Saturday, March 30, 2013

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

On those Saturdays where I have nothing planned other than staying in my pajamas all day, I’ve taken to watching mini-marathons of 20/20, Dateline, and 48 Hours Mysteries.  These shows could (loosely) be termed as investigative journalism and focus on the murder of one person, breaking down the crime from commission to sentencing.  Buried (pardon the pun) in the facts of the case are the narrator’s horrible analogies and imagery; for example, something like “Along with the cool winds of the north that brought a new season to the sleepy town where [victim] lived, blowing the leaves from the trees and harbouring change, so too was the feel and temperature of [victim’s] marriage changing.” Very cheesy.  But, if I’ve learnt anything from those shows, it’s to never commit a crime in passion, and that the husband is almost always the guilty party when a wife disappears/is found murdered.

That’s the take away that Gillian Flynn uses as the foundation for her latest novel, Gone Girl.  Gone Girl tells the story of Nick and Amy’s life together, from their first meeting to their first child; however, the road between these two life events is troubled and rocky, much like the town where they met, New York (sorry, Lester Holt is in my head now and told me to say that…).  

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick wakes up to a feeling of wanting out of his marriage, but he’s unsure how to do it.  The situation is taken out of his control, however, when he returns home around noon to find his living room ransacked and Amy missing.  What happens to Nick next is a text-book case of police procedurals; the sympathetic cops, the panicked in-laws, the supportive neighbors…. But then, it all goes sideways; in this, the world of the 24-hour news cycle, Nick’s marriage is caught by the CNN effect and takes a turn for the worse.  

Contrasted against Nick’s actions and account of his marriage, the reader is given entries from Amy’s diary.  Amy’s account of the marriage is a little different from Nicks, and it paints a picture using the same events, but with a very different spin on it.  The reader is left trying to figure out where the middle-ground between both accounts is, if Nick really is a bad guy, and what might have happened to Amy.

Flynn’s work is a delicate ballet of narratives; she lays out for us the personal narratives of her two main characters.  By that, I mean the stories and perceptions that these two characters have of themselves, and how they are seen by those around them.  It’s an elegant assessment that is transferable to all people; we each have a story that we tell ourselves about our personality/lives, we each have a story that (if we choose to acknowledge it) could be told to us about our personality/lives from those around us, and then there’s the truth.  Gone Girl examines each of these narratives for Nick and Amy, and by the end of the book, I got the sense that I knew these characters without really understanding them.  It was an engaging dynamic that Flynn used, and really enjoyable to read.

When I got a few chapters into this book, I was a little bored and got the feeling that this was going to be a standard ‘who-done it.’  I was convinced that I had the whole disappearance case wrapped up in under 50 pages.  Then I changed my mind about who I thought had done it.  Then I changed my mind again.  Then, Flynn threw in such an amazing wild card into the equation that I was hooked – I had to keep reading, I had to keep learning about Nick and Amy, and I had to know what the motives were behind Amy's disappearance.  The truth behind the entire affair is far more spectacular and interesting and engaging than any ‘who-done-it’ could ever be. 

My hands are tied in saying anything more about the plot without ruining the book, and I hate to give away endings, especially in a book like this where everyone should experience the reveal for themselves.   So, final verdict?  This is definitely a book worth reading.  Gone Girl has gotten a lot of attention since its publication for a very good set of reasons; Flynn is a master of character development and analysis, the plot is amazing and unexpected, and the writing style is well-balanced and crafted in such a way to draw the reader in.  This is Flynn’s third novel, and I’ll be checking out her first two and keeping my eye open for the fourth.  Gone Girl is an amazing read, and I’m looking forward to experiencing more of Flynn’s works in the future.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Blood Between Queens, by Barbara Kyle

Back when I started this blog, I had no real clue what I was doing.  I would write entries, then just leave them sitting there in hopes that someone on the intermanet would stumble across them, read them, like them, and tell all their friends to start reading it; my approach was way worse than needle in a haystack – it was more like hoping someone would be able to (and would want to) pick a particular snowflake out of an avalanche.  It wasn’t a smart approach. 

Then it dawned on me – Twitter.  When I write a supportive post, I tell the author of the book about it.  I don’t hold back on books if I don’t like them, but I found that when I like a book, and I let the author know, they’ll often re-Tweet my post, bringing in new readers for my blog.  Sometimes, I’m lucky enough to get to develop cordial relationships with the author.  That was the case with Barbara Kyle and what led to my latest read; during some Twitter back-and-forth, I mentioned how much I was looking forward to her next book, and Kyle offered to let me have access to an Advanced Reader’s Copy.  I was thrilled!

I’m not going to lie – I sometimes worry that I was less than flattering in some of my past posts about Kyle’s Thornleigh series.  I’ve devotedly read her books since I discovered them, but I found a flaw or two with them and, true to my nature, wasn’t afraid to put my impressions out there.  When she offered me access to an ARC of the next one, I was worried that I would need to be flattering no matter what my impressions of the book were, but within 100 pages, all my worries were dispelled; Kyle’s newest book, Blood Between Queens is an amazing read and, by far, the best piece of writing in series.

The Thornleigh Series tells the story of the Thornleigh family (duh) over a course of several decades.  The first book (The Queen’s Lady) begins during the reign of Henry VIII, while Blood Between Queens is set during the beginning of Mary of Scot’s imprisonment by Elizabeth I.  In Blood Between Queens, we are introduced to Justine, a survivor of the Thornleigh/Grenville feud who wants nothing more than to fit in her with her adopted family, the Thornleighs.  However, playing on themes that run through all the books, Justine is forced to weigh her personal morals against her public and private loyalties, and come to many tough decisions.  

In her other books, Kyle displayed a wonderful sense of historical finesse, and she clearly researched all aspects of her books thoroughly (I think her work on Tudor prisons in The King’s Daughter has to be some of the finest historical fiction writing I’ve ever read).  In some cases though, I felt that the history overshadowed the Thornleigh plot.  (While the research was solid and interesting, I was more interested in the characters’ development that the politics of the time.)  Blood Between Queens seems to navigate both channels superbly, and doles out just enough historical fact to ground the plot without overwhelming the reader in it.  

Kyle’s characters in this book, like in the entire series, are relatable and engaging.  This is why I keep coming back to her as an author – if I’m going to spend five books worth of time with someone, they better be engaging.  Kyle is able to craft a cast of characters who, even with the villains, you want to read more about.  I’ve become invested in these characters, so it broke my heart to see some of the older ones declining, but it came to me that Kyle wasn’t shielding her readers from reality, making this a series that she can conceivably (and will hopefully!) continue through many generations of the family.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Kyle’s books.  As an author, Kyle is skilled at walking her readers through the quagmire of Tudor history with all its political intrigue and cross-cuts; she’s crafted plots that are fast-paced and constantly drawing the reader in; and she’s developed characters which will serve her will for years to come as they are robust and engaging.  I hope that Kyle doesn’t end her series, but rather continues to write about the Thornleighs.  In a literary market full of Tudor-inspired histories, Kyle’s works stand out as an example of how the miasma of the Tudor dynasty can be used as a backdrop to create a fulfilling experience for the reader.  

(**Note: Blood Between Queens has a slated release date for April 30, 2013.**)

(**Second Note: I have the author’s permission to clearly state, up front and without a Spoiler Alert, that Mary never becomes Queen of England.  If you didn’t know that, feel a smidgen of shame, and tune into any and all documentaries by David Starkey that you see are being broadcast on television and/or pick up a book or two by Alison Weir.**)

Friday, March 22, 2013

Mistress of Rome, by Kate Quinn

I won’t deny it; I’m more than a bit eclectic when it comes to my reading choices.  I have no real preference for fiction/non-fiction, or genres, and though I read a lot of historical fiction, I don’t contain myself to a specific time period or location.  So, when the mood struck me to visit ancient Rome, I picked up Mistress of Rome, by Kate Quinn, in order to get my fix of all things historical.

Mistress of Rome tells many, many stories.  The main story (I think) is the love between a slave and a gladiator, Thea and Arius.  However, Quinn crafts many characters out of patricians, senators, and emperors.  All her characters are well developed and (for the most part) believable, and all their stories seamlessly flow amongst one another.  Quinn should be commended for her ability to craft her historical story telling amongst so many socio-economic classes without misstep.  

This is going to be a short review for one simple reason; by the time I read this book, I was out of the habit of writing reviews, so didn’t read it with a mind to later jot down my impressions.  However, I found this work to be wonderfully well done.  So, final verdict?  I’d recommend you read this book.  For someone who is as critical as I am, I can’t think of a single negative thing I’d say about this book.  Moreover, I’ll be picking up more of Quinn’s works in the future.  And what better review can I give than attest to the fact that this author will be getting more of my time and money in the future?

Drop Dead Healthy, by A.J. Jacobs

I am a big fan of A.J. Jacobs’ writings.  It all started for me with The Year of Living Biblically and Know It All.  Jacobs’ latest book, Drop Dead Healthy, is another read that’s made my list of favorites from him.

For the uninitiated, Jacobs lives his life as if it were a combination of an experiment and living-art instillation.  In Biblically and Know It All, Jacobs spent a year of his life devoted to his spiritual and intellectual health; in Biblically, Jacobs spent a year living my all the rules that could be found in the Bible from the big ones (that shall not kill) to the less relevant ones (i.e. feel free to stone adulterers).  In Know It All, Jacobs spent the year reading through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  Both books come with a wealth of personal stories that are at once humorous and emotionally sincere.  Ever since I’ve read them, I haunt the shelves of Chapters waiting for Jacobs’ next release.

In Drop Dead Healthy, Jacobs takes up the same type of challenge, but this time he is concerned about his physical health.  In the world we currently live in, you can’t go a week without hearing about the obesity epidemic in Western culture (complete with news stories full of B-roll of fat people shot from behind and the neck down walking – ps. I live in fear of recognizing my own ass one day….) or about the newest diet craze.  Jacobs set out to be the healthiest specimen he could be – but his first task was how to figure out how to make that happen.

In true Jacobs-style, the reader is treated to the gamut of experiments that Jacobs went through in order to meet his goal.  From the trendy gym classes/fitness crazes, to the diets, to the medical tests, the reader gets to go along with Jacobs as he test-drives the latest and greatest in how to get and stay healthy.  From that summary, it might sound less than riveting, but when coupled with Jacobs’ intrinsic sense of self-deprecating and satirical humour, it’s an ode to all that is wrong with our culture’s obsession with image.  In the end, I think the take away is simple; eat health, eat less, exercise often, exercise efficiently, get a good night’s sleep and you’ll be healthy.

Coupled with Jacobs’ own quest for health, the reader get the parallel story of his grand-father’s declining health.  This is what makes Jacobs so relatable as an author.  In his other works, we get a view of Jacobs’ family life with his (long suffering and loving) wife Julie and their three boys.  This book doesn’t lack that aspect, but it also includes the story of Jacobs’ grandfather who lived an amazingly full and celebration-worthy life.  However, as with all things in nature, Grandpa Ted is declining in his later years and, as Jacobs works to get healthy, his efforts are contrasted against the inevitable decline of the human body in its later years.  More heart-breaking is Jacobs’ account of what can happen to someone who seems perfectly healthy and does all the right things (I won’t give more details – it would ruin the read).  In the end, the take away is that we should make the most of what we have when we have it – a certain amount of that is living as healthy as possible, but the reality is that fate always has the last laugh.

My only complaint about this book was a lack of clarity from the author.  With Biblically and Know It All, Jacobs confined his experiments to a year-long period; with Drop Dead Healthy, the book spans two years.  This left me wondering halfway through the book when Jacobs was going to wrap things up, which was quite distracting.  I just wish that Jacobs had explained his break with tradition up-front.  Other than that minor annoyance, I had no complaints.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Jacobs’ books – they’re funny, enlightening, and relatable.  Jacobs’ is a wonderful author, and a funny, funny man, and I’ll be keeping him on my list of must-reads.  Oh, and one last thing – eat your vegetables. 

What a long, strange road it's been.

Wow.  So, it’s been a long time since I blogged.  In the spirit of Eight Bookcases being a record of certain parts of my life, here’s a brief summary of what’s been going on since I last posted.

First of all, around Christmas, I started reading the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  I had planned to finish all the currently released books, then write about my impressions.  However, each book is more than 1,000 pages, so I underestimated how long that would actually take.  And, like anything I get into, I burnt out at a certain point.  I’ll definitely being going back to the series to finish it and, when I do, I’ll share my thoughts about it.

Then, mid-December, I had to put my cat down.  Buster was an amazing companion – at 18 years old, he was a major part of my childhood, then when I moved out of my parent’s home in my early 20s, I took him with me, and he became a major part of my University, professional, and YUP-ie experiences.  As a friend said at the time, he was quite a character.  And he meant a lot to me.  Needless to say, at the time I was looking for mindless distractions, and found that reading wasn’t it.

Then, feeling lonely and sad over loosing Buster, I adopted a kitten.  Wellington is the new distraction in my life; you try explaining to a 6 month-old kitten that it’s quiet time so you can read.  It doesn’t work that way.  Even now, he’s roaming around under my desk trying to get my attention.  He’s full of energy, fun to have around, and a complete distraction from most things that he doesn’t feel is interesting; reading takes twice as long, and so I haven’t been doing much of it lately.

Regardless, I have read a couple of books since I last posted.  I got through the first 4 Outlander books, and the two that I’ll post about shortly.  With the change of season, I traditionally get more and more into my books, and I hope that’s what will happen now.  So, stay tuned to Eight Bookcases, since I’m hoping to get back into the habit of regular postings.

Happy readings!