The Woman in White

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, is a fantastic and wonderfully suspenseful novel, originally published as a whole manuscript in 1860, though it was serialized for publication from 1859-1860. It is considered to be one of the first mystery novels and a leader in the detective novel genre. There are Gothic themes running throughout to make things spooky and eerie, but ultimately we're dealing with a novel where all the characters are flesh and blood and there are sound explanations for everything. In his introduction, Collins posits that this might be one of the first novels of its kind, written using multiple narrators. Wikipedia calls this an epistolary novel, though I'm not entirely sure I'd use such categorization. The novel is constructed using accounts of events from various people, which alludes more to Collins's legal background. Collins writes in the introduction that "the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness."

The basic plot (though I honestly think you should just dive in without much knowledge) focuses on strange appearances, forbidden love, inheritances, marrying for money, murder plots, spies, asylums, forgeries, secrets, and revenge. Seriously, how much more do you need to know? Just start reading! My friend described this book as being full of "the best parts of Dickens" and that's somewhat apt. Somehow, one is constantly propelled through this novel without Collins dropping the ball. Every now and then, when I came up for air after burying myself in this book for hours, I would wonder how Collins could possibly keep such momentum. I'm still not sure how he managed, but I never felt as though things were dragging along even for a moment.

Walter Hartright has taken a position as a drawing teacher to two young ladies at the country home Limmeridge House in Cumberland, owned by a Mr. Farlie. Before leaving London for Limmeridge House, Walter encounters a strange young woman in white at a very late hour, alone and practically materializing from thin air. Walter offers to escort her to a taxi or fly, which she accepts, and he has the feeling that she thinks she is being pursued by someone. This might all be strange enough, except that when he makes conversation and mentions his upcoming trip to Cumberland, the woman in white says that she was once happy there -- at Limmeridge! She particularly mentions the late Mrs. Fairlie, but Walter can get little else out of her. After seeing her safely into a fly, Walter overhears two men ask a police officer if he has seen a woman who matched the description of the woman in white -- and when the policeman asks why they are seeking her, the men respond that she has just escaped from their asylum! After such a strange evening, Walter leaves London and makes his way to his new position. He first meets Marian Halcombe, who at appears to be a stunning figure of a woman initially... yet turns around and reveals that she is quite ugly, though Walter does ultimately find her to be charming, clever, and devoted to the well-being of her half-sister, Laura. Laura Fairlie is the heiress of Limmeridge House, and the niece of Mr. Fairlie. She is fair and beautiful, quiet and demure (everything that might have seemed perfect in a woman then... and makes the modern female reader wish to bash her over the head).

While Laura might be the beautiful one (and everyone can see that Walter is besotted with her from first glance), Walter truly seems to befriend Marian. He tells her about his encounter with the woman in white and Marian looks through her late mother's letters to see if they can identify the woman... which they manage to do by a detail that Walter did not identify until Marian reads it aloud from the letter -- that the woman in white (Anne Catherick) and Laura Fairlie look almost exactly alike! Such coincidences! Of course, this seems to fall a bit to the side when Walter's overpowering love for Laura becomes an issue. He's perfectly aware that the difference in their stations renders it an impossible match and this is confirmed when Marian, who has observed their growing affection for each other, counsels Walter to leave Limmeridge House for his own sake as well as Laura's. Laura has been engaged for the past two years to a Sir Percival Glyde, a match sanctioned by Laura's father before he died and for that reason only, Laura would never call it off. Never fear, dear reader... our main plotline is not "let's get Walter and Laura together." We watch Laura marry Sir Percival despite deep misgivings, we come back to the woman in white, we learn more about why we just don't like that Sir Percival cat, and we get introduced to some pretty awesome foreign characters. I could keep talking about the plot, but I won't. This is all just the beginning. It gets good. Go read it.

Not to bask in my own awesomeness, but I selected this book for my book club and I'm quite pleased with myself. I devoured it in a handful of days and believe that I'll spend a great deal of time thinking about this one -- long after my book club has gone over it with a fine-toothed comb. Marian Halcombe is a brilliant character and Count Fosco is ridiculous and amazing. There was a moment in the book where I knew what was coming, and then Collins followed this up with something so brilliant that I gasped out loud. I'm sure that I could be more eloquent about my praise for this book, but perhaps I'll update this review once I have my book club meeting, so I can incorporate some of that insight here, too.


The Betrayal of the Blood Lily

Huzzah! I'm pleased to say that I think The Betrayal of the Blood Lily is Lauren Willig's finest yet! Perhaps my enthusiasm overtakes me, as The Secret History of the Pink Carnation might still claim the number one spot as the origin of all, but I was so delighted with Willig's latest novel that I devoured it in a single sitting, knowing with every turn of the page that Willig was in top form.

This is the sixth in the Pink Carnation series and to describe it, I steal a description from the modern narrator, Louise: "It's got dash. It's got swash. It's got buckle." For those unfamiliar, the books always have two storylines going. The first is modern, dealing with grad student Eloise and her research into aristocratic and independent spies post-French Revolution. The second takes place during the time Eloise studies, following those wrapped up in the plots and intrigues of those spies and focusing on a single couple who will inevitably have a happy ending. In Blood Lily, things remain fairly tame in the modern day, where Eloise is still dating Colin, a descendant of the spies in her dissertation. Eloise harbors some faint suspicions that the "spy novel" Colin is working on is just a cover for his real job as an actual spy, but she frequently dismisses this as fancy. The more pressing issue this time around is Colin's sister, Serena, who's very sweet but has always been a bit of a mess (a beautiful mess, yet, but a mess just the same). With Colin taking such good care of Serena, it means that Eloise rarely gets him all to herself, and so Eloise has been determined to set Serena up with someone. Anyone. She and Colin clash over whether Eloise is pushing too hard and Eloise learns a bit more about Colin's complicated family, but otherwise, things are fine in modern day England.

As for the past? Well, our heroine this time is Miss Penelope Deveraux, a fiery redhead with a hatred for being told what to do and a fancy for dark alcoves. She had been repeatedly warned that her somewhat risque behavior would get her in trouble... and indeed, it did in The Temptation of the Night Jasmine. She committed a bit of an indiscretion with Lord Frederick Staines, a second son who was quite a cad anyway... and now they've both been bullied into making a match of it to save Pen's reputation. Even this isn't enough to get the scandal to totally die down, really, so they've been sent off to India, where Freddy will be a special envoy to the Nizam of Hyderabad (aka glorified messengerboy that people currently in India will see as more of a hindrance than a help). Freddy and Pen (who are definitely not "in love" but certainly might be called "in lust" at the beginning of this novel) are somewhat unprepared for the truth of the situation in Hyderabad, which is a great deal more unsettled than expected. English Empire is not as secure as everyone might believe; a number of insurrections and problems with the locals and the French have led to some complications in the region which make everyone suspicious of everyone... with good reason. Merry old England is rife with flowery spies and it turns out that India is no different -- here, we'll find the Marigold has been at work in the region, potentially connected to a missing weapons delivery. Unsurprisingly, Penelope is far more adept at picking up on this information than her husband, who is more interested in women and card games. They make the acquaintance of Captain Alex Reid, a dashing young man with close ties to India that has been sent to escort them from Calcutta to Hyderabad. While Alex has little time to play chaperone to these newcomers, he's also fairly interested in making sure that Freddy does not make a muck of current plans to smooth things over in the region. Freddy is exactly what Alex expected but Penelope... well, Penelope turns out to be quite different from the usual pampered lady. She swims, shoots, and rides better than most everyone, and that's just the beginning of her many talents. In turn, Pen finds that Alex is full of mysteries, too, as questions arise concerning his family and complicated Indian politics.

What delighted me about this book is that I find Willig has returned to her two great strengths. Number one: by setting this book in India, the reader is reminded of Willig's fantastic ability to describe location and time period with exquisite depth and detail. After five books in England, Willig had somewhat exhausted her resources in describing the ton, court politics, and country homes. It wasn't her fault, she was still doing a great job, it's just that one forgot to notice. Here, it's like a breath of fresh air to find ourselves in India, where she has all kinds of new material to draw upon. She clearly revels in historical detail and the reader catches this enthusiasm. In addition, the political situation in India has the potential to be overwhelming, but Willig holds firmly to our hand to lead us through. Number two: this is a truly playful romp, complete with romance and sex. You might not think this is a big deal, but it's been a while that we've gotten more than just some steamy kisses and smoldering looks in a Willig novel. I've been worried that she was getting more conservative with her sex scenes... which aren't the sole reason for reading these books, clearly, but one of the first things I appreciated about Willig was her ability to let go and have fun, no matter how ridiculous things might be. For goodness sake, in Pink Carnation, a gentleman's fingers do some fancy work on a lady in a boat on the Thames! After that, she seemed to back away from the crazy scenes and it really did feel like she was reigning herself in. When I was reading Night Jasmine with the incredibly virtuous main couple, I somehow knew that the scandalous, redheaded Penelope would be our next heroine and she would not disappoint!

I can't say that any details of the story much surprised me, but I don't need to be surprised when the story is being told well and I enjoy the characters. Pen and Alex have their predictable misunderstandings and miscommunications. Penelope is quite easily jaded considering her limited experience, even if she was quite familiar with dark alcoves. Alex is a bit too perfect, but Willig men tend to have this "flaw." It's fiction, after all, and when we're 95% sure of a happy ending at the end of each book, we all must make some sacrifices. There was one particular phrase that Willig used which I didn't like the first time around and liked even less when it was used again, but otherwise I thought that Willig is certainly benefiting from being a full-time writer. She clearly had the time to do her research and develop strong characters.

If you've visited laurenwillig.com, you might notice that she touches upon the issue that despite the title, there is no Blood Lily in this book. A Marigold, a Moonflower, and some frangipani, but no Blood Lily. She attributes this to the fact that originally, the title was supposed to be The Something Something of the Something Marigold, but since Marigolds aren't quite sexy, she made a last minute plea to readers on her site to help her brainstorm... and the Blood Lily was settled upon as being somewhat indicative of redheaded Penelope.

Now, I must sit and wait another year for the next installment in this fresh series. Thank goodness Willig is fairly reliable in turning out a book every year! I haven't heard who might be the focus of the next novel... perhaps one of Alex's sisters? No matter what, I'll impatiently wait, trusting that Willig will turn out another delightful novel full of dash, swash, and buckle.

Check out laurenwillig.com for more information on the series and visit http://www.laurenwillig.com/books/bloodlily.html for the whole first chapter of The Betrayal of the Blood Lily.


Stranger Things Happen

If you suspect that you might be an ordinary person, one without creativity or imagination... well, then Stranger Things Happen might not appeal to you to begin with, but it certainly won't make you feel any better about your imaginative state. Even if you think you are a fairly creative person, it's hard to believe that you could come close the level of the fantastic and fascinating that Kelly Link achieves in these eleven short stories. A strange combination of fantasy and very modern reality, Link's collection features stories that don't necessarily always work perfectly, but are certainly memorable.

As far as the collection goes, these stories are all linked by undercurrents of fairy tales and mythology, an ethereal tone where the reader understands that not all is as it seems, and the fact that in each of these stories, very real characters (in perhaps not so realistic settings) deal with personal pain and try to somehow make a connection to someone else. On the back cover of my paperback, Andrew O'Hehir is quoted from his NY Times Book Review article as saying that Link's stories "aren't linked to one another, at least not in the sense that they share settings or characters, but they all draw water from the same clear, cold, deep well." I find that to be a profoundly excellent way of explaining the feeling that one is left with at the end of the collection. Not quite ghost stories in a sense of horror, but certainly some blend of Gothic fantasy that yield goosebumps and an eerie atmosphere.

Link is a good example of the post-modern storyteller struggling to find a narrative structure that works for each tale, and as a result, few of these pieces are straightforward narratives. I tended to find that the more straightforward stories (well, as straightforward as Link gets) are the ones that I liked a bit more -- I was able to spend more time thinking about the characters and events and less in decoding her narrative intentions/figuring what she was trying to do by mixing things up so completely. (I'm mostly thinking about "The Girl Detective" as I say that, the last in the collection and, for me, the least satisfying.) There is, however, always a way to connect emotionally with these characters, for no matter how strange the circumstances of the story, it's the deeper emotions that make up the truly compelling foundation of each one.

It's hard to pick a favorite -- and harder to single one out as being the most memorable -- but if I had to, I think I would go with "Travels with the Snow Queen" as the one I enjoyed most in the collection. Of course, I also feel that might be my shortfalls as a reader, because I found it very easy to relate to that narrator. As a young woman coming to terms with a failed relationship, she walks a path shown in the scars of her shoeless feet and whether she must stick to this path becomes an overpowering question. The reader is led to question the sacrifices of heroines in fairy tales and wonder if the traditional happily ever after with a "hero" is quite worth it or if the heroine might be just as happy pursing some other path. A close second is "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," where a probably dead man exists in a somewhat limbo-like seaside resort, writing letters to his wife, whose name he cannot remember. The uncertainty of his situation and his clinging to what he believes he knows about his wife and their life paints a very poignant picture. As the first story in the book, it drew me in and assured that I would keep reading. "Flying Lessons" draws heavily on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (and even a bit of Icarus), but with some swapped gender roles, one feels a greater strength in the heroine so that ultimate happiness might just be possible. (Of course, there's also the looming idea of what happens then, but one must first get to the point where one can seriously ask that question). "Survivor's Ball, or, the Donner Party" features two Americans, strangers, that have decided to travel through New Zealand together for a bit. The narrator is a young man, obviously smitten with his traveling companion, and the girl is named Serena -- which led to me explicitly picturing Blake Lively in the role (as her character in Gossip Girl is also a selfish girl named Serena who easily attracts men and always gets her somewhat self-destructive way). They're driving towards a particular hotel and the news is filled with talk over a missing party of hikers in a snowstorm. Clearly, we understand some implications that are drawn with the title, though the lack of specificity in the story allows the reader to imagine all kinds of interesting results. In "Vanishing Act," a young girl is the only one paying close enough attention to watch her cousin slowly disappear (and aid her in that process) so she can rejoin her parents in faraway countries. One feels pain for this forgotten child, but even more painful is the situation of her cousin, watching a girl who seems to have some power to escape, whereas the cousin is stuck where she is, undeniably corporeal. "Water off a Black Dog's Back" features a strange relationship between a young man whose relationship with a girl and her family seems to involve some bodily sacrifice and an acceptance of whatever nonhuman nature they might possess. "Shoes and Marriage" features for vignettes that focus on variations of Cinderella, a beauty pageant and Dorothy/her companions, Imelda Marcos (a dictator's wife hoards the shoes of the people her husband has killed), and a fortune-teller's predictions. With a common theme of shoes (and, well, marriage), I enjoyed all of the vignettes, but I'm not sure how well the piece worked as a whole. I didn't much enjoy "Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water," where the narrator is hopelessly in love with a friend that doesn't think much of her at all, beyond her usefulness as a person who will listen to him. He's too preoccupied with the question of whether the women in the world are turning into aliens. "Louise's Ghost" deals with two best friends named Louise, which made things challenging, but interesting, as Link was able to really play with the question of where they blended into the other and where they were decidedly distinct. "The Girl Detective" touches upon the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses and the idea of lost mothers. Unwittingly, I seem to have found an order of my favorites in this collection by describing them, but I'm also struck with the fact that, even though I had to look for some exact titles, I was able to remember every single story in the series without forgetting a one.

I took my time in reading Stranger Things Happen, keeping it for subway rides so I could swallow it in small bites and frequently pause to consider the ideas at play. At moments, I would have no idea where Link was taking us or why -- and at others, I felt profoundly moved. I'm fairly sure that some alchemy is at play in her words where it's possible for two people to read the exact same Link story and yet come out with completely different experiences and understandings of what happened. Link trusts the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, and often, that's what yields a spookier result. She's not afraid of open-ended ideas that have no precise answer. Several stories end without a single resolution, and so the reader is left to imagine all kinds of results. While the stories themselves might be open for interpretation, I find that one thing is certain: Kelly Link is a master of the short story.


The Temptation of the Night Jasmine

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine is the fifth installment in Lauren Willig's "Pink Carnation" series of historical fiction novels. The series follows American graduate student Eloise and her search for information on the English & French spies of the late 1700s/early 1800s that all seem to be named after flowers. Turning a bit of fiction into reality for her world, Willig's books exist in a reality where the Scarlet Pimpernel was a real spy for England during the French Revolution, though the existence of other flowery colleagues is somewhat dismissed -- incorrectly, it turns out. Eloise has focused her dissertation on proving the identity of the Pink Carnation, a spy that picked up where the Pimpernel left off. In a stroke of luck, she gained access to archives at Selwick Hall that hold a wealth of secret correspondence to support her theories -- and she got herself a British boyfriend, too. Colin, the descendant of certain flowery spies, was originally suspicious of Eloise's intentions, but appears to have warmed to her, as this book opens with Colin and Eloise marking a month of their relationship.

Fans of the series will know that it's the meeting and courtship of Colin and Eloise that frames the series, but each individual book follows a different couple, though they all have some connections to each other (younger sisters, brothers, best friends, etc.). The historic romance in this book centers on Lady Charlotte Landsdowne and Robert, Duke of Dovedale. When Charlotte was nine, she met her (very distant) cousin Robert, who was fifteen, at a time of family turmoil. Her father, the Duke, was dying and as a result of male heirs and all that, Robert would become the next Duke. Instead, he ran away to India, becoming an officer and leaving Charlotte and her somewhat tyrannical grandmother to retain control of the estate in practice if not in name. For all those years, she had a rather dreamy image of Robert and now that he has returned to England, you can just bet where she's set her cap. Of course, that would be somewhat easier to do if he didn't seem a bit distracted. He returned home to take up residence at his estate and be a Duke, right? Well, actually, Robert returned to England to exact revenge on a traitor who killed his mentor. Until he's done this, he had no idea what the future holds for him, but his pretty young cousin seems to be making a mess of his concentration. The traitor in question has a foppish way of wearing a spring of jasmine on his clothes; since Robert hasn't been in the country for a while, he's completely unaware of the whole thing with spies named for flowers and he doesn't quite realize that he might be stumbling into something that's on a grander scale than he originally believed. By returning to England, he seeks to track down this murderer and to do that, it appears that he has to insinuate himself into the ton, or at least a particularly loathsome segment of it that consists of rather seedy gentlemen. So despite his concern for his cousin's well-being, his feelings for her catch him a bit off-guard and he resolves that the only way to protect such a delicate and innocent girl like Charlotte (from evil fellows like his latest chums and from himself, a man bent on revenge) is to stay away from her. Well, unsurprisingly, Charlotte is not the delicate angel that Robert believes her to be. She might be sweet, innocent, and dreamy, with her head full of the romances in books, but she is not delicate. We readers suspect as much, but she's given a chance to prove this when, as one of the Queen's ladies in waiting, she stumbles upon a potential plot to overthrow the mad king. Ultimately, the Charlotte and Robert must recognize each other for who they really are if there's any hope of a lasting romance.

Fans of the series will sympathize with me when I say that I tend to get a mixed up about all the couples and characters that populate this series. It's always a charming young couple that almost assuredly gets together in the end, but I suppose that's part of the appeal, too. The only trouble, then, is trying to remember who is who when you meet old heroes/heroines in new books where the focus has shifted. Charlotte's best friend is Henrietta Dorrington (formerly Selwick) and while I knew she had been a previous heroine, I had to go look up that her book was The Masque of the Black Tulip and remind myself of those plotpoints. Like I said, things might blend together a bit, but the formula is part of the fun. Willig knows her audience quite well and knows what we want, but she always tosses in some exciting details. This particular book hangs heavily on the idea of the reader appreciating the formula. I was not as delighted with this novel as I was with others, but that being said, I still stayed up until 2.30am on a weeknight to finish reading this book in one sitting. Clearly, Willig is doing something right, even if I still prefer some other couples.

Readers might be keen to know that this the first book that Willig wrote as a full-time author. She originally wrote The Secret History of the Pink Carnation as a student and continued writing, even as she got her graduate degrees and started practicing law, but she's tossed it all in for a full time writing career. I suppose the idea of a fifth book in a series convinced her that the whole writing thing was not a dream. Yes, there is a wide audience clamoring for her easy to read but easy to enjoy romances. Yes, she can make a living off of these delicious romps. Of course, she's gotten a bit more conservative with the romances as she's gone through the series. In the Pink Carnation there was fellatio in a boat on the Thames for goodness sake! Here, we get some making out on a roof in the cold. (Granted, someone else ends up in a scandal, but we don't get that one described for us. And here, we're trying to let two characters get to know the deeper truths about their chosen partner, so perhaps it's best that they aren't tumbling around in boats.) Willig has stepped back from the more sensational things, which is a bit of a shame, as I enjoyed her ability to write whatever she liked as long as it was fun. She still captures the romantic ideas, and she even tempers some of them to focus on what love is as opposed to just infatuation and lust. But I think we could have gotten a bit more lust. Thank goodness the next bit features a redhead who was involved in this book's scandal.

If you enjoy the series, I'm sure you'll enjoy Night Jasmine. (If you haven't read the others, then I highly recommend that you start at the beginning. Thankfully, Willig doesn't waste too much time in summarizing, particularly when every book doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the others.) I continue to be excited for whatever Willig might put on the market and I hope that she continues to produce such delightful novels for a long, long time.


Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is a fantasy/adventure novel for kids/young adults which is heavily steeped in Greek mythology. If you're picking this out for a young reader, I would advise that you teach them some of the basics before they start the series. Sure, they might balk a bit at having to study something before they can read Percy Jackson, but try to emphasize all the sex and violence in the myths. That should get them interested. Percy might be an less explicit introduction to mythology, but as with many things for kids these days, it's probably better if they learn the real stuff before they embark on the series that twists it up. That said, Rick Riordan actually does a pretty good job of keeping the old mythology intact. But without knowing the real mythology beforehand, lots of things will fly over a reader's head.

Percy (short for Perseus) Jackson is in sixth grade, on the verge of getting kicked out of yet another private boarding school. He's got a bit of a temper and he's been diagnosed with ADHD and Dyslexia, which means that if he hasn't failed out of a class because of his poor work, he's been thrown out of it for his behavior. Trouble just seems to follow him, but despite this, he seems like quite a good kid at heart. He adores his mother, Sally, and it's the thought of her disappointment that drives his efforts to make each school work. He has only a vague memory of a smiling father, but Sally insists that Percy's father disappeared (lost at sea) before Percy was born. Despite this, Sally speaks very fondly of her short affair with Percy's father and Percy fervently wishes he could have known him. Since then, Sally married a boorish and dreadful man (Smelly Gabe, as Percy calls him) and despite her dreams of going to college and writing a novel, Sally works hard simply to pay for Percy's tuition. While off at his boarding school, the only class that seems to interest Percy is Latin, and that's only because their charismatic teacher, Mr. Brunner, expects more from Percy than any other teacher has expected of him before.

Of course, this is all background information for Percy, who is quickly hurtled into a new world when his math teacher transforms into a monster and tries to kill him. Some time later, Percy overhears his best friend, Grover, having a late night conversation with Mr. Brunner that suggests they're concerned for his safety. When the kids head home for summer, Grover starts to get a bit clingy, insisting that he accompany Percy home, but Percy shakes him off the first moment he can to run home for some time with his mom. (Side note: believe me, the Oedipal issues here are tempting, but even Riordan doesn't go there.)

As the reader with a basic idea of the book, we're prepared for what Percy will learn, even if he is not. Percy and his mom immediately take off for a weekend vacation to a cabin they frequently rent in Montauk (Percy is fairly certain that this place is special to his mother because he thinks this is where she met his father) Grover shows up with a monster on his tail (oh, and it turns out that Grover's a satyr, so pun intended). Percy's mother seems to know of a place where Percy will be safe (meanwhile Percy is thoroughly confused), though just before they reach it, Grover is hurt and Percy's mother is attacked/possibly killed by what appears to be the Minotaur. Percy then manages to kill the beast and drags Grover to safety, the image of his mother disappearing in thin air haunting his dreams. He wakes up at Camp Half-Blood where everything comes out. Percy is a demigod. The gods are real, even if people no longer believe in them. And all those tricks they got up to in the myths where they're sleeping around with humans? Yeah, they still do that. As a result, there are lots of half-human children about, though fewer make it to adolescence, given that they tend to attract the attention of evil forces and monsters. If they aren't killed, they wind up at Camp Half-Blood (often watched over and assisted by satyrs). The diagnosis of ADHD is a result of their heightened senses and the Dyslexia is because their brains are hardwired for Ancient Greek. That Latin teacher, Dr. Brunner? That would be Chiron, trainer of heroes, who's had his eye on Percy. His wheelchair was a magic concealment for the fact that he's a centaur. And the math teacher that Percy killed is one of the Furies. Got all that?

At Camp Half-Blood, demigods train to be the heroes their heritage destines them to be. But just because they know that some kid's a demigod (s/he found the camp and then didn't die when they fed him/her ambrosia), one exists in a bit of a limbo until one is "claimed" by the god in question, be it one of the Olympians or a lesser god. Given the camp's population, most gods seem to get around quite a bit, and as a result, there's a cabin for each of the Olympian gods. Only four cabins remain empty: the one for Artemis (she swore to remain a virgin), one for Hera (goddess of marriage and therefore no fooling around), one for Zeus and one for Poseidon. Now here you might be wondering, wait -- I know my mythology. Wasn't Zeus the biggest philanderer of all? Well, it turns out that "the Big Three" (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) made a pact after World War II (which turns out to have been Hades' kids against Zeus and Poseidon's) that they would no longer father any more illegitimate children, as their children tended to be even more powerful than the usual demigod. So Percy causes a bit of a stir when, after shortly remaining in limbo to learn the ropes of Camp Half-Blood, an incident with a beast makes it clear that he is the result of Poseidon breaking the pact. All hail Percy Jackson, son of the Sea God.

Despite his very recent introduction to all this, Percy immediately has to go on a quest as a result of some trouble on Olympus (currently located on the 600th floor of the Empire State Building). Apparently, Zeus' lightning bolt has been stolen and since gods cannot directly steal from other gods, Zeus thinks that Poseidon got his half-blood hero son Percy to snatch it for him. Meanwhile Poseidon is under the impression that he's been framed by their other brother, Hades, who would presumably stand to gain by a rift between Zeus and Poseidon. Zeus demands that there will be war if the bolt is not returned by the summer solstice and Poseidon declares the same if Zeus doesn't apologize for slandering him as a thief. This apparently means the gods need a sixth grader to sort all of this out, as they're all behaving like children. So Percy goes off on a quest with the idea of heading to the Underworld to retrieve the bolt (and quite possibly his mother) from Hades, along with Grover and a girl named Annabeth, a daughter of Athena who's been stuck at the camp since she was seven. As they trek across the country (because the entrance to the Underworld is naturally located in Los Angeles and since Zeus has it out for Percy, they can't exactly fly), they encounter various gods and monsters before the ultimate end battles. As this is the first of five Percy Jackson books, you can at least bet that Percy comes out alive from all this, even if things don't go according to plan.

As a lover of Greek mythology, I remember balking when Disney came out with the cartoon Hercules that would end up presenting an incorrect version of Greek mythology to kids. I eventually moved on (I was a sucker for Meg's song about not falling in love), but you can bet that the very first book I ever bought for my godson was Edith Hamilton's Mythology. (Though at the age of one, he didn't really skim through the book himself so much as he let us read to him from it for a few years.) Sure, the kids watching watered-down myths all probably get a bit confused when they eventually read the real ones (I try not to think of the kids who don't study mythology later on and end up thinking that Hercules really is the son of Zeus and Hera) but I suppose it's similar to kids getting the cleaned-up version of most history where the more complicated bits are breezed over so mommy and daddy don't need to explain what an illegitimate child is or why sailors really wanted to visit tantalizing islands of women. So imagine my surprise at Riordan's world where these kids are totally the products of illicit affairs, openly admitted, though perhaps not in those terms. The myths remain completely intact, Riordan's simply added on a bit of history to bring us up to date (like the World War II thing and a complicated bit of understanding that equates the residence of the gods with the height of Western civilization, thus leading to its present location in America).

Riordan is clearly a lover of Greek mythology first and a children's author second, because he didn't sugarcoat much of anything. He keeps a tone consistent with the myths themselves and not always found in books aimed towards a younger audience... namely, that life isn't fair, no gift comes without some strings attached, and the gods really don't care that much about humans. The idea of heroes in training is one thing, but all of these kids are dealing with the fact that they have at least one very absent parent who will toss a smile their way if they're lucky. Late in the book, a god insists that such distance is a result of the need to not show favoritism, but it was a pretty sad moment when Percy looks at a cabin full of kids to see that many of them were unclaimed by gods who couldn't be bothered to remember if they had produced a child. And then there's the human who's been seduced by a god, ditched, and is now a single parent to an abnormal child. Percy's mom, despite being a wonderful woman, is still a girl who got knocked up and abandoned by a man who she continues views as an ideal. Given the fact that Posideon isn't running around as much as he used to, Percy and his mother can still believe that she was special, but think of all the other gods' children who have a host of half-siblings to deal with. Percy got off lucky. His mother is a wonderful person, but when you're looking at how poor they are, with Sally married to Smelly Gabe (who is clearly abusive even if it takes Percy a while to realize this)... it was enough to be furious at Poseidon for not doing a thing to help her out. As we learn more about the other demigods, every family seems to have some complications and every child needs to find a way to deal with their existence. Whether it's the search to be recognized by their parent or bitterness at being ignored, Camp Half-Blood is overflowing with the potential drama of ignored children. (Btw, I'm gonna doubt that we get into this during the course of the Percy Jackson books, but I'd be curious about the role of birth control. I mean, is it useless in the face of potential demigod spawning activities or is there just a lot of unsafe sex being practiced here? What kind of message does this send to kids who read this?)

When it comes to updating the myths, I was alternately pleased and disappointed. Mostly, though, I thought Riordan was clever in updating things. Percy had studied mythology, so usually caught on just in time to avoid being captured, eaten, or turned to stone. Given his namesake, I actually expected Medusa to play a much larger role than she did, but perhaps we'll see "Aunty Em" return. I particularly liked his encounter with "Crusty" (aka Procrustes) towards the end of Percy's journey, much as Procrustes was the last adventure that Theseus had as he made his way to Athens. I'm still a little confused with Percy's vision of the Fates knitting these giant socks, because they snipped the yarn, which means someone is supposed to die, but no one did, so either Grover freaked out for nothing/the Fates got it wrong or someone else died that wasn't in the direct storyline, which is kind of annoying. The good thing out of all this is the knowledge that there's plenty of Greek myths to go around, so even though this seemed like it referenced a heck of a lot of stories, Percy will surely encounter many more. For kids reading this, it offers many small sections of action and adventure, rather than simply building up to just one scene, so I imagine that it would be satisfying for children to read in many sessions.

The big criticism I have for this book is true for every post-Harry Potter series where you have kids grouped together because of a specific secret they all share. I kept getting flashes of the Harry Potter equivalent to things in Percy's world. The twelve cabins at Camp Half-Blood were like the four houses of Hogwarts (and they wouldn't have needed to wait for some sign of the god claiming a child if they had a Sorting Hat). Chiron was like Dumbledore, a kindly educator who has been around for quite some time and sees something special in Percy. Charon pulls a Hermione by explicitly teaching the reader how to say his name. Annabeth/Hermione is the very intelligent girl and Grover/Ron is the well-meaning, but slightly bumbling guy friend. Heck, even the name "Percy" isn't that far off from "Harry." That said, there's always going to be ample points for comparison in every coming of age story for young people and I think that with the firm grounding in Greek mythology, Riordan has at least staked out his own territory.

Riordan packs a lot into this book and you can tell that he's laid the groundwork for the whole series here. Grover wants to be a Seeker and find Pan; Percy makes an enemy of a god; a darker force threatens the structure of everything; a villain escapes; Percy becomes distinctly aware of his potential role as a pawn in the games of the gods. I read The Lightning Thief in a few hours and I can already tell that I'll keep reading to find out what other things are in store for Perseus Jackson. And since my godson already knows the real myths, I'll have no problem endorsing these books as a fun, modern follow-up.

Oh, and here's a link to the trailer for the upcoming movie. (As a result of having seen the trailer before reading the books, I totally pictured Pierce Brosnan as Chiron throughout the book and I'm not sure if that was a good thing.)


The Crown of Columbus

The Crown of Columbus was written by Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris, a husband and wife team of authors with Native American roots... sort of... well, more on that later. Both Erdrich and Dorris are individually noted for their own accomplishments (Erdrich mostly for her novels, Dorris for his poetry as well as his nonfiction activism), but they frequently collaborated. They wrote together under the pseudonym Milou North, though The Crown of Columbus is the only novel where they publish using their individual names. It's impossible to not speculate on how they wrote this book, as it is told from a variety of perspectives, particularly weighted towards that of the two main characters: Vivian Twostar and Roger Williams. As a result of this, I immediately pictured Erdrich and Dorris as writing about themselves in slightly adjusted terms... two intelligent and passionate academics at Dartmouth who think quite highly of themselves and each other.

Louise Erdrich-- I mean Vivian Twostar is an untenured professor at Dartmouth College, heading up the Native American Studies department and clashing regularly with the administration, who might be less hesitant in their dismissal of her as an unconventional professor if it weren't for the fact that it would look bad to let go of the only Native American on staff. As a bit of a peace offering (no pun intended... well... not much of one) and to add to her meager list of published work (which might help her bid for tenure and secure some stability to her existence), she has agreed to write and publish an article on Columbus for the approaching quincentennial celebrations. Naturally, the college administration would hope for a Native American perspective, to which Vivian responds, "I told them to advertise on reservations for a series of 'Discover Spain' tours. Twenty-eight days, flamenco included. I said the government should erect a huge neon sign near Samana Cay that flashed morning, noon and night: 'Wrong Way to Calcutta.'" Clearly, Vivian marches to her own drummer, refusing to submit to stereotypes from any of the number of people who lay claim to her. She has a teenage son named Nash, whose father has long since left to start his "real family" out in California, and they share their home with Vivian's Grandmother, who raised young Vivian after her own mother left. Being left seems to be a theme in Vivian's life, so when she finds herself pregnant with the baby of fellow professor Roger Williams, she preemptively ends things with him, explaining that she knows he'll be frustrated, be disappointed, and abandon them soon enough, so they might as well end things now.

More about Michael Dorri-- ahem. Roger Williams. In most reviews of this book that I've read, they cite Roger as being everything Vivian is not. Well, this is true, except they're both intelligent professors working on pieces that have to do with Columbus while living in Hanover, New Hampshire, so let's keep it in perspective. They approach life from different perspectives. A very white poet and English professor with a stereotypically wealthy WASP family, Roger lives the life of a bachelor with means. A creature of habit, he has a very specific routine and keeps a clean home, without clutter and without much complication. For some time now, he has been working on an epic poem about Columbus entitled "Diary of a Lost Man." Vivian completely disrupts his life, from even the first moment of their meeting. They quickly become lovers, enjoying their secret liaison until Vivian announces her pregnancy and, therefore, the end of their affair. It is Vivian who puts an end to things, but Roger does not follow her or demand to be part of her life. She has read him right in the sense that her family and their baby would entirely upend his existence but the question then becomes whether he wants to adjust and find value in this new life (or really, if he's even capable of doing so).

Vivian falls asleep in the library one day, to awake around midnight and find that she's been locked in. Heavily pregnant, experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, and worried about her somewhat troublesome teenage son, Vivian deals with her situation by continuing to research Columbus (um, because aren't we all this rational?). She stumbles across letters from the Cobb family, a Dartmouth dynasty that, according to these letters, seem to emphasize a family trait of feeling that the college has stolen something from them by misplacing a gift from one of their ancestors. During the course of that same night of Vivian's library imprisonment, Roger had a somewhat different encounter with an angry relative. He enters his home with the distinct feeling that a person who lives alone can have when they feel that someone else has been there. His fear is confirmed when he finds his personal diary missing (a diary with extensive discussion of his relationship with Vivian and his feelings about impending fatherhood). He's unable to focus on this theft when Vivian's Grandmother calls Roger, looking for Vivian. Alerted to her disappearance, Roger starts combing the campus and finds a different Twostar -- Vivian's son, Nash, who is ripping pages from Roger's diary and taping them to the doors of student dorms. Roger has to go through four different buildings to collect them all, but at the end, he is more than aware of Nash's negative feelings about Roger impregnating his mother. Vivian reemerges from the library somewhat anticlimactically and some time later, after giving birth (a girl named Violet), she makes steps towards reuniting with Roger. At the same time and with incredible ease, Vivian finds the missing Cobb donation (in a box so confusingly mislabeled that it's shocking anyone could ever understand that "Cabb" really meant "Cobb"...), which turn out to be possible pages from the diary of Columbus. Roger, already riled by Vivian's encroaching on his academic territory, finds their authenticity hard to imagine, but Vivian goes ahead and contacts the latest in a long line of angry Cobbs about this discovery. Henry, a businessman with a somewhat unsavory reputation, immediately wires Vivian a thousand dollars so she can come to see him in in the Bahamas (his ability to step foot on American soil without being seized by authorities is in some question). So naturally, Vivian, Roger, Nash, and Violet all head down to the Bahamas to discover the secrets of Columbus.

The Crown of Columbus jumped to the top of my queue as a result of book club. It might be the first time that I've showed up to book club without finishing the book (or at least to the point where I couldn't finish the handful of pages while I sat and waited for people to arrive). As a result, I asked my fellow members to summarize the ending for me so I could participate fully in the discussion and my response to their summary was "Um... WTF?" When you read the summary that I've provided above, using only this information, can you guess where this all ends up? You might think you can, but I promise you that you can't. Yes, you might be able to predict the fights that Vivian and Roger get into and yet love conquers all. Yes, you might be able to predict that somehow, Violet ends up washed ashore from the sea, given the opening chapter that foreshadows this. Yes, you might be able to predict that Henry is up to no good and he believes there's some treasure in all of this. Yes, you might be able to predict that these academics suddenly go all Indiana Jones on us just because they can! But you, too, will still wind up going "WTF?" I would tell you the ending so you could understand this immediately, but I wouldn't want to rob you of what I consider the strongest reaction this book elicited in me.

So, I can't absolutely say that I enjoyed this book and I would heartily recommend it, though there were several mildly amusing and interesting parts. (The scene where Nash rips up Roger's diary and pastes the pages to various dorm room doors sticks out in my mind.) I've read a number of high praise reviews online, so perhaps I'm in the minority (and maybe I can avert the fate of the college administration by offering criticism to Native American authors because I, too, am a teensy bit Native American?), because I only found this book to be so-so. Three and a half stars out of five feels generous, and if kept to whole numbers, I'd downgrade to three. The reason for it is this: no reader will every be as interested in these characters as I'm sure Dorris & Erdrich were. It's absolutely impossible. Vivian = Louise and Roger = Michael, fictionalized and with a few little twists (like Roger being white, except Michael was likely all white, too... more on that later). Clearly, these characters were drawn from their experiences and the amusing idea of "hey, we could do an Indiana Jones thing!" And much like Indiana Jones, we get all Biblical at the end, even when we thought we were just chasing something that belonged in a museum. I wasn't ever necessarily bored, but it was very easy to set this book aside for something else until the action scenes, and even then you kept reading because the end was in sight. The majority of the book is spent in Hanover, going through some semi-realistic relationship issues and some of the most detailed descriptions of pregnancy that I've ever encountered in literature (granted, I don't seek these out). We set ourselves up for complication. Personally, I feel that Vivian's dismissal of Roger is much too abrupt to be believable, but I made some allowances for this when she ends up returning to try things again. The whole Columbus plotline? It almost intrudes on the bigger issues surrounding Vivian and Roger's relationship and Nash's teenage rebellion. The only thing that made the Columbus plotline acceptable was the fact that Erdrich and Norris went to a great deal of trouble to look at the issue from a number of perspectives and even the characters themselves are open to new ideas. Vivian is looking for vindication of native people; Roger is looking for a man with ambition and poetry; Henry is seeking a clever entrepreneur. Eventually, we fly down to the Bahamas, find ourselves in an adventure novel (with quite limited adventure, though), and, by the end of the book, just when things look grim, everything turns out okay! And on top of that, silent and grunting Nash (Vivian advises Roger to think of her son as "Gnash" at one point) is ridiculously eloquent and observant in the one chapter that is narrated from his perspective (so Louise and Michael--I mean Vivian and Roger--are good parents, too!). Oh, and Henry Cobb is a terribly one-note villain. And Roger's poem sucks. Dorris is a much better poet than Roger Williams.

Frankly, I found that the story behind the novel about Erdrich and Dorris was far more interesting than the book, though incredibly tragic. Michael Dorris was the first single man to be approved for adoption in the United States, adopting a Lakota boy who turned out to suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Dorris brought the issue of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome to a wider audience, particularly as an issue important to the Native American community, and wrote a memoir on his experience. He ended up adopting other children who likely suffered from the same issue. Dorris met Erdrich while teaching at Dartmouth (he was a teacher and she was a student). They married and eventually had three daughters together, living what appeared to be quite a lovely life, before the story takes a dreadful turn. Dorris's son who inspired his memoir was killed the same year that this novel was published. A few years later, the second son that Dorris adopted accused both parents of child abuse; Dorris and Erdrich were unsuccessful in pursuing an extortion case against him in court. Shortly after, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings before Dorris committed suicide. The literary world was shocked, though later, it came to light that more abuse allegations were stirring, this time from one of their daughters. Since then, Erdrich has continued to receive acclaim for her work and only last year was nominated for a Pulitzer. Oh, and one last thing -- as for the Native American roots, clearly Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe tribe, but while Dorris claimed Modoc roots, this remains somewhat questionable. Evidently, since he is not enrolled in any tribe and there is no documented proof of ancestry, some people find his claim tenuous at best. What cannot be denied, though, is his devotion to Native American culture, and frankly I think this counts for a lot. Then again, I'm a very white redheaded girl with Acoma and Hispanic roots, so I know a few things about one's questionable origins.

As far as The Crown of Columbus is concerned, ultimately, the varied perspectives on Columbus and what he means for different groups of people were interesting, but the book wasn't as delightful as it could have been. Certainly it was pleasant, but there's a wealth of other fiction out there that have similar themes of solving historical puzzles... and you don't need to go to Dan Brown for it. If this is a genre you enjoy, then it's likely that you'll also enjoy this one. I'm just not sure I'd put a hugely enthusiastic recommendation behind it.