Sunday, March 29, 2009

Gentlemen and Players by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris became a well-known American author after her book Chocolat was made into the movie with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. While I enjoyed both the book and the movie, I don't think this was on of Harris' best. I enjoyed Five Quarters of the Orange and Blackberry Wine more. However, at this point, I would have to say I have a new Joanne Harris favorite: Gentlemen and Players. This is one of the most fascinatingly written books that I have encountered recently.

The plot in Gentlemen and Players alternates between two characters - the aging Latin instructor, Roy Straitley, and the main character, Snyde, whose identity is somewhat hidden. The story follows two timelines - one is in the present and the other is the reminiscences of Snyde's childhood. As Harris develops the story, the reader becomes aware of the troubled past that Snyde had which he blames on St. Oswald's, the school where his father worked as Porter and Roy Straitley taught. In the present, Snyde has returned for revenge.

I enjoyed this book on two levels. The first is Harris' description of life teaching middle school students. Straitley's observations about his fellow teachers and his students is priceless but also remarkably dead-on. Straitley had characterizations for each of the teachers - Teutons, Suits, etc. For anyone who has spent time with teachers, his descriptions are remarkably apt. Even before finishing the book I had no doubt that Harris had classroom experience. The high jinks of the students and the ability to get under the teachers' skin was entertaining and imminently believable.

The other memorable aspect of this book is harder to explain without giving away too much of the story. Let's just leave it that Harris is an incredible writer. I had guessed at one part of the plot but still had a jaw on my chest; book lying open; flipping back to check, double check, and triple check details moment. I was in awe at the way Harris had worded the book to not give anything away. Read it. You'll see what I mean.

Harris' books are not typical mystery. But there is definitely suspense and a reason to keep reading. The book is a bit dark - there is death and destruction. But, Harris is a really good writer and I strongly recommend her books.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

I went to high school at a point when mainstream literature was being replaced by so-called "minority literature." The long and short of it was that I read almost no worthwhile literature for three years - either mainstream or minority. I have made an effort in the years since high school to remedy my lack of literary education and read as many of the high school classics as I missed - both mainstream and minority (although I honestly don't understand the definitions of mainstream and minority but that is a whole different conversation).

I picked up a copy of Eva Luna at the library book sale and left it on my bookshelf until this month. It is the first example of Magical Realism that I have read (I saw Like Water for Chocolate but never read the book). It was fascinating. I heartily enjoyed it. I'm thrilled to have read a piece of good literature. But... (there has to be a but or else it wouldn't merit a blog post, right?)

I found that Eva Luna was hard to read consecutively. It is NOT light reading like what I often read. The amount of detailed description while integral to the story and enjoyable because it was so different from typical American lit was heavy and had to be absorbed in parts. I found that it was best read on my way to and from work. Otherwise I was likely to put the book down and look for something else to read. Maybe that makes me non-literary, but there you have it.

The topic of the book was incredibly fascinating. Eva Luna spans the decades from World War II to the 1980s. The two main characters Eva and Rolf Carlé live through a decided number of historical events including the end of World War II and the creation of democracy in Latin/South America. I had to read up on Allende's work to see if she described the political workings of any specific South American country. It appears that the story is fictional but is most similar to Chile and Venezuela.

The characters with whom Eva interacts and the worlds that they inhabit are so starkly removed from contemporary America that it is hard to comprehend their mores and beliefs. Nonetheless, I feel like I have a slightly better understanding for what life is like in the non-Western world. In addition, the book is humorous and has fun characters like Mimi that are so different from American lit as to be deeply intriguing.

I will definitely pick up more Magical Realism. But I would never pretend that it is a light read that I can enjoy while my children run around me. It is the kind of book that takes full attention.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Moon by Stephanie Meyer

I read Twilight out of sheer curiosity. It wasn't fabulous, but it wasn't terrible either. I understand why it's popular but I don't agree with it being listed as one of the best books of the decade.

So last weekend I saw a paperback copy of New Moon at Half Price Books. For half the paperback price I was willing to check out the second book in what is now deemed The Twilight Saga.

Like Twilight, New Moon is a quick read. At 400+ pages it takes less than many 200 page books. The plot is not particularly deep. Once again, I understand the appeal of the stories as young adult romance books. At the age of 14 I would have loved these books. But I have to honestly say, reading the second, I can't understand the universal female appeal of these stories. They're not even remotely deep. Escapism, yeah, I can buy that. Great literature, not even remotely.


If you plan on reading these books and you don't want to know what happened, stop reading now. To really talk about this book I have to give away the plot.

At the beginning of the book Edward and Bella are watching Romeo and Juliet and discussing what they would do if one of them were to die. I should have guessed right then where the book was going. What can I say, I'm a little slow - but better prepared in case I pick up Eclipse which opens with the characters discussing Wuthering Heights.

There are two basic storylines in this book. The first is werewolves. Okay, so the main premise of the first book is vampires so continuing in the world of the arcane is not that unexpected. But it seems to0 cliché. I understand that Meyer is setting up a long-standing tension for her novels. However, it was rereading a lot of the first book. Stress over realizing they're not human, trying to hide the differences from the world, spending WAYYYY too long figuring out what is going on. There are about 40 pages when I kept thinking, is the character really this dumb? I read the first book, she was there. If she was open enough to vampires how can she be so clueless about the werewolves.

The second storyline is the continuation of the love story. As I said, I should have seen it immediately. There is a moment when Bella jumps off a cliff and dives into the sea. Think Romeo and Juliet - Yep. Edward thinks she's dead. He runs off to kill himself, Bella has to save him. Happy reunion. The end. I might have actually liked the story better had Meyer not self-consciously pointed out that she was ripping off classic literature.

The sad reality? I will most likely read the next two books in the series. I'm not a masochist, but they are light fluffy entertainment. I already have Twilight the movie on y Netflix list. If nothing else I like to see what gets people's attention and what makes a *good* book these days. But, I will also continue to rant at how transparent the stories are.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Chardonnay Charade by Ellen Crosby

I enjoyed Ellen Crosby's first book The Merlot Murders. When I found the second book in paperback I picked it up. It is another quick read. It has a lot of interesting information about the Virginia wine industry. But there's really not too much else to say about it.

The story continues the story of Lucie Montgomery, the heiress to the family vineyard in Northern Virginia. In this story, Lucie and her vintner unwittingly assist in the murder of a political candidate through their poor planning which leaves dangerous chemicals out in the open. Solving the murder is the obvious focus of the book but there are a number of subplots that build on the previous story.

Like many cozy mysteries there is romantic tension. In this book it involves Lucie, her vintner, the daughter of one of the workman, and a terribly rich British playboy. Unfortunately, while the murder is solved, the rest of the story remains unresolved. Crosby uses the personal relationships to lead the reader into picking up the next book.

If you have a passion for wine and you want to learn more about how it's made, Crosby has done her homework. There are a number of details and great historical wine quotes to keep you reading. But the plot is not particularly deep. The murderer is too easy to figure out. At this point, I won't go out of my way to pick up any more of Crosby's books. Were they handed to me, I would read them without thinking too hard.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Detox Diet by Elson M. Haas M.D.

I had seen the book Super Cleanse at Target which got me thinking. I wasn't invested enough to buy it so instead I requested The Detox Diet: The How-To & When-To Guide for Cleansing the Body of:... from the public library. I was looking for a way to jump start eating healthier this summer and I had heard of detoxification diets. Long story short: I don't think this is the plan for me. I respect people who had the dedication and the tenacity to stick with a liquid or completely fruit and vegetable-based diet. But I like my food too much. I think it is possible to eat healthier without going to such an extreme - even if it is for a limited amount of time.

As an M.D. and a homeopath, Haas explains the medical reason for eating healthier in logical terms. He explains the benefits of a diet that is rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, and fiber. Everyone could benefit from eating less refined sugar. I learned a number of things that I will take into consideration when I pick my food.

However, the book does tend to remain heavily detailed. There is a lot of dropping names of different amino acids, proteins, and vitamins as though the reader should recognize those unfamiliar terms without fail.

An informative book but something I'm glad to have gotten from the library and will be returning to the library.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Corpse Pose by Diana Killian

I will read almost anything. I like a good light mystery to read when sitting at gymnastics with the boys. It's a great way to pass the time and be entertained. I generally am not that conscious of writing style. But occasionally I pick up a book for which the writing style is so incongruent and bad that it is hard not to notice. Corpse Pose falls into that category. The writing is SO bad I am amazed that anyone actually published the book. The best way to describe this book is to let it speak for itself. The following quote is a description of the small town that the main character A.J. is entering after she discovers that her beloved aunt has been murdered:

...On the outskirts of the town was a small cemetery known as the Hessian Graveyard, although it wasn't old enough to inter any fallen Hessians. It was one of those fascinating places with ornate headstones and morbid statuary of weeping cherubs and little children petting small animals. Gus Eriksson, Aunt Di's naturalist photographer lover, was buried there somewhere beneath the blanket of red and yellow autumn leaves. And now perhaps Aunt Di herself would rest there. Had Aunt Di left any final instructions about her funeral arrangements? A. J. had no idea.

Really? All in one paragraph? And what's with the Hessians? That has less than nothing to do with the plot. This is the only mention of the graveyard so why the inclusion of the statuary - descriptive though it may be?

Any my favorite description in a cozy mystery/chick lit/bad romance kind of way:

"Ma'am." His breath smoked in the chill air. He touched the brim of his hat. "You've had some trouble?"
His eyes were green - startlingly green - in his tanned face. He was handsome in a rugged Marlboro Man kind of way. Handsome in a way A. J. didn't like. She didn't like big, buff, overpoweringly masculine men. She liked clever, sophistocated, sensitive men. Or course, she preferred clever, sophisticated, sensitive heterosexual men, but apparently one couldn't have everything.

Your brain spinning in circles yet? Don't get me wrong, I would love to have someone publish my bad cozy mystery. And I guarantee the writing is not significantly better; Hemmingway I'm not. But I am starting to feel like if you include "tips" and "recipes" at the end of your book it is an automatic entre to publishing. Yes, that's right, the last few pages include information about how to perform the Corpse Pose in yoga and a recipe for basic stir fry.

Oh, the plot of the book? Not horrible really. Not any worse than most light cozy mysteries written these days. But someone needed to edit more carefully and not just assume the book would sell because it is about yoga - oh wait, technically it is "A Mantra for Murder Mystery" - a popular topic currently.

Don't waste your time. Maybe Diana Killian's future books will be stunning award winners. But before that can happen someone needs to enroll her in a writing class with a very strict professor who doesn't allow cheesy overdone descriptions.