Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Must Love Dragons by Stephanie Rowe

Sometimes you need to read something completely light and mindless. A friend sent me Must Love Dragons and while it is not the kind of book I would have probably bought myself, it was well worth my time. The book is one part Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one part Jennifer Crusie, and one part Good Omens.
Stephanie Rowe has created a hilarious world peopled by dragons, dragon slayers, Satan, the Goblet of Eternal Youth, Guardians, and the occasional average human. Her treatment of Satan, sex, and relationships is light and humorous. There is something of a mystery to keep you reading and wondering exactly what is going on.
Must Love Dragons is the second in the Immortally Sexy series which currently has four titles. Without a doubt this is worthy of a beach read if you are looking for something silly, fantastical, vaguely sensual (after all, the characters are Satan, a dragon, and a slayer. You can't expect that their sexual appetites would be staid and boring) and yet remarkably... hmm, I'm stumped for a word. It is not sweet. It is not innocent. It is definitely not wholesome. But, it is romantic in a good old-fashioned boy meets girl kind of way.
Read. Enjoy. Don't think too hard.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I have seen this book in the bookstore for a couple of years and always been intrigued by the title. Then about a year ago I discovered that it is told from the perspective of a 15-year old boy who has autism. Again, I wanted to read it, but somehow never got around to picking it up. Well, my book group is reading it for our next meeting, so I finally had the necessary excuse to read this book. I am really glad that I did.
The storyline in Curious Incident revolves around a boy, Christopher, finding a dog in his yard who has been killed. As a Sherlock Holmes fan he decides he is going to solve the mystery - hence the title of the book. However, that is the pretext for a much more engaging and fascinating story.
Mark Haddon has done an incredible job giving the average reader an insight into the mind of an autistic adolescent. The writing style, the descriptions, the sense of repetition, the graphics all work together to demonstrate how Christopher copes with the world. This is obviously an extremely smart young man; he is a virtual mathematical genius. But, he cannot separate out unnecessary "noise" in his life. When he is standing in a train station he doesn't just see the few necessary details he needs to get by, he describes every poster and every person because he does not have the ability to filter.
Throughout the story Christopher explains convincingly why he does not like the colors brown and yellow, why being at home is comfortable, and why he would like to be an astronaut.
Having finished this book, I cannot wait to discuss it with a few key individuals - namely a mom I know with autistic sons. I am curious how she views the book - is it true to her experiences? And, a friend who works with autistic children - again, does she find the story to be genuine?
Moreover, it has given me better insight into my own children. I am fortunate that neither of them suffer from spectrum disorders, but I do have a better understanding of some of their emotional outbursts. When a granola bar breaks in half and they are heartbroken and refuse to touch it I get impatient: who cares? But living in Christopher's head, I have a better understanding of how something so seemingly unimportant can take on such grandiose proportions. Maybe I can expand my own patience with my children.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has family members on the spectrum. To me this was much more engaging and much more approachable than a non-fiction description of autism disorders written by an un-empathetic doctor. I feel like I learned a lot more through the personal interaction than I could have at a distance. A quick read that is well worth the time.

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

Pardonable Lies is the third in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. This is a series that you need to read in order. So much of what Winspear writes builds on what she had already told you. So, I would strongly recommend starting with Maisie Dobbs if you want to read this series.
Each of these books gets better and better. Jacqueline Winspear has an incredible grasp on 1920/30s Europe. The dialogue, the clothing fashions, the dilemmas that people are facing between the Wars all seem remarkably accurate. She has an ability to give the reader just enough flavor to really feel the era without overwhelming with unnecessary details just to prove that she knows the time and the place that she describes.
As with every Maisie Dobbs novel, this story revolves around solving a World War I mystery. The mysteries always cause Maisie to undergo intense self-reflection about her own involvement in and response to the War. In this story Maisie has begun to deal with the guilt of surviving when so many friends had been killed. Part of the theme also revolves around the attempt of the survivors to put to rest the questions they have about men who had been killed during the War.
This book seems particularly poignant today as we deal with soldiers returning from another war. These men are dealing with psychological and physical affects that civilians cannot hope to understand. Winspear does an excellent job of helping the reader to understand how difficult it is to return to "normal" life and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Without a doubt Jacqueline Winspear is one of my favorite recent authors. I would recommend her books to most anyone. They are fascinating mysteries that make the reader want to keep going to solve the crime. They are great historical novels that really encapsulate post-War Europe. And, they are psychological stories about inner-personal turmoil and dealing with grief.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Paris Requiem by Lisa Appignanesi

This is one of the best researched books that I have read in quite a while. Lisa Appignanesi has written an interesting book about turn-of-the-century Paris which covers a lot of the main problems that existed at the time: anti-Semitism, prostitution, gender norms, and the treatment of foreigners.
The story revolves around James, Raf, and Elli Norton, three Americans in Paris in 1899. Raf's fiancee is found dead and a murder investigation ensues. The story is detailed and covers every social realm of nineteenth-century Paris. The story itself is not the most original. The murderer is not a complete and total shock. But, the research, the accuracy, and the topic are fascinating.
Appignanesi has obviously done tremendous research about the time and place where her book takes place. The story would not make sense in any other setting because of the tensions that existed in Paris in 1899.
I can't review this book without making it personal. So much of what Appignanesi writes about is exactly what I studied as a graduate student. I would guess that we read some of the same books in doing our research. Her understanding of gender - relations, problems, -bending, norms - reflects all of the contemporary research done by historians and anthropologists studying France. She also has done extensive work on the Dreyfus affair and the newspaper response to it. She accurately depicts the tension between the military and the journalists - egged on by the writings of Zola.She has managed to convincingly connect the Dreyfus Affair to medical and political beliefs of the time. Her descriptions of the mental hospital and the medical fields treatment of mentally unstable individuals - usually seen as women or Jews - also very clearly dovetails with the historical and medical texts written about the era. Finally, her use of Americans as the main characters allows her to underscore the tensions that existed in 1899 towards foreigners.
That Appignanesi could blend all of these issues into one coherent and engaging story is, to me, the sign of a great novelist. If I could figure out a way to create characters who live at the intersection of so many varied historical topics and place them accurately on the map in Paris at the time, maybe I could become a bestselling author too.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

I picked up Le Divorce after finishing Exodus. After seeing the ads for the movie of the same name, I expected light, entertaining, chick lit. That was not the case. The book is much heavier and deeper than I had expected. It was without a doubt an interesting read, but not one of my favorites.
The story covers half a year in the life of two sisters, Isabel and Roxeanne. Roxeanne has married a Frenchman, moved to Paris, and is pregnant with her second child. Isabel has dropped out of film school and is moving to Paris to help her sister with her children. Arriving in Paris, Isabel discovers that Roxy's husband Charles-Henri has left her unexpectedly. The story covers the period of Roxy's pregnancy and dealing with the international laws regarding divorce in France. The main character and narrator is Isabel who has relationships of her own during her time in Paris.
The book is a great examination of French-American interpersonal relations. Johnson cuts to the chase in underlining minor but irritating differences between the two cultures that often lead to misunderstandings and problems. The expatriate American community in Paris is comic in its at once hatred of the French and yet continued desire to live in the French capital. In this, I enjoyed the book because I felt like Johnson hit on some key issues in the relations between peoples of these two nations who seem so alike but end up confounded by their differences. Using divorce as the crux of the problem opened up a number of legal and social differences between Americans and Frenchmen.
However, I had no sympathy for either of the characters. They were selfish and relatively shallow. There was nothing compelling in the plot to keep me turning the pages. I did not feel like Isabel grew through her experiences in Paris. Plus the book just seemed to end. There was a definite conclusion to the divorce problem. But there was no sense of the characters having grown or changed because of their experiences.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Exodus by Leon Uris

The Palestinian/Israeli conflict seems to be following me this fall. I have had more than one long conversation about the history and the current reality of the situation. Technically, I was trained in grad school to teach the subject. I never would have presented myself as an "expert" or even particularly knowledge about the region and the conflict. However, as I have taught it I have discovered that I do know a lot more about what happened than the average American citizen. However, most of my reading is academic, relatively dispassionate prose about dates and events and responses. Dispassionate is a relative term when talking about Palestine/Israel because anyone who knows the name has an opinion - and usually a very strong opinion about who is wrong and who is right. My university training tended towards a pro-Palestinian stance. I am thankful for that because it allows me to play the devil's advocate in a society that leans towards pro-Israeli beliefs. My own view is uncertain. I feel that there is much too much history to be able to convincingly feel more overt sympathy for one side of the other.
Anyway, that's a long introduction to Leon Uris's book. I picked it up off my shelf, having acquired it by way of my brother. I talked to my mother about the story and she read it sometime in 1963. I am very glad that I read Exodus, but I also have some cautionary fears about introducing a book written in 1958 to today's audience.
Exodus is the story of the creation of the state of Israel. Backtracking through the lives of multiple characters, Leon Uris explains how Jews ended up in the Middle East in the 1940s. His historical knowledge about the ghettos of Poland, the concentration camps of Germany, and the Pale of Settlement seems spot on. There is little that I could find to fault him for and I resoundingly recommended the book to a Jewish student who is curious to learn more about Israel. It is a fascinating read.
However, Uris's perceptions of the Arabs is significantly less historically accurate - to say the least. This is the point in which the book is dated. The Arabs are portrayed in the most stereotypically Orientalist terms possible. The Christian Arabs are sympathetic, but the rest smell bad, are traitorous, have absolutely no morals, and are all identical. The Jews are absolutely, no questions asked, correct in their takeover over the Holy Lands. The "Moslems" are completely wrong because, in Uris's descriptions, they have no love of the land and no ability to care for it. I believe there is some historical accuracy in what he has written, but I would like to think that were he to have written his book forty years later, he would have recognized his universalist dismissal of a people and given the Arabs more credit.
One of the best reasons to read this book is to get a better understanding of the role that the British played in further heightening the tension in the region. Uris shows how the political, religious, and moral dilemmas that the British faced created the conflicts that exist in the region down to today.
I would be very curious to know how, if at all, Uris's views of Israel changed in the 40 years between writing Exodus and his death in 2003. The Palestinian/Israeli region remained mired in conflict and obviously continues to be a major source of tension today. At the very least, reading this book has reaffirmed the need to teach people the history of the Holy Lands in order to allow people to take an educated stance on the continued crisis. But, I would hesitate to recommend Exodus to a dyed-in-the-wool pro-Israeli because Uris's stereotypes of the Arabs will only further confirm their belief that the Palestinians are "evil" and the Jews are not.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Finding Time to Read

After reading my blog I have had a number of people comment that they don't have time to read. I have also been asked where I find the time to read with two kids. For me reading isn't something to fit into my busy day; it is a necessary part of my day. Maybe I should focus on exercising or becoming a gourmet chef instead, but that's just not who I am.
I read every night before I go to bed. If I don't read I will spend hours tossing and turning, going over my day in my head again and again. Reading fiction allows me to divorce myself from the issues that surround me during the day.
I read during my commute to work. I love taking public transportation. Twice a week I get on a tram, sit down, and have 35 uninterrupted minutes - twice a day - to become absorbed in another world. Plus, I don't have to fight traffic, fuss when there's an accident, and search for a parking spot.
I read when I am sitting with my boys watching television. I limit their TV intake but there are times of the day when they need a chance to sit quietly - especially considering that at the ages of 2 and 4 they no longer nap. Some would argue that I should be paying close attention to the shows so I know what they are watching. However, the 25th time you put on The Wiggles Sail Around the World there is no need to pay attention. I have actually discovered that I can simultaneously sing the songs and read; the lyrics don't require that much focus.
Finally, when I'm really invested in a book, I will read in the evenings after the boys go to bed. My husband and I chose a few years ago to save money by getting read of cable television. We watch DVDs , but now TV is not something that we automatically turn on and stare at. Instead it has become one option.
Everyone has their different hobbies and different ways they spend their free time. For me, though, reading is not something that comes low on a list of possible ways to spend my free time. It is something I can't imagine not being an integral part of every day.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Third Secret by Steve Berry

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but I am getting terribly tired of Marian apparitions, secret societies that control the Church or disagree with the Church, and a rewriting of history in which every event is interconnected in some unexpected way. The Third Secret is not that over the top, but I just had to get that off my chest first. After The DaVinci Code I felt like everyone was a copycat trying to build on Dan Brown’s popularity. I read this book because my husband asked me too. He said that he wanted to talk to me about the “different” final outlook. It solves a lot of the current issues that plague the Church.

There is definitely a sense of the Catholic Church conspiracy theory about this book, but it does have some unique characteristics that I liked. First, the characters are not secondary to the Church. They are in fact the Pope and his chief secretary. Second, Steve Berry has done an extensive amount of research on the papal selection process which is interesting to any Catholic who has thought about what really happens behind closed doors. Third, the answers that Berry suggests at the end of the book have a great appeal to me. As with DaVinci Code, Berry offers solutions that are controversial, but in no way unexpected given the other "revolutionize the Catholic Church" novels that exist.

This isn’t a book I would necessarily recommend, nor would I pan it. It is not terribly original, but it is engaging. It kept me reading, but I didn’t walk away feeling particularly enlightened or encouraged. It fulfills basic “beach reading” material.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pawing Through the Past by Rita Mae Brown

Rita Mae Brown is a prolific author. This is the eighth book in the Sneaky Pie Mystery series. One thing that has always amazed me about Brown is her ability to write such a traditional cozy style mystery complete with cats. After all, her earlier works were anything but traditional and mainstream. That the same person could pen Venus Envy, Rubyfruit Jungle, and a mystery series set in rural Virginia where two cats and a dog solve the mysteries is a testament to Brown’s diversity. Upon thinking about it more, though, there are some common themes that emerge in her various books. As her mysteries are solved there is often a stark social commentary about what would cause a person to turn to violence.

I read Brown’s stories because they are like coming home – you know what to expect, there is nothing too shocking, and they are easy. She’s a good writer and the stories while not overly obvious are also not trying to twist and turn just to keep the reader guessing. Also, by the eighth book I have a vested interest in the characters. The relationship between Harry and Miranda is quaint. The on again/off again feelings between Harry and Fair are realistic. I like the addition of Tracy who she introduced in this book.

Reading Brown’s work I am often amused by her descriptions of Virginia. Having lived there, I find some of the portrayals apropos. But, I must say her take on Virginia winters make me laugh. Having lived there for six years I never remember a snow storm that lasted more than a few days and even then it was rarely enough to keep cars off the road. Now maybe it was that much worse 20 miles away in the mountains, but I sometimes wonder if her winter scenes are poetic license to create the necessary plot points for the murder and denouement.

If you want something light, you enjoy animals and want an amusing take on what they are thinking and saying, and you like solving mysteries, pick up Brown’s Sneaky Pie Mystery series. They don’t disappoint.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Alibi by Joseph Kanon

A friend gave me this book. She had been intrigued by the topic. However, after reading part of the book she got bored and never finished it. Thinking I might be more interested, she passed it on to me. I understand why she quit. The plot should be fascinating, but the book is laborious to read.

The story takes place in 1946 Venice. Adam, an American soldier who has just finished his job as a Nazi hunter in Germany, travels to Venice to visit his mother. He falls in love with a Jewish woman who recognizes the doctor who turned her father in and had him sent to the internment camps. Murder, intrigue, and witch hunts ensue. World War II Italy is rarely studied in any detail due to the overwhelming shadow placed on it by Germany. The immediate post-war years – especially the attempts to ferret out the “true” fascists from those who were just trying to get by – is likewise not greatly studied. So, the topic definitely made me want to read more.

The overarching theme of the book revolves around moral responsibility. By cooperating with the fascists did someone automatically become guilty? Or, was it justified to cooperate for self-preservation? And, were some people’s lives worth more than others based on their political background, religion, and own moral compass? All of these questions would logically suggest an engaging story.

But it was SLOW!! The story is very dialogue heavy. I have an ongoing debate with an acquaintance about the merits of dialogue versus description. He prefers dialogue; I apparently focus more on descriptive passages. I would guess he might like this book. Kanon has a good ability at writing English the way a foreign-language speaker would speak it. But, for the reader it becomes repetitive and dry. Long conversations that go in circles dominate the story as the characters repeatedly cover the same material over and over. By the end of the story you have a more complete picture of the role of the main actors during the war. But, the 400 pages of suspense are not worth it for the answer on the final pages.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Impossible Things by Connie Willis

I am not a huge fan of short stories. I want the in-depth development of a good long novel. There is a reason that I read books that are part of a series – I like to see characters develop over time. However, Connie Willis is such a great author that I will read anything that she writes.

The first Connie Willis book that I read was To Say Nothing of the Dog. I saw it listed on a book list of great science fiction books. And it was great! Hysterically funny. Then I read Bellwether which is more of a fiction book that deals with science and scientists. That one was wonderful, in part because it happened to be about my hometown, Boulder, Colorado. There is so much to poke fun at in Boulder and she captured the idiosyncrasies perfectly. But, I think her style holds her back from being labeled as one of the great science fiction authors. (Which is odd, because she has won more awards than most authors dream of. Yet, you don’t find her heralded on the shelves at bookstores.) She is sentimental, terribly satirical and funny, and not worried about doomsday. All of those characteristics are what appeal to me but might not appeal to a “typical” science fiction reader.

Some of the stories in Impossible Things didn’t interest me overmuch. But I will mention three that I really enjoyed.

“In the Late Cretaceous:” This is a story about academia at its “finest” – I say in my most sarcastic tone. The lack of understanding of good teaching and basic education is such a crucial point in today’s schools that her story transcends time and place. Plus, the humor that she injects about college campuses is right on.

“Jack:” Writing about London during World War II, Willis takes a very different perspective than is often seen in war literature. The basic story is interesting enough, even without the intrigue about Jack. Honestly, the outcome was a bit obvious, but it did not undermine the narrative of war-torn London. (I have to wonder though, if it was so obvious when it was written. In retrospect, her story probably was novel in the 1980s but has been overdone today.)

“At the Rialto:” My guess is that this story was something of a precursor for Bellwether. The story and the book both have a sense of the ridiculousness of scientific theory played out on average characters. Although I’m not a scientist, I will say that by the end of her story, I had a better understand of quantum theory than I did when I started.

This is a book that I will hand to my husband and tell him to read select stories. As a die-hard science fiction fan, I know that he would not find every one engaging. But there are some that he will appreciate.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

I just finished reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I have a few observations to make:

Observation 1: Do not attempt to read this book when you have anything else going on in your life. Life will seem like an annoying distraction. I read all 400 pages in 24 hours. During those 24 hours I also taught three 1 ½ hour classes, made dinner, played with my children etc. To say that it is engaging is an understatement. You will be glued to the book from the first chapter.

Observation 2: I would have said that this book touches a parent differently than it does another reader. But, after finishing it, I’m not sure that that is true. There are universal dilemmas in the book that would engage any reader. And the various voices that Picoult uses to tell the story create an empathy for characters very different from oneself. Through their telling of events, the reader identifies with an angry teenage boy, a mother of a dying daughter, a high-powered lawyer, and a thirteen year old girl.

Observation 3: Be prepared to get angry. I wouldn’t have made that statement until the very end of the book. There were points throughout the story where I got angry at individuals characters and wanted to shake them and ask what they were thinking. To me, that’s a sign of a great writer, when characters become so real that you want to interact with them. But, for me, the end of the book made me very angry with the author.

That’s all I have to say.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Classic Book Series for Kids

My son just turned four. I would guess that he will begin to read on his own during the next year. Don’t quote me on that, but his interest in words and letters gives me the sense that it is brewing in his brain. Yesterday he asked me to read him a birthday card and he wanted to follow along, finger under each word, as I read. Seeing his interest in reading, I want to introduce him to books that will really catch his interest and make him want to read. I find that the easiest way to verify a book’s quality is to have read it myself, usually as a kid.

I would never limit the books that my sons picks out at the library (well, there are titles that I convince him to pass over), but when I buy him books I find that I return again and again to the classics that I knew. Everyone knows these stories, but I’ll mention them anyway:

Clifford: nothing beats a good Clifford story. There are so many more than there were in the 1970s. Clifford talks now. And he has friends who talk. But, not to Emily Elizabeth, only to each other. The stories are timely – there is one for every traditional American holiday. They all have a good message – usually about the importance of friendship. Some even introduce topics that parents need to discuss with their children like fire safety. And they are easy to read in one sitting without losing a child’s attention.

Curious George: We got my son a gift pack of 12 Curious George stories for Christmas last year. Much to my dismay, none of these stories were written by H. A. Rey. They were written, so far as I can tell, by a computerized program where the key idea had to be that “George is a good little monkey, but always very curious.” Nonetheless, they appeal to my son immensely. Every little boy (and girl? I only have boys so I’m guessing here) gets in trouble for an innate curiosity. So they can relate to George. Often his antics seem innocent but the books do a good job of explaining why George’s choices were the wrong ones. And again, they are easy to get through in one sitting and he loves the pictures.

Berenstain Bears: We have just started reading these books. They are longer and have many more words than the other series. But, the messages in them are really good. Right now we’ve only read a book about “Best Friends” and another about “Trouble with Money.” The morals are obvious for an adult, but they are the kinds of issues that I know are on my son’s mind. Money is something he is just beginning to grapple with – a lot of questions about what it is, where we get it, why we go to the bank. And friends are also key for him. Who are his friends? When does he get to see his friends? How does he balance his wants and his friends’ needs? These don’t get read as often as they are longer. My four-year old likes them, but my younger son loses patience. But, I caught them looking at the covers on the back of the book and figuring out which ones they had already read and which ones they wanted to pick out next.

The Masque of the Black Tulip by Lauren Willig

I finished this book early last week, but life has intervened. There has been so much going on at home and at work that this is my first quiet moment to write down my thoughts.

I am a historian. So for me this work is a classic. I don’t mean it is a classic in the sense that fifty years from now it will be placed on the shelf as a piece of great literature to be used in high school classrooms. Instead, it is a classic portrayal of academia through the eyes of a graduate student in history. Even there, Lauren Willig’s first book was a more prototypical caricature of grad student angst while searching for the perfect dissertation topic. What appealed to me about this story were the little unnoticeable tidbits. The almost inside jokes – and I don’t know the author, nor do I purport to know what it is like to be a history grad student at Harvard.

What I do understand though is the humor in the way the author describes early eighteenth-century England and France. She has create a stereotypical romance story in many ways, but it is so cleverly crafted, self-deprecating, and over the top, that as a reader you know she has consciously poked fun at the entire genre and her own ability to write such a story. First and foremost, this book reminded me of many hours spent with my own classmates. One friend in particular has such a similar wit and sense of cynicism about her own historical era that I had to double check the author’s picture and biography on the back cover. I genuinely could believe that my friend had written this book instead.

While sitting on the couch cackling at the humor my husband asked me what was so funny. I tried to read passages of the book to him, but he didn’t see the humor. Instead he decried, “This proves that all female graduate students are sexually repressed.” What can I say; we spend so much time staring at dusty archives and ridiculously dry monologues that we need some outlet. And farcical, historical romance takes us to a world that we recognize, but that is nonetheless completely removed from our dry, academic studies.

The story is cute. It follows two timelines – one contemporary as Eloise searches the archives to find the identity of the Black Tulip, a French spy in England. The other through the eyes of Henrietta who, living in England during Napoleon’s reign, is also searching for the identity of the Black Tulip. It is not particularly deep. It is not particularly difficult to follow or guess at the outcome. But, it is witty. It is fun. It is refreshing. It is chick lit and traditional romance bound and tied up with the jaded wit of a historian who can make light readable academic puns about the time and place she studies.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mosaic by Soheir Khashoggi

Do you ever read a book then stop, look at the cover and wonder who put the wrong cover on the book you just read? That's the way that I felt about Mosaic. The book is quite interesting. But the picture on the front and the blurb on the back are only narrowly reflective of the story between the covers.
Mosaic is the story of an Arab-American family post 9/11. They experience obvious tensions because of their heritage and eventually the father decides to take his children back home to Jordan where they can be raised outside the influences of American culture. In so far as it goes, that is the story inside and the story on the back. But, that's where the similarities end.
Nowhere on the back cover does the book discuss Dina, the main character's, two best friends Sarah and Emmeline. Their stories are as much a part of the "Mosaic" that Khashoggi creates as the Jordanian/Lebanese/American family. There is even a line about how the three friends together create a mosaic.
Also, the picture on the cover is deceptive. To me, this is a very stereotypical political ploy by the editors - or whomever it is that decides on book art - to fit into the political time frame of post 9/11 United States. The cover suggests an American woman wearing some type of traditional Muslim headcovering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Subjugation of women is only a very minor plot point, veiling is never even mentioned. The story outside of the U.S. takes place in Jordan, one of the most forward-looking Middle Eastern nations. I have to wonder if someone felt that the book would sell better if it looked more "exotic" and derisive of Middle Eastern culture.
As far as the story itself goes, I liked it. Khashoggi obviously knows Middle Eastern culture and is aware of the diversity that exists both in the U.S. and in the Middle East. She creates characters who are affected by 9/11 in very real ways: they are American in form, but discover that unexpected prejudices exist.
My only problem with the plot is the end of the book. I feel like the climax and the denoument ended 30-40 pages before she stopped writing. The last few chapters were plodding and unnecessary in my view. I understand that she included some of the resolution to show a passage of time in order to make the final scene of the book believable, but I would have appreciated it much better if that information had all been left to the reader's imagination.
I love reading books about the Middle East. What better way to learn about a culture that can be so foreign to American culture than through the lens of fiction? This story increases my knowledge of what life is like for Arab-Americans who are attempting to bridge the gap between two very disparate societies. However, I wish the people who had created the book had allowed the reader's enough smarts and interest to enjoy the book on its own terms rather than through the lens of an orientalist perception of what the Middle East should look like.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Access Denied by Donna Andrews

A friend recommended Andrews’ first Turing mystery Click Here for Murder because it was so different and interesting. I met Donna Andrews at a book festival and after speaking with her for a few minutes I walked away with all four of the books in the Turing series. And it wasn’t just because she was a good salesman. What she told me caught my attention and I have to say I have really enjoyed the three books that I have read so far.

In the series Donna Andrews combines characters from three very different worlds of mystery writing. Turing is a sentient computer who solves mysteries. Like early crime fighter Sherlock Holmes, Turing is methodical and analytical – almost to a fault. To her, everything has a logical deductive answer. But, Andrews introduced two other characters in her first book who have become crucial sidekicks to Turing’s Holmes. Maude is the series Miss Marple. She is an older figure who resembles a librarian when the series starts. But, as the books progress she becomes the computer expert who works with Turing to solve the impossible crimes. The third character is Tim a pulp fiction film noir junkie who wants to be Sam Spade. Combining these three generations of mysteries, Andrews has succeeded in creating a mystery that would appeal to a huge range of readers.

As Andrews’ told me when I met her, there’s another whole side to her mysteries appeal. Andrews has made a concerted effort to create a realistic sentient computer – in the best guise of good science fiction. I think it is her crossover between science fiction and mystery that appeals to me the most. There is an interesting mystery to solve to keep the reader reading. But, there is also a lot of technical information that is very up to date and accurate. It is easy to believe in the sentience of Turing because Andrews’ places her in a realistic computer-aged world. The logical side of the character blends well with the push for independence. I loved her conversations about the garden in this book.

I love this series. But, I am the first to admit that not everyone is going to like it. My husband, a technophile, is somewhat dismissive. He liked it and thought she did a decent job with the computer, but he is so tech-y that he expects perfection. My mom found the first book “cute” and different, but it didn’t appeal to her love of historical mysteries. I would recommend this to someone who grew up with computers and is willing to create a suspension of disbelief in order to empathize with Turing as she fights against her online limitations.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Simon Said by Sarah Shaber

When I finished reading Simon Said my first thought was this is what an academic mystery should be. After ranting about how bad the Princeton Murder book was I feel compelled to explain what makes this one so much better.

Simon Shaw, the protagonist of Shaber’s stories, is a history professor at Keenan College in North Carolina. From the outset, you get a good sense of what life is like in an academic setting. It is cut-throat and demanding yet also compelling and a labor of love. Throughout the story, Shaber continually returns to Shaw’s academic duties. Because it is the middle of summer and he is teaching summer school, he has the opportunity to solve the historical crime that presents itself to him. But, he still has to partake in departmental politics, teach class, and spend time researching in the library. Unlike other academic mysteries that I have come across, Shaber didn’t decide to use an academic because they have a history of being good researchers, but then write a story that has less than nothing to do with academia. Instead, she weaves together a plausible story that combines university life with amateur detecting. (In one of her later books, The Fugitive King, the story veers away from academia quickly. However, a few key scenes early in the book are dead-on caricatures of professor-student relationships. I was willing to overlook the overdone mold of removing the academic from academia to create a more logical setting for a murder case because of the way she set up the beginning of the story.)

Moreover, Shaber’s descriptions of Keenan College portray a clear picture of campus life at this (fictional) institution. She describes not only the buildings, but also the finer points of a university setting – the administrative staff who is integral to the running of the institution, the hanger-on students who can’t adjust to graduating, the community that surrounds the campus that accepts the eccentricities of university life. Her descriptions gave a great sense of life at a small Southern college.

There are flaws; it isn’t perfect. Reading the book I knew that Shaber herself was not an academic. I don’t remember anything in particular that caught my attention, but little comments suggested a somewhat stereotypical perception of higher academics. I read one review that was disgusted by her disregard for tenure policies. Nonetheless, these discrepancies did not turn me off to the story.

Most importantly, I felt that Shaber created a realistic character whose actions largely reflected human nature. Shaw’s conversations were authentic. His actions, while not always logical, were more realistic because of that. The relationships that he develops with Gates and Julia through the book are engaging.

Obviously, I was not alone in my praise for this book. It received the Malice Domestic Award from St. Martin’s Press. Shaber wrote at least five other books in the series, but I heard that she had publisher/editor troubles and has not had any new books released. I hope that changes as I think that Shaber is a welcome addition to the world of academic mysteries.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Pirate Books for Preschoolers

My almost-four year old son recently decided that he wanted a pirate birthday party. This came completely out of the blue. I fully expected him to request a Cars theme, but while in the shopping cart at Target he informed me that he “loves” pirates. So, we have been on a quest for pirate material appropriate to an almost-four year old. I am not overly protective, but I don’t think that he needs to be reading hack-and-slash books just yet. He has plenty of time for that when he is older.

We started at the public library. I asked our librarian for pirate books appropriate for a preschooler. She gave me Disasters at Sea – a true life account of boating disasters throughout history including the sinking of the Lusitania and the Exxon Valdez crisis. Needless to say, this was not exactly what I had in mind. The other books she found were non-fiction books that were much too long to hold a young boy’s attention span.

On to round two: I spent an evening in front of the computer looking up pirate books. The Amazon feature, “Customers who bought this item also bought” is great! Picking and searching, I finally compiled a decent list of stories that are about pirates. But the focus is on buried treasure and parrots and pirate’s outfits. The mention of guns and swords is minimal.

Now each week at the library we look for two or three of the books on the list. We’ve made it through at least half and the interest in pirates has not declined.

Here is what we found:

Pirate Pete by Kim Kennedy

Pirate Pete’s Giant Adventure by Kim Kennedy

Backbeard and the Birthday Suit by Matthew McElligott

Do Pirates Take Baths? By Kathy Tucker

How I became a Pirate by Melinda Long

Shiver Me Letters by June Sobel

Night Pirates by Peter Harris and Deborah Alwright

Roger the Jolly Pirate by Brett Helquist

Pirate’s Parrot by Lyn Rossiter McFarland and Jim McFarland

On the Go with Pirate Pete by Ann Edwards Cannon and Elwood Smith

Pirate School – a chapter book series.

A Rare Murder in Princeton by Anne Waldron

This is one of the worst books I have read in a while. Apparently I am alone in feeling this way though considering that the reviews on for the book are overall quite good. But here’s my issue: The plot and the murder itself aren’t that bad it’s the rest of the book that stinks. The dialogue is completely unnatural. At least, I hope most people don’t talk like that. It just doesn’t flow in any way that sounds normal. And, the part that really got me was the recipes at the end. A dozen years ago or so Diane Mott Davidson – among others – popularized a whole new kind of mystery – include recipes or other useful tips at the end of your book to popularize it and to help the book appeal to a whole new audience. It works for Davidson, her books are about a caterer who cooks all the way through the book. But Waldron’s characters occasionally eat dinner together or cook for one another: thus a selection of recipes. Why? It seems like a total non sequitur.

Finally, the book purports to be about an academic at Princeton. You get a bit of a sense of what life is like on a college campus, but very little feel for the location. The story could have been placed at most any college campus in the United States. If you’re going to pick a well-known location like Princeton, make a concerted effort to really make the reader feel like she’s on the Princeton campus and dealing with well-educated faculty members and students. (Other reviews talk about how much they appreciate the quaint connections she makes to the real campus. Ah well, to each his own.)

I am a discerning reader, but rarely am I just out and out negative about a book. I would be willing to read Waldron’s other work, as she has published a number of books so there is an agent and editor out there somewhere who thinks she has talent. Personally I think there are many other authors and books that are worth picking up before Waldron's.

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

As a historian who happened to grow up in Colorado, this book was poignant for me. I have to admit, I had to pick it up twice before I really got interested in it. It tends to start somewhat slowly and I wasn’t that interested in the story. But, once I got past the first fifty pages, I found it was hard to put the book down.

Tallgrass is the story of Rennie, a 13-year old girl who lives on a beet farm in southeastern Colorado in the early 1940s. Her brother has enlisted in the war, her sister has moved to Denver to work in a munitions factory, and she has to help her parents on the farm. However, just down the road from her house the government has created Tallgrass, a Japanese internment camp for Japanese-Americans. The very realistic story of the everyday life of small town America which has been impinged upon by something so “foreign” (and yes I say that tongue in cheek) is fascinating… moving … heartwarming doesn’t quite sound right. But, it is very real.

My mom gave me this book, as she gives me much of what I read, and we talked about its use in a high school history class. Dallas has an uncanny ability to create believable characters who are realistic because they are not perfect: they make mistakes, they misunderstand situations. But, they also cry and feel and grow because of their experiences.

Part of what I like about Sandra Dallas is that her stories are innocent. If you’ve read this book, you might think that is an odd term to use considering what happens to the characters. But, by innocent I mean that the characters are normal every day people who have normal every day concerns. There is nothing fantastical that happens. There are very sad things that occur and there is a definite loss of innocence amongst her characters. But this are no blood and guts. This is the type of book you could give to a junior high student and not worry overly about the messages that she imparts.

All that having been said, I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. It is slow at times. And, if you don’t know Colorado, the Denver references won’t necessarily be interesting. Plus, if you are not a history buff, the location in rural, small town Colorado might not be engaging. However, the way that Dallas weaves together the story of the Japanese-Americans who were placed in these camps is not so heavy-handed to feel like a lesson in political correctness. I put the book down and felt enlightened for having read it and considering that it inspired me to start a blog, I would say it is an extremely worthwhile read.


If you liked this book, I would also recommend The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas or anything by Maeve Binchy. Her books, while they take place in Ireland, have a similar quality to Dallas’s.

Introducing Myself

Let me start with a little background. I am a reader. If I had to describe myself in one word, that is the word I would use. Almost everything that I do connects to reading in some way. In my professional life, I am a historian. I have read more history than I would care to remember sometimes. When I’m not working, I’m a mom. I read to my two sons all of the time. One of the most peaceful parts of our day is sitting on the couch, one boy on each side of me, while I read to them. Our weekly treks to the public library to search out new books is a moment of pure enjoyment for us. In my purely personal moments, I read. I read to escape life’s difficulties. I read to travel outside of the world I live in. I read to learn. I read to relax and enjoy.

I hope that you enjoy reading my rants, raves, and reviews. Maybe I will inspire you to pick up something new and different. Enjoy!