Monday, May 14, 2018

Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones (1985)

Fire And HemlockFire And Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To think, I almost put this book down. There is a very long section towards the beginning of the book that is a badly typewritten story on which parts of the plot depend (you find this out much later) but that is not very easy or enjoyable to read. I was going to throw Fire and Hemlock into the (small) heap of books labeled "books you hate by authors you love" but something - fate? good sense? literary adventure? boredom? undying love of DWJ? kept me going, and boy was I glad I did. Fire and Hemlock is really quite enthralling. Some of the time, you don't have the slightest idea what is even going on, but the characters grab you by the brain, the eyes, the soul, and keep pulling you into the story, not letting you go until the very last page. I kept having to go back and re-read bits and parts, to make sure I understood what was going on; I re-read the chapter twice, and I'm still not sure I understand the end (no spoilers though) A challenging story with a complicated and intricate plot, very unusual and/or unconventional characters and very smart humor (some of it too smart for me - although there was also a fart joke). Who would expect anything else from the majestic Diana Wynne Jones?

View all my reviews

Sunday, May 13, 2018

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner; narrated by Juliet Stevenson (2005, 2006)

When I originally read this in 2009, I came away enchanted.  I thought it was beautifully written and loved the book.  Listening to it on audio nine years later, I’m more unsure.  Juliet Stevenson is a strong narrator, with a soothing, gentle voice.  But I wasn’t as gobsmacked on the second reading.   The story is a Cinderella derivative, something I wasn’t paying attention to the first time I read it. I liked the Cromwellian Commonwealth period that serves at the backdrop of the story, which at times Gardner made seem quite unusual and in stark contrast to our own time.  The fairy aspect of the story was great too; I loved that.  But whenever we left the “real” world to enter the world of fairy, my interest waned.  I felt like fairy was just a medieval version of our own world, and the descriptions just didn’t do the world justice; I also did not like the romance between Coriander and the fairy prince.  It felt out of place, and to be honest, I didn’t even remember that part from the first time I read it.  Something about that first reading washed over me that just didn’t happen this time.  It was still a good book, just not the great book I remembered.

I, CorianderI, Coriander by Sally Gardner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Strong narration by Juliet Stevenson and a sweet, somewhat unusual Cinderella story. Gardner’s setting of Cromwellian England is occasionally shows the stark constrast between “now and then” and the consequences of not being a Puritan. Coriander is a beautifully written character as well, brought to life by Stevenson’s aural storytelling; most of Gardner’s other characters are vivid s well. But I found myself bored by a romantic aspect of the plot, which took up unnecessary space in an otherwise good story; this book felt like it had three endings, and I kept wondering if Gardner wasn’t quite sure where and when to stop. Still worth a listen though, particularly if you like historical fiction and fantasy combined.

View all my reviews

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of the War by Lynne Olson (2017)

I was hoping for the glamorous nightlight of Blitz London, which I did not get.  That was okay - I liked (most) of this book anyway.  It occasionally felt episodic - chapters did not naturally blend into one another, each one seemingly telling its own story.  One takeaway from the book was the wonder that D-Day succeeded at all, because British intelligence (at least in this book) was pretty shoddy (for example, the Germans tricked the English into believing their agents were safe for several years, when in fact they were under German control).  How D-Day was kept a secret is one of the wonders of modern history.  Another takeaway - Franklin Roosevelt was cunning and not very caring, particularly about Poland.  Czechoslovakia was bullshitted before the war, and then again after the war, which was tragic.  Roosevelt didn’t like / didn’t trust Charles de Gaulle, which was fascinataing. The book is full of fascinating and heroic individuals - Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands sticks out.  The most fascinating character to me, one who deserves a film (if there isn’t one already) is Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, a French resistance spy.  She was smuggled into Spain in a mail bag, escaped the Nazis twice (by one stripping completely naked and wiggling through the bars of her prison) and was described by one MI6 agent as having “Nefertiti-like beauty and charm.”  She ran the entire Alliance resistance network in one part of France  - unusual for a woman - and gave the Allies a “flood of top-level intelligence, including information about German coastal fortifications and German troop movements prior to D-Day.”  These individual stories made this book - the two teenage sisters who sabotaged a German train is another example.  There is a beautiful story of a British soldier caught behind enemy lines in the Netherlands who was openly sheltered by three Dutch sisters - that story, too, would make an incredible film .  

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I (mostly) liked this book. It feels episodic at time, with chapters butting up against one another rather than flowing into one another into a narrative that lives up to the title and subtitle of the book. But the individual stories of bravery and heroism that Olson relates (and much of it new to me) makes this book exciting and sometimes tragic. The book is heavy on heroes, which is nice, including figures like Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. The traditional villains of World War II - Hitler and Stalin - make only cameo appearances; Franklin Roosevelt, at least in the context of this book, has some villainous qualities (read the book and see for yourself). There are some great stories, some of which (I think) would make great films - a beautiful French spy who escaped Nazi capture twice (once stripping naked to wiggle through the bars of her prison) who eventually ran an entire network of espionage in occupied France, helping to win D-Day; a downed English pilot hidden in plain sight by three Dutch sisters. This book is definitely worth a read.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman (2007)

I missed this book in 2007, when it was a gay phenomenon.  We saw the movie and came away from it moved to tears, devastated, never wanting to see it again, loving it and living it.  The movie was so lush, so full of ripening sexuality, an ambrosial film, food for the soul.  But the book just did not do that for me.  I didn’t like the narrative style - I’m not a fan of that Virginia Woolf stream of consciousness, and I can’t think of one book I’ve ever read that is written in such a way that I enjoyed.  I did think that Aciman perfectly catches the feelings of that first love that consumes you, and the overwhelmingness of first realizing that as a man,you have sexual feelings and love for another man, the shame of those feelings, the wonder of those of feelings,  the “what the fuck” of those feelings, the eureka of those feelings.  Perfectly captured that.  But I just never could snag on to any string of narrative and pull myself into the story.  I’m glad the film ended where it did; I did not care for the ending of this book at all.  I’m sure I’ve missed something deep or literarily important or whatever.  But I was not a fan of this book.

All my friends on Goodreads who read this loved it.  UGH. I’m going to be an outlier.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The film was ambrosia. The book, for me, not so much. Aciman perfectly captures the the obsession of first real love; also, the intense feelings that young gay/bi men experience when they realize they the are attracted to and love other men. But I could never find an opening for me in the narrative to creep in and let the book wash over me and through me (which the film was able to do). I wasn’t bored exactly, but I also just never “got it.” 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary; illustrated by Louis Darling (1950)

The last time I read Henry Huggins was probably in fourth or fifth grade.  I know I’ve listened to some of the Ramona books (read by Stockard Channing) since then, but I don’t remember reading Henry Huggins.  If, indeed, I last read them in fifth grade, that was about 37 years ago.  I probably read Henry Huggins more than once (I re-read books and still do).  I’m amazed that after all these years, I remembered so much.  I didn’t remember all the kids names or every chapter, but some things  rushed back to me as I read it:  the green paint, the guppies.  The end, with its shades of King Solomon, I did remember, although reading it as an adult, something didn’t jibe with me.  The adult in me thought “Ribsy belongs to the other boy” and I felt sorry for him.  I think the kid reader of long ago cheered for Henry, and also that Henry’s friends  - even Scooter, even the girls - stood up for Henry, just like the kids in my neighborhood would have stood up for me.  They reminded me of us, 37 years ago, which is really how brilliant Beverly Cleary was:  she understood how kids thought, and damn squishy adult thoughts.

There are new illustrations for Henry Huggins that I hated.  I was reading this on my phone, and I actually went out and find a hard copy of Henry Huggins just so I could leaf through the old time photos and feel nostalgic.  Maybe kids needed new illustrations - but they were already old din 1979 when I read it, and someone they didn’t bother me then.  And I thought they looked out of date now.  That’s an adult talking again though; kids wont’ know any different and a childre’s novel is always more than just its pictures.

If Henry Huggins was in third grade in 1950, that means he was born about 1940 or 1941.  In 1950, the war had only been over for five years - even within Henry’s memory.  Yet the United States had moved on into the baby boom, and nothing even came up about the war in the book.  I thought that was interesting - and I wondered how true that was - five years later, was World War II already a fading memory?

Henry Huggins (Henry Huggins, #1)Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last time I read Henry Huggins was in elementary school - I’d say fourth or fifth grade. I loved (and still love) re-reading books, so I know I read it numerous times. I’m amazed at how much came back to me as I re-read it as a 48 year old adult: the Christmas pageant, the guppies, the nightcrawlers, the King Solomon ending. Beverly Cleary understood how kids think and act and feel about the world and each other. There is a scene in the last chapter when Beezus and Mary Jane are trying to be tight rope walkers, and Henry and Robert are watching them, and making fun of them for it, and I thought “That was us, back in 1979” all of the neighborhood kids; we would have been doing and saying those same things. That was 30 years after the book was written; here we are, nearly 70 years after the book was written, and I still think much of the book would resonate and read true. That was Beverly Cleary’s genius and why she is still in print: she understood what was going on in the minds of kids.

View all my reviews

Sunday, April 29, 2018

“My Mother’s Music” by Emily Buchwald (2016)

I love serendipity.  Serendity is a capacity, an emotion, a faculty, a virtue, a eureka, a thing unexpected.

It’s a beautiful word, one of the most beautiful in the English language.

It speaks to discovery, to delight.  Serendity can cure solace.

Serendity can be individual, can be together, can be kept as secret treasure, can be shared and enjoyed by all.

Each person’s idea of serendipity is as different as each snowflake. We all find joy in our own small corners.

Birds are serendipity to me.  Nature is full of serendipity.  Rocks.  Gnarled tree branches.  Moss and mushrooms.  New people who share the same delights as me are serendipitous.  A new idea.

A new poem.  “My Mother’s Music” was a serendity.  Happy and unxpected.  It’s not a happy poem, but it’s a beautiful poem.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by Williams Kuhn, read by Simon Prebble (2012)

Season Two of The Crown on Netflix is over.  Mrs. Queen Takes the Train was a fluffy, dumb way to get a Windsor high while waiting impatiently for the next season to begin.

This book was sort of like Love Actually crossed with The Queen crossed with It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with QEII standing in for the milllion dollars buried under the big W.

Dumb is fun, but it’s still dumb.

Mrs Queen Takes the TrainMrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If Love, Actually had a baby with The Queen, and then that baby had a baby with It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with QE2 standing in for the million dollars buried under a big W, then you have Mrs. Queen Takes the Train. It’s fluffy nonsense that will help pass the time now that Season 2 of The Crown is watched, and Season 3 is still a long wait off. Dumb is fun, but it is still dumb.

View all my reviews

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Crow Country by Mark Cocker (2007)

This book wasn’t what I wanted it to be.  My very urban neighborhood always has crows perched here and there, talking to one another, making strange clicking noises, cawing, watching us.  I love crows.  I wanted to learn more about crows.  I did not learn anything about American crows from this book.  That last statement sounds horribly petulant.  

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book was not what I wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book: it’s well written, if a bit slow going towards the end. But it just never clicked for me. 

The Wicked Wit of Queen Elizabeth II compiled by Karen Dolby (2015)

I was looking for some sort of throw away book that I could read quickly and in small, easily digested chunks on my phone as filler time for those times when I was waiting for something.  This definitely fit the bill.  I’m also watching The Crown on Netflix.  And listening to an audio book called Mrs. Queen Takes The Train - which is exactly about that (review to come later, as I’m not quite finished).  I’m consuming a variety of media about QE2.  I do enjoy reading about the Royal Family - throughout history, not just now.  This book was like a snack; an especially junk foody snack.

“The royal family are all very keen on ice in their drinks but apparently detest the sound of ice cubes chinking. As a result, they have a special machine to produce round ice balls, which make a softer, less irritating noise in the glass,” Karen Dolby tells us.  Wow.  Isn’t this the Windsors in a nutshell?  It’s very Trumpish.

The Wicked Wit of Queen Elizabeth IIThe Wicked Wit of Queen Elizabeth II by Karen Dolby
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I downloaded this book from the public library to my phone as a snack book: something to consume when the books I really want to read aren’t available for whatever reason. This isn’t some sort of healthy snack either; this is complete and total junk food. And not particularly the best kind of junk food either. Still, it served its purpose and whetted my appetite at various times. There is nothing much new here; if you want something meatier, there are heavy biographies galore out there waiting to be read; there is also The Crown. Here was the most interesting passage in the entire book, which sort of sums up the Windsors: “The royal family are all very keen on ice in their drinks but apparently detest the sound of ice cubes chinking. As a result, they have a special machine to produce round ice balls, which make a softer, less irritating noise in the glass.”

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Prairie Fires: the American Dream of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (2017)

In The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller, she writes (about The Chronicles of Narnia):  "A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang; their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friends and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of childhood."  Once upon a time, that's how Narnia was for me; that's also, at least for one long, hot summer in fourth or fifth grade, how the Little House books felt too.

 At some point, I realized that Narnia was a veiled portrait of Christianity.  Thinly veiled for some; I don't think my ten year old self was able to pick up on subtleties in literature (my 48 year old self has some trouble with that too, I must admit).   For some readers of Narnia, that fact was upsetting and destroyed the series for them.  That wasn't true for me; other than the (ghastly) The Last Battle (which I detest), the Christian allegory has always been just a side note to otherwise good books.  Whatever C.S. Lewis was trying to accomplish, he failed with me.  I did not become a Christian because of Narnia. 

Sometime in the last ten years or so, I found out that Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter Rose Lane Wilder - Laura and Almanzo's beloved baby - was one of the grandmothers of the Libertarian movement in the United States.  And that she heavily edited her mother's work (one Lane biographer said that Lane wrote all the books,  which is nonsense; there is plenty of proof that Laura was the main author). Lane and Wilder detested the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt (not unusual in their Missouri hometown though).  And that Libertarian values and anti-New Deal values wind their way through the books, particularly the later books.

Caroline Fraser's book is superb - the best, most well researched biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder I've ever read;  Fraser is a scholar of the Little House.  I enjoy reading books about books I love, particularly children's books.  This book made me so happy.  But I kept thinking, in the back of my mind, of Lane (and Wilder's) almost propaganda.  And their stretching the truth.  Sometimes to cover up tragedies of the past (the death of Freddie), sometimes to cover up dishonest dealings, of which there were a lot (Almanzo lying about his age; Pa and Ma skipping town to avoid paying a debt) and sometimes to push their own political agenda.  Fraser takes pains to point out several times that Pa and Ma weren't completely alone; the government was helpful to them at various times.  Fraser's Lane certainly left an unpleasant taste in my mouth.  She was dishonest throughout; she stole ideas from her mother; she wasn't particularly nice or helpful to her parents; she lied quite a bit about - well, everything.  Her journalistic standards were sub-par.  She had no qualms about making stuff up in her articles.  She had strange relationships with under-aged men.  To be honest, she sounds completely unhinged.  She did suffer from debilitating depression throughout her life; she also sounds bipolar.  Fraser never comes out and says that, but I would wonder what a modern diagnosis would say.

So Narnia's Christianity propaganda hasn't bothered me half as much as Lane's heavy hand in the Little House books.  She's there, over her mother's shoulder, constantly inserting her anti-government, Libertarian beliefs into the narrative.  It's far more subtle that Lewis's allegorical Christianization of Narnia, but it's definitely there.  To me, it's sort of taint on the Little House - mainly because Lane and Wilder claimed that they were telling a true story, when in reality they weren't.  They cherry picked some truth from Wilder's life to create a fictional series.  It was disingenuous of them to claim the books were true. 

It doesn't change my love for the Little House - I still consider these books sort of a history of my own people, some of whom made a similar journey from the upper Midwest to Kansas at about the same time.  But, even more than Narnia, I take them with a grain of salt.  A big grain of salt. 

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls WilderPrairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A superb book; Caroline Fraser's Little House scholarship is first-rate, and her writing is engaging. This book is perhaps for lovers of the Little House books rather than the television series, which she sort of eviscerates in the last chapter. This is not a love letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and especially not to her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Caroline Fraser does a great job of including the good, the bad and ugly of these two writers' lives and how they intertwined, for better or for worse. Neither women are particularly pleasant people, but I think it is Lane who gets more negative exposure here. And rightfully so -Fraser's careful research has revealed a woman who was at times dishonest, stole ideas from her mother for her own gain, and was a subpar journalist before becoming a sort of second-rate writer of fiction, then turning to half-baked political philosophy. Laura, sharp and mean, isn't a lovable grandmotherly writer - but then Laura from the books wasn't always very nice either, and never claimed to be otherwise. If you read the book series as a child, but nothing about it since, try re-reading the series then take a look at this book. It's very readable, not dry or boring, and will open your eyes to some of what was going on during the times of the fictional Laura Ingalls, and the real Laura Ingalls Wilder.

View all my reviews

Friday, April 13, 2018

The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts; narrated by Simon Vance (1990; 2008)

I've read The King's Gambit before - almost ten years ago.  I like listening to audio versions of books I've read and enjoyed, and I had devoured each book in this series like homemade Christmas fudge.  Steven Saylor - who I also love - wrote a mystery series that takes place in the same time and place (Rome during the time of Julius Caesar).  I wonder if Decius and Gordinanus ever ran into each other snooping around the Subura or the baths?  They are such different kinds of detectives; the books have different flavors too.  Roberts is wittier, lighter; Saylor is darker, grittier.  Yet both have a noir-ish quality too.  Certainly The King's Gambit has some classic noir tropes - a femme fatale, toughs and tough talk, a piece of jewelry serving as a important part of the mystery (a Roman falcon).  The farther into the series you read, the better the books get (or so I recall); Saylor works that way too.  Simon Vance was a great narrator; I've heard his voice before - he narrated Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel which I loved to pieces, in large part due to Vance.  Because the book is an older Decius talking about his younger self in first person - Vance uses his great skill to both voice the older Decius, and then "youthens" his voice slightly (I don't know how else to describe this) to become a younger version of the older self.  To me, that's really quite brilliant narration.  I've practiced in reading aloud - it was my job as a children's librarian for many years - but I don't think I could have pulled off that stunt.  Vance also narrates women's' voices really well too - which I think it difficult for male narrators to prevail at. 

The King's Gambit (SPQR, #1)The King's Gambit by John Maddox Roberts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read The King's Gambit many years ago (so long ago I couldn't remember whodunnit); I enjoy listening to audio versions of books I have enjoyed in the past. I loved this series; the audio version was just extra chocolate chips in the cookie. The King's Gambit is a bit noir-ish; there is first person detective Decius (in this case reminiscing about the past), a femme fatale (actually two), lots of tough talking thugs, at least three murders, and a piece of jewelry (a "Roman falcon") on which the plot hinges. I say "noir-ish" because this book also has a lightness and wit about it that's missing in the heaviest of noir fiction. Decius has a sense humor about the whole thing that shines through and makes him a delightful character (this humor is played out even more in later books). For a compare and contrast of two excellent series set in the same time period, try some Steven Saylor. Simon Vance is a superb narrator; he also narrated a kick ass version of Bring Up the Bodies.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 9, 2018

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (2004)

I started reading Hamilton on January 9, 2018.

I'm officially giving up today.

I've read over half the book - I guess.  But I'm done.

Ron Chernow is amazing.  His book is exhaustively researched and detailed to the nth degree. 

But I can only take so much Alexander Hamilton.

I only picked it up because a dear friend read it and suggested it - we are all going to see the musical next month.

I think four months is long enough to read a book.  I've moved on.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Not in Front of the Corgis: Secrets of Life Behind the Royal Curtains by Brian Hoey (2011)

Not in Front of the Corgis: Secrets of Life Behind the Royal CurtainsNot in Front of the Corgis: Secrets of Life Behind the Royal Curtains by Brian Hoey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The writing in this book reminded me of one of those old time, small town society columns in which the local grand dame - maybe the mayor's wife - writes about bridge clubs and garden clubs; the column always ended "and a good time was had by all" only about Buckingham Palace. The writing also reminded me of report fodder, if you were going to write a school report on the royal family, which is highly unlikely. I was not a fan. Yet for some reason, I kept reading (I will admit, I skimmed some). There were some delicious bits at the beginning and again at the end; but this was mostly the lintiest most dustybunniest kind of fluff.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy by Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley (2017)

I started listening to Jack Benny's old time radio show on Spotify a few years ago.  I love it.  I think Jack Benny is a genius; his show always reminds me of Thirty Rock..  Jack Benny (the character) and Liz Lemon are cousins for sure.  I wanted to know more about Jack Benny and his show - what went into it, who the actors were, where the meta humor originated, what it was like back then making a radio show.  I did as much research as I could, read Joan Benny's biography of her father.  And then found this book.  Thank you Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley for an excellent book.  It's an academic book, but it certainly doesn't read like one.  It's never dry - at least to me,  and quite fascinating.  Fuller-Seeley doesn't shy away from the controversial topics of the time either - namely race and gender.  This isn't a love fest.  But it is pretty darn cool if you like Jack Benny.

Jack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio ComedyJack Benny and the Golden Age of American Radio Comedy by Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Jack Benny's old time radio shows (you can find them on Spotify and various places online). The more I listened, the more I wanted to know about Benny, his cast, and the ideas that went into making his comedy. But there wasn't a whole lot of places to go - until this book. Fuller-Seeley's scholarly work was like rain in the desert, and I came away completely sated. She is academic without ever being too dry; she also tackles some of the messier aspects of the show (race and gender, for example) - this isn't a love fest. But you can tell she loves the radio program, that certainly shines through. This book isn't for everyone; but if you like Benny, you're going to like this book.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

El huevo del erizo byI Nozomi Takahashi (2012)

The library at which I work got in a bunch of new Spanish picture books, so I picked up a stack to look at this.  This was the first one that caught my eye because the cover illustration looked both cute and modern.  My Spanish is very minimal - I know some basic library words, and some swear words.  I don’t think you can live in Southern California for nearly 20 years and not pick up a smattering of Spanish, but I generally can’t understand what people are trying to ask or tell me.  Reading Spanish is another story through - particularly a picture book.  You can infer much from the pictures; my college French comes in handy; and English and the Romance languages are cousins, so some Spanish words look enough like English to get me through.  Google translate was a friend in this process too.

Translating the book was more fun that actually reading the book.  The illustrations ended up being fine - not spectacular, but also not terrible either.  The plot was simple and funny, as a picture book plot should be, without much to write home about.

 (I learned something new; this book was in Spanish, translated, I guess, from French:  the hedgehog, howevever, still cries in French.  Ouinnnnn!  the hedgehog cries, which is French for the sound a baby makes when it cries.).

El huevo del erizoEl huevo del erizo by Nozomi Takahashi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hedgehogs are cute. Hedgehogs who want their own eggs to incubate are adorable. This book is a mishmash of cute and adorable.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Logical Famly: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin (2017)

When I was a little baby homosexual, newly out (or nearly newly out at least) of the closet, I read Tales of the City.  I may have even read the next book in the series.    I don’t remember all that much about it, to be completely honest (this was 25 years ago).  It was during a reading time in my life when I wanted to read books by and about gay and lesbian authors.  I checked it out from the public library, because I couldn’t afford to buy books.  And I remember the plot twist about Anna Madrigal (and wasn’t her name an anagram?).  I don’t remember disliking the book(s).

“My youth would be.... the slow decay of cherished myths—about politics and race, about love itself—until nothing was left but compost from which something authentic could finally begin to grow,” he writes, in one of the more beautiful passages in the book.  This was particularly true for him.  His southern upbringing was filled with the casual homophobia and intended or unintended cruelties that many gay men endured - and still do.  When Maupin was a young adult, being gay was a crime, and a far more shameful thing than the freer times of today.  It’s still not easy to grow up a gay man, but doors have opened. This is in large part due to the deeds of men like Maupin, who were pioneers and fighters in battles for equality, some of which have now been won.

Maupin’s memoir was mostly a good read - I say mostly because 1) I don’t tend to even like memoirs (This was for my book club) and 2) I thought the first half of the book was more powerful and interesting than the second half.  He’s a genial name dropper but in the best kind of way.  No names were redacted or changed, and Maupin’s fame meant he was friends with quite a few people.  Rock Hudson! Christopher Isherwood!  He also brushed up against a whole box of 20th century gay icons or anti-gay villains.  Harvey Milk!  Jesse Helms (he worked for him as a young man)!

San Francisco was the kind of gay Mecca that no longe exists, and Maupin writes lovingly of living there.  He also writes about that idea of young adult creating their own families, something I think many gays of a certain age run up against.  “Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives.”  Maupin was lucky; too many of us have trouble finding this, and being without a biological family in close proximity can be lonely.

Logical Family: A MemoirLogical Family: A Memoir by Armistead Maupin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maupin’s memoir was a pretty good read; I thought the first half of this was better than the second. Maupin, being who he is, rubbed elbows or at least brushed up against quite a few equally or more famous people in his lifetime, and he’s not afraid to genially drop their names. Rock Hudson! Christopher Isherwood! Laura Linney! It made the book fun, and while there is definitely a feeling of bragging going on - isn’t that what memoirs are for? To brag and air some dirty laundry. Maupin does both, and fun was had by all.

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)

I’ve read Deathless twice, and each time has been a rich literary feast.  Valente is a superb at her craft; paragraphs are like fine dining here, with each word carefully chosen and mixed and baked and prepared, then all placed before you.  This time I paid close attention to names: like magic, names and words have meaning here.  “Marya Morevna”, for example, is a fairy tale character from Russian folklore; “Marya” of course is a derivative of the name “Mary” which, among other things, means “from the sea” (Marya is originally from St. Petersburg, the fantastic port city of Russia) and “bitter” and “rebellion” - all of which describe the main character.  Valente has been thoughtful like that throughout - although I did need to google quite a few things as I went along.

When trying to explain what this book is about, I’m always saying “It’s the Russian Revolution told through the point of view of Russian folktale characters like Baba Yaga.”  It’s indeed that, but even more so, it’s the story of Russia.  I read that the three bird suitors at the beginning describe types of revolutionaries and also classes.  There is, of course, the archetypical Russian village Yaichka.  And then there is this line:

“ I think maybe Russia had two husbands, too, and one was rich and one was poor, one old and one young, and the poor husband shot the rich husband in the chest, and all his daughters, too. He was braver than I am.”

I liked this puzzle aspect of Deathless, and its literary lyrical quality, and how each reading was something slightly different.  And how not everything was instantly knowable or made sense; this book has to be savored, and some of the tastes are completely unfamiliar and unknowable.

Marya’s sisters are the same names as that of the daughters of the last Tsars.  I think I missed that the first time.
Deathless (Leningrad Diptych, #1)Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read Deathless twice; each time I’ve come away from Valente’s literary Russian feast totally sated from its richness, its baroque lusciousness. Deathless is a retelling of a beloved Russian folktale (it’s in Andrew Laing’s Red Fairy Book); it’s also a retelling of the Russian Revolution as it happened to all of these Russian fairy tale characters (and so much better than Animal Farm); it’s also an Alice in Wonderland history of Russia in the early 20th century. I love the lyrical literary writing; I love the puzzle the book is. Like magic, names have deeper meanings - Valente chooses everything with care (Google translate was helpful here; a smattering of Russian history may be helpful too). Not everything works - but Valente’s fine writing skill and craftsmanship makes even the occasional bit of plot clunkiness a joy to read.

View all my reviews

Friday, March 9, 2018

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie (1936)

First UK edition
I've read The ABC Murders before.  What I remember from the book so many years before was being disappointed by the ending.  It all seemed to so unbelievable and so pat.  I did not read Agatha Christie chronologically when I was in seventh and eighth grades; I read them in whatever order I could get my hands on. I used to own at least 25 paperback versions that I would save up and purchase (which I stupidly got rid of about ten years ago; dumb dumb dumb me); or what I could check out at the library.  I am almost certain I wanted ABC Murders to be another Ten Little Indians/And
Then There Were None
.  That novel had a serial killing psychopath (no spoilers here though), and I wanted the same kind of serial killer in The ABC Murders as well.  The book starts off that way, but it just didn't end up where I wanted it to.  It was Ten Little Indians.

Of course, The ABC Murders was written several years before The ABC Murders, and perhaps Agatha took some lessons from one and applied them to the other?

Here is my favorite line from the book.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A weird and gripping book; Christie plays around with narrative in such interesting ways, far more than I think she's ever given credit for. Although I don't believe she ever uses the word "serial killer" in the novel, she has her characters - including the famous Hercule Poirot - discuss the motives and psyche of serial killers. She uses language - and tropes - when discussing these types of killers that writers of fiction, and script writers, still use today. Did Agatha Christie invent the fictional serial killer? This isn't my favorite Christie, but I still enjoyed it (even, if only for this time, she didn't keep me guessing until the end). 

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne Jones; narrated by Gerard Doyle (1988, 2006)

Adult characters in the books of Diana Wynne Jones are often obtuse, usually stupid, occasionally uncaring or neglectful, and almost always completely unaware of how children act and think.    Lives of Christopher Chant has all of these adults in spades - it's mostly grown ups in this world - plus a couple of purely evil characters.   A sociopath  and also a tyrant, both of who are really disturbing.  Her children aren't all sugar and spice and everything nice either - Christopher Chant has terrible parents, and he can't help being a bit terrible himself.  But at least he's aware of it.

This wasn't ever one of my most favorite in the Chrestomanci series, but I have to say, Gerard Doyle's narration made this a superb listen. He's really able to bring out the very best of what Diana Wynne Jones has to offer.

I'm always sad when I finish one of her books, because I want them to go on forever; I also am sad because she is no longer with us, and there won't BE ANYMORE.  That's a horrid, horrid thought.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Gerard Doyle, once again, superbly brings to life the world of Jones and Chrestomanci.

I'm always so sad when one of her books ends; I want them to go on forever. It's also horrid to think that there won't be any more Diana Wynne Jones books ever again. That's always a sobering thought for me. I'm certainly an addict: I want an endless supply, one after the other.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 edited with an introduction by Karen Joy Fowler; John Joseph Adams, editor (2016)

I didn’t like the first short story in this collection (and e-book I purchased), so I kept putting off reading it.  That was a mistake.  Almost every other story was enthralling.

“The Game of Smash and Recovery” by Kelly Link -  weird and puzzling, in all the best kinds of ways.

“Interesting Facts” by Adam Johnson - I sobbed; so moving and sad

“Planet Lion” by Catherine M. Valente - I just finished Valente’s Deathless (literally a few moments ago); I appreciate Valente’s writing so much.  It’s careful and exquisite and lovely and moving, even if I don’t always understand it.  Her writing always sucks me in.

“The Mushroom Queen” by Liz Ziemska - I think this was the best story in the whole lot; it was really weird and cool.  That ending - man alive - so good!

“No Placeholder for You, My Love” by Nick Wolven - a very old fashioned kind of science fiction short story that reminded me of Robert Silverberg - but in all the good ways.

“Things You Can Buy For a Penny” by Will Kaufman - this vies for my favorite; I loved this new folktale.

“Rat Catcher's Yellows” by Charlie Jane Anders - Anders near future forecasting is frighteniningly real and also often funny as hell.  This story definitely sits in the same universe as All the Birds in the Sky, even if nothing in that other book is ever mentioned or referenced.   Anders has a distinct literary voice, a voice I usually like.

“Three Bodies at Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson - another one that was puzzling and weird and sort of wonderful, and also sort of like a really good Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, only from the point of view of the advanced aliens.

It’s better to tout the good things in this book that talk about the few stories I didn’t care for, so I’m going to leave it at that.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016 by John Joseph Adams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The stories in this collection that I deeply dug far outweighed the stories I found ho-hum. This was a strong and good collection of the best of that particular year. If, for some reason, you are only going to choose and read three stories from this book (a mistake but...) then I highly recommend Liz Ziemska’s “The Mushroom Queen” (a wow of a story, really amazing); Will Kaufman’s “Things You Can Buy for a Penny” (a new folktale that’s wonderfully well written), and Seth Dickinson’s “Three Bodies at Mitanni” (it’s like a rad episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, only told from the point of view of the strange advanced alien civilization). Honorable mention for me is Charlie Jane Anders’s “Rat Catcher’s Yellows” - this writer has frighteningly real forecasts of the near future but always with some wit and humor (and maybe hope); Anders has a point of view and literary voice that shines very bright.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 23, 2018

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan by Ashley Bryan (2016)

In what seems like long ago, in a far away galaxy, I was a children's librarian.  It actually wasn't all that long ago - six years - but it seems like an eternity.  I'm now a library administrator - and let's be brutally honest, that's not the most glamorous of jobs - but I still read some children's literature, particularly picture books.  I used to eagerly look forward to the Newbery and Caldecott award announcements.  I was often at the midwinter conference where they were announced; once I was at the announcement, although that was always quite early in the morning.  I would then make sure my library had all the books, and if not, I would order them.  And I'd often read most if not all of the books.  That life is now behind me.  

Freedom Over Me was a Newbery honor book as well as Coretta Scott King honor book.  I didn't realize this until I looked it up online - part of the fall out of not being a children's librarian.  I never know the new books.  I also read this on my phone - and wasn't able to see the neat little medal on the front cover.  I did take a gander at a physical copy, but only briefly.  

Reading a picture book on your phone is just NOT the best way to read a picture book.  You definitely miss out on nuance, and also on grandeur.  It just looks flat and mostly unattractive.  Even so, I could tell this was a lovely, and moving book.  

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sad, grand book. Ashley Bryan's illustrations are vibrant, sumptuous, spirited. They draw you into the real lives and dream lives of the eleven slaves Bryan is writing about and creating art about. You feel their pain, learn their stories, feel their joy. A real masterpiece.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild (1966)

I bid on and won this beautiful old copy in a silent auction of books at a library; it is an old elementary school copy.  I’m loving old library copies right now; there is something comforting about owning an old book that had been loving held by many hands and read eagerly by many eyes.  I’m buying altogether too many of them - although, is there such a thing as “too many books?”  I don’t think so.  I want to be surrounded by books for the rest of my life.

The book may be a lovely object, but I have to admit, I didn’t particularly care for it.  Four children are forced by dire circumstances - a deathly ill father far away from London in Asia, and a mother who has to go tend to him and bring him home - to say with a mad aunt in the wilds of Ireland (circa 1966).   Sounds like fun, but something about my pesky modern sensibilities made me question much of what was going on.  I recognize this mad aunt from my own childhood - she’s a cross between my reclusive, witch-like elderly neighbor growing up and my very dramatically creative art teacher from the same time period.  But no modern parent would run off and leave her children with such an unknown quantity today.  That’s grinchy of me, I do understand that.  But there was plenty about this book I just didn’t buy.  The characters seemed undeveloped, and their annoyance at this mad aunt throughout the book, instead of annoying me, was completely understandable.  I, too, would not have wanted to stay at a dirty, scary house with a crazy woman.  There is also this nutty, unbelievable subplot with a boy trying to escape from an unnamed communist country hiding out in the aunt’s house that just seemed really extra to me - why in was it even there?  I know Noel Streatfeild is beloved - I tried and failed to read Ballet Shoes (or maybe I was trying to listen to is?  I don’t remember), but I don’t think I can count myself as a fan.

Who I am a fan of?  Edward Ardizzone.  He’s one of my favorite illustrators.  He’s the reason I bought the book in the first place, and why I kept on reading.  Among many books, he illustrated one of my top favorites, Eleanor Estes’s Pinky Pye.  His illustrations are pen and ink (I think), and I’m not sure why  I love them so much - I just do.  I think I would call them “impressionistic” except I don’t know if I’m right about that or not.

The Magic SummerThe Magic Summer by Noel Streatfeild
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t think I’m a fan of Noel Streatfeild. I didn’t particularly care for this book; I thought the characters were disjointed and the plot was unbelievable - and not in a magic way. The cover of this book says that it is “a story of mystery and adventure in Ireland” - which was patently untrue (at least to me).

Who I am a fan of is the illustrator, Edward Ardizzone - it was he who kept me reading until the end. I purchased this as a lovely old used library copy, and as an object of art, this is a beautiful book. Ardizzone’s illustrations are elegant little pen and ink impressionistic portraits and scenes. I’m not suggesting skipping the book and just looking at the pictures. But I know I liked the pictures much better than the actual book.

View all my reviews

Friday, February 9, 2018

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (2015)

This book has buzzed like a hornet's nest for two years.  A good friend from my book club read and revered Uprooted last year.  It's definitely been on my radar.  I'm glad I finally got to it, because it was really great! 

It has a very intense plot.  Nominally a fantasy book, there are elements of horror that pop up here and there - giant walking sticks and preying mantises that rip off people's heads, enchanted wolves and boars that rip open unsuspecting villagers.  There are strands of ideas from other books and folklore that run through Uprooted as well - Beauty and the Beast immediately will come to mind (which has its own elements of horror); I think the modern reader will also see a bit of The Hunger Games as well (John Christopher Tripod series also came to mind, but that allusion is a bit more unknown). Stephen King's IT has some similarity (the idea of the valley that's under the spell of this evil entity for generations; again with the horror).  But what I was most reminded of, again and again, was Tolkien's Old Forest.  I don't know Novik's influences (this is the first book I've ever read by her), but surely Tolkien played some part in her literary upbringing.  This isn't a copy of Tolkien - I would have thrown THAT book down in disgust - and not really an homage either.  Rather, the spirit of the Old Forest haunts the novel; it sort of like she asked herself at the very beginning "What if I wrote a book about the Old Forest" and then just went with it, whole hog.  The Old Forest in Tolkien isn't ever as terrifying as Novik's Wood - but it could have been.  Old Man Willow would be right at home in the Wood, and The Spindle and the Withywindle could be the same river (Mirkwood's enchanted streams start in this place too).  

I also though the title was germane - this concept of being uprooted really flows throughout the novel in a clever way.  The word is mentioned three times: 

And even before then, it occurred to me in a flash of bitterness, he had meant to steal her for himself—he’d meant to take her as much as the Wood had, to devour her in his own way. He hadn’t cared about uprooting her life before, making her a prisoner in a tower, only to serve him—why would he care now, why would he ever risk letting her out?

"I looked up into Kasia’s face, hungry for one last sight of her, but the Wood looked out of her eyes at me: black rage, full of smoke, burning, roots planted too deep to uproot. Kasia still held her own hands away from my throat."

“Do you?” Alosha said. “Tell me, if I said to uproot every person living in your valley, to move them elsewhere in the kingdom and abandon it all to the Wood, save them and let it all go; would you come away?” I stared at her. “Why haven’t you already left, for that matter?” she added. “Why do you keep living there, in that shadow? There are places in Polnya that aren’t haunted by evil.”

You think, at the beginning, that "uproot" is about Agnieszka being uprooted from her home and forced to live as a slave of some sort to the Dragon - but it soon becomes clear that the word "uprooted" has some literal meanings that relate to the Wood.  I really liked this imagery.

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A complex plot; precise, imaginative writing; memorable characters; and a setting that both feels familiar and unusual made this a splendid read. Nominally a fantasy book, Uprooted has shades of horror haunting its edges (for example, giant man eating walking sticks). There are strands of folklore and fantasy running through the novel too - Beauty and the Beast for sure, but most notably Tolkien's Old Forest. There is noting derivative here though: Novik's novel is fresh and original, exciting and unexpected. Excellent and clever writing; I liked the imagery throughout. Definitely deserves the recognition it's received since being published. 

View all my reviews

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (2017)

About a fourth of the way through, I thought this book was kind of dumb but fun.  The plot was engaging; Scalzi had done a pretty good job of setting up this believable world of an empire in space connected by a “flow” that space ships can travel in and beat the long distances without any  Einsteinian problems.    I still don’t really understand how the “flow” works - but to be completely honest, I don’t really care.  In science fiction there is “science” and there is “fiction” and I’m always much more interested in the fiction part than the science part, as long as the science is plausible and (mostly) believable.  I am pretty sure this is what you would call a “space opera” which to me is always the type of book (or film) that sits neatly with Star Trek and Star Wars - adjacent galaxies in the same universe.  The last science fiction book I read and really enjoyed was Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and at no point in that book would Luke Skywalker or Jean Luc Picard fly up in a ship to say in hi or beam aboard.  But the Enterprise could easily dock at “End” or “The Hub” in The Collapsing Empire, and the reader would not even blink.


The big secret in the book is that “The flow” is collapsing - which will eventually lead to the collapse of the empire (hence the title); I realized (and you will too) that this collapse was a sort of metaphor for our own collapsing climate.  In this first book in the series, we don’t yet know the consequences of the collapse (it’s just beginning).  The same as we are living through right now - once we pour through the climate change funnel, what WILL the world look like?

The book feels a bit like Dallas or Dynasty in space, which could be a bad thing isn’t the wrong hands.  But Scalzi is a fun writer; his world building is pretty sound, his characters are soapy and wonderful, his plot engaging.  I think I’ll read book 2, out in Fall 2018.

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency #1)The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In 2018, can I still compare a piece of literature or art to Dynasty or Dallas? I expected the very last page to have a door open to reveal J.R. Ewing as the mastermind behind all the drama in the book. This is a night time space opera, with lots of drama and sex and a cast of characters that would feel equally welcome at the helm of a spaceship or shopping at Neiman Marcus with Sue Ellen Ewing (after which they get into a fight and throw one another into a duck pond). I find Scalzi to be enjoyably soapy and pulpy - but there is a needle in the midst of this that pokes the reader and reminds us, soberly, of or our own current “collapsing empire.” Even with (or perhaps especially because of) that bit of a bite, this is still great fun.

View all my reviews

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones (1980)

All Diana Wynne Jones books are complex reads.  The plots are intricate puzzles, the characters are delightfully quirky; the settings unique; the ideas and world building out of the ordinary.  There are some writers I ponder - where did they get this idea?  Diana Wynne Jones is probably number one in this respet for me; I'm always intrigued and gobsmacked at the genius of her plots and settings.  Magicians of Caprona is no exception.  Did she go see Romeo and Juliet, or read it, and hear "two houses, both alike in dignity... from ancient grudge break to new mutiny" and think "A-ha, I can set my next Chrestomanci book THERE.  But not exactly..." and her pen begins scribbling and scribbling (or typing and typing or however she wrote) and out comes this astonishing book.

And it's a book for kids.  This complicated book, complete with a Latin song towards the end, is a book for kids.

Jones is so much better than Roald Dahl.  She's better than Rowling too.  Or at least equal. 

Let's not kid ourselves here though:  Jones isn't for EVERY kid.  Jones is for smart kids, kids who not only love to read, but also love to explore, who love language, who understand a bit of history, who have quirky senses of humor.

Magicians of Caprona is also sort of scary, in several parts.  The villain is really quite terrifying - especially at the end.  There is a terrible, terrible scene involving a Punch and Judy show that was also scary as hell: listening to it read aloud (by Gerard Doyle, excellent narrator) was particularly horrifying. 

Diana Wynne Jones is really a miraculous writer; addictive.  I never want her books to end; I always want them to last and last.

The Magicians of Caprona (Chrestomanci, #4)The Magicians of Caprona by Diana Wynne Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to Gerard Doyle's narration; I think Gerard Doyle could read license plate numbers and I'd be happy. He's marvelous.

Diana Wynne Jones is marvelous too. I've only met a few of her books that I haven't been head over heels in love with - and this is NOT one of those. Magicians of Caprona is classic Jones: intricate, quirky, complicated (in a really great way), packed with complex characters - most of whom never act like they are "supposed to." I kept wondering - as I often do when reading her books - where these magical, marvelous ideas of hers come from. At some point, I suppose she either saw or read Romeo and Juliet, and particularly that famous beginning glowed bright in her mind: "two houses, both alike in dignity... from ancient grudge break to new mutiny" and thought "There is a Chrestomanci story in the world next door to this." And so her pen (or typewriter or word processor) starts churning the cream of her imagination into this rich, satisfying short novel. For children. Not a novel for stuffy old grown ups like me - Jones worshipper that I am - but for nine and ten and eleven year olds. That is what is particularly amazing about Jones: she always understood what children - especially children who love to read - wanted to read about, and never underestimated them. No dumbing down here: which is what makes her such a delight to read as a grown up.

View all my reviews

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Death in the Air by Agatha Christie (1935)

First American edition
Some Agatha Christie books I read in junior high are gems of my reading history:  I remember them fondly, and re-read them over and over again:  Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None, all of the Marple books.  A few, like Crooked House or Cat Among the Pigeons, I remember being amazed by but don't recall ever reading again (I probably didn't own paperback copies of these particular books but checked them out from the library). Then, there were a very few books like Death in the Air that I distinctly remember NOT liking at all (there aren't very many of these that stick out; in fact, I can ONLY think of Death in the Air off the top of my head). I don't remember why I didn't like Death in the Air. I just knew, in my little grey cells, that as I read all of Christie, I would eventually come to this book that I knew I didn't like. So when the time came, and I started and the book, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it wasn't THAT bad.
The edition I read

Not being "that bad" isn't the highest of praise; and this isn't her best book. I think quite likely I wanted the travel books to be as good as Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile - but Death in the Air just can't ever compete. The cast of characters in both of these is so rich; the mystery was so satisfying. That just wasn't true with Death in the Air.

What I did like about Death in the Air was Agatha Christie gently poking fun at herself, her profession, and her husband's profession. This is definitely my 7th grade self was unable to catch on to way back when. The murder weapon of choice in this particularly book was a poison dart blown through a tube - and Inspector Japp, among others, spends some time scoffing at how fantastic this sounds. It does, and Christie knows it. One of the suspects is a mystery writer with peculiar habits; he is no Ariadne Oliver, but he still was amusing. There were two archaeologist on board the airplane; she gently ribs their profession and how engaged they could become in talking about their work. "You can't write anything too sensational,"
cool paperback edition
Christie has her mystery writer say at one point. "Especially when you're dealing with the arrow poison of the South American Indians. I know it was snake juice really, but the principle is the same. After all, you don't want a detective story to be like real life? Look at the things in the papers - dull as ditch water."

Death in the Clouds (Hercule Poirot, #12)Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is not a masterpiece of mystery like Murder on the Orient Express - for starters, it lacks the rich cast of characters and complex plot of that particular book. It's still a reasonably good mystery - I certainly did not know "whodunnit" until Hercule Poirot revealed all at the very end (you would think if you were a murderer, and Hercule Poirot invited you over to "reveal all", you would skip town; but I guess all Chrisitie-n murderers are narcissists who are absolutely secure in their own superiority and ability to "get away with it"). I particularly liked this peak into 1930s air travel - planes had names like ships, and were very chic; I also loved Christie poking fun at her own profession on numerous occasions - including a best selling murder mystery writer as one of her suspects - AND that of her profession of her husband - including a pair of archaeologists. "You can't write anything too sensational," Christie has her mystery writer suspect say at one point. "Especially when you're dealing with the arrow poison of the South American Indians. I know it was snake juice really, but the principle is the same. After all, you don't want a detective story to be like real life? Look at the things in the papers - dull as ditch water." I heartily agree.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013)

I am not a Jane Austen stan.  I have read Pride & Prejudice one time, I've seen the Colin Firth as Darcy, Saffy from Ab Fab as Lydia, and Cicero from HBO's Rome  as Mr. Collins version one time, and watched the Keira Knightley movie once. I've seen Sense & Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant at least one time too.   I've also seen about three minutes of the movie version of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.  I watched a BBC doc with the inestimable Lucy Worsley that was about Jane Austen - but you know what:  I don't  remember a thing about it.   Now you know my exact relationship to Jane Austen (to be completely honest, I sometimes mix up the Austens and the Brontes, which makes me a terrible, terrible English major). 

 I didn't realize that Longbourn was an adaptation - of sorts - of Pride & Prejudice until I started reading it.  This is a full disclosure type of blog post - I put Longbourn on my reading list originally because I saw a poster at a library that showed a list of books that were similar to Downton Abbey.  I may or may not have still been watching Downton Abbey at that time (we never watched the last seasons) but I knew I liked reading Upstairs Downstairs types of books.  When I listed the book, I probably knew it was about the Bennets' servants - Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, her husband, Sarah and Polly the maids, and James Smith, the mysterious new footman.  But I promptly forgot all about that until I picked it up.

Initially, I wasn't impressed, and found it hard going.  I remembered only the barest details (that everyone with a bit of cultural literacy knows) from Pride & Prejudice - character names, their relationships to one another, the neighbors.  Characters kept appearing that would spark in my memory (Lady Catherine de Burgh - oh yeah!) but I couldn't always remember what they actually did or didn't do in the book.  I completely forgot about one sister (Kitty?  Who was the fuck was Kitty in the movies?).  I have no idea what parties or balls or dinners or whatever they attended in the book. The author carefully matched up whatever the Bennet girls were doing - attending a dinner at the Bingleys', for example - with what their servants had to go through to make that happen.   But because I wasn't all that familiar with source material, the sense of wonder someone who was familiar and who was reading the book escaped me. 

 At some point, I put that all aside, and just decided to read the book without thinking all that much about Pride & Prejudice - because I started to enjoy it, and wonder what was going to happen to the main characters.  The Bennets and other characters from Pride & Prejudice are really ghosts in this book, flitting in and out of rooms and scenes, to cause chaos of various sorts.  Some prior knowledge of Pride & Prejudice is probably necessary, but you don't have to be an expert to enjoy the book.  (knowing that Pride marries Prejudice at the end, though - that helps; Jane marrying Bingley; Lydia running away with the vile Wyckham (he's terrible in this book, beyond creepy - all of this helps). 

Jo Baker really brought home the dismal, backbreaking, and disgusting work of the servant class of the 19th century:  the chillblains, and cleaning sanitary napkins and dirty diapers, the backbreaking work, the capriciousness of the ruling class towards their servants.  While not exactly slaves, the Bennet servants often seem that way. 

There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more.  I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over.  I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more. 

LongbournLongbourn by Jo Baker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not an Austen stan. Sometimes, I even mix up the Brontes and the Austens. I now that makes me anathema. But I have read (and watched) Pride and Prejudice, once (for each), and that was enough to make Jo Baker's book really quite enjoyable. I didn't quite realize that the book was an adaptation (of sorts) - Pride and Prejudice from the servant's viewpoint (sort of). That could have made it terrible, but the servants are all injected with the life and energy that Jane Austen herself left out of them when she wrote the into being 200 years or so ago. Jo Baker gave them names and backstories and drama (but not soap opera drama). She also reminded us again and again how awful, how literally shitty (washing baby diapers by hand and slipping and falling into pig shit are just two examples) the lives of servants were in the 19th century. All those tea parties and Regency balls took a lot of work, struggle, pain, chilblained hands, aching backs by men and women whose last names weren't Bennet or Bingley, or didn't have Lady in front of their name. There are a couple of truly wonderful plot twists that made me even love the book more. I'm sure everyone else who read this book saw these less as "twists" and more of bits of obvious plotting, but I for one was completely and pleasantly bowled over. I like it when books can do that, and this brought my esteem of this book up even more.

View all my reviews

Monday, January 8, 2018

Collected Short Stories: Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham (1951)

This book took me FOREVER to finish.  I've been reading the damn thing since October.  I have to admit, I didn't read each and every short story very carefully; I wasn't equally impressed with all of them.  For one thing - caveat emptor - some of the stories have some overt racism that's not at all pleasant to read.  Perhaps Maugham himself wasn't racist but many of his characters were.  That was ugly reading.

Many of the stories are like epigrams - they are witty, and have amusing, often surprise-twist endings.

I especially liked "The Voice of the Turtle" about an opera singer; "Mr Know All" (about the know it all on the Trans Atlantic trip); "A String of Beads" (which was so incredibly witty and also meta); and "Louise" (which was dry and droll in all the best ways, very  Nancy Mitford - or is Nancy Mitford very Somerset Maugham?)

Collected Short Stories: Volume 1Collected Short Stories: Volume 1 by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of these short stories are difficult to read in their overtly racist characters and tone (I don't know enough about Maugham to know if he shared the views of some of his characters or not). Others were delightfully dry and droll. Many were like epigrams: short - pithy - with a witty punch or twist of surprise at the end. I enjoyed those the best.

View all my reviews

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller (2008)

  In library land, all nonfiction books get subject headings, and The Magician's Skeptic has these:  

  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963. Chronicles of Narnia.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Appreciation.
  • Lewis, C. S. (Clive Staples), 1898-1963 -- Influence.
  • Children's stories, English -- History and criticism.
  • Fantasy fiction, English -- History and criticism.

I'm in heaven.  Big blissful sigh.  There is something very rewarding about reading something very well written that is about a book that you love dearly, a piece of writing that expertly, lovingly, but also objectively appreciates a book, discusses the influence of a book, explores the history of the book, and adeptly practices literary criticism upon the book (without totally ruining the book forever and ever).  Miller can't possibly personally ruin Narnia because she loves the books so much.  Like so many readers and writers out there, Narnia was Milller's- and my - first literary adventure, that book that all other books and stories are judged against, that place you so desperately wanted to be real, the literary touchstone.   Her book details her love for Narnia, and how she fell out of love, but back into appreciation and respect for the books.  Along the way, she writes about Lewis's own literary influences, his friendship and falling out with Tolkien, his education and background, career and Christianity, his ideas about myth making and storytelling.  And, most importantly, she writes about Narnia:  his ideas of Narnia, other authors ideas of Narnia (Neil Gaiman!), and her ideas about Narnia.  

I was not ready for this book to end - I'm sort of at a loss for what to read next!

The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in NarniaThe Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something very rewarding about reading something very well written that is about a book that you love dearly, a piece of writing that expertly, lovingly, but also objectively appreciates a book, discusses the influence of a book, explores the history of the book, and adeptly practices literary criticism upon the book (without totally ruining the book forever and ever). Miller can't possibly personally ruin Narnia because she loves the books so much; this is not her goal here. Like so many readers and writers out there, Narnia was Milller's- and my - first literary adventure, that book or books that all other books and stories are judged against, that place you so desperately wanted to be real, the literary touchstone. This book details her love for Narnia, how she fell out of love, and back into appreciation and respect for the books and the author. Along the way, she writes about Lewis's own literary influences, his friendship and falling out with Tolkien, his education and background, career and Christianity (and her own lack of faith), his ideas about myth making and storytelling. And, most importantly, she writes about Narnia: his ideas of Narnia, other authors ideas of Narnia (Neil Gaiman!), and her ideas about Narnia. This book was bliss.

View all my reviews

Blog Archive