I have pendants similar to this carved of bone. I wanted to see if I could make ones out of glass. I think with a little more practice, I could get them just right.
This book takes place in New Zealand during the gold rush of the mid nineteenth century, a time and place I know almost nothing about. It begins when a young man stumbles to shore, frightened by a horrifying spectre he has seen on the ship. He picks the first hotel he finds and settles in, unknowing that he has inadvertently found a secret conclave of men who are meeting to discuss a mystery in which he himself has become entangled. How could anyone not be entranced by such an entrance?
This novel feels like it was written in the time in which it’s set. Catton really hits the tone of writers of that era. This makes you feel like you’re more involved with the story, makes the story feel more authentic, and is interesting. It’s also confusing, a bit tedious, and I got tired of the character Anna being called “the whore” in every other sentence. Catton nails the sexism, racism, and classism, but it got a little depressing to live in a place where society was set up even more obviously to promote the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. For example, a Chinese character is considered a more likely murder suspect by virtue of the fact that everyone knows Chinese people aren’t trustworthy. And when Anna is found passed out on the side of the road, she’s arrested and charged with attempted suicide. Evil people pick up newcomers straight off the boat, offer then hospitality, and then renege and say it wasn’t a gift so that they can own the poor sap as a debt-slave.
The theme of money and its evil influence resounds through the book. People are destroyed by gold or the lust for gold or (most frequently) by not having gold. They are all scoundrels to one extent or another. The other theme that resounds is astrology. The different sections of the book have astrological charts with the characters names in them. They’re lovely, done with nice handwriting and they look interesting, but even though I have a passing familiarity with astrology, I found them baffling and completely unnecessary. They might as well have been cartoon panthers for all they added to the story, yet I suspect that Catton wanted us to pull more significance from them. One of the characters does astrological charts for people, and event his wasn’t enough for me to connect astrology with any of the story elements. It was like when an author names characters after their pets; clearly of great significance to the author, but lost on me.
The carrot that kept me going through the 800 some pages of this book was the prospect of resolving the insanely complicated plot. There are half-brothers who have never met, identity theft, two stolen fortunes in gold, star-crossed lovers, a missing man, a mysterious murder, a couple of revenge pacts and one or two supernatural events. I wanted to find out what happened, and I also dearly wanted to see the evildoers punished and the young lovers united.
I would say that the plot resolution was about 85% satisfactory. The ending chapters were shorter and shorter and shorter, covering more story until the epigraph basically gave a huge plot synopsis. Some of the threads were resolved beautifully. Others were haphazard. A couple of the main murders were not solved, in my opinion. I don’t like “Lady or the Tiger” endings. I want to know without a doubt what happened. Okay, so he died because he drank the phial, but when did it happen? How did they get him to drink it? What was that scene like? Okay, so he died because the other guy managed to get the carriage door open. How did he do it? Why? What was his motivation and thought process? I was greedily devouring the last 100 pages, but when I turned the last page, I let out an involuntary grunt of disappointment. The prospect of having my questions answered kept me going, but I didn’t feel they were all answered to my satisfaction.
There were a couple of other semi-supernatural things which I felt did not help the story. An illiterate person understands a legal document and is able to sign someone else’s name in a way that is convincing enough to fool an expert. Why was that added? I like fantasy, and I like paranormal stories, but when the supernatural elements are kind of casual and unexplained, it’s distracting. Some of the plot elements which were in there seemed contrived and complicated. Actually, a lot of them were, but most of them were contrived and complicated in a good way. It’s just that at the 2/3rds mark, I wanted things to start winding down instead of getting more and more convoluted.
The characters are well-written, but unlikeable. The plot is fascinating, but not resolved as completely as I would have liked. The setting is unusual and fascinating, but also grim and depressing. I enjoyed most of this book, and I greatly admire the skill that went into creating it, but the let-down at the end when some mysteries remained unexplained disappointed me. I know that some of you are going to write comments that say “well, it was obvious, you see? Because of that throwaway line on page blah blah that clearly says blah blah” but I don’t want to read books twice to get the meaning I should get the first time. It’s not a light or easy read, and I wanted to be rewarded for my diligence by plot resolution. If Catton had wrapped up all the plots, and if Anna (who I believe is the main character) had a bit more of a personality, this would have been a masterpiece.
I think this book is up there with GONE GIRL or GIRL ON THE TRAIN for mystery/suspense novels. The main difference is that there doesn’t seem to be physical danger involved for the protagonist. It involves two main point of view characters, a man Jonathan and his daughter Olive. Jonathan’s wife and Olive’s mother, Billie, disappeared a year earlier after a hike in the wilderness, presumed dead.
Jonathan is writing a memoir about his wife, prompted by a video of his speech at the memorial that went viral and led to a book contract. (Authors in published novels all seem to leave charmed lives in which generous publishers are endlessly clamoring for their unique voice. But I digress …) The memoir is meant to be a sappy love story about how they met and their ill-fated romance. Meanwhile, Olive has begun to have visions of her mother in which her mother seems to be alive.
As Jonathan does more research for the book and Olive’s visions get stronger, they each start to believe in the possibility that Billie is still alive somewhere. There are clues that she hid giant chunks of her past from all of them. Harmony, Billie’s friend who knew her from childhood, flat-out says that Billie had big secrets.
What I liked about the book was the constant sense of things teetering on the precipice of disaster. Jonathan is just about broke, hasn’t paid his kid’s tuition, Olive has only one friend and seems to be damaging that relationship too, the book isn’t coming along that fast and it’s not going in the right direction, and meanwhile they both have this nagging sense that Billie didn’t actually die in the wilderness, that she’s alive and out there somewhere, living another life.
The more I found out about Billie, the less I liked her and the more I admired her, if that makes sense. She’s a real piece of work. She’s not the kind of person you’d really want in your life, but she’s still fascinating. The chance that she really did fake her own disappearance (she seems selfish and evil enough) seems plausible. And yet … where would she go? And why? I loved the ambiguity of it. The author does tell you what really happened in the wilderness, so you’re not left wondering if she died or disappeared, but you’re left guessing until the very end.
I also liked the ambiguity of Olive’s visions. Are they real visions, or just seizures? Maybe? Maybe both? Either way, they’re plausible and they get the job done.
I really enjoyed the tension and the plot twists and found this a very entertaining novel.
Provenance by Ann Leckie
This book has a much lighter feel than the Ancillary Justice books. It starts out with Ingray, a young foster-daughter of an important politician trying to do something daring and risky in order to win her mother’s favor. Pretty soon there’s mistaken identity, a murder mystery, stolen artifacts, secret romances, sibling rivalry, interplanetary politics and a little bit of coming-of-age drama.
There were things I liked about this book. I liked that the Hwae were so obsessed with vestiges and all the other peoples thought of them as ridiculous. It kind of highlights the whole idea of people being obsessed with “things” and authenticating the provenance of the things and whether it matters or not. I also liked the mechs, the idea that learning to pilot mechs was a crucial skill that may or may not have bearing on a murder mystery. I also liked the interpersonal conflict set up by the demanding mother who plays her children off on one another.
Some of the other relationships felt a little off. Captain Uisine seemed to place a lot more faith in Ingray’s ability to come up with a brilliant plan than I did, which seemed out of character since Uisine was set up as a very clever person. Garal Ket/Palad Budhrakain could have been the most interesting character in the book, but Leckie didn’t focus on him as much as she did on Ingray. The relationship between Zat and the other archaeologist didn’t much make sense to me at all. I get that it was set up as “they’re alien; don’t try to understand them” but they weren’t really alien, they were humans, and I did want to understand.
The murder mystery is eventually explained, and the interplanetary politics were eventually explained, but by the time we got around to it, I didn’t really care that much. Ingray does something drastic and brave at the end, and she goes on about how frightened she was, but by that point I had disconnected. Her actions felt out of character (she sacrificed herself for children, but she hadn’t seemed that altruistic in her other actions) and her “plan” also didn’t seem like a valid plan. I didn’t know why she did things, didn’t know why they worked. Everything seemed orchestrated by Tic, the one truly competent person in the book. He didn’t seem to have much motivation to help them, and his deus ex machina machinations made me disengage further with Ingray’s plot.
So, it’s kind of amusing in that it’s hard science fiction that also has mystery and romance in it, and isn’t a space opera, but I didn’t feel head-deep in alien worlds, learning to see things through alien eyes. I felt more like I was looking at a shallow diorama of “alien world,” being told how strange things were without really feeling them. It was okay as a young adult romance/mystery, but it didn’t hit my “wow, amazing worldbuilding!” buttons. And it also didn’t have characters I really wanted to learn more about. It was “just okay.” I’m not going to advise against reading it, but I’m also not going to recommend it, not when her other books are so much better.
If every novel aims to tell an interesting story about believable, likable characters, this novel succeeds admirably. I’d listened to the first more than a year ago, and this audiobook has the same fantastic narrator.
Louisa Clark can be quite infuriating, as she is her own worst enemy, but she’s also quite believable. Who hasn’t done something even knowing while we do it that it’s not in our own best interest? (ie. yes, I will have another drink.) As the book opens, she’s used Will’s money to travel, and to buy a small apartment in London, but she’s working a demeaning, dead-end-job and doesn’t seem to have any direction in her life. She doesn’t have any friends, she doesn’t have any responsibilities, and she’s just kind of drifting along in a fog of grief, estranged from her family because of the event at the end of the previous book.
As soon as the stage is set, everything changes. Louisa suffers an accident that forces her to live with her parents, and then she meets a teenage girl who claims to be Will’s daughter. She makes a friend through her “moving on” circle and deals with what may be a blossoming romance along with the oft-infuriating self-absorption of Lily, the teenage girl. Lily, alas, was the least-well-rounded character in the book, feeling a bit like a stereotype of a teenage girl. She’s sullen and withdrawn and wheedling and exasperating and charming by turns. I haven’t met this sort of girl in real life, but she exists frequently in media.
No one is perfect in this book, but most of the characters are charming despite their flaws, excepting Lily’s mother, whom we all just feel good about loathing. Lou’s parents are having their own drama, brought about by Louisa’s mother having started to read feminist literature and developing her own autonomy, which causes a rift in their traditional conservative Catholic household. Lily is a hand grenade of drama, with colossally bad judgement that seems almost of the same self-sabotage vein as Louisa’s.
The worst part of the book for me was when Louisa makes a self-sabotaging decision that had me shouting at the audiobook. All her loved ones agree that it’s the worst decision ever, but it was in keeping with Louisa’s personality so I forgave the author, even if I didn’t forgive Louisa. She also sabotages her own romantic relationship, first through a misunderstanding, and then through her own lack of emotional stability, but that just caused some great tension and didn’t make me really angry. When characters do stupid things, and you know they’re stupid things but also know exactly why the character is doing them, it’s forgivable.
The best part of this novel was the resolution. Even though it’s sort of the second in a series, I feel like you could pick this up not having read the first one and be totally fine with following along. I also feel like I don’t have to read the third book to have a satisfactory ending. The loose plot threads were wound up, some of the bad guys were punished and some of the good guys were rewarded, all the main characters found a satisfactory resolution to their conflicts.
I’ll probably seek out the next book, just so I can spend more time with the characters. They all feel like real people, people I’ve known for a very long while, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Even some of the throwaway characters felt like real people. I especially enjoyed Louisa’s mother in this book.
The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me cry. I suppose that’s not too hard, because I cry easily, especially when the subject matter (people getting cancer and dying) is something that I’ve lived with. I just thought I would like it a lot better. It sounds like a great book: a cross-cultural memoir dealing with a bi-racial friendship and gardening set in the American South. It’s like it was a made-to-order Oprah book. I had to keep checking the cover to see if it really was a memoir, really was written by the narrator. Surely these weren’t real people, surely they were just caricatures concocted by a marketing panel picking out keywords from research findings?
I know what’s wrong with this book, but I don’t know how the author could have fixed it. The problem is that it’s all too airbrushed. The story felt like it was at arm’s length, the relationships all felt small-talk cordial, any unappealing parts of anyone’s personality were cleaned up and put away to keep from putting people off. I know from the name on the cover and the photos in the back that these were all real people, but they didn’t feel like real people.
Let’s start with Mister Owita, whom the narrator calls by his first name. He calls her Mrs. Wall and she calls him Giles, and even when she insists she call her Carol, he doesn’t. But she didn’t start calling him Mister Owita, she kept calling him by his first name. Yes, it’s cultural differences in formality, but it heightened the power differential between the two of them. She remains the white lady with money and status, and he remains the man who works as a bagger at the food mart. When she learns that Mr. Owita is actually Dr. Owita, owing to his PhD in horticulture, she’s freaked out. The power structure is subverted. Educated people are owed respect and she’s been treating him like an uneducated person. The fact that she’s upset by her own behavior (not treating him the respect he’s due as an educated person) just emphasizes that she didn’t respect him before. If you respect someone as a human being to begin with, the fact that they have a doctorate shouldn’t change your opinion of them. That she never does keep calling him Dr. Owita kind of emphasizes that she’s really only comfortable with him as an employee/inferior.
So the book is about race relations in that there’s a friendship between a white woman and a black man, but it’s not really about race relations. It’s the kind of feel-good stuff that you read if you want to feel like you’re a good person and not racist but you don’t actually want to change your behavior or have to suffer much in the way of uncomfortable feelings. Yes, there is a scene where she defends him from a manager who calls him by an infantile nickname, but mostly she felt like a very conservative lady who had zero interest in doing anything to subvert the status quo. She wants everyone to be happy and content with their station in life, not for anyone to change their station or look too closely at the fairness of it. Which is fine, I guess, if it fails at that level, because it’s also touted as a memoir about gardening.
Carol Wall doesn’t seem to like gardening that much. She hates azaleas, doesn’t like flowers, and even after all her gardening experience, manages to almost kill a snake plant. Even I haven’t killed a snake plant, and I’ve killed just about everything. She feels revulsion at putting her hands into gardening gloves, does not want to touch the soil, and did I mention she doesn’t like flowers? What kind of person doesn’t like flowers? Someone who doesn’t much care for plants, that’s who. She only wants a garden in the first place so she can keep up with the neighbors. She manages to tolerate the azaleas, and even accepts a few flowers (nothing too garish!) but even by the end of the book I didn’t feel like she really cared much for gardening. The way she described things didn’t sound like someone who loved plants. I’m picturing the pitch session with her agent “So, ramp up the gardening part. Gardening appeals well to our target demographic.” Gardening only seemed valuable to her in that it was her connection to Giles Owita, whom she does like.
Giles Owita did not feel like a real person. There’s a photo of him in the back of the book, and I wonder who he was, because the person in the book was pretty flat. He was written like a Buddhist saint, or like a black man written with all the scary parts removed so that even sheltered white ladies could feel like they could be friends with him. He’s from Africa, so he’s exotic. He teaches Wall some words in Luo so that she can trot them out and feel multi-cultural. And best yet, being African means he doesn’t have that awkward taint of “my ancestors were owned your ancestors so I feel very uncomfortable about dealing with you.” He’s very Christian, as is Wall. (They spend a lot of time praying for one another.) But they never feel much like friends. They feel like acquaintances who sometimes do things for one another out of a Christian duty. They never seem to quite feel comfortable with one another, despite sharing so many values. He’s a family man who wants his daughter to be able to come to America. (I’m picturing the hypothetical agent saying, “oh yeah, our target demographic loves anything about hardworking immigrants who want to live the American dream.”) Also, he shares Wall’s suffering in that they both have major health issues.
This book is mostly about cancer and other major illnesses. That’s really the part that made me cry, because Wall had suffered cancer before, had a sister who died young, had parents who were deeply affected by that death. She is herself deeply affected when Mister Owita has a stroke, as her parents are in a nursing home early on, and she has to deal with their declining health so there’s that parallel. That is the aspect of the book that made me cry. You pile that much suffering on and even cardboard characters bring on pathos. I don’t particularly enjoy crying over books, but I know some people love it. If you love a book that makes you weep and frequently recommend tear-stained paperbacks by saying “it was amazing, I ran through an entire box of tissues!” this is probably your book. In a sad-to-happy ratio, this book rivals a Haruki Murakami novel. But again, it felt ham-handed. I should have been warned by the cover. Books that are touted as “enduring” “heartfelt” “touching” and “uplifting” usually have more misery than a famine in an orphanage. I was misled. I thought it was a memoir about friendship and gardening.
So, to sum up, this book isn’t really about gardening because it doesn’t seem like the main character really likes gardening. It also doesn’t really feel like it’s about friendship because the two main characters are never on a first-name basis. It’s a book about cancer and suffering, but I felt at a remove from it because Wall didn’t seem like she was willing to let the reader know anything that would make us have a negative opinion of her, as if she cared more about protecting her image than in sharing her story. She does a few things that are maybe not nice (accusing her husband of infidelity when she finds another woman’s dress in her closet) but it’s all papered over and smoothed up like a laugh track and a sappy end-music cue to let us know that the half hour episode is over and we all learned a moral. It feels like a memoir written by a woman who fears the judgement of others more than she fears dying by cancer. It might be an amazing story, if we got to see all the parts that were airbrushed out, but this version isn’t one that I was really engaged with.
In front of my computer monitor, I collect small mementos, things I’ve been given, things I’ve made, and other things I can’t possibly ever part with. Unfortunately, it means that my monitor area gets quite cluttered. I decided to take the large shrine blank that I had made and create a shadowbox to turn these …
. One might wonder why I used a non-transparent glaze here. I was hoping that if I did it thin enough and feathered it light by rubbing it with my finger, I’d get a bright color and not lose the design. Almost worked. Our only translucent glazes at the Tempe Arts Center are clear and …
When I do surface decoration on a piece I’ve thrown, I almost always have to work freehand, because I rarely remember to bring books and references from home to the pottery studio. For this piece, I remembered to bring books, and I used mehindi designs. I like mehindi designs because they are adaptable, and because …