Book Review 28: White Butterfly by Walter Mosley

For the next two reviews, I will be reviewing a couple of novels from authors I’ve been wanting to read for a really long time.  Oddly enough, both authors are completely different on the literary spectrum. I have looked at their books for years and said to myself, “I have to read a novel of theirs someday.”  Someday has finally arrived and the timing is right.

First up: White Butterfly by Walter Mosley

Mosley is known for the Easy Rawlins mysteries and White Butterfly is third one published in the series. However, I felt after reading this novel it was a good entry point for a Mosley newbie like myself.

White Butterfly is about a series of murders in the black community of Los Angeles in 1956. The police paid little attention to the murders since the victims were black women.  But, when a white stripper, Cyndi Starr, AKA The White Butterfly is murdered then everything changes. It turns out that she was a UCLA coed and daughter to one the city’s most powerful attorneys that finally gets the police’s attention.

At first, Easy Rawlins didn’t want to have anything to do with solving the murder of White Butterfly. He wanted to spend time with his new wife, the kids, and be left alone. However, when his best friend, Raymond “Mouse” Alexander is considered a suspect in the murder that Easy gets drawn in.

White Butterfly is a standard whodunit story with several interesting twists and turns that makes it a good, solid read. But for me, Easy Rawlins is the most compelling reason for reading the novel.

He is a character of surprising contradictions. Easy is a ladies’ man but adopts a Hispanic boy named Jesus and raising him as his son. He has a best friend who wants to kill anyone that crosses him but Easy prefers not to kill when solving a case. Moreover, most of the community where he lives is poor, but he lives comfortably and holds several pieces of real estate which becomes an interesting subplot in the novel.  Those contradictions are shown in good detail and takes White Butterfly beyond the usual mystery story.

Most critics of Walter Mosley have praised his authentic dialogue similar to Elmore Leonard. But, I will have to disagree with those critics. I felt the dialogue of Broken English distracts from the story and took away from Easy’s rich characterization. (Maybe, since I grew up in Florida and I’ve heard people talk like that all the time…that it didn’t nothing for me.) That was my main critique of the novel.

If you are looking for a good mystery with a colorful main character and an original setting then I will recommend White Butterfly for your reading pleasure.

Advertisements

Book Review 27: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Does a novel that is highly recommended live up to hype?

Well, I will attempt to answer that question in my latest book review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

This novel has been one of the most talked about and most recommended by book clubs in the last few years.  I must admit I usually steer clear of novels like this…because I don’t want to be let down or have unrealistic expectations based off of the praise it has received.

However, I decided to read it because this novel received the most votes on my New Standards of Fiction List I posted recently.  Also, it was recently chosen as a book of the month on Goodreads and mentioned on several other book blogs I read regularly.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II. Standing at her brother’s graveside, Liesel picks up a book called The Grave Digger’s Handbook and that beings her love affair with the written word. Her love of books is so great that begins to steal them in order to learn how to read and eventually write her own book.

The characters in The Book Thief are the heart and soul of the novel.  Beginning with Liesel’s foster parents: Hans Hubermann, the kind-hearted, accordion-playing foster father who does an incredible act of humanity that shows best of us even in the worst situations; Rosa Hubermann, the foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails foster mother who reveals a surprising side of her personality during the story; Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s best friend, whom I believe actually steals the novel from her; and Max Vandenburg, the Jewish man who becomes an integral part of Liesel’s life and is unforgettable.

I have to write that through three-quarters of the novel, I was let down from the expectations I had before I started reading it.  However, the last quarter of the novel and some unforgettable scenes throughout the book changed my initial opinion.

For example, one of my favorite scenes in the novel was when Rudy Steiner decides to paint himself black so that he can become Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.  Considering that Rudy was a blonde German boy doing an act like that during the time of Nazi Germany was beyond crazy.  However, I thought it was a realistic picture of how kids can cut through barriers unencumbered regardless of the political or governmental backdrop that was happening at that time.

In closing, I wrote in my last review that The Opposite of Art by Athol Dickson was one of the best novels I read in 2012.  Well, I have to add The Book Thief to that list and I realized that something highly recommended can live up to the hype.

Book Review 26: Athol Dickson’s The Opposite of Art

Athol Dickson is becoming one of my favorite novelists.

Last year, I did a review for his Lost Mission novel and I throughly enjoyed it. Now, I’m doing a review for his latest novel, The Opposite of Art. Also, he is the first novelist I’ve done a second review for on my blog.

The Opposite of Art is the story of the genius artist, Sheridan Ridler, who is known for painting nudes without faces. Ridler got quite a reputation in the art world as a cad to the ladies and an arrogant jerk to everyone else that came in contact with him.

Well, he has an accident at the Harlem River and that begins his spiritual transformation. However, the art world thinks the great artist is dead and Ridler’s paintings are worth millions. But there are reports that he’s alive and his daughter (whom he never met) from one of his models decides to search for him.

Because of her search, the daughter attracts another individual from Ridler’s past who wants to make sure the great artist is dead….and if not, stay dead.

In lesser hands, a story like this could have fallen victim to stererotypes and the spiritual transformation would have been a “Come to Jesus Moment and Now I Have A Get Out of Hell Free Card.” However, Dickson creates a story of intrigue, love, murder, family relationships, and the collision of art and faith. He goes beyond the stereotypes to produce a novel that has depth and reveals the honest struggles of someone trying to come to terms with their spiritual conversion.

Because of that, Dickson has become one of my favorite novelists.  He seems to understand that being a believer is not just about saying the sinner’s prayer, attending at church once a week, and singing Jesus loves and forgives me songs. A spiritual conversion affects every area of our lives and this type of fiction should reflect that and not simplify it for mass consumption.

In both novels I’ve reviewed, Dickson has given the Christian Fiction genre a fresh and honest perspective of what these types of novels should look like and he deserves to be mentioned with writers that preceded him like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and Graham Greene who expanded the genre’s boundaries as well.

The Opposite of Art should be a must read for all serious readers and is one of the best novels I’ve read in 2012 so far.

Book Review 25: Havoc In Islandia by Mark Saxton (Islandia Quartet Book #4)

The past two reviews, The Islar (a sequel) and The Two Kingdoms (a prequel) to the underground utopian classic, Islandia, has shown a depth and clarity of a fictional world unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Havoc in Islandia, a second prequel to Islandia, I believe is the most interesting novel of the three Islandian books written by Mark Saxton.

The novel tells the story of when Roman Catholicism arrived in Islandia determined to proselytize the natives and make the land become a Catholic nation. The protagonist, Bren, is an officer in the Islandian resistance who is trying to save the land from Catholic rule. He is young, inexperienced, and not fond of
Catholicism either. However, he is love in with a woman who has converted to Catholicism and that adds a little of bit intrigue to the story.

I know some Christians would probably automatically think this is anti-Christian novel and I could definitely see an aspect of that after reading the novel. However, I found the novel compelling and Saxton tells a good story.

My issue with the novel is that the portrayal of Catholics (I know they are the villains) in the story could have been handled with a little more depth and not be so stereotypical of what bad religion is supposed to be.

Moreover, there several points throughout the novel where the author shows some thoughtfulness to effect of what proselytizing had on the people.

For example, here’s an excerpt to demonstrate my point:

“The main tenets of the faith-I mean such things as the Virgin Birth, the Godhood of Christ, the Trinity, and the transubstantiation of bread and wine are extremely difficult. They confront the intelligence like a great well. They are also exceedingly beautiful. I came to see them as tests of my ability to deny my mind. Some people are able to accept these assertions with no reservation and say they then enter realms of a different sort of understanding. Many others, like me, work harder to get less. Because of the beauty of the concepts, and because they so much ought to be true, we others do manage to achieve a state in which we simultaneously believe and disbelieve without contradiction.

It took me tremendous effort and a long time to find my way into that second group. I went through it because I wanted the strength and reassurance of faith, faith in a determinant, something that could say yes or no as well as I am.”

That was said by Lord Mora, one of the leaders of the Islandian resistance and him dealing with his conversion to Catholicism. But, he decides to resist the church in order to keep them from controlling Islandia.

I could identify with Lord Mora’s struggles of believing in the basic tenets of Christianity because I’ve had some of same thoughts since I became a Christian. That excerpt reminded me of the Doubting Thomas story in Book of John, Chapter 20:24-29 of the New Testament where Thomas didn’t believe it was Jesus who appeared amongst the disciples after the resurrection.

I wished Saxton could have shown more of this type of struggle that the Islandian natives had in converting to Catholicism and that would have given the novel another dimension of depth and honesty.

Outside of that, I really enjoyed reading Havoc in Islandia. Unfortunately, this book is out of print as well as the other two aforementioned novels. You will have to go to the library or buy a copy from Amazon like I did to get it. I do believe it is well worth the extra trouble to read this book and the other two Saxton Islandian novels.

This novel and along with the others show the power of imaginative literature at its best and readers unaware of these books need to seek them out for their own reading pleasure.

Book Review 24: The Two Kingdoms by Mark Saxton (Islandia Quartet Book #3)

Last year, I posted a review for the book titled, The Islar, by Mark Saxton. It was a sequel to the underground utopian novel Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. Saxton wrote two more novels in the Islandian universe and this review of The Two Kingdoms is a prequel to Islandia.

The Two Kingdoms tells the story of Frare, a young officer in the Islandian Navy. He is caught in a power struggle between Queen Alwina of Islandia and King Tor of Winder.

Queen Alwina is the first queen in Islandia’s history. She just took over the kingdom from her father, King Alwin, who recently passed away. King Tor of Winder is the queen’s neighbor and ally against another kingdom on the Islandian continent who wants to remove her from power. However the queen (who barely is in her twenties) is headstrong, passionate, and manipulative has created a contentious alliance with King Tor.

Frare has to become an ambassador for both sides to make sure that Queen Alwina and King Tor work together to defeat the enemy who wants to take over all of Islandia.

Islandia’s utopian paradise is in jeopardy again from being controlled by the outside world. However, Queen Alwina’s actions make a target for assassination and Frare must do all he can to save her life and keep the alliance with King Tor.

This book was enjoyable to read and it takes me away to a world unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary fantasy fiction.

I have to write that Queen Alwina believed a in New Age type of God called Om that was disconcerting.  But in the context of the novel, it was believable.

As I wrote in the review for The Islar, Saxton has written another terrific novel in the spirit of Islandia. Unfortunately, this book is out of print as well. And you will have to go to library to find it or a buy a copy from Amazon like I did.

I’m glad I did buy it and hope someday this novel along with the other Islandian books are back in print. The Islandian universe deserves a wider audience.

Book Review 23: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

How would you feel about a book that you re-read twenty years later?

Would it still fascinate you like it did before?

Would it bore you?

Would it show how much you have mature since the first time you read it?

Well, I decided to answer those questions by re-reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. It was published in 1993 and I read the novel at that time.  It fascinated me.  I had not read any book that grim and dark at that point in my early 20’s.

Now in 2012, I’ve read it again and I will admit upfront the novel didn’t fascinate me like it did in 1993.  However, I still found Parable of the Sower an interesting, thought-provoking story.

Octavia Butler (whom died in Feburary 2006) was considered as one of the great female science-fiction authors mentioned in the same breath as Ursula LeGuin, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and James Tiptree Jr (real name Alice Sheldon). Butler’s novels explored gender and racial themes in a science-fiction context and Parable of the Sower continued in that tradition.

The story is about Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl growing up in a grim, dystopic Los Angeles suburb where their gated community provided some semblance of a normal life while anarchy reigned outside of it.

Lauren lived with her father, a minister, her step-mother, Corazon, and her brothers, Marcus and Keith. Her father was doing everything he could to provide for the family and raise his children in a chaotic situation. Well, the gate to their community was finally destroyed after repeated attempts and all hell broke loose which ended up ripping the family apart for good.

Meanwhile, Lauren (who is an empath) had a sense her home and family would be destroyed has decided to create a religion called Earthseed, and was forced to leave home and travel north to fulfill her vision for this new religion .

Butler’s lean, spare prose creates a stark, brtual story and it was closer to The Road by Cormac McCarthy or even the movie, Book of Eli staring Denzel Washington than a traditional science fiction novel.

Moreover, there were a couple of things that caught my attention:

All that you touch,

You change.

All that you change,

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is change.

God

is change.

This was one of the basic beliefs of Earthseed.  God is change.  Since change is inevitable, we must to yield to it or never truly understand who God is.

Well, when I first read this back in 1993, I found that concept fascinating and interesting. Now, I must admit it is half-baked at best and naive at worst.

I’m reminded of this verse of scripture:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” {Hebrews 13:8 ESV Bible}

The writer of Hebrews was explaining how Christ was the same in his position as high priest and Son of God throughout his earthly ministry and his place in Heaven seated next to the Father.

I know I just probably scared some of the non-religious folk out there.  But, I want to add this if I was not religious why would I worship or believe in a God who changes all the time.  Isn’t God to suppose to be higher than humankind? Why would he need to change? I might as well be an atheist and believe in myself.

Here’s the other thing that caught my attention:

“But there’s hope in understanding the nature of God-not punishing or jealous, but infinitely malleable. There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all.”

That was from a conservation Lauren had with one of the travelers with her and a future convert to Earthseed.

Again in 1993, I was fascinated by this concept of God being shaped by anyone.  Now in 2012, I found it shallow and underdeveloped and frankly dead wrong.  But, it did reveal something currently going on in our culture.

We want to shape God in our own image.  Both religious people and non-religious people want to shape God into their liking or disliking. However, if I can shape God or focused God into what I believe or want…why should I worship or believe in him?

As you have read, I was glad that I re-read this story even though it didn’t feel same as it once did.  In the end, Parable of the Sower revealed a lot about myself, my beliefs, and even my maturity.

I would recommend all readers at least once go back re-read a novel from years ago and see what it will bring to light for you.

Book Review 22: Stephen King’s Bag of Bones

What happens when you fulfill one of your bucket list items?

Do you feel a sense of achievement?  Satisfied?  Surprised?  Disappointed?

Well, I can write that after reading Bag of Bones, I felt all of those feelings except disappointed.

As you know, Stephen King was on my reading bucket list and Bag of Bones was the choice of my readers for the next novel that I would read and review. I got a double whammy and a 2-for-1 special with this book.

Bag of Bones is the story of Mike Noonan, a bestselling novelist with a great life until his wife dies in an accident near their Western Maine summer home. From that accident, Mike’s life is turned upside down and inside out.

Because of that event, Mike gets writers block, discovers their summer home is haunted and has a connection to the town’s lurid past, and is caught in the middle of a family custody battle with a woman half his age that has a beautiful three year old daughter and realizes that he deeply loves both of them.

This is a moody, atmospheric story and it felt like I was reading a John Irving or Richard Ford novel with a huge paint splattering of Stephen King over the top.  Bag of Bones qualifies for the first literary ghost love story I’ve ever read.

One of the things, I really enjoyed in this novel was King’s ability to show the pressures of a writer trying to produce the next bestselling book:

“Readers have a loyalty that cannot be matched anywhere else in the creative arts, which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled onto the bestselller lists by the magic words AUTHOR OF on the covers of their books.

What the publisher wants in return, especially from an author who can be counted on to sell 500,000 or so copies of each novel in hardcover and a million more in paperback, is perfectly simple: a book a year.

Less than a book a year and you’re screwing up the publisher’s investment in you, hampering your business manager’s ability to continue floating all of your credit cards, and jeopardizing your agent’s ability to pay his shrink on time. Also, there’s always some fan attrition when you take too long.”

That section and the conversation with his agent was the most honest parts of the novel.  It felt like King wanted his readers to understand some of the burden he has being one of America’s bestselling novelists.

Moreover, I felt King wanted to show in this story the power of wealth and how it can control an entire small town. The good ol’ boy network and hate can make you do something that you will regret for the rest of your life and affect succeeding generations.

After reading Bag of Bones, I’ve learned that King is a gifted storyteller and I can see why he became one of our greatest bestselling novelists.  I know he is a polarizing author, but I believe he is a true talent and should be recognized as such.

I would recommend this novel an introduction to Stephen King’s work and also a good story to add to your reading bucket list.