Sunday, December 13, 2015

Fantastic (in more than one way)

So of course continuing with my comfort food books (once I get started, it's hard to stop :)) I picked The Blue Castle next.  This is one of two LM Montgomery books I own (along with Anne of the Island), so you know it's got to be good. It's a completely anxiety-free bit of fluffy romance (well I guess it's not quite that light, but there's really nothing going outside of the romance).  Henny G. once said that the ending was almost too happy, and that's true. But I'm not one to complain.

What's funny is that this book is very similar to my last read in that both are books about interesting, thoughtful, intelligent, loving people who have horrible families. This premise does bother me, definitely somewhat in A Company of Swans, but even more here.  Does Valancy's mother really not love her? She does seem a harsh and unfair person, but I just find it difficult to believe that such a lovely person would develop under the eye of such a cold fish.  And it's a large part of the book, not something to be easily dismissed.  But even with the implausibility of it, the Stirlings make for good reading, especially when the scales fall from Valancy's eyes and we can see them in their petty ridiculousness.

The family isn't the only implausible part of the story - the entire premise is quite ridiculous, not least because the medical aspect of it seems completely made up. But eh - it's a great story.  Barney Snaith is a great character, mysterious and attractive, unkempt and improper, but kind, thoughtful, self-confident and capable - and owner of his own island.  And of course a secret millionaire and author.

So basically - yeah I guess a lot of people would find this book silly, somewhat petty, and melodramatic.  But I'm not one of them :)

Verdict: 5/5

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Strange, Silly, Spendid

I needed something to read in case I finished this month's Commentary on Shabbos... so I took A Company of Swans with me to my in-laws' house.  This is the "other" Eva Ibbotson I own (other than the Morning Gift, that is).  I didn't buy it because it's my second favorite, but rather because it was for sale that Borders going-out-of-business sale.  It's typical Eva Ibbotson - focused on the arts, melodramatic, and but of course a great love story.  Also, this one, in common with a lot of her others, has a definite creepiness factor.  I think it's especially prominent in this one because Harriet Morton is so alone... well actually many of the heroines are pretty alone, so I'm not sure why this one was so much worse.  Because it takes place in the wilds of the Amazon among the questionable company of ballet dancers maybe.  So there's definitely that to distract from the story, and it was creepy as ever I'd say.

That being said... I started this Friday night when I could have just gone to sleep and I stayed up until I finished it :) So clearly not too creepy for me.  Great romance, eminently likeable characters (perhaps too Mary-Sueish for some in their apparent universal likeability and congeniality, but  I could handle it).  Adventure in the Amazon, talented ballerinas, a tropical villa with devoted staff, and all that good stuff.  What can I say - the creepiness was there, the melodrama was ever present, it wasn't particularly well-written, but it's my kind of story :)

Verdict: 3.75/5

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Shaking Off Some of the Dust

Shockingly enough, I am now up to date - chiefly because, since I finished my last book, I've been busy with Commentary. But at Malka Sp's Avi's bar mitzvah, Sarah Sp gave me the latest Scotland Street, and I had to read it in order to pass it on to the next person, Aunt Sarah, so when Huvi came for Shabbos this past Shabbos, I made sure to finish it so I could give it to her, and then I forgot to give it to her, oh well, but it is now finished and I am now going to review it, just a day after finishing :)

So I think I haven't loved the past few 44 Scotland Streets. They are just too much of the same, and I have little patience for all the philosophical digressions. But I have to say, I think this was changed it up a bit. Definitely in respects to Bertie, where he finally gets out from under his mother's thumb, and what a joy it is to be out.  But I thought the other stories were somewhat fresh as well, and the characters themselves mostly refreshingly unphilosophical.  I can't say no digressions, but kept light. It was mostly story. And, though in some cases, the stories had that 44 Scotland St feel where they never really went anywhere, in a few cases, things seem to resolve actually.

So it wasn't too different than usual of course, but it seemed back into a better groove, at least from the way I felt about it.  Here's to continuing to shake things up on Scotland Street.

Verdict: 3.75/5

Solid Talking Points

Going back months as usual, I finished by GH reading while at my in-laws' house for Succos.  They have plenty of interesting reading material there, but everything was a bit disorganized because of construction.  One thing I came upon was Alan Dershowitz's The Case For Israel, which definitely seemed promising.

Of course, I am a stalwart supporter of Israel and I know many of the talking points, but I am always interested in knowing what to argue in more depth (with whom? well anonymous Salon  commenters, but that's another story... or perhaps not, I'll get into that later :)) Anyway, The Case For Israel is a fast read, not a detailed history, but it addresses every argument of the anti-Israel camp in detail (well maybe not every argument, but certainly those that I've heard).  It goes through some of the salient history, much of which I did not know  - including the recently relevant details of the Mufti's participation in the Holocaust and the very important demographic information surrounding the founding of the state (up until 1830, "Palestine" was almost empty. Though the start of the Arab influx of immigration predated the Jewish start by a few decades, the population growth of the two groups occurred basically simultaneously.  At the time of the Partition Plan proposal, the clear majority of the population living in the land to be allotted to Israel was Jewish).  There was information about international law and how it relates to Israel, and details about the Israeli army's extremely careful stewardship of life. The book was written in 2003, but nothing much has changed since then - other than the Palestinians growing over more intransigent and world'd louder condemnation of "settlements".

I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable, gratifying and very informative read.  I then took my new-found factually-based arguments and commented on a Salon article. That of course was a mistake, in which I wasted a week raising my blood pressure to argue with a rude bully, until I gave up as it was taking too much time. But, that incident notwithstanding, I am very glad to have read this book, just so I can answer all those anti-Israel news stories in my head with solid, cogent, pro-Israel arguments :)

Verdict: 5/5

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Same Old, Same Good

Next up - the duo introduced well by this post (and now you get a digression into the backstory of that link. There used to be a wonderful website called austenblog that kept up to date on all the latest Austen news (of which there is plenty, believe me :))  So the Editrix, Margaret Sullivan, apparently got bored of this site and stopped doing regular updates, so I stopped reading it.  Recently, Sarah Sp sent me a link to an exhibit about Emma showing in Goucher College, posted on the habitofjournaling blog, which she explained was the new blog by the Editrix.  So I took a look at it, and that post was the second post, which of course reminded me that I had to do this review. So, months late as usual...)

At some point, I needed something new to read and of course went back to my Heyer collection.  I
picked up Devil's Cub, which I reviewed at some point previously (when I was on maternity leave with BB).  This is one of the Heyers that has gone up and down in my estimation, I don't even remember why.  Probably related to Vidal's status as a Duke, its placement in the Georgian, rather than Regency era, and the Sp's pointing out that Vidal was actually going to rape Mary.  Any on this reading, I found the book absolutely spectacular.  Greatly romantic of course, but also sporting a wonderful heroine, really the stuff that heroines are made of with her spunk, coolness, intrepidity, resourcefulness, quiet pride etc.  But also a fun plot (pretty fast-moving, as this is a shortish book).  Just really, really enjoyed it.

So of course, next on my list had to be These Old Shades - Justin's awesomeness in Devil's Cub of course inspiring me to pick up his own story.  And Justin is awesome  - the post does a great job of describing that - "I do so love the Duke of Avon.  He's so fabulous" - that he is :) This book, similarly to Devil's Cub, starts off with the stilted writing of Heyer's non-Regency (and I guess, mostly if not all, earlier) books.  But unlike Devil's Cub, which I think shrugged off the tone pretty early (or I stopped noticing, but pretty sure it's the former), this one kind of kept it throughout.  A little too much drama, a little too much Mary Sue, a little too much "show, don't tell".  So I have to say, I didn't *love* this one.  I mean, liked it, sure, but it's not one of my favorite Heyers. I'm not sure it ever was though, so that's ok.  She's still da best :)

Verdict 5/5, 4.5/5

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

One Hit Wonder + Another

Well, well, well behind as usual and it's too bad because I bet I could have written a much better review two months ago... oh well.  So the story of this next story - after I finished Persuasion (or was it Sanditon? can't remember which was first), I needed something new to read... but I was not at home with my usual treasure trove of beloved favorites.  I was away for a three week vacation :) I contemplated going to the library in CL, but it didn't work out.  Then, the last week of my vacation I went with Dov's family to the Finger Lakes, where it was essential that I have something to read.  And I had the brilliant idea of making an activity out of it and going to a used book store! What could be better? Really I went to get kids books, I can't remember if that was more my primary motivation.  I went the first day but it was closed (Monday), so I went back again the next day (such persistence). I did ok with kids books, really nothing special (might as well just buy new on Amazon, as  I just did), and then I spent some time browsing for something for me. Naomi was with me, which made it... not easy, but I trawled the shelves nonetheless.  I was really ready to give up, I couldn't find any favorites and didn't have the ability to watch Naomi and search for new books  - and then I happened to come upon Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate! What luck! I've been meaning to read Nancy Mitford since who knows when, and even more since I read and *loved* Stella Gibbons.  So I picked up the two-in-one for $5 and I was set for the week (and more).

Now for the reviews -
First things first, my expectations. I knew going in the Nancy Mitford didn't write fairy-tale happy endings (so not Cold Comfort Farm).  The books were more in the vein of a roman-a-clef or illustration of the age (the age being the time between the wars).  But they are high society tales, and classics, so I expected a well-written source of gentle entertainment.

The Pursuit of Love fit this description to a T I'd say. Very well written, very likable narrator (unexpectedly nice), sparkling vivacity and wit, and a grand illustration of London society.  Also full of clear indication that the Pursuit of Love will not end in blissful capture.  It was not a happy ending, but it fit with the tone / theme of the book so at least I expected nothing else (though really, it did seem like it could have gone another way in the end).  And I kept turning page after page to read more about the mad adventures of the Radletts and Co.  So quite the enjoyable read overall.

We next turn to Love in a Cold Climate... which was.. wow... something else.  Same likable narrator but much, much less likable main characters for a start.  And it just goes down in from there. I am actually quite shocked about the content of this book - child molestation, marital infidelity, plenty of homosexuality. And none of it is particularly frowned upon.  This was really a very strange book - I'm not sure how it was received when it was written, but to me it just seemed like a book about bad-natured people behaving badly. In the end they mostly find love (spoiler alert I guess), so maybe that was the point? But the grotesqueness of the plot just seems not to fit with the neat ending.  Maybe I'm putting this more strongly than it actually is, but believe me, this was not the book I was expected after The Pursuit of Love.  The first one seemed eminently familiar and the second, utterly foreign.

Verdict: 3.5/5 for tPoL and 2/5 for LiaCC

Friday, August 14, 2015

1.2 JAs

As you know, my reading material comes, for the most part, from my small and select personal library.  Many of the titles have already been reviewed, but that doesn't stop me from rereading :) I don't remember what impulse compelled me to pick up Sanditon again (for I think the third time since I've started this blog?), but I certainly have no regrets about the choice.  I don't think I need to do another full review, but here's a short one.  Sanditon is absolutely a tons-of-fun read.  Another Lady obviously can't measure up to Jane Austen, but I think she's as good as Georgette Heyer.  Wonderfully enjoyable read, though certainly much lighter than genuine Austen fare.

Which leads me to my next review...  reading JA-lite, and right afterwards a silly article about the perfect alternative setting for each Jane Austen book inspired me to pick up Persuasion, my least-recently-read "good" JA (I don't like Mansfield Park and S&S).  Persuasion is saddest in tone of all the Austens, as Anne Elliot does not feel that life holds any hope of happiness for her.  I have in the past been somewhat put off by this, but now it's built in to my expectation of the book, so it doesn't bother me much.  And while it may be mored subdued in tone, the ending, and my anticipation of it, are sublime.  It's also a short book, with no side plots to distract from the main, wonderful romance. And the romance itself, while perhaps slightly less classic than P&P's hate at first sight, has provided an archetype that has been enjoyed ever since.

Reading the book made me want to watch the movie, of course.  With Persuasion, there aren't many options, but I chose ITV's 2007 version (short and on youtube + Rupert Penry Jones!). And much though I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, watching the movie made me appreciate it all the more.  All the subtleties of the plot and characters were lost, even though the story was still there.  And though I love JA for the story, she wouldn't be one of the most beloved authors ever without all the other stuff of course.

I have to say, this is a short review... I'm not sure if I was less cognizant than usual while reading, or if I just thought the book was perfect... but in any case, here it is and here's the verdict:

5/5 (for both, though in different ways, and of course if I had to rank, then Persausion would have to outrank).

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Romance, Heavily Marbled

As promised, the new and interesting reading :) This is the first time in while I'm reviewing something that's relatively fresh in my mind.  What is it? As you probably do not recall, Lauren Willig talks about her weekly reading on her website.  A few weeks ago, she mentioned have just discovered and absolutely loved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I have (fortunately or unfortunately) already read and thoroughly enjoyed (at least I'm pretty sure I did, I watched the movie but I'm fairly positive I also read the book).  Anyway, she mentioned that she also read The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett the same week, but hadn't enjoyed it as much, perhaps in contrast to Miss Pettigrew.  So I knew right away it wasn't going to be extraordinary but the Amazon summary sounded right up my alley, so I also knew I was going to read it.

(side note - of course, I never got around to finishing this and it is no longer fresh in my mind, oh well)

So the premise of this book is an indigent but genteel woman (of the Victorian age of course) makes her living by performing odd jobs for various patrons.  One of them invites her to spend some time at her country estate, where she is entertaining her very eligible nephew (a Marquis of course), along with some potential brides.  From the title, we know that our own heroine, Emily, is to be the chosen one.  And what could be more fun than seeing the choosing play itself out? And, indeed, the summer estate party scene of courtship provides satisfying romantic developments.  The romance is, I think, fairly well done, though I found the characterization somewhat strange. Chiefly, Emily's good nature makes her quite loveable, and she is also very capable - but the author puts great emphasis on the simple-mindedness that accompanies that good nature, and seems to relish it.  This is quite a change from, really, most books I read, where even when a protaganist is not the brightest, they make up for it in street smarts or emotional intelligence or whatnot.  But it didn't particularly bother me, it was just a bit jarring.

So much for the first half or so of the book.  Then... they get married.  Which I would have assumed happened at the end of the book, as is typical of a historical romance.  But actually, this was more of a marriage of convenience, which is certainly fair game, so I guess not in and of itself too strange. What was rather strange was the turn the book took... involving the Marquis's current heir, who returns from India determined to thwart his cousin's plans for cutting him out of the succession.  And so begins a rather sinister plot twist, involving heathen Indian maid servants, strange foreign ways, and even... murder (well attempted murder).  As Emily struggles to acclimate to her new role (hence the title), she is threatened not by the dainty barbs of society, but by the more solid danger of people actually out to get her.  And where is her husband during all this? Off on a business trip (or maybe it was diplomatic, can't really remember).  How is that supposed to be a convenient marriage plot?

And then... just abruptly as first twist happened, Emily escapes from her would-be persecutors and holes herself up in London to await her husband's return.  She is no longer physically threatened, so we can go back to enjoying the romantic developments (limited though they may due to her husband's absence).  This is really the end of the book, it doesn't take all that long for her husband to return for a satsifying finale (quite dramatic in its own way).

So what to say about this book? It certainly had very uneven tone, and the characterization was strange. A large part of the book had more of Gothic/mystery tone than the light romance I was looking for.  But in the end of the day (and the beginning too :)) it had the classic historical romance I was looking for. So can't say I regret reading it (for free :))

Verdict: 3/5

Monday, April 20, 2015

Staple Rereading

As I mentioned in the previous post, short note on a re-read.  This goes back to Succos, but I think it is actually the most recent book I have read, insane as that is (I started another one at my in-laws a while ago, but haven't finished it, and, as mentioned in the previous post, am now in middle of something interesting which you will hear about eventually :)) (other than that, it's been Commentary magazine, as I struggle to keep up with the monthly (following Pesach, I am actually in middle of the current month's issue, woohoo.  New reading material coming up whenever I get out to the library!)  Anyway, the reread was my three-book volume of Clare Darcy novels. I don't remember why I decided to reread it, probably it had a somewhat prominent place on my bookshelf.  Last time I read it, I somewhat enjoyed it, more than the stand-alone Clare Darcys I found at Howard County library.  (I haven't reread my review of course, so maybe my memory is faulty :)) Anyway, I certainly enjoyed the books well enough this time around, though the bar is set rather low since I don't do all that much reading these days. She definitely does a good job imitating GH's tone but the books fall far short in both plot and characterization (and humor, too).  They don't move along quickly enough, I definitely found myself getting somewhat bored at times.  And the characters are just a little too silly at times.  Furthermore, my snobbery was offended by the relatively low birth of the girl in the first book and the guy in the second one. So I enjoyed the third one the most :) Plus that was the one that took place in London.  But can't complain, all easy enough reading in my very favorite genre.

Verdict: 3/5

Interesting and Informative, or, I Finally Read Some Non-Fiction

As usual, it's been forever.  My reading material in the past months has been exclusively Commentary magazine, so I have little incentive to finish my review backlog.  I have recently started on something new and interesting so that gives me a little push :) And this review is the last on my backlog (except for a short note on a reread that will be coming whenever this one is done).  Anyway, now up is Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise.  I don't remember exactly when I read this book, but it either right before or at the beginning of my maternity leave.  So a while ago.   But I still have something to say, don't worry :) Anyway, some background on this  - The Signal and the Noise is a non-fiction bestseller by Nate Silver, statistics guru formerly of the NY Times.  His employer notwithstanding, I think I had some vague interest in the title for a while.  Some time last year I started reading Nate's new website,, regularly, which definitely made me want to read his book more.  The premise of the website is to offer a hard-data perspective of the news, certainly a refreshing and and informative product.  I did enjoy the articles and, when I was next in need of something to read at the in-laws, I picked up the book.  It took me a few visits to get through it, but I enjoyed it all the way through.

Other than the intro/conclusion chapters, each chapter looks at a specific topic often subjected to statistical analysis, or more specifically, to "forecasting" (predicting the future based on present / past data).  So each chapter is an informative read on how forecasting works in a certain field, ranging from weather, to sports, to climate change.  I don't think there was one topic I had in-depth knowledge of, so each chapter was an education in itself.  Some hold more interest to me than others (climate change more than baseball :)) and some more day-to-day relevance (weather) but all interesting and good reading.  It really gave me a new way to think about each of these fields.  On climate change specifically, I really appreciate Silver's temperate approach toward the science and have more-or-less adopted it as my own (for the record, the models are by no means perfect and certainly have something to answer for, but they do all suggest rises in carbon dioxide are going to be problematic if the models are accurate).

And besides for educating me in a few specific topics, the book also introduced me to the notion of Bayesian forecasting.  I know about Bayes  but certainly hadn't thought to apply it as widely as Silver does. It really is a clarifying way to approach predictions of both the future and general unknowns.  It's very helpful to think in terms of current assumptions and how they affect the assumptions about new propositions (not that I mean I use this in any real sense, just in my rich intellectual life :p).

As someone with no statistical background, no background in any of the topics Silver discusses and not really a critical thinker, it's not like I'm a in a place to really evaluate Silver's book on its academic merits.  Suffice it to say, it was not only an interesting read, but has contributed to the way I think about the climate change debate, weather forecasts, mortgage securities, earthquake predictions, and Bayesian reasoning.  Not bad :)

Verdict: 4/5 (based purely on how much I enjoyed this book, not on its technical merits or lasting impact)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Past Can Be Refreshing

Story of this next one: We walked to Goldie and Aharon's baby's bris and Esther Twersky offered to let me nurse in her house since she lives right near the shul.  I took her up on it, and she very nicely offered me a choice of reading materials.  She had lots of exciting used book, childhood favorites type.  Plenty of Gordon Korman, and she also had this author Keith Robertson.  He's the author of the Henry Reed books, which I used to read back in the day (and more or less enjoyed), but apparently he's the author of several other books as well.  I selected one of them, The Money Machine, started it while I was nursing, and took it home with me to finish.

The book is a children's mystery, with that old-timey feel of Henry Reed, Beverly Cleary etc - when children got around on bicycles, did their chores and lived wholesome and energetic lives.  The protagonists of The Money Machine (it's actually the last in a series with these boys) run a detective agency.  The mystery involves a counterfeit ring.  Not *too* high stakes, but of course, seriously dramatic for high school.  I'm not a huge fan of mysteries for their own sake, though I read many of them for various reasons of course.  So the actual clue-tracking and culprit-exposing wasn't overly important to me.  What impressed me more (I mean that in the sense of made an impression on me) was the old-timey feel of it all.  The mild manners, the slow pace, the secure atmosphere - all make for a relaxing read, despite any tension that arose from all the tight spots that happened along the way.  Not that I'm particularly nostalgic, and definitely not nostalgic for a time and place I never knew, but the wholesomeness of all did get to me.

At least I think that's what it was.  The bottom line is I found it to be an easy read.  As a children's book, I wouldn't have expected much else.  Even so, I think the old-fashioned neat-and-cleanness contributed plenty.

Verdict: 3.5/5

In Which the Likeability of the Author Matters

A while ago, Dov went to Barnes and Noble randomly and picked up a few titles (not at all my thing of course, I would never waste money on that :)), one of which was a somewhat interesting intro to popular physics book that I think is currently in CL, of which I have read only a small part. The other is Mindy Kaling's memoir (such a serious word, but I think it is the correct one), whose title is (having just looked it up) "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?".  I wouldn't say celebrity comedic memoirs are exactly my usual thing, but I have been known to read the occasional humor book.  And Dov went through this one quite quickly so I assumed I'd be interested :) I finally got around to reading it right after Naomi was born (brought it with me to the hospital, I think I started it there), which means we're talking about six months ago at this point - I think I still remember what I want to say though :)

And that's that I did indeed enjoy the book, and got through it relatively quickly - lots of stops and starts with nursing, but my interest never flagged.  The book was fun and well-written (for the genre).  But was more interesting was how much I actually liked Mindy.  She really seems... "normal".  Now I know that sounds incredibly celebrity-fake-modesty-y, but it's not just her early nerdiness and youthful struggles that humanizes her. She actually seems to have decent values - parents who push their kids (Indians of course :)), good friends she hangs with, a healthy appetite :)... She just seems like a person I would actually like! Which I just don't think I'd say about Tina Fey or Amy Poehler or Ellen Degeneres, even though I find them all very funny.  Not only did Mindy make me enjoy the book, the book actually made me enjoy her show all the more.  Mindy from The Mindy Project seems very much like Mindy from the memoir (which was written before the show, so it's not like she deliberately set out to make herself seem like her character).  Her antics on the show seem much more funny now that I see how they are rooted in the real, and quite likeable, Mindy.

So, anyway, a good, quick, fun read that actually surprised me in how much I enjoyed it :)

Verdict: 4/5