Thursday, December 29, 2011

Approachable Star, Approachable Story

After a hiatus of, what has it been, 3 weeks? and 1 book, I'm back with *yet another* AMS.  This one actually just published, the latest Isabel Dalhousie.  I've reviewed at least one of these before on the site, but I'm not going to go back and read it, because, as you know, I like my reviews fresh :) This series is the least popular one amongst the Swia. public - that is, the Sp's don't even read it.  It used to be my favorite, since it featured a very satisfying, if a little unusual (the unusual is what bothered the Sp's) romance.  But that's been long over (or long-settled), so what's left? Isabel herself and her many musings.  AMS is fond of philosophical ramblings of course, but in these books he's given extra license to digress on whatever he fancies, possessing of the perfect mouthpiece in one who philosophizes by profession.

As you can imagine, that can get annoying.  Especially when I disagree with Isabel, but also because spending so much time delving into every perceived moral dilemma does not make for thrills and chills all day (not that that's what I'm looking for anyway :)) And at times, that was definitely my prevailing feeling while reading Isabel #... 8? I think it's 8 - The Forgotten Affairs of Youth.  She goes on and on about this or that and my feeling is, it just doesn't matter that much, lady.  AMS presents her as the gentle, refined, and cultured woman, but it's hard not to find her boring at times.  And because she's boring, she becomes unlikeable, since AMS is so clearly enamored of her carefully crafted thoughts, feelings, and lifestyle (in other words, we have a Mary Sue).

That was sometimes... and more at the beginning, I'm glad to say.  As usual, somewhere along the way, the pace picked up.  But it wasn't just the plot development - interestingly enough, I actually found myself liking Isabel, a lot more than I have in a while.  For once, she isn't left as this rather inhuman pillar of morality and thought  - to a much greater extent than I think ever (or at least in the past few books) previously, we are invited into her inner life.  A vacuous phrase, but what I mean, we see how much she loves Jamie and Charlie, how she cares about Grace, how she gets frustrated with Cat.  These are things we know about, but I think not ones that took as central a role before this.  Even the obligatory "mystery" feels more personal, more about Isabel meeting people than about finding something out.  And I think it's a good change.  It's amazing how important it is to like the people you are reading about. And in this book, I find that I did like most everyone.  Cat was annoying as ever, but AMS acknowledges her "impossibility" with that very word (maybe in a different form, but that root :))

The plot itself may have been a tiny bit lacking, in that, except for the central story, loose ends were for the most part not tied up.  Not sure what happened with Charlie swearing, with Max Lettuce, with Sinclair+Cat... but I guess none of those were very important, and that was the point.  It was all about Isabel and how she handled them - and I think she did it very well, getting it right and keeping it real too.  Isabel is fun again, at least for the moment. (Ok, not sure she ever was, but she certainly wasn't always as stodgy as lately).

Verdict: 3.25/5

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Too Short to be Really Sweet

Wow it's been a while... indicative of my tiredness every morning, my busy Shabbosim (Bubby, the in-laws...), and a slightly lengthier (well maybe just really slightly) work, and well, yes, one that failed to hold my interest consistently.  It's an Austenprose pick, and in a big way - Laurel Ann, proprietress of Austenprose, edited a collection of short stories from Janite writer - mostly of JA paraliterature - with the common theme of somehow being inspired by the woman herself.  This book was not at the library when it came out, but I was eager to read it, since not only did Laurel Ann talk about it pretty incessantly, but Lauren Willig and Margaret Sullivan (Austenblog) contributed, so they mentioned it as well.  So I told Dov to buy Jane Austen Made Me Do It for me from B&N when he wanted to get me a present for Succos - yes, Succos - well actually, the last days.  But you know how it is - if you own it, you don't read it.  Which is why it had to wait for my library backlog to empty in order for me to pick it up.

I did pick it up of course, I think over two weeks ago now.  The stories are, of course, completely self-contained, so there's very little compelling you to go on to the next when you've finished one.  And they, also of course, held varying degrees of charm, humor, and romance.  The genres were (I might be dropping a story here or there), in parallel with Austen paraliterature as a whole, sequels/prequels/durings of the novels, real-life Jane Austen stories, modern spooky Austen ghosts, and chic lit with an Austen touch.  Of these, I'd say the ones I enjoyed the most were the last, which is kind of sad, since a lot of those were quite tangentially inspired by Jane, I'd say.  But of course, that gave their authors the freedom to develop plots/tones suitable to short stories.  So many of the others (well ok, some of these too) felt like they could have made promising novels... but the first lesson of short story writing is... a short story is not a novel.  Back in ninth grade, we studied some characteristics - irony and whatnot - but the point is, you need to manage to develop something we care about in only a few pages.  Or it just kind of falls to nowhere.

I'm not saying the stories were that bad - some of them were cute ideas, and one or two (sadly it was really only one or two) had decent romances going on.  There were definitely some I'd be excited to here were going to turn into a real novel (one, I think it was the Rubino one mentioned there is some possibility) and plenty, that, up to the abrupt ending, I was getting into.  Not surprisingly, most of the ones I liked were the authors I like.  Lauren Willig, Rubino, Jo Beverly (ok, I don't read her, but she's a legit romance writer, not Austen paraliterature) but surprisingly, I enjoyed the amateur one and Laura Viera Rigler's tales as well.  In short, these authors are people (mostly women :)) after my own heart.  There could be nothing too objectionable in a few pages meant to amuse.  And indeed, I found nothing to object to... but nothing to make me wish for a sequel either.

Verdict: 2.9/5

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ordinary Life, Slightly Stale

In the back of your minds, I know you've all been wondering, every time I update this blog, what happened to AMS? It's like what, 6 months since he published something? What's with the guy? Never fear, my trusty followers - the fault is mine.  AMS *did* publish a new book, sometime in the summer - the next in the 44 Scotland St series (#7 maybe?), as he always does in the summer (of course, only in England, but my wonderful cousin Sarah Sp. orders it special :)) Anyway, she got it in the summer, and I was supposed to be first (or maybe second) on line to read it, but you know... I was kind of busy then.  And once I didn't read it immediately, and I wasn't living in Queens (i.e. within easy access of the book) it kind of slipped my mind.  But I remembered eventually, and had Elisheva Sp. bring it down to Baltimore when she stopped there on her way to her Thanksgiving Tenessee getaway (I just felt like putting some life details in for color there, if you're wondering).  I had to finish my library books first, of course, but once I did, I got right down to this one.  Finished it unexpectedly fast too, due to an unusually long bus ride yesterday and a ridiculously long wait today (left for work late because I got officially married, more life detail for color :)).

So how was it? 44SS was at one point, I think, my favorite of all the AMS series.  Of course, most of them were at one point my favorite, but the reason I liked 44, I think, was how real it all was.  The characters were so varied, and kept plenty busy, but it was just their lives, basically.  And, for the most part, the characters were likeable enough, so reading about their lives wasn't painful.  I sound rather unenthusiastic, but the point was, these books can be a perfect mix of light-hearted mundanities and absurd little incidents, all about people we care about.  Add to that the finely-painted picture of Edinburgh, the real Edinburgh, we get from these books, and they can carry their own weight (it still thrills me when I recognize the locales that are mentioned with great regularity).  On the downside, there's never much of a plot, since the novels are serialized - what plot there is often doesn't start till the middle and doesn't always end either.  But you get used that after a while.

That's the series, what about the book? Well the book is #7... that means AMS is probably feeling some fatigue, and, the truth is, I am too.  The characters, once so likeable, now seem faintly annoying in many cases. Or too smug, or a little too pathetic, or just a little too cruel.  Bertie is a delight, as always, but I found myself more annoyed than not with Matthew, with Domenica, with Big Lou even.  And of course there's Irene and Olive and Bruce, who are as unlikeable as ever.  The lives themselves... well, the improbable incidents, I'd say, are continuing - Matthew with his triplets, Antonia and her nuns... but the mundanities consist a little too often of philosophical jaunts.  Now, AMS is no stranger to asides, and often asides that I do not agree with, but I felt that, here, there was sometimes little else of significance happening.  Towards the middle/end, that impression started lessening - not surprisingly, the plot was finally picking up.  But even then, I felt like there was just a slowness to it all, or at least a heavy weight pulling back on the faster-pace incidents.  Lou meets another unsuitable man, but it all just peters out before much happens.  Matthew buys back his flat for 300,000 pounds more than he paid, but no one seems to care.  Domenica meets her lost love, but realizes he's just that...

What I'm saying is, it just wasn't that engaging.  I would find myself interested, only to have it either go nowhere at all, or be resolved far too quickly.  And I didn't feel like the usual humor was there either, at least not generously distributed.  I can't say the book was awful, just that Edinburgh doesn't have *quite* the same homey sound as it did before I read this.  And like I said, it's hard to stay fresh, and keep me interested, after 7 books.  With all that though, I still want to know what's going to happen to them all... well I guess there's not that much left dangling right now (other than Pat actually), but I'm sure AMS will find something new to visit upon the denizens of 44 Scotland by the next book.  And, of course, I'll be reading it.

Verdict: 2.9/5

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Unconscious Mind Has Preconditioned Me to Disagree With This Book... Or Something Like That

Man it took me a while to finish this one - took me a while to get it too.  Back in I don't know when, Google had an Author@ for David Eagleman, whose latest book is Incognito.  This was right around the time (I guess that' when :)) when I read Joshua Foer's book, Moonlighting with Einstein, that I found so unexpectedly fascinating.  So I was more than a little open to another neuroscience title.  Plus there were lots of reserves on it, always a goodish sign :) So I put it on hold... and it was the same old story - hold expired, got it out, couldn't renew it... etc. until now (or a few weeks ago) when I finally managed to get a hold of it without reserves and actually had time to read it.  I was slightly hampered by tiredness, since, I have started to go to the gym in the mornings (yes I had to say this, of course I did :)) which means I feel like sleeping, not reading on the bus in the mornings (though it's morning right now and I am writing my blog, that's how dedicated I am :))

So about the book... well in the beginning, I was just unimpressed.  He kept going through all these examples of how what we see isn't reality and how our brain does so much unconsciously for us.  He said these things like they were a revelation, instead of which, almost all of what he said was familiar to me.  I suppose his framing of it was something new in a few cases - that we really don't tend to realize the role the brain plays in composing our view of the world.  But mostly it was like, uh yeah, our brain processes a lot unconsciously, that's what it's there for.  And along with his dramatic reveal of the unconscious, Eagleman continuously refers back to evolution as the cause and impetus of all this - evolution dictates that this was better for survival, this was advantageous... Without offering one iota of proof or even acknowledgement that evoking evolution as a magical force does not cement its place as the most logical explanation of how intelligent life (us) came about.  I mean it's not like I expected the guy to launch into a defense of evolutionary theory, but given the utter lack of any backup when he mentions that this or that was better than some other scheme for survival and that's why it has survived, why mention it at all?

Ah, because my early annoyance at his constant noddings to that origins of life theory was, in fact, a pick-up on his not-so-hidden agenda.  Because once the book finishes showing us how our conscious minds are the smallest, most unimportant, and late-to-the-party part of our brain, it launches into the next phase of Eagleman's exploration of the psyche.  Given that so much of "us" is unconscious, do we even have free will? Well he posits this - the conscious mind is that which decides between warring factions in the unconscious - and in that, I think he's pretty much on the nail.  Why aren't we animals? We have the ability to choose between right and wrong.  But my agreement with his theory of consciousness notwithstanding, I diverge quite far from him at the next juncture.

And that is twofold - 1) that our ability to make decisions is influenced by innumerably many factors that are out of our control and 2) we haven't found a place in the brain that isn't looped in with other parts, making an independent, self-reliant conscious mind impossible.  Now as far as the first point, he is undoubtable correct - we are put into this world with a given set of circumstances about which we have no say - but we all know the big but, and that is that every person has the ability to choose right and wrong *within his personal circumstances.*  No one gets let off the hook just because they had an alcoholic mother or grew up below the poverty line - if you do something wrong, you are culpable.  Of course, we know that we're not the ones who can judge what's wrong (or at least what's a wrong choice) for any one person, so there's no question he has some point - more on that anon.  His second point is the one that really irks me (not surprisingly).  So here's my first needle poke in his balloon - have you isolated the area of the brain that you claim constitutes the conscious mind, that is, the place where arbitration between dueling unconscious processes takes place? I think not.  Which means you haven't explored the whole brain yet, so there very well could be a place that doesn't "take orders" from anywhere else.  And, more importantly, what if you don't find such a place? Well it just proves (or ok, not proves, but indicates strongly) exactly what I (and lot of other people) believe (know) - the seat of the unconscious is the non-material, intangible soul.  It's actually beautiful in a way, to see the scientific arguments in favor of a spiritual consciousness :)

In any case, I really can't expect Eagleman to know all this, I just need to vent when I hear him spewing ideas that are to me so very wrong.  And when it gets down to the practical, I don't think there's anything *very* wrong with his ideas.  He points at that the current criminal justice system, with its notions of blame, is fundamentally flawed.  Well we all know the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed, and I actually, I disagree with him that it's all based on blame. I think far more of sentencing is based on two things - get 'em off the street and make sure no one ever does this again.   But yeah, jail time isn't the best way to accomplish this in all cases, and I think we're all in favor of rehabilitation over incarceration, if we knew rehab could work.  So as far as neuroscience can help rehab, I'm all for it.  Am I as sanguine as Eagleman when it comes to the possibilities? Well, obviously not, but who knows? We certainly are gaining a better understanding every day of the inner workings of the mind.

Which brings me to my last (side) point - whatever the mind is like, it is not a computer and I find it patently ridiculous that Eagleman attempts to explain its myriad functions as a series of subroutines, that get programmed in some vague manner.  I don't think that's how the brain works, and I don't think we're going to achieve AI via modeling it that way.  But he probably knows  more about AI than I do, and I'm sure they've gotten somewhere with that approach :) In any case, I found this book to be mostly hand-waving in the important parts (that is, the science) and, unsurprisingly, mistaken in its conclusions.  Disappointingly enough, I don't feel like I learned anything much at all from this book... but I suppose it made me understand my own faith just a little bit better - so there's something to be said for that :)

Verdict: 2.5/5

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Cozy Setting For a Nice Murder

Second English historical mystery series in a row! This one not a romance in any sense though (I hold out hope for the future, but it'd have to be a long time in the future :)) I have just completed Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce #4, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (quote from The Lady of Shallot, as is helpful cited in the front of the book).  #1-3 are of course (not of course, of course, because if I had started them over a year and half ago, it wouldn't be the case) reviewed elsewhere on le blog, but I am going to go courageous route (for the second time in a row) of not reading my previous reviews before writing this one.  Actually, of course, that makes my task a lot easier, since I never repeat myself if I can help it (and clearly I can't if I don't remember what I wrote :)) Though I have to admit, for someone who likes to original, my reviews can get pretty uniform... but I digress.

The Flavias are fun because Flavia herself is quite the character, and because so many of the other denizens of Buckshaw and Bishop's Lacey are worthy of gracing the pages of a Dickens novel (oddly specific, but that's what they are - quintessentially English, somewhat one-dimensional (or is it 2d? In any case, flat) but oh so detailedly perfect in their roles.  The setting is PG Wodehouse meets Agatha Christie meets... well really, meets Homer Priceian small town insularity.  (And that's leaving out echoes of I don't know what in Flavia herself, who combines an agile mind and talent for sleuthing with the confused pre-teen perspective on life).  And the mysteries are always well-crafted, if a little too... well, a little too mystery-ish for my taste.

#4 is a Christmas tale, I think actually a Christmas special, so it's a little shorter than usual, though still well crafted.  The scope of the tale is smaller, with all the action taking place at Buckshaw (in a snowstorm) and within a few days (right before Christmas).  On the other hand, the case of characters is entirely (well not entirely) new, as a film crew has taken up residence at Buckshaw.  The variety is, I think, welcome, if only because too many murders in one small town might become ridiculous (though the film crew isn't all that different from Rupert Porson's traveling puppet show in #2).  The shortness of the book means we get less of Flavia doing things besides solving the murder, or at least getting distracted while on the trail (less of Inspector Hewitt too, I think).  And the mystery is solved a little too easily - I'd say before Flavia should have had a chance to put it all together (she figures it out by talking to enough people, but i think things fall into place a little too easily).  But that's okay, it's a good enough mystery for me.

What's more important? Well I didn't love the ending - I think I remember thinking that the first book had too melodramatic a finish and Flavia's close brush with death continues here, I think just as implausibly.  Though Flavia investigates real, live murders, she never seems to get involved enough for it to seem possible their sordid surroundings to touch her - and yet they do.  It's almost an unevenness of tone... one that is evident in a few more places in the book.  First of all, it never does become very clear who are the good guys and bad guys amongst the book's newcomers.  I don't mean the killers, obviously they're bad guys (well ok, I guess sometimes the killers aren't bad guys, but they are this time).  But everyone else... the victim, her maid, the set guy (don't know his title) the second-in-command set guy... they all seem mildly unpleasant, but we never really get their personalities resolved one way or the other.  And, more severely, Flavia herself continues to exhibit a strange mix of vulnerability and cunning, cut to the core by her sisters' cruelty, yet utterly unmoved by some pretty scary stuff.  That is, of course, Alan Bradley's intended portrait of Flavia - but it's a picture that doesn't always blend easily.  These are all minor details though, overall I find myself quite carried along by the olde-English way of life and its various livers (wow that sounds funny - but it's the right word, it is :))

So what do I really want more out of this book? Well I want a full-length novel, because I believe AB can do better with 100 more pages or so.  And I want someone to explain to me what in the universe is with the dL family anyway?! It just gets a little too weird sometimes, Harriet's presence and Father's distance, Daphne and Ophelia's harsh treatment and their very occasional lapses into human decency... oh, and why is Flavia never in school? I think it's high time we get some answers, but I don't know if we will any time soon (I should probably look that up, I bet he's answered that in an interview somewhere).  And of course, let's get Flavia some romance! A few years in the future of course, she's immature even for an 11-year-old.  Personally I'm rooting for Dieter to throw over Olivia and get together with our heroine, in the fullness of time... you never know :) And meanwhile, I'll keep reading for kicks.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Less Compelling, More Amusing

More familiar writing... I just reviewed the new Deanna Raybourn, so of course the new Tasha Alexander couldn't be far behind.  I actually deliberately did not reread my previous reviews (I think there are two on here)  before writing this, so I have the benefit of reviewing this one entirely on its own merits :) As you know (or would know if you read this blog regularly and remembered it, finger-wiggle :)), I am not an unabashed fan of Tasha Alexander's style.  While I prefer her lighter touch and the more familiar Victorian England it generates, her writing has always left something to be desired.  This book is no different, with high-flown statements that don't come off as grand as they are meant to sound, tender moments that seem more awkward to me, and passages that just don't flow sometimes.   I realized while reading this that TA is a prime example of an author who violates the "show, don't tell" principle (which I may have, kind of, sort of, invented :)).  I don't care if Emily is overwrought, highly disturbed, angry, confused, horrified, grief-stricken.... I want to feel that myself.  And so many times, I'm instead caught by surprise by Emily's reactions, since, while they may be perfectly legitimate to someone experiencing them, we the readers don't  come close to that status, and instead are relegated to the post of distant observers.

But enough of that - yes, these books could be better-written.  But I have to say, I had no trouble at all getting through this one.  Yes, it's not that long, and the slightly bald style means little concentration is required.  But it wasn't that - I thought the plot - public exposure of private scandal + clues to a murder hidden in the British museum - was rather innovative, and definitely absorbing.  It wasn't just a whodunnit (though it was a straight detective story, don't get me wrong, not much history/thriller/fantasy thrown in there).  And even though the stakes were high, I never got too nervous... ok, maybe that's because of the writing :) But our main characters had more fun than worry sorting through the whole mess (or if they didn't, we did at least).  Admittedly, when the mess was sorted I found myself a little disappointed - the villain was I thought, a fairly obvious choice from the beginning, and most of the loose ends were tied up any which way, with little coherence to the main resolution.  But you know, at least there was ending, tidy, peaceful and everything necessary.

Oh and side note that's not really a side note, Lady Emily's eccentricities were considerably less emphasized in this book than some others.  Yes, she still trumpets herself on her drinking of port and smoking of cigars (with the addition of whiskey) and she' active in the suffragette movement.  But luckily, she's more occupied with detective work than anything else.  And, surprisingly, in detective work she's happy to take a backseat to Colin, not insisting on being in on all the action all the time - this is a refreshing contrast from Lady Julia's shenanigans (or at least antics).  We will never be entirely free from Ms. Alexander's less than subtle critiques of Victorian society, its social hypocrisy (actual the theme of this book), its restrictions on women, its downtrodden working class, but I guess we've heard it all so much before it just goes in one ear and out the other.  And guess what, TA? If you didn't like the time period as much as I do, you wouldn't be writing about it, so I know you must not care all that much :)  So let's all just sit back and enjoy a light and elegant tale of detection together.

Verdict: 3/5

Had to PS this one - I read my review from last year and guess what "tell, don't say"! points for consistency :)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Not the Universe We Know and Love

In my last post reviewing a Terry Pratchett novel, I said that, although I really like his books, there's not much to choose between them.  He's a master of comic sci-fi, satirizing our world with just the right amount of absurdity thrown in, poker-facedly masterminding creation of the utterly crazy and yet utterly realized Discworld.  That was up until his latest, Snuff.  I think every Pratchett reader (in fact, I think I'll go check now - well I couldn't find it offhand, but I'd be shocked if it isn't there - nope, checked GoodReads, always plenty of people who share my feelings :)) must be saying, what happened?! The truth is, I think I know what happened, and it's kind of (actually really) sad - Terry Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimers.  Now I knew this going into this book, was even kind of expecting it, so maybe that's the reason I felt this way? Maybe it's been too long since I read a TP and my expectations got too high, or my tastes changed? There were probably elements of that, but this was not all in my head.  Snuff was just not up to par, not in the writing, not in the humor, not in the plot, and not even in the characters.

Let's start with the plot.  Now that's the one I care about least, of course, but I was waiting from about 1/3 of the way in for this book to be over.  There was overdramatic foreshadowing all over the place, but the actual movement... well it just felt like something out of an amateur thriller's playbook.  There's always some action in the Discworld, but it's never enough to distract me from the humor and the fun bits.  But I guess in this case, there just weren't many of either not to be distracted from.  The predominance of scatological and that other inappropriate kind of humor was disappointing enough.  The lack of subtly in the writing and the clumsiness of the occasional bits of Pratchett wisdom seem to suggest that Pratchett is trying, but can't hit his stride - or even manage a steady jog.  I hope it's not his brain, it could be just a temporary slump, but this is not the Pratchett I know and love.

But it's not just the the pale imitation of TP's usual style - I don't think I have read a Discworld novel yet that is so completely unfun.  It's almost as if Pratchett wants to write, besides a more thriller-esque tale than usual, a philosophical tome of sorts.  The central theme - sentient, non-human species are people too - is one that Discworld readers are eminently familiar with.  I hadn't remembered that the last book featured a creature known as the orc, but was reminded of it by someone's GoodReads review. Then there's the dwarves, the vampires, the trolls, the golems even... yes, we are all worthy of respect and common decency.  So why do we need another book pounding - and I mean pounding - it into our heads? Add to that Sam Vimes always present anxieties about class and how unfair it all is... and don't forget his crisis of conscience about his darker side and whether he lets it take over... and what you get is one heavy hunk of reading material.  Sam himself alternates between internal monologues stressing about the above issues and being supposedly supercool and tough-as-nails - but even that, the classic Vimesian grace under fire and inimitable ability to carry the day, seems mostly forced.

So overall, it's what have you done with the real Discworld? When we can we have our absurd and crude, yet sprightly alive universe of awesome dudes (Vimes and Vetinari, go Vs! :) and over-the-top something-other-than-dudes (can you say Nobby Nobbs? :)) Let's hope it's with the next book, though I don't hold out much hope of that.  I guess I can just go back and read the ones I skipped, or just reread them all.

Verdict: 2/5

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Skin-deep Life Lessons, Chic Lit at Heart

Way back before this blog started, we (you know, my we) all read Marisa de los Santos's debut novel, Love Walked In.  The G. girls and Chava *loved* it because the writing (flowery) is just their style.  Everyone else (including me) liked it because it's a solid romance.  The sequel was published around Thanksgiving when Batya was engaged (which I remember because I read it at her pre-Shabbos kallah in cl).  That one was not a romance, and in fact, did a good job of destroying the romance of the first book (okay not destroying, but certainly tarnishing).  So I was not that excited about her new book, Falling Together, since clearly, romance is not MdlS's first priority (she's got like a Ph.d in poetry or something so I would say her flowery writing is actually priority #1 :)).  And Huvi and S.b. read it over Succos and were both quite unexcited about it, Huvi saying it was everything we don't like about MdlS - overdramatic, too flowerly etc.  So you can guess that I did not have hugely high expectations for this book.

It seemed like Huvi might be right as I plunged right in to the "epic" tale of three friends-closer-than-siblings, at their center a girl supposedly wholly adorable whom I failed to find so.  To be fair though, MdlS acknowledges that she sounds annoying, having Pen assure her friend that, really, she is adorable. But on the plus side, the other two friends, (that's Will and Pen) are quite likeable.  And guess what? we get the book from their POV, not from Cat's at all.  I'm not saying that all is well with the world just because the characters are likeable - there's plenty about the book to be approached with skepticism.  The family drama, the overblown significance of little incidents, the similes I find more distracting than illuminating...

But bottom line, surprise, surprise, I think this book is even more of a romance than the first one.  First of all, we get plenty from Will's POV - a major plus, as we get nothing at all from Teo's standpoint, as far as I can remember (at least as hints of his love for Cornelia, whereas Will's for Pen, while never outright stated, is clear and obvious from the start).  And with all else that's going on, the book gives fair prominence to the playing out of the romance - so maybe I was wrong about Marisa de los Santos, she is a romantic at heart :) (one might say a chic lit writer, but I wouldn't be so cruel :)) So basically what we have is two likeable narrators and a good romance.  And not only that, I just realized this now, but a supreme lack of tension! All the uncertainty (other than romantic-wise) comes from not knowing Cat's whereabouts - but who cares about Cat anyway? Will and Pen are in good places in life, and not really in danger of losing them.  So as long as I didn't get distracted by those other things (see paragraph above :) I really enjoyed this book).

That was until almost the end.  The romance got somewhat resolved with a little plot still to go, and I didn't adore the way it finished up.  But that can be forgiven, indeed this is something I often forgive authors for, it being so difficult to do a good finish :) And after that was wrapped up, we wrapped Cat's story up - and to my surprise, I found that MdlS pretty much agreed with me the whole time - Cat isn't a "fairy tale princess" - or if she is one, she sure isn't perfect.   It's Pen and Will who come off good in this one -  Cat's going off on her own, and I say good riddance to her.  That was the end of Cat's story, but since the book is more about Pen, there were a few revelations to go.  I can't say they were earth-shattering, but neither were they wholly misguided.  Pen realizes the importance of love - can't say it isn't.  And Will realizes how important it is to fight for it, which is why he fights for Pen (don't worry, it was just a minor incident that necessitated that fight).  So it was all's well that ends well, though it could have ended sooner and just as well in my book.  Likeable characters, decent romance, and fairly non-intrusive life lessons.  I have to say, more the best of MdlS than the worst.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Going Through the Motions of Romance

Whoop! Moving right along - who's that other author whose constant strem of new books I continue to read, though they are sometimes less than crazy exciting? You can get it, I know you can... Okay, it's Robin Lee Hatcher, the queen of Christian romance herself - just counted and this will be my fifth review of one of her books - not bad, not bad for around a year and a half.  This one is, I think, a new series (or at least not the same one as the last few of her books I've read).  It's the usual - turn of the century small-town Idaho, gruff man meets sweet and faithful woman.  This was gruff widower meets schoolteacher, which I think she's done before (at least gruff widower meets governess).  I'm not sure why she finds this particular matchup so compelling, but I suppose it's as good as any.  Gives a girl a good reason to come out West, and gives a man a good reason (his kids) to get to know the pretty newcomer.

I think I've said everything there is to say about the plot of this book.  What about the more important elements, like the romance? Well it was there, I don't think there was anything I can complain about - no getting together too early or breaking up for stupid reasons.  But at the same time... it just wasn't.  The little heartaches, the breathless moments, the unexpected longing - they happened, but only because they had to.  I just felt like the book was moving along, progressing now and then, regressing now and then, but really biding time between the "real" moments.  And in this book, more than in any other RLH so far, I think, the reality was all about religion.  Well you know I don't have anything against religion per se - but I don't even want to read about it when it's my own and you can bet not when it's someone else's :)  The best Robin Lee Hatchers were those apparently adapted from the time before she was born-again.  It seems like the worst are those influenced most by her time since.  This book did have a little more substance than the Bethlehem Springs books, which I think allowed it to go on longer without seeming dragged out.   But it never really had a place to fall from - it just never got that exciting.  Not that it was that bad or anything, but maybe I need a *little* more than the bare bones of an RLH Idaho cowboy romance.

Verdict: 2.5/5

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tipping the Scales Slightly to the Good Read Side

Sometimes, I eagerly await the publication of an author's next book, checking the library website daily so I can put it on hold.  Sometimes I'm less vigilant, but still excited when I see the book has gotten in.  And sometimes.... sometimes I'm just me, and keep on reading for no very good reason.  I'd say Jill Mansell falls into the third category, but I suppose I do have some reason.  She is one of the last writers I know who still brings forth a prolific stream of chic lit.  Maybe there are others, but my browsing days seem to be mostly over so it's hard for me to discover them.   But Jill Mansell has come out with, I think, her third book in a year - certainly the third one I've read in a year.  No surprises here, it's the same airy mix of boy-meets-girl stories, same drama, drama, drama, same happy ending.  But that's not a bad thing, especially since I'm coming out of a more serious reading curve. (Actually I've literally been on a trajectory up to chic lit - encyclopedia, non-fiction, mystery romance, and, finally, the real junk :))

I have to say, with the caveat that this could (as it always could) be the result of my mood, or my reading choices immediately prior to the book, I found this latest a little less trying than Jill Mansell's other recent offerings.  I had remarked previously (I'm not sure in the blog or if I was just thinking it) that all the books have the same plot - girl likes guy, guy likes girl, but girl doesn't trust guy - not my favorite type of chic lit since the suspense of the romance just isn't there.  But guess what - she changed it up! Ok, she changed it up by making the main character a widow who isn't interested in romance... with which angsty drama (and not in the good angst sense :)) I could live without, but at least it's something different.  I was disappointed at first because I was rooting for her to get together with the best friend - I still maintain that would have been a better story.  But the one chosen, while a little far-fetched, was plenty fun - handsome, down-to-earth, successful guy falls in love with our Ellie at first sight, while she remains oblivious.  And we get plenty from his point of view - I think more than usual.

So the primary romance was pretty decent.  The requisite secondary romances (friend and older couple) were not overly interesting, but I think took up less space than usual, so that was a plus.  The characters themselves were... I don't know if they more interesting, more realistic, or just more London than the two previous books, but I think I liked them better.  The plot was, I think, even more implausible than usual - but the good side to that is that the implausibility was in keeping the couples apart for so long - and I'll take that over the alternative, which is a boring ending because everyone is already together.  Even the writing seemed not quite as cringeworthy, though I concede that is almost definitely a product of my greater willingness to go in for a bit of chic lit than last time.  In short, I had more fun reading this book than I expected,  even up till the ending.  Which is why Jill Mansell will remain an author whom I check out, if not one who gets on-holded a month in advance :)

Verdict: 2.9/5

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Sleuthing, Victorian Style

Back to a familiar name and a familiar genre, the next book the library had ready was Deanna Raybourn's 4th Lady Julia (wait, actually it's the 5th), the 4th of which I reviewed last year on this very blog :) That review was all about the comparison between Tasha Alexander and Deanna Raybourn and the truth is, that's pretty much a lot of what I thought about while reading this one too, but I really think I should move on.  (Don't worry, I'll come back to it anon :)) But meanwhile, let me try to review this one on its own merits.

So let's start of with what we can best expect from Lady Julia #5.  Even in #s 1-3, before Nicholas and Julia tie the knot, the romance is very much not the focus of the book.  It's quite intense and quite well done, but just doesn't take up that much space.  These books are really serious mysteries, and mysteries with quite a fantasy element thrown in.  Victorian mystery... that frustrating genre, so familiar and yet so removed from the lovely Regency settings of GH and co.  It's amazing how much I love England (old-fashioned England especially of course), given that I don't know how much these books could hold my interest if they were, say, about little green men in a galaxy far far away.  I also must not hate mystery all that much - or at least this type of mystery - more highbrow than whodunit.  There is emphasis on Lady Julia and Brisbane's relationship of course, but also on various elements of Victorian London and on Lady Julia's numerous family.  The pursuit of the case is subtle enough to keep the gaslit-fog atmosphere going and also exciting enough to keep the book moving.  In general, Deanna Raybourn exercising her writing chops well.

Which brings me back to the subject of the last book's review, where I pointed out DR's far superior writing skill.  There, I was left unsure whether the rather more intense tone outweighed the better execution, but here dark side was somewhat less manifest, perhaps because it was tempered by the civility of London as opposed to the wild Indian state of Darjeeling.  So, although the spookiness factor of the book wasn't particularly low, it wasn't so intense as to be distracting.  And one other significant difference - the ending, while I found it disappointing, had none of the dramatic and sudden death I had to contend with in #4.  So what's left when all is said and done? And fairly exciting read about characters I've learned to care about whose relationship still holds some interest for me - not an unenjoyable read at all.

Verdict: 3/5

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Biographical History of Science

Two nonfiction in a row! Well what can I do? I am but a cog in the wheel of the library reserve system... and at the same time GH's Regency World was ready, so was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  But what was I doing reserving a book on the story of a black woman whose cells were developed into the first, and most successful, cell line in the world? Well the long and short of it is that it was recommended... by Naomi G (that's abg's aunt, if you couldn't figure it out :)) when she saw me reading Intuition.  It was an If you like... then you should read... The problem of course, is that I didn't exactly *like* Intuition :) But it was highly recommended, and there were lots of reserves on it at the library, so I knew it couldn't be all that bad, so there it went, right on my reserve list.  Though I didn't get around reading to read it for quite some time (see previous post for my good reasons :)), Huvi read it almost right away.  Her comments did not encourage to think I'd particular enjoy the book, since she was talking about how horrible it was the way black people were mistreated in medical experiments.  Not that she's wrong, of course Tuskegee was horrifying, but I didn't find it *that* inhumane to use someone's cells without his/her knowledge for medical research.  But Huvi did seem to find the book interesting enough, so I didn't think it'd be torture or anything.

The book, as it turns out, is in part social commentary, in part biological history, but mostly biographical.  Rebecca Skloot sets out to recreate the life and personal legacy of Henrietta Lacks, to remind us that there was a person behind the HeLa cells.  It's a laudable enough purpose, but not a topic of general interest (general being me, of course :))  The most compelling aspect of her personal life story was how absolutely not pretty it was.  These were people with some family structure, but no education, and no money.  There's jail time, infidelity, multiple forms of abuse, mental illness, STDs, and a general unpleasantness with which I do not recall coming often into such close contact.  The state of the black population in the fifties was sorry indeed if the Lacks are any example (I think they probably are not).   And the Lacks of today (or of the nineties) are not much better.  There's still a lot of crime and a lot of anger, little education and no sophistication.  I almost wonder if Rebecca Skloot means to portray the Lacks so unflattering - they seem to blow off the handle at nothing and exhibit little understanding of the complicated affairs surrounding their mother's cells.

Which is what keeps the book from getting too preachy.  Yes, scientists did not treat blacks well in the fifties.  But it's not like anyone really thinks they perpetrated a huge wrong against Henrietta Lacks when they cultured her abandoned tumor cells. Her family thinks they deserve monetary reward, that their mother might have suffered, but her family doesn't appear all that credible.  And there is plenty of evidence on the other side that the scientists would *still* be legally mostly in the right (with the exception of exposing HeLa's identity) and that morally, they really did very little even questionable.  The greater ugly story of black and other minority experimentation is explored, but not with any aim toward villifying the greater community of scientists, and particularly not condemning those involved in HeLa cultivation.  It is horrifying that in the 1950s scientific research was so primitive with regards to subjects rights, but it's gratifying that we have come a long way.   And regarding the moral issues that still plague research, and in particular tissue research today, The Immortal Life is quite balanced - I find myself mostlhy in agreement with Ms. Skloot, with the exception of a few bouts of scare-mongering which I think are there mostly to argue towards the book's relevance.

What I wish the book had more of is the actual science.  I really know nothing about cell culture and I had never heard of HeLa cells.  I (along with I'm sure everyone else who reads this book) find it fascinating that one single cell line has spread so pervasively throughout the cellular research world.  And tracing the track of scientific and medical discoveries since the '50's feels miraculous - the advances of biology and genetics are made concrete through the careful timeline of HeLa through history.  I don't know if I would have been able to read a book that emphasized the science more - Rebecca Skloot's talent is certainly adding human interest to the story and I can't imagine her getting enthusiastic without that angle.  And I can guarantee that the book flows a lot faster because half of it is tales of the Lacks and of various other human players.  I guess this book really is similar to Inutition in that there's a lot of interesting science and research methodology mixed with a human tale - but unlike Intuition, the science is the reason I read the book.  And the truth is, maybe I felt it was dumbed down by all the other stuff, but I think I actually learned quite a lot - and not only that, I think it will stick in my head, and that's because of the book's vivid and sympathetic style.   I have to say, there's a reason it's a bestseller - compelling, easy reading and something for quite a few folks.

Verdict: 3/5

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Guide Along an Already Well Marked Path

Wow, it's been a while! But I think with good reason :) What with getting married, sheva brachos, moving... on the other hand, I did rather lengthen my commute, which is how I actually finished my latest - Georgette Heyer's Regency World.  This was a book  I decided against buying at the Border's sale, but one which Gital (my new cousin :) who has as high an opinion of GH as I could wish for :)) recommended, and one which I felt ready for after reading Mag's Jane Austen Handbook.  The latter, if you recall, I found slightly juvenile and not at all in depth enough for one of my vast historical knowledge :) This one was longer, came recommended (probably by Austenprose as well, though I can't remember at this moment) and is GH Regency focused rather than early 1800's upper middle/lower upper class.   So there was definitely hope for improvement.

(Parenthetical note before I continue, I started this in September, before Rosh Hashana so I did not go a whole month without reading a book - just got a little hurried what with Yom Tov at home and whatnot :) and did not finish this review)

The book is definitely composed of more interesting subject matter than the Handbook - not suprisingly, as GH's world is considerably more upper class than JA's.  And there is a lot more detail, both in breadth (chapters about pretty much every interesting aspect of Regency life I can think of) and in minutiae.  But overall, I found myself feeling underwhelmed - there just wasn't anything new there.  While the Handbook was aimed at a rather less knowledgable reader than myself, Regency World is meant for the ardent Heyer fan.  This being the case, one may well question why almost every detail in the book seems to be lifted from Heyer's pages.  Yes, it's mildly amusing when she cites examples from the Heyer canon - reminds me of old friends - but I, too, am intimately familiar with many, if not all, of the works she cites.  So if it's Heyer, it's not new.  And not only that, but there were times when I felt she was *using* Heyer as her source - like saying it was not uncommon for young men to pick fights with the Champion (Tom Cribb I think) - I mean, really, how not uncommon was it? And how exactly do you know this? Because I know this from (I'm pretty sure) Regency Buck.  And even if she did go back to Heyer's sources (and we know she had them :)), if she didn't do anything more, what's the point?

Besides the lack of new and interesting information, the book also lacked a compelling narrative.  Okay, not exactly surprising - it's basically an encyclopedia, or at least a guidebook.  Maybe I'm not supposed to read it cover to cover :) Well sorry then - but it definitely took me longer to get through than a book of this length normally would.  On the other hand, I did go through the end chapters a little faster.  Why? maybe they had more new information, or were better organized - this could be, as those were the chapters on clothing, carriages, and all that good stuff :) But I think it really came more down to time/mood.  Before the wedding, I was reading a few pages at a time, mostly unimpressed by the few facts and tidbits that were new to me.  Then I put the book down for a little over a week, and picked it back up on my new commute.  And, literally immediately, I found the book easier reading.  More new facts? definitely some, but I'd say more ability to concentrate was the deciding factor there :)  In any case, I got through it.  Do I know more about Regency England than I did a month ago? I know that a curricle has two wheels (for some reason, always thought it had four) and that kerseymore is an unusually textured wool.  I'm sure there are lots of other tidbits that have made their way from the pages to my head, but I guess what I got more than anything else out of this book is the Georgette Heyer is the MAN.  If after all her research (let's give her the benefit of the doubt :)), this is all Jennifer Kloester could find out about Regency life, our GH *knew her stuff*.

Verdict: 2.5/5

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Not Unworthy Copy of the Real Thing

Reaching even farther back into my backlog reading agenda, we find Clare Darcy's A Regency Trio.  This book was given to me by Sarah Sp., to keep because I had recommended Clare Darcy to her and she *hated* the book.  In my defense, I had read about 9 pages of one book when I did the recommending (and made that clear to her), and shortly afterwards, I realized I may have been in a bit of a hurry.  I actually found these books at the Howard Country Library, where I went once or twice when I was working in Columbia, MD (so that would be January-July last year) - the name Darcy of course jumped out at me, and these books appear to be early imitators of Georgette Heyer, and thus worth a very definite try.  Unfortunately, I found the books terribly written - the dialogue unutterably bad, the plots ridiculous and anachronisms unbounding.  But since this is, of course, my favorite genre, I was not averse to taking Regency Trio, a three-in-one of her books, from Sarah Sp.  I did take it, I think last year some time, but of course wasn't in the biggest rush to read it.  S.b. didn't think it was that terrible though, and a.b.g enjoyed it, so I certainly did plan to read it at some point.  That point finally came this past week, when I finished all my library books and my borrowed book as well.

I was planning on waiting till I had finished all three books and then reviewing them all together, since I assume they will all be much the same, but, fortunately or unfortunately, I just took out two new books from the library and I need to move this one down my priority list.  I read the first one, so the first one will be the one reviewed now.  S.b. is of the opinion that this one is inferior to the other two, but I will have to leave that up in the air for now.  Meanwhile, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by Cecily, or a  Lady of Quality.  Like I said, I found the writing (dialogue especially) terrible and extremely anachronistic in the two Clare Darcy books I read previously.  This one though, while it was painfully obviously a Georgette Heyer imitation, was very well done copy.  Each plot twist and each character had its exact counterpart in some Heyer novel, and many of the very sentences had their roots in my favorite Heyers, but overall the tone of the writing was so similar I'm not sure I could have differentiated easily.  (I pointed this out to abg, and she said she thought that her later books were better written, which is a plausible explanation).

The great deficiencies remaining are those of characterization and plot (such small nitpicks, those :)) The characters are mostly completely one-sided - likeable, but completely cliche and difficult to force out of their proscribed patterns of behavior.  The plot then becomes determined by those patterns, and thus less interesting (and less fun too).  What am I saying? Cecily is nice, but a bit of a nitwit - her escapades start out as Heyer-like, but they just go on beyond that, so that by the time she runs off to the theatre we are just like ergh! what is your problem? And Mr. Ranleigh is of course supremely cool, but so supremely cool it doesn't feel at all like he can unbend to be humbled by his love for Cecily - okay you know what I'm saying - those super cool ones are sometimes no fun at all when they're in love - that just takes away their coolness! GH handles it well, but we're not all GH.

I was reading some blog on Clare Darcy that made that very point - we're not all GH, so Clare Darcy needs to be judged on her own merits.  I'd say that's downright impossible, since her books are so much a copy of the great Gorgette's as to be almost an homage.  But of course, it is somewhat true since I do not in general judge books by whether they are as good as Georgette Heyer - that standard is rather a little too high.  And I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed Cecily.  Okay, maybe not thoroughly, but enough so that I was eager to keep on reading, at least for almost all of the book.  At one point, it got a *little* too long, and like I said, the characters were not quite totally likeable at all times in their appointed roles, but overall, I completely enjoyed the book.  I really didn't find it cringeworthy at all, all the more surprising, since I found the other two to be quite so.  Maybe I've gotten less critical, especially since Sarah Sp. *hated* these three, but whatever the reason, I am looking forward to getting back to the other two when I finish up my more pressing engagement :)

Verdict: 3.5/5

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Serious Study of Serious Study

Remember way back when, I reviewed Allegra Goodman's latest, The Cookbook Collector? I heard about it on Austenprose, but was laughed at when I asked Sarah Sp. and Chava if they had heard of her.  Apparently, I was a little late to the party celebrating this great author.  Since Sarah Sp. owned her other books, I borrowed them from her… and, of course, promptly abandoned them to more pressing materials.  Everyone said Intuition was the best one, but Sarah Sp. told me to save it for last, and that was the original plan.  But however many months later, when S.b. read Intuition and bothered me to read it too, I thought it was time to abandon that careful formulation and at least get the best one read.

So, having exhausted my supply of library books, I looked forward to reading the Allegra Goodman that was the Allegra Goodman to read.  S.b. hadn't loved it, so I knew it wasn't incredible, but I liked Cookbook Collector well enough, and this one was supposed to be far superior.  CC was mildly romantic, so that should mean a substantial romance in this one, right? When I read the jacket flap, I couldn't really see a romance off-hand.  The book seemed pretty serious, tackling the not especially grave subject of academic life, but apparently delving into the discomfort arising from exposure of its dirty underbelly.  Or something like that anyway.

The truth is, though academic life isn't September 11 or the dot-com bubble, it's not a subject that lends itself to the lightest of tones.  First of all, I don't know if there exists a more competitive and tense atmosphere than that of post docs and professors fighting for recognition.  Personally, I never could get up enough ambition to stomach the constant pressure of a life in research.  So it's not suprising I wouldn't enjoy reading about it.  And besides that, there's my not so secret pang of regret at not going for that right to be a Dr :) So even more than for most people I'd say, the academic life holds less allure and more anxiety for me. 

So it's not to say the book wasn't well crafted.  It was exceeding so, with all the characters well developed, the plot moving along at a sedate but steady pace, the writing a pleasure without too much pedantry… but what a serious book! Not that CC didn't have elements of seriousness (and actually was quite serious in tone) but I thought this one was the fun one! The one everybody loved! I understand why Chava loved it, I'd say it's right up her alley - well thought out, interesting territory, and not too happy go lucky :) But I thought Allegra Goodman was my kind of writer, or at least had some of that in her.  I couldn't find a squigeon of fun, of light-heartedness, of simple pleasure here.

The characters, especially the main ones, were deliberately unlikeable.  Even the more sympathetic ones had their, not minor, faults.  The themes, at least, I would say were unobjectionable - it wasn't like the book was a doomsday prophecy or anything, the right values  - family, honesty, loyalty - were squarely championed.  But on the subject of doomsday, the ending was actually much the same as CC - in that it was disappointing.  She just doesn't like to give us what we want, does that Allegra? No one ends up in a particularly good place (I'd say Marion is the only one  who maybe ends up better off) though mostly they end up more enlightened about themselves.  But I guess that's the point of the book.  Academia is a long, hard road,  and the most one could hope for is acceptance of the way forward.  And I guess the same could be said for me and Intuition - at the end of the day, the trek wasn't bad, and I can't say I regretted it at the end, though I don't know what I got out of it :)

Verdict: 3/5

Friday, August 19, 2011

Good Romance Hits Home

A few things I've done recently - attended several ballets, did research on traveling to South America, and went to Borders for the going out of business sale.   All that equals what, next on my reading list? Eva Ibbotson's A Company of Swans (you weren't supposed to get that, don't worry).  Other than The Morning Gift, which I of course already own, it was the only Eva Ibbotson (only adult one, didn't check for kids ones) Borders had, so it was the one I bought (Sarah Basya asked me why and I said it was my second favorite, but then she reminded me of The Reluctant Heiress so really it's my third I think, ahead of A Countess Below Stairs and A Song For Summer).  I've read it at least twice before, but not for a while (at least as long as I've had this blog for sure :)) and I haven't read it since I went to see Giselle and Swan Lake, both of which feature heavily.  And as an added POI, my South American research findings included a map of Brazil's destinations, one of which was Manaus, the central setting of the book and a place I have never heard of otherwise.  In short, I was on the eager side to read it, so it came up first after all the mandatory (library :)) reads.

As Sarah Basya pointed out, this book is not *that* good, none of Eva Ibbotson's other books compare to The Morning Gift.  But that's like saying not all ice cream is Haagen Dasz; it's still one of my favorite foods :) Eva Ibbotson is truly a woman after my heart, creating stories that are purely and totally about the romance, and about the romance of good old fashioned girls and rich gentlemen.  They've got an artsy element too, but as books always have to have another element, I'm not complaining.  Ballet is interesting and so is Brazil.  And Harriet herself actually mostly doesn't have that annoying Ruth-like quality of "loveable" whimsicality that bothers Huvi and S.b. so much.  So why isn't this one as good as The Morning Gift?  Well, I guess that's not a fair question - The Morning Gift is so good because it's one of those indefinably good books - you forget how much and why you like it until you read it.

But I think I forgot how much I liked this one too.  I was happy to read it, but I wasn't ecstatic to have bought it.  When I picked it up though, I didn't want to put it down.  It was kind of funny because I was reading it last Shabbos and I was strangely eager to come back home - it took me a while to figure out that I was eager to get back to the book.  Of course, it was full of all the maudlin expression typical of Eva Ibbotson but I probably just wasn't in the mood to care.  Rom really liked Harriet, Harriet liked Rom too, and the obstacles keeping them apart felt totally legitimate.  The pathos was exquisite, also in true Eva Ibbotson style - Harriet's life is really pathetic and Rom does a good job taking her away from it all :) Harriet herself is a bit of an idiot, but I didn't find it too annoying.

So either I was preconditioned to like this book or it really is quite good.  Against the first, we have that I was *not* overly excited about it and against the second, that I did *not* love it the first few times  I read it.  But that's not true, I did like it, I just had reservations.  So I guess I just was preconditioned to ignore my reservations :) Makes sense because with my reading list as of late, fluff is appreciated all the more.  Oh that there were more authors who just understood good romance.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Familiarity Breeds Content(ness)

Series... the written equivalent to television.  It's not a perfect analogy of course, but they both, after a while, mostly hold my interest because I'm attached to the characters.  I'm not a plot fanatic in the first place, but when it's the same people over and over, I start to care about even the less likeable/entertaining ones.  And of course, that's what series writers depend on - the plot can be the same, slightly altered, or different but less spectacular, we probably aren't paying much attention.  Why the philosophical meandering, you ask? I have just (or not just, last Shabbos and I already have another review besides this) finished Gail Carriger's *4th* Parasol Protectorate novel, Heartless - 4th in asterisks because I reviewed all three previous ones on this blog, all in the past year (well, almost, I just checked and the first one was reviewed last July).  I waited quite a while for this, since for some reason the NYPL waited a full month! to order it (I find the NYPL to be greatly inferior to BCPL, despite my early excitement).  And by the time I got it, I had just finished Winter's Tale, so I was certainly ready for some good, predictable fluff.

Now we're holding by #4 in the series, so one thing that cannot be expected is good romance.  I mean, some angst maybe, but it's not mandatory - if I'm reading it, I'm hooked enough to get by without it (probably, anyway :)) The hook here has become increasingly comedy - very little romance, a setting removed from the actual historical one I would find more interesting, and a lot of danger and fighting not holding much attraction for me.  The comedy isn't bad though - there might have been a few lol moments, and, throughout, all drama, pathos, suspense, frenzied action were handled with a light touch.  Here and there, I could tell she (Ms. Carriger) was getting a little too pleased with her clever turns of phrase, but the writing was mostly just tongue-in-cheek enough. In any case, in accordance with my opening tangent, the book didn't even need to be that funny.  Alexia, Lord Maccon, Lord Akeldama, Professor Lyall, Madam Lefoux, etc. are funny because they are familiar.  You know how friends amuse you simply by being themselves? Okay, maybe I don't feel *that* much affection for them.  But with the book itself striving for the lightest of tones, it helps that the characters are utterly predictable, utterly themselves, and we know nothing too suprising is going to jump out of the box.  And since I wasn't looking for surprises, getting what I expected was good.

Don't get me wrong, there were some "revelations" - about which, seriously,  Professor Lyall too? But whatever, I guess he was due for a little fleshing out.  And at least he remains his ever-capable self.  Madame Lefoux, on the other hand, emerges a little tarnished, and Biffy, we already know, had his powers stripped by the previous book.  Lord Akeldama is mostly holding steady, Floote's going strong, Alexia herself has her moments, and so does Lord Maccon.  I have to say, I sound very lackluster about it all - that's partially due to my current tired state, for sure.  I enjoyed the book well enough, and it's not like I enjoyed any of them that much.  This one was up to par in terms of comic content, and, more importantly, comic tone (not taking itself seriously).  That's really all there is to say, I don't know why I just wandered off in all directions for the past three paragraphs.

Verdict: 3/5

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Too Much Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

Swinging right back into it, I'm ready for another review - what can I say, it's easier when the books come from the YA section :) Actually, I didn't realize this was a YA book - I got it out because it's written by Austenblog, which is the Austen website I used to read before Austenprose.  Austenblog is a lot of fun, mostly because it's full of interesting Janeite news, but also because the "editrix" is often funny and usually expresses sentiments with which  I concur wholeheartedly (regarding public opinion on Austen and such).  So even though The Jane Austen Handbook is just a collection of facts about Regency England, I was happy to give it a retry (maybe I shouldn't say just, but it's not like there's any story there, or any narrative at all).

Really, it's not like I wouldn't be interested in a book about nineteenth century English life of the upper classes.  I don't know if I've ever read one, which is surprising, since there is more than one available.  But what? It's not like I don't know quite a lot already... and it'd have to be quite a scholarly tome indeed to catch my interest. Or if not scholarly, than certainly not aimed at the lowest common denominator.  Who exactly is that lowest common denominator though? Why, young adults of course :) The handbook to all things Austen does not go much deeper than explaing that whist is similar to bridge and that an entail means the female line can't inherit.  There are little details here and there I didn't know, but overall, it's pretty much nothing new to me.

Besides that, the overall tone is kind of weirdly teeny-boppery.  Like it purports to be a how-to and most of the language if vaguely reminiscent of the 19th century, but then these little things clearly marked at the modern audience break out.  And by modern audience, I do not mean myself :) That being said, it was a short little book with occasional interesting tidbits.  It wasn't really painful, but I have to say it was less interesting than it could have been.  I guess I need to wait for the Jane Austen Handbook NOT for Dummies...

Verdict: 2.5/5

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing (wow!!!! go me and shakespeare :))

Agghh!!! It's August!!!!! There are a few reasons for me to panic about that, but as promised, I did finish that substantial item on my bibliogenda, and am now ready with a review.  This one was quite a while in the waiting even before I started the book about a month ago (was it that much? Almost, at least).  I really enjoyed Mark Helprin's Freddy and Frederica, I remember laughing out loud more than once (which is surprising for a book that looks like some fairly literary goods).  So I assumed he was one of those "good" authors whose books are actually enjoyable, and I chose Winter's Tale, which seems to be his masterpiece, as my next of his reads.  I got it from Pikesville, returned it six weeks later, got it out from Towson, returned it six weeks later, put it on reserve at the NYPL, let the hold expire, got it out from the NYPL, returned it two weeks later... maybe that wasn't exactly the sequence, but this book is over 700 pages long and there were always holds on it in NY.  It just wasn't happening.  But, you know, fifth time's the charm, and maybe it helps that it's summer, but I was finally able to keep the book out for more than two weeks - which gave me time to actually finish it!

From the beginning, this book was... well, not Freddy and Frederica, that's for sure.  Maybe I was supposed to take that one seriously, but I don't think so, and I certainly didn't - the whole book was a magnificently composed farce, but with a redeeming ending.  Winter's Tale isn't farcical at all - at least, it doesn't seem to be.  It takes itself all too seriously.  At first, I withheld judgement - there was pronouncement after high flown conceit after dramatic foreshadowing, but I figured maybe this was one book that had a right to comport itself in such a grand fashion.  After all, wasn't it supposed to be an epic tale? And at the beginning of the second section, it seemed like my faith was not misplaced - the prose seemed a little less florid, the events a little more everyday, the characters just slightly more sympathetic. That lasted... well, not too long.  Most of the rest of the book alternated back and forth between moments I found myself caring, and passages I was just like, whaa?  The plot made some progress, but for every new development, there were three high flowing descriptions of the city, or of nature, or of some mystical force, or who knows what.

I got less and less patient with the non-story part of the book, but I still held out hope that the ending would be spectacular, rewarding me for slogging through.  There was definitely some potential for it - there was an almost Dickensian complexity of relationship among the characters (like that? :)) and there was a setting of events going a hundred years back.  But to counterbalance that, instead of seeking to tangle things up as much as possible so that we could be stand back and admire as the knot came undone, the book advances more by "magical" elements than anything else.  You wouldn't think I'd be so bothered by the lack of self empowerment in this book, but if felt like the author was some omnipotent being throwing plot twists at his hapless creations.  Now of course that's exactly what was happening, but can you let us forget that for a second? Instead, we are continually reminded that what we are reading is an epic tale, a tale of great scale and grand power, and how do we know that? Because we are told that, flat out pretty much.

And when we finally slog through that momentous build up, here's the shocking part - NO twist.  Or almost no one anyway - we knew Peter Lake would be important, we knew the city of justice would be revealed, we knew the dead would be brought back to life.  What we didn't know was *how*.  And guess what *how* was? It just happened! Peter Lake killed himself, Abigail came back to life, and the city was filled with light.  Huh? Where did that come from? Well the author's head, that's for sure.  It's possible he wanted to write a description of the Messianic era, that's really what it reminded me of more than anything else (or more like a pagan/Christian rendering of one).  But, putting aside that it's not like we can ever know or even imagine what that era will be like, it really doesn't make for very compelling reading.

I actually have an impressively literary explanation for why I didn't like this book.  One of the important elements of narrative literature (thanks yet again, Mrs. Janney!) is conflict.  It can be man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself... but it's got to be man vs. something.  In the 700+ of this book,  I really couldn't find a central conflict.  So despite the impressive build up to the final "Golden Age" of the ending, the plot just had no footing.

And what about the writing itself? I suppose it was good, if you go for that sort of thing (condescending or what? :)) I mean full beyond of extended metaphors and descriptions of nature, man, time, elements, whatever you want.  Paeans to New York, which were mildly interesting, since I do like New York.  But all of it just seemed like someone trying to make things sound more significant than they actually are.  Trying, and, at least in my book, not succeeding.  Occasionally, there was an impressive turn of phrase, but for the most part, this is the writing parodied by the Bulwer Lytton Content (look it up, and then the Little Lytton Contest - it's even funnier).

I was so confused by how ungood this book was, I went and read the Wikipedia entry.  I found out that 1) it's not considered that amazing and 2) Mark Helprin is really full of himself and more than a little unusual (and that's not because he's a Republican :)) So I guess I just had the wrong impression of the book's place in the American fiction canon.... but it didn't live up to my expectations after Freddy and Frederica either.  Oh well... a month wasted (not really of course, I don't usually regret reading things :))

Verdict: 2/5

PS - we do go back far, me and this book :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Word of Advice, the Beaten Track Is The Safest

I had not much expectation of getting another post into July, but I think I overestimated my own attention span.  I am about a third of the way through a biggie (more anon about that, of course) but my dear cousin abg did me the favor of picking up my library reserves, which included Meg Cabot's latest, the second in her vampire series.  In yet another reminder of both how boring I am and how old this blog is, I reviewed the first one back in September.  Not only that, I happened to have (I think completely coincidentally) reread my review last Friday, so I know just what I thought about it.  And that was that I was less than excited about Meg Cabot venturing into slightly more action-oriented fare, but that I had hope for her romance writer instincts to make the second book well worth reading.

I kind of thought that there would be three books in the series, but the ending of this second one, Overbite, seems pretty complete, so I'm not sure.  In any case, the romance seems definitively concluded, so I have no desire to see a sequel :)  I wouldn't have much interest in any case, of course, but there was nothing in this book to change my mind.  I thought the action of the last one was overdone, but I was more annoyed about the lack of a romance.  In this one, I was hoping for more romance, less action.  What I got was more romance, but more annoying romance, and *more* action (and I think the book is still shorter :)) So it probably wasn't actually more action, pages-wise, but it sure felt like a lot.  Was it even worse done than the last one? Could be yes, especially because this was definitely meant to be a final flourish type of thing.  And of course, could be I was just in a different mood or have become a more snobby reader :) In either case, I found the plot jump, uncompelling, hard to follow, and pretty boring.  A lot of the time I was just, whaa?

The rest of the time I was like, what happened? Meg Cabot knows what she's doing.  Why is this romance no fun? I really don't know why it wasn't.  Well I do know - the characters were both idiots.  But the characters are idiots in a lot of Meg Cabot books... I mean it was interesting that even without the first person narration, Meena comes off as an overly spunky and "special" type, but she wasn't worse than usual.  I guess the focus was just really not on the romance, and it always felt kind of passed off.  At the same time, it felt like too much of a foregone conclusion.  There's a simple lesson to be learned here... I've said it before, I'll say it again - stick with what you're good at... or you might lose even that.

Verdict: 2/5

Oh one thing though, I watched the trailer for the book... which makes it seem like the whole thing is a joke.  Which makes the writing some what more explicable, but brings up the new issue that if so, please let us in on it! So overall, not sure how much better that would make it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Predictably Solid Fluff

Still trekking slowly on, but took a break from the tome you will hear about in about a month (if I'm lucky) to read quite the opposite, another from Julia Quinn (second-timer on this prestigious blog, if you're counting :))  JQ has the distinction of being the only writer in her genre (well I guess also Gail Carriger) whose books I actually follow and put on reserve.  I suppose she's a typical romance writer, but she falls fairly firmly in the category of romance writers whose books actually have a story.  Maybe not much of a story, but they're not too long.  And the story is pretty much invariably a good one - this is romance we're talking about.  And unlike many other romances, the characters are usually pretty likable.  None of this, why in the world would anyone like *her*? JQ also tends toward the funny side, light and funny instead of overblown drama (usually anyway, this is romance after all so we can't expect always :)) One last thing about JQ? Interestingly enough, her books have tended more towards light and funny stories in recent years.  Her Bridgerton series started it I think, and it's really made for some solid improvement in her books.  I don't know if I would have continued had I started at the beginning of her writing career, but as it is, I totally look forward to her next book.

The latest one is Just Like Heaven.  I think I pretty much said all I have to say about it in the paragraph above.  It has the distinction about being about some recurring side characters from the Bridgerton series.  It's light and funny, has a little story to it, but not too much, and it took me about two hours to read - two enjoyable hours though.  The truth is, I guess good writing is good writing, and it's obvious in any genre, even one not normally associated with craftsmanship.

Verdict: 3/5

Friday, June 24, 2011

I Heart JA

It's been quite a while since I read an Austenprose pick - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was the last - so I'm certainly due for one.  And this one is a true Austen, not just some tangentially related female-geared novel.  Claire Harman has written Jane's Fame - subtitled "How Jane Austen Conquered the World". Really, you say? Jane Austen rules the world? Well you know I think so at least :) (to the non-existent readers of this blog, I refer you to an old joke, the tagline of which is "Rochel thinks she's the whole world" - see, girls? I'm not the only one!)  The premise of the book? Tracing the growth of Jane Austen's popularity from her lifetime until now.

Now you know I'm not going to argue about Jane Austen's (or, as we Janeites would have it, Jane's :)) popularity or supremacy is the world of literature.  But it's funny to find that so many of my ideas are shared by others, and have been shared for ages.  The idea that one can be judged on their like and dislike of JA - I have said repeatedly that when it comes to girls, I don't get why anyone wouldn't like P&P.  And I consider it a negative trait to dislike it, of course :) And I certainly feel strongly enough about why I like the book to be offended when others try to interpret it in other ways.  And I get a kick out of hearing how all these famous literati worship Austen.  Okay, maybe it makes me a little cliche, but you know what? I don't mind being cliche.  Besides, there aren't *all* that many people who like JA enough to actually read this book... right?

The book itself is a lot of fun to read.  It starts out as a bit of a biography, since it talks about Austen's notoriety during her lifetime.  But, unlike a biography, it talks mostly about Austen's relationship with the public, meaning it largely avoids the speculation necessary to write a comprehensive biography of the author's personal life.  There were a few occasional indulgences in fancy, but nothing to get me too distracted.  And once the book passes into Austen's posthumous reputation, it becomes almost all fact.  There is certainly a liberal sprinkling of interpretation here and there, but mostly forgiveable.  Only the last chapter, talking about Austen's current rise in popularity starting with the '95 P&P reads more like literary criticism than straight fact.

I have to say I'm often skeptical of what there are of Harman's interpretations/musings, so I'm glad they're kept to a minimum.  She's definitely in sync with me in wanting to paint Austen in the best possible light, but at times (a lot of times), she had me thinking, really? Couldn't I write the exact same book about Charlotte Bronte? To some extent, the answer is definitely yes - the Brontes have their fans, and at times, I'm sure, a much larger fan base.  Still... I bet Jane's is bigger :) In the end of the day, I don't need a book to prove to me that Jane Austen is a universal favorite - I have her books as proof that there's every reason she should be.  Hearing the reasons everyone else thinks so (her writing, her wit, her perspicacity, her exquisite touch, her realism, her feel-good bent...) are a fun confirmation though, most definitely.

Verdict: 3.5/5

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Disappointingly True to Life

Dipping my toe in the waters of something different, I next picked up another multiply-renewed, off the shelf choice, Karen Joy Fowler's The Sweetheart Season.  Now I, like everyone else, know about KJF solely for her The Jane Austen Book Club, which I naturally read, since it has Jane Austen in the title and the movie adaption stars Hugh Dancy ;).  She also wrote a bunch of other books, apparently starting quite a while ago, and for some reason I took it into my head to give them (or one of them) a try.  KJF is definitely not chic lit, she's far more serious than that, but she's also definitely women's fiction, which is never a bad thing :) The Sweetheart Season, unlike The Jane Austen Book Club, is historical fiction, which is also usually a positive factor in the genre-weighing.

The interesting thing about the book was that it was not only historical fiction in the sense that it takes place in post WWII small town America, it is also almost historical in the sense that it was written (I think) in the early nineties.  It's really funny how I felt like the tone was so different... I don't know that I can really put my finger on it, or that it wasn't at least somewhat imagined, but I felt like the sensitivities of the author were really at least somewhat different than ours (that's ours as in us 21st-century-ers of course :)).  It could also have been that the setting was admittedly falsified, painting a rosy-simple picture of the war and post-war feel prevalent in the American midwest.  But whether it was real or not, it's certainly more what I want to read about - that time when there were heroes and good defeated evil (that's a good example of a nineties sensitivity, a preoccupation with the comparatively stark picture of good and evil of WWII vs. later).

But don't get me wrong, this book was not about the war at all, or even about trying to get back to normal afterwards.  This book was about the characters.  The back cover references Lake Woebegone, I don't really see the connection between this mostly sympathetic crew and the completely comedic Prairie Home Companion bunch, but they definitely have their funny side.  The girls, their families, their adjunct men, and the head-of-the-mill family each have their own strong and distinct personalities to make sure things get mixed up.  And they do get mixed up, at least enough to keep me entertained.  The book is ostensibly about baseball, but luckily doesn't spend too much time on any sporting detail at all.  It's really more about the girls finding their own way, which they do with varying degrees of success.

In the end, the question of course comes down to where the main character, Irini, ends up.  Irini is supposed to end up with Walter, that's for sure, and she does.  Unfortunately, instead of them getting together in a nice and satisfying finish, they just kind of fade into it, and then not really at all.  Actually they don't even really get together until two years after ending, and then it's pretty much off the scenes.  Irini's father gets a nice enough wife in the end, Irini herself gets out of the town, and lots of other good things happen, so it's not all bad.  But it's not really anything to celebrate either (and that's besides a really bizarre twist involving some early McCarthyism).  And that's before the epilogue... which we are in fact *warned* not to read, because it contains the information that Irini ends up breaking up with Walter :( (after they have a daughter, the narrator).  Way to bring us down to reality, dude.  So basically, I was fully prepared to enjoy this book, but that ending did not make it easy.

Verdict: 2.9/5

Friday, June 10, 2011

Surprising- (and Pleasant-)ly Down to Earth

After my mad May frenzy, I calmed down a bit, secure in my ability to finish all my library books once and for all.  Next on the list was Cecilia Ahern's Book of Tomorrow, which I have to date renewed... wait for it... 7 times :) (it's considered new, so each renewal is only two weeks).  No more though, I am DONE :) (not that it was such an accomplishment, don't get me wrong).  You all know Cecilia Ahern, even though I haven't reviewed her books yet, I don't think.  She's a bit on the chic lit side, but only because I don't think many men are reading her books.  They have a bit of romance usually, they are *all* about relationships, they end happily enough for the most part, have some serious-ish soul searching thrown in, and to top it all off, never fail to sprinkle a little fairy dust.

The Book of Tomorrow is no exception to all that.  It starts off angsty, with the suicide of the main character's father, and continues with her realization that she is, in fact, not a very nice person.  But it's not dark, just maybe a bit obvious.  On the plus side, the main character is sixteen, so she's allowed to be an idiot, which makes her naive amorality a little more believable, and definitely more funny.  Since the tagline of the book was something about knowing what tomorrow will bring, and would you want that, I was afraid the plot would descend into that sort of philosophical morass, but it stayed surprisingly fresh of such uncomfortable questions.  Though the diary tells Tamara some notion of her future, it never gets her in trouble.  Instead the book morphs into a sort of mystery, with Tamara exploring her own and her mother's hidden past.  And in that respect, it becomes surprisingly compelling.  While I don't think I would have had any patience with Tamara drawing herself further and further into the trap of using "magic" for the wrong reasons, I was genuinely curious to find out what in fact were the real relationships among the shadowy figures populating the novel's backstory and how they relate to those in  the foreground (;))

I guess in the end I was a little disappointed (I think the ending was a lot more obvious to all of us than it was to Tamara), but overall, I don't think Cecilia Ahern did a bad job at all with this, more mysterious, storyline.  I almost don't remember what she usually manages to fill out her books with, but I have a feeling it involves a lot more discomfort and tension than this little number.  In that sense, this book definitely compares favorable to some of her other recent ones... I suppose it is less emotion-wrought than her other ones, which could be viewed as a  bad thing, but of course does draw the reader in, if annoying at the same time.  This book didn't have that same level of shut-up-already-it-ness as a lot her others, but it also is slightly more boring I think.  I'm not really complaining about this, it was a nice little story in its own right.  And if it wasn't that romantic either, well it had something, and I don't know that I was expecting more.  So basically, didn't disappoint, because not many expectations :)

Verdict: 3/5