Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: Wasted

Marya Hornbacher was severely anorexic and bulimic from the age of nine into her college years. In this memoir she attempts to explain the experience of having an eating disorder. The picture is grim. Hornbacher cannot locate a single cause for her eating disorder. Certainly there are plenty of the regularly-accepted influences: a family that's weird about food, a society in which women are rewarded for being quiet and skinny, and so on. While living at boarding school Hornbacher was surrounded by girls with eating disorders, hers, too, was already formed. By the time she was in college Hornbacher was nearly dead.

The portrait of eating disorders that emerges from this memoir is complex and frightening. There are no simple causes and no simple answers. It is scary how easy it is for Hornbacher, as a desperately ill girl, to fall under the radar of anyone's ability to help, even parents and doctors. Hornbacher's analysis of her disease is thoughtful. She makes interesting points, and argues that anorexia in not, necessarily, an effort to remain a child. Light reading this is not, but essential for those who would like to understand more about eating disorders.

Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (Harper, 2006) ISBN: 0060858796 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

I'd heard a great deal about this book, and visually it is quite exciting. The book is full of bizarre vintage photographs. Unfortunately, the story doesn't live ups to the photographs. Angsty teenager Jacob Portman goes to Wales to try and find out about his grandfather's past. A refugee from the Nazis, Abe Portman grew up in a children's home in Wales presided over by the enigmatic Miss Peregrine. A mysterious abandoned manse, time travel, and a new girlfriend will all help Jacob unravel the truth about his grandfather and himself. 

While there are elements of fancy added to the characters, the basic story is, rather, basic. There's lots of reviews that compare this book to X-Men, and yes, that's pretty much it. More problematically, this reads like a child's story. The book is classified as young adult, and that appears to be the one constituency that is not served. The pictures are not as integral to the story as their volume might have one believe. It seems like Riggs often wrote the plot around the pictures, and that doesn't necessarily make for the best plot choices.

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk, 2011) ISBN: 1594746036 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Review: The Bride's Kimono

Rei Shimura is back solving antiques-based mysteries. This time she is a courier for antique kimono from a Tokyo museum to an exhibition in Washington. Rei discovers that the collection includes Kimono belonging to a courtier's wife and mistress. One of the kimono is stolen, a Japanese woman goes missing, and Rei has to try and preserve her reputation in the antiques community. The appearance of an ex-boyfriend adds to the drama.

I really enjoy this series. It is smart and enmeshed in the Tokyo art world. That said, that fact that the police are not involved in this fiasco is absolutely unbelievable. So too was the interaction on the airplane that puts Rei in contact with the murder victim.

Sujata Massey, The Bride's Kimono (Harper, 2001) ISBN: 0060199334 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Review: Inside Edge

This is Brennan's expose on figure skating, the figure skating of the 1990s, that is. Basically, Brennan finds all sorts of corruption in the highest levels of the sport. Judges trade support for skaters from each others' factions. The Cold War may be over but it was still alive and well in 1990s figure skating, as formerly communist countries aligned as did the US, Canada, and western Europe.

Of all the things to say about this book, the most important is that it is out of date. Michelle Kwan was an up-and-coming teenager when this was written. This book was written pre-IJS, and that's only one of the many things that has changed in the sport. While I don't deny that there are still problems and accusations of favoritism, IJS has solved, or at least greatly lessened the kinds of judging problems Brennan illustrates. For the figure skating fan of 2013 this book reads more like a historical document.

My main issue was a much more esoteric one. For all the time that she spent researching and reporting on figure skating, I never really felt like Brennan had a deep, emotional connection to the sport. While she recognizes the difficulty of the sport, Brennan just never seemed to have the spiritual attachment that is evident among figure skaters and many fans. I really think this book could have been written more effectively by someone with that emotional attachment. That's why people do this crazy thing, where they whiz around a slippery surface on quarter-inch blades. There's something in the body movements and the music that makes the moment transcendent.

Christine Brennan, Inside Edge: A Revealing Journey into the Secret World of Figure Skating (Anchor, 1997) ISBN: 0385486073 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Sisters

This is an epic family saga, covering three generations of women. Early in the twentieth century sisters Mabel and Bertie fight poverty and their stepfather's sexual advances in rural Kentucky. Elder sister Mabel makes a daring plan for the sisters' escape from their stepfather's violence. An accidentally missed message creates disastrous consequences, consequences that will reshape life for generations of women.

The story of Mabel and Bertie, their daughters and their granddaughters, sucked me in and kept me interested to the end. Jensen provides an interesting and fast-moving plot. I did find it sometimes difficult to understand Bertie's absolutely refusal to communicate with her sister. Her obstinacy has grave consequences, and it's hard for me to imagine behaving in the same way. At the end I found Bertie and Mabel and their generation to be the most interesting. All in all, an engaging book and well worth reading.

Nancy Jensen, The Sisters (St. Martins, 2011) ISBN: 0312542704 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Review: Cocaine Blues

In 1920s Melbourne pilot and daredevil Phryne Fisher is employed ot investigate a young woman's mysterious illness. It seems that her husband might be slowly poisoning her. Fisher camps out in a luxury hotel and befriends a couple of precocious cabbies, who help her solve the mystery. Quickly Phryne is drawn into the Melbourne underworld, looking to uncover the source of the cocaine trade, as well as an illegal abortionist who is butchering young women.

I had no idea what to expect from this book, and I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are delightfully eccentric. Phryne gets up to all sorts of antics, and there are plenty of descriptions of 1920s high society. The mystery was also intriguing, as there was no one obvious suspect. Overall, I found this book to be quite satisfactory, and I will read more of the series.

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues (Poisoned Pen Press, 2007) ISBN: 159058385X 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Review: Death of a Maid

Those who have enjoyed previous books in this series will likely enjoy this one too. It has all of the elements of the typical Hamish Macbeth mystery. A miserable person dies and everyone is relieved. Hamish investigates and finds that the local cleaner was a far more nefarious woman than anyone thought. Hamish continues to have woman problems and fights with Blair.

There are a few new elements. A new police sergeant has arrived in Strathbane. Blair seems to have worn out his welcome, and I can never figure out why he hasn't been fired yet. I'm getting a bit tired of Hamish's woman problems. He's unable to commit, and weasels out of commitment whenever he's in danger of coming too close. The mysteries are still entertaining, but the side plots are getting a bit tired. Hamish needs to get Priscilla back once and for all.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Maid (Grand Central, 2008) ISBN: 0446615471 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Review: They Came to Baghdad

I found this book to be different from Christie's usual fare. There's no murder mystery here. Rather, this book is about suspense and espionage. Former secretary Victoria Jones meets a man in the park and falls in love. When she discovers that he is moving to Baghdad, she decides to follow him. Victoria arrives in Baghdad on the cusp of an important meeting of world leaders to be held in the city, and the entire area is on high alert. Quickly it becomes obvious that it is not exactly safe for Victoria in Baghdad.

I will admit that I tend to prefer Christie's murder mystery books to those like this, on espionage. This isn't a bad book, it's just not necessarily as good as the murder mysteries. I felt like I didn't know the characters in this book, and that I couldn't get my head around the diplomacy. I did manage to figure out who the bad guy was, which was gratifying, and it was interesting to read about Baghdad at a very different time.

Agatha Christie, They Came to Baghdad (William Morrow, 2003) ISBN: 0062073788 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Paragon Walk

Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are back investigating murder. This time a young woman has been raped and murdered in Paragon Walk, a fashionable London street that happens to be home to Charlotte's sister Emily. Charlotte and Emily decide to investigate. As Charlotte has married down and become a policeman's wife, Emily will have to dress Charlotte back up as the fashionable lady she once was.

This book seemed to be more social interaction and less crime-solving. Charlotte and Emily spend most of their time attending social functions and gossiping. It seems that Perry really wanted to spend more time commenting on social life and customs than to write a mystery. Undoubtedly the bitchy social interaction is amusing. It's a backstabbing, every woman for herself arena, where Victorian manners and their transgressions are on full display. Still, I really wanted more mystery. I hope Perry returns to more mystery in the next volume of the series.

Anne Perry, Paragon Walk (Ballantine, 2009) ISBN: 0345513975 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Review: Brigade

Trow has a fabulous sense of humor, and it is on full display in this book. In this book Lestrade goes undercover to investigate the deaths of elderly veterans who belonged to the same army regiment. His disguises include other investigators at Scotland Yard, as well as an orthodox rabbi, and his case has him traversing the country into every corner of the countryside.

There's plenty to like about these mysteries, and I enjoyed this one. Though they are based on the Inspector Lestrade character in the Sherlock Holmes books, Holmes and Watson are very marginal to this book, even more so than they were in the first in the series. It is Lestrade who is the center of London investigations. This is not a series for those who take their Holmes seriously. Trow takes plenty of liberties, and the main attraction for me is their humorous writing, not their adherence to Conan Doyle's canon.

M.J. Trow, Brigade: The Further Adventures of Lestrade (Regenery, 2000) ISBN: 0895263424 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: My Animal Life

I've never read any of Maggie Gee's novels, but I enjoyed reading her autobiography. Gee grew up in a working-class family and went on to Oxford and a literary career. While Gee has always been committed to a literary life, a life of the mind, Gee's point in her autobiography is that one cannot deny one's animal influences. The memoir is a record of how these animal influences: birth, sex, love, death, have shaped her life. This is also an autobiography about class. Gee came of age at a time when the British class system was being overhauled, and working-class children could first aspire to an upper-class education.

I enjoy autobiographies because I like to see how people make sense of their lives. This one offers an interesting look at the publishing industry, and at the demands of writing. It likewise provides a look at growing up with a difficult and demanding father. For all these things, there were times when I found my interest in the book flagging. Gee is rather liberal in offering advice, which I didn't necessarily need or want. There are also points at which reading about others' animal instincts ceases to be interesting. Most readers will gravitate towards this autobiography because of their interest in Gee's literary career, and those tend to be the best parts of the book. The appeal of this book comes from the fact that Gee is not merely an animal like everyone else, but a writer.

Maggie Gee, My Animal Life (Telegram, 2011) ISBN: 1846599873 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review: The House at Tyneford

Elise Landau, a young Viennese woman, is the daughter of a wealthy Jewish novelist. When Nazi persecution in Vienna increases, Elise escapes to England, to work as a servant at rural Tyneford House. The transition from wealth to servitude is decidedly difficult. Elise is terribly homesick, and she doesn't understand the conventions of an English country house. Life becomes more complicated as she develops a relationship with the heir to Tyneford House, Kit Rivers.

War looms on the horizon. The Second World War will completely transform life at Tyneford House and all of its residents.

This is a book about transformation and loss. Elise Landau becomes an English woman, and part of the strict hierarchy of a country house. In the process she loses loved ones. World War II will take a great deal away from everyone in Tyneford. It takes people, and it also takes customs. The war marks the end of numerous customs that have defined the lives of Tyneford's servants. This book offers a haunting look at the effects of war on rural England.

Natasha Solomons, The House at Tyneford (Plume, 2011) ISBN: 0452297648 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: The Forgetting River

Descended from Spanish colonials, Doreen Carvajal is convinced that her ancestors may have been conversos-- Spanish Jews forced into hiding during the Inquisition. To research her past she takes up residence in a small Andalusian town. Carvajal finds that even hundreds of hears later the issue of conversos is met with silence. Signs of Jewish communities have been hidden, and many are unwilling to talk about Spain's troubled past. Research has shown that Spain has unusually high levels of anti-Semitism. It has also shown that a significant portion of the population has converso ancestors. Spain's relationship with its Inquisition and its larger history of religious persecution is certainly an interesting one.

Carvajal writes beautifully about her Spanish town, its residents, and its customs. She is a strong believer in fate, in things happening for larger cosmic reasons, and genetic memory. Carvajal believes that the sense of belonging she feels in Andalusia is the result of awakening genetic impulses, long buried by the Carvajal family's colonial settlement in the Americas. She discovers all sorts of potential hidden messages in art and architecture, secret acts of resistance on the part of conversos. Some of these conclusions are more tenuous than others. I must admit that I have less of a belief in fate and genetic memory than the author, so I think I was a bit more skeptical of some assumptions. Still, the book is a pleasure to read. The subject matter is engaging, and the descriptions are beautiful.

I realize that this was not written as an academic text, but there were significant points at which I wanted more scholarly apparatus. I wanted to know what existing research and literature have to say. I wanted footnotes that I could dig into. There were things discussed generally that I wished were cited, so I could find out their origin. I suspect Carvajal was required to leave the scholarly heavy lifting out of the book by her publisher. I believe that was a mistake. That framework would have added tremendously to this book.

Doreen Carvajal, The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition (Riverhead, 2012) ISBN: 1594487391 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: Some Girls

At age eighteen Lauren dropped out of NYU, and went to Brunei to join the royal harem. Her duties were to look beautiful at nightly parties, and be sexually available to the sultan's younger brother. In return she received expensive clothes and gifts.

The world of the Brunei royal family is a strange one. Women from all over the world jockey, fight, and manipulate for position within the harem. They live together in communal houses that could rival the cattiest sorority. The women are not allowed to leave the compound unescorted.

Essentially this struck me as a case of adolescent rebellion on a grand scale. The Brunei harem was fairly grotesque. Still, I enjoyed this look into a totally bizarre life. It was disturbing how disposable the women in the harem were. Some lasted weeks, others months. All of them seemed to be chasing a completely unattainable goal- to become one of the royal wives. None of them would.

Jillian Lauren, Some Girls: My Life in a Harem (Plume, 2010) ISBN: 0452296315 

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Review: Too Hurt to Stay

Casey Watson and her husband, Mike, serve as foster parents for seriously troubled children. This is the story of one of those children, Spencer, an eight-year-old who supposedly put himself into foster care. It becomes clear that Spencer has a host of problems, including habitual stealing, running away, and harming animals and peers. Casey is convinced that the story about Spencer's family is deeper than what social services knows. She hopes to uncover it.

It is absolutely essential to note that the Watsons are doing a very difficult job, and they are clearly passionate about the kids they parents. Their affection for Spencer is evident. That said, I do feel like some parts of this book must have been changed or embellished. The ending, in particular, was absolutely implausible to me. Without giving anything away, let me just say that, there's no way. That said, the book reads easily and moves quickly.

Casey Watson, Too Hurt to Stay (Harper Element, 2012) ISBN: 0007436629 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: The Case of the Missing Books

This book doesn't work. It just doesn't work. Israel Armstrong travels to rural Northern Ireland to become a librarian. He arrives to find that the library has been closed. His job is to drive the bookmobile, but all of the books have been stolen. It becomes Israel's job to search for the books in a place full of bizarre and unfriendly locals.

There is so much about this book that doesn't work. Every instance of dialogue goes on for far too long. Israel is an absolutely pathetic character. He mopes around being miserable and refuses to do anything to improve his situation. The ending of the book is hardly an ending at all. This is one of those books that made me feel like I had wasted my time by reading it.

Ian Sansom, The Case of the Missing Books (William Morrow, 2007) ISBN: 0060822503 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Review: Her

This is a raw and devastating memoir about what it means to lose an identical twin. After being raped Cara Parravani fell into deep depression and substance abuse, which culminated in her suicide. Cara's identical twin, Christa, was left to pick up the pieces. for those who are not twins, this is a fascinating read about what it is like to have another person who feels like part of your body. In grief Christa faces her own depression and addiction.

This is a deep and emotional memoir. It highlights the prevalence of abuse-- the Parravani girls are abused as children, and Cara is raped as an adult. It shows the dangers and miseries of substance abuse, and the overwhelmingness of grief. This memoir is both elegantly written and affecting.

Christa Parravani, Her (Henry Holt, 2013) ISBN: 0805096531