Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

The Palace of Dreams
by Ismail Karare
translated by Jusuf Vrioni and Barbara Bray
4 stars - draining, powerful
ALR Blue

I'm kind of at a loss as to how to summarize, so I'm going to use the synopsis from Goodreads

Ismail Kadare once called The Palace of Dreams "the most courageous book I have written; in literary terms, it is perhaps the best". When it was first published in the author's native country [Albania], it was immediately banned, and for good reason: the novel revolves around a secret ministry whose task is not just to spy on its citizens, but to collect and interpret their dreams. An entire nation's unconscious is thus tapped and meticulously laid bare in the form of images and symbols of the dreaming mind.

The Palace of Dreams. Where all the dreams of the nation are collected, reviewed, questioned. A dream can foretell acts against the state. A dream can implicate traitors. A dream can mean nothing. A dream can be, perhaps, not entirely a dream, but a fabrication intended to force the hand of the government into action. Citizens cannot withhold their dreams from the state, but they also live in fear of having a dream questioned. A potentially volatile revelation results in the dreamer being brought in for interrogation. Interrogation to ostensibly glean the true meaning of the vision, but which lasts days, weeks, months, until the dreamer no longer knows what was dream and what was real.

It's a dreary and chilling book. Suffocating. Full of dark imagery. 

And what Mark-Alem was feeling was indeed caused by a kind of upheaval. For as he read the letter, the official with the morose expression had slowly risen from his chair. The movement was so slow and so smooth it seemed to Mark-Alam that it would never end, and that the formidable official on whom his fate depended was going to turn into a monster of some kind before his very eyes. He was on the point of yelling, "Never mind! I don't want the job. Give me back the letter. I can't bear to watch you uncoiling like that!" when he saw the process of standing was now over and the official was finally upright.

I know, right? 

From the author: "Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible... the writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship." 

It is through works of art such as this that those of us who enjoy the comfort of a fat and happy life with security of thought and deed are reminded of the horrors that exist just around the corner. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Brimstone by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
3 stars - some nice plot twists and an interesting enough story
ALR Blue - no animal characters

I'm feeling lazy, so I'll quote from the dust jacket.

Behind the fabulous Hampton estate, FBI Special Agent Pendergast discovers the carnage of a gruesome crime - a nightmare of seemingly supernatural origin. The smoldering remains of infamous art critic Jeremy Grove, a melted cross branding his chest, are found in a locked, barricaded attic. The hoof print singed into the floorboards and the smell of brimstone recall the legendary horrors that befall those who make a pact with the devil.

Well, ew. Soon enough, there's another gross body and it's up to Agent Pendergast and his sidekick, Vincent D'Agosta to figure things out. Is it the devil? Well, a lot of New Yorkers seem to think so and pretty soon you've got a whole end of days camp set up in the park.

Pendergast and D-Agosta follow clues that eventually lead them to Italy and some wicked awesome castles, full of oozing walls, creepy staircases, and innumerable corridors and dungeons.

The book has some interesting twists, but the overarching story isn't terribly surprising. Still, I enjoyed reading it. Despite some nasty deaths, I didn't find the horror to be disturbing. It was more like an action movie. The near misses and escapes of the main characters were pretty over the top. That added to the "takes a licking and keeps on kicking" feel of the book. That's OK. I got into the craft of the authors. Their creativity in getting characters out of messes was pretty good.

I recommend this as a nice, distracting read. It does draw one in.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Behind the Burqa by Sulima and Hala

Behind the Burqa
Our Life in Afghanistan and How We Escaped to Freedom
by Sulima and Hala
as told to Batya Swift Yasgur
5 stars - a very important book
ALR Green

Behind the Burqa is the story of two sisters, Sulima and Hala, their lives in Afghanistan, and their eventually escape to the United States. While sisters, they are separated by 16 years and so each tells a very different, but equally horrifying, story.

Sulima was born in the fifties into an Afghanistan that was different from that which we hear about today. She went to school, she was encouraged to have her own opinions and, for the most part, had a good life. That is, until, her father had a religious conversion to extreme Islam. Despite her father's clamp down on her freedom, she persisted in her quest to bring equality to women. Primarily to teach them to read so that they could have some opportunities. 

But things get pretty bad for Sulima, particularly after her father's death and the creeping extremism in her country. She finally flees, only to scrape and suffer and live in fear.

It's hard to read. However, Sulima's experience, as horrible and unimaginable as it is, pales compared to Hala's. Hala is in Afghanistan during the rise of the Mujaheddin. A time when women were robbed of every possible freedom and treated like animals. Men suffered grievously as well. As the Mujaheddin rose in power, they sought to eradicate all free thought which meant any man who was a scholar or a government employee was a target. 

Hala and her family are repeatedly forced to flee their home. They live in constant fear of being kidnapped, raped, murdered. Hala witnesses unspeakable occurrences.

When Hala finally makes her way to the US, she is confronted by an asylum seeker process that is so harsh it made me weep. While I understand the desire of the US government to vet people seeking asylum, the system appears to be quite arbitrary and frightening. 

The book left me feeling angry and helpless. Luckily, the appendix contains a list of resources that provide aid to Afghan women specifically, as well as asylum seekers in general.

And it also left me with a simple thought. One that I have lived with all my life. That so much violence against women occurs for no other reason than men are physically more powerful. Would that I could wave a wand and take away superior physical strength from men, at least for a time. Without the aid of the fist, the strength to overwhelm, could men continue to subjugate women the way they do? 

This is an important book to read. Not only is it a stark reminder of the desperate conditions so many live with, it is also a reminder to be accepting of strangers to our country who have come here to find a better life.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Bones of the Lost by Kathy Reichs

Bones of the Lost
by Kathy Reichs
3 stars - good airplane or beach book
ALR Green - nice supporting cat character

This will be very brief because I've got stuff to do.

Bones of the Lost is another in the series of mysteries centered around forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan. Lots of interesting details about how she does her investigation (one would hope so given that the author is a forensic anthropologist).

Interesting story with lots of sub-plots that wind together as events unfold. Nothing too icky, minimal mushy stuff, likable heroine. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

Furies of Calderon
by Jim Butcher
4 stars - how cool was that?
ALR Green - some beasts and flying monsters and whatnot

Here, my friends, is a fine example of why I still prefer a good book to a movie or television show. Because unlike watching somebody else's visualization, I get to see everything exactly how I think it should be.

Furies of Calderon is about an attempted coup in the Calderon Valley. Now, there is some description of who is in charge and why and which parties want to conquer whom and their plots to do so, but, mercifully, I didn't have to really keep track of all that too closely. Mainly, after a few introductory pages, this book is about 500 pages of total non-stop wicked awesome what next action.

At the heart of the matter are the people of Calderon and their furies (add an "r" and it would have been a dog book). Furies are elemental forces that people can conjure up. Water furies can drown people on dry land, fire furies ignite them, wind furies allow for air travel, etc. I know, cool, right?

Then there's Tavi, a teen aged boy who, unfortunately is devoid of any furies of his own. Poor kid has to live by his wits. No matter. He manages well enough. He's out collecting his flock of sheep when he discovers that there are evil forces afoot. Like savage marats with flying beasts that will rip your head off. Uh oh. 

Meanwhile, Amara, a graduate of the academy of what I'm not sure is doing some sort of final exam with her mentor, Fidelias, only to be taken prisoner and discover that not all was ever as it seemed.

The author bounces around between several stories, but it was easy to keep track of the characters. Everybody is racing to either take over the world or stop people from taking over the world. Along the way there are battles extraordinaire, encounters with scary giant spider monsters, fury crafting, and tons of other fun stuff. 

Mr. Butcher does an outstanding job ratcheting up the excitement and, as with any good adventure story, just when you think you know what's next, there's a surprise and, uh oh, more action. Woo hoo!

Historically, I'm not a fan of these sorts of books, but I totally loved this one and will read the sequel. The characters are great and men and women are given equal treatment. Not much time wasted on any mushy stuff, either. Perfect.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Nose Down, Eyes Up by Merrill Markoe

Nose Down, Eyes Up
by Merrill Markoe
3 stars - partly 2 stars, partly 4 stars
ALR Green - lots of happy dogs

Did I read this book before? Maybe I did. Either that, or I read her previous dog novel and just had a similar reaction.

Nose Down, Eyes Up follows the life of Gil, a middle-aged guy who never really grew up and lives by picking up odd jobs and staying as a guest in the homes of people who are on vacation. He's got four dogs, Cheney, Fruity, Dink, and Jimmy. 

One day, he overhears some odd dog type sounds and discovers that his dog, Jimmy, is holding lectures for all the neighborhood dogs on the art of living with and manipulating humans. Yes, Gil can hear Jimmy's words (and every other dog's as well). There are lots of dog books that use the same hook. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In this case, it worked for me. 

As for Gil, well, not what I would call a stellar human being, but more about that later. There are some fun exchanges with the dogs. In particular, when Gil goes with his girlfriend, Sara, an animal communicator, on a job only to discover that she is totally misinterpreting what the dogs of her clients are saying. Cute. Clever.

I give all the dog parts of the book four stars. I enjoyed the different personalities of the dogs and the way they struggled with trying to understand the odd behaviors of humans.

Sadly, two stars for the humans. The characters were all flat and cartoonish. In particular, Gil was painted in such an unflattering way that one wonders if the author has some issues with men. The people in the book were universally selfish, clueless, and dull. Ick.

I recommend this book for dog lovers only. Just skim the parts where the dogs aren't talking and you'll be fine.