Movable Type 3.2
December 07, 2010
Hello! I feel I have been neglecting you in the cheer department. I'm sorry. I had so many big plans but then work is busy and I am tired and . . . you know. I am working on things, but they are coming along more slowly than anticipated. This evening I DID finish almost all of my shopping, so that's something. I just have a few more things that I'll be looking for during my trip this weekend. I even had one of those Amy March moments of putting back a dress I was going to buy for myself so I could buy more for the needy family I "adopted," so now I'm ruining all actual virtue involved by telling you I feel vaguely virtuous about it.
My Hanukkah cards finally went out, but there is STILL TIME to send me your address if you would like a Christmas or general winter CHEER card!
Oh! But I do have a little book review for you . . .
I don't remember whether I mentioned that I am GOING TO SEE The Nutcracker this weekend. In New York! The New York City Ballet! The Balanchine version! This one. When I was a kid, once of my absolute favorite books was called A Very Young Dancer, and it was all about a girl who played Clara in Balanchine's Nutcracker in 1976 or so. The book is (sadly) out of print, and my copy is MISSING, but I got it out of the library so I can reread it before I go. But ANYWAY. I was looking at the display of holiday books at the library and I grabbed Nutcracker Nation, partially because of my trip and partially because it's the sort of thing that would jump out at me anyway.
It was not at all what I expected, and that's a good thing. I didn't look at it that closely before I checked it out, and I was expecting. But that was good! I thought it was going to be one of those pop history Christmas books, but it was actually fairly academic - published by Yale University Press. It told the history of the ballet and then did a sociological and ethnographic study of a few productions in the 1990s. The author spent months with the dance companies and did extensive interviews. There's also plenty about other productions, movies, The Nutcracker in popular culture, etc. If you're interested in dance and social history, I definitely recommend it.
Oh, did I mention that my goal for 2011 is to read 100 books, and to write at least a few sentences here about each one? So that should be exciting.
I should go get some sleep, but I will TRY to have a playlist for you tomorrow. Good night!
October 11, 2010
Review: Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other
Scott Simon's new book about adoption falls somewhere between "memoir" and "book-length NPR story," and I mean that in the best way possible. He weaves together his own story (Simon and his wife adopted their two daughters from China) and personal stories of other families who have adopted with more journalistic information about adoption in the U.S. and around the world. Honestly, I was a little wary when I saw that Simon was going to tell the stories of his friends - those sorts of anecdotes can get tedious - but then I realized that he's Scott Simon, so his friends are people like Frank Deford. In his own story, Simon manages to hit just the right balance - it's personal enough to be interesting, but doesn't feel exploitative or like he's invading his daughters' privacy. My overwhelming reaction to this book was less anything new about adoption, although Simon certainly did well with that subject, and more that I wanted to be friends with Simon and his wife and daughters because they seem like such interesting people. I guess I'll have to settle for that private message I got from him on Twitter that one time. (A highlight of my tweeting experience? Yes, of course.)
August 18, 2010
I don't tend to review picture books very often, but Kathy Brodsky is a local-ish author and her publisher was kind enough to send me a copy of her new book, Purrsnikitty. It's a simple rhyming story about a cat and its family, and it's designed to teach children about sibling rivalry as well as pet care. Now, I will admit that I am skeptical about children's books with stated purposes like this; they can, of course, be useful in certain situations, but they're often not that good just as books. I was pleasantly surprised with Purrsnikitty in that respect: the "lesson" comes in when a new puppy joins the family and the cat must learn to get along with it, but I actually thought this conflict was resolved a little too quickly. I would have liked to see more dog vs. cat antics. Other than that, the story was good. My favorite moment was when the cat wondered why his family brought home a puppy and not something fun like a mouse. I cringed when I saw that there were "discussion questions" at the end, but they're not bad! Many are simple and factual - "Do you have a cat?" "Are you the oldest, youngest or middle child in your family?" - and a few are more abstract - "What would life be like without any brothers or sisters?"
The story is written in rhyming verse, about four lines to each two-page spread. There are a few places where the rhymes don't quite work, and the meter isn't perfect, so you might trip over your tongue when reading it aloud. (Or you might be less stuck on perfect iambs than I am and it won't bother you at all.) The language is clear while still using some fun words like "prance" and "humungous." I quite liked the illustrations - they're stylized but don't make the cat look too cutesy or cartoony. (I am picky about my cat illustrations.) I especially love the rich texture, and my favorite is one image of the dog and cat snuggling on a pillow next to a pair of boots while snow falls on a snowman outside the window.
You can find Purrsnikitty and Brodsky's other books at her site. I didn't have any actual children handy so I don't have any age-appropriate reactions, but I've sent the book off to a friend with kids in hopes that she'll review it as well. I'll give you a link if she does!
July 27, 2010
Review: Shadow Trade
Shadow Trade by Alan Furst
I requested this one from the library because a list I read said it was the first of Furst's (hah) spy novels set in 1930s Europe. It is not. But it turned out to be good anyway! Imagine Burn Notice but set in 1980-ish New York, and you basically have this book. The main character, Guyer, was laid off by the CIA a few years earlier and is now running his own freelance firm. He's a complex character, likeable and flawed, and his world is well-drawn. The plot got a little confusing at times, but that didn't really ruin anything; the evocation of the universe is more important than the particular details. Unfortunately, this seems to be out of print, but it's worth digging up at a library.
July 26, 2010
Review: Knightley Academy
Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher
Knightley Academy is set in an alternative version of Victorian England, where there are still knights but they become police and secret service agents and stuff. They're trained at a special school called Knightley Academy, and only the sons of the aristocracy are admitted - until servant boy Henry Grim is allowed in through a loophole in the admission procedures. Partially because of his feat, two other commoners are allowed in, and they, along with the headmaster's wayward daughter, become Henry's best friends. Together they have to figure out how to fit in with the upper-class boys, and discover who is behind the dangerous acts of sabotage directed at them - which may have bigger implications than they realize and not be just about them after all.
This novel was so absorbing that I read most of it in one sitting, and it was completely delightful. It reads a lot like Harry Potter, without the magic - both in the tone and some of the themes of an outsider at a super-selective school, in a world suddenly plunged into grave danger. I don't mean that it's among the legions of Potter knock-offs, though; it's quite original and very well-written. Knightley Academy perfectly combines a cozy British school story with alternate history politics with global stakes. According to the author's Twitter feed, she's working on the sequel now, and I can't wait.
(Note to parents: This is exceptionally clean - I think there's one mention of kissing, and no one actually does anything like that. Some references to "ruined reputations" but no details. And it's exciting without being particularly scary. If you have an advanced reader who's ready for harder/longer books but not some of the heavier themes of a lot of YA, definitely try this one.)
July 22, 2010
Review: The Possessed
I love books about books and reading, so I was excited to read this, even though I haven't actually read all that much Russian literature. And this book certainly made me want to read more Russian books, so that's something. But overall, it was pretty uneven. I prefer my memoirs of reading to have a little more about the reader's life than this one did. Individual parts of this were interesting, but it didn't hold together as a book very well. It reads as though Batuman had half a book about a summer she spent in Uzbekistan, and some essays about Russian literature, and just combined them with a little connective tissue about her experiences in grad school. Each bit was interesting on its own, but somewhat unsatisfying as a whole. But I definitely want to read Tolstoy now!
(Note: There's some really gross [albeit interesting] stuff in the chapter called "The House of Ice." I'd recommend you not read it while eating dinner, as I did.)
July 19, 2010
Review: Blue Bloods
This book had such potential. For one thing, overlaying the teen vampire craze on top of what is basically the Gossip Girl universe was a brilliant marketing move that one can only respect. And it does that reasonably well, although I'm starting to think that Gossip Girl has a certain level of single-minded frothiness that books like this and the Pretty Little Liars series, with their insistence on including actually plot, can't attain. But this does pretty well with its portrayal of a super-exclusive prep school in a New York seemingly devoid of all under-aged drinking laws.
The reason why I really wanted Blue Bloods to be good, though, was because it took a very different and rather thought-provoking approach to vampire mythology, from the way vampires are created to the way they operate in the modern world. Vampire purists probably won't like this: it's too different. But given the sheer volume of vampire material out there, it was nice to see a different approach, and I really wanted De la Cruz to take it somewhere interesting. (I know I'm being cryptic, but I really don't want to give it away for those who might read it. If you want to know, leave a comment and I'll e-mail you.)
But this book didn't really succeed for me, because there were just so many mistakes. In one category were a plethora of little grammar mistakes - especially apostrophe issues. These drive me nuts, but I can usually get past them, and tend to blame the editing rather than the author. I mean, there's really no excuse for consistently referring to a family's home as "the Llewellyn's apartment." There's more than one Llewellyn! Ahem.
The real issue, though, came when the mistakes got in the way of the plot. The book includes excerpts from a fictional diary set during the founding of the Plymouth colony, and yes, it's fictional, but it's so incorrect that it drove me crazy. People weren't casually popping back and forth between Virginia and Massachusetts in 1620, people! And under no circumstances, fictional or not, unless we're actually changing geography, would you, in Plymouth, avoid danger coming from Virginia by escaping south. That's just careless.
And the worst example: A few of the teen characters keep having visions of a word appearing in a certain situation, and they spent a lot of the book trying to find out what it meant. The problem? Every schoolchild in America learns about this word and this incident. And even if these particular kids forgot or for some reason never learned it, I just tested and Googling the word brings the entire explanation right up. So it makes no sense that the central mystery of the book is a mystery at all, or at least in the way it's framed. And this issue could have been so easily avoided by one line mentioning that the vampires had kept the incident out of human history books, but unless I missed something (which is certainly possible), nothing like that is stated.
So . . . I don't know. This was an interesting idea clumsily executed. I'll try the next book in the series, in case it improves, but I wouldn't necessarily bump this one to the top of your to-read list.
July 16, 2010
Anthony Horowitz is the genius behind Foyle's War, the superlative BBC WWII mystery series. I love Foyle so much that I figured I should give his teen spy novel series a try. And it was pretty good! It's a little more action-centric than most things I like, but it was a quick, fun read. Alex Rider is a young teen who discovers that the uncle who raised him was actually a spy. After the uncle's death, Alex is recruited to carry on his work, even though he's so young. (There's a convoluted explanation for why a kid is necessary for the task, which is infiltrating an evil guy's tech company before he does SOMETHING bad to all the kids in England, via the computers he's giving out to schools.) It's all completely unbelievable, but once I realized that it was deliberately unbelievable and decided to just go along with it, it was fun. And very British, which is always a plus. I mean, it's not Foyle, but unless/until Horowitz starts writing Foyle novels (oh please oh please), I will happily read about Alex Rider.
July 15, 2010
This is the second in the Luxe series; you can read my thoughts on the first here. To recap, it's basically like Gossip Girl set in 1899. A fair amount of serious plot stuff happened - maybe more than in the first one - but it wasn't quite as absorbing as the original book. The middle got a little tiresome, but it picked up again at the end. I definitely am more into some of the characters' storylines than others - I'm fascinated by
July 14, 2010
Review: Faceless Killers
As far as Nordic mysteries go, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is all the rage right now, but before Mikael Blomkvist came along, Kurt Wallander was already there, solving mysteries while drinking lots of coffee and miraculously not freezing to death. Faceless Killers was Mankell's first Wallander novel (although a book of stories, at least some of which were set earlier than this, came out later); it's the story of isolated elderly Swedish farmers who are brutally murdered. It's practically unrelentingly bleak, and I loved it. Couldn't put it down. (And not just because all the Swedish snow scenes made me forget it was hot out.) The plotting is intricate but very tight; Wallander is a human and sympathetic but very flawed protagonist; the setting is almost utterly alien but very appealing. And did I mention there's a lot of coffee? There is. Make sure you have some on hand before reading this. But definitely give it a try. (Note: The PBS/BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh is good too.)
July 06, 2010
Review: The Intrigue at Highbury
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the vast majority of Jane Austen sequels written by other authors are hugely disappointing. I've found the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery series by Carrie Bebris to be a delightful exception to this rule. Bebris follows Elizabeth (Bennet) and Fitzwilliam Darcy in the years immediately following their marriage as they travel around to, basically, visit the settings of Austen's other novels and solve mysteries. It sounds silly, but it works. This is the fifth in the series, so I'd start with Pride and Prescience rather than this one, but this was definitely one of my favorites. The Darcys and the Knightleys make an excellent team, and this installment didn't really have the supernatural overtones that some of the previous novels had. (You know I have nothing against supernatural stuff in books, but it seemed a little much for the Darcys at times.) Presumably, the next book in the series will involve characters from Persuasion, and I can't wait.
July 02, 2010
This second book in the Pretty Little Liars series was, somewhat surprisingly, actually better than the first. I mean, they're still not great, but this was good enough to keep me reading and make me want book three. The characters get more complex, and therefore more interesting and sympathetic, in this volume. The secrets get more interesting, and the book starts to work more like a mystery, which is a good thing in this case. In the first book, everyone was vaguely referring to secrets all the time, but the reader didn't really have much to go on. Here, Shepard starts to give out enough clues that the reader can actually start guessing things and trying to figure out what's going on, and that makes for a much more satisfying reading experience. Perhaps most importantly, it became clear in this book that real stuff is going on and the stakes are high. People's lives are in danger. People die. Major crimes are committed. It's not all about swim team and expensive handbags after all.
I'm still skeptical that the "A" plot is enough to carry as many books as there are (up to what, nine or ten now?), but I'm willing to give Shepard the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and to see where she takes us. I hope the "A" stuff is resolved and other plot strands - and maybe characters - are brought in. It's not like teenagers - or their parents - have any shortage of secrets, after all.
June 10, 2010
Review: Vampire Academy
Hey, look, teenage vampires! At a boarding school! It's almost like someone noticed the vampire craze and Harry Potter and tried to combine them! At least, that's what I thought when someone recommended this series to me. I didn't expect much, but I was very pleasantly surprised. Vampires work totally differently in this universe than in most, but it's done well and makes the book more interesting than I'd expected. The main character, Rose, is a half-vampire (dhampir) training to guard the good vampires against the evil vampires. Basically. She has an intense and complicated relationship with her best friend and future protectee, and an intense and complicated relationship with her hot Russian mentor, Dimitri. Rose sees the authority figures at the school as her antagonists, but it soon becomes clear that there are other, scarier bad guys out there. It's an atmospheric page-turner, and Rose is a really interesting character, and the world is very well-drawn. It definitely left me wanting more.
June 08, 2010
Review: Pretty Little Liars
The ABC Family show based on this series of novels starts tonight (and I'll have a post about the pilot up tomorrow or Thursday), so I figured I should give the books a try. And it was . . . okay. Really, I'm hoping this show will continue the Gossip Girl/Vampire Diaries trend of taking mediocre teen books and turning them into really good TV. Anyway. The most popular girl in seventh grade disappears, and with her a bunch of secrets. Three years later, her former best friends start getting mysterious messages referring to things that only the vanished girl knew, and their lives start falling apart. Each girl has a Big Secret: one thinks she might be gay, one has an eating disorder, one saw her father having sex with one of his students, etc. There's a very Grey's Anatomy scene in which a girl discovers the hot guy she'd picked up the night before the first day of school is actually her new teacher. You get the idea.
None of the characters are particularly nice, but they're all at least somewhat sympathetic - except, perhaps, for the girl who disappeared. The way her friends remember her, at least, she was basically the meanest of Mean Girls, and I'll be interested to see whether this image changes at all as the series progresses. There's a lot of label name-dropping - Kate Spade, Tiffany's, etc., and that got a little tiresome, but I know a certain sort of Gossip Girl-esque book needs to have that. It's set in the Philadelphia Main Line, and some of the brands mentioned do place it there nicely - everyone's always going to Wawa, and one character not only buys Tastykakes, but Butterscotch Krimpets, specifically. I think there was a cheesesteak mention, too, although, of course, none of these girls would actually eat something like a cheesesteak.
This book was by no means great, and maybe not even good, but it was entertaining enough, and I am actually curious enough about the big mystery of the vanished girl to keep reading the series, at least for a while. (It helps that it's a quick read - I read it in a little under two hours.) It looks like they're up to eight books or so, and I can't imagine how they'll sustain this for so long, but . . . well, we'll see. As mindless summer fun, it's not bad. And I look forward to seeing how it translates to TV.
June 04, 2010
Review: The Friends of Eddie Coyle
I read this because Slate told me to, and . . . I'm not sure I got it. I don't know. I mean, it was interesting, and well-written, but where Patterson says the reader will be "blissfully disoriented," I was more just disoriented and not entirely convinced I had to be. I agree that the "purposefully shadowed" style produced some great writing, but it also kept me from getting attached to any of the characters and therefore from really caring what happened. But - well, I'd still say it's worth reading, if you like crime fiction, and its style is obviously an influence on contemporary authors like Henry Chang. And it's definitely worth reading if you're familiar with the Boston area, because really, how often do you open a book to find the bad guys hanging out in Nahant, of all places?
June 01, 2010
Review: Not My Daughter
Okay. Catching up on book reviews. Seriously.
A group of best friends in a small town in Maine (? I think? The company they work for is obviously based on L.L. Bean so I assumed Maine, but it could have been Massachusetts) find out that several of their teen daughters are pregnant, presumably in some sort of pregnancy pact, and they all have to deal with that, and blah blah. The main character is the principal of the high school, so everyone blames her for the whole thing, because she had her daughter when she was a teenager. Never mind that that was an unplanned pregnancy and the pact pregnancies are all planned. Or so they claim. So the families and various groups of friends all have to deal with this, and there are of course baby health scares that bring everyone together, and - look, I'm not even going to bother. You know how this is going to go, and no, it doesn't really make a whole lot more sense than I'm making it sound like.
Okay, I have to be honest here: I didn't expect this to be any good, going into it. And I was . . . not disappointed? Yeah. It was exactly as bad as I'd expected. The characters were pretty flat, the plot didn't make much sense, and no one's motives were ever sufficiently explained. The one bright spot was the hand-dyed yarn company that the main characters run, and, in general, all the knitting that the characters did. Delinsky certainly knew what she was talking about there, and I think this would actually have been better as a "group of disparate friends brought together by knitting" book, without the ripped-from-the-headlines pregnancy pact stuff. Oh well.
May 28, 2010
Review: The Luxe
This is one of those books that I don't really have a lot to say about, but that's not a bad thing. Set in 1899 Manhattan among socialite teens and their servants, it's basically Gossip Girl meets Edith Wharton meets Gosford Park. Now, it's not as good as any of those things*, but it was a fun, quick read. It gave me a completely enjoyable Saturday afternoon of reading, and I immediately requested the next in the series from the library. And sometimes, that's all I really ask for from a book.
* To clarify: This is a million times better than the Gossip Girl books, which are barely readable, but not as good as the Gossip Girl show, which at times approaches genius.
May 26, 2010
Review: Shoot to Thrill
First: P.J. Tracy is the pseudonym of a mother/daughter writing team, so if I refer to the author as "they," that's why. This is the fifth book in their Monkeewrench series, and it pains me to admit that it was a disappointment. Like many people, one of the main reasons why I read mystery series is because I enjoy the character development that usually occurs over the course of the series. This book was particularly disappointing in that respect. There was very little character development for most of the book, and then there was an epilogue in which a main character did something slightly shocking - something that would hurt another main character - and I didn't think it had been set up sufficiently, and I didn't have a good grasp on her motivations at that point. It made me a little nervous about where the next book would start. One other character note: series always have to deal with the issue of how much from previous books to recap in new volumes. I didn't think this one did enough - I've read the entire series and I couldn't remember what they were talking about a fair amount of the time, so anyone who was starting out with this book would have been completely lost.
The mystery itself was . . . okay. Actually, it was completely fine until the end, The solution was constructed in such a way as to offer a certain lack of payoff to the reader, but other than that, it was well-plotted and reasonably suspenseful. I don't think the main characters actually ended up in danger at any point, which was a nice change from how many mysteries go. I figured out some of the solution in advance, but not all of it.
What really stands out about this series is the technology. Half of the recurring characters are cops, but the other half are a group of programmers and hackers who are basically supposed to be the best in the world. Now, the books don't get everything right. But so many novels get even very basic computer stuff wrong that it's really nice to be able to read this series, with so much focus on tech stuff, and not be completely jolted out of the story by ridiculously unrealistic computer activity. Actual programmers might well feel differently, but for me, the Monkeewrench books keep the technology realistic enough for me to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the ride.
May 14, 2010
Review: The Demon's Lexicon
I have a whole list of book reviews I owe you, but they're always the easiest thing to push off until later, somehow. But the next book in this series arrived today, so I'm going to tell you a little about this one before I read the next and they run together in my head, as series are wont to do.
Because it's late and I'm tired, I'm going to quote a quick description from the School Library Journal review:
In this riveting debut novel, 16-year-old Nick and his older brother, Alan, are accustomed to life on the run. Since their father was murdered, the boys have been forced to slay demons set on them by magicians seeking the powerful charm stolen by the boys' mother. Nick is furious when Alan receives a first-tier demon mark while saving a neighborhood boy. While seeking to remove it, Nick begins to suspect that his brother is lying to him about the reason for the magicians' attempts to kill them and about why their mother screams whenever Nick touches her.And man, "riveting" is really the right word. This was, by far, the best book I've read so far this year. I don't want to say much more about the plot, because this is one of those books about which you really don't want me to give anything away. So! How about a list of reasons why this books was great, instead?
1. It fit perfectly into the strong YA fantasy genre, and yet still felt wholly original. It helps that the main species of supernatural being here is demons, rather than vampires or wizards or whatever else the kids are on about these days.Here's a quick test to help you decide whether you should read The Demon's Lexicon. Read the first paragraph. If it makes you smile, then you must go read this book immediately.
The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn't have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.
April 27, 2010
Review: The Duke and I by Julia Quinn
I'm horribly behind on book reviews, but I'm just going to jump in, and maybe go back later and catch up. Or maybe not.
Okay, here's the thing. I have a good friend who reads a lot of Regency romances, and who has very high standards, so when something she reads actually meets her standards, it's generally a good idea to pay attention. And Julia Quinn is her favorite, and she's been telling me to read her for years. And I just . . . didn't, for no particular reason.* Until this week. And now - oh my goodness, I cannot figure out why I waited so long, but I am so excited that I have so much of her backlist to catch up on.
The Duke and I is the first in her eight-volume series about the Bridgerton siblings. Daphne Bridgerton's mother is very determined to see her married, and Daphne is just as determined to fend off suitors she doesn't like. The men she does like don't notice her. Simon, her brother Anthony's best friend and the new Duke of Hastings, has just returned to England and is having every unmarried girl in London thrown at him. They meet at a party and decide to give them both some breathing one, and increase Daphne's popularity, by pretending to be interested in each other for a while. As you might guess, they actually fall for each other. Of course, the Duke has a Deep Dark Secret and has Vowed Never to Marry or Father Children. But then they're caught in a compromising position . . .
Quinn does an impressive job of sticking within the conventions of the genre while playing with them at the same time, and this book was a delight from beginning to end. Quinn's writing is witty and grammatically correct. Simon and Daphne were sympathetic main characters without being too perfect; their flaws, for the most part, made them more real, although I thought Simon's Deep Dark Secret wasn't necessarily quite as dark as he thought it was. Daphne is a strong heroine who thinks for herself but avoids the anachronistic qualities of many "strong" heroines in historical novels. They both actually act like adults most of the time, which is nice to see, and while I certainly didn't agree with some of their actions and decisions, they stayed in character. This was refreshing, as there's little worse in romance novels than stupid made-up conflicts thrown in just to generate tension.
Perhaps the best part of the book was the interaction between Daphne and Simon and Daphne's extensive family, especially Daphne's three older brothers. So I can hardly be blamed if, immediately upon finishing this book, I ordered the next three in the series starring those brothers. Right?
* Actually, part of the reason is probably that when I'm in a romance mood, I tend to read whatever this friend has passed along to me. And she doesn't give me the Julia Quinns because she likes them so much that she keeps them to reread.
February 10, 2010
Review: Meet Julie
Meet Julie by Megan McDonald
This is the first in another of the American Girl historical series, if we're calling things set eight years before I was born historical. Which I suppose we are. This is set in 1974, in California, maybe San Francisco? Julie's parents are divorcing, so she and her sister are moving with their mother to an apartment over her mother's shop - I want to call it a hippie gift shop, but I guess it's a little late for that. Anyway, Julie has to leave her best friend and go to a new school, where she has to fight to join the all-boys basketball team.
The book seemed a little heavy on the issues - divorce! Working mothers! Title IX! Vietnam vets! American Girl books are always like that, I guess, but usually the story is strong enough that it's less obvious. This one wasn't quite there, and the quality of the writing wasn't as high as usual. But it was still enjoyable, and much better than many books aimed at this age group. It just didn't quite have the usual American Girl magic.
January 26, 2010
Review: Milk and Honey
Milk and Honey by Faye Kellerman
Milk and Honey is the third mystery in Kellerman's Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series about an L.A. cop who meets and falls in love with an Orthodox Jewish widow. It wasn't quite as good as the first two, in large part because Rina wasn't really involved in the main mystery, and was absent for the first section of the book, as she was staying in New York while deciding whether to marry Peter. Peter is a strong, interesting character, and he would probably be enough to carry a series on his own, but after getting used to their interaction in the first two books I missed it in this one.
The main mystery revolves around a two-year-old Peter finds wandering around at night, He eventually traces her back to a family of beekeepers, several of whom (including the child's parents) have been murdered. The main subplot involves an old army friend of Peter's who is accused of assaulting a prostitute. Peter's determined to find out what really happened and clear the man's name if he's really innocent. (I kept expecting these plots to come together somehow, but so far as I can remember, they did not.)
Those mystery plots were . . . fine. Not hugely mind-blowing or anything, but well done and not too easy to figure out. But I think the real point of the book was to allow Kellerman to reveal more about Peter's past through the interactions with the Army friend. (There were also a few shockers about Peter and his ex-wife thrown in.) I didn't like the friend - he wasn't supposed to be likeable - so I got a little bogged down in some of the passages about their history in Vietnam. And as Rina learned about some of these things along with the reader, there were a few of those moments that tend to happen in books when you can see what's coming, how the characters are misunderstanding each other and it will lead to disaster, and you just want to reach into the book and yell at them. So that was a little uncomfortable to read. But from a series development point of view, I see how both Rina and the reader had to come to terms with these aspects of Peter's past and his character. Now that they have at least started working through these things, they can get married (the next book seems to take place on their honeymoon), and Rina and her sons will, I hope, be more present in future books.
January 24, 2010
Review: The Sign of the Beaver
The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
I've loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond since I was about twelve, but I had somehow never read The Sign of the Beaver. A teacher friend outed me for not having read it in front of her whole class of fifth graders, so then I clearly had no choice. And it was good! It's no Witch, but very few things could be. This is aimed at a slightly younger audience, and it's about a boy and rather more action-oriented.
13-year-old Matt and his father have traveled to the Maine wilderness to build a homestead; then the father goes back to Boston to get the mother and younger siblings, leaving Matt alone. Completely alone. In a cabin in the wilderness. There aren't even any neighbors. Really, it's TERRIFYING, and Speare makes it all very subtle and understated, but - my God, I cannot even imagine. Of course, then a bear comes and eats a bunch of the food, and then Matt gets stung extremely badly when trying to get honey out of a hive. A local Native American chief has been watching him, it turns out, and takes him home to give him some medical care.
Matt is afraid of the Native Americans at first, of course, but he comes to like and respect them over time, and he strikes a bargain with the chief. (The reader is left to suspect that the chief, being a nice guy, was probably going to take care of this poor little boy no matter what, but Matt feels like he's being an adult about the whole thing.) In exchange for food and other help that the chief and his people provide, the chief asks Matt to teach his grandson (around Matt's age) to read. The boy doesn't want to learn, but the grandfather recognizes that if their people are going to survive, they must learn to play by the white settlers' rules. Matt and the boy become grudging friends, and eventually the rest of the boy's family come to trust Matt too.
By this point, Matt's father has been gone way longer than planned, and it's time for the Native Americans to move to different hunting ground. They offer to adopt Matt, and he has to decide whether to go with them or wait for his family, who might never appear. I was honestly unsure of what he would decide while I was reading, which is quite something for a kids' book - usually the plots of even high-quality kids' books are pretty predictable to adults. I won't ruin the ending for you, but it brings up some really interesting issues of the concept of "civilization" in regards to the Native Americans and the settlers, and of the way that prejudices can change, in several directions, over just a generation or two.
January 11, 2010
Review: Food Rules
Food Rules by Michael Pollan
You've probably heard Michael Pollan's basic rules: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This little book expands these three rules into 64 rules, most of which are guidelines to figuring out what counts as "real food." I've heard some criticism that this is mostly a rehash of his other books, and if you've read the others, then sure, this might not be very helpful or interesting. But if you want a quick introduction to Pollan's way of thinking - or if, like me, you've been meaning to read his longer books for years and haven't gotten around to it - this is an accessible, quick read that I found both inspirational and useful on a practical level.
January 04, 2010
Review: The Fourth Part of the World
The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name by Toby Lester
This books is supposedly about the 1507 German map that used the word "America" for the first time, but it's actually about a lot more than that, and almost all of it is fascinating. It tries to tell the story of pretty much everything that led up to the creation of this map, which means the entire history of European (and some Asian) exploration, cartography, geography, and a fair amount of theology and philosophy from ancient times through the 1500s. Aside from the obvious elements such as Ptolemy, Marco Polo, Columbus, and Geghis Khan, there are digressions into such topics as the Papal Schism and Gutenberg - and all of them do play a role (albeit sometimes a minor one) in the story.
The sheer scope of the book means that it moves very quickly, which makes it engrossing but also at times confusing. It jumps back and forth in time a bit, so I kept having to check whether certain things were happening before or after other things. And there were some comma usage issues that really bothered me. Other than that, though, I enjoyed this one and read it pretty quickly, and it definitely sparked interest in some of the topics it covered. (I kind of want to write a novel about the Council of Constance now.) I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in exploration, cartography, or the Renaissance in general.
January 03, 2010
Review: It Will Come to Me
It Will Come to Me by Emily Fox Gordon
It Will Come to Me tells of Ben, a sixty-ish philosophy professor, and his wife Ruth, a novelist turned bored faculty wife who hasn't written anything in years. One of the reasons for this drought, the reader eventually finds out, is that their son Isaac, now 24, is mentally ill and homeless, and Ruth's grief and worry has blocked her creativity. It has also, I have to say, made her very unpleasant. (I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt and assuming that she was less unpleasant before the troubles with Isaac.) Therefore, Ruth is a sympathetic character but not a likable one. And I'm not saying I have to like the characters in order to like a novel, but in this case, it certainly doesn't help. Ben is more likable, and my favorite character was certainly his secretary, Dolores.
Gordon's strength here is in the quality of the writing and in her just-slightly-overblown descriptions of academia. The university is thrown into an uproar by a new president, a visit from an accreditation committee, and an enigmatic visiting writer and her odd husband. Ruth hopes that they will give her a way back into the world of publishing, while Ben has to deal with the various changes caused by all three new elements as well as his hateful dean. And, of course, they are also trying to figure out what's going on with Isaac and his mysterious therapist, who is their only (supposed) link to their son. All of these issues could have been brought to some sort of interesting and natural resolution, but instead, the end of the book contains several out-of-the-blue happenings that can only be described as deus ex machina, and that left me dissatisfied with the whole novel.
January 02, 2010
Review: Bed of Roses
Bed of Roses by Nora Roberts
The first book in this series, Vision in White, was the only romance to make it onto my "best books I read in 2009" list, so I was very excited to get this sequel. (It had a very long queue at the library, of course.) I loved it, although it wasn't quite as absorbing as the first - mainly, I think, because the romantic hero in the first was an English teacher, so it got extra points for that. But anyway, the couple in this one were Emma, a florist, and Jack, an architect. This series revolves around four childhood friends who now have a wedding business together, which sets it up quite nicely for both romance and a variety of bridezilla-type hijinks. They all live and work on a huge estate in Greenwich, CT, with their amazing housekeeper/cook (and now Carter, the hero of the first in the series, who is living with his fiancee there). It's an idyllic set-up, and the friendship between the women is pretty amazing, which goes a long way toward making this practically the perfect romance series. And since this is Nora Roberts, they all end up with friends' brothers, brothers' friends, etc. As in most of her series, the characters have a strong network of family and friends that makes the reader pretty much want to just go live in the world of the book.
And in all that, I haven't actually said much about the plot. Okay. Jack is Emma's best friend's brother's best friend (see?), so they've known each other forever, but always suppressed their mutual attraction. They kiss, sort of on a whim, and then decide to get into a relationship, much to the consternation of their mutual friends. But Emma is looking for a husband and family and permanence, and Jack has always shied away from that. So - well, I don't want to give any spoilers, exactly, but this is a romance novel so we all know where it's headed. Let's just say that the way it gets there is satisfying and avoids most of the standard contrivances romance novels employ to keep the characters apart. The writing is solid, and even though the plot isn't exactly labyrinthine, it's engrossing. All in all, it's a thoroughly delightful paragon of the romance genre, and I'm looking forward to book three in May.
January 01, 2010
Review: Meet Rebecca
Look! Fulfilling my promise! I just finished this book and I am blogging it immediately! Also, I added a new widget over on the right that will show all the books I have read in 2010. As long as I, you know, keep up with it.
Meet Rebecca by Jacqueline Dembar Greene
Okay, I'll admit it - I've been reading American Girl books for 21 years and I still adore them. This is the first book about Rebecca, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants living in NYC in 1914. It's like they MADE this one for me - World War I! Immigrants! Jewish traditions! New York! As with all of the American Girl historical novels, Rebecca's story manages to be educational, in a completely non-subtle way, and simultaneously completely engaging. It's a gentle read while also not shying away from serious issues - Rebecca's family is trying to save money to bring relatives over from Russia before they get drafted into the tsar's army and/or starve to death. And nine-year-old Rebecca is scared and worried about this, as you'd expect, but there's no suggestion that children can't deal with such things. This main crisis is set against a backdrop of sibling rivalry, intergenerational tension between old world and new world customs, and a little girl trying to grow up too quickly. Really, my one main issue with it is that I was too embarrassed to ask for the Rebecca doll for Christmas.
This has prompted me to figure out which American Girl books I've missed and, um, request about twenty of them from the library. So! Just a warning that you will be seeing a lot of these sorts of reviews in the next few weeks.