Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Review: The Land of Spices

In a convent school in the Ireland of the 1930s, O'Brien weaves the parallel tales of a sensitive young pupil and the lonely mother superior who sees promise in her. Anna Murphey, daughter of an alcoholic father, weak mother, and dictatorial grandmother, finds solace only in the companionship of her younger brother, Charlie. Away at school from a young age, Anna's academic talents create a barrier between her and her classmates, and they run her afoul of certain of the most jealous nuns. Compounding Anna's problems is the fact that she is emotionally isolated from her mostly useless family. Her drunk father, her dominating grandmother, and her spineless mother all exist outside of Anna's emotional world.

O'Brien is clearly cognizant of the dangers of convent education for sensitive young women like Anna. The book suggests that loneliness and unhappiness is the lot of the thinking, feeling woman, as epitomized by Anna and the mother superior. Loneliness is endemic. The only happy women in the book are some of the simpering, unthinking elder students.

The book also provides a strong indictment against the provincialism of Irish nationalism. The Irish nationalists in O'Brien's work are univerally short-sighted and unsure of why they support their cause. In short, they are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees.

This is an interesting, thinking novel, which provides a fascinating look at life in a convent school.

Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices (Virago, 2006) ISBN:

Review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

I had previously read Holmes in novel-length, but this is the first I've read Holmes in short form. The shorter form really seems to suit the larger-than-life character that is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes's quirks and ego, and Watson's sycophantic toadying are far more tolerable in smaller doses. Holmes's deductive reasoning is also on full display in these short tales, as attention to the details leads him to the solution, which is always "really rather simple, Watson!"

It's possible for the reader who attends to the details to figure out the solution to many of these cases, generally at least, if not in all the details. The stories in this volume are just the right length to be suspenseful without being stale. It is easy to see why these detective stories have withstood the test of time.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Puffin, 1995, orig. 1892) ISBN:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

This was my first Sherlock Holmes, and it very much lived up to my expectations. In this novel Holmes is called from London to consider the death of Charles Baskerville, apparantly by a crazed and superhuman dog. Reports have come from the manor of a ghostly, dog-like creature that haunts the hills. When Charles's heir arrives to take up residence at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is convinced that the young Baskerville's life is in danger. Watson takes up residence at Baskerville Hall to watch out for Henry Baskerville's safety. When Watson notices strange things happening in the moors, the reader starts to wonder if, in fact, there is something supernatural haunting the moors.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is certainly an engaging read. I stayed up late to finish it, and I can imagine that reading it in serials would create great anticipation for the next installment.

The one shortfall I found was in my ability to visualize the scenery. I'm not entirely familiar with Dartmoor, and it was difficult sometimes to understand the placement of Baskerville Hall and the surrounding terrain. That's not entirely Doyle's fault, and I certainly did get the sense that the countryside was hilly and desolate.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (Wordsworth, 1999, orig. 1902) ISBN:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Review: Marcella

This book is a Victorian family saga, focused on a family estate, a spurned lover, and a devious villain. Marcella Boyce is young, bright, and taken with socialism. When her parents inherit the family estate in the country Marcella takes up the miserable conditions of the local workforce as her cause. She falls in love with the local favorite son, a Conservative, vying for a seat in Parliament. Socialist Marcella must discover if she can live with a man with different politics, and her feelings on the issue threaten to damage a number of lives.

Marcella shares many of the conventions of the late-Victorian novel. The lead character is intellectually inclined and socially-minded, but her gender ensures that her attention to socio-political issues will either make her look foolish or lead to her demise. The late-Victorian countryside offers no real place for a politically active woman. Ward also gives the reader a strong sense that the best thing for Marcella would be marriage, though Marcella is generally unable to see this for herself. The single woman's folly is readily apparent.

Ward offers a complicated plot and interesting characterizations. That said, I had to pace myself in reading this rather long novel, as Ward is entirely conventional in her treatment of women like Marcella Boyce, and I find Victorian characterizations of women so pat. Oddly enough, I find that to be especially true of books written by Victorian women. It's clear that authors like Mrs. Humphrey Ward were looking for an outlet for intelligent women, but they were still too limited by Victorian gender conventions to be able to revolutionary change in their literature.

Mrs. Humphrey Ward, Marcella (Penguin, 1985, orig. 1894) ISBN:
0140161031, 560 p.

Outdo Yourself Challenge

My personal goal for 2010 was to read 75 books. I just passed that goal (yay!) For 2011 I'm upping the stakes. I want to surpass 75. Maybe I'll read 100? In reality, anything over 75 would be great. To aid in this project I'm joining the Outdo Yourself Challenge, hosted by The Book Vixen. I'm going to aim for 11-15 more books.

Want to join this challenge? Click on the image!

Support Your Local Library Challenge

In the midst of this budget crisis public libraries are suffering huge cuts. My own public library has severely reduced its hours (particularly evening hours) to weather the storm. It's very important to me to show that the public library is a valuable community resource, and the best way I know to do that is to ensure that I help keep circulations numbers high. Instead of just reading off my (admittedly gigantic) TBR mountain, I'm going to make sure I make active use of the library, checking out and reading library books. To help this along I'm joining the Support Your Local Library Challenge. I have to check out and read at least 30 books, which I think I can do. I love browsing the library shelves looking for undiscovered books.

Want to join this challenge? Click on the image.

British Books Challenge

I'm going for the crown!

I love British books, and I seem to read a fair number of them, so I'm delighted to sign up for The Bookette's British Books Challenge, 2011. To challenge myself, I'm going for the top level. For an American that's 12 books, which actually won't be that much of a challenge for me. Therefore, I'm going to jump in and try to read fifty. There's some promise of a crown if I achieve that- it will actually be a challenge, but that's the point. Can't wait to begin!

Want to sign up too? Click on the image!

Ireland Challenge 2011

I enjoyed participating in the Ireland Challenge last year, so I've decided to re-up for next year. I'm signing up for the Ireland Challenge 2011. I'm not sure what I'll be reading, but I just got an ARC of Cecilia Ahearn's new book, so I suspect that will be one of them.

Want to join? Click on the image!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Review: The Lake Shore Limited

Devastation is the expected response to the death of a loved one. This is a book about all of the other complicated emotions that can interfere with pure grief, and the impossibility of expressing those emotions. The book focuses on the web of people who surround a young man who died in the 9/11 attacks. His girlfriend writes a play about the experience, revealing that she might not be as grief-stricken as she ought to be. The play's viewers and actors form the core of the group of characters. The play focuses on an aging academic, caught in the drama of not knowing what has happened when a terrorist attack is reported on his wife's train. The play is, of course, meant to be a metaphor for the playwright, Billie's, own relationship. It's very difficult to write a play within a novel, and I can't say that this novel is better for it. So much of the book focuses on the play, and the play is just not all that interesting or nuanced. The play is such an important part of the story, but it's essentially flat. I didn't think that this was one of Miller's better books. I much preferred While I Was Gone.

Sue Miller, The Lake Shore Limited (Knopf, 2010) ISBN:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

I quite enjoyed this book. I've not read The Time Traveler's Wife, so I'm not colored by any disappointment of this not living up to Niffenegger's earlier work. Normally I don't care for books that tread into the fantastic, but I was taken with this one.

Twins Julia and Valentina Noblin inherit their estranged Aunt Elspeth's flat, on the border of London's Highgate cemetery. The girls move in and quickly discover that there is something mysterious about the flat; it appears to be haunted by Aunt Elspeth's ghost. In addition to Elspeth the ghost, the girls are introduced to their troubled neighbors, including an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobic, and Elspeth's boyfriend, obsessed with the cemetery and crippled by grief. The twins are rather odd too, and they fit in well with this troubled lot.

This story drew me in because it was just strange enough to be interesting and fresh. The setting in and around Highgate Cemetery was delightful, and Niffenegger's writing is atmospheric. Perhaps if I read more ghost stories I would be more critical of this one, but the fact is that I do not. For the reader who stays within the realm of realism, this book makes a nice diversion. I was not at all disappointed by the ending, and I will surely seek out more of Niffenegger's books.

Audrey Niffenegger, Her Fearful Symmetry (Scribner, 2009) ISBN: 1439165394

New Author Challenge

In the aid of broadening my reading horizons, I'm joining the New Authors Challenge for 2011. I always enjoy discovering new authors, and my goal for next year is 25 new authors. Bring on the new year and the new authors!

Want to join this challenge? Click on the image!

Memorable Memoir Challenge

I really enjoy reading memoirs, and I found this challenge to be lots of fun last year. Therefore, I'm signing on for the Memorable Memoir Challenge again in 2011. My goal is five memoirs. I'm delighted that The Betty and Boo Chronicles is hosting again!

Want to sign up for this challenge? Click on the image!

Review: Starving Hearts

This novel appears to have been written as a therapeutic exercise. The plot sounded interesting to me, but the book comes complete with pages and pages of blurbs from therapists about the therapeutic value of the text. So, I approached reading the book with a bit of trepidation.

I did find the plot to be engaging. Susan Talberg, coming of age in the 1950s, is overshadowed by her abusive mother and bratty sister. To cope with her family issues she falls into anorexia and bulimia. The trajectory will sound familiar: controlling food is the only way that Susan feels she can control her life. Over the course of the book the reader discovers that Susan's mother is a miserable woman with food issues of her own. Completely beaten down by her useless family, Susan's life revolves around sustaining her eating disorders and dealing with her abusive husband.

I would rate this book as acceptable. The plot is okay, but nothing special or earth-shattering. The book will likely be of most interest to those dealing with issues surrounding eating disorders in their own lives. This is not transcendent fiction; it is a story that deals with a specific issue. I suspect I might have enjoyed a memoir by Miller more than I did this book. Miller suggests in her acknowledgments that she has been through a similar series of struggles, and a memoir might have allowed for deeper insight than what this fictional story can offer.

Lynn Ruth Miller, Starving Hearts (Excentrix, 2000) ISBN: 061511671X

Monday, December 20, 2010

Review: The Drowning Tree

This novel contains all the elements that reverberate through Goodman's work: single mother and teenage daughter, historical mystery, academic institution with a potentially dark secret, and mysterious works of art. Carol Goodman can write a cracking good mystery, and she's done it again here. Reading Goodman means that I can be sure I'm getting a good page-turner, that I'll be taken in with suspense, and that I'll be rushing to get to the end to find the solution to the mystery.

Those praises accounted for, I must also mention that this is my third Goodman novel, and the formula is getting a bit worn. The plots are always well-constructed, but the cast of characters and the love story are always so very similar. The main character is always a single mother, an artist or academic interested in the arts. I'll keep reading Goodman's books, but it's starting to seem like an exercise in diminishing returns. I first read The Lake of Dead Languages, and thought it was brilliant. I'm not sure that The Drowning Tree (or Arcadia Falls, which I've also read) are lesser books, it's just that they're starting to seem repetitive.

This particular story relied on the descriptions of some rather complicated architecture, including a sunken garden. I sometimes found it quite difficult to visualize these features, and they are integral to the plot. Goodman has the ability to visualize complicated and dramatic landscapes, but they're not always easy for the reader to recreate.

All of this said, I will continue to read Goodman's books, but I'm hoping that some of her other works will offer some new elements.

Carol Goodman, The Drowning Tree (Ballantine, 2004) ISBN: 0345462122

Chick Lit Challenge

Chick lit is a favorite guilty pleasure of mine. I've read all the Shopaholic books. I've read a lot of Jane Green and Marian Keyes. I find reading chick lit the epitome of relaxation. So, I'm joining the Chick Lit Challenge for 2011. I need to read at least eight chick lit books in the year- should be no problem.

Want to sign up for this challenge? Click on the image!

What's in a Name 4?

This will be my fourth year participating in the What's in a Name? Challenge, and every year I enjoy it. The categories are always fun, and finding books to fit always makes me discover new things I want to read. So, I'm definitely in for 2o11.

Here's the brief rules of the challenge:

Between January 1 and December 31, 2011, read one book in each of the following categories:
  1. A book with a number in the title: First to Die, Seven Up, Thirteen Reasons Why
  2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title: Diamond Ruby, Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Opal Deception
  3. A book with a size in the title: Wide Sargasso Sea, Small Wars, Little Bee
  4. A book with travel or movement in the title: Dead Witch Walking, Crawling with Zombies, Time Traveler's Wife
  5. A book with evil in the title: Bad Marie, Fallen, Wicked Lovely
  6. A book with a life stage in the title: No Country for Old Men, Brideshead Revisited, Bog Child
Want to sign up? Click on the image!

Vintage Mystery Challenge

So, I love Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What else could I do but join this really cool challenge centered on older mysteries? The Vintage Mystery Challenge requires me to read mysteries published before 1960. I've got to pick a participation level, and I think I'm going for "Hot on the Trail," which requires me to read 10-12 books. Think I can do it?

Want to sign up for this challenge? Click on the image!

Into the Old World Reading Challenge

Here's a reading challenge that just might help me clear my horribly backlogged TBR. The challenge is to read books published before 2009. No problems here- I have hundreds of those waiting for me. I'm not going to make a list, as I'm more the "pull off the shelf on a whim" kind of reader. Roll on New Year's Day so that I can begin!

Want to sign up for this challenge? Click on the image above!

Understand My Sorrow Challenge

I've read some really interesting books about mental illness lately, and I was excited to see that Lilly of Reading Extravaganza had developed a challenge centered around books on depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and OCD. I'm joining; the challenge involves reading two books that focus on each illness. I have no idea what I'll be reading yet, but I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Want to sign up for this challenge? Click on the image above!

2nds Challenge 2011

I've participated in the 2nds Challenge for the past two years, and was delighted to see that it's being offered up again in 2011, courtesy of A Few More Pages. I'm jumping in again. I'm not sure which level I'll end up achieving. If past experience is any indication, I'll probably wind up at "A Few More Bites." I'm not making up a list in advance, I'll just see where the challenge takes me.

Want to sign up for this challenge? Click on the image above.

Take A Chance Challenge 3

I love finding new ways to decide on my next book (and to work through my 2000+ TBR Everest). To aid in this task, I'm joining the Take a Chance Challenge for 2011. Hosted by Life...with Books, here's the methods I'll be using to choose books!

1: Staff Member’s Choice: Go to a bookstore or library that has a “Staff Picks” section. Read one of the picks from that section.

2: Loved One’s Choice: Ask a loved one to pick a book for you to read. (If you can convince them to buy it for you, that is even better!)

3: Blogger’s Choice: Find a “Best Books Read” post from a favorite blogger. Read a book from their list.

4: Critic’s Choice: Find a “Best of the Year” list from a magazine, newspaper or professional critic. Read a book from their Top 10 list.

5: Blurb Book: Find a book that has a blurb on it from another author. Read a book by the author that wrote the blurb.

6: Book Seer Pick: Go to The Book Seer and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

7: What Should I Read Next Pick : Go to What Should I Read Next and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

8: Which Book Pick: Go to Which Book and use the software to generate a list of books. Read a book from that list.

9: LibraryThing Pick: Go to LibraryThing’s Zeitgeist page. Look at the lists for 25 Most Reviewed Books or Top Books and pick a book you’ve never read. Read the book. (Yes … you can click on MORE if you have to.)

10: Pick A Method: Pick a method for finding a book from the choices listed below (used in previous versions of the challenge).

  • Random Book Selection. Go to the library. Position yourself in a section such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Children (whatever section you want). Then write down random directions for yourself (for example, third row, second shelf, fifth book from right). Follow your directions and see what book you find. Check that book out of the library, read it and then write about it. (If you prefer, you can do the same at a bookstore and buy the book!)
  • Public Spying. Find someone who is reading a book in public. Find out what book they are reading and then read the same book. Write about it.
  • Random Bestseller. Go to and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1950 for the min. and 2010 for the max. and then hit generate. Then go to this site and find the year that generated for you and click on it. Then find the bestseller list for the week that would contain your birthday for that year. Choose one of the bestsellers from the list that comes up, read it and write about it.
I can't wait to start!

Want to join this challenge? Click on the image, above.

Cruising through the Cozies Challenge

I must admit, I'm developing quite a fondness for Agatha Christie novels. Then I tried some P.D. James, and loved that too. So, I've decided that this cozy mystery challenge is right up my street. I'm joining up! I don't know which level I'll reach, but I'm interested in branching out my mystery readings.

Want to sign up too? Click on the image!

Review: Purple for Sky

This family saga follows three generations of women in a deeply religious family in a rural corner of Canada. Lindy, her aunt Ruby, and grandmother Euphemia have spent their lives at the mercies of the religious sensibilities of their family's men. The men of the Lewis family are deeply devoted to a fire-hot, low-church, dissenting faith. Particularly pious is Euphemia's husband, Silas, and his mother, Tryphena. Their faith fundamentally shapes Euphemia's marriage, and the consequences reverberate through the lives of successive generations.

The story is told primarily through the eyes of Lindy, aging and single, her life consists of caring for the family store and her Aunt Ruby, who is succumbing to dementia. Readers also hear from Ruby, as she reminisces, and Euphemia, when Lindy uncovers her grandmother's diary. I would have preferred to hear more from Ruby and Euphemia, as I found their narratives to be much more interesting than Lindy's. This was a book that was slow to get going, and I was never able to get invested in Lindy. Bruneau has written Lindy in a particularly folksy style, one that I was not able to engage.

Carol Bruneau, Purple for Sky (Cormorant, 2000) ISBN: 1896951244

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: The Creation of Eve

A fictionalized account of the life of Renaissance painter Sofinisba Anguissola, this book chronicles the time Anguissola spent as a lady-in-waiting to Elisabeth de Valois, queen of Spain. At the Spanish court Sofi encounters an entirely different world. Learning to navigate court culture while dreaming about the relationship she left behind in Rome envelop Sofi's time. She becomes one of the queen's favorites, a position that offers little but complexity and danger. Cullen's historical presentation is believable, though I found the beginning of the book to be somewhat slow-going. In part, this is because the first portion of the book, set in Italy, has little bearing on the major thrust of the plot. I found the court setting of the book somewhat difficult to engage. I've read little of the voluminous historical fiction on the kings and queens of Europe, so I suspect that for others more deeply read in the genre, this will not be an issue. This is more my issue than Cullen's, I simply don't find the court setting inherently interesting. My preferences aside, I did get deeper into the story. Cullen's writing is good, though I did find the ending, and the consequences of one final dramatic action, to be wholly unbelievable.

Lynn Cullen, The Creation of Eve (Putnam, 2010) ISBN: 0399156100

Review: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden

Not being a reader of fantasy or fairy tales, I took a chance on this book, and was pleasantly surprised. This book is a rather dark coming-of-age story, replete with child abduction and parental hysteria. Young girls begin disappearing from a small German town, and eleven-year-old Pia Kolvenbach desperately hopes to solve the mystery. Pia is something of a misfit: her only friends are the similarly unpopular "StinkStefan," and her late grandmother's sometimes boyfriend. The elderly gentleman delights Pia and Stefan with regional folktales, which add to the ambiance for two youngsters in a town gripped with hysteria. As the town grows more fearful Pia faces her own problems, as her parents marriage is falling apart. These tales ultimately weave together into a dramatic conclusion. That conclusion will likely not surprise most readers, and as a whodunit, this book falls flat. As a more general work of fiction the book is stronger. Grant does a particularly good job of setting the scene, bringing the reader into the town of Bad Munstereifel. The holidays, the festivals, the landscape with all of its interesting corners for children to explore: all of these are vividly detailed. That said, I never did get a good sense of why Pia was so intent on solving the mystery. There's a small subplot about Pia's grandmother "exploding" (i.e. burning to death) at Christmastime. Theoretically this is what thrusts Pia into the depths of unpopularity. This was probably the weakest thread in the larger work. This is a book to read for the environment it creates.

Helen Grant, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (Delacorte, 2010) ISBN: 0385344171

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Chosen

This is a book about adoption, and the difficulties faced by all of the parties involved. At the center of the story is Chloe Pinter, a low-paid adoption coordinator. She manages desperate adoptive parents and birth parents in difficult situations. Her personal life is also full of drama. Chloe's boyfriend is what one might call a 'fixer-upper'- he lacks a job, ambition, and spends most of his time complaining.

I thought the subject matter of this book might be very interesting, especially given that the author has worked in the field. That said, I did not enjoy this book very much. I found the characters ranged from annoying to downright offensive. Offensive and unlikeable characters can be useful, and certainly there's a place for them, but in this book nearly all of the characters are entirely unlikable. The only character for whom I could really feel empathy was the birth mother, Penny, who was forced to give up a baby she wanted to keep. The characters also lack depth; all of them seem incapable of engaging any sort of complex emotions, even when they find themselves in situations that should plumb the depths of the soul.

Reading this book was the closest I've come to the world of domestic adoption, and I must admit that there was a great deal I fond difficult. The heavy use of euphemism, such as asking the birth mother to claim that she's "giving the baby a new home" rather than "giving the baby up," struck me as erasing the suggestion of loss or sacrifice on the part of the birth mother. Indeed, of all of the characters in this story, it seemed as though the needs of Penny, the young and destitute birth mother, were largely ignored. Penny's financial needs were met, but her emotional needs were never part of the equation, at least as far as the agency was concerned. Among the adoptive parents there was a definite shared sense that white, American-born children were far more desirable. Thinking about all of the families I know whose children were adopted abroad, seeing this sentiment shamelessly on display really struck a nerve. If I was the parent of child adopted abroad I'm not at all sure I could have finished this book.

Hoffman is trying to show the complexities of domestic adoption, but ultimately I found the book too simplistic to really do the topic justice. The ending was far too neat and tidy to allow for complexity, and some of the characters were more like caricatures.

Chandra Hoffman, Chosen (Harper, 2010) ISBN: 0061974293

Review: Mini-Shopaholic

I've been reading the Shopaholic series from the beginning. I was a very enthusiastic reader of the first three books, but lately I've been thinking that they're getting a bit stale. I'm afraid that holds true for the latest Shopaholic volume. It's hard to believe that Becky Brandon never learns, but she doesn't. She continues to lie her way into absurd situations, from which she barely escapes. To add to the fun, there's now a new mini-Becky, named, of all things, Minnie. Minnie shares many of her mother's tendencies for impulsive behavior and designer labels. But the traits that make Becky Brandon somewhat dim-witted and charming simply do not translate well to a two-year-old. Minnie Brandon is a brat, and Becky feeds right into it.

I'm starting to think that this series has run its course. Becky Brandon was amusing as a 20-something girl-about-town. As a mother, she's far less charming. Kinsella's writing is still lively and amusing, but would likely be better utilized in other projects.

Sophie Kinsella, Mini-Shopaholic (Dial, 2010) ISBN: 0385342047

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: The Dissemblers

This novel tells the story of an aspiring artist who seeks inspiration in Georgia O'Keefe's New Mexico. Ivy Wilkes moves herself to New Mexico following art school graduation. Ivy has always been inspired by O'Keefe, and she goes to the source of her muse.

It becomes evident over the course of the book that Ivy is actually rather obsessed with O'Keefe, modeling all aspects of her life after the artist. Ivy gets a job at the O'Keefe museum to bring her closer to the masterpieces.

But it is art forgery that is truly at the heart of this book. Ivy's new friends invite her to join an art forgery ring, painting reproductions of O'Keefe's work. Painting the forgeries, balancing a love triangle, and avoiding detection all take their toll on Ivy, and being an artist merely searching for inspiration starts to look much more desirable.

Art forgery is one of those topics that I find inherently interesting, so I dove into this book with excitement. The question that dominates the second half of the book is, unsurprisingly, will Ivy get caught? Dalby's treatment of Ivy's relationship to art is interesting. Ivy's relationships with other people were less interesting, and less believable. Ivy seems to be one of those people who is completely incapable of doing anything that's in her own best interest. And that can sometimes be maddening; it was for me. That said, Dalby offers a sufficiently suspenseful tale of art forgery, well worth reading for the New Mexico setting and the discussion of artwork.

Liza Campbell, The Dissemblers (Permanent, 2010) ISBN: 1579622054

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Gothic Reading Challenge

Signing up for this challenge was really a no-brainer. I love a delightfully chilling gothic setting, and this will give me a great excuse to soak up a number of these books. I'm not sure which level I'll be attaining, probably somewhere in the 5-10 book range. We shall see. Still I'm looking forward to the challenge.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Fifty States Reading Challenge

Challenge sign-up season has begun, and up first for me is The Fifty States Reading Challenge. The goal is to read a fiction book set in each of the fifty states. This is definitely going to be a challenge, and I'm looking forward to tackling it. We'll see if I can get the whole thing done in a year. I'm not going to list my books in advance- for this many I need the freedom to choose as I go.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Review: Fannie's Last Supper

Chris Kimball decided that it was a good idea to try and recreate a twelve-course Victorian dinner party. He devoted several years of his life to this project, and this book is the story of how he did it. As his manual Kimball took the most popular of late-nineteenth century cookbooks, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. And the meal is quite a production: multi-tier jellies, complicated fried artichokes, old world punch. Many of the dishes are also disgusting to the modern palate: brain balls in soup, gelatin made out of calves' hooves. Readers should be aware that the description of some of these dishes is truly disgusting, but in a train-wreck-can't-look-away way. To add to the "authenticity" of the meal, Kimball chose to create the meal on a Victorian-era coal stove, a practice which caused its own problems, including impossible temperature regulation, and a kitchen so warm that one of the chef's pants melted.

The book intersperses the history of Farmer and Victorian cooking with Kimball's own efforts to recreate a Victorian meal. Each chapter is organized around one of the courses, but the historical information often bears little relevance to the particular course at hand. Some chapters are better at establishing this relevancy than others.

More of an issue for me was the fact that I just could not get into the purpose of this project. I couldn't help but thinking throughout that this was a lot of money wasted for no particular purpose. Kimball produced a PBS documentary on his Victorian dinner as well, and I have to wonder if this was a project better suited to film than to a book. I'll probably seek out the documentary. Perhaps that will change my impression that this project marks a case of privileged foodies getting together to play Victorian gentry.

Chris Kimball, Fannie's Last Supper: Re-Creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook (Hyperion, 2010) ISBN: 1401323227

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review: How to Survive a Natural Disaster

My main thought when reading this book was "Wow, I didn't see that coming." I thought I knew how this book was going to end, but I ended up being surprised, which is a good thing. My second thought upon finishing this book: this is one messed-up family. Told by six different characters, including a dog, this is the story of a last-ditch effort to save a marriage, and the profound effects of those efforts on everyone else.

That last-ditch effort is a child, May, adopted from Peru by the disastrous Roxanne in an effort to salvage her marriage to Craig. The entire family is messed-up, both parents are treacherously immature. May copes with her family by going mute, and by becoming obsessed with her sister, April. April cannot cope with the attention, and neither girl gets what she needs from their mother. The family is clearly headed into a downward spiral to disaster. There's some foreshadowing to the ultimate crisis, but the form of that crisis still comes as a shock.

I was very suspicious of a book that is, in part, narrated by a dog, but it's not gimmicky in the way I expected. This is actually quite an engaging book, and I became invested in May's future.

Margaret Hawkins, How to Survive a Natural Disaster (Permanent Press, 2010) ISBN: 1579622046

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: Bottled and Sold

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on "green" books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website. Bottled and Sold is printed on recycled paper.

Bottled water creates environmental issues not only in landfills, but also in communities where water is sourced. To be labeled "spring water" water must be sourced from underground aquifers, which are depleted far more quickly than their ability to self-replenish. Communities with bottling plants have found their water resources diminishing at an alarming rate.

Media and marketing play significant roles in creating the public frenzy for bottled water. The marketing of mainstream bottled water regularly suggests that it is better-tasting, purer, and safer than tap water. As Gleick proves, however, these claims are specious, at best. Blind taste tests have shown that many people do not prefer the taste of bottled water. Most interesting to me was the difference in safety standards applied to bottled and tap water. Tap water is regulated by the EPA, and must be tested multiple times daily. Any problem must be reported within hours. Bottled water is regulated by the FDA, and is required to be tested far less frequently, once monthly at best in many cases.

Marketing issues are not restricted to claims of safety and purity. Gleick's research also highlights the growth of a snake-oil like water hucksters who claim their bottled water has magical or healing properties. Some bottled waters claim to have realigned their molecules to create curative powers, or they claim to have spiritual powers, most famously the Kabbalah water favored by Madonna, among others. Minimal regulation allows these bottlers to make various unsubstantiated claims, and extort monies from willing believers.

Most troubling to Gleick is the fact that the increasing privatization of water may make potable water a luxury, rather than a necessity. If municipal water systems are ignored in favor of bottled water, the most vulnerable populations will be left without water resources. This is the problem Gleick most wants to stop. He is not advocating a complete ban on bottled water, but he is calling for tighter regulation, and more transparency on the effects of the bottled water industry.

One might think that a book on bottled water would not be interesting, but this was a highly readable book, decidedly engaging for anyone with an interest in social or environmental issues. Glecik's book is well-researched. This is a man who certainly knows his water. I can certainly recommend this book to other concerned readers.

Bottled and Sold is a book about the implications of the mass consumption of bottled water. Touching on the most well-known problem created by bottled water, millions of plastic bottles left in landfills, as well as more subtle issues, Gleick provides a comprehensive look at the environmental and social effects of bottled water. And those effects are staggering.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review: Blood Orange

This is a novel of child abduction and torrid love affairs, and what happens when these things intersect. The book opens with a community searching for the missing seven-year-old Baily Cabot. The book then moves back into the months preceding Baily's disappearance. Baily's mother made a fateful trip to Rome, and her father, an attorney, undertook the defense of a high-profile client, a suspected murderer. It quickly becomes clear that one, or both, of Baily's parents might know more about their daughter's abduction than they are telling.

I expected this to be a book about what happens to a family when a child is abducted, but it is actually a book about what happens to a family when a child is returned. I found that to be a refreshing change. It's difficult for me to offer too many of my thoughts without giving away the plot, but I can say that I did find Baily's mother Dana difficult to comprehend. As it becomes clear that she might know more about Baily's disappearance than she's telling, it was difficult for me understand how she could not come forward. The prose read easily, and was reasonably engaging.

Drusilla Campbell, Blood Orange (Kensington, 2005) ISBN: 0739455028

Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: In a House of Dreams and Glass

This book is Klitzman's memoir of his time in residency, training as a psychiatrist. There are many memoirs of medical training in print, and this one does bear some similarities to the others, but there is plenty of original content too. Like most memoirs of residency, Klitzman's training brings into stark relief the inadequacies of the mental health system, and the inability of well-meaning practitioners to deliver the best medical care.

Some of the issues, dealing with insurance companies, nurses, and other doctors are shared across disciplines. But psychiatry presents a whole new set of issues, and Klitzman's treatment of these make this book well worth reading. While medical memoirs are full of tales of senior doctors mistreating students, the psychiatrists seemed to be using their students as experiments. Klitzman notes that residents were frequently treated like patients. Where Klitzman is at his most eloquent is in his discussion of the difficulties of treating the mind, rather than the body. Serving a patient population that does not necessarily want to get well, navigating disagreements about drug vs. behavioral therapy, these issues provide new challenges Klitzman had not faced in treating the body.

This is a well-written, passionate memoir. Much has changed in psychiatry in the fifteen years since this was published. Prozac was the new wonder drug when Klitzman was writing. This is still a book well-worth reading. The drugs may have changed, but many of the issues remain.

Robert Klitzman, In a House of Dreams and Glass: Becoming a Psychiatrist (Simon and Schuster, 1995) ISBN: 0671734504

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Lady Audley's Secret

This is a delightful Victorian Gothic novel, full of suspense and intrigue. Braddon's book has all of the elements of a good Victorian suspense tale: a country estate inhabited by the landed gentry, a pining lover, and a Victorian lady who is not what she seems.

George Talboys arrives home from Australia to discover his wife has died. Robert Audley, seeing his friend mad with grief, brings George to Audley Court, his uncle's country estate. It is at Audley Court that Talboys mysteriously vanishes. As Robert investigates his friend's disappearance, it becomes clear that the prime suspect is the lady of the court, Robert's new aunt, Lady Audley. Beautiful and child-like, the fact that Lady Audley may be a cold-blooded murderer adds a particularly horrifying twist for a Victorian readership.

Anyone who thinks that the Victorians couldn't produce a page-turner should have a look at this book. Braddon effectively creates a dark and suspenseful atmosphere. While she relies on particularly Victorian conventions to do this, such as stressing Lady Audley's hyper-femininity, the result is still sufficiently gripping, even for the modern reader.

Mary Braddon, Lady Audley's Secret (Virago, 1987, orig. 1862)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Readathon: Memoir Mini-Challenge

I love memoirs, and I really enjoy the genre. Here's my answers.


1. Have you ever read a memoir/true story (Or book 'based on true events'?)
Yes, lots!

2. If so, what was the title/author?
Too many to list here, but some recent memoirs I've read include:
Doris Grumbach, Coming into the End Zone
Jennifer Niven, The Aqua Net Diaries
Wendy Burden, Dead End Gene Pool

3. What what it about?

- Aging, reading and writing
- Surviving high school in a small town
- Growing up in a wealthy but dysfunctional blue-blooded family

4. Did you like it? Would you recommend it?
- Absolutely!
- No
- Yes

5. How many have you read?
- Far too many to count- I read 10-12 memoirs per year

6. Why or what made you want to read it?
I really love memoirs.

7. What was the saddest/scariest one you read?
- The Glass Castle was definitely a rough go.

8. Did it have a 'happy ending'?
Well, sort of, Jeanette Walls has gone on to have a productive and successful adulthood.

9. When choosing a memoir/true story, do you look for a certain kind? ( i.e. historical diary, inspirational like The Freedom Writer's Diary, Christian, non Christian)
I like reflective memoirs, where people reflect on their own experiences.

10. Bonus question(s-it's in parts:) for my giveaway: Have you read 3 or more memoirs/true stories? Title/Author, would you recommend them?If you were to win the giveaway prize, would you want the book, (Sizzling 16 by Janet Evanovich) and would you prefer the coffee or tea? or both?

Here's three more for kicks:
- Miranda Weiss, Tide, Feather, Snow
- Mei-Ling Hopgood, Lucky Girl
- Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors

I'd recommend any of them.

If I were to win, I don't need the Evanovich book, but I do love both coffee and tea!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Readathon: Hour 19

Command of English language: fading. I've been reading! I finished a Nancy Drew book- The Sign of the Twisted Candles, and I'm 100+ pages into Horsemen of the Esophagus. My page total for the Readathon thus far is 608 pages. I'm going to power on for a few more hours!

Hour 17: Banned Books!

My mini-challenge for this hour is to make an argument for any book to be banned. I'm going to go with one of the books I'm reading: Jason Fagone's Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream

My pitch: In an age of growing health concerns and childhood obesity, we should not be exposing our children to the "sport" of competitive eating. By noting that competitive eating is sometimes shown on ESPN and that top gurgitators (that's the author's word) are paid in prize money and trips, this book sets a dangerous precedent. After all, who wouldn't want to go become a competitive eater after reading about stomach stretching, and downing 50 hotdogs + buns in 12 minutes?

Whenever I hear about banned books I can only imagine whiny complaints of "What about the chiiiiiillllllldddddreeeennnnn?" So, there we have it.

Hour 15: Wordle

I had no knowledge of the wordle app. until today- it's quite a bit of fun. Have a look at the wordle I did with a review of the Victorian novel Red Pottage.

Readathon- Hour 13 mini challenge

This title unscramble looks like loads of fun. Here's my efforts:

Enjoy! Here is the list:

1.yfferil enal- Firefly Lane

2.aste fo eend- East of Eden

3. retwa orf pntshleea- Water for Elephants

4.ot lkli a ckomgnrbdii- To Kill a Mockingbird

5. het gtaer ysbtag- The Great Gatsby

6. yrhra tetrpo dna eth lyhdtea wollsah- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

7. ht e rat fo nrgcai ni eht nair- The Art of Racing in the Rain

8.eth mite reslveart efwi- The Time Traveler's Wife

9. eht rlig iehw eht gnodar ooattt- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

10.ydira fo a mypiw idk- Diary of a Wimpy Kid

11.a kwrlnei ni emit- A Wrinkle in Time

12. het rpoal sxprese- The Polar Express

13.vole dewlak ni- Love Walked In

14.reehw eth dwli hingts rea- Where the Wild Things Are

15.eht ginnhsi- The Shining

16.dnohogigt oonm- Goodnight Moon

17. vwtienrie hwti a pvmarie- Interview with a Vampire

18. eht cretse file fo eesb= The Secret Life of Bees

19. eht raesch- The Search

20. het pelh- The Help

Read-a-Thon: Hour 12

I'm chugging along! I just returned from the grocery store, where I went for some much-needed provisions. I picked up a salad for lunch, and if I'm a good girl and finish it, I also got an M&M cookie.

In any case, here's my mid-event meme:

Mid-Event Survey:
1. What are you reading right now?
I had to put down the competitive eating book to read lunch, as it's just too gross. I'm going to start on Lydia Cassat Reading the Morning Paper instead.

2. How many books have you read so far? Finished 2, started a third.

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon? A Nancy Drew, yet to be determined.

4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day? I skipped my figure skating lesson- I am a bad girl.

5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
Only of my own making (see naptime)

6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
That I actually got up at 5am!

7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?
It would be fun to have more themed-reading challenges, like read a certain kind of book during this hour.

8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year?
Stock up on the ice cream ahead of time.

9. Are you getting tired yet?
That's what the nap was for.

10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered?
See ice cream, above. You may think you won't need it, but trust me, you will.