30 December 2008

The Magician's Book; Laura Miller

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ms. Miller's response to Narnia is, on the one hand, a great re-experiencing of the Chronicles and the world that Jack built. On the other, it's an attempt to deflate the Christian aspects of this "supposal" of Lewis.

Much of the book I agreed with and enjoyed, particularly when she introduced other readers' comments and reactions to the Chronicles. The deft interweaving of Jack's biography, the times in which he wrote, the Inklings and the what and who of the books is impressive. I also very much liked how she handled the nature of the relationships between Lewis and Tolkien and Lewis and Mrs. Moore.

And yet...

Relying on A.N. Wilson's biography while leaving other, better versions out is problematic. Why? Granted, almost all biographers have an ax to grind, but in this case a balance could have been struck between Wilson and, for example, George Sayer. Obviously, the biographer's views on his relationship with Joy Gresham, Mrs. Moore and Christianity will ultimately color what's written, so (I think) relying only on one version sends signals about what you believe.

The Susan Question was dealt with, but not totally satisfactorily. My reading has always been that for now, Susan won't be joining the rest in the Narnia-further-up-and-farther-inside-Narnia. But there is a promise of her getting there, if she chooses. I don't see Lewis' attitude towards Susan as misogynistic, I see it as him saying "pay attention to all this nonsense, trivial stuff and you miss the really important things."

But where this book falls down for me is her treatment of Puddleglum. His expression of faith is, I thought, mocked and, well, that just won't do.

One amusing bit: there's an assumption that older (adult) readers will get the symbolism and the dragon-sneaking because they're older and more aware and exposed, etc. Not so true: my father read them in the 70s and was shocked (shocked!) when I picked up on "something extra" (he was in his mid-30s, I was about 10).

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27 December 2008

Lilley & Chase; Tim Waterstone

Lilly and Chase Lilly and Chase by Tim Waterstone

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars

An Aga-saga written by a man... not quite sure what to think of this! It's as good as any of Joanna Trollope's work, one of those quietish reads where there's some sturm-und-drang but not a whole lot of anything.

The prevailing sense of loss and betrayal that the main characters experience does give one pause, particularly Sam's life being divided between those that are pure and those that betray. On the whole, this world seemed very black-and-white, with few shades of grey.

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26 December 2008

Pretty Girl in Crimson Rose (8); Sandy Balfour

Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose (8) Pretty Girl In Crimson Rose by Sandy Balfour

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hate books that make me feel stupid. Not that this does, exactly, but it comes close.

Why?

Because I've never been able to do one of those cryptic crosswords. I can, and have, done the NYTimes crosswords (a moment's bragging: several I've done the Sunday in ink in less than an hour). But cryptics? Not a chance.

What the author here suggests is that might be in part because I don't understand the common language of the puzzle, or the setter. Now, in this memoir/instruction manual, he's talking mainly about the British cryptics but it does hold for American ones. If you don't understand the layers, or the hidden clues to it being an anagram, a "& lit" or a "double lit", you're lost.

Consider me lost. In admiration, of course, for anyone that can do them.

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When Nietzsche Wept; Irvin D. Yalom

When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession by Irvin D. Yalom

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those historical fiction books that is peopled by real people in a "supposal" of what would/might have happened. In this case, it's a meeting between Josef Brauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, at a point when Nietzsche was depressed and Brauer (along with his friend "Sig" Freud) was experimenting with treatment of hysterics.

Brauer made what he thought was a breakthrough during his treatment of "Anna O.", a hysteric. The case made his name and may have spurred his friend Freud to develop psychoanalysis. Nietzsche was writing his philosophical tracts and potentially devastated by the end of a romance/affair with Lou Salome. These are the facts; the "supposal" is what would have happened had the two met.

I've not been a fan of Freud since reading Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria in college. Later I read Freud, Dora, and Vienna 1900, which gave me a better appreciation of the time in which the case took place. When Nietzche Wept is set in 1892, shortly before. The misogyny throughout the text bothered me, even though I understand the era in which the book was set.

Still, seeing how analysis might - probably? - emerged is fascinating, particularly given the book's emphasis on being a "doctor of despair" and today's angst-ridden culture.

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21 December 2008

Outside Beauty; Cynthia Kadohata

Outside Beauty Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
At first I thought this was going to be one of those books that Teaches a Lesson, but it turned out to be very sweet.

Four half-sisters, the daughters of a very beautiful mother, are used to having different fathers and different men around. Helen (mom) doesn't want to settle down, nor does she believe that men want anything more than the perfect, beautiful woman. When she is in a bad car accident, the girls are sent to live with their fathers - and it seems that Helen has no one "type" for men. The catalyst for the third act in the book is the fact that the youngest, Maddie, seems to have a really uptight, martinet father. So they run away but ultimately, they figure out a way to stay together, with one of the fathers.

I liked the relationships here, and the differences in the daughters rang true. It's also unclear as to why this was set in 1983, except that then it takes away the girls ability to communicate easily once they've been separated: no cells, no computers back then. I'm finding this happens often in books, and I'm not sure how students are reacting. There's no real reason to set it in the recent past, and the lack of modern technology seems a little jarring.

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The Willoughbys; Lois Lowry

The Willoughbys The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another Snickettesque book, albeit one with the glossary in the back instead of intermixed with the story.

The Willoughby orphan-wannabes and their parents are supposed to remind us of the "usual suspect" type parents/children: old-fashioned, ruled by references to classic books, etc.. I just don't buy it, though. Particularly misleading is the front jacket flap, which makes it seem as though those classics will actually be echoed in the book - they're not, except by direct reference. I also found Barnaby "C"'s faux-Schweizerdeutsch annoying at times, rude at others.


Still, the intended audience will enjoy the book, and isn't that what's most important?


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Bliss; Lauren Myracle

Bliss Bliss by Lauren Myracle

My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh my. Very, very different than ttyl. I didn't really like that book, but more because I thought that the conceit was ill-served by the ordinary plot.

Here, though, the plot is anything but ordinary. We're in Atlanta, in 1969. Bliss intheMeadow (yep, a real hippie last name) is living with her very stereotyped grandmother after her parents flee to Canada to avoid the draft. This is a very different world than the commune... the social work center... or any other place Bliss has lived.

She's sent to Crestview Academy, one of the "white flight" schools. There, she finds some friends and even a boyfriend. Lurking in all of this, though, is the ages-before death of Liliana, who committed suicide/was driven to her death because of her unnatural "blood power". At first, we're led to believe that Sarah Lynn is the one communing with Liliana, but later we learn it's not. By the end, Liliana (now Lurl) has won, and Bliss is almost invisible.

The juxtaposition of Mayberry and the Tate-LoBianca murders with this story are, I suppose, to help readers really get a sense of the clash of the times. Ditto the casual use of racial epithets contrasting with what teens seem to know is a better way. I was amused by the naming of the cat "Regular" (instead of "Familiar") and Liliana's former "supplicant" being Agnes Nutter (Discworld, anyone?). But overall, this book wasn't as disturbing as, say Carrie or Harvest Home, or as representative of the clash of cultures that took place in the late 60s as I'd hoped.

My guess is that placing this rather disturbing book in the past, Myracle was trying to distance it from her "texty" books but it feels like two books mushed into one.

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19 December 2008

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street; Jeanne Birdsall

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book feels like an updated version of Little Women meets All-of-a-Kind Family. I mean that in a good way - it's gentle, with Lessons Learned for all Penderwicks involved, and I think younger readers will like it (by "younger", I mean third - fifth grade).


Having said that, it's not particularly memorable. I know that the previous book, The Penderwicks won the National Book Award, and not having read that I have nothing to compare this one to. But it just feels like a "comfort" read, not something that will stay with readers for years to come.

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18 December 2008

One False Note; Gordon Korman

One False Note (The 39 Clues book 2) One False Note by Gordon Korman


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
The second in the The 39 Clues series failed to impress me.

Originally, I was concerned that people not using the cards or the website would miss out on "off-stage" action. This book picks up where Maze of Bones leaves off: Amy, Dan, Nellie and Saladin are still trying to avoid competing cousins and dodging booby-traps and danger.

Unlike A Series of Unfortunate Events, this series is being written by different authors (Rick Riordan wrote the first, Gordon Korman has penned the second. The Snickettean sense of whimsy from the other series is also missing. This is one long adventure/suspense/action sequence and it gets a little wearing.

Of course there's exposition, but readers will need to start with the first book and follow along. My students don't seem particularly interested in trying to solve the mystery and win a prize (very Kit Williams' Masquerade), and several have reported that the website isn't easy to navigate.

After this book, I'll buy the rest for work but not bother reading myself.


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13 December 2008

The Edwardians; Paul Richard Thompson

Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society by Paul Richard Thompson


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
On the one hand, Thompson channels Studs Turkel, quoting "living Edwardians" about their lives. On the other, it's a dry-ish social history about the Edwardian era.

Had I been in charge, I would have had the chapter on childhood, where we really get the opportunity to learn what it was like to grow up during that era, be the lead chapter. I would have come back to those voices again and again, so that the reader got even more of an understanding of what it was like to get an education, work, vote, etc.. This book doesn't do that, and the structure seems a little all over the place, with little narrative flow.

However, the 360 view of people's lives is fascinating - Thompson describes the rich, the poor, the country folk and the city folk (and all manner of lives in between).

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Greetings from Nowhere; Barbara O'Connor

Greetings from Nowhere Greetings from Nowhere by Barbara O'Connor

My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars
Five characters in search of... something. Friends? Love? Both? Anyway, The Sleepy Time Motel, owned by Aggie, is the setting for the coming together and "healing" of Aggie, Willow, Loretta, Kirby and Clyde.

The main plot device seemed to move too quickly: could one really buy a motel in a matter of days? With all that seemed wrong with it, I just doubt that could happen. However, I didn't doubt Aggie's loneliness, or her attachment to Ugly and Howard, or her newfound attachments with Willow, Loretta and Kirby. The way everyone decided to help Clyde repair/refinish the Motel seemed forced, as did the semi-happy ending.

Kirby's problems were supposed to be the reason he was going to reform school, but I just never got the feeling he was the rotten kid the book wanted us to believe had had an epiphany. Perhaps the author was trying to tell us that he wasn't really a bad kid, just "misunderstood"? The message was muddied.

As for Loretta, she was the only character that felt real. She was also the one character that really didn't do much in the way of moving the plot forward: she came, she toured, she talked, she left. Very typical actions for someone her age.

This book felt a little lightweight for all the good press I've read.


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Bird Moon Lake; Kevin Henkes

Bird Lake Moon Bird Lake Moon by Kevin Henkes

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of those very quiet books - not a ton of action, not a ton of emotion (although there is a lot of emotion under the surface), just a simple story.

Mitch's father has moved in with another woman, so Mitch's mom moves them to Bird Lake, where her parents have a house. These are those distant, don't-know-what-to-do-with-kids/don't-really-want-kids-around kind of grandparents, exactly what Mitch doesn't need right now. He starts claiming the decrepit, unlived-in house next door, only to be displaced by the "intruders" (aka "the rightful owners").

The Stone family has a tragedy of its own, the drowning several summers ago of Matty, the oldest son. Spencer thinks that Mitch's attempts to drive them away are the work of Matty's ghost, but ultimately the two become friends and he learns that it was Mitch, not Matty, that did things.

Neither boy seems happy, and neither seem to have any real place that's theirs - their friendship seems more of two lost souls finding one another than anything that could last.

This is a quick read, and I'm afraid that it's not one that's going to stick with the reader for very long; unless, that is, the reader is a youngish boy who's going through something similar.

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11 December 2008

Tennyson; Lesley M.M. Blume

Tennyson Tennyson by Lesley M.M. Blume

My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another of the possible Newbery winners... This one is sort of Southern Gothic-lite. The setting is Depression-era Louisiana, and our heroine is another preternaturally adult child (12). Her mother seems to be one of those girl/women who never should have had children, and her father just goes along with Mom. When Mom leaves, Dad takes Tennyson and her sister to his family's old, decaying mansion - once one of five plantations the family owned, pre-Civil War.


While there, Tennyson starts dreaming about the War and what went on in the family then (honestly, it reminded me a little too much of the Green Knowe series in that regard). As a way to find her mother, she sends a story about this time to The Sophisticate magazine. Long story short, the effete editor loves the story, publishes it, it's a hit and he's sent to find the author and get him(!) to publish the rest in book form.

Of course, in Southern Gothic, nothing goes quite right. By the end of the book, her mother has written one of the most selfish "Dear John" letters to her daughter, her relatives feel she's betrayed them by writing about the Sacred Family History, and she's gone from being an "old child" to just being "old" (while still being 12).

Do I believe this character? No. The setting and atmosphere really worked for me but the characters just felt like caricatures. I also felt the ending was rushed, with almost an "oh, dear, how can I end this?" quality to it.

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07 December 2008

The Underneath; Kathi Appelt

The Underneath The Underneath by Kathi Appelt


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
Another possible Newbery that reduced me to tears. I just hate hearing about cruelty to animals, and Gar Face is about as cruel as you can get. Puck and Sabine's love for each other and for Ranger, and their determination to be a family makes the ending feel right. Interwoven with all this is the mystery/mythology of the Caddo Indians and shape-changing animal/humans.

I'm not sure if younger readers will find the two stories easy to follow, and the cruelty of Gar Face may cause more sensitive readers to stop reading. Still, I can understand why this has gotten the most votes for the Newbery in the mock versions I've been following.

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The Anglo Files; Susan Lyall

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British by Sarah Lyall

My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
Another series of essays on the British, this time far less angry than those in A.A. Gill's The Angry Island. Lyall's tone, while claiming to be an American voice explaining the British to those of us on the Western side of "the Pond" sounds more like Madonna's accent than an authentic American voice.

Other than that, it's a good, funny read. The index is sparse, but that's not a major detraction (why an index is needed is another question, one beyond my area of expertise to explain). She covers British sports (although not in great enough detail to really explain them, which is perhaps the point), teeth, food, education, and their penchent for leaving soap on cleaned dishes.

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04 December 2008

Waiting for Normal; Leslie Connor

Waiting for Normal Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor


My review


rating: 4 of 5 stars
Perhaps I've got abandonment issues, or perhaps it's the phase of the moon - whatever the reason, this book made me cry. That's an automatic Four Stars.

Addie ("Oddie" to a younger sister) lives with Mommers, who seems to have undiagnosed manic-depression. Mommers goes from All to Nothing, and in the process gets boyfriends, jobs, stocks the pantry, cooks, stays on the Internet all hours... and then crashes and stays in bed all day and can't get it together. Her two youngest were removed to their father's care, but Addie's father is dead and she's 12, so she's staying with Mommers in a trailer at an semi-desolate corner of Schenectady. Addie's stepfather, Dwight, her sisters (The Littles), a couple of school friends, and the two people in charge of the minimart across the lot from the trailer help Addie feel connected with the world around, particularly as Mommers is in an All phase. And they save her when Mommers deserts her in favor of Peter, "a new job" and a new baby.

Why not five stars? There were times when Addie seemed preternaturally adult (which may be my older eyes looking at the situation), and the plot was, for the most part, one of the tired-and-true ones. However, as I said before, there was enough pathos in the book to bring tears to my eyes.

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26 November 2008

Savvy; Ingrid Law

Savvy Savvy by Ingrid Law


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of the Potential Newbery Books that I'm reading and, well, as with The Wednesday Wars last year, I'm not seeing what others are.

To start with, I'm automatically prejudiced against any book that takes a perfectly good word and changes the meaning. In this case, it's savvy. "Savvy" actually comes from saber, the Spanish for "to know". But not in this book. Here it's akin to "special power/ability". Why Law couldn't have made up a new word, I don't know. She does when she talks about the ability to control or hide your "savvy", scumbling.

The rest of the plot was fine, albeit predictable. The characters didn't stand out in my mind as ones I'll remember years from now, which is too bad because with a little tweaking, I think I could have done.

So why is this one of the books that "everyone" says will get either the Newbery or an Honor listing? Possibly because it's one of the better books this year. Possibly because it does have a charm to it that I'm sure that the target age group (up to age 14) can see more clearly than this reader did.

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25 November 2008

The Fiction Class; Susan Breen

The Fiction Class The Fiction Class by Susan Breen


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
Not a bad read, but not a great one either. The plot was predictable, and at times the author was too enamored with her skills and vocabulary. The structure of the book is set on Wednesdays (mostly), during a Fiction Class and Arabella's visits to her dying mother in a Westchester County nursing home. After each of the classes, there's an Assignment. What would have made the book far more interesting is if each chapter showed the progress, or utilized the assignment. Also predictable, but less bland that what I actually read.


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22 November 2008

Worst Enemies/Best Friends; Annie Bryant

Worst Enemies/Best Friends (Beacon Street Girls) (Beacon Street Girls) Worst Enemies/Best Friends by Annie Bryant


My review


rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm giving this five stars not because I really like it, but because it seems to be a perfect example of what tweenage girls need to be reading. I know, they prefer stuff like Gossip Girl, but really - this is closer to their real lives. It's not so goody-goody wholesome that they'll be put off and the girls' characters ring true-enough-to-life. The plot was pretty standard (new girl at school tries to make friends and, after misunderstandings and normal girl stuff, finally does; a group of seeming misfits becomes a clique, but in a good way). It really felt like Seventeen to The Clique's Cosmo.

No, I won't read the rest of the series (no real need) but I'm going to make sure that we have the books at work and that students know that.

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18 November 2008

The Angry Island; A.A. Gill

The Angry Island: Hunting the English The Angry Island: Hunting the English by A.A. Gill


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
This collection of essays starts with the premise that the defining characteristic of England is anger and looks at a number of things through that prism. At times this works better than at others - the essays on Political Correctness and Letchworth Garden City, to name two, fail to live up to their promise. Oddly, he's left out several topics that one would have thought were fertile ground for his anger (eg, Education).

The reality is that Gill is the Angry Essayist, albeit one with a sense of humour about his anger, and when he's deeply connected to his topic it's quite good. I'm not sure that this book will explain England to anyone, although some readers may assume it does.

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16 November 2008

The Witch of Exmoor; Margaret Drabble

The Witch of Exmoor The Witch of Exmoor by Margaret Drabble


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is my first Drabble since The Ice Age almost 30 years ago. While the plot was interesting enough to hold me, the tone drove me nuts. The entire book was written with an unseen, offstage narrator ("and now we look at the D'Anger family" or "here is Gogo") and all I could hear was a mash-up of the "Mutual of Omaha"'s narrator and one of those plummy BBC voices. Very distracting. Had that not been there, I'd have given this four stars.

It was also distracting - unintentionally so - to have a major character be from Guyana, and to have Rev. Jones and the People's Temple mentioned, during the 30 "anniversary" of the mass suicide. However, that shouldn't affect other readers, since this was the week of the retrospectives.

Overall, I liked the book. I've got The Gates of Ivory somewhere on Mt. Bookpile and I'm looking forward to reading it. That will be the true test of whether I continue to find, and enjoy, her works.

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08 November 2008

The Rose Labyrinth; Titania Hardie

The Rose Labyrinth The Rose Labyrinth by Titania Hardie


My review


rating: 2 of 5 stars
Yet another in the "Da Vinci Code" genre: this one has more than a little reality poking in (the details of John Dee's interests, the Christian Zionists, etc.) but overall? Please. The cleverness of the riddles was lost in the denseness of the prose; the coincidences and synchronicity were just too perfect; and the time-travel device was ill-used. I was glad that the two main characters were not the ones continually bowled over by the incredible revelations, but their complete blahness struck me as false.


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07 November 2008

Bonk; Mary Roach

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was one of those books that seemed better while reading than after. It's a bit like fast food in that regard!

As one might guess from the title, Roach looks at the history of sex studies, ranging from Kinsey to Masters and Johnson to the modern era. She (and her husband) actually participate in one or two studies, in part so she can talk about how weird some of them are. And, since sex is a silly subject, she allows her sense of humor and whimsy to take over at times (sometimes to the detriment of the topic she's discussing).

While I really dislike the new trend in non-fiction for authors to allow themselves to become part of the story, in this case it almost worked.


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02 November 2008

The Paris Enigma; Pablo de Santis

The Paris Enigma: A Novel The Paris Enigma: A Novel by Pablo de Santis


My review


rating: 3 of 5 stars
I don't know quite what to think about this mystery. It feels like pastiche, with the primary forefathers being Conan Doyle, Stout and another author vaguely tapping at the back of my brain. The writing is plain, but perhaps that's more the translation than the original. However, when the blurb says "gripping", that's far from the case. Interesting, yes. Almost a cozy, with subliminal references to other mysteries, other detective series, yes. But not "gripping."


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The Private Patient; P.D. James

Rumor has it that this will be the last Dalgliesh mystery. If so, James has given her detective a fitting last case. The mystery, as always, is secondary to the interior life of the characters.

One of my quibbles about series books is that readers of later books are expected to know more about the usual habits of the characters than that book wants to give away. This book doesn't have a lot of that, which is to James' credit.