Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Diviner's Tale

I recently received the unproofed eGalley of The Diviner's Tale by Bradford Morrow from and finished it last night, having read it on my new Kindle over the course of a few days.  Before I talk about the novel itself, let me just say that the experience of reading unproofed galleys on an eReader is just the slightest bit unwieldy.  For starters, the formatting can be nonexistent in places, with paragraphs running into each other, lack of double spaces between paragraphs, and the like.  Nothing too daunting, just...unwieldy.  I didn't hold it against the novel, though, or the process, which overall was one of othe most pleasant I've ever experienced, at least as compared to the one other unproofed galley I ever read, which was spiral bound and printed on 8x10" paper and pretty hard to deal with physically.  I'm sure that was so a reviewer/editor could make notes in the margins, and of course it made perfect sense.  It was just unwieldy in a whole different way.  I was able to make notes and highlight portions of the eGalley on the Kindle without much trouble (just had to remember which button to push when, and to remember to even make notes, especially when engrossed in the story).

So, the technical stuff out of the way, let me just say that The Diviner's Tale, which is the story of the redemption of a family damaged by tragedy as much as it is a ghost story and mystery, has some of the loveliest prose I've read in a long time, with wonderful metaphors and similes and lyrical language.  Here's the first of the passages I highlighted because of a sweet turn of phrase. 

Cass Brooks is a diviner, a witch some call her, who makes her living by locating water (and other lost things, as the story goes on to show) using metaphysical techniques that go back generations in her family.  She's out on some undeveloped, densely forested property in upstate New York, dousing for water so the new property owner can build a huge resort hotel with a fake lake on its grounds.  While she goes about her work, she reminisces a bit about her divining work:

After the twin towers went down, I found myself exploring bonier, harsher, uninhabited land for people from the city looking to relocate, to Thoreau for themselves a haven upstate.   
"To Thoreau for themselves" ~ wonderful! 

Cass is not easy in her vocation, feeling that the world is correct in viewing her a charlatan, that she's a fake who will never be a true diviner like her father the other men of the Brooks family before him were but who must stay in the business because she needs the income her divining brings in.  She ruminates:
No going back, fake or not.  The thing was, for whatever little techniques I had developed to enhance my chances of, as it were, swimming along with the Brookses ~ my own confession will come in due course ~ nothing I had ever done could explain my forevisions, as we called them in our family.
"Swimming along with the Brookses" ~ oh, my.

As to her odd ability to see snatches of the future ~ what she calls "forevisions" or "the monster" and which is something she's been able to do since childhood ~ this ability is pivotal to the story, though a newly developed ability to apparently see into the past becomes even more important.

At the risk of letting slip a spoiler, the past ~ as personified by Cass's fore- and aft-visions ~ plays an important role in the story.  As someone close to her begins to lose the past due to the onset of Alzheimer's disease, Cass begins to recover her own past, which she has hidden from her own conscious mind. 

She describes the symptoms of Alzheimer's in its early stages and its terrible effect on the victim:
...[W]ords [he] had known so well once now eluded him once in awhile, as if they were butterflies and his net had holes in it, flaws in its webbing he didn't know how to fix.
All the while, Cass's past is struggling to come out into the light, both in waking dreams and dreams she has when asleep.  She describes one waking vision where she is talking to someone whose long-ago death affected her deeply:
What's it like there in the land of the dead...?

Like nothing, like floating in warm flowers.

Can you see me?

There's nothing to see except your worries and hopes.

What do they look like?

Knives hovering over you.

The hopes, too?

The hopes especially.
Damn, gives me shivers every time I read that.

The main protagonist and, as I saw it, an unreliable narrator, Cass was annoying in parts ~ the kind of annoying that makes you want to say, "What the heck are you thinking? Why are you doing that? STOP!" and her growth was not delineated in a way that worked well for me. I guess what I'm saying is that I just never quite warmed to her. I loved her twin sons, though ~ Jonah and Morgan, who talk to her and each other like no other 11-year old boys I know but who charmed me and made me wish I'd had twin boys just like them. Other characters were equally charming, some were easy to dislike, and some left me cold. I found the villain ~ or at least the motives for his actions ~ relatively unbelievable, resulting in a lack of strong feeling about him. Not fatal but disappointing, at the very least.

There were some other minor flaws ~ a string or two left hanging at the end (but nothing that presages a sequel), incohesiveness in parts of the storyline due perhaps in part by the illogic of some of the character's motives, and a denoument that was a bit abrupt and somewhat confusing, at least in its chronology. Still, it pulled me in and turned out to be a good read, actually a really good read, and one that to my mind is best savored slowly rather than raced through.  I'm going to look for some of Morrow's earlier novels and am also looking forward to buying a copy of The Diviner's Tale when it comes out next January. I give this 4 stars out of 5.

DISCLAIMER:  This was a free unproofed eGalley, sent to my Kindle by the publisher without strings attached.  The opinions in the review are my own, and I am being paid nothing for my review.  I apologize that I can't give page numbers for the examples set out above, and note that parts of the story may change between now and publication date.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

NetGalley, My Kindle's New Friend

The other day, I learned from Valerie Comer over at Little Worlds about NetGalley, a website where publishers can submit unbound galleys of as-yet-unpublished books that early reviewers can request and read as eBooks and then, it is hoped, review.

I signed up right away (because I don't have enough books to read), clicked on a bunch that I thought looked good, and right away got two eBook galleys from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  I've already started reading them ~ The Janus Stone by Elly Griffiths and The Diviner's Tale by Bradford Morrow (both of which I'm relieved to say are quite good so far).  The Diviner's Tale and The Janus Stone are both due out next January.  I'll be reviewing them here any day now, but here's what the publisher has to say about The Diviner's Tale:
Walking a lonely forested valley on a spring morning in upstate New York, having been hired by a developer to dowse the land, Cassandra Brooks comes upon the shocking vision of a young girl hanged from a tree. When she returns with authorities to the site, the body has vanished, leaving in question Cassandra’s credibility if not her sanity. The next day, on a return visit with the sheriff to have another look, a dazed, mute missing girl emerges from the woods, alive and the very picture of Cassandra’s hanged girl. 
What follows is the narrative of ever-deepening and increasingly bizarre divinations that will lead this gifted young woman, the struggling single mother of twin boys, hurtling toward a past she’d long since thought was behind her. The Diviner’s Tale is at once a journey of self-discovery and an unorthodox murder mystery, a tale of the fantastic and a family chronicle told by an otherwise ordinary woman.
When Cassandra’s dark forebodings take on tangible form, she is forced to confront a life spiraling out of control. And soon she is locked in a mortal chess match with a real-life killer who has haunted her since before she can remember.
And a blurb from Joyce Carol Oates: “Luminous and magical, fraught with suspense, beautifully and subtly rendered—a feat of prose divination.”

Sounds yummy, doesn't it!

Having stayed up late into the night reading The Janus Stone, I'm a bit further into it so can discuss it from my own perspective rather than relying solely on the opinions of the publisher and others.

The Janus Stone begins with Ruth Galloway, an archaelogist, being sent to a dig in Norwich where some old bones, apparently without a skull, have been unearthed from beneath an ancient mound thought to be the remains of the wall of a Roman villa.  Not long after that, in a nearby town, the bones of a child ~ also missing its skull ~ are found buried under the front door step of a Victorian mansion that is being demolished to build a fancy hotel, and Ruth is called in to investigate that grisly find.  Are the bones from a Roman-era ritual sacrifice, or is the killer closer at hand?

The Janus Stone is a follow-up to The Crossing Places, Griffiths’s first mystery, which I confess I have not yet read.  (Based on how good the second book is, I'll be remedying that little oversight as soon as I can.)  I think it would have been better had I read the first book in the series before starting the second.  The relationship between Ruth and the investigating detective D.I. Harry Nelson is a developing one and, I suspect, would have been better understood had I been with them from the inception.  The mystery itself, of course, is fine on its own and, despite not having read the first, I'm really enjoying it. 

Still, if you are new to this author, I urge you to begin at the beginning, with The Crossing Places.  This works out well, since The Janus Stone won't be available for another six months.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

My eBooks Have FOUND A HOME! And Roommates. Lots of Roommates.

For awhile now, I've been thinking about getting an eReader.  I don't travel all that often, maybe twice a year, but, whenever I do hit the road (or the skies, as the case may be), I tend to bring a lot of books along.  Last October, when I flew across the country to spend a week with my little sis in North Carolina, I packed seven books, and it wasn't enough!  I had to borrow a couple from her, which could have been a problem, because she buys the books of one author almost exclusively.  Good thing I like Stephen King. 

Seven books ~ even paperbacks ~ take up a lot of real estate in a suitcase, which I usually stuff to capacity with clothes and shoes, plus lotions and hair product and facial cleansers and the like.  (Because you can't buy that kind of stuff in North Carolina or New York City.  Right.)  And my carryon is always filled with camera and lenses and laptop.  Anyway, it occurred to me that an eReader would solve the problem of carrying around so many books, but the question then became: which eReader?  So I did an in-depth study of the three main eReaders on the market today, as well as a few that are not so well-known, and distilled the information down to what is important to me.

The Kindle2, with its 6" eInk screen, allows you to buy books from from anywhere in the world using wifi or 3G, or by downloading to a computer and then sideloading to the Kindle.  (This is important to me because I'm considering moving to a small Central American country so I can afford to retire in a year or so.)  Another nice feature is that you can use it sideways, in landscape mode.  You can't, however, borrow eBooks from the library, which is an issue for me.

The Nook, in addition to being prettier than the Kindle and sporting that fun little color touch screen below the 6" reading screen, allows you to read library eBooks on it.  It's also less expensive than Kindle, if you buy the one with wifi only at $149 ($50 more if you want wifi + 3G), but you can't buy books from Barnes and Noble unless you are actually physically located within the U.S. (or Canada and a few U.S. territories, like Puerto Rico). Also, it doesn't have landscape mode.

The newest 6" Sony Touch doesn't have wifi or 3G.  It also costs more than the least expensive Nook.  The Touch, however, does allow you to read library eBooks on it, and in landscape mode.  It also comes with a stylus (!) with which you can handwrite notes and highlight stuff, plus you can turn the pages with either a button or by swiping the screen with your finger (it has a touch screen).  And you can get it with black borders, which is easier on my eyes and less distracting than white.  But I've heard that the screen has a bit of a glare, which doesn't work well in certaint kinds of light.

All these things I learned online.  Now it was time to try them out IRL (in real life).

I went to B and N to check out the Nook.  I handled it, fiddled with the controls, changed the font sizes and read a few pages of some books on it.  It was pretty, felt solid, and I really liked reading on it.

Then I went to Target and looked at the Kindle2, which was about all I could do with it because it wasn't hooked up.  Physically, it wasn't quite as pretty ~ the white plastic borders around the reading screen were wider, and there was that awkward button keyboard below it, plus it felt lighter and somehow flimsier. 

I didn't get to a Sony store to check out the Touch.  I couldn't find it, even though I used a map, because I got lost in the black hole of a mall parking structure.  It was a nightmarish ten minutes until I found the exit and escaped.

I went home and, for another week, agonized over which eReader to get.  Then one night last week, while I was sound asleep, I had a very realistic dream in which I was agonizing over which eReader to buy.  I woke in the morning tired, with a bit of a headache, and with the certain knowledge that I better stop shilly-shallying and just buy one of the dratted things before I drove myself crazy(er).

So I did a tad bit more online research and, last Saturday, went to a different Target and again looked at the Kindle2.  This time, it was hooked up to play a demo, so I was able to see the font sizes, landscape mode, how the text looked, as well as hold it in my hands.  I dithered for a little while, walked around the electronics department to think about it, then told myself it would be the perfect birthday present to myself.  When I learned that Target has a 90-day return policy with no restocking charge on the Kindle, that clinched it.  I bought it, figuring I could return it after using it for awhile, if it turned out I hated it. 
Well, I got it home, charged it, and have hardly put it down ever since except to work and sleep and shower and other things that involve water like washing dishes and brushing my teeth.*  I love it.  I love having dozens of books at my fingertips.  I love the lightness of holding it in bed at night and reading.  I love that I can change the font size depending on how tired my eyes are.  I love the ease with which I can get books on it.
I've loaded it with some free books, like Les Miserables, Great Expectations, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, She by H. Rider Haggard, classics I've been meaning to read for a long time, as well as contemporary novels like The Heir by Paul Robertson, Irresistible Forces by Brenda Jackson, and Vigilante by Claude Boucher, that I thought I'd try out, not having read anything by those authors before.  I've purchased three eBooks from  Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughn, Blood Rites by Jim Butcher, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, and the process was quick and easy.  (Too easy: twice I found I had purchased eBooks that I hadn't intended to buy. Luckily, I was able to reverse the purchases right away.)   I also loaded it with free "samples" of books from that I think I might want to read:  The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Dead in the Family, the new Sookie Stackhouse novel, and World War Z by Max Brooks, among others.

I do mind not being able to download and read library eBooks on it, because even as rich as I am (haha, that was a joke), I can't afford to buy every book I want to read, but for now I've got enough eBooks to last awhile.  We'll see whether, in a month or two, it becomes a major issue.  After all, I can always trade in the Kindle and buy the Nook or Sony Touch for myself, or maybe even keep the Kindle and also buy the other as an early Christmas present for myself.

*  *  *

*You may wonder why I didn't mention not being able to read on the Kindle when driving.  That is because the Kindle will read the eBook to you!  Granted, the voice is mechanical and sometimes pronounces words in a distinctly weird way, and it will never beat a really well-read audiobook (which can be played on the Kindle, as well as both the Nook and the Touch), but it's great if you're right in the middle of a juicy part and have to hop in the car to run a quick errand.  Just click on the "Text-to-Speech" feature and listen while you drive.  Then when you get back from your errand, you can continue reading from where the voice left off.  So far I haven't used that feature, but I think it's pretty cool.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Frozen Thames

The Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys is a real gem of a book, short enough to read in a day, if one were so inclined (which I usually am...inclined to read a book as quickly as possible, I mean), yet the kind of book that one can also savor slowly, which is (to my great surprise) the way I ended up reading it.

Made up of a couple dozen short stories, some of which are almost short enough to be termed flash fiction, The Frozen Thames tells of times over the past millenium when the Thames River has frozen solid.  The first vignette is set around 1155 and tells of Matilda of Normandy, also known as the Empress Maud, who was holed up in an Oxford castle on the banks of the frozen Thames, under seige by her cousin, King Stephen of Blois.  (The civil war between Stephen and Maud is the background for the Cadfael mysteries by Ellis Peters, as well as When Christ and His Saints Slept, the first book of the trilogy by Sharon Kay Penman.)   Other stories featured Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, the first and second James, and other later English sovereigns, as well as royal servants and courtiers.  There were also stories about serfs and nobles, publicans and thieves, watermen and preachers, boys and skaters and even a fearful team of oxen.  It was about Londoners and how they felt and thought about the issues confronting them during any given period   But mostly it was about London and its great river, the Thames. 

Some of the stories were uplifting, some made me laugh, a few made me cry, while all were tiny slices of life that captured the spirit of the time period in a few short pages.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Historical Fiction at Its Finest

As I mentioned in my last post, I haven't been in much of a reading mood in the past few months.  Even so, I've managed to pick a few real winners despite my case of the reading blahs, and I'd like to share a few of them with you. 

For historical fiction fans, if you haven't yet discovered C. J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake mysteries, you are in for a real treat.  In the first of the series, Dissolution, Henry VIII and Cromwell are orchestrating the dissolution of the monasteries.  Hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake, one of Cromwell's more reluctant minions, is ordered to go to one of the larger monasteries as a commissioner to try and figure out who beheaded the previous commissioner. Although I figured out who the murderer was way before the denoument, I wasn't sure of the motive until it was revealed at the very end. But the mystery was, for me, a small part of the charm of this novel.  Rather, the incredible historical details are what fascinated, as did the characters of Shardlake and Cromwell and the entire horror of the dismantling of the monasteries in England.

Dissolution is followed by Dark Fire, wherein Shardlake must solve two mysteries ~ one of which involves, at the behest of Cromwell, uncovering the whereabouts of a fearsome Weapon of Mass Destruction; Sovereign (my personal favorite), which finds Shardlake, under the authority of Archbishop Cranmer, reluctantly joining the Great Progress of Henry VIII as he travels to York to quell a rebellion that is brewing there and, along the way, uncovering a dangerous secret that could rock the foundations of the state; and Revelation, set during the waning years of Henry's reign when the aging and ailing king is wooing Catherine Parr, and which has Shardlake investigating the strange incarceration in Bedlam of a young religious fanatic while, at the same time, chasing after a serial killer, one of whose victims may be linked to Mistress Parr.

These intricately plotted mysteries portray England during Tudor times in an intimate and vibrant fashion. The mysteries are good, but, as with Dissolution, the historical details ~ so vivid you can almost smell, hear, see what it must have been like ~ and characterizations are what have enchanted me.  I am, as you can imagine, very much looking forward to Heartstone, the fifth installment in the series. 


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy Independence Day, America!

It's been a long time ~ six months ~ since I've posted anything here, and I've really missed it, but I've had some personal issues to deal with and little time for personal pleasures.  All that is now in the past and will I hope stay in the past, so, in to paraphrase Russel Casse: "Hello, boys and girls! I'm back!" (from the film Independence Day which is pretty fitting considering that tomorrow is the Fourth of July). 

I also had a long dry spell where almost nothing I picked up to read seemed to interest me, but I've recently read some amazing books which I'd like to briefly share with you.  Two were on audiobook, which I listen to on my trusty and well-used iPod.
First, you probably already know that Neil Gaiman is a wonderfully amazing writer, but but did you also know that he is also an amazingly wonderful reader, at least of the two works of his to which I've listened?  Last year, I was fortunate enough to listen to The Graveyard Book, my first Gaiman ever and coincidentally the winner of not only the Newbery Award for best novel of 2009 but also the Audie for best audiobook of 2009.  Then last week I picked up Neverwhere on audio and listened to it.  What a magical audiobook, and so masterfully read by its author.

Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, an unassuming young businessman living in London.  Richard has a dull job and a pretty but demanding fiancee, but he's relatively happy, or believes he is. Then one night, on the way to dinner with his fiancee where he is to meet her wealthy employer, he stumbles across a homeless girl who lies bleeding on the sidewalk. He stops to help her, against the strong objections of his fiancee, and the life he has known vanishes like smoke.  Literally.  It vanishes.  His bank account is gone.  His apartment is being rented out as if it is vacant.  People can't even seem to see him when he's standing in a puddle in front of them, naked but for a small handtowel draped across a strategic area of his anatomy, dripping from the bath that was interrupted by a leasing agent and a pair of prospective new tenants.  And he's being stalked by two of the worst, creepiest and evil assassins who ever existed.  He has, in fact, fallen through the cracks.  Thus begins his sojourn in the city below the city, where magic is as natural as traffic lights and smog in the upper world.  It was so good, I wanted to start listening to it again as soon as I finished it.  And now I've got Fragile Things, another audiobook of his that he reads, on hold at the library for pickup soon. 

The second book I've listened to recently that I want to share with you is A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray.  Now, I follow Libba Bray on Twitter, but didn't think I'd like her work as I'm not usually enamoured of angst-ridden YA romances.  Wow, was I ever wrong.  A Great and Terrible Beauty, set in the late 1800s, begins the trilogy that tells the story of 16-year-old Gemma Doyle who, after the suicide of her mother, is shipped away from the life she has known in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England.  While there, she discovers a magical realm beyond the mundane world through a door that only she can open.  While there was some angst and a small bit of romance, there was so much more: guilt, Victorian absurdities, danger, death, suspense, murder, and redemption.  As a friend on said, "Why oh why couldn't young girls have become enamoured with this series instead of with the stupid Twilight series..."

Some other excellent audiobooks I've enjoyed lately are Jasper Fforde's Something Rotten and First Among Sequels, the last two (so far) of the Tuesday Next series, and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a reread for me.  Black Hills by Dan Simmons, the story of Paha Sapa who touched General Custer just as he died and became infected with Custer's ghost, is also good, though the parts where Custer was talking were a bit offputting.

Later this weekend, I'll post some of the paper books I've read and enjoyed in the past few months.  Now it's time to clean the kitchen, which I allowed to fall into terrible disarray over the past few days.  It will be good to be able to use the sink and see the counters again.