Friday, June 29, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

     Cleopatra has been a household name for centuries.  The notorious Queen of Egypt has been immortalized by tales of her beauty, cunning, and sexual presence.  Even Mr. William Shakespeare deemed her worthy of starring in one of his most famous plays, Antony and Cleopatra.  But more than two thousand years after her reign, we still do not have a complete biographical portrait of the Queen of the Nile.  As Stacy Schiff points out, most firsthand accounts of Cleopatra are incomplete or bias, as they were mostly written by her enemies.  But Schiff is not a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer for no reason.  In her recent biography of Cleopatra, we have a more comprehensive understanding of Cleopatra's life than ever before.  Very few (if any) primary sources regarding the famous Queen of Egypt survive, but Schiff compiled hundreds of sources from ancient Rome, Egypt, and Greece to provide a much clearer picture of what Cleopatra's existence was actually like.

     The woman we know today as Cleopatra was actually born Cleopatra VII Philopater.  In a nation constantly on the brink of civil war, Cleopatra offered strength, leadership, and hope for unification and peace.  After all, her people knew her as the first pharaoh who bothered to learn their language.  Depending on who you asked, Cleopatra might have been described as a goddess, a leader, a traitor, or a whore.  Even so, the world knew her name, and we've never forgotten it or her influence.

     As a work of biographical research, Cleopatra is impressive - the book is thorough, well-organized, and as comprehensive as it can possibly be.  But as a work of literature, I found Cleopatra to be slow, overwhelming, and dull.  Perhaps if you have a thorough working knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history then it would be an entertaining read, but for those of us who are not historians, the book feels like homework - after all, the notes, bibliography, and index combined are half as long as the text itself.  As much as I appreciate and respect Stacy Schiff's level of research and the amount of time she dedicated to writing this book, I was disappointed by how very little I enjoyed the reading experience.  I think I spent just as much time looking up the names of obscure historians, philosophers, and political figures as I did reading the text.  I didn't expect this book to be much of a page turner, but I did think it would be a little more engrossing.  This is not our best book club choice by any means.  However, if you have a personal or professional interest in Cleopatra or ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt, Cleopatra might be just the thing for you.

     This is one of those books that I'm glad I read (for educational purposes), but I'm also glad it's over.  But again, I do want to reiterate the admiration and reverence I have for Stacy Schiff and her ability to turn one of the most mysterious and elusive women in the world into a humanized, well-balanced and better-understood historical figure.

Overall Rating:

Monday, June 25, 2012

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

     Mo LoBeau is not your average 11 year-old.  She was born "during one of the meanest hurricanes in history" and for some reason, her "upstream mother" placed her infant daughter on a makeshift raft and hoped that she would float to safety.  Luckily, Mo was rescued in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina by a man known as The Colonel, who had the good sense to place the infant girl into the loving arms of Miss Lana.  The Colonel and Miss Lana raised Mo as their own, but she's still awfully curious about her upstream mother, so she frequently sends out messages in bottles, hoping that she and her mother will someday be reunited by the very same water that separated them.

     Now 11 years old, Mo is an established detective in Tupelo Landing, solving minor mysteries, reuniting lost pets with owners, and still pursuing the case of her negligent birth mother.  But when the town's grumpiest, least favorite resident turns up dead under suspicious circumstances, Mo and her best friend, Dale, are hot on the case - much to the chagrin of the lead investigator, Mr. Joe Starr.  Pretty soon, Mo and Dale find themselves in deep and dangerous waters - both literally and figuratively.  The killer has set his sights on Mo's loved ones just as another hurricane bears down on the sleepy little town.  But our heroine isn't gonna let a tropical storm stop her from finding the murderer - especially when Miss Lana and The Colonel might be in danger.

     Three Times Lucky is full of colorful characters with dazzling personalities and heaps of southern charm.  Miss Lana, for instance, runs a local cafe which she often decorates in themes (French, Hollywood Stars, etc).  And don't worry, she has multiple wigs and costumes to match the various themes, not to mention a wide variety of culinary selections.  Mo prefers to serve up peanut butter and jelly with an ice cold Mountain Dew to customers, but she appreciates the cultural experience Miss Lana offers nonetheless.  When she's not researching her own autobiography, Mo also supports Dale's older (and quite handsome) brother, Lavender, in his dream to become a NASCAR driver.  It runs in the family. After all, Dale's full name is Dale Earnhardt Johnson III.

     Mo LoBeau is a loud-mouthed, nosy, preteen busybody and good for her - and the rest of Tupelo Landing.  She may not be gentle or ladylike, but she's just what the town needs to save them from a crazed killer.  And as a lover of southern literature, I can't help but appreciate the book's southern charm and firecracker plot.  Sheila Turnage's debut YA novel is a delight for teens and adults alike.  Mo LoBeau is a sassy, southern-bred heroine, and believe me, you do not want to miss her fast-paced and endearing story.

Overall Rating:

Friday, June 22, 2012

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

     There has been a great deal of discussion surrounding Denis Johnson's 2002 novella, Train Dreams, especially since it was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  But as you may recall, the judges did not choose a winner for the fiction category this year.  Even so, Train Dreams offers a powerful portrait of Robert Grainier, a laborer in Idaho in the early 1900s.  Grainier has worked in lumber, agriculture, or the railroad industry for most of his life.  His mind, body, and spirit have been exhausted by days of long, hard labor and nights of quiet loneliness.  When a fire destroys his homestead and his family - a wife and infant daughter - he is briefly shattered.  But Grainier came of age in the days of westward expansion, so he perseveres - quietly but steadily.  Johnson succinctly describes Robert Grainier as such:
Grainier himself lived more than eighty years, well into the 1960s.  In his time he'd traveled west to within a few dozen miles of the Pacific, though he'd never seen the ocean itself, and as far east as the town of Libby, forty miles inside Montana.  He'd had one lover - his wife, Gladys - owned one acre of property, two horses, and a wagon.  He'd never been drunk.  He'd never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone.  He'd ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once in an aircraft.  During the last decade of his life he watched television whenever he was in town.  He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him. (p. 113)
     Grainier appears to be a man with no past or present, and very little future.  He was raised by an aunt and uncle who died before he could ask about his origins, both his wife and daughter were taken from him just a few years into marriage, and he never married again.  In fact, his only companions for the rest of his life consisted of a few stray dogs.

     But people like Robert Grainier are a very real part of our American heritage, even if their stories are often forgotten or lost.  Grainier appears to have lived a simple life - he worked all day, slept fitfully, and died with no heirs to carry on his name or memory.  But he also knew friendship, happiness, grief, lust, fear, devastation, and excitement.  We live in an age where life's success is measured by accomplishments and legacies.  A man like Robert Grainier would have achieved very few accomplishments by today's standards and left behind little that would resemble a legacy, but with Train Dreams, Denis Johnson starkly draws our attention to the unrecalled aspects of American heritage.  The novella is brief, but powerful, offering a portrait of forgotten Americana and questioning what it means to live completely and leave a legacy.

Overall Rating:

Monday, June 18, 2012

This past weekend I re-read Francesca Lia Block's Weetzie Bat (as I do every year).  If you missed my review of Weetzie Bat last year, you can check it out here.

Sorry I'm so behind on my reading/reviewing these past couple weeks. Between summer school, my internship, birthdays, and anniversaries I haven't had a lot of free time.  Apologies...

Friday, June 15, 2012


As you may well know, the longlist for the Man Booker Prize will be announced on July 25.  Previous winners of this prestigious award include J.M. Coetzee, Penelope Lively, Margaret Atwood, and Hilary Mantel.  This year, Hooked Bookworm is collaborating with several other bloggers to read through the longlist and the shortlist to bring you reviews of every nominee and predict the prizewinner.

We're calling our new project BookerMarks - check out our site to see reviews from us, Opinionless, Literary Hoarders, A Reader and A Rider, and 40 Gigs and a Mule.  You can follow us on Twitter, too!

As of now, we're still speculating about who will be on the longlist...who do you think will be nominated?

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Unseen Guest by Maryrose Wood

     In 2010, Maryrose Wood introduced us to The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place - Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia.  These three children were discovered by Lord Frederick Ashton running wild and unaccompanied in the Ashton Place woods.  The children were unofficially adopted by Frederick and his wife, Constance, and Miss Penelope Lumley was hired to serve as the children's governess. Since the arrival of the wild, wolf-like children (they are known to howl, bark, and scratch), strange things have been happening at Ashton Place.

     In the third installment of Maryrose Wood's enchanting little series, Miss Lumley is certain that someone means to harm the children.  After receiving a strange and ominous message from a soothsayer, she is more protective than ever of her three wards.  When Frederick's mother visits with a prospective fiance, Admiral Faucet, the household is thrown into disarray and Penelope and the Incorrigibles are thrust into all sorts of adventurous situations, such as a seance and a very revealing ostrich-hunting expedition.  In the meantime, some very mysterious events occur that lead the young governess to believe that the children are in immediate danger and must be protected......but from whom?  Or what?

     There's never a dull moment with Penelope and the Incorrigibles, and Maryrose Wood writes in a way that makes the story equally entertaining for adults.  This series is charming, quirky, and witty - and even includes delightful illustrations of the characters.  The Unseen Guest is the third book in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series and I think it's safe to say that there will be a fourth.  I'm not sure how many more books Maryrose Wood plans to add to the series, but Miss Lumley and the Incorrigibles are far from losing momentum.

Overall Rating:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Favorite Fiction: Contemporary Debut Novels

Contemporary authors like Jonathan Franzen, Suzanne Collins, Ann Patchett, and Margaret Atwood are now considered household names, but every writer has to start somewhere.  Some turn into literary "one hit wonders" while others go on to win all sorts of prizes, honors, and awards, but as the phrase gotta start somewhere.  This segment of Favorite Fiction is about literary beginnings of contemporary authors.  Some are still new to the publishing world, and others have produced bestsellers and masterpieces, but they all have one thing in common - notable and impressive debut novels.  So here are Hooked Bookworm's top ten debut novels of contemporary writers:

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog

     Kristen den Hartog's newest novel tells the story of Ruth Brennan, a young girl with a rare growth disorder.  By the time she reaches adolescence, Ruth is already several feet taller than her peers, which makes finding and keeping friends a difficult task.  It also makes leading a normal life nearly impossible, especially during the mid 20th century - a time when girls were expected to be slight, delicate, and dainty.  Most people are either scared of her, or they feel sorry for her, and even though she is usually ignored, Ruth knows that she is impossibly noticeable.

     Ruth's abnormalities take a toll on her parents as well - two people who are afraid to face both the realities of their daughter's condition and their failing marriage.  But "the Giantess" has a strong intuition, and despite her looming size, people can't help but reveal their thoughts and intentions to her, whether or not they are aware of having done so.  Ruth's unique ability allows her to give readers a first person perspective of characters without a narrative voice.  And even though she may appear impenetrable, the knowledge she possesses can be overwhelming.  Ruth is a gifted child in an over-sized adult body, and her circumstances make the development of self-confidence and identity extremely difficult.

     Ruth's story is fascinating, thought-provoking and heartbreaking, but this novel felt a little slow at times.  While the story of James and Elspeth Brennan is also intriguing, it sometimes detracted from Ruth's magnetic presence as a character.  And even though she is the narrator, we are not often privy to Ruth's internal thoughts and analyses.  She is by no means flat or simple, I just wish den Hartog would have better reflected Ruth's larger-than-life story in the characters' internal and external dialogue.  Despite this flaw, The Girl Giant is still a unique and delicately-crafted story.  For a girl so young and inexperienced, Ruth possesses a great deal of wisdom, maturity, and insight.  But these characteristics are often suppressed so that she can better fit in with her peers.  Even so, they all seem to understand that there is something inherently different about Ruth Brennan, so we are presented with a portrait of a young girl stuck between worlds - desperate to be normal, but destined to be extraordinary.

The Girl Giant will be released on June 12, 2012.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The Inverted Forest by John Dalton

     In the summer of 1996, Kindermann Forest summer camp in rural Missouri is gearing up for another round of summer campers.  But just a few days before the campers are scheduled to arrive, camp owner Schuller Kindermann discovers almost his entire staff engaging in questionable and possibly illegal behavior at the Kindermann Forest pool in the middle of the night.  Schuller Kindermann immediately fires nearly every single counselor and is desperate to replace them.

     Reluctantly, Wyatt Huddy accepts the position of camp counselor, despite his self-consciousness regarding the fact that he is physically disfigured due to Apert Syndrome.  Under the impression that he will be responsible for a small group of children all summer, Wyatt is surprised to learn that the first 2 weeks of camp are reserved for adult wards of the state mental hospital.  Wyatt finds that his condition often renders him physically indistinguishable from many of the campers, and he is sometimes even regarded as mentally handicapped by staff members of Kindermann Forest.  In the midst of Wyatt's mistaken identity and overwhelming environment, it becomes clear that another camp counselor, Christopher, may have ulterior motives with the disabled campers, and Wyatt makes a rash decision that will forever alter the course of his life and the lives of everyone else at Kindermann Forest that summer.

     The Inverted Forest is a very fast-paced but dark novel.  Dalton uses several narrators to convey the story, but the book is primarily about Wyatt and the unique relationship he develops with the camp nurse, Harriet.  She seems to be the only person who understands that Wyatt's condition is purely physical while the majority of the staff treat Wyatt as if he is just a tiny bit more functional and independent than the rest of the campers.  I don't want to give away any of the plot details, but there is a pivotal event in the story that moves the book from being simply character-driven and intriguing to the realm of controversy and moral ambiguity.  After this event, Wyatt's voice as a narrator is mostly removed from the novel and Harriet becomes the primary narrator, but the story still revolves around Wyatt and his life.  I enjoyed the dynamics of multiple narrators but one particular voice felt a bit forced and out of place.  Despite this, perspectives became overlapped and complex, which perfectly matched the gravity and complexity of the storyline.

     Wyatt Huddy is a very unique and memorable literary character, but I wish Dalton would have developed his back story a little more.  We know that he comes from an unstable, abusive family, but he is still a rather mysterious character.  At first, he only seemed sympathetic because of his disability, which isn't fair to the rest of his character.  Even so, The Inverted Forest is a powerful novel about morality, loss, identity, perception, and memory.

Overall Rating: