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