TLC Book Tour: The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore

The Serpent of VeniceWhat do you get if you take a generous helping each of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello, a dash of King Lear, and a big splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s “A Cask of Amontillado” and put it in a blender with Monty Python? I’m not sure, but I think it would look a lot like Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice.

The Serpent of Venice is the continuing story of King Lear’s fool, Pocket, first introduced in Moore’s book Fool. Lured to Venice by Montressor Brabantio, Iago, and Antonio, Pocket is chained and walled up inside Brabantio’s dungeon. A mysterious creature rescues Pocket, who seeks his revenge against the trio with the help of Othello, Shylock, and Jessica and the mysterious creature, the Serpent of Venice herself.

I found the mashup of Shakespeare’s two Venetian plays to be interesting. A little stitching, and it all comes together nicely, though the tragedy of Othello is sacrificed in this comedic novel. Moore explains in his Afterword that he shifted the time settings of the two Shakespeare plays, which are more contemporary to Shakespeare’s own time, to the thirteenth century and adjusted some of the finer points (Othello is fighting the Genoans rather than the Turks). A famous Venetian of the 13th century makes an appearance late in the book. As Moore explains:

I chose Merchant and Othello, obviously, because they are set in Venice. Early on, as I dissected them to see what parts I could stitch back together to make the abomination that became The Serpent of Venice, I started noting that the characters in each of the plays perform similar functions, and although I didn’t research it, I suspect the parts were written for the same actors.

I admit the Shakespearean scholar in me wants to take that project on. It would be interesting to uncover—I’m sure someone’s done it already. For the record, The Merchant of Venice is dated from around 1596-1597, while the earliest mention of Othello is 1604. Will Kempe, Shakespeare’s famous clown, departed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men acting company in 1599 and thus his successor Robert Armin likely played the Fool or Clown in Othello and also in King Lear, though Kempe probably did play Lancelot Gobbo in Merchant. Richard Burbage certainly played Othello, and this epitaph suggests he played Shylock. More research is beyond the scope of the resources I have at hand.

Nevertheless, the entire Afterword reveals the depth of research Moore did in order to bring 13th century Venice alive, as well as combine the three major works of literature that comprise this tale. Further, it’s intriguing that the two Shakespearean plays, aside from being set in Venice, are also the two major plays that include marginalized characters such as Shylock and Othello.

In fact, I quite enjoyed the characters in this novel, particularly the protagonist Pocket and Jessica. Pocket is smart and resourceful, but he’s no one to mess with either. For that matter, the same could be said of Jessica. Where the book particularly shines is in its witty dialogue. The book’s Chorus is a lot of fun. Witness this exchange, a flashback to events preceding the book’s main narrative, when Othello saves Pocket’s life:

CHORUS: And thus was friendship formed. Two outsiders, outside a palace in the night, found fellowship in their troubles, and there one’s problems became the other’s purpose.

“Who is that?” asked the fool.

“I don’t know him,” said the Moor. “Is he following us?”

“No, he’s just yammering on about the bloody obvious to no one. A nutter, no doubt.”

“I cannot carry him, too,” said Othello. (28-29)

The reviews on this one are a little mixed, and I gather it’s mainly folks who don’t appreciate the humor who give the book low ratings. I laughed often as I read. Moore has a gift for humor, or at least I think he’s funny, though I should think folks who find it sacrilegious to tamper with Shakespeare and don’t even like it when his plays have modern settings should probably not read this book. I think having read Shakespeare will help the reader appreciate the humor and allusions in this book. This book is probably not right for everyone, but I loved it.

For the record, I think Shakespeare himself would have loved it, too. Edgar Allan Poe? Famously a strange guy. I’m not sure what he would have thought. Of course, I also think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best King Arthur movie ever made (and I’m not even kidding about that—it’s closest to the Welsh stories that are the origin for Arthurian legend).

Possibly as good a test as any to determine whether this book is right for you is this bit of dialogue between Pocket, shielding himself behind the identity of Lancelot Gobbo, and Shylock:

He wheeled on me, stopped, and assumed the posture of one about to lecture. I had seen it before. Everywhere. “Since the time we were first chosen, Lancelot, suffering has been the lot of our people, but still, we must take our lessons from the prophets. And what do we learn from the story of Moses confronting the pharaoh? When Moses did call down the ten plagues upon the Egyptians? What do we learn from this, young Lancelot?”

“As plagues go, frogs are not so bad?” I was raised in a nunnery. I know Testaments Old and New.

“No, what we learn is, do not fuck with Moses!” (79)

If you think that’s funny (I laughed out loud), then you’re probably game for the rest of the book. If you were offended, this is not the book for you. For my part, I’m running right out to read Moore’s other books.

Christopher MooreChristopher Moore’s website | Facebook | Twitter

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaladon, narrated by Davina Porter

I finished my first audio book of the year, The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, fifth book in the Outlander series. If you are not familiar with the series, it is now eight books long (and I don’t think she’s done yet!), not including the novellas, short stories, and Lord John Grey books. All of the books are quite long and chronicle the story of Claire, who was a World War II nurse on a second honeymoon with her husband Frank in Scotland when she steps through standing stones and finds herself about 200 years in the past. Starz has screened part of the first book, Outlander. The Starz series will return in April. I do love the books. But I have a caveat about this one, as you’ll see if you keep reading. However, there are a few spoilery bits throughout this review, so proceed carefully if you haven’t read all the books and want to read them.

I started listening to The Fiery Cross so long ago I can’t remember when I began it, but it was likely in September 2014 some time. It’s over 55 hours long. I mostly listened to it while making soap or puttering around the house doing chores. It seemed to take forever to finish.

The Fiery Cross picks up where Drums of Autumn (review) leaves off. Jamie and Claire are settled in Fraser’s Ridge, but the Revolutionary War looms on the horizon, and nothing brings that impending danger into sharper focus than when Jamie is commanded by the governor to muster a militia in response to a rebellion. Roger and Brianna, now properly married, settle on the Ridge as well and ease into their new lives in the 18th century. All sorts of horrific things happen, including the return of Stephen Bonnet, horrible villain, rapist, pirate, and worse scourge on the Fraser family, as it turns out, than old Black Jack Randall ever was. At least Randall died. (Oops! That might have been a spoiler. Sorry.)

The most fascinating part of the book doesn’t come until the end, when one of my favorite minor characters returns and brings with him some really excellent information in the form of a mysterious journal left behind by a man known as Otter-Tooth—a man whom Claire is certain was also a time traveler.

This book ties up several loose ends from the previous book, but as the series goes, it’s my least favorite so far. Lots and lots of details, and perhaps some editing was needed. Gabaldon does quite a bit of research, and it seemed that she wanted to show just about everything she’d ever learned about 18th century life off in this book. As such, parts of it are plodding and not much happens. I felt the first few books were much more tightly written in terms of action, but this book continues in the vein of its immediate predecessor, which I don’t much like either. Of course, it’s Diana Gabaldon, and expertly read by Davina Porter, so I won’t give it less than 3½ stars—even “bad” Diana Gabaldon is better than a lot of stuff. She’s a good writer, and she has a lot of fans for a good reason.

One quibble I do have with the book, however, and perhaps I only notice it because I make soap, is that Gabaldon gets some things about soap making wrong. To wit:

  1. Lye soap is not especially harsher than other soap because all soap is lye soap. What she probably means is lye-heavy soap that has too much lye in it. Yes, that’s harsh soap. And it resulted from soap makers using too much lye in recipes when they made soap.
  2. Tallow soap is not the same thing as lye soap because again, all soap is lye soap. It is not inherently harsher than soap made with vegetable oils and was often the only kind available because tallow (or lard) was much easier to obtain than exotic vegetable oils. In fact, if your great-grandma made soap, she probably used tallow or lard.
  3. That being said, some vegetable oils, such as Claire’s sunflower oil, do make nice soap, but if Claire’s tallow soap is too harsh, it’s because she used too much lye. Not because she used tallow. And if the sunflower soap is NOT harsh, it’s because she didn’t use too much lye when she made that batch.

I hope that exposition didn’t bore, but the repeated incorrect understandings about the chemistry behind soap making bothered me, as similar issues would likely bother most folks who have some area of expertise that is not quite properly understood by a writer.

I would not advise the casual fan to read this one. If your goal is just to know what happens in the story, skip this one and look up a synopsis. In fact, don’t read it at all if you haven’t read the previous four because you will not be able to follow it at all. If you prefer Claire and Jamie in Scotland, definitely skip it. If you are a true fan of the series and have read the previous four books, do read it if only to find out what happens for two main reasons—Otter-Tooth’s journal at the end is totally worth knowing. I might actually re-read that part in the paper copy of the book I have, and also a reference to Master Raymond, whom Gabaldon has said before is a prehistoric time traveler and possible ancestor of Claire. I hope we do read more about that guy in future books, and I do hope we learn a lot more about how time travel works, too.

So yes, I’ll read the rest of the series even if it’s more of the same. I will give Diana Gabaldon this credit—even when she’s in desperate need of an editor, she’s still better than most of the stuff out there. But when she’s really on, she’s fantastic. In my opinion, she wasn’t really “on” with this book, but I won’t give up on her yet.

Rating: ★★★½☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, Ian Doescher

I know what you are thinking. What is this ridiculousness? Ian Doescher’s book imagines the answer to a question I’d wager everyone wishes they had been thinking: what if William Shakespeare had written Star Wars? The result is, of course, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. It’s as hysterically awesome as you could wish, and if you think about it, it’s not such a strange idea: surely if any film series is Shakespearean in scope, with its complicated villains, scene-stealing minor characters, and emphasis on Fate, then Star Wars certainly is.

I don’t think I need to review the plot, and let’s face it: no one is reading this book for the plot—it’s for the fun of the Shakespearean language used to tell a familiar tale. I will say this: the dialogue in this book is quite a lot better than the dialogue in the movie.

Dramatis Personae and PrologueSprinkled throughout, too, the reader familiar with Shakespeare’s plays will find allusions to Shakespeare’s own writing as well.

Tatooine's Two Suns

I love Luke’s soliloquy as he gazes at the two setting suns. But even more than that, I love his rumination over the Storm Trooper he has just killed.

Alas, Poor Storm Trooper

Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too?
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me. (124-125)

There are also some fun in-jokes for Star Wars fans:

Han Shot FirstSprinkled throughout is some great line art by Nicolas Delort. I am particularly fond of this picture of Grand Moff Tarkin:

Grand Moff TarkinThe asides, monologues, and soliloquies give a great deal of insight into characters’ motivation, particularly that of R2-D2.

My daughter gave me this book for Christmas 2013, and I’m only sorry I waited so long to pick it up. I will certainly now read William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back and William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return. I really can’t wait to see how Doescher handles Yoda.

If you love Shakespeare and you love Star Wars, you really can’t lose with this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: The Wolves of Andover, aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent

Kathleen Kent’s novel The Wolves of Andover, also known as The Traitor’s Wife, is something of a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter, a novel told from the viewpoint of Sarah Carrier, daughter of Martha Carrier, who was executed in the Salem Witch Trials. The Wolves of Andover tells the story of the courtship Thomas Carrier and Martha Allen alternating with the story of several conspirators of Charles II bound for America to find and capture the man who cut off the head of Charles I in the English Civil War.

As the story begins, Martha is sent to her cousin Prudence Taylor’s house to serve as Prudence prepares to give birth to her third child. Her husband Daniel is often away on business, but two men, Thomas and John, work for Taylor household in the hopes of earning a piece of Taylor’s land. Whispers surround Thomas Carrier. Some claim that he was the regicide, the man who wielded the very axe that struck King Charles’s head from his shoulders. He is uncommonly tall and possessed of a quiet air of mystery. Martha soon finds herself in love with him. Meanwhile, several men in the employ of spy Tiernan Blood make their way across the Atlantic after a harrowing journey in an attempt to find the Welshman, known as Thomas Morgan, and capture him for execution in London. What they don’t realize is that Oliver Cromwell’s old followers have spies of their own, too.

One of the things I realized reading this book is that I have never really given a lot of thought to the ways in which the English Civil War created America, and (it could be argued) led to the American Revolution. Of course, I knew the early founders of Massachusetts were Puritans, and of course I knew Cromwell was a Puritan, too, but for some reason, perhaps because it’s the story we always tell, I always pictured the Puritans who settled New England as religious dissidents instead of political ones. I don’t think our own history plays up the role the Puritans played in the English Civil War very much, probably because the first group of Puritans to arrive in America came well before the English Civil War began; however, successive waves of Puritans arriving later must surely have included soldiers who fought with Cromwell, even if the greatest wave of Puritan migration occurred before the English Civil War. It certainly stands to reason that these early settlers had quarrels with the monarchy and that they passed their feelings down to their children and children’s children.

I was able to hear Kathleen Kent speak at an English teachers’ conference several years ago, so I know that she descends from the Carrier family, which is partly why the subject matter intrigues her. Though Martha Carrier’s notoriety is more established, as a documented victim of the Salem Witch Trials, Thomas Carrier’s is somewhat more speculative and based more on family and local legends.

The Wolves of AndoverThe violence in the book can be graphic, and I definitely was glad I was reading it instead of watching it, though nothing seemed so gratuitous that it strained credulity. The violence also offered an interesting contrast between the monarchists and the Puritans, who are painted as hardy survivalists, but ultimately peaceable and good people. To be fair, the monarchists presented are probably the worst sort of folks imaginable, but Charles II himself is not depicted in a good light (though I give props to the writer who does manage to make Charles II look like a fairly decent human being).

The stage for Martha Carrier’s later accusation is deftly set as Martha comes across as contentious and headstrong (which is why she’s not married at the book’s beginning). Another spoilery incident I won’t recount adds additional evidence to the pile.

Martha Carrier

I took this picture of Martha Carrier’s memorial on our trip to Salem.

Knowing how Martha Carrier’s story will ultimately end lends sadness to this book, but Thomas Carrier emerges as quite the character, and one of those folks family historians love to weave tales around—a Welshman who changed his name and has mysterious antecedents, who was nearly seven feet tall, who lived to be about 109. He’s a little hard to resist.

Upon its paperback release, the book’s title was changed, hence the two names. Since it appears to be more readily available in paperback form, I have linked to that version of the book. To my knowledge, the title and cover design are the only changes made.

Rating: ★★★★½


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Review: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, Book 2)Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, were awarded the Man Booker Prize—a rare achievement. Wolf Hall is more sweeping—it introduces Thomas Cromwell and traces the beginning of his career with Thomas Wolsey up through Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies is more condensed. Its narrow focus concerns five months from January to May of 1536.

As the novel begins, Henry has grown tired of Anne Boleyn. She is pregnant, and everything hinges on whether or not she will deliver the long-awaited male heir. Meanwhile, Henry’s first queen Katherine dies, and Henry is grievously wounded in a joust (some historians argue the injuries he incurred in this joust are responsible for Henry’s transformation into a tyrant). Shortly after Henry’s accident, Anne miscarries her child—a son. Five months later, she is dead.

As much as I loved Wolf Hall, and I did, I have to say I enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies even more. Thomas Cromwell emerges as a complex individual. He has been cast in history as a notorious villain, but these books also display his love for his family and his eagerness to become a surrogate father and teacher to several young men in his household. He has a dry wit. But he has a long memory. The scenes in which he interrogates the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn are chilling, and no less so because it is clear Cromwell remembers their role in ridiculing Cardinal Wolsey.

The books tread a careful line: Were Anne Boleyn, Harry Norris, George Boleyn, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton guilty of the crimes for which they were executed? Thomas Cromwell himself is not sure, but they are guilty of other things. Cromwell observes that “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged” (328). Cromwell has a slow fuse. He never forgets when he is wronged, even slightly, and when the moment comes to strike, he’s as swift as a snake. Or a lawyer.

The book also contains some exquisite sentences. It’s not just good storytelling—this novel in particular reads almost like a play, and you can see all the action on the stage—it’s also just good writing. Perhaps my favorite quote:

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone. (329)

I can hardly wait for the third installment in the series. No matter what you think of Cromwell, you can hardly deny he left a mark on history, and he is perhaps more interesting and complicated than the larger figures of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, at least in Hilary Mantel’s capable hands. Mantel sets a high bar. I’m not sure I’ve read any writer who does historical fiction quite so well. I’m really looking forward to the production of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies on PBS in April. If you like historical fiction, even if you think you are so over the Tudors already, do yourself a favor and read these books.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is set largely in London, with the most memorable passages at the Tower of London, located in Middlesex County. I will count this book as my London book for the Reading England Challenge.

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Review: The Lais of Marie de France

When I was in college, I took a course in medieval literature. One of our texts was the Penguin translation of The Lais of Marie de France by Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby. I don’t recall that we read all of the lais. I actually don’t remember which ones I did read. I only really recall that I liked them. That’s what twenty years will do, especially when you didn’t keep a reading journal.

I re-read The Lais of Marie de France mainly for the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. I had wanted to re-read the book after visiting one of our AP Literature classes at school and listening to the students engage in fishbowl discussions about the lays. They had some fascinating ideas about the stories. I walked away thinking I had to find my copy of this book and take it off the shelf because I had no memory of my medieval literature professor interpreting and discussing the lays the way these students did.

The Lais of Marie de France is an interesting text because Marie is one of the first woman poets, and according to the book’s introduction, she’s the “first woman of her times to have written successfully in the vernacular” (17). Yet, we don’t know exactly who she was. Scholars speculate that she was known in the court of Henry II, and several candidates have been put forward as Marie. The Lais of Marie de France is a collection of twelve Breton lays, two of which have Arthurian connections—”Lanval,” the story of a knight in Arthur’s court, and “Chevrefoil,” a short lay about Tristan and Iseult (characters sometimes connected with Arthurian legends). Most of the lays concern love, particularly courtly love between a worthy knight and a lady. Rather than discuss each of the lays, I’ll share some thoughts about a couple of my favorites.

“Bisclavret” is about a baron who turns into a werewolf. His wife tricks him into telling her where he hides his clothes when he transforms, and she takes them away. Without his clothes, he is not able to transform back into a man. He comes upon the king, out hunting, and the king realizes that he is not a true wolf and takes him back to his court. Eventually, the baron’s wife and her lover come to the court, and Bisclavret attacks them, after which all is revealed and the wife’s treachery is laid bare. It’s an interesting early werewolf story. Bisclavret is not necessarily dangerous in his wolf form, as most werewolves are usually depicted, though he does attack those whom he feels have wronged him.

“Lanval” reminded me a little bit of some of the similar medieval stories about a knight who falls in love with a woman who will be beautiful in his presence at night, but ugly in the day. All his peers will think he is in love with a hag. In fact, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales is a version of this story. Typically, the woman gives the knight the opportunity to select which way she will remain: beautiful, but not true to him alone, or ugly but faithful. Another version of this story concerns Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In “Lanval,” Lanval falls in love with a beautiful, otherworldly lady, but he alone is allowed to know about her existence, or she will desert him. When Guinevere sidles over to Lanval one day and tries to convince him to engage in some hanky panky, he resists, saying he cannot betray his king. Guinevere pulls a variation on the “well, then, I bet you’re gay,” and Lanval retorts, “no, I’m not, and the lady I love is fairer than you; heck, even her maids are fairer than you.” And of course he can’t prove it because he wasn’t supposed to talk about her, so she won’t come back. Then, Lanval is put on trial for insulting Guinevere, and finally Lanval’s lady shows up to rescue him and takes him away to Avalon. She’s obviously a fairy or something like. Guinevere comes off terrible no matter which way you look at it.

I enjoyed reading most of the lays, though I didn’t like the last, “Eliduc,” as much as the others. I realize we’re talking about a different time and place, but I felt Eliduc’s wife sort of rolled over for him. I guess spoiler alerts are over for literature written nearly 1,000 years ago, but I’d rather just leave it at that and let you read it if you will. The lays don’t send consistent messages. “Bisclavret” condemns the adulterous relationship of Bisclavret’s wife, while in several of the others, the adulterers are rewarded for their faithful love to one another, particularly if the husband or wife was unreasonable. I would say the exception is “Eliduc,” but perhaps that’s because in that story, it’s the husband who falls in love with another woman, whereas in most of the stories, a wronged wife falls in love with another man. There are also obvious strands of female power that run through the stories. In some cases, women who “overreach” are put in their places, while in others, they are rewarded.

The Lais of Marie de France is an excellent example of medieval literature, and refreshing, too, in being an early example of women’s writing. The stories are charming, and the book is a quick (though not a light) read. This translation is accessible without a lot of interfering notes, too. I like notes sometimes, but most books like this one have way too many, and you never know until you flip to the back and read the note whether it will be a helpful gloss or something far deeper in the weeds than you felt like going. The book also includes a helpful index of proper names and a selected bibliography.

I am also counting this book as my selection for a classic read in translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge. The Lais of Marie de France were originally composed in Anglo-Norman French, and the book includes a selection of the lay “Laüstic” in the original language.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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Review: Wonder, R. J. Palacio

WonderI read R. J. Palacio’s novel Wonder with my thirteen-year-old daughter, Maggie. Strictly speaking, both of us might be a little older than the target age-range for this book, but I don’t believe in such nonsense, and it’s a good thing I don’t, or I might have missed out on a true treasure of a book.

Wonder is the story of a ten-year-old boy named August Pullman. He loves Star Wars and his dog, Daisy. He loves his sister Via. He’s worried about starting middle school, just like most kids starting middle school. The difference is that Auggie, as he is called by family and friends, has Treacher Collins Syndrome, a craniofacial deformity about which Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse” (3). But Auggie also says, “The only reason I’m not ordinary is no one else sees me that way” (3).

August has been homeschooled due to the many surgeries he has endured as a result of his condition. His parents discuss whether it might be time to send Auggie to school when fifth grade begins. Ultimately, the family decides to send Auggie to Beecher Prep, and Auggie has a difficult year, but in his quiet and ordinary way, he powers through the adversity and manages to earn the admiration of his teachers and his classmates.

Actually, it’s impossible to do this book justice in a review. So, I asked Maggie for some help. I interviewed her after we finished. Before I go on, I should explain she received the new publication of the book that includes “Julian’s Chapter,” which was originally published as an e-book, for Christmas. Palacio had said at one point that Julian didn’t get a chapter initially but she eventually changed her mind for reasons she explains in this interview with Slate. I think it was a good decision.

Me: What did you think [after finishing the book]?

Maggie: I think that book might be my favorite book of all time. I’m dead serious.

Me: What was your favorite part?

Maggie: SLIGHTLY SPOILERY ANSWER. YOU WERE WARNED! At the end of August’s last chapter where he received the award and got a standing ovation.

Me: Who were your favorite characters?

Maggie: My favorite characters were August, Via, and Summer. I also liked Miranda. The way August and Via got along is sweet and touching. And Summer, it was nice to find out she was a genuinely nice gal. It was nice that she wasn’t being friends with August because someone forced her or dared her.

Me: What else do you want to share?

Maggie: I was surprised when we read Julian’s chapter because I didn’t expect to feel sympathy or empathy for him after reading the rest of the book. I also really liked how the book was told in different points of views. You get to hear all sides of the story so you know what happened. It’s a creative way to tell a story. I really didn’t like Julian’s mother. I thought she was overprotective and mean about the whole situation and how she handed the whole August situation. She completely overreacted.

Maggie and I loved the book. We highly recommend it to everyone. We had a lot of good conversations that involved some soul searching. I told Maggie about being unkind to a girl when I was in sixth grade because the “cool” kids didn’t like the girl—for no good reason, really. I still feel bad about how I acted, and truthfully, I wasn’t terrible. I just wasn’t my normal self, and I didn’t treat her the way I wanted to treat her. I was unkind because of other kids. This book is probably the best book on the issue of bullying that I’ve ever read, and it’s the only one that includes the bully’s perspective. The end of Julian’s chapter is quite a tearjerker, and the window into the bully’s perspective was interesting. In fact, some people will say it goes a step too far perhaps, but Maggie and I happened to love it. You read it. You’ll see.

I don’t often say this about a book, but this is one I feel like everyone ought to read, whatever their age. When we were trying to figure out if Palacio had written other books so we could read them as well, we discovered Wonder is her first novel. As Maggie said, “That was her first try at a book?!” For what it is worth, we read maybe 20-30 pages at a time when we started, but the night we finished, we read the whole Julian chapter of 80+ pages in a gulp. Maggie has never read a book she couldn’t put down like that. If you have a middle schooler in your life, you should share this book.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallI rounded out 2014 by finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first book in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the second book of which is Bring Up the Bodies. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were awarded the Man Booker Prize (2009 and 2012, respectively).

Wolf Hall introduces Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, who rises to become one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers as well as an architect of the Protestant Reformation in England. The book begins with Thomas Cromwell’s decision to make his way across the sea in Europe after a particularly vicious beating from his father. The story continues after Cromwell has returned to England and entered the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s chancellor. The rest of the novel chronicles Wolsey’s fall and Cromwell’s subsequent rise through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, ending with Thomas More’s execution.

The Tudors are well-trodden ground at this point. Mantel manages to breathe fresh life into their story by telling it through the point of view of Cromwell, who has not fared well in history and whose point of view has been somewhat neglected as a result. In many ways, this book reminded me a bit of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, in that Bradley’s retelling of the story of King Arthur by the women in his life—Igraine, his mother; Morgan le Faye (or Morgaine), his sister; and Gwenwhyfar (or Guinevere), his wife—was perhaps the freshest version of the Matter of Britain I’ve read in the last twenty years largely because Bradley chose to tell the story with voices often silenced. This formula works wonders for making old hat like the Tudors interesting again, just when I thought I was a little sick of them.

Wolf Hall is meticulously researched, but I never felt as if Mantel was trying to impress me by proving she’d dug up some interesting historical fact. She often sent me to research myself, so I could find out more about something or other that happened in the novel. As such, I learned some interesting things. For instance, I had not realized that Cromwell was such a protege of Cardinal Wolsey, and it struck me as odd, given the way in which Cromwell championed the Protestant Reformation.

I loved Cromwell’s dry wit. He comes across as compassionate to his loved ones, but no one to mess with to his enemies. And he has a long, long memory, as Thomas More discovered. Cromwell leaps from the page as a shrewd businessman and judge of the prevailing winds—it will be interesting to see how Mantel depicts his downfall given how lethally sharp he has come across in this first book.

I know how Cromwell’s story ends, and I have to say, I am a little sad at the prospect of reaching the end of his story in the third planned novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rumored to be due out in the coming year.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: Prince Lestat, Anne Rice

Prince Lestat: The Vampire ChroniclesAnne Rice returns to her Vampire Chronicles with Prince Lestat. Rice had said she was not going to write more vampire books, but Prince Lestat is the first in a new planned series.

As the book begins, a strange voice is speaking to many of the vampires, mostly the oldest vampires, begging them to immolate the younger vampires and “thin the herd.” Lestat hears the voice, too, and tries to shut it out. He is dragged out of seclusion by his fellow vampires, who want his help in fighting the voice.

I hesitate to summarize too much because if you’re planning to read this book, you’ll not want too much to be given away. Anne Rice is back in typical form. I have to say this line from the New York Times review of the novel captures the book well (and made me laugh): “Although this is a dreadful novel, it has to be said that the earnestness with which Rice continues to toil at her brand of pop sorcery has an odd, retro sort of charm, an aura redolent of the desperate, decadent silliness of the disco era.”

I am not sure I’d go quite so far as to call it dreadful (and keep in mind that Memnoch the Devil is the only book I have ever thrown across the room), but it’s not up to the heights of Interview with the Vampire or The Vampire Lestat. You will most likely wonder if Apple is paying Rice for product placement. All of the vampires seem to have iPhones, and they seem to use them and talk about them a lot. They also have Mac computers. Thus, I’d agree with the second part of the Times‘s description.

Lestat is his usual self in this one. You’re going to wonder about the sanity of the vampire collective at the end, if you were not already wondering. All of the oldest vampires make a reappearance here, and if you’re into world-building, you’ll learn quite a lot more about vampire origins and some of the oldest vampires, and you’ll also find out how the Talamasca came to be. As such, I had thought while reading the book that perhaps Rice was trying to answer all the open questions and call it a day. However, it’s fairly clear at the end that she’s getting her second wind. God help us all.

I kid, but not much. These books have a weird sort of charm. I sort of enjoy them at the same time as I’m rolling my eyes at Rice’s lavish description and strange tangents (Rose’s story in this one). I am not sure if I have the fortitude to brave another one, but this one wasn’t bad as far as her books go. I listened to it on audio, and the narrator, Simon Vance, was an excellent reader. I kept wondering what he thought about what he was reading, and I wondered if he were thinking the same things as I was. I do think it will appeal to anyone who wanted to know more after The Queen of the Damned.

These two reviews were pretty fair and even-handed:

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Audio Rating: ★★★★★

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Review: This Song Will Save Your Life, Leila Sales

This Song Will Save Your LifeI picked up Leila Sales’s novel This Song Will Save Your Life because it was recommended to folks who liked Eleanor & Park. It was a great little book, and I think especially music lovers would enjoy it.

This Song Will Save Your Life is the story of fifteen-year-old Elise Dembowski, a misfit who has never fit in at school. Her parents have been divorced for a long time, and she divides her time between her single father and her re-married mother and blended family. At the beginning of the school year, she cuts herself, not completely sure if she wants to commit suicide or not, and calls one of her classmates, who calls 911. After she returns to school, she finds it hard to sleep some nights, so she sneaks out of her house and walks the streets. By happenstance, one Thursday night she comes across a house party called Start. She becomes interested in learning to DJ (and in the DJ himself), and discovers a talent she didn’t know she had.

I found Elise’s character charming and winsome. I had a hard time understanding why it was hard for her to make friends. I’d have wanted to be her friend in a heartbeat. High school is really rough for some folks, however, and I don’t exclude myself from that description. In some ways, this book tackles bullying in high school almost as well as Judy Blume’s Blubber does for elementary school. Nowadays, kids cannot escape it even at home, and Elise becomes the target of a cyberbully who creates a blog using Elise’s name. However, when she goes to Start, she can be herself, and she makes friends who like her for who she is.

I enjoyed Elise’s voice in this story. She reminds me a bit of Holden Caulfield in the way in which her voice is captured, but I would say she has a higher probability of turning out all right, especially given she has a caring family. As a bonus, the book has a recommended listening list. However, not everything on the list appears in the story and not everything in the story is on the list, so you might want to take notes as you go. I have the beginnings of a Spotify playlist with all the songs and/or bands mentioned in the book.

Rating: ★★★★½

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