Thursday, January 31, 2008

biography with a large side of bias

Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: history
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: It's not uncommon for a biographer to develop some sympathy for their subject. In this case, though, one gets the feeling that Weir developed her sympathy before writing the book, and, in fact, set out to do her research to redeem Isabella's reputation, rather than simply to write an account of her life. Which is not intrinsically a bad thing. My problem is that Weir spends too much time disproving one historical theory of Isabella after another when, no matter your bias, the evidence is just not there for a conclusive determination either way. And yet, Weir routinely calls any conclusion but the one she has drawn "speculative." As far as I can tell, her conclusions are just as speculative!

Having said that, Weir is to be commended for the thoroughness of her research. It must be incredibly difficult to come up with so much material about a woman of that time, even one as notorious as Queen Isabella. And Weir does an admirable job of taking the dry account books and other records and turning them into an actual narrative, to say nothing of making that narrative compelling at times.

willing to make an exception

Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories by Connie Willis
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: collection
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: I'm not usually a big fan of short stories, but of course I'll read anything Connie Willis writes. Even the ones that have been published before are fun to read again. I was thrilled to see "Firewatch" included in this collection, and felt the ending as strongly this time as I did the first time I read it. Other stories, like "Blued Moon" and "At the Rialto" carry Willis' trademark corporate stupidity and mangled language, but others, like "A Letter from the Clearys" and "Nonstop to Portales" are so subtly written, it's both a joy (because you can finally see how well Willis works her craft) and a sorrow (because the story's over!). Some endings are a bit overdone (title-story "The Winds of Marble Arch", "The Last of the Winnebagos"). Others endings are a bit muddled ("The Curse of Kings", "Daisy, In the Sun", "Cash Crop"), but some endings ("All My Darling Daughters") are all too clear. The inclusion of such hilarious gems as "Even the Queen" and especially "The Soul Selects Her Own Society..." (pay attention to the footnotes!) more than make up for any flaws. Overall, the collection is a must-read for any Willis fans, and anyone else who just wants to read a broad collection of well-done stories.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Age discrepancy

The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: One of Rinaldi's better recent efforts. A somewhat transparent look at the evils of slavery, but a convincing one. My biggest problem about this book was that the main character, CeCe, was said to be 13-going-on-14, but was treated throughout the book at much younger. Especially when dealing with a time period when childhood was much shorter than we're accustomed to, it seemed odd that a girl of that age would be treated as needing so much protection. Other than that, the book seemed realistic and would definitely be good for middle school-age children to learn about slavery. And, of course, I loved all the references to Oberlin!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Don't quit your day job!

No Certain Rest by Jim Lehrer
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction/historical fiction
Challenge: TBR and A-Z (title)
Summary/Review: Now I know why Jim Lehrer hasn't quit his day job! Alas, I just wasn't impressed with this book, although I really wanted to be. The premise is that the skeleton of a Civil War soldier is found buried on previously unexplored land bordering the battlefield at Antietam. The National Park Service is called in, and the hunt begins to find the identity of the remains, and why they were buried in such a peculiar way (facedown) and so far from the rest of the carnage. Our sleuth is an archaeologist from NPS who becomes determined to find out the truth of what happens. A perfectly good premise, yes. Unfortunately, explanation of what happened at Antietam, or why a character cares so much about it was strained, maudlin, and heavy-handed. The inclusion of a "love interest" for the main character is completely forced, not to mention unnecessary, as are the various mentions of a debate over reenactment. Overall, a disappointing book, although true Civil War buffs will probably enjoy it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Read before?

Alchemy by Margaret Mahy
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: When I picked up this book, I knew I had read it before, but I couldn't remember a single thing about it, as opposed to The Changeover, also by Mahy, about which I can remember much of the plot, but never the name of the book (although I suppose I've fixed that now, haven't I?). That I found this book completely forgettable the first time around, and not much better the second, probably tells you everything you need to know.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: correspondence
Challenge: A-Z (authors)
Review: Marvelous! Charming! I want to meet all of the correspondents!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


The Good Husband by Gail Godwin
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: Fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author), TBR
Review: I can't quite put my finger on why I was so disappointed in this book. The characters were well-drawn, and fairly sympathetic, each in their own way. The plot moved along relatively briskly. I just don't know. Maybe it was Godwin's habit of "foreshadowing" an event in the past. Several times we hear about a life-changing event in a characters life before we are taken back to find out what happened. Just tell us already and stop playing games! Perhaps it was that certain parts of it seemed contrived, not plot-wise, just writing-wise, as though Godwin said to herself "Ah, there's a clever thought, I must find a way to write it into my next book." And then she did, in the guise of writing about writers and thinkers. It became very annoying to have these things we were obviously supposed to regard as "gems" littering an otherwise good scene.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Interview with Philip Pullman

From the British journal, and Economist companion, "Intelligent Life", a lengthy interview with Philip Pullman, whose "His Dark Materials" trilogy I highly recommend.

Best line: "He is the most successful writer since Roald Dahl to have worked in a shed."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A challenge I couldn't resist

Yes, it's the A-Z Reading Challenge. And naturally, I'll be doing both authors and titles. I'll add books to the list as I read them. What am I thinking?!

A- Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee
B- Bras & Broomsticks by Sarah Mlynowski
C- Chosen by Nancy Holder and Joss Whedon
D- Dramarama by E(mily) Prescott
E- The Ever-After Bird by Ann Rinaldi
F- The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
G- The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes
H- Handling Sin by Michael Malone
I- Island of Lost Girls by Jennifer McMahon
J- Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
K- Keeping Score by Chris Bohjalian
L- Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery by John Feinstein
M- The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick
N- No Certain Rest by Jim Lehrer
O- One Part Angel by George Shaffner
P- Playing with the Grown-Ups by Sophie Dahl
Q- Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir
R- The Redheaded Princess by Ann Rinaldi
S- Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
T- The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
U- Un Lun Dun by China Mieville
V- Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan
W- Winter Haven by Athol Dickson
X- The X'ed Out X-Ray by Rob Roy
Y- The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
Z- The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman

A- Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
B- A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
C- The Eugenics Wars, Vol. I: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh by Greg Cox
D- Gardens of Water by Alan Drew
E- Girlbomb by Janice Erlbaum
F- Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster
G- The Good Husband by Gail Godwin
H- 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
I- The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
J- The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
K- The Ha-Ha by Dave King
L- Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky
M- Alchemy by Margaret Mahy
N- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
O- We Became Like a Hand by Carol Ortlip
P- My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Q- Blessings by Anna Quindlen
R- The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
S- In the Land of Second Chances by George Shaffner
T- Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
U- Hi There, Supermouse by Jean Ure
V- The Passionate Eye: The Collected Writings of Suzanne Vega
W- The Winds of Marble Arch by Connie Willis
X- Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin by Xiao Hong
Y- The Star Fisher by Laurence Yep
Z- Nana by Emile Zola

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

I thought I'd never finish

Setting Free the Bears by John Irving
Rating: 2 (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: TBR
Review: to follow, if I can stand it

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Why all the hype?

Mister Monday (Keys to the Kingdom, Book 1) by Garth Nix
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: Fantasy, YA
Summary/Review: I wish I could give a summary! This book, hyped to be the first in the "next Harry Potter" was so confusing that I can't figure out what was happening or why it was supposed to be important. Ok, that's a slight exaggeration. I managed to figure out what was happening, more or less. But this is definitely not the next Harry Potter. The main character, a young asthmatic with greatness thrust upon him is not fleshed out very well, nor do we see much growth in him from the beginning of the book until the end. His supposed motivation for jumping through all the hoops that Nix puts him through is to find a cure for the plague that's sweeping his hometown, but it really seems like he's just going through the motions because he has to. Perhaps his motivations become clearer in the next 6 books, or perhaps we see some growth in the character, but I'm not sure I care enough to go through 6 more books.

Great dialogue but not much else

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of five)
Genre: Fiction
Review: I go so hot-and-cold on Anne Tyler's books. This one, I must confess, left me feeling mostly cold. The dialogue was great, but the book didn't have much more to offer. The main character, was likable, but I didn't really care much about what happened to her, and I got annoyed by the number of times she changed her mind about how she felt and what she wanted. I think I was annoyed not because she changed her mind so much, per se, but because Tyler doesn't explain the reasons behind the changes very much, which left me frustrated.