Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

Quiet DellEmbarrassingly, I had forgotten I read Jayne Ann Phillips’ Quiet Dell. It happened months ago, but I guess the trauma of reading something so terrible wiped the knowledge from my head until I was scouring my to-read shelf the other day and thought this sounded too familiar to not have been read already:

Chicago, 1931 – Widowed Asta Eicher scrambles to take care of herself and her three children in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. Lonely and in despair, her prayers are answered when rich stranger Harry Powers begins to court her. Yet mere weeks after they meet, the family is dead and Powers is nowhere to be found.

Intrepid reporter Emily Thornhill sets out to uncover what happened to the family as she becomes enthralled in their story, particularly that of the youngest child, Annabel, a precocious, artistic dreamer. Allied with a fellow journalist Eric Lindstrom and bankrolled by guilt-ridden banker William Malone, she tracks their trail to a small West Virginia town, where she is determined to discover the truth.

To be frank, this was one of the worst mysteries I’ve ever read. It wasn’t even mysterious! Literally nothing in the aforementioned description actually unfolds like that. Instead, it read like a bad episode of Law & Order:SVU, which I should’ve realized since it’s “based on a true story.”

Alternating between Asta and Emily’s stories, Phillips attempts to unravel the case, but Emily’s character serves as a distraction from Asta’s more sympathetic and chilling tale. I did love the insight into Asta’s mind, where we see her crumbling marriage and tough decision to remarry for her family’s sake. It was heartbreaking to read scenes of their tight-knit loving life before it all went downhill. I just didn’t understand why she didn’t accept the marriage proposal of her boarder though, who she knew and at least liked platonically, rather than running off with a pen pal (even if his letters charmed the pants off her).

But I soon got used to the idea of the women in this book making terrible life choices. For Emily, I was turned off by the ideal of a supposedly “strong career woman” throwing herself at a Rochester-esque married man (William) for no good reason, especially as they barely knew each other and he could’ve been the serial rapist/killer for all she knew. I mean, he is keeping an invalid wife locked up in his house. Additionally, I hated how people just spilled all their secrets to her, such as Eric blithely coming out of the closet in a far less tolerant era, considering Emily didn’t come off as the slightest bit trustworthy.

The writing and dialogue are weak as well. The resolution is particularly awful, with a WTF denouement involving a crime-solving dog named Duty and helpful ghosts of murdered children. Worst of all, Powers’ motivations left vague so we don’t even know how or why he went about committing these murders!

I can’t comprehend how a book that was supposed to be a historical mystery actually became a over-dramatized romance. If you’re into a true crime version of Nicholas Sparks, maybe this would be up your alley. If not, steer clear of the Quiet Dell.

2 Stars

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Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles #1) by Marissa Meyer

Cinder (The Lunar Chronicles, #1)In Marissa Meyer’s reimagination of the Cinderella story, a deadly plague ravages the human population of New Beijing while the conniving alien race of Lunars watch indifferently. Linh Cinder, part cyborg and full-fledged mechanic, is scorned for her mixed makeup by her stepmother, even more so when it seems like her beloved stepsister caught the plague and Cinder remains healthy. To save her stepsister’s life, Cinder reluctantly agrees to serve as a guinea pig for Dr. Erland’s search for a cure. Meanwhile, she has caught the attention of handsome Prince Kai, who doesn’t know she’s a cyborg and who is considering a marriage alliance with the ruthless Lunar Queen Ravenna in order to save his people from the plague. Unfortunately his growing relationship with Cinder brings them both into danger under the Queen’s cruel eye as the destruction of Earth seems imminent.

Honestly, I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to jump on The Lunar Chronicles bandwagon because it appears to have everything I loved – retold fairy tale in a cyberpunk dystopia with shady aliens AND sassy robots. Plus, I adore the cover art of Cinder’s mechanical leg, though I do wonder why it’s a ruby slipper rather than a glass one.

Since books, particularly in fantasy and even more particularly in YA, are seldom set in Asia, I was initially excited about the “New” Beijing setting; however, with the exception of the market scenes at the beginning and the naming conventions, this world was too disparate from ours for me to even understand the point of tying it to a modern locale, much less one as richly historical as China. The more general world-building, from the interplanetary struggles to the tense political connections between the remaining Earthen nation-states, appeared quite intriguing, but again I needed to know more that what Meyer has thus far exposed. I trust that she will thrown in additional details in the sequels, including fleshing out the circumstances of cyborgs and their second-class citizenship in the Eastern Commonwealth.

32% cyborg Cinder was a well-developed protagonist, a sharp and resourceful planner with a loving heart but a skeptical nature. I am impressed by her out-of-the-box hobbies and talents, like remodeling cars and fixing machines, and sympathized with her about her shame and oppression for not being fully human. She made some rash decisions, but at least understood there are consequences to her actions. I also liked Kai, who was considerate towards and respectful of Cinder but also believably worried about compromising his duty. There was no easy path for either of them and the abruptness of the ending caused absolute devastation in my heart, but I’m sure I’ll eventually get my happy ending – they well deserve it. And it’s so rare that I find a literary romance that I root for.

While the foreshadowing became a bit obvious to the reader, Meyer did an excellent job of blending familiar elements of the fairy tale with a few surprising twists. I’m actually waiting for the last book to come out before I venture onwards in the series as I can’t stand waiting. I know they’ll be entertaining in spite of these few mentioned imperfections.

4 Stars

Weekend Update: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingFinally! was my exhausted yet euphoric thought as I lay down Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything earlier today. I had loved Bryson’s  A Walk in the Woods about his trek through the Appalachian Trail for its amusing anecdotes and slightly-terrified reverence for nature, but this work was a harder slog that quickly tired me out. So I’ve been reading it in fits and starts over the last two months, interspersed with lighter reads for sanity’s sake.

The good is that Bryson, as always, does a very good job of succinctly and wittily condensing the greatest questions about humanity and the universe, and our understanding of ourselves in our universe, into 560 pages. The bad is that that’s a lot of ground to cover so the material is very dense, dropping names and theories and hard science like the Niagara Falls drops water. Bryson tries the best he can to make everything comprehensible while comprehensive but in the end there’s not much more editing he can do.

A sampling of fascinating facts:

  • Bipedalism can be largely blamed for the increased pain and risk of death during childbirth because the pelvic bone and birth canal had to be reshaped to accommodate walking upright.
  • Dodos were so spectacularly dense that to find them, you only had to make one squawk and the others would flock to the source of the squawking.
  • Einstein worked as a Swiss patent clerk, where he was denied a promotion but at least had the time and leisure to contemplate, leading to the theory of relativity.

I highly recommend it for those who want to deepen and broaden their science knowledge, but this is not a book that can be powered through. It requires thought and re-reading, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t able to do that, skimming through parts of the middle. However, this book is one of those that should be required reading at high schools because it offers an in-depth cross-curriculum look at a variety of subjects from geography to cosmology and physics to paleontology.  I was thoroughly geeking out at the random bits of knowledge I learned, and will be insufferable at upcoming parties. But it’s not for the faint of heart!

One and Only by Lauren Sandler

One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being OneOne of my newly-pregnant coworkers recently confided in me that her husband and her were trying to decide whether they should have an only. My surprisingly strong knee-jerk reaction was “NO!” – I’m an only child and sometimes I love it, but many times I hate it. Not that I could’ve changed anything, but I imagine I’d at least like one sibling if I could, and occasionally fantasize about being in a family as overwhelmingly large as the Duggars.

This conversation got me curious about onlies and their maligned reputation, leading me to Lauren Sandler’s One and Only: The Freedom of Having an Only Child, and the Joy of Being One. Journalist and author Sandler is an only child herself and has only one child of her own. She thus begins an examination of onliness partially as a way to prove that she and her daughter aren’t screwed up as a result of not having siblings.

According to Sandler, the majority of myths surrounding only children are scientifically-proven to be untrue. Onlies score higher in generosity and sociability tests, proving that we’re not all selfish and lonely, and tend towards high self-esteem and intelligence. I don’t think I’m selfish and I do think I’m intelligent, but I definitely did feel lonely and somewhat blame my onliness for my social awkwardness; however, I recognize Sandler’s point that it’s more about the individual’s other life experiences than being an only. Additional evidence that reaffirms the wisdom of onliness is the environmental and economic benefits to having an only child – it’s the single-best decision that can be made to reduce human contributions to climate change and jump-start developing economies. Particularly for women with high career aspirations, stopping at one child can be a logical work-life balance, which is why I guess there’s so many in my generation.

Oddly, throughout the course of my life, probably half of my best friends have been only children and that becomes closer to 2/3rds if we include children with huge age gaps between them and their only other sibling. Interestingly though, I also tend to befriend eldest siblings, whom I assume are more like only’s in temperament, despite the myths that onlies are more similar to spoiled and coddled youngest siblings. Sandler, following in the theoretical footsteps of Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, supports this claim and draws numerous parallels between onlies and eldests, though she says that onlies tend to be more creative and innovative than eldests.

In the end, Sandler concludes it’s a very personal decision, and she made the right choice for her, which really all anyone should do regardless of societal expectations and pressures. It was interesting to read about her journey to reach an informed conclusion, but ultimately I think this book will be of greater help to expectant mothers than to someone like me. But for onlies seeking inspiration and comfort, I recommend Alexandra Schwartz’s article “Onliness” in the New Yorker, which discusses Sandler’s books and ties its research into literature.

3 Stars

 

 

Atlantia by Ally Condie

AtlantiaAs I discussed in my post of Mermaids in ParadiseI think that mermaids are one of the hot new trends in fiction and I’ve had Ally Condie’s Atlantia awaiting on my shelves for a suitable time to read it (i.e. one a sufficient distance away from my past mermaid reads so y’all didn’t think I was weirdly obsessive AND so that I gave this book a clean slate).  But unlike my expectations, this book wasn’t exactly about mermaids, more like humans living under the sea, under da sea (sing it with me!), down where it’s greener, down where it’s cleaner, take it from meeee!

Well, Rio and her family are living in the underwater city of Atlantia because the Above became too overpopulated and polluted. Solution: her forefathers established a colony in the ocean. But Atlantians can make a choice on their eighteenth birthday – stay in the below forever, or go up to land. Rio has always wanted to see the sun and walk/run/dance in the sand, but after the death of their mother, her twin sister Bay betrays her and strands her alone in Atlantia. With the help of her only remaining relative, the mysterious and estranged Aunt Maire, Rio tries to find a way to escape, discovering terrifying truths about her mother’s death and the nature of their city along the way.

(Spoilers ahead)

Poor Rio. I really felt for her in the confusion that ensued from her mother’s death and her sister’s abandonment. Add that to the reveal that she is a feared siren, capable of swaying people’s thoughts and emotions, a huge secret that could lead to her imprisonment and death if it got out. With no allies, she stays pretty resilient at first; unfortunately, soon after she begins to make snap decisions and estrange potential allies so it’s kind of a miracle she wasn’t outed sooner.

That’s my main issue with this book – the beginning is mysterious and as seductive as a siren call, but then it’s like hearing the same song over and over again. You get bored as Rio wavers and no danger seems more imminent than her stupidity. And the boredom continues until near the end, and becomes tinged with irritation the more you realize that communication and trust would’ve solved 99% of Rio’s problems. Though to be fair, it’s more Bay’s fault than Rio’s and, as a result, I was unable to connect with Bay as Rio does because I fully believed she was a selfish she-witch until the end.

Bay supposedly had a well-intentioned reason for departing into the Above, and that is her man. As semi-appalling as I find that, her other motivation was keeping her sister safe though that didn’t work out too well. At the very least, there wasn’t terrible love triangles with Bay or Rio. Rio’s interest, True Beck, was friends with Bay’s lover and, although amazingly  attracted to her within minutes of their meeting, is quite supportive of her rash choices and comes across as a generally upright guy. Still neither romance tugged my heartstrings any more than the sibling relationships did.

The element I loved best though was the dystopian essence. Our world had devolved due to resource scarcity and overpopulation, though still existed in a form, so some people are forced into underwater cities by their ancestors. But that doesn’t solve their problems because humans are still human and greedy power-graspers are as common Below as Above. The depictions of the Venice-like city that paralleled the lost Above were haunting and I was intrigued by the religious system that had been developed by those Below, including the carvings of gods and miracles of the bats. While finding out how Atlantia appears and exists was most fascinating, not all my questions were answered about how the Divide came into being and the whole political relationship between Above and Below.

Thank the heavens Above that this wasn’t a series though, because for the most part, we did get a nice, happy(ish) ending all wrapped up in a bow with all plot-points concluded if not as thoroughly as I hoped. While it was a bit cliche, at the very least it was realistic…or as realistic as underwater cities go (which is fairly because apparently the UAE and Japan have one in the works).

3 Stars

The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Banks

The Girl's Guide to Hunting and FishingMelissa Banks’ The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing had been on my to-read list for awhile, another one of those added from “Best Books for Your Twenties” and “Best Books for Female Ice-Fishers” and other such lists. I didn’t quite know what to expect from it, but whatever my expectation, it wasn’t what I got.

The book was framed as a series of short vignettes, mostly from the life of Jane, from her teenage years through late twenty-something yuppie days in New York City. Jarringly, one chapter from the point-of-view of Jane’s neighbor was also thrown in – I liked it for offering a different perspective from and on Jane, but it felt isolated from the rest of the book.While Bank’s prose often is gorgeous and her witty one-lines fall pointedly from Jane’s mouth, the writing fails to excavate something original amongst the trite issues she digs at.

Plot-wise, to be honest, I loved the beginning and then it went downhill from there. As a teenager, her protagonist Jane’s voice feels simultaneously fresh and jaded, divulging surprisingly insightful impressions of familial relationships and burgeoning romances. But as she grows and becomes entangled with Archie, a much older man whom she is dependent on personally and professionally, I cease to relate to or respect her choices. The woman is man-fishing and husband-hunting in utterly wrong ways, largely trying to conform to what she imagines males want her to bring to their relationship. It’s dated and, worse, strikingly anti-feminist. Banks should’ve stuck to the non-romantic loves, because it’s when Jane discusses her cancer-struck father or her adored big brother that her story is most moving despite the cliche.

In a sea of worthwhile books, TV shows, and films about being a young woman grappling with adulthood and singledom, this is nothing special. Jane can be an everywoman but, in the end, she doesn’t give us any wisdom or hope that we don’t already know and have. Completely forgettable.

2.5 Stars

A Flaw in the Blood by Stephanie Barron

A Flaw in the BloodIt’s 1861, and Irish barrister Patrick Fitzgerald is imperiously summoned to his second-ever audience with Queen Victoria. The Queen’s husband Prince Albert lies dying of “typhoid”, and the Queen is gripped with fear over a murder conspiracy that Fitzgerald investigated years prior as a law clerk. Confused about their conversation, Fitzgerald’s night only gets stranger when the royal coach overturns while carrying him and his beautiful, brilliant ward, Miss Georgiana Armistead, niece of the Queen’s prior personal physician Dr. Snow. The two incidents cannot be a coincidence and Fitzgerald’s suspicions are proven correct when hitmen are subsequently sent after them. Fleeing London to the remote reaches of England and then to the Continent, Fitzgerald’s only hope of keeping himself and Georgiana alive is unraveling why they are being hunted, and all the clues point towards a deadly royal secret – A Flaw in the Blood.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

This book sounded like a thrilling blend of mystery and history, and author Stephanie Barron delivers, at least on the history bit. She provides a thorough background on the prevalent medical theories and socio-political tensions of the time, such as prejudice against the Irish and the working class, though it tends to be infodumped into conversations between the characters. Most of the primary characters – including Fitzgerald, Georgie, and the caricatured mustache-twirling villain Count von Stuben – are invented with slight-to-middling basis in actual historical personages. Queen Victoria, the one real individual we are introduced to and who serves as a narrator, Barron paints as malicious and hysterical, which struck me as unfairly biased as well as inaccurate.

While it doesn’t appear to be part of a series, nevertheless I was very lost on many of the character’s connections and backgrounds, particularly that of the trial that initially brings Fitzgerald and the Queen into acquaintance. But one thing is for sure: creeping on your ward is a bit, well, creepy. Sketchy Fitzgerald had watched Georgiana grow up and I think the way he conducts himself with her is thoroughly inappropriate, especially as he has an alive, if insane and syphilitic, wife – what can I say, I guess I’m quite Victorian in this regard! As a result, I detested Fitzgerald and wasn’t terribly fond of Georgiana, though I liked that (1) she displayed some propriety AND intelligence in not falling for men that want to play the misogynistic protector role with her and (2) that she knew when to toss propriety out the window, such as when she acted as a physician to prostitutes and impoverished women. My favorite character by far though was Fitzgerald’s valet, who was amusing and unflinchingly loyal, with a close second being the precociously kind and brave child prince Leopold.

The first part of the book read quite differently than the latter part, being more laborious and cryptic as opposed to the action-packed, revelatory climax and conclusion. Which is what I guess makes it a proper mystery, though it didn’t feel that way reading it, mostly just sluggish and overly perplexing – I definitely enjoyed the back-end more than the setup-heavy front. The ending also had a stunning twist that initially seemed farfetched but is an apparently legitimate and intriguing conspiracy theory (Google: hemophilia in Victoria’s lineage). I’m not sure I was happy with how everything wrapped up, but at least there wasn’t a cliffhanger and (technically) the heroes triumphed even if history remained unchanged.

3 Stars