30 November 2012

Standing in Another Man's Grave; Ian Rankin

Standing in Another Man's Grave (Inspector Rebus, #18)Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title is a mondegreen - Rebus has misheard Jackie Leven singing "Standing in Another Man's Rain". So what has Rebus been up to since we last saw him? He's been working for SCRU, Lothian and Borders version of the Cold Case Squad (if you watch "New Tricks" on PBS, this is them... only without the camaraderie or the close rate. or the nice DCI leading the unit.) There's the possibility the unit will be closed because there's Crown office that does the same work, but the mandatory retirement age from the police has been lifted, so those currently retired can reapply. Rebus, of course, is interested because who is Rebus if he's not working?

Enter Nina Hazlitt, mother of Sally, who disappeared on Hogamanay 1999. Yes, it's now 2012. No, there's been nothing done on the case since. But several years ago, a very nice DI working for SCRU, Gregor Magrath, listened to her and she's checking in on the case. Not only that, she's got a theory that there's a serial killer out there because there are two other girls who went missing along the same road Sally was one - and now there's a third, "live" case, Annette McKie. Surely there's a connection? And that's all Rebus needs to start investigating the old cases and insert himself into the new one.

The new one is being investigated by a unit led by DCI James Page (insert your favorite Led Zep joke here - Rebus often does), seconded by Siobhan Clarke. Siobhan has started to really make her way in the force, partly because she's under Page's wing and partly because she's no longer under Rebus'. She does have a slight soft spot for her old mentor, however, and lets him in on the case... do I really need to go on?

So, where's the tie-in to Malcom Fox and The Complaints? Fox has amassed quiet the file on Rebus, determined to undermine his reentry to Lothian and Borders; he even stoops to some surveillance (phyisical and phone taps) to prove that Rebus and Ger Cafferty were frenemies (why else would Cafferty have avoided jail so often? and why else would Rebus have saved Cafferty's life in ICU?) not enemies. This thread is mostly off-stage, with the occasional appearance - or warning to Siobhan that she should Stay Far Away from Rebus. By the end, however, Fox has been convinced that his crusade is personal, not professional (based on their history when Fox was in uniform decades earlier).

That's the big disappointment for me: I would have loved more interaction between Fox and Rebus. It's clear which child is Rankin's favorite, to the detriment of the book. My hope is that the next book (will Rebus rejoin the force? it's left unclear at the end) will show them together more, even if Fox is dogging Rebus' footsteps.

28 November 2012

Inside Scientology; Janet Reitman

Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive ReligionInside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can see why RUSA recommended this: it's exhaustively researched (loved - LOVED - the notes for each chapter; why more NF can't be like this I don't know!) and relatively balanced. So why only 3 stars? Because I'd hoped for something more on Scientology itself (what happens in auditing? how do you move up the Bridge? what did LRH create "theologically"? etc.) and this was more like reading a book about Catholicism and getting 90% on the Papacy and inner workings of the Curia and only 10% on what Catholics believe and how they practice. In other words, what would life for me, a 'regular' (in other words, non-Sea Org) member of the COS be like? What happens during Sunday worship (which is alluded to, but never fleshed out)? And also there was some missing: what happened to LRH's children and wives? why was DM's wife removed from Int (there must be gossip about that!)? and why no glossary? The acronyms and Scientology-speak got to be a little overwhelming, and rather than flipping around in the book being able to just go to one place for all of them would have been really helpful.

As for the content, it was interesting to hear from people who still believe, who are trying to be "good" Scientologists outside the money-hungry church structure (what that means, exactly, is part of the "missing"). Obviously this is an organization with a ton of misconceptions and bad press - the author does a great job of trying to sort through it to be unbiased. She doesn't quite succeed because access to current members appears to have been limited. Having said that, in a few of her notes she mentions that she was actually at Int and that she has met with a few officials.

So not the comprehensive book I'd hoped for, but a very interesting read all the same.

25 November 2012

The Pause Principle; Kevin Cashman

The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead ForwardThe Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward by Kevin Cashman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really should have looked more closely at this before reading - as a Quaker, I was interested to see how "pause" (or silence) could affect how we interact with the world, colleagues, etc.. Instead, this was far too much about management style (virtually every few pages had a citation from a How To Manage Better book) and far too little about the actual pause itself. The author tells a story about heading to India to tour and meet the Dalai Lama and getting sick, giving him the "pause" he needed to start this book and I thought "well, what about those of us who can't quite do that?" Very little on technique or implementation, far too much on management-speak.

When Organizing Isn't Enough; Julie Morgenstern

When Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff; Change Your LifeWhen Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff; Change Your Life by Julie Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've read some of the other reviews and they're right: there is a little too much time spent on the "real people example" here. None of them fit me and my situation, not even by mixing-and-matching.

Having said that, the practical stuff worked for me. The idea here isn't a didactic How You Organize Your Stuff, it's ideas on how to SEPARATE, HEAVE, EMBRACE and DRIVE your stuff. And not just your physical clutter stuff (like those old tax receipts, the thimble "collection" you picked up when traveling, etc.) but also your schedule and emotional stuff. By the end of the book (and process) you'll have thought about the things that are holding you back or, at the very least, keeping yourself from moving forward.

There was a lot of skimming, but the general ideas have stuck with me and I can see going through the process every few years.

24 November 2012

Steampunk Poe; Edgar Allan Poe

Steampunk PoeSteampunk Poe by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poe's works don't always do it for me - some I love, some I'm "meh" about and still others I hate so very much because I was forced to study them in detail in school. This volume includes all three, and some of the poems.

When I first saw the title, I thought someone had mashed up Poe with the steampunk genre, much as people have mashed up Austen with zombies. Very happy I was wrong, because steampunk is one of those genres that I just don't get (I do know many people love it, even to the point of dressing in steampunk fashion kind of like Ren Faire devotees). The steampunk part here is the illustrations and they definitely work! My biggest complaint was that there were too few... I kept thinking, what about a graphic novel steampunk-illustred Poe?

Copy provided by publisher.

Being Dead; Jim Crace

Being DeadBeing Dead by Jim Crace
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Given the age of the book, I wondered if Christopher Nolan got the idea for the structure of "Momento" from Crace. We start with two dead bodies, Joseph and Celice, and what the last few moments of their lives were like (Celice's last half-minute, Joseph's last half-hour) following their murder by "persons unknown". From there we keep flashing backwards through their final day, their lives together and forwards to the decomposition of their bodies and the police discovery, as well as their daughter's arrival. That might sound confusing, but it's not: it's clear which timeline we're in and what's going on.

The writing is a little florrid, but it's also precise. What I mean is, there is detail that could have been excised but it's not detail for detail's sake. This is not a mystery, no detective looking for whodunnit or police investigation into the murder. Rather, it's an exploration of who Joseph and Celice were from their meeting through their deaths, and after.

The Ghost Writer; Philip Roth

The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two words: not impressed. The first third(ish), with Nate Zuckermann worshipping at the table of Lonoff, wasn't bad. Reading about how he (Nate) felt about this icon, how he'd met him and getting his reactions to this time up-close-and-personal was all good. A bit wordy, perhaps, but good. The sections about Amy Bellette, on the other hand, bored me and my attention drifted.

The title is a little misleading, in that readers may assume this is about a ghost writer (one who is writing a book that will get credited to another author) when it's really about a writer who is... becoming a ghost? whose essence is ghostlike, ineffable? The tension about being a Jew, writing about Jews, and how that might be perceived by non-Jews (is it treason to air dirty family laundry? how would Nate's story have been received had he simply changed the religion of the characters?) is, I think, still somewhat relevant.

20 November 2012

Being Henry David; Cal Armistead

Being Henry DavidBeing Henry David by Cal Armistead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really wanted this book to be better - the exploration of amnesia and concussion would have been so good for teens to read. Instead, there's a little too much focus on the Thoreau elements.

"Hank" wakes up in Penn Station, his head hurting (and bleeding) and with no memory of who he is and how he got there. Choosing the name "Henry David" from the copy of Walden he seems to have with him, he needs to survive while figuring out what happened. He meets Jack and Nessa, has a bad adventure with them and escapes to Concord MA, home of Walden Pond. While in Concord he meets people, regains his memory and has to decide what his future will be.

It's that part that totally lost me: bad enough that we don't get as much as we could about the aftereffects of his concussion and the resulting amnesia, but that the ending is "everything works out right" with no clue as to how that happened? Usually I rail about Book Bloat, but in this case a few more pages would have been helpful. Overall, the book is gentle when it could be a tad harsher.

ARC provided by publisher.

18 November 2012

This I Believe; Jay Allison (editor)

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and WomenThis I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women by Jay Allison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you listen to NPR you've probably heard at least one "This I Believe" spot - these are transcripts from new ones, some transcripts from old ones and some brand new. What people believe is a wide-ranging topic: some believe in family, some in going to funerals, some in love, some in education, etc. It's all very positive, of course, but not in that gooey way.

Are all of the pieces inspirational? No. As with any group of essays, some spoke to me more than others. Because these pieces are so short, it was easy to just skip over the ones that didn't catch my emotional attention and move on to the next. I did try to ignore who wrote the piece until after, as it does semi-color your attitude if you know who is writing.

The Impossible Dead; Ian Rankin

The Impossible DeadThe Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of Rankin's Complaints books, not a Rebus mystery (but the next one will be both!!). Fox is very different from Rebus: teatotal, for one, and by necessity by-the-rules (after all, he is The Complaints). Can't wait to see the two interact.

Because this is The Complaints, the mystery starts as something rather boring: did three colleagues in Kirkcaldy cover up Paul Carter's misbehavior? Of course, Fox and his team are unwelcome and find it rough going. But then things start to happen that take him away from the main question... Paul's uncle Alan dies (murder? suicide?), and Alan's been investigating a decades old death of a Scottish Nationalist orator (and possible paymaster to other separatist groups). One of the victims of Paul's misbehavior tries to commit suicide. Is there a connection? Of course there is.

Fox's questioning if whether being in The Complaints is really doing police investigation seems to drive his digging into the greater mysteries; it will be interesting to see if future Complaints books show him moving more and more back into "real" policing (or if the Complaints series disappears into a Fox series). Of course, Rankin writes as much about the people and the place as much as about the mystery. Having been to Edinburgh and done some sightseeing outside, when I read his prose I'm taken back there - unlike, for example, when I read an Elizabeth George or Martha Grimes mystery, which don't give quite as good a sense of place.

16 November 2012

The Marriage Plot; Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage PlotThe Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first section, set at Brown, is wonderful (particularly if you know English majors, or have recently seen Theresa Rebek's play, Seminar). It so clearly captures the academic experience and pretentions of that time in our lives. Madeleine's love life, her depression over breaking up with Leonard and her lack of clarity on what her future holds was so much like what my friends went through it was almost as though the author had gone to school with us.

Having said that, the other sections aren't quite as strong. Leonard's bipolar episodes certainly mimicked what I know of the disease, while Mitchell's quest for meaning (and a way to forget Madeleine) reminded me of some people I knew but... they just weren't as well written as that first section. The plotting felt predictable, almost as though there was some checklist that needed to be gotten through: manic episode? check. homosexual experience? check. enlightenment deferred? check. etc.

Effective Grading; Barbara E. Walvoord

Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and AssessmentEffective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment by Barbara E. Walvoord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting.  The way in which Walvoord approaches grading is great food for thought for those of us in education: how well do we think out our assessment process?  are our expectations for our students clear, or could they be open to interpretation?  what are we assessing (knowledge? skills? both?) and why?

The steps outlined here clearly lead educators to a better understanding of both assessment and instructional design, which need to go hand-in-hand for either to be effective.  It's also clear that we needs to use student assessment as a way to also assess our effectiveness as educators.  In other words, if the products students are giving us aren't up to our standards, is there perhaps a problem with how we're teaching or communicating with them.  It's also important to coordinate with the other department members so that students get a clear view of what it means to be an educated historian/English major/psychology student in terms of skills and background.

Best used as a group exploration, but good for individual reflection.

12 November 2012

The Golem and the Jinni; Helene Wecker

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Unlike the recent Alif the Unseen, this is historical fiction covering two timelines. One is the late-1800s/early-1900s in the Lower East Side and Little Syria in New York, the other several hundred years ago in what is now Syria. The interweaving of the times and the stories of Arbeely, the Golem, Ahmad, and Rabbi Meyer make for a rather magical, engrossing tale. At times I thought of Helprin's The Winter's Tale (a good thing, I promise!)

The Golem is created to be a wife to a rather unlovable man who dies on the journey to America. She escapes Ellis Island and is rescued by Rabbi Meyer, ultimately working in a local bakery and learning to become human (or perhaps it's better to say 'learning to mimic humans'). Rabbi Meyer starts researching ancient Kabbalistic rituals to rebind her to a new master, hoping to save her from her worst nature, but dies before he can complete the process.

The Jinni's story is told in two parts: his life as one of the most powerful jinnis, his fascination with the Bedouin who travel through the desert near his 'home' and how he became bound to a long-dead master, and his new life, freed from his prison but still bound in human form and weakened. Luckily his rescuer is a tinsmith, Arbeely, giving him access to the heat he needs and metals he can work with to give him the appearance of a normal working man.

The two meet by accident and take to roaming the streets of New York late at night - as inhuman creatures, they have no need of food or sleep. By now they've taken human names, Chava and Ahmad, and are relatively integrated into their societies; yet when they try a little too hard to be 'normal' things go very wrong. The introduction of Michael Meyer, Ice Cream Saleh, Matthew, Maryamm, Anna, Sophia and others lend color to this story, and the addition of their back stories really make the time and the sense that This Might Have Really Happened come alive.

ARC provided by publisher.

10 November 2012

The Death of Bees; Lisa O'Donnell

The Death of BeesThe Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very deceptive title - the supposed global avian apocalypse gets a brief mention but then disappears from the book entirely. And anyone looking for a The Secret Life of Bees-type book should look elsewhere.

This is the story of three people, two sisters (Nelly and Marnie) and the man next door (Lennie).  Nelly and Marnie are suddenly orphaned and desperate to keep the authorities from finding out and sending them (probably separately) to foster homes, and Lennie becomes the stabilizing influence in their lives.  Marnie, the elder sister, is a bit wild, doing drugs and having sex and yet is one of those natively intelligent people who gets As without studying.  Nelly lives very much within her own head, using old-fashioned language and refusing to admit that she's growing into a young lady.  Nelly's also a very talented violinist, using her music as a retreat from the chaotic world around her.

Their year of hiding the truth of their parents' death, trying to make ends meet and appear "normal" to the rest of the world is fraught.  There are near-misses, half-truths and a long-missing grandfather who suddenly reappears.  The tension is never overwhelming, but readers will sense the vague air of menace that never quite abates, only lessens.  By the end, you're rooting for them to make it until Marnie's 16th birthday, when she can become legally able to care for Nelly.

ARC provided by publisher.

09 November 2012

Prodigy; Marie Lu

Prodigy (Legend, #2)Prodigy by Marie Lu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this I kept thinking "now Julie's going to shoot President Snow" or "Day's going to start to wear a mockingbird" - in other words, this really felt like the Hunger Games series set in another dystopia.

Yes, this is a different world. There's a country carved out of part of the former US (the Republic) at war with a country carved out of another part (the Colonies), and each are very different. One is totalitarian, militaristic and apparently suffering from a plague bad enough to quarantine all of Los Angeles, the other very capitalist oriented and winning the war. Julie and Day, now on the run from the Republic, are looking to join the Patriots and find Day's remaining sibling, Eden. The problem is, once they reach Vegas and meet the Patriots, it all seems a little too easy.

It's the alternating voices, Julie's and Day's, and their relationships with others and each other that keep this from being a HG-clone. Each feel like a real person, and as information and experience come to them they react in real ways. The fact that there are strong female and male characters in addition to theirs also helps.

If the third book radically changes the story arc it will redeem the series. The first was far better, this just ok.

ARC provided by publisher.

06 November 2012

The Last Gift of Time; Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond SixtyThe Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was recommended to me by a F/friend as we talked about aging and facing the end of one's life. She'd read it and thought that I might appreciate Heilbrun's take on the matter.

For the most part, I did. Her journey from wearing what I'd call Junior League outfits to comfortable pants and shoes mimicked her journey towards accepting who and what she was and becoming more and more comfortable in her own skin. I enjoyed those parts, as well as how she talks about being a solitary person. That very much resonated with me. There was also a jolt of recognition about people you've never met but who you just know that you'd be good friends with. Her story about finding her father's family also rang true for me, as I know very little about my paternal and maternal grandfather's families.

What I didn't like were the many (I felt) self-serving comments about her relationships with people like May Sarton. At moments like those, or when she talked about her trailblazing in certain ways, I got a little annoyed. But, of course, YMMV.

03 November 2012

The Evolution of Mara Dyer; Michelle Hodkin

The Evolution of Mara Dyer (Mara Dyer, #2)The Evolution of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two words: needs editing.

There's some serious (and I do mean serious) bloat going here. Pages of it. Chapters of it. As with the first book, we really didn't need 500+ pages. Tighter writing would have made for a much creepier book. As it was, the bloat killed the mood far too often.

And what's with the drowning motif on the cover? It's got nothing to do with the actual plot, so I'm guessing that some editor said "hey, this is an art trend so let's go with that for this book!". Bad choice.

Mara's story continues with her in an asylum, then in outpatient care, then ends up at a remote residential facility where Bad Things Happen. Is Jude really alive? Is it all a hallucination? Can Noah save her? Will Noah save her? Is Dr. Kells on the side of good, or bad? And what about the rest of the members of her group? Can we say cliche? I was also unimpressed with the Audrey Rose-esque references to "genetic traits" and Jungian archetypes.

ARC provided by publisher.

02 November 2012

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer; Michelle Hodkin

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer (Mara Dyer, #1)The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really don't understand what the cover has to do with the book itself - there's nothing about water, and Our Heroine is part-Indian (albeit with light skin) which makes it appear that the designer wanted to keep the ethnicity hidden by chopping off the head.

As for the book itself, my first impression is BLOAT.  There was no excuse for 500 pages!  A far more tightly written 300 would have made for a far better book, IMVHO.  Also, the opening note, where "Mara Dyer" confesses that she comes with a body count ruins the suspense factor.  What I mean is, when I read that and then soon after read that she's been in a coma following the building collapse that killed Rachel, Claire and Jude, my thoughts aren't "what happened" but more "how did she do it and why".

Is there a possible love triangle between Mara, Jamie and Noah?  Why is Mom so overly protective (when, as a psychiatrist, she'd know that was the wrong tack to take)?  What is actually going on with Mara?  Because of the padding, it takes forever to get those questions answered - and don't get me started on the abrupt, toss-the-reader-off-the-cliffhanger ending!  Had there been editing, this would easily have been a 4-star or higher.

Oh: LOVE Joseph.  LOVE.

Copy provided by publisher.

01 November 2012

Days of Blood & Starlight; Laini Taylor

Days of Blood & Starlight (Daughter of Smoke & Bone, #2)Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I did like this but this fell victim to the sequel/middle book problem: if you started the book not having read the first one, you were lost for a while, and this so clearly sets up Book Three and thus has unnecessary padding. And an unnecessary love triangle.

Having said that, Karou's dilemma (saving her people vs the dream of peace she/Madrigal and Akiva had) is nicely drawn. Taking over for Brimstone gives her some status, but then there's the whole "being in love with Akiva" issue for her to have to overcome. Akiva's role as Beast's Bane and his relationships with his siblings and Jael are also well written. There were a few plot twists that I didn't anticipate, but overall this was definitely a middle novel.

ARC provided by publisher.

Pure; Julianna Baggott

PurePure by Julianna Baggott
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Got about 100 pages in and just couldn't care about Pressia or Partridge, what made a Pure or how the OSR operates. And the Dome? Who cares? This was so derivative: Magisterium (for example) Legend, Divergent and many others cover the same ground. Copy provided by publisher