Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book #4: "The Constant Princess" by Phillipa Gregory

I remember the very instant when this book turned me off. I remember the exact moment when I put the book down and sighed as I understood exactly what this book- about Katherine of Aragon, erstwhile wife of Henry VIII - was going to be like. I knew right then that I wouldn't like it and that it would probably end up making me angry. I knew I would finish it, and I wouldn't enjoy it the process.

It was about four chapters in, when Henry VII, the aging King of England, looks at his son's fiance and thinks about Katherine's "sexy mouth". That word. "Sexy". In a historical novel about Tudor England.

That simple, stupid word brought all my knowledge of bad historical novels crashing down on me. I knew in a flash that this book was going to be tedious, terribly inaccurate and worst of all, painfully cheesy. And I was right.

Listen, I get that people who write historical novels have to embellish their stories from time to time. I get that I'm just supposed to "enjoy the ride", not cringing at every stupid cheesy line in the book that would seem more fitting in a CW prime-time teen drama. I get that you want to make an already interesting story your own. Sometimes it works, if the writer is skilled enough to make the story seem a little bit interesting, but Phillippa Gregory just isn't that kind of author. As it turns out, she's taken what was a truly interesting historical character who lived at a tumultuous time, and she's turned her into the worst sort of whiny Disney princess, who sits at windows pining for true love. And it doesn't even have an interesting Prince and dancing characters to make up for the pathetic Princess.

Here's the true story: Katherine of Aragon was the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain. You know, the Spanish monarchs who sent Columbus off to do his thing. At age 4 she was formally betrothed to Arthur, son of Henry VII and heir to the throne of England. She was sent to England some years later, where she was married to the prince. She was left alone in a country whose language she didn't even speak yet. Her one job was to get married and give England an heir. Unfortunately, Prince Arthur died just a few years later, leaving her a widow and making his younger brother, Henry, the new heir. When Henry became King and needed a wife, Katherine seemed like a good choice. The Pope declared her marriage to Arthur as void, as it had never been consummated (there was wide belief that Arthur was impotent). Henry then married her, finally making her Queen of England. Later, as well all know, Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn and divorced Katherine, claiming that she had lied all along about the consummation of her marriage to Arthur.

See, I think that's a pretty fascinating story, especially the years between Katherine's marriage to Arthur and her subsequent marriage to Henry. Unfortunately, there's very little historical evidence of what those years were like for Katherine, and there's no definite answer to the question of whether Katherine lied about her relationship with Arthur. Gregory takes advantage of this and makes up a story. It's tempting to do that: you have your characters and an overarching plot. Just add some romantic stuff to the parts no one is really sure about. Gregory's idea is that Katherine lied to Henry and everyone else, and that her marriage to Arthur was one of true love--and rainbows and puppies and hot sex. But they didn't tell anyone about it...for some reason.

Yeah. In between whining about how much she misses Spain and whining about how much she wants to be Queen, Katherine falls deeply in love with Arthur. There's really no reason for it, other than, "Why not? It'll make a good romance story!" Gregory's explanation as to why no one ever really knew whether Arthur and Katherine slept together is that he used to sneak into her bedroom when everyone had gone to sleep and they'd have sex for hours, and he would leave before anyone saw them. You might be wondering how this makes any sense, and let me tell you: it doesn't. It's just a stupid plot contrivance that Gregory came up with to get away with writing a fairy tale about a princess who falls in love and then becomes really sad about it.

It's just terribly cheesy and straight out of a Young Adult novel, which I personally think is sort of insulting to the real Katherine. Athur and Katherine whisper sweet nothings to each other like two teenagers in love, instead of two complete strangers in an arranged marriage at a time when marriages were all about business and not love. I get that you want to romanticize it, but this book is just ridiculous. Specially when we know what life was like at that period, and that we know how the story ends. And it takes him just forever to die! It's almost 200 pages of cheesy, chaste little love scenes and rainbows and happiness. I kept muttering for Gregory to just get on with it and kill Arthur so that we could read something more compelling; for example, her far more interesting marriage to Henry VIII. But that just gets relegated to the last few chapters of the book, which makes absolutely no sense to me.

Some of the worst parts of the book come in the form of little asides in between actual scenes, which are told from Katherine's point of view. We know this because they're italicized, which makes them easier to skip. Once I got past the eye-rolling stupidity of the passages where a 10 year-old girl sounds like a wise woman of the world, I just started skipping them altogether. Because they were invariably in one of three lines: 1) I so want to be Queen! I was born to be Queen! For...some reason! 2) I love Arthur! he is so cute and sweet and my Prince Charming! and 3) I miss Spain! This is what Spain was like! Let me repeat it 1500 times so you'll get it! It was just ridiculous.

I don't know how I finished it, to be honest. I'd read a couple of pages, roll my eyes so hard they almost fell out of my head, and put the book down to go do something else. I took some notes as I read it. Here's a couple:

-"Tell me a story", said Arthur NO. SHUT UP. ENOUGH STORIES.

You get the idea. This book suffers from a terrible case of "Empty Dress Syndrome", a term perfectly explained by Ranylt Richildis of Pajiba in this review, which is, appropriately enough, about a movie adaptation of another one of Phillippa Gregory's 'romances'. In short: the book is all frill and no substance. There's nothing else there but the illusion of something pretty. And the frill isn't even remotely interesting to look at.

It was just a huge disappointment. I love reading about the Tudors. They were a fascinating family, and the history surrounding them is just rife with great stories for people to tell and read. It's just a shame that Gregory seems to have cornered the market for these stories, because turning them into pathetic little romances just demeans them. As far as I can tell, all of her other books run in the same vein as this one, and it's just not a line I'm interested in pursuing.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Book #3: "Dead of Night" by Randy Wayne White

This book. Ugh.

This was one of those books I picked up at our house in Honduras, for no other reason than I had nothing else to read. I didn't really want to read it, based on the cover alone: a dark, stormy background, shiny bright letters, a scorpion in the corner. It just screamed "STAY AWAY".

I should have listened to my first instincts. Because this was a stinky, putrid mess of a book that I only remember because of how much I wanted to throw it at the wall.

Apparently, this was part of a series of books about the adventures of Doc Ford (*groan*) a former NSA Agent who is now a Marine Biologist in Florida. This was never explained; not in the blurb at the back or in the book itself. Now, it might be entirely my fault for not realizing that this was part of a series, but I would at least expect an author to give you a brief explanation of who this guy is, even if it's a one-paragraph bit of exposition. As it was, I was just honestly confused as to why this nerdy, unlikable character would run after some Evil Russian Minions after he finds them torturing some guy. It was still never explained properly-- there were only hints at some 'dark past' and 'mysterious operations' and random characters popping up that I suppose have some significance to the story. At least make an effort for readers who may not know the whole story. Am I asking for too much here? It doesn't really matter, though. I don't think there's any way I could have even begun to care about this obnoxious character, so a dossier of his life might only have made him more annoying.

As to the story itself, it was pretty pathetic. Some Evil Doctor is planning Evil Deeds from his Evil Lair in the Bahamas. His Evil Plan consists of releasing flesh-eating parasites into the waters of Florida (specifically the area around Disney World), with the purpose of driving everyone out so he can come in and buy cheap real estate. Then he would get rid of the parasites, and he could sell the land at great profit. Seems to me like a pretty round-about way of making some money. Specially when this Evil Doctor is so incompetent as to not even have a cure for the parasites when he first starts in on the plan. He sends some minions (Russian, of course) to torture some poor scientist, and Doc Ford catches them at it--they're not very good Minions. Then he's brought in on all the intrigue of some guy importing dangerous animals into Disney World. Or something.

All that is really just a stupid, incompetently drawn background. None of it makes any sense, and you get the feeling that White just wanted to show off how cool he thinks Doc Ford is. We spend much of the book following Doc Ford (that name just keeps making me cringe) on his stupid Harriet the Spy adventures in Florida. Watch as he tries to poorly investigate a murder, with his collection of stupid, badly drawn characters that we're supposed to find charming! Watch as he studies some things in his lab for 30 pages! Watch as he is Condescending and Bitchy to everyone he knows! He just wants to go surfing, man! Watch as we learn about sharks, which have nothing to do with this plot! Watch as he has relationship problems with someone off-screen! And finally, Read all about White's Research on Icky Animals! He can do research!

In short, it was an utter, painful bore.

The biggest problem, though, isn't the stupid plot or the lack of anything remotely exciting to read: it's the characters. Doc Ford is a condescending, unlikable ass of a person, and I kept waiting for the Evil (and Sexy) Russian Spy to kick his ass. He spouts bad one-liners from the book of bad James Bond Wannabes and he spends a lot of time hating all the work he has to do. The Evil and Sexy Russian Spy is nothing but that. She's sexy and she's evil. Apparently she has some ulterior motives that are never properly explained--at the end of it I didn't even know (or care) whose side she had been on. Doc Ford has some friends that don't really matter, including a stupid hippie and a Sassy Black Lady who is always off-screen, probably because she's too interesting to hang out with this dullard. He has a son who goes by the incredibly stupid name of Laken (who lives in "Central America" because everyone knows that place is just one giant country) and a pregnant fiance by the even stupider name of Dewey. It's like a collection of horrendous names and annoying characters. I didn't care about a single one of them. I kept wondering if I would have cared had I read the other books, but I didn't want to read the other books, and nothing could compel me to do so now.

And that was just the biggest problem in that soup of horribleness. The writing was terribly clunky, the pacing was all off-key and the sad attempts at action and suspense were just plain boring. There's plenty of deaths and gruesome details; but they're really worth nothing when everything else is a confusing mess of events happening off-screen while Doc Ford goes to a bar with his stupid hippie friend.

It's not worth it, really, getting so annoyed at this book. It was forgettable and trashy, the kind of thing that people buy at airports and then just "happen" to leave in a hotel room to rot until it can torture someone else. It's Michael Crichton For Dummies. You could do worse, I guess. But as for me, I'm just going to stay the hell away from Mr White and Doc Ford forever.

PS: As for the title? Bullshit! Nothing ever happens at night in this book. Stop trying to sound mysterious, sir.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book #2: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" by JK Rowling

Here's the multi-million dollar question:

Why the hell am I reviewing this now?

And here's the 2 cent answer:

Because I had planned on reviewing it for the last Cannonball, but my sister ended up taking the books with her to college and I was too cheap to buy a new copy.


So what does one say about an immensely popular book that came out in 2005 (holy crap, really? I feel so old) and that everyone and their sister has read?

Well, I really liked it. After the giant wad of nothingness that was Order of the Phoenix, this one was a lot meatier and a lot less infuriating. There were some fantastic scenes peppered in, a lot of sweet little moments and a lot of making fun of how lame Ron is, which is always rewarding. It's also even darker and more mature than any of the other books in the series, and by now I think everyone knows about the incredibly depressing ending.

The basic plot (yeah, don't even pretend like you don't know) has Harry in his 6th year at Hogwarts, with Voldemort finally back in power and starting to do some nasty things. Mysterious things happen at the school, there's a lot of Quidditch and teenage relationship problems, he has some interesting meetings with Dumbledore and there's a big battle at the end. You know, like with every other book in the series.

The overarching mystery this time is unfortunately rather pathetic. Harry suspects that Draco Malfoy is up to some shenanigans, and he spends the entire book trying to find out what it is while nobody listens to him (because, fuck, after 6 books of being right, why should anyone listen to Harry?). There's also the matter of who the Half-Blood Prince is, because...well, actually, no one really cares and that whole plot is a big dud. Basically, Harry gets a used Potions book with some mysterious annotations, and suddenly he's a genius at Potions. OH HOW MYSTERIOUS AND EXCITING. Let us spend 500 pages in trying to find out what some snotty little asshole is doing in secret and trying to figure out who was the little shit who vandalized a schoolbook. THE FIEND.

Luckily, it's not just Harry Potter and the Mystery of Draco's Night-Time Wanderings (He Probably Just Wanted Some PRIVACY, Potter), though there's entirely too much time devoted to that.

Oh, alright, the Draco thing is actually pretty cool in the end. And in between that and the MYSTERIOUS MYSTERY OF THE TEXTBOOK VANDALIZER, there's some rather cool stuff. Specifically, Harry starts meeting up with Dumbledore so that they can find out about what Voldemort was like in his youth. While there's a bigger purpose to that, the scenes dealing with the meetings themselves (which include diving into people's memories as has been seen before in the series) are really well done. Turns out that Voldemort was an evil little weirdo from the start, and the big revelation at the end is actually quite shocking, and nicely sets up the final book in the series. It's a nice departure from the usual deal where Dumbledore never tells Harry anything until the final scenes; which, incidentally, always made me think that Dumbledore was kind of a dick.

Rowling is admittedly formulaic, and the book suffers from the usual problems of the other series: namely, that we pretty much know exactly how the book is going to go (Harry goes to school, everything is swell until a mystery shows up, the kids try to figure it out on their own until the end when there's a big battle that Harry survives and then Dumbledore explains everything at the end). To Rowling's credit, however, it's still an exciting read. She knows her characters, and sometimes it's just fun to sit back and read about the relationship problems of three teenagers who can do magic but are still kinda dumb about such bizarre things as dating and (*gasp*) kissing. She's great at going from moments of total silliness to some pretty serious and dark events, and the world of the book (which completely falls apart if you even begin to think about it too much) is entertaining enough that you never really get bored in the non-action scenes.

On a tangent, it's a shame that the movie adaptation for this book wasn't better. The problem with the movies has always been that they're just a reel of highlights from the books, and sure it's nice to see good moments if you've read the books, but if you aren't a fan you'll just be incredibly confused. And you'll miss out on some great moments like finding out about Voldemort's past in favor of some of the more lighthearted stuff like "ooh! kids are kissing!". You can't really do justice to so much material in the course of an hour and a half, though I wish they had tried a little harder.

So, after that entirely too-long diatribe, I can just tell you that this is a pretty great book, and one of the best in the series. It would be silly to read it without going through the other five, so don't try that, you shameless cheater. I'd highly recommend reading it before watching the final movies, because otherwise you'll probably be very confused.

Now you'll have to wait a bit for my review of the final book in the series (I know you're all at the edges of your seats), because I don't have a copy, I can't get a library card yet and I can't decide if I should re-read it first or after I watch the final movie. FIGGY POTTER AND THE INCREDIBLY HARD DECISION PLUS THE LIBRARY CARD ADVENTURE! now in stores!

Now clickey here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book #1: "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

Oh, well, what the hell.

I first read this book when I was only 16 years old. I didn't even know English very well back then, and I distinctly remember that large portions of the book went directly over my head. And I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

Imagine my surprise when I re-read it ten years later and my reaction was, well, almost exactly the same as it had been back then.

To put it in a few words, Catch-22 is confusing, disjointed and disorienting as all hell. And it's one of the funniest books I have ever read. This time around I was able to pick up on so many more of the (sometimes admittedly groan-inducing) jokes that Heller has sprinkled all over book. I was able to keep better track of the 15 thousand characters that show up at completely random moments, and to keep a slightly less-slippery grasp of the story, which hops from place to place sometimes within the same sentence.

It's hard to write about this book, because where the hell do you even begin? There's no such thing as a linear story, and the best way to sum it up is this: There's this guy in the army at the end (or...the beginning) of World War 2. His name is John Yossarian, and he's a pilot who doesn't want to fly any more missions, because he thinks that everyone is out to kill him. "They're out to kill everybody", he's told. But he takes it personally. But he's told he can't get grounded, because the only people who get grounded are the crazy ones. But the crazy ones don't want to get grounded, so they fly more missions. Yossarian is clearly not crazy, because he doesn't want to die. Got that? That's Catch-22.

Are you as confused as I was trying to write that? Good, because this whole book is like that. It has a beginning, sure, and an ending, but shortly after the first two pages Heller goes back in time, then a little bit forwards, then further back, the further ahead, and soon you have absolutely no idea of where you are. You just know that there's some guy named Milo who feeds the squadron cotton balls covered in chocolate, and a chaplain, and a guy with named Major Major Major Major. And it's all outrageously funny. Sometimes. Most of the time. Sometimes the book can get incredibly depressing, specially towards the end.

And that's kind of the point, really. Heller is trying to tell you that war is confusing and dehumanizing. That everyone is equally ridiculous and absurd, but that things can also be deathly serious. When you sit down and think about the world that Yossarian is stuck in, it seems like that is what hell would be like.

It's definitely not a book for everyone. I've often heard people saying they couldn't keep reading, because the story was too confusing. Too many characters, too much absurdist nonsense. And that's true, but that's exactly why I loved it. You never known where the book is headed, and I actually enjoyed feeling like my head was spinning after reading certain parts of the book.

I'd say give it a try. You'll either love it or hate it, but hopefully you'll laugh as hard as I did. I always recommend this book to everyone I meet, though maybe sometimes I shouldn't. I just think everyone should give it a try and make up their own minds.

Then you'd be in on the joke, and you'd know the answer to eternal questions such as "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?"

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Cannonball Starts!

Here's a very important tip for all you Cannonballers:

Never wait too long to write a book review. If you can, write it immediately after you've finished the book. Otherwise, you'll get lazy as I did and then have the books pile up so that you'll have 5 reviews to write and you can't even remember how you felt about the first few books.

So that's where I'm at. I've begun the reading strong, but since I was home and surrounded by people, I couldn't get into the writing mood. Now have to get myself there again, and it's a pain, because I revel in the laziness of winter.

So far I've read 3 books--two excellent, one quite horrible. The one I'm currently on is a massive bore and I'm forcing myself to get through it quickly, even though I want to put it down every couple of pages. But I must persevere. I've also been reading a fifth on my iPod while at airports and such, so I must make myself finish it.

And through all, I think I'm going to be doing reviews of Breaking Dawn. Because obviously, I hate myself. But I admit that the Twilight reviews were a lot of fun to write (tunnel vision, yay!) and I think they made a lot of people laugh. Plus it'll keep me writing and get me another book on the list.

Onwards! I'll get started on that first review right now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


I'm wondering if it's always going to be like this.

I've spent all year in Dallas wanting to visit Honduras for at least a little while. To see my dogs, to sit in my favorite room to read during sunset, to enjoy my family and eat some tortillas.

And now I've done it, and I spent far too much time wishing I was back in Texas; with my husband, my bed, my own place, my own food.

Now it's time to leave Honduras again--and I don't want to. Because I won't get to see my dogs, to sit in my favorite room and read during sunset, won't get to see my family again for another, too-long while.

I suppose it'll never really go away, this feeling of being divided between two places I call home. I'm thinking that my sense of Dallas as 'home' will grow stronger over time; but I'll never get over missing this beautiful house, this crazy family.

And I'm getting tired of saying goodbye to my family. Too much crying.

I guess for now, it's still a little heartbreaking every time I leave one place for the other. And that's alright, because I don't ever want to lose the ties I have to this place.

I guess that's what growing up is all about.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Checking in...

So I'm finally back in Tegucigalpa after a very long 5 days in Copan Ruinas. I've got a very long post to write about it and my brother's wedding (which was quite wonderful), but that'll have to wait until, well, until I'm not feeling so damn lazy*. Chalk it up to not having slept right for the past three days and having barely made up on any sleep last night.

That's it for now. Just wanted to check in and let the world know I'm mostly alive and well, and planning to eat all the mantequilla and cheese in Honduras until the day I leave. Whee!

*And until I get a better keyboard. I decided that lugging around my laptop wasn't worth the trouble and I've only brought along my iPod Touch. I'm on family computer right now, and the keyboard is pretty terrible. So you'll just have to sit there and wait.