Review: The Last Boleyn, by Karen Harper

The Last Boleyn, Karen Harper

In short: There’s really no reason to read this if you’ve already read The Other Boleyn Girl. It was actually written before Gregory’s novel, and was originally published as Passion’s Reign (a much dopier title). The main differences are that The Last Boleyn gives us a lot more information on Mary’s early life, and that it suggests (in contrast to The Other Boleyn Girl) that Mary and William Stafford were together for years before they married. But it’s not nearly as much fun to read as Gregory’s novel, mostly because Stafford doesn’t seem like a very good option. He’s very much the smug, rich, noble, handsome, promiscuous hero that’s so popular in romance novels, even though the real William Stafford was a commoner. Harper’s Stafford is too busy stroking his own ego and sweeping Mary off her feet with his bulging biceps to be an appealing alternative to the smug, rich, noble, handsome, promiscuous jerks that populate Henry’s court. Gregory’s novel is better than this, and so is her Stafford.

Read it if you like: The Other Boleyn Girl. Or if you hated it and want to see what the alternative looks like.

Review: The Boleyn Inheritance, by Philippa Gregory

The Boleyn Inheritance, Philippa Gregory

In short: Though not as good (or as sexy) as some of her other novels, The Boleyn Inheritance is still really entertaining, largely because it focuses on three historical figures that we don’t hear a lot about. The book’s chapters alternate among Katherine Howard (Henry’s very, very young fifth wife), Anne of Cleves (his supposedly ugly fourth wife), and Jane Boleyn (Lady Rochford, George Boleyn’s wife, who got Anne Boleyn and then Katherine Howard sent to the Tower).

The novel is written entirely in the first person, and the voices of the three women are distinct and engaging. Plus, Gregory manages to create tension and suspense, even though we know exactly what’s going to happen—quite a feat, really. This is a good, quick read,  and it’s fun to explore these events from the perspectives of less well-known women.

Read it if you like: Everything else she’s written

Review: The Secret Bride, by Diane Haeger

The Secret Bride, Diane Haeger

In short: One of the weaker entrants into that wonderful subgenre of historical fiction, “Seedy novels about the Tudors”, The Secret Bride chronicles the fate of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s younger sister and sometime Queen of France. Her story is fun and thrilling, as she’s married off to a much-older man, and then elopes with her beloved Charles Brandon, who’s a friend of her brother’s and decidedly not blue-blooded enough for a princess. But the writing is bad, and the historical inaccuracies glaring. We’ll have to wait a little longer for a really good book about Princess Mary.

Read it if you like: Philippa Gregory, The Tudors (which, in case you’re curious, is considerably less historically accurate than even Haeger’s novel)

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon

In short: Look, everybody already knows that they should read this book. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s clever, it’s even a little bit epic. It was widely acclaimed when it came out, and with good reason: though Chabon tends toward the excessively wordy (which makes this book about a hundred pages too long), this is still an immensely entertaining novel.

Read it if you like: Reading, superheroes, comic books, New York City, Jews

Review: Northline, by Willy Vlautin

Northline, Willy Vlautin

Note: This book comes with a CD of music Vlautin wrote to accompany the novel. The music is great. The book is not.

In short: From the author of The Motel Life we get another novel about people whose lives really suck. This one, however, is decidedly less interesting than Vlautin’s first novel, largely because he doesn’t seem to understand his (female) protagonist at all. She makes incomprehensible choices, and Vlautin doesn’t even try to make them seem plausible, even in the context of the story. This book is also far too short—enough happens in the story to fill at least another hundred pages—which makes the entire thing feel rushed and, frankly, a little lazy.

Read it if you like: The Motel Life, Nickel and Dimed, being depressed

Don’t take my word for it: Karin Elizabeth, Minnesota Reads, Nevada Sagebrush

Review: The Dead Fathers Club, by Matt Haig

The Dead Fathers Club, Matt Haig

So, the premise is weird – the events of Hamlet happen, in a fashion, to and around a British boy (one Philip Noble) circa the late 1990s. And the book, in my opinion, markets itself very badly, claiming to be “funny” a few times on the back cover. Nope. Not funny.

At some point, for this book to be funny, it would have to be heartless, and a lot of its charm comes from the sympathy the author clearly has for Philip. He is, after all, in a terrible situation: though he’s a good decade younger than Hamlet was, he faces the same set of problems. His father Brian dies, and far too soon afterward, his Uncle Alan starts moving in on Philip’s mother. (His parents, by the way, own a pub called Castle and Falcon, and Brian wears a T-shirt that says “King of the Castle”. Cute, huh?)  11-year-old Philip even has his own Ophelia, a girl from school named Leah.

Soon after his father’s death Philip begins seeing “Dads Ghost” on a regular basis. The ghost tells him that he is now a member of the Dead Fathers Club and is experiencing “The Terrors”, and will be stuck there forever unless Philip gets revenge. Throughout the novel, Dads Ghost instructs Philip on how to go about doing this.

It becomes quickly and painfully clear that most of what’s going on is in Philip’s head. He’s distraught over the loss of his father, so it’s no surprise that he would find a way to act out. The problem, though, is that unlike Hamlet, Philip is still a little boy, and so the horrific consequences of his misunderstanding seem that much worse. This is mitigated somewhat by the very active role of Dads Ghost, but it’s still hard to read about these events happening to a kid. (Not all of the events of Haig’s novel line up with those in Hamlet, by the way, so I haven’t given away the entire book.)

With that said, this is still a very clever update of our beloved Shakespeare’s best play, and Philip’s voice is convincing and engaging. On another level, it works as a strangely moving portrait of a kid who has experienced a really devastating loss and has to find a way to accept that loss and move on, even if he goes about doing that in pretty much the worst way possible.

In short: Weird and charming and sad, The Dead Father’s Club is worth the read, provided you can stomach seeing a little kid playing out Hamlet’s story.

Read it if you like: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, overly precocious pre-adolescent protagonists, modern updates of Shakespeare

Don’t take my word for it: The Sheila Variations, Guys Lit Wire, Puss Reboots

Review: A Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier

A Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier

A Brief History of the Dead was one of the more frustrating reading experiences I’ve had. (No, not because it totally ripped off the title of a short story I wrote years and years ago.) It’s one of those novels where you are constantly, painfully reminded of how good it could have been had the author not made some initial grave misstep. Here, that misstep was including the even-numbered chapters.

Let me explain. It’s a novel with a very cool premise, which is why I picked it up in the first place. The odd-numbered chapters chronicle the lives of residents of the city of the dead. That’s where you go, the novel claims, after you die, and there you remain until every person who knew you has died. At that point, you disappear, and that part of the afterlife is a mystery to the folks who live (?) in the city of the dead.

As the novel starts out, the population of the city (and therefore the city itself, as it has elastic properties) is growing exponentially thanks to a world that has evidently gone down the tubes—lots of wars, and lots of biological warfare. That’s what turns out to be the kicker: a manmade disease nicknamed “the Blinks”, which kills very, very rapidly and to which no one seems to be immune. After only a few weeks, the city has shrunk to a very small number of people—all of the people who knew the one remaining survivor, a biologist-type named Laura something.

I’m just going to say it: Laura something is not very interesting. Turns out she’s alive because she got sent out to Antarctica to do some research for Coca-Cola. (Let me reveal a really annoying plot twist: Coca-Cola, in an incredibly lazy turn of events, is responsible for the distribution of the virus that kills everybody. Now, I hate that company as much as every other good liberal, but come on.) Since she’s all isolated and stuff, she doesn’t get the Blinks. We then have to spend the even-numbered chapters reading the tedious details of Laura’s life and eventual doomed journey across the continent to find other survivors, most of which have been lifted from other, better books about Antarctica. (This will bother you less, probably, if you have devoted less time to reading about that awesomely barren place than I have.) She’s not a very interesting character, though that’s not all her fault—it’s hard to put her story up against the story of the city, which is infinitely more moving, thoughtful, lovely. In Laura’s chapters, we read rehashed descriptions of isolation in a cold climate; in the other chapters, we get haunting, original, beautifully written accounts of what it’s like to exist on the other side, what it’s like to be bound to every person—right down to the street cleaner—Laura something has ever met.

So anyway: the odd-numbered chapters are, on the whole, stunningly beautiful and surprising. (You can read the particularly beautiful and surprising first chapter here.) But Laura is dull, and the Coca-Cola conspiracy is trite and irritating, and so in the end I recommend this book with a great deal of hesitation. Honestly, if you just go read the first chapter you’ll have got the best of it.

In short: I’d give it two stars out of five. If you really want to read it, get it from the library rather than buying it, and if you get tired of Laura just start skipping her chapters.

Read it if you like: Post-apocalyptic fiction, An Inconvenient Truth

Don’t take my word for it: Apex Blog, LitMob, Wendy Palmer

Review: Invincible, by Troy Denning

Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible, Troy Denning 

Those of you who are regular readers know how I feel about Troy Denning. (Those of you who aren’t: not positively.) So you can imagine how unsurprised I was when Invincible, the culmination of an overwhelmingly mediocre nine-book series that takes place after The New Jedi Order, was really really terrible.

But what bothered me most was not just that the book was terrible. It was that it violated the most basic principle of Star Wars: that hope is a powerful force in the universe. Now you can believe that or not—I do, I have to—but regardless, it’s a key motivator in the original films, and it has been throughout most of the novels. It is a basic tenet of my faith—not only my religious faith, but the faith that we all have to have in other human beings if we want to remain sane in an increasingly insane world—that all human beings are innately good; that, once fallen, all of us are capable of being redeemed. And again, you can take that or leave it; you can think that redemption is faith in Jesus Christ or in the spaghetti monster or in love or hope; but you can’t deny that it is also a basic guiding principle of the Star Wars movies. What do they teach us if not that?

And so that’s my gripe with Invincible. Not that the plotting was lazy—it was—or that the characterizations were shallow—they were. But that, in the end, it failed to do the one thing these novels have to do. We whine and moan about Star Wars and its wayward politics, the dubiousness of allowing a class like the Jedi to exist and to help govern, very creepily and undemocratically, by birthright. That’s all true, and clearly these movies aren’t meant to be taken as a model for how to run a government. What they are is yet another incarnation of a very familiar story, and an important one.

So when Invincible shows up and tells us that, no, not everyone can be saved, and that indeed, the guy who can’t be saved is a character we’ve grown up with and loved for years—well, that’s frustrating. Even in the New Jedi Order, which everyone complained was too dark (everyone except me, anyway), that basic belief in the possibility—the necessity—of redemption remained. Horrible villains, even, who blew up dozens of planets and killed trillions of beings (including Chewbacca!!!!) got the chance Jacen didn’t. And as much as I don’t really care all that much about his character, I care a lot about what it means that they’ve killed him.

For one thing, it plunges these books irrevocably into dark territory. That started with the aforementioned death of Chewie (and later of Anakin, and then Mara), but those deaths—honorable ones all—were the kinds of deaths you always get in stories that have any drama at all. So we accept those as a consequence of storytelling. But having Jaina kill her own brother after deciding—along with Luke, Han, Leia, etc.—that he can’t possibly be saved? That doesn’t work. It’s a violation of everything this series means to this lame group of us who keeps reading these terrible books.

In short: Fortunately Star Wars novels are such that if you didn’t already read them you’re not going to start now (and unfortunately they also seem to be novels you can’t stop reading if you’ve been reading them since age seven). So, I mean, don’t start now.

Read it if you like: All the other horrible Star Wars novels.

Don’t take my word for it: No Krakana (thorough – plus he agrees with me), Novel Idea, Dave Brendon

Author Encounters: Stephen Chbosky

Today I went to see Stephen Chbosky read The Perks of Being a Wallflower at a bookstore down the street from my house. It is probably the best thing I have been to, reading-wise, and I’ve been to a lot of readings by a lot of authors I like.

But the thing is, he is exactly as nice as you’d think he would be, given he wrote that book, and he talked to everybody who brought books to be signed, and when he saw mine he laughed and said, “Wow, this has been thumbed. You’ve read this a lot.” And he flipped through to look at the things that I’d dog-eared and marked and written in the margins about, and it was really cool.

He also was really funny, and really seemed grateful that people had showed up ten years after he wrote that book. (I asked him if, looking back ten years later, there were anything he would change about it – he said two things. First, he thought Charlie should be less sexually naïve in the beginning. Second, he said Charlie should have cried about half as frequently, because he thought that had turned a lot of people off of the book.) He also told a great story about that line, “We accept the love we think we deserve,” which roughly paraphrased is this:

Before it was published, he’d given a xeroxed manuscript of the book to a friend, who read it on an airplane on the way to a birthday party for a girl he knew, who was rich and beautiful. He was neither – instead, he was chubby, with a tendency toward dating really terrible women. And he read that line, and it really struck him. And he’d liked this woman for a while, and that line made him decide to pursue her, because she was the kind of woman he wanted, and he decided to deserve her. And he did, and they got married, and afterward he gave her the manuscript and told her that it was the reason he’d had the courage to go after her. And she read it, and loved it, and called up a guy she knew who worked at MTV and was trying to start a book publishing branch. And he read it, and he loved it. And then he published it.

And that’s why we’ve read it.

He was really nice, and really funny, and he looked about a decade younger than he is. And some of the people he’d gone to high school with were in the audience because they live in Chicago now.

So I’m really glad I went. It makes the book even better, somehow, knowing that the person who wrote it actually meant it, and is actually as nice as someone who writes this should be, and seems to really appreciate and understand how much it means to people.

Anyway, I guess that’s a pitch for this book. But it’s a book I feel pretty good about pitching.