A Promise of Fire Shows Promise

Amanda Bouchet’s debut novel, A Promise of Fire is a strong start to a writing career. While there wasn’t anything about the book to launch it into timeless favorite status, it’s a good story that I devoured in one day.

Cat is living a quiet life in the circus, hiding from her past, when warlord Griffin Sinta, recent conqueror of one-third of the world, shows up and outs her as the Kingmaker, a person with powerful magic.  I don’t want to discourage you on reading this book too soon, but I also want to end on a high note, so let’s do the cons first.

CONS

First off, I have to admit that I did not look at the cover as closely as I should have. The book is clearly marketed as fantasy romance.

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Missing that, I launched into this story expecting epic fantasy. Which is exactly what I got until it somehow turned into a romance novel, though it still had hefty doses of epicness sprinkled throughout.

While I can’t complain about something I should have known before reading the book, I do feel like the romance created pacing issues. Cat’s fighting a dragon! Cat’s…not sure how she feels about Griffin kissing her? Cat’s taking out 30 men single-handedly! Cat’s…reluctantly admitting that she doesn’t hate Griffin even though it’s pretty obvious she doesn’t after repeatedly almost dying to save his life. Which leads me nicely into my next point.

Cat is almost unkillable, but she nevertheless has a ridiculous series of near-death experiences. The problem with this is, each time you do this, it loses some of its punch. The first time Cat almost dies, it means something. By the end of the book, it’s become part of a cycle. Stop milking it Cat, you’ve had worse. Suck it up and go fight with Griffin some more.

I hope leading with the cons didn’t turn you off too soon. I would say this book’s flaws mainly boil down to romance and fantasy both being rather predictable genres. But don’t stop reading now because even though A Promise of Fire falls into a couple of pit holes, it avoids other ones spectacularly and we are just now getting to the good part.

PROS

A pretty basic but good starting point here is that I like Cat. She has some fairly stereotypical traits, like a dark past that forces her to keep everyone at arm’s length and an excessive use of sarcasm, but they fit her story. And even though she’s almost immediately attracted to Griffin, it takes her a while to get over the fact that he literally abducts her from her home. Everyone else acts like she’s being unreasonable about this, but I think she has a good point. Her god (actually a god) father Poseidon plays a huge role in this abduction, which saves Griffin from being the bad guy, which is the normal role for a kidnapper.

Another thing I like about this story is that magic makes sense. As you may have guessed from Poseidon showing up, Greek mythology makes up a huge chunk of this world. It saves Bouchet from having to explain everything to her readers, which usually bogs down a story. It also provides a framework so things can pop up unexpectedly without feeling like they came out of nowhere.

These are great things, but I think Bouchet’s best accomplishment in this novel is her flow of information. One of my greatest pet peeves when reading fantasy is when I feel like I’m not being told something important for no good reason. Cat’s past is dribbled out throughout the book, but I never feel like I should know things about her that I don’t. At the end of the book we still don’t know everything (book 2 is out: Breath of Fire) but we’ve been given enough information to fill in the larger gaps, even if it hasn’t all been spelled out for us yet.

Cat and Griffin’s story might be somewhat predictable, but it’s still a fun and enjoyable read. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.

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Books for Babies

As I mentioned in my previous post on literacy, being illiterate doesn’t just mean leaving a paperback out of your beach bag. The cycle of illiteracy affects society as a whole as it impacts employment rates and incarceration levels. On a personal level, adults who are functionally illiterate cannot read maps, complete a job application, fill out an insurance form, or understand the directions on their medication.

Research into literacy shows that it is never too early to start breaking this cycle. From the day they are born (and even a little before then) babies benefit from being read to. Not only do they exhibit better language skills as they get older (unsurprisingly), children who are read to as babies have higher math scores as well.

Books for Babies is a national literacy program that is working to make books available to all families. Parents of newborns are given a kit that contains tips for reading to babies, literacy information, a board book, and a library card.

Having just discovered this program myself, I’ll be looking into it and reporting back with my findings. In the meantime, feel free to do some digging on your own and see what early literacy programs your community has. Your local library is a great place to start. If they don’t have any programs currently, you can start one! The Books for Babies website linked to above is a great place to look for advice on getting started.

14% of the American population is illiterate.

You can help change that.

Would I Recommend Yann Martel?

After recently reading and reviewing Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal, I’m still trying to decide what I thought of it.

It’s a very well written book. There’s no arguing with that. You feel like you’re jolting down the back roads of rural Portugal in an early automobile while you’re reading it. Or sitting in a morgue late at night. Or driving back home wondering why the heck you just bought a chimpanzee. Even though I’ve never done any of those things.

Martel captures the emotions of his characters very well, and by doing so he captures the reader just as tight. I struggled a little to get into the book, but once I was hooked I couldn’t put it down. Despite the excellent writing and the captivating characters, when I got to the end, I wasn’t quite satisfied.

I think leaving his readers unsatisfied is part of the fun for Martel. He did the same thing in Life of Pi. And while I admire his writing, I prefer my leisure reading to leave me more settled than his does. It sticks with you, which is always a compliment to any author, but not in a comfortable way.

One of the things they teach you about creative writing is that it’s okay to leave strings dangling. Leaving some things unresolved adds to the illusion that the world inside the book continues on after the last page. But I think Martel takes it too far the other way. One week after I finished reading his book, and I still feel like I need some closure.

So would I recommend Yann Martel? Sure, if you want to read a well written book that’s going to take you by surprise. But if you’re looking for something to leave you happy and contented when you reach the conclusion, this isn’t it.

Talking As Fast As I Can

Image result for lauren graham talking as fast as i can

Talking As Fast As I Can is Lauren Graham’s collection of essays that mostly deals with what it was like to star on Gilmore Girls twice. The title fits because, as you will already know if you’re familiar with the show, there is so much dialogue packed into each episode that I’m pretty sure they had to take breaks between scenes for the actors to catch their breath.

Maybe the title helped set the mood, or maybe I just can’t separate Lauren Graham from Lorelai Gilmore in my head, but I felt like Lorelai Gilmore was reading this book to me. If that was Lauren Graham’s goal: well done! If not, it was a nice side benefit.

I enjoyed this essay collection. It was mostly light-hearted reminiscing, which is all I really want out of a book like this. I’m not a fan of celebrity books that get philosophical. I just want to laugh at your quirky journey to Hollywood star. And, for the most part, Graham delivers.

Her return to Gilmore Girls for A Year in the Life was my least favorite part of the book. While I understand that returning to the role that gave her her first big break could be an emotional experience, I could have done with less emotional overflow in the book. But that’s just me. My family tends to minimize emotional displays. Unless I know you very well, I’d like for you to do likewise.

I wouldn’t call this book a stunning masterpiece, (sorry, Lauren!) but reading it was enjoyable and what more do you want from a book? If you’re a fan of Lauren Graham, I recommend this book to you. If you’re a fan of celebrity memoirs/essays, I recommend this book to you. If neither of the above applies to you, then, no, this is not the book for you. But you can finish it in one afternoon, so if you’re looking for something different, go ahead, give this book a read.

The High Mountains of Portugal Review

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Well, this book surprised me. Mostly because it didn’t surprise me. Remember that ridiculous prediction I made about the chimp? Turns out it wasn’t so ridiculous. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This book starts out following Tomás in the wake of his family’s death. Within one week he loses the woman he loves, his child, and his father. Understandably, it leaves him a bit damaged. As a way to express his grief, he starts walking backward. I didn’t really get it, but we all grieve differently, right?

While working on some old records, Tomás finds a priest’s diary and becomes obsessed with a relic that the priest designed. He borrows his uncle’s automobile (it’s 1904, so they’re pretty new) and sets off to the High Mountains of Portugal to find this relic. His uncle’s driving instructions are hilariously brief. Pull this lever, push this pedal, and you’re good to go. See you in ten days.

Tomás hates the automobile, but it’s the only way he can make it to his destination and back home in the time he has off from work. Yann Martel does an excellent job of making you feel as though you are jolting along the rural roads of Portugal with Tomás. It is excellent writing. It’s not exactly comfortable reading.

Also, it drags on. Tomás doesn’t make it to his destination and back in ten days. In fact, it takes him that long just to reach the High Mountains of Portugal, which, by the way, doesn’t have any mountains. Tomás is having a mental breakdown during this journey, and while it’s described masterfully, I got tired of reading about a man fighting with his car and scratching his lice and sobbing into the elephant-leather seats.

There are some high points. In one village a woman threatens to feed him to a dog and then eat the dog. I’ll give her top marks for originality. I might have to use that threat someday. The excerpts from the priest’s diary really make you want to know what this relic is that Tomás is chasing. Finally we learn that it is a crucifix, but one that will shake Christendom to its core. Tomás believes that bringing this relic to life will destroy people’s faith, just as his has been destroyed by the death of his family.

In his very lowest point, Tomás hits and kills a child with his automobile. It really is not his fault, but rather than face what he has done he flees down the road, his guilt now hastening his complete collapse. He finally makes it to the village that holds the crucifix, which depicts a chimpanzee on the cross, rather than a man. The villagers dismiss Tomás’s claim, believing instead that the figure on the crucifix is oddly proportioned because it was meant to be viewed from below, and the artist was attempting to correct the distortion from that perspective. Also, Tomás is not a very credible figure at the moment. He collapses outside the church and his part of the story ends.

I was honestly pretty relieved to leave Tomás behind. I felt some sympathy for him, but I still didn’t like him much. And my feelings for him completely dried up after he left a child lying in the road. The urge to flee is an understandable and very human reaction. It’s also despicable.

We leap ahead 35 years to the morgue in Bragança, Portugal. Eusebio Lozora is the pathologist there. He is working late at night on December 31st, 1938, attempting to catch up on his paperwork. He is interrupted by his wife, who drops in with some books and a bottle of wine. I love this woman already.

They have a very entertaining discussion about theology and Agatha Christie and how the Gospel story is like a murder mystery. It’s more of a monologue really, with Eusebio nodding along to his wife’s thoughts. This is my favorite scene of the book.

Eusebio’s wife finally leaves and he tries to get back to work, only to be interrupted by another woman. A widow has dragged her dead husband down from the High Mountains of Portugal for him to perform an autopsy. Eusebio cuts the body open to find that the man is filled with an odd assortment of things from vomit to feathers to children’s toys. I was fairly certain that either Martel or myself was hallucinating.

It turns out, neither of us were, but Eusebio was. The woman who transcribes his autopsies comes in the next morning to find him passed out at his desk. She is worried about him, ever since his wife died recently. He is not handling the grief well.

Despite the fact that the autopsy never happened (OR DID IT?!?) some interesting facts come to light. The widow tells Eusebio that she and her husband had a son, who was killed when he was five years old. He was out of town with his father, who had gone on a trip for work. He was discovered, miles from where he should have been, dead on the road.

To continue our triad of widowers, we jump to 1988 and across an ocean. Canadian Senator Peter Tovy has just lost his wife. He drifts around for a while, buys a chimpanzee on impulse, and moves to Portugal to explore his roots. He goes back to the village his parents left when he was three years old, in the High Mountains of Portugal.

With surprisingly little difficulty, Peter settles into his new life with no electricity and a simian roommate. He lives this simple existence for two years, learning how to exist only in the present from his chimp.

One day he discovers a suitcase full of odd things (the same things that were found in the body during the autopsy of part 2). While investigating the contents, he learns that the house he is living in is his old family residence. This leads to the discovery that his mother’s cousin, who was killed when he was only five, has become a sort of local saint women pray to when they’re having trouble conceiving. Also, the crucifix hanging in the local church looks oddly like a chimp.

Peter, who has a bad heart, then takes a long walk with his chimpanzee and dies out on the plateau of the High Mountains of Portugal. The End.

As I said, this book is masterfully written. Yann Martel excels at subtlety. Little things tie all the sections together, such as walking backwards to express grief. It also has touches that will feel familiar to fans of Life of Pi, such as animals who straddle the line between characters and symbols. There’s also an ambiguity about what is really happening and what the characters are imagining. If I was grading the writing, I would give this a 9/10.

When it comes to enjoyability, the grade falls to about 6.5. On the one hand, I like that Martel doesn’t feel the need to spell every little detail out for his readers. On the other hand, the fact that he sets up important moments and then just lets them hang there creates a lack of resolution that I find unsettling. Just tell me what happened already!

I admire Yann Martel’s writing, but I don’t know that I like reading his books. And I think he might take that as a compliment. I certainly don’t mean it as an insult. I think it’s okay for books to leave you a little uncomfortable. But it isn’t what you’re looking for when you just want to curl up in front of the fire with a mug of tea.

The Mother Tongue

For the most part, I’m going to focus on books that have been released within the past year for my reviews, but I will recommend some older books for you from time to time. For example, my first book recommendation for you was published in 1990. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson is as old as I am, which gives it a nice kind of symbolism for my first recommendation, but more importantly than its age is its brilliance. And this book is, quite simply, brilliant.

Available on Amazon.

Bill Bryson is better known for his travelogues, especially A Walk in the Woods, but his clever wit shines through just as clear when he’s detailing the history of the English language. That might sound like a dull subject, but when Bryson is explaining it, it’s fascinating and hilarious.

Quick Disclaimer: I would find the history of the English language fascinating if it were being taught by Professor Binns from Hogwarts, (i.e. a dead guy). But even people who don’t have my odd obsession with English will find Bryson’s explanation of some of it’s quirkier bits ridiculously entertaining.

I laughed out loud while reading this book, a lot, which I’ll admit I didn’t see coming. I annoyed my family by reading large chunks of it out loud, since they were simply too good to not be shared. I threw this book onto my Christmas list on a whim and ended up finding an absolute treasure.

If you’ve ever wondered why this goofy language of ours is so, well, goofy, then read this book. You’ll be entertained for hours and you just might learn something along the way.