Saturday, December 27, 2008

snuck up on me

The Fireman's Wife by Jack Riggs
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: This is a book about choices and regrets. It's about not leaving things unsaid. I didn't realize how much I was into this book until about 3/4 of the way through, when the really dramatic thing happens (I'm definitely not going to give it away here). At that point, I realized that I really had developed a connection to the characters, to the point that I was almost in tears reading about their pain.

Friday, December 26, 2008

the anti-character

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, suspense
Review: Rebecca de Winter is dead when this story begins, and yet is its strongest character. She haunts the second Mrs. de Winter (whose first name we never learn) even before her arrival at Manderley. Convinced that Mr. de Winter is still in love with Rebecca, she allows herself to be completely undone by the prospect of stepping into Rebecca's shoes. She is scared witless by Mrs. Danvers, the overbearing and creepy housekeeper, who remains devoted to Rebecca and determined to keep everything at Manderly just the way it was before Rebecca died.

To be fair, Mr. de Winter seems to give absolutely no consideration of the fact that she might feel out of her league and doesn't seem to even notice her distress. However, even when the de Winters finally start communicating and things look like they might work out, she continues to act like a nitwit. It's very hard to sympathize which such a protagonist, but that aside, this is an excellent work of suspense.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 Challenges

I'm pleased to report that I successfully completed both challenges I took on for 2008.

The A-Z challenge was a lot of fun, and I definitely read some books I would never have read if I hadn't needed a certain letter. One author I was pleased to find was Eva Ibbotson. On the other hand, I could have lived with reading Zola's Nana! Find my completed list here.

The TBR (to-be-read) challenge was decidedly less fun. There's a reason some of those books sat on my list for so long! But I did read 11 from my original list, and only one from my alternates (I decided Stephen King's The Stand was just way too long). Check out my completed list.

I think I won't try to do either of these challenges again in 2009. I'm still doing the 1% percent challenge (though I haven't made much progress yet), and I welcome any suggestions for new challenges to take on!

fun little mystery

The X'ed Out X-Ray by Rob Roy
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: children's, mystery
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: A fun little mystery for kids, where the thief is the one not suspected until the last minute. The kid-detectives use realistic methods to get clues, and are able to catch the culprit with the help of their policeman-friend.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

both sides of the story

The Other Mother by Gwendolen Gross
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This is the story of two women, two mothers. Thea lives in the house where she grew up and is the stay-at-home mom of 3 kids, including a toddler. Amanda, a children's book editor, moves in next door, pregnant, about to start her maternity leave. When circumstances force the two women uncomfortably close, each must face her own choices to stay home or continue to work.

The best thing about this book is that Gross alternates chapters between Thea and Amanda, allowing the reader to get both sides of the story. To each mother, the other is a monster, but both have moments of being able to put themselves in the other's shoes.

The worst thing about this book is that Gross chooses to use the events of September, 2001 to bring her story to a close. The story starts in September, 2000 when Amanda moves in to her new house. The book is divided into sections by the months that follow, with no mention of year, until the following September when the inclusion of 2001 is glaring and obvious. Without going into detail, Gross gets her characters home safely and ends her story quite abruptly.

Gross's decision to use September 11th in this way is a shame because up until the last section this was a very engaging book. I cared about the characters and wanted them to be friends or at least come to terms separately with their own decisions. But it feels as though Gross could not figure out how to make that happen and decided to take the easy way out.

Friday, December 19, 2008

not just about being safe

The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, YA
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Summary/Review: The king of a Bergania (a fictional country, though one that seems a lot like Switzerland) refuses to allow Hitler's troops to march through his country. Seeing this on a newreel at the movies, Tally is struck by his courage, and also interested in the prince, who's face she can't really see, obscured as it is by the plumes from his helmet. When the headmaster of Delderton (her boarding school) brings up an invitation to go to Bergania to participate in a folk dancing festival, Tally jumps at the chance, even though neither she nor any of her friends have any experience with folk dancing. Little do they know that their arrival in Bergania will coincide with a Nazi plot to get rid of the king and kidnap the prince.

That Tally and her friends are able to smuggle the prince out of the country is really only half of this story. The other half is what happens to the prince once he's safely in England. Because he has family there, and as in other Ibbotson stories, his family is fairly horrible. They are convinced that they must continue his training so that he can assume his rightful place on the throne of Bergania after the war. Except that he doesn't really want to be king. He wants to join Tally and her friends at Delderton.

And that's what this book is really about. It's about finding your place in the world, or making your place in the world, if the one that's set out for you isn't right. It's also about friendship and family and justice. If you've read other books by Ibbotson, you may find her books to be a bit formulaic, but this book is none the less charming for being similar to others.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

an accurate title

The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History by Lewis Buzbee
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir, history
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: I almost had to fight with Buzbee in the first chapter of this book. He describes bookstores as places to go to browse (no objection yet), even to sit down and read (no particular objection here either), and to look for particular pieces of information. Wait! Here I object: isn't that what the library is for? Of course, I have my biases (being a librarian) and he has his (being a bookseller).

Having moved on from the first chapter, I was glad I did. I found this a delightful book. It truly is both a history and a memoir. More than that, it is both a personal memoir, and a memoir of bookselling as a profession. He tells his own story alongside that of the history of bookselling, and makes both very interesting.

He includes one statistic that I find distressing, though. He tells us that at an average of one book a week (roughly my own pace, depending on the book, and the week) from the age of 5 to the age of 80, a person will read 3,900 books or a little over one-tenth of one percent of the books currently in print. Far too few, if you ask me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

doesn't hang together

Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin by Xiao Wong
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: This short book is a memoir of about 2 years in the author's life, told in short vignettes. The style of writing and the translation are easy to read, but the story is hard to follow. The chapters are short and choppy and intervening events tend to be left out. For example, the first several chapters are all about how the author and her lover are so poor they can't afford food or wood to heat their apartment with. A few chapters later, however, they seem to have enough money to live without scrimping. It is quite unclear how this change in fortune came about. Similarly, in the latter chapters, a book is mentioned which is referred to as "our book." The book seems to be in the final stages of publication, but the reader has no idea what the book is about (although the contents seem to be subversive since they feel as though the Japanese police might show up to arrest them at any moment). All in all then, this is a sort of confusing read.

Monday, December 15, 2008

not too predictable

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: At first, this looks like a fairly predictable orphaned-English-girl-gets-shipped-off-to-live-with-distant-relatives story. Predictably, the family Maia is to live with in Brazil is horrid, and only allowed her to come at all so that they could get the allowance that comes with her. Fortunately, Maia has a very sympathetic, if somewhat mysterious governess who accompanies her to Brazil and in her adventures. It isn't until Maia's been in Brazil for a while that the story begins to come out of its predictable beginnings. There's a missing boy who may or may not actually be missing, and a child actor suddenly looking at the end of his career, and possibly Maia's new family has been living on ill-gotten gains for some time.

This is quite an enjoyable story, with plenty of adventure, and some intrigue mixed in for good measure. The characters are believable and the ending is quite satisfying, with the horrid family getting their comeuppance and Maia and her friends being able to live out their dreams.

wide range

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women in association with NPR
Genre: essays
Review: I really wish I had listened to this in smaller chunks. It's a lot to take in. Some of the essays were not exceptional, but others were absolutely wonderful. Topics ranged from the rule of law, love, and freedom to barbecue and jazz. And listening to this collection, rather than reading it, really does add a lot to the experience. Not to mention the opportunity to hear such voices as Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Robinson.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

prejudice and kindness

The Star Fisher by Laurence Yep
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction, children's
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: In 1927, Yep's mother moved with her parents and siblings from Ohio to West Virginia. Although her parents are immigrants with little English, the family had a good life in Ohio. But with the move to West Virginia, the family is brought up short by the prejudice that is demonstrated by some townsfolk. Fortunately, they are also confronted with great acts of kindness by other members of the town. Using the metaphor of the star fisher, who lives with one foot on the earth and one in the heavens, Yep convincingly uses his family's story to write a lovely book about family and friendship.

spread the talent around

Hi There, Supermouse by Jean Ure
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: children's
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Review: Nicola is outshined by her younger sister Rose, who gets all her mother's attention. One feels immediate sympathy for her, even if she is a bit whiny at first, being so close in age to her sister and yet constantly getting the short end of the stick from her mother. Everyone thinks Rose is pretty and talented and thinks that Nicola is a gangly tomboy. But when a neighbor sees Nicola dancing by herself, she thinks Nicola is natural-born dancer. But convincing her mother that she has any talent at all is not an easy task for Nicola or her neighbor.

Ure is to be commended for avoiding pat and easy answers in this book. Although things improve for Nicola, everything does not wind up easily for her. Nicola herself grows a great deal in starting to realize her own potential, as do her parents. The only character who shows no growth is Rose. But even that is believably written. This is a wonderfully written book that any child will be able to relate to.

faux lyricism

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: history
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: This book isn't really about the zookeeper's wife. Rather, Ackerman uses the story of Antonina Zabinski as a backdrop to tell the larger story of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and the Polish Resistance. As a story-telling technique, I have no problem with this, and Ackerman does it fairly well. We learn a lot about Warsaw during the war, as well as learning about such things as the zookeeping trade and animal life. The biggest drawback to Ackerman's use of the technique, I think, is that she starts with Antonina's memoirs, which seem to have been written very lyrically (from the short excerpts we are given), and then tries to use that lyrical tone throughout the whole book. It doesn't work very well, partly because Ackerman doesn't wield her lyricism as naturally, and partly because a war story doesn't lend itself very well to such a tone. It is an interesting story, although I think the story of the zookeeper (who was active in the Polish Resistance, fought for the Home Army in the Warsaw uprising, and was held as a POW in Germany) might have been more interesting than the story of his wife. I guess he didn't write a memoir.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

the perils of driving

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: I was really hoping that this book would answer such questions as why so many people don't use their turn signals or insist on driving below the speed limit in the left lane. I was disappointed in that, but did learn other interesting things, like why you drive on the right in some countries, and in the left in others. Also discussed is why people drive more safely when there are fewer traffic signs and other warning devices than when there are more. It turns out that people drive more cautiously when they don't know what to expect than when they do. Similarly, people drive more safely when the car has fewer safety devices. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt spends the bulk of the book on this point and much less on the question that his title indicated he would be answering.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

oh the shoes!

So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: mystery, YA
Review: Why did it have to be about shoes? Really, the whole shoe thing is just not one I ever understood (not that I understand much about trends and fashion). But this is a great book that creates an interesting (and probably fairly accurate) scenario about how trends get started, how they spread, and why they seem to come and go so quickly.

But what if there's a group that's trying to undo the work of all the marketers and trendsetters (these would clearly be my people)? Are they the anti-cool? What if they themselves somehow become cool? This is the premise of Westerfeld's book. When Hunter (a Trendsetter) discovers the ultimate shoes in an abandoned building in Chinatown, he's determined to find out where they come from and whether they have anything to do with his boss's disappearance (her phone was found in the same building, but nobody seems to know where she is). What he learns about the "cool pyramid" and it's relationship to revolutionary France makes him re-evaluate his own status as a Trendsetter. It also gave me a lot of food for thought on the subject.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

personal libraries

An interesting essay about how people choose books for their personal library.

I rarely buy books (I am a librarian, after all). My criteria: if I were stuck in my apartment forever, is this a book I would want to read over and over again?