Thursday, May 22, 2008

Children of Men by P. D. James

My mom sent me a copy of Children of Men after I told her I had seen the movie. This was one of those rare instances where I am glad that I saw the film before having read the book. There are often times when someone will think, "wow, the book was so much better than the movie." There are rare times when someone will think, "wow, the movie was actually better than the book." But, it is unusual - in my experience - to think "wow, those two stories had almost nothing to do with one another."
Don't get me wrong, the world that P. D. James created is the same world that is seen in the film. The main character is the same. There are one or two scenes that are almost word for word identical between the movie and the book. But overall, the two stories are vastly different. Both good, but with completely different motivations, themes, and outcomes. Honestly, I would have to say, given a choice, I liked the movie better than the book. The movie, staring Clive Owen, was incredible. All of my cinema students raved about the cinematography and the development of the theme. It was a fantastically interesting post-apocalyptic style movie. There are a lot of relevant contemporary topics that the movie addresses in very subtle ways.
James' novel, on the other hand, took a futuristic world in order to examine the inner workings of a jaded academic and his relationship with his cousin who has become the Warden of England. Much of the story revolves around Theo's inner thoughts about the state of the world. He is completely self-absorbed and only looks outside of himself when he gets to know Julian. There is very little examination of greater social ills that make the movie so fascinating.
If nothing else, I was intrigued to read a futuristic novel by P.D. James who is much better known for her mystery series. This book seems like a stark break from her general style. I am curious to go back and read some of her other work now and see if I can find the threads that led to the creation of the Children of Men world.
I wouldn't recommend this book if you loved the movie and want to know more about the world. You won't find it in this novel. To be honest, I'm not sure who I would recommend this book to. My husband hated it, but wanted me to read it. His comment was that he disliked the main character and couldn't relate to him or empathize with him. I didn't feel quite that strongly. But it is not the most uplifting read.

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd

I love Edward Rutherfurd. He writes amazing books. They are long sweeping epics that focus on a geographical area. I was first introduced to Rutherfurd after reading The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (and yes, I'm anxiously waiting for World Without End - the sequel - to be published in paperback). The first Rutherfurd book I read was Sarum which chronicles the story of Salisbury and the Salisbury Cathedral. The Forest returns to a similar world and chronicles the story of the New Forest located just south of Salisbury.
All of Rutherfurd's books follow the lives of four of five families over a millennium. In the course of the story fortunes are won and lost, hearts are broken, and the world changes around these small somewhat inconsequential individuals. Famous characters do appear in the periphery of Rutherfurd's books, but they are never the story of Queen Elizabeth or Winston Churchill. They are the story of normal, everyday people.
I found that I was reading along at a brisk pace, really enjoying The Forest when I suddenly came to a grinding halt. One particular chapter was really tedious. It took place in the late-1790s and should have been fascinating, but it really drug relative to the other stories. One particular character, Mrs. Grockleton, was such a clear mirror of Mrs. Bennet from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. She is amusing, but almost too much of a caricature. The rest of the chapter was plodding, which I rarely find with Rutherfurd. I usually enjoy his long detailed description of locale and how it changes over such a broad range of time.
Once I finally skimmed and plowed my way through that chapter, the pace picked up again. The surest mark of a good book to me is the way that I feel as I read the last line. With The Forest I was pleasantly content. It was a really good book. I learned a lot - not 'useful' information per se - but I know more about Southern England than I did. And I was pleasantly entertained.
This is not a book for the lighthearted. It is over 600 pages long and it is dense. Rutherfurd relies on really detailed descriptions. But, if you like epics - think John Jakes or Leon Uris - then any book by Rutherfurd, including The Forest, is worth your time.

Through the Grinder by Cleo Coyle

This is the second book in the coffee house mystery series. I enjoyed it. It was a nice light read. But I didn't love it. As I mentioned with the first book, this series tends towards chick lit. This book was very much a product of that genre.
As with typical chick lit there was a terribly handsome man. He was perfect. He was attainable. But, for the long term the main character could not end up with Mr. Right. Something had to be wrong - of course. The book is set up to make you wonder if Mr. Right is in fact the killer. But that would clearly be way too obvious.
The outcome of the book reads like a movie we've all seen (although I can't remember right now what movie that is. Nor would I want to give away the ending). It's just a bit too cliche.
If you love coffee it is still a fun read. If you want something light, you like series where you can follow the life of a character, and you want to learn esoteric facts about coffee then definitely read this book. However, after reading this one, I don't feel any need to pick up any more Cleo Coyle coffee house books. There's better stuff out there.
Oh, and Cleo Coyle is in fact a pen name for this couple. One author ( or group of authors) writing more than one series of mystery books seems to be a growing theme. It's probably good for business, but let some other people have a chance. Maybe getting some new authors on the shelves would open up some novel ideas that are less pat and over done.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dinosaurs Before Dark (Magic Tree House #1) by Mary Pope Osbourne

I have heard moms talk about the Magic Tree House series for at least two years. Last summer I browsed through a couple of the books at the stores and just didn't feel that engaged in them. They seemed too fantastical for my three year old son who was a very literal little boy.
Two weeks ago we were at the library's semi-annual book sale and they had the first six books in the series for 75c each. Since we have progressed to chapter books, my son is a year older, and this year is all about imagination adventures in our back yard, I thought we would try again.
He LOVED Dinosaurs Before Dark. We read most of the book in one sitting. He gasped with surprise. He was beside himself when the T-Rex showed up. He jumped and sat with his legs on the couch when Jack got to ride the pteranodon. I have honestly never seen the boy that excited over a book (At least not since he was a toddler and first discovered books with cars in them).
As soon as we finished Dinosaurs, we had to go get the other five books and see what they were about. We laid them all out. We figured out what order they went in. We looked inside the front cover to compare the pictures of the books. He wanted to jump immediately to Pirates Past Noon since he is still on the pirate kick. But, he was willing to concede to reading books two and three first.
So far The Knight at Dawn has not captured his imagination as much. But, I hold out hope. We just need another weekend day when we can sit on the couch together and really get involved. I will just say, I'm thrilled that there are good books out there for boys that engage their imagination and get them interested in reading. Yay! for Magic Tree House.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle

I am in the middle of a loong book by Edward Rutherford. I love his books, but I needed a break and something lighter. So, I picked up the first book in a new mystery series, On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle. (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this is a pseudonym. Especially since two characters in the book also have C C names.) As is the case with so many cozy mysteries these days, this is a themed series, in this case revolving around a coffee house. It is replete with coffee knowledge - the difference between a cappuccino and an espresso, the best way to store coffee beans, and what type of beans make the best coffee. The author goes one farther using coffee descriptions for people's personalities and their looks. The book oozes coffee. If you've never drunk the stuff, you'll probably be rolling your eyes.
But, as a lover of a good coffee shop, a good mocha, and a good book, I enjoyed Coyle's story. I read this differently than many mysteries because it is on the list for my next book group meeting. I recommended it to our group, none of whom are mystery readers. It made me more conscious of the style and type of writing that these books use because it is so distinct from the more recognized "literary" works.
There is something very appealing about the light tone, the silly quips, and the lack of need to think deep thoughts while reading. I had a good idea of who the criminal was, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover I hadn't uncovered the whole truth. I feel like I did learn something - about coffee making, coffee storing, and the Village in New York.
In some ways this book is a crossover between a cozy mystery and chic lit - although I don't know that you can clearly distinguish these two genres. Like many chic lit books, On What Grounds features a "normal" female crime solver, a possible romantic interest, and satire and cynicism about life in general.
I liked the book well enough that I am already 70 pages into the second book in the series. It's fun, it's relaxing, it's a good read.