Monday, February 21, 2011

The Woman Who Can't Forget

The title: The Woman Who Can't Forget
The author: Jill Price
Publication: Free Press, 2008
Got it from: The library

I was first introduced to the story of Jill Price in the November 2007 edition of National Geographic, when she was an anonymous scientific study called AJ, and at the time I was fascinated. Price has the incredible ability to remember every single day of her life. Give her a date and she can tell you exactly what she did that day, what the weather was like, who she saw and even what day of the week it was. In her memoir, she talks about being constantly bombarded with memories all day long and even at night when she's trying to sleep. It isn't so much that she is trying to remember (although her brain scans reveal obsessive-compulsive tendencies), it's that her brain is unable to forget.

Price's memory was so unusual that scientists had to invent a term,
hyperthymestic syndrome, to describe it. Since then, only a few people have been been diagnosed with it, including actress Marilu Henner. Price describes it as a burden, and I can see why. Imagine if you could remember every hurtful thing anybody has ever said to you, every mistake you've ever made - and then imagine having to relive the emotions that went with it every time. We've all had experiences where a certain smell or a song has triggered a memory, but for Price those triggers occur all day long. Although she says she would never give up her gift, I can only imagine what a nightmare it must be to live with. Understandably, she suffers from long bouts of depression and low self-esteem.

What made this book particularly riveting to me is that I also have an extraordinarily strong autobiographical recall. I think everybody is particularly good at memorizing something, and I don't think I'm unique, but I certainly feel unusual. What really took me aback was when Price drew diagrams of the ways and shapes she sees time. My jaw almost dropped to the floor and I started getting goosebumps, because my personal diagrams were almost identical! (I'm sorry I can't reproduce the diagrams here). Scientists say the way she views time is unusual - for instance, her decades read from right to left, and her year is laid out in a circle, both the same for me - and that it may be one of the keys in how she remembers. I wouldn't be surprised.

Of course, I don't remember anywhere near as specifically as Price does, and thank goodness because I remember too much as it is. You know how most people say things like, "I don't remember how old I was when..." or, "I can't remember what year it was when..."? That doesn't happen for me. I always remember the year, usually the month and sometimes the day. Give me the name of a movie I've seen in theatres, and I can tell you exactly what year it was. Conversely, give me a year and I'll tell you the movies I've seen in them. I even remember the years for a ton of movies I haven't seen. I'm always biting my tongue at work when a patron comes to me and asks, "I want this movie, but I don't know what year it was made." It's from 1996! This works for books too. I have read thousands of books over the years, and I can pretty much remember every single one of them. Major plot details, usually the titles and often the authors. It drives me nuts when patrons can't remember if they've read a book, only to discover they read it six months ago. I can remember books I read sixteen years ago!

Does this make me some sort of memory genius? Heck, no. And it may all have something to do with what scientists call the memory bump, in which more memories are stored of the years between ten and thirty than any other time in one's life. Unlike Price, I don't think my memories are going to get any stronger or more vivid as they age. And that's fine with me. After all, being selective about memories is how you form your sense of identity, and I'm more than happy to not think about the sheer hell that was being an adolescent. Still, I couldn't help but feel some kinship with the author when she talks about the first time of being self-aware, or how she empathizes with children because she remembers all to well what a difficult thing it is to be a child. Amen, sister.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Wild Sight

The title: The Wild Sight
The author: Loucinda McGary
Publication: Sourcebooks, 2008
Got it from: Amazon, 2009

I love books set in Ireland, especially Irish romances, so I was eager to read this one. It's about an Irish man who has spent most of his life in America escaping his past, only to return to Ireland and find the past catching up to him. Donovan has "the sight" which allows him to travel back in time and also to witness events of the past just by being near certain objects. When visiting his father, who's had a stroke, he meets a woman named Riley who claims to be his half-sister. Of course we, the readers, know that can't be true because Riley is his love interest.

I enjoyed this book for the most part. I liked that it was set in Northern Ireland, where most Irish books I read tend to be set in the south. In particular I liked the descriptions of the countryside, their visits to Belfast and the Giant's Causeway. It was also fast-paced with lots of twists and turns thrown in.

However, there were a few things that really annoyed me. I couldn't stand the main character, Riley. She is basically described as a blonde California princess, and every male character instantly falls in love with her. Barf. This would have been more acceptable if she wasn't such a wimp, but she's constantly "squeaking" and "wimpering," which really grated on me. And she was described as a "wee golden thing" so many times I wanted to plant her in the garden like a carrot, upside-down. Also, I found it really annoying that in the middle of something exciting or some dire situation, the main characters would always be dropping or fumbling for something. It really broke up the action in a frustrating way. (I can't stand when they do this in movies, either).

Overall, though, this wasn't bad. I'd probably read another book by this author and hope it had a better heroine.

The Rose Labyrinth

The title: The Rose Labyrinth
The author: Titania Hardie
Publication: Atria, 2008
Got it from: Amazon, 2009

Explaining the plot of this book is almost impossible, but I'll give it a shot. It's been described as a sort of feminist Da Vinci Code, involving papers belonging to Queen Elizabeth's I's astrologer, John Dee. It involves a family called the Staffords, who are directly descended from Dee, and a woman named Lucy King who is awaiting a heart transplant and becomes involved in the Staffords' lives. It took me awhile to figure out just what the heck is going on. At first there's a long section with Will, the younger Stafford son and his visit to France and it was some time before I realized that Lucy's doctor was Alex, Will's brother. Anyway, I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that Will makes a sudden and swift exit early on in the plot but re-emerges (sort of) later on, when Lucy gets her heart transplant. (Cough). Then there's a developing romance between Lucy and Alex, who undertake to finish Will's quest.

I think the many, many bad reviews on the Amazon UK sight are correct. This book is dreadful. The romance part of this book was okay. I'm not generally against doctor-patient romances, so I could live with this one. But none of the characters were very likable. As somebody pointed out, all the women are beautiful and fragile and courageous and all the men are tall, handsome and brooding. Without actually developing any personality.

And the mystery/suspense part? Ghastly. First of all, everything is written in purple prose, long flowery sentences empty of meaning. The characters all spout long, convoluted sentences about esoteric wisdom and other gobbly gook that's impossible to follow. Pages and pages of it, on and on, without there ever being anything exciting like car chases or mortal peril. And they kept throwing out new ideas that never went anywhere. I would read something and think, "Okay, this is what the book is about." Then I'd read something else and think, "No, okay, this is what the book's about." I kept waiting for that a-ha moment when suddenly it would all come together and I'd see the big picture, but that never happened. Instead, I just heard endless things about Chartes cathedral, the wisdom of hearts, the number 34, the Rapture, mythical and Biblical allusions, Shakespeare, the Wizard of Oz (seriously) and on and on.

And yet, weirdly, I didn't hate this book. I kept feeling there was a good book in there somewhere, with a re-write and 150 pages or so chopped out and, you know, an actual point. I'm the first to admit I love when authors assume you're smart and don't spell things out to you, but these opaque "riddles" the author kept handing out would probably remain opaque if you sat there for ten years thinking about them, because they make about as much sense as the Muppet's Swedish chef. I've spent three months reading this book on and off and all I can say is - don't.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey

The title: Shades of Milk and Honey
The author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publication: Tor, 2010
Got it from: DC, Xmas 2010

Jane Ellsworth is a quiet Regency woman who, at 28, has little prospects of marrying. Her plainness has left her "on the shelf," even though she is skilled at a highly valuable accomplishment: manipulating glamour. In Jane's world, glamour is used in everyday life to create illusions of beauty and works of art. The trouble is that it takes a physical toll on the person manipulating it if used for too long. Even though some women of Jane's acquaintance use glamour to enhance their appearance, Jane herself does not, despite being overlooked for her younger, more beautiful sister Melody. Melody is herself jealous of Jane's talents because they win the affections of a neighbour whom both sisters admire.

This book is a gentle romance, more along the lines of a traditional Regency of manners. The magical elements of the book don't overwhelm the story and are easy to picture: for instance, a commissioned "glamural" brings to mind the moving pictures of Harry Potter, but with a more sensory component. Jane and Melody sometimes appear to have been lifted straight out of Sense and Sensibility. Plain, rational Jane is clearly Eleanor; while flighty, beautiful and romantic Melody is a perfect Marianne Dashwood. But as in Jane Austen's stories, here characters are not always what they seem. The brooding and seemingly hostile Mr. Vincent reveals a softer side through his magnificent glamour-based creations, while the charming Captain Livingston will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Wickham and Willoughby type. The questions of who ends up with whom, and who is really in love, do not become fully realized until the end.

This is altogether an engaging story, filled with countless literary allusions, including the stories of Daphne and Apollo and Beauty and the Beast, as well as more subtle homages to other 19th century works. A sequel due out this year will hopefully continue the story of secondary characters left dangling at the end of the first.