Thursday, December 31, 2009

Time out...

Illness starting on Thanksgiving followed by Christmas preparations and guests kept me from book blogging during the rest of 2009. I have 12 books that I finished in 2009 that I still need to blog about. I'll try to catch up in 2010.

This break has also given me the opportunity to think about how I am going to handle the new FTC rules about endorsements and testimonials and their effect on blogging. An interview with Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the FTC specifically addresses book bloggers. After seeing how some book bloggers I respect handle this, I decided on the following:

Full disclosure: I am a librarian, although my book reviews are written on my own time. The only stuff I select for purchase at my (small state university) library are children's books and audiobooks. I don’t keep the books I receive from publishers. The books that I receive are typically added to my library’s collection (which usually takes at least six months), unless they are bound galleys or advance reader editions or copies (ARCs). ARCs are shared with colleagues or put in the "casual reading corner" (free paperbacks in the student lounge) in our library. Some ARCs and review copies are donated to nonprofit Friends of the Library book sales (well after the publication dates).

From now on I'll add a line at the end of the review about where I got the book (library, publisher, author, purchase, gift) and where it's going next.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

125 (2009 #50). Small Kingdoms

by Anastasia Hobbet

The author spent five years, 1995 to 2000, the period between the two Gulf Wars, living in a traditional neighborhood in Kuwait, much like Kit, one of the main characters in her novel. She was able to observe her Arab neighbors and their servants from countries such as India, Pakistan, and the Philippines (people who were often the main financial support for their families back home), as well as Americans in the country for business and humanitarian reasons.

Besides Kit, the quiet wife of an American businessman, the other main characters are Mufeeda, her upper-class Kuwaiti across-the-street neighbor, a devout Muslim; and her maid/cook, Emmanuella from India; Theo, an American doctor who works with Mufeeda’s husband at the local hospital; and Hanaan, the unconventional Palestinian woman who teaches Theo Arabic (and loves cats). Emmanuella discovers that the Indian maid of another neighbor is being abused, and ultimately draws all the other main characters into that plotline.

This was an absorbing look into different societies and cultures. Kit and Mufeeda in particular grow and change in the story in a positive way. The characters are well-developed and I was drawn into their lives, and even the minor characters contribute to the story. I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to Theo and Hanaan.

I would recommend Small Kingdoms, slated for release in January 2010, If you have read (even if you didn't like) other fiction and nonfiction set in the contemporary Arab/Muslim world, such as A Thousand Splendid Suns, Tears of the Desert, Kabul Beauty School, The Translator, The Kite Runner, and Three Cups of Tea, I think you will appreciate this book.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

124 (2009 #49). Ali and Nino

by Kurban Said,
translated by Jenia Graman

Originally written in German and published in 1937, Ali and Nino was out of print for decades and rediscovered and translated into English in 1970. It is set during the Russian Revolution and World War I, mostly in Baku in Azerbaijan, in the Trans-Caucasus area south of Russia and Georgia and north of Iran (then Persia), and between Armenia on the west and the Caspian Sea on the east. Ali is an aristocratic Shiite Muslim, Nino is a Georgian Christian princess, and they fall in love. Subtitled (in some editions) “A Love Story,” it does remind one a bit of Romeo and Juliet, particularly because of another sad ending.

I thought the way Ali's and Nino's personal stories reflected the clashing cultures (male and female, East and West, Asia and Europe, Muslim and Christian, desert and forest, tradition and modernity) of their homeland was fascinating. The book has been described as the national novel of Azerbaijan, inspiring a chain of bookstore/cafes and a historical walking tour of Baku.

I also thought the unclear authorship of the book was intriguing - the kind of thing that makes me want to research all the databases I have access to! Kurban Said is a pseudonym. Was the book really written by the Baroness , The Orientalist, both of them, or someone else?

Monday, November 02, 2009

123 (2009 # 48). The Soloist

by Steve Lopez,
read by William Hughes

This nonfiction title was the October selection for my local book club. Author Steve Lopez is a Los Angeles Times columnist, and this book came out of columns he wrote about a homeless black man, Nathaniel Ayers, a former Julliard student with schizophrenia, playing a beat-up violin on the street. Many newspaper readers are moved by Nathaniel's story and donate various musical instruments for him. Lopez tries to help Nathaniel find housing and treatment, but Ayers is resistant. The only thing that really seems to help him is the music he plays.

Lopez writes well. I just couldn't get very excited about the subject matter. I guess I have to read enough work-related and medical nonfiction that I prefer my recreational reading (or listening) to be fiction. I'm also a little turned off by "inspirational" books - which unfortunately, my book club has read three of this year.

I listened to the audiobook read by William Hughes (interestingly, a professor of political science and an accomplished jazz guitarist who's done voice-over work for radio and film). Since the book is written in first person from Lopez' viewpoint, the single narrator works well. The audiobook would have benefited, I think, with excerpts from some of the classical music pieces mentioned in the text being played as background music, or as bridges between chapters or parts, and at the end and beginning of discs.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

122 (2009 #47). The Photograph

by Penelope Lively

More character-driven than plot-driven, this is the sad story of a widower (Glyn) who finds a photograph of his late wife (Kath) surreptitiously holding hands with her sister's (Elaine) husband (Nick), taken by the latter's former business partner (Oliver). Kath's friend Mary is also in the photo, and Glyn proceeds to interrogate all of them to find out if there had been other affairs. The story is told from all these multiple viewpoints, including that of Nick and Elaine's daughter Polly, a favorite of Kath's. We learn a lot about all the narrators (including some of the minutiae of their daily lives - Glyn is a landscape archaeologist and Elaine is a garden designer), but Kath remains an enigma. How she died isn't revealed until near the end, but there are indications all along.

The story is set in England, with British vocabulary, so it's only fitting that the audiobook narrators be British. Actor Daniel Gerroll is, but his wife, actress Patricia Kalember (of Thirtysomething and Sisters TV fame), is American. Both do a fine job creating distinct personalities for the various narrators.

The book's title intrigued me, although the audiobook cover art is misleading (an attempt to portray the photo that's so central to the story seems like the better choice to me). All in all, though, I was disappointed. Very little happens in the story, and the characters are so self-absorbed, it's hard to empathize with any of them. It's no wonder they knew so little about Kath.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

121 (2009 #46). The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This story occurs in Barcelona and begins in the summer of 1945 when motherless Daniel Sempere is ten years old. His father, an antiquarian bookseller, takes him to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a huge secret library where "every book, every volume you see here, has a soul...of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens...In this place, books no longer remembered by anyone, books that are lost in time, live forever, waiting for the day when they will reach a new reader's hands....According to tradition, the first time someone visits this place, he must choose a book, whichever he wants, and adopt it, making sure that it will never disappear, that it will always stay alive." (pages 5-6)

The book that calls to Daniel is "The Shadow of the Wind," by one Julian Carax. After reading it in one night, Daniel tries to find other books by Carax. Daniel learns that the book is quite valuable as all of the other copies, and everything else Carax has written, have been destroyed. Over the next ten years, Daniel is consumed by a compulsion to find the mysterious author and solve the puzzle of what happened to him and his books. Daniel himself describes his quest (page 178) as “about accursed books, about the man who wrote them, about a character who broke out of the pages of a novel so that he could burn it, about a betrayal and a lost friendship. It’s a story of love, of hatred and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.” (And his girlfriend Beatriz teasingly responds, “You talk like the jacket blurb of a Victorian novel.”)

This makes for an incredibly riveting story, full of convolutions and surprises. There are complicated characters and lush language is used to describe Gothic settings and evoke dark moods. Originally written in Spanish by Zafon, translator Lucia Graves did an excellent job. I also love this cover design. Recommended for a fun yet intriguing read, particularly for bibliophiles.

ETA: I listened to the audiobook in June-July 2010 and it is fabulous! Jonathan Davis does a marvelous job as narrator, particularly voicing the incomparable Fermin. The audiobook is enhanced by musical interludes, mostly piano at key points (only once was it jarring), which were composed by author Zafon.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

120 (2009 #45). When You Are Engulfed in Flames

written and performed by David Sedaris

This is my fourth Sedaris audiobook. I liked this 2009 Audie Award winner (for narration by an author) better than Holiday on Ice, but not as much as Me Talk Pretty One Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

I thought the cover art was some modern graphic design, but it’s actually Van Gogh’s Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette. It’s reflective of some of the themes (smoking, death) and stories in this book, particularly “Momento Mori,” a live performance about Sedaris’ attempt to buy a skeleton in France as a gift for his partner Hugh. The last two discs (out of eight) are all one long essay, "The Smoking Section," about Sedaris quitting smoking at the same time he and Hugh make a three-month trip to Japan. The stories in this essay about Sedaris taking Japanese language classes felt repetitive of similar stories about taking French in France in Me Talk Pretty One Day. The title of the book comes from this essay - about instructions in a Japanese hotel room telling guest what to do in emergencies - one of the sections being titled "When You Are Engulfed in Flames."

The travel theme also runs throughout the audiobook, with one of the funniest stories being another live recording, “Solutions to Saturday’s Puzzle.” This is about Sedaris accidentally sneezing a throat lozenge into the lap of a plane seatmate whose husband he refused to exchange seats with, because he didn't want to sit in the bulkhead. He begins filling in his crossword puzzle with words of unspoken response to this crabby woman, whether they fit the clues or not.

His mother's death from lung cancer after years of smoking is also an undercurrent, but there is less of Sedaris’ family of origin in this book as compared to the other ones. Sedaris is apparently about my age, as he says he'll be 68 in 2025 as I will, and his themes seem to be getting more mature. However, this audiobook is definitely not for prudes – there is sex and lots of foul language. Good sound effects (especially for smoking - matches striking, paper burning, etc.) and acoustic bass interludes performed by Tommy Harron intersperse the essays."In the Waiting Room" and "Town and Country" are also performed live, which is David Sedaris at his best.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

119 (2009 #44). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

by Lewis Carroll
read by Shelly Frasier

I’m embarrassed to say, after reading Alice I Have Been, about the girl who inspired the Alice in Wonderland books, that I’d never read this Lewis Carroll classic, only seen the Disney movie like so many of my generation. I found this unabridged audiobook at the local public library and thought I should listen. It’s literary nonsense and rather hard to believe it was originally meant for children, as I think some of the word play would go right over their heads. For example, I loved the Mock Turtle’s and Gryphon’s puns on traditional courses of study in the Victorian era:
Reeling and Writhing,...and then the different branches of Arithmetic –Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision....Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography;...the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel...he taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting with Coils....the Classical master...was an old crab, he was....He taught Laughing and Grief,
which of course were reading, writing, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, history, geography, drawing, sketching, painting with oils, Latin and Greek. But would the average child get that?

Indeed, an anonymous review in The Athenaeum of December 16, 1865 (page 844) said,
This is a dream story, but who can in cold blood manufacture a dream, with all its loops and ties, and loose threads and entanglements and inconsistencies, and passages which lead to nothing, at the end of which Sleep’s diligent pilgrim never arrives? Mr. Carroll has labored hard to heap together strange adventures and heterogeneous combinations, and we acknowledge the hard labor....We fancy that any real child might be more puzzled than enchanted by this stiff, overwrought story.

Yet I remember loving the movie, and I think it was because Technicolor made the absurdities more “real.” In this case the story does suffer from being an audiobook without illustrations. Shelly Frasier does British accents rather well, but her voices for many of the characters sound too similar.

118 (2009 #43). Alice I Have Been

by Melanie Benjamin

This advance reading copy (scheduled to be published in January 2010) is fascinating historical fiction / biographical novel about Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice was 20 years younger than Carroll, and just a child when they met. He photographed her and her sisters numerous times and took them on picnics. A story he told them on one of these outings in 1862 was supposedly the idea for Alice in Wonderland. About a year later, something happened that resulted in a break between Carroll and the Liddell family; Alice’s mother burned all of Alice’s letters from Carroll and the pages were cut from Carroll’s diary that apparently covered the incident. There have been a number of theories and speculation on just what was on those cut diary pages, some of which support and some of which debunk the so-called “Carroll Myth” about his possible pedophilia.

Melanie Benjamin’s debut novel made me want to read more about both Liddell and Carroll, which for me means the book is a successful example of its genre. There’s just enough real-life mystery in the relationship between Liddell and Carroll to make excellent fiction, yet the story is well grounded in the available facts. I highly recommend this well-written, well-researched novel.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

117 (2009 #42). Call It Courage

by Armstrong Sperry,
read by Lou Diamond Phillips

I recently purchased (for my library) and listened to this audio version of the 1941 Newbery winner. Actor Phillips provides a dramatic, exciting reading that is enhanced with original music composed by Richard DeRosa. Especially effective were the drumbeats in the climax of the book. The combination brings this classic adventure/survival/coming-of-age tale to life.

Mofatu, whose name means “stout heart,” is 15 years old and the son of the chief of Hikueru, a real island in the South Pacific. His mother drowned when Mofatu was three (he survived the hurricane that capsized their canoe), and since then he has been afraid of the ocean. Taunted by his peers and feeling he is an embarrassment to his father, he decides to leave by canoe to test his courage, accompanied only by his dog and (sometimes) a pet albatross. He survives a huge storm on the water, landing on an uninhabited island that’s apparently used occasionally for ritual cannibalism, ultimately escaping from the “eaters of men” when they arrive on the island, and returning to his home. He kills a shark, an octopus, and a wild pig. More interesting, to me at least, were the ways he fashioned tools and utensils, a canoe, and tapa cloth, the latter from the inner bark of a mulberry tree.

Sperry’s observations from his trips in 1920-21 and 1924-25 to French Polynesia are evident in Call It Courage. For example:
While his breakfast roasted in the coals, the boy cleared the brush away from the base of the great tamanu. There was no wood better for canoe building than this. It was tough, durable, yet buoyant in the water. Mafatu could fell his tree by fire, and burn it out, too. Later he would grind an adze out of basalt for the finished work. The adze would take a long time, but he had made them often in Hikueru and he knew just how to go about it. The boy was beginning to realize that the hours he had spent fashioning utensils were to stand him now in good stead. Nets and knives and sharkline, implements and shell fishhooks—he knew how to make them all. How he hated those tasks in Hikueru! He was quick and clever with his hands, and now he was grateful for the skill which was his.

I liked this book and I think it would appeal to both boys and girls. (I’ve now completed Island of the Blue Dolphins - review to be posted later – and I much prefer Call It Courage). It may need to be read aloud to younger children (or they can listen to this audiobook), as the reading level measures out to 5th-8th grade. Sperry's granddaughter has put together an excellent website with a lot of resources that could be used in an author, book, and/or Polynesia study.

It’s relatively short (only 95 pages in my university’s 1941 hardbound reprint) with a lot of exciting action, yet there’s much interesting information about South Sea island life of a century ago, plus a valuable message about personal courage. An autobiographical note (written in third person) published in Newbery Medal Books: 1922-1955 (Horn Book, 1955) concludes (page 198), “it is in this book that Armstrong Sperry has put not only what he saw and felt on the islands of the South Seas, but something of his own philosophy of living as well.” I would have to agree.

[A variation of this post appears on The Newbery Project.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

116 (2009 #41). Shattered Dreams

by Irene Spencer

Subtitled "My Life as a Polygamist's Wife," this memoir is by and about the second of the ten wives of Verlan LeBaron, brother of the infamous polygamist Ervil LeBaron and niece of yet another polygamist leader, Rulon C. Allred. I read this book shortly after listening to The 19th Wife, partly because there was a chance I might be getting Spencer's other memoir, Cult Insanity, which is about her brother-in-law Ervil, to review.

Irene Spencer grew up in a fourth-generation polygamist family - her mother was the second of four wives and Irene was the 13th of 31 children. Her mother escaped polygamy and Irene fell in love with and wanted to marry a "nonbeliever." Pressure from other family members and her own religious beliefs led to her marrying her half-sister's husband Verlan when she was 16 years old.

Everything goes downhill from this marriage, performed secretly on the Mormon temple grounds in Salt Lake City, as today's mainstream Mormons don't practice polygamy. Her half-sister was present, as the previous wives have to agree to the husband's later marriage and one of them is expected to participate in the ceremony! It was July 1953, and later that month, a polygamous compound in Arizona was raided, so Verlan moved his two wives to the LeBaron family settlement in Mexico.

Irene spends most of the next 28 years in abject poverty, moving 25 times mostly in rural Mexico and even Nicaragua, and giving birth to 13 children in 19 years. Meanwhile, her husband goes on to marry eight more women (with Irene "giving" four of them in marriage) and father 58 children in all before his death in an auto wreck in 1981 at age 51 (which both Irene and Verlan apparently foresaw in dreams).

Irene is surprisingly equanimous about the poverty and many of the other hardships she endures, justifying them as part of the suffering she must undergo to be a "goddess" in the afterlife. She is extremely jealous of the time Verlan spends with any of his other wives, however, and obviously sexually frustrated. I had a hard time understanding how she could continue to love a man who apparently thought so little of her. I suspect she'd be married to him to this day if it hadn't been for his early death. The book could have done with some heavy editing to shorten its nearly 400 pages.

Nevertheless, this book provided some insight into how and why women get stuck in these kinds of relationships. Indeed, on her own website, Irene admits that three of her children (I'm hoping all sons and no daughters) are in polygamous relationships today. She and her children lived a life so isolated that one can see why some of the children got caught up in this lifestyle.

Interestingly, one of Irene's "sister-wives," Susan Ray Schmidt, has also written a memoir, called His Favorite Wife (which Irene agrees she was). More about Susan here, more about Irene here, and more about both of them here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

115 (2009 #40). Criss Cross

by Lynne Rae Perkins,
read by Danielle Ferland

I LOVED this 2006 Newbery winner! Author Lynne Rae Perkins is only a year older than I am, and this book mirrors her (and my) adolescence. Described in a discussion guide as “a companion novel to the award-winning All Alone in the Universe, Debbie is fourteen...;” she, the main character, is also described as being 13 and the year being 1969 in All Alone, so Criss Cross must be set in 1970. ”Words of Love,” the Mamas and the Papas song that Hector is listening to on pages 105-106 of the hardbound edition, came out in November 1966, and would still be getting airplay in 1970. However, much of what happens in the book has that timeless quality that makes it possible for anyone to relate to it.

The title comes from a fictional music and comedy radio show Debbie and her friends Lenny, Hector, Patty, and Phil listen to on Saturdays. It’s also reflective of the criss-crossing (but not always intersecting) activities and relationships of the characters in the book. I loved the illustration near the title page of “the spectrum of connectedness,” showing dots for “people move back and forth in this area like molecules in steam,” the area being that between 0% and 100% connectedness, both of which say “no one is here—no one.”

The book is very humorous, in a subtle way. Chapter 8, called “Easy Basin Wrench, or Debbie Has a Mechanical Moment, Too,” is one of my favorites, with Debbie reading aloud to her father the instructions for a basin wrench, which were obviously not originally written in English. There’s a funny scene in chapter 16 where Debbie plays one of those games with the letters in the names of herself and the jock she has a crush on, trying to see what permutations bring up the result (married!) she’s looking for. There’s even a clever reference to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (quoted from at the beginning of the book), with an illustration of Debbie’s crush as a donkey (page 140 in the hardbound edition).

I thought the writing was wonderful, conjuring up images and memories based on the words alone. This book is definitely character-driven rather than plot-driven, and that may make it hard for many of today’s vampire-loving teens to relate to it. Despite interesting male characters, I see this book appealing more to introspective girls, ages 14 and up.

I loved Broadway actress Danielle Ferland’s reading of this book, and I can’t understand why others have disliked it so much. I felt she used great expression in the reading and in coming up with some variations in voices for the characters, often sounding like a sarcastic or bored or self-conscious teen herself. I had no trouble following the haiku (which I thought was wonderful!) in chapter 14, nor the conversation between Debbie and Patty in chapter 10 (where, I note in the print version, the author quits using initials to designate who is speaking partway through the conversation – thereby, in my opinion, emphasizing the universality of such “girl-talk.”). However, the numerous illustrations (black-and-white photographs, pen-and-ink drawings, or a mixture of those media) in the print versions add a LOT to this book, probably making it more accessible to the target audience.

According to a January 24, 2006, report on NPR, Criss Cross was praised by the Newbery Committee chair as "an orderly, innovative, and risk-taking book in which nothing happens and everything happens." In a USA Today article the day before, Perkins said she “was inspired by her own adolescence as a ‘late bloomer’ who needed reassurance that ‘life doesn't always happen like it does in movies and books, but that's OK.’"

[A variation of this review appears on The Newbery Project.]

Saturday, September 12, 2009

114 (2009 #39). Gathering Blue

by Lois Lowry,
read by Katherine Borowitz

Another dystopian novel for ages 10 and up, this one is set in a post-“Ruin” world, where most of the people have regressed to primitive living, and children with physical flaws, like the heroine Kira, are supposed to be left out as babies for “the beasts” to claim. Kira, recently orphaned, is about to lose everything she has—including her life--to fellow villagers. Then the community’s leaders, due to her talent in embroidery, choose her to live in the one building, the Council Edifice (which, from its description, appears to have contained a church) that withstood the Ruin. She is to work on mending and adding to the decorations on the ceremonial robe worn by the "Singer" each year when performing the story of the Ruin at the village “Gathering."

In her new home, Kira meets Thomas, the carver a few years older than herself, working on the Singer’s staff, and Jo, the little girl being trained to replace the aging Singer some day. Like the similarly-aged Jonas in Lowry’s Newbery-winning The Giver, Kira, with the help of a rambunctious “tyke” named Matt, discovers the secrets of her society and makes a choice that will change her life, and perhaps those of the villagers.

This book has some messages about the role of artists in society. Lowry creates an interesting culture where the number of syllables in a person’s name increases as s/he ages. The Ruin Song has some telling words (pages 170-172 in the hardbound edition):
Burn, scourged world,
Furious furnace,
Inferno impure-…

Ravaged all,
Bogo tabal
Timore toron
Totoo now gone…

...“I believe it tells the names of lost places.”
… and if you look carefully, you can identify them.

I listened to the audiobook because a previous user had said there was a problem with one of the cassette tapes (there wasn’t) and I needed to test it. Actress Katherine Borowitz reads the book quietly and calmly, matching the detached tone of the story, showing emotion only when expressing Kira’s thoughts or memories of her mother, or the rough Fen dialect of Matt.

This book is linked to The Giver, but only near the end, and it isn't necessary to have read it before reading Gathering Blue.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

113 (2009 #38). Loving Frank

by Nancy Horan

Loving Frank is probably best described as a biographical novel or fictionalized biography. It’s the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the love of world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s life. Their affair shocked the still-Victorian nation from 1907 through 1914, as both had children and were married to others (although Mamah and her husband divorced in 1911). They met in 1903 in Oak Park, Illinois (where author Nancy Horan and some of my relatives used to live), when Frank designed a house for Mamah and her then-husband.

Strong-willed and independent, a college graduate and a former librarian, Mamah spent long periods on her own in Europe, translating books on free love by feminist Ellen Key, from German and Swedish to English. She was an intellectual match for Wright, and part of the inspiration for Taliesin, his home and studio in the Wisconsin countryside where his maternal grandparents settled.

This is another work that makes me want to research the characters, settings, and events to learn even more. Nancy Horan has a great website for the book with lots of photographs of Wright’s works, a video walking tour of Oak Park, as well as period newspaper articles about him and Mamah. The interesting cover for the hardbound edition features a stained glass dining room ceiling light from one of the homes Wright designed.

I think this will make a great book for discussion - it's scheduled for November with my local book club.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

112 (2009 #37). The Eyre Affair

by Jasper Fforde

The Eyre Affair, first in author Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next literary detective series, is part science fiction, part mystery, and part alternate history (literary and otherwise), and very funny. The events in the book take place in a 1985 that’s apparently been changed (maybe by Nineteen Eighty-Four?). The Crimean War is still going on. Time travel and dodos for pets are common. People actually *care* about literature and art (as opposed to sports), with rabid Baconians, Raphaelites, and the Surrealists attacked by the Impressionists.

In this story, a criminal named Acheron Hades begins murdering characters in books, ultimately threatening Jane Eyre herself. “Literatec” Thursday Next, aided or thwarted by characters with interesting names (for example, her bosses Braxton Hicks and Victor Analogy, and a bad guy named Jack Schitt), ultimately solves the case. I loved all the literary allusions, although I'm ashamed to admit I've only read a summary of Jane Eyre, so I probably missed a lot there.

Being a Shakespeare fan, I particularly appreciated the Will-Speak machines, coin-operated kiosks available on various street corners with Shakespeare character mannequins reciting the character’s famous speeches. I want a WillSpeak - although I'd probably need more than one - so many favorite Shakespeare characters! It was also fun to read about Richard III being performed a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, with audience participation.

Another important activity in the story is “book jumping,” where characters come out of books (as in Inkheart) and people can go into them. Sometimes this is involuntary, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes an invention like that of Thursday’s Uncle Mycroft, the Prose Portal, can help someone do it. My favorite scene is the one where the bioengineered Bookworms in the Prose Portal eat omitted prepositions and dropped definitive articles, fart apostrophes and ampersands, and belch unnecessary capitalizations (pages 201 and 312 in the hardbound edition) – which affects the {written} speeches of the people around them. So funny! [The proliferation of unnecessary apostrophes of late, particularly on signs, and the misuse of its and it's drives me crazy!]

I enjoyed the book enough to want to read the next in the series, Lost in a Good Book. I picked that one up at a Friends of the Library book sale a while back, but a friend told me you really need to read this series in order. So, I was really glad when one of my online book groups picked this book to discuss! It was our selection for a humorous title.

The best fun is trying to track down all the references. For everything British that we colonists don't understand, go to this page on Fforde’s website for explanations book by book.

I think this is a book you have to read first just to enjoy Fforde's imagination. Just accept things that are written as the way things are and go on with the story. It may need a re-read to thoroughly enjoy the real story behind some of his characters and situations. I had some trouble remembering who was who with so many characters coming in and out of the story quickly. That's where Fforde's previous experience in film is apparent ... the book switched gears very much like a screenplay.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

111 (2009 #36). Unwind

by Neal Shusterman

Unwind is dystopian science fiction, about a future world where unwanted teens can be “unwound,” with their body parts salvaged for use by others. This dystopia is the result of a civil war over abortion, with the compromise being that life is sacred until age 13, but then parents (or the state, in the case of orphans) can choose unwinding for their 13- to 17-year-olds, the reasoning being that the teen doesn’t really “die” since nearly 100% of their body parts are being reused. Once a child turns 18, s/he is safe from unwinding. Connor, a troublemaker, Risa, a ward of the state, and Levi, a “tithe” (a child deliberately conceived by the parents to be unwound as part of their religion) are the three runaways trying to escape unwinding in this riveting story.

The novel makes the reader think about issues such as organ harvesting and donation, euthanasia, and abortion. Some of the scenes in the book are thought-provoking. For example, the idea of cellular memory in organ transplants leading to criminal behavior, and the “Storking Initiative,” which requires that an unwanted newborn be raised by whoever finds it on the doorstep, another result of the ban on abortion that also has unintended consequences. An unwinding is described and it’s truly horrific.

I didn’t expect to like this book, as it’s not my typical genre (I read it for an online discussion). It was much better than I thought it would be. It would generate great discussions in a classroom setting; there’s an excellent study guide on the author’s website. In an interview, Shusterman said the idea for the book “gelled when I read an article about transplant technology. One scientist said that he predicted that within our lifetimes, they will be able to use 100% of an organ donor’s body. That got me thinking — if 100% of you is alive, are you alive or not? I thought this book was a great way to ask that question, and through that question, address all these issues of medical and social ethics.” This is another book I'll be purchasing for my university's collection.

Monday, September 07, 2009

110 (2009 #35). The 19th Wife

by David Ebershoff;
read by Kimberly Farr, Rebecca Lowman, Arhur Morey, and Daniel Passer

This book intertwines the story of Ann Eliza Webb Dee Young Denning, the 19th (or 27th or 52nd, depending on how you count) wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, with a modern-day murder mystery set on a polygamous compound of “Firsts,” Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS), in Utah. The historical fiction part of the book is loosely based on Ann Eliza’s 1876 memoir, Wife No. 19 (available online), with a number of liberties taken with the real story. Ann Eliza actually sued Brigham Young for divorce and went around the country speaking about her life in polygamy, contributing indirectly to its eventual demise in the official Mormon church.

I found the parts of the book pertaining to Ann Eliza’s story the most interesting. They are presented in the form of supposed excerpts from her memoir, her father’s autobiography, Latter Day Saints (LDS) church archives, letters by her son and one brother, contemporary newspaper articles and interviews, even her mother’s, another brother’s, and Brigham Young’s diaries, and research by Ann Eliza’s descendent, Kelly Dee, supposedly a student at Brigham Young University working on her master’s thesis. In an endnote, author David Ebershoff makes it clear that “Although I am the author of these, they are fictional representations of what it’s like to spend time in the archives and online researching Ann Eliza Young, Brigham, and early LDS history. Many are inspired by an actual text or a kind of text.” Ann Eliza’s story is so fascinating that I was compelled to do research of my own to find out what was real and what was not in Ebershoff’s fiction.

The mystery centers around Jordan Scott, a 20 year old gay kicked out of the Firsts at age 14 (more because it was common to do so with the excess of boys in polygamous societies, as he hadn’t come out at that point). His mother is the 19th wife of a First, Jordan’s father, and she’s been accused of killing him. Jordan believes she is innocent and sets out to prove it. On his website, Ebershoff relates an incident while doing research for the book that ends up happening to Jordan too.

Ebershoff pulls together the two stories with Kelly, who meets and aids Jordan at one point. This modern-day story is less interesting than Ann Eliza’s tale, yet it provides insight into recent events involving FLDS.

I found it interesting that one of Ann Eliza’s brothers is implied to be the first leader and “Prophet” of the Firsts, and that no one knows what happened to Ann Eliza after her second memoir was published in 1908. The latter point is true and I think she was probably murdered by Firsts for resuming her fight against polygamy.

The unabridged audio version of this book was excellent. It employed four narrators, a young male for Jordan, a young female for Kelly, an older female for Ann Eliza, and an older male for most of the other voices in the book (Ann Eliza’s father, brother, son, Brigham Young, etc.). This made it quite easy to follow the weaving storylines.

An interesting interview with Ebershoff is here.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

109 (2009 #34). The Pact

by Jodi Picoult

The Dallas Morning News says, “Picoult has carved her own niche with her novels – one part romance, one part courtroom thriller, two parts social commentary,” and The Pact certainly fits. There are many similarities between this book and the other two of Picoult's that I've read, My Sister's Keeper and especially Nineteen Minutes. In the latter, the two main teenage characters (Peter and Josie) have also been friends nearly from birth like Chris and Emily, as have their mothers (Lacey and Alex respectively), and the mothers' friendship is negatively affected as is Gus' and Melanie's. Peter, like Chris, is also accused of murder. Jordan McAfee is the defense lawyer in both. And, in both, the book jumps back and forth between present and past.

The “pact” refers to the supposed botched suicide pact that is Chris’ defense when he is charged with murdering Emily. Trouble is, Chris really did shoot the depressed and (unknown to him) pregnant Emily, at her request. The reader learns this early on. The book is really more about the characters: the progression (through flashback) of Chris and Emily’s relationship from childhood friendship to sex, the dissolution of the parents’ friendships after Emily’s death, and Chris’ growing awareness of himself and that Emily was not all that he thought she was.

The weakest character is Emily. Her molestation in a men’s restroom at age nine is downplayed, both by Picoult and by Emily herself, but it’s never very clear why this teenager wanted to kill herself and take her supposed best friend with her. As one gets to know her mother, Melanie, one can see why Emily, her only child, did not confide in her. I really disliked Melanie. Probably what cemented it for me was the way she purposely misdirected the patrons at her library (pages 75-76) - being a librarian, that REALLY offended me.

This book did generate some good discussion in an online group, about whether or not one can be too close to a non-relative, parental and societal expectations of relationships, and the making and breaking of friendships.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

108 (2009 #33). Impossible

by Nancy Werlin

Inspired by the song “Scarborough Fair,” made famous by Simon and Garfunkel in the late 1960s, Impossible is really an imaginative retelling of the Scottish folk ballad “The Elfin Knight” it is based on. A pleasing blend of fantasy, romance, and suspense, the book is about 17-year-old Lucy Scarborough, who is being raised by loving foster parents after her own teenage mother, Miranda, becomes mentally ill and homeless shortly after Lucy’s birth. Miranda still seeks out Lucy, singing a version of the ballad as a warning, but Lucy is only embarrassed by her.

Lucy is raped by her shy first date at the senior prom, who seems to be possessed and immediately afterward wrecks his car and dies. It’s pretty clear to the reader that Padraig Seeley, the enigmatic and ingratiating new social worker in her foster mother’s office, is the evil being behind this. Lucy becomes pregnant and soon afterward rediscovers her mother’s diary and a long-hidden letter of warning from her. It turns out the Scarborough girls have been cursed for generations by the evil Elfin Knight (guess who?), who impregnates them and causes them to go mad if they cannot perform three impossible tasks in the ballad before their daughters are born – and then the daughter undergoes the same curse. Lucy’s resilience, and the love, backing, and creativity of her family and her “true love,” the boy next door, lead to a gripping climax.

While I would have liked to see more development of the solving of the three tasks as well as the reality behind the romance (the loyalty of the boy next door is a little too convenient), I thought this was a wonderful book. The rape, teen pregnancy, and teen marriage are all handled gracefully and provide great topics for discussion, particularly in a mother-daughter book group. The message about trusting in oneself and in the love and support of family and friends to help overcome even “impossible” situations is the theme of the book. I’d recommend it to high school age and up, and I plan to purchase the title for my library’s YA collection.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

107 (2009 #32). A Silent Ocean Away

by DeVa Gantt

This book is the first in a trilogy by sisters Deb and Val Gantt (hence DeVa). I won a dozen copies of this book in a promotion from Reading Group Guides, and gave them out to the regulars at my local book club's December book-gift exchange. Later, one member who, like me, had not yet read the book, suggested putting it on our reading list later in the year "since so many of us had it," but one of our leaders, who HAD read the book right away, said no. I agree with her on why.

While the story is very interesting, NOTHING gets resolved in this book. Nothing!! Apparently one is going to need to read all three books (with the third still to be released in late November) before anything is settled. Frankly, the book and story is just not good enough to wait for that (or spend that kind of money), in my opinion.

The book is set in the 1830's, beginning in Richmond, Virginia with heroine Charmaine Ryan, an 18-year-old whose mother was recently beaten to death by her alcoholic father. Employed as a companion to kind empty-nester Loretta Harrington, the latter suggests a change of scenery - applying for a position as a governess on a Caribbean island owned by the wealthy Duvoisin family, for whom Loretta's brother-in-law is an overseer.

From that point on we have a number of the typical characters of a historical romance: the young second wife, the illegitimate son, the black sheep heir, and so on. Our heroine must prove her worthiness as governess, deal with squabbling members and a death in the family, and of course the lust of the two half-brothers.

I enjoyed the descriptions of settings (particularly on the islands of Les Charmantes, "the charming ones") and the character development, but the plot and its lack of any resolutions sucked. I can't recommend it for that reason.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

106 (2009 #31). Flower Net

by Lisa See

My local book club read this book because we’d so enjoyed author Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Published eight years earlier in 1997 as See’s first novel and second book over all, Flower Net is the first of what have come to be called “Red Princess” mystery-thrillers. All three books feature Chinese Ministry of Public Security inspector Liu Hulan and American attorney David Stark.

The story takes place in the first couple months of 1997, beginning with the discovery of the bodies of the American ambassador’s son in Beijing and the son (a “Red Prince”) of a wealthy Chinese businessman in a boat adrift with illegal immigrants off the coast of Los Angeles. Stark and Liu are paired up to investigate the murders and associated crimes including smuggling of bear bile, a traditional Chinese medicinal. It’s a pairing that brings the two former lovers (when she was working for an American law firm) back together. David has always carried a torch for Hulan, and can’t understand why she left him so unexpectedly years before.

See does a wonderful job with her descriptions of places and life in China and her deft weaving in of Chinese history. Hulan is a fascinating character, who was named by her parents for a Chinese teenager who died in the revolution in 1947. The plot is intriguing but invites one to suspend belief, as I don’t think it’s very realistic that the Communist Chinese of that era would be so cooperative with the American government.

The book gets its title from a statement by Hulan on page 152 of the hardbound edition, when asked by David what they should do next:
”In China what I would do is cast a flower net....This method of fishing goes back many centuries. The flower net is a round, hand-woven net with weights on the edges. The fisherman throws it out into the air, where it opens like a flower, settles on the surface of the water, sinks to the dark depths, and traps everything within its circumference.,,,We’ll follow the money, but we’ll also look at everything that comes in contact with our net.”

In an interview with Ron Hogan in 1996, See said she got the idea for the book through her husband, Dick"
"a lawyer who represents many foreign governments, including China. We had been traveling there periodically for his cases. One time, we were there for a case he was working on for the Bank of China, which is like the U.S. Treasury but is also their bank. A man had stolen fifty million dollars from the Bank of China, and they hired Dick to find him and the money.

He was working not only with the Bank of China, but with people in the Ministry of Public Security, the people responsible for Tiananmen, and occasionally I'd have the weird experience of being out at dinner or in karaoke bars with these people. Two things struck me. One was the usual notion of the banality of evil, and the other was that I had access to material that almost nobody else had, watching these people and hearing about their internal operations. And I realized there was a great book in those two ideas."

The book has some surprises at the end that make me want to read the next two books in the series, The Interior and Dragon Bones, to learn more (from See’s extensive research) about China during this era, and what happens to David and Hulan.

Monday, July 27, 2009

105 (2009 #30). The Shortest Distance Between Two Women

by Kris Radish

Emma, 43 and single, is the youngest of four daughters, three of whom live, along with their long-widowed mother, in a small-town Charleston suburb. She’s having all kinds of angst because in the midst of preparing for the annual big-deal family reunion, she finds a message on her answering machine from a long-ago lover (previously a sister’s boyfriend). This usually-reliable woman can’t seem to do anything about it, or about anything else going on around her.

I was frustrated with this book for a number of reasons. First, what is it with all these newer authors writing almost exclusively in the present tense? It gives the book a feeling of edginess it doesn’t need or merit. Secondly, the writing is very poor, often with very long sentences with too many phrases or clauses running the length of a paragraph, such as this one from page 134*:

There were the ridiculous humiliations of childhood that everyone suffers—teasing on the playground; not being part of whatever group was cool that week; not realizing that you are supposed to pant after boys when several girls are already panting; a discussion about sex during a sleepover that totally mystifies you because you have no clue what your girlfriends are talking about; thinking that you have always heard a different drummer but have never been quite able to find the right set of sticks to make sure the music does not stop; the random notion that something was always going on inside the family that you did not know about and that they did not think you were smart or old enough to know about; that feeling of “maybe I should too” when someone leaves a job, changes college majors, drops out or suddenly disappears; lost loves; the simple notion that no one you are related to will ever consider you an adult; the more complex notion that you may never really want to be an adult; expectations unmet; and this tremendous, and always growing, conviction that someone is always going to need you and you will be busy with the needing so you will never find the correct drumsticks anyway.


Between Emma’s almost nonstop ruminating (all talk/thought, little action) and her weird habit of lying down in her garden and “caressing her plants,” (page 38), I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for this character, nor for her dysfunctional sisters. The mother, Marty, was more interesting, finding love (and apparently great sex) again at age 78 after many years alone. Emma’s niece, the philosophical punk Stephanie/Stephie, and her beauty pageant subplot were also pretty unrealistic.

In particular, the ending was disappointing. Author Kris Radish covers the family reunion/Marty’s wedding and the beauty pageant, but leaves dangling the subplots on the long-ago lover and an upcoming intervention with the alcoholic oldest sister (mother of the niece and whose husband has an affair). Reading the resolutions to these would have been far more interesting than the reunion or the pageant. I can’t really recommend this book, even as a beach read.

[*A caveat though – this was an advance reading copy, so I can only hope such a scramble of syntax was corrected before the book went to press.]

Saturday, July 25, 2009

104 (2009 #29). Tender Graces

by Kathryn Magendie

My review copy was a spiral bound "un-copyedited manuscript," and it was another case of don't judge a book by its cover! This book was much better than I thought it would be.

The characterizations and descriptions of setting are excellent. I could really relate to the main character, Virginia Kate, as it was clear from the chapter headings and descriptive details that we were born about the same year. The author's poetic images of the West Virginia and Louisiana settings really made this reader feel as if she was there.

Virginia Kate is the middle of three children of dysfunctional parents from dysfunctional families. Her mama's*-boy father quotes Shakespeare, womanizes, and drinks too much. Her narcissistic mother had an abusive dad and drinks even more. Yet even these characters had other sides that were loving and appealing, as did Rebekha, the stepmother you initially want to hate but grow to love as Virginia Kate did. (*aka Mee Maw - and what a caricature of the overbearing mother/mother-in-law/grandmother!)

The story is told mostly in flashback/retrospect from many years later when Virginia Kate returns to her original West Virginia home just after her mother's death, after growing up in Louisiana. It's a heartbreaking story of a family breaking up one piece at a time, even though a new family grows out of it. I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for Virginia Kate's mother and some anger at the latter's conniving mother-in-law and weak husband.

The only problem I had at all with the book was the "today" chapters being written in present tense. I hope that was changed in the final published version of the book; I think it would have been better for the whole book to be written in past tense.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

103 (2009 #28). A Lucky Child

by Thomas Buergenthal

Subtitled “A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy,” this is a Holocaust memoir with a different twist. The author is now the American judge at the International Court of Justice (aka the World Court of the United Nations) in The Hague, Netherlands. He writes about the events in the book 55-60 years after they happened, looking back at his life at ages 4 to 17. The passage of time, and what Buergenthal did with his life in the interim, gives the memoir a perspective that is unique in Holocaust literature.

Thomas Buergenthal writes of the time his Jewish family spent in then-Czechoslovakia and Poland trying to stay ahead of the Nazis in late 1938 – early 1939. They finally received hard-to-get visas to travel to England – the day Hitler invades Poland. They wind up in the Jewish ghetto in Kielce and later in a couple labor camps. His Polish father and German mother—-and Thomas--often use their wits to escape dangerous situations.

In July 1944, when Thomas is ten, his family is sent to Auschwitz. It was unusual for children not to be killed immediately upon arrival there, but as Thomas arrives with others from the labor camp, it is assumed he can work. He and his father are separated from his mother upon arrival, and Thomas from his father a few months later. Thomas survives the Auschwitz Death Transport, marching for three days in freezing temperatures 70 kilometers, where he was herded into an open train car for the ride to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Thomas again survives until the liberation, becomes a mascot of the Polish Army, spends some time in a Polish orphanage, and is finally reunited with his mother in Germany 18 months after the end of the war. The story ends with Thomas emigrating to the United States at the age of 17.

The book is enhanced by a two-page map showing all the locations in the story, as well as numerous black-and-white photographs of the author, his parents, and his maternal grandparents (who also died in the Holocaust), and other memorabilia. That the photographs even exist is an example of individual humanity given in the book. Thomas’ grandparents left a suitcase with a neighbor in Germany when they were deported. “'We were always afraid that the Nazis would find it and punish us, but we promised your parents we’d hide it, and we did.’” For Thomas’ mother, this suitcase was “a treasure trove. All her family pictures, including photos of her parents, my father, and me, had been lost in the camps. Erased with the destruction of these pictures, it seemed to her, was proof that her family had ever existed.” (page 156)

By looking back at these events from so many years later, Buergenthal is able both to describe them dispassionately, through the filter of his life experiences, and tie his career and observations about human rights back to these events in his childhood. For this reason, I think this Holocaust memoir would be especially valuable for teens and young adults to read, and I plan to add my reviewer copy (a hardbound final edition) to my university’s library.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

102 (2009 #27). The Friday Night Knitting Club

by Kate Jacobs
read by Carrington MacDuffie

This was somewhat predictable and unsatisfying chick lit. It’s the stories of a group of seven women who are part of a loosely-organized “Friday Night Knitting Club” that meets at Walker and Daughter, a yarn store operated by single mom Georgia Walker. Unfortunately, following so many characters proves to be a little too much for the 360-page novel, and some of them are underdeveloped. The book does come together fairly well by the time of its tearjerker ending, though. Still, for light reading, I would recommend this, and the characters intrigued me enough that I would consider the sequel the next time I need a beach read. I’m not a knitter, but there’s really not that much knitting in this book – just little sections interspersing chapters describing various knitting techniques and stitches.

I listened to this audiobook (read by Carrington MacDuffie, whose silky alto is quite good) right around my first trip to New York City. For me the best part of the book was seeing some of the places and areas mentioned in it. The fictional Walker and Daughter yarn store is at Broadway and 77th on the Upper West Side; we stayed at the lovely Lucerne Hotel one block off Broadway at 79th and Amsterdam. One character lives in the historic San Remo between 74th and 75th on Central Park West, just a few blocks away. Canadian author Kate Jacobs spent a decade living and working in New York City, and it shows.

Friday, July 17, 2009

101 (2009 #26). Couldn't Keep It To Myself

by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution

Subtitled "Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters,” Wally Lamb listed as main author of this book is misleading. Bestselling author Lamb led a rehabilitative writer’s workshop at this maximum security women’s prison in Connecticut, and the book is a compilation of essays by nine inmates from there that Lamb was able to get published. There are also essays by Lamb, his co-teacher in the workshop, and Lamb’s cousin who served time in a Kentucky prison.

The essays are sad but somewhat predictable – women with abusive fathers, husbands, or other loved ones, who wind up committing a crime. This was the selection for my local book club last month, and I found reading it to be rather depressing.

There’s been some interesting controversy since the book was published in 2003. Apparently the state of Connecticut has a law that “allows the state to recover room and board from any inmate who comes into money while he or she is in prison -- or after they leave it, whether through inheritance, lottery winnings, proceeds from their crimes or financial windfall.” Not a bad law, in my opinion, but some felt it was initially being applied to these women because of criticisms of the prison system in their essays. The required payback would far exceed any royalties they would receive from the book -- and, in the case of one of the women who won the PEN First Amendment Award in 2004, her $25,000 prize. The state was understandably upset when the award was announced as Lamb did not bother to inform them he’d nominated the writer. Naturally all the bad publicity that resulted led to a settlement where each of the prisoners paid $500 out of their $5600 advance to the state, with the money going back into the writing program.

To me the front cover art is the most interesting thing about the book. According to Lamb’s “Notes to the Reader” (page xi), it “is an assemblage made by York School students who participated in an extension course in art appreciation,” which probably explains the Mona Lisa-like image. What’s not so clear is why Lamb’s name is the most prominent thing on the cover. It makes me wonder how well the book would have sold without it – and in my case, turns me off enough not to read any of Lamb’s other work.

Monday, July 13, 2009

100 (2009 #25). Listen to the Wind

by Greg Mortenson and Susan L. Roth

My book club will be reading Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea later this year, so this children's version of the story caught my eye. Even if the subtitle (The Story of Dr. Greg & Three Cups of Tea) hadn't, the cover artwork would have.

Susan Roth has created stunning, colorful, three-dimensional, highly textural collages for this book's illustrations. The head scarves (made of fabric or textured papers) of the Pakistani girls and women look as though they are actually wrapped around the heads. Paper fingers are bent and look as though they are actually holding objects. Roth includes an informative artist's note at the end of the book, explaining her inspiration and how she created the collages and base papers.

The story, of Greg Mortenson's follow-though on a promise to build a school in a remote village after the people there helped him recover after a failed mountain climb in the area, is inspiring. A scrapbook with actual photographs of the villagers and the school at the end of the book shows children the story is true.

I'd love to know more about Julia Bergman, the librarian who helped stock the shelves in the schools. I'm looking forward to learning more about her when I read the book that inspired this picture book version.

The artwork in Listen to the Wind will encourage children to create their own collages, and the story will prompt them to consider ways in which one person's actions can make such a difference. I will definitely be purchasing this book for the curriculum collection of my university's library.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

99 (2009 #24). The Lace Reader

by Brunonia Barry
performed by Alyssa Bresnahan

This was an interesting book. Set in Salem, Massachusetts, it’s the story of Towner (aka Sophya) Whitney, who has returned to her hometown when her great aunt Eva goes missing. Towner narrates part of the book, and her fourth and fifth sentences are “Never believe me. I lie all the time.” Towner has been in a mental institution and admits (on page 52) to having lost some of both short-term and long-term memory due to shock therapy. All these should be clues about the book’s ending, but they’re easy to miss.

Excerpts of a so-called “Lace Reader’s Guide” by Eva introduce the chapters narrated by Towner. The art of reading lace to tell fortunes is completely made up by author Brunonia Barry, but apparently the present-day witches in Salem have taken up the practice!

Speaking of witches, I LOVED the character of Ann Chase, a phrenologist and head of the local witches. Towner says, “Death isn’t the same for the witches, Eva told me once; she said it was because they don’t attach the prospect of eternal damnation to it.” Ann comes to the rescue of my other favorite character, local cop John Rafferty (part of the story is told from his third person limited viewpoint – oh, and he falls in love with Towner and she with him). Rafferty is confronting the local evangelical group, the “Calvinists” (more on them in a bit), and Ann scares them off simply by chanting a line from Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin! She later asks, “what kind of weak, lily-livered god are they worshiping if they’re afraid of a few witches?”

Indeed. The "Calvinists" are so named because of their leader, Calvin “Cal” Boynton, probably the most evil antagonist (suspected in Eva’s death and in the disappearance of one of his young female followers he impregnated) I’ve run across in fiction in some time. Formerly a yacht racer, a drunk, and married to Towner’s Aunt Emma, he beats the latter so badly she winds up blind and brain-damaged. After the assault he steals a boat, runs it aground, and is not found until 48 hours later, claiming to have seen God and been redeemed, and shortly afterward starts his “church.” Barry’s description of these zealots through the thoughts of Rafferty, “with all his lapsed-Catholic guilt,” could be applied to a lot of so-called fundamentalists:
In this moment he understood the draw of redemption. He understood why people wanted to be born again. Accept Jesus and you get a free ticket to heaven. No matter what you did in the past or would do in the future. When you were saved, you were saved. No penance. No Hail Marys, no moral inventories, no ninth-step amends. The Calvinists preached fire and brimstone, but only to the unsaved: the Catholics, the Jews, the Wiccans. The insiders were protected. A few indulgences and some tithing bought you an insurance policy. Who the hell wouldn’t want to join a religion like that?” (page 152)

Barry is a resident of Salem (her descriptions are wonderful) and this was her first novel. It has an interesting history, originally self-published and promoted through book clubs. Experienced narrator Alyssa Bresnahan’s reading is choppy, but then so is the text, and she does a good job expressing Towner’s conflicting emotions. At times confounding, with a somewhat surprising ending, this book is one I’ll re-read to look for more clues in the mystery.

Monday, May 25, 2009

98 (2009 #23). Every Boat Turns South

by J. P. White

I received an advance copy of this yet-to-be-published book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It's the tale of 30-year-old Matt Younger, who has returned to his parents' home in Florida after an adventure in the Caribbean, just in time to tell his dying father his story.

The main tale, of Matt's harrowing adventures at sea and in the Turks and Caicos and the Dominican Republic, was intriguing. Some of the plot twists caught me by surprise. The secondary family-trouble tale, with his father's slow death as background, was not so interesting, but became important as it tied to the main tale by the end with an interesting twist.

I had two problems with this book. First-time author J. P. White writes lovely prose; his background as a poet is evident with his copious use of similes and metaphors. I've been sailing and to the Caribbean, and his writing made me feel I was there again. At times, however, there is too much description, and it draws attention from the plot.

I also had difficulty with both narrative lines being told in first person present tense. I think it would have been easier to make the shifts between the plot threads if the sailing adventure story had been told in past tense, as befits telling a tale to one's dying father. Using past tense for the main story might also have allowed Matt to do a little more reflecting on his actions and develop his character a little more.

Every Boat Turns South is a good - but not great - first novel, enough to make me interested in reading a future work by J. P. White.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

97 (2009 #22). "The Good War"

by Studs Terkel

Subtitled "An Oral History of World War Two," this was the selection of my local book club this month. I've always meant to read one of Terkel's books, because oral history fascinates me. I only wish the book selected had been Terkel's Hard Times - partly because the Great Depression would have been a more relevant topic today, and partly because it was shorter - 462 pages instead of 589. If my husband hadn't been in the hospital with a duodenal ulcer, I probably would not have finished the book in time - it was a slow read.

Terkel interviewed over 120 people for this Pulitzer Prize winner, with most of the interviews occurring in the early 1980s, about 40 years after the war. The interviews are not verbatim, as can be determined by comparing the text to the recordings available at this Chicago History Museum web site. Terkel edited the interviews, deleting and rearranging material, so one has to wonder if he sometimes did so to emphasize his own left-wing political views. It's quite a contrast to Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation. But then, one has to wonder if Brokaw's interviews were also edited, and if both authors cherry-picked their interviewees to present the message the authors wanted to give.

Nevertheless, "The Good War" is very interesting. Although there are interviews with some famous people - among them former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, Chicago columnist Mike Royko, and cartoonists Milt Caniff and Bill Mauldin - most of the interviewees are common folk, including a few from Russia, Japan, and Germany. Some soldiers' stories are told (although only two from top brass - an admiral and a general), but the women and men back home are also included. By his choice of interviewees, Terkel is not afraid to point out some of the dark side of "the good war, " such as discrimination against blacks and the emergence of the Cold War.

The title of the book is supposed to be inside quotation marks. In a short foreword note, Terkel says, "The title of this a phrase that has been frequently voiced by men generation, to distinguish that war [WW2] from other wars, declared and undeclared. Quotation marks have been added, not as a matter of caprice or editorial comment, but simply because the adjective 'good' mated to the noun 'war' is so incongruous." Many of the interviewees, although they recognized the need to fight in World War Two, express regret about lives lost and city damage in bombings, and concern about the Vietnam War.

My library has a vinyl recording of the original tapes on which Hard Times was based - I'll have to listen to that. I wish all of Terkel's interviews were readily available to listen to - I would love to hear the interviewees' original, unedited responses to Terkel's questions.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

96 (2009 #21). A Flickering Light

by Jane Kirkpatrick

I hesitated before requesting this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The premise of the book – the story of a 15-year-old female photographer’s assistant in 1907 Winona, Minnesota, based on the life of the author’s grandmother – was intriguing. My husband is an excellent photographer; I consider myself a pretty good one, and we have everything we need (except the energy!) to set up a darkroom in our laundry room. But the book was published by a self-described “evangelical Christian” press, so I was a bit leery. I figured the lack of Christian fiction in my LibraryThing account would probably mean I wouldn’t get the book anyway. I guess the prevalence of historical fiction and biographical novels tipped LibraryThing’s algorithm my way.

On the bright side, I am pleased to report that the story does not push Christian themes on its readers. The main character, Jessie Gaebele, and her family are definitely conservative Christians – they don’t dance or drink or want to associate with people who do, for example. Jessie fights her attraction to her married boss, the older photographer FJ Bauer. Yet Jessie is spunky enough to pursue a profession at a time when few women did, in a field even fewer females occupied. She often “slants truth” with lies of omission, when she knows her thoughts or actions will disappoint her parents.

Jessie, her family, the Bauers, and a number of other characters are based on real people. The author includes a map of Winona from the early 1900s and locates the homes and businesses of these real people on it. Even better, the book includes five photographs taken of or by the real Jessie, from her glass negatives. According to the author’s blog, “My grandmother is the narrator for these photographs but the rest of the story is told in third person through her eyes, her employer's eyes and the eyes of his wife.”

The only complaint I have about the book, and the reason I only give it 4.5 stars, is that there could have been more information about photographic methods and processes of the era. For example, Bauer suffers from recurring mercury poisoning, which is never really explained. In those days, apparently mercuric chloride (formerly called corrosive sublimate, perchloride, or bichloride of mercury) was used as a bleaching agent to increase density or contrast (called intensification) in negatives, according to a reprint of the 1911 edition of Cassell's Cyclopaedia of Photography.

All in all, I really liked this book. I didn’t feel like the author or her characters were trying to be preachy or shove their faith down my throat. In an interview, the author says “there is a sequel to A Flickering Light called An Absence so Great that will be out next April and will finish my grandmother’s story as far as I decided to take it.” In her blog, she says this book will again include actual photographs by/of Jessie.

A Flickering Light was well-written and fascinating. It can be enjoyed by fans of Christian and inspirational fiction as well as fans of historical fiction such as myself. I look forward to the sequel (even though, based on some hints in this book and a little research, I think I know some of what happens).

Saturday, April 25, 2009

95 (2009 #20). Overtreated

by Shannon Brownlee

Subtitled, "Why Too Much Medicine is Making Us Sicker and Poorer," I read this book on the recommendation of a friend who is a librarian and has a medical background as well. My husband's right carotid artery is 70% blocked, and the doctors (internist, cardiologist, and vascular surgeon) all recommend an endarterectomy. However, the surgery is not without risks, and 70% falls right in that borderline area where, if asymptomatic (for strokes and TIAs), you could go either way. This book specifically mentions this procedure (on pages 204-205), which was why she suggested I read it.

It's an eye-opener. Author Shannon Brownlee has a master's degree in biology and writes on medical and health care topics. On page 9, Brownlee says her book "is an exploration of three simple questions. What drives unnecessary health care? Why should we worry about it? And once we understand how pervasive it is in American medicine, how can we use that knowledge to create a better system?"

Brownlee shows how doctors, hospitals, and drug and device manufacturers are rewarded (mostly by health insurance systems) for how much care they deliver rather than how effective it is. Coupled with most Americans' tendency to want SOME kind of treatment when they go to a doctor, either medication or tests, even when unneeded, Brownlee shows how costs are driven up while quality of care usually does not improve.

Brownlee uses numerous (often scary) examples throughout the book to illustrate her points, and concludes with a chapter that recommends some changes in current health care practices - but not socialized medicine. She gives the Veterans Administration hospitals as an example of a system to model - which surprised me, simply because I did not know they were that good. She also recommends electronic medical records, something that I am surprised is so slow to be adopted in the medical field.

The book is easy to read and understand - EXCEPT for the horrible end notes! She doesn't use standard footnotes, nor any numbering at all in her end notes, and it is difficult to find the sources for some of her statements. And some of those you can find don't make sense. For example, when she states on page 204 that "vascular surgeons performed about eighty-eight thousand unnecessary carotid endarterectomies in 2002, thereby causing an unknown number of strokes," the end note references personal communication with a British neurologist, and a published study that compares the outcomes of endarterectomies with another procedure, stenting. It's not at all clear what, if anything, supports her 88,000 figure - and that, in my opinion, is the biggest weakness of this book. I would certainly recommend reading it, but keep this weakness in mind.