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Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: 'Home'

By Toni Morrison
Literary Fiction
May 2012
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307594167                                                                                      

Home, Toni Morrison's latest novel, is about both a haven and the forgotten. Frank Money is the only one of three childhood friends to survive their battles in Korea. Back in the States, Frank is battling demons and survivor guilt. He's always been the strong one, taking care of his little sister Cee. Now he needs help from others to try to make it back to her when he hears that she is near death and needs to be rescued.

His journey back to being the kind of man who can rescue his sister is both physical and spiritual. Frank travels a reverse Underground Railroad, finding refuge at a church after waking up in a mental hospital and escaping. As he travels home, the reader learns of how he and Cee grew up, how she got out of a backwoods place smaller than a town and where she ended up. Also revealed is how Frank has been fighting to hold on and not give up, but his war was hardly a good one. He is the only one who survived. And for what?

Morrison's short novel is tightly written, weaving in and out of points along the plot, themes, tropes and characters. It is a marvel to be studied and wondered at. But it also is a moving story of how African-Americans have been treated in their own country and how these individual characters react to what other people do to them. Frank and Cee have been victimized but are not victims.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Review; 'A Greyhound of a Girl'

By Roddy Doyle
All ages Fiction
May 2012
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
ISBN: 978-1-4197-0168-9

Mary O'Hara is finding out that at 12 years, life doesn't go the way it should. Her best friend has moved away to another part of Dublin, her mother ends every sentence with an exclamation point, her beloved granny is ill and she's met a strange woman who seems to know who she is.

In the hands of Booker winner Roddy Doyle, Mary is about to undertake a journey of wonder, wrapped up in love. Because that strange woman, Tansy, is the great-grandmother that she never met, that her mother never met and who her granny lost when she was much younger than Mary is now.

Doyle breaks the book up into separate stories about their different lives. They're all quite different and show the different ways women were expected to help their families in their own eras. But the stories also show how strong women who love their families can do that and remain themselves as well.

The final sections of the book depict a fanciful way that they can discover each other's strengths and loves in a way that perhaps could only happen in Ireland. It's a wild ride of a finish that is sweet without being maudlin. Best of all, Doyle shows a way that generations can remember and honor those they loved, and who loved them. This way shows how the novel got its title.

Although marketed as a children's novel, this is a grand little story that would be a delight to any woman who cares about the women who helped make her who she is, and who likes the idea of carrying on a legacy of love.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Review; 'Skios"

By Michael Frayn
June 2012
Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt)
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9549-4                                                                                  

Oliver Fox is one of those feckless young men who makes his way through life responding to the situation as it appears. He lets things shape themselves before and around him, responds with charm, and stays with it until it falls apart or the next situation begins to shape up.

He has been kicked out by his sugar momma Annuka once again. But he's also connected with lovely young thing Georgia, exchanged text messages and is flying to a lovely Greek island so they can spend a few nights together away from her boyfriend. At the same time, super-competent Nikki looks over the last-minute arrangements for the annual gathering hosted by the Fred Toppler Foundation. It primarily exists as a way for the former exotic dancer, the widowed Mrs. Fred Toppler, to pay homage to the source of her wealth with a world-class meeeting of minds from finance, academics, government and the like. The speaker every year is dull as dishwater, so Nikki has found the perfect antidote -- Dr. Norman Wilfred. He travels the world giving talks about how smart he is. As long as he keeps his speech nearby, he can weather any discomfort. Until now.

Fox takes Wilfred's place at the airport when Nikki waits to meet the speaker she hasn't seen before; she's only talked to his PA for weeks. Then Georgie arrives a day early. People keep mistaking Fox and Wilfred for each other in true screwball comedy situations. Frayn is terrific at making these outlandish events seem semi-plausible. Along the way, he throws in a few light zingers about the nature of foundations, the speakers who make their reputations at them and how similar parlor tricks can look like deep thoughts. Or is that last one the other way round?

Without revealing the story's climax, Frayn sets up a meringue-light story, but readers may feel burned at the end. Readers who enjoy complete shifts in story and tone may thrill to the Over the Top action but it is a huge change to overcome. Until then, however, the confection is delightful because when on top of his game, Frayn is adept at making skewing commentary.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review: 'Ragnarok: The End of the Gods'

By A.S. Byatt
Literary Fiction
February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2992-5                                                                                                            

When A.S. Byatt was a young child, she spent hours reading about the bloody fate that befell the Norse gods. Since she was reading while WWII was raging, it's no wonder the myth and the war drew sparks off each other in her imagination.

In Ragnarok, part of the Canongate series on myths, Byatt does not merge the stories or force their comparison. Nor does what happens to a thin child evacuated to the British countryside, who is certain she will never see her father again, overshadow the mythical world. Instead, Byatt presents two entwined, long setpieces -- one of the evacuated thin child, who is nameless, and the other a retelling of the destruction of the gods with just a touch of meta commentary. She ends with a comparison of the destruction of the gods to the destructive acts of foolish mankind today. Again, Byatt is not forcing a comparison but noting that today, people are trying to destroy the world as surely as the gods' fate was a foregone conclusion.

Like Loki, the thin child likes to see and learn about things. And like the gods and modern human despoilers, she can be callously destructive:

She gathered great bunches of wild flowers, cowslips full of honey, scabious in blue cushions, dog-roses, and took them home, where they did not live long, which did not concern her, for there were always more springing up in their place. They flourished and faded and died and always came back next spring, and always would, the thin child thought, long after she herself was dead. Maybe most of all she loved the wild poppies, which made the green bank scarlet as blood. She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk -- slightly damp, she thought -- and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding, for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower-fresh. Which wilted almost immediately between finger and thumb. But there were always more, so many more.

In one of the interesting asides, Byatt muses on whether anything the gods could have done could have changed their fate. No matter what they did, however, there is the certainty that things would still turn out this way. This is not a fairy tale where there are heroes who win fair maidens and fair maidens who are rescued, nor is this fiction purportedly under the control of an author (the notion that characters speak to an author is not addressed). This is myth. This is going to end badly.

For a book that is only 171 pages, Byatt densely packs in setting the stage to display the breadth, width and depth of both the world of the gods and the sphere of the thin child, reveals the acts that will culminate in Ragnarok itself -- especially the death of golden god Baldur and Loki's subsequent flight and capture -- and the end of that world as the gods are destroyed.

After the end of the gods, the thin child's wartime ends. Her story is not one of heroic acts and brave deeds, but is instead the very essence of quiet drabness and the realization that there are no great dreams to be dreamt. The thin child, living in what Byatt calls a thin world, has been a framing device to get the reader into wondering how the acts of the gods matter to the way the reader considers the real world outside the covers of a book.

Byatt concludes with thoughts on myths. These include her choices for not including an aftermath of Ragnarok, called Gimle, that is sometimes likened to a Christian second coming, and that she did not build characterizations and motivations for the gods beyond the basics -- they are not full-fledged characters on purpose. These choices well serve Byatt's belief that myths are porous. The way they are told always says something about the teller, and usually about the world of the teller. Perhaps fittingly for a retelling that incorporates WWII, Wagner's Norse gods are wrested away from their Nazi admirer. She compares and contrasts aspects of the story with Christian mythology and anchors the Norse gods with a larger framework of Western civilization.

For a retelling of the Ragnarok myth that spares nothing but which is filled with gorgeous language, Byatt stands with the best who influenced her.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: 'An Unmarked Grave'

AN UNMARKED GRAVE: A Bess Crawford Mystery
By Charles Todd
Historical mystery
June 2012
William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0-06-201572-3                                                                                    

Intrepid Bess Crawford is just behind the trenches in wartorn France, tending to the wounded, when the Spanish Influenza strikes in the spring of 1918. In the mdist of the chaos, an orderly notices something wrong with one of the many bodies. He didn't die of war wounds or the flu. His neck was broken.

The orderly informs Bess as someone he trusts. She promises to alert the proper people. She promises not only because she trusts the kindly older man who is the orderly and sees for herself that the dead man was murdered, but also because the victim was a family friend who served in her father's regiment.

But before she can get anywhere, the flu strikes her as well. In the near-fairytale atmosphere in which Bess Crawford exists, she is spirited out of France and convalesces back home as strings are pulled. For Bess Crawford has connections, most importantly her father, the Colonel Sahib.

This imposing figure and dearest family friend Simon are full-fledged confidants as she pieces together bits of information and visits various figures connected to the victim. These figures are representative of various strata in Britain's WWI class system, and as such provide a fascinating picture of people carrying on while the Great War goes on and on and on. Although Bess initially isn't quite believed, it's soon evident that the orderly, who died soon after she was taken ill, showed her something important.

Before long, more people connected with the investigation die. Bess knows the killer will target her, but her sense of duty demands that she continue. And if that means she has to take along with her a brash American officer recovering from his war wounds, that's what she will do. Even if he and Simon don't exactly take to each other. The killer gets closer and closer to Bess and her inner circle before the end, which is a classic case of the sleuth figuring it all out in the nick of time.

The world for Bess that the Todds have created is a genuine homage to the World War I era. The violence is off-screen, the characters do not directly express their feelings for each other (really, how thick are Bess and Simon to not have figured that out?) and duty reigns supreme, the plot unfolds in true tricky Agatha Christie style. The series also has other aspects of the historical era it depicts. There is no irony or nod to modern sensibility in Bess calling her father the Colonel Sahib. Women and lower class folk are expected to know their place. In one of the poignant stories told during the unveiling of the plot, a widower father who has lost several sons to the war doesn't understand why the widow of one of them won't come work the farm. Her son would grow up in fresh air but the workload would obviously kill her.

Downton Abbey fans would be well served by reading the Bess Crawford novels while waiting for a new season. Fans of Inspector Rutledge, the first series character brought to life by the Todds, will find a lighter version of the tone in that post-war series.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Review: 'Star Trek FAQ'

STAR TREK FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the First Voyages of the Starship EnterpriseBy Mark Clark
June 2012
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books
ISBN: 978-1-55783-792-9                                                                                          

A long time ago in our galaxy, not one far away, network television found itself hoodwinked when writer/producer Gene Roddenberry promised NBC "Wagon Train to the stars" and instead delivered the beginning of a new part of our culture, Star Trek.

For those who grew up on TOS (The Original Series), whether as teens waiting for 10 p.m. on Friday nights that final season or the syndication every weekday that endlessly recycled the original 79 episodes, Star Trek had it all and promised it all. We didn't kill ourselves during the Cold War. We ended Vietnam. We became an integrated society. We fulfilled President Kennedy's promise of space exploration. We could dream of becoming astronauts and our dreams could come true. We didn't have to be the popular kids to find a place to fit in, as David Gerrold eloquently explains in his foreward to a new compilation of behind-the-scene facts, background material and episode highlights, Star Trek FAQ.

Clark's compendium has many strengths, whether the reader is a first-generation Trekker or wondering what that big 2009 movie was based on. Clark provides a concise, highly readable, rundown of the original influences and executives in various companies who contributed to what became Trek. Although Trek was Roddenberry's baby, he had to run the gauntlet of studio and network approval to get that baby on the air.

The ins and outs not only show how difficult it is for any show to get on the air with any vestige of its original intent intact, it also chronicles how the Trek universe was refined and designed to become what ultimately became beloved. For example, the FAQ has excellent point-by-point notations of the contrasts between the original pilot -- "The Cage" -- and the final program that aired. Spock originally was meant to be more curious than logical. Jeffrey Hunter's Pike is closer to Roddenberry's version of Horatio Hornblower than that swashbuckler James Tiberius Kirk ended up being.

The episode guide is not "full service" because, as Clark notes, "there are plenty of those available elsewhere". However, all are included with thumbnail plot sketches and notes about other aspects such as broadcast history, guests and even such details as changes in scores and opening credits.

Worthwhile ideas to consider abound. In noting how Trek differed because it posits that mankind has survived and improved, there is a quick roundup of SF antecedents. It's about as cheery as The Hunger Games and other current examples of the popular YA genre of dystopian fiction. The chapter itself admirably brings together the examples of how mankind shows its better nature by rejecting killing and slavery through the run of TOS. Another Trek theme of a better civilization with cool gadgets that is still run by the people who made the gadgets, and not the gadgets themselves, is detailed in a thoughtful manner.