know that she and her one twue wuv, Jondalar, have Cro-Magnon sex every few pages and it really adds nothing to the story).
      • Lots of descriptions of the wines they drink, what everyone and everything smells like, the clothes they wear and the food everyone eats (the author is an expert on wine so I think she just likes writing about wine). I suppose I can agree that some of these things could be trimmed but I'm not sure how ruthless editors are about this sort of thing.
    • I loved all the supporting characters and how some of the cliches were somewhat swept aside. For example, in this book's reality, witches, vampires and demons are all supposed to hate each other on principal yet Matthew's mother (also a vampire), after a short period of adjustment, accepts the witch Diana into her home as a member of her family. Refreshing.
    • I have the second book in the series ready to read but the final book in the trilogy won't be out until 2013 or 2014. 
    • Confidential to Mrs. Everest (my dear sis-in-law in Southern California): I think you would like this book!
    • B+
Hmm, all the books this month are B+ grades. Anyway, that's all I read over 4 weeks. Pitiful

And now, my screed about book series: Okay, you hear about a book about witches (it's right in the title!) and a mysterious manuscript, you put it on your Paperback Swap wish list and it arrives after you've waited for months. THEN you find out it's part one of three. Guh.

And not in a "Star Wars" kind of way. If you see "Star Wars" and never see "The Empire Strikes Back" or "Return of the Jedi", well, at least you got a complete story in one movie. (I took a friend to see "The Empire Strikes Back" in the Summer of 1980 --- in return I had to go see "Urban Cowboy" with her --- and she hadn't seen "Star Wars" so "Empire" made no sense to her!)

A Discovery of Witches was interesting but nothing FINISHES; it's all set-up. That doesn't make it bad, just disappointing as a reader because you just don't know when the rest of the story will finish. In this case I have Book 2 so I foresee more disappointment because the next book won't be out for another year or two.

I have several books on my to-be-read shelf that are Book 1 of a series. Several of them are unfinished series (or at least not-yet-published). I am already in the middle of a handful of series:
  • Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. Seven books and counting though maybe #8 is the last one? Probably not. Her books come out every 3-4 years.
  • George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones series. Five books and counting with 2 more left. Or maybe not? He publishes a new book infrequently, maybe every 5-6 years.
  • Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series. Six books so far, with at least two more to come.
  • Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey. Only one book so far but at least two more to come but the publishers only release one Fforde book per year so it could be quite a while before the next book appears.
    • By the way, NO relation to the (mom-porno) series Fifty Shades of Grey which I have no interest in reading since they are based on Twilight fan fiction and I have no interest in reading the Twilight series either. 
Here's the list of the series where I only have Book One:
  • The Passage by Justin Cronin
  • My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  • Tempest by Julie Cross
  • Old Filth by Jane Gardam
  • Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
  • Angel Time by Anne Rice
    • I actually got rid of this one. I'll just reread the first three "Vampire Chronicles" again for an Anne Rice fix since I already love those.
I realize that book series come out all the time. It's the business model for mysteries, for example. So in many cases I am just waiting until all the books are published before starting them. It took Jean Auel 31 years to finish the Earth's Children series (featuring horny Ayla and Jondalar; see above). I am getting too old to wait!

On the other hand, many of us suffered through waiting for the next Harry Potter books!

I am pretty sure I have written about all this before. Oh well.

And one last book-related thing: one of my favorite authors (who knew how to write complete stories in novels even when the characters might later appear in another book) just died. Maeve Binchy wrote many wonderful books, tales mostly based in Ireland. I highly recommend them, especially my favorites Circle of Friends, Evening Class and Scarlet Feather. RIP Ms. Binchy. Many readers are sadder today knowing you are gone.

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