31 May 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog: Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the DogTo Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that came Highly Recommended, yet it took years before I actually got a copy to read. Was it life-changing? Not really: it was a fun read, but I found myself getting a little tired of (and confused by) the discussions of the nets and continuum and incongruities.

Ned's adventures as a time-traveler, mostly to either Coventry or church sales, to find a relic of the original Coventry Cathedral for Lady Schrapnell (wonderful name, no?) are interrupted because he is seriously suffering from time-lag, a version of jet-lag. Sent to the Victorian Era for some rest and recuperation, as well as to return something back to that era that should not have been capable of being brought through the nets to the late 21st century. That something confuses Ned, but he quickly realizes it's the lost (presumed drowned) cat of Tossie, a rather silly product of that age.

Tossie's "cousin" Verity is actually Ned's contact there, and the two of them do everything they can to return this line of history to its proper settings. I figured out who Tossie's "Mr. C" was long before it was officially revealed, but that's mostly because Verity (whose surname, Kindle, made me wonder whether Jeff Bezos has read the book) is enamored of the Golden Age Mysteries and keeps referring to Lord Peter and Hercule Poirot, among other detectives.

I understand the appeal of the book, but there was sometimes a little too much going on.

29 May 2011

The Imperfectionists; Tom Rachman

The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd been told that this was a book about a newspaper and the various types (sorry, no pun intended) employed there. That's not quite true - it's a series of short glimpses of the lives of different people employed at an unnamed international paper, more like short stories loosely woven together than they are a novel. That's not to say that these aren't interesting people, just that anyone looking for a combination of "The Front Page" and All the President's Men won't find that here.

The characters profiled here are all flawed in some way. One or two overcome their flaws and manage to do something better with their lives by the end, but most sort of sink under the weight of that flaw. For example, the rookie reporter trying to be the Middle East stringer for the newspaper has so little backbone and confidence that he allows himself to be completely walked over by the crass, opportunistic veteran also trying for the stringer position. The flaws make them vaguely dislikeable, but overall the glimpses add up to a portrait of real humans working and living.

Mere Humanity; Donald T. Williams

Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, And J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human ConditionMere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, And J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition by Donald T. Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I wish I'd read with a group of people - the ideas really need discussion and mulling over to sink in. Williams has distilled the ideas of Chesterton, Lewis and Tolkein on what separates humans from animals (and humans from angels/God), tackling the ideas of postmodernism/secularism and refuting them using examples from the three author's works.

My only quibble (besides the lack of reading companions) is that there was more on Lewis than the other two.

26 May 2011

Skinny; Diana Spechler

Skinny: A Novel (P.S.)Skinny: A Novel by Diana Spechler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'd avoided this because I thought it was a story about a dealing with anorexia, but it's really more a story of a girl who loses her father, binge eats, goes to a fat camp as a counselor, falls in love, loses weight, and somehow ends up (I think) in Denver and fat.

While the love story was believable, as were the campers, the camp wasn't and no one character was compelling. For people with real eating disorders, this won't ring true - her binge eating and anorexia are "healed" far too quickly, with only minimal physical damage (hair loss) and no apparent psychic damage. Unlike Wintergirls, which was a true insight into the ana/mia world, Skinny simply touches on those as part of the greater story.

Copy provided by publisher.

23 May 2011

Illegal; Bettina Restrepo

IllegalIllegal by Bettina Restrepo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather slight book, and one that just describes the life of a young Mexican girl who illegally enters Texas in search of her father and a better life. There's no moral here, no message about the life these illegals lead or what drives them to come, just a story. That's not a negative but it was a surprise.

Nora's life in Mexico is difficult - the drought has led to the near failure of the grapefruit farm her family owns, her father left three years earlier to make money in the US to send home, and the town itself is dying. The decision for Nora and her mother to travel to the US, to Texas, isn't made easily, but the trip itself is somewhat glossed over (we read a little about the thirst, how Aurora nearly dies from heat and dehydration but that passes quickly). Once in America they find a few nice people who help them out: a woman at a restaurant gives them a free meal and points them to a place to live, and they rather easily find jobs.

Their life isn't easy, but it's clear that they're making some sort of life, helped in no small part by Nora's physical resemblance to Tessa, the niece of their employers. The people they meet are rather stereotypical, but again there doesn't seem to be a moral or point, just "here are the people in their lives." And, of course, it all ends on an upbeat note.

ARC provided by publisher.

Under the Lion's Gaze: Maaza Mengiste

Beneath the Lion's Gaze: A NovelBeneath the Lion's Gaze: A Novel by Maaza Mengiste
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very difficult book to read, thanks to the images of torture the author has included. The story of a nation's implosion under the twin forces of famine and military revolt, this novel reminded me how little we in the West talk about, or study, African countries.

I'm not sure why it was necessary to create a new character as a stand-in for Mengistu Haile Mariam, or to imagine the mental confusion of Emporer Hailie Salassi. The other characters (Hailu and his family, the soldiers, their neighbors) all seemed to be specific types, chosen to illustrate the varieties of behavior and beliefs during this sort of upheaval. The torture scenes, the divisions in the families and friendships, the horror that was the start of the Derg era - all are sadly reminiscent of other horrors in other countries. How we continue to go through these episodes is beyond me - we never seem to learn.

Copy provided by publisher.

20 May 2011

Nemesis; Jo Nesbo

NemesisNemesis by Jo Nesbø

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This Norwegian mystery is appropriately dark; our hero, Henry Hole, is one of those classic loners who can't really keep a relationship going but always, somehow, manages to solve the murder(s). Think Stephen Booth crossed with Ian Rankin, set in Norway.

This "episode" contains several threads: the string of bank robberies, a one-night fling with an old girlfriend who ends up murdered, his current girlfriends custody battle in Russia, and an old gypsy fraternal feud. Rather than being confusing, Nesbo skillfully weaves the plot together in such a way as to not confuse readers (although at times I thought there was a little too much exposition, but YMMV).

16 May 2011

Reading My Father; Alexandra Styron

Reading My Father: A MemoirReading My Father: A Memoir by Alexandra Styron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hesitated to read this, thinking it would be a version of Mommy Dearest, but that is not the case here. Ms. Styron has written an interesting, heartfelt appreciation of the writer, the man and her father, William Styron.
Like most children, she grew up knowing one side of Daddy: the sometimes funny, sometimes drunk, sometimes terrifyingly angry person living in the house. Through the Duke University archives she discovers the man, thanks to his letters to his father and others, and the writer, thanks to his drafts and other writings. The portrait painted is complex and while her daughter's point-of-view never quite disappears you can see her appreciating the sides of him she didn't know and reconciling with the Daddy she did.

This isn't a linear memoir, which works well. Styron's descent into depression in 1985 (and again in 2000) is the thread that holds her story together. I wondered if he was depressed prior to then, how much of the despair was covered by the alcohol and the rage.

One never really knows one's parents, but reading this I get the sense that Ms. Styron now knows her father better than most.

ARC provided by publisher.

15 May 2011

The Map of Time; Felix Palma

The Map of Time: A NovelThe Map of Time: A Novel by Félix J. Palma
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was so excited to get this book - the back flap suggests a Jasper Ffordian adventure starring H.G. Wells. However... not so much. This novel is in three parts, only lightly interwoven. One of those threads is H.G. Wells, another is Gilliam Murray and his Trip to the Year 2000. The author has written this as a pastiche of Victorian novels, filled with digressions, overly adjectived, and a tad rambling.

Part One is the story of Andrew, an upper-middle class boy who falls in love with a beautiful whore, Mary Kelly. Their relationship progresses to the point where Andrew announces his love for her to his father and promptly gets disinherited. Lost, he wanders back to her home/hovel, only to arrive minutes after Jack the Ripper has visited his fifth victim. Eight years later he's prepared to kill himself in that same room, until his cousin Charles, with the help of Mr. Murray and Mr. Wells, convinces him that by traveling through time he has saved Mary.

Part Two is set in Murray's Time Traveling fraud, with a young, bored woman taking the trip to the year 2000 only to fall in love with the Savior of the Human Race, Derek Shackleton. Derek - aka Tom - falls in love with her, too; back in the "present day" they spend one night and several passionate letters declaring their love (Tom's letters are written by Wells).

Part Three finds us contemplating three murders, committed with some weapon unknown to the era. Scotland Yard's detective has decided that the only possible suspect is Mr. Shackleton and convinces his superiors to allow him to travel to the year 2000 to arrest Shackleton. Murray, afraid his huge hoax will be discovered, convinces Wells to find the real killer... and thus commences a very complicated, confusing explanation of time travel, the Library of Truth and other things, as Wells tries to prevent The Invisible Man from being published by the supposed murderer (who will also kill Bram Stoker and Henry James, stealing Dracula and The Turn of the Screw). This is the least comprehensible part of the book, with what appears to be three time travelers, including one claiming to be Wells-of-the-future, running around.

Had the book focused on Part Three, with less rushing around and more mystery, I would have enjoyed it far more. However, the jacket flap also says that this is an International Sensation, so what do I know?

ARC provided by publisher.

11 May 2011

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You; Louisa Young

My Dear I Wanted to Tell YouMy Dear I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Star-crossed lovers set against the backdrop of World War I doesn't seem like a winning combination, particularly when there are graphic descriptions of war and war injuries. Yet Ms. Young makes it work.

There are class-conflicts as Riley, a "downstairs" boy, is befriended by Nadine's "upstairs" family. In the trenches, his rise from Private to Captain is due as much to his personality as it is to his having learned a posh accent and posh manners thanks to the Waveneys. His feelings for Nadine Wanveny are, he realizes, not going to be allowed to be fulfilled because of those class differences.

However, the war changes everyone and Nadine rebels against her family's expectations by becoming a nurse and later shipping to France. Her feelings for Riley are reciprocated, but his injury (jaw shot off at Passchendale) leads him to reject her.

There's also Peter and Julia, a married couple affected by the war. Peter's experiences in as Riley's Captain lead him to virtually rape Julia and contribute to his drunkenness and visits to prostitutes as he tries to forget the horrors he's seen. Julia, trying to remain beautiful while she waits for Peter's return, turns to tatooing, make-up, compulsive shopping and potentially dangerous beauty treatments (carbolic facials???!).

>Ultimately, of course, everything works out, so no surprises there. Riley's injury and the descriptions of his treatment may be a little gross for some readers, but these scenes are interspersed with the love stories so there is some let-up. If you're interested in early surgical methods, however, you won't be disappointed.

Overall, decent historical fiction with a predictable romance at its center.

ARC provided by publisher.

07 May 2011

What Happened to Goodbye; Sarah Dessen

What Happened to GoodbyeWhat Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This doesn't need a lot of selling, because by now Sarah Dessen has a dedicated following and a recognizable formula: girl with some problem falls in love and resolves the problem by the end. What moved this from a 3 to a 4 for me was one scene directly out of Chas. Addams (you'll know it when you read it). Honestly, I never thought that I'd giggle over a Sarah Dessen book, but that one scene? Giggleable.

Maclean - or Liz, Beth, Lizbeth or Eliza - is the product of a Broken Marriage. Mom stayed "home", marrying the basketball coach at the local university. Dad took a job as a restaurant consultant, and Maclean has chosen to stay with him, much to Mom's dismay. Their MO is to move to a town, fix a restaurant, then leave, mostly without saying goodbye (hence the title). This is their fourth move in two years and Maclean's become a pro. This move, however, becomes something more permanent, thanks to Dave, her next door neighbor, and Deb, the acronym-crazed student Welcome Wagon/school loner. By the end, she's put down some roots and reconciled with her mother, if not with her parents divorce.

Not only did I enjoy the book, Mallory found it edible. So if the feline vote means anything to you, this is a definite winner.

ARC provided by publisher.

05 May 2011

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives; Lola Shoneyin

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives: A NovelThe Secret Lives of Baba Segi's Wives: A Novel by Lola Shoneyin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The four wives' tales intertwine with that of Baba Segi, a Nigerian with four wives. The problem is that the fourth wife, Bolanle, has not conceived a child in two years of marriage, thus setting in motion the unraveling of the lives of everyone in the house. The way in which this family lives will feel different, but having "Big Love" and "Sister Wives" on tv as well as a flood of Mormon polygamist books means that this isn't completely foreign.

Jumping from character to character, we learn the back story and motivations of the four wives and Baba Segi himself are not always upstanding or honorable. It's entirely plausible that the wives don't get along well, and that there is plotting between them, but the degree is a little implausible. It's also imperative that you read the chapter titles to know which wife you're reading about, as it's not always clear from the writing (the voices are too similar). The stories are engrossing, and the ending will surprise readers: why Bolanle cannot conceive, the extent of the scheming amongst the other wives, and Baba Segi's reaction to all of it are not quite expected. Glimpses of Nigerian culture are woven in such a way as to not completely overwhelm the reader with the difference between these lives and our own.

Copy provided by publisher.