Saturday, May 1, 2010

15-25: The "Bones" series

Goodness, am I behind on updating the list of books that I've been reading! Here are reviews for the Temperance Brennan series by Kathy Reichs, which is the basis for the popular T.V. series "Bones." If you go into the series expecting something similar to "Bones," you'll likely be disappointed, but these books are engaging and readable on their own merits.

Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist who splits her time between Montreal and North Carolina. She's a middle-aged woman with a daughter in college; estranged from her husband; and has a rocky relationship with alcohol. She's also determined, smart, and absolutely unwilling to compromise her professional integrity. Seeing her work as a scientist is one of the highlights of both the books and the TV series for me - I don't think we have enough female scientist role models, and Temperance is gutsy and smart and fun.

These books are in general, quick, absorbing reads, although as I said, they bear little resemblance to the T.V. show. Temperance Brennan is the only character who makes an appearance in both the show and the book - so if you're looking to read more about other favorite characters, you'll be disappointed. (Seeley Booth, Bones' FBI partner in the TV series, seems to be more or less similar to Andrew Ryan in the books, but the name has been changed. The other characters don't really make any appearances at all.)

The forensic details are fascinating (although occasionally much too gruesome for my taste) and the science in general seems to be sound. The long-winded and usually pointless descriptions of the meals that Temperance eats and her flirtation with Andrew Ryan ... not so enjoyable. Overall, I'd say that it's a good thing that these books are quick reads - I'm not sure I could stomach them for too long. Temperance is still an interesting character, if not as much so as her television series counterpart.

15. Deja Dead

When Temperance recognizes a pattern in several corpses that are found in Montreal, she suspects that a serial killer is at work - and has to work hard to convince the police of her suspicions. Of course (because it wouldn't be a good murder mystery otherwise), she ends up going on to investigate on her own, which (again, of course) leads her and her loved ones into danger.

16. Death du Jour

This one starts with real atmosphere - in a cold churchyard in the middle of winter, where Temperance is exhuming the bones of a nun who's been proposed for sainthood. (She will, by the end of the book, discover something about the nun based on examining her bones, but I won't spoil the surprise.) Temperance also ends up investigating the mysterious disappearance of a college student, the killing of a family in a horrible fire, and the activity of a seriously creepy cult. It's fast-paced and easily readable, just as the first book in the series was, but the interconnected plots seem a little too coincidental at times.

17. Deadly Decisions

In the third installment of the series, outlaw motorcycle gangs are the focus - running amok in Quebec and causing the death of innocent bystanders. The descriptions of children who are the victims of senseless violence are particularly heart-rending; at least, Kathy Reich's descriptions are, but the reaction of her main character reads a little false to me. It feels like Temperance has a studied reaction - she knows that she ought to feel a certain way, but it's described so clinically it doesn't come off as heartfelt. (This is perhaps where the social ineptitude and discomfort with emotions of Temperance from "Bones" comes from, I think.) Again, there are perhaps-too-coincidental links between Montreal and North Carolina - in this case, some parts of a skeleton are found in North Carolina, and the missing skull turns up in Montreal. Still, it's fascinating to watch Temperance make the connection between the two and puzzle out the mystery based on the forensic evidence.

18. Fatal Voyage

In the fourth Temperance Brennan book, the main investigation revolves around a plane crash. Temperance ends up finding some bones that aren't part of the official site, though, and she gets into trouble when she insists on investigating. Lots of exciting plot twists plus a thickening love interest make this a fun, fast read.

19. Grave Decisions

One of the things I like best about "Bones" is the fact that Temperance is always determined to use her forensic expertise for good - she can use skeletal remains and other forensic evidence to unravel the story of how a victim was killed and thus gives a "voice" to those who cannot tell their own stories. In this novel, Temperance goes to Guatemala and helps with the excavation of a mass grave from a bloody civil war. As if that's not enough, though, she also gets caught up in a case involving several missing young women - a body is found, and the police are afraid that a serial killer may be at work.

There's an interesting setting, plenty of intrigue, an additional love interest ... all the ingredients needed for a page-turner. There's also lots of risk-taking and thrills and a lot of improbable-seeming coincidences, but overall, I thought it was a good read.

20. Bare Bones

Temperance is "fortuitously" on site when a body is discovered at a summer barbeque (for "fortuitously" read "as necessary for plot development"). She ends up linking the dead body to two other bodies that are found in a plane crash, and discovering the Reason Behind It All. There are a lot of concurrently running subplots, and it's sometimes hard to stay focused (much of my attention stayed with the initial scene, and the dreadful news that Temperance has to break to a coworker at the university), but overall, it's another enjoyable mystery.

21. Monday Mourning

The coolest part about this installment in the series is the use of radiocarbon dating as part of forensic science - apparently there's a rather significant difference in the ratio of "hot" to regular carbon in the bones of people who died before or after atmospheric testing of atomic bombs. The science is very cool (though the fact that Temperance needed to explain it to her boss was less cool - he should most certainly know about it, and Kathy Reichs should most certainly be able to use a less clunky vehicle of exposition for her readers). In this case, Temperance uses it to show that skeletons recovered from the basement of a pizza parlor are from modern, not ancient, burials, and to convince the cops to investigate.

22. Cross Bones

This book made me happiest in one way, scientifically, because there are no cut and dried answers (as a scientist, I find the percentage of cases that Temperance Brennan is able to resolve successfully to be impossibly high ... it just doesn't work that way in real life!). However, I was pretty uncomfortable with the subject matter - bones from two milennia ago that may or may not have been of Biblical significance. Temperance comes pretty close to the side of weighing in on the "may have been" side of the debate, and on some evidence that is pretty sketchy (at best), which really undermines her credibility as a scientist in my opinion.

23. Break No Bones

Temperance finds a recently buried body on an archaeological expedition that was supposed to be routine - classwork, in fact, but the students are shuffled off to the side once it's clear that there's a real investigation needed. More bodies are found, Temperance finds forensic evidence linking them together, and there's complications in her love affair with Booth - her estranged husband is in town. At this point in the series, it's unfortunately feeling pretty formulaic - a fun read, nonetheless, but I wouldn't recommend it for anything more than fun.

24. Bones to Ashes

I thought that this one was fun purely for the virtue of showcasing one of my favorite pathogens. Temperance's past also comes to light, as she's forced to revisit childhood memories after finding a skeleton that could potentially belong to a friend of hers who disappeared years ago. This is fun not only for the appearance of the fun pathogen, but there are also bonus Longfellow quotes! Apart from that ... yeah, it's very formulaic at this point. There's enough derring-do and danger to keep me up reading past my bedtime, but that's really not that hard to achieve, honestly.

25. Devil Bones

As you might have guessed from the title (or perhaps not), this time the main topic of the book is Satanism and pagan religions. It's interesting in some ways, although after having read "Cross Bones," I wonder how any practitioners of paganism would feel about this book... At any rate, some bones are discovered in a setting that makes it look like they were used in a Satanic rite, Temperance rushes off to investigate, and then she solves the mystery. Throw in some alcohol abuse, some complications in her love life, and there you have the novel in a nutshell.

All in all, I clearly think that the books get a little formulaic and trite, especially as the series goes on. Kathy Reichs' writing style is not my favorite - she can be very didactic at times, and she has this incredibly annoying habit of ending every single freaking chapter with a cliffhanger. However, even with those caveats, I have to admit that I enjoyed reading these books - the same way I would enjoy cotton candy at the state fair.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

10-14. Novels of the Twelve Houses

10. Mystic and Rider, by Sharon Shinn

I've enjoyed other books by Sharon Shinn - she tends to write light, plotty, enjoyable romances, that range from fantasy worlds populated by humans and angels to a modern reworking of Jane Eyre - so I was intrigued by her new series, a fantasy set on an island named Gillengaria. Mystic and Rider introduces the six major characters who she follows in the series: Senneth, a mystic in the service of the King, two of the King's Riders who he has sent to guard her, the noblewoman Kirra and her companion, Donnal, and Cammon, a boy that they rescue from an abusive master. (Cammon also serves a very convenient function as a plot device in the introductory chapters, as the other characters explain the structure of the kingdom (the Twelve Houses of royalty that govern various parts of the land) and the way that the world works.

Mystic and Rider is the story of these characters as they follow the king's commands, searching out the source of the unrest in the kingdom and finding it in the southern Houses, where Coralinda Gisseltess is stirring up hatred of mystics and promoting the worship of a moon goddess. Senneth, for one, believes that the magic possessed by the mystics comes as gifts from the various gods and goddesses that are no longer worshipped in Gillengaria, but that seems to be a largely untestable theory. The Pale Lady, the moon goddess, is the only one who's still worshipped, and that appears to be largely due to Coralinda Gisseltess and her actions. She's convinced that the Pale Lady hates all magic and mystics, though, so she isn't content to remain secluded in her convent - instead, she sends her men out on nighttime hunting sprees to slaughter mystics or burn them to death in their homes.

The book gets off to a bit of a slow start, with all of the characters slowly learning to like and trust each other, but it's quite enjoyable once it gets going. The characters are fun to read about, albeit a little one-dimensional at time, and the budding romance between Senneth and one of the King's Riders keeps the suspense of the book building when all of the camping and spy missions get to be a little too dull.

11. The Thirteenth House

The second book in the Twelve Houses series features Kirra, the noblewoman and shape-shifter who was introduced in the first book. She ends up taking her sister's form for the summer and going on a tour of the social circuit - because Casserah, the newly proclaimed heir to Danalustrous, absolutely hates leaving her home. There are plenty of amusing incidents, as you might imagine, with mistaken identities, but Kirra's charm and humor always win the day.

It's a bit racy in parts, as Kirra has the misfortune to fall in love with a married man - and not just any married man, but Romar Brendyn, who has been appointed regent to the heir, the Princess Amalie, should anything happen to the king. Amalie has been kept secluded from the nobles all her life, so she and her step-mother, who is even more of an enigma, make their debut in society on the social circuit and attend all of the balls and various events, while Romar, Kirra, Senneth, and the rest of the initial band of characters strive to protect her amidst the growing unrest of the kingdom.

Shinn's romances are hardly unpredictable, but always emotionally satisfying, even when they run along the old formulaic plot-line. Of course Kirra and Romar's affair ends unhappily, but in the end, Kirra discovers that her trusted companion, Donnal, has remained faithful all along. After her heartbreak with Romar, the scandal of a nobleman's daughter pairing with a serf's son hardly seems worth considering.

12. Dark Moon Defender

In the third novel in the series, the King's Rider Justin has been sent back to the convent of the Daughters of the Pale Mother, in order to keep an eye on Coralinda Gisseltess and any mischief that she might get up to. In addition to disguising himself and serving as a stablehand, he manages a few daring midnight rescues when Coralinda's men are on the rampage.

And, of course, he falls in love ... with one of the novices as the convent. Ellynor is from the Lirrenlands, the strange part of Gillengaria. Beyond the mountains, it's largely inaccessible to the other inhabitants of Gillengaria, and the Lirren live in a complicated society of interconnected clans and families. They place a great deal of importance on kinship, and Ellynor's cousin Rosurie was sent away to the convent for having the audacity to fall in love with a young man from the wrong clan. Ellynor goes with her to keep her company, but instead of becoming a convert as Rosurie does, she longs to leave and explore the rest of the world.

Instead of worshipping the Pale Lady, the Lirrenfolk worship the Dark Mother, who watches over them all at night and who gives them special powers of healing and concealment. Unbeknownest to herself, Ellynor is a mystic, and her position in the convent has put her in grave danger. Will Justin be able to save her? Will her brothers kill Justin for falling in love with her? It's a thrilling story, with more than one exciting twist and turn before the ending.

13. Reader and Raelynx

Cammon, who was picked up by the group almost by accident in the first group, has been staying in the capital city to hone his mystical powers. He's the kind of mystic known as a reader, and seems to have abilities close to telepathy - he can tell if someone is lying or honest, and sense treachery. After managing to foil two assassination attempts against the King, he's summoned to the palace to watch over the Princess Amalie as she meets young noblemen of the realm and attempts to choose her suitor.

The realm is still a place of unrest - Coralinda Gisseltess is still brewing mischief, many of the nobles are planning rebellion, and the lesser lords are jockeying for more political power - but there's always time for a good romance, especially if you're a mystic and can carry on silent mental conversations with the one you love. Cammon falls in love with Amalie, and she with him, and they only need to win a war in order to live happily ever after.

It's overall a good read, although the romance is predictable, as it always seems to be - by chapter three, it's pretty obvious who is going to fall in love with whom, but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable to see how exactly it works out. My biggest problem was that we didn't see a great deal of King Baryn; while it's obvious why some of the nobles are plotting against him, and others are ready to give their lives to defend him, we never get a strong sense of who he is and why he's worth fighting for. His wife, on the other hand, becomes a much clearer character in this book, and we realize why Baryn married her and what her secrets have been all along.

14. Fortune and Fate

In Fortune and Fate, Shinn leaves the original sextet and focuses on Wen, one of the King's Riders. With the end of the war, she's left her service in the capital city, and is roaming the land and trying to find good deeds. She has a guilty conscience due to the war, but nothing that she does seems to appease it.

She meets and rescues a young noblewoman, daughter of one of the lords who rose up against the king in rebellion in the previous book. Karryn, fortunately, isn't made in the same mold as her father - she can be a bit witless, and spends a great deal of time with gossip about clothing and balls, but what sixteen-year-old doesn't? Her uncle, who is the regent appointed by Cammon to take care of her and her lands until she comes of age, is doing his best, but Karryn's more than able to get into trouble ... until Wen comes along, that is.

Having rescued her once, Wen feels responsible for her safety and eventually accepts a position as captain of her personal guard. All of the training she had as a King's Rider comes to use as she gathers new soldiers and trains them to protect Karryn. She has her work cut out for her ... not to mention her guilt to deal with, a reunion with old friends, and a burgeoning interest in the regent....

Saturday, February 6, 2010

8. Snow and 9. The Storyteller's Daughter

Snow, by Tracy Lynn, and The Storyteller's Daughter, by Cameron Dokey, are both part of the "Once upon a time is timeless" series published by Simon & Schuster. There are a good half-dozen books by different authors in the series, all of them re-imaginings of classic fairy tales. They're relatively short, light&easy reads - exactly what I needed for a break after The Time Traveler's Wife and it's heart-wrenching ending - and like any good modern fairy tale, they promised and delivered with "happily ever after."

Snow is a reworking of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," but it isn't a slavish retelling of the story. The plot-line is familiar, of course, but the characters are entirely new and charming in a different way than the originals - I particularly enjoyed the "dwarfs," but the Duchess Jessica - or Snow, as she comes to be called when her confinement indoors makes her skin turn pale - is an entirely captivating heroine.

Since the story is set in a relatively more modern London, there's a chance for Snow to learn about class differences that her archetype missed, being stranded in a cottage in the middle of the forest as she was. There's a fairly nuanced view of morality, not quite the black-and-white that fairy tales usually offer - Snow's friends have no real option other than stealing to survive, and she acknowledges that and her discomfort with it. There aren't any real answers, beyond the fact that it's wrong for the wealthy to abuse the poor that they do.

The story has a more modern take on the apple than the original, too, in that it's "science" that the wicked stepmother uses to trap Snow in an enchanted sleep, rather than sorcery. The remedy isn't the traditional kiss, either, but the happily ever after is well-earned in the end.

In The Storyteller's Daughter, we have the tale of Shahrazad, a retelling of The Arabian Nights with a bit of a twist. This is in fact the story of Shahrazad herself, not just the stories that she tells to the king to save her life. We learn about her mother, Maju, who was a storyteller herself, and her father, the king's vizier, before learning about her marriage and developing relationship with the king.

The king, Shahrayar, is a more developed character here than in the original story, and we get a chance to understand the reason why he's ready to go around marrying women and killing them all the next morning. It's not the greatest reason in the whole world, but it's hard to think of a really good reason to do such a thing, isn't it?

The backdrop to this story is charming - all of the details that make its setting are very vivid, and the language of the fairytale is well suited to this setting. It's a bit heavy on riddles and mysticism, but not unbearably so. The few stories that we hear Shahrazad telling are not as riveting as her own story, but that's as it should be, really. The only place where the story falls short, I think, is that the relationship between Shahrazad and Shahrayar isn't as believable as it could be - they seem to have fallen in love rather quickly, and even in a fairy tale, I'd like to see a bit more of a believable relationship than this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

7. The Time Traveler's Wife

There was a boy I knew in college - I was rather fond of him, and he was very clever, as many of the boys I knew in college were. He was a writer, and he was working on a novel that was going to expound many philosophical tenets. I don't remember if I was ever allowed to read any of it, but I do know that he had planned to have his characters have long, philosophical conversations with each other. I thought it sounded dead boring, as novels go - I love to learn new things, but I don't read them to be lectured, after all.

The Time Traveler's Wife, a novel by Audrey Niffenegger, is exactly the sort of book that my college friend would have liked to write, I think. Oh, there are none of the long conversations about philosophy (I like to think that my friend has learned that those are a bad idea, at least when it comes to keeping the reader's interest), but this novel has philosophical debates in spades.

What are you doing? What are you destined to do? If you could slip outside of your own time, could you change the future? Do we have free will? Do we have a choice in who we love?

What I liked best about this book is that there aren't necessarily cut-and-dried moral answers to every question, and the philosophical questions are put to the reader in an engaging, relevant way. On the surface, the novel is about the story of Henry, who has Chrono Displacement Disorder, and his wife, Clare, who has to endure his frequent and unexplained absences. They first meet when she is six and he is forty, but from his viewpoint, they meet for the first time when they're both in their twenties. Clare has known him for her entire life, but she's a stranger to him.

Their romance is one of the best that I've read in a long, long time. Niffenegger handles the confused time-lines very well, and her characterization and prose are beautiful, enough to make me fall in love with this book. That said, I do have a few minor quibbles with the book: some of the minor characters could have had more time, a few of the storylines weren't wrapped up neatly at the end of the book (I think that this was probably intentional on Niffenegger's part, but I would have liked to know what happened to these characters), and her science, while far more accurate than that of many writers, is a little facile. Also, I object to the fact that this is not a book that one can read in public - I had to keep it for reading at home after I missed my stop on the subway because I was so engrossed in reading. Definitely not what one expects out of a philosophy text, but this book will keep me thinking about deep questions for a long time to come.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

6. The Dante Club

The Dante Club, a novel written by Matthew Pearl, is a riveting, twisting murder mystery centered around several Boston poets-turned-detectives: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, and their publisher, J.T. Fields. When a murderer is stalking through the streets of Boston, committing crimes in imitation of the punishments described in Dante's Inferno, the police are more or less helpless and these literary men are the only one who realize what is happening and can work to stop the murderer.

It's set in 1865, and I must say, I enjoyed the historical details immensely. The social attitudes, the city landmarks that are still familiar and recognizable and those that are gone - all of these are brilliant reading for anyone who loves Boston. Likewise, the lives of the poets are excellently rendered, so that they are no longer mere historical figures or Great Literary Men, but mortal men who mourn their wives, argue with their sons, and listen to their daughters' prayers before bedtime. It's richly textured and almost bewitching.

That said, in places the novel is rather too richly textured. This is a murder mystery, after all, not a historical drama, and some of the murders are quite gruesome. The plot is so gripping that it can be quite hard to put the book down, even when the reader is squirming in empathy with the unfortunate victims - in short, this is not recommended reading during mealtime or just before bedtime!

Nonetheless, if read in broad daylight and far away from shadows and suspicious corners, this is definitely a book I'd recommend. The characters were wonderfully drawn, the setting was marvellous, and the plot was ingenious - all in all, quite the enjoyable read!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

4. Darcy's Story and 5. The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy

Both Darcy's Story and The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy are (as one might glean from their titles) retellings of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice from Mr. Darcy's point of view. Pride and Prejudice has been so well-beloved by readers for generations that it is perhaps hardly surprising that there are so many adaptations and reimaginations of the story; I have also read and enjoyed Pamela Aidan's trilogy, which is written with the same premise, and there are many other examples, including both retellings of the story from Darcy's point of view or continuations of the story after the ending that Austen gave it.

Given that any retelling of the story from Darcy's point of view is limited by Austen's original text, it seems unfair to ding Janet Aylmer's Darcy's Story by criticizing it for a lack of originality ... but it's simply impossible not to do so. Aylmer copies large parts of her text from Austen's novel, particularly the dialogue, and her Darcy is the same reserved, uncommunicative gentleman that we meet in Pride and Prejudice. In other words, I don't feel any closer to Darcy for having read this - apart from one or two details about Georgiana, Darcy's Story doesn't add anything to the characters that is not present in the original text.

Especially compared to Austen's wit and writing style, the passages that Aylmer has written suffer in comparison. The text drags on, perhaps especially because sections of it are extremely repetitive - and especially when Aylmer repeats quotes from Austen's text, it's unnecessary, as the large majority of her readers are Austenites who are familiar with the fact that Mr. Darcy is a reserved gentleman who envies others their ease at social interactions.

Mary Street's The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy is a much better read - she doesn't quite manage to capture Jane Austen's language, or write with the same wit that Austen uses, but her version of Darcy is a much more interesting character. He isn't a cardboard silhouette of the original Pride and Prejudice Darcy, as Aylmer's character was - there are scenes that didn't occur in the original novel and there are new insights into Darcy's character. Darcy here is much more passionate, and the break that comes in his character after Elizabeth's refusal of his first proposal is quite convincing, and almost as painful to read as it must have been to experience.

Instead of leading the reader through the story step by step, as Aylmer does, Street's novel works very well for the reader who has already read Pride and Prejudice and knows the story from Elizabeth's point of view - several of Darcy's misapprehensions are diverting on that basis. Likewise, Street does a better job of managing dialogue, and while there are some lines that are direct quotes from Pride and Prejudice, she manages to paraphrase or work around having to repeat entire speeches. In some cases, this style works better than in others - juxtaposing Austen's words with Street's doesn't make for a seamless, perfectly flowing narrative - but on the whole, I found it infinitely preferable to wholesale quotation of large portions of text.

As a confirmed Austenite, I don't expect that I'll ever find a rendition of that pleases me as much as the original. Pride and Prejudice. Darcy's Story is one that I would skip, if I had the choice of reading it again, but on the other hand, I did find The Confessions of Fitzwilliam Darcy to be an engaging read. It brought something new to the narrative, instead of casting the story from a slightly different camera angle, and I had pleasure in the insights into Darcy's character that I gained from reading this book.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

3. Whitethorn Woods

I usually find Maeve Binchy's books to be an enjoyable read, and Whitethorn Woods is no exception to that. Binchy shines at voice and characterization, painting a vivid picture of small town life in Ireland. In Whitethorn Woods, she unites seemingly unconnected characters by their common interest in a proposed new road that would pass through the site of a sacred well where villagers bring prayers to St. Ann.

However, I don't feel that she unites the characters quite as well in this book as she does in some of her other works, perhaps because she's dealing with such a large cast of characters that are going in many different directions - everywhere from Israel, Italy, New York City, or England, and back to Ireland. Many of the characters are given only a short section in the book, and especially when it comes to some of the more disturbed characters - the murderess, the extortionist brother, the woman who steals a baby - it seems almost sensationalist because it lacks the space to thoroughly explore the characters and their motivations.

Rather than being a novel, it's more a collection of short stories, and some of them are more satisfying than others. I'm still not convinced by the murderess who arranged for a taxi driver who was contemplating suicide to take her boyfriend's newest fling with him, but I enjoyed many of the other stories a great deal: Father Flynn, who struggles with finding a place for himself as a priest in modern society, Maureen and Rivka, the friends who only ever had one secret from each other, Neddy who is "not the sharpest knife in the drawer" and likes it that way, and sixty-year-old Vera who goes on a singles vacation with twenty-year-olds. Their stories are charming, vivid, and real - Binchy, as always, is a master at capturing human emotions on the page.