Friday, March 27, 2015
Mary Queen Of Scotland And The Isles by Margaret George
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Well, that was a slog. It took me months to finish this book, for several reasons: one, I never really connected with Mary as a person; two, the behavior of the Protestants toward her was just so despicable, I hated to spend time reading about all their plots and machinations to dethrone her; three, I knew how it would end, so there was no suspense to motivate me to read to the end. Despite these obstacles I finally finished it. I think I deserve some sort of medal - this was harder to read than War and Peace!
Let's address a couple of my difficulties, first the character of Mary. I expected that this book would draw me in to the characters and make me care about them, like Philippa Gregory's books. Sadly, I did not connect with Mary until the very end, when she was imprisoned by the English, after seeking asylum there. Up until that point, the book seemed to simply relate all of the events that happened to here (and a lot happens), without any personal or emotional sense. Once she was imprisoned, she seemed to be more human, and certainly more sympathetic. The last few pages leading up to her execution were extremely powerful. I would have liked to have had some of that personal connection earlier in the book, but I didn't.
The other thing that made it difficult for me to read this book was what the Protestants said and did. Now, I'm not a Catholic, and probably have some bias against Catholics (that whole Inquisition thing...), but the behavior of the Scottish Protestants was beneath contempt. The libel and slander were despicable, and their opposition to her was based solely on her religion. At least, publicly - as with all political opposition, it probably had to do with money and power, but they cloaked it in religious terms to get the backing of the general population. It was really quite hard to spend time with these horrible men. I kept having to put down the book because it would make me sick to think of how they treated her. I suppose the author should be commended for getting some sort of emotional response from me, when the rest of the book left me rather cold, but an emotion that makes you want to put the book down is probably not what the author hoped for.
All this being said, the book was certainly thorough. I learned much Mary Stewart that I didn't know. The author clearly did an excellent job on research. But somehow, all those details just didn't add up to an exciting book. It was mildly interesting, from a historical perspective, and only my love of learning kept me reading to the end. Overall, I was very disappointed in this book.
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Still Life by Louise Penny
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my first book by this author, and it won't be the last! It is a very good mystery - interesting characters, wonderful sense of place, excellent pacing. I sat down to read it around 3, and didn't put it down until I finished, a little after 9. I had to see if my theory of "whodunnit" was right! (And it was!)
The book is set in a rural village in Quebec, which the author populates with a great cast of characters. Some are likable, some are really NOT likable, but all seem real. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is definitely likable, but he, too, is very real. He's not perfect, he makes mistakes, but his heart is in the right place. His investigative skills are second to none, but his real strength (and what makes him interesting) is his desire to see his team members grow and succeed. He is very into teamwork and mentoring. And this actually plays a role in the development of the story, as he tries to bring along a new team member. His strength as an investigator is observation - sitting back and watching the villagers interact, talking with them, etc. In this way he learns about each suspect, and begins to develop motives for them. He and his team make some wrong turns, here and there, but eventually the killer is uncovered (of course.)
Quite early on, I figured out who the murderer was, but there was enough doubt that I kept reading. And the author's skill with character development and storytelling kept me riveted. The journey to discovery, and finally learning the details, made for a quite enjoyable read. Overall, it seemed like a modern Agatha Christie mystery, with better characters. For those who aren't into gunfights, car chases and explosions, this is just the ticket! This is a quiet, cerebral mystery, full of wonderful characters. Get a cup of tea, settle in and have fun.
Sunday, March 22, 2015
Prudence by Gail Carriger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is the first in a new series by Ms. Carriger, that takes place after the Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless et al) and in the same universe. Readers of that first series will recognize many characters in this book, though they play minor roles since this new series is based around the children of some of the original characters. I am a huge fan of the Parasol Protectorate books, so I was greatly anticipating this new book and series. However, if this book is any indication, it't not going to be as good.
I have two major issues with this book. The first is the general tone/tenor of the prose. Every scene is played to the hilt with over-the-top cheekiness. One can almost see the author saying, "Isn't this clever? Isn't this funny? Aren't I being ever so droll?" One of the things I enjoyed about the Parasol Protectorate was the droll humor. However, in that series, we were given little bits of it, spaced out throughout each book. This made the humor really hit home. Just as one enjoys sweets occasionally, and enjoys them all the more for this infrequency, a diet made up of only sweets becomes unbearble after a while, and one forgets why sweets were such a treat in the first place. Similarly, a book with little bits of humor sprinkled here and there is much more enjoyable than one where the humor is slathered on with a knife, and the reader can never escape it. It's really too much of a good thing! I had to keep putting the book down, because I just could not stomach yet another scene full of cloying humor.
My second big complaint is the egregious lack of proofreading. Let me list just a few of the most blatant errors:
1. The river in London is the Thames. While it may be pronounced "Tems" it is never spelled "Themes" - not even in America.
2. The pepper plant is the chili - with one "l", not 2!
3. The proper spelling is "quandary" not "quandry."
4."upclose" is not a word.
I won't even get into the poor use of adjective phrases, that leave the reader wondering at the target of the phrase. I am, frankly, appalled at the number and frequency of these errors. If this were a self-published book, I might be more understanding, but this book is published by a (seemingly) reputable publishing house. However, I fear for their reputation if this is the quality of writing they publish.
All of this notwithstanding, Ms. Carriger is a good storyteller, and overall, I enjoyed the book. The story was fun and inventive. But the unrelentingly cloying writing style, along with the poor quality of writing, keep me from giving this 4 stars. The fact that the Parasol Protectorate did not suffer from these issues makes it that much more of a disappointment for me. You can do better, Ms. Carriger!!
Thursday, March 19, 2015
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
4.5 stars, actually.
This is the sequel to Seraphina, and if you haven't read that one, go read it before reading this one. It's really an absolute must. Go ahead. I'll wait. ;-)
OK, now that you've read Seraphina (wasn't it great?), let's talk about the sequel. I was almost afraid to read this one, because I enjoyed the first one so much! Often, a sequel is just the author rehashing themes and characters from the first book. That is definitely not the case with Shadow Scale - it is much broader in scope, and a much more ambitions book, overall. And it succeeds on almost every level. I was completely absorbed by it - devouring it over a couple of days, and then wandering about in a 'book hangover' afterwards. I was almost shocked to realize that I didn't live in Goredd!
This book picks up right where the first one left off: Seraphina has been revealed to be half-dragon; a faction of dragons who do not want continued peace with humans has staged a coup, leading to a civil war; humans must prepare to fight dragons again, and to aid in that, Seraphina must find the other denizens of her 'mind garden', who are also half-dragons, so they can create a mind weapon against the dragons. And the love triangle still exists: Kiggs, the captain of the guard and betrothed to Giselle, the queen, is still in love with Seraphina, and vice versa. But the big development in this book is the re-emergence of Jannoula, a troubled and troublesome resident in Seraphina's mind garden. Seraphina had successfully 'locked her up' in the first book, but Jannoula finds ways out, and becomes the major villain in this book.
Seraphina's journey to find the others of her kind takes us all over the Southlands, each country of which is very fully developed by Hartman, as is each new half-breed we discover. These new characters are as distinct and different as can be, each with his or her own manifestation of dragon-ness. But not all desire to help, having managed to carve out a niche in society. Jannoula, however, is also doing her own style of 'recruiting', coming into direct conflict with Seraphina. Everything comes to a head at the end, with a satisfying conclusion. (It doesn't appear there will be a 3rd book in the series, unless things change from the status quo achieved at the end.)
Paralleling Seraphina's physical journey is her mental journey, as she discovers more about her mind garden, more about Jannoula's place in it, and more about how it is actually hindering her. She is also forced to realize that her motivations for 'saving' the other half-dragons were shallow, and self-serving. She thought she would be coming in as some sort of savior, but many of them did not need or want 'saving.' This is just one of many areas where we see characters growing and changing - and not just Seraphina. We finally learn Jannoula's past, and discover why she acts the way she does. I really liked the fact that the villain of the book was not just 'evil' but was acting out of what had happened in her life - much like real people do.
The themes of the first book - friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, fear and hatred of 'the other' - are broadened and deepened in this book. And the exploration of what motivates people (dragon, human, half-dragon) is rich and multifaceted. This is more than an adventure story.
One could think of Seraphina (the book) as a small string quartet: very intimate, with only a few major players, but hints of bigger themes. If that's the case, then Shadow Scale is a symphony! In book one, the action takes place exclusively in Goredd, and mostly in the city of Lavondaville. In the sequel, we get a tour of all the Southlands, as Seraphina goes on her quest. And instead of just a few main characters, there are dozens - human, dragon and half-dragon. But Hartman does a masterful job of introducing each one, and there is never a time of "Wait? Which one is this, again?" The major thematic developments are also symphonic in scope. This is definitely a magum opus!
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty: Whispers of Restoration From the Book of Ruth by Tanya Marlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I know of this author from her blog at tanyamarlow.com, though I do not know her personally. Ms. Marlow suffers from a chronic illness, as do I, so I can really relate to what she writes. Because of reading her blog, I knew I had to read this book, and I'm very glad I did! And while this book uses her personal story to illustrate the story of Ruth from the bible, even those who are not chronically ill will be able to get something out of the book. We all have times when we are bitter, or feel lost, or are struggling in some way.
This short book follows the book of Ruth (which is also a short book), and intersperses the author's experiences and struggles with those of Ruth and Naomi. Each chapter of the book corresponds to a chapter of Ruth. At the end of each chapter is a series of short questions to help readers explore the themes of that chapter in their own lives. After reading the book, I think it could be appropriate for bible study groups, as well as individual study. I found the book to be very well-written, clear and concise. It is full of wisdom, and can enrich any Christian who reads it. I learned a lot about the book of Ruth, as well as about myself and my struggles. I highly recommend it!
Thursday, March 12, 2015
Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings by Christopher Moore
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Note that 2 stars means "It was ok."
And, yes, this book was ok. Not sure I actually liked it (3 stars), but I did finish it, and it was mildly entertaining. It had come highly recommended by a friend, and I was expecting something akin to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it just wasn't that funny or that good.
It is very creative and inventive, however. I can't go into too many details about this, without spoilers, but the ideas are pretty wild and original. The characters are not quite so original, though the author tries really hard to be cute - we have a surfer/rasta boi, we have the older scientist attracted to the cute grad assistant, we have the cute grad assistant (pixie girl trope), the lesbian ex-wife, etc. I never connected with any of the characters, which is one reason I didn't enjoy the book more. If I were a guy, perhaps I would have done so, as the lead character is the older male scientist and the pixie girl grad assistant might have piqued my interest. While I didn't actively dislike any character, the plot was intriguing enough that I wanted to keep reading. But it never really clicked for me, as a whole.
So, 4 stars for creativity, but it loses a lot in the execution, especially due to stereotypical characters.
Sunday, March 8, 2015
And Both Were Young by Madeleine L'Engle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is one of L'Engle's earlier works, and does not have the science fiction/religious shadings of the Wrinkle in Time series or some of her later work. Nevertheless, it is a solid story, and should appeal to girls.
The story takes place in Switzerland, and a boarding school for girls. Philippa (aka "Flip") has recently lost her mother, and her artist father is being pursued by a rather nasty woman. (She reminded me of the gold-digger in the original "Parent Trap" movie!) Her father will be traveling, and this woman convinces him to put Flip in this school for the year.
Flip is also artistic, and rather shy. She also has a bad knee which makes her clumsy in sports. All of these attributes combine so as to make her one of the unpopular girls, and the target of many jokes. There are two bright spots, however: (1) on her first day at the school she meets a young man named Paul, who lives nearby, and they strike up a friendship; (2) the art teacher takes a liking to Flip and becomes something of a mentor to her.
The first part of the book mostly deals with Flip's interactions with the girls at school. For anyone who has felt like 'the outsider', these scenes will resonate. Because of her loneliness, she sneaks away every week to spend time with Paul. She also spends her time learning to ski, after the ski instructor told her she was hopeless. The art instructor, who is a very good skier (and we find out why at the end of the book), gives Flip the right sized skis and offers instruction. Flip has a goal to enter the school-wide competition later in the year.
There is a bit of a mystery around Paul, and this is slowly revealed, as he and Flip become closer friends. The budding romance is handled very realistically, and without schmaltz, which is refreshing.
I think if I had discovered this in junior high I would have loved it! Even reading it as an adult, I found myself rooting for Flip, and drawn into the mystery of Paul. Overall, an enjoyable couple of hours reading.
Saturday, March 7, 2015
Born To Trot by Marguerite Henry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Growing up, I loved horse stories, and the best writer/illustrator pair was Marguerite Henry and Wesley Dennis. I've been trying to collect these books, ever since. This is a lovely hardback (sans dust jacket) 1950 first edition - a gift from my sister at Christmas. I'm sure I read this one when I was younger, but I didn't remember the story, so it was fun to read what seemed to be a 'new' story.
This book is almost two books in one. The main story is about Gibson White, a teenage boy whose father trains and races trotters. (These are the horses that pull a two-wheel 'sulky' and must only use the trot gait, never a gallop.) His father is Benjamin Franklin White. (Both characters are based on real people.) Gibson wants nothing more than to race with the grownups, but he is somewhat sickly. His father takes him to the doctor who prescribes a year (!!) of rest at a sanatorium. This is, of course, heart breaking for Gibson. But off he goes.
While recuperating, Gibson's father "gives" him a foal, and agrees to train her for Gibson. Gibson's doctor also gives him a book, about the man who bred the father of all trotters, a stallion named Hambletonian. This story is the book within the book, as we get to 'read along' with Gibson as he reads the book. Through this book we learn the history of the American Trotter, and how the breed was developed from this one stallion. It is an entertaining story, and certainly helps to break up the monotony of the story of Gibson's time laid up in bed.
Of course, Gibson finally recovers, just in time to get his filly ready for the big Hambletonian race. This leads to the one major plot twist in the book, which I won't detail, so as to avoid a spoiler.
The book captures both Gibson's and his dad's love of the horses, and of the sport of Trotting. Henry is masterful in her description of horses, whether simply grazing in a field or tearing down a race track. And Dennis' illustrations are sublime, as usual. This edition has a few lovely color illustrations, as well as a color front and back illustration.
As is usual for books of this era, the only female of note is Gibson's mother, who is pretty much relegated to making food for Gibson and his father. But that is really my only nit to pick. This was an engrossing book, and had the added bonus story of Hambletonian. Any horse lover will enjoy this book immensely. A must-read for Marguerite Henry fans!
Friday, March 6, 2015
The Year When Stardust Fell by Raymond F. Jones
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm not sure how I missed this book when I was growing up - it was first published in 1955, so it was certainly available to me. And I'm sure I would have loved it, as it is somewhat similar to Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, which was one of my favorite books. Both tell of an apocalyptic event, and the aftermath thereof. However, while Alas, Babylon dealt with nuclear war, the event in this book is caused by "space dust" in a comet's tail. The effect of the dust is to fuse all metals in any type of moving mechanism, with devastating societal consequences.
The action takes place in a small college town called Mayfield. The main character is Ken Maddox, a teenage boy who is very into science. (His father is a chemistry professor at the college.) Ken is very excited about a comet that is passing so close to earth that the earth will be engulfed in the comet's tail. When car engines start failing, Ken and his science club friends start investigating the possibility that the comet is responsible. Soon, they hear reports of engines failing all over the world - planes, trains, cars, turbines in hydroelectric dams, etc. This means no electricity, no water, no food - except that which is on hand. The reaction of people to the loss of all modern trappings is what one would expect: fear, hoarding, looting, rioting, killing. This was one of the strong suits of of the book - I felt it didn't sugar-coat the way people would respond, as I kind of expected from a book of this era. But the author does not shy away from depicting the hoards of people stampeding through cities.
Ken, his father, and the other scientists at the college begin research to try to find a way to neutralize the negative affects of the comet dust. They contact other communities via ham radio, to share research. It is through the radio they hear of the riots and killing, which destroy the labs at Berkeley.
Mayfield, itself, is not immune to the darker side of humanity - there is hoarding, as well as a group who become superstitious and begin to blame the scientists for the problem. This group is led by an old woman who has "prophesied" about the devastation of the comet, in somewhat religious tones. This is another area where the book surprised me. I could certainly see a large segment of the current US population easily going down this path, were something similar to happen today. To have this depicted in a book from the 50's is certainly prescient of the author. The struggles in the community, between these two factions, are very realistically portrayed.
Those are the good points of the book. Now to the downsides. As is expected in a book released in 1955, it is very sexist. Only boys are in the science club - this is not a rule, but it is just assumed that girls would not be interested. All of the adult scientists are men. The daughter of one of the scientists, who is sort of Ken's girlfriend, is expected to handle the radio (after instruction by Ken, of course) and do the typing up of the recorded transmissions. When a large army of nomads attacks Mayfield, only the men are given weapons and expected to defend their community. The women are expected to be nurses. I found this blatant sexism to be a major detractor from my enjoyment of the book.
And, of course, the science behind the comet dust is pretty iffy, though the author does a pretty decent job of scientific hand-waving and technospeak - enough that I could almost accept it. Willing suspension of disbelief, and all that.
So, major kudos for handling the realistic breakdown of society that would arise from such an event. But minus points for the rampant sexism. I would still recommend this to young science fiction readers, as long as an adult could point out the drawbacks of the sexism. But because of the good points, I think it's worth reading.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
Dreaming Spies by Laurie R. King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another fine addition to the series! Told partly as a flashback, and partly in (the characters') present day, this is an interesting adventure for Sherlock Holmes and his young wife, Mary Russell. And, as usual, King does a superlative job of getting inside the head of Russell, and letting see and experience things as she does. Part of the fun of these books is seeing the thought processes of Russell as she interacts with Sherlock and the other characters. Russell is a character that one can admire and root for.
The flashback portion of the story is in basically two parts. The first is a steamship journey from Bombay (now known as Mumbai) to Japan. Holmes and Russell meet an interesting young Japanese woman, Haruki Sato, who says she is a gymnast. But before they are underway very far, it seems a passenger is missing. And another passenger is known to Holmes as a professional blackmailer. Russell, in an attempt to stave off boredom, organizes a series of salons with the Japanese girl, to learn about Japanese customs and culture. Privately, Holmes and Russell take Japanese language lessons. As they near Japan, they learn that Haruki is no mere gymnast, she is a ninja! And she is on a secret mission - and asks for the assistance of the great Sherlock Holmes. To which, Holmes and Russell readily agree.
The next half of the flashback details the time of Holmes and Russell in Japan. They are tasked by Hiruki to travel from Kyoto to a small village in the mountains, completely unaided. Which, of course, they manage with aplomb - traveling on foot, staying in local inns and eating local food. Once they reach the village, the full nature of the secret mission is revealed, and they restate their willingness to help. They journey to Tokyo, this time traveling on a modern train. Here, they try, but fail, to accomplish the mission. They, sadly, head back to England.
And here the story comes back to the present, where events that took place on the boat and in Japan have repercussions, and Holmes and Russell are once again caught up in the intrigue. Much of this section is set in Oxford, with the Bodelian Library playing a large part. (I simply must make it to Oxford one of these days!)
The entire book is a joy to read - the time on the steamer gives us more insight into how Holmes and Russell operate when faced with a mystery, and we have some delightful scenes with the other characters. But for me, the time in Japan was the most fun. This is partly due to the fact that my husband and I visited many of the same locales as Holmes and Russell, and we also stayed in local inns - sleeping on futons and eating local food. Watching Holmes and Russell navigate the different customs and try not to offend the natives was a lot of fun! Of course, they were stellar, and learned how to interact with the Japanese without causing offense.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Fans of this series will not be disappointed.
Monday, March 2, 2015
The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
3 1/2 stars
[WARNING - some spoilers in this review]
I read this book for our book club, as we had previously read The Dovekeepers and had all really loved that one. I'm writing this before our club meets, so I don't know what others think of it, but I didn't think it was quite as good as that one. At least it didn't quite grip me they way The Dovekeepers did. So if you're coming to this after reading that one, be forewarned.
That being said, this is still a good book. As in The Dovekeepers, Hoffman does an excellent job of time and place, making you really feel the way people lived. This book is set in 1911 in New York City, when that city was in tumult politically and socially, and it was on the cusp of exploding into the great metropolis it is today. Hoffman has clearly done her homework on the various neighborhoods of the time, and the large areas of still semi-wild land that were soon swallowed up by development. So, 4 stars for the historical setting and mood.
But, I have to give it only 3 stars for the story. Don't get me wrong, the story is fascinating, but I think the style in which it was told kept me from really connecting to the characters. The book is divided into paired chapters: a chapter told in first person of one of the two main characters, followed by a third-person chapter focusing on that character. These pairs alternated between Coralie, whose father is the proprietor of the museum of the title, and Eddie (Ezekiel) Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jewish refugee from the Ukraine. The stories of each character intersect only fleetingly, at first, but you can see that they are destined to find each other.
Framing the story of our characters are two devastating fires that actually happened: The Triangle Factory fire, where hundreds of garment workers died because the bosses had locked them into the factory floor, and the fire at Coney Island, which destroyed most of the rides and attractions along the pier. The Triangle Factory fire has a direct influence on the story line, when Eddie is asked to find a missing worker, who should have been in the fire but wasn't. Symbolically, the Triangle Fire is a fire of death, while the Coney Island fire gives life to Coralie and Eddie (even though it also caused many deaths).
The surface plot lines really serve only to help us explore the larger themes in the book. Both Eddie and Coralie have issues with their fathers. Eddie believes his father is a coward, and has turned his back on Judaism, and his father. He spends much of his life attaching himself to other father figures in an attempt to fill his need for fathering. Coralie's father is ever-present in her life - he is manipulative and controlling, training her to be a 'mermaid' in his museum. She spends her life trying to understand her father, and eventually learning to disobey him. In the end, we discover that Eddie deceived himself about his father, while Coralie's father was the one who deceived her. So this exploration of fatherhood, and how we both need it and also eventually must leave it plays a large role in the overall story.
There is also some really good stuff about the Hudson River - both Coralie and Eddie are drawn to it: she to swim in it (one of the few times she feels free), and Eddie to fish in it (again a time where he feels free). Animals are also somewhat important in this book: Eddie saves a drowning dog, and Coralie has much empathy for the animals held captive in her father's museum. The great tortoise, especially, seems to symbolize Coralie's life: he has only known captivity, but in the end he is freed by the fire, as is Coralie.
And, of course, there is the theme of 'the other' or 'the monster' - the side-show freaks that Coralie's father employs in his museum (of which she is one). We see them as people, just trying to make a living, yet the world sees them as monsters and alien. Coralie thinks of herself as a monster, because of her deformity, and because of what her father keeps telling her and how he uses her.
Because of these larger themes, I have to give the book more than 3 stars, but I don't think it quite reaches 4. And I think I got used to the paired chapters by the end, because I was pretty riveted the last few chapters. So, while this book didn't quite hit me like The Dovekeepers did, I can certainly recommend it. It is a fine example of good historical fiction.