I Can’t Think Straight by Shamim Sarif

Read: 13 September, 2018

Romance isn’t my normal genre, but a book about a Christian Palestinian woman from Lebanon falling in love with a Muslim British Indian woman? I mean, how could I pass something like that up?

I was a little disappointed that, for a romance book, this had almost no romance in it. Tala and Leyla are ostensibly in love, but they spend no time together. They get into a “debate” when they first meet, which consists entirely of Tala being a prat and needling at Leyla about her beliefs. They go on a date that we barely get to see, spending more time on a summary after the fact than in the moment. Then they go on a weekend trip where they have sex for the first time and everything else that happens is off-stage. For the rest of the book, Tala and Leyla are separated (mostly in entirely different countries) and not interacting at all.

We are told that they are in love, but we don’t get to see them in love. If they aren’t fighting, Tala is stalking Leyla while Leyla tries to avoid her. They have very little chemistry, at least as far as I could tell.

Then again, it would be hard for them to have chemistry when they barely have personalities. Both seem to act, feel, and say whatever the plot needs them to, and, when we do get personal details about them, those details are frustratingly superficial. Leyla is a writer, but a writer of what? Tala loves her two published stories, but what are they about? What does she like about them? What do they tell Tala about who Leyla is as a person?

Tala, for her part, is starting a business to sell candles and things manufactured in Lebanon. She talks about how much of a difference this could make to the lives of the people making her products, but then it’s dropped and she never really seems to care about the poor after that. She never seems to have any particular interest in the things she sells, either. She never shows some of her wares off to Leyla, never tells her about the sweet old widow who can afford to care for her grandson now that she’s picked up candle-making, never brings Leyla to meet a family making her products.

The story is more about Tala and Leyla’s families. They are mostly one-dimensional, but they are interestingly so. There’s a good story to be had in how each individual family member reacts to Tala and Leyla’s relationship. Some of it has made it onto the page, but the story ends quickly after the women come out, so we don’t get to spend too much time in each family member’s head.

My last complaint is that the book really could have used an extra round of editing. There are some questionable word choices, as well as some muddled timelines (the example the pops immediately to mind is in chapter 5: Ali calls Leyla on Sunday night, then Leyla and Tala go on a date the next evening, and then Leyla goes shopping with her mom the day after that, a Monday). These are silly issues that shouldn’t have made it into final print.

All that said, the book is competently written. This was in no danger of going into my Did Not Finish pile! I was interested from start to finish, and I wanted to see where it was going. I liked most of the characters, I just felt that Leyla and Tala were short-changed. Ideally, this book would have been 100 pages longer, with a nice big section near the beginning where Leyla and Tala see each other and talk, and where we get a chance to understand why they love each other.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Read: 6 April, 2010

True love is incredibly rare, but Buttercup and Westley have found it. When Westley is killed by the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup agrees to marry Prince Humperdink. She’s kidnapped just before her wedding, and is followed by a mysterious stranger. Who is he? Has he come to rescue her?

This was a fantastic book. I was pretty sure it would be after knowing and loving the movie for many years, but there was so much more to the novel form. The movie follows the story of Buttercup and Westley pretty accurately, but that’s only half the book. The other half describes the narrator’s relationship with S. Morgenstern’s novel, the way it impacted his relationship with his father and with himself, and the way he hopes it will impact his relationship with his son.

The Buttercup portions of the novel are greatly entertaining for readers of all ages. The adventure is exciting and fast-paced, and it never takes itself too seriously. But the addition of the narrator’s story is what promotes The Princess Bride from great novel to masterpiece. The novel could pass for a treatise on the value of books and literacy, and for the deeply personal and emotional ties we can have to our books.

Choose to read this superficially and be entertained. Or, choose to read it deeply and be challenged. Goldman pulls both facets off with rare skill. This book should be on everyone’s reading list!

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Welsh Princes #1: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 18 March, 2010

Joanna, King John’s illigitimate daughter, is married to prince Llywelyn Fawr of Wales to secure an alliance. But John didn’t count on his daughter falling in love. When the relations between the two men start to deteriorate, Joanna is caught between her love for her father and her love for her husband.

As Wikipedia points out, one of the draws of Here Be Dragons is that it’s virgin territory; there are very few novels out there about historical Wales and, I confess, it was a milieu that I knew almost nothing about.

The historical aspects of the novel were fabulous, but it did occasionally cross into the territory of romance. Fair enough, I realize that many do like that sort of thing, but I found it rather boring and frustrating. Apparently, it’s a staple of the romance genre that people who are in love absolutely refuse to communicate with each other and, instead, simply assume the worst of the other person. I’ll never understand how this sort of thing came to be called “love” in our culture, but there you have it.

I realize that I’m not one to complain given how wooden and choppy my own writing style is, but I found Penman’s style in this book to be rather difficult to read. She has the awful tendency to force what should have been several sentences into one, joining them awkwardly. For example, she writes: “He even tried to forget the atrocity stories that were so much a part of his heritage, tales of English conquest and cruelties.” It works fine for effect now and then, but she uses it nearly every other sentence!

The book is meticulously researched and Penman is able to really bring the setting to life. The story, although about a class that is all-but extinct living lives that are so unlike anything we are familiar with, is, at the same time, very accessible. The conflict of allegiance between one’s parents and one’s spouse is something that I think most readers would be able to sympathize with.

Despite it’s flaws, I’d put Here Be Dragons as one of the better historical fiction novels on the market, well worth the read for anyone interested in the Middle Ages.

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Earth’s Children #2: The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

Read: 19 June, 2010

Cast out from the only people she’s ever known, Ayla heads north in the hopes of finding the people she was born to, the Others. But when she finds no one after weeks of travelling and she feels winter approaching, she makes a new home for herself in a sheltered valley.

Loneliness soon sets in and, after killing a mare and discovering the orphaned foal, she is inspired to adopt an animal for company – something that no human has ever done before. Whinny becomes her trusted companion and hunting partner, and the two are joined by Baby, a cave lion cub. Meanwhile, Jondalar sets off with his brother to take a journey, following the Great Mother River all the way to its end. The two brothers are attacked by a cave lion, and Jondalar is saved by Ayla’s control over the animals.

Though not nearly as good as Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel’s meticulously researched second novel is still fairly interesting. There’s a lot to learn about the Ice Age and its inhabitants (both human and non).

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Earth’s Children #4: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel

Read: 23 May, 2011

Ayla and Jondalar continue on their journey back to Zelandonii lands, a journey that takes them just over a year. On the way, they revisit the Sharamudoi from The Valley of the Horses, meet a tribe that has enslaved its men, and have various other adventures.

For nearly half the book, Ayla and Jondalar are travelling alone. Rather than simply skip ahead to more interesting bits, Auel made the interesting choice of narrating two people walking for hundreds of miles. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite so boring. Perhaps sensing that “two people walk a really long distance” does not an interesting story make, Auel decided to splice in a sex scene every couple pages. They come in such rapid succession and are so gratuitous that even the most ardent romance novel fan couldn’t help but feel some burn-out.

Indeed, the first 300 or so pages could have been cut out without losing any story. There are a couple interesting incidents, but these could easily have been strung together with far less padding in between.

As a result, it took my nearly two months to read the first half of Plains of Passage. Once I passed that hump, however, and our travellers started meeting people, I read the rest in a mere two weeks – leaving me ready for the next instalment. Like a junky, I just keep coming back…

The point of the novel, beyond simply getting Ayla back to Jondalar’s people so we can deal with that drama, was for her to confront her past with the Clan and make sense of the relationship between Clan and Others. Like in The Mammoth Hunters, her heritage is outed a couple times and she must deal with the prejudice that brings. When the travellers meet the S’Armunai, they see what happens when Clan gender-specific roles are corrupted and brought into an Other society. Later, Ayla gets to actually meet a few members of the Clan (and a half-breed).

I very much enjoyed the interactions with the Clan, particularly the Clan encounter itself. I had a feeling that the book was moving toward a Clan encounter (even without cheating and looking at the map) and I was eagerly awaiting it. Of course, it didn’t happen until nearly at the very end, but it was well worth it.

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Atonement by Ian McEwan

Read: 2 October, 2008

Amazing. Just, amazing. It hurt to read Atonement because I didn’t want anything to change or for the characters to be hurt. But at the same time, I had to read on and find out how it would end. I had a couple late nights because I just couldn’t put the book down.

The major strength is the characterisation. Even background characters were given enough detail and depth that they feel like living people. By the end of the first chapter, I felt that I knew these people, that they were my neighbours or possibly even friends.

The other major strength was in the realism of the plot. Everything that happens is set up so that the reader knows that there is no possible way that a consequence can be avoided. Yet at the same time, I found myself hoping so much that something wouldn’t happen that I would almost convince myself that it couldn’t, making it not only surprising but also heartbreaking when the inevitable caught up to the characters.

If pressed to find a flaw, I would say that the exposition of the second, third, and fourth parts could have used some work. McEwan seems to want to plunge his readers into a story without a map or compass, making the first couple pages of each part a confusing and difficult read as I tried to figure out who the characters are, where they are, what’s going on, etc. This is acceptable at the very start of a novel, but going through it four times was three times too many. It isn’t terribly difficult to answer the whos, whats, and wheres in an interesting way and it would certainly help to ease the transition into each portion. As it stood, the start of Part Two had me put the book down until I had the courage to go through all the work of figuring out where the story was. By Part Three, I was more accustomed to McEwan’s trick, so I stuck it through. By Part Four, it was still unpleasant, but I was so close to the end and I just had to find out what happened to everyone.

It’s a fairly quick read, but not a superficial one. Be prepared to devote all your attention to Atonement until the final page is reached. I highly recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interests (though if you love psychology, writing, or history, especially World War II, that would be a bonus).

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The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Read: 5 May, 2008

After reading The Monk, I thought that the Gothic genre was pretty neat-o. So I looked up for some other books in the genre and The Mysteries of Udolpho kept coming up, so I took a chance and bought it. It took me eons to read. In fact, I did give up at one point and read Tom Sawyer and Hearts in Atlantis before picking it up again. But I have an obsession with finishing every book that I start, so I was determined. I took notes while I was reading of everything I didn’t like, so I will go through negatives first:

The biggest negative is the pacing. A full two hundred and change pages pass before anything happens. That’s right, the first third of the novel is essentially a travel narrative with some old dying guy and his personality-less daughter as the travellers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a novel that toys with crossing genres and becoming a travel narrative (I did like Black Mountain, after all), but the descriptions of the scenery were altogether too Romantic for my tastes. Romantics are as stuck up, pompous, and self-absorbed as the Victorians, but a trait I find endearing in the latter is made annoying in the former by being caste under the pretence of artistic genius (those of you who know me know that I make a distinction between “artists” and “artistes” – I am incapable of being in the same room as the latter without wanting to hit something, whereas I find artists to be, on the whole, quite nice people).

On the whole, only about a third of the novel takes place in the titular location. But there was more to it than just a slow-moving novel (which, again, in and of itself is not a terrible thing). What made it infuriating was that the main character seemed to be suffering from Alzheimer’s. A new plot line, or short-term goal, would be introduced and she would resolve to take care of it. It would then be dropped entirely as though it had never happened until dozens of pages later where she suddenly remembers and takes care of it. A good example of this occurs near the beginning where Emily’s father instructs her to burn some secret letters. She gives him a solemn promise, goes to where the letters are, and then spends pages and pages moaning about how sad life is before she finally gets to the letters. At this point, my next complaint is made into example. Emily reads a bit of the letter, doesn’t tell the reader what it says, alludes to how “shocking!” the content of the letters is several times, but does not actually explain what she read until a full 450 pages later!

That’s right, dear Ms. Radcliffe seemed to have lived under the mistaken impression that frustration = suspense. Several times, Emily makes shocking discoveries that horrify her, but she refuses to tell the reader what those discoveries are. Worse yet, Emily will seem to forget all about them as soon as she is done being shocked – at least until another shocking discovery prompts her memory.

In fact, Emily’s forgetfulness is a major theme in the novel. It comes up as part of another complaint that I will mention in a minute. For example, when she and her suitor, Valancourt, are forced to part, he makes her promise that she will always look at the setting sun. The idea is that he would do the same and that they would be “together” even when apart by knowing that they are both looking on the same object. Sweet and romantic, right? Well, yes, it is… the first night. Emily whines away while she watches the sun set. This promise is then never mentioned again. Never. By either Emily or Valancourt. This isn’t just a case of sunsets not being mentioned because there are oodles of sunsets in the novel. Emily just doesn’t seem to care that much about the “solemn promise” she makes to the love of her life.

Which is my next complaint: there are two Emilys in the novel. One is the Emily constructed by the narrator, the Emily that we are told about. The other is the Emily we see, through the things she says and the actions she takes (or, in this case, doesn’t take). These two Emilys are rarely in agreement.

Another complaint I had was that objects and characters appear and disappear depending on the plot’s need for them. A major example of this is Emily’s dog. Whenever it is needed to wake Emily up to spot an intruder, or growl when there is a need for absolute silence, it will appear. As soon as it’s done filling out this function, the dog promptly disappears. Relating to the last point I made, the narrator tells us again and again how much Emily loves this dog, feels comforted by this dog, and dotes on this dog. And yet, we never once see her cuddling it, petting it, stroking it, looking to it for comfort when afraid, or anything else of the sort.

There are other continuity errors. For example, Emily escapes Udolpho in the middle of the night, with no warning whatsoever, and from a place that is not her bedroom. And yet she somehow has the presence of mind to carry with her a large box of letters and all the drawings she’s made since going to the castle. Maybe she hides them under her skirts or something?

The final negative that I will mention is that Valancourt is a thoroughly despicable character. Honestly, Jane Eyre‘s Rochester is a sensitive and romantic boyfriend compared to this guy. He bears every mark of the abusive boyfriend. Not only does he accuse Emily of not really loving him whenever she doesn’t want to do something he wants, he will also stalk her (to the point that her gardener shoots him thinking that he’s a burglar) when she refuses to marry him. After all that, he flies into a rage when she (rightfully) wonders if he loves her, trying to physically restrain her! And for all the noble chivalry the narrator keeps telling us he expresses, he allows his girlfriend to be taken into a situation that he knows is dangerous for her and doesn’t even try to save her from it (except, of course, trying to terrify her into marrying him with threats of violence – you know, from other men… that he’d be saving her from… obviously…).

He’s also just so whiny. It’s totally pathetic. He knows that he is distressing her, she’s in tears and begging him to stop and leave her alone, but he just whines and whines and whines at her. He will even admit that he is distressing her and that he should stop, but the very next sentence out of his mouth is more whining!

All in all, I found that he was incredibly similar in his behaviour to the Count Morano – the bad guy, the guy we are supposed to hate, the guy Emily spends a third of the novel terrified of. The way he acts toward Emily is nearly identical. In fact, he even tries to scare Emily into marrying him by telling her that Morano will hurt her – using the same tactic the Count uses, except that he’s passing off the obvious part of the blame to someone else!

There’s plenty more that I could mention, but those are the major points and this post is getting pretty long. In terms of positives, I must admit that I struggle to find any. There were some instances of humour that had me chuckling, but they were too few and too far between to really count them as any kind of saving grace. I did like that every single instance of the supernatural was resolved (even if poorly) and shown to have perfectly natural explanations. And, of course, the novel is a classic and has a lot to offer if looked at as a historical document.

All in all, it’s a book that I hated reading but that I am glad to have read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, though. This is one of the few books that I think might be better enjoyed in a heavily abridged or cliff-note form.

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Sano Ichiro #4: The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

Read: 18 January, 2008

Emperor Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s concubine has died while carving a tattoo onto her body. The emperor’s lead investigator, Sano Ichiro, must solve the mystery of her death while navigating the delicate balance of the court, the conflicted allegiances of his right-hand-man, and his new wife’s feminist ideals.

The Concubine’s Tattoois genre-fiction; there’s no mistaking it. It makes the unfortunate poor writing choices that most detective mysteries seem to make. If characters are developed at all, it is only in “character blurbs” that are given on introduction and that are supposed to explain all future actions of that character. For example, a few paragraphs are devoted to Lady Uechi Reiko’s (Sano’s wife) upbringing and how, as an only child, she was raised as a male and that’s why she’s such a feminist. Unfortunately for what could have been a very good story, Rowland has never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.”

This is a recurrent issue in the novel, and not only when characters are first introduced. Whenever a character feels anything, we are told explicitly what it is they feel, regardless of which side of the investigation they are on. In a mystery, this does a great deal to ruin the story because it takes a lot of the guess-work out of the equation. And, of course, since the reader knows what the protagonists can’t know, it forces Rowland to give the detectives “sudden insight” that defies logic.

The novel also offended my sensibilities in many ways. Nearly every “bad” character is either gay or a sexual pervert. It wouldn’t bother me so much if only one antagonist were gay or if some of the good characters were too, but the one-sidedness suggests to me that Rowland equates being gay with a deficiency of character (whether it be outright evil like Lord Yanagisawa or plain effeminate impotence like the emperor). And while I certainly agree with some of the narrator’s ideas about the caste system and the role of women, seeing the author break through into the writing to get on her soapbox and lecture about these topics becomes wearisome after a while.

For my last negative comment of the day, I found the mystery itself to be lacking. There were red-herrings and femme-fatales and all the other staples of the genre, but the total lack of originality, interesting characters, and a compelling plot made the whole novel drag. The big twist ending might have been all right if the characters didn’t go on at length about how unexpected a twist it was. Rowland doesn’t seem to understand that her readers can identify surprising conclusions without being told to be surprised (and then lectured at about how anti-feminist we all are for not anticipating it).

That being said, I loved the setting. Rowland does a great job of exposing the world of her mystery – it’s just a shame that such an interesting world is populated by such cardboard people.

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Discworld #4: Mort by Terry Pratchett

Read: 2007

Mort was an awkward farm boy with the horticultural talents of a dead starfish. Eager to send him into a trade that might better suit his dispositions, his family agreed to place him in an apprenticeship with Death.

As far as coming of age and first love stories go, this is one of the better ones I’ve read. That’s the major aspect of the Discworld novels I’ve always liked – they are hilarious, but the stories would still be quite good even without the humour.

Like most of the Discworld series, I loved the book right up until the climax. At that point, I usually feel like Pratchett is letting some fumbling inner author take over and I lose interest completely. It’s usually a struggle for me to read the last 10-20 pages.

Overall, though, I highly recommend Mort as well as just about any other Discworld novel for anyone who enjoys comedy, particularly the more word-play witty humour of Britain rather than the slapstick/situational humour of North America.

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