Friday, December 25, 2009

The Greatest Christmas Present for a book lover

This year for Christmas my parents gave my husband and I each a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore. Glee! This afternoon we sat down with the computer and put together a list of all the books we have been wanting that are not easily accessible from the library. We decided to go online rather than in the store because too often we can't find the books we want when we're shopping (I could go on a rant about bookstores becoming gadget, toy, and stuffed animal stores rather than bookstores, but I'll save that for another day).


I started by pulling books off my Goodreads to-read list. Those are books that I have added over the past year when friends have recommended them. Here is our list:

  • Winter in June (Rosie Winter #3) by Kathryn Miller Haines - part of a good 1940s mystery series
  • Chrysalids by John Wyndham - classic sci fi recommended by a friend
  • Passage by Connie Willis - sci fi by one of my all-time favorite authors
  • Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris - fiction by the author of Chocolat; a great author
  • The People of Sparks (Book of Ember #2) by Jeanne DuPrau - second book in kids fantasy series
  • Wolf Who Rules by Wen Spencer - second book in the light, fun fantasy series
  • (a handful of heavy sci fi picked out by hubby that I may read depending on his recommendations)
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - steampunk
  • Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart - mmmm, baguettes...

Woo Hoo!!

Thanks to the friends who have recommended the above books. And keep your eyes posted to this page (because I know you live and die by my blog) for reviews of my Christmas book list.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Winter of Her Disontent by Kathryn Miller Haines

I recently read Kathryn Miller Haines' first novel in the Rosie Winter Series and enjoyed it. A touch of film noir spiced up with theatre and cozy-mysteryness all added up to a fun light diversion. I picked up The Winter of Her Discontent after putting down Inkheart and found that the second novel in the series is even better.

As a hopeful aspiring writer, I enjoy reading the first book in a series. I am curious how authors set up their characters and their worlds. The descriptions that they employ and the worlds that they create capture my imagination. In many cases I think the first book in the series is the best. Authors work so hard to set up a world that they too often rest on their laurels and the books quickly go downhill and become derivative. However, in the gap between first and worst, there are great mysteries and Haines' second Rosie Winter story is one of those.

One of the best changes in the two books is Haines' willingness to drop the excessive use of film noir slang. While I liked her accurate terminology in War Against Miss Winter I did want her to stop using "jawing" and occasionally write, "she said." In this novel she does just that. Haines incorporates the occasional slang to liven up the story and remind the reader that it is 1943 New York City. But the occasional dab is significantly more effective than the excessive glop from the first novel.

In addition, I read until page 380 before I knew the whole plot. It is rare for a regular mystery reader to not have a decent clue whodunit and why within the first half of the novel. I admit, I had a good sense of who was overly suspicious, but I didn't find out until Rosie did exactly what the mystery entailed. I liked having the gasp of understanding that a good mystery creates.

Last, but most assuredly not least, I respect Haines for putting out there the negative aspects of World War II on the homefront. So many movies and stories have appeared in the past ten years which show the horrors of the war and the optimism of the homefront that I can't keep track of them. Haines shows the horrors of the homefront. Life was not pleasant. Everyone was not perfect. People took advantage of their fellow man and their government. And Haines does a good job showing the complicated world of navigating patriotism, greed, and practicality.

All in all, if you like historical mysteries, a good read and a good addition to the mystery genre. Now I'm going to have to add the third book to my to-read list.

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If you would like more Historical Mysteries try:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke


Harry Potter proved that young adults could read books of longer than 200 pages. It created a new world for young adult literature that is longer and more detailed. Inkheart emerged onto the scene playing heavily on the appeal of J. K. Rowling. And in my opinion, fell flat on its face. What a boring book. Cornelia Funke accomplished in 520 pages what she could have accomplished in 250. Rarely would I suggest an abridged version of a book, however in this case the only way I would give the Inkheart series to a child was if it were heavily shortened and tightened. This book will not encourage most readers and is not a good choice if trying to instill a love of reading in a youngster.

I feel guilty being that negative. I SO wanted to like this series. And I have specifically held off watching the movie until I had read the book. But in this instance I think cutting out all the extraneous unnecessary description to create a tight screenplay will improve the work.

Part of my hope for the series was that it revolves around a father and daughter who love books. They love to read. They are wholeheartedly invested in the world of stories and literature and losing oneself in a new world. How can all of that be bad?
When it goes nowhere.
The plot spins in endless circles with very little forward motion until I finally put Inkheart down and begged my husband to tell me what happened.

I am curious about one thing: Is this my failing as an American reader who has fallen into the trap of expecting action in every chapter? I hadn't initially realized that Inkheart is a German novel (although it helps to know that in the beginning. Otherwise the lack of setting up a locale is slightly disconcerting). I haven't read much German literature and would like to know if this is stereotypical. Do German novels focus on heavy description and move forward at a slower pace than an "average" American book? If anyone has any insight, please share.

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If you would like more books like Inkheart try:

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I should have read The Elegance of the Hedgehog with a highlighter in my hand (Not that I'll tell the librarians that I seriously considered defacing their property). I needed a highlighter because there were amazing one-liners I would love to have now. But of course looking back I can't pinpoint them immediately. They were the type of statements that you write out in pretty script and attach to your bedroom mirror to ponder on rising in the morning.

Alas, no quotes. Instead I will have to remember this book through its themes and totality. I requested Elegance of the Hedgehog because of a book group but had to wait nearly three months to get a copy. It is a popular book, but also a slow read which meant a long wait. I put the book down in the middle and considered returning it to the library without finishing it myself. I'm sooo glad I chose to keep reading.

It's important to understand that Barbery is French and the book has been translated into English. The translation is sound however the plot is so very French that it might put a reader off. The story has very little action and a lot of navel gazing. It's philosophy like most French literature. It discusses post-structuralism and Proust and Tolstoy. It is not a book to be read at the beach while keeping one eye on kids playing in the sand. It is a book that has to be read with both eyes and one's mind fully focused on the text.

The two main characters are Paloma a twelve-year old genius who finds her family ridiculous and beneath scorn and Renee a fifty-something concierge who waters plants and cleans brass doorknobs for a living but reads "transcendalist idealism" for fun. The two live in the same building and would never interact were it not for the introduction of a Japanese man named Kakuro who moves in.

More than anything what kept me going were the great satirical comments made by the two characters. They have incredibly unique views of the world and have no qualms about voicing their dislike of modern society, class-based society, hierarchy... Coming from two very different worlds they reach similar conclusions about the lack of depth in many of the people with whom they interact. But the book is in no way a farce. I cried reading it too.

I wholeheartedly recommend Elegance of the Hedgehog if you are looking for social commentary and have the time and attention to invest in the novel. Do not get frustrated in the middle and stop reading - believe me it is tempting. Keep pushing until Kakuro arrives and then the story picks up.

* * * * *
If you liked Elegance of the Hedgehog try:

  • Marguerite Duras The Lover - one of my favorite French novels
  • Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy - a tome about Indian identity in a post-colonial world
  • Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner - a story of modern day Afghanistan

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The False-Hearted Teddy and The Crafty Teddy by John J. Lamb

I rarely read two books in the series back to back. I like to try and vary my book choices. But a holiday bout of the flu left me on the couch and ready to read the next two Bear Collector mysteries by John J. Lamb. I finished The False-Hearted Teddy and picked up The Crafty Teddy next. Lamb's series has been described as a police procedural cozy. Those two terms seem at odds for a conventional cozy mystery reader. But after reading The Crafty Teddy I better understand the designation.

It is refreshing to read a cozy mystery written by a man. I would argue that the vast majority of cozies are written and read by women. Lamb's stories add a fun twist with a sarcastic, punny, ex-cop for the main character. He loves to insert sexual innuendos and groan-worthy puns throughout the story - characteristics that I haven't found in the typical cozy.

As the series progresses the stories have become more police procedural as the main characters become involved with the local sheriff's office and work in an official capacity to assist with criminal investigations. But, given that the plots revolve around the teddy bear making world the stories are firmly entrenched in cozy-land.

The False-Hearted Teddy takes place at a bear show in a hotel in Baltimore. Brad and Ash Lyons have set up shop to sell their homemade bears when one of the other vendors is murdered. Confrontational cops cause Brad to investigate on his own. By the middle of the book he allies forces with the police and the book becomes a more familiar police procedural with rules and regulations, car chases, and witness interviews making up the bulk of the story. However, Lamb convincingly remains wedded to the cozy style of writing and does not fall into too much heavy police lingo.
I like this story, but it wasn't my favorite. I found the good cop/bad cop a bit heavy handed. And the transition to allies was too easy. Nonetheless, it was a fun, light read. Oh, and a pet peeve, the blurb on the back cover. In this case, it was flat out wrong. It says the cops thing the murder was not a murder - which is not true. Who writes those things?

In The Crafty Teddy Brad and Ash are back at home in the Shenandoah Valley. The book opens with the theft of two of their antique bears. In a seemingly unconnected fashion three Japanese Yakuza (gangsters) show up in town to visit the local history museum. Brad, questioning the motives of Japanese businessmen being interested in quaint Virginia history, he follows them and finds a dead body.
Lambs explanation for the presence of the Japanese is an amusing twist in cozy-land. I found myself smiling at the image of a Japanese gangster wandering through Boyds Bears in Pennsylvania picking out cute teddy bears.
In this book Lyons becomes an employee of the local sheriff's office and the percentage of police focus in this book has grown exponentially since the first. He successfully blends the two styles by giving weight to the investigation and legitimacy for the characters to have guns and be tramping through suspects homes. Yet he interjects a light fun air and a focus on teddy bear making that places the series firmly in cozy land.
My only complaint about this book is Lamb's description of the UVA History department. But that could be because I know too much about that particular school and faculty.

I have to say, while I originally dismissed a teddy bear making series as bad fluff in the world of cozy mysteries this has actually become a preferred series. I will happily recommend it to other mystery readers.

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If you liked the Bear Collector Mysteries try:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

I have waxed poetic more than once about Jacqueline Winspear. She is one of my favorite mystery authors. No, she is one of my favorite authors, genre notwithstanding. Winspear does incredible research when writing her books to create one of the most accurate and realistic settings for a novel that I have read. As an author of historical fiction she has a better ability to create 1930s England than any author who was not writing during the 1930s.

The plot in this novel was easier to deduce than some of the other Maisie Dobbs stories. Nonetheless, the plot was no less fascinating for the easier deduction of the plot. In this story Maisie is researching a small town's brickworks that a client hopes to purchase. There is something off about the town which leads Maisie into a search of the towns past. Like her other stories the mystery resides in World War I. As with her other stories Winspear has an ability to get to the heart of the War and the difficulties it created for the European population. (I will openly admit, I have used situations in Winspear's books to create a plausible and identifiable setting in my history classes before. That's how genuine her research is.)

This is one of the first books in which Winspear sets up the coming world - although book four I believe also alluded to growing concerns on the Continent. While her stories continue to focus on World War I, she is beginning to allude to the growing problems in Germany. I am curious to see if in future books Winspear begins to incorporate fascism and Nazism into the stories. I would love to read her perceptions of right-wing politics in 1930s England. I have no doubt she will create an undeniably accurate and realistic world.

There is one more Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs book on my shelf waiting for me to read - Among the Mad. There is another to-be-published in 2010, The Mapping of Love and Death. I try not to read them too quickly as they are like candy - best savored over time.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1) by Rick Riordan

I have mentioned before the I adore young adult fantasy. There is nothing more enjoyable than picking up a well-written, well-plotted fantasy that is fun and light without excessive violence, death, or sex. The Lightning Thief fulfills this exact category. It is engaging, a light read, and teaches something as well.

I would guess that Riordan had an idea for a book and discovered the mass appeal of the Harry Potter series. He took his idea and ran with it recognizing that a market existed. Trying to not sound like Harry Potter, there are moments when he set himself up as too obviously different. Instead of fleeing his family during the school year, Percy Jackson flees during the summer. Instead of no parents and evil extended family, Percy has the perfect sweet mother. Those moments don't take away from the book, but they did catch my attention.

Percy Jackson has ADHD and dyslexia - appropriate quirks for today's middle school reader. I like that Riordan describes those characteristics as signs of half-blood relationships to the Greek Gods. It's novel and a fun take on an old issue. Oh yeah, and if you haven't read the book - the main premise is that Percy Jackson is half Greek God.

Which brings up the main plot of the book. Riordan introduces his readers to a whole slew of classic Greek mythology: Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Aphrodite, Medusa. Although these are less relevant in today's world, I think its noble to introduce this world to kids. Knowing who Hermes is makes the FTD symbol at florist shops suddenly make sense. Riordan takes the classic tales and adapts them to the modern world. It's fun.

As far as appropriateness of this series for the kids themselves? My son's only six and he's too twitchy to listen to a story this long yet. But, I think it is a great series for boys - a group who has been ignored as readers until recently. I've been told that the further in the series the more death and destruction that occurs so parents may want to pre-read depending on their child's interests.

For me, I'm anxiously awaiting for the rest of the series to show up in my kids Scholastic flyers.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mansions of the Dead by Sarah Stewart Taylor

Mansions of the Dead is the second Sweeney St. George mystery. Taylor has created an extremely unique premise for her series. The main character is an art history professor who studies funereal art. She spends significant amounts of time in cemeteries studying the gravestones.

This book, unlike the first O Artful Death, takes place in a university setting. The murder victim is a student of Sweeney's who is taking her funeral art course. He also happens to be the son of an extremely well-connected Boston family causing distinct problems for the police. The family throws up roadblocks left and right to keep their own lives private.

Taylor crafts a good story. She gives significant detail without drifting into telling facts just to show off what she knows. She inserts historical tidbits that are pertinent to the story without being too heavy-handed. Her main character is a complex person with a past and foibles that are realistic. The policeman in the story has depth and flaws without being the stereotypical useless cop. Boston is an important third character in the novel with the city's personality and quirkiness playing into the character's interactions.

Like the first book, I feel like the university setting gives the character a reason for knowing history without being the most realistic depiction of life in a university. Sweeney St. George grades an entire set of papers in a short hour span. Any professor knows how long a set of papers really takes to grade. And she seems to be able to drop in and out of class at will and drops in on student dorms without anyone so much as wondering about his professor's presence at his doorstep.

Taylor also likes to give her characters a lot of alcohol which is not unrealistic. Except that two of the characters who drank quite heavily in this book both have alcoholic parents. From what I've seen of the world (which is not comprehensive by a long shot, but still...) children of alcoholics tend to be particularly careful about what, when, and how much they drink.

Do these minor flaws destroy the story? Not in the least. I find myself engaged in the characters and the plot in Taylor's books. They are a nice addition to the world of historical, academic mysteries.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidson

Diane Mott Davidson is the queen of the the cozy. She was one of the early authors to include recipes tied directly to the plot of her book. I was lucky enough to attend a few of her early book signings that included a full dinner made up of recipes from her books. She was fun to listen to, very *real*, and all around a good influence for a future aspiring writer-to-be. Since those days I have read nearly every Goldy's Catering mystery.

Since I'm writing a nano cozy mystery of my own this year it seemed logical to pick up a classic example of the cozy. Fatally Flaky called to me from the bookshelf. I have to say, I was disappointed. I feel as though Davidson has fallen into the pit of knowing that her books sell based on her name and therefore are less well-developed and less well-written than they used to be. To see this book was fluffy is an understatement.

The story revolves around a bridezilla and Goldy's attempt to cater her wedding. Forty-eight hours before the wedding the venue, the menu, and the number of guests change causing Goldy to rush to accommodate the bride. A brand new character appears on the scene, Goldy's godfather. Another character reappears for Goldy but is brand-new to the reader. While I realize that continuing a series into its 15th book means introducing new characters to get victims and murderers is a challenge. However, it is hard to believe in characters who are seemingly so important to the main character have never been mentioned before.

Likewise, Tom (Goldy's husband) likes the godfather on one page, dislikes him on the next, and tolerates him on the third. Davidson can't seem to remember her own interpersonal relationships.

I read these books because my mother passes them on. However I doubt that I will be jumping up to read more of this series anytime soon. I have much more inviting, better written, better plotted books on my shelf waiting my attention.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The War Against Miss Winter by Kathryn Miller Haines

Mysteries have so many sub-genres that it is impossible to classify many of the books. I enjoy historical mysteries but with reservations - I generally don't read stories that happened more than two hundred years ago - a personal preference. If there is a time period I lean towards it is the 1920-1940s. I love World War books. And Haines story is a quintessential World War II Americana story. I have also found that I really enjoy reading the first mystery in an ongoing series. I am intrigued to see how an author crafts the world for a repeat character who will be solving crimes again and again.

I met Haines at a book signing when The War Against Miss Winter first appeared and I chose not to buy the book. I don't remember my logic at the time. Most likely it had more to do with more growing stack of 20 plus books that I had already bought than any particular disinterest in her book. Anyway, my mom bought the book instead, read it, and passed it on to me. And I'm glad she did.

Haines, an actor, sets up the story of a down and out actor who works for a private eye in World War II New York. Familiar with the genre of the era, Haines uses a lot of slang. It gives the story authenticity and a film noir feel. However, there are points when I feel like Haines overdoes the jargon. There are times when it is fine to say "walking" rather than repeat "legging" for the tenth time. Haines has also done her homework. She depicts the life of civilians during the War well quoting propaganda posters frequently to demonstrate the emotion being supplied to the Americans by the government. The world of chorus girl, hopeful actresses gives the story another level of intrigue. Haines uses famous plays for the title of each chapter and quotes Shakespeare from time to time adding to the character's believability but also giving credence to Haines' background.

The crux of the story revolves around a missing play and a dead playwright. If you read carefully Haines lays out exactly what the solution to the mystery is - although the whodunit is less straight forward. But she crafts the plot well enough that it is not overly obvious rendering the book unpalatable.

I have the second installment of the Rosie Winter saga waiting for me on my bookcase. I will happily dive into it one of these days. The gumshoe, "long-legged dame" feel is a light sub-genre that I don't read frequently and probably would not pick up first. But I enjoy the time period and the main character enough to absorb the style for what it is.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

It feels like everyone I know has been watching and commenting on HBOs Tru Blood. I am curious but rather than jump into the show I decided to go straight to the source and read the first Sookie Stackhouse novel by Charlaine Harris that created the show. The book had a huge waiting list at the library and I finally picked it up this week after three months waiting for it.

And can I just say:

How can anyone who has read Twilight honestly think that that book is remotely novel, unique, or otherwise inspired?

Okay so vampires are done, overdone, and redone lately. But the story in Dead Until Dark has so many similarities to Twilight that it is unbelievable!

A couple of examples:
  • Vampires "glow" but more so to the main character
  • Vampires can do "glamors" to calm people down and make them less tense
  • Vampires overall are scary and kinda evil, except our vampire. He's strong and sexy, and REMARKABLY protective
  • One of the main characters can read minds - of everyone except the other main character
  • The main character has a friend who shockingly is a shapeshifter and must turn into a dog during the full moon

Does no one else see this? Stephanie Meyer started Twilight in 2003. Dead Until Dark first appeared in 2001.

I will say, I think Charlaine Harris' book is a MUCH better story than Twilight. For one, Harris is a much better writer. Second, it is funny and off-color and doesn't take itself very seriously. Third, it sets up a world that is apparently just made for television. There is also some interesting vampire sex - somewhere between Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer.

If you are standing at the bookstore staring at the overwhelming number of vampire books on the shelves today, pick one of the better books. Pick up Charlaine Harris. Put down Twilight and back away. I imagine I will read more of this series. It's light and fluffy, really quick to read, but amusing. One of these days I may even watch Tru Blood

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mitla Pass by Leon Uris

I read Exodus about 18 months ago (check that, exactly two years ago, oddly enough) and found it fascinating. It was my first Leon Uris book; I looked forward to reading more. So, when I found Mitla Pass at the library book sale I picked it up. After reading some light fluffy novels I was ready for something a bit heavier and picked up Uris.

Like Exodus, Mitla Pass tells the story of Israel: the 1956 Sinai War with Egypt. But, in true Uris fashion, the character involved in the War is merely a backdrop to tell the story of Jews emigrating and trying to find complete lives in the first half of the twentieth century. All of the characters whose stories are told are the ancestors of Gideon Zadok, a Jewish novelist who has published an incredible bestseller and attempts to write a second.

The Zadok plot has the feel of an autobiography. Reading about the depths of involvement in writing and the emotions surrounding publication and searching for the next great novel intrigued me. If not autobiographical in the strictest sense, I could still see Uris using his own experiences strongly to make this character deep and believable. As an endeavoring author, I found Zadok's trials... inspiring sounds cheesy and over-stated. But honest, maybe. Writing is not a breezy past time, it is remarkably hard work. Uris demonstrates that extremely well.

The majority of the story centers on a variety of characters who are searching for a better life. They start in the Pale of Settlement and immigrate to Israel and the United States. Few of the characters ever find happiness. Few escape the trials of past Jewishness. Certain characters are catty and malicious. Others are deeply unhappy and bitter. It was hard to love Uris' characters in Mitla Pass. Does Uris do a good job showing the horrific plight for many of the worlds' Jewish population between the 1870s and the 1950s?
That is what makes Uris great. But I had trouble engaging with and keeping focused on the plight of surly, miserable individuals who seemed to revel in their unhappiness.

I am glad that I read Mitla Pass. I feel better educated about Uris' world and the lived experiences of the Israelis. I would not necessarily recommend this book to others though. It is not one of his best. It drags and the characters are hard to relate to.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Scone Cold Dead by Kaitlyn Dunnett

A fellow bibliophile gave me the most amazing birthday gift: a book-of-the-month from her local mystery book store. She told the store owner what type of books I enjoy and every month the owner picks out a book that she thinks will fit my interest. Is that the coolest gift ever, or what? A book chosen just for l'il ole me from an indie bookstore. But I digress...

The first book I received was Scone Cold Dead by Kaitlyn Dunnett - a new author to me. My only minor complaint is that it is the second book in a series. My mom has trained me to start books from the first in the series and there is a bit of back story I would have enjoyed reading. But that's a very minor sticky-wicket.

In Scone Cold Dead, Liss, the main character is a retired Scottish dancer. When her troupe comes to town trouble arises due to the death of the troupe's manager - inhalation of mushrooms. Wanting to keep her friends free of suspicion, Liss begins to investigate the death and solve the murder. The location of the book in Moosetookalook, Maine is a fun setting. The plot revolving around a traveling dance troupe is also different enough to feel novel. I liked hearing about a world that is unfamiliar to me. The actual plot was not particular difficult to unravel. The murderer gives him/herself away pretty early in the story. It is not something I probably would have thought to buy for myself. But, I enjoyed it and was glad to be introduced to a new author.

However, I have a beef - and this probably comes out of my own desire to write and maybe eventually get published. The old adage is "write what you know," but we can't all know everything. Does a woman really know what it feels like to be a man? No. But that doesn't mean she doesn't include male characters. So where is the fine line between writing what we haven't personally experienced and just writing inconsistent characters?

I would bet a small sum of money that Kaitlyn Dunnett does not have children and is (by default) not a mother. Why? The one child in her book is poorly fleshed out. The age really did not ring true based on her actions. At times she acts much older than her age but then there are moments than she acts much younger - in unrealistic ways. And no mother would ever (I would hope) act like the mother in the novel. I cannot imagine a single mother willingly running out the door at the drop of a hat repeatedly to help her friend and leave her toddler son behind. I can appreciate the concept of suspension of disbelief in novels. After all, no one chases down murderers and solves crime willy-nilly in the middle of their day job. But I do want my characters to be believable in their interpersonal interactions. And, although they were side characters, these two figures leapt out at me for their inconsistency and unrealistic actions.

The character flaws are not a sufficient reason to avoid this book. They are more the other side of my brain reading the novel like a critic rather than an avid book-lover.

Friday, October 2, 2009

A Life of Her Own The Transformation of a Countrywoman in 20th-Century France by Emilie Carles

Although I am an academic by training, I don't often pick up a non-fiction book just for fun. I prefer to keep my reading light and unencumbered. When I do read non-fiction I find myself straying and often skimming. Not so with Carles' book. I really enjoyed reading it and found myself reading much more carefully than I sometimes do.

Carles lived through all of the most important historical events in the twentieth century. As a rural Frenchwoman she had a unique perspective that sheds light on how people viewed significant moments in history. What impacted her was not the big moments it was the small day-to-day goings on. The World Wars were important insofar as her family had to fight and live with soldiers occupying their small village. But the large political debates affected her not at all.

As I read I found myself wanting to copy passages for every modern history student I have taught. The personal trials that Carles underwent towards modernization defy imagination. In the early part of the century her pregnant sister refused to allow a doctor to examine her out of puritan prudishness. She died. Carles describes inexplicably astounding stories about the people that live in her valley - drunkenness and abuse and lack of care and love. That is not to suggest that the people were horrid. Instead Carles attempts to show how small and insular her world was and how removed from modern life. Much of her book revolved around her attempts to educate not just her school children but her society.

Whether you agree with Carles' socialist-leaning political ideology or not, her passion for her world make for a fascinating read. Near the end of the book, Carles does begin to preach to the reader about the problems that she sees with the France of her era. While it is interesting to see her perspective, it does not add to the strength of the story.

Chronicling the life of a rural French mountain peasant from pre-World War I until the late-1970s, this book encompasses so much. I will definitely keep A Life of Her Own on my shelf and can imagine using anecdotes if not excerpts in my classes in the future.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I tried. Really I did. I can employ suspension of disbelief and allow someone to take one of my favorite authors and bastardize her classic into a modern humorous zombie book. Really, I can.

But I still couldn't get all the way through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Now my husband is giving it a go.

I had to at least reflect on why I didn't like it. After all, Graham-Smith is not disparaging Austen or her work. He is just updating and enhancing it. Giving it a tongue-in-cheek humorous twist. I can imagine it was really fun to write. How does one take Regency-era dialogue and add in zombies. That didn't bother me. My frustration was with the subtle changes that he made to Austen's work. The appeal of Austen is that she is so terribly nuanced. The turn of the head and the aside remark are what make her books amazing. The subtlety of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy - even if you know exactly what the outcome will be - is what keeps you reading. In his rendition Graham-Smith took away all of those nuances. He made the plot too in-your-face.

It is a funny book. I appreciate Graham-Smith's effort. But this Austen fan just couldn't get past the destruction of a classic (which says more about me than it does about the book).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Bombay Ice by Leslie Forbes

India has always intrigued me. I would love to visit India. But the sad reality is that I would love to visit India in the mid-1860s. If only it was possible to see the world described by M. M. Kaye. Leslie Forbes' Bombay Ice was one of the first books I have ever read about current-day India. I have read books about Indians who leave India for Britain or the United States. But, unless my memory is favoring me, (which is entirely possible) I can't think of anything else that I have read which describes the current political and social situation in India - particularly in Bombay.

Which brings up a common question in my reading world. How accurate was this book? I would like for someone who lives in Bombay to read this book and tell me what they think. From the dust jacket it doesn't look as though Leslie Forbes has any personal experience with India so what led her to write this unusual novel? And more importantly, is her portrayal of Bombay true for everyone? true for a small minority? heavily exaggerated? The world she creates is depressing and dark. Do people really live like that on a daily basis in Bombay, India?

I will admit, the focus on Bollywood captured my attention. I have seen a few movies and remember a friend from college who had grown up on Bollywood so it is a world I would love to know more about. I liked how Forbes detailed the links between Hollywood and Bollywood, the focus on recreating Western classics, the continued interest in long-dead actors.

When all is said and done, I don't necessarily think I liked this book very well. It was a bit dark for my taste. I read more than my fair share of murder mystery, but I tend to lean toward the cozy side of things. Some of the imagery in this book was gag-worthy. The underworld that Forbes described thrives on gore in a way that I would rather not read about. But the excessive blood and guts was actually less bothersome than the distracting over-symbolism.

All books have some kind of symbolism, I suppose. Whether consciously written or created by literary criticists (or is it criticizers?) down the road I figure symbolism is just a part of literature. However picking two really detailed themes - meteorology and Shakespeare's The Tempest and returning to their connections to the novel ad nauseum got tiring. I finally hit a point that when monsoons, history of Chaos Theory or quotes about Prospero I began to skim. And I am not usually a skimmer. Had Forbes chosen one theme or another, I think I would have been okay. But choosing both together meant a lot of stream of consciousness style meandering while the main character considered her own belly button.

For die-hard mystery fans, a good mystery. For those interested in contemporary India, also worth a read. But for anyone just somewhat curious about the genre or the place this book will not hold your attention. I felt reading was slog-worthy which is relatively unusual for me.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eggs in Purgatory by Laura Childs

I have read and enjoyed all of Laura Childs Tea Shop mystery books and her entire Scrapbooking Mystery series. Both are light, fun, enjoyable cozy mysteries.

(Ya know, every once in a while I have to stop and wonder that the books I describe as light and fun and enjoyable revolve around murder and violence.... But if you read cozies you know what I mean. Someone is dead, but there's not a lot of incest, or abuse, or difficult medical decisions involving the death of a family member. They're all about 'innocent' murders :-) Okay, ignore that aside. I just felt that it needed to stated.)

Anyway, my mom sent me the newest book in Childs' most recent series: the Cackleberry Club mysteries. Eggs in Purgatory is an interesting twist on the recent phenomenon of themed murder mystery series. Many books revolve around a central focus - knitting, cooking, dog shoes, bear collecting... you get the idea. The Cackleberry Club seems to combine a half a dozen different themes into one coherent story. The three main characters - middle-aged tough but lovable women - run a restaurant/bookstore/yarn shop. The restaurant serves tea and scones along with down home eggs and grits. They purchase locally produced products from the neighboring farm community. They have book and knitting groups and are planning a cake decorating contest.

Confused? Overwhelmed? Yeah, that's kind of how I felt. The jumbling together of every contemporary popular theme seemed a bit forced to me.

Nonetheless, I liked the characters. They were a bit grittier than the typical Miss Marple style sleuth. They had real problems and didn't hesitate to wield frying pans at ex-husbands and swear at obnoxious customers.

Oh wait. The point of the book is to solve a mystery in the middle of all of this cooking and book sorting. Yes, there's a mystery. Personally when the murderer stepped forward my first response was "who's that?" I appreciate leading the reader on different plausible paths to divert from the real killer but I was so completely diverted that the actual murderer hadn't made enough an impression on me to even be remembered.

All in all, diverting. But not one of Childs' best books.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

It feels like a long time since I last posted about a book that I read. Which is not because I haven't been posting. Nor is it because I haven't been reading. The book I was working on was just a really slow read for some reason. Enjoyable, but not the light fiction I had envisioned when I first picked it up.

I read about The 19th Wife in, of all places, the monthly Costco magazine. The subject matter - part mystery, part religious history - struck a chord and I went on a hunt to find the book. My mom found it first and read the copy before I could get to it. She enjoyed it, I think, but significantly less than I did. For her, she was tired of the subject matter. For me, the subject matter was completely unfamiliar and therefore fascinating.

So, what is the subject matter? Polygamy and the Mormon Church. The story follows two timelines: the mid-1800s during Brigham Young's lifetime and today. In both timelines there is a 19th wife, a woman who is one of a number of sister wives. The historical story revolves around a real individual who married Brigham Young then later divorced him and brought polygamy to the attention of the American public and the American government. The present day story revolves around a member of the Firsts (the polygamous cult in the Southwestern US who made national news two years ago) accused of killing her husband.

I was deeply fascinated because the book made me realize I know absolutely nothing about the Latter Day Saints, really. I am curious how a practicing Mormon would respond to Ebershoff's book. He does not paint historical Mormonism in an uplifting light but he does portray current day Mormons much nicer (that seems like a very blanket, blah term but it seems apropos). He spends a significant amount of time attempting to explain the schism between the Mormons and the Firsts and acknowledging that the two groups are far from the same. Yet, because of the history he tells there is an obvious shared timeline.

I also found the organization of the story unusual. The contemporary timeline reads like a traditional novel. But thrown in between are chapters that read more like historical sources that a scholar would use to do research - including a very apt Wikipeda entry. On the one hand, it slows the book down because there is a continual jump in character and style of writing between the past, the present, the scholarly, and the novelistic. On the other, it gives a weightiness to the story because it is very obviously based in fact.

Ebershoff does admit that his historical sections are fictional recreations based on fact as opposed to historical "Truths". As I said earlier, this book made me want to read more. I would love to take his story and weigh it against other scholarly sources to see how they compare. And, I would love to get an 'insider's' impression of what Ebershoff has depicted of the history of Mormonism.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Super Hugos Presented by Isaac Asimov

I have been having an ongoing conversations with friends about a good example of representative science fiction. There are so many suggestions, so many types of science fiction, so many great authors out there. Nailing it down to one or two stories that would represent the entire field is a near impossibility.

In the midst of chatting a friend told me about a book of hers (or maybe her husband's), The Super Hugos, a compilation of ten or so of the best science fiction stories ever written. The stories were voted on by science fiction fans who chose the best of the Hugo Award winners over the years. (Among the many awards given in science fiction every year, the Hugo is the only award that is voted on by the readers.) Isaac Asimov was slated to introduce each of the stories. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could write the introductions.

I had heard of most of the authors. A handful of the stories were familiar, either because they had been turned into movies or because I had reason another version of them in the past. But there were some completely unfamiliar stories and at least one new author which is always a bonus considering the huge amount of science fiction my husband knows and has read.

I enjoyed the variety of stories in this compilation. There was familiar fantasy - the first Dragonriders of Pern story written by Anne McCaffrey; familiar sci fi - "Enemy Mine" made famous with the movie staring Dennis Quaid; a bit of horror - "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin; and infinitely famous - the first rendition of "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes. And truthfully a dated story that I just didn't feel has held up to the test of time.

I am so glad my friend gave me this book. But, I will say, it was a hard read consecutively. Each story entered a brand-new realm with all the requisite descriptions of the people, the world, the traumas. It was a lot to wrap my head around every night.

And the final question - were there one or two stories in this compilation that could be described as representative science fiction? In a way, yes. I think the short Arthur C. Clarke story was incredible. That is a story I would recommend. I think McCaffrey has had such an incredible influence on the fantasy world that her story is classic. "Flowers for Algernon" is obviously a well-known representation of the impact of science on the everyday. But one story? I have come to realize, with the help of The Super Hugos, that there is no such thing as one story or book that can define the genre of science fiction.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement by Mark Hamilton Lytle

For the first time in a number of years I feel like I have the energy, the time, and the interest to read something vaguely academic. In the search for an academic topic, I realized that my growing interest in environmental history did not yet have an academic basis. Limited to the local public library and without a syllabus in hand to guide me, I went for a familiar name to direct my research. Living where I do, the name Rachel Carson has come up more than once, so that's where I started.

I picked up Mark Lyttle's The Gentle Subversive to be honest, because of its relatively small size compared to some of the other Rachel Carson biographies. I'm thrilled that I did, not only because it was short enough to get through (I'm an academic but that doesn't mean I'm a glutton for reading 300+ page scholarly works on a regular basis) but more importantly, it was extremely well-written and engaging - not always true in scholarly works. Moreover, it was a good academic book written by a well-respected environmental historian. As a result the facts were well-researched and comprehensively described.

In the afterword Lyttle admitted that he focused on Carson as a writer, in part to differentiate himself from the other books written about Carson previously. That focus appealed to me as an aspiring writer myself. Reading about her frustrations with writing and her attempts to get published gave me hope about writing. But I also found her personal struggles as she grew increasingly despondent with lack of government response to harmful pesticides intriguing. Never having read any environmental history, I found Lyttle's attention to the growing public discontent gripping.

By the end of The Gentle Subversive I realized that I definitely want to read Silent Spring, Carson's chef d'oeuvre about the harm of pesticides on nature (which is currently sitting on my desk). I also feel continually encouraged to work towards a greener, healthier earth. Finally, unlike some dry books, I did not walk away disengaged with academia. Instead I was anxious to find something more to read.

If you are looking for a book to stir your environmental juices, pick up Lyttle's The Gentle Subversive. It is well worth the time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer

Initial Thoughts:

I read Eclipse over the weekend. First, it's a quick read, even at 600+ pages. Second, it is highly requested at the library so I thought I would try to return it quickly for the next person in line. Third, I have so many good books in line to read that I wanted to get through this one quickly and get back to better literature.

So why did I read it at all?

Sheer curiosity. I am still intrigued by the incredible appeal of this series. And most of my intrigue is at the women my age who are so gaga over it. The teenagers I can understand, it's a simple love story, with vampires and werewolves thrown in. But why does it capture everyone's imagination?

I still don't know. It's definitely not the writing.

**Spoiler Alert** (Everyone probably knows the plot by now, but just in case.)

This story picks up very shortly after the end of New Moon. Bella is getting ready to graduate and is desperate for the day when Edward will turn her into a vampire. Charlie, her dad, is annoyed at Edward and Bella is grounded for the events of the previous book. Jacob, the werewolf, is annoyed at Bella and won't return her phone calls. And behold... the first 200 pages of the book. Really.

Then everyone discovers that a bunch of vampires are killing people in Seattle. The vampires and the werewolves ally to take out the bad vampires. Jacob hits on Bella a lot (she finally goes to see him and they reconcile quite easily.) while Bella keeps refusing his advances. After all, she's in love with Edward, the love of the millennium. And there you have the next 200 pages.

Jacob kisses Bella. She kisses him back. She loves them both! How could this happen! Trauma. Edward is ever understanding. Jacob gets hurt. Bella feels remorse. Edward remains handsome and understanding. The End.

Can someone PLEASE explain the appeal of this series to me?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris

Undoubtedly one of the best books I have read in months. Maybe even years. However, I have NO doubt that not everyone will agree with my assessment of Finding Nouf. For me the book was fascinating because I was allowed an inside look into a culture that I am imminently curious about.

Finding Nouf is a murder mystery set in modern day Saudi Arabia. Zoë Ferraris, the author, is an American who was married to a Bedouin and lived in Saudia Arabia for a time. Therefore, she has an American's knowledge and perspective but an insider's view of a world that is rarely open to Americans. The thing that I appreciated the most, given that background, was that Ferraris was NOT condemnatory towards the Saudis. She does acknowledge problems within the society, but she never suggests that the choices the Saudis have made are across the board wrong. Peopling her book exclusively (aside from two very small tertiary characters) with Saudi citizens, she show the variety of beliefs and lifestyles within a very closed world.

The main character Nayir, is a pious Saudi (Palestinian) man who believes in the rules of his society. When a friend's daughter disappears he agrees to help search for her in the desert. Questions arise about her death and he cannot reconcile himself to the answerless questions that remain. He continues to investigate and through unusual circumstances enlists the help of his friends fiancée. The resolution to the crime is interesting, but not overwhelmingly novel.

The relationships between Nayir and his friends and family really make the story for me. Nayir lives in a world in which looking at a woman is a sin and speaking with a woman who is not his wife is a crime. As the book progresses, the reader begins to unravel the frustrations he has because he has no access to women at all. He would like to marry but has no social openings available to allow him to interact with women. Ferraris does a good job of not suggesting that this social realm is wrong; it just *is*.

As Americans we have such strong opinions about the Islamic world. And the information that we have about Saudi Arabia is so heavily influenced by politics and the media that finding a book that gives an honest insight into the Saudi world is difficult, if not impossible. I can't think of a non-fiction book that I could read which would give me as genuine an understanding of Saudi Arabian life as Finding Nouf. I recognize that it is still fiction. But, from my limited experience, I would like to suggest that it is a fictional story in a real world.

I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wanted to better understand the conservative Islamic world without getting a negative spin on the choices the people have made (or had made for them).

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ladies' Lending Library by Janice Kulyk Keefer

I wonder what attracts an editor/publishing company to a book. What exactly is the quality that this particular manuscript has that makes someone say, "Yes, this will be a great book. We can sell hundreds (thousands?) of copies."

In particular, what was it about Keefer's story that attracted her agent? I found myself more curious about this book than I am about most, which might have something to do with where I am in my life, but I think it also has to do with the plot of The Ladies' Lending Library.

I picked up this story cold at the public library. I was intrigued by the cover art and the blurb on the back. Sadly, the blurb and the title did not accurately portray the story between the covers. That always frustrates me. Yet another of my lingering questions:

Who writes the blurbs? And how hard is it to describe the story that has actually been written?

The blurb suggests that the book will focus on the summer beach book group of a collection of women in 1968. In fact the book group is only very tangential to the story.

Despite my frustration with the difference in the proposed plot and the actual plot, there were things I really did appreciate; but I would have preferred knowing ahead of time what I was going to read.

In fact, the story revolves around the difficulties of life for Ukrainian ex-pats and their children who are trying to grow up all-American in the end of the innocent 1960s. The parents all suffer from memories of their life pre-United States that color their relationships with their children, their spouses, and their friends. The story is told from a large variety of perspectives which I enjoyed; getting inside the heads of the kids, the husbands, and the wives really created a believable world in which these people functioned.

Getting back to my first point: I think this book had incredible promise. As an editor, I could see picking up the excerpt and wanting to read more. In particular I found Keefer's descriptive voice engaging and extremely vivid. I only wish I knew how to incorporate her poetic flair without sounding phony.

However (and this is a big however for me), the plot really dragged. The lending library was a terribly small part of the plot and the story never picked up any pace. The laid-back pacing was logical, I suppose, given the plot of a lazy summer at the beach. But I did not find myself wanting to pick the book up and keep reading. And the story wasn't lacking for drama, it just wasn't written in a way to engage the reader. So, how do publishers encourage an author to rework the story in a way to give in oomph? (And is it necessary?)To push the book from being good to being really excellent?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Enclave by Kit Reed

Odd book. Very.

I read a newspaper book review of Enclave and got very excited. I can't remember the exact wording, but it made me think of China Miéville whose Perdido Street Station was an incredible, if completely left-of-center book. It introduced me to the world of cyberpunk which I can take in small doses and enjoy when I do. So, I've spent the past couple of months hunting down Reed's Enclave. And imagine my delight when the author blurb on the cover was written by Connie Willis, another of my favorite authors. Now I knew this was going to be an amazing book.

Having read it, I just don't know. I can't even really categorize the subject. It's not science fiction, but it's closer to sci fi than any other genre. Given Reed's other books, I might classify it as literary fiction.

Anyway, the plot involves a military officer, the purported end of the world, and a bunch of rich tech-savvy kids who need boarding school to save them from themselves. It is two parts Lord of the Flies, one part Clueless with a pinch of Heart of Darkness thrown in for good measure. One of the appeals of Reed's story is how in touch she is with current pop culture and internet lingo. The kids in the story worry about their World of Warcraft characters and discuss the number of hits their YouTube videos had.

There is a lot of promise, I just don't feel that the book delivers everything is has set itself up to be. The review and the dust jacket were so promising. The set up was engaging. But about 100 pages in, I just got bored. I kept waiting for that big surprise and it never came. The characters didn't really develop from their experiences. The coda at the end could have offered more, but as it was it seemed really pat given the rest of the story.

My husband loves unique books. He enjoys novel twists and unthought of storylines. When I grabbed this book at the library I fully intended to have him read it after I had finished. I'm glad I finished Enclave or I would have been forever curious. But, as it stands, I took the book back today without offering it to him. It just didn't have enough to make it worthwhile.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Mournful Teddy (A Bear Collector's Mystery) by John J. Lamb

A cozy mystery about teddy bears? Really? People will write about anything. And more importantly, people will BUY anything!

I fully admit, this was my first thought when I picked up the new Bear Collector's Mystery series. I had seen Lamb at a book signing two years ago but hadn't gotten his book at the time. It looked cute - come on, it's about teddy bear collecting. What other word would you use to describe the series?

Instead, my mom bought it later and sent me the first three books in the series. The one thing that had made me curious when I first saw him was the mere presences of a male author. Cozy mysteries are notoriously written by women, the sleuths are women, and the majority of the characters are often women (think Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. It is the epitome of cozies if you've never read one).

To my great and pleasant surprise, this book is really quite good. It is 100% cozy - no gruesome death scenes, no gory details, cute theme. But, Lamb's background created a more detailed story. The main character, like the author, is an ex-cop who has full knowledge of police procedure and insight into the criminal mind. Lamb has managed to combine a police procedural which gives technical credence to his book with the fluffiness (pun intended) of a good cozy mystery. Plus, Lamb has a witty sense of humor that is slightly off-color. He isn't afraid to be a guy, which is a nice twist in a genre that often describes men as either bohunks to be drooled over or clueless, tasteless duds to be divorced.

In addition, Lamb and his wife are teddy bear collectors. So, on top of the accuracy of the criminal side of the novel, Lamb does include all of the necessary fact building about a particular niche/hobby that has become de rigeur in the cozy mystery world. Rather than wrinkling my nose at the other two Lamb books on my shelf, I will happily pick them up to read in the next couple of months.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris

I am officially done reading books recommended by Oprah's Book Club.

I don't need to cry or question humanity every time I pick up a book. While from time to time I enjoy the opportunity to question someone's motives, I don't want to be depressed whenever I'm done with a novel. Likewise, while I appreciate that not everyone has an uplifting life and that many people suffer daily hardships just to make it until bedtime, that doesn't necessarily mean that I want to spend my days reading about their suffering.

I picked up Morris' book at a library book sale in part because it was recommended by Oprah's book club and I thought it was at the least going to be a well-written book. I took it with me on an trip because I knew it was not something that I would pick off my bookshelf given all the other things I'm dying to read. And yet, I still put the book down less than 1/3 of the way through and chose not to finish it. It's just depressing. And I could handle depressing if I found the characters engaging or cared enough about their plight to unearth the outcomes in the novel. But I didn't.

The story takes place in a small town in the 1960s. The main characters lives revolve around the town drunk - his kids who suffer from embarrassment at his antics, his ex-wife who can barely make ends meet, his mother who is suffering from dementia and still thinks he is a little boy, and his sister who is trying to take care of her dying mother and alcoholic brother. Sounds uplifting, no?

Is it a well-written book?
It's not bad.

Is it a story that is worth telling?

Is it something that I want to spend my free time interacting with?
Yeah, not really.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Gilded Chamber: a Novel of Queen Esther by Rebecca Kohn

The Gilded Chamber is a current book club book. I don't know that I would have picked it up had a friend not handed me her copy after she finished. Reading the blurb it didn't capture my attention - it is a retelling of the Biblical story of Esther. Once I had it, I figured I might as well give it a go. I read the whole book on two airplane flights which is not the most focused reading.

Possibly because of where I read it, I find myself remarkably ambivalent about this novel. I am having a hard time coming up with enough thoughts to say anything either positive or negative about the story. It was light and entertaining. It was a well thought-out, detailed rendition of a Biblical character. But I didn't find myself particularly moved as I read. I did pass it on to my mother-in-law who I think will enjoy it, but I don't know that it would occur to me to recommend this book to many readers.

A few fleeting thoughts about the book in no particular order:

1. Why does the cover art depict a brunette? An important aspect of the story is dying Esther's hair blond so she will look more like the goddess Ishtar. Throughout the book her hair is continually dyed. There is nothing in the story that makes me look at this picture and identify it with the Esther as described by Kohn. It is an overtly sexualized depiction of the harem as perceived by American audiences.

2. Can this book be described as historical fiction? In the interview at the end Kohn spends a fair amount of time describing the research that she underwent to write the novel. And while she did a lot of work, I think it is presumptuous to assume that we can guess what life was like in Esther's time. I think Kohn did as good a job as could be hoped for, but I still would like people to think of this novel more as fiction and MUCH less as history. There is just too much fantastical recreation to suggest that it is accurate.

3. What about feminism? This question in the interview with Kohn about feminism really threw me for a loop. Was Esther a feminist? How can you describe a woman who lived over 2000 years before the concept of feminism as a feminist? That is giving her too much power over her situation. While Kohn depicted her as a strong woman, she was clearly a woman of her time. And in that same vein, Kohn admitted that her depiction of life in a harem was tenuous as there is little well-done research into this very private world. So to even suggest that we can use Kohn's book as an accurate portrayal of women's lives in this era is problematic.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In college I decided to read The Great Gatsby. I didn't feel I could consider myself a well-read American having never read any Fitzgerald. At the time (and really to this day), I didn't get the appeal. The light at the end of the dock never did anything for me. I never liked Gatsby or any of the other characters. The book stood out as nothing more than one of those Classics that everyone was supposed to read and love because they were told to, not because they genuinely had any affection for the storyline. (I'm not saying people who really enjoy Fitzgerald are wrong, I'm just saying I never got the appeal).

More recently I have wanted to learn more about life in 1920/30s America. As such I have picked up a handful of novels about the interwar era written by authors of the time. I find I get a much better sense of the people and the time with a novel than with a history text. One such book was Tender is the Night. I read it on a plane on the assumption that it would be good for me, but I wouldn't really enjoy it. Happily, I was wrong. I REALLY liked Tender is the Night and for the first I time understand and appreciate Fitzgerald as a classic, worthy American literary author.

Tender is the Night revolves around a psychiatrist and his schizophrenic wife who travel around Europe chasing happiness. While the characters might not seem to resemble Fitzgerald and Zelda, the book is largely autobiographical. Fitzgerald used a number of events in the story that really happened to his family. It is the honesty of life for American ex-pats in this book that I enjoyed. Fitzgerald really captured the aimlessness of the people living in that era who flitted from city to city searching for meaning.

More than the plot, however, I found Fitzgerald's writing style dynamic and engaging. He has a descriptive ability that I find lacking in many modern authors. He can say in one or two words what takes many authors a full sentence, if not a paragraph. After reading Tender is the Night, I would like to pick up more Fitzgerald to analyze his descriptive talent.

Moral of the story: don't assume every book by an author is bad (or good, for that matter) based on the "Classic" that is over-used, over-quoted, and force fed to school students. Some of the other books might be much better.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Book of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

If I have an all-time favorite sub-genre of literature it is young adult science fiction. I eat the stuff up. I loved Philip Pullman's Dark Material's Trilogy long before The Golden Compass got made into a decent (but not great) movie . I'm a sucker for books like Lois Lowry's The Giver. One of the books on my to-read list is The Lightning Thief. So when my husband picked up The Book of Ember, I had no doubt it would make it to my reading list sooner rather than later.

I started The Book of Ember on Friday night and finished it Saturday afternoon. It is, after all, a children's/young adult book. But it is also a good engaging story that captures the imagination and encourages devouring the book. One of the appeals of young adult sci fi is that it has to be relatively fast-paced to appeal to a young reader. Plus, the stories tend to be shorter which leaves less room for the much more detailed description that science fiction authors often use to flesh out their storylines.

But shorter does not mean less well-developed. DuPrau has created an interesting and novel world for the first book in her trilogy. The great mystery of the world is not that difficult to figure out. The city of Ember lives in darkness aside from the electric lights that are run by a generator. But the lights are failing, supplies are in short supply, and the mayor is corrupt. Lina and Doon are some of the only citizens who seem to want to fix the problem and find a solution.

The characters in DuPrau's novel remind me of Lois Lowry's characters in The Giver - they question their world and no that something is amiss. They have a greater curiosity than normal which allows them a greater understanding of the world.

I will happily read the rest of the series. My husband asked if it was a good book to read to our 5 1/2 year old son. For some kids I think it would be: it's not too scary, there's nothing inappropriate. My son doesn't love chapter books yet, so I think we'll hold off for a while.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Lost Quilter: An Elm Creek Quilts Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

Remember back in the day when you would crawl up on your grandma's lap (insert other relevant adult figure here), get comfortable, look up and say, Tell me a story? And grandma would settle in and tell you about her life as a child, or her experiences at work. Some days the story was infinitely familiar; you could have filled in details that grandma missed that day. Other days the story was startlingly fresh and new: "I never knew you jumped out of an airplane grandma?" And once in a while grandma told a story that didn't particularly catch your attention. But no matter what, you loved the stories because it was grandma telling them and she had a certain cadence and rhythm to storytelling that you admired. And the stories were familiar and warm.

Jennifer Chiaverini's novels are like listening to grandma tell a story. When you pick up one of her books you want to curl up on the couch with a cozy quilt (of course), a cup of hot chocolate, and a sweet treat and read from beginning to end. There are only a few authors I have found who have that quality and I will always pick their books immediately off my shelf because I know I will enjoy reading them.

The Lost Quilter is no exception. The story, like all the Elm Creek Quilts novels, splinters off from the basic narrative of Sylvia Bergstrom Compson, master quilter and founder of a quilting haven in Pennsylvania. The stories jump back and forth in time through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, but always return to the foundational contemporary characters. This particular book picks up where the plot of The Runaway Quilt left off. Only in this novel, Joanna, a runaway slave who had found a haven at the Bergstrom farm in pre-Civil War slavery America, is the main character.

I will say, this was not one of my favorite quilt books. I prefer the stories that spend more time with the contemporary characters - in this novel they only make an appearance during the prologue and the epilogue. In addition, I felt that Chiaverini could have focused more attention on the quilts - always integral characters in her books. I understand why they did not play a significant role in this story, but I missed that aspect of the plot. Despite my minimal frustrations, I found myself putting the book down with tears in my eyes. Chiaverini has a great way of pulling at the heartstrings without being overly dramatic or sentimental.

If you are new to Chiaverini, I would strongly encourage you to start from the beginning of the series. It isn't absolutely necessary. However, character development in the course of nearly a dozen books leads to a more nuanced understanding of the interactions between characters. All in all, two big thumbs up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Deadly Brew by Susanna Gregory

I have discovered that most mystery readers have sub-genres that pique their interest. There are:
  • historical mysteries
  • cooking mysteries
  • hardboiled crime novels
  • vampire mysteries...
to name but a few. I read a variety of types but am always on the lookout for a good academic mystery. There are a handful of good series based on the workings of academia. For the most part I have focused on contemporary academia, but a friend introduced me to Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew books. The stories take place in a fourteenth-century English university and the main characters are the lay Brothers who teach there.

Gregory's fourth book in this medieval series recreates an extremely realistic world through her use of visceral imagery about life in pre-modern England. After reading the book I'm really, really glad that I live in the modern world. Brothers Matthew and Michael spend much of the book hungry, cold, and wet: and they are relatively privileged characters. Gregory's research about life in this era demonstrates an eye for detail and a focus on accuracy about an era which is harder to recreate than a more modern one (eh, maybe that's debatable - a more well-researched contemporary era assumes a greater attention to accuracy. Anyway...).

The plot of the novel is intricate and woven together with cunning examples. It revolves around poisoned wine which has killed a handful of academics at the university where Matthew is a physician. The many interconnected plot points necessary to unravel all of the storylines effectively create a nuanced story. Gregory convincingly weaves together the seemingly unconnected events to create a good book.

I have two minor sticking points with A Deadly Brew. The first is both the failure and the success of a good mystery series. Not having read the previous books in the series, I found myself annoyed from time to time when she continually referred to events that had happened in other books. It's nice that her stories are laced together and it made me want to read more. However, at times I did wish that she did not feel it necessary to refer back to other works.

The second might be a stylistic choice of Gregory's (I'll need to read more to be say for certain.) Unlike some authors who uncover the murderer and then write, The End, Gregory solved most of the mystery with 100 pages left in the book. She continued to unravel more of the story in the remaining pages, but I found myself losing interest once I knew who had poisoned the wine and why.

All in all, a good discovery. I will keep my eyes open for further Susanna Gregory mysteries.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Velocity by Dean Koontz

I have no memory of reading anything else by Dean Koontz. I don't live under a rock, so obviously I have heard of Koontz. But I never had any occasion to read one of his books. Velocity was a free book I received at a book fair about two years ago. It has sat on my bookshelf since. I picked up the book half a dozen times and read the blurb on the back cover but put it back on my shelf, not in the least invested in the storyline.

Last week I needed a good quick read for the airplane. I wanted something I could finish and not feel compelled to bring back from vacation. The bright yellow cover of Velocity screamed out to me as the ideal book. It was the right book given the requirements.

After reading Velocity I have no need or desire to read anything else by Koontz. The book was not bad. It was undeniably engaging. I was happily invested in reading for my entire day of flying and waiting at the airport. I kept reading to figure out the mystery at the end of the book. It just did not fulfill my needs for a book - why would I want to read such an implausible, depressing, downer of a book?

The premise of Velocity is that a man, bartender Billy Wiles, gets a letter on his windshield telling him that if he goes to the cops an elderly woman who works with charities will be killed, if he doesn't go to the cops a beautiful second grade teacher will be killed - the choice is his. The story progresses with further letters and choices for Billy as the crimes fall closer and closer to home. Billy has to solve the mystery of who is writing the letters to save himself and the love of his life.

My problem with the book revolves around all the myriad completely unrealistic coincidences that are necessary to keep the plot moving forward. Billy Wiles has to be a lonesome, unconnected character for him to take the actions that he does. His fiancee suffers from the most arbitrary illness humanly possible. The murderer, while introduced early on, is divorced from the storyline in any consequential way.

Plus, there's enough distrust, death, and disturbing events in real life. Why read about horror in fiction (And yes, I am clearly labeling myself as a non-horror fan here)? If you're already a Koontz fan and haven't read Velocity you would probably enjoy this fast-paced mystery. But, if you like lighter reads, don't buy into suspension of disbelief, and don't want to read about pain and mutilation, I would suggest you pass on Velocity.