Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Reading Challenge: Read Your Name

This year I will be joining the Read Your Name Challenge.  I am Laurie (obviously), and I'll be reading a book that starts with each letter of my name.  U is definitely going to be the hard one.  

So, I'll be searching for an "L" book come January. Suggestions welcome!

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

Reading Challenge: TBR Pile

I have a dirty little (big) secret. I have a huge TBR pile. Fifteen hundred books huge. Yes, they are all in my house. Yes, They take up waaaay too much room. Yes, I need to get through them. In aid of that, I will be joining the 2012 TBR Pile Reading Challenge. The challenge is basically just to read my own books that have been sitting around my house.

I can choose from multiple challenge levels, but I've decided to go for the top level and attempt to read 41-50 books from my own TBR.

Interested in signing up?  Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: Tea and Books

I love both.  This challenge involves settling down with a cup of tea to read massive tomes- more than 700 hundred pages.  I have several of these on my stack, so I'm going to sign up.  I'm choosing the lowest level, which is two books.  I'm not sure if I'll make it through more than that, but I really want to clear a couple of these off my TBR.  

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review: Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

By CeeCee Honeycutt's twelth year mental illness has taken her mother's life. Camille Honeycutt has developed a reputation for wandering the streets in old prom dresses, and one of these walks ends with her hit by a truck. CeeCee is taken in by a distant aunt and moved to Savannah. In Savannah CeeCee finds an entirely new life, including stable guardians and adults who show her love for the first time.

This is a very southern story. It is also a feel-good story. CeeCee is a child desperately in need of love. In the heat of the Savannah summer, she finds that love. I enjoyed this book, but I did have some quibbles. The treatment of racism in late-1960s Georgia is a bit too pat, and the resolution to racial problems a bit too neat. Oletta seems entirely too happy to spend nearly all of her time away from her own family. Racism is fairly minimal, and the only racist characters are the "bad" ones. The easy resolution of the one racist episode belies belief. Still, this book certainly has its charms, and CeeCee is a very likable character.

Beth Hoffman, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (Penguin, 2010) ISBN: 0143118579

Review: Singing Songs

This is a book about child abuse. Anna and her siblings are abused by their father in every way: physically, emotionally, and sexually. Her brothers are not allowed to sleep in the house, and all of the children attend school only sporadically. The family continues to move to rural areas to avoid contact with the authorities. Anna's mother is not as guilty of abuse, but she is certainly guilty of neglect and failure to protect her children.

The book is narrated in Anna's voice, and it is quite believable. Through Anna's experience we can see how an abused child struggles to sort out what is right and wrong. Hers is a world in which the wrong has become normative. It is a startling reminder of how easy it is to hide a family's darkest secrets. It was shocking to me just how easily Anna's parents avoided schools, doctors, social workers, and anyone else who might interfere. Anna is a charming and believable narrator. It is hard not to feel for her plight.

 Meg Tilley, Singing Songs (Plume 1995) ISBN: 0452271657 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: Poirot Investigates

I don't think this about all of Christie's Poirot episodes, but this collection reminded me very much of Sherlock Holmes. It might be the short story format, it might be the use of Hastings as narrator, or it might be Hastings's Watson-style toadying. It's probably also Poirot's insistence on the simplicity of the solution, based on logic and reasoning. In novel-length works Poirot's style is usually to gather all of the suspects and offer a dramatic revelation of the culprit. In these short stories Poirot engages in setting traps and capturing criminals red-handed. Again, this is much more like Holmes than Poirot. In each of these cases Poirot is the only one with any focus. All of the other characters, including Hastings, are led astray by incorrect assumptions. I had the same reaction to Poirot short stories as I did to Miss Marple stories- they're a bit of fun, but I prefer the novel-length works.

Agatha Christie, Poirot Investigates (William Morrow, 2011, orig. 1924) ISBN: 0062074008 

Reading Challenge: Victorian Challenge

I've completed several Victorian reading challenges in the past, and am going to sign up for this one in 2012.  When I do Victorian reading challenge I usually read books actually written during the period.  I suspect I'll read some Dickens and some Sherlock Holmes, and probably a few female authors too.  I'm hoping to get through approximately 5-6 books, but the minimum requirement is only two, and I think I can definitely manage that.

Interested in signing up?  Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: I Want More!

I love the idea behind the I Want More Challenge- read authors who I've previously read and enjoyed.  There are so many authors whose other books I keep meaning to read, but then there's so much new stuff too.  This challenge will give me a chance to go back and read more of authors I've enjoyed, like Joyce Carol Oates and Gail Godwin.  I'm going to sign up for the top level of this challenge- 9-12 books.

Interested in signing up?  Click on the image.  

Reading Challenge: Chunkster Challenge!

I've got some large tomes on the old TBR, so I'm going to give the Chunkster Challenge a go. This challenge involves reading large books, 450 pages or more. The levels are as follows:

The Chubby Chunkster – this option is for the readers who want to dabble in large tomes, but really doesn't want to commit to much more than that. FOUR Chunksters is all you need to finish this challenge.
The Plump Primer - this option is for the slightly heavier reader who wants to commit to SIX Chunksters over the next twelve months.
Do These Books Make my Butt Look Big? - this option is for the reader who can't resist bigger and bigger books and wants to commit to SIX Chunksters from the following categories: 2 books which are between 450 - 550 pages in length; 2 books which are 551 - 750 pages in length; 2 books which are GREATER than 750 pages in length (for ideas, please refer to the book suggestions page for some books which fit into these categories).
Mor-book-ly Obese - This is for the truly out of control chunkster. For this level of challenge you must commit to EIGHT or more Chunksters of which three tomes MUST be 750 pages or more. You know you want to.....go on and give in to your cravings.

I'm going with option one, the chubby chunkster. If I manage that one well enough maybe I'll upgrade in 2013.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: Short Stories

In 2012 I will be joining the Short Story Reading Challenge. I seem to read plenty of short story collections in any given year, so I might as well make it official :)

I'm going to start out at level 1, which involves reading 1-3 anthologies, and we'll see how far I go from there.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Reading Challenge: Alex Awards

I'm signing up for 2012 to participate in the Alex Awards Challenge. This is a new challenge to me, focusing on books that have....won the Alex Award (crazy stuff, I know). There's lots to choose among, and my target level for this challenge will be to read 4-6 books. I can pull that off, right?

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: Cruising through the Cozies

I enjoyed the Cruising through the Cozies Reading Challenge in 2011, and I'm going to be back for another round in 2012. I have to choose a participation level, and in 2012 I will be aiming for Level 2, 7-12 books. Here's to 2012!

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: 2nds 2012

I've been doing the 2nds reading challenge for several years, and I'll be doing it again in 2012. The instructions are simple: read a second book by an author which I've read once. There are several different challenge levels to choose among, and I'll be aiming for six books in this challenge.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: Merely Mystery

I love mysteries. They're my fun and comfort reading. I consider them to be a bit like junk food, or at least like comfort food. They always make me happy, though I couldn't survive on them. I'm signing up this year for the Merely Mystery Challenge. I have to read at least two mysteries, which I can say with confidence will not be a problem, not at all.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: What's in a Name 5

I've done the What's in a Name Challenge for the past several years, and I've always have fun with it. It's a no-brainer for me to sign up for What's in a Name 5. Instructions are as follows:

Between January 1 and December 31, 2012, read one book in each of the following categories:
A book with a topographical feature (land formation) in the title: Black Hills, Purgatory Ridge, Emily of Deep Valley
A book with something you'd see in the sky in the title: Moon Called, Seeing Stars, Cloud Atlas
A book with a creepy crawly in the title: Little Bee, Spider Bones, The Witches of Worm
A book with a type of house in the title: The Glass Castle, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Ape House
A book with something you'd carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title: Sarah's Key, The Scarlet Letter, Devlin Diary
A book with a something you'd find on a calendar in the title: Day of the Jackal, Elegy for April, Freaky Friday, Year of Magical Thinking

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: Southern Literature

I love Southern Literature. I used to live in the south, Virginia to be exact, and while I was born and bred a Yankee, there's something very compelling about the south. I'll be celebrating my love of Southern literature by participating in the Southern Literature Reading Challenge in 2012. The challenge involves reading anywhere from 1-4 books. I'm going to go for the four books- might as well aim high.

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Reading Challenge: Mystery and Suspense 2012

I've done the Mystery and Suspense Challenge before, and I'm planning on joining in again for 2012. It was fun in 2010, so I think it's time to give it another go. I can choose to read either 12 or 24 mystery and suspense books. I'm going for the 24!

Interested in signing up? Click on the image!

Review: Irma Voth

I always want to like Toews's books more than I do. The plots always sound so interesting, but then I try and read them and am completely disinterested. That was the case again for Irma Voth. The plot sounds imaginative and compelling. Nineteen-year-old Irma lives in Mexico with her Canadian Mennonite family. She has been shunned by her father for marrying a Mexican man, who has since fled the scene. When a documentary filmmaker arrives in the community Irma gets a job as a translator, and her work allows her to make plans to break free from her highly restrictive family.

Undeniably the best part of the book is Irma's flight to freedom. Her exodus with her sisters reveals some deeply held and damning family secrets. The early part of the book, when Irma is working on the movie, is comparatively dull. One would think that conflict between some angry sectarians and famous filmmakers would be interesting, but somehow it manages to be extraordinarily dull. Toews describes every little quotidian event in Irma's world in minute detail. There's description of dialogue that simply couldn't keep my attention. The payoff is in the second half of the book, so if the reader can last through the first part they'll probably find the second easier going. That said, I keep having this experience with Towes's books. We'll see if I've learned my lesson.

Miriam Toews, Irma Voth (Harper, 2011) ISBN: 0062070185

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: The Gardner Heist

The largest unsolved art heist in history happened at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Two men stole twelve works of art including a Vermeer and several Rembrandts. The ripped and cut paintings out of frames, and the lot has never been found. Boser's book sets out to try and find out what happened to the missing art. The result is an intriguing look at art detection and the Boston criminal underworld. The methods art detectives use to recover works are often unorthodox. Detectives have to maintain a network of surly underworld contacts.

This book was tremendously interesting. It is also somewhat depressing. It's frightening just how many works of art are stolen, and how poorly protected most museums are. Boser points out that many of us would like to believe that when artworks are stolen they are secreted away to private collections. In fact, that is almost never the case. Stolen art most frequently becomes currency in the criminal world, providing collateral for all sorts of unsavory underworld activities. Drugs, weapons, the mafia: stolen art funds all of them. Thieves are rarely punished because the most important objective for the art detective is to get priceless works back into museums.

Boser does not ever recover any of the stolen works, but his journey is fascinating. I learned a great deal about art theft and recovery, and how the criminal world uses priceless works of art. Anyone with an interest in art or crime would enjoy this book.

Ulrich Boser, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft (Smithsonian, 2009) ISBN: 0061451835

Monday, December 5, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Island Murders

Straight-laced librarian Helma Zukas finds herself in charge of planning her high school reunion. Miss Zukas decides to fly all of her classmates out to the Washington coast for a resort reunion. This will give Helma the chance to investigate the mysterious death of one of her classmates during their senior year. Those accustomed to Helma's exploits will not be surprised to discover that danger follows the reunion, and Helma and company find themselves in grave danger.

This book provides the usual entertaining fare one gets in the Miss Zukas series. There are elements of the story that belie conceivability, which is also typical of this series. The reunion takes place in Washington, though the class graduated in Michigan. Helma funds the trip for the entire class, as she was supposedly able to invest left over money from class fundraising in high school. Getting around these issues this volume provides Dereske's usual standard of entertainment. This volume was more removed from the library and its environs than some of the other books. I thought that was a shame, as the library is a huge part of this series's draw.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Island Murders (Avon, 2006) ISBN: 0380770318

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

This is a delightfully creepy story, in which Jackson reminds us that the most frightening tales need not rely on graphic violence, spilling blood, or similar. This is the story of Merricat Blackwood, who lives in the family home with her sister and uncle. The rest of the family is dead, having been poisoned at dinner years ago. The Blackwoods have become pariahs in town; Merricat is the only one who ventures out beyond the old, Gothic manse they call home. How the family came to be poisoned, and how the sisters have come to exist on the fringes of society are revealed as the book develops.

This book is pure weird, psychological suspense. I loved it for that very reason, and stayed up half the night so that I could read this in one sitting. I was shocked to discover that Merricat is supposed to be eighteen. She behaves more like a stunted child than an adult. As unique as the characters are, it's the house that remains seared in my memory. When I think of this book, I think of the house, the castle, such as it is. The castle is a character in this book. It has a life, presence, and personality of its own. I would definitely recommend this book, especially as a classic for those who generally don't care for classics.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin, 2006, orig. 1962) ISBN: 0143039970

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: The Case of the Late Pig

Albert Campion is a gentleman inspector in the style of Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Here Campion finds himself investigating the death of a former classmate. Pig Peters was a nasty child who grew into a nasty adult. Few people are sorry to see him die, even if he does appear to die twice. Campion attends Peters's funeral after reading a notice in the newspaper. Months later he happens upon a second funeral, also purported to be that of Pig Peters. The second time around Campion views the body in the morgue. It is unmistakably Peters. Who was buried at the first funeral? How did one or two people meet their death? These are the questions Campion sets out to answer.

While reading this I was struck by the many similarities between Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey. Both are sons of minor gentry waiting to inherit. Both are dilettantes assisted by faithful valets. I found Campion's valet, Lugg, somewhat difficult to
comprehend. He is presented as a large, hulking, almost ogre-like man who dons aprons and makes tea. I was unable to figure out how and why he is with Campion. Presumably this is explained earlier in the series. Jumping into the middle of the series made it somewhat difficult to understand all of the characters' quirks.

This book is notable among recent mysteries I've read in that its ending is wholly satisfying. Generally when I read mysteries I enjoy the build-up and then find the ending to be a disappointment. With this book I had the opposite reaction. There were points where I got bored with the build-up, but the ending was full of suspense and intrigue.

Margery Allingham, The Case of the Late Pig (Felony & Mayhem, 2008, orig. 1937) ISBN: 1934609145

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: The Buddha in the Attic

This book consists of the stories of Japanese brides sent to California to marry the men who immigrated to the United States in the early-20th century. On the boat crossing the Pacific the women share stories and photos, hearing about the careers and wealth of one another's husbands while also expressing their anxieties about marriage.

Arrival in California presents a world most of the women never expected. Most find themselves working to exhaustion in fields with little to show for their labor. They are subjected to racism in all of its forms. Much of what they were promised was a myth. The book follows the experiences of these women, from their time on the boat, through marriage and family life, work, and finally through the hysteria of World War II that led to internment.

Otsuka has written this book in the first person plural, a decidedly interesting choice. This has the benefit of allowing Otsuka to explore the varieties and commonalities of these women's experiences. The most interesting and most haunting chapter was the final one, in which white Californians expressed their surprise and wonder at the disappearance of Japanese Americans from their communities. It was astounding how white Americans managed to simply ignore all of the notices that were regularly being addressed to the Japanese community.

This book offers a familiar narrative of immigration, resettlement, and racism. What makes this a fresh and interesting story are the unique writing choices Otsuka has made. This is a rather short book, but it seems to be the right length for the manner in which the story is told.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf, 2011) ISBN: 0307700003

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: Maisie Dobbs

This is a rags-to-riches and detective story wrapped into one. Maisie Dobbs is a plucky but poor young woman. When she enters servitude her employers become her benefactors, leading her to a career as a detective. Wen Maisie sets up her own agency an infidelity case leads her to something far more curious- a commune for former soldiers where residents seem to die under mysterious circumstances.

The specter of the First World War looms large in this book. Though set in 1929 memories and experiences of war infuse everyone and everything. Maisie is shaped by her experiences as a battlefield nurse, and we learn that wartime experiences have shaped her personal life as much as her professional life. Ten years after Versailles the wounds of war, both physical and emotional, have far from healed. As Maisie investigates the soldiers' commune, the war is at the center of the experience.

This is a well-done historical mystery, both engaging and well-written.

Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs (Penguin, 2004) ISBN: 0142004332

Review: Whose Body?

Lord Peter Wimsey, sometimes sleuth, and constant man-about-town, began his sleuthing career here. Lord Peter is called in when an unassuming man finds an unidentified dead body in his bathtub. Police suspect that the body might be that of a missing businessman, but Lord Peter is not so sure. The body's attributes don't seem to match those of the missing. According to police the prime suspect is the owner of the bath. Again, Lord Peter is not convinced, and it becomes his job to clear the innocent man's name.

Lord Peter's aristocratic eccentricity is on full display in this novel, more so that in some of the later books in the series. There were definitely times when I started to get annoyed at the preponderance of "What Hos," and similar. Still, Lord Peter solves the mystery quite admirably.

Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body (Harper Collins, 2007, orig. 1923) ISBN: 0739405292

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Raven's Dance

Miss Zukas has stumbled onto another mystery, this one at a Native American Cultural Center. When the librarian at the cultural center is found dead, Helma is sent to catalog the center's collection. Frightening stunts seem to be happening all over the building, and it becomes clear that Helma, the new cataloger, may be in danger too.

The plot of this mystery is solid, and it's a good addition to the series. This is the fourth book in the series, and I'm finding that after four books Helma is starting to wear on me. She seems to be rather unkind to her friends; I'm honestly not sure how it is that she has any friends. Her prim and proper demeanor was charming in the first book, but it's becoming extreme, and Helma now is treating people badly.

Probably the most egregious victim in the book is Boy Cat Zukas, the stray cat that Helma has sort of taken in, but who she leaves out at night and to whom she refuses to show affection. These irritations aside, I am enjoying the series, and will surely continue to read it.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Raven's Dance (Avon, 1996) ISBN: 038078243X

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Hwan's purpose in writing this book is to expose to the world the horrors of North Korea's gulags. Hwan spent ten years, from age nine to nineteen, as a political prisoner in the concentration camp Yodok, deep in the North Korean mountains. At Yodok Hwan and other prisoners like him were nearly starved, worked to death, and indoctrinated in the cult of the great leader, Kim Il-Sung. What did Hwan do to deserve all of this? He happened to be the grandson of a man who might have spoken out against North Korea's corrupt regime.

Hwan's account of his life in the camp is undeniably horrifying. He draws connections between North Korea's camps and those of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. His memoir certainly offers insight into how such a corrupt dictatorship manages to sustain itself. In North Korea transgressors are not the only ones punished; their relatives are punished too.

North Korea clearly thrives on secrecy, and shining a light on the dreadful human rights abuses perpetuated there is undeniably an important part of trying to end them. That said, this memoir is less literary and more political in outlook. It is sometimes less concerned with nuance, and more concerned with making a political point. Still, for those unfamiliar with how North Korea operates, this is important reading.

Kang Chol-Hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Basic Books, 2005) ISBN: 0465011047

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Flavia de Luce is a chemistry prodigy with a special interest in poisons. At age eleven she can craft a variety of poisons in her attic laboratory. As the child of a distracted single father, Flavia is frequently left to her own devices, as are her two self-obsessed sisters. One day a dead bird with a stamp on its beak, and a dead man, turn up at the De Luce estate. What follows is a bizarre trip into the past, stamp collecting, and chemistry. Flavia quickly proves that she can out-investigate the local police.

This book is nothing if not original. I've never met a character quite like Flavia. I did find the book to be a bit on the long side. An eleven year-old protagonist, no matter how unique, cannot necessarily sustain 300+ pages of interest. I found that to be the case here. If the book was reduced by a third it would have been cleaner, tighter, and more enjoyable. Overall an entertaining and unique read, and I will likely look for more books in this series.

Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bantam, 2010) ISBN: 0385343493

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: Death of a Travelling Man

A surly man in a caravan and his equally surly female companion arrive and park themselves in Lochdubh. Hamish is annoyed and presumes that the new arrival is up to no good. The rest of Lochdubh's villagers seem to disagree. Many are charmed by the newcomer, Sean Gourlay. The vicar even allows Sean to park his caravan on the property. To add to Hamish's annoyance, he has been assigned an associate constable who prefers cleaning and chasing the daughter of the local restaurateur to any actual police work.

Then Gourlay winds up dead. The investigation reveals that he harbored some dark secrets about the locals. Hamish is desperately afraid that the killer is a Lochdubh resident. He begins desperately searching for an answer outside the village, but it begins to look more and more like Hamish might simply be ignoring an uncomfortable truth- that someone he knows and likes is the killer.

This is another entertaining episode in the Hamish Macbeth series. It is a fast and fun read, perhaps most notable for the entertaining character of Hamish's associate officer, a great fan of cleaning products, and definitely an original.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Travelling Man (St. Martins, 1993) ISBN: 0312097832

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review: Hoopi Shoopi Donna

Set in a Polish-American community in western Massachusetts, this novel follows Milewski as she tries to come to terms with her father. As a child Donna was the apple of her father's eye. When her parents adopt a young cousin from Poland Donna's place in the family is eclipsed by younger, more Polish Betty. An unfortunate car accident cements this. Donna is blamed for the accident, and her new sister Betty becomes everyone's favorite. While Betty prospers Donna fades, and stews about her broken family.

Adulthood finds Betty in medical school and Donna working in a tampon factory, unable to create any kind of lasting relationship with a man. To find her way out Donna has to return to one of her childhood loves: polka music.

Parts of this book seemed overdone. By the end of the narrative Betty's accomplishments start to seem ridiculous. She doesn't quite cure cancer or create world peace, but she comes close. Donna has a tendency to get annoying at times. In fact, there were times I wanted to smack her. The book's strength is definitely in its vibrant description of a Polish-American community. I had no idea that polka music was still so prominent anywhere. The tensions between those born in Poland and those born in the US was were intriguing. Read this book for the setting, not necessarily for the characters.

Suzanne Strempek Shea, Hoopi Shoopi Donna (Washington Square, 1997) ISBN: 0671535455

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: The Butterfly Cabinet

Told in two voices, this novel explores life in a wealthy and secretive Northern Irish family. The two voices are those of Harriet Ormond, mistress of Ormond Castle, and Maddie, one of her young servants. Harriet's portion of the book is a diary, written while its author was incarcerated for the murder of her daughter, Charlotte. Maddie's portion is told decades later, in old age, as she narrates her story to Harriet's great-niece Anna, who visits Maddie in the nursing home. Through the interwoven stories we learn what role each woman played in Charlotte's death. The picture that emerges of Harriet is one of a cold and misguided woman, more at home in nature, with the butterflies she collects, than she is at home with her family.

This is certainly an atmospheric noel, and the cold and draughty castle serves as a fine backdrop for this rather Gothic tale. McGill makes the reader feel the dankness of the prison and the shadowy alcoves of the castle. I did not much care for the format of Maddie's narrative. She tells her story to someone who is not really a character, and I found that Harriet's portion flowed much more smoothly. The ending offered some exciting twists and turns, but I still would like to be rid of the unseen Anna.

Bernie McGill, The Butterfly Cabinet (Free Press, 2011) ISBN: 1451611595

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Read-a-Thon: Hour 24

Which hour was most daunting for you?
The ones at the beginning- I hate getting up early!

Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?
Mysteries are always good- Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, that sort of thing.

Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?
None- I always enjoy it!

What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?
I love the books read database, and I'd like to be able to see it.

How many books did you read?

What were the names of the books you read?
Cargo of Eagles- Margery Allingham
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For- Alison Bechdel
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother- Amy Chua
The Butterfly Cabinet- Bernie McGill
Death of a Travelling Man- M.C. Beaton

Which book did you enjoy most?
Death of a Travelling Man

Which did you enjoy least?
Cargo of Eagles

If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders?

How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?
I often have a hard time with the spring one, as responsibilities mean I have little of the day to devote to reading, but I'll be here next fall!

Read-a-Thon: Hour 23

It's hour 23 and I'm still reading! Now working on Margery Allingham, Cargo of Eagles.

Read-a-Thon: Hour 20

I'm still here! It's hour 20 and I'm still reading. I'm nearly done Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and I've been enjoying it. My goal is now to finish this book and one other before the readathon's end.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Read-a-Thon: Hour 19

It's hour 19 and I'm still reading. I've also eaten too many M&M cookies (bleh.) I've finished three books, and now I'm reading Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which has caused so much controversy. It's really interesting!

Read-a-Thon: Hour 16

I'm at hour 16 and I've finished two books:

Death of a Travelling Man by M.C. Beaton
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel

The mini-challenge for this hour is rereads. I must admit, I am not one to reread books. There's so many unread books I want to get through, that I don't like to spend my reading time on re-reads. That said, I have lately been rereading some favorite books from my youth. This year I've been focusing on the Nancy Drew series. I read all of them when I was young, and now I'm going back through them slowly. I'm shocked by how outdated they are; they never seemed so outdated when I was a kid (even though that was in the eighties and many of them were written in the 30s and 40s.) Still, it's fun to revisit what I enjoyed as a child.

Read-a-Thon Hour 15

I've not been blogging very much this readathon, in part because I prefer to spend the time reading. I've also been mixing some other responsibilities with my reading: some time at the ice rink, and I took a nap, because I want to make it to the bitter end. I'm now in the middle of three books, all of which I hope to finish in the next two hours:

The Butterfly Cabinet, by Bernie McGill
Death of a Travelling Man by M.C. Beaton
The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel

I'm also watching Skate America (figure skating competition) while reading.

Having fun thus far- will soon be making dinner.

Read-a-Thon: Hour 3

It's hour three, and I'm participating in the book puzzle mini challenge. My puzzle describes the book I'm currently reading. Have a guess:

Read-a-Thon: Hour 1

It's 5am in the Pacific Northwest, and here I am starting another readathon. I am not a morning person, so...yawn. The coffee is brewing.

Here's my answers to the opening meme:

1)Where are you reading from today?
Washington State, USA

2)Three random facts about me…
I'm a figure skater (in fact, I'll be going to the rink later, with a book)
I teach history
My favorite color is lavender, but you might have guessed that from my blog.

3)How many books do you have in your TBR pile for the next 24 hours?
Too many, at least 10.

4)Do you have any goals for the read-a-thon (i.e. number of books, number of pages, number of hours, or number of comments on blogs)?
No, it's much less daunting if I just plan to read.

5)If you’re a veteran read-a-thoner, any advice for people doing this for the first time?
Have tasty snacks. Read the sort of books you normally plow through and can't stop.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: Nothing to Envy

This book had a profound effect on me. Like many, I came to this book with little knowledge of North Korea, aside from what is on the news. And that's no accident, the country is highly secretive. This is what makes Demick's book so groundbreaking. By interviewing six defectors Demick is able to offer an unprecedented look into the lives ordinary people live in this communist dictatorship.

The stories in this book present a country where millions suffer from miserable deprivation. People are starving, reduced to eating grass and tree bark. Most of the country no longer has electricity. Pervasive malnutrition has collectively stunted the country's growth.

Meanwhile, the North Korean government offers a program of constant brainwashing, requiring constant supplication to the leadership. Detractors are sent to gulags, as are their relatives. The government practices a policy of "tainted blood," suggesting that any malcontent had tainted the blood of their family by three generations, meaning that grandparents and grandchildren are also undesirables needing eradication.

Demick's care and persistence in collecting these stories is admirable. Even more so is the courage of these North Koreans to tell their stories. Their families have faced retribution for their decision to leave. It is truly astonishing the level of isolation and brainwashing that the government has managed to accomplish. This is important reading for everyone. Such shocking human rights abuses must be made public.

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel and Grau, 2009) ISBN: 0385523904

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Review: Death of a Glutton

A conference descends on Lochdubh's hotel, and shenanigans abound. The conference is a matchmaking weekend, a dating agency's attempt to match up its most difficult clients. Things seem promising to the potential lovebirds. All hope turns to despair when the agency's unpopular co-owner, Peta Gore, arrives and ruins everyone's good time. Peta is an enormous glutton, shoveling in all edibles within a hundred foot radius. She manages to disgust everyone. When Peta turns up dead, trussed like a roast pig with an apple in her rmouth, no one is particularly sorry. Still it falls to Hamish Macbeth to investigate.

I found this installment in the Hamish Macbeth series quite entertaining. Peta Gore is an amusing character, and I was excited to discover who had actually killed her. Beaton manages to maintain a comic tone while creating an killing off an entirely unsavory character. I would certainly recommend this one.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Glutton (St. Martins, 1993) ISBN: 0312087616

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: Chile Death

China Bayles is a former trial lawyer turned herbalist, and this installment in the series finds her investigating the death of an unpopular insurance salesman with a peanut allergy. During a chili cook-off Jeff Cody ingested some chili laced with peanuts, leading to a quick demise. Some think death is an unfortunate accident, but China is convinced otherwise.

During the investigation China is also dealing with her boyfriend's recovery from a gunshot wound. The nursing home where he is recuperating seems suspicious to China, opening another possible mystery. Signs of possible abuse and a very evasive director keep China attuned.

This book is definitely light reading, but it was mostly enjoyable. One of the things I like about this series is that China is a former lawyer, her boyfriend is a cop, and they collectively have more respect for law, police procedure, and due process than one generally finds in a cozy mystery. This is not the sort of book in which a random knitter, barista, antiques seller, or other such character mishandle evidence and take over a murder investigation. That was refreshing. I'm sure I'll read more in the series when I'm looking for light entertainment.

Susan Wittig Albert, Chile Death (Berkley, 1999) ISBN:

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Down from Cascom Mountain

This is a novel about grief and about moving on after a loss. Mary and Michael Walker arrive on Cascom Mountain in New Hampshire to spend the summer at Mary's childhood home. Mary has deep roots attaching her to the mountain, Michael is a newcomer. Just days into their summer Michael falls off one of the mountain's cliffs. Mary is left widowed. When Michael's estranged father arrives he and Mary, along with several alienated teenagers working on the mountain for the summer, start to forge connections and work out their problems.

This was a perfectly acceptable book, but nothing really stood out about it. I was never especially invested in Mary or Callie, Mary's teenage friend. The most interesting character in the book is Tobin, a bright but shy teenager, recovering from years of abuse at the hands of his mentally ill mother. Sadly he is a fringe character. Williams writes very believably about grief, I just wish that the book had more plot to add to the emotion.

Ann Joslin Williams, Down from Cascom Mountain (Bloomsbury, 2011) ISBN: 1608193063

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: The Oriental Wife

Louisa, Rolf, and Otto grow up as childhood friends in Germany. With Hitler's rise to power these Jewish children scatter: Rolf and Otto to America, and Louisa to Switzerland and England. Louisa is desperately seeking companionship, particularly male companionship, and she has a habit of attaching herself to men as the needy girlfriend.

When Louisa makes her way to New York she begins a relationship with Rolf, who has always been obsessed with his childhood friend. A seemingly needy Louisa suits Rolf just fine, but a health issue soon after their marriage leaves Louisa in a different state entirely. The book proceeds to examine how their marriage evolves. Character weaknesses come into full relief.

I found this book to be uneven. There were two things happening in the book which didn't seem to fit together. Louisa being a submissive wife was not all that closely tied to the accident and its aftermath. I enjoyed the first half of the book much more than the second. I also found the treatment of Nazi Germany to be uneven. It sometimes seemed incidental, even to characters who were trying to get family members out in the shadow of death camps.

Evelyn Toynton, The Oriental Wife (Other Press, 2011) ISBN: 1590514416

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: When She Woke

Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, this book describes a world in which women are primarily valued for reproduction, and in which the state has complete oversight over the private activities of individuals. This is a world in which extreme religion runs the government in the name of "morality."

Most important to this story, the government has developed melachroming as a means of punishment; it dyes the skins of criminals according to their crime. Protagonist Hannah Payne has been dyed red after being caught having an illegal abortion. "Chromes," as they are known, are constantly subjected to harassment and vigilante justice. Many do not survive. As Hannah tries to adjust to life as a chrome her world, formerly sheltered, starts to open. She begins to rethink previously held assumptions, as she sees the underside of policies she previously considered humane.

In this novel Jordan has created a world that is frighteningly believable. The book is clearly a statement on the dangers of dissolving the boundaries between church and state, and serves as a reminder of the dangers of a justice system that reverts to arcane methods. Jordan has created The Scarlet Letter for the 21st century. The book is imaginative, frightening, and definitely made me think.

Hillary Jordan, When She Woke (Algonquin, 2011) ISBN: 1565126297

Review: Death of a Dreamer

Hamish Macbeth's Scottish Highlands are visited by a delusional and slightly irritating artist. When said artist turns up dead the locals are not necessarily surprised, and it falls to Macbeth to work with a new and ambitious (and female!) detective to uncover the murderer, if there is one. Most of the locals think the death was a suicide, as the artist, Effie Garrand, has recently been rejected by the manly object of her delusional lust. Before the case is over Hamish finds himself in danger.

This was my first Hamish McBeth mystery. The plot was engaging, and I was interested in the characters. Given that I jumped into the middle of the series, there are a few things I'd like to understand better. It seems that Hamish has some issues with women. He has a seeming gaggle of former girlfriends, and refuses to marry any of them, though this is clearly making him miserable. I'm hoping to get fuller picture of this when I read more books in the series, which I am certainly planning to do.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Dreamer (Warner, 2007) ISBN: 0446618136

Friday, September 16, 2011

Review: Diary of a Provincial Lady

This book is the satirical diary of a social climber trying to make an interesting life for herself in the English countryside. The provincial lady faces the problems of never enough money, unruly house and garden, never well-read enough, never attractive enough, and children never quite well-enough behaved. The provincial lady is constantly trying to be a model of attractive femininity, household management, and literary accomplishment. In all of these things the provincial lady claims to be coming up short, in part due to the multiple demands on upper-middle class women, and in part due to the very English tendency to underplay one's accomplishments. The provincial lady's world is populated by a host of amusing characters, snooty neighbors, oddball friends, and snarky servants. The book is certainly humorous, but perhaps longer than it needs to be. After the halfway point it starts to feel like more and more of the same. Repetitiveness is a double-edged sword. It certainly gives the reader a sense of the ponderousness of provincial life for many women, but it can start to sap the reader's energy too. This book is most effective when read in small increments, and is very much worth reading, particularly by those who enjoy early-20th century women's literature.

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady (Academy Chicago Publishers, orig. 1930) ISBN: 0897330536

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death

Straight-laced librarian Miss Zukas is a bit of a dark horse. In addition to being a prim and proper librarian, she has a history as a canoeist. But her efforts to train for the big race and help the library's team beat the city planning department are interrupted. A dead man is found outside Miss Zukas's friend's house, and said friend Ruth becomes the prime suspect in the subsequent investigation. In her efforts to clear Ruth Miss Zukas finds herself in danger.

This is by all accounts an entertaining, quick read. Miss Zukas is starting to look a bit more human by this third book in the series. It's still not clear to me why all men in the general vicinity seem to have a crush on Helma Zukas- perhaps it's the stuffy/sexy librarian trope? Still, I suspect I'll be reading more in the series. These are fun books.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Stroke of Death (Avon, 1995)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Review: The Lilac Bus

This book, a collection of interwoven short stories, follows a group of people who commute to and from their small Irish town to Dublin on the same bus. Though they spend a fair amount of time in one another's company, it quickly becomes clear that those travelling on the bus know very little of one another. As the story of each is revealed the reader learns that each character had significant problems and heartbreak.

This formula is one that will be familiar to regular readers of Binchy's fiction. This is one of Binchy's early books, but she has used this formula in later books to great effect. There is something comfortable about Binchy, and the reader can slip into reading her easily. Binchy delivers here exactly what the reader has come to expect from her, and that's certainly not a bad thing.

Maeve Binchy, The Lilac Bus (Delacorte, 1991) ISBN: 0385304943

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Library Murders

Miss Zukas is the stuffiest of librarians. She follows policy to the letter, dresses like an old maid, and tucks in early each night. When a dead body is found in her library Miss Zukas starts acting strangely out of character.

For a stereotyped and downright cheesy as elements of this book are, I still found it rather charming. Miss Zukas is such a tremendous stereotype that she's more entertaining than serious. That said, given that Miss Zukas is such a stereotype, there's little room to understand how or why she would withhold evidence from the police, and why her best friend is a loud, disaster of an artist. In sum, I can't really explain why I found this book to be charming, but I did, and I plan to read more of the series.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Library Murders (Avon Twilight, 1996) ISBN: 038077030X

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Crocodile on the Sandbank

It took me some time to get my head around this book. It's not like anything I've read previously. This mystery, set in 19th century Egypt, is a parody of Victorian manners and mores. Amelia Peabody, an enlightened and educated woman who favors trousers, sets out to tour the archaeological sites of Egypt. Along the way she picks up an impoverished and wronged fair British maiden, and they find themselves at the dig site of the Emerson brothers. Soon the whole group is facing trouble as a wandering mummy continues to disturb them. Figuring out the mystery of the mummy quickly becomes dangerous and threatens to derail the entire expedition.

To really enjoy this mystery it's essential to get into the parody. A reader expecting historical fiction will likely be disappointed. The mystery was not especially difficult to solve, but each of the characters is so caught up in his or her particular personality quirk that they are blinded to the clues around them. Victoria is the archetypal Victorian woman, Amelia is the feminist, Walter Emerson is the young man in love, and Radcliffe Emerson is the gruff scholar.

Elizabeth Peters, Crocodile on the Sandbank (Mysterious Press, 1988) ISBN: 0445406518

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: The Cracked Pot

This book features one of the most annoying protagonists I've encountered. Carolyn Emerson owns a pottery shop in a Vermont tourist town. When a dead body turns up in her backyard, the prime suspect is Carolyn's associate, who also happens to be her best friend's son. Convinced that the police are incompetent, Carolyn undertakes the task of solving the mystery.

The problem with all of this is that Carolyn is annoying. REALLY annoying. Her favorite activity is complaining. Carolyn complains about her husband, her customers, the local sheriff, among others. She's downright rude to the sheriff because she thinks he's incompetent (though there's no evidence of that in the book).

Then there's Carolyn's troupe of followers, "the firing squad," a group so devoted to pottery that they're willing to go all out to solve a dangerous mystery. They still take pottery breaks, though. Each of the members of the firing squad is a sort of stereotype, especially the ex-con with the heart of porcelain, and the tough, no-nonsense lady judge.

Honestly, life is too short for books like this. There are more entertaining ways to spend one's time.

Melissa Glazer, The Cracked Pot (Wheeler, 2008) ISBN: 1597228273

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Review: God on the Rocks

This is the story of eight-year-old Margaret Marsh. Daughter of overly-religious sectarian parents, Margaret finds little affection at home. Margaret's main caretaker is a bawdy servant, taken in by her father as a sort of religious project. Lydia is the most challenging of converts, she is also the only member of the household who shows Margaret much affection. Margaret's mother is overworked and overtired, and chaffing at the boundaries of her religious life. Margaret's father is everyone's holier-than-thou nightmare.

During the summer an indiscretion on the part of Margaret's father sets in motion a series of events that will end in tragedy. The plot of this book is quite straightforward. It is the elaborate details, rather than the plot, that give this book its brilliance. Gardam does not stray away from the absurd. She reminds me much of Barbara Comyns. This is a well-executed book, well-worth the time to read.

Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks (Europa, 2010) ISBN: 1933372761

Friday, September 9, 2011

Review: This Boy's Life

As a boy Tobias Wolff and his mother moved west to seek their fortune and to escape an abusive man. They landed first in Utah, later in Seattle. In just a matter of months Wolff's mother has met and married another abusive man and moved Tobias deep into the Cascade Mountains where Dwight, his new stepfather, lives in a company town. In this remote environment Dwight is free to abuse Jack, as Wolff is known in his youth. And abuse is a constant in Wolff's young life. His stepfather has free reign, and Wolff's mother does little to reign in her husband's tirades.

The wild and dangerous setting of the mountains serves as a fitting background for Wolff's youth. His life in many ways mimics the scenery. It is lawless, it is amazing, and it has little connection to the outside world. Wolff's life is a test of wills, an assertion of wit and strength. His writing is lyrical and engaging. I was taken with his story from beginning to end.

Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life (Grove, 2000) ISBN: 0802136680

Monday, August 22, 2011

Review: The Summer without Men

Reading this book felt like following the stream-of-consciousness ramblings of a smart, but uninteresting person. The plot sounded promising. After her husband leaves her poet Mia cracks, spends a year recovering in a psychiatric hospital, and finally moves back to Iowa to live near her aging mother. Yet, there's something about this book that simply didn't connect with me. At the end of the book I felt as if nothing had happened. And yet, so much happens in this book, but events are subsumed by Mia's musing which are simply not very interesting. Mia would be fodder for people who think that academics aren't very interesting (and I'm an academic- I know that some of us are interesting!) This is a short book, but it took me some time to get through, as I could only handle small bits at a time.

Siri Hustvedt, The Summer without Men (Picador, 2011) ISBN: 0312570600

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: The Nine Tailors

This books is the epitome of the English countryside murder mystery. There's a mysterious dead body, an old parish church, a bumbling rector, and lots of foul weather. When Lord Peter Wimsey's car breaks down in Fenchurch St. Paul he is taken in by the rector. When an unidentified body turns up in the churchyard, Lord Peter is on the case.

In Fenchurch St. Paul Sayers weaves a gripping and atmospheric mystery. At the heart of the mystery are the ancient church bells. They are tended by a close-knit and somewhat suspicious coterie of bell-ringers, who display an almost-slavish devotion to their ringing. More broadly, the book is fully infused with bell-ringing culture. The bells give their name to the the book; each has a name and together they are called 'The Nine Tailors.' In all honesty, there was more about bell-ringing than I needed to know. Still, this is a gripping mystery.

Dorothy Sayers, The Nine Tailors (Mariner, 1966, orig. 1934) ISBN:0156658992