Wednesday, October 25, 2017

RED RISING by Pierce Brown

The Harry Potter books seems to have inspired Lev Grossman’s series, The Divergent series, and maybe this one, too.  Red Rising is more sci-fi than fantasy, but the story still takes place at a school for students with exceptional physical and intellectual capabilities, where they are sorted into “houses.”  Darrow is an infiltrator from the Reds, the lowest caste on Mars.  The resistance group known as the Sons of Aries recruits him, after the death of his wife, to undergo some surgical alterations so that he can masquerade as a Gold.  This book follows Darrow through his first year of school at the Institute, and that year basically consists of a battle among all the houses for domination.  It’s not hard to guess who wins, but the storyline is more about the journey—forming alliances, learning what it means to be a leader, and ferreting out the traitors—than it is about the outcome.  This is a very violent story of survival of the fittest—natural selection in a microcosm of the best of the best.  I found the battle tactics and even the battles themselves hard to follow at times, but I don’t think I missed much.  Darrow is an angry young man, raging against an unjust society, and his minions are equally one-dimensional.  This was an enjoyable read but not particularly thought-provoking or particularly satisfying, and I’m not particularly gung-ho about continuing with the series, as I expect it’s more of the same.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


It’s 1924 in England, when a maid’s long-term affair with a wealthy young man is certain to end badly.  On the contrary, Jane Fairchild recounts an assignation with Paul Sheringham with a certain fondness that gives us hope for a happy ending, particularly with the Cinderella epigraph and the opening of “Once upon a time.”  We do know that Jane escapes the life of a servant to become a successful writer, with or without her prince, but most of the narrative is about that one day in which she and Paul make love in his home, rather than having to hide out.  It’s a servants’ holiday, and Paul’s parents are meeting Jane’s employers for lunch.  Paul himself has a lunch date with his fiancée but lingers with Jane long enough that it will be impossible for him to arrive on time for that appointment.  Perhaps the most suspenseful aspect of this book, besides the question of whether or not Paul and Jane might somehow end up together, is how Paul’s fiancée will react to her intended’s tardiness.  Jane, meanwhile, after he leaves, has time to observe and appreciate his fine home with no one there to interfere.  However, she sees everything from a maid’s perspective, including the laundering of the soiled sheets, and delights in the fact that the maid will have no idea that Jane was the woman in bed with Paul.  I loved this perspective in which Jane enjoys her anonymity rather than wishing that she could announce her relationship with Paul to the world.  Her secret gives her a sense of power in that she knows some things that others never will, including the fact that her social status is not an indicator of her intellect.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

WISH YOU WERE HERE by Graham Swift

One review called this novel “emotionally gripping.”  I would call it emotionally restrained, to say the least.  The novel is largely about a dairy farming family in England, devastated by the mandated killing of all their perfectly healthy cattle, due to an outbreak of mad-cow disease.  The mother in the family dies young, leaving two sons, Jack and Tom, and their father Michael.  The younger son, Tom, is in many ways the favorite son, but there is no animosity between the two brothers.  After Tom joins the army on his 18th birthday and Michael dies, Jack and his long-time girlfriend Ellie sell the farm and take ownership of a caravan park (like an RV campground) on the Isle of Wight.  I’m not sure what the primary theme is here, but I would guess it’s grief, insufficiently expressed.  Tom’s death is sort of the last straw, as far as Jack is concerned.  Also, this is the second novel I’ve read recently where an ailing dog figures largely in the plot.  This novel is about men, specifically emotionally stifled men, but it’s not the kind of thing I think that most men are likely to read.  Consequently, it leaves this woman reader scratching her head, asking, “What’s it all about?”  Jack is an ordinary guy who has endured tragedy and then basically loses it at the end.  Until that point, for which there is substantial foreshadowing involving a gun, Jack’s inner turmoil is understated.  The finale is indeed gripping, but the lead-up doesn’t really build to a boiling point.  Rather, it just chugs along, and then Jack suddenly becomes someone that we don’t recognize.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

David Lurie, a university professor in post-apartheid South Africa, will go to almost any length to satisfy his sexual needs, including the seduction of one of his students.  When she charges him with sexual harassment, he is forced out of his job, partly because he shows no real remorse.  He then moves in with his daughter, a lesbian who lives on a small farm.  A tragic and violent event drives home the vulnerability of women in this society and sheds a different light on David’s role as a predator.  This novel made me uncomfortable, particularly with regard to the role reversal between the blacks and the whites.  The blacks have the power, and the whites now find themselves in a world where they are not the bosses.  David’s daughter is more accepting of the new order of things, particularly the lack of law and order, while her father’s frustration festers.  Their opposing attitudes cause a rift between them, and I have to say that, despite his despicable behavior with regard to women, his point of view seems entirely reasonable with regard to his daughter’s safety.  His daughter becomes depressed but ultimately seems willing to absorb some personal losses in order to maintain her quiet life.  Is she courageous or just plain stubborn?  She basically has three choices:  stand up for her rights, accept the situation as is, or leave.  Standing up for her rights could cost her her life, and I think she feels that the whites deserve the treatment they are getting from the blacks anyway.  Turnabout is fair play.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

REBEL POWERS by Richard Bausch

In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story, as 40-something Thomas reflects on the year he was 17.  Back in 1967, Thomas’s father Daniel, a decorated Vietnam War vet and former POW, finds himself incarcerated again after he is court-martialed for stealing a typewriter and writing bad checks.  During the agonizing trip west to relocate near the prison in Wyoming, Daniel’s wife Connie and their two children, Thomas and Lisa, meet two shady characters, Chummy Terpin and Penny Holt.  These two, whose story sounds like a con, seem to latch onto the family, and one of them resurfaces later in the novel.  Chummy and Penny make the assumption that Daniel is in prison for protesting the war, and although this myth couldn’t be farther from the truth, Connie does nothing to correct it.  I would say that the principal theme in this novel is humiliation.  Daniel obviously cannot rejoin the Air Force on his release and struggles to figure out what kind of life he is going to have and what his role in the family will be.  Connie’s father helps them out financially, but Connie finds his charity to be a necessary evil and a source of further humiliation.  Young daughter Lisa just wants to go home, but for now home is a boarding house, and the entrance to their quarters has no door.  If anyone needs privacy, this family does, but it’s a luxury they simply can’t afford.  The fulcrum that the whole novel teeters on is a conversation in which Thomas overhears his mother express doubts about the future of her marriage.  This uncertainty makes for a very wobbly foundation for Thomas as he crosses the threshold into adulthood, ready or not.