Vanity and Verity by Jeanne Waters

Well, my friends, the next two reviews are going to be a delight or a disaster, depending on your feelings about Jane Austen and the sequels, prequels and spinoffs that surround her canonical novels. This is not part of my Jane Austen reading challenge for 2013 – I will be posting my next review for the challenge on April 1st. This is just something that came up in my Amazon recommendations. I was intrigued by a prequel about Darcy’s parents and the indefatigable Lady Catherine De Bourgh. I got the sample, found the writing to be very good, and then bought the book. I think the blurb is overlong – but here is the link to Goodreads, and part of the blurb:

vanity and verity

A prequel to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Vanity and Verity explores the London debuts of Lady Anne and Lady Catherine Fitzwilliam. Upon arrival in London, Lady Catherine is immediately taken with the striking Mr. George Darcy (father of Austen’s iconic Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy). But the circumspect Lady Anne questions the character and connections of the yet unknown Mr. Darcy. Anxious to please her proud and domineering mother and concerned about protecting the imprudent Catherine from herself, Anne hopes to forge the right friendships and alliances to steer the sisters safely through a season in 1780s London. However, the cautious Anne is in danger of giving Mr. Darcy entirely the wrong idea of her character, even as Anne herself begins to reevaluate her first impressions of the gentleman. Meanwhile Catherine, intoxicated by the London scene, pursues flirtations with Mr. Darcy, his friend Mr. Tyndall, her cousin, and even the tedious Sir Lewis DeBourgh while Anne struggles to remind her sister – and herself – of the importance of empathy and consideration for others.

I immediately liked the tone and writing style. It starts off reminiscent of Jane Austen, which is easy to do for a few pages, when one’s tongue is gently placed in one’s cheek to mock one’s supercilious characters. That won’t work for a whole novel, as we are none of us Jane, are we? Ms. Waters is aware of this and moves on to a light regency touch. It’s a comfortable, familiar voice, which always adds to a historical when done well. The focus of the book is Anne, the elder daughter, and future mother of Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy. Her sister, Catherine, the future Lady Catherine de Bourgh, is unrecognizable as a spoiled, willful child who flirts with any handsome man who will pay her attention. Anne is far more contained. She is a sociable young woman, with the 19th century failing of most female characters: the inability to tell a pushy man to bug off! But let me back up.

Anne and Catherine’s father is a peer, but one with more title than fortune. His lady wife finds it reprehensible he will not hire a house in town so she can bring her daughters out. She didn’t care so much about Anne, but her beloved Catherine must have a season in London! The Earl doesn’t mind them going, as long as it doesn’t cost him any money. His solution: that his wife and daughters stay with his widowed sister. Lady Charlotte is only too happy to host them, being generous of nature and spirit, but lacking in understanding and social graces. The girls are soon caught up in the whirl of dances and entertainments. Anne has the misfortune of attracting the eye of her cousin’s friend, Mr. Wilson. An obnoxious bore, he reminds me of John Thorpe from Northanger Abbey. He attaches himself to her and won’t let go, despite her attempts to politely rebuff him. It is through Mr. Wilson that she meets Mr. Darcy and the comedy of errors begins. Mr. Wilson boasts of his friendship with Mr. Darcy. Having no idea of Mr. Darcy’s position, reputation or wealth, she doesn’t know that Wilson is only trying to make himself look good by association. Having no desire to spend the evening with more than one Mr. Wilson, she refuses Mr. Darcy when he asks her to dance. He graciously accepts her claim of fatigue and goes to dance with Catherine instead. Mr.Wilson has no intention of taking no for an answer. He drags her bodily onto the dance floor, despite her protestations, and pushes her into the line. Having rudely pushed several people aside and finding herself the center of attention, she has no recourse but to comply. In front of Mr. Darcy and everyone, she is required to dance with Mr. Wilson.

By the time Anne learns she has mistaken Mr. Darcy’s character, she feels she owes him some sort of apology. Her mother, however, does not believe that an Earl’s daughter should apologize for anything. Explain, she may, but apologize, never. Anne is trying to do this as delicately as possible, when her mother pipes up to assure Mr. Darcy that if Anne had known of his birth, she would surely have danced with him.

To a snob like Anne’s mother, this is acceptable, but to a man like Darcy, it makes a bad impression. And so another dance begins, this one metaphorical. Just as Anne begins to regard him, he pulls away from her. Does he despise her? Does she simply like him or does she like him like him? And why does she like him when he has shown her he thinks so little of her? Or has she misunderstood his natural delicacy? Is she reading too much into his actions? Why does he not ask her to dance? In the mean time, her sister is bouncing between Mr. Darcy and his friend Mr. Tyndall, imagining she can use the one to get to the other. A Mrs. Scott and her daughter ingratiate themselves to the ladies, to Anne’s dismay, and Miss Scott begins to flatter her way into Catherine’s good graces. Then there is another young gentleman of fortune named Lord Barham on the scene. Catherine drops all pretense of affection for Mr. Tyndall, she must realize Darcy is beyond her reach, and sets her cap at getting a Lord. And poor Anne is in the middle, trying to keep her sister from making a complete fool of herself and breaking Mr. Tyndall’s heart.

Misunderstanding is heaped upon misapprehension, confusion, lies, backbiting, rumors that are completely off the mark – all against the mix of people striving for engagements, gossip, a place in society, fortune gathering and flattery. I really enjoyed the relationship between Anne and Darcy when it finally started to bloom, and also enjoyed shouting at the pages when obstacles would come between them. In a good romance, you know everything will come out all right, but the author should have you wondering How?! How on earth is this going to be made right?

I do have a few complaints. I loathed Catherine as a character and thought she was nothing like the Lady Catherine of Pride and Prejudice. How she came to be with her husband, Sir Lewis DeBourgh, was unbelievable. Then at the end, the two main characters led us through a line by line review of their relationship that went on and on and on. And finally, as so often happens in these books, I felt the author lifted characters from other Jane Austen books and gave them different names. Most of these seem to come from Sense and Sensibility. A friend, Miss Augusta Anderson may well have been Anne Steele, Lucy Steele’s less manipulative sister. Lady Charlotte was like Mrs. Jennings. Lord Barham (SPOILER ALERT highlight the white text if you want to see who I think he is like ) is sort of a mix of Henry Crawford from Mansfield Park and the future Mr. Wickham.

Those are minor complaints. I enjoyed this book and the main characters. I think it was self-published, but it wasn’t riddled with errors or bad grammar like so many of them. Since it was a prequel, and so many characters were brand new, there was more leeway for the author. Though you know what is coming in the future, you don’t know these character’s pasts, so you aren’t looking to see what all the author might have gotten wrong. And we all knew Mr. Darcy’s parents had to be likable folk. I would read another book by this author in a heartbeat.


The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

I have confessed to you, dear readers, of the disorder that plagues me. I suffer from an unchecked, rampant case of Anglophilia. I may be using that wrong, I may have made that word up, as it sounds a little bit like I want to have relations with dead English people, but basically, I lose control of my bladder at the sound of an English accent. And it doesn’t stop there. The words “London” “The Strand” “The West End” or anything remotely like “Buckingham” produces twitches and uncontrollable eavesdropping. If I don’t watch a period drama at least once a month, I get bonnet withdrawal. But enough of my incurable condition. The only reason I brought it up is because of Maureen Johnson’s most excellent novel, set in … drumroll please…. LONDON, ENGLAND. Not only that, but in the West End, the locale made famous for its theatrical productions, and the rampage of Jack the Ripper. Even better – this book has to do with the Ripper crimes – or rather with the same crimes being committed in modern day. But let me give you the link and the blurb.

the name of the star

The day Louisiana teenager Rory Deveaux arrives in London marks a memorable occasion. For Rory, it’s the start of a new life at a London boarding school. But for many, this will be remembered as the day a series of brutal murders broke out across the city, gruesome crimes mimicking the horrific Jack the Ripper events of more than a century ago. 

Soon “Rippermania” takes hold of modern-day London, and the police are left with few leads and no witnesses. Except one. Rory spotted the man police believe to be the prime suspect. But she is the only one who saw him. Even her roommate, who was walking with her at the time, didn’t notice the mysterious man. So why can only Rory see him? And more urgently, why has Rory become his next target? In this edge-of-your-seat thriller, full of suspense, humor, and romance, Rory will learn the truth about the secret ghost police of London and discover her own shocking abilities.

I really enjoyed this. Some people think it’s an automatic Potter ripoff if the kid is in boarding school, and in England, no less, but Johnson’s approach is totally different. Even after reading the Potter series, I really had no idea what living in a boarding school was like. I guess everyone in England knows. Here in America, boarding school has a bad rap. I don’t know – maybe the elite back in the Ivy League states send their kids to them, but I do not know a single human who went to boarding school. She introduces us to the refrigerator in the tea room, getting ready in the morning with dozens of other girls, when and what they eat, and the crazy class schedules, that I thought were part of a Hogwarts un-usuallness, are apparently a real thing.

Just as we are getting settled in, the terror in the city is starting to ramp up. Someone is re-creating the Ripper murders, and somehow, avoiding the surveillance cameras that blanket the city. Everyone is screaming bloody murder (bad pun) and complaining about the failure. Then the truth is revealed: the cameras caught the murder, but not the perpetrator. dun dun dunnn! The murders are being done in exactly the same way and on the same dates as the original Ripper murders – so the police know when the Ripper will strike. The only difference is the locations – so the entire city is on tenterhooks when a Ripper date approaches. Johnson does a great job of amping up the tension. She also slowly unveils the change that has taken over Rory: she develops the ability to see ghosts. And she’s possibly seen the man who the CCTV couldn’t catch! When the police get wind of this, a rather rock-n-roll looking officer asks her a bunch of questions. She learns she’s not the only one who can see people others can’t. As a matter of fact, there is a secret police force made up of people with this ability, who specialize in dealing with troublesome ghosts.

Johnson is great at creating the atmosphere of the West End, the boarding school, and has a totally adorable main character. I really like Rory. She shows up to her new boarding school a few days early. The only other people who are there are the prefects. She goes to her room to settle in and try on her uniform – then the head girl is sent to bring her down for dinner. She asks if she should change out of her uniform, and the head girl says, “Oh, don’t bother.” Well. She should have listened to her gut. Everyone in the dining room is wearing t shirts and jeans and looks at her with that mixture of shock and pity that an established group always gives an outsider. Rory quickly tells everyone that she loves her uniform. She’s going to wear it all the time. The girl has sass. The good kind.

I’m not really a YA reader. There’s usually some way the author has to find to avoid sending their characters to school, or making it about sending their characters to school, avoiding parental involvement, or simply killing the parents off. Reading books with those two problems again and again can get boring. Besides that, I hated high school. I don’t care to revisit it. It brings on nightmares. However –  if you give me an English setting and Jack and Ripper I’ll find a way to deal with it. I liked how little bits of Ripper lore made it into the story – something anyone with an interest in Ripperology would be intrigued by.

But it’s not perfect. A couple of things that bothered me: the abrupt dumping of the very sweet roommate with the ridiculous name of “Jazza”. Another thing I didn’t like: the name Jazza.  The roommate is such an important part of Rory fitting in to this English boarding situation, then the plot gets going and the roommate was clearly in the way. Sort of the same thing with a boy.(sorry – spoiler alert) She has a makeout session with him, but no real squishy feelings for him. I wish that would have been resolved or ended. And about that parent problem – in this one, the author chose to make them complete non-entities. Rory sees a murder suspect, is being protected by the police, and doesn’t call mom n dad? But she regaled her English friends with stories about her weird relatives back home all the time. I guess she liked her weird relatives better than her parents.

Anyway – I do recommend this. I really want to read the next one, but I’ve sworn to chill out with the book buying. I’ve downloaded so many freebies thanks to the Goodreads Apocalypse Whenever group, and I feel terrible that I never read them. You may get a lot of dystopian and zombie books in the next few months, as I start to make my way through them.

The Haunted House by Walter Hubbell

Now for something different. Everyone thinks Amityville Horror was the first published “true to life” ghost story out there. But it was not. And we know from those that lived in the house that much of the book was bullroar, but I don’t want to start that argument here. I had never heard of the “The Great Amherst Mystery” – but it’s a thing. “A Haunted House” by Walter Hubbell is about what happened in Amherst, Nova Scotia, Canada between 1878 and 1879. It is a well known case, and as you can’t really spoil a ghost story (I mean, we all know where they go, don’t we?) I will warn you that I discuss the entire book. Ending and all. Here is the link to Goodreads.

a haunted house

The book starts out like a story. It introduces the inhabitants of the house – the principal owners being Daniel and Olive Teed. Daniel is a foreman at the shoe factory. Olive lives in the 1800’s, so she stays at home and does housework. They have two children and rent the other 3 rooms to their adult siblings. Olive’s two sisters rent one room, her brother, another. The third is let, on and off, to Daniel’s brother when he isn’t farming. Middle sister Jane is a great beauty, and then there is Esther. Our author is quick to tell us that she has many excellent qualities and is well loved. She is also willful, spoiled, won’t do chores until repeatedly asked and likes to get her way. So, if you are keeping track, that is six adult humans and two very young children living in what is referred to as a “four bedroom cottage.”

(Please take note: this is the gun I am putting on the mantelpiece. Any fans of Chekhov, or unfortunates dragged kicking and screaming into a drama class, or writers who have read books on playwriting and plot know what that means.)

Almost everything that happens is centered around Esther. In the book, the author tells us that Esther’s beau, Bob McNeal came to take her driving. Once he pulled in a little wood, he stopped the horses, jumped out of the buggy and pointed a gun at her, telling her to get out of the buggy or he’ll shoot her. Before she can respond, the roll of another buggy approaching can be heard. Bob leaped back in and drove at top speed back to her house. I thought this was a little weird, and read some more online to see if I could get more info on Bob and Esther’s relationship. Apparently, the dry commentary above is how you say that someone was almost sexually assaulted. I guess that was what he was dragging her out into the woods for, at least according to Wikipedia.

Shortly after, the alleged paranormal activity begins. The first thing happens with both sisters in bed. They feel movement in their mattress. On leaping out of bed, with the requisite screaming, they are convinced it is just a mouse, and it can’t very well get out of the mattress. So the girls go back to bed. (They made ‘em different back then – both mattresses and girls.)  Immediately after, they hear loud noises beneath their bed. It seems to be a sewing box jumping up and hitting the underside of the bed. They pull it out and it leaps in the air and falls over. They right it. It does the same thing again. They call their sister and brother in to see the phenomena, but Dan Teed completely dismisses them. I guess the box quit jumping finally. The next night, Esther leaps out of bed and swears she is dying. She looks ill and haggard and begins to swell. Her hands, fingers, face, neck, legs, all of her body starts to swell. She screams and writhes in pain and the family can do nothing to help her. Cracks like thunder fill the room, but the sky is clear. After the last thunderclap, Esther’s swelling subsides, and she falls asleep.

This happens several times. A doctor is called in, and according to the author, the doctor witnesses the swelling, hears the thunderclaps inside the house (so do the neighbors outside the house) and sees the words “Esther Cox you are mine to kill” appear over her bed. Bedclothes are torn off the bed. Potatoes are thrown at the family. Then poundings start inside the walls, on the roof and the ceiling.  The entity will answer questions by knocking: once for yes, twice if it is undecided and three times for no. Things continue like this, and then the fires start.

Small fires are kindled down in the kindling box. Lit matches appear out of nowhere and fall on the coverlet. Now Esther can see and hear the ghost. It tells her it is going to burn the house down. The family can no longer bear it, and have to send her out of the house. But where? The neighbors, friends, doctors and pastors have come to see the wild occurrences. Everyone knows what is going on and that it is centered around Esther. A kind friend, John White, who was interested in the phenomena is willing to let her stay with himself and his wife. She goes to his pub to work during the day and at first, all is well. Then the knocking and the fires start up again. John White claims that the heavy stove door opened by itself – and it was essential that door stay shut. He propped it closed with an axe handle. He claims to have seen the entire door unhinge from the oven and fly up into the air, dislodging the axe handle and fall to the floor – not once, but twice.

At some point, Esther went to New Brunswick for “men of science” to investigate her. The author does not go into detail about this, but the manifestations followed and were too happy to answer questions and tell their names. He’s very vague. I assume he’s not claiming the ghosts manifested so everyone can see them. All this information must have come from Esther, but he doesn’t tell us how. Before coming home, she stopped to stay with some friends in the woods. Allegedly, the manifestations stopped while she was there.

It is sometime after this the author pays a visit. He has come to debunk the goings on. He is quickly converted. Sitting in full view of Esther, he sees furniture move, violently, across the room. Small objects are thrown at him. He claims to see pins come out of nowhere and stab her. Things disappear off the table, or out of the sink, only to fall from the ceiling later. It’s a wild string of unbelievable phenomena that continues, in front of everyone. The ghost can tell people what is in their pockets, down to the coins, handkerchiefs, etc. People come over to watch the crazy show. It sounds impossible, right?

That is what I thought. I have seen some debunking of poltergeist phenomena. One boy in the 80’s claimed a spirit was destroying things in the house – but when a camera was set up to catch this, the boy himself was simply standing behind people, throwing things across the room when no one was watching. And the repetition of some of the ghost’s tricks – like dropping things from the ceiling, and the pounding on the walls: could someone, a confederate, perhaps, have been up in the attic, dropping things through trap doors, or between gaps in the slats, and pounding on the ceiling? Bob McNeal supposedly disappeared after his assault on Esther. But did he? I think the answer is in the culmination of the story. (Spoiler alert! I’m picking up my gun and taking aim.) Esther ended up moving out with those folks in the woods. The phenomena stopped. I have to wonder if that wasn’t the point of the whole charade.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.” Timothy Cavendish

“Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul.” Zachry

cloud atlas

I thought this book would be difficult. I’m one of those weirdos who prefers to see the movie before I read the book, if I have that option. I found the movie choppy and jarring in the beginning. I was afraid the book was told in the same way, and there was no way I could keep track of all these characters. I was glad to find this was a series of novellas, cut in two, except for the last one which is told in its entirety. Despite the ease of reading,  reviewing it is still going to be a bitch. Please to read the blurb, and if you want other input, here is the link to Goodreads:

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilization—the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small.

In his captivating third novel, David Mitchell erases the boundaries of language, genre and time to offer a meditation on humanity’s dangerous will to power, and where it may lead us.

At first glance, the novellas don’t seem to have anything to do with each other, but they do. A main character in each one has a comet-shaped tattoo. Are we visiting the same soul through time, in some cases even running into friends of previous inhabitants and creating an instant bond? Or is this a mark that shows up on someone who will leave their mark on history? I leave it to you. Each character creates ripples that touch the lives of those in the future. I don’t want to give anything away, but I don’t think it hurts to say that our reluctant voyager’s diary is being read by the disinherited composer. The vanity publisher is sent a manuscript about the high-minded journalist. So you are reading this series of stories that seem to have no interconnection….and yet they do. It’s genius. And subtle.

Let’s talk about genre. We’ve got a historical adventure (the reluctant voyager), a poetic tragedy (the disinherited composer), a political thriller (the high-minded journalist), a comedy (the vanity publisher), a sci-fi (the dinery server), a dystopian-futuristic, maybe also sci-fi (the young pacific Islander.) What remains constant are the themes. Greed is a big one: individual greed for wealth, political greed for power and money, or societal greed – the taking of another group’s territory and resources. Heroism and bravery is another: sometimes the characters exhibit these things in very small ways – such as a group of elderly being illegally locked up in an old folk’s home defying the system to break free, or an individual risking personal reputation in the light of injustice and artistic integrity. There are also large, history-changing acts of exceptional bravery, such as standing up to slavery or government tyranny,  where characters risk their life, wealth, comfort, and personal safety, to do the right thing. These are large, overarching themes that are handled in story. It’s not a lot of preaching. The only time the prose lapses into sermon is in the Orison of Sonmi-451 (the dinery server), but even that is handled well. Sonmi-451 is telling her story for posterity to an archivist. (Herstory instead of history. Get it?) It’s probably my favorite, and yet the most frustrating. (This was completely botched in the movie. It made no sense so I wondered how the book would be.) I was really enjoying the novella, until I found a plot hole so huge as to destroy the very fabric of the story. Then that plot hole was handed back to me on a platter at the end and it made perfect sense. It was an incredible reading experience. As Sonmi-451 says “Truth is singular. Its ‘versions’ are mistruths.”

If I had to find a low spot, it would be the Luisa del Rey Mystery (the high-minded journalist). I am not one for political thrillers and though the writing is excellent, I would rather be reading a ghost story or a regency romance. I really didn’t care about that damn fictional power plant, even though I felt for the characters. I thought the villain in this piece was a cartoon character. It just didn’t hit my genre button.

I want to touch on other things I found interesting. Adam is the first main character, and Eva is the first love interest. There is a situation with two brothers where one lets the other get captured (or possibly killed) and he feels cursed for it – sort of a Cain and Able in a broad sense. Souls are mentioned repeatedly. I also noticed the recurring mention of sisters. There are actual nuns who nurse one character back to life, and Sonmi-451’s fellow servers are referred to as her ‘sisters’. One of the main characters slept with his sister-in-law and pays for it. Two main characters in separate novellas have actual flesh-and-blood sisters (one who loves them dearly and makes sacrifices for them, the other feels they are a thorn in his side, a symbolism of the separation from his family.) I think the sisters are representative of family and womanhood – without women, how do we regenerate? What connects us to the future, other than our offspring? Last: slavery. The timeline of the book begins with slavery: the white treatment of aborigines in the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, driving the Maori to encroach on and enslave the peaceful Moriori because it was convenient for the white settlers. We all know the white attitude “We are superior beings, and it is only right to take the ‘less-human’ natives as slaves, enforcing Christianity and curing them of barbarism.” In the end of the timeline, hundreds of years in the future, one of the remaining pockets of intelligent and peaceful people, knowledgeable of the machinery and science of the past, is under threat of destruction and slavery by a stronger, barbaric tribe. As noted in the reluctant voyager’s diary:

“- one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”

For all the genre and history and symbolism and theme – I can recommend this on story alone. It’s beautifully written. Layered and intricate, and simple and poetic, all at the same time. I would read it for what the vanity publisher (Timothy Cavendish) says. “Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.”

A Dog of War by Heather Gregson

a dog of war

I wanted to start this review with HEATHER GREGSON MUST DIE! But I feared no one would get that my tongue was in my cheek, sort of, and that big men with guns and probes would show up at my apartment. The reason for the tongue-in-cheek beginning is that Heather Gregson did things to my feels with this book. And I think she should know that.

In the nature of transparency, you should now that this is another book that I got to read before it was even published. It hurt me then, too.

The link and the blurb:

Farm dog, Tierza, is devoted to her human boy, Aaron. Their idyllic life is interrupted when the German Army invades. Forced from their farm, Tierza accompanies her family to the Warsaw ghetto. Together with her boy, they try to live as normal a life as possible under terrible circumstances. For Tierza, all of that ends when her Aaron is taken by German soldiers and forced onto a train. Relentlessly, she follows the train tracks. During her journey, she meets different people and tries her best to aid them any way she can, but she never stays for long. Her love for her boy drives her onward to the end of the tracks and her boy’s fate.

This is a mid grade book, but I think adults would get a lot out of it as well, and a parent should read this WITH their kids to get the most out of it. It’s told from the point of view of the dog, Tierza – and it’s charming. It’s not a talking dog – but I wonder if kids might think that. Tierza responds to people when they speak to her – I can actually see myself talking to my current-cat and long-gone dogs. We speak to them and they listen to us – who is to say how they are responding? The innocence, sweetness and genuine-ness of Tierza is in direct contrast to the horrible ways human beings treat each other, both those who are the aggressors in the war, and those who are just ground down by the war and poverty and desperation. She even teaches people she comes across to stop being such jerks.

As usual, it’s hard to give a review and not spoil stuff. But it’s World War II, I think we know what indignities the Jews were subjected to. It begins with a long march to the ghetto in Warsaw. The city is in shambles, and they force the Jews to go out and clean up the rubble. You can’t write a WWII story involving Jewish people at this time and NOT address atrocities. They are handled gently, but honestly. It goes beyond words sometimes. The really horrible things happen off-page, but the aftermath is understood. Sometimes, Tierza does not understand what she is seeing, but the reader does. And part of your heart sort of dies.

I have often pondered here and elsewhere about what it is that reading does for us, or to us. I have felt changed by books in the past. I have vivid memories of things I read as a kid that taught me lessons. Some of them were subtle. I think Watership Down taught me that just because I’m a human I don’t have the right to inflict my will on the land and smaller creatures around me. Was that a useful lesson? Is compassion towards little things worth learning? Is having these interior realizations, or asking questions that I only ask myself because of the books I read, improvement? What sort of things would a kid reading this ask themselves about history, how we treat others, the nature of war, the unfair treatment of the Jews, the treatment of prisoners of war… What sort of realizations would this kind of book do for a mid-grade reader or the parent reading it along with them? Are these the sorts of things you think it is important to think about? Or you could put in the Pokemon movie for the hundredth time.

Just sayin’.

World War Z by Max Brooks

world war z

I have wanted to read this forever…and once again, thank you library, for making books that are outside of my fiduciary liabilities available. I am glad to say that it lived up to the wait and the hype. I really enjoyed this.

The blurb is long – so here is the link, and here is the first paragraph.

The Zombie War came unthinkably close to eradicating humanity. Max Brooks, driven by the urgency of preserving the acid-etched first-hand experiences of the survivors from those apocalyptic years, traveled across the United States of America and throughout the world, from decimated cities that once teemed with upwards of thirty million souls to the most remote and inhospitable areas of the planet. He recorded the testimony of men, women, and sometimes children who came face-to-face with the living, or at least the undead, hell of that dreadful time. World War Z is the result. Never before have we had access to a document that so powerfully conveys the depth of fear and horror, and also the ineradicable spirit of resistance, that gripped human society through the plague years.

The book is a series of recollections collected years after victory was declared over the walking dead. However, they are not gone. Even as he (our nameless narrator) collects stories, he walks across frozen fields were zombies are slowly thawing, to rise and walk again. *shudder* Each person has their own section – it’s sort of like a book of short stories. And there are a lot. As a reviewer it’s hard to get a grip on where to begin.

What I liked about this was the realistic spread of the disease and the world’s reaction to it than I’ve seen in a movie or most of the books I’ve read. So often, a zombie story is set on the ground. You see an individual or group struggling to avoid the shuffling horde. You have no idea what the government is doing – the government often completely disappears. Usually because the writer doesn’t want to deal with them. Same with all municipal functions: no water, no electricity, no delivery of goods and services. Society completely breaks down. The police/military are rendered null. This story takes the long view of the zombie apoxyclips. It shows utter destruction of some of those things, but also how in places, life continued, different, but not entirely thrown back into the dark ages.

It begins in China. A man and his son were driving for sunken goods left behind when their valley was flooded for the Three Gorges Reservoir. The boy was bitten by something- the father disappeared. Before he could be subdued, the boy bit several people, who all fell ill. The doctor informs a colleague in the Institute of Infectious diseases, and the place is put on lockdown. The doctor realizes this can’t be an isolated incident. China is slow to react – they are too convinced of their military might and the iron grip over their people. That iron grip turns to a pitted colander at the borders. People flee. And the smugglers don’t care if people are infected, as long as they can pay. And so the world burns. Or you know, people get bit, die, and then get up and do their biting in turn.

The stories collected range from heroic to heartbreaking, are sometimes filled with brutal indifference, where individuals profit from the deaths and terror of the populace. Others are squirm inducing tales of government spin machines, blatant lies to keep up morale (good) or to stave off panic at the government’s complete lack of preparation (bad). In the end, it all comes down to handling fear. That is what zombies are, I think. Shuffling fear. How do you keep a society together and functioning in a war where the enemy isn’t fighting for freedom of one kind of another, or an ideal, or territory? They aren’t really fighting us. They are just eating and/or infecting us. For every soldier lost behind enemy lines, that is one more shuffler for the horde. The book has a few passages on fear. One of my favorites is from a soldier who has survived a battle that was expected to be a decisive victory, and went totally FUBAR.

“…but the weapon that really failed wasn’t something that rolled off an assembly line. It’s as old as…I don’t know, I guess as old as war. It’s fear, dude, just fear and you don’t have to be Sun freakin’ Tzu to now that real fighting isn’t about killing or even hurting the other guy, it’s about scaring him enough to call it a day. Break their spirit, that’s what every successful army goes for, from tribal face paint to the ‘blitzkrieg’ to… what did we call the first round of Gulf War Two? ‘Shock and awe.’ Perfect name, ‘Shock and Awe’! But what if the enemy can’t be shocked and awed? Not just won’t, but biologically can’t!” 

I don’t want to spoil anything but I will tell you a few of my favorite recollections: the blind gardener in Japan who stayed behind when the island was evacuated, the tale of the girl who drove north with her parents after the US government pulled back, the story of the Chinese submarine, a sort of Hunt for Red October in the zombie apoxyclips, and the story of the astronauts stuck in space.

I’d like to read it again, this time not taking copious notes in order to review it…

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

the historian

When I heard of this book, I knew I had to read it. Vampires. Hello! I have been attracted to them since I was too young to understand what it was that drew me to them. Well, I may still be too young to understand that. Blood kinda grosses me out, but Bela Lugosi in that cape? Christopher Lee’s voice? That stare? I always found these men in these roles incredibly sexy. I always wished they were more romantic figures. But… I also like the terrifying vampire, and that is what we’ve got here. The real vampires. The first one, literally. Below is the blurb, follow this link to Goodreads.

Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfo rtunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.

It’s a little slow at first, but I don’t mind a meandering stroll through a story when it’s as well written as this. Kostova breaks a few rules. The main character, the narrator, is very passive at first. Most of the action takes place in a series of flashbacks until we catch up with the present. She is telling us about her father, who is telling the story of how this mysterious book and pile of letters came to be in his library. The letters are someone else’s story. I got a little lost at times, not knowing if I was hearing the father’s story, or the story of the man in the letters.

Have I lost you yet?

Let me explain while trying not to give too much away. Our narrator’s beloved father came across a mysterious book while working in his cubicle in the library. He tries to return the book to the front desk, only to find it on his desk again the next day. Incredibly old, and having only one image, a woodcut of a dragon printed in the middle, it’s a curious item. He decides to ask his mentor, Professor Rossi, about it. He’s shocked when sight of the book does not register interest, but fear. Rossi had received a similar book when he was a young man, in a similar way. The image in the center of the book is holding a banner with a single word in gothic lettering: Drakulya.

Those who have seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula will recognize the pronunciation of the honorary name of Vlad Tepes, known as Vlad the Impaler for his preferred method of torture. (And you know that the whole “movie closest to the original story” line is bullshit.) Being a student of history herself, our girl knows Stoker used Vlad as inspiration for his masterwork. It would seem that what this book and Rossi’s research point to Vlad being more than just inspiration for vampires: He was one.

I was hooked. I couldn’t stop turning pages. There have been so many retellings and spin offs of Dracula, but to go back to the source itself and make Vlad not just the inspiration but a for-reals-blood-sucking vampire? I loved it. And the terror ramps up from there. The first 1/3 of the book is good at dealing out the fear. Something is stalking her father. Something is trying to derail his research into the book, just as something tried to stop Professor Rossi. Dim libraries. Sudden trips to exotic locales. After about a third of the book, it becomes a bit of a travel log. I still enjoyed it, but by the 2/3rds point, I started to get bogged down in the minutia. I wanted it to get on with it, get going again. The first third of the book had ramped up the terror and I wanted my payoff.

The payoff does come. There are a few fortuitous meetings of folks who come along at just the right time, and a secret society comes out of the woodwork a little late, but the author sort of addresses these things. She suggests that, if Vlad has evil on his side, perhaps our historians have good on theirs. These were minor concerns. When the fear of vampires isn’t driving you on, there are external forces, governments, rival historians (or are they?) driving the tension. And there are more mysterious books. Tragedy has stalked the wake of everyone who comes across one.

I would like to address one complaint from other reviews. One person went on and on about how the biggest export of Dutch merchants (in regards to the father’s research as a graduate student) was never mentioned. I mean really? I could give a camel’s hump. I want to read a story, not research the author’s accuracy vis a vie a minor factual point too small to affect the plot. What I am saying is, maybe if you are a historian or a librarian, you might be sidetracked by inaccuracies that are bound to occur in a work of this magnitude, but as a reader, I was impressed at what must have been painstaking research. I did go online and check a few things. (I often do that in the course of things. It wasn’t like I was on a fact-finding mission.) And if you want to see the real places, there is an amazing blog called “Picture Book for The Historian.” It has photos from the real places mentioned in the book. It’s not complete, but was clearly a labor of love. I strongly recommend you check it out.

The locations are a visual feast. Just a partial list: the Haga Sophia, Amsterdam, The Carpathian Mountains, Venice, the Radlicffe Camera in Oxford (will make a fan of Eurocentric architecture go knock-kneed) Perpignon, Istanbul, Lake Bled, the Rila Monastery. It’s neverending. Obviously, some are countries, some are places. Please forgive any spelling mistakes or improper use of modifiers.

I found this book a blend of fiction and fact, merged with the shades of history. We can argue that history is itself incomplete or fuzzy in places. Who writes the history, after all? The winners of a given conflict. That is why historians have to go beyond textbooks, to physical places, old books, and survivors. The Historian is unique in that it covers the history of  not one time, but decades and even centuries, great vast empires and religious conflicts. Though it might have been a little heavy on the detail and a little too long, I still thought it was a hell of a book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but it’s more like four stars, two thumbs up and a wink. I see it as something that would be better on a second read.