Tuesday, July 28, 2009

too mean to be fun

Playing with Fire: Whining & Dining on the Gold Coast by Thomas G. Schaudel
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction
Review: It's always fun to read about the bizarre things people do and say in public, because people really can be crazy. And certainly Schaudel's dry telling of some of the stories had me laughing out loud. Unfortunately, his snarky voice becomes downright mean in too many of the stories for me to really enjoy the book as a whole.

Friday, July 24, 2009


Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir From an Atomic Town by Kelly McMasters
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: Told in the form of a personal narrative, this book contains a lot of interesting information about Long Island local history, especially the East End. There's also a lot of interesting information about nuclear pollution, which might make anyone question the water they drink. Unfortunately, much of this book also reads as an indictment of Brookhaven National Laboratory, which may or may not be justified. To be fair, McMasters credits BNL for having improved their practices in recent years, but the book still comes across as being agenda-driven and biased, which undercuts the message more than a little bit.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

running away to join the circus

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: I spent most of this book wondering why Gruen chose to intersperse her primary story of a young man who found himself thrust into the circus life in 1931 with the musings of that same man at the age of 93. The story of how Jacob came to be in the circus and what happened to him there seemed like enough to me, and Jacob's aged voice seemed unnecessary. At the end of the book, though, I realized why she gave us both perspectives, and could hardly argue with her narrative device, as the closure it provides works so well.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

bland all over

More Than it Hurts You by Darin Strauss
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: A different book about Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy would be, perhaps, an outside-looking-in story, where people outside the family try to figure out why any parent, and specifically the parent in question would inflict harm on their own child. In contrast, Strauss puts the why up-front; it’s clear to the reader, and even clearer to mother who bleeds her child twice to induce anemia, why she does it.

So the rest of the book is more of a “how” or a “what” than a “why”. How do the doctors and Child Protective Services go about proving a case of Munchausen’s? How does the father, who in unaware of his wife’s activities, deal with the situation. What is the motivation of the accusing doctor? And in the end, of course, is the question of what will happen to the baby. At least it should be, but in the end even the answers to those questions are disappointing, as the whole matter is dropped over a trumped-up plot device.

Still, this could have been a good book, since it is engagingly written. Unfortunately, not a single character in this book is sympathetic (except the baby, of course). The mother obviously, is beyond unsympathetic, being so smug about her actions as to be entirely unlikeable. Even the father, a good father by most standards, is just bland to the point that I couldn’t really bring myself to care about him. Although we are shown bits of the doctor’s personal life (her interactions with her own young son, her efforts to relate to a father she’s only just met), none of these are enough to put any flesh on the character that might allow the reader to care about her, and are clearly just set pieces that try (and fail) to create some tension.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

puzzle pieces

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: An interesting study on identity and identity theft, reading this book is kind of like putting together a puzzle. At the beginning, you're reading three separate (and interesting) stories. Slowly, it becomes clear that the stories all fit together, although it takes a bit longer for the connections to emerge. To complicate things, we are not given the story entirely in chronological order, making it sort of like putting together a 3-D puzzle. Unfortunately, the same effort put into drawing the puzzle pieces was not put into the actual resolution of the book, but a little bit of imagination on the reader's part takes care of that.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

second sisterhood

3 Willows: The Sisterhood Grows by Ann Brasheres
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, YA
Review: It's impossible to evaluate this book without reference to Brashere's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Not only is the "Sisterhood" referenced in the title, but the Sisterhood itself figures in the story. In some ways, that's a good thing, serving to establish a setting with which readers are already familiar. In other ways, it's a bad thing, setting up expectations that aren't really fulfilled.

The first book of the Sisterhood is the story of a group of girls who have been friends since babyhood, and must learn how to continue their friendship as they spend their first summer apart. In 3 Willows, by contrast, the friendship among the three girls has started to unravel. Knowing what we know about the Sisterhood, the theme and resolution of this book, that old friendships are important even as we grow up, is somewhat predictable. Still, it's a good book, with each of the three girls well-drawn, sympathetic, and realistically written.