Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Lazarus Club

The Secrets of the Lazarus Club The Secrets of the Lazarus Club by Tony Pollard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I had high hopes for this book - but I was disappointed. The book is a sort of mystery/thriller, set in England in the mid-1800's. Several corpses have been found in the Thames with their hearts and lungs torn out. The story is told by a medical doctor who is first brought into the investigation to help, and then becomes a suspect. Several historical figures play a part (Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage), which is what drew me to the book. However, other than IK Brunel, none of the other historical figures play much of a role. They are just guests or members of "The Lazarus Club", a discussion group of scientific/progressive thinkers. Our doctor gets drawn into the club, and soon gets caught up in the hunt for a mysterious mechanical device create by Brunel, that people are getting killed for, and the doctor finds his own life in danger and begins to suspect members of the club.

It all sounds rather exciting, and, at times, it is. (The entrance of the Lady Ada Lovelace - the first computer programmer who wrote programs for Babbage's Analytical Engine - ranks up there with some of the best scenes from Frankenstein.) But, the problem is the author can't make up his mind what story he is telling. There are too many dead ends, too many sections of the book which do nothing to drive the story forward, etc. I think there could be at least 2, if not 3, GOOD books made from this one book.

Also, the way the story is told, I never really connected with any of the characters - I couldn't really feel any emotion, except in rare passages. Most of the time, the narrator (the doctor) just seemed to be dryly relating what happened. This kept me from really getting into the story. Though the author captures the era well, the dry narrative style is a real shortcoming. (I still remember a high school English teacher I had, who, in the creative writing portion of the class would say "SHOW me, don't TELL me what happens" - too bad Mr. Pollard didn't have her as a teacher!)

Because of this, I can't really recommend this book, unless you are interested in this time period or in IK Brunel. There are other, better, books out there.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Amelia Peabody's Egypt

Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium Amelia Peabody's Egypt: A Compendium by Elizabeth Peters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
For any fan of Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, this is a wonderful compendium. It's part factual history of Egypt combined with the characters of the books. There are pictures and short bios of the characters, listed alongpt with actual historical figures. Many of the historical events that take place during the novels are detailed here, enabling the reader of the series to get a greater sense of the culture and political events of the time. It has certainly helped me to get a deeper enjoyment from the novels, and certainly broadened my knowledge of Egyptian history. (And, given that a trip to Egypt is on my schedule for next spring, this is a doubly good thing!)

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is about John Gilkey, the man who loved (rare) books so much he would steal them, and the book seller & detective who tried to catch him. Gilkey is basically a con man, who is looking to establish a valuable book collection, because he believes it will give him the reputation he desires: as an intellectual, rich man of the world. The problem is, he can't afford the books he wants, but he feels it's his right to be able to own them, so he steals them. He has created a morality whereby it's not really stealing when he "gets" his books without paying for them. To finance his 'habit' he steals credit card numbers from Saks, where he works part time.

But Gilkey isn't the only person in this book who loves books perhaps a wee bit too much. We are also introduced to rare book dealers and historical figures, all of whom go to great length to collect books. (One of my favorites was a professor in Nebraska, who died in 1952 surrounded by 90 TONS of books! A man after my own heart...)

It's a tale well-told, with elements of suspense and daring-do. It's also a good introduction to the world of collectible books - what makes a book 'rare' and what makes its price go up.Being a book collector, myself, (albeit one whose collection probably doesn't have a single book worth over $250), I enjoyed mingling with others who also love books. I can so totally relate to the wonderful feeling of seeing shelf after shelf of books for sale in a shop or book fair! There really is nothing like an actual, physical BOOK to delight one's senses. The author sums it up nicely:
...a testament to the passion for books - their content an histories, their leathery, papery, smooth, musty warped, fixed, torn, engraved and inscribed bodies.

And I leave you with this inscription from a medieval scribe:
This book belongs to none but me
For there's my name inside to see.
To steal this book, if you should try,
It's by the throat that you'll hang high.
And ravens then will gather 'bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you're screaming "oh, oh, oh!"
Remember, you deserved this woe.

PS I borrowed this book from a fellow book club member, and I'll be returning it to her tomorrow!! ;-)

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Sandman Volume 1

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes (Volume 1) The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I have heard about this book (series) for a long time and finally decided I'd better read it and see what all the fuss was about. Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and I've come to appreciate graphic novels these past few years, so I was optimistic that I would like it. And I did.

This book is a series of stories originally published separately. The series is about "The Sandman" - you know, the guy who puts sand in your eyes and makes you dream while you sleep. In this series, he is one of a race of immortals, known as "The Endless" (along with his sister, Death). The set of stories are all sequential, but each one has its own feel to it. Many reminded me of some of the horror comics I read as a child (tho, much better story & artwork!).

The Sandman is an intriguing character, and I plan to read more in the series (book #2 is on order!)

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Girl Genius Volume 1

Girl Genius Vol. 1: Agatha Heterodyne & the Beetleburg Clank Girl Genius Vol. 1: Agatha Heterodyne & the Beetleburg Clank by Phil Foglio

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Hey, how could I not like a book with this title?? ;-)This is a graphic novel, that seems to be a combination of manga and steampunk. Our plucky heroine is being raised by relatives, after the mysterious disappearance of her father. She's studying at Transylvania Polygnostic University, trying to learn the secrets of science, but apparently has no aptitude for it. Events transpire to put her in danger, and bring her into contact with a cute boy (natch) and her hidden talents become less hidden.A fun story with a girl who has brains and courage. I love the world that the author has created. Looking forward to volume 2!

Whip It!

Whip It Whip It by Shauna Cross

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Picked this up for fun because Randy and I love the movie. I hadn't realized it was a book until I watched the credits all the way thru. so I decided I'd get the book and see if it was as good as the movie – and it is! It's a great story of a misfit girl (Bliss aka “Babe Ruthless” Cavendish”, in a small Texas town. She's totally indie/punk/emo and her mom is totally into beauty pageants – she wants bliss to be the local beauty queen, just as she was. Bliss just wants out of town.

By accident, Bliss discovers the world of roller derby, tries out for a team and discovers she's really, really good at it! She can be herself, and is surrounded by a bunch of other misfits, who, together, form a kind of family for Bliss. (Unlike her totally 'uncool' real family.)

As with any coming of age story about a girl, there is a boy. There is some sneaking around and lying to the parents. There is some BFF conflict. But even if it is a bit predictable (the book's ending is a little less realistic than the movie), the character of Bliss and her thoughts and observations keep things fresh. There are many laugh-out-loud scenes, and several that reminded me why I'm glad I'm not 16 anymore!

A fun read, and I'd recommend it to teenage girls (or those who used be teenage girls). There are some scenes that some parents may find objectionable - no, the sex is not explicit, but it's there, along with shoplifting – but even Bliss ends up learning about the consequences of bad choices, and also something about the love of parents, even those who aren't 'cool'!

A Thread of Grace

A Thread of Grace A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the 3rd book by Mary Doria Russell that I've read (the first two being The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God). All of these books have similar themes though they are presented in entirely different ways. In this one, Russell tells the story of Jewish refugees in northern Italy during WWII, and of the help they received from Italians – both Christians and Jews. But again she explores themes of faith, choices, and good intentions gone awry.

We follow the lives of many different people – Jewish refugees, Italian Jews, Italian Christians, and Nazis. There are a lot of characters, but they (almost) all are well-rounded, believable and necessary to the story. (I quibble with the necessity of a couple of minor characters, but even they, I suppose, serve a purpose that the other characters could not.)

Much like her first two books, this one was difficult to read because of the suffering of the characters. Because the events portrayed were based on real people and real events, it seemed even more difficult for me, at times. (I have always been greatly saddened and horrified by the Holocaust.) I had to keep reminding myself of the GOOD things done by many people, such as hiding the Jews even at personal risk. It helps to remember that as depraved as humans can be, we are also capable of amazing acts of love and self-sacrifice. (Indeed, the title is taken from a Hebrew saying: 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there is always a thread of grace.')

I hadn't known anything about this portion of WWII, so it was interesting to learn about the Italian resistance and the sanctuary and assistance offered by many Italians. I also learned a lot about the war in Italy as a whole.

But, this isn't a history book, really. It's an exploration of morality – why do some people do 'bad' things while others choose to do good? And the book also shows the horror and devastation that war wreaks on civilians. The innocent are always killed. Was it worth it? In the big picture, we say yes – we had to oppose Hitler, But for the individual lives lost or ruined, was it worth it to them? Many willingly put themselves at risk for the greater good, but many who just wanted to survive did not. Is it even possible to NOT take part in something like the fight against the Nazis? If you do nothing, are you a collaborator?

You will ask yourself these questions, and others when you read this book.

The last lines of the novel reach to the heart of its purpose: “ the end, did Klara Hitler's sickly son ever fire a gun? One hollow, hateful little man. One last awful thought: all the harm he eve did was done for him by others.”

I anxiously await Ms. Russell's next book.

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce, #1) The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this book on the recommendation of Laurie King (the author of The Beekeepers' Apprentice and others in the Mary Russell series – which I highly recommend) who recommended it on her page on I'm very glad I did! I've now been introduced to one Flavia de Delacy, an 11-year-old with an obsession with chemistry and poisons, living in a small village in England in 1950, But, despite the young age of our narrator, this is not a children's book (not that it contains 'adult' material – just that most kids would not enjoy it), It's a classical mystery story, along the lines of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, if Miss Marple were an 11-year-old eccentric.

Flavia's observations, her thought processes, her analyses of the situation are all beyond her year's, yet there is still an 11-year-old's lack of refinement and relationships. She is charming, and a bit scary – as most child prodigies can be. But she is also endearing and quite funny. Her feuding relationship with her older sisters is quite realistic, and her attempts at revenge (and her plotting thereof) are quite amusing. Just what any 11-year-old genius in chemistry would do!

(For those of you familiar with Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series, Flavia reminds me of a young Amelia crossed with a young Ramses.)

The mystery is a classic “who done it”, and while the local constable is attempting to unravel it, Flavia is one step ahead of him at almost every turn (partially because she is withholding evidence from him).

The setting of the small English village plays a role in the story, as everyone knows everyone else, and there are every village's share of eccentrics. This all adds to the charm of the novel.

The 2nd book in the series has now been published (The Weed that strings the Hangman's Bag) and I'm very much looking forward to reading it, as well!

Montana 1948

Montana 1948 Montana 1948 by Larry Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
OK, I admit, as a native Montanan, I'm a sucker for books about growing up and living there. (e.g. anything by Ivan Doig) But I hdan't heard of this author before – my sister stumbled across the book in the Goodwill store in Moscow, ID and brought it home for my dad to read, and then I borrowed it and read it.

It takes place in the fictional town of Bentrock, in the NE corner of Montana. Though the town is fictional, its people and their struggles, prejudices and relations are very real. The author has captured life in small town Montana quite well.

And as any good book about small town Montana, Indians play a role. And in this novel, a critical role.

The narrator is a young boy, from the prominent family in the region, whose father is the county sheriff. Events arise that uncover some shameful secrets in the family, and what happens when those secrets come to the surface. The young boy, as most boys, both idolizes and also feels distant from his father. And sometimes a bit ashamed of him (he doesn't carry a gun on duty, for one thing). Seeing the story through someone's eyes who is connected (by blood) but also apart from (by age) gives us a unique vantage point.

I suppose you could call it a 'coming of age' story, as, certainly, at the end, our narrator is not the naïve child he was at the beginning. It's also very much a 'classic' western story, with much of the tension of “High Noon” or “3:10 to Yuma”. It's also a bit of a myth-buster, showing the sordid truth of much of Western race relations, that many people don't want to hear or believe.

I found it quite powerful and full of truth.

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War and Peace

War and Peace (Vintage Classics) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Whew! I finished it. All 1215 pages. Plus the author's comments in the appendix.

Overall, this was not an easy read, but it wasn't a bad read. It was different from every other novel I've read. (In fact, Tolstoy says this wasn't a novel, but was “what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form it was expressed.” While it dealt with real events and real people (Napoleon's wars with Russia), he uses fictional people to tell the story (such as it is).

I must say, it was a difficult book to get into. The first couple hundred pages were pretty difficult – firstly, because there were a ton of characters introduced, secondly, because they all have multiple names (apparently, Russians use nicknames & diminutives frequently) so it was hard to keep track (I ended up creating diagrams for my reference), and thirdly, because not much happens! There's just a lot of rich people going to parties, gossiping and flirting with one another. And that makes it sound more interesting than it is, I think! But, gradually, the reader begins to understand the different characters, and events develop (war) that make things much more interesting. The rest of the book was much more riveting to me, with the exception of the epilogue (more on that later).

Let me just take a moment to talk about the translation I read. Silly me, at first I didn't really think that there would be multiple versions of 'a classic', but when I found the book in the bookstore, there were at least 5 different translations. After doing some research on the internet, I opted for the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple who have translated many Russian novels). I chose this one because many reviewers said that it was a more faithful translation, and in their intro, they elaborated quite a bit on the choices they made when translating, and how they tried to keep the rhythm and flow of Tolstoy's prose alive in English. I don't have anything to compare it to, having read no other versions of the book, but I must say that I could distinguish distinct rhythms in different sections, and the words and phrases they used were quite marvelous, at times. I was also extremely grateful for the footnotes, which explained a lot of Russian cultural references (and even pointed out what was a pun in the original Russian). I think they really helped me get a better feel for the book.

But, this is a LONG book. And, once you get past those first couple hundred pages, a LOT happens. It might not have seemed so overwhelming to one more familiar with the time and place of the novel, but I really knew very little about the Napoleonic wars, and certainly nothing about Russian history of the time, and the consequences of the wars. So it held my attention, throughout.

The characters seemed somewhat flat to me, at first. But as the book progressed, I began to see different layers to each of them. But I don't think the individual characters – as characters – were important to Tolstoy. I think he created people he could put in situations in order to illustrate his point.

And what was his point, you ask? Good question!! I think this book is really a long exposition of what history is and what causes (or doesn't cause) historical events. Tolstoy gives many illustrations of events which historians claim were ordered, and caused by, “great, historical characters”, but which didn't really happen according to script, and the only reason things ended up the way they did is because of a whole host of events, decisions and even weather all bearing action on the outcome. Tolstoy does NOT like most historians. He goes off several times about how Napoleon was not some great military leader, and derides historians for portraying him as such.

Which brings us to the epilogue. This book has one of the strangest endings – probably because it's not a true novel, as Tolstoy states. The “story” just kind of stops, and then we get to the epilogue, where Tolstoy starts declaiming very clearly his views on history, power, freedom of will, etc. There is a brief section early on in the epilogue where he does wrap up a little more some of the characters, but it's not really and “ending”. However, most of the epilogue is not 'fiction', but a philosophical treatise. I found this somewhat difficult to get through. I had trouble following all of his arguments and examples. But, fortunately, he makes enough of them (over and over and over) that I understood what he was saying. (And, of course, I had an inkling of what he was trying to say from the rest of the book.) If you want to know what War and Peace is “about”, read the epilogue. It all boils down to Tolstoy's premise that humans don't really have 'free will' when looked at collectively, and that 'great leaders' aren't really the ones who make events happen.

It took Tolstoy about 1180 pages to say this in a 'story', and a few hundred more to fully explain this as a philosophical treatise. Suffice it to say, I found the first 1180 pages easier to read, but I was able to more fully grasp what he was saying after reading the epilogue, and the author's notes in the appendix.

So, it was a long haul, but I'm glad I read it, and I enjoyed most of it! ;-)

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Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1) The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was another pre-release book giveaway I received at the Auntie's bookstore ( book club bash. It's a "young adult" book, but I thoroughly enjoyed it - other than the fact that the protagonist is a teen-age girl, I didn't feel like it was 'beneath me'.

It's a science fiction book about a world (earth in the future? it's never explained) where different regions have different wealth and resources, and people are confined inside each region. As a yearly 'celebration', children from each region are selected to participate in the Hunger Games - the ultimate in Reality 'television' - they fight to the death, with the winner being guaranteed food for life.

Our protagonist, Katness, lives in one of the poorest regions and is the sole provider for her family, and a proficient hunter (who hunts in the forbidden area outside the fence). Her younger sister is chosen for the games (pretty much a death sentence, since kids from the richer areas are better equipped by their sponsors), so she volunteers in her place. The rest of the book is about her training and the big fight. In the middle of all this, we see a lot of dirty politicians and some of the machinations behind the scenes of the world. Our eyes are opened, along with Katness.

The world created by the author is pretty well thought out, and the characters are pretty well-rounded, if somewhat predictable.

All in all, a fun, entertaining read.

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Meltdown Iceland

Meltdown Iceland: Lessons on the World Financial Crisis from a Small Bankrupt Island Meltdown Iceland: Lessons on the World Financial Crisis from a Small Bankrupt Island by Roger Boyes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm not really much of a finance-wonk, but I was interested in this book because I visited Iceland the day the people threw out all the politicians who caused the nation's financial collapse and elected a whole new administration. And, knowing some Icelanders personally, I was interested to read what an "outsider" thought of the whole fiasco. (I also enjoyed references to places in Iceland that I've seen)

I was a bit worried that this book would be full of all kinds of boring financial stuff, but it was really interesting. The author really got into the *people* behind the collapse - what motivated them, what went wrong, etc. It really was fascinating - kind of like a soap opera! (Sadly, the results of the collapse were no fantasy...)

The author makes the point that seeing what happened in a small country (total population is just over 300,000) makes it easier to grasp what went wrong world-wide. And I have to say that I have a much better understanding of what caused the global financial collapse after reading this.

The book was short, and very easy to read - not dull or boring, which was a relief! Certainly, it's a niche market book, but anyone who is interested in understanding what happened, without having to wade through pages of graphs & numbers would get a lot out of this book. Plus you really get to understand the Icelandic psyche! So, I quite enjoyed it!

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The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book was a total surprise. I picked it up as a freebie (pre-release copy) at a "book club bash" at our local bookstore ( It sat on my shelf until April of 2009, when we were headed to Sweden (and Iceland) for a couple of weeks. Since the author was Swedish, I thought "how appropriate!". So I started reading it on the plane and simply ATE IT UP! It's an interesting tale, told in an interesting way. The girl of the title is a computer whiz/hacker, and very anti-social (for reasons we learn later). She gets involved in doing some work for a magazine editor, and we end up with a variation of the locked room mystery. But there's WAY more here than a simple mystery. This book is the first of a trilogy, which in Sweden is called "Men who hate women". While being a very entertaining read, we also see a lot of the violence and repression that men can perpetrate on women, even in a supposedly 'egalitarian' society of Sweden. But it's never preachy. It's just a great, great read, with some of the most interesting characters I've met in a book. Fortunately, when I got to Sweden, the sequel was out (in English). Needless to say, I snatched it up, and read it on the way back! (I'm now waiting desperately for the 3rd book to be released here in the US) Anyway, this has become one of my favorite books/series. I'm just sorry that the author has passed away before he could write more.

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