Thursday, December 31, 2009

Co-review: 2009 Best and Worst

Happy New Year! But before we move on to 2010, let's take a look back at 2009. For December's co-review Jenny and I decided to share the best and worst books we read in 2009. Keep in mind that these are not necessarily books that were published in 2009, but rather were read for the first time that year.

Caren's List of Favorite Reads:
I had quite the battle trying to decide which books should make the "best" list. Some deserved to be on it because I had so much fun reading them, but weren't necessarily amazing examples of literature. While others deserved to be on it because they were fantastic literature that left me deeply moved, but weren't necessarily the kind of thing I would pick up and read again anytime soon. In the end, I decided to include both.

1. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. I love when a new author can blow me away with an amazing work, and this was definitely one of those "wow" experiences.
2. A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. This lighthearted memoir is elevated beyond just a funny-yet-forgettable personal story by Kimmel's keen wit, observation, and powerful command of language.
3. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini. Definitely not to be taken lightly, this is one work that gets deep inside you and won't let go, leaving you forever changed.
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. A delightful story with a deeply human touch, as well as a wonderful nod to the power of literature in improving the human condition.
5. These is My Words, by Nancy E. Turner. A fascinating period piece with a great mix of action and sympathetic characters.

A Few More I Just Can't Leave Out:
And then there were a few more that I can't in good conscience fail to mention, even if they didn't quite make the "best" list.

1. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Fun and a little bit freaky, but in a good way.
2. The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. More than a little bit freaky -- okay, a lot freaky -- but a well-crafted story if you can stomach the bad language and themes of abuse.
3. The Thursday Next Series, by Jasper Fforde. Some were better than others, but the whole series provided me many hours of entertainment this year.
4. She Got Up Off the Couch, by Haven Kimmel. This follow-up to Zippy continues Kimmel's story in a similarly delightful style, but leaves some of the childhood innocence behind.
5. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Worth reading even if it did put me to sleep more than once.

Definitely Worth Skipping:
I try to avoid books that I suspect I won't enjoy, which helps keep my "worst" list pretty small. But these are the ones that I disliked the most, ranging from mild irritation to serious aggravation.

1. Spare Change, by Aubrey Mace. Such a major waste of ink and paper that I didn't even bother reviewing it. Think "local author spends too much time watching lame romantic comedies" and you'll get an idea. To add to the insult (because I did feel insulted reading it), I accidentally spilled water on it right before returning it to the library and had to buy the stupid thing!
2. Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin. Helprin's sense of humor might have redeemed it if he had cut the thing down by, oh, about 500 pages.
3. The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs. This one falls more into the mild irritation range. Jacobs over-estimated her abilities and the result is shallow and forgettable.
4. Running with Angels, by Pamela Hansen. Worthy message, but poor execution. But what else can you expect from someone who isn't a writer?
5. The Middle Place, by Kelly Corrigan. Corrigan has some skill as a writer, but I had a hard time really connecting with her as a narrator of her personal story.

And now I'm excited to see what Jenny has picked for her top reads of 2009!

Jenny's List of Favorite Reads:
This project of picking favorite books over the year is harder than it looks, people. It has taken me literally minutes and minutes of thinking to determine what I loved best this year. Like Caren said, it isn't always about great literature but about how much I enjoyed reading it.

1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.
I kept coming back to this book whenever I would try to tabulate my favorite books of the year. The story was so engaging and the people so lovable that I felt like I was living on the island with them. It was the best book all around.
2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I put that book down and felt altered forever. Stockett gives the women of this story three dimensions and made me respect and relate to them. Amazing writing.
3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. This book completely freaked me out, frightened me to death and refused to be put down for more than a few minutes at a time. Kostova reinvented the Dracula tale in such a compelling way that anybody could enjoy it, if they can handle the scariness.
4. Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Such a beautiful tale of friendship in a setting that completely blew me away with its beauty and painful atrocities.
5. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker. An unusual heroine who you can't help but root for, with mystery, love and suspense all tied in.

Honorable Mentions:
I read and review lots of books for young adults and younger readers and oftentimes, I find them to be the very best of books to read for both me and my kids. A few of those made it into my honorable mentions list.

1. Clementine by Sara Pennypacker. Not since Ramona Quimby has a little girl caught my family's adoration like Clementine. The three books written so far were read out loud with delight and thoroughly enjoyed.
2. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Never has a group of ghosts been so lovable. Or a villain quite so deliciously terrifying. It got me hooked from the first chapter.
3. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Oh my heavens, the quirk! The hilarity! The quirky hilarity!
4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Eye-opening and informative, a look at how Americans eat and where our food comes from. It made me take a serious look at what I was feeding my family.
5. The Gathering Storm by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan. The long-anticipated newest installment of The Wheel of Time series was given new life by Sanderson and did not disappoint.

Books I hated with a fiery vengeance or just plain didn't like:
1. The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale. A book by Hale should never leave me with a bad taste in my mouth, but this one did. It had many redeeming qualities but the inappropriate and incomprehensible friendship ruined it for me.
2. Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin. Oh my gosh, will it never end? I have never forced myself to read beyond my tolerance of a book since I was in college. It was painful.
3. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen. Was funny for about five seconds then just turned out to be stupid.
4. My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Child abduction is terrifying and upsetting, and yet this author makes us want to believe that a 10-year-old girl would be okay with it. Sick.
5. Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. I never blogged about it because I never finished it. After pages and pages of her sexual awakenings and exploits, I couldn't stomach another page. Plus, Julie Powell comes across as a selfish, horrible person. Wasn't this supposed to be about cooking? And Julia Child? The movie was a million times better and not at all a waste of time, unlike the book.

Hey, I'm impressed by all the reading we did in 2009! Not bad for a couple of moms with nearly ten kids between them.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Unblogged books

I admit, I like things to be tidied up. I like my loose ends tied. Here we are, nearing the end of the year and I have a handful of books I never blogged about but they won't stop nagging at me because of it. I deemed each of them unworthy and yet, here I am blogging about them. Darn those unbloggable books. You might be wondering, what makes a book unworthy of me sharing my opinion willy-nilly? Mostly it was because I couldn't think of anything spectacular to say that would either deter readers or cause them to leap from their computers and dash to the library. Those are the two reactions I prefer to instill in people. Some of these I loved and some I hated, but the most I can conjure up is about a paragraph each.

I read one book this year that I so completely disliked that I didn't even want to think about it after I read it. Usually, if I really don't like a book it's just that much more fuel for my fire. But this book was repulsive to me and I didn't want to think about it ever again after I read it. My Abandonment by Peter Rock is about a girl, Caroline, and her father who are living in a state park in Oregon, off the grid and avoiding people. Their past is mysterious and you gather that the father is a veteran with mental illness. They do get discovered and people try to help them in their situation, but everything just deteriorates more and more. It's based on a true story but the whole thing made my skin crawl. That's all I want to say about that.

Mark L. Van Name's newest installment of his books about Jon Moore and his intelligent ship Lobo is just as awesome as I thought it would be. If my blogging about the previous books haven't gotten you to pick up a copy of the first book yet, me writing yet another blog about it probably won't do the trick. Overthrowing Heaven is more action, more great sci-fi and focused much more on Lobo than Jon. Loved it.

When I was at my uncle's funeral, I met the father of an upcoming author, Aprilynne Pike. It's a long story, but I decided to read her young adult novel, Wings. It's about a girl who suddenly sprouts a blossom out of her back that resembles wings. Ends up, she's a faerie and never knew it. This story could have been very cool and original and yet, it just reads like a Twilight knock-off, love triangle and everything. Except in Wings it's the girl who's supernatural, not her love interests. Well, one of them is, but whatever. If you love Twilight, read Wings, but I can't endorse it much more than that.

Caren went to a midnight release party for The Gathering Storm by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan and didn't know what the hubub was about. My husband was seething with jealousy that she went and had pre-ordered a signed copy of the book months before. Caren sent us the bumper sticker she got at the party that said, "Bela is a Darkfriend" and my husband giggled like a schoolgirl and then dashed upstairs to plaster it to his bookcase. The fact is, if you're already a fan of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, you'll have read the latest installment finished by Sanderson after Jordan passed away. You don't need me telling you how awesome it is or how perfectly Sanderson accomplished the task of taking over this epic book series. You already know. And those of you who don't know probably would be hesitant to start a series that includes twelve books, one prequel and a nearly rabid fan base. I don't blame you.

I like fairy tale retellings, like Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl or Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted. They're fun and interesting and flesh out a tale so creatively that it gives it new life. Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George falls directly into that category and the caliber of Hale or Levine. George retells the tale of the twelve dancing princesses, which was one my favorite stories growing up. It was riveting and exciting and very well done. I read it, then passed it on to both my eight- and six-year-old daughters who both adored it. I would gander that any child on a skilled enough reading level would love this book and would also be a great read-a-loud. I'm going to have to do some more reading of George's books if this is what I have to expect. Excellent stuff.

Speaking of excellent writing, I recently re-read The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer. This book is a perfectly crafted dystopian future story about a tyrannical drug lord, cloning, and corrupt governments, but written for the young adult age group. Nancy Farmer has written many books but Scorpion has to be my favorite. Matteo, the clone of drug lord Matteo Alacran of the nation of Opium, a strip of land between Mexico and the U.S. is just as clever as his original version and with the help of some other clever people is able to make more of his life than as spare parts. Very cool, very exciting and some interesting deep thinking about the idea of cloning in general and the value of life.

Ahh, I'm feeling better. Now I can dive into books for the new year knowing that I tidied up my pile. Now if only I felt that way about my desk...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Al Capone in a new light

I think that there is a justifiable fascination with Alcatraz. I remember when the magician David Copperfield escaped from Alcatraz on national television, back when he did those t.v. specials that had my entire family riveted. Okay, so it's an illusion, but it was very cool. The tales of The Rock and its inmates make for great stories and when my husband and I made a trip to San Francisco several years ago, touring the island was at the top of my agenda. It didn't disappoint. You could imagine these men, the worst criminals of their time, locked away with no hope of escape, the surrounding ocean full of dangers and the guards on watch at all times. What I didn't realize is that the families of the guards and workers lived on the island with them. The history behind that is very interesting and Gennifer Choldenko explores it in her two books, Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes.

Matthew Flanagan a.k.a. Moose and his family have come to Alcatraz for his father to work there as an electrician and guard, and also to be close to a nearby school for his sister who has autism. It takes place in 1935, which was before autism was labeled as such, but I quickly figured out that is what is going on with Natalie. That time period is also when Al Capone was an inmate of Alcatraz and the whole world seemed fascinated by this fact. When Moose and his family arrive, the warden is quick to inform him of how fast his dad will get fired if Moose is caught ever talking about Capone to anybody, ever. Moose also becomes acquainted with the warden's daughter, Piper, who is both beautiful and devious and manipulative. There are other kids on the island which make for a fun ensemble. Jimmy and his sister Theresa who are loyal friends and good to Natalie, Annie the girl who plays baseball as good as a boy, and a few others.

Moose makes a friend at school, a boy named Scout, who is as equally obsessed with baseball as Moose is. A highly coveted item is a baseball retrieved from where the inmates play and Scout begs for Moose to get one for him. Trouble is, those balls are hard to come by since the inmates do their best to not let them get over the wall of the yard. Moose tries his best to find a ball, but with Natalie in tow, it's hard to look and keep an eye on her. When he discovers a small hole in the outer fence, he has better luck looking but that is asking for trouble.

Most of the kids are accepting of Natalie, except for Piper, but the adults are another matter. Moose's parents are anxious to get her into this school, but they deem her too old and unmanageable. She starts working with a local woman to try and re-accepted to the school and makes some progress. It grated on my nerves the way people treat Natalie and their family, but it is probably accurate. It's not socially acceptable to make rude comments about a person with disabilities now, but back then people probably considered it their right to tell somebody to ship their kid off to an asylum.

The second book follows right behind the first and has Moose come into direct contact with Al Capone, along with some other inmates. The story behind the titles of the books is that the inmates did the laundry of the families on the island, if the families took up that opportunity. The warden also had them doing plumbing, some cooking and also serving at parties. These inmates, considered to not be flight risks because of how close they were to finishing up their sentences, were called passmen. It surprised me how much time the kids were around these men, considering they were in the country's most secure prison for a reason. Choldenko makes her facts pretty accurate and even includes an appendix with references from books and interviews that she did.

I thought both books were fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable reading. Choldenko's storytelling was detailed, fun and interesting. You can't help but love Moose with his big heart and conflicting feelings about Natalie, Piper, Annie and Scout. And Al Capone for that matter. The man has unmistakable charisma and Moose can't help but get caught up in it, but be afraid of it at the same time. I had to keep reminding myself that Capone was a hardened criminal, a crime boss and murderer, no matter what favors he carefully doled out. The ending of Al Capone Shines My Shoes was awesome and Natalie proves to be a hero to the other kids. Great reading for you and any kids in your house that would have an interest.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The City of Ember series

I enjoy some post-apocalyptic fiction when I can get some, same as any other mommy in her 30s with a pack of kids and a penchant for reading. But sometimes I'd like something a bit less gritty than Cormac McCarthy's The Road or even Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series. If you ever find yourself in the same boat, then Jeanne DuPrau's The City of Ember series is the one for you. Do I sound like an infomercial yet?

Let's break it down. The first book, The City of Ember, takes place in a city far below the earth's surface. The reader catches on quickly that the city is underground but the inhabitants have no idea that the world could be anything different than dark and cold and dependent on electricity for light. They've been down there for over 250 years, at least 50 years longer than the original Builders had in mind when they created the city and sent people down there to live after the Disaster that destroyed the surface. Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow are the heroes of our story, young people who realize that their mayor is corrupt, that the generator that keeps everyone with light and heat is dying, and that a mysterious message from the past will lead them out of Ember. To where, they have no idea. They don't even know what out of Ember could possibly be like. They follow and hunt down clues, deal with adults who help and hinder, and have some truly heart-pounding moments where the reader has to wonder if they will ever leave Ember. The book is geared towards tween readers, meaning 9-12 year olds, depending on reading ability and interest. For me, it was a fast, easy but intense read. Loved it.

The second installment, The People of Sparks picks up where The City of Ember leaves off, like a mere second later. I don't know how to talk about this book without spoiling the first, but let's say that Lina and Doon have a new set of challenges and new cultures to adapt to. It was interesting and compelling, but a bit heavy-handed. There is a huge message of non-violence and the consequences of bigotry and mob mentality, which would be interesting to discuss with a younger reader. I found it interesting, but not as exciting as the first book. Then again, how often do you encounter a book that addresses these topics in a way for a tween to understand it?

The third installment is actually a prequel to The City of Ember, called The Prophet of Yonwood. It takes place mid-21st century in North Carolina where a woman has seen a vision of the future and it is desolate and destroyed. She becomes semi-comatose and her incoherent ramblings are interpreted by a Bible-thumping, militaristic woman named Mrs. Beeson, who twists the words into whatever serves her own agenda. Dissenters are punished severely. Eleven-year-old Nickie and her aunt come to town to deal with the mansion that Nickie's great-grandfather has left behind at his death. Nickie is fascinated by the town and its inhabitants, but soon falls victim to the machinations of Mrs. Beeson. She slowly begins to see that blindly following beliefs of those around her is not the way to make the world a better place. Again we see this message about mob mentality, blindly following the crowd and intolerance. I found this book to be the slowest read of them all, since it's mostly Nickie dealing with the situation she's in. Not until the very last chapter did I feel like I knew what the purpose of this installment was, despite DuPrau's message of non-violence and independent thinking. It's probably my least favorite and since it doesn't conclusively explain the events that lead to the Disaster and the settlement of Ember, it doesn't really feel necessary. I'm waiting for my daughter to finish reading it so I can pick her brain about what she thought of it.

The fourth, and final, installment was The Diamond of Darkhold and here we get back to some of the action and compelling story-telling of the first book. We're back to Lina and Doon and their desperate attempt to help the citizens of Ember, which leads them to a ruined city with a tyrannical patriarch waiting to capture anyone who crosses his path. It had the same excitement as the first book and not nearly the preachy overtones of the second and third books. Not that books shouldn't have a message, but I wonder if she could have integrated these messages into the other stories instead of writing two books full of morality lessons. We finally get a firm resolution to the series in this book and it feels right and complete. The most horrifying aspect of the book is some people's nonchalance towards the value of books, often burning them for firewood. Gave me chills. Doon and Lina plead with these people to stop but they can't read and see no need for it, so why not? If ever I find myself in a post-apocalyptic world and desperate for firewood, heaven help me if I start burning books.

The series as a whole was interesting and a different take on mere survival in a desolate world. It was about friendship and tolerance, problem solving and independent thinking, non-violence and humanity and other aspects of building a functioning society. Pretty hefty topics for the age demographic DuPrau was aiming at, but even when I thought it was a bit preachy, it didn't feel unapproachable and incomprehensible to your average twelve-year-old. That's impressive, I think. Maybe we can save those kids from reading Lord of the Flies or some other such horrifying book and try this series instead.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Historian

Books about vampires seem to be the thing these days. If it's not vampires, it's zombies. But vampires remain the book du jour, as evidenced by how easy it is to find some when you walk into the Young Adult section of your local library. What's hard to find is books about vampires for adults that are intelligent and interesting and not lust-filled romps or horror-infused terror tales. I lucked out that when chatting with my BFF, Abby, she mentioned this amazing book she was reading. She didn't tell me much about it but because she loved it, I had to read it. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is indeed about vampires, but so much more than that. It's a creepy tale, but also a thriller, a mystery, a historical adventure novel and a love story. It's also (roughly) five billion pages long, but believe me, it's worth it.

The confusing part is how many narrators there are in the book. It's starts out with a young girl (whose name we never learn) who finds an old book in her father's study with an woodcut imprint in the center of a dragon. When she asks her father, Paul, about the book and a stack of old letters that were tucked inside, he slowly reveals the story of his professor, Bartholomew Rossi, a beautiful woman named Helen, and his search for Vlad Tepes, otherwise known as Dracula. The narration switches between the girl, her father, the letters from Rossi, the letters to the girl from her father, briefly to Helen and back and forth. I spent the first fifty pages fighting confusion on whose point of view I was reading, but it settled in after that and I was good to go. It's organized, but I just couldn't find the structure to the story at first.

The bulk of the novel takes place in the 1950s with Paul and Helen as they try to track down Professor Rossi after his mysterious disappearance. Helen also happens to be Rossi's daughter that he doesn't know exists. Rossi is Paul's friend and advisor in his graduate program and after confiding his secrets to Paul about encounters with Dracula's followers and his attempts in tracking down his burial site, Rossi disappears with only bloody evidence behind. Paul and Helen go on an adventure to Istanbul and then Budapest in their search, finding historical evidence of Dracula's location and his true nature, all in the attempt to see where Rossi might have been taken.

Fast forward to 1972, our young narrator is on the search for her father who has disappeared after telling his daughter all the background of his search for Rossi, the disappearance of Helen, Dracula's touch in his own life, and his studies since then. The girl has to do some detective work of her own to find where her father has gone, or has been taken to. The whole situation is packed with peril and adventure. When we do get the few glimpses of Dracula that Kostova parcels out, it is absolutely breathlessly terrifying. What's admirable is how Kostova blends what we know of Dracula from Bram Stoker and popular culture with the history and folklore of Vlad Tepes, brutal 15th-century prince of Wallachia (aka Transylvania), otherwise known as Vlad the Impaler. This book is one giant history lesson of that time period and location made into a very appealing package of adventure and thrills.

This book has to be one of the most exciting and enthralling books I have ever read. Even if you're only so-so about vampires but you do enjoy a good adventure, it's worth reading. If you're a history buff, you'll enjoy this book. If you enjoy reading about vampires but are disenchanted by the popular version of them right now (basically brooding gorgeous teenagers), you will love this retelling. When I was absorbed in this book and basically incapable of conversation, my husband decided he had to read it and afterward we compared notes. He's not big on vampires, but we had conversation fodder for hours about The Historian. The only people I would steer away would be people who scare easily. This book is not for you. Everybody else, give it a try.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Co-Review: The Persian Pickle Club

We're late for this November co-review, but better late than never, I say! It's not often you can find a light-hearted book about the Depression and the dustbowl midwestern suffering during the thirties. When I hear those two qualifiers I immediately think of The Grapes of Wrath and I wouldn't exactly call that book a laugh riot. The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas is sweet and mostly light-hearted despite being about Kansas farmwives dealing with poverty, death, and deception. Probably because our narrator, Queenie Bean, is a happy person despite her trials.

The Persian Pickles are women who gather to quilt and talk and read aloud to each other once a week. Queenie is by far the youngest member of the group, if you don't count the sour and embittered Agnes T. Ritter who's got a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas. The other members are women in their 50s and 60s and in various degrees of life circumstances, though no one is all that well-off in Harveyville, Kansas in the 1930s. The Pickles take care of each other and are bonded through their quilting, which they all love to do. When Rita is added to the group as a new member and Agnes' new sister-in-law, she shakes things up a bit. She's a city girl, reluctant to the farm life and anxious to make a name for herself as a reporter. Not that there's much to report about until one of the members of the club's husband is dug up in a field on her property. Rita is determined to get to the bottom of the murder and stir up trouble that everyone else wishes would stay hidden.

As usual, we don't hold back on spoilers. It's no fun trying to discuss a book in coded phrases, after all.

Jenny: The murder mystery part of the book was fun, but for me the friendship between the Pickles was the best part. I found myself wishing throughout the book that I had my own group of Persian Pickles. They were all such different women, but they had that bond of friendship through quilting and all kind of being in the same boat with the hardship of that time. There were plenty of quirks and foibles but they loved each other anyway.

It's interesting how hard Queenie was trying to make Rita become a true Pickle and that it took her some time to figure out that she was never going to make Rita love farming and quilting. It cracked me up at one point when Queenie said something about how farming was the most interesting work in the world and couldn't understand why anybody would do anything different. Wow.

Caren: Yes, and I laughed when she thought Rita was crazy for wasting her time reading. Unlike quilting, she couldn't understand how anyone would spend time on something that didn't lead to a finished product! But Dallas made Queenie such an endearing and sympathetic character that I could enjoy her even though her life experience was so different from my own. And I have to admit that she would probably judge my quilting abilities to be on the same level as Rita's!

I read this book some years ago, and reading it again knowing the ending helped me enjoy even more the bond that these women shared. It didn't seem naive for Queenie to trust them with the secret of her adopted baby when you know the deeper secret that already bound them together. And I was better able to acknowledge Dallas' craft in leading us to believe that the women wanted to avoid the subject of Ben Crook's death because they were uncomfortable with the topic of murder, and not because they were trying to protect the murderer. And all along, you never got the sense that Queenie as the first-person narrator was keeping anything from the reader. It was a clever narrative sleight-of-hand, but didn't feel manipulative or forced, so I thought it was well done.

Jenny: Yes, I never once caught on to the fact that they as a group were hiding Ben's true end. It just seemed like a bunch of ladies who thought it would hurt more than harm to dig up the truth. I just chalked it up to the culture of the time, like sending away an unmarried mother to save her the shame as being known for having a baby out of wedlock. Some things people just didn't talk about back then, murder being one of them. But no, it's because they were all in on it.

I know of a quilting group from my church that gets together once a week and works on projects. I've seen some of the finished quilts and they are mind-blowing. My grandmother is in a quilting guild and has had some of her work featured in a magazine. I always associate quilting with something from a different era, until you see what our mother-in-law can accomplish and realize it's as much an art form as painting or sculpture and probably will be timeless. I loved the Massies--the drifters who Queenie and her husband take in and provide a home for--because despite their poverty and superstitions, Zepha Massie was as much an artist as the Persian Pickles. I bet if anybody had referred to the Pickles as artists, they would have scoffed.

Caren: I agree with the artistic nature of textile arts such as quilting. I know some women for whom quilting is an art and a passion and I am in awe at the things they can create. And some of the most amazing quilters I know are from our generation, so I do think it's an art form that is alive and well. But I am just not patient enough to put in the effort to elevate my skills above the rudimentary level! It's fun to dabble with, but that's about all I can do!

I really liked the Massies too, and it broke my heart when Zepha left Queenie her prized quilt. It bothered me that they left so abruptly like that to who-knows-what kind of future when they really didn't need to go. They added another human element to the story that contributed to its sensitive nature. Like you said, overall it was the relationships that carried the story.

I've only read one other Sandra Dallas novel and I was disappointed in it so I haven't tried any more from her. It was another period piece with captivating characters and an interesting plot. But there were some things that bothered me about the main character's development that I not only disagreed with, but also seemed false and insincere. So it was nice to read The Persian Pickle Club again and remember why I tried her in the first place, and maybe it would be worth giving her another shot.

Jenny: You'll have to let us know if you find another great Dallas book. This one was fun and worth a quick read.

Books for bedtime

I haven't done a batch of picture books in forever so I figured it was about time to share some recent finds. We haven't had the best of luck finding books lately, mostly due to my lack of effort, but I happened across some books these last few weeks that have made it into the favorites pile.

I'm completely behind the times in discovering Kevin Henke's book Kitten's First Full Moon that also won a Caldecott Award some years ago. My daughter picked it up at the library and all of us loved it. Kitten thinks the moon is a giant bowl of milk hanging in the sky, but all her efforts to get to it fail. She eventually gets her bowl of milk after an accidental dunk in a pond. The book is done completely in black and white illustrations that are beautiful and riveting. I can see an infant being interested in this book because of the stark contrast. The story is sweet and it has all the charm of Henkes' book.

My two-year-old has a mantra that she shares with the title of Jonathan Allen's book I'm not cute! My daughter hates it when her sisters pat her head, give her kisses and say the dreaded phrase. I think it makes her feel small when she thinks she is so very big. Little Owl in this book feels the same way and keeps insisting to the other animals that he is NOT cute and is actually a deadly predator. When bedtime comes around, his mommy reassures him that he is a stealthy hunting machine. I could relate to this book as the mommy who loves her darling little child and reassures them that they are big and important despite their inherent adorableness. Serious points on the cute scale for this book.

The idea of kids being frightened by monsters under their beds isn't anything new, but author Amanda Noll gives it a new twist in I Need My Monster. Ethan gets a note from his regular monster that he's gone fishing and that a substitute monster will be filling in for him, but how will Ethan get to sleep without his monster? He'll miss his ragged breathing and scratching claws. Ethan rejects each monster fill-in that shows up and is in despair over how he'll get to sleep. This book is far from frightening and my kids wanted it read to them over and over again. Part of that is due to Howard McWilliam's amazing illustrations. These eye-popping, zinging pictures leave you wanting more. Too bad this is his first picture book because now I want to see everything he's ever done. Somebody please hire him for more books! This book is a big winner.

For another slightly scary but mostly cute bedtime book, we have The Book That Eats People by John Perry. The conversation I had with my five-year-old went something like this:
Me: I'm a little nervous to read this book. I mean, it says that it eats people.
Adorable Daughter: Mom, books don't really eat people.
Me: Are you sure? It has warning tape all over the cover and seems pretty serious about it.
Adorable Daughter: It'll be fine, Mom. Just read it.
She wasn't falling for it, despite my best efforts to build up suspense. The book is serious about it being hungry for people, describing the fates of many young children who carelessly ate cookies while reading or turned their backs on it. We survived that first reading, thankfully, and have since read it over and over again. The illustrations are very cool and slightly frightening, two aspects I greatly enjoy. I read about this book somewhere online and immediately requested that my library purchase the book, which they willingly did because they are smart.

Another book I requested for purchase for the library was Spot the Plot: a riddle book of book riddles by J. Patrick Lewis. I bet all the children's librarians who review my requests for material purchases are wishing they could shake my hand and thank me in person. This clever book has a riddle and illustration that hints at a book that most children would know. There was only one that I hadn't heard of and another additional one that my kids hadn't heard of but that's my fault. These riddles are seriously awesome, one of my favorites being: "Good wood makes fake bad lad. Toy boy cries, lies. Nose grows." How cool is that? Loved it. Your kids will too.

This is a good batch of books! It'll make up for not having done any picture books in forever. It might be too late for any Christmas shopping, but certainly it'll at least give you some selections for the next library trip.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Benedict, Catching Fire and Alcatraz

Series books are a tricky business. The first book in a series will often feel fresh and interesting and new, but that kind of momentum is hard to maintain through the rest of the series. The typical trilogy formula has the second book in the series be the least interesting. Plot lines have to be displayed, characters have to go through conflict and those books never end happily. The second book is like a holding place for the third book, which you know will be interesting and suspenseful and, ultimately, satisfying, but you got to slug through the second book to get to the third.

I read a bundle of series installments recently and they fell differently on the scale of series success. The first was The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart. I've blogged about the first and second books and I stand by my opinion that these are some of the best books I've ever read. The writing is amazing and the plot lines intricate, but not so much that my eight- and six-year-old can't enjoy it. The third book has more of the adventures of Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance, but it takes longer to get into the meat of the book. The first part of the book spends quite some time giving you Constance's mysterious background which we've been left in the dark about so far. It was interesting and I was excited to read it, but I grew anxious about when the action would really start. When it did, it was great. This book had more closure than any of the others, which is saying something since I was convinced the first book was the only one. Stewart doesn't leave you hanging at the end of each book which makes it easier to wait for the next one. I'm almost positive this is the last book of that series that Stewart will do, but I would love for him to create another universe for us readers to enjoy.

Next, I read Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, the second book after The Hunger Games. I thought that The Hunger Games was fascinating and a great read, but I was disappointed in Catching Fire. It seemed to suffer from second book-itis. Katniss, our heroine, spins her wheels in her hometown, trying to rebel, dealing with her love triangle, waiting for doom to descend--which it does, of course--and the reader has to wait for the action to start. It does start, but only long enough to lead us into a cliffhanger. This book is an example of the frustration of middle books in a series. That said, it's still exciting and the series as a whole will probably be awesome. If I could go back in time and tell myself to wait for all three books to come out, that's what I would do. I would never listen to such advice, but I'd try anyway.

Lastly, I read Alcatraz and the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson. It still has snarky, nonsense-filled narration and action-packed chapters, but it lacked something that I'm going to blame on being the middle book of a series. It's the third installment out of what I suspect will be five books, so it's definitely the middle and lacks some of the momentum and excitement of the first two books. You get a peek into the Freelands of this imaginary world and has some fun moments with the villainous Librarians, but it just wasn't as much fun as the first two. Like Catching Fire, the series as a whole will be great, but we have to wait for it all to come together in the mean time. Not good for instant gratification.

While I'm thinking about it, I would qualify each of these series like this:
  • Mysterious Benedict Society: good for any age either as a read-aloud or for an independent reader with high enough reading skills.
  • Hunger Games/Catching Fire: definitely middle school and up. Lots of kissing and teen angst along with a smattering of substance abuse. Oh, and people killing each other in brutal, but not R-rated ways.
  • Alcatraz: I let my eight-year-old read it, but it has potty humor and some crass words like butt and fart. Nothing over the top, but enough to make me roll my eyes.
My husband and I were just chatting about what makes middle books of series good and we've come to the conclusion that it has to do with the intent of the author. Did they intend for it to be something broken into segments, hinged with cliffhangers and unfinished stories or rather independent stories that are all linked? I wish I could get a heads-up when it's the first type of story so I could be mentally prepared to be unsatisfied. Ah well, I'll still read them and still grump about them and probably still enjoy them.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Richard Peck's down home goodness

Richard Peck has been around for a long time. He's been writing contemporary teen novels for most of his career, but around the turn of the millennium (that sounds weird), he aimed his craft at writing for younger readers and changed his settings to rural towns around the turn of the century. This was a good move for him because his books A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder won him a Newberry Honor and Newberry Medal. For good reason because these books are examples of storytelling at its finest.

Peck's writing makes you feel like he's channeling Mark Twain. Using the characters' midwestern vernacular, you get a feeling of sitting on a porch swing, listening to someone of an older generation spin tales. You're not sure how much of it is true since the ridiculousness of some of it seems too big to swallow, yet you're willing to believe because the story is just that good. Peck has written some of his books with one family as the central characters, but then he also has other books with the same setting (turn of the century, rural Indiana) and all new characters. They're all good.

The book I read most recently was Here Lies the Librarian and has Peck's usual assortment of quirky characters, unexpected heroes, and a story that keeps you riveted to your chair until you finish. Eleanor and her brother run a small auto shop in a tiny town that has fierce competition from a bigger outfit that pulls stunts like pouring sugar in gas tanks to get business. When a quartet of young co-eds from the university in Indianapolis show up in town and pour their family money into renovating the town's neglected library, everything is shaken up. There's also car racing, stunt-pulling, a colonel who can't seem to remember he's not in the middle of the Civil War anymore and a tornado that digs up local graves. This book is a fun ride.

The very best aspect of Peck's books is that you could read them out loud to your entire family and not a single one of them would get bored. Well, maybe your two and under crowd would lose interest, but these are books for parents and children and any extended family that might be hanging around. The language is nearly tangible with how real and beautifully crafted it is and the characters are such fun to read. I can't vouch for anything Peck has written outside of his thread of books like Here Lies the Librarian, but I can say that if you make time for these books, you will not regret it.

The Help

Not all bestsellers are worth all the hype. Anything written by Dan Brown, for instance. When I see stacks of a book piled up at Costco, I narrow my eyes and wonder. The Help by Kathryn Stockett is an exception to that rule and after it was recommended to me by several reliable sources (thanks, Mom!) I finally got a hold of it from the grips of other patrons at the library. What, did they only have one copy and a librarian on a mule was delivering it personally to each person's home? Sheesh.

The Help tells the story from there different women's perspectives in 1960's Jackson, Mississippi. If you know anything about the Civil Rights movement, you'll know what a hotbed that particular area was during that time. Two of the women are black maids in white homes and their viewpoints are similar, but how they react and deal with their situations differ. Aibilene is a black maid working for a middle class family with one little girl. The mother cannot seem to bond with her child and Aibilene steps in as a mother figure to her. Aibilene lost her own son in a tragic accident and tending people's children has always brought her joy, up until they get big enough to turn into their parents. Minny is a maid who has gotten fired from more jobs than she can count on two hands due to her smart mouth. There is no tolerance for a smart-mouthed black woman employed by white women during that time. She ends up as a maid for a young woman who came from extremely humble roots and doesn't seem to know where the line between black and white is supposed to be. Skeeter is white and the daughter of a predominant family in Jackson, fresh out of college and ready to become a famous writer. She decides to pursue a book project exposing how white women treat their black maids and nannies, but her initial motivation is to get published. Only later does she come to realize how little she knows about these women's lives.

There were aspects of this book that were deeply disturbing. Hilly, one of Skeeter's old friends who is a woman of great influence in Jackson, has it out for black women. She is the instigator of getting other families to install outdoor bathrooms for their maids so they don't have to share with the family. Her initiative hypes up the prevention of diseases being spread between the races, with the emphasis on black to white. Hilly is so wrapped up in making sure the black maids know their place that she becomes more and more irrational and terrifying. It was terrifying to me to think that women like her made life in Mississippi that much harder for black women during that time. Hilly is a horrible human being and I started to wonder if she was being portrayed too one-sided, but Stockett does make sure we know that Hilly loves her children and takes good care of them. Also, I started to realize that even though I don't personally know someone this vindictive, manipulative and self-righteous doesn't mean they don't exist.

Watching Skeeter evolve through the book was fascinating. Her maid, Constantine, who was like a mother to her growing up, mysteriously disappeared right before she came home from college. No one will tell her where she went or what happened and part of why she wants to collect stories from the maids in the community is to find out what happened to her. Other than that reason, Skeeter has no interest in changing the laws or seeing things done differently, she just wants to point out what is going on between the maids and their employers. As she learns more and hears more of their stories, personally witnesses their tragedies, and then is singled out by the angry white women of her community, she starts to empathize and desire change.

I felt a bit like Skeeter as I read The Help. I'm lucky enough to live in a day and age where racism is intolerable and how often have I ever encountered it? Or persecution of any type? As I read, I felt like there was a world out there that I have never had to experience, much like Skeeter had never experienced. It was eye-opening to me. The book is written in such a way to draw you into these women's lives without pitying them. I became frustrated, righteously indignant, and then admiring of their strength and ability to keep going despite the cards stacked so heavily against them.

Stockett grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and comes from the background of having had a black maid growing up, a woman who nursed and cared and cleaned up after her and her family. She didn't begin to question the roles of her family and her maid's until she was much older. At the time she was growing up, it was completely normal. Her small appendix at the end of the book explains her history and the fact that she wrote this book for that beloved maid. In my opinion, she did her a great honor. Stockett's storytelling was phenomenal and since this is her first book, I hope to see many more in the future.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A midnight book release party

Last week I went to my first ever midnight book release party. Ironically, I didn't even care about the book. It was the final book in the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series. I have not read any of Robert Jordan, and have no desire to. But because this book was written by Brandon Sanderson and he was attending the book release, my sister convinced me to go and get some books signed by him.

It was fun, though the activities meant nothing to me since I haven't read the Jordan books. People kept handing out stickers that would make the other fans laugh, but meant nothing to me. But for the sake of any Jordan fans reading this, one said, "Bela is a Darkfriend," and the other said, "I killed Asmodean." No idea what they meant, but I still think the Wheel of Time logo looks like Mickey Mouse. And after looking at the cover art for those books, I have a new appreciation for the cover art of Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy. I'm not a big fan of the Mistborn cover art, but by comparison the childish illustrations used for the Wheel of Time series make Mistborn look like fine art!

It was fun to meet Brandon Sanderson. He was very gracious and flattered that we would have stood in line just for him. I had a chance to thank him for answering our questions for the blog a little while back. Overall he seemed like a very nice guy who is not too full of himself, which impresses me even more than his amazing talent. I wish him all the best success, especially with the publication of this most recent monumental work. That's a huge responsibility to finish the work of another author and try to be true to what came before while still exercising your own creativity. And with such potential of alienating die-hard fans, it's not a risk to be taken lightly! So I hope for his sake that it's well-received. Because knowing his other work, I'm pretty sure that it'll be the best of the series!

But having said that, I just have to ask, what is the deal with fantasy fans?? Do they not realize that they are perpetuating a horrible stereotype that keeps them marginalized and less respected than the genre deserves? Standing in line for two hours with all these hard core fantasy fans just about did me in. Holy lack of personal hygiene! I don't know when the last time was I've been so entrenched in B.O. Come on, do you really think that voluminous cloak is going to mask the fact that you forgot to put on deodorant for the day? For goodness sake, take a shower, brush your teeth, get a haircut, and if you're a girl put on a little make-up, and then maybe there would be less of a "freak" stigma! I just don't get it. I enjoy a good fantasy, but never to the point that I would sacrifice my personal dignity for it. Ewwww.

Overall it was a fun night, even though I didn't care a snitch for the book that all the hullabaloo was about. It did make me sad that I never made it to a release party for a book I cared about, like the last Harry Potter book. Now, that would have been an event I could have gotten into! But don't worry, I would have brushed my teeth before I left the house.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Co-review: Murder on the Orient Express

In celebration of Halloween, we chose a classic mystery by Agatha Christie for October's co-review. I can't think of any authors who have been more prolific than Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime who helped shape the modern mystery. Her classic who-done-its often include a brilliant yet unassuming private detective whose keen powers of observation and deduction culminate in a surprise conclusion where the murderer is revealed to the astonishment of all. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's pretty much your standard murder mystery template. But unlike Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Christie's work doesn't center around any single character, though she does have a couple of favorites who get a lot of air time.

Murder on the Orient Express features Christie's famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. When a passenger train gets stranded in a snowbank in Yugoslavia, one of the passengers is murdered in the middle of the night. Knowing the murderer must still be on board, the railway director entreats his friend Poirot (who happens to be traveling on the same train) to solve the crime. The majority of the novel consists of the various passengers offering alibis and evidence while Poirot sorts through the confusing mess to uncover the truth. It is a puzzle of logic and deduction for the reader as well since reserving the great unveiling for the end gives us a chance to develop our own theories along the way. And be forewarned that since this is a co-review, we can't promise not to give away any spoilers!

Caren: It's been many years since I've read an Agatha Christie novel, so it was fun to go back and revisit one of the classics. The most obvious difference from modern mysteries was the absence of action, violence, and nail-biting suspense. Instead, it was all about laying the information out for the reader to sort through and see if we could figure it out on our own. We weren't allowed much access into Poirot's mind so we had to rely on our own powers of deduction. But I have to admit that I didn't even bother trying to figure it out myself. I knew there would be an unexpected twist at the end, so I just decided to take the lazy route and wait for Poirot to spell it out for me. What about you, Jenny? Did any of the characters seem more suspicious to you than the others?

Jenny: No, in fact I kept thinking how strange it was that everyone was so devoid of suspicion. Of course, you realize why at the end and it starts to come together as more and more characters have a link to the Armstrong kidnapping/murder. Very different from modern mysteries. The other big difference I saw was the stereotypes that were used, like "women are hysterical" or "Italians like to stab with knives". Those kinds of statements in modern novels would be used to show how non-politically correct a character was. In Orient, they came across as completely normal. It was interesting to me to see how much our society has changed just from what we can read in a mystery novel.

The way the book was organized was very interesting. The crime section was first, then the testimony of each passenger, then the re-examination of evidence and testimony, then the grand unveiling. I would be interested to see if that's how all of Christie's novels are written. You can't beat Poirot for cleverness though. That guy has it together.

Caren: It's been a while, but I don't think Christie employs this same format in all of her novels. Some of them have multiple murders with suspense building the entire time, if I remember right. But they all include the grand unveiling at the end.

Good point on the stereotypes. Definitely written in a different time! There were some other things too that didn't fit with a contemporary audience. Some of the clues Poirot picked up on meant nothing to me -- like when he identified Miss Debenham as having spent some time in America because she referred to a telephone call as "long-distance." There were also times that Christie deliberately withheld information from us, and I thought that was a little unfair. For instance, the detail about the bolts on the even numbered rooms being in a different location than the odd numbered rooms. I don't mind if I'm not as smart as the guy solving the crime, but I do think it's only fair that I get the same information he does. Or at least a hint.

I had a hard time believing that these people were all capable of murder. It made for a good story, but it was hard to imagine some of them actually being able to stab another person. That's just so brutal, and they didn't seem twisted enough by revenge to be capable of it. But maybe I'm just looking at it through contemporary mystery eyes again.

What did you think of them all getting away with it in the end?

Jenny: Oh no, I agree with you on that point. I hardly think every single one of the characters capable of stabbing someone. And you're talking about people who were involved in the Armstrong household, not direct relatives or people I would think could hang onto that kind of fury and be part of such a nefarious plot. I think Christie probably thought it would make a good story and show off Poirot's skills and didn't think too hard about their motivation.

I have a hard time with endings like this. My innate sense of justice feels annoyed when people get away with murder (pun intended). Did Ratchett/Cassetti deserve to die? Yeah, probably, but it wasn't those people's jobs to carry out his sentence. Now they have to carry around what they did and know that they got away with it. I couldn't live like that.

All that said, this book isn't a moral thinker. It was written as a romp and that's what it is. See the famous Poirot solve a murder case while stranded on a train! See Poirot use his powers of deduction to discover the hidden identities of possible murderers! I think I prefer a protagonist that isn't quite so infallible. Now that I think about it, though, we are a product of our generation and the literature and entertainment of our time. I bet in the 30's (when I think this book was published) this was exactly what people wanted to read. Otherwise Christie wouldn't have been the best at what she did.

Caren: Yes, it's a fun romp, but I do think that Christie was also trying to nag our moral conscience. From what I remember, she has quite a few novels that deal with uncomfortable ethical dilemmas like this. But I agree with you, it's not so well-developed that I'll be losing any sleep over it. Still, it's nice to know that even something written that long enough and filled with cultural references of the time can still hold some appeal today. It might not get your palms sweating and your heart racing, but it's still a fun murder mystery without the side effect of nightmares afterward. Which, in my opinion, makes it great for young teens who are getting introduced to the mystery genre but are still too young for the intensity of contemporary writers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thursday Next sequels

I've been interested in reading Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next sequels since Jenny and I co-reviewed The Eyre Affair back in May. But I could never seem to get my hands on the next one. So when I was recently in the library and found all of them together, I had to snatch them up. Guess what I've been doing for the last month?

So far Fforde has written four additional books about Thursday Next. Some have more action and mystery than the others, but they are all creative and fun to read. Lost in a Good Book begins with Thursday enjoying marriage to Landen Parke-Laine (her reconciled love from The Eyre Affair), and the revelation that she is newly pregnant. When the Goliath Corporation eradicates Landen in order to blackmail Thursday into releasing their agent Jack Schitt from Poe's The Raven (where he was imprisoned during The Eyre Affair), Thursday begins to search for a way to get back into fiction again. She enters the BookWorld and joins Jurisfiction -- the organization that maintains order within fiction -- as an apprentice to the one and only Miss Havisham. In the meantime she faces another enemy, Acheron Hades' sister Aornis, saves the world from being turned into mysterious pink goo, and releases Jack Schitt only to be double-crossed by Goliath and still left husbandless.

In The Well of Lost Plots, Thursday decides to take refuge away from Goliath in the BookWorld, where she continues her Jurisfiction training and awaits the birth of her baby. There is less action in the first half of this book as she discovers all the oddities of the BookWorld. Fforde's imagination is limitless and it's sometimes hard to keep straight all the aspects of the world of fiction. But it rarely felt tedious and his wit kept things interesting even when the action was a little slow. Thursday faces some Aornis-imposed personal struggles with Landen's eradication, but is helped through them by Granny Next -- a delightful character who first appears in Lost in a Good Book. The second half gets more interesting as Thursday uncovers a greedy plot that would end up destroying libraries all over the world, and has to use her own wit and BookWorld connections to put an end to it. In the end she is appointed Bellman, the head of Jurisfiction.

Something Rotten begins over two years later. Thursday now has a 2-year-old son, Friday, and is getting tired of the BookWorld and returns home to Swindon. Goliath is trying to become a religion and promises to uneradicate Landen in exchange for her forgiveness, a process that doesn't quite go through without a hitch. In the meantime, a fictional character is trying to take over the world beginning by establishing himself as England's tyrant, Hamlet has undergone a hostile takeover and is now The Merry Wives of Elsinore and only an illegally cloned Shakespeare can possibly sort out the mess, a famous assassin is trying to kill Thursday, and Thursday has to save the world by leading the Swindon Mallets professional croquet team to an unlikely victory in the SuperHoop. Despite a few minor inconsistencies in the text, this was probably my favorite of the sequels. There are some great revelations and surprises, lots of loose ends tied up, and more action with the many subplots involved. The series could have easily ended very satisfyingly with Something Rotten.

But it didn't. First Among Sequels continues the story -- a little unnecessarily if you ask me. But it's still fun and is a little bit of a departure from the previous ones because it narrows the gap between the imaginary literary sci-fi world that Fforde has created (where something like SpecOps and the ChronoGuard could exist in the first place) and the real world that we live in. It takes place fourteen years later with Thursday in her early 50's, SpecOps disbanded, and interest in books falling in place of reality TV shows like "Whose Life Support Do We Switch Off?" Thursday is continuing to work in both literary detectives and Jurisfiction, albeit on the sly since she was supposed to have given both up years ago. As a mother, she faces the daunting task of trying to motivate lazy sixteen-year-old Friday who is resisting his destiny of joining the ChronoGuard. In the fictional world she meets with frustration and opposition from her own fictional counterparts in the badly written Thursday Next series. And in both worlds, she has to fight a movement to eliminate the classics and turn them into reality book shows where the readers get to vote off characters and decide where the plot will go. The ending is definitely left open for another book, so we'll have to wait and see where Fforde takes it next.

Overall, this was the most fun I've had reading a series in a long time. Fforde seems to know just how much he can use his jokes before they start to get stale, and moves on to something fresh and interesting before we get tired of them. I admire an author who can take his cleverness to new heights with each book, and Fforde succeeds in that. Also, it seems like usually sequels incorporate more sex, violence, and bad language than the original, but this wasn't the case with the Thursday Next sequels. In fact, if anything the language was less strong than the first and that is a great selling point to me. One thing the sequels lacked was a really strong villain. Acheron Hades was a great villain in the The Eyre Affair, but there's no one of his caliber in the other books. I think that makes them suffer a bit as mysteries (which is where they are catalogued), but they are still so fun to read that if you can get over that you'll still enjoy them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An author to watch

It's pretty rare that I get to read a book before it's published, but I got that opportunity recently. Mark Foster is a doctor and an old college friend of mine who just wrote his first book and now it's online for anybody to read. To endorse Mark's writing, I'll divulge the top-secret information that we used to play in a band together. He wrote the songs and played guitar, we had some other buddies who played instruments and I played the violin. Yeah, we were pretty cool. Okay, so we were kinda dorky but what wasn't dorky was Mark's songs. He wrote the most beautiful lyrics, more like poetry set to music. Well, except for The Wookie Song. That one was just silly, but we had a good time.

I think Mark has enormous potential, but he has had trouble finding an agent to represent him due to the fact that his book doesn't have enough sex in it. He's taking the unique approach of putting his book in its entirety online for anyone to read and comment on. In my opinion, Mark deserves a shot at having an editor take a look and see what comes of it. Plus, I think he needs to write some more books so if you all read it and tell him what you think it'll push him in that direction.

Go read the book and Mark's bio here. He includes links to some of his short stories as well. You can also follow a link to his brother's website, enormously talented musician and songwriter Jeff Foster. Lots of good stuff on that there website. I don't want to tell you too much about the book so you can have fresh eyes when you read it, but I will say it's a medical drama. Go check it out while it's free for the reading and tell him what you think.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Meeting Linda Ashman

The Bookies is a bookstore in Denver that I don't often frequent due to the fact that I love The Tattered Cover so much and The Bookies is in a part of town I don't find myself in very often. I do get their newsletter, mostly for curiosity's sake and to know when they do their amazing sidewalk sales. When the September newsletter came and it said that Linda Ashman, children's book author who I've raved about in the past, would be signing books there on a day when I was also going to be within a few miles of the store, I couldn't pass it up.

We arrived ten minutes early for the signing, but Linda Ashman was already there, ready and waiting to sign some children's books. My mother-in-law gave each of my youngest three daughters a book of hers for their birthdays this year, so we brought those along to get them signed. Some of my girls were more timid than the others, but Ashman was so cute with each of them. My six-year-old had questions about being an author and they chatted a bit about ideas and where they come from. Ashman had a copy of the preliminary sketches the illustrator did for her new book, Creaky Old House, which I found fascinating. She and I talked a bit about writing and the publishing process and she was delightful and interesting.

Ashman's husband and son were there too and my husband and I chatted with Jackson, her son, about his favorite books and his interests. Jackson blogs about his favorite books and I was totally impressed that this eleven-year-old could express himself in writing so well. My poor kids will now have extra pressure from their mom to do more writing. I thought it was sweet that her family would be there to support her while she did signings.

The whole encounter was such fun and now we have a copy of Creaky Old House, which is just as charming as her other books. My only regret is that I didn't buy Come to the Castle as well, but there's always next time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

These Is My Words

Nancy E. Turner's These is My Words is the captivating story of Sarah Agnes Prine, a young woman living in the Arizona Territories in the late 1800's. It is told as a diary that begins when 17-year-old Sarah moves with her family to Texas. Along the way they are attacked by Indians, their horses and livelihood are stolen, and they face other horrors -- including a brutal attack on Sarah's friends that only ends when young Sarah shoots and kills the two men (the first killings of many in her rough life on the frontier). Shortly after arriving at their destination, Sarah's father dies and they decide to return to the Arizona Territories. This time they travel with a large wagon company accompanied by soldiers and led by a Captain Jack Elliot (whom she is equally fascinated and repulsed by because of weird prejudices that don't make sense but you can only hope she'll get over them since he seems to be a pretty neat guy).

Sarah's mother sinks into a deep depression and can barely function, so Sarah assumes a role of leadership and control over her little surviving family. She is fiery and has a strong backbone, with a maturity and fearlessness beyond her years. But she is also full of insecurities with hopes and dreams just like any other young woman her age, and it is easy to love her and admire her and be swept up in her story. She longs to be educated but never had the opportunity beyond learning to barely read, so she reads whatever she can get her hands on and over time her spelling and grammar improve. (I've heard some readers complain that her spelling and grammar are a barrier in trying to get into the story, but I wouldn't know because I listened to the audio version. Which was fantastic, by the way: Valerie Leonard did a great job bringing the narrative to life.)

Once they arrive back in the territories, she helps her brother and his wife get settled near Tuscon and then marries a family friend who has started a large horse ranch nearby. Soon she finds that marriage isn't quite what she'd hoped it would be, but the untimely death of her husband spares her the years of misery that would otherwise have come. Not that she much likes her new role of young widow with a baby to protect and a large ranch to run by herself, and there are plenty of scary and stressful moments. But there are wonderful people who come into her life, including the kind and dashing Captain Elliot whose nobility and cleverness and kindness makes him an immediate favorite -- with the reader, that is. Sarah spurns his attentions, having been soured on men after her first husband turned out to be such a jerk. But eventually he breaks through her defenses and there are some very sweet and romantic moments as their love blossoms in spite of herself.

Eventually they marry and begin the kind of marriage and family life that she had always dreamed of. It is full of the hardship and sorrow that you would expect, but also many sweet and funny moments and through it all their deep and abiding love shines through and they have a happy life together. And over the years Sarah grows into a strong and refined woman; shaped through a life full of love, sorrow, heartache, and joy.

This was Turner's first novel, but I understand that she's written more about Sarah since, so I'm anxious to get a hold of them. It was pretty long, but full of action and detail that brought the world to life and made me long to see the Arizona Territories from 100 years ago. (And if you know how I feel about Arizona, that's saying something!) So while the diary style has never been my favorite, I never got bored, and in fact kept trying to find chores to do so I could keep listening. It was full of interesting characters that made me laugh and cry right along with them, and gave me a fresh appreciation for the strong women like Sarah who helped shape this country behind the scenes. Some of the material is definitely for a mature audience, so be forewarned that it's not exactly Little House on the Prairie. But if you are in the mood for a great story and fascinating characters, this one gets a hearty recommendation!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A birthday shout-out

Caren's birthday is this month and in honor of that, I'm going to tell a story on her. About a million years ago when she and I were newly married to our husbands, the whole family went on a camping trip up in the mountains. That night as we all sat around the fire, Caren said she would tell us a story. Now, as a preface, I have no idea how I managed to get that far in life without ever having read The Sneetches and other stories by Dr. Seuss, but I hadn't. When Caren recited What Was I Scared Of? from memory, in the dark, in the woods, I don't know if I've ever been more scared. She terrified me with that story and the ending took me by such shock that the whole night is seared in my memory.

Every time I read What Was I Scared Of? to my kids, I try to make it just as surprising and suspenseful as I heard it for the first time so long ago. The shock has since worn off for them, but I still love to pretend like it's the first time they've ever heard it. It's the perfect spooky story and the ending always feels absolutely right. It remains one of my favorite stories of all time. Happy birthday, Caren, and thanks for scaring the bejeepers out of me and impressing me with your memorization skills!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This is the conversation I have imagined between author Seth Grahame-Smith and his buddy on the concept of writing Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:

Seth: What is up with women and Pride and Prejudice? They drool all over themselves when anything to do with that book comes up.
Buddy: Dude, I know.
Seth: You know what would make that book appealing to men? Zombies. Lots of 'em. And make the Bennett sisters kick-butt warriors in the battle against the zombie infestation of England. That would be hot!
Buddy: Dude! Awesome!

And so he wrote the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: with ultraviolent zombie mayhem. Believe me, there is plenty of zombie mayhem. Grahame-Smith said in an interview I read online that the book is 85% Austen and 15% Grahame-Smith. I can believe that. The added parts are obvious and the essential story remains the same. The difference is that England is troubled by a constant zombie problem that has no near resolution and the Bennett sisters have been trained by their father and a Chinese martial arts master to battle against the unmentionables. So you know, pretty much the same.

Grahame-Smith's concept works, if you can buy the idea of adding zombies. You can picture Elizabeth Bennett doing martial arts and Catherine de Bourgh being the country's most formidable female warrior against the unmentionables. The book is funny at times, especially anything to do with Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. It definitely feels like it was written for a male audience (who Grahame-Smith has said he wrote the book for), but who is actually going to read this book? Most likely women. I mean, it's still Pride and Prejudice and it still has the language of an Austen book and the love story is the same. If I'm right and it's mostly women who will read it, there are far too many jokes about the male anatomy and people vomiting and beating hearts being ripped out of chests to appeal to a female audience. In fact, there are only about three jokes that are recycled throughout the book. Maybe that would work better in a movie, but it's glaringly repetitive in the book.

Speaking of a movie, I also read online that the book would possibly become a movie in the future. If so, it will most likely be the first film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice to get an R rating. 'Cause there's lots of gore. Oodles. I can imagine that will be when the men turn out in droves. That's not saying that all men love gore or that women are incapable of enjoying zombie flicks, but I don't think I'm wrong by saying it's slanted towards one gender. And that's fine too. But I doubt their Mr. Darcy will hold a candle to Colin Firth or Matthew MacFayden. I'm just sayin'.