Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen

We Sinners: A NovelWe Sinners: A Novel by Hanna Pylväinen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"We sinners, we are just lying to ourselves, we are just alone."

We Sinners takes a family of nine, heavily embroiled in a severe form of Finnish Lutheranism that sets the children apart from anyone who isn't from the church, and spends about a chapter on each child as they grow up and have their own families.

I realize that to most people, the religion in this family will be startling. It felt very familiar to me - the conversation Brita has with the boy at school about how she can't go to dances? I can't even say how many times I had that as a teenager, and felt the same feelings of complete mortification. The part I identified with the most is how the daughter who has left the faith feels when she interacts with her family (and how her family treats those who haven't stayed in the faith), and how hard it was to leave. Phew.

Because of my identification with the novel, I had to take a few emotional breaks but also couldn't quit reading it. It is short, but this author is promising. I received an ARC of this after reading a preview of it in a set of BEA promoted previews.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

The Forgotten WaltzThe Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is a great example of why not to choose books based on the reviews - most people have been really ambivalent about it, and I think I only decided to read it today because it was the only book from the Orange Prize shortlist immediately available to me, and the prize gets announced tomorrow.

This book gutted me. I'm not sure I have ever read a more realistic portrayal of the inner journey of guilt, and of how we retell stories of our own lives to ourselves. There were also moments of humor that rang true.

I wasn't actually interested in the character of Evie, which seemed important to the author. I was far more interested in Gina and her relationships.

I loved the prose at the beginning, the way the author moved in circles.

"There was... a sense in which we were reclaiming ourselves for ourselves, after some brief theft."

"If love is a story we tell ourselves then I had the story wrong. Or maybe passion is just, and always, a wrong-headed thing."

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams

Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a TimeTurn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Around the World: 24 of 52 (Peru)

Mark Adams decides to trace the journey of the man who claimed to "discover" Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham, and takes a very strenuous hike through Peru. This book chronicles that journey, as well as a return trip he took to hike the "Inca Trail."

If Adams had only written about his own journey, I'm not sure it would have been that interesting. He has worked in travel writing, albeit more as an armchair editor than a traveler, for years. He had connections to help him prepare, research, and advise him on equipment. He was never without a staff of cooks, guides, mule handlers, and hosts. Even though the conditions are hard, it isn't exactly a journey of self-discovery, which is what I prefer in travel writing. Nope. Adams is here to see the places that Bingham saw. And to learn important things like how you should wear two pairs of socks when hiking.

Luckily, Adams didn't just write about his own trek. He fills in the gaps with information on the Incas, the birth of archaeology and what probably happened with Machu Picchu before Bingham ever got there, and how the Spanish invasion of the 1500s and 1600s impacted the direction of history. There were some fun factoids that I enjoyed, like how there are other important mountain-top sites that might be even more interesting than Machu Picchu (but possibly not as breathtaking), that Tupac Shakur's name comes from an ancient Incan leader, and even learning more about the development of National Geographic.

There are two people mentioned in this book that I think have more interesting connections with Machu Picchu. The first is John, who has guided people through this area for decades (and some of his story is here). The other is Johan Reinhard, who has researched extensively about the meaning of the sites, and I plan to read his book, Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center.

No matter the tone or reason, this book makes me want to join the many who trek the Inca Trail. I'm not sure I'd ever be physically capable, but it is a nice dream!

The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards

The Book of Ebenezer le PageThe Book of Ebenezer le Page by G.B. Edwards
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Around the World: 23 of 52 (Guernsey/ Channel Islands)

This took me a while to read. While it is written in a very believable and interesting Guernsey English, nothing much happens. Ebenezer Le Page writes three books about his life, really focusing on the turn of the century up until the first world war, then through the second world war, and then the period up to his death as tourism and telecommunications move in.

The two other books I've read set on Guernsey both focus on the German occupation, and I did enjoy getting to see some of island life before and after that period. (The two books are The Book of Lies: A Novel and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.)

The ending redeemed how I felt when I was trudging through the middle, and I want to give this 3.5 stars, not quite 4 because I can't imagine reading it again. I think the elderly, somewhat stubborn Ebenezer was the voice I was hearing throughout the book, and it fit best in the end.

"[Dozens of Guernsey boys are] just busting to get away from the island; and, when they do get away, they're breaking their hearts to come back. That's why I have never left Guernsey, me. I knew I would only end up where I begun."

"I haven't said nothing about my cousins, and the cousins of my cousins; but then half the island is my cousins, and the cousins of my cousins."

"God made this island with a good climate and a good soil, especially suited for the growing of fruit and vegetables and flowers, and for the breeding of two kinds of creatures: Guernsey cows and Guernsey people."

Near the end, Ebenezer says, "I have tried to put down the worst as well as the best, but you got to read between the lines."  It makes me want to re-read it, and read more between the lines!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle: A NovelThe White Woman on the Green Bicycle: A Novel by Monique Roffey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Around the World: 21 of 52 (Trinidad & Tobago)

This is a beautiful book. If you only read one book set in the Caribbean, this should be it. The writing transports me to the island of Trinidad, with the heat and the vegetation and the turmoil of centuries of different groups of people moving through. I loved how it was written, with the majority of the story happening in the present, and then other sections going back to the beginning and then moving forward to meet up to where it started.

The story is about George and Sabine Harwood, who come to Trinidad in 1956, right after marrying, and right after Trinidad has achieved 'independence.' Throughout the book, Sabine converses with Trinidad as the curvy green woman stealing her man away, while also writing unsent letters to Eric Williams, the new leader of the nation. There are many conflicts that seem to belong to the island, potentially lacking any possibility for resolution. Sabine ends up loathing the island, and you feel it with her. Her children are also Trinidadian through and through, which isolates her further.

The best opening line:
"Every afternoon, around four, the iguana fell out of the coconut tree."

On Trinidadians:
"Frank stood erect, gazing at the priest, absorbing every word. This was how Trinidadians behaved in church: alert, composed, peering respectfully at the altar, awaiting a miracle. Carnival and Lent. Bacchanal and guilt. Trinidad in a nutshell. This was a nation of sin-loving people who made a point of praying for forgiveness."

"Sabine looked at her daughter, who looked just like George. She was bold like him, clever like him. A Trinidadian, like him."

"Love happens to you... The other person's spirit climbs into you. You feel so much for them. If they get hurt, you hurt. If you hurt them, you hurt yourself."

For culinary inspiration:
"But Jennifer only rolled her eyes. She'd dominated the kitchen all day, baking gooey cakes and sweet-breads, stewing chicken with brown sugar. She'd been making pellau for the weekend. On the kitchen table, two halves of Madeira sponge were just out of the oven, cooling on racks."

"'Jennifer is baking cakes in the kitchen.'
'What kind?'
'The best.'
'I know you like to eat banana cake when it's still warm.'"

"Jennifer brought out a pot of tea and slices of ginger cake."

The market on Charlotte Street, the first time:
"Jars and jars of spices: nutmeg, mace, powdered ginger, star anise. Vermilion salted prunes, magenta dried mango. Castles of brown sugared coconut candy behind glass cabinets... breadfruit and jack fruit and sapodilla plums. Guavas and jars of dark unguent which was guava jam. Custard apples. Pawpaws, which were rude and pendulous, somehow still growing. Tamarinds in their rough-smooth suitcases. Choko and okra and bodi and pumpkins. Limes like grapefruit and grapefruit like cannonballs. Bananas still on their stalks, great emerald hands."

About using plants to heal (something our boat captain in the Bahamas talked about too):
"When Pascale cut open her knee, Lucy boiled up pomegranate flowers into a tea for her to sip and the cut healed quickly. When the children had diarrhoea, she gave them pomegranate bark to chew. Colds and coughs Lucy cured with a cool beverage of hibiscus petals. Jackfruit, if they were constipated. Spinach leaves for poultices on boils. Ginger for gas, slices of aubergine, melongene, for minor sprains.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

Among OthersAmong Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 10 of 52 (Wales)

I am aware of Jo Walton because of her writing over at  She has a professed dislike of cyberpunk, in fact I've heard her say she thinks it is overrated.  I was determined to NOT ENJOY this book that so far as at least been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Fantasy awards this year, just in defense of cyberpunk.  I had to give up in the end because this novel is a love story to science fiction, and celebrates the love of reading, interlibrary loan, and book clubs that the author clearly has. (Or in Welsh accent - reeeeadin, enterLIBraaary lowan, and booyk clobs - seriously, try the audiobook for this!).

From a critical perspective, I think the plot is fairly weak.  The most obvious moment this apparent is in the supposed climax of the story, which I had to go back and listen to because I practically missed it since it took on such a short span of the book.  The fairy elements also seem fairly unimportant to the story, because really the author seemed to be using the plot as a way to be able to share what she thinks the best SF books of the 1970s are.  I want to emphasize that in the end, I didn't care that the plot is weak. The list of books mentioned within this book can be found here (Thanks Scott!) at the author's blog, compiled by a librarian fan, fitting since Walton seems to have a great respect for librarians, as she should. As anyone should. (Disclaimer: I am a librarian.)

I am posting this to the blog months after I finished it (March 19), because I knew we'd be discussing it on the SFF Audio podcast.  Actually, we found out a few hours before we recorded that it had won the Nebula Award, so let me express congratulations to the author!  You may interpret this exquisite coincidence as evidence of my psychic ability, if you'd like.  

Anyone who loves reading, particularly anyone who loves science fiction, will enjoy this book.  On the podcast, we were in complete agreement on its universal appeal.  And unlike some books that namedrop other authors, leaving me feeling exasperated or uneducated, Walton writes about these books in a way that makes me want to track them down. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Redemption in IndigoRedemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 20 of 52 (Barbados/Senegal)

Lord is a Caribbean author who weaves a Senegalese folk tale into a somewhat modern retelling. Not having read the original folktale, I'm not sure where one leaves off and another begins, but the story of Paama ("she could cook") and her foolish glutton husband was an easy and entertaining read.

I read this while I was in the Caribbean, because Karen Lord is from Barbados.  There is a great review of this book over on Worlds Without End, but it made me question my reading of the book.  The author is from Barbados, true, but I am almost certain the book is set in Senegal.  There is little mention of the ocean, which would normally play a prominent role in any Caribbean tale, and the people/food/place names have a much more Western Africa feeling to them.  

Karen Lord is on the nominee list for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, which will be selected during Chicon in early September.  I get to vote this year, since I have a supporting membership.  The only other nominee in this category that I've ready anything by (so far, because I will dutifully read my packet) is E. Lily Yu.

All of the quotations I collected are food related, and will probably come in handy when I bake something Senegalese.

"[Paama] could cook. An inadequate statement. Anyone can cook, but the true talent belongs to those who are capable of gently ensnaring with their delicacies, winning compliance with the mere suggestion that there might not be any goodies for a caller who persisted in prying. Life... could be sweet when there was a savoury stew gently bubbling on the stove, rice with a hint of jasmine steaming in the pot, and honey cakes browning in the oven. It almost cured Semwe's stoically silent worry, Tasi's guilty fretting, and Neila's bitter sighs."

At one point, she decides to make millet dumplings and grinds the millet as she sings this call-and-response song:
"Beat him down, beat him down
then we can hold his wake
Maize for porridge, barley for beer
Millet for dumpling and cake...."

"I have heard tales of how magnificently she can cook. I could relate for you a description of a morsel of her honey-almond cake, a delicacy which is light enough to melt on the tip of the tongue and yet it lingers on the palate with its subtle flavours long into the dream-filled reaches of the night. I could sing the praises, secondhand, alas, of her traveller's soup, a concoction of smoothly blended and balanced vegetables and herbs guaranteed to put heart and strength back into the bones of the weariest voyager.... I have just this moment recalled a certain jar that sits in her kitchen, filled with dried fruit steeping in spice spirit, red wine, cinnamon, and nutmeg, patiently awaiting that day months or even years hence when it will be baked into a festival cake that will turn the head of the most seasonal toper."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Making of an Island: St. Martin by Jean Glasscock

The Making of an Island: St. MartinThe Making of an Island: St. Martin by Jean Glasscock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 19 of 52 (Sint Maarten/ Saint Martin)

This book is a good overview of the history of the island of St. Martin/ St. Maarten. Although it is from the 1980s and the photos are slightly out of date, the overview is pretty solid, and many of the pieces of information were confirmed when I took a tour around the island.

I loved the stories of the early natives, and how they were killed off, not by westerners, but by the cannibal tribes of the Caribs. There is also a funny story in here about the blond-haired, blue-eyed Norwegian beach tribe that for a time was cut off from the rest of the island. St. Maarten has changed hands multiple times because it was a valuable salt resource in pre-refridgeration times, and even now is run half by the Dutch and half by the French. The common language is English.

After seeing Maho Beach, Simpson Bay, what is left of the salt pond, and both sides of the island, I felt this history really come to life.   I was lucky to be in the country the same day I finished the book.  The picture below is a hillside view of the port of Philipsburg, on the Dutch side.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

Krik? Krak!Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 18 of 52 (Haiti)

Beautifully written stories, featuring women in difficult lives. I particularly enjoyed the epilogue, "Women Like Us," that has a sense of a recited poem to it.

I had selected a pile of books set in various Caribbean places to read when I was in the Caribbean, so it was interesting to end up reading Krik? Krak! while I was in the Bahamas. A recurring theme throughout these stories is how Bahamians treat Haitians cruelly. Just a few islands away!

"They treat Haitians like dogs in the Bahamas, a woman says. To them, we are not human. Even though our music sounds like ours. Their people look like ours. Even though we had the same African fathers who probably crossed these same seas together."

"We know people by their stories."
This is true. I'd like to read more of Danticat, particularly post-earthquake.

"Are there women who both cook and write? Kitchen poets, they call them. They slip phrases into their stew and wrap meaning around their pork before frying it. They make narrative dumplings and stuff their daughter's mouths so they say nothing more."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

The Killing Moon (Dreamblood, #1)The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I won a copy of this in Twitter, and was really glad I did! I had read Book 1 of the Inheritance Trilogy by the same author, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which is one of those books that wasn't bad, but just was clearly not my style. (Worth a read, though, and is up for a Nebula Award.)

The things I liked about The Inheritance Trilogy are even stronger in The Killing Moon, and I think we can start assuming these are just Jemisin's strengths - the world building is the best part. She has crafted a world based in desert culture (think Egypt, but on a different planet), with a magic system that combines elements of Egyptian medicine and Freudian dream theory. The weaving of the dreamworld into the story is great, and the conflicting cultural beliefs surrounding the concept of the Gatherers and Sharers made for a fascinating setting.

The things I liked less about The Inheritance Trilogy - the romance between the protagonist and the god(s) - are either lessened here or are just somehow better written. I mean, there is an element of romance (at least attraction, and not always hetero, thank goodness), but it isn't the focus. I'm not anti-romance, I just prefer it to be second to the story and the setting.

I'm looking forward to the next book, which I think comes out next month. If you're curious, the author has posted a few sample chapters on her website.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial PacificThe Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Around the World: 17 of 52 (Tarawa, Kiribati, South Pacific)

I think it is important to separate the subject matter of a book from the book itself. Kiribati? Fascinating. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific? Not good. The research was interesting. The factoids were interesting. But the author comes across as a complete tool. I would have been far more interested in hearing about his girlfriend's experience in the Republic of Kiribati, since she was actually working with people and doing important work, unlike J. Maarten, who did laundry! And canned food hunting!

It isn't a funny book, although I keep seeing reviews that say it is. The situation the author and his girlfriend find themselves in is incredibly uncomfortable and rather unhygienic - they are lucky to have survived it, quite honestly. People shit where they eat, literally, in fact his girlfriend is being sent there in order to do sanitation education. It is a greater sense of isolation than simply being out of their comfort zone. They turn into survivalists just like everyone else living on a tiny island with nothing to make a living off of. Funny? Not really. Definitely not "rip-roaring" as the book jacket claims. The author is a drifter and ultimately doesn't contribute much to the book. (And he wrote it!)

In case you wonder at the title, there really weren't any cannibals here, nor was there any sex.  The closest anecdote I remember is how jealous girlfriends would bite the noses off of their husbands/boyfriends, leading to facial deformation that outsiders originally misinterpreted as being from malnutrition.  

Even though I have it on my to-read shelf, I'm not sure I'll be bothering with Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu. I love good travel writing, and have already experienced some in my Around the World challenge.  What travel writing have you liked best?

Monday, May 14, 2012

God's War by Kameron Hurley

God's War (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #1)God's War by Kameron Hurley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never expected to like this book. Never, ever.

I stay far away from war-themed books. Even desert war in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Oh wait, post-apocalyptic? No, war negates it.

Then this was nominated for a Nebula, and I only had three nominees for best novel left to read. Then I realized at some point last year, I downloaded it on my Nook app, probably free or some sale. So I didn't even need to find it; I owned it. No more excuses.

I was impressed. It was something different! It takes this world where bugs take the place of things that electricity and batteries used to do, and then some. Lights. Security. Cameras. Medicine. Vaccination. Tracking. Explosive terrorist virus bugs. Wow, there are just bugs everywhere. They are described as crawling and dripping and being more pervasive (and possibly genetically/nuclearly altered) than you could ever fathom. In that sense this is not a book for the squeamish.

I loved the kick-ass main character of Nyx. The same-sex relationships and gender role reversals were refreshing and worked really well, within a somewhat familiar context of different interpretations of civil and religious customs and law. Then there is magic. And... bug work. It is hard to explain, but handled well. I might even be tempted to read the next book.

Do I think it will win the Nebula award? No! I think it is too specialized and different. But I'd love to see that happen to turn the award on its ear.

A few samples:

"He saw old contagion sensors sticking up from the desert, half buried, some of them with the red lights at their bulbous tips still blinking. There were fewer old cities in the Chenjan Khairian wasteland, where the first world had been created and abandoned."

(these are not normal bugs!)
"The desert stayed flat and white all day. Rhys saw more evidence of recent fighting as they drove - spent bursts and abandoned artillery, black-scarred rents in the desert, pools of dead bugs. He saw a heap of burning corpses in the distance. He knew there were corpses because the giant scavengers were circling, despite the smoke: couple of sand cats, black swarms that must have been palm-sized carrion beetles, and some of the rarer flying scavenger beetles with hooked jaws, the kind that grew to over a meter long and had been known to devour children in their beds."


"'You didn't make me,' Nyx gasped. 'I made myself.'"

Thursday, May 3, 2012

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

This is WaterThis is Water by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This tiny book was on a display of "What will you do with your life" books at the main library where I work. It is the text of the commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.

It is impossible to read this without his tragic end in my head, and I wish I could. His specific mentions of suicide are completely cringeworthy. The whole point that he makes is that if you have the right perspective, life is manageable, even good. I'm really sorry he had such a struggle, and our lives are worse off now that he is gone.

Despite that, I still believe the words he says. Is this optimism or idiocy? Who can tell. Maybe mind over matter is just simply not enough all the time.

"But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things."