Contemporary Literature

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand


by: Helen Simonson

I picked this book up on my last bookstore outing, off the Valentine’s Day display.  I’m been thinking about reading it for a while (mainly because “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is one of my favorite movies ever. Which has absolutely nothing to do with this book, except they both include the name Pettigrew and are set in England.)

Anyway, this is a fabulous novel.  It’s the story of Major Pettigrew, retired, a widower who lives in a village in the English countryside.  He develops a friendship with local shop owner and widow Mrs. Ali, and the book centers around that relationship.  Much attention is also given to his relationship to the village in general and his son.

Several of the critics have referred to this as “Austen-like”, high but well-deserved praise.  Simonson uses a dry, biting wit to examine racial and generational tensions, with beautifully developed characters and a quiet story the evokes rather intense emotions.

Generally, the book is poking fun at our inherent expectations of society, some common to both Americans and the British, some specific to English village. Reading as a southern American, much of the absurdity of the British-only cultural norms was exaggerated.  I didn’t have to question my learned behaviors and reasonings; I just found it amusing that such behaviors were a thing.

The class prejudice in the book is way more complex than what I’m used to seeing as an American. In America, it’s talked of in terms of tax policies and educational opportunities.  Socially, it would be the extremely poor and disadvantaged, especially those on governmental help, that would be expected to face prejudice. An upper class person prejudiced against the middle class would be viewed as spoiled and out of touch with reality. But in this book, at least, there was prejudice from the social upper class, without regard to economics, against the working middle class. The veiled, and then not-so-veiled, disdain for Mrs. Ali as a shopkeeper was especially interesting to me.  My parents own their own successful shop, and I’ve never had a negative reaction when disclosing that, regardless of socioeconomic status of the person I’m talking to. In fact, the most common reaction is admiration.

Other themes of the book were more broadly applicable.  Mrs. Ali is a British citizen of Pakistani descent, and the book deals quite well with a more subtle version of racial tensions.  It quite excelled at showing people reasoning away their racism, showing a more subtle but prominent side of prejudice.  The Major never has any overt moments of racism, but he often acquiesces to others’ flimsy concealed prejudice while feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Watching him become aware of how this attitude can harm those around him was one of my favorite parts of the story.

There was also a great deal of attention paid to the generation gap between the Major and his son.  Parts of the gap were inevitable, due to changing technologies and social norms, and experiencing the Major’s confusion at this change was often bittersweet.  If you’ve helped an older relative as they struggle to adapt to a changing world, the Major’s feelings were certainly resonate with you. Simonson does a wonderful job of depicting a perfectly competent person bewildered by the changes that come late in life.

The main focus of the book was the beautifully sweet love story between the Major and Mrs. Ali.  It’s absolutely wonderful; it is both intensely joyful and heartbreakingly sad. There’s a certain dignified charm only found in the romance of those past middle age, and Simonson captures it perfectly. And since it’s not a romance novel, the ending could go any which way the author pleases. Though it touches on many a serious topic, the book feels like a light read and doesn’t demand a terrible lot from the reader in return for enjoyment of the story.  Much like Jane Austen’s book, the story, writing, and humor are enough to read the books; all the social commentary, while wonderful, is extra.  It is the perfect book to read in the sunshine, with a parasol and ducks in a nearby pond.

The characterization, plot, and writing in this story were all fantastic.

If you want a lovely story for Valentine’s Day, if you’re interested in a modern-day Austen-type novel satirizing and revealing uncomfortable truths about society, or if you’re a sucker for old people love, than this is the book for you.  If you like your books about social issues to be heavy and hard-hitting, if you’re not a fan of (mostly) quiet stories with a touch of the absurd about them, or if you don’t enjoy British humor, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.


The Name of the Wind

by: Patrick Rothfuss

This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while and finally got around to this past week.  And it’s so very excellent. If you like any type of high or epic fantasy, I would highly recommend this book.

It’s set up as a story within a story.  The outer story is very slow and takes up minimal space in the book, but the reader can feel that it is headed somewhere important. (This book is the first installment of the Kingkiller trilogy.) The inner story, told by the main character, Kvothe, is his life story. Kvothe, however, is still a young man and I would bet that he is the main character in the outer story as we get to the third book – which is, I imagine where the inner story will take back stage to the outer story.

The story is set in a fantasy world, based loosely on various European cultures of the 1600s or so. There’s magic, of course, which a select few can wield.  There’s dangerous creatures and daring adventures and even a journey or two.  It has everything a good fantasy needs.

The pacing in the book is excellent. The first few pages were a bit difficult to get through, but after that it was nearly perfect.  I was completely absorbed in the story and nothing flew by so fast I couldn’t understand it, but neither did I find myself skimming over bits to get to the next good part.

I really liked the main character.  He was intelligent and flawed; since he is telling his own story, there is reflection on his youthful arrogance or stupidity.  Kvothe is both likable and charismatic; even if I didn’t particularly like him at certain points in the book, I was still invested in what happened next.

Rothfuss excels at world building.  Since we follow Kvothe from a little boy, the reader is present as he learns about magic and the rules of his world.  Often, we’re given information as Kvothe uses it to puzzle something out – Jim Butcher uses a similar technique in his Harry Dresden series, though Rothfuss has a much greater mastery over it. (Sorry Jim! I still love your work!)  There is nary one instance that felt like info dumping.

I didn’t like Kvothe’s love interest, but I did appreciate how Rothfuss used her as a gentle remainder of challenges specific to being a women, especially in the cultures/time periods he’s pulling from.  A lot of authors will build their characters into worlds with significantly different gender roles but not specifically acknowledge the problems that presents their (female) characters; it’s really nice when an author takes a few sentences and does acknowledge them.

Also, I just liked the writing in general.  It was clean and engaging as a whole; the writing itself was easy to follow, though the plotline and content added a welcome complexity to the overall story. Rothfuss is one of, if not the, best fantasy writer I’ve read in a long, long time.

My only critique would be that the inner story is so focused on Kvothe – it is from his perspective, after all – the some of the side characters are not as well developed as I would like.  Several of the characters that he spends a great deal of time with aren’t as well fleshed-out as they should be.  The reader doesn’t get any sense of them beyond their role in their life and maybe one or two defining characteristics.  A bit frustrating, though they still read as believable people. 

This book is really excellent. If you like high or epic fantasy, if you crave Tolkien-esque adventures, or if you’re looking to try out a classic fantasy adventure, this is definitely the book for you.   If you only read the best-of-the-best in any genre, this book is for you.  If you avoid fantasy at all costs, then this, sadly, isn’t the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Things They Carried

by: Tim O’Brien

I’ve read the short story by the same name once or twice in high school.  I actually didn’t care for it all that much, but when I saw Tim O’Brien was at the Texas Book Festival, I decided to go ahead and give his book a shot.  I picked up it up with the intention of getting it signed, but I didn’t make it because I was standing in line to get Dav Pilkey to sign Captain Underpants for a friend of mine. Pilkey is a really nice guy and made sure to spend a couple of minutes with each of his fans to draw a picture and talk to them.  Sad for me, but great for all the little kids in line!

I finally sat down and read the book while taking the bus down to see my best friend and her husband (a former Marine who was on active duty in Iraq, oddly enough).  I really enjoyed it.  O’Brien has a straightforward style, not quite as simple as Hemingway’s but to somewhat the same effect; there are a few instances when it feels almost like a modern take on Hemingway.  The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories, arranged somewhat linearly with respect to time, and centering around the Alpha Company platoon’s experiences during the Vietnam War.  Be warned, O’Brien makes no attempt to shield the reader from the realities of war and it contains graphic descriptions of death and violence.

The oddest thing about his books is his use of what Wikipedia describes as verisimilitude. (An incorporation of himself and his life into his work.) Though this is a work of fiction, Tim O’Brien is often the main character and, the reader assumes, at least some of the stories are pulled from his experiences in Vietnam.  It makes the narrator even more unreliable – and O’Brien invests some words into the unreliability of the narrator – and threw me off-balance. It worked to pulled me deeply into the story.  I couldn’t trust the narrator; I couldn’t trust what I was reading and therefore experiencing.  For me, it became a subtle reflection of the uncertainty of the characters. As they were unsure of what they were doing and experiencing, so was I.  It also differentiated between the truth of what happened – the horrors of war and universal experiences of the soldiers – from the facts of the stories.  In nearly any other format, I don’t think I would have finished the stories, but here it adds layers of depth and meaning to the story.

Tim O’Brien is, of course, one of today’s most brilliant writers.  His work is consistently praised and part of many a school curriculum.  The Things They Carried is accessible and easy to read, so if you’re a bit hesitant about diving into a modern-day classic, this would be a great one to start with.  (And if you’ve read the short story but didn’t quite care for it, give the book a go. It’s surprisingly different in style from the short story – more broken up and with dialogue.)  The characters are well-written, the plot(s) are gripping, the pace well-designed, and as a cohesive unit of short stories or a very odd novel, it works beautifully. While O’Brien gives space to the actions and daily life of soldiers, my main take-away from the novel was the emotional and psychological difficulties faced by the soldiers.

If you’re looking for a modern-day classic, a war story that looks beyond tactics and austere descriptions of people, or a portrayal of the emotional and psychological experience of fighting in Vietnam, than this book is for you.  If you’re looking for a history book, are adverse to blood and gore, or if you don’t like the author messing with your sense of perception throughout the book, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.


We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy


by: Yael Kohen

I was browsing through the signed books at the Texas Book Fair and happened upon this one.  I was intrigued by the premise, glanced through the first few pages and decided to buy it.

The first few pages are nothing like the rest of the book.  Kohen uses the first chapter to identify and discuss the prejudices against women in comedy and thus to set up why this book is necessary. The rest of the book is 95% quotes from various comedians and people in the comedy industry, taken from Kohen’s interviews with them, and 5% background information as necessary.  (Apparently the “A Very Oral History” on the front is to be taken quite literally.)

The first time I tried to read the book I was really surprised and turned off by the format, so I put it down for a couple of months.  The second time, I knew what I was getting into, and I ended up thinking it was really good.  It’s more like a written documentary than any common literature style, focusing on comdiennes from the 1950s or so to about 2011.

There’s not any analysis by the author within the book, which I was expecting when I picked it up. .  Certainly there’s enough information in there for the reader to do some extensive thinking and conclusion-reaching of their own. (In fact, you could probably use this book as a basis for some pretty interesting papers.)

It’s loosely arranged in chronological order, by decade rather year. The focus is around star comediennes of each decade; their rise and career path, how others felt about them or women of that decade, their style of comedy and if they had any obstacles either related to gender or from being in comedy.  She interviewed a wide range of people – Whoopi Goldberg, Lisa Kudrow, Roseanne, and Robin Williams are the ones that I remember.  She didn’t have very many interviews with current comedic superstars, like Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, but she does interview many people who have worked closely with them and are fairly famous in their own rights. A good number of Saturday Night Live staff – former and current – show up, for instance.

Most of the quotes are insightful and natural-sounding.  A few are outright funny, but the people are more focused on thoughtfulness than comedy, which is appropriate for the book.  Because of the lack of narrative or analysis, and despite its appearance, this doesn’t read like a feminist text. Though she doesn’t include anyone with the opinion that women aren’t funny, she does include a variety of views on the challenges facing women in comedy (ranging from “there are no challenges” to “women have it much harder than men”.)

Some of the opinions and stories told are really interesting – there are some really striking stories about comedians who were difficult to work with or, conversely, those went out of their way to support newcomers.  Letting the people speak for themselves, rather than trying to marshal quotes to support a conclusion, lends the book an unusual honesty and leaves the interpretation of the book solely to the reader.  Though the author bias was present in order and selection of quotes, it was refreshing to draw my own conclusions without undue influences or trying to follow and critically analyze the arguments of the author.

In short, I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in comedy or famous comedians (male or female!), social history, feminism (though, again, it’s not a feminist text), or entertainment in general. If you like your history to come with lots of analysis, if you don’t like interviews or documentaries, or if you’re not big on non-traditional book formats, then, alas, this may not be the book for you.



by: Jim C. Hines

This was a Christmas present from the same friend who recommended Year Zero.  Luckily for him, I’ve read Hines before and was fairly confident I would enjoy it.

I ended up really liking it, which is good for my friend’s reputation.  Libriomancer is a contemporary fantasy set in the modern-day Midwest. The main character, Isaac, is a libriomancer; that is, one able to use magic to create items from books.  Isaac has a fondness for sci-fi and fantasy and he creates anything from blasters to healing herbs. He no longer practices magic, due to extenuating circumstances, but finds himself in the caught in the middle of escalating tensions between vampires, magicians, and the mysterious puppet master behind it all.  The writing is good, the plot is well-paced, and the characters are likable.

I really enjoyed the world building in the novel, although Hines has some balance issues with too much exposition at some points and too little explanation at others. Not terrible, just noticeable.  There’s a rather large number of side characters and even though I read this all in one sitting, I had a bit of trouble keeping them separate. A few of the less important ones weren’t developed enough to really make an impression on me.

The main character, Isaac, is intelligent and curious; he often asks questions about how things work that I would ask or hear while discussing a book with my friends. For the most part, I was able to follow him as he figured things out, and for the most part, it made sense within the book’s world.  I did really enjoy seeing how he formulated plans and theories; his thought process is much like a research scientist’s and I had a few “of course!” moments, which was always fun!  One of my favorite things was the way he referenced magical studies that had been done or bemoaned the lack of research available.

I don’t know how I feel about Lena, the supporting female character and love interest.  She doesn’t feel very well-developed but at the same time, the reader is left with the impression that the underdeveloped-ness is an integral part of her nature and thus important to her character.  (You’ll have to read the book for that to make any sense, I suppose.)

The book moves quickly and has a good deal of both action and detection.  While it isn’t quite a mystery, Isaac does have to spend a great deal of time acting as a detective. It feels a little bit like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series – a lot of action and detective work in a short period of time, a good bit of destruction, and written in first person. It doesn’t feel like a retelling; certainly it’s not nearly as dark and the characters, while sharing some traits, bear little resemblance to each other.  If you like the Harry Dresden series, though, I would recommend heading on over to Hines’ website and reading the first chapter of this book – you just might like it.

This story, as you might imagine, is peppered with references to books you’ve probably read or have heard of; there’s nothing esoteric or obscure. There are, of course, cult classic and geek culture references. It’s not full of, or even peppered with, humor, but the book doesn’t feel lacking because of it.

While for the most part this is a fairly light read, Hines works in a few scenes asking the reader to really contemplate the morality of the characters’ decisions. It adds a nice touch of depth to the story while not going so far as to ruin the feel of the adventure.

If you like modern-day fantasies with mystery and action or if you enjoyed Inkheart because you found the concept of using the books’ worlds fascinating, then I suggest this book for your reading pleasure.  If you want an epic fantasy or something dark and gritty, then, sadly, perhaps this isn’t the book for you.


The Lady Most Willing

by: Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Connie Brockway

This is the second book co-written by these three romance authors.  (I enjoyed it more than the first, too.)  Julia Quinn is my absolute favorite romance author – and one of my very favorite authors – because of her witty writing, wonderful characters and the way her writing acknowledges the social pressures of the world she sets her novels in.

This story, set in 1819 in a Scottish winter, follows four girls who were kidnapped by an older laird, known around town for his drunken yet harmless antics, wanting to provide his nephews with potential brides.  And by kidnap, I mean Taran gets drunk and goes off willy-nilly to a ball and scoops up the girls, most of whom know him and are therefore rather more annoyed than scared. They then get snowed in at his castle with an assortment of eligible men and, well, romance happens.

I actually like this plot line as compared to the more often seen kidnapping plot lines: a) hero is angry and wants revenge and thus takes eligible woman or b) hero means to kidnap one woman and accidentally kidnaps another.  Here, the heroes are all rather embarrassed and/or amused by the circumstance.  The women, especially the heroine of the first part of the story, give Taran a good dressing down for his behavior and then wait out the storm with good humor and grace, free of fear or worry.  There’s a distinct lack of Stockholm syndrome – it’s known that as soon as the storm stops everyone is free to go – and it’s nice that nobody starts off with a grudge against anyone else.

Time-span wise, everything takes place in 4 days, which is rather short but well done. And it does lead to one of my favorite phrases from a romance novel, “Love at first meaningful conversation.” (Which is much, much better than love at first sight.)  I really loved Quinn’s story – she has, as I said, amazing wit. Her characters find humor in rather everyday things and nothing ever feels contrived.  I just really, really enjoy her writing, even in short-story format.  At some point, I’ll review one of her books and really explore why I love her novels.

Eloisa James wrote the second portion of the novel and I enjoyed it much more than I did her last novel.  Her heroine has a bad reputation, which is a theme she’s dealt with before. I liked how she dealt with it for the most part, and honestly, some of the things her heroine is dealing with women still deal with today. Her writing, generally, is best when she’s dealing with the relationships between the main characters and side characters, such as close friends and family.  Here, the heroine and her sister are constantly interacting and I think that’s part of the reason why I liked it better than her last novel.

Connie Brockway wrote the last third of the novel.  I don’t read her novels on a regular basis, but I did like her writing her better than the last novel in three parts.  She’s a decent writer overall but compared to Quinn and James her writing comes off as ever so slightly contrived and a tiny bit overly dramatic. Her hero was a little angst-y for my taste but I did like that her heroine, Cecily, was shy and reserved and completely okay with that.  Others find her quiet and reserved and she states that she only truly feels at ease enough to be herself around loved ones.  Regardless, Cecily is well-liked, popular, and self-confident.

All in all, this was a fun read and I was often delighted while reading it.  I smiled, I laughed, I snorted – it was good times, y’all.  Its worst fault is that it is the tiniest bit cheesy because of the short time span.  Definitely read it if you like charming and witty romances, novellas, love at first sight (or meaningful conversation!) stories, or if you’re looking for a fun light read (this one is bubble-bath recommended). If you like drama-filled romances, steamy ones full of people ripping off clothes at the slightest provocation, or ones where a deep love develops slowly over a long period of time, then alas!, this may not be the book for you.

Have you read it? Do you enjoy this format? Drop a line in the comments and let me know!