Monday, December 29, 2008

Publish and Perish by Sally S. Wright

I am always on the lookout for a good mystery. And there is nothing better than a good academic mystery to whet my whistle. So, I was thrilled to find Sally Wright's new academic mystery series. I picked up the first book in the series Publish and Perish and just finished it.

It was good. It was different. I enjoyed it. But, I'm not going to jump right out tomorrow and buy the rest of the series. So what is stopping this series from being amazing? Mostly, the style of writing. It just doesn't flow. The characters are quintessential academics and talk with a lot of long wordy phrases that just don't roll off the tongue. There is something to be said for accuracy and it would have been more disturbing if the 40-somethings had thrown around "dude." But nonetheless, I found it took me a fair amount of time to get into the groove with this book. And more than that, I did not have much sympathy for any of the characters. They are not loveable, they are not empathetic, they are, honestly, kind of boring. (I'd hate to think all academics are like that; I know a fair number with spunk.)

Plus, the author sets up the plot as though the murderer is obvious. It was too obvious, but for quite a while I wondered why I was reading because she had already determined who the killer was. Okay, so I was wrong, but there was not a lot to keep me going, to keep me suspecting that maybe I was wrong. And as soon as I realized it wasn't the obvious killer than the second in line was pretty equally obvious. The desire to solve the mystery along with the sleuth was missing in this book.

All in all, I did like the main character, Ben Reese. As a World War II veteran with an interesting past, he has merit as a long term sleuth. I think Wright could go a long way into delving into Reese's background and his future. I might pick up more of the series purely based on the main character. But, as I said before, I'm not running out tomorrow. Maybe when my bookcase gets significantly emptier than it is now.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Decaffeinated Corpse by Cleo Coyle

After finishing Age of Innocence I was ready for a light, fluffy, non-thinking mystery. Cleo Coyle's stories are the perfect anecdote to that requirement. I picked up the 5th book in the series and read it in two or three sittings. It was everything it promised, light, fluffy, not too thought provoking.

Actually, I liked this book the least of the series. The killer was not as obvious as it had been in previous books, but neither was the plot. There was wayyy too much descriptions and wayyy too little plot. For a book that is a very short 288 pages, the authors spent too much time describing New York neighborhoods. In one scene Clare and her mother-in-law are chasing a limo and an SUV through parts of Manhattan. It could have taken 3-5 sentences. Instead, the chase took over five pages. Clare had to wax poetic about every neighborhood they drove through. For each area she had to describe the neighborhood's fall from grace and its resulting recent gentrification. All of these details had basically nothing to do with the story.

In addition, there is a lot of information about decaffainating coffee. That bothered me less. After all, the characters in the book have made fun of and complained about decaf coffee for four books. As a decaf drinker myself, I took offense. In this book they had to eat their words as they found a worthy cup of decaf coffee. I am actually curious to know how realistic their descriptions were. But, I don't know that I'll take the time and effort to look it up myself. Nonetheless, even those descriptions got to be a bit much. I did not need to know the average rainfall and acreage of coffee beans in Brazil and the Caribbean islands. Maybe it's just me.

All in all, if you like the series, a good break. But, not a book to go out of your way to find.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

As a Harry Potter fan, how could I not pick up and read the well-advertised newest book by J. K. Rowling. My husband read it first, in one sitting. So, I was not expecting a long read. I picked up Beedle the Bard one evening when I couldn't lay my hands on my copy of Age of Innocence. And like my husband, I read it in one sitting. Part of my motivating in reading Beedle the Bard was my husband's mention that we could possibly read it to our 3 and 5 year old boys. The lengths of the stories would be perfect for bedtime stories.

For me, the stories were entertaining. The best part of the book was Dumbledore's commentaries on the story. As a probably too discerning reader, I felt like Rowling was setting herself up for an unwinnable task. Writing fairy tales that set up the foundation for literature in the world is a weighty task. Trying to create a new version of Cinderella that has all the characteristics of good and evil, the moral at the end, and the enduring narrative that resonates with generations - that's no small feat. In that, I don't know that Rowling succeeded. The story I liked the best was the story that had originally appeared in the Harry Potter series. It seemed the most well conceived.

As for reading the stories to my kids: same thing. I know I'm overly protective of my boys and try to keep violence at bay, but I didn't find the stories compelling enough to keep their interest while simultaneously downplaying and ignoring the inherent violence in them. Don't get me wrong, every fairy tale has violence. But in Cinderella you don't focus on how the mother died - it's just a background plot point. The violence in the wizarding stories are a bit more up front.

All in all, not a bad book. There's a bit of me who feels like Rowling is just writing in the Harry Potter world because its easier and she can keep making money. But, I read the description of the foundation who this book supports and I laud her efforts to make a difference.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I have wanted to read more classic American literature. It was an area where I have a distinct deficit due to a less than traditional high school American lit teacher and class. But, now that I'm older, I can pick and choose. Not too much Great Gatsby or Hemingway on my shelf, but I will happily read the books that look interesting to me. My continuing fascination with the 1920s and 30s led me to pick up a Wharton novel and one by Willa Cather. I suggested Age of Innocence to my reading group in good conscience, but come early December I just didn't get around to reading more than the first couple of chapters (honestly, no body did.)

But, I persevered and picked up the book nonetheless, and I'm glad that I did. Age of Innocence is a great look at the upper-class American world in the late-nineteenth century. The dilemma or marrying for social standing and expectations while loving on the side resonate. They mores of the era were so different from the way that we live today that it made me really stop and think about how and why we live the way that we do today. When did it become acceptable to speak our mind - always, regardless of who we might offend? When did marriage become dictated as a purely love connection? And is it a coincidence that divorce skyrocketed in this same time period? Did the nineteenth century have something right that we now lack?

Wharton's writing reminded me of Jane Austen. She has a cutting commentary on her life and society. But, like Austen, she does not need to be blunt and crass to describe that world. Her subtle innuendos and her turn of phrase say significantly more than the in the face attitude of contemporary writers. Her style of writing, however, does not lend itself to a quick beach read. Age of Innocence is a relatively slow book, not the least because of the expectations she makes about her audience. She inserts very detailed architectural, literary, and artistic details to describe her characters which are not obvious to 21st century readers.

Having finished Age of Innocence, I would like to read more Wharton. I think she paints a very clear picture of her world and I feel as though I have a better sense of the world that she inhabited. I will definitely keep her on my list for further reading.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Deception of the Emerald Ring by Lauren Willig

Lauren Willig has made a fine career out of her Pink Carnation series. She started the book while she was writing a dissertation in English History at Harvard. By the publication of this book, Willig had decided to ditch the PhD, attend law school and now works as a lawyer during the week and writes during the weekend. What does that choice say about the state of affairs of academia? But, that's a whole 'nother post?

The Deception of the Emerald Ring is the third in Willig's series. Each of the books stars Eloise, a history grad student doing research in England to write a dissertation on English spies in the eighteenth century. A small portion of the book revolves around Eloise and focuses on her lack of a love life. These sections of the book are very cliched, light, chic-lit. The majority of the stories take place in Napoleonic-era England and follow the lives of the spies that Eloise is researching.

In the third installment, Letty, a nineteen year old with a perfect beautiful siste, ends up through miscommunication and hijinks, married to Geoffrey Pinchingdale, one of the many spies. Set up as a typical romance, Geoff and Letty hate one another. Through the course of the book they both realize how much they do in fact respect and love one another. By the end, everyone is happy, in love, and content with their lives.

So, if the books are so cliched, why do I keep reading them? Because Willig has a great sense of humor and has no problems turning that cynical humor on herself and on her chosen field (or, not so chosen anymore). Willig knows that she is writing stereotypical romance and plays up the interaction in a fun way. She pokes fun at the trite dialogue and the watery descriptions. More than that, the stories are amusing. I find myself engaged and anxious to keep reading. While I know that everyone will be happy in the end, sometimes it's nice to just sit back and enjoy the suspense while they all figure out how to make themselves content.

While I won't go out of my way to track down the fourth installment in the Pink Carnation series, I know that one of these days I will find myself, text in hand, happily reading about the further adventures of the flower spies. Lauren Willig's books make for great, light reading. A nice break from the stress of the holidays.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book has been sitting on my bookshelf for probably three years. I have been waiting for the perfect moment to read it. I have read all of Connie Willis' short stories and most of her other novels but sat on The Doomsday Book. The timing was never just right. For whatever reason, I finally picked up Willis' chef d'oeuvre a couple of weeks ago and spent much longer than normal working my way through it (Thanksgiving and a visit from parents slowed down my reading, but this is NOT a quick book.) I have no idea what mad the time "right" this time, but I'm thrilled that I did finally pick it up and read.

Doomsday Book has the honor of being one of the only books to have won both of Science Fiction's coveted awards The Hugo and The Nebula. This 500-plus page story tells of two worlds involved in medical crises and looks at how they deal with the problems that arise. Taking place in a world that Willis revisits in other novels and short stories, Doomsday Book tells the story of historians in the future who travel back in time to watch their era in the first person to gain a better perspective of bygone eras.

My first Connie Willis book To Say Nothing of the Dog resides in this world. I adored this book and became an instant fan of any Willis books. But, where To Say Nothing of the Dog uses humor to point out idiosyncrasies about our society, The Doomsday Book uses drama and pulls at the heartstrings. There is humorous moments, especially in the future Oxford of her creation. But overall I would NOT describe Doomsday Book as funny. Touching, engaging, fascinating, but not funny.

If you are an ardent science fiction fan, this book will not fit a stereotyped model. The science fiction is light and the drama and historical context are heavy. This story relies on medical knowledge and historical knowledge to tell the tale. The characters are what make the book. Connie Willis endures you to her characters through their realism and their faults. Her descriptions of their internal dialogue are so realistic that you can't help but be drawn in.

I would strongly recommend this book to any ardent science fiction/fantasy readers mostly because it did win the two highest honors a science fiction book can read. However, if you have never read any of Willis' books, this might not be the book to test her out on. She has other lighter, funnier, and more engaging books to start with.