Saturday, February 28, 2009

Chocolate Dipped Death by Sammi Carter

This is the second in the series of Abby Shaw who owns Divinity, a candy shop in Paradise, Colorado, who she inherited from her Aunt Grace. It's time for the 10th Annual Confectionary Competition at Divinity and who should enter, but the town estranged town harlot, Savannah Vance nee Horne. Surprisingly and much the chagrin of Evie Rice, Savannah wins first place in the first night of the contest, which brings a load of hate from Evie Rice who hates Savannah and has a serious competitive streak. Turns out a lot of people hate Savannah, mainly for stealing men, but because she's cold as the winters in Colorado. So, is it any wonder she should turn up stone cold dead a few days later, found by none other than Abby. Detective Jawarski, who she met when her brother was under suspicion of murder in the last book, advices Abby to steer clear of this case, and she intends to do just that, honest, she does. However, she keeps stumbling over bits and pieces about Savannah's life and eventually puts the clues together as to who murdered Savannah and why.

Carter has a good series going. Abby's a good character. She makes mistakes, tries to do the right thing, worries about her business, and has a family who loves her even if they don't let it show. However, I think the character who steals the spotlight is Max, the Doberman she adopted when her friend was murdered in the first book, Candy Apple Dead. She felt sorry for Max who's master died (he mourned terribly) and nobody wanted to take the dog in. Abby's only problem is she runs a candy store and can't have Max downstairs due to the health codes. His previous master took Max to work all the time. Naturally, Max gets lonely and destroys various items in her apartment. She takes it all in stride and scolds him, but her heart reaches out to him. Typically, cozies feature a lovable animal, cats or small dogs, but Carter has decided to take the plunge and have a Doberman and it works. I adore Max and I think Abby might feel the same way.

The Bancroft Strategy

2006; 708 pages. Genre : Spy Novel. Author : anybody's guess. Overall Rating : B.
Robert Ludlum died in 2001, but five years later, using a ouija board and a magic marker, he communicated The Bancroft Strategy to his Estate. I know this, because his name is plastered on the cover of the book in huge, gold letters.
Todd Bellknap is no Jason Bourne, but when his mentor and best friend in the Consular Operations agency is kidnapped, he is forced to go rogue to go to the rescue. Meanwhile, Andrea Bancroft suddenly finds herself 6 million dollars richer, with just one catch. She has to sit on the board of her estranged family's Bancroft Foundation. When their two paths inevitably cross, they have to learn to trust each other in order to track down the sinister and elusive "Genesis".
What's To Like...
It's the classic Ludlum storyline - one lone agent up against a sizable and mysterious conspiracy, on the run from his agency, and never knowing who's good and who's bad. There are lots of plot twists, lots of action, and lots of worldwide settings. The overall ending surprised me (although in retrospect, it shouldn't have), and at the very, very end, there's a neat little ethical twist that will make you smile.
OTOH, the book is 700+ freakin' pages long. Where was the editor in all this? And if you've read one-too-many Bournish "one agent beats all the other trained killers in the world" books, you might find this a slow go.
I'm as paranormal as the next guy.
Okay, I lied. Despite the bookcover, Robert Ludlum didn't write TBS. In small print, on the credits page, it says, "Since his death, the Estate of Robert Ludlum has worked with a carefully selected author and editor to prepare and edit this work for publication."
Most of the criticism of this book has to do with the authorship. Some people felt suckered in by Ludlum's name splashed across the cover. Others felt this was a poor copycat of the Bourne plots. Those points have merits, I guess.
Personally, I enjoyed ths book, despite its length. Most people who read this genre know Ludlum passed away a while back, so one shouldn't feel duped. And if you can forget about the Bourne trilogy (all six books of it), and read The Bancroft Strategy for its own merits, it's pretty good. I even have some sympathy for the unknown author. He writes a good book, and no one will ever know. Hey, it could even be one of the 5-Squared writers. (Looks quizzically at the blog-members list). Hmmm.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

An Angel to Die For by Mignon F. Ballard

I read the first book in this series, Angel at Troublesome Creek, and thoroughly enjoyed it. This was such a let down. I really wanted to like it, but found myself bored with it. It was a short book which is the only reason I kept up with it. Another book like this and I'm going to have to drop Ballard from my author list. However, my mom enjoyed the book.

It all begins on a frigid day when Prentice Dobson finds the empty grave of her Uncle Faris. The family happens to have a family graveyard not too far from the house. I find that a little creepy. One time when we were driving to Texarkana and going through these little towns, we kept driving past cemeteries across the street from the houses. My husband and I cringed at the thought. Having it on the property would be highly unsettling. The next morning, Prentice awakens to the smell of coffee. Odd, considering she's the only one staying at Smokerise, the family house. She goes downstairs to find Augusta Goodnight, her temporary guardian angel until her permanent one shows up. Prentice manages to take this all in stride without screaming in terror and calling the police. She does call the police about the empty gravesite, though. Alas, Prentice has too much on her hands, the death of her father and estranged sister, losing her job, the man she wants to love leaving for England, then she finds out she's got a missing baby nephew. While trying to track down her missing nephew, she comes across a couple more bodies, another makeshift gravesite, some prowlers, and some odd characters.

All this and the book is still boring! There's no real action and I found myself getting annoyed with Prentice. She's paranoid, but takes people at face value. If someone says he's a good person and on her side, not only does she believe him, she agrees to let this person in her car. Yet, she jumps at every shadow. The mystery started off the story, but quickly fell to the background once she found out about her nephew, Joey. For the rest of the book, it was Joey's story. I'm not a mother (yet), but I was getting a little bogged down in the Joey saga: where is he; who's family has more rights to him; who's going to raise him; who does he look like; etc. If this were a touching story about a woman finding her nephew, about two families coming together in the best interest of the child, I would've been touched. As it was, I was looking for a mystery, instead I found a Chicken Soup for the Soul type story (which I don't read).

Why did I continue reading this? It's akin to finding yourself in quicksand. By the time I realized I was stuck, it was too late. Oh, well, I'll dust myself off and move to the next book, which is starting off good and is making up for this one.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman

This book is very similar to Robert Morgan's Gap Creek; both are set in the Appalachia region of the Southern United States, though Dykeman's novel is set during the Civil War era, while Morgan's work is set more toward the turn of the century 40 years later. This is perhaps why the dialect of Dykeman's tale is much more prominent than in Gap Creek, though perhaps it is simply a difference between the respective authors.

Both Gap Creek and The Tall Woman are void of any distinct or traditional plot, but are rather a collection of stories that follow the life of one woman and her husband, which is perhaps more representative of "real life."

To continue the similarities, both novels focus on strong, hard-working women who carry their tremendous burdens without complaint. Both are married to sullen, wounded men, though Lydia McQueen of Dykeman's novel fares much better than Morgan's Julie Harmon, as Lydia is able to essentially love her husband out of his funk after he returns from a rebel prison after fighting for the Union.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Robert Morgan's novel more, perhaps because I read it first, or because it contained more sex. The collection of stories in Dykeman's novel in contrast to Morgan's were more ordinary, without the excitement of true human connection, somehow lacking a deep, meaningful look into a woman's life and struggles; I can't put my finger on why, but again, perhaps it was because I read Morgan's first. I think, in fact, having read one so similar novel before the latter is significantly affecting my perception of the latter, and I don't know if that is fair. In any case, I think I am done with fiction set in 19th century Appalachia for a while. - 3 stars

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Deogratias, A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen

I don't have a problem with depressing books - hey, I enjoy Russian lit, right? So, I don't want you to think that I just need everything I read to be a Chester Cheerful special. Really I don't. But, I also never bought into the old realist school, that said there is some literary value in showing almost anything, just exactly as it is. If the thing you are looking at is only educational, it should be journalism (a fine goal, mind you, but different from 'literature', as it were). Realism should DO something.

And that was my problem with this book. There was a great tragedy in the Rwandan genocide, a horrible ugly human tragedy, the kind that plumbs such dramatic depths that it reveals things about human nature, much like stories about the Holocaust. This one, just doesn't. The story is certainly miserable. It is certainly plausible, and revealing of the ugliness of the situation. If this was journalism, it would be good journalism - it makes one wonder in fact, there is so many ugly stories, I don't understand why Mr. Staassen would make one up, unless he felt the need to do something with it. There is certainly a veneer of symbolism over the book, but it just... didn't seem to end up meaning anything. Just a collection of ugly stories set against the backdrop of a very sad boy, some sad priests, etc. Again, I don't mean to imply the book was bad. IT just felt pointless. War is pointless, sure. I understand this. But narrative is not reality, narrative is how human's look for meaning in the meaningless. So, the meaninglessness, here just feels pointless, and makes it feel as if that's how it ought to be, as if there's no reason for human's to search for anything more. The attempts at hope, meaning, etc, seem kind of absent-minded and incidental, the real emphasis is just 'gosh the Rwandan massagre was bad.' Which it was, sure. But help me UNDERSTAND it, not just LOOK at it. Or understand that it's not understandable. OR understand that humans can still be human in the midst of it. OR something. Or something. I dunno, this was just sort of a hollow news report.

The Shack by William P. Young

Mackenzie Phillips is a man lost in "The Great Sadness". Lost from God, from his family, and from any sort of real happiness. His youngest daughter, Missy, was brutally murdered in an abandoned shack in the mountains while on a family camping trip four years earlier, and Mackenzie is having a hard time moving on with his life. He receives a suspicious letter from "Papa", inviting him to go back to the shack to find some answers, and incredulously, he does return to the focal point of his sadness. What he finds there, is supposed redemption.

I don't know what to say about this book. I didn't really like it, but I'm not a big fan of religious fiction or even self help books for that matter because of too much information in too small of a space. I would rather read these types of books in stages when the need arises, rather than in one big gulping swallow.

The writing was sub par and the dialog choppy and unrealistic in the beginning but improved as the book moved along, until really there are only pages upon pages of dialog. I could barely draw breath. Young not only likes to say his point over and over, he means to stomp it into your brain until you know nothing else.

At the same time, I can see why so many people like this book. Young manages to make God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost more relatable and human in a scary world where religion has become out of reach for some. The Shack is Young's personal guide to finding your own way through the murkiness and sludge that make up the problems in our world today. His opinions are rarely theologically or scripturally based, but rather, perhaps, a way he's learned to handle the grief in his life. If that helps other people, fine by me.

But, for me personally, it was just too much. 2 Stars

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I've waited years to be able to get this book and now that I've read it I find myself thinking all sorts of thoughts. I am almost running a blank at how to summarize the plot without spoiling it for anyone who wants to read it. It chronicles the life and wild mind of a pedophile and his most beloved and only true conquest Dolly aka Lolita. While charging through this strange novel I kept wondering if the emotions and thoughts expressed would be anything similar to a real pedophiles mind.

Thoughts of an almost idealistic romantic nature were tinted with the fact that he knew he was doing something and illegal. He constantly made excuses for himself, he would never touch an innocent child. He would only seek out the "nymphets" who by his definition weren't normal girl children. They were tomboyish in figure yet had sultry eyes and seductive mannerisms. Oddly enough that description fits many lost prepubescent souls in today's society.

Many young girls grow up literally over night, easily going from jacks and dolls to teen heart throb magazines and whispered secrets. Oddly enough even though this novel was written in 1955 the characters personalities and situations are still valid. Pedophilia is a serious problem in today society in all its forms. Recently in a local news paper a 35 year old teacher was caught having sexual intercourse with a 17 year old student. Oddly enough a close friend of mines reaction reminded me of the musings of Lolita's love hungry main character. She said she was horribly upset because he was such a nice man and so happy in his marriage. My response was shock and I asked her how can he be happy when he was having an affair with an underage girl? That makes no sense. The response was even more shocking, "Of course he was happy, he loves his wife and children more than anything. It's not his fault that he's addicted to sex. He needs the thrill of different women it's an addiction, he's ill and needs help. After all that's why my ex-husband cheated on me. He loved me and the kids and was very happy with us but he was addicted to sex with other women. I feel so sorry for the men." My jaw was literally on the floor. I'm still shocked by such a self delusional statement. But it did make sense in an odd way. Her way, and others I'm sure, of self preservation was to delude herself into thinking it's an addiction. So then does that same thought apply to the 30 something year old man who carries on a sexual relationship with a 12 year old. Is he truly sick and not in control of himself? Is he or she honestly addicted to the sexual contact?

Lolita is an oddly interesting look into a sickness that is claimed to be uncontrollable and there for , only by its suffers, excusable.

I can't say that I enjoyed this book because to say so seems almost sickening. But I did appreciate its complexity and its look into the mind of depravity. I would highly recommend it to anyone.

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

2006; 287 pages. Genre : Contemporary Literature. Awards : 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; 2006 James Tait Black Memorial Prize (Fiction); Oprah's Book Club selection for April 2007. Soon to come out as a movie, starring LOTR's Aragorn. Overall Rating : B+.
"He lay listening to the water drip in the woods. Bedrock, this. The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone."
In a post-apocalytpic world (most likely done in by a hit from a comet), a dying father and his son struggle just to survive another day. Ash is everywhere; all plant life is dead, as are most animals; the weather is unchanging : cold, rainy, and blowing ash; and the few remaining humans scrounge desperately for whatever scraps of food might still be found.
What's To Like...
The father and son are two great character studies. The former remembers "the world before", but refrains from telling the son about it, for fear of depressng him about their current lot. Ironically, the son (who apparently was born right around the time of "the event") has a lot more hope and humanity within him than the dad. Yet the father's stoniness is driven by his love for the son, and his resolve for the boy to somehow survive.
Then there's the concept of Character Development, something almost unheard of in stories anymore. The father gradually succeeds in instilling in his son the skills and the mindset to cope with the bleak world, and in the end, their roles are almost reversed.
The "e.e. cummings" literary style takes some getting used to, and some of the technical details are hard to believe - such as a dog somehow managing to survive for 10 years or so without anyone eating him. Also, if you're not in the habit of watching The History Channel's "end of the world" shows, you may find some of the horrors of this foodless world repulsive. Such as the "shish-ka-baby" scene.
"Mankind is only about three missed-meals away from degenerating into savagery."
Cormac McCarthy is 75 years old, and this book is dedicated to his 8-year-old son. The Road seems to me to be a message to that son from a father who recognizes he won't be around for most of his kid's life. The fact that McCarthy weaves that message into an end-of-the-world setting and writes it in a unique style makes this book worthy of its Pulitzer Prize. The book offers much to think about in this world where most of us would starve in a couple days if the supermarkets and Circle-K's disappeared. But in the end, you will enjoy The Road more if you focus on the people, and not the post-apoc events.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Shadow Behind the Curtain by Velda Johnston

Deborah Channing (nee Hartley) has lived a fairly extravagant existence. The best schools, the best houses, the best fiance, the best parents, etc. Until her stepfather dies and she discoveries a shocking secret about her real father, Joseph Hartley. To add to Deborah's burden, she finds out her stepfather's business (restaurants) has been losing money, her mother dies, and her wonderful fiance (Greg) is afraid of family scandal and so they decide to cool off their relationship until Deborah can come to terms with her father's conviction or clear him -- whichever comes first. She decides to go to the little podunk town of Prosperity, which ironically, doesn't live up to its name. Once there, Deborah meets support and resistance. Many people feel her father was unjustly convicted and believe a nice, family guy like Joe couldn't do it, even Deborah's mother held on to Joe's innocence all those years. The only one who seems interested in hindering her investigation is the local acting sheriff, Ben Jr., who's father, Ben Sr. arrested Joe all those years ago, though even the sheriff believes Joe's innocent. So, after twenty years, Deborah Channing manages to do what no one else in Prosperity could do, prove her father's innocent by finding the real killer.

The descriptions were pretty good. I did spend my formative years in Albuquerque, NM (1 - 7) so many, many, many, many, many years ago (I'm not telling) and so my memory of the place is sketchy at best. I don't really remember the climate, the flora and fauna, nor the people. I do remember sopapillas (I know I was upset when we went to a Mexican restaurant and they failed to appear on the menu), I remember we occasionally got snow (another sad point during the first year in south Texas), and I remember we lived on a farm (although there's debate on whether it was a "farm" or not by my aunt and mother, however, we did have a pig and cow which my mom didn't like me watching the pig). Yet, I digress.

I felt the author wrote quite well; excellent grammar, nice descriptions, good setting and mood, good character development, and a good twist for the mystery element. I had an idea of who did it, but the reason baffled me because it didn't make sense. I felt the author did a good job of tying up that loose end. I understood the killer's reasoning, though how viable it would be in real life is another point. But that's the beauty of fiction; there are points where we can close our eyes and cross the suspension bridge of disbelief (I feel I should trademark this phrase). While I liked that the story had the elements I like (mystery and a hint of romance), I found it lacking something. I can't figure out what it lacks, though. I hope one day I will and this will be more than a quick, forgettable mystery romp. I felt it was a yardstick away from my favorite author, Mary Stewart, though I don't know why...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Deep Green Sea by Robert Olen Butler

I knew just from reading the book jacket what was going to happen in this quick-read novel. I read it anyway.

If you're able to handle the extremely taboo, you would too.

NOTE: All's well that ends well does NOT apply to this novel.

That's all I'll say. - 4 stars

to 5-squared readers: I don't know if this even counts as a book review, but it's truly all I can think to say without giving the novel away (as the book jacket did).

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Micheal Pollan

Ah, what to have for dinner? A timeless question asked by millions of people, millions of times throughout their lives. This particular question drives me nuts, and one that Michael Pollan explores here with enthusiastic, well-driven abandon. Speed vs. reality (McDonalds or the grocery store)? Organic or practical (expensive or cheap)? Meat or no meat? So many choices, so little time. I agree with Pollan. We do have a national eating disorder.

In trying to reconnect with what he eats, this author follows the long trip from the soil to our mouths, discussing where our food comes from in three sections: corn, pastoral grass, and the forest.

Corn it turns out, that wildly successful plant, has found its way into cow feed, our soda pop, virtually every other type of processed food, and most especially, us. As much as a quarter of everything we eat has some form of corn in it. We have more of that vegetable in us than the tortilla-eating South Americans.

The American monoculture of corn has pushed aside what we once thought of the family farm, the farms of my parents growing up in Idaho and Oregon. A farm that is self-sustaining and efficient in every way. In Pastoral Grass we learn that these farms recycle and reuse. Nothing is wasted. Cows eat what nature intended them to eat. Shopping locally is the only way these small farms survive.

In his last section, The Forest, Pollan follows our evolutionary trial back to our earliest forms of obtaining food: hunting and gathering. By rejoining this “shortest and oldest of food chains,” he hoped to take some more “direct responsibility” for the killing of the animals he eats. To discover what connections exist between us and the species and natural systems we depend on for survival.

I love science and ecology so for me, overall, I thought this a fascinating book. Pollan clearly has a gift for explaining natural science in an enthusiastic enough way for everyone to understand. The writing is crisp, clear, and very entertaining. And most of all, because of his easy writing style, and even though I don’t eat meat, I found it all very convincing. Yes, buying locally can be more expensive, but by helping local farmers, by growing our own food and making wise decisions at the grocery, we are investing not just in our health, but in the future of the planet as well. Hopefully my guilt will now set me free. 4 Stars.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Soviet Experiment by Ronald Grigor Suny

OK, first off, Seattle, you guys rock. There's a long, lovely story behind the 'Christmas Lenin' here displayed. It's in Seattle, and discussed on Wikipedia, where I highly recommend you look it up.

Okay, now that the important stuff is out of the way...

This was an interesting book. I won't get back into my conversation in the last review, but I will say, the style of the author aside, the 'arrogance of the historian' here is acceptable, because the information is deep and informative, and it FEELS (mind you, I'm no Soviet historian) far different than the original book - at the same time colder and more dispassionate (the author, for instance, does not convey the horror of the Stalinist purges) but also more precise and unbiased (he is able to give me a feeling of what happened from a economic level during Stalin's reign, good and bad). Honestly, the coldness was really interesting, reading things that are such a part of the American mythology now from farther outside of the tale we tell ourselves.

The section on the fall of the Soviet Union was particularly interesting to me, and gave me a deep respect for Gorbachev, along with a slight distaste for Yeltsin who strikes me as kind of an opportunist, who ended up being just another corrupt leader milking the country for his personal aggrandizement. It was interesting to learn that George Bush (the first one) actually hoped that the Soviet Union would remain intact, and to find myself, despite my own biases, more or less agreeing - the slow, gentle climb into democratization that the Communist Reformists were attempting would have been the better road.

That being said, I'm not sure that was possible - the Communists (a misnomer if ever I heard one) had fought too long and too hard against the interests of the country to react to the waves of nationalism that attended reform, and eventually came to overthrow the government. The cyclical revolutionary history of Russia continues, then - revolution from the top, unrest, destruction, upheaval, and eventual return to a drastically new system with the same basic results - a small oligarchy controlling the resources produced by a vast, patient, suffering populace.

I also got to relive the occaision of Kruschev beating his desk at the UN General Assembly with his shoe, which is priceless. Shine on, you crazy Kruschev, shine on.

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde

2001; 374 pages. Genres : a whole slew of them. Overall Rating : B+.
"I was born on a Thursday, hence the name. My brother was born on a Monday, and they called him Anton - go figure. My mother was called Wednesday, but was born on a Sunday - I don't know why - and my father had no name at all - his identity and existence had been scrubbed by the ChronoGuard after he went rogue. To all intents and purposes he didn't exist at all. It didn't matter. He was always Dad to me."
I read this book after Amanda's review, which you can and should read here. Amanda gives a great summary, so I won't repeat it. This is a unique and ambitious book. It incorporates at least eight genres - Romance, Alt. History (okay, "Parallel Universe" if you want to split hairs), Time Travel, Action-Thriller, Dimension Travel, Literary Fiction, Vampires, and last but not least, Satire.
What's To Like...
First of all, you don't need to have read Jane Eyre to enjoy this book. For us unread yokels, Fforde gives a brief synopsis of JE as the storyline heads "into" that book. If any of the aforementioned genres appeal to you, you'll find TEA a delight. And there's four more in the series (maybe five now), all involving classic literature rewrites.
Other highlights : pet dodo birds; an independent Republic of Wales, a bunch of likeable good guys along with some interesting bad guys, some really kewl inventions by Thursday Next's Uncle Mycroft, and Shakespeare's Richard III done in a "Rocky Horror Picture Show" fashion.
There are a few weaknesses, as Amanda has pointed out. When you have eight genres and maybe a dozen plots and sub-plots flowing through the story, it is well nigh impossible to give enough attention to all of them. The time-travel seems superfluous, as does Wales' being an independent nation. Perhaps these are more fully developed in the sequels.
My gut feeling is that Fforde's ultimate goal in writing The Eyre Affair was to rewrite the ending to Jane Eyre. One can't just up and do that; people would call you presumptuous. So he invented an incredibly complex universe and storyline, and used them as a vehicle to alter the ending. Was Fforde successful in this? In my opinion, yes.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Paint by Murder by Kate Kingsbury

Once again, Sitting Marsh is besieged by a murderer. It's hard for Lady Elizabeth to keep tenants when someone keeps killing them off. When Lady Elizabeth rents her cottage (which held the previous dead tenant), she decides to officially welcome him to the neighborhood, only someone gave him his farewell notice before she got there. In addition to her lackluster police department, this case has invited in the secret service and everyone is especially mum about this case, however gossip about who might be a spy runs rampant. Throw in three newly arrived men, not willing to talk about their job and reasons for visiting Sitting Marsh and it's a keg ready to blow. In the town, there's no shortage of suspects and Lady Elizabeth needles them down until only one is left standing and ready to kill again.

This is the fifth in the series and there's four more left so I'm torn if I should zip through them (because they're so easy to read) or savor them. The relationship between Lady Elizabeth and Earl is getting as dicey as the storms raging outside and Lady Elizabeth is finding it harder to stay afloat in this choppy weather. Martin's also acting funny and Violet's suspicious of a visitor of his who says Martin's buying raffle tickets. The relationship between Sam and Polly is cooling off and Sadie is having a hard time adjusting to the manor and on page 90 actually asks herself if she shouldn't go back to the high life of London after getting the wits scared out of her. I'm really going to miss this series.

My Dear Cassandra - The Letters of Jane Austen

Selected and introduced by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

"I have now attained the true art of letter-writing," wrote Jane Austen. "To express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth."

Jane Austen wasn't just witty in her books, she was witty in life, in her dialog, in her correspondence to her sister Cassandra, and other members of the Austen family. Her letters were her sounding board, the practice for her later writing achievements. They are all cataloged here in this book; her direct manner; her ability to read even the slightest detail of things, "important nothings", she called them.

Trimming bonnets and making gowns; keeping the house and gardens; tending to the poor; visiting friends and going to balls; births and deaths of family: these are but the quilting blocks sewn to together to create her novels. To create Elizabeth, "her own darling child...I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print".

In this book her personal letters are separated into six periods ranging from 1796, when she was twenty until 1817, the year of her early death. Hughes-Hallett provides commentary in between each period and each letter, and also included some of the most beautiful artwork from Regency England I have ever seen. Scenes that Jane herself described and would have observed in real life. They added another dimension to the book and really sucked me into Austen's writing.

I loved it. This book brought out a side of the author I never thought possible. She came to life within these pages, and from them I could see how she created some of the greatest heroines in English literature. Heroines that were almost a mirror image of her own personality.

"It as if I had lost a part of myself," Cassandra Austen wrote to her favorite niece Fanny Knight, on the eve of the death of her sister, Jane.

Indeed, we all lost something, but what a treasure chest of ink and paper remains. 5 stars. A++

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

And if this book were an episode of Sesame Street, it would be brought to you by the letter "C" - for Confusing.

I made a conscious decision to include non-fiction in my reading. Usually, non-fiction is much more difficult and time-consuming for me to read than most fiction. This work, however, was easy to read through quickly - in fact, it was what you might call a page-turner. Again, usually, I turn my nose up to page-turners in fiction, but apparently it is a characteristic I appreciate in non-fiction.

This is like a brief snippet of a certain aspect of social theory or psychology for the layperson - the snap decision, or judgement. What might be called "gut" instinct. What I'll take from the title and call blink-thinking.

Where it gets confusing is in trying to determine 1) what, exactly, blink-thinking is - absence of the use of information, or use of data and experience to inform what seems to be simply an intuitive conclusion and 2) whether or not blink-thinking is a good thing or bad.

First, Gladwell seems to show that blink-thinking, instead of relying on snap judgements, seems to rely simply on a different kind of information - information below the surface.

Once he sets this up, he seems (notice my continued use of "seems" in this review) to go straight into citing several examples of times when the wrong decision has been made based upon inferior info (biggest, most effective example - racism).

At this point in the book, it seemed that Gladwell was suggesting that the proper, recommended way to blink-think is to analyze, but not get overwhelmed or bogged down in the analysis, data, information, research, etc. - don't "drown in the data." Simplify. At some point you have to pick up your gun and start firing based upon (informed) instinct (Gladwell spends a good portion of his text telling the story of a general in the military). Gladwell writes, "When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance." The phrase "Just do it" comes to mind, which is serendipitous because that is exactly what I've been thinking lately whilst trying to drag myself out of procrastination - always for me one of the remaining dregs of depression.

Gladwell spends a good portion of the book demonstrating how marketing manipulates our snap judgements, or subconscious decision-making, through, for one thing, packaging. I would think, or hope, that all of us are aware of this by now, so that passage wasn't particularly enlightening, though the details and specific stories were very interesting. In fact, I should mention here, that the story-telling feel of this novel did lend very well to the fast-paced, easy read status of this book which helped it, for me, so much. In fact, back there I almost just typed "novel" instead of "book," which is telling something (subconscious?).

Ultimately, the point is taken that effective, accurate, valuable "snap" judgements or blink-thinking aren't necessarily made from lack of or limited information, but from effective, accurate, valuable information that has slipped into our subconscious so as to feel like intuition; if we would only trust ourselves to access it. Of course, this means we must be careful of the information we take in and make sure that it is effective, accurate, valuable. For example, Gladwell suggests that an effective way to remove the snap judgement of racism would be to purposely and significantly expose ourselves to influential, positive, affirming individuals from the African-American community, or any other culture. We "build a database in our subconscious." "Taking our powers of rapid cognition ["blink-thinking"] seriously means we have to acknowledge the subtle influences that can alter or undermine or bias the products of our unconscious."

At one point, the book gets to sound a little snobby when it is suggested that only experts with all the background information loaded into the subconscious are able to make accurate instinctive decisions. But when I think about it, I see how this could be true - for example, as I've mentioned more than once, I have a degree in English and what seems to be a resulting appreciation for more meaty literature. Then there are other, more casual readers who have a distaste for it, choosing instead more pulpy fiction. Which of us is better able to pick out the quality writing of any given fiction text? Then again, perhaps there are rabid, avid pulp fiction readers with degrees in English, or without, that could prove me wrong.

In any case, Gladwell has a lot of valid and well-illustrated points - so well in fact that they seem more like common sense rather than theory. Informing, enlightening and interesting. - 4 stars

Souls Raised from the Dead by Doris Betts

If this review were an episode of Sesame Street, it would be brought to you by the letter "I" - for Inappropriate.

Betts' story is that of a father, Frank, a cop dealing with his pre-teen daughter Mary Grace's serious illness; she is in need of a kidney transplant. Stepping into the ring with Frank for this battle are the father's prodigal wife and Mary Grace's mother, two sets of grandparents, the next door neighbor(s), oh yes - and Frank's two girlfriends.

To kick off this review, the more friendship than parent/child relationship between Frank and his daughter is off-putting; even more so is the way he picks up his daughter's horse-riding teacher while his daughter is being admitted to the hospital with a concussion.

Next, the connection between Jill (the horse-riding instructor) and Frank is too fast, especially given the circumstances, unless you want to play it off as Frank just needing a shoulder to cry on, thus taking on a variant of ill-advised sexual healing.

In fact, though admittedly I don't really know very much (anything at all) about the events and experiences surrounding the rapid decline of a child's health, everything in this novel feels either unrealistic or inappropriate or both. This includes everything from the meeting of the two opposing grandpas to father and daughter waiting, together, for father's date (the horse-riding instructor again this time) to get ready in her bathroom.

Speaking of the horse-riding instructor, Jill is inappropriately rough and demanding on a man who is watching his daughter go through a potentially (and ultimately) fatal disease.

As for Mary Grace's mother, she is a character in the worse sense - flat. Again, not realistic; she is more cruel than can believed.

Mary Grace, unfortunately, is unrealistic as well, with insights into her town and the social structure of her peers that seem too sophisticated. What is it lately with these higher-than-is-credible perceptions and vocabularies of kids and children in these novels (see recent previous reviews)?

Continuing on the theme of lack of realism (even if you are familiar with or subject to the theory of "suspension of disbelief" as a reader), events in the neighbor's apartment, one after the other, are too unlucky to believe, unless the main characters are just really living in a bad neighborhood (which isn't really made clear), which seems unlikely for a cop, even if he is a divorced single father. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about, though.

Finally, and I don't know if this is the publisher's problem or just some misprint, but question marks are used repeatedly and indiscriminately throughout the entire text - like, all the time, in almost every dialogue sequence, by multiple characters.

This isn't a terrible read (you could certainly do worse), but it isn't one of the best either, which is disappointing because Betts is a Southern author and I'm always rooting for and interested in reading those. - 3 stars

The Dress Lodger by Sheri Holman

By way of summary, I'll say that if this novel were a blog, its tags would be: poverty, disease, politics, medicine, ethics, prostitution, grave robbing, body snatchers, rats, ferret, the color blue and Evil Eye.

Holman's work is a historical novel with bite. I enjoyed it immensely. That said, let me point out a few things.

First of all, the reader is for the majority of the novel unclear about the nature of the narrator - a very important component of the book, any book, indeed. The narrator refers to itself as "we" and "us." The reader is confused as to whether the narrator is an omniscient referring to a combination of himself or herself and the reader, or actually a group narrating as a whole, at the same time (as opposed to Faulkner's varied narrators speaking one at a time), which, as far as I know, would be entirely unconventional and original.

Also, we are unsure as to from what place and time that the narrators are narrating, as at several points they make reference to distance from the situation, saying "we being too far away in time and space [from the action of the story]." The reader assumes, or figures, from these statements that the narrators are speaking from the present looking back into the past, but the voice(s?) of the narrators is archaic, belonging to the period of the story. I wondered if this weren't some unintended or unrecognized inconsistency on the author's behalf in an attempt to set the tone of a historical novel but making the narrators seem false if the narrators are indeed actually speaking from the present.

It is not until the very end of the novel that the narrators, indeed multiple, are revealed. When they are revealed, the reader is met with both a sense of relief and, still, a little confusion, though it makes everything make sense.

Needless to say, there is a lot of figuring going on throughout this novel on the part of the reader - you're constantly trying to figure things out, from the narrators to the intentions and motivations of the characters.

The narrators start the story by "talking" in a sort of ESP to the first character they introduce in order to then introduce the main character, again an interesting, 'round about tactic which I haven't come across before and that has a slightly annoying effect in its indirectness.

Really, my review so far makes it sound like a very complicated beginning, but it really does read quite easily, in my experience, despite what I've said so far.

Continuing on the issue of the narrators, though, they continue to use the point of view of minor characters to tell the main character's story. Including the first character introduced - a match stick maker and theater-goer - plus a bar keep and even, at one point, a table. In this way, the narrator seems to not take ownership of the story, but passes it along and apologizes for it; in fact, the narrators keep interrupting to comment on their own ineptitude for telling the story, saying at one point near the beginning "It is clear to us now that we have opened this story in the wrong place" and, referring to themselves as narrators, "we who are new to the telling of tales." But of course, we know that the author and the narrator are two different entities, therefore the question becomes, "Why is the author creating such narrator(s)?" Again, in the end, all is revealed with the identities of the narrators. It is actually really very clever.

As for other aspects, this novel tends to be rather melodramatic in tone, for example "swirls his glass of flat mahogany beer and watches the sediment sink like grave dust" - (I mean, really?) - but this also seems right for the time period somehow.

Also, the novel often spends too much time describing people and places that have nothing to do with the plot - you (or at least me, as a reader) are frustrated and skim over it as quickly as possible. Perhaps this is a tactic to build suspense, or to show knowledge (research) and add credibility to the historical part of "historical novel"? But it is just annoying.

Despite the criticisms, this was, again, a very enjoyable novel, particularly due to my (inexplicable?) interest in prostitution, the 17th - 19th centuries and/or the combination of both. - 4 stars

Monday, February 9, 2009

Untamed By P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

"LIFE SUCKS WHEN YOUR FRIENDS ARE PISSED AT YOU. Just ask Zoey Redbird, she's become an expert on suckiness. In one week she has gone from having three boyfriends to having none, and from having a close group of friends who trusted and supported her to being an outcast. Speaking of friends, of the two Zoey has left, one is undead and one is unMarked. And Neferet had declared war on humans, which Zoey knows in her heart is wrong. But will anyone listen to her? Zoey's adventures at vampyre finishing school take a wild and dangerous turn as loyalties are tested, shocking true intentions come to light, and an ancient evil is awakened in P.C. and Kristin Cast's spellbinding fourth House of Night novel. "

Book four was amazing and I have to say that I'm annoyed I have to wait a month for the next installment. Zoey is finally listening to her intuition and her Goddess and finds herself in deep trouble, deep being the operative word.

There is a lot of wonderful sarcasm and quips in this novel, the authors really did capture how girls talk to each other and the emotions they go through on a daily basis. Of course they are all amplified because the dramatic situations but none the less you really end up caring for the characters.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

One For The Money - Janet Evanovich

1994; 320 pages. Genre : Crime Fiction. Rating : B-.
Stephanie Plum needs a job, so she schmoozes her cousin Vinnie and gets hired on as a bounty hunter. Unfortunately, she knows nothing about the vocation, so she needs a gun, needs to learn how to shoot it, and needs to figure out how to haul someone in. Most of all, she needs the $10,000 finders fee for bringing in Joe Morelli; who's a cop accused of murder, a hunk, and who as a kid, conned Stephanie into playing the New Jersey equivalent of "doctor".
What's To Like...
Evanovich has created a strong, female protagonist in Plum. She can use her brain, which comes in handy as she learns her new profession. Indeed, it was refreshing to see her outfox Joe Morelli in order to bring him in, instead of having to resort to her feminine wiles or (worse yet) romance.
There is vein of light humor that runs throughout the book, and wonder of wonders, we're not dealing with someone who suffers from job burn-out. It's also a nice change to follow a bounty hunter instead of a cop or detective in a crime novel. Morelli is another good character study, although it is evident early on that he's not really a murderer.
Unfortunately, the great character studies come at the expense of a humdrum storyline. Stephanie gads about, searching for Morelli and bringing in easy, but low-paying bail-jumpers. Meanwhile, no progress is made on the main murder until the tail-end, when the real killer of course blabs all the details to Stephanie right before he intends to kill her. Don't bad guys ever watch Austin Powers movies?
There are believability issues. The entire New Jersey police force can't find Morelli, but Stephanie manages to do so - not once, not twice, but four times. Then there's her visit to a boxing gym, where the "champ" decides to attempt to sexually assault her for no particular reason and in front of everyone else working out at the gym. Yeah, like that happens all the time.
Cogito, ergo Plum...
The Stephanie Plum series has been highly successful for Evanovich, and I noted that the latest one (something like #15 or so), "Plum Spooky" was #1 on the NY Times best seller list last week. It may be interesting to see how her character develops along the line. Persumably, she gets more adept at bounty-hunting with time.
If you're looking for an entertaining story, with a bit of humor and a good, strong, thinking female lead, One For The Money may be your cup of tea. OTOH, this isn't the book to read when you're wanting spine-tingling suspense or wish to solve a whodunit alongside the protagonist. As long as you're more interested in what happens to Stephanie and her bounty-hunting than who-killed-who and why, this is a pleasant read.

The Soviet Colossus, by Michael Kort

Just before we start, I ahve to say, the soviet propogandists had a fascinating art sense. Soviet propoganda wasn't always promoting something good, but it could be really interesting, visually. You know, from a Graphic Design PoV. Sorry. I work with Designers. I'm a geek. Sorry. YEah. Anyway.

The book I read (I believe there is a new edition) was a little dated - it ended in the 80's, talking about how there was a new generation with reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev rising up to take up the mantle of the Soviet Leadership. This datedness, ironically, gave the book an interesting cast. A book written now on the Soviet Union, now, inevitably, must carry something of the arrogance of history - it is the history of a thing that was born, and then died, that we are now apart from (at least in the most immediate sense). This book was different, more like a briefing. I remember, as a child living just over the border from East Germany, the sense of what Russia was - a place with grim, heavy-faced people wearing red armbands and stiff military hats, living in dreary apartments, and feeding an endless governmental hunger (though, at that age, my particular way of expressing this idea would have been more like 'Russians are all sad, and they can't talk without getting in trouble.'). Of course, this wasn't the whole story, and the author knew this, but one couldn't help but feel the edge of his consciousness, struggling to fidn the story that helps him understand the differentness of these humans that his own people are staring at over an iron fence, rifles loaded with the safeties off.

This isn't to say the history is a poor one. It is certainly written by a westerner, and bears the mark of a bias that I cannot imagine it would even have been possible to write without, given the situation it was written in. But the information is fairly biased, neither reductionist or apologistic. He admits people's strengths (Lenin, for instance, seems to genuineley have been uninterested in personal gain), and doesn't shy away from their weaknesses (he also had the revolutionary's weakness of trying to force people to be happy).

Having started my next book on the Soviet Union now (I'm taking an exam to get credit for the subject), one written after the fall of the 'Evil Empire', I can't help feeling like, aside from a great deal of very interesting and well-researched facts, I've learned a great deal more about what it feels like to be a Western historian trying to understand Russia, than what it felt like to be Russian in one of the most dramatic human stories ever lived - to have gone from being a serf, to a peasant, to the flush of revolution, to civil war, to Stalinism, all in one lifetime, conceivably, and then to go from STalinism through World War II, through a period of world dominance, through the Democratic revolution, through Yeltsin's antics, into the current day's counterrevolution, all in the next.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Tristran Thorn believes himself hopelessly in love with Victoria, the most beautiful girl in the village of Wall. He's young and innocent. She's full of herself and a tease. "I'll travel to China and bring you back your weight in gold," he says to her, if she'll only give him a kiss.

She smiles demurely while watching the stars in the night sky, one of which was falling in a bright streak over the horizon. "Bring me back that star and I'll let you."

And thus begins Neil Gaiman's adult fantasy adventure about a boy who travels into the land of Faerie. A place Tristran somehow feels akin to, but doesn't know why. All in search of that requested token, the star, to buy Victoria's affections. Or so he thinks. What he finds there, on the horizon, is something else entirely.

What did I find while reading this book? An entertaining, swash-buckling adventure, with many Grimm brothers, sort of fairy tale undertones. Gaiman's writing is simple and fun, and even though I felt rushed through its second half, I grinned more than once while reading it.

I saw the movie first and loved it. I assumed the book to also be teen fare. It is not. This is an adult fairy tale. There's sex. There's some pretty gruesome violence. Some of which was a bit jarring. I wasn't expecting it, like I wouldn't expect a whimsical version of Cinderella to include a scene with her and the prince "doing it" and her evil stepmother lying in a "pool of her own blood". But with that being said, how many of the original fairy tales were like their purified Disney versions? Ah, very few.

I'm glad I read it, but I'll probably stick with the movie version. In my opinion, it's just a little better. And Robert De Niro dancing in a dress with a faux mole on his cheek? That's just the gravy on the creamy mashed potatoes. Priceless. 3 Stars

Chosen By P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

"BLOOD LUST AND DARK FORCES ARE AT WORK AT THE HOUSE OF NIGHT, and fledging vampyre Zoey Redbird's adventures at the school take a mysterious turn. Those who appear to be friends are turning out to be enemies. And, oddly enough, sworn enemies are also turning into friends. So begins the gripping third installment of the series in which Zoeys mettle will be tested like never before. Her best friend, Stevie Rae, is undead and struggling to maintain a grip on her humanity. Zoey doesn't have a clue how to help her but she does know that anything she and Stevie Rae discover must be kept secret form everyone else at the House of Night, where trust has become a rare commodity. Speaking of rare, Zoey finds herself in the very rare position of having three boyfriends, a situation with the potential to spell social disaster. Then vampyres start turning up dead. Really dead. But as Zoey and her friends find out things are not always what they seem...."

In this installment the evil plans and conspiracies really are starting to come out and be more obvious. And while I will continue on and buy and read all of them they are amazing for what they are but as far as literature, they aren't the classics that's for sure. I actually feel guilty for writing reviews about these books when I go through them so fast. I'm on to number four shortly. They are almost like a teenage soap opera but not as much sex and more strange occurrences.

Betrayed by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

"Fledgling vampyre Zoey Redbird has managed to settle in at the House of Night. She’s come to terms with the vast powers the vampyre goddess, Nyx, has given her, and is getting a handle on being the new Leader of the Dark Daughters. Best of all, Zoey finally feels like she belongs--like she really fits in. She actually has a boyfriend…or two. Then the unthinkable happens: Human teenagers are being killed, and all the evidence points to the House of Night. While danger stalks the humans from Zoey’s old life, she begins to realize that the very powers that make her so unique might also threaten those she loves. Then, when she needs her new friends the most, death strikes the House of Night, and Zoey must find the courage to face a betrayal that could break her heart, her soul, and jeopardize the very fabric of her world."

Book two of the House of Night series I'm happy to say that this series is ALMOST better than Twilight! The heroin Zoey Redbird, while she makes typical teenage bad judgment calls, isn't even HALF as whiny as Bella and actually has a lot more sense than Bella as well. :D I usually don't try to compair series like this but I would say the House of Night series is more realistic. The character interactions are sincere and you develop an instant hate or love for them. The situations she is put into are also more realistic and almost more adult which makes sense. The writing team of the books is a mother and daughter. The mother is a published romance book author so it makes a lot of sense. I am almost through reading the third book as I type this so that review will be coming later today.

From Dead to Worse By Charlaine Harris

"Starred Review. Harris outdoes herself in this pivotal eighth Sookie Stackhouse novel (after 2007's All Together Dead), packing the story full of romantic tension and supernatural action. Having barely survived a catastrophic vampire hotel explosion, Sookie's back at work in Bon Temps, La., serving vintage blood and waiting tables at Merlotte's, a bar. Participating in a friend's wedding and fending off the advances of her vampire ex-lover, Bill, and her blood-bonded pal, Eric, leaves Sookie chafing over the recent lack of communication from Quinn, her weretiger boyfriend. When a violent Were power struggle erupts as Vegas vampires attempt to take over Louisiana from disgraced queen Sophie-Anne, Sookie dives into the middle of it, determined to help her shape-changing, blood-drinking friends. Harris provides many fun twists, most significantly Sookie's meeting with her fae great-grandfather, Niall Brigant, which paves the way for a shock ending that will delight longtime fans. (May) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved."

In this 8th installment of the Sookie Stackhouse series Sookie is yet again put into a romantic quandary. Bills back to trying to win her heart and Eric, low and behold has recovered his memory of his alone with with her. Add to that Quinns psychotic mother and her own manipulative brothers problems and Sookie yet again can't seem to catch a break for the life of her, unless you count what she had to do to someone Else's hand.

War is abounds in this novel with the Weres planning to go public the shifters have to decide if they will come out as well. Sookie does get more long lost family in this novel but I do keep wondering at what price.

No this series isn't necessarily what people would call fine literature but its characters get into your head and heart and truly makes you want to read more.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I remember this was on my cousin's list over at Good Reads. Hey LL! love you!

This book is the story of a circus worker set at the beginning of The Great Depression (a timely read). It's also a love story, in more than one way.

Narrated in hindsight through the memories of who is now a 90 - or 93 - year-old nursing home resident, younger Jacob was an ivy-league college student who, just before taking his final exams to become a veterinarian and join his father's practice back home, suffers the tragic automobile accident death of both his parents. He returns to school, but is unable to take his exams. He runs away, hops a midnight train. In the light of day, the train turns out to be a traveling circus. With few other options (none), Jacob joins the show as a care-giver to the circus's menagerie of animals. He quickly learns just how - under Uncle Al's direction - sinister a circus can be, for animals and humans alike. Jacob, a virgin, also meets the object of his passionate affection, a woman who just happens to be married to the man in charge of all the animals at the circus. Tragedy is met with courage, leading to a triumphant ending, for the young, and now older Jacob alike.

Maybe simply because I know that this is what is happening, but the voice of the 90 - or 93 - year-old Jacob doesn't sound authentic (though I admit I'm not sure what that would sound like). It sounds more like the voice of a relatively young, and female, author imagining the voice of an elderly man, though truthfully, I was fully engaged in the believable voice of the younger Jacob. This is my only complaint.

The novel, including the descriptions of the circus, the movements of the characters, and the dialogue could easily be read as a movie script - the whole thing is done in a way that you can see it happening on a big screen - the story has that kind of feel. I imagine Renee Zellweger as Jacob's love interest, perhaps because I recall her role in Chicago, so know that she could pull off a woman living in this time period, that part of the last century.

This is a very good novel and I wish I had read it sooner. - 4 stars

Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos

This novel follows two unlikely acquaintances - Margaret, an older woman recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, and Wanda, a woman who has just been dumped by her boyfriend and has moved across the country to find him. This is where the two characters intersect - Wanda responds to a boarder ad that Margaret places. The novel goes back in forth between the individual struggles of these two women, along the way introducing more minor characters who nonetheless play major roles in the novels final resolution.

Again, as with Gods In Alabama, this novel comes across, especially in the first few chapters as overly, overtly, dramatic, like when Margaret, moments after learning about her tumor, asks a stranger - a worker at a cafe - what she would do if she only had a short time to live. The girl's reaction is too quickly and calmly philosophical. Also, again, the "fast-paced" action which I am so tired of (it is patronizing - it's almost as if the authors and/or publishers think that modern readers have the attention spans of two-year-olds, not to offend two-year-olds) is too quick, without much (not enough) explored thought from the characters or the narrators, at least none to which the readers are privy.

I'm learning that I prefer character-driven stories as opposed to those that are plot-driven.

At least in the opening chapters, the quirkiness is forced. The opening sequence where Margaret is speaking to her porcelain figurines yet seems otherwise perfectly sane is hard to take. It almost made me want to set the book aside, for good.

Speaking of characters and, yet again, in similarity to Gods in Alabama, a young child (a 2nd grader this time) makes comments I've never heard of a child in the real-world making. Maybe I'm just way off base, but I don't think I am. Thus, the young Wanda is unbelievable, but, alas, the adult Wanda is annoying with her continued emotional outbursts that even I - a person of obvious questionable emotional stability if you've read other parts of my blog - do not have unless under extreme and immediate duress. The characterization of Troy, Wanda's love interest, is, at first, just as forced as the action during the opening chapters.

Some passages are just plain silly, as when Gus, Margaret's love interest, remarks that, upon first seeing Margaret's house/mansion, the phrase "Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your long hair" came to mind. Believe me, within context, it was such a cheesy line I wanted to either laugh or barf. I think I did a little of both.

Remarkably, 'round abouts chapter 4, Kallos seems to develop a deeper sense of her story, things slow down, and we get some really nice and intriguing reading. Certainly when we get to Part 2, which is initially devoted to a new character in the form of Wanda's father, the story becomes notably better, more engaging, more interesting and authentically quirky.

In fact, the book's transformation is so nearly complete from the first three chapters that is a little hard to believe, but this reader at least was glad that, end the end, she stuck it out. It did become a rather worthwhile read, especially when Margaret stopped talking to her figurines and started crashing them instead (you'll have to read it to see what I mean, and I suggest you do).

The way the characters come together in the end smacks a little bit of the blatant structuring and all-too-nicely tied together expected-unexpected stuff at which I turn my nose up, but it wasn't so bad as to not be enjoyed.

A redeemed, suggested read. - 4 stars

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

Subtitled: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why

This book is a great book for anyone that's ever heard a story straight from a person as though it were their own, only to later find it on Snopes as an urban legend, and then wondered whether the stories about Jesus could have been related similarly. It is for the person who wonders how anyone they admire and respect can read the Bible literally and believe it to be 100% accurate and divinely inspired. It's for the person who has seen people hotly debate the exact wording used by Jesus in scripture, knowing full well that the author probably wasn't there, and if they were, they wrote about it decades later. It's for the inquisitive person who wonders who wrote the Bible (not for the faint-hearted), or for one who learns the 8th Article of Faith in the LDS church and learns that their prophet has created his own translation of the Bible. In other words, it was a very good book for me, and I expect it would be an important book for anyone that believes knowledge about Jesus and the Bible is relevant to himself/herself.

This book is for anyone who has wondered, "When Jesus prayed privately in the Garden of Gethsemane, and his apostles slept, who observed the sweat as though it were drops of blood?" or, "Who was the witness that observed Jesus when he went alone into the wilderness for 40 days, and yet we know he was tempted and resisted Satan three times?" Have you ever wondered what Jesus' last words were? If so, this book could explain the reasons behind the different answers you get to that question.

What Dr. Ehrman does in this book is explain how textual variations have wound up in our surviving manuscripts from various translations, geographical locations, and time periods (while an exact figure is approximate, there are more differences between the various texts than words in the New Testament). Obviously, the vast majority are inconsequential and merely show human error in a time when the illiterate populations far outnumbered the literate. In one fascinating example, a mark bled through from the other side of the scroll, changing a word dramatically. But Ehrman makes a case where in many instances passages of scripture were deliberately changed, for a variety of reasons, such as making a difficult passage more understandable, or to make the text align more closely with the copyist's views. People that have studied this history know that in the early days of the church, there were many different versions of Christianity, and many more books considered scripture (I can't resist sharing that link). These vying factions had their own interpretations of the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, faith/grace vs. works as the key to obtaining salvation, and of course, many other differences.

Probably the best aspect of Misquoting Jesus is the way it is written. It is not for the biblical scholar with an intimate knowledge of the debates over which text is the most correct. It is for people with the curiosity but not the background. Examples are clear, pacing is relatively fast, and in many ways, it is a practical overview of the subject. It explains the process involved in determining the most-likely correct version, a history of the various important manuscripts and key scholars, as well as why certain changes most likely took place. If nothing else, it should make one seriously consider the truth of the "inerrant word of God" that so many base their very lives around.

After all, in order for your Bible to be perfectly true:
1. Jesus would have to be real, and not a myth
2. There must be someone to record his life accurately (weren't the Apostles all admittedly unlearned, hence, not able to document Jesus' life? At best, then, they could have dictated it, and we can all agree they had an agenda) or else those who passed on the individual stories would have had to pass them on perfectly (remember Snopes) until they could be written down.
3. Copies would then have to be preserved exactly as they were spread from one rare literate person to another. According to Ehrman, there are no originals in our possession today, and Misquoting Jesus shows that errors did abound in many versions.
4. Translations would have to cross one or more languages, while retaining both the literal meaning of words and make sense exactly so the spirit or intent remains unchanged.
5. The correct books in their perfect form would have had to be selected, while leaving out all the incorrect ones (see "scripture" link above), a process which took place over centuries and gradually became the Bible as we know it today.
6. It would have to remain unchanged for another 1500+ years.

If it could meet those criteria, basically of being inspired and then preserved, I'd say the Bible really would be like God speaking directly to us. And of course, there wouldn't be any contradictions in it, either. That said, I don't see how people can be so sure (to the point of claiming knowledge and basing their entire lives around it) without having divine intervention. I'm still waiting on mine.

This book is not intended to persuade anyone to disbelief. It seems to merely be meant to educate. Dr. Ehrman himself explains that while there are flaws, by and large the Bible is still very consistent, and he sees that most of the differences are the result of having differing viewpoints, and explaining things in ways that make sense to us. Just as the same truth will be told myriad ways by different observers, the Bible is a collection of differing viewpoints. But at the same time, to claim an inerrant Bible, without willingness to consider the truth of its history, is akin to celebrating ignorance. It is my hope that anyone considering reading Misquoting Jesus will not be afraid to consider the reality of the inerrant Bible, and will not be held back by a fear of challenging their faith. This book is easy to understand, makes its points concisely, and does not promote disbelief, only awareness. I recommend it to all.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

The first in the Nero Wolfe series. I saw part of a Nero Wolfe movie on TV years ago and decided I had to read the series and it didn't disappoint me. Nero Wolfe is Stout's answer to an American Sherlock Holmes with Archie Goodwin as a cross between Dr. Watson and Sam Spade or Mike Hammer. In other words, a dynamic combination.

This book opens up with Maria Maffei coming to Wolfe to find her brother's whereabouts. He takes up the case, however, some boys fish out Mr. Maffei's body before they can get a start on the case. While uncovering Maffei's death, Wolfe uncovers another death, that of Peter Oliver Barstow, who apparently had a heart attack on the golf course. Wolfe suspects otherwise and offers a wager that if Barstow's body is exhumed, there will be some surprising results. If there weren't, then there wouldn't be a story. Evidently, someone murdered Mr. Barstow, but who and why. Wolfe believes he's on the right trail and a fer-de-lance snake in his desk drawer confirms it.

Well written, characters well developed, and the mystery is drawn out beautifully. Even if the reader figures out who, why, and how, the way Wolfe deduces everything is well worth the read. This is definitely a series worth keeping up (especially to read on a cold and/or rainy night) and I'm afraid I'm hooked on it.

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith

If you like Sherlock Holmes and/or Westerns, this is an excellent book; although it's rough on the language and setting. However, it is written from a cowboy's understanding in the late 19th century Montana.

Two brothers, Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, Old Red and Big Red respectively, sign up to work on the Bar VR because they need some money despite the ranch's bad reputation. Turns out there's more to the Bar VR than chores and cattle and Old Red is aimin' to find out with Big Red following in his brother's boot prints. During an outing, the boys come across a corpse. Then later, they find another corpse in the outhouse. Old Red is a huge Sherlock Holmes fan after reading "The Red-Headed League" and he starts deducifyin' what happened to those two bodies and what really happened at the Bar VR before the Amlingmeyers share the same fate. Turns out, Old Red ain't too bad at detectivin'.

The line that did it for me is "Some folks get religion. Gustav got Sherlock Holmes." Being a Sherlockian myself, I had high hopes for this book and it didn't let me down. The plot was brilliant, the characters developed nicely, and the setting made me feel like I was actually in Montana in the 1890s without the sights and smells. Another bonus is Holmes is "real" in the story, not a fictional character. The language and scenes tend to be rough in spots, however the narrator is a cowboy and is reporting things as seeing them, but this just seems to add that much more to the story. Another odd touch which probably appeals to Westerns is the use of the double title, such as: Prelude Or, the Calm Between the Storms. I have never been one for the double title. I always felt it should be one title or the other. However, I think Hockensmith pays excellent tribute to the Westerns with this technique so it didn't bother me. This book is by all means not politically correct, but I think it holds up as a story written in that era nor do I think it detracts from the storytelling.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow is based on a Nordic fairy tale. It's the story of a woodcutter's daughter whose mother never bothered to name her, so she's known as the lass which means the girl. She agrees to accompany a great white bear to a castle and live there for 100 days. In return, fortune will come to her family. She does this to help her family, but mostly because she believes it will help her brother, Hans Peter, who came home from the sea years before and has never been the same. Hans Peter has been depressed, and she can't figure out what is bothering him or how to make him well again.

She find that the bear means her no harm, but may also be under an enchantment. As she spend times in the mysterious castle, she begins to piece together the strangeness that surrounds her. All those in the castle are under the enchantment of a troll princess who seeks to marry human men, and the lass believes that Hans Peter once spent time in that castle.
During the day, she spends time with the bear and at night, she has a mysterious man sleeping in her room. Curiosity finally gets the better of her and she wants to see who the mysterious man is. Her discovery gets in the way of curing the Enchantment and the bear is taken away. The lass must find her way to the castle of the troll princess to find the bear and figure out how to ruin the Enchantments.
I really liked this book. In the past year, I've come to find out that I love YA books about princesses, castles, and spells. The lass is a great character with such courage and loyalty. I love characters like her.

Confessor by Terry Goodkind

My recommendation is avoiding this series entirely, even though it starts out well with a lot of excitement. Confessor wraps up an 11-book series pretty successfully, considering all of the elements that became tangled up in it, but in no way succeeds in making up for all the technical writing on the way magic worked, the author's ad nauseum philosophy which makes up 1/3 of the book easy, the black & white characters, or the incredibly unlikely, annoyingly perfect Richard Rahl who instinctively makes every right decision, always, and is just - too much - kind of like every time I write his name I need to use a special font or something. In book one, he is a nice, backwoods guide in the middle of nowhere; by the end he is still bumbling around, only now he manages to accidentally figure out what nobody has for 3000 years, once again just in time, and wields his cosmic, god-like powers to affect the fates of every living person, sorting out the good and the bad, based on whether they believe the same philosophy as he does. So Messianic. Except in the end, he gets to live happily ever after instead of dying for everyone.
There are recurring themes that become old. One is the theme of ignorance becoming insight at the last possible moment in order to avert disaster. Another is rape. The bad guys (all large, brutish men, usually stupid) all rape women, that's what they do. Another is capture or bondage. Richard is captured by Darken Rahl, by the Mord Sith, by the Sisters of Light, by Jagang, by Nicci, and possibly others I don't recall. Kahlan, Nicci, Rachel, they get captured as well, although Kahlan, since she is Richard's wife, only suffers emotional abuse because she's special. One other recurring device is complex magic that effects pretty much everything, is almost completely not understood, and when things need an explanation, they also carry unintentional, previously unknown side-effects that make sense of what's going on now.
But it's Richard Rahl that will make you grit your teeth the most. Every time he makes a decision we get an explanation why it works the way it does, how he figured it out, and the philosophy behind choosing to act that way. Every choice is a loving, life-affirming, freedomy perfection, unlike the soul-crushing order and their hatred of beauty and individuality (and constant pillaging and raping). It's a good thing we have the iconic Richard Rahl. This dude does it all: marries the most powerful, beautiful, and perfect woman: Kahlan. Becomes the rightful bearer of the sword of truth, shoots arrows with perfect accuracy (subconsciously enhanced by his magic), is the first person in forever with both additive and subtractive magic. Ruler of nations, and the only person who can oppose Jagang's Dreamwalker ability. He's big, gentle, and a flawless athlete. He can't be hurt in a sword fight no matter if a thousand armored people are mobbing him. He does not fatigue. He's a super-genius with a righteous philosophy and handsome to boot, probably with perfect white teeth. And best of all, he's humble, too, and cares about everyone and loves babies. You start loving it when he suffers at the hands of the enemies (after all, he can be captured by magical means or when evil-doers threaten those dear to him), except that he takes it out on the reader by thinking another sermon and we have to go under yet again.
I read it for the action, to find out how it would all end. In that regard, it is pretty tidy. And no more far-fetched than much of the other unbelievably powerful stuff that goes on. Richard pretty much solves all the problems in the end, getting his greatest advice of all, the penultimate Wizard's Tenth Rule, from a blank book of all things. The rule was implied somehow in the blank page, and the solution to his problems and how to do everything right.
I read the book because I had to know, and because it had started out so well. Now I'm done, and I feel some relief. And I have this irreverent wish that I could see what the series would have been like if Richard had failed in the end of book 1, and Darken Rahl had become ruler of all the lands they knew up to that point. Then he would have been facing Jagang and all the other random magical troubles that cropped up time and again to assail our hero. What would have happened with those two super-villains opposed to each other, instead?
Now that that series is finished, I wonder what Terry Goodkind will write like next. Will it be preachy and technical, or will it come out fresh and original, like he was at first? Only time will tell, since my curiosity will eventually get the best of me. My advice is this: carry on. If you haven't started the series, carry on as you were. If you have started it, finish so that you have your answers. You can do it. A lot of us have managed, and it has made us stronger.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Trouble with Witches by Shirley Damsgaard

This is the third in the Ophelia and Abby series. Ophelia is a reluctant witch dealing with her powers while Abby is her grandmother, guiding her along. The trouble with this book is it moves a tad slow and the end is so fast and contrite, if I would've blinked, I would've missed it. The girl who disappeared, suddenly reappears with no plausible explanation of where she'd been all this time. There's also an extraneous body in the story because I think the author wanted a murder so she killed off an unimportant secondary character, which no one in the town really cared about and (again) no plausible reason for his murder unless it was to throw suspicion on the person the town already didn't like. I believe a third of the book could've been cut without damage to plot. The majority of the characters have already been developed in previous books and less then a handful of characters are new. Abby and Darci (their friend) are already established, but Ophelia needs a lot of growing to do and it really doesn't happen in this book. If the series continues in this fashion, I might have to drop it, which is a shame because there's so few good paranormal mysteries out there.

The story starts off with Ophelia giving her Detective friend, Comacho, a bad reading on a missing person who she predicts is dead. I'm assuming this is plot for a future story, but who's to say. The next day or later that night, she gets a call from her reporter friend, Rick (she met him in the first book) who wants her and Abby to investigate the disappearance of Brandi, the daughter of a couple Rick during tracking down his next story, a cult on the lookout for psychics. Ophelia doesn't want to go, but Abby agrees on the spot. Darci pouts about not going, but shows up later in the story. Evidently, females lack the Common Sense Gene in this series, even Abby shows signs of a weak or sporadic case of Common Sense. They meet the couple in charge of the compound, Juliet and Jason Finch, Winnie, their helper, and Tink, Juliet's niece and Walks Quietly, the local reclusive, secretive Indian. Some bad things happen to Ophelia, Abby worries and chastises Ophelia, Darci gets her adventure, and the case gets solved. Ophelia further complicates her life by agreeing to foster Tink because Abby think it will help Ophelia take control of her destiny.

Supernatural Sleuths edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh

I started off disappointed with this anthology. One story didn't even have a supernatural element or proper sleuthing involved, a criminal looking to blackmail another individual. The book seemed half of stories that were excellent and the other half forgettable or unforgivable. The last story annoyed me so much, I didn't even finish reading it. But that's the wonder of an anthology.

My top choices:

"The Adventure of the Ball of Nostradamus" by August Derleth and Mack Reynolds- A Sherlockian style mystery where a man keeps murdering children based what he sees in a crystal ball he believes belonged to Nostradamus. Of course, Sherlock Holmes, in the guise of Solar Pons, written in the style of Dr. Watson aka Dr. Parker
"The Gateway of the Monster" by William Hope Hodgson - This story was actually spooky. You know the narrator, ,Carnacki lives through his ordeal in a haunted room, but how he spends this time there curls the toes.
"The Midnight El" by Robert Weinberg - Truly a detective story and the one I believe the cover is based upon. A detective enters the Midnight El which picks up the dead who died that day throughout the city of Chicago, however, it has an extra passenger who Detective Taine intends to bring back.
"The Cardula Detective Agency" by Jack Ritchie - A certain Count is down and out on his luck and funds. He's hired to protect a gentleman for one night who has become a target by "relatives" due to an announcement of his intent to change his will. This was a little humorous and it's nice to see what the Count's been up to these days.
"Children of Ubasti" by Seabury Quinn - Jules de Grandin and Dr. Trowbridge attend a party and meet two interesting guests with exhibit feline qualities. Later that night, they meet a girl with a story so horrific, it has to be true regarding two people who also exhibit feline qualities. It doesn't take de Grandin long to figure out the two sets of people are one and the same and how to defeat them.

Dreamsongs - Vol. I by George R. R. Martin

There are a variety of things that I enjoy about a book like this one. For starters, I find the works of Mr. Martin to be creative, gritty, and engaging. He has been an author of some renown for years, and a huge bestseller with his Song of Fire & Ice series, a monumental effort that will someday hopefully enjoy a conclusion. Of interest to my grandfather when he noticed this book was the coat of arms between the dragons, bearing four images, which I explained represent the four major genres or aspects of Mr. Martin's career that he focuses on in Dreamsongs. They are, roughly, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and film/screen writings.

In addition to his stories, which are grouped together thematicaly by time period and genre, he also gives an autobiography which introduces each section and offers insight into his past and inspirations for his stories. We find out about the importance of comics and sci-fi magazines, sort of an underground movement at the time but Martin's big break into authorhood. You can observe from story to story (especially at first) how his development as a writer came along (exponentially, as I see it). He writes of rejections, relationships, school, conventions, making friends with the right people and taking opportunities that arose. And, not so humbly, lets us know which of his short stories have been Hugo/Nebula winners and how successful various pieces were. And I was okay with that.

Now, I happen to enjoy the short story format. It is much like a sampler of chocolates (a bit like Forrest, hmm?). Instead of being immersed in just one world, one flavor, one color for however long a novel lasts me, I get to experience numerous worlds, interesting characters, and creepy situations. Instead of being up at 2 a.m. and unable to set the book down, and knowing I have 150 pages to go, short stories let me read as much as I want, when I want, without the horrible compulsion to destroy my body in an 8-hour reading coma. And finally, I find there is a certain something to respect in an author that manages to efficiently cram an entire story into a novella or short story.

As you would expect with a sampler, there are good stories and not-so-good ones. Overall, though, I was pleased with what I read. The earliest stories were weaker; perhaps the prose was too direct and full of adjectives, or maybe the plots were a bit too simplistic, I don't know. But George got very good - "A Song for Lya" was very emotionally intense and heartbreaking, "Sandkings" was exciting and suspenseful, using the unknown very well, and "The Pear-Shaped Man" was just disturbing without the slightest violence or gore, just up there messing with your head.

So it's not all fantasy. Nor is it always sci-fi, or horror. Many times, he mixes the latter with one of the former to great effect. The good news for me is there is another volume to read, because I could do with some more of George R. R. Martin while I wait in futility for a new novel to appear. If you like this kind of collection or are interested in the genres mentioned above, I have no reservations about recommending Dreamsongs. If you are curious to see whether you would like Mr. Martin's writing but daunted by getting involved in an epic series, this could be a good place to start as well.