Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “CBR4”

loopyker’s #CBR4 Review #22: War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells


I’m sure I’m not the only one whose only previous experience with H.G. Wells was the 2005 War of the Worlds movie starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning and the character on Warehouse 13 . While the movie was entertaining, it had the usual Hollywood dramatic scenes with the hero fighting to protect their family, where everything is frantic and full special effects.

With that in mind, I found the audiobook refreshing. It has a much slower start than the movie. The aliens don’t just pop up out of the ground. Strange objects, apparently from Mars, land on the earth and are later reveled to contain aliens – Martians. We don’t know at first if they are friendly or malicious. They construct their tripod killing machines while people watch and wonder.

When the machines are operable, their destruction of humanity and civilization begins. Of course, this is a time before cars, so people are fleeing by foot and horse and buggy and they don’t have access to instant news or telephones like we do which makes for even more confusion. Everyone is on their own.

See the rest of the review at Loopy Ker’s Life

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #52, The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

“It was not worth it.” –Mary, Mother of Jesus

My relationship with the Virgin Mary has always been a little complicated.

I grew up in a religious household, so I was of course introduced to her at an early age. Every year, she was trotted out in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, where they would tell her story––the angel, the donkey ride to Bethlehem, the virgin birth in a dirty barn––and then put her away with the rest of the Nativity set, not to be seen or heard from until next Christmas.

This was fine with me, because as Biblical figures go, aside from being my introduction to the term “virgin,” Mary never held much interest for me. We had nothing in common, I felt, and yet as I grew older she was constantly thrust in front of me as the ultimate role model for women. You can see the value a character like Mary would have as a tool for reinforcing traditional gender roles, given that her defining characteristics are virginity, motherhood, and submissiveness to God. But traditional gender roles didn’t appeal to me, so I just found her boring. She had no thoughts or opinions of her own, she was simply a means to an end, a side note in a larger story.

It’s fitting then, that in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary it is her interpretation of the events surrounding her sons life that takes precedence. Though the narrative itself does not stray much from its source material, the Mary Tóibín imagines is completely her own, a full-fledged character worlds away from the shallow, one-dimensional figure we’ve come to revere from Renaissance paintings. This Mary does not believe her son was the Son of God. She can’t stand his followers, does not approve of their mission to evangelize the world on his behalf, and though she acknowledges the existence of his miracles, she finds their effect dubious at best.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the example of Lazarus. Lazarus, for those of you who did not go to Bible school, is a man that Jesus raised from the dead. After his death and resurrection, not much is said about Lazarus. Like Mary, he fades into the background after he has played his part in the narrative. As a child, I used to wonder what happened to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead, and the picture Tóibín paints is not pretty: having experienced death, Lazarus finds himself removed from the world. He does not speak, he can barely eat. And through his example, Mary begins to question the value of the work her son is doing.

This is what differentiates Tóibín’s Mary with the Mary most of us are used to. Unlike the serenely knowing, quietly submissive Mary we are so used to seeing, this Mary does not understand who her son is or what he’s trying to do. In fact, she tries actively to prevent him from doing it. Much of The Testament of Mary details her struggles to reconcile the son she loves with the Son that is headed willfully to his own death, and to do what she can to stop it. At the wedding in Cana (which Biblical scholars will recognize as both the site of the water into wine miracle and one of the only other times Mary is mentioned in the New Testament), she confronts him, attempting to get him to see the danger his life is in and agree to come home with her. He responds by saying (as he does in the Bible), “Woman, what have I to do with you?” At this moment, she knows that he is lost. And yet up until the end, she continues to ask whether there is something that can be done, whether his death can be prevented.

Colm Tóibín is a master of detail, and this is seen nowhere so much as the climax of the book, Jesus’ crucifixion. Unable to process the horror of what is happening, Mary finds herself focusing on details of the scene around her: the way the thorns embed into her son’s forehead, pushing themselves deeper as he tries to pry them out; the way the crosses keep tilting over when they are being put into the ground, the people nearby, playing dice, or in one memorable case, a man feeding rabbits to a live hawk in a cage (this image, incidentally, calls to mind a painting that Tóibín credits for giving him the inspiration for the book). After hours of bearing witness to her son’s suffering, afraid for her own safety, she flees before he’s even dead.

It is her decision to flee that most haunts her, in her old age. She constantly searches for gaps in her memory, places in the narrative where by acting differently she may have been able to save her son. Even as she finds none, even as she knows there are none to find, she continues to look for them, to the point where her memory becomes confused. First she dreams that she saw her son alive, then she dreams that she was with him when he died, and she starts to think that maybe she did stay, maybe she cried over his broken body and washed it in preparation for burial. These false memories have a dreamlike, Titian quality to them, a genius stroke of authorial subtlety, comparing the reality Tóibín imagines to the myth we’ve all accepted. In the end, reality wins out. At night, she still dreams of her son alive and well, of herself as a dutiful mother, but in the harsh light of day, she is forced to reckon with the truth: she had a son, and now her son is dead, she could not save him and no protestations about eternal life from his disciples will bring him back.

There’s a verse in Luke 2:19 about Mary, that takes place soon after Christ’s birth: “And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” My mother always loved that verse for what it said about Mary’s character, but it made me want to scream. If she was meant to be a role model for all women, I thought, it stood to reason that she should have more to say about what happened to her, about what happened to her son. It never occurred to me that maybe Mary never wanted to be a role model. I think I would have liked her more if it had. 

At the end of the novel, Jesus’ unnamed disciples, Mary’s protectors and bane of her fragile existence, attempt to make her understand the value of her son’s death. It was all part of the plan, they say, to redeem the world, to which she responds:

“I was there. I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses than I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”

loopyker’s #CBR4 Review #19-21: Various mysteries by Elizabeth Peters


See my review comparing three Elizabeth Peters mysteries, The Jackal’s Head, The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits and Devil-May-Care at Loopy Ker’s Life.

Captain Tuttle’s CBR4 Review #52 – Wine of Violence: A Medieval Mystery by Priscilla Royal

To begin with, the author provides an introduction with some information about the religious order that Tyndal Priory (the fictional location of the story) was based on (the Order of Fontevraud, which is where Eleanor of Aquitaine ended up). The order was woman-positive, and the Prioress was over both the nuns and the monks. Royal has certainly done her research, and it shows. I’m kind of a medieval nut (studied medieval art history in college, and started taking masters’ courses in medieval history, but never finished the grad degree), so this story was right up my alley.

It’s 1270 in England, at Tyndal Priory (with monks and nuns running a hospital).  The new prioress Eleanor is young, and her arrival causes some resentment in the priory because she got the job through her family’s political connections.  She was needed because the old prioress died, peacefully and in the company of her sisters. Brother Rupert was there too, he and the prioress were best friends. Just as she is about to die, she reaches out to Rupert, her confessor, to tell him something important. He didn’t hear, and she died without letting anyone know that she had wrongly accused someone.

When Eleanor arrives, she not only has to deal with cranky nuns and monks, but the brutal murder of Brother Rupert. Was he killed by a random killer, or because someone thought he had information that needed to be kept secret? Eleanor investigates, with the help of a new monk, Thomas. Thomas has an interesting past, and has some attitude issues.

The characters were interesting and well-written, and the story gives an in-depth look into the cloistered lives of the nuns and monks. I would recommend this book to anyone. Apparently it’s a series, and I will definitely be investigating (hee) the rest of them.

meilufay’s (final) #CBR4 review #101 The City & The City by China Miéville

For me, the last third of 2012 was all about China Miéville.  After watching his polemic at the World Writers Conference in August, I rapidly read every article about and interview with him that I could get my hands on.  Then I moved on to his essays and lectures.  Finally, I decided I should probably read this guy’s books already.  I read Kraken first, and loved it.  Then I dug into Dial H, and ditto.  For The City & The City, I thought it would be interesting to do a little bit of genre reading as a companion so I read a selection of crime novels (Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith & more).  And then, because it felt appropriate, I read some Kafka and Philip K Dick.  I watched Brick, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Sleep and Blade Runner.  I’d been meaning to reread Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so that went into the mix too.  This reading project has been a really entertaining, thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating ride.  I definitely feel as if I have a deeper appreciation for all the works I read than I would have if I’d just read them solo.

It just so happened that my reading this book coincided with The City & The City being Twitter book club #1book140’s December choice.  So I was able to further enrich my experience by participating in the discussions there.

Having written all that, I feel as if I should write a really amazing essay about this book but, honestly, I’m kind of tired.  I just wrote 20 reviews in two days.  So apologies to my readers, the tweeps at #1book140 and China Miéville if my review fails to adequately capture this book.  All failures in this review are my own.

One of the things I really like about China Miéville (other than the AWESOME acute accent in his name) is the fact that he’s incredibly rigorous about following through on his ideas.  Miéville describes The City & The City as a crime novel and its plot is definitely structured in the same way as the procedurals we all know so well.  But because Miéville is not satisfied until his work has some element of the fantastic or surreal, the murder his detective is investigating is overshadowed by a larger mystery – that of the relationship of the two cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.  These two Eastern European cities are entangled with one another but it is unclear if this relationship is magical (like London Above and London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), or if they are simply intricately and absurdly sharing the same geographical space.  In order to emphasize the separation between the two cities, citizens learn as children to “unsee” any elements from the other city.  Certain colors are limited to either Beszel or Ul Qoma.  In crosshatched areas, areas which are shared by both cities, traffic and pedestrian from the two cities mingle yet retain their separation by unseeing one another.  To violate these precepts is to risk the ire of Breach, a mysterious power that enforces barriers between the two cities.  Breach is spoken of as being “invoked” and it is unclear if Breach has supernatural powers.

Procedural murder mysteries are like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. In order to maintain the audience’s tension all possible solutions exist simultaneously until the “true” solution is finally revealed and all possibilities then collapse into one.  Miéville takes quantum physics theories and applies them to his novel in a astonishingly rigorous way.  There are the obvious ways: the two cities are entangled, and the aforementioned collapsing of possibilities.  But he also applies Schrödinger’s paradox to the genre of the book.  A supernatural and a natural solution to the mysteries of the murder and the entanglement of the two cities exist in tension to one another until the end of the book when Inspector Borlú, his hero, finally observes the truth, collapsing all possibilities.  It’s a high wire act and throughout the book I and my fellow book club readers were questioning whether or not Miéville would pull it off.  That he did absolutely astonishes and delights me.

Based on what I’ve heard about his other books, I don’t think that The City & The City is destined to make my list of favorite China Miéville books, but this book is so inventive, so well-structured, so extraordinarily carefully well-crafted, so smart, that I am rather dazzled by his achievement and talent.

Captain Tuttle’s CBR4 Review #51 – The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I tell people I love Oscar Wilde, but I had never really read anything beyond The Importance of Being Earnest. Until now. Wow. Dorian’s a naughty boy.

An artist, Basil Hallward, paints Dorian’s portrait. He’s so beautiful, Basil is enraptured.  Basil’s a good guy, who has some pretty bad friends. One such friend is Lord Henry Wotton, who becomes friends with Dorian, and shows him the ropes of degenerate high society. Dorian falls in love with an actress because of her skills.  They become engaged, he brings Basil and Wotton to see her act, and she totally throws it. She did it because she was leaving the stage and didn’t care. So of course he falls out of love with her, breaks the engagement, and leads her to kill herself. It’s a black mark on his soul. When he looks at the painting, he sees that it’s kind of sneering at him. He realizes that the painting takes all of his sin, so he can still appear to be a beautiful angel.

Dorian takes complete advantage of this, getting into all sorts of mischief, and developing quite a nasty reputation (well-deserved). A lot of the debauchery takes place “off camera (page?),” but there’s enough said about it that we can figure out what he’s done. He has also ruined a few people, and is well known down in the seedy parts of town.

There’s murder, mayhem, revenge, and all kinds of nasty bits. I can’t believe it took me this long to read Dorian Gray. If you’ve been waiting, get to it.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 post #50 – Searching for Captain Wentworth by Jane Odiwe

Someone please save me from myself. I can’t stop reading these Austen-adjacent, fan-fic books. Some are better than others, but none come even close to the original. Anyway, this one has a bit of a twist. Our heroine, Sophie Elliot, is a modern gal who just caught her boyfriend cheating, and who has a sucky job. She really wants to be a writer. So her dad loans her money and her aunt loans her a flat in Bath so she can write her Austenesque novel.

Of course the flat is in a building that was next door to where Jane and family lived when they were in Bath. Of course her downstairs neighbor is cute and cool. Of course she picks up a glove, steps through a gate, and goes back in time, into the body of her ancestress (who is presumably the model for Anne Eliot of Persuasion) to meet the actual Jane Austen. Ok, forget that last “of course.” The whole time-travel aspect of this book is very silly.

Sophie meets the Austens, but her family doesn’t approve because her dad is Mr. Eliot, and thinks she’s friending-down, so to speak. Sophie goes back and forth between now and then, and the time tables between visits gets awfully jumbled. It’s not the best-written book, but I still managed to get through it.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it was bad, but I also wouldn’t recommend it, even if you’re an Austenania addict like me.

Captain Tuttle #CBR4 post #49 – My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt

I had never heard of this author before, but apparently she’s a prolific mystery novelist, writing under this name as well as Barbara Pym. The story is somewhat Austen-adjacent, but not in the way you would expect. In this book, the main characters are Elinor and Charlotte Cowper. The story unfolds mainly through letters to Charlotte (hence the name), but inserted in the letters are actual excerpts of letters Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra.  It’s fairly easy to figure out what language is Austen’s, although the author does try her best.

So the story is a cozy mystery, set in Lyme (one of Austen’s favorite places). There’s a wealthy family, and the matriarch dies under mysterious circumstances. Was it a heart attack, or was it poison?  And if it was poison, whodunnit and why?  She was pretty nasty, so no one’s really broken up about it.

Some of the main suspects are her husband, a couple of relatives who stand to benefit from her death, and a few others. Elinor tells Charlotte about everything that’s going on, from the dances to the murder investigation.  The epistolary nature of the book sets it a little bit apart from other mysteries I’ve read, but also limits the narrative, since we’re stuck in first person.

This is a perfectly fine story, especially if you like the Regency stuff, and/or if you like cozy mysteries. It took me a while to figure out who did it, but once it popped out, it was pretty obvious. It was a quick read, and (as you know I like) a nice distraction from the usual bullish*t of my life.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #100 An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

An Infamous Army was the novel Georgette Heyer was most proud of.  It tells the story of a romance set during Waterloo.  Heyer is famous for her attention to detail and her research but in this book she absolutely surpassed herself in learning every detail of the the circumstances leading up to Waterloo and of the battle itself.  At one point, the book was studied at Sandringham for its excellent descriptions of the battle.  Unfortunately, this book just did not work for me.  I applaud its ambition but I found it almost interminable.  For one thing, I didn’t care very much about the couple whose love story is supposed to move the plot along.  For another, the pages and pages of descriptions of Wellington’s interactions and thoughts, of battle-scenes, did not really marry very well to the love story that’s supposed to tie this story together.  I think if Heyer had simply written a novel of Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo, this book might have been more satisfying but the different elements of this novel were not woven together well.  I think this book is worth checking out for people who love this period and hunger for well-constructed descriptions of Waterloo, otherwise, I don’t really recommend it.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 post #39 (oopsie, I missed this # earlier) – Henry Tilney’s Diary by Amanda Grange

Amanda Grange has written a few of these (I believe I’ve already reviewed Captain Wentworth’s Diary and Mr. Darcy’s Diary, both of which I enjoyed).  I tried this one next because Henry Tilney is one of my favorite Austen characters, he’s smart and funny, unlike some of the other more serious Austen heroes.

We start with Henry at home from school, years before the action in Northanger Abbey. His mother is still alive, and his elder brother isn’t quite as jerky or jaded.  Both of those things change pretty quickly. We also get to see Henry’s relationship with his sister Eleanor, and their love for gothic novels. General Tilney comes off even worse than he does in the original.

Another great part of the backstory is how we meet Eleanor’s beau, he of the papers left behind at the Abbey that so set off Catherine Morland’s imagination. It’s a sweet part of the story that we don’t get in Austen’s book. I’d almost like to see Eleanor Tilney’s diary, to learn more about that story.

So, Henry goes to Bath with the family and meets the lovely Catherine. He has spent his life searching for his heroine, and believes he has found her. Then dad gets involved, and we get to see how Henry deals with him (pretty manly, in my opinion).

This is yet another Austen-adjacent fun book. I’m pretty glad there are plenty of people out there writing these books. Some of them are even worth reading.

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