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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 153 pgs.
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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, which was our February book club selection, takes its name from an old Persian city, also called Pārsa, that was destroyed by Alexander the Great around 330 BC and is located in present day Iran. Because of the nation’s geographic location and, later, its oil riches, Iran became a prime target for invaders of all types, including Iraq and the West.

In these pages, Satrapi recounts her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution in which the Shah who supported the United States was overthrown by student, fundamentalist, and Islamic groups and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini and later created the Islamic Republic.  As a child, Satrapi is quick to passionate responses and, yet, is confused about what it means to be a revolutionary.  She tries to outdo her classmates with her own stories of family heroism, but she soon realizes that it is not the kind of competition you want to win, even on just the school yard.  There are dire consequences to opposing a fundamentalist regime.

This memoir, however, focuses less on the politics and more on the human aspects of this revolution.  The confusion of coups and the realization that war is devastating can touch each person in unexpected ways.  Whether it is an elevation in status, fear of being singled out by others who are afraid, or even the death of loved ones, neighbors, and friends.  Satrapi was a young girl who loved school, found reading to be a solace, and strove to fit in.  These are individuals, their country’s policies and actions may not reflect each person’s desires.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi should serve as a reminder of what revolution can lead to, how it affects everyone differently, and how the consequences cannot be ignored.  It must have been unimaginably hard to raise a young girl at this time, especially one as outspoken as Satrapi was.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Marjane Satrapi was born in 1969 in Rasht, Iran. She grew up in Tehran, where she studied at the French school, before leaving for Vienna and Strasbourg to study decorative arts. She currently lives in Paris, where she is at work on the sequel to Persepolis. She is also the author of several children’s books.

What the Book Club Said:

The book club all seemed to have enjoyed this graphic memoir. And the discussion was rather animated about the politics of the time and the religious fanaticism that took over Iran’s government. There were also interesting discussions about how her parents allowed her certain liberties even when they knew that neighbors informed on others and some were even in charge of ensuring women dressed and acted according to the new laws of the land. This was probably the most animated discussion in a long while, and some of us cannot wait to read the rest of the series.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 337 pgs.
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Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy, which was the January book club selection, is based on historical events along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s involving the Glanton Gang that scalped many, engaged in mercenary acts, and sought their fortunes. Led by John Glanton, who fought for Texas independence during the Mexican-American War, the gang murdered Indians and Mexicans alike. Readers should expect this book to be brutal and violent. There is no way around it with this subject matter, and much of the violence has little to no purpose other than to garner wealth and property for the gang members.

“The judge watched him. He began to point out various men in the room and to ask if these men were here for a good time or if inded they knew why they were here at all.

Everybody dont have to have a reason to be someplace.

That’s so, said the judge. They do not have to have a reason. But order is not set aside because of their indifference.” (pg. 341-2)

The kid is the main protagonist here, and he stumbles into the gang after wandering for some time. Readers will not view him as a hero, and in many ways he is an anti-hero because he is morally ambiguous like many characters in westerns. The focus on the bloodshed and the meanderings of this gang through the desert and mountains is a surface reading of the novel, the central character and theme is related to “God”, “destiny,” and the order of the universe, which the judge clearly says encompasses more than can be understood by the human mind. Some mysteries are perpetual, but he reminds us to never forget that there is an order and a reason behind even the most chaotic and mundane events.

Like the kid, the readers is forced into a world where violence is the norm and it just is, without any moments of morality or kindness present. In this world, how can the kid strive to understand a wider picture, learn to review his role in that violence, and come to any other conclusion than human kind is animal-like in its brutality?

While there are allusions to Christian traditions, such as the burning bush, there seems to be a subtext about relying too heavily on the stories/tales of “leaders” — whether they are religious or otherwise — because they oftentimes are lies (like the early tales told by the judge). The judge even keeps a ledger, which makes readers reflect on who is keeping that ledger and why? Is it God, Satan, or someone else, and does it really matter who? Moreover, the final scenes of the book call to mind Shiva’s Tandava, a violent and dangerous dance related to the destruction of the world in order for creation to flourish. It seems McCarthy is using a mesh of myths and religions to bring his points across about the violent birth of America.

The narrative is distant on purpose, but following the kid throughout gets difficult, and the number of bloody events could have been pared down significantly to demonstrate the points the author wanted to bring across. The strongest character in the novel is not the antihero but the judge, his antagonist. Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy could have been a much stronger novel with some editing.

Book Club Discussion:

As I was more than halfway through this one, I attended the discussion and planned to finish it after the meeting. Many liked the book well enough, though some said the narrative had their eyes/brains glazing over if read too quickly. Others found a bunch of theories to postulate on, including one where the Judge Holden appeared to be Satan or Satan-like because he was very good at a great many things.

Upon further discussion and review, it seems as though McCarthy took a lot of his events from those in My Confession by Samuel Chamberlain, who claimed to be a member of the Glanton Gang. Some scholars have said that the Kid in McCarthy’s book could be Chamberlain. Judge Holden is supposed to be a historical figure, but the only references to him are in Chamberlain’s book.

RATING: Tercet

Other Reviews:

The Road

About the Author:

Cormac McCarthy is an American novelist and playwright. He has written ten novels in the Southern Gothic, western, and post-apocalyptic genres and has also written plays and screenplays. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Road, and his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was adapted as a 2007 film of the same name, which won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

His earlier Blood Meridian (1985) was among Time Magazine’s poll of 100 best English-language books published between 1925 and 2005 and he placed joint runner-up for a similar title in a poll taken in 2006 by The New York Times of the best American fiction published in the last 25 years. Literary critic Harold Bloom named him as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Philip Roth. He is frequently compared by modern reviewers to William Faulkner.

In 2009, Cormac McCarthy won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, a lifetime achievement award given by the PEN American Center.

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audio, 9+ hours
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*** Spoilers included ***

The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, narrated by Neil Shah, is a coming-of-age story that traverses India, London, and France as Hassan Haji comes into his own as a chef. Told from Hassan’s point of view, the novel almost takes on the feel of a memoir. He speaks of his past in India and the culture and food that shaped him, but he also speaks about the death of his mother with a sense of detachment, even though the character claims it is a defining moment.

As the family moves abroad, Hassan is exposed to different foods and cultures, but he’s also shackled to the life of his father’s making. As a rivalry blooms between his father and another restaurateur in Lumière, Madame Mallory, Hassan begins to see glimmers of a world he could master and enjoy. The 100-foot distance between his father’s restaurant and that of Mallory is short, but seems to be worlds away, especially as she makes it her mission to destroy their business.

While food is central to this story and Hassan does grow into a stupendous chef, according to those around him, readers may find he develops little, especially in terms of his relationships with women. Hassan has been unable to commit to anyone, and while it is hinted at the end that this might change, it is almost like an afterthought by the author. There are other deaths in the novel, as well, and given the closeness of Hassan to his father and Mallory, it is hard to believe that the author would gloss over these and their impacts on Hassan, but he does.

Shah is a good narrator, though some of the accents seemed over the top at times and the language a bit forced. The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais, narrated by Neil Shah, is an interesting take on a man outside his culture learning to cook with greater skill but learning little else about himself. Although he becomes a famous chef, it seems that his relationships are only on the surface, and his character stagnates, especially as the trials of his early days in the Paris kitchens are glossed over.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Richard C. Morais is a Canadian American novelist and journalist. He is the author of three books, including The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is an international bestseller and has been adapted as a film by Dreamworks.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 463 pgs.
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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, which was our banned book selection for book club, was a re-read for me. The book was initially banned in Ohio because the language was considered indecent and considered objectionable. While there is objectionable language and graphic sexual situations, this is a book about the absurdity of war and it is a satire about World War II.

Catch-22: a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.

Yossarian is a bombardier who is an excellent shot, who achieves a second pass and earns a medal, but Colonel Cathcart has plans and continues to raise the number of missions his crew must fly. This bombardier and the colonel are in a silent battle, as Yossarian seeks out any number of reasons to get admitted to the hospital, or be declared insane, anything that will get him out of flying more dangerous missions. He’s almost like a clown bumbling around to disguise his strategy for escape.

“Colonel Cathcart cracked his knuckles violently. Colonel Korn, a stocky, dark, flaccid man with a shapeless paunch, sat completely relaxed on one of the benches in the front row, his hands clasped comfortably over the top of his bald and swarthy head. His eyes were amused behind his glinting rimless spectacles.” (pg. 148)

The shifting nature of this book mirrors the chaos of war on a smaller scale, leaving the reader in a whirlwind of activity and nonsense. Despite the horrors of war and the deaths around them, there’s a levity to these characters and their interactions. Frustration with superiors and bureaucracy is typical of many war novels, but Heller carefully demonstrates the back-stabbing, the all-for-myself moves of men in power, and the utter disbelief of soldiers at the very bottom of the power structure when the rug is pulled from beneath them. As in war, readers are unlikely to form strong attachments for the characters interacting in Heller’s novel — despite the incident with Snowden — making the war seem even more distant even more ridiculous.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a fun ride that never disappoints. From Yossarian’s struggles within the system to Milo’s triumph outside the hierarchy of military power, Heller has created a novel that speaks to the overall chaos and disharmony of war, the futile attempts to make life for soldiers seem normal by the military through order and discipline, and the machinations of those with their own agendas and how they can place everyone in jeopardy.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Joseph Heller was born in Brooklyn in 1923. In 1961, he published Catch-22, which became a bestseller and, in 1970, a film. He went on to write such novels as Good as Gold, God Knows, Picture This, Closing Time (the sequel to Catch-22), and Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man. Heller died in December 1999.

banned2016

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 240 pgs.
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The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman, which was our October book club selection, contains eight comics that were issued once per month. Gaiman admits that the writing is not as good upon reading them long after they were issued, and on this readers might agree. The dialogue is often choppy and the comics feel as though they do not have a focus or story arc. In many ways they are vignettes.

“There was a definite effort on my part, in the stories in this volume, to explore genres available: “The Sleep of the Just” was intended to be a classical English horror story; “Imperfect Hosts” plays with some of the conventions of the old DC and E.C. horror comics (and the hosts thereof); “Dream a Little Dream of Me” is slightly more contemporary British horror story … ” (From Gaiman’s Afterword)

Having read other graphic novels by Gaiman, this seems like a freshman effort at comics. The drawings themselves are dark and haphazard at times, making it hard for readers to follow the story in a cohesive way. I had to re-read a few pages to fully capture what was happening. Even after doing so, it seemed as though I was missing some backstory and even some explanation as to why this “order” would trap Sandman if he was not the one they wanted in the first place. However, I did like Sandman’s cloak…the flames were a nice touch.

Even once that episode is done and Sandman is free, the attempts to take back his “tools” are so easily accomplished that they fell flat. It was more of a detective story in that way — follow the clues and obtain the objects. Even the major battle with the demon was only mildly entertaining, and forget the battle with Dr. Dee. Overall, The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman fell a little flat for me in terms of substance, even the interactions between Sandman and Death were less than stellar.

RATING: Couplet

Other Reviews:

About the Author:

Neil Gaiman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of more than twenty books, and is the recipient of numerous literary honors. Originally from England, he now lives in America.

Find out more about Neil at his website, find all his books at his online bookstore, and follow him on Facebooktumblr, and his blog.

The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 6 hrs.
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The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie, our August book club selection, is narrated by Hugh Fraser and is the 13th book in the series.  Despite being so far into the series, it was refreshing to read a murder-mystery that was more intellectual in nature. Hercule Poirot is being taunted by the serial killer working his way through victims based on the alphabet, and beside his victims, he leaves the ABC Railway Guide open at the name of the town where the murder has taken place. Arthur Hastings, a longtime friend of Poirot, is excited to be working with his friend after a long time, and this book is told from Hastings’ point of view for the most part. The other narration is a third-person narrative created by Hastings’ reconstructions of other eye-witness accounts. Christie creates another mysterious layer this way because readers will always partially doubt the validity of those recollections.

The first three murders occur with little evidence of who the killer is, but once the killer decides to make an enemy of Poirot, he is bound to make mistakes. There also is a certain complexity of motive here, in which it is obscured again and again by other events and things that occur. While Hastings is in awe of his friend’s ability to solve cases, Inspector Crome is less than a fan. It’s interesting to see these two opinions face off, and it forces the reader to wonder is Poirot a super-detective or is he a man that gets lucky. Like many mysteries, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

The camaraderie between Poirot and Hastings is great, and the pace is spot on, even as the murders seem as though they will never be solved. A careful reader or listener can see the clues and figure out who the killer is, but Christie is adept at throwing in obstacles to obscure the truth. Hugh Fraser was a good narrator for Hastings, though at times some of the other characters got a bit muddled in the reading. The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie is a well written mystery that will have readers guessing and re-assessing.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Agatha Christie is the best-selling author of all time. She wrote eighty crime novels and story collections, fourteen plays, and several other books. Her books have sold roughly four billion copies and have been translated into 45 languages. She is the creator of the two most enduring figures in crime literature-Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple-and author of The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the history of modern theatre.

Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede

Source: Purchased
Kindle, 288 pgs.
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Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede, which was our July book club pick, is a retelling of a fairy tale.  In this rendition, the tale is set in England, and the characters are a bit modified.  Wrede says in the afterword that the original fairy tale had gaps and characters appeared and disappeared, leaving their motivations out of sight for the most part.  Here, Wrede contrives to make motivations fit the story, which mirrors the original very closely.

The language used here to mimic Elizabethan times but, in so doing, the dialogue was very stilted and hard to engage with for a good portion of the book.  While the language may have been to authenticate the time period, some of it was off in terms of usage and slowed the pace of the tale considerably.  However, her use of John Dee and Edward Kelly as the wizards in the town of Mortlak, who cause harm to the world of Faerie, was inspired, though even just Kelly would have been enough here.

Rosamund (Rose Red) and Blanche (Snow White) are the daughters of the Widow Arden (forest) who live on the outskirts of town near the land of Faerie, and while they tend to stay outside the forest and only use the herbs found within its borders for good, they have skills that other townsfolk only speculate about.  It is there in the woods that they find all manner of plants, including elecampane, which is native to central Asia.  Is this the work of the fay?  Or a miscalculation on Wrede’s part?  It’s unclear.

Wrede also relies on the continuation of “work” over several dayson more than one occasion without going into depth about the failed experiments, etc. This also slows the pace of the fairy tale down.  Snow White and Rose Red by Patricia C. Wrede is a satisfactory retelling of a well-known fairy tale, but what is unclear still is the motivations of one set of evildoers — the fay.  While the mortals clearly seek fame and fortune in their magic renderings, the fay involved in the spell-casting seem to have muddy reasoning for their part in it.

RATING: Tercet

About the Author:

Patricia C. Wrede was born in Chicago, Ill., and is the eldest of five children. She started writing in seventh grade. She attended Carleton College in Minnesota, where she majored in Biology and managed to avoid taking any English courses at all. She began work on her first novel, Shadow Magic, just after graduating from college in 1974. Patricia received her M.B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1977.  Patricia finished her first novel in late 1978, and she has since published 12 books.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 320 pgs.
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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, the May book club selection, is not for the faint of heart, as Roach discusses some of the most gruesome experiments and studies in science that involve cadavers.  However, she does pepper her examination of these curious lives with humor that helps to break up the grosser aspects of the book.

“The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship.  Most of your time is spent lying on your back.  The brain has shut down.  The flesh begins to soften.  Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.”  (pg. 9)

Through her — what some would call — irreverent humor, Roach explores the role that cadavers have played not only in scientific and medicinal research, but also in auto safety and military ballistics.  Readers may find they need to take breaks from reading as Roach gets very detailed, but others may find that reading straight through is made easier by her asides and funny anecdotes.  Even the people she talks to have to have a sense of humor so they can disconnect from the sadness of lost life, like one surgical student who said she didn’t have a problem working on heads, but she did find it uncomfortable to work on hands because they hold you back.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach is a sensational look at the role of cadavers in modern society and in our past, and is often the case, cadavers are not given their due.  These cadavers, which were mostly donated, have given us insight into the human systems, the impacts the body can sustain before dying, and some of the wacky theories that scientists and doctors had about severed head reanimation and more.

RATING: Quatrain

About the Author:

Mary Roach is the author of the New York Times bestsellers STIFF: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers; GULP: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life in the Void; and BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Her most recent book, GRUNT: The Curious Science of Humans at War, is out in June 2016.

Mary has written for National Geographic, Wired, Discover, New Scientist, the Journal of Clinical Anatomy, and Outside, among others. She serves as a member of the Mars Institute’s Advisory Board and the Usage Panel of American Heritage Dictionary. Her 2009 TED talk made the organization’s 2011 Twenty Most-Watched To Date list. She was the guest editor of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing, a finalist for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize, and a winner of the American Engineering Societies’ Engineering Journalism Award, in a category for which, let’s be honest, she was the sole entrant.

What the Book Club Thought:

Most of us enjoyed the book and its curiosities.  I have no idea why this book sat so long on my bookshelf unread.  A couple others were a bit put off by the author’s tangents, but they also read the book in a once-through fashion.  As I read it in spurts, I didn’t find the tangents to be that off-putting.  One member expressed that the book could have been improved by some editing to make it less wordy and more like the author’s published newspaper/magazine articles.  Mostly, the members found the subject matter fascinating, though one member did mention that the part about animals seemed a little out of place.  Overall, it seemed as though everyone enjoyed this book club selection.

John Dies @ the End by David Wong

Source: Public Library and Audible
Hardcover, 362 pgs.
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John Dies @ the End by David Wong, which was our April book club selection, is like falling off the frame and into a Salvador Dalí surrealist painting and its topsy-turvy world where very little makes sense and there is no straight path to some kind of satisfactory resolution.

Wong is a long-time editor at Cracked.com, which from what I gather is a humor website, and Wong is really a pen name.  So should you take anything in his novel seriously, even if it is considered in the horror genre?  My answer would be no.

In this novel, the soy sauce is a drug that enables John and David to see ghosts, demons, and other underworld-like things, and these unsuspecting and slacker heroes are less-than-motivated to take action, unless they have to.  Our unreliable narrator, David Wong, is socially inept and ogles women everywhere he goes, but readers are not even sure if he is David or John or someone else because the names of been changed.  In B-horror movie fashion, plots are introduced, left hanging, and reworked into even more ridiculous adventures.

“‘I call it Dante’s Syndrome,’ John said.  I had never heard him call it any such thing. ‘Meaning, I think Dave and I gained the ability to peer into Hell. Only it turns out Hell is right here, it’s all through us and around us and in us like the microbes that swarm through your lungs and guts and veins. Hey, look! An owl!'” (pg. 7)

“‘But I can bless water to make it holy. The ice statue, I mean.’
John’s face brightened and he said, ‘That’s perfect!’ He thrust his index finger into the air. ‘We bless the ice, then we just have to somehow get all hundred or so of those monsters to lick the statue!'” (130 pgs.)

These examples should provide you with the humor in this book, but some of this just seemed inserted for humor’s sake and did little to add to the story.  My final impression of John Dies @ the End by David Wong — the narrator for Audible was Stephen R. Thorne — is one of being overwhelmed by the descriptive info-dumps and the absurdity.  Because of the overwhelming and topsy-turvy nature of the narrative, this one did not work well on audio at all, leaving me lost most of the time, which is why I switched to the book.

RATING: Couplet

What the book club thought:

Sounded like most everyone thought the book was OK, but was not overly excited about the book. One member who said they were not sad to have read the book, said that they were not interested in reading any of the sequels. Another member said that the book was humorous, but most members said that the book had a plot that went nowhere and where there were no consequences for anything that happened.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audio, 13 CDs
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The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, was our January book club selection, which I read in December.  Carrie McClelland has been writing for some time and she has lived a life with her characters as most authors do, but in this case, her ancestors begin to speak through her.  A novel about the failed attempt to return the exiled James Stewart to the crown in the spring of 1708 in Scotland, McClelland is pulled in another direction when she realizes that her novel needs a new point of view.  In so choosing Sophia Patterson, her late-night writing takes a very different turn, as she uncovers her own family’s past.  In alternating points of view between Carrie as she meets the owner of a cottage she rents for writing and his sons and Sophia’s point of view, the story of her family comes alive.

The dramatic landscape and winter sea call to Carrie, like it called to her ancestors.  In many ways, Kearsley’s narrative asks whether memories can be inherited through DNA?  It also seeks to touch upon how much of our personalities and inclinations come from the people in our families who have gone before us.  The courage and power of love is palpable in Kearsley’s prose, and her characters face a number of obstacles beyond their control, at least in Carrie’s novel.  The life of an author can be lonely, and Carrie falls a bit quickly in love.  However, the author focuses not only on the romance of these characters in the present and past, the Jacobite Movement is well fleshed out, with intrigue and danger.  Landor is a passionate narrator, and she makes all of the twists and turns believable.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, narrated by Rosalyn Landor, is wonderfully crafted, combining history with romance in a fantastic way.  Landor does an excellent job with the Scottish accents and dialects.

About the Author:

Susanna Kearsley studied politics and international development at university, and has worked as a museum curator.  Her first novel Mariana won the prestigious Catherine Cookson Literary Prize and launched her writing career. Susanna continued her mix of the historical and paranormal in novels The Splendour Falls, Named of the Dragon, Shadowy Horses and Season of Storms. Susanna Kearsley also writes classic-style thrillers under the name of Emma Cole.

What the book club thought:

Everyone seemed to enjoy this book for the most part.  A couple members wanted a bit more of a supernatural element to tie together the past and present storylines.  It seemed like things happened to connect Carrie McClelland with her ancestors’ past, but it is unclear why.  The Past narrative worked better for me, but others didn’t seem bothered by the past or modern story’s disconnect.  It was definitely an engaging story with an expected happy ending, at least expected by most of us.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 14+ hours
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The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, narrated by Simon Vance, was our November book club selection and is a steampunk alternate history set in 1855 in England.  Vance is a wonderful narrator as always, so there were no issues in that regard.  The novel seeks to explore the political and societal implications of when Charles Babbage succeeds in building an analytical computer, the Difference Engine, creating a barely recognizable world in which technological advancements are ubiquitous and enabling Britain to become more powerful and the United States to become more fragmented than unified.  However, as the water and the air become more polluted, the wealthy are able to flee outside of London, while the laborers are stuck in the city with the soot and pollution.  The anger this engenders, causes the laborers to become revolutionaries, rising up and calling for anarchy.

Intelligence agencies, difference engines (computers) and secrecy abound in this topsy-turvy world, but on audio, some of the intricacies are lost.  A lot of the narration is spent on describing clothes, surroundings, some of the machines, and mundane actions, like opening containers and whether people are wearing gloves.

Among the minutiae, a mystery about computer punch cards emerges, and everyone seems to want them.  Paleontologist Mallory is the only interesting character, but his segment in the plot ends and the final third of the novel plods along once again.  At least he lasted longer than the other interesting character, Sybil Gerard.  While some believe the cards can be used to place bets and win big, it is clear that’s a red herring.  The tug-of-war between the luddites and the ruling class that espouses the benefits of technology and advancement is often lost in the narration, which takes on several iterations — the only clue that the narrator is an outside observer.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, narrated by Simon Vance, is convoluted  and mysterious to its own detriment.  Overall, while readers may enjoy Vance as a narrator, this book might get a better reception in print.  However, this particular novel also has a number of confusing plot lines that intersect haphazardly, almost as if the writers were trying to confuse the reader.  Unfortunately, at some point readers may give up caring about uncovering it.  This is an overly stylized novel aimed at a sliver of readers, with a very masculine tone and vaunted scientific jargon and theories.

What the Book Club Thought:

We all agreed that the plot didn’t take up much of the book, and that the mystery reveal at the end was kind of a let down, especially given all that had happened to obtain the punch cards.  Some of the characters were disliked, the choice of a paleontologist was an odd one for some, and a few of us skimmed or did not finish the book.  Those of us who did finish the book thought that it had been more of a world-building exercise.  Moreover, some of the things that happened in the background are things that some of us would have rather had in the main parts of the story.  Overall, none of us really cared for any of the characters too much and thought that the book was wordy at best.

About the Authors:

William Ford Gibson is an American-Canadian speculative fiction novelist and essayist who has been called the “noir prophet” of the cyberpunk subgenre.

Bruce Sterling is an American science fiction author who is best known for his novels and his work on the Mirrorshades anthology. This work helped to define the cyberpunk genre.

Poe’s Children: The New Horror edited by Peter Straub

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 544 pgs.
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Poe’s Children: The New Horror edited by Peter Straub, which was our October book club selection, is billed as an anthology that includes horror stories that can be deemed literary, rather than “formulaic gore.”  Although some of these stories are by turns surreal and unsettling — some may even be literary — they are a far cry from the disturbing and nightmarish tales of Edgar Allan Poe.  Readers may appreciate the nods to Poe or even other authors, like Franz Kafka, but those nods to previous greats on their own do not make a story worthy of note.  “Cleopatra Brimstone” uses the idea of people turning to bugs found in Kafka and turns it into a story about strong female sexual identity, but at the same time, the story lacks verve.

“The Bees” and “The Man on the Ceiling” will leave readers wanting more, particularly in the development of the characters, while “The Great God Pan” offers an interesting premise and a shadow that lurks behind the lives of three friends who underwent a ritual together, but the story fizzles out by the end.  “In Praise of Folly” is a slow moving story in which Roland Turner seeks out the Jorgenson estate in his quest for a folly to be saved, and it’s a tale of watch what you ask for because you just might get it — and then some.  While the story itself is not particularly unique, the anxiety stems from what happens when Turner finally finds the estate and its “Little Italy.”  Although it is not horrifying in the gory sense, it does make readers gulp for air as they consider what happens to him.

Even the stories by Stephen King, Joe Hill, Peter Straub, and Neil Gaiman are lackluster, though Gaiman’s story is the most enjoyable and uses his writing style well.  King’s story was not what readers will expect, Hill’s is unimaginative, and Straub appears to be too bogged down in his own introductory statements about literary horror fiction.  Unfortunately, Poe’s Children: The New Horror edited by Peter Straub does not live up to expectations and is mediocre at best.

What the Book Club Thought:

Many of us were disappointed by the horror collection, with many of the stories only moderately creepy and others were just surreal or odd.  Some stories felt very unfinished, and others had endings that came out of left field.  A few felt that the introduction set us up for disappointment, as many of the stories were lacking in the horror or Poe quality we expected.  The cover of the hardcover edition seems to tell you what the book will not be — it is not about dead babies and other horrors traditionally found in the genre.  One member, however, thought that the introduction helped lower expectations and made the collection more enjoyable.  Overall, the discussion about each of the stories was animated, even though no one really LOVED this one.

About the Author:

Peter Straub was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1943, the first of three sons of a salesman and a nurse. The salesman wanted him to become an athlete, the nurse thought he would do well as either a doctor or a Lutheran minister, but all he wanted to do was to learn to read.

He went to the University of Wisconsin and, after opening his eyes to the various joys of Henry James, William Carlos Williams, and the Texas blues-rocker Steve Miller, a great & joyous character who lived across the street, passed through essentially unchanged to emerge in 1965 with an honors degree in English, then an MA at Columbia a year later.