Sunday, March 27, 2011

CHASING ALLIECAT - Rebecca Fjelland Davis


Sadie, after being pawned off to her aunt and uncle's for the summer, cannot imagine a worse way to spend her time off. Then, she meets Allie, a pierced, spiky haired COW (chica on wheels) who begins training Sadie how to really kick ass when mountain biking. Then, as a summer schedule develops - with Sadie's crush on new roomie, Joe - the trio takes it off trail and find a priest beaten within a rosary of death. Sadie's life takes an abrupt twist from hero to huntress, as she and Joe begin chasing the secretive Allie around the Minnesota town. Why is Allie afraid? And, who would do this to a priest? This young adult novel, like Harry Potter, easily tricks readers into thinking they are reading adult fiction. The beautiful imagery and gorgeous language brings my back yard (west side southern MN - legit, yo!) to life. However, what is best about this novel is the dialogue. These are not your typical teens, but they do not speak like adults. Each brings such unique lingo that one could read the novel and know the character without looking at the tags. Only amazing writing like this could make me want to get off my keister and try biking and chasing AllieCat. 4.75 out of 5.0 Green and Gold Bloodys

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Mary Doria Russell/THE SPARROW

Contact, especially first contact, with off-world beings: can there be a more natural topic for science fiction? A more popular, even common one?

After all, the possibilities positively teem for both readers and writers, ranging from tabloid-level stimulation (wacky extraterrestrial anatomy! exotic customs! alien sex!) to the philosophical (or perhaps the merely anthropocentric: what will They think of us? will we live up to our own best selves, or our worst?)... I don't know: maybe eventually we'll all sit around Star Wars-style bars, bumping elbows and kreejaxes alike indiscriminately and without much thought. But the excitement and fear of our first time, the challenges to science and the spirit which we (and They) would have to face and overcome -- can you say "built-in drama"?

Nowhere does this inherently fraught sense gong more sonorously and portentously than in the prospect of collision between theology and alien contact. What we believe about the purpose of life, its meaning, and what happens afterward seems so bound up with the life we know, right? So what happens to those beliefs when they bump up against life we don't know?

Mary Doria Russell brings all these forms of drama to bear in her 1996 novel The Sparrow. Suppose, she says:
  • We first learn of the existence of aliens not via physical evidence -- a drop-in visit to our place or theirs -- but via sounds, music, transmitted from a nearby star.
  • Those who make this discovery are not scientists, but a small, tight group of friends -- smart friends, at that, of diverse social, intellectual, and professional backgrounds, and good people all.
  • One of these friends, the protagonist, has a direct pipeline to a source of almost unlimited wealth; this source -- the Roman Catholic order known as the Jesuits -- has critical reasons both to confirm the discovery and (at least initially) to keep it a secret.
  • The discovery occurs just far enough into our own future that our world seems familiar, while allowing the possibility of a crude sort of interstellar travel to be fashioned, ad hoc, from technology we ourselves don't quite yet have a handle on.
  • Only one human survives the encounter -- barely. And until he can provide a full report to the mission's sponsors, few if any humans will be prepared to regard him with anything but a mixture of pity and disgust. (No tickertape parade for this one; he wouldn't accept one if offered.)
Supposing all this, what might happen in all the years -- decades -- of the story's timeline to satisfy a reader's need for dramatic satisfaction?

Russell's answer to that last question is both emotionally and intellectually moving. She draws us in with interesting premises, true. But, more importantly, she draws us in with characters to care about: complex, very different from one another (even just the humans!), sources of vicarious pain and wonder, confusion and laugh-out-loud dialogue. She uses language just interesting enough to propel us from first page to last, while occasionally bringing us up short with responses like, "Whoa. Look what she did there!"

I found two problems:

First, I had difficulty completely accepting the ease with which even the Catholic Church (with its huge given resources: money of course, but also an almost military tradition of obedience) could pull off a secret mission like this one.

Second, structurally, the story arc felt slightly unbalanced to me. I didn't mark a place where things changed, but from initial discovery to actual encounter, events seemed to unfold in relative languor... and thereafter a wholelottastuff had to happenallatonce. Russell seemed (to me) equally good at both sorts of development, and thus the imbalance didn't seem fatal. (It may simply have been several firsts coming together: Russell's first book, my first encounter with anything she's written...) But I did notice it.

I noticed, too, that Russell -- again, maybe just in this book alone -- violated a hundred times one of the cardinal rules of writing fiction: show, don't tell. When a character's memory causes great pain, she doesn't simply describe what the character experienced, and then show us the evidence of horror and/or misery in his eyes and gestures, on his face and posture, through his words and silences. She tells us explicitly what he's thinking, and why, and what thoughts that thinking leads him to, and so on. On the other hand, I must add: I envied her ability to do this well -- readably, interestingly. I thought that she thus deepened my experience, my appreciation, of the characters: I don't believe I'd have become so attached to them otherwise.

Overall, I give The Sparrow maybe a 95 on a 100-point scale. (When I finished, I didn't hesitate even a moment to get the sequel, 1998's Children of God.) If I could do as well with a first novel (or a second, or third, or fourth...), I might be tempted to dance a little jig. But you know what? As in The Sparrow's story, the music I'd be dancing to might not be quite the music which the listeners thought they were hearing.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tanith Lee/ WHITE AS SNOW

This book is a retelling of Snow White, combined with Lee's take on the Persephone/ Demeter Greek myth and conflicts between Christianity and Paganism. It's part of The Fairy Tale Series created by Terri Windling.

Perhaps I should add that I have a huge bias in favor of Windling and her essay introduction to the book alone made it worth picking up. Be that as it may, by the end of this book, I wasn't going to recommend it to many people. And worse, I was depressed for several hours until I had some coffee and the sun came out.

The first line reads, "Once upon a time, in winter, there was a mirror."

I read that at about nine thirty at night, thinking to myself, "I just want to see how it starts."

About two hours and no less than one hundred pages later, I realized--with great irritation at the inconvenience--I had to go to bed.

The novel is broken up into three Books, and I found the first book absolutely fantastic. It was hauntingly and lyrically written. The images were gorgeous. There was an incredible magic and rhythm to Lee's use of the archetypal Snow White colors of black, white, and red. The "evil" queen of the tale was heartbreaking and real. I loved it.

But then it starts to get tangled up in itself and the myths it's playing with. I had read other reviews that complained of this, and dismissed them, thinking they were probably written by people who hadn't taken the time to appreciate the interplay of myth. In the end, I felt the same way. It just became jumbled with too many layers that didn't seem to enrich each other or enlighten the characters in any way.

The story is, at its heart, the tale of a mother and daughter. Both women are damaged but unfortunately both suffer from inertia and can't seem to help themselves--or even care to try--until they fall in love with a man. I found this frustrating since most of the novel seems to criticize the way men treat women, only valuing them for their beauty and their use as sexual objects. Lee seemed to be suggesting that both women were irrevocably broken because they had no relationship with their mothers. That would be fine, however, I was disappointed that their were no other positive relationships between women. To be honest, there are almost no positive relationships between anyone.

I would recommend reading the first section of this book. I can't recommend the rest. I will say that this novel made me want to read Lee's other work. I kept feeling that short stories or connected novellas would have been a better format for her writing and for this story. She's still a writer to explore and admire.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Liz Perle/MONEY: A MEMOIR

This book was selected for me by my (new) book club. I would never have picked it up on my own, but am really glad I read it. It was a great discussion book, even with its flaws, and it's offered me a lot of fodder for other conversations since I read it.

Despite the title, this isn't exactly a memoir. It's a compilation of interviews, statistics, and anecdotes about women's various emotional responses to money (how they spend it, how they control it, why it makes them feel guilty, awkward, trapped, stifled, unhappy, uncomfortable, unworthy, and/or undervalued), knitted together with Perle's personal story of her own divorce and unexpected financial vulnerability.

From my perspective, this wasn't a perfect book. Sometimes, it feels like Perle forgets she is speaking from a place of incredible privilege, and that the majority of American women are dealing with a very different spectrum of choices and traps than the ones she's covering.

Also, much of the content was directed toward women of a certain mindset--one that I think is pretty common in America, but one I wasn't raised to subscribe to, so much of it wasn't resonant. The beginning chapters of the book had to do with women's emotional responses to being a complete dependent in a relationship, to women who were never taught to account for their own spending, and to women's emotional responses to spending.

I've always felt accountable and that I was entirely responsible for my own financial situation. I never imagined being financially dependent on anyone--haven't ever really imagined myself as a homemaker or in another financially dependent life role. I know it's a path many people choose (male and female!), and I respect their decisions, but those points didn't feel like they applied to me.

However, other parts were resonant, particularly the chapter that focused on career choices. Perle uses various anecdotal and statistical data to show that women are less able or willing to put a monetary value on themselves, to ask for as much money as men, to negotiate as hard for themselves in equal roles. However tough and confident I am--and I'm pretty proud of myself for being tough and confident--this definitely applies to me. Part of this is the way we're raised--in terms of what behavior is feminine, and what we learn to ask for, and how--but part of it also has to do with societal perceptions of women and how they should behave.

One point she makes is about mentorship--apparently, men are often franker with one another about, for example, salary. If Jim know Harry made $90k at his 5th anniversary, Jim will ask for $90k at his 5th anniversary. However, Mary doesn't want to be "awkward" with Nancy, so they don't talk about how each of them is making $45k--at the same job as Jim. Etc. When my book club talked about this, I noticed that even though everyone in the room claimed they wanted to overcome this wall of silence for the sake of helping us all, no one would actually go and mention their salary.

Another point that really resonated--I had seen this happen with one of my friends only days before I read the book--had to do with interviewing, and how women feel disloyal taking advantage of career opportunities, whereas men tend to be more open to change.

I think this is a great book for women to read and talk about. I don't think everyone will love it, and I think selective skimming may be in order depending on your own personal situation and interests, but I have many points I took from the book that have been useful for talking with friends, encouraging them at job interviews, speculating about and planning fiscal futures, etc.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

DROOD/Dan Simmons

Unease sets in at the beginning of Dan Simmons’s Drood when Wilkie Collins, novelist and narrator, remembers his friend Charles Dickens caterwauling for paper while sh*tting in a doorless privy, his pants around his ankles. You know then this will not be a story about a careworn friendship about to be born into new life, but one with sharp undertones of jealousy and possible insanity. And because Collins epitomizes the role of the unreliable narrator, you won’t be sure how much you should believe. Collins spends the novel plagued by his doppelganger The Other Wilkie, a green woman with yellow tusks, professional and personal jealousy of Dickens—and Inspector Field and his men, who shadow him constantly. Complicating Collins’s grip on reality is his laudanum habit, which he drinks by the gallon to control the pain of his gout. This is not a stable man.

We come upon Dickens and Collins in 1865, when their friendship is still very much intact, though Collins is already seething with resentment toward Dickens. They have assuaged their parallel lust for years by visiting prostitutes in the shadier parts of London (Drood does not flatter either Dickens or Collins as men). This is eclipsed when Dickens experiences a deadly train accident (“the Staplehurst accident”) and meets Drood, a half-Egyptian, half-Englishman with lidless eyes and filed teeth and ssssspeaks like thisssssss. Dickens’s curiosity is piqued, and he drags Collins far lower than Collins ever expected to go, into Undertown (as I remember, that's what it was called)—the London beneath London. There, the dregs of society smoke opium and talk about the figure named Drood, who is rumored to have died a Rasputin-like death long before the Staplehurst accident ever took place.

Yet Dickens is positive Drood is alive, and this seems to be confirmed by the appearance of Inspector Fields, who insists that not only is Drood alive and well, but is responsible for more than 300 murders in the London area.

Almost more interesting than the horror themes of the novel are the themes of jealousy and betrayal, which Simmons explores skillfully, not only letting them flow underneath the supernaturalness of Drood like the waves of a rising tide—dark and constant and increasingly threatening—but letting them rise the boat until they wash over it in the climax.

My only worry now is that this book will act as a virus and cast its shadow over every Dickens and Collins book I read. We sssssshalll sssssee.

I would love to see this made into a movie and/or a graphic novel.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

THE IRON QUEEN by Julie Kagawa

The Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa
Harlequin Teen, 2011
Young Adult Fantasy


Fans of the Iron Fey series are in for a treat with this one. In my opinion, it's the best book so far. Meghan's character grew in ways I'd been hoping for since book one, and also in ways I didn't expect. The love triangle between Meghan, Puck, and Ash reaches its boiling point. And the mystery behind her dad's disappearance when she was six is finally explained.

Plus there is a slew of new characters, new settings, and new drama. And the ending? Holy amazeballs, Batman, that was one awesome ride! Summer, Winter, and Iron face-off in every sense of the word. Can't say much more without giving anything away. Just... WOW.

If you haven't read this series yet, you are supremely missing out. This book ends with an epilogue that bridges into book four of the series, THE IRON KNIGHT, which looks to be just as delicious as the previous three... and it's told from Ash's point of view. Say what? Julie Kagawa, you are full of awesomesauce.

5 of 5 stars. Recommended for people who like fantasy, romance, combat, and fast-paced, intricate plots.

~Lydia

read my review of THE IRON KING (book one)
read my review of THE IRON DAUGHTER (book two - contains spoilers for book one)

visit Julie Kagawa's website
follow Julie Kagawa on twitter

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua


Where I got the book: from the library.

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is Amy Chua's much touted (I could say notorious) memoir of how she raised her two daughters to become academic high achievers and musical prodigies using Chinese methods. Chua states up front that her sweeping assessments of the relative virtues of "Chinese parents" and "Western parents" are just that, very broad opinions, and that Chinese-style parenting can be found in many non-Asian homes, typically where the parents are first-generation immigrants.

Having a kid who spent much of middle school in gifted classes where the Chinese kids outnumbered the rest, I can confirm anecdotally that much of what Chua covers in her book conforms to the normal practices of Chinese parents. An extremely limited social life, "always programs" as one mother proudly told me, Chinese school at the weekend, hours of homework and extra drills were the norm; a grade below an A was unacceptable. My child hid her very first D from me because in her Chinese friends' world, a D meant a total parental meltdown and probably solitary confinement till the age of 25. When my kid grew away from her friends in high school she plunged joyfully into the Western model of underperformance, only to rediscover achievement all by herself in her senior year. She now tells me that I should have been more of a Tiger Mother and that she's going to raise her kids the Chinese way.

But enough about me! I really enjoyed Chua's book. I agreed with quite a few of her criticisms of Western parenting as selfish (she is particularly critical of mothers who neglect their children's education so that they can pursue interests of their own) and lazy (Chinese mothers are willing to invest every spare minute in their children's development, etc.) And she attacks the scary spectacle of self-esteem, which is producing impossible children unable to deal with authority. Believe me, I know. Sorry, me again.

I was interested in Chua's own overachiever, type A+++++ personality; she cheerfully admits to her tendency to spread tension over every family gathering and her inability to enjoy herself. Toward the end of the memoir she does come over as a bit more human, and begins to concede that Chinese parenting does not always work (it was not successful for her father, and only partially worked with her youngest daughter) and that some Western ideas, such as pursuing your own passions rather than your parents', have some sense in them.

Still, when you consider how limited our Western aspirations are for our children (most of us just want them to be happy and to have monstrous self-esteem like my kids SORRY) compared to those of Chinese parents, who see Yale, Harvard, Nobel prizes and Olympic medals in their children's future, you may pause for a moment. The Chinese parents I've met began saving for college when their children were foetuses, and investigating Ivy League institutions when their kids were in 7th grade. So now I don't feel so horrible after all for insisting that we start homework straight after school AND WE SIT AT THE TABLE TILL IT'S DONE (that lasted until high school, when I lost control).

I'm struck by how much this book made me reflect on my own parenting successes and failures, as illustrated by the way I keep interrupting this review with news about me. Battle Hymn was very nicely written, lively, and easy to read. I rather hope that some of Chua's ideas catch on.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Seasons in the Mist by Deborah Kinnard


Where I got the book: a freebie from the author, who belongs to a group I frequent.

Graduate student Bethany Lindstrom travels to England to do research work at Oxford, but finds herself down in Cornwall where she crosses a time portal into the fourteenth century. Fortunately her research into the customs and languages of the period ensures that she can pass reasonably well as a stranded lady of good family, and she soon finds that she's attracted both to the medieval age and the lord of the manor.

Seasons in the Mist is an inspirational novel, and verges on the Christian side (not all inspirationals are strongly Christian, but this one definitely goes in that direction). I'm not a big reader of inspirationals, which I tend to find formulaic (stray from God, something major happens, go back to God and in the process find your dream man--who never, ever, gives in to the temptation to despoil your virginal dreams) so it's hard for me to judge how well this novel sits within its genre.

Speaking generally, though, this was a pleasant read. I enjoyed all the details about the costume, living conditions and food of the period, and the "period language" wasn't annoying (it's spectacularly hard to render the language of a period in a way that readers like me will really like). This kind of book is aimed at a particular audience, of course, and sells to Christian readers--it avoids sex and violence but leaves in plenty of sheer romance, which is refreshing when you've been reading too many historicals where the bodices are ripped and the blood spilled at a regular interval of 20 pages.


A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen


Where I got the book: bought retail at an author event.

A Royal Pain is the second in the Royal Spyness series, set in the 1930s and starring Lady Georgiana, who is 34th in line to the British throne and thus has access to the Palace and the upper echelons of society.

Unfortunately, Georgie is flat broke but can't reveal the fact due to her social position, so she sneaks around London doing cleaning jobs for money. When the Queen orders her to take in a young German princess for a while, Georgie has to scramble to come up with the necessary servants and a suitable wardrobe for herself. Throw in a murder or two, a romantic interest and a whole series of intrigues, and she's kept pretty busy.

This book is a romp. I found it a little flat sometimes, but there was generally something funny coming along soon. It has elements of farce, and the Sloane Ranger tone (think Princess Di) of Georgie and her friends was spot on (Bowen--whom I met at the event, and who is a lovely lady--is the right sort of Brit to write this kind of book). We get a lot of color from the political and social stirrings of the period, which were pretty interesting, and get glimpses of the Royal Family at a time when the future King Edward VIII was about to be led astray by Wallis Simpson - very topical with The King's Speech (excellent!) getting awards all over the place.

The outcome of the mystery plot wasn't hard to spot, but the fun was seeing Georgie--who is a quick thinker in some circumstances and remarkably dense in others--get to the same point. A fun read, and I dare say I'll be back for more.

The Great Silence by Juliet Nicholson


Where I got the book: bought retail with a Borders gift card, in a huge rush after the bankruptcy was announced. It had been on my TBR list for a while.

The Great Silence is a snapshot of Britain just after World War I. It covers the period from when the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, to late 1920 when the body of the Unknown Soldier was interred in Westminster Abbey. It covers subjects as diverse as shell shock, plastic surgery for horrendous facial wounds, the Paris Peace Conference, birth control, and the recreational use of drugs by a generation who desperately wanted to forget the recent past.

One thing I really liked about this book was the way the lives and memories of ordinary and extraordinary people are tapped to provide juicy little snippets of information that brought me much nearer to the subjects under discussion. I felt that I got a good sense of what a period of intense mental and physical agony did to the psyche of an entire country. I've always loved the novels of that period for what they said and didn't say about the First World War: those four years were so clearly the dividing point between a strictly ordered world of class distinctions and certainty and the modern world of social mobility and experimentation. The Great Silence is a good companion volume for readers with an interest in the period.

It's not a deep work of history: I even found a couple of potential howlers and one definite one (a line suggesting that the Titanic sank in 1902). And yet The Great Silence had the considerable merit of being interesting and readable, and I'm a great supporter of popularizing history. We can always look up the exact facts on Wikipedia. Snort.

And Only To Deceive by Tasha Alexander


Where I got the book: bought retail at author event

And Only To Deceive was Tasha Alexander's debut novel and the introduction of Lady Emily Ashton. It's the late 1880s, and Emily has been widowed soon after her wedding. As she only married to escape her mother's incessant matchmaking, she is not mourning her husband--until she begins to learn about, and share, his interest in Greek culture and antiquities. She then falls in love with him for the first time, until she begins to discover that he may not have been the pillar of society she thought he was...

Lady Emily Ashton has since become the heroine of a series of novels, and I can't help wondering if her tendency to be attracted to every man who shows interest in her (and there are lots, because she is of course rich and beautiful) will continue. In this novel there are three distinct suitors, including her late husband, and Emily oscillates between them as their relative merits and demerits are exposed. If that was meant to be as funny as I found it, then I have to congratulate Ms Alexander on her subtlety.

Otherwise, this wasn't a subtle book. The characters are a little two-dimensional and the writing a bit loose - but hey, it's a first novel by a fairly young author, and that's what I got from the book. I also spotted a few anachronisms and Americanisms (the heroine is British) but not so many that I got annoyed; and in any case, this is a lighthearted novel to be gobbled up on the plane, boat or train, despite the detail about the Iliad and Greek antiquities (not strictly necessary in my opinion, but I suppose a widow must have some interests other than men).

And I enjoyed the read. A good one for fans of Victoriana, Greece, and writing that's heavy on dialogue and short on emotional depth. I'm hoping that Emily, who seems more passionate about her clothes than anything else, will pick up a little steam when I pick up the next book--which I'm sufficiently intrigued to do.

P.S. Can anyone else figure out why Amazon is bargain-pricing fiction like crazy? What's going to happen when readers expect a price point of $5 a book? Comments please.


A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly


Where I got the book: bought retail for my daughter's book club.

Sixteen-year-old Mattie Gokey is the oldest daughter of a motherless family. Her older brother has disappeared, and Mattie shoulders much of the responsibility for keeping the family's small farm going and looking after her sisters. She still finds time to go to school, and dreams of going to college in New York and becoming a writer. But her attraction to a neighboring farmer's son, and the hopelessness of her family's poverty, are obstacles to her dreams.

A Northern Light is set in the Adirondacks in 1906, and is inspired by a real-life murder case--the one that prompted Theodore Dreiser to write An American Tragedy in the 1920s. Mattie becomes a witness to the events that precede the murder; the tragedy, and its location, are a catalyst to Mattie's own final decision as to her life's direction.

I enjoyed Donnelly's writing very much. It rang true as the voice of a young girl surrounded by poverty and vice, but with enough education to see a way out of her situation. The secondary characters were nicely drawn, and I got a real sense of the setting.

I'm not sure if Mattie's story blends entirely satisfactorily with the murder case, though. I felt that Grace Brown's letters drew me away from Mattie's far more interesting surroundings. Still, all in all I found a great deal to enjoy in this book, and tended to read on past the time I'd allotted--always a good sign.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Great Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court - Edited by Maureen Harrison and Steve Gilbert

You may notice that this book doesn't really have an author, as such. There are only 'editors', as they have humbly named themselves; they've cut the text of the decisions way down, and added some background information, but that's it. The real authors, of course, are the supreme court justices who made these decisions.
That's what makes this book so interesting. As a book concerning America's history - or at least a facet of it - it's much closer to the original firsthand source material that histories are made of than any textbook you can find.

This isn't really a history of our country in a general sense. It's exactly what it says on the cover, which is a history of the supreme court, and to lesser extent our legal system. You get to see why and how the whole concept of judicial review developed, and how the sometimes stupidly complex system of legal precedent works. You get to read firsthand the reasoning behind some of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated in the name of the law in this country - Dred Scott v. Sanford and Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the notions of slavery and 'separate but equal', are fascinating in a terrible sort of way, if you can get past the 19th century legal prose. 19th century legal prose, by the way, isn't gripping.
The more recent cases are the really interesting ones - issues like slavery and segregation are long dead, but things like the constitutionality of prayer in schools and whether or not it is legal for the press to publish information declared confidential by the government are still very much being debated today, and many people who have strong opinions on such matter don't know exactly what the law has to say (including myself. It isn't like this book gives you a comprehensive understanding or anything.)
Overall, if you're a human being that is capable of reading and has any spare time at all, I recommend this book to you.

________________

Pros See above.
Cons Shipped with bobcat.
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