22 February 2010

Practical Magic (Annotation 4)

Practical Magic... written by Alice Hoffman... published by Berkley... 1995.

I almost don't even know where to begin. For a book that's around the 300 page length, this seemed so much larger! ...and I mean that in the best possible way. Despite the fact that the story has a fairly intimate setting, it is nearly epic! The story itself is sprawled out over about 35 years, although there is also a bit of digging even further into the past. So much happens just in the first section of the book that I felt like I had already read an entire novel! I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Hoffman is masterful with her prose, and draws the reader in from the first few pages. Had I not been too tired, I would have stayed up all night reading this book! As it was, I read the story over three (it's a magic number) days... which, on the other hand, I was just fine with... I was really in no hurry for the story to end. It occurs to me that I'll have to look for a sequel... I sort of doubt it's out there, but I'll look... either way, I am interested in reading more from Alice Hoffman.

The story is all about the Owens women, a matrilineal family in which all girls are given the Owens name regardless of the father's name. The story begins with two young girls, Sally and Gillian, who have gone to live with their aunts after the death of the girls' parents. The girls are given much freedom as they are growing up (no bedtime, eating candy for breakfast). They also (secretly) pay very close attention to the behavior of their aunts. All of the Owens women have had to deal with ridicule and alienation in the town in which they live, but despite that, almost all the women in town have gone to visit the aunts at one time or another. The aunts help women gain their desires (mostly love) through magic... not the "abra-cadabra" kind of magic, but real earth-based magic. The girls have grown up watching this, and are both intrigued and appalled by what they see.

The story unfolds with the girls growing up. Gillian is the prettier, more popular sister, but she still ends up with her share of troubles. Sally is identified well by her hair... she is the darker, more sullen sister; and she always tries to be the stable one, while Gillian is more of the "wild-child." By the time she turns 18, Gillian has had enough of her aunts and dealing with what it means to be an Owens woman in the Massachusetts town. She leaves, goes west, and vows to never go east of the Mississippi again! Sally stays behind with the aunts. Sally eventually meets a man, who has the approval of the aunts, and has two daughters of her own, Antonia and Kylie.

The story then moves even further, with Sally's girls growing up. It finally settles in a time when Antonia and Kylie are 16 and 13; this is when the rest of the story takes place. Breaking her vow, Gillian shows up at Sally's house with a "problem." Sally decides that it's best if they just bury the problem, and move on with their lives. This is exactly what they do, and Gillian stays on with Sally and her girls. Much time is then spent on the younger girls, showing some parallels to Gillian and Sally themselves (this is a story about family as much as it is about love).

Gillian eventually does find the love she needs, or rather he finds her. Ben Frye, a local high school teacher. He just sees her one day in the yard and falls in love with her. It sounds cheesy, but Hoffman makes it work. Men are not always put in the best light in this book, but they are not always portrayed as "wicked" either. Hoffman actually does something very cool with Ben Frye. Sure, he may seem somewhat pathetic in his utter devotion to Gillian (while she continues to refuse him), but at the same time, Hoffman gives him an air of magic while he is courting Gillian. In point of fact, Ben is an illusionist in addition to being a teacher (he entertains children in the hospital, for example). Finally, Gillian allows herself to give in to her feelings, and Ben calls it "fate."

Throughout this part of the story, Antonia and Kylie have their own share of problems. In the end it is the problem of Gillian's that she and Sally buried some weeks ago that comes to the surface. The aunts have to be called in to help them with this one. Gillian hasn't seen them in 18 years, and is unsure how they will be toward her. They accept her, of course, and help her out of the hole that she dug. ...and things have a way of working out in the end...

Like I said, the story is spread out over a long period of time, and a lot happens. I have intentionally left out a lot of smaller plot-lines so as not to spoil it all for any potential readers. There is a movie based on this book, of the same name, but I have not seen it so I can not comment on how well it follows the story set out here. It seems to me that it would be difficult for the film to follow it completely, because it is such a large story (it would really take about a season of television to do it justice). I would certainly suggest this story to anyone looking for a good family drama, with a large helping of the so-called "magical realism" in the mix. When I say "family drama," I don't mean that it is a "family friendly" type of story, but rather this is a story that examines the intricacies of a family... particularly one that is based around the women of the family. Even though this may be labeled as part of the "Women's Lives and Relationships" genre, I would still recommend it to anyone (yes, you too, men) who is willing to try something a bit different from the norm.

As a final note, I would also like to comment on the writing style. Hoffman has a beautiful, natural, and lyrical way of writing, which made for a very pleasant read. Interestingly, the book was not really divided into chapters, as I would have expected, although it was divided into four sections. Often there weren't any breaks in those sections. One sub-plot flowed into another, into another, and sometimes back again or into another. This was definitely different from what I normally read. It reminded me of something that was said in a Feminism & Theatre class I took as an undergraduate student: "Men have waffles for brains, and women have spaghetti." ...and it's kind of true (this was also stated in the class)... men have these little compartments in which they keep information, and then they just go and get what they need. Women, on the otherhand, have everything in one big pile of information... one thing flows into another, and into another, into another... maybe back again, and into another. Again, this is not mine to say... it was discussed in the class. This way of thinking was explored in some of the plays that we read, and I also noticed it here in this most excellent novel!

12 February 2010

The Nature of Balance (Annotation 3)

The Nature of Balance... written by Tim Lebbon... published by Liesure Books... 2001.

I have a bad habit of buying books, thinking they look cool... and then not reading them for awhile. I think, I'll get around to it eventually, but they often sit there for some time... I guess each book has its time. I actually bought this book several years ago, but the time to read it was now... or rather the last few days... the time to review and annotate it is now.

Remember the old saw that said if you had a dream where you were falling, and then hit bottom, that you would die in "real" life? Well, that concept is the catalyst of this story. One of the main characters, Peer, wakes up in the middle of the night from a bad dream (falling is part of it, but a voice inside tells her to wake up). She hears noises from her neighbor's apartment... Eventually there is a knock on the door and one of the couple from next door stumbles in... looking beaten and mangled (as if she has fallen from a great height). Peer goes over to check on the other half of the couple who is in a similar condition... only dead. Peer goes back to her own apartment to find her neighbor now also dead. Understandably distraught, she decides to leave and go to see a friend. In the lobby of the building, she sees another tenant who has gone quite mad... flinging himself against the walls. She makes it past him and goes out to find that the street gives off an odd feeling, and the few people out have also joined her neighbor in madness.

Cut to another main character (he is probably the main protagonist, but the story later revolves around a group): Blane is out in the woods, as he often is. He feels a closeness with nature, but doesn't know why... he also can't seem to remember much about his earlier life. He can't seem to sleep, not completely... ever. He just goes to the woods and lies on a tree trunk... getting as close to nature as he can. He knows the woods and its creatures well... tonight is different though. He notices birds dropping from trees and dying right around him. A deer comes right before him, and after he opens his eyes to see it, the deer is choked... its throat colapsing... and it also dies on the spot. Again, things are different in the world tonight. He heads to the nearby graveyard and sees a figure that seems familiar. He also notices all of the dead animals in the graveyard... and a little boy, dead... arranged in a particular manner, which seems to be a message for him.

Blane hears activity in the town square and goes there. He finds that there are many confused and mourning people there, with their dead around them. He talks to some, befriending a woman named Holly. They, the dead, seem to have been hit by the same thing that happened to those in Peer's building. They are just dead... as if chrushed, or beaten, having had a great fall. Blane and Holly try to call around town by phone... no response... from anyone. They call around to other towns, other countries... and still nothing. They finally decided to go out looking for help... and other "survivors."

Other characters are also introduced... Paul is a scientist doing a nature study on the outskirts of town. He wakes up... also from a falling dream, but in his dream he fell into a cushion of snow. He shows signs of bruising, but is clearly alive. He encounters strange behavior from the nearby animals... eventually to the point of danger. He leaves... looking for answers. He instead finds an abandoned ambulance... it's only occupant is blood, and a lot of it. Some way down the road he finds Blane, and returns with him to Holly and the others in town. A girl named Mary also comes into the picture... She is following a group of other kids (older teens, but really just kids), for lack of anything better to do. These kids like to torture and kill animals of the rich people of the neighborhood as a form of revenge... and fun. Mary doesn't care for it much, but just wants to be accepted into the group... so, she goes along. After the "event" of this particular evening, the animals get their revenge... by way of a woman (who is possibly something more than human) named Fay. She spares Mary, and gives her a mission, a reason to live... which is just what Mary has always wanted. Of course, Mary is desparate to feel needed and takes this mission from her easily accepted and beloved Fay. The mission is to kill a woman... Mary will know who she is, and when the time is right to kill her. Later, Mary meets Peer.

Eventually, all of these characters are on the road looking... and they find each other. They exchange stories, and agree that the "survivors" are those who didn't sleep last night. So, they band together and go searching. In this respect, the book sort of reminds me of Stephen King's The Stand, in the way that we have a group of people who have survived some sort of catastrophic "event," and are now out looking for fellow surviviors. They have a couple of "encounters" with Fay along the way... she has left other messages. Also, she allows the group to be attacked by hundreds of birds while the group is stopped at a service station/restaurant along the road. Fay has control over nature though, and when she thinks that Blane might be in danger of actually dying here, she wills the birds to drop dead where they are (after the group has been attacked and "bloody well" injured). Fay and Blane do have some sort of connection... Fay knows it, and Blane feels it somehow.

Blane "remembers" a bit, and becomes more aware of Fay. He tries to fool her by taking the group to a farmhouse to hide for awhile. This does not work. The situation sort of comes to a head there... more animal attacks, and Mary tries to do what she believes Fay wants her to do. All along the way... throughout the story, all of the characters notice that the animals and other parts of nature are beginning to change physically, in addition to the aggressive behavior toward humans. There are many mutations, although generally nothing too extreme. Nature is just changing. So... Blane goes to look for Fay to "settle" things... and Mary takes action...

Nearly the entire book feels like it's building up to something... This is fine, but at some point I started to wonder if the story would gain a focal point. The book probably could have had about 100 of its 400 pages edited out and been better for it... well, maybe. The climax does eventually happen, but it seems a bit anti-climactic after all of the build-up. Overall, it was a pretty good read for me though. I would suggest this to readers who enjoy stories with a dreamlike quality; and there are several dream sequences here. Also, I would suggest it to readers of "apocalyptic" fiction. It should be noted, however, that the title tells a lot about the story. Nature needs balance. It may seem like things are only being destroyed, but there must be balance...

Finally, I think that I should warn any potential readers that there is no explanation for the deaths by way of "falling dreams." I kept waiting for one, but it never came. Humans are connected to the rest of nature though... more than we really realise. I suppose if "she" wanted to "send a message" like this, it could happen. Think about it... look at the way the lunar cycle affects us, for example... you never know...

08 February 2010

7 Deadly Wonders (Annotation 2)

7 Deadly Wonders... written by Matthew Reilly... published by Simon & Schuster... 2006.

I had never heard of Matthew Reilly before. Honestly, I took a suggestion from the back of the Reading Genre Fiction book by Sarick in the "5 book challenge" section. It seems that with a lot of adventure books there is a strong military presence. I don't mind that to some degree, but I really wanted something with more of an "Indiana Jones" kind of feel. That is pretty much what Reilly delivers here in this book.

Reilly gives the reader a hero, Jack West, Jr., who is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, but clearly different. West is not a professor or an archaeologist, he is a military man... although, he has tried to leave that life somewhat behind him. Also, while the military is present in this story, it does not seem overwhelming, so the book can easily be enjoyed by a reader (like me) who did not want a largely military based story. Another thing that separates this story from the Indiana Jones stories are the somewhat fantastical elements. For instance, Jack West has a mechanical arm... the left arm, from the elbow down. The story of how this came to be is given to the reader in a "flashback." West's plane has the ability to hover, as the plane has been modified by West's former professor and present friend Max Epper. The professor serves as West's "Q" (from the James Bond series), and also a sort of "Gandolf" figure... he is even code-named "Wizard" by another character. Also, West has a pair of wings... graphite wings that is, which enable him to zoom down into situations somewhat undetected... somewhat undetected.

Oh yeah... one other thing that makes this story different from the Indiana Jones stories: the Americans are the villains. I suppose it depends on perspective really, but from the point of view of our hero, the Americans who are active characters in this book are definitely not the good guys. There is also another group of "bad guys;" a certain group of Europeans. Essentially, the story is about chasing power... and really, in this kind of a situation, most people are just in it for themselves... and anyone else is the "bad guy." I should probably mention at this point that not only is Jack West an Australian, but so is the author. I don't think there is any great agenda at work here though. Apparently, Reilly has had American heroes in his other books, and simply decided to make the hero of this book Australian. ...fine by me... it keeps it fresh and interesting to see things from another perspective.

Okay, with all of that being said, what is this story really about (other than chasing power)? Apparenly, Reilly reads a lot of non-fiction, and he happened to be reading about Egypt. He found that the Great Pyramid at Giza once had a capstone that is now lost... this became the focus of the story at hand. According to this book (7 Deadly Wonders), every 4500 years a specific sunspot comes into perfect alignment with the apex of the Great Pyramid. With the capstone in place, if a certain ritual is performed at exactly the time of the alignment, the nation of the person who performed the ritual will have supreme power for 1000 years. If something goes wrong, well... great destruction. The capstone is gone from the pyramid and it was separated into 7 pieces and hidden with each of the 7 wonders of the ancient world, on order of Alexander the Great.

Fast forward to 1996: there is a birth of a new Oracle, who can read the ancient language which will lead to the 7 pieces. Jack West tries to cut off the European group from finding the child, but he is too late... or is he? He goes down to help the mother (who the Europeans have captured and then stranded upon the birth of her son), only to find that there is another child waiting to be born! It is too late to save the mother, but West delivers the child by "c-section." This child is a girl who will also be an Oracle, and therefore able to read the ancient Word of Thoth.

The story of the capstone is known by certain people of certain power all around the world. There is of course the group of Europeans, the Americans, and West and his team (and later another group). West, representing the Australians, has gotten together with representatives from several other nations in Ireland to discuss a way to stop the Americans and the European group from gathering the capstone pieces and performing the ritual of power. They intend to either get just one piece to stop the ritual from being performed entirely, or to perform the ritual of peace at the appropriate time on the Great Pyramid. Agreements are made in Ireland, and West and his multi-national team take the baby girl to a secret location (in Kenya... shh!) to raise her until the time of the Tartarus! They raise her for ten years; to the time when the bulk of the story takes place.

I won't give away much more of the story, but I will say that it was interesting to read this type of book. I have seen many adventure movies, but I think this is the first real Indiana Jones-style adventure that I've read. It's one thing to see all of the action and the booby-traps that an action hero has to face in a movie, but it is somewhat different to read about it. I mean, in a movie you just see it all, but in a book the author has to take time to explain it all. It took me a bit of time to get used to this, but not long. Also, as is apparently common among adventure books, there were many maps and illustrations. They were a little cheap looking in this book... I guess I'd say a little "cartoony," but not too bad. Overall, I would definitely suggest this book to someone looking for an interesting adventure tale... with some Indiana Jones-style action.