I have a penchant for novels told from the point of view of a writer. This was even sweeter for the fact that a young gangly, white college graduate writes in collaboration with The Help–women whose black skin and pressed maid uniforms speak of an entirely different sort of upbringing.

This book is about crossing boundaries between race and social class during a time (the early 60’s) when integration was a four letter word and white people didn’t associate with colored people. Except they did. Stockett attempts to show the love and fear, the pain and joy and the familial bonds that tied the white and black cultures together. Stockett confesses in her end notes that this novel was inspired by The Help who took care of her family during her formative years.

In summary, Skeeter is inspired to write a book told from the viewpoint of the maids. Her first challenge is to find women who not only offer compelling stories of abuse and triumph, but who are also willing to risk their lives and livelihoods just to tell their stories. There are two heroines in this novel: Skeeter and Abileen. As they begin their journey, writing together, they begin a friendship that is not based upon servant and master, but friend and friend–two women equal in spirit and hope for a world where all people recognize that black and white are only skin deep.

Stockett is just as brave as the women in The Help, she writes several chapters from the vernacular and point of view of the maids. Much ado and criticism have sprung forth, claiming that Stockett’s use of vernacular was stereotypical and the depictions of black characters were offensive. While the white folk don’t have a southern accent, the vernacular of the maids is not horrific. It might not be perfectly accurate, but it is easy to read and understand. Furthermore, I could *hear* the characters speaking. This is an excellent accomplishment for any writer! I am always quick to praise a novel that delivers me into a visual experience of the author’s imagination, but rarely do I find I can also hear every word that a character speaks. If Stockett’s representation fails someone’s high standards for perfect vernacular, they could use a little help finding the point of the novel.

And on the tune of visual representation. I was there. I enjoyed the social and political references even if a few of the details experienced time travel. The Help explores a new slant about the lives of people who keep hired help. I qualify it as ‘new’ because the novel spends little time outside of the perspective of the maids or the situations they are inextricably involved with. Unlike classic novels where maids are present and often even have names, this book is a celebration of the work they did and the racism they shouldered with smiles on their faces and ‘yes ma’ams” on their lips.

I recommend taking the time to read it before Dreamwork’s version hits the theaters in August 2011.

In the news Stockett’s brother’s help Ablene filed a lawsuit in February 2011 against Stockett for stealing her identity and using it as the maid Abilene.

Kathryn Stockett’s website

At the time I composed this post, the United States had been at war for almost eight years. Eight years with more than 100,000 men and women deployed at any given time. The number of spouses, significant others and family members left behind is staggering. While our soldiers are in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting for what they beleive will better the world, their families also sacrifice. They sacrifice time with loved ones, they live with worry and fear of that phone call that will shatter their world, they live with the possibility that their soldier will not be the same person he/she was when they left. But we rarely ever have an opportunity to hear the stories of the families who stay home, tend to domestic matters and provide what little support they are able to offer their soldier.

The Author:

Siobhan Fallon’s collection of short stories offers a glimpse into this world often neglected by a society so overborne with stories of war, of death and of IEDs that they don’t even imagine the suffering, so seemingly trivial in comparison to the service of a soldier, experienced by the spouses. Fallon has every qualification to pen a collection of army wife stories as an wife who spent three deployments living at Fort Hood while her husband fought abroad.

The Book:

Each story is carefully designed to offer a different dynamic while remaining focussed on the relationship between a man and his wife. Whether the experience is one of jealousy, heartbreak, devotion, loss or frustration, each story revolves around one family’s struggles to survive domestic life after or during the husband’s period of active duty.

Fallon does not adhere to the female perspective. Some of her stories dive into the soldier’s mind and offer glimpses of his deployed experience  as well as his mental struggles and pain in returning to domestic life. These moments feel clear and unforced, Fallon’s character depictions are tangible and moving. The stories feel honest and plausible; these stories bring an outside reader into the domestic world of military service that is ignored in the headlines.

The only gripe I have about these stories are the endings. Every story, excepting the last, ends without an ending. Fallon builds tension, she brings characters to life and she leaves the audience hanging on the last page. Some of these stories were beyond frustrating because of the loose ends. The emotional arch necessary to give the reader a sense of understanding, conclusion or fulfillment never comes to fruition. It’s like taking your partner on a date to the movies and walking out ten minutes before the show’s over.

Siobhan Fallon’s Website

This historical non-fiction book about a gaggle of flyboys who met gruesome fates in WWII. Only one of these flyboys managed to escape with his life, and that was President George H.W. Bush. The caveat, though, he didn’t get shot down with all the others, which was the key to his rescue.

The synopsis on the book speaks of the mystery of the fates of those flyboys. One thing Bradley is good at, is telling the gruesome aspects of war. He paints the Japanese as monsters during WWII. And, indeed, the things they did to the cities and countries they conquered were certainly beastly. One gruesome image: streets lined with poles with people’s heads placed upon them. But, he fails to comprehend the fact that the Japanese didn’t have an American mindset or heritage with rules of war.

Think back historically. Did the Japanese line up their soldiers in colored uniforms and shoot until one group had killed the most people? No. And while my American and European ancestors might have thought this was the honorable way to fight, the Japanese would have thought it foolish. In Japanese military history, the samurai, for example, devoted his life to his emperor. If he failed his emperor he would voluntarily commit seppuku (ritual suicide by disembowelment), because that was the only way for him to maintain his honor, and that of his family.

All that was to say, that when the Japanese soldiers and their wives killed their children then themselves rather than be controlled by the Americans, it wasn’t the mystifying event that Bradley made it out to be. First off, the military, via the emperor, had warned Japanese people that horrible, horrible things would happen to them if the Americans took over. And, considering what they did to the people they conquered, it’s no surprise that many people killed themselves when the Americans defeated the Japanese.

But lets get back to Bradley’s story.

The flyboys held a very dangerous position in the air force. Although Japan was not able to fight air-to-air combat, they did have anti-aircraft weaponry. It’s this weaponry, and some foolish flying tactics, that led this group of flyboys to their death.

Bradley moves through the story, person by person, historical fact by fact, and allows the reader to see how these men were average kids from America. Some joined the air force because they had always wanted to, others because they felt there were no other options, one because his brother had told him it was time for him to get his life together. Those are words that likely haunted him to his grave. The personal facts about each boy is the magic that glues this story together. The history is great, but the reminder that every single one of those people, who never came home in body bags, were kids, most under the age of 22. They had dreams and girls, but they also had a hefty dose of courage. Bradley honors them with tact and painstakingly sought details, and these boys live on through his work.

I won’t spoil the mystery that Bradley unfolds, but I will highly recommend this book. Read it, or listen to in as an audio book like I did! Learn about the history of Japan’s role in WWII, and how that came to an end. Honor that gaggle of flyboys whose parents never got their remains to bury, and who, didn’t ever learn what had happened to their sons.

James Bradley’s website

Hunter’s Run has an interesting evolution, having taken more than 30 years to be completed and published. Three men worked separately and together to bring this sci-fi novel to life.


The main character, Ramon, left planet earth because he had prospects working to develop a new planet for habitation. He is carried on an alien spaceship to this new planet, 1000 years pass during his trip, and he becomes  a prospector on the new planet when he has arrived. Ramon is a man who is quick to temper and violence, and when he murders a man he is forced to run into the wilderness. Few prospectors or humans have explored the wilderness, there are massive and frightening creatures, there are thousands of animals that haven’t been discovered, and the land has not really been charted. This is when he stumbles upon an alien race hiding from the aliens who brought Ramon to the planet.  This is when Ramon begins an unlikely and psychologically interesting adventure.

The themes:

This novel will surprise and delight the science fiction reader. Using a new twist, the authors explore the idea of identity and how experiences can change and affect the ways that we perceive and interact with our world. This novel intersects the themes of guilt, fear, anger, and redemption to create a tightly woven novel that brings you full circle from beginning to end.

The writing:

These men spent decades pouring thought and care into their writing and story craft. And, to be fair, it is decent writing for the science fiction genre. This is not a literary novel and should not be judged as such. The writing does not become tangential or wander unnecessarily (which is one of my complaints with many science fiction novels). All-in-all I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the science fiction genre. I think it would make a good movie for the Sy-fy channel.

The ending:

Endings are so important. I have to say that I wasn’t thrilled with the ending. It felt abrupt and I wasn’t ready to put the book down (which is probably a compliment). The thing is, the afterword was facing the final page of the novel. This was jarring. While I like afterwords, I think it’s best if they have at least one blank page between them and the final page of the story. This will give the reader a moment to pause, reflect, and digest the story that they’ve just spent hours reading.

George R. R. Martin’s Website

Gardner Dozois doesn’t have a website, but here’s the Wikipedia page about him.

Daniel Abraham’s Website

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Posted: July 24, 2010 in Uncategorized

Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith easily made my top ten books list. Waters enters the Victorian era with finesse. This novel brings two coming of age girls together in extra-ordinary circumstances. There is intrigue, plotting, trickery, love, romance, pedophilia, murder, and thievery all wrapped up in this story.

If the excellent story filled with surprising twists and turns isn’t enough to intrigue you, then maybe the literary style will. Waters is a ‘pensmith’, that is to say, when she puts her pen to paper it constructs sentences that are worthy of reading by the snobbish literary crowd. And yet, this does not detract from those who would read a bit of Tom Clancy or Nora Roberts. They’ll still love this novel too.

Oh, did I mention that I LOVE this book? Sarah Waters is on my list of “I need to read everything this woman produces.” It’s also worth mentioning that she’s easily one of the best writers of lesbian themed novels.

Sarah Waters Website

This novel sits on my fence. To be a good novel, or not to be. That is the question.

Winfield has crafted a novel about a masters student, at UC Santa Cruz, who is more interested in drugs and sex than writing his thesis. His life is set on a path by the fact that his name is William Shakespeare–and his master’s thesis is about, guess who, Shakespeare. While Willie moves closer to completing his thesis, his life is paralleled by that of the historic Shakespeare. Winfield brings Shakespeare’s youth and accidental impregnation of Anne Hathaway to life and makes a case for Shakespeare practicing Catholicism during a time when papists were being hung, drawn, and quartered by the Queen of England.

I think the parallel structure of the novel is clever, and the imagination of Shakespeare’s youth was well drawn up. I particularly loved the inclusion of many Shake’s quotes in a relevant and illuminating manner. This novel also shed to light the political situations that Shakespeare would have grown up feeling oppressed or frustrated with.

My issues with the book come from another area. First, the descriptions are flowery. Rarely do I find myself skimming sentences, but it became so bad at points that I even skimmed whole paragraphs. Winfield isn’t verbose, but his first novel includes many details and scenes that do not add to the texture of the story. The long winded scene at Berkeley Campus, for example, felt as though it were merely telling us what it was like to be a student at Cal. The experience could have been cut down to one or two pages, but instead it sucked up page after page telling us about picketing, people shouting absurd chants, and tabling for myriad causes. While these are all a part of Berkeley culture, it was primarily irrelevant to the novel.

“My Name is Will” is Winfield’s first novel, and it was well enough crafted to ensure that he will continue to write, and be read. As I said at the beginning of this post, I can’t recommend this novel, but I also can’t condemn it. Read it yourself, and tell me what you think.

Jess Winfield’s website

This is undoubtedly one of the best books I’ve read this year. Little Bee has a new home in my top 10 list. I won’t give a synopsis, but I will say that you MUST read this book.

But it’s not the story that makes this novel great (although the story in itself is good enough to accomplish that). It’s how the story is told that is captivating. The structure of the novel is important in the tale. And that’s all that I will say about it.

Cleave is a master of the English language. He employs metaphors so powerful they will change the way that you view our world. His writing is not flowery, it does not waste paper or ink, and it does not get lost in itself. Cleave’s writing is concise and enticing.

This book will probably be the best novel you read this year and it’s only his second novel. Cleave is a writer to follow.

Cleave’s website: http://www.chriscleave.com/

This novel was a delightful read. Michael Gruber has a talent for vivid and precise language. The novel is an action packed mystery in which the characters stumble upon evidence that appears to point to the existence of an additional, unknown, Shakespeare play. Gruber manages to entwine romance (or at least sexual desire for the female as a mythical object), deception, the mafia, literature, screenwriting, manuscripts, and cryptography.

I read this book while on a camping trip, and the only problem was that I didn’t have enough time to read the novel from cover to cover in one sitting, which is exactly what I wanted to do.

The book isn’t fast paced. We meet the two main characters through first person narrative and because of this we get to learn their deepest feelings that would never be spoken out loud. But this internal experience of the characters leads us on many tangents that not only help to develop the characters, but also develop the plot. Even though it may feel like the novel is tangential, every idea and thought conveyed works to build up to the final moments of the novel.

This was an excellent read. While I couldn’t wait to get to find out what happened, I enjoyed every page in my journey to the end. This is a novel that will remain fresh in my mind for years to come.

Michael Gruber’s website: http://www.michaelgruberbooks.com/

I was very interested to read this graphic novel; it seemed like a great idea because it could bring visual drama/excitement to the US Constitution. Sadly, I was disappointed with the end result.

Every page was busy. It seemed that something was out of balance on every page. There was either too much text, too many colors, the drawings were too busy, or D) a combination of all of the above. Pages 84 & 85 are a good example of too much text. I turned the page and immediately felt overwhelmed. Instead of following each caption and image I focused on the two pages from a distance. My first reaction was to simply close the book or skip these pages, but I soldiered through the text. It wasn’t until page 138 that I felt at ease with the layout. This page (and half of page 139) used a fair amount of white space as a backdrop rather than small gutters or white space within frames.

On many pages there were no borders, the frames extended all the way to the edge and into the center binding. This effect added to the overwhelming effect of the visual and textual imagery. On page 90 the text box is not only cut off at the page edge, but so is the text. This may have been a printer error, or it may have been designed purposefully, but it was distracting. Maybe the purpose of creating such busy pages, so full of text, color and imagery was simply to show the immensity of the US constitution and amendments?

Text was often difficult to read. On some pages the text was very small, it would be a pastel on a dark background, the text would even be directly laid over imagery, or the text would be in cursive. At first I squinted to read some text, but after a while I simply skipped over text that was difficult to read–it was too much work and it irritated me. After a while I began to just wish the book was finished, not because I didn’t like the material, but because I didn’t like the way the book was put together.

That being said, there were a few things I also liked about the graphic novel. I enjoyed the historical introduction to the inception of the constitution. I especially enjoyed pages 4-5 (We People) and the fact that the author took the time to create a diverse body of ethnicities (which I didn’t see much of during the rest of the book). There were a few images that I thought were nice adaptions of modern society into the ideas of the constitution: one was on page 22 with the “do it yourself kit” to build America. Additionally I thought that the depiction of the evolution of law using the fish–>ape–>human comical. Later, on page 55 I enjoyed the design of the election process pictured as the cogs of a wheel. Each of these exemplify a good command of symbols to portray ideas.

My takeaway thought: be gently on the eye. Too much complexity, IMO, takes away from the power of the image and textual juxtaposition.

Before opening this graphic novel I had only read Kafka’s short story, The Hunger Artist, and learned a bit about Kafka’s life. This novel, by Robert Crumb and David Zane Mairowitz delves into Kafka’s major life experiences (or issues if you will) and some of his major works. The graphic novel covers the arch of his life, from childhood to his death, primarily using quotes from Kafka as captions for the imagery. Unlike many graphic novels I’ve read previously, Crumb and Mairowitz also include textual comments throughout the novel interspersed with the images and their captions. The drawings are in black and white, which I think is excellent and powerful. Had the imagery been colorful, or even three toned colors it would have detracted from the spooky form of the novel. Even with a smattering of experience with Kafka’s work and background, I felt a more complete understanding of the fear and inability to engage emotionally through the visual interpretations of his written work. If visual art can be Kafkaesque, Crumb and Mairowitz have accomplished it.

I found the depictions of eyes, throughout the graphic novel, to be particularly spooky. On page 30 Kafka’s father is portrayed with blank eyes and the caption reads “He’s still a giant, my father”. The next panel then shows Kafka himself with the same blank eyes. It’s a powerful way of showing that he and his father don’t see eye to eye. A friend of mine once said that the eyes are the window to the soul. I feel, in this case, Kafka and his father have both closed their souls off from each other. It’s a striking image that visually explores the depth (or lack of) of their father son relationship issues. Giving both characters also shows that they’ve cut themselves off emotionally from the rest of the world; they are devoid of normal human emotional interaction. This certainly seems to be Kafka’s feelings towards his father, and is exhibited by his lifelong inability to commit to a serious interpersonal relationship with anyone other than his pen, ink, and paper. Later, on page 72, Kafka’s eyes are drawn with circular lines and no pupil. Crumb uses text to explain that writing was a form of self-hypnosis for Kafka–hence the concentric circles representing his eyes. This symbol of hypnosis is exceptionally haunting. Kafka almost appears as though he were inhuman, just as he often imagines himself to be in his written work.

Crumb has used the eye as a symbol to convey many personal emotions of the characters, but also of the relationships that exist between them and the world that surrounds them. I’ve read some of Kafka’s work, and some criticism of his work, but these images have conveyed more deeply the fear and absurd ideas that Kafka exhibited in his personal life and writings. The combination of textual narrative, direct quotes, literary work, and graphic images come together to portray a complete and eerie depiction of Kafka’s life. In one word–intense.