Monday, March 30, 2009

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Plants and dirt and the stories they tell.

I love plants. I love tending them. I love getting the back of my neck sunburned from being on my knees all day. I love getting dirt under my fingernails, and smelling its musty aroma as the brown stuff washes from my hands down the drain. A day spent in the sun working the soil is a day seized in my book.

Claire Waverly loves plants too. A few steps from the back door of the large Victorian her family has always owned in Bascom, North Carolina is the garden she tends; the garden she loves; the source of her successful catering business. For her, plants equal magic. They’re her second language. Want to keep a secret? Add nasturtiums to your salads. Keep children thoughtful? Sugared pansies on the cake. Get rid of an unwanted neighbor? A snapdragon soufflé. She has a gift. All of the Waverly’s do. Claire likes to keep hers quietly to herself, living alone in her family’s old house, ignoring the children who occasionally try to get a peek over her tall picketed fence at that mysterious enchanted apple tree in the center of her garden.

But suddenly her plants begin to change, and so does her life. A new interested neighbor moves in next door. Her fly-by-night sister returns with a daughter unexpectedly, and her elderly cousin keeps leaving unwanted gifts. What’s a girl who wants her heart locked up tight to do? Give in, of course. A good heroine always gives in, a little anyway.

If you’ve read or seen the movie Practical Magic, this all probably sounds vaguely familiar. Both are stories that revolve around the lives of two sisters, one mature beyond her years and one escaping from an abusive relationship, polar opposites in almost every way but for their magical gifts; a small, quirky town whom both loves and hates them; an elderly relative with all the answers, and, of course, an enchanted garden.

I guess the question is, did I mind the similarities? Not really. Practical Magic is darker and more serious, while Garden Spells is lighter and more fun. Like The Sugar Queen, I enjoyed the mixture of food and magical realism. Addison made the story her own by the end. Reading this made me want to hang out at a garden store all afternoon. Or better yet, plant some peas and spinach. I hear they increase patience for unruly children. Better plant them quick. 4 stars

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ariel - Sylvia Plath

1965; 85 pages. Genre : Poetry. Overall Rating : B.
A collection of poems, often rushed out at the rate of two or three a day, by Sylvia Plath in the last months of her life, and while alone with her children (Ted Hughes had left her for another woman) and freezing during a bitter London winter.
What's To Like...
What can I say? Plath is a maestro with words. Here she writes about a variety of subjects. There is the warm love she has for her children. There is also some darkness - especially when she's writing about her Dad and her straying husband. Death makes its appearance as well, but there are not as many lines devoted to it as I had feared. And last but not least - she throws in some cool chemical compouinds - Carbon Monoxide, Arsenic, and Acetic Acid. Yeah go ahead, name any other poem that has the phrase 'Acetic Acid' in it.
Although it's a short read, there is almost no rhyming here, and very little meter. That makes it tough on a traditionalist like me. Some of the poems are too vague for me. You almost need notes to understand them. Ariel, for instance, is not about the Shakespearean sprite; it's about a horse she rode at a nearby riding academy. Berck-Plage is about a veteran's hospital she visited in France. There's 4 or 5 poems about bee-keeping. It helps to know Plath had a bee colony in her backyard, and was a member of a beekeeper's club. I've yet to discover why a yew tree keeps showing up in this book.
Don't buy this book!!
This 1965 version of Ariel was edited by Ted Hughes, who took the liberty of deleting 12 of the poems and replacing them with a dozen of Plath's earlier works. He also decided Plath didn't know the proper order to put them in. Plath's daughter Frieda later put out a version with the correct poems and correct order. When I was at Borders over the weekend, I found there is now a "Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath" which, at 200+ pages, includes everything from Ariel and Colossus, and a bunch of other assorted poetry she penned. All for less than $20. So the version I read is obsolete.
In the end, I'd give Ariel an "A" for its biographical insight. But when I step away from that, a lot of these poems could use a bit of polish. I know everything Plath wrote is sacrosanct to her devotées, but objectively, penning 2-3 poems a day means they could've been improved with time and effort. Therefore I give this Ariel a "B", partly cuz it isn't perfect, and partly cuz it's Hughes' inferior version.
Ariel has sat on my TBR shelf for quite some time. I read it now because earlier this month, Plath's son, Nicholas Hughes took his own life by hanging after losing his battle with depression. It seemed fitting to pay my respects to him by reading a book of Plath's poetry.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Sick Puppy - Carl Hiaasen

1999; 513 pages. Genre : Witty crime. Overall Rating : C+.
Greedy lobbyists and unscrupulous land developers want to turn an unspoiled island on the coast of Florida into golf courses, condos, shopping malls, and high-rises. But first they need to pull some political strings to get funding for a new bridge to connect it to the mainland.
What's To Like...
The story moves at a decent pace. There's a dopily adorable black lab (the "sick puppy"), and two living, breathing, cosmetically-enhanced, immigrant Barbie Dolls. It has an "Animal House" type ending. The demise of the hired thug is hilarious.
OTOH, as oxymoronic as it sounds, the predictable plot requires a huge suspension of belief. One example - the baddies kill their own "environmental specialist" for no discernible reason other than to establish that they're the baddies. Then there's the characters. Here's four of the main ones...
Twilly Spree : Has anger-management issues and a thing about littering. Runs elderly ladies off the road for chucking a cigarette butt. Beats teenagers to a bloody pulp for tossing a beer can. Steals dogs. Sleeps with other men's wives.
Desie Stoat : Repeatedly betrays her hubbie's political deals, for no apparent reason. Cheats on him too.
Twilly's Mom : Sees nothing wrong with those two showing up at her house - with the badly beaten-up hubby. Helps tie him to a chair and puts a pillowcase over his head. Her parting words to Twilly when the three are leaving - "Try not to hurt him too bad, dear."
Skink : Ex-governor. Now runs around the Everglades like a psycho hermit. Beats up people to get information. Kills badly-hurt guys in a slow, painful way.
A Blacker Shade of Dark...
Okay, you're probably not impressed with those four. Here's the deal. They're the good guys. Which gives you some idea how vile the bad guys are.
Twilly initially crosses paths with Desie's hubby (Palmer Stoat), when the latter tosses some fast-food wrappers out the car window. His vengeance - dumping 10 tons of garbage onto Palmer's Beemie convertible, and 7,000 dung beetles into his house. Is there some morality lesson I should be learning from that?
Weirdly, I eventually ended up pulling for Palmer, despite him having no redeemable qualities. The good guys keep beating him up. The bad guys keep beating him up. His wife and dog leave him. His expensive cigars are fake. All he wants to do is be a crooked deal-maker.
I am told that some of Hiaasen's other stuff is funnier. So we'll give Sick Puppy a C+ because there are just enough funny parts, and at least the good guys aren't pathetically boy-scoutish. And resolve to read at least one more of his books.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

I've never read very much at all about China. I know very little about its culture and people so I was intrigued when I saw this quote on the copy that I had: "One need never have lived in China or know anything about the Chinese to understand it or respond to its appeal."—Boston Transcript.
I believe now after reading, The Good Earth, that it definitely lived up to the claim in this quote.
It is an excellent classic with imperfect characters, landscape and a range of emotional qualities that will live on in my memory for years to come.
It is written in Wang-Lung's point of view and primarily his story but for me one of the most memorable characters was his wife O-lan. Here is one of the first glimpse's of her from the book:
"Wang Lung, hearing her voice for the first time, looked at her back as she stood before him. It was a good enough voice, not loud, not soft, plain, and not ill-tempered. The woman's hair was neat and smooth and her coat clean. He saw with an instant's disappointment that her feet were not bound."
O-lan was simple, did simple things, hardly talked and seemed to be the perfect Chinese wife. Yet she faced incredible challenges as Wang-Lung's wife and had to make immensely hard choices, perhaps in her mind, for the greater good. For this reason, Wang-Lung prospered for a time but eventually it had a cost. O-lan wasn't perfect but she was endearing.
I was immediately captured with Pearl S. Buck's simplistically beautiful writing. It was a unique learning experience for me to take a glimpse into Chinese culture. It felt real to me. I could imagine what Wang-Lung knew and felt about his family, his land, (The Good Earth) he loved:
"But Wang Lung thought of his land and pondered this way and that, with the sickened heart of deferred hope, how he could get back to it."
In the end, I felt a sadness about Wang-Lung's family and all that transpired within the story. I related to it. I highly recommend it.

Just a note: Last year, Jen and Amanda wonderfully reviewed The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Amanda already pointed out in her review that there are spoiler's in Jen's review.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo

Back before computers, emails, twittering and facebook, people did that ancient and almost long-forgot practice of letter writing. Jane Austen scholars estimate she probably wrote close to three thousand letters during her lifetime, with almost all but the most carefully chosen supposedly destroyed by her sister Cassandra after her death. What was she trying to hide?

Emma Douglas is determined to find out. Though her husband has just left her for his much younger graduate student and her career in academia all but destroyed because of it, Emma, an authority on all things Austen, heads to England to find these missing letters and rescue her self respect in the process. A mysterious widow has contacted her, claiming to have some of this as yet undiscovered correspondence in her possession, and will allow her access to them if she completes a series of tasks to prove herself worthy. So off across the country she sets, Jane Austen’s country – from Stevenson to Bath to Lyme Regis, in search of the author’s true identity, as well as her own.

Jane Austen Ruined my Life is for fans of Austen herself, as Austenland was for the mini-series maniacs. I found the correspondence angle interesting since I’ve just finished a book detailing her letters that weren’t destroyed, My Dear Cassandra - The Letters of Jane Austen.

This one was a quick read for me, a tasty treat for Austenite’s everywhere, and a plot twist at the end kept it from being, like one of Austen’s stories, entirely predictable. There are a few gems included; her description of Mrs. Parrot, the wealthy, mysterious widow was one:
“Her hair was a vivid orange, as if Andy Warhol had been her hairdresser. A pair of glasses dotted with rhinestones hung from a chain around her neck, but she could just as easily have carried them on the ample shelf of her bosom. The fabric of her flowered house-dress would have looked at home on a sofa, and her feet were encased in sturdy black oxfords that had seen better days.”
The ample shelf of her bosom? Who doesn't have a grandma who fits into that category. Classic stuff. 3.5 stars

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

“A man works from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”

Martha Moore was born in 1735 in the town of Oxford, MA. She married Ephraim Ballard in 1754 and gave birth to nine children, lost three of them to diphtheria and eventually died in Maine, in 1812 at the age of 77.

Between 1785 and 1812, Martha Ballard kept a diary. Without it her life would’ve been just a succession of born and died dates in some town registry. We would know nothing about her. We would not know she was a midwife. That she delivered 816 babies during that time period with a higher living birth rate than some countries today. She kept an exhaustive record of her travels from house to house - helping not just the pregnant women but the sick and afflicted, her daily accounts of the weather, and her business dealings. We hear of her gardening, her cooking, the washing, and the spinning of wool to sell.

As she ages, we feel the affects of time as she complains of being tired and not well, but still she works, delivering babies, battling prejudice from male doctors, handling religious squabbles, dealing with armed settlers, and most especially loneliness when her husband is kept in debtor’s prison for over a year.

Such “trivia” would’ve been all but ignored but for Ulrich, who looked between the lines and found a heart-felt story within; a story that won a Pulitzer. By uncovering the subplots of Martha’s daily life, from someone’s hasty marriage, lingering labor, or sojourn to jail, she revealed a grander hidden picture of eighteenth-century social history.

I found this book to be fascinating, and I can’t believe I’ve never read it before. What women had to go through just amazes me. So many of their children died and yet these women persevered. And the medical practices, I just couldn’t believe what they used for remedies, and yet I found their return to a simpler time somehow comforting. Everything was much less complicated back then. Martha did really well for herself. She made her own money and took care of her and her own families needs, as well as countless of her neighbors. She did not sit idly back and let history write her off. She wrote her own. What would’ve been lost if she hadn’t? A treasure. For anybody that likes history, this is an excellent read. 4.5 stars

Monday, March 23, 2009

Mistress Shakespeare by Karen Harper

It is almost universally agreed upon that there are three big mysteries pertaining to William Shakespeare: Did he really write all those plays and sonnets, what happened to him during the lost years between grammar school and acting on the stage in London, and lastly whom did he marry?

It is generally thought he married (very quickly because she was with child) Anne Hathaway of Stratford, but in the same official record where this marriage is recorded there is another made just days before with the name William Shakespeare and a woman named Anne Whateley of Temple Grafton. A marriage bond or license was issued, or so it is recorded as thus. Who was this Anne Whateley? Could she be the “dark lady” of The Bard’s sonnets? Could he have had more than one wife?

And so we have the tale of William Shakespeare as told through the eyes of the dark-haired Anne Whateley, the daughter of an Italian street dancer and English shop merchant. Her story, separated into the five acts of a play, describes growing up as close friends in Stratford; their secret betrothal just days before he was forced to wed the pregnant Anne Hathaway; and later their life together in London as Will struggles with his writing and acting career and Elizabeth the I’s fight against hidden Catholics. Together they deal with hunger and the plague, persecutions and executions, love lost and found again, all while Shakespeare becomes the greatest writer of the Elizabethan Age.

Could this be the real story of Shakespeare in Love, a movie I adore and had to watch again after reading this book? I haven’t read any of her other novels, but Karen Harper has done her homework here. She knows much about the Elizabethan period and it shows. The rich detail of London in the late 1500’s - early 1600's, and of the known character’s in Shakespeare’s life made for a very fun read for a Bard-loving nerd like myself. And like the movie, I enjoyed the word-play, the guesses on how he came up with these stories. Did they often mirror occurrences in his own life? I found that all fascinating, and the cover of the novel I loved. It was the reason I picked up the book in the first place.

As for the story itself, it flowed for me well enough. Anne Whateley was strong when she needed to be and weak when Shakespeare – who was of course always in and out of her life – would inevitably return to her. More than once I wanted her to just tell him off, but this was supposed to be written during a time when women had few rights whatsoever, let alone the ability to think on their own without a man telling them what to do. The story plays into that general concept whether it was true of the time or not.

One day I swear I’ll read a book where the heroine shrugs off the dead weight of the man in her life and rides off into the sunset all by herself in unbridled glory…sigh, but until another author is brave enough to attempt such a feat I must be content with fine enough stories such as this secretly knowing I probably wouldn’t have read it if it hadn’t have ended the way it did. Pathetic I know. 3.5 stars

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ella Minnow Pea - Mark Dunn

2001; 205 pages. Full Title : Ella minnow Pea - A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable. Genre : Contemporary Literature. Overall Rating : A.
Amanda wrote an excellent review of this book last month here. She covers the plot and key themes nicely. Here's the storyline really abbreviated : The idyllic life on an isolated island off the coast of South Carolina becomes dystopian when the tiles bearing the letters of a sacred phrase ("The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog") begin to become unglued, thus falling off and shattering. If you'd like to know more, read Amanda's piece.
What's To Like...
The main delight of Ella Minnow Pea ("LMNOP") is the wonderful wordplay created by Dunn. It's sort of a literary mix of the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ogden Nash. Have your dictionary handy when you read this book; Dunn introduces you to a lot of beautful-but-obscure words, and a bunch of mellifluous ones he simply made up.
The main message of LMNOP is this - don't blindly accept the edicts of the politicians and organized religion. Try the spirits, examine the prophecies, and evaluate the probability that a Deity has for some reason chosen them to convey a message to you. To quote a great slogan from an otherwise silly sect : "To question is the answer".
Another less-obvious hypothesis fleshed out in LMNOP is that a language is an organic, evolving entity. The natives of Nollop speak English, but due to their isolation, it's a bit different from our "American", and/or the King's "English". Similarly, I own a "How To Communicate In Autralian" phrasebook that exists because of that sort of isolation. Alas, as more and more of the letters of the alphabet become taboo due to Nollopian laws, their language suffers as well. By the end, when only five letters remain legal, speaking and writing are reduced to essentially a five-year-old's level.
Don't Read LMNOP If...
If you're in the mood for a dystopian novel, don't read this book. Ditto, if you're looking for a complex storyline and deep character development. The dystopian setting and the letters written are merely vehicles for Dunn to develop the themes listed above. The fact that the oppressive bad guys give up their power after reading a single sentence is ample proof that this isn't a serious look at a Brave New World.
Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs...
I enjoyed this book immensely, especialy since it agrees with my views on the themes Dunn addresses. The purpose of language is to communicate. Commas and semicolons should not be bound by silly rules; they're an art-form. And if you have an opportunity to make up a new word to convery your ideas more clearly (or use an existing word in a new connotation), well kewl beans! You're helping the generational evolution of English.
I read LMNOP because of Amanda's review; who read it because of Rebecca Reid's review; who read it because of her mom's review. There is purpose in what we're doing at this blog, so keep on five-squaring and practice linguo-elasticity wherever possible.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rapunzel's Revenge by Shannon Hale, Dean Hale Ilustrated by Nathan Hale


Gather 'round
Stomp your feet!
Bow to your partner
and doe-si-doe!

Clap your hands,
Open this graphic novel,
Careful now -
look at the handsome drawin' before
turnin' each page as y'all
meet Rapunzel
as a western hero!

Understand 'round these parts
certain lands are not so plainly
what they seem to be
but if you've ever seen a John Wayne movie
you'll soon be figurin' out the way the action goes.

Most memorable, I reckon, I'll share with you my favorites of this famed tale-

Nothin' complex about the way I think that women can be the best of villians overall because

they are definately the most caculatin', shrewd, and meanest of them all so Mother Gothel

doesn't disappoint here with her oppression and magic makin'.

Later, back at the ranch, ole scallywag Jack is conivin' and horse theivin' but don't let that no

good non-layin' goose fool ya 'cause Jack's got surprises up his sleeve in his own mind to

almost steal the show if they'd develop a bit more backbone into him.

Soon as Rapunzel figures out how to use her hair for ropin', it's downright swashbucklin' time

so she's in for more than she bargained for in the wild, wild west! Like she says: "Well I'll be

swigger-jiggered and hung out to dry." But trouble won't slow her down and it sure makes

for a good pace in this here tale.

As ya may haf' heard from Lula, Ya can't help but be glad that a JACKALOPE gets his 15

min. of fame either!

Beware of the dreaded metaphors, though ya could say they seem to fit in a western "right as


*Just a Note: This is my first attempt at reading a graphic novel.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

"I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck," and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily.

Such were some of the famous last words of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry the Eighth. I, like most people, am fascinated by English history, and I've always found the story of Anne very compelling. She was a quick, cunning woman. Her seductive wit and political prowess held no bounds; her obvious intelligence was legendary. Prince Charles should be thanking her for paving the way for divorce in the monarchy, but not even she could prevent herself from being pushed aside when like Queen Catherine, she could not give the king a son. We all know the hard lesson she learned from it.

But The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t told through her eyes, it’s told through the eyes of her sister, Mary Boleyn, a woman I’d never heard of; in reality, a woman of little consequence, who around the age of fourteen, returned to England from the French court and caught the eye of the King of England. At the urging of her family, she became his mistress and bore the king two children.

The next fifteen years follow the three Boleyn siblings: Mary, Anne, and George, and their trading of affections with each other, and between the two sisters, with King Henry himself. Anne and Mary’s relationship is depicted more as a one of intense rivalry and duty than of sisterly affection, and in the end I thought the story became more Anne’s than Mary’s, in that the author tried so hard to paint Anne in a bad light, finding cause in every accusation the king used as a justification in executing her.

No one really believes she did all the things he accused her of, yet these became the driving forces of the story, with Mary’s voice becoming very weak for me in the end. Almost invisible. What purpose did she serve exactly, I wondered. Had she learned anything from it all? Was she really secretly happy her sister had died the way she did? Was I as the reader? I wasn’t sure by the end, other than maybe King Henry wasn’t all to blame.

With that aside, I still found the book interesting and readable. The author’s words guided me through the historical narrative effortlessly until I’d read multiple pages without even realizing it. Only for a brief time did I feel some parts a bit too long and tedious, like the seven years King Henry waits to marry Anne. That felt like an eternity – as I’m sure it did for the sexually tormented Henry and his supposed virgin mistress, but other than that the book moved very swiftly for me. Smooth as creamy butter sometimes, and I loved it.

Reading this made me want to watch The Wives of Henry the Eighth on PBS again and learn more about these women and the man who proclaimed himself the God of this Earth, the head of his own church. What a time it must’ve been to live; a time when middle age was thirty years old; a time when death lurked around every corner, if not by the plague or the sweats, then the chopping block. I wonder if Anne really did laugh as she pondered her demise. Knowing what history really says about her, I would say yes. She was that kind of woman. 4 stars

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Just FYI, this is the absolute coolest image on the web that comes up for the search "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and tremble." Percy Bryce Shelley would be proud...

OK, on to business.

What the... holy... good .... what... huh?

OKay, so, I can't possibly discuss this book without spoilers. OKay, I can, I guess. Here goes: Watchmen is a comic book, about superheros, and what they'd be like if they weren't in comic books. Or if comic books weren't comic books. Or if they weren't comic books circa the 80's. Or something. IT was okay. IT had some very interesting ideas, and it was very artfully put together. Mr. Moore (the writer) is obviously something of a renaissance man, and the breadth of his knowledge is really fun to bathe in.

OKay, yeah, so, now spoilers.


Okay, if the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN's perfectly laid plan for bringing about world piece involves genetically engineering a gigantic squid creature and giving him the enormous mutated brain of a psychic, that's been filled with terrible stories and artworks by the greatest artists in the world, who are convinced to live on a secret island where they think they're doing concept work for a movie, where they are completely cut off by humanity, then put on a ship to go home, where towo of them have sex in teh basement only to realize there's a bomb that blows them all up in order to cover the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN's tracks, which have already been discovered by the superhero that raped the other superhero, who tells it to the old supervillain, who has cancer, because the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN wants to get the naked blue god man out of the way and stole his psychological profile (how the donkey do you do a psych profile on God? Hate's gold cows. Loves happy endings that somehow involve fire falling from the sky) and knows that he is estranged from everyone on earth except for his girlfriend who he loves enough to clone himself so he can entertain her while he develops uber-god-toys, and therefore reveals to the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN that he can get rid of him by giving cancer to everyone he used to know in order to convince people that the naked blue god man causes cancer, thereby making people yell at the naked blue god man, so that he moves to Mars to build a big thing that looks like Satan's cocktail glass, so that the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN can focus on the fact that his getting rid of three superpowered people has attracted the attention of the crackerdog superhero who is trying to prove that there is an evil force killing off masked people, but isn't immediately believed (it would seem) by the daughter of the rapist of the lady he raped who hates the masked guy because he doesn't hate the rapist who she later learns is her dad, or by the guy who eventually ends up with the lady because she needs to feel safe after the giant squid event that we'll discuss in a moment, and whose attention (that is, the attention of Captain Crakcerdogs) might attract attention to his plans, a threat easily alleviated when the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN actually hires a hitman from his own company to try to kill him (that is, to kill the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN, not the Silver Crackerdog), and killing his secretary then getting killed by the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN (who felt no threat because his smarts had taught him how to catch bullets) who puts a poison pill in his mouth and plays pantomime at trying to figure out who put the poison pill in his mouth before he dies, thereby CONFIRMING the theory of the Man Whose Known as Crackerdog (Crackerdog! Sing it in your best Zorro theme song voice, everybody!), and then killing the former evil supervillain who he gave cancer to and sending a message to Dr. Crackerdog from his former archnemesis, attracting him to the spot, where he is arrested by the police who are in search of him, because all superheroes are illegal except naked blue god man, and the rapist guy, and Don Quicrackerdog refuses to stop saving little old ladies, because he likes to break the fingers of evil badguys, thereby allowing the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN to continue his work, while distracting the daughter of the rapist and the guy who falls in love with her, because they now want to crack the Crackerdog Pimpernel out of jail because he might know who the masked person killer is (even though the masked person killer doesn't REALLY exist in the sense that they think he does), leaving them in sufficient disarray that naked blue god man has to pick up his former girlfriend and give her a ride on the Devil's martini glass of love around Mars while she convinces them that humanity is worth saving, leaving only Hong Kong Crackerdog and the guy who falls in love with the girlfriend of naked blue god man/daughter of the dead rapist who tried to help save the world to carouse the underworld, figure out that the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN owns the company that hired the distraction assassin, break into the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN'S office, crack his computer (if he's the freakin' world's smartest man, and his name is Ozymandias (the Greek name for Ramses II), why the flying donkey would he set his password on his computer to Ramses II? Buddy, seriously, umm... this was like a 39 second dictionary attack. Come on.) and discover his secret plan, thereby distracting them during the crucial period in which the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN arrives just in time at his secret base in Antarctica with his mutant supercat and send reverse tachyon rays in order to repel the powers of the naked blue god man, which doesn't work anyway, while the WORLD'S SMARTEST MAN teleports the squid into the middle of New York, because he orginally planned to have teleportation be his plan to save the world, but it didn't work very well, and he learned that it kills the people painfully and violently, thereby giving him the plan to teleport the gigantic squid whose super-psychic-brain would thereby kind of explode into a Hiroshima of psychic power that would make everybody's brains blow up, and make pregnant lady's think there babies were eating them alive, and give nightmares to sensitive people for a bajillion years, thereby convincing the world's governments that they should stop fighting because aliens are invading... well, I'm just not cut out to save the world.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Dance Of Death - Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

2005; 560 pages. Genre : Action Thriller. Overall Rating : B-. Notes : Second book in the "Diogenes Trilogy". The first book was Brimstone, reviewed here.
Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast receives a message from his younger brother, Diogenes; who informs him of his plan to commit the Perfect Crime. He even tells him the date - 28 January. Alas, even with the "Who" and "When" filled in, the "What" remains a mystery, until one by one, Aloysius' friends and associates start to turn up murdered.
What's To Like...
This is "Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty" moved up to the present day. Aloysius is Holmes, naturally; and NYPD Detective Vincent D'Agosta plays his Dr. Watson. Diogenes combines the mental acumen of Holmes' brother Mycroft with the pure evil of Moriarty. A most worthy opponent, with an undying hatred of his brother.
The book takes a while to get going, with only a grisly killing or three to liven things up in the whole first half. But when it finally kicks into gear, it's a great read, with lots of twists, humor, red herrings and action to keep you turning the pages.
The characters are great. Aloysius isn't perfect. Indeed, for most of the book, Diogenes runs circles around him. And mention should be made of the reporter Smithback, who'll do anything for a scoop, but nicely is not cast into that Hollywoodian stereotype of being an arrogant stooge.
Oh no! It's The Two Towers Malaise...
In the end, however, the book is drawn down by the fact that it's #2 in a 3-part series. So you know that, while Good must prevail, Diogenes is going to live to fight another day.
And while the Aloysius-vs-Diogenes storyline would get an approving nod from Conan Doyle, there's a Preston-Child omission here - the "Is It Natural Or Is It Supernatural" issue that came up in each of the other three books I've read by these guys. Sometimes it's the former; sometimes it's the latter. The fact that it could be either one is one of the real hooks in a Preston-Child story. In Dance Of Death, we get teased by the possibility of one of these, but like a morning Phoenician thundercloud, it gradually dissipates into nothing.
So we'll give this a B-, with the understanding that a mediocre effort by these two authors is still above-average when it comes to a killer-thriller novel. And advise potential readers of Dance Of Death to read Brimstone first.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

Not unlike The Shop around the Corner in the movie You’ve Got Mail, only with yarn instead of books, Walker and Daughter is a cute, little knitting shop hidden in the deep recess’s of New York City’s Upper West Side, run by single mom Georgia and her twelve-year-old daughter Dakota. It’s a place where a potential sale is never denied, where the door is never fully shut until well after closing time and the last straggler has had a moment to muse and ponder over the choice of wool or cotton. A place where not just stray pieces of yarn gather, but friends; women with virtually nothing in common but one general purpose: to knit together something in their lives.

Georgia and her precocious daughter are not alone in their efforts. There’s her mentor and stand-in mother, Anita, a well-established-in-life sort of friend; Peri, a pre-law student with a penchant for knitting handbags; Lucie, a tv producer who’s lost her way; Darwin, an annoying graduate student; and Georgia’s old high school friend Cat, a Pamela Anderson sort of socialite on the verge of divorce. Like a knitted scarf wrapped tightly around your neck on a blustery day, so it is with these women in a time of crisis. The yarn is what holds it together and keeps out the cold.

The Friday Night Knitting Club is Steel Magnolias with but a different disease and location; How to Tie an American Quilt with yarn instead of fabric blocks; the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but without the rebuilding of a mother-daughter relationship and the cool chant. I liked all of these books, FNKC included, which follow a central theme: make the most of one’s life while you have it and a sisterhood can conquer all.

Aside from the constant use. of. sentence. fragments. and occasionally getting bogged down in the minutiae of the character’s past lives, overall I felt the story moved along these points well-enough. The author milks to the last drop every emotional moment she can, and I felt literally sucked dry at times, almost forced against my will to feel more sentimental towards the characters, even though sometimes I didn’t want too. Sometimes these characters just weren’t likeable, but hey, they’re New Yorkers! What did I expect! *cough*

Did I take something from this book? Sure, be grateful for the friends you have, and take up a skill that uses your fingers, and most of all, be sure to shave your legs and change your underwear everyday. You never know what will happen, for good, and bad. 3 Stars

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti

Although, I was pleasantly surprised by this book, The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti, it took me a little while to feel like I could relate and really get into it. I think what helped for me was the elephants. I like Caletti's intriguing use of these huge animal's which helped Jade deal with her panic disorder in her life. It caused me to think of my own animal obsessions I've had, like my one with flamingo's, in my own life and perhaps how that has helped me to cope as well. I really came to know the elephants as Jade understood them and as if they were real people.

I also enjoyed learning some fun facts about elephants and even a few other zoo animals in each chapter heading. They went amazingly well with each chapter. Incidentally, here is a quote by Deb Caletti on those chapter headings because I was curious myself; "The first question I always seem to get about The Nature of Jade is, "Are the animal quotes that begin each chapter true?" Yes, all true (although the book they’re attributed to is a figment of my imagination."

One my favorite characters in the book was the melancholy elephant keeper Damian, who mourns an elephant, Jum, he trained and left behind in India. I loved how gentle and kind Damian was with Jade and helped her to appreciate her name in explanation of jade; "One of the strongest materials. Stronger than steel."

I didn't mind the romance too much between Jade and Sebastian and it seemed to progress naturally. I thought their relationship, although complicated, showed great depth and maturity to Jade's character. There were some elements and twists that were uncomfortable for me in this book but I can see how Caletti used these means to create realism. I didn't really like Jade's therapist and I thought other people were more helpful to her than he was but I was probably lacking understanding about how therapy works. I was also a bit disappointed by the abrupt ending of this book but it does work with the articulately woven story line after all.

Lost In A Good Book - Jasper Fforde

2002; 399 pages. Genre : just as many as The Eyre Affair had. Overall Rating : B+.
Thursday Next's life has become rather hectic. She's pregnant, and her hubby's been time-napped. Someone is trying to kill her with coincidences. The Spec-Ops cops and Goliath Corp. consider her a liability. Uncle Mycroft has retired and Daddy is still on the run, stopping by only to tip her off that Armageddon is coming in the form of a pink sludge.
What's To Like...
The primary literary import this time is Miss Havisham, the man-hating dowager from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Fforde brings Havisham into the 20th Century and adds delightful depth to her character. She has a passion for anything with a powerful engine, and you are advised not to get into any vehicle that she's driving/steering.
Equally engaging is the Cheshire Cat, who reminds me a lot of the orangutan Librarian in the Discworld series. Indeed, LIAGB is rife with literary references - besides Great Expectations, the following are either visited or export characters to Fforde's book : Kafka's The Trial; Alice In Wonderland; Poe's The Raven; and even Beatrix Potter's Peter Cottontail series. Another half-dozen books make cameo appearances. I dare say that Fforde does for classic literature what Disney animated movies and cartoons do for classical music.
There is the same zaniness and wit as was in The Eyre Affair, and the same plethora of plotlines. Alas, Fforde seems to have developed Robert Jordan Syndrome. That is, he starts a lot more plotlines than he finishes. The drove me crazy in the Wheel Of Time novels.
The ending is a bit contrived, and only ties up one of the loose ends. There isn't a lot of romance here, what with Next's husband having been spirited away to parts and times unknown.
Fforde uses a different approach to the classics in this story. There's a lot more time/dimension travel, a lot more classics visited; but no altering-of-endings that I could discern. That's probably for the better, as it opens the door for Fforde's creativeness.
I enjoyed Lost In A Good Book just as much as The Eyre Affair, and since my local library carries all five books in the series, it is likely that I'll read the gamut. Book 3 is titled The Well Of Lost Plots, which is a repository for all those storylines that were thought of, but never published. One can only imagine what the fertile mind of Fforde will do with that.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

Let’s see…a story about a young single woman who hoards sweets and trashy romance novels in a cache hidden in her closet. Hmm...I’m on board! I’ll take chocolate and passion on the page over my problems any time. And so we have Josey Cirrini, the twenty-seven-year-old heroine of The Sugar Queen. She’s an almost over-the-hill Southern belle without a life or a date, no privacy from a domineering mother, and now has the town harlot camping out and black-mailing her in her bedroom closet. What’s a girl to do?

Eat, of course. “Packaged snacks, rows of sweets, towers of colas.” And continue to pine over the tall blond mailman who delivers her mail faithfully to her door every day.

Her life was supposed to be simple and uneventful, and she was happy that way, with her chocolate, with her creme-filled cookies, or so she thought. This mysterious woman in her closet, this Della Lee, turns Josey’s “simple” life upside-down, by making her step out of her comfort zone and discover who she really is, whether she wants to or not.

If you’re looking for a fluffy, light read this book’s for you. The author injected a wit and magical realism that set it apart from a typical romance, and the ending though somewhat unrealistic, even in romance terms, was still satisfying.

So, as far as this type of novel goes, this one is in league with many, many others, in that, we suspect love will conquer all. But isn’t that the point? I devoured this story as easily as a warm chocolate chip cookie (I totally craved one while reading this book!), and with almost as much satisfaction, not feeling too full but still hungry for more in the end. Overall, an enjoyable read. 3 Stars

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Walk In The Woods - Bill Bryson

1998; 274 pages. Genre : Anecdotal. Overall Rating : B.
Bill Bryson's witty recounting of his attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, despite being 44, not in shape, and not knowing anything about hiking. He's joined by his boyhood friend, Stephen Katz, who is even more out-of-shape and unknowledgeable than Bryson.
What's To Like...
As usual, Bryson self-deprecating humor had me chuckling out loud. There's the savings-draining trip to the sports store, trying to pack without breaking one's back, the foibles of a pair of urbanites camping in the wilderness, and a guffaw-inducing meeting with a moose. Fortunately, the bears, ticks, and poisonous snakes stayed away.
You also get to share his joy as he beholds sunrises and mountain ridges essentially untouched by the human hand. And Bryson shares his research into the history of the trail, the US National Park Service, the fauna and flora, and the very mountains themselves.
Unfortunately, the chuckles-per-page diminish in the second half of the book. Maybe Bryson had difficulty finding something funny about almost dying from hypothermia. So the first half of the book (Georgia thru Virginia) rates an "A"; while the last half (Pennsylvania thru Maine) rates a "C".
You dare to call yourself a hiker?!
The Appalachian Trail is 2200 miles long. Almost all of it is up-and-down mountains on barely discernible paths. I once did a 10-mile hike in Boy Scouts, over mostly level eastern-Pennsylvanian terrain, in perfect weather, and at a leisurely pace. It took most of the day.
Bryson ended up walking 890 of those 2200 miles. That he'd write a book about this feat seems to have ticked off a bunch of self-styled "serious hikers". Personally, I'm quite impressed. I didn't enjoy AWITW quite as much as I did The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid, but it's still an entertaining book, and a recommended read.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by JK Rowling

You don’t have to be a wizard or a kid to appreciate the spell cast by Harry Potter. For me returning to this series was like returning to a familiar pillow and blanket, a favorite dessert, or my favorite well-worn shoes: instantaneous comfort. What a joy this was to read again.

Because most everyone is as familiar with these three-dimensional characters and spooky scenes as they are the ingredients in One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi, I’m going to test your knowledge and walk through the book in question form. Only the most diligent kids; or I mean grown-ups may apply.

1. On what day of the week does our story begin?

2. How many presents did Dudley get for his eleventh birthday?

3. What country is the boa constrictor at the zoo from?

4. What day of the week was Harry’s eleventh birthday?

5. What did Hagrid cook for Harry when he first met him?

6. Name one course book first year students at Hogwarts will require.

7. What is Harry’s wand made from?

8. While waiting to board the train, what does George offer to send his mom from Hogwarts?

9. What kind of lumpily packaged sandwich does Ron unhappily unwrap on the train?

10. What is the first portrait password to get into Gryffindor tower?

11. What bone did Neville break while attempting to fly?

12. Who is the captain of the Gryffindor’s Quidditch team?

13. What game does Harry compare Quidditch to?

14. On what holiday does the troll appear?

15. What is the name of the three-headed dog guarding the trap-door?

16. What gifts did Harry receive for Christmas?

17. What does Dumbledore see when he looks in the Mirror of Erised?

18. How old was Nicholas Flamel?

19. What kind of dragon does Hagrid have? What’s its name?

20. How did Filch once punish wayward students?

21. Name the centaurs Harry meets in the forest.

22. What instrument do they use to put the three-headed dog asleep?

23. What position did Ron play on the chess board?

24. What flavor of bean did Dumbledore eat while visiting Harry in the hospital?

25. How many times have you read this book?
A delightful read that deserves to be revisited often, even if I am a muggle. 4 stars

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

This is the third in the Harry Dresden series. Harry's not have a good night and his days aren't the best either. There's this creature going around tormenting ghosts and humans alike, able to get into their dreams and wreak havoc. Harry has to figure out who it is and why while the creatures is slowly destroying people Harry has dealt with in the past. Will Harry figure out who's behind this evil? Will he stop the evil in time? Will he make it out alive? Of course or else there wouldn't be eight more books in the series. Harry does figure things out and rights some wrongs, but there's a price for success. I'd mention what it is, but it might be considered a spoiler. Perhaps in my next review of the series.

I do like how Butcher titles his books. Each one has some significance to the story. Grave Peril and ghosts; very clever. This one moved a little bit slow for me then ended rather quickly. Loose ends and evil doers were wrapped up in the last fifty-seventy pages and that's with Harry's little side jaunts of memory lane or relating experiences to the reader. I'm also learning to dislike the word "nasty" because it seems to be overused in paranormal books. I'm positive there are other words out there to describe unpleasant, evil creatures. Also, I'm in book three of the series and, as a reader, I'm kind of secure in my knowledge of how Harry's powers work and some of his background. I don't need a refresher course in wizardry and history in each book. Maybe I'm just nitpicking. The plotting and characters are good, I could just do without the extraneous information. Book four should give me more food for thought or maybe I'll just skip over certain paragraphs and the story will move a lot faster.

The Speed Queen by Stewart O'Nan

Wow. Talk about an anti-hero.

This book features a woman on death row narrating her side of the story into a tape recorder for an author (the book is dedicated to Stephen King) who has paid for the story as fodder for his next novel.

A mainstream novel, O'Nan's book features more lesbianism than my last book for the lesbian book club (see prior book review). Nevermind that it plays on a stereotype (a truth?) of prison life for women.

This book was interesting, dare I say entertaining, even - horrors! - fast-paced, which usually turns me off as indicative of inferior writing, but that is not true in this case, at least not in my opinion.

The character, a woman who, along with her two accomplices - her husband and the woman with whom she was having an affair, the same woman with whom her husband was to later have an affair - murdered several people, was so real, so there, so...charasmatic? that you found yourself relating to her, or understanding her, or at least following her along without total disgust, which I think is an accomplishment of and credit to the author. Bravo. According to the book jacket, O'Nan was named one of Granta's Best Young Novelists. I'm not familiar with Granta, but if it's anything good, he deserved it.

The only issue I had was that the voice of the narrator was not entirely believable as someone speaking into a tape recorder, not with such detail. If the account were written, it would have lent more credibility to her recall.

I read this book in one sitting, due partly to the fact that I was trapped in a single space waiting in vain for my students to show up for their violin lessons, but I think I could've done it even outside of those circumstances. It was a quick, enjoyable read. The book jacket hails it as a "taut, violent, darkly comic story of lives in uncontrollable overdrive..." in other words, just my style. - 5 stars

p.s. - After some research, i.e. Google, Granta is apparently "the magazine of new writing."

The Small Room by May Sarton

This was a book I read for the February meeting of my Lesbian Book Club. It was disappointing as there was very little lesbianism. The book focuses more on a young, new professor at a women's college who encounters a personal and ethical dilemma when she is faced with a student's plagerism. A couple of more minor characters were lesbian, though it was more of a matter-of-fact than a stand-out point in anyway, which is okay, I was just sort of disappointed - it is a lesbian book club, afterall, though I said at the beginning that I was open to other options, including simply "women's literature."

The story line was pretty easy to follow with the exception of several episodes wherein members of the teaching staff get together in a social environment and end up talking "shop," including the plagerism scandal, even though they try to keep reminding each other not to do just that. In these sections, which were sprinked throughout, I found it very difficult to follow the conversation, to pin down who had what opinion on the issue, recognize references to what I assume were philosophers (?) and even came across a few "big words" that I didn't know, which was very bizarre for me. Not bragging, just saying.

Also, and perhaps this is due to my own experience dealing with plagerism as a teacher, but the effect of this student's actions were...over-dramatic? for me. The disagreement about it between a husband and wife nearly broke up their marriage, for example. This plagirism scenario was much different than my experience, not as clear cut, so ultimately, though, I can see how it would be an issue with huge effects on the characters which it surrounds.

On a final note, I found the old-fashioned language, though perhaps true to the time period during which the novel is set, which I think is the same as the time period during which the novel was written and published, gave it an almost comical or frivolous or light-hearted impression for the reader, or at least for me as a reader. It was like a veil laying over the seriousness of the story. I think sometimes I just don't trust archaic language written by modern writers, it feels inauthentic. Though this novel was published in 1961, so maybe this is the way people, including the author, talked back then.

Overall an okay read. I don't regret that I read it, made me think again about issues surrounding education, but I didn't get much out of it. - 3 stars

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I know this is sort of a classic; the blurb on the back lifted the text to that of epic status, but I didn't like it too much. It is set in Africa, following the life of one African man in particular, his family (including three wives) and his village. I'm not a xenophobe, I enjoyed learning about the culture presented here in general, but I did not like the main character, who was often cruel to his wives and children, and arrogant. I could not relate, connect or empathize with him at all. I connected more with virtually all the other characters in the book, in fact. Also, many of the character's names, besides being African, thus unfamiliar, started with "O," which made it difficult to keep them straight.

Again, here is another book that does not follow a traditional plot scheme but instead tells a series of stories of an individual life. The read was pretty much acts of violence or venom one after the other, along with misfortunes and several African rituals. The book really got interesting more towards the end when British missionaries were introduced into the story. Insight into the invasive actions and self-righteous attitudes of the missionaries was informative and enlightening as read through the perspective of the native people, especially knowing that this story, while fictional, is representative of truth.

In addition to the cultural and socioreligious aspects, there were a few parts that I enjoyed immensely, two for their humor, one for its philosophy:

1) A sort of tribal council meets over the issue of a man, Uzowulu, who has beat his wife. Here's what the wife's family had to say: "If...Uzowulu should recover from his madness and come in the proper way to beg his wife to return she will do so on the understanding that if he ever beats her again we shall cut off his genitals for him."

2) A few of the Christian missionaries' converts from the village return to their village, declaring all their former gods "dead and impotent," to which one of the village's religious leaders of the native faith responds, "'Go and burn your mothers' genitals.'"

Finally, 3) "'There is no story that is not true...'" - 4 stars

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Demons are a Ghouls Best Friend by Victoria Laurie

This is the second in the MJ Holliday series. I reviewed the first one, What's a Ghoul to Do?, last year. MJ, Gilley, and Steven are back busting ghosts, this time it's Hatchet Jack who's on their hit list after he terrifies Karen's niece. When the gang arrive at Lake Placid, they find a cold reception from Karen's brother to the dean of the school. No one knows or will admit to knowing who Hatchet Jack was. At first, the dean doesn't even want the ghostbusters on the property, until Karen and her on-again-off-again boyfriend strike up a deal, then they're given one week to find and eradicate Hatchet Jack. On the first night of ghost hunting, MJ finds three little ghost boys, who she feels were Hatchet Jack's victims. MJ's finally able to knock down some of the code of silence shared by some of the residents, gets law enforcement on her side, discover a murder (who people wonder if it's a Hatchet Jack victim), and solves the mystery and everyone goes home happy until the next haunting.

I really like this series, even though it has a few pet peeves: lingo and coincidences. I think I mentioned Laurie's use of coincidences in a past review (can't recall which one off hand), however, this one wasn't as bad as the other one. There was only one event tied to a portion of the story rather than a few. The only reason the lingo bothers me (such as two women calling each other "girlfriend" or "girl" when neither one is gay and they're both over 21) is I'm not used to it and I have a personal grudge against the "girlfriend" word, though I'll spare the details. Because this is just a personal view, I'm sure many others are quite comfortable with it and it's not enough to deter me from the next in the series: Ghouls Just Haunt to Have Fun.