Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Beside A Burning Sea

By John Shors

John Shors is an up-and-coming author to watch for; “Beside A Burning Sea” is his second novel, and he does display real potential with this particular work.

The story is about a World War II medical ship stationed in the South Pacific. The reader learns in the first line that the ship is going to be torpedoed in ten minutes. Within the first few pages, the reader also learns that one of the American officers on the ship is a Japanese spy.

Nine survivors (out of hundreds of victims) swim to a nearby island as the ship sinks into the dark, night waters. The first chapter is dramatic and intriguing; one of the swimmers might not be strong enough to get to shore, another of the swimmers is the spy, the reader just has no idea which person it is until the second chapter.

The author could have continued to maintain the suspense regarding the spy once the survivors all reached the island. Admittedly, it was a tad disappointing when the spy was made immediately apparent to the reader. A little more mystery might have been fun.

While the first chapter was intriguing, the second was less so, and the third and fourth were hard to wade through. At this point, the reader still has no history of any of the characters, and therefore is unable to care about the characters. If you stick with the book to the fifth chapter, which I highly recommend you do, you will fall in love with the characters (except for the bad guy, who turns out to be really bad) and their island.

Shors paints a beautiful landscape for the island which becomes home. From colorful birds to pesky mosquitos, the reader feels they are there, sitting next to Akira (a Japanese patient from the ship) and Joshua (the ship’s captain) around the campfire on the beach. Each character takes on a life of their own and by the end of the book, you will hate to see anything unjust happen to any of them.

The book is set up so each chapter is a new day. Day 18 is the final chapter of the book. At the start of each chapter, the author supplies an appropriate haiku on the opposite page, as two of the central characters bond over poetry. When an author employs this tactic, it is oft the case that the chapters become too lenghty or weighty. That is not so with the chapter length in “Beside A Burning Sea.” Each chapter is segmented by page breaks as the reader follows each character around for a snippet, and they are of perfect length.

While some may read this book and think it carries an anti-war theme, it is still possible to read the book as just a novel and enjoy it as such. The characters in the book do not enjoy the war, but who does? They dream about the day they no longer have to live with war, but that is as most people who experience war firsthand do.

Though the imagery in “Beside A Burning Sea” is good, Shor’s strong suit seems to be his dialogue. Each character has a very clear and distinct voice. From the young British lad to the middle-aged engineer from Missouri, all the characters could be standing in front of you, speaking. This is the key that carries the story along at a nice pace.

“Beside A Burning Sea” is a good book. Not a great book, but I suspect Shor’s next book will be great. He is a young author and could very well be a great literary force someday. Read this book if you enjoy romance, history or war, and escapes to a faraway, if only temporary, paradise.


The Almost Moon

By Alice Sebold

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.”

This is the first sentence in “The Almost Moon” by Alice Sebold, and you know when you read it, the book has successfully pulled you in, whether you want to be pulled in or not. Many readers may feel too uncomfortable to read it, but there will be quite a few who find the challenge of this particular self-exploration rather intriguing.

Our protagonist, Helen, is called to her mother’s house by her mother’s neighbor. Upon Helen’s arrival, her mother is in full-dementia mode and very quickly soils herself. As Helen is pulling her mother around the house, in a blanket so she’ll slide easier, Helen suddenly breaks. She takes a hand towel she has been carrying and holds it down over her mother’s face. She uses so much pressure, her mother’s nose breaks. And then Helen realizes what she has done.
“The Almost Moon” is about the twenty-four hours that transpire after the murder, in which Helen makes one bad decision after another. The reader walks through Helen’s life, viewing first-hand the events which have molded Helen into the woman she is today.

There really is nothing normal about Helen’s childhood. Her mother was agoraphobic and bi-polar and was never treated for it. She was unfeeling for the most part and was part of the reason Helen never grew up knowing the importance of a hug. Helen’s father was primarily her mother’s protector; Helen was merely an afterthought. When he got tired of caretaking, he would leave a young Helen to her own devices; he would retreat to his own childhood home where he created plywood cut-outs of familial scenes. He eventually committed suicide.
The book leads you through Helen’s decision-making process after she kills her mother; should she run away, lie to the authorities, commit suicide? At different points in the book, the reader is sure of Helen’s choice. But then Helen makes a poor decision and it’s off to the races once again.

While this book was not something I can say I enjoyed (mostly due to the fact I was uncomfortable about it; I’ve honestly never felt like killing someone), I also have to admit I could not put the book down. It was a page-turner and some of the descriptions and images were interesting. One technique the author employed was giving Helen a very vivid imagination. Most often, her “daydreams” revolve around cutting her mother into tiny pieces and either holding her heart above a frying pan on the stove, or mailing her body parts in little boxes to places around the world.

Helen’s memories hold the key to what she has held as most important in her life: her own children. She recalls “Along with my father’s letters in the basement, there would be the paper Emily wrote in junior high, on which a teacher had scrawled a failing grade. I no longer remembered the woman’s name, Barber or Bartlett, something beginning with a B. I had marched into the junior high in a mock-mommy outfit I’d composed for effect– corduroy bag jumper and deranged Mary-Jane flats– and lit into Emily’s teacher with all my might. This had succeeded in gaining Emily a C and me a plea from my daughter never to do anything similar again. I still saw these moments spent in defense of my children as the finest of my life.”
Alice Sebold is an author who must be credited for thinking outside the box. Her nonchalance in her written violence makes the reader wonder just what tendencies lay deep within a neighbor’s, a friend’s, an acquaintance’s heart. Just where does one draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable?

This book is great for people who like dark stories. If you like books with a little more sunshine, don’t bother with this one. You probably won’t feel good after reading it. If sunshine isn’t necessary, read “The Almost Moon.” You may be occupied with all the questions running through your mind for several days after.


Peony In Love

By Lisa See

“Peony in Love” is a remarkable book about seventeenth-century China with a deep look into the culture of both the living and the dead.

The reader is immediately transfixed by sixteen year-old Peony’s beauty and innocence. She meets a mysterious young poet in the garden one night, the sounds of her favorite opera in the background. The two have an instant connection but choose to remain distant, as they know they are each betrothed to strangers. Peony pines for her young poet in weeks to come and becomes obsessed with writing about and dissecting the aforementioned opera. As her obsession grows, she wilts. She fears marrying her betrothed and can think only of the opera and the young poet. As Peony is lying on her death bed, her father comes into her room and tells her she was betrothed to the poet. Her heart swells and her sorrow instantly evaporates. But it’s too little, too late. She is taken into the courtyard to die, as was the custom of the time.
From this point in the beginning of the story, the book takes the reader on an emotional journey like no other. The sympathy invoked in regards to Peony’s growth and understanding is tantamount to the vivid landscape of the different realms Peony passes through. Lisa See paints an intricate tapestry of hungry ghosts and mournful lovers, and of the landscape of China and Chinese beliefs.

“Peony in Love” is a book about the relationships between women, and how they can either help or harm. It is a book about secrets and deception, as well as a book about honesty and love.
The style of “Peony is Love” is simple to follow, yet filled to the brim with details that have been carefully researched by Lisa See, who is a self-acclaimed “research fiend,” according to the interview she gives in the back of the book. She traveled to each location she wrote about in China, as well as spoke with top scholars in the field of Chinese women’s history. While reading this story, the reader feels confident that the author is presenting the story as factually as possible.

It is quite normal for the living to wonder about death. The author explains the process of how the Chinese perceive death and believe in it. Peony says, “I had heard that death is darkness, but that’s not how I experienced it. It would take forty-nine days to push me out of the earthly realm and pull me into the afterworld. Every soul has three parts, and each must find its proper home after death. One part stayed with my body to be buried, another part traveled toward the afterworld, while the last part remained in the earthly realm, waiting to be put in my ancestor tablet. I was rent through with terror, sadness, and confusion as my three parts began their separate journeys, each full aware of the other two at all times.”

While death is certainly an ancillary theme in this book, the motif of life is fully infused into the book. The voice the author has given Peony is what draws the reader into the book. When Peony sneaks away from her family’s home, her voice gives life to this passage: “He held my elbow, since some of the rocks were slick with moss. I felt the heat of his hand through the silk of my sleeve. Warm air lifted my skirt as though it were a cicada’s wing carried by the wind. I was out. I was seeing things I’d never seen before. Here and there, bits of vines and branches draped over our compund wall, hinting at what was hidden inside. Weeping willows hung over the lake, their tendrils teasing the water’s surface. I brushed against wild roses blooming on the bank and their scent infused the air, my clothes, my hair, the skin on my hands. The feelings that rushed through my body were nearly overwhelming; fear that I would be caught, exhilaration that I was out, and love for the man who had brought me here.”

Instead of simply saying “the rocks had moss on them,” the author created a more intense image by using the word “slick.” The metaphor likening her skirt to a cicada’s wing illustrates the grace of her skirt blowing in the wind. “The tendrils teasing the water’s surface” strengthens the serenity of the image both with the personification and the alliteration of the phrase.
This is an author who knows what she is doing. The book “Peony in Love” is so very well written, I find myself picking the book back up, weeks after I finished reading it, to glance through the pages at my favorite passages. My only complaint is the title. It sounded more like a cheesy romance than the great work it actually is.

If you choose to read this book, know that you will not be sorry. It is a marvelous read.


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This is the blog portion of ReaderReport.com. I will typically be blogging about women’s literature. If you can’t find a book you are interested in hearing about, email me. I may have read it and haven’t blogged about it. Or if you would like me to read something, email me a request.