Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Meditation on My 2010 Year in Reading

Last year I read 87 books, most of them before I became a parent in late September. This year I fell significantly short of that mark (for a full list of books see this page), but here are the stats:

Books Read: 51 (27 in audio format)
Young Adult: 17
Fantasy: 10
Romance: 9 (7 lesbian romances)
Nonfiction: 4
Science Fiction: 3
Children's (not including the masses of books read to Baby G): 3
Mystery/Suspense: 2
General Fiction: 2
Books Resisting Categorization: 1 [The City and the City]
Favorites: Shades of Grey, His Majesty's Dragon, Howl's Moving Castle, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Madensky Square

This accounting also includes a few books, such as Pretties, Specials, and Wildthorn, for which I have not yet gotten around to writing reviews. There are many books in the "Young Adult" category that could be classified as Sci-Fi or Fantasy, since that is what I particularly like to read.

Last year, only 7% of the books I read were in audio format. This year, I listened to over half (53%) of the books that I read. Generally this also involved having a paper copy of the book in hand, but if you've been reading this blog you will know that I feel strongly that listening = reading. And THANK GOD for audiobooks, otherwise my commute would be a wasteland of commercial radio (dramatic exaggeration) and I would have missed out on a lot of great books. As my friend Jen said in her year-end review, this is the year of the audiobook, and I'm glad that I am finally at the point where half of my reading is done in the car, ideally with the aid of Simon Vance.

I think my reading resolution for 2011 will be to read more books that are recommended to me, even if they don't seem like something I would choose for myself. Maybe I will occasionally do something as random as asking Twitter what I should read next and following up on the first recommendation given. I am also planning on participating in "The Women of Science Fiction" reading challenge, because I'd like to read a lot of those books anyway, and the opportunity for intelligent discussion is very appealing.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: Diamond Solitaire [1992]

I've mentioned before that I sometimes pick up books for random reasons; in the case of Diamond Solitaire by Peter Lovesey, it had to do with an article mentioning that the detective featured in the series, Peter Diamond, was related somehow to Bath, England. Having spent a semester in Bath, I put in an order for one of the books (which turned out to be the second in the series, and was not actually set in Bath) and listened to the audio version.

Former police detective Peter Diamond is fired from his job as a security guard when a small Japanese girl is found hiding in his section of Harrod's after closing. Now unemployed (again) and intrigued by the girl (called Naomi), who remains unclaimed and is seemingly autistic, Diamond becomes obsessed with finding her family. At the same time, a drug plant in Italy is destroyed by arson and a young man becomes CEO of an American pharmaceutical company, Manflex, after his father commits suicide. The links between these seemingly unrelated events will lead Diamond from England to New York and ultimately all the way to Japan after Naomi is kidnapped from her school (meeting sumo wrestlers, helpful bystanders, librarians, cold-blooded mafia killers, and foreign police on the way).

Grade: B

The interactions between the gruff, short-tempered Diamond and the little Japanese girl, who spends most of the book mute and unresponsive, are very moving. His sincere desire to get through to Naomi, and to help her find her family, is the best part of the book. In addition, the nifty thing about reading a mystery novel written the early nineties is that a lot of time is spent faxing things and using pay phones and, really, doing a million little things that modern technology would have simplified or made completely unnecessary. I very much liked all of the outdated apparatus and the slow, painful searching out of clues: going to the basement to look at the original card files that had been transferred to the computer system; calling all of the London cab companies and television studios and waiting for them to call back; and taking the Concorde across the ocean. Nothing is easy for Peter Diamond as he brings the mystery to a close. A solid detective novel with a deeply flawed but likeable main character.

Random Thoughts:

Lovesey begins the book with a balance between Diamond's plot and the Manflex plot, but then moves exclusively to Diamond's point of view for at least the second half, which was a bit jarring. I would have liked either to have two full viewpoints or to discover the human angles of the Manflex connection slowly through Diamond's investigations. Other plot points, such as the introduction of the world-famous sumo wrestler who becomes Diamond's unofficial patron, definitely stretch believability, but are entertaining nonetheless.

The narrator, Simon Prebble, did a great job with Diamond's voice and with the Japanese characters, but his "American" is a bit rusty. It was bad enough that I had trouble staying involved in the story because I was distracted by his failed attempts to create a believable accent. 

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Book Review: Charmed Life [1977]

Several friends recommended Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones, so I acquired the audio book and quickly finished it. I spent the first half of the book trying not to think about Eragon, as Gerard Doyle does the voices for those books as well, and I didn't want Charmed Life to have negative associations. It turned out to be a pleasing little book.

Eric "Cat" Chant has a sister who is not only a witch, but also domineering and vindictive. Gwendolen has ambitions to someday rule the world, and she thinks that becoming the ward of the famous Chrestomanci (after the accidental death of their parents) might help her achieve that goal more quickly. However, after the debonair and vaguely benign Chrestomanci suspends her magical privileges, Gwendolen's rage spurs some remarkable developments, illuminating the world of magic--including the existence of alternate realities--for Cat as he struggles to become an independent person. Will Cat be able to learn enough about his own magical abilities before he brings disaster on himself and all the inhabitants of Chrestomanci Castle?

Grade: B

This was another book for young readers where I found myself  identifying squarely with the adults, rather than the main characters. Cat spends an inordinate amount of time fearing and avoiding Chrestomanci and getting into trouble when he could just come clean and get help. I suppose that would be a less dramatic climax, however. There was something that felt unfinished about the book, as if there should be more to Cat's story; the characters were too vibrant to exist just in this instance. I gather that there are other books featuring Chrestomanci (he of the fabulous dressing gowns and snappy ensembles--why is it that well-dressed men are so appealing as characters?), and perhaps I will have to look into them as well.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, December 6, 2010

Book Review: Love Waits [2010]

Even though I was underwhelmed by Gerri Hill's lesbian romance thriller The Scorpion, I picked up Love Waits through interlibrary loan as soon as I knew of its existence, so eager was I for a redemptive experience. Although Hill's latest doesn't rank among my favorites (Behind the Pine Curtain and The Dawn of Change, in case you were wondering), it was certainly a vast improvement.

Ashleigh Pence and Gina Granbury were secret lovers in high school, but broke up due to a misunderstanding during their first year of college. They thought they would be together forever, and have each spent the intervening twenty years before their high school reunion trying to find someone else to fill the void left by their love. The original falling-in-love story is intertwined with the narrative of their painful, hesitant, and ultimately passionate reunion. Will they be able to ignore the past and take a chance on love again? Don't read the title if you don't want to be spoiled on this one . . . whoops.

Grade: B+

Who doesn't love a good high school reunion love story? If you want a read-alike, try Karin Kallmaker's Unforgettable, which has a slightly more complicated narrative than Love Waits.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Book Review: The Drowning City [2009]

I picked up Amanda Downum's The Drowning City because several of my review sources were telling me that I really ought to buy the sequel, which was just released last week. I was pleased to find that I had purchased the first book for the library the previous year, though apparently I was the only librarian in western Massachusetts to do so.

The Drowning City (first in the Necromancer Chronicles series) features several female characters' viewpoints, the primary one being that of Isyllt Iskaldur, a foreign necromancer who is sent to the lush river city of Symir to foment rebellion. Symir sits below an active volcano that produces valuable gemstones for the Assari Empire. Isyllt brings with her the mercenary Xinai, a returning native who finds herself joining the rebellion. She also meets and befriends the nineteen-year old apprentice Zhirin, who has connections both to the Empire that controls the city, and to the rebels that seek to topple that control. Other characters include Adam, Isyllt's mercenary guard, and Asheris, a mysterious and attractive southern mage.

Isyllt struggles to understand and manipulate the situation in Symir in an increasingly violent and uneasy atmosphere; some of the rebels, the Dai Tranh, advocate a vicious, no-holds-barred approach, while others protest peacefully. The city rulers attempt to control the situation while fulfilling their required payment to the Empire. As the danger mounts, its unclear whether Isyllt will be successful in her mission, much less leave Symir alive.

Grade: B

I definitely enjoyed the book, although there were a few things I could nitpick, such as Downum's tendency toward sentence fragments. At times it felt like there were too many plotlines, but I was satisfied both by the resolution and by what was left open for subsequent books. With Symir, Downum created a vibrant setting with definite southeast Asian overtones, and it will be interesting to see how The Bone Palace (which I did order, in case anyone was wondering), with an entirely different setting, compares.

ETA: This was my 200th post on the blog. I think I've come a long way since May 2007

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes, several

TV Review: Castle Season One [2009]

Castle was seemingly made with me in mind: It's got a Mentalist-style puckish main character and good-girl cop combination and it's about a novelist. For the most part, season one delivered on this promise, although it was lighter than I would have liked in terms of character development, especially for the secondary characters.

Richard Castle is basically a hot (and probably also less arrogant) fictionalized version of James Patterson--a bestselling novelist with a colorful past, known for his pulpy productivity and amorous adventuring. When a killer starts murdering people as described in several of Castle's books, he is questioned by the no-nonsense NYPD detective Kate Beckett. As that case is resolved, Beckett sparks Castle's interest, and he uses his political connections to get himself a permanent place riding along with her in search of new material, which eventually becomes a new series of books featuring the character Nikki Heat.

Castle is an engaging fellow, but I didn't find him as charming as I think I was supposed to. Maybe I should clarify that I do not share the adoration for Nathan Fillion that many seem to profess on the internet. Castle is very wealthy and apparently free of the cares that plague most of us, although he does share an enormous apartment with his mother and daughter. Most of his best moments, and the glimpses of a possible deeper character, come when he is interacting with his family--worrying about his daughter or sniping with his mother.

Kate Beckett, who is beautiful and reserved, became a police officer as a result of her mother's tragic unsolved murder. She is a restrained fangirl of Castle's work, which provides definite humor whenever he realizes that she's a little too well read for a casual consumer. Stana Katic plays her ably, but is of course gorgeous, which makes her tough NYPD cop character a bit hard to swallow. But of course there's tragic unsolved yada yada to consider. That is how she can be both beautiful and determined!

As for the remaining characters, there are glimpses of interesting possibilities for development. The first season was only ten episodes long, and didn't really have the opportunity to go beyond setting up the Castle/Beckett dynamic, but there are the other members of Beckett's team, detectives Esposito and Ryan; Beckett's boss and the adorable female medical examiner; and of course Castle's family members.

In general, the tone of the show is light and quippy. The crimes that Beckett and Castle investigate are pedestrian, for the most part, and the focus of the show is on their interaction rather than on the business of crime-solving itself. There are hints that Castle might be able to make some progress on the mysterious death of Beckett's mother, which is something to look forward to in season two--once she forgives him for reopening the case.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

I tried to listen to the first Nikki Heat book on CD, and the narrator's voice was so wrong and annoying that I had to stop. Whether I pick up the printed book (or its sequels) to get the full Castle experience remains to be seen.

I don't have time to watch bonus features and meddle with things like that, which is why this is a TV review and not a DVD review. But I'm sure they were lovely.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: Madensky Square [1988]

Before a moving article was published on the occasion of Eva Ibbotson's death in October, I would have said that I was extremely familiar her adult catalogue (and a few of her children's books, such as The Star of Kazan). After all, I'd read A Countess Below Stairs, A Company of Swans, The Morning Gift, and A Song for Summer. I'd tracked down and devoured Magic Flutes even before it was republished as The Reluctant Heiress. So when Laura Amy Schiltz revealed that Madensky Square "was Eva’s favorite among her books. It is also mine. It is one of the mysteries of publishing that Madensky Square is the only one of Eva’s adult novels that hasn’t been reprinted," I was stunned. I raced to find a copy, wondering how I could possibly have missed it. Thank you, interlibrary loan! 

Madensky Square is probably the most "adult" of Ibbotson's adult novels, both in terms of some darker subject matter and the occasional frank discussion of sex. That being said, it's still an Ibbotson novel, and its pages abound with charming, engaging characters. Plot lines are neatly wrapped up and there are delicious standalone sentences. The novel is written in first person as a journal kept by dress shop owner Susanna Weber from 1911 to 1912. In a thriving pre-World War I Vienna, Madensky Square is not just the location of Susanna's store and living quarters, but a thriving community populated with quirky characters who are deftly captured with a few artful sentences. Susanna, while undoubtedly at the heart of Ibbotson's narrative, puts others' stories before her own. We learn about the mysterious Polish orphan across the street who does nothing but practice the piano; her best friend's grief at the death of her married lover; the struggles of a plain girl whose mother is a militant intellectual; and her anarchist shop employee, Nini, whose actions have sad consequences she hadn't anticipated.

Susanna herself is enormously sympathetic; she is the 36 year-old mistress of a prominent military man, and struggles with the knowledge that the daughter she gave up at birth has been raised by a kind and loving family. She is acerbic when it comes to dresses made by the rival dressmaker across town, but supportive to nearly everyone else. The action of the story culminates in the threat of street expansion (a symbol of looming modernization) from the officious Herr Egger, who has dreams of naming rights. Also lurking is the knowledge, on the part of the reader, that World War I will soon sweep through and forever change the radiant and bustling culture that Ibbotson has recreated. Although things are wrapped up neatly at the end of the book, the ending isn't entirely happy, for which I was grateful. I was left with the sense of bittersweet enjoyment that one gets when reading a good book for the first time--knowing that it will end, but realizing that it can be experienced again.

Grade: A

Random Thoughts:

Although it seems to be categorized as "romance," it's not a romance in the modern sense of the word, but more in the old-fashioned sense of the French "roman" or story--it's a character and community study, rather than a man-woman love story, although that element certainly exists in it.

I'm not sure it was my favorite of Ibbotson's books, but it's probably my second favorite after A Countess Below Stairs. Although I loved the characters, as a staunch vegetarian I couldn't quite like the conversion of a veg to meat-eater through the mechanism of a few tempting meat morsels.

Short stories aren't really my thing, but I now have A Glove Shop in Vienna & Other Stories in my TBR pile. Once I am done I will either declare myself (once more) an Ibbotson master, or start reading her adult novels all over again.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Review of Series Romance Titles: Christmas Edition

Now would be a good time to order series romance if you were in to stories about Christmas. If you're in to one of those other holidays that fall around the same time of year, not so much, although there are a few that don't use "Christmas" in the title. Looking at the December 2010 Ingram Advance, there are 87 unique series romance titles, some of which are available in "Larger Print."

Forty-one of them (47%), some of which are two-in-one books, have something to do with the holidays. I am listing them here because they are quite a sight to see, all clustered together:

A Countess by Christmas, A Cowboy Under the Mistletoe, A Man for All Seasons, A Mistletoe Proposal, A Silverhill Christmas, A Thunder Canyon Christmas, An Amish Christmas, Christmas at Candlebark Farm, Christmas Bodyguard, Christmas Under Western Skies: A Prairie Family Christmas\A Cowboy's Christmas, Colton's Christmas Baby, Daddy by Christmas, Her Christmas Hero, His Christmas Virgin, I'll Be Yours for Christmas, Inheriting His Secret Christmas Baby, It Must Have Been the Mistletoe..., Jingle Bell Blessings, Northern Escape, Once Upon a Christmas Eve, One Special Christmas and Home for the Holidays, Private Parts, Rescued by His Christmas Angel, Snowbound Seduction, The Bachelor's Christmas Bride, The Bull Rider's Christmas Baby, The Christmas Proposition, The Holiday Nanny, The Holiday Triplets, The Lawman's Christmas Wish, Twins Under His Tree, Under the Millionaire's Mistletoe: The Wrong Brother\Mistletoe Magic, Under Wraps, Unwrapping the Playboy, Winchester Christmas Wedding, Yuletide Cowboy, and Yuletide Defender.

Checking in on another trend that I loathe and wish would disappear (or at least be significantly less popular), books that feature "secret babies" and pregnant/new mother heroines are unfortunately still going strong. Nineteen (21%) featured pregnancies or new mothers, and another twenty (23%) featured children who had lost one or both parents. Although there was certainly a lot of overlap, one would be hard-pressed to find a "normal" romance novel in this lot that didn't have to do with children or Christmas, risking getting stuck with a book like The Holiday Nanny: "And with some help from his little girl, Wade just might turn his holiday nanny into a permanent wife and mother."

Someone please save me from the "unexpected pregnancy" storylines! At least this trope is harder to write in to my beloved Regency romances. Give me an arranged marriage, a rake to reform, or a marriage of convenience any day.

Best Title of the Month:

Zoe and the Tormented Tycoon

Runners Up:

The Bull Rider's Christmas Baby and Yuletide Defender

PS, check out the fun we're having over at MARC of the Beast, posting all the cleverest and most hideous cozy mystery and romance titles! You can follow us on Twitter at @MARCof_theBeast.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [2010]

I am not very comfortable with stories about mothers dying of cancer. It hits way too close to home, and it's something I'd prefer not to think about at all. Ever. However, since I know that approach is not only unrealistic, but unhealthy for me as well, once in a while I challenge myself with something that I know will probably be painful. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, met that criterion, as well as being well reviewed and available on CD: Win-win-win! I have also been trying to read a bit more nonfiction lately, especially since I enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher so thoroughly.

Immortal Life is the kind of "relaxed" nonfiction in which the author-narrator takes us on a voyage of discovery that infuses dry, scientific facts with the flavor of human interest. Journalist Skloot had been fascinated as a student by the mystery of the woman behind the HeLa cell line, which has been used to develop the polio vaccine and test cancer therapies, and for a host of other biomedical advances over the last sixty years. Scientists have spent entire careers working with HeLa, but virtually none of them (not to mention the general public) were aware that the relentlessly growing cells originated from an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks.

In 1951, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and a doctor at the Johns Hopkins clinic removed part of the tumor (without her knowledge or consent) before she was treated with radiation therapy. The sample of her cancerous cells grew "like nothing anyone had seen, doubling their numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions." Scientists had been struggling to develop self-perpetuating cell lines for years, and Henrietta's cells provided them with an endlessly growing crop on which to perform experiments (some of them vicious and illegal, such as when Henrietta's cancerous cells were injected into healthy patients without their consent). HeLa, as the cells became known, soon spread to laboratories around the world.

In the meantime, the Lacks family had lost Henrietta to a brutally painful death from uremia soon after radiation treatments failed to cure her cancer. Her autopsy revealed that tumors "the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls." Her children, most notably Deborah Lacks, around whom Skloot frames her story, grew up knowing almost nothing about their mother. It was decades before the Lacks family (struggling to survive in Baltimore) was made aware of the existence of HeLa, which by that point had become a profit-making enterprise and scientific standard. Deborah's brothers reacted with anger, but Deborah was fueled by a desire to discover everything she possibly could about her mother and her dead sister, Elsie, who had been institutionalized and died in the 1950s.

As Skloot comes to a careful truce with the Lacks family and helps Deborah on the slow and painful road to knowing her mother, she intersperses chapters on the scientific developments of cell culture and the discoveries it facilitated. Skloot strikes a careful balance between ethics and the importance of scientific research as she investigates the history of informed consent and presents the "science" part of the story in approachable prose. The combination of these informational chapters with the narrative of Henrietta and Deborah is amazingly effective. I would definitely recommend The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to anyone interested in accessible nonfiction, the history of medicine, African-American history, or just someone looking for a good, moving story. I admit, I cried more than once while listening in the car.

Grade: A

Random Thoughts:

One of the most amazing things about this story is the fact that so many of the principals were still alive, despite the fact that Lacks died in 1951. For example, Skloot was able to interview the doctor who examined Henrietta and removed her cells. Lab assistants, researchers, family members, and others who were touched by Lacks (or HeLa) were still available for Skloot's research. The book was at least ten years in the making, and at times yielded some amazing and improbable discoveries, especially where Deborah's sister Elsie was concerned. It makes me wonder what on earth Skloot will write about next, since she became a primary character in Immortal Life.

Skloot is donating proceeds from the sale of the book to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which has just given out its first grants to some of Henrietta's descendants.

I listened to the book on audio CD, and the narrator was certainly able, but I would also recommend picking up the book to see the eight  pages of color photographs, which do a great deal to bring life to the people that Skloot describes.

I may be the only one who thought this, but if there had been another season of The Wire, they could have centered it around the interaction between Johns Hopkins and the citizens of Baltimore.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, November 22, 2010

Book Review: Fierce Overture [2010]

I first became familiar with Gun Brooke many years ago through her online J/7 fanfiction, and her career as a novelist has since taken off. She now has five novels published, all set in the same world and featuring some of the same characters. In addition, Brooke creates the art for her own book covers, which I think is an intriguing way to see what the author feels is important about the narrative (in this case: very little clothing! Performing!).

Fierce Overture, the latest in the series, features a high-powered music executive--Helena Forsythe--who is having difficulties with one of her superstars, the young, beautiful, and extremely successful Noelle Laurent. Helena has spent her life focusing on her career and feels that Noelle's desire to sing her own soulful music, rather than the bubbly pop she is known for, would be a bad business decision both for Noelle and Helena's company. As the CEO, Helena has the last word, but things are quickly complicated by her growing attraction to Noelle, who is nothing at all like the party girl she has been painted in the tabloids. After a passionate night together, each woman finds herself reassessing her career and emotional life. But Helena's inability to commit to supporting Noelle's dream means that their burgeoning relationship could easily turn to heartbreak.

Grade: B+

Random Thoughts:

I like Brooke's series, and it's nice to see the progress that characters like Carolyn Black and Annelie Peterson have made since they got together in the first book. However, I felt that Helena perhaps changed her mind one too many times about Noelle's right to record her own music. Will she approve it? Won't she? The story relied a little too heavily on this question when it could have possibly diversified and thrown a different obstacle in the couple's path. The sex scenes were definitely above average, including one that involved cell phones and bathtubs.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: I think so, but not 100% sure.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meditation on Writing

In case anyone has noticed my relative silence over here for the past few weeks, it's not because I have become suddenly shy again (as far as I know I am still a newly-minted extrovert). On the contrary, I have been engaged in a not-so-secret project that involves writing at least 50,000 words in the month of November and calling it a novel. At first I thought, "oh, I'll try this and get bored with it like I usually do and that will be that." But just past the halfway point, I've got over 26,000 words written--and not just one word repeated 26,000 times--and I think I might actually make the deadline. It's not something that I ever expected to happen, and I'm still a little cautious about discussing it at all, in case that causes me to self-destruct. I am very good at enthusiastically starting projects and historically pathetic at bringing them to a satisfying close. So: cautious optimism. As I've been forcing myself to write the required 1,667 words a day, I've also been thinking about my history as a writer.

I have consistently been a voracious reader, but writing was something I only did in fits and starts throughout my childhood. I am still quite proud of the short story I wrote some (cough) years back from the point-of-view of a Rain-Blo bubble gum ball, even though the story itself may longer exist.1 As a young adult with no actual ability to make geeky friends who were my age, I spent a great deal of time generating D&D characters . . . but never actually played the game. To this date I still have not played D&D once (much less an entire campaign), but that's OK, I suspect that character generation (and character names) might be the best part. Then I went to college, and all of my writing time was taken up with things called 'papers', some of which didn't actually feel like work.2

After graduate school (Master's #1), I worked two simultaneous jobs as a technical writer, so there still wasn't much space in my life for "fun" writing. However, despite not liking to read short stories all that much, I used to write them, in the form of fan-fiction, for other people to read on the internet. Most of the archive sites for these stories seem to have mercifully disappeared, and I'm not going to say much more about that. However, I do still have a t-shirt that vaguely references that time of my life, so as long as I keep it I will always have a gentle reminder that I used to be passionate about TV. Eventually I developed this blog as an outlet for my desire to write. It allows me to keep up on my more formal prose with book reviews, and once in a while do a little navel gazing.

I've always had a secret desire to write a romance novel, and have a rough half-dozen started on various forms of media that are now obsolete and therefore inaccessible to me.3 When I started reading my mother's romance novels as a kid, I felt that I was enough of a judge of quality to arrogantly think "hey, I could do this!" I mean, who hasn't picked up a "trashy" romance and thought that they could produce something equally bad, if not slightly better? This month is my opportunity to finally put my money where my mouth is. At some point (in September or October), I volunteered to write a novel that will probably only appeal to a very small subset of people, but which will make me happy to write. And I think that's what actually matters.

1It may actually still exist; there's a lot of stuff in the garage. But that's another post entirely. If I find it someday, I'll be sure to post it here, so STAY TUNED. In the meantime (spoiler alert), if I remember correctly, it doesn't end well for our gumball hero.

2My favorite papers were for Literary Theory. One involved ten pages of deconstruction applied to the message inside a Cadbury chocolate egg wrapper, and the other was a discussion of "Jesse's Girl" as a tale of homosocial desire (we had been reading Sedgwick). For the opportunity to write these, I have to give all the credit to my friend and mentor Dr. Tromp, the same person who facilitated footnote 3.

3The same is true of my 120+ page senior thesis on Emily Brontë, but I like to think that I could recover that with the help of OCR from my hard copy, if ever there was an emergency in which my scholarship--DIGITIZED--was the only hope for humanity. For reference, the title is: 'Through life and death, a chainless soul': Emily Brontë's Poetic Reconfiguration of Romanticism, Female Authorship, and the Critical Paradigm. Available only in one college library in Ohio, my living room, and my father's house. Oh, to be young again.

Meditation Index

Monday, November 15, 2010

Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest [2010]

The cliffhanger ending of The Girl Who Played with Fire left me relatively eager to read The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest when it came out earlier this year, completing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. I know, I know, there's a possible fourth book, but it sounds like those will be mired in legal battles for the rest of time, so it's good that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest wrapped up a lot of the loose ends. Things being as they usually are, I got the hardback from the library when it came out, had to return it because I ran out of time, and instead listened to the audio version narrated by Simon Vance! As I believe I expressed in another review, anything read by Simon Vance is an automatic WIN as far as I am concerned. I must confess, toward the end I was lugging my CDs from my car to my house so that I could keep listening. But after I was finished, I had to get the book back through ILL so that I could write this review and get all the Swedish spellings right. The things I go through for my art! [dramatic swoon]

The backstory of the second and third books is complicated enough that it is explained over and over again to new characters who are being brought in on the case, and I will try to summarize as best I can. Lisbeth Salander, our anti-heroine from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is the daughter of an ex-Russian spy, Alexander Zalachenko, who had been protected by the Swedish secret police for years in exchange for valuable information on Soviet activities. This ongoing operation was carried out in complete secret by a very small group within the secret police known as the Section. Unfortunately, Zalachenko was an abusive bastard who regularly beat Salander's mother, eventually to the point where she was permanently disabled. The Section regularly cleaned up after this and other messes to make sure that his identity remained secret. Receiving no help from the authorities, Salander took matters into her own hands and firebombed her father when she was twelve, then was committed to a mental institution to keep anyone from believing her stories about Zalachenko. Most, if not all, of Salander's subsequent troubles (being assigned a guardian who raped her, for example) are a direct result of the Section's attempts to keep the Zalachenko story under wraps.

When the action of the third novel begins, Salander is in the hospital with a gunshot wound to the head (inflicted by her father), and Zalachenko is recovering in the room down the hall because she didn't quite manage to kill him with an axe to the face. It's a time of family bonding. With Salander slated to go to trial and Zalachenko threatening to expose everything, the aging members of the Section take swift action to head off threats to their anonymity, resulting in the deaths of several people. The story is an intricate tangle that intrepid Millennium magazine reporter Mikael Blomkvist must work day and night to unravel (with a double-digit supporting cast) before time runs out for Salander. The book's major subplot involves Millennium editor Erika Berger moving to take over editorial duties at Svenska Morgon-Posten, a prestigious career move that unfortunately results in her being sexually harassed.

Phew. After reading The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, I have now spent more time than I ever thought I would contemplating the workings of the Swedish secret police.

As I said above, the details of the Section's past and the slow process of tracking them down is a part of the novel that grows a bit wearing after the tenth time or so. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is a novel of small details. Larsson thought that people's stories were fascinating, so every character we meet (and there are many) is provided with a backstory, sometimes an extensive one. At times this careful explication bogs down the pace of the novel, and sometimes it provides additional depth. If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller stuffed with action, this is not the book for you. Berger's stalker subplot does provide some intermediate thrills while Blomkvist and Salander are busy working out their strategy for clearing her name and getting her full legal rights, but it is a resolution that unfolds in a courtroom, at a trial that takes nearly 500 pages to set up. For me, it was a worthwhile payoff after three books in the making.

Grade: B+

Random thoughts:

One of the best things about Larsson's books is the number and depth of the female characters. Certainly they are idealized; his women are usually victims and rarely villains, but it is a sad commentary on the rest of our fiction that having so many female police officers, lawyers, newspaper editors, etc. should be remarkable. Apart from Lisbeth Salander herself, who is a sort of manic pixie hacker girl that everyone feels sympathy for, despite her antisocial ways, Berger is a strong character who is given particular depth in this last novel. In addition, Blomkvist's sister Annika Giannini is enormously sympathetic as Salander's lawyer, while Larsson also spends a great deal of time examining the thoughts and motivations of two female police officers, Modig and Figuerola, as well as the security agent Susanne Linder. I do find it annoying, however, that women keep falling in love with Blomkvist. I suppose it adds a romantic element to the book, but it made my eyes roll more than it made my heart flutter.

It may sound silly, but it's kind of fascinating to read about Swedish history and politics and wonder how much of what Larsson is writing about is true. What if the United States had a department of Constitutional Protection? I also enjoy reading a crime novel in which the bad guys, especially the really bad guys, get their just desserts. Larsson isn't afraid to torture or kill off good people, but the major losses are definitely on the other side of the equation.

As I mentioned above, a lot of the loose ends were tied up in this volume, particularly those that had to do with Salander's family history. One important character that is left open-ended, however, is Salander's twin sister, who presumably is as clever and possibly as amoral as Lisbeth. It's a shame that Larsson died before he could write more books in the series, because it would be interesting to see where he planned to take it from this (relatively peaceful) point.

ETA: I think that Reg Keeland, who translated the books from the Swedish, did a great job. I don't think translators get enough props, given that the words they choose have such a huge impact on the atmosphere of a book.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Sunday, November 7, 2010

TV Review: The Mentalist Season One [2009]

Probable murderer: "You have no legal proof."

The Mentalist: "Legal proof will be found, no doubt. But personally, I don't need it. I just like to know that I'm right."

It has been a while since I've been sucked in to a new show, especially a procedural like The Mentalist, which is similar to several shows out there (Psych and Lie to Me, for example). What makes the difference is the main character, Patrick Jane, who is played with quirky panache by Simon Baker. Jane is a consultant to the CBI (California Bureau of Investigation), which takes cases when local police are unable to make headway. But he is also a former celebrity psychic, a charlatan whose family was murdered by the serial killer, Red John, whom Jane had verbally emasculated on national television. Jane blames himself for the death of his wife and daughter, and keeps himself sane by helping to track down bad guys, all the while hoping for leads to further his private revenge on Red John. He uses keen observation, hypnosis, odd mannerisms, ruses, tricks . . . anything he can to further an investigation, sometimes methods that are beyond the bounds of believability or propriety.

As a consultant, Jane exists in a grey area that the rest of his team members, led by a ferociously professional yet deeply sympathetic Teresa Lisbon (known to me from her work in that excellent movie The Craft), are not allowed to tread. The rest of the team consists of the dour Cho, beefcake Rigsby, and Grace van Pelt, who is a new hire at the start of the series. Yes, they are all beautiful people. Cho is usually the sole person of color in any given episode. What I like most is the banter between the characters, particularly between the whimsical Jane and the eye-rolling (but secretly enjoying herself) Lisbon. I think I might have a thing for deeply flawed yet hilariously clever protagonists (see Lorelei Gilmore), and Patrick Jane definitely fits that description. Yet his veneer of urbane humanity disguises the pain and thirst for revenge that sometimes bubbles to the surface.

Season One (which I watched on DVD, although I had caught some of the episodes during their initial airing) does a good job of introducing the characters, the premise, and the way the unit operates, as well as gradually delving deeper into Jane's traumatic past and obsession with Red John. Some of the episodes are take-them-or-leave-them monsters of the week, but many manage to be both morally grey and touching, such as when Jane explains in a casual way to Lisbon that he will be tearing Red John apart with his own hands when they finally track him down. Such is the character's determination and the depth of his trauma that you believe he will accomplish his goal; in some ways, he can be so cavalier about the rules and regulations of his job because it is only a means to his final end. If allowed to develop, the series will inevitably lead to some confrontation between Jane and Red John in which it will be revealed whether Jane's basic humanity has been permanently compromised, and whether he will throw his life away in the process.

Within the arc of the Red John/Patrick Jane story, other plot lines are teased out, such as Rigsby and van Pelt's attraction (strictly against the rules), van Pelt's knowledge of cars and sports, Cho's criminal youth, and Rigsby's painful past.

Grade: A-

Even without interesting plots and back story, I would still like the show because of it's tendency toward silliness, especially Jane's childlike joy. And the outfits: I really like everyone's clothes.

Agent Lisbon, about Patrick Jane: "Is there a word for uncanny and irritating?"

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review: Fully Involved [2007]

Fully Involved is the first book I've read by Erin Dutton, and overall it was a decent story. Reid Webb is a firefighter who loses Jimmy, her best friend and partner, in a terrible accident and blames herself. Jimmy's sister Isabel Grant, who now has custody of his orphaned son, also blames Reid for encouraging Jimmy to become a firefighter in the first place. To complicate matters further, Reid has had a crush on Isabel since they were both children, and is desperately afraid of betraying her feelings to a woman who apparently a) is straight, b) hates her, and c) has custody of a child that Reid has half-raised, and may choose to move away with him. Isabel struggles with becoming the parent of a depressed, angry child and the restrictions that places on her work time even as she realizes that she feels friendship, and possibly more, for Reid. However, feeling that her brother threw his life away as a firefighter, how could she ever become romantically involved with Reid?

Grade: B-

Random Thoughts:

Fully Involved deals heavily with the nobility of firefighters and the firefighting profession, which isn't really my cup of tea. Why did I pick it up, you ask? Good question. It might have been the flames on the cover. I did appreciate the depth of the story, but occasionally it felt as if it might be a bit too complicated, between all the tragedies and the job changes and the child-raising and the exploration of firefighting as a dangerous but necessary career.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: Beyond the Highland Mist [1999]

Once in a while I just chuck my TBR list and pick up something random at work that catches my eye. In this case it was the audio version of Karen Marie Moning's Beyond the Highland Mist, the first of the Highlander series. I'm a sucker for a good Scottish accent, so I was curious as to how a narrator would handle reading an novel set largely in 16th century Scotland. Phil Gigante (who apparently calls the genre "kilt lifters" instead of "bodice rippers") did a very good job, which means that I have spent the last week slipping into brogue at every opportunity. More than usual, I mean. The plot, however, wasn't really my cup of tea.

The fairy king and his fool are furious that a mere mortal, one Sidheach James Lyon Douglas, Earl of Dalkeith (known as "The Hawk"), has managed give their queen immeasurable carnal pleasure. The Hawk is a legendary lover of women, and the fairies are determined to punish him by marrying him to a completely unwilling partner. Adrienne de Simone escaped a harrowing relationship with a beautiful, treacherous man in New Orleans, only to be transported to 16th century Scotland and forcibly married to the Hawk. He is smitten with her on sight, but she has vowed never to fall for a beautiful man again . . .

Grade: B-

As a general rule, I am not fond of romance novels that contain extended falconry-based metaphors in which the woman is compared to a free-spirited bird who needs to be tamed by a master's hand. I nearly gave up listening when Sidheach actually hooded and bound Adrienne, but I put my eyes back in my head and muddled through somehow. I would describe the book as Outlander Lite, in which the setting of Dalkeith is vibrant and interesting, the romance complicated and the characters fairy well-developed. However, the historical depth--the sense of characters being placed in a larger world that might have a significant impact on their personal and political well-being--is largely absent. There are a few well-drawn supporting characters, but very little sense of community.

Random Thoughts:

The Hawk is rather unbelievable as a character--"this man who liberally dripped honor, valor, compassion, and chivalry"--in addition to being the hottest man in Scotland ("corded muscle," hung like a horse, bronzed skin, etc.), hand-carving all the items for his future children in the nursery that he designed, loving his mother, being good to his tenants, and so on. Luckily his perfection is redeemed (for me, at least) by his determination to view Adrienne as a woman to be claimed and branded as his.

It was sometimes a bit awkward to be listening to the sexy bits of a romance novel being read out loud. And by awkward I mean unintentionally hilarious. If I could run a search on the number of times the word "shaft" was used, it would definitely be in double figures, which would be only slightly more than the number of comparisons between that body part and the same part on a stallion. On the plus side, having someone read names like Sidheach and Aoibheal for me meant that I didn't have to figure it out myself and keep getting drawn out of the narrative trying to pronounce things in my head.

It's not clear if the fairy queen ever actually did sleep with the Hawk, or whether she is just using him to get revenge on her lovers. Another shoe that never really dropped was King James, who used the Hawk cruelly during the years of his service (even assigning him to sleep with a court lady), and who would definitely not approve of the Earl of Dalkeith finding real love with Adrienne. Maybe this is addressed in later books in the series?

ETA: An amusing new review of Outlander. Jamie is rather too perfect as well, now that I think about it.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book Review: Blameless [2010]

The problem with reading something like Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series is that when you finish a book like Blameless and the next one isn't immediately available, you feel bereft. You ask the air around you "where is the next book?" and sniff in a pitiful way. But there is, sadly, nothing to be done about it until next July. WARNING: There are spoilers for the first two books in this review.

Blameless picks up where Changeless left off, with Alexia inexplicably pregnant and estranged from her stubborn, outraged husband, the werewolf Alpha Lord Maccon. Someone also seems to be trying to kill her, and the morally upstanding Queen Victoria has kicked her off the Shadow Council. To make matters worse, Lord Akeldama has disappeared from London altogether, along with his efficient network of beautiful young men. Lady Maccon, with the support of Madame Lefoux and her father's capable ex-butler Floote, proceeds to Italy. There she hopes to find some method of proving herself innocent of adultery with the assistance of the supernatural-loathing Templars. While Professor Lyall attempts to restore Lord Maccon to sense and determine why Britain's vampires are so set on killing Alexia, the lady herself discovers intriguing new information about her preternatural state and the potential capabilities of her unborn child.

Grade: A-

Blameless was a very enjoyable, quick read. I suggest reading it while sipping a delicious cup of tea. As I expected, it was filled with clever turns of phrase and fascinating revelations, such as the fact that pesto is actually an infamous Italian antisupernatural weapon. By this, the third book, the major characters are well-established, and Carriger introduced a few new faces as Alexia traveled through France and Italy. More tidbits about her father's mysterious and colorful past were revealed. However, yet again, there was an almost criminal lack of Lord Akeldama throughout the bulk of the novel, although his scene with Biffy (I don't want to spoil it) near the end of the book was incredibly moving. I eagerly await the next installment!

My reviews of Soulless and Changeless.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sports I Love: Football

It's past time for another entry in this series, and football season is well underway. Unlike some of the other sports I've discussed, football is not one I've ever really played. I am exclusively a TV football watcher and an armchair critiquer, albeit one with the ability to get interested most games, whether or not I have any history of caring about the teams involved (see rooting hierarchy at the bottom of this post).

My family has a football history that I've always felt connected to, even though I am way too young to have known the primary person involved. You see, my grandmother's uncle was Knute Rockne of "win one for the Gipper" fame. His family--my great-grandmother's family--emigrated from Voss, Norway to Chicago, and he ended up coaching at Notre Dame. My grandmother lived in South Bend as well for the entire time that I knew her, and sometimes talked about going to Knute Rockne-related events. I know she was proud of the association, and I have the now-decrepit Notre Dame gear to prove it. My family's trip to Norway for the Rockne Family Reunion in 1994 (I think?) was one of the more memorable events of my childhood.

My earliest memories of football involve watching the Utes with my dad, especially rivalry games with BYU. Usually we would watch on TV, but sometimes we would walk up to the stadium and actually go to a game, which was incredibly exciting for young me. We lived close enough to the U of U campus (dad always walked or biked to work) that I could usually hear the marching band practicing from my bedroom window, especially on quiet nights. At some point before I went to high school, our family's football enthusiasm died off, I'm not sure exactly why. I still cared in an oblique way about the Utes, but I focused my attention on my high school team, attending the occasional game and reveling in our victories over East High. My college team was pretty awful (our swim team was much better), although I did attend games to support my friend in the pep band. We did occasionally manage to beat Kenyon or OWU. I never embraced the fervor for Ohio State football that many of my classmates had been born and bred to. During my graduate school stint at the University of Wisconsin, I embraced Badger football, although I never got to attend a game.

I remember watching the Bears win the Superbowl in the 80s, and being vaguely happy about it. Growing up in Utah, there is pretty much a void in terms of which NFL team you should like. The Broncos are the closest choice, I guess, but Denver is an eight hour drive away. A lot of my classmates liked the Raiders, probably because it was cool, but then Raiders gear was banned from school. After I moved to New England, I started to watch the Patriots whenever I got the chance. My partner disliked football, but the sport eventually won her over during the run up to one of the Superbowls. I do try to catch the Patriots games if at all possible, although I wouldn't call myself a "die-hard" fan. I would like to actually go to a game some time, but I think the stars would have to align for that to happen.

In the meantime, I very much enjoy flipping through the channels on a Saturday or Sunday and rooting for teams using the following hierarchy:

College Football
Definitely root for: Utah, Wisconsin, Iowa, Notre Dame, Kansas
If they're not playing, root for: Anyone in the Big Ten vs. any other conference (above excluded). Determine rooting for within-Big-Ten conference games via complicated formula.
If no Big Ten games, root for: The underdog. Whoever has better uniforms (this excludes the Oregon Ducks automatically).
If none of the above: Change the channel, it's probably not worth trying to watch college football.

Definitely root for: Patriots, Bears
If they're not playing, root for: The Broncos, teams that have former Patriots players that aren't jerks
If none of the above, root for: The underdogs of the Midwest.
If no believable underdogs, root for: A good football game, maybe one with a safety or successful on-side kick.

Meditation Index

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!" [2001]

I picked up this Harlequin romance by Cathy Gillen Thacker for the title alone, make no mistake. It's the last book of a series, The Lockharts of Texas, that I definitely haven't read the rest of, including The Bride Said, "Surprise!", The Bride Said, "Finally!", and The Bride Said, "I Did?" While the punctuation of all four titles is extremely irksome, I feel that The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!" is definitely the "best" of the lot. Apparently the rest of her sisters weren't virgins when they got married, for one thing. Also, VERY IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER, as far as I remember, she never did say "wow" during the course of the book (despite having over two-hundred pages in which to accomplish this feat), and certainly not in the sort of salacious situation that a seasoned romance reader like myself might imagine and hope for. I could be wrong, but I am not reading it again to make sure.

Kelsey Lockhart and Brady Anderson have started a promising ranch business together, but they need more money, fast. In order to get a loan, they get married to prove to the loan officer (a family friend) that their business arrangement is going to be a lasting partnership. The notoriously fickle (and VIRGINAL) Kelsey has a reputation for never following through, and Brady is hiding a mysterious past from everyone. Of course. It has something to do with the guy that keeps coming around and being vaguely threatening. And then Kelsey and Brady end up having sex after several close calls, I forget on which pretense, and fall in love! Brady turns out to be the secret heir to an oil fortune! They get married again, but this time for reals! THE END.

Grade: C-/D+

I probably would have cared more about the characters if I had grown to know and love them in the earlier books in the series, so I am being a little lenient about the lack of introduction. While reading, I remembered yet again why I usually shy away from series romance titles: there inevitably comes a point (not nearly close enough to the end) where I am rolling my eyes and waving the book around and wishing they would GET TOGETHER ALREADY. The obstacles are the type that, given the weak character and plot development up to that point (generally post-sex but pre-"I love you"), stretch the bounds of believability.

I also dislike the gender roles as they are played out in mainstream romance, although this book at least featured an equal business partnership instead of a handsome gajillionaire (which Brady is) falling for his subordinate. Despite her "tomboy" status (referred to several times), Kelsey is unable or unwilling to:
  • Bargain for a good price on horses, despite the fact that she owns a ranch
  • Work a computer
  • Disobey Brady when he orders her into the house
  • Talk to her sister about a broken laptop without his help
My eyes did a lot of rolling, let me tell you. So, in conclusion, don't bother reading The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!", because I've already done the work for you. Just sit back and enjoy the sheer beauty of that title.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes, two for two! So many dead mothers, it's hard to handle!

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    Book Review: Mockingjay [2010]

    The long-anticipated conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay was released with much fanfare and twittering and online salivation. Thanks to my friend, I did not have to wait in the holds list forever to receive my copy, but I admit that it still took me quite a while to get in to the book. I have been having the same trouble writing this review; apparently Mockingjay has some kind of dampening effect on my production.

    Mockingjay picks up shortly after the conclusion of Catching Fire with Peeta a prisoner and Gale, Katniss, and her family living in the restrictive underground bunkers of District 13 after the fiery destruction of District 12 by the Capitol. After Katniss uses her leverage as the Mockingjay to ensure Peeta's safety, the rebels begin a marketing campaign (for lack of a better word) and military offensive to reclaim each district from the Capitol's hold. As they inexorably move toward a final confrontation with President Snow inside the Capitol itself, Katniss struggles with her love for Gale and Peeta and learns to negotiate live as a living symbol of hope for a cause that might not ultimately be trustworthy.

    Grade: B+

    I admit that I couldn't put Mockingjay down, once the narrative picked up, but it did take quite a while for that to happen. The action was sporadic through the first two-thirds of the book, with scenes of life in District 13 interspersed with fast-paced and danger-fraught military encounters. Katniss, for all her good qualities, can be a difficult character to empathize with. I experienced a vague sense of disappointment with the ending, but haven't been able to put my finger on exactly why, or what I would have done differently. Perhaps it was even too . . . hopeful?

    Random Thoughts:

    The touches of Roman influence, especially the gladiator games and the names of the Capitol characters, were intriguing.

    I did end up liking the Hunger Games series quite a lot, especially its social commentary, but I didn't love the Katniss-Gale-Peeta dynamic, which at times felt overwrought and unnecessary. The trilogy tells a story where horrible things happen to basically good people, sometimes for no reason, and it kept that atmosphere consistent throughout the books, right to the bitter end. At times it almost seemed that Collins would opt for the nuclear holocaust version of events, given how many times weapons of mass destruction were referenced, but I guess then she would have lost her first-person narrator.

    Speaking of the end [SPOILER ALERT], I don't believe that Katniss--under any circumstances--would have been all right with subjecting other people to a new Hunger Games. That just didn't sit right with me, considering all that she had been through as a tribute, even if revenge against the Capitol had been a motive--she knows from the example of her prep team that not all Capitol citizens are evil like President Snow, despite their wasteful ways. I'm also not so sure that she would eventually cave and have children, given her absolute resolve against it in Catching Fire.

    My review of Catching Fire here.

    An article about the extreme violence in the Hunger Games.

    An article about the parallels between the trilogy and reality shows.

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes, but not the main character's, so I guess No (someday I should figure out the rules for this stat)

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Book Review: Braggin Rights [2007]

    I have been on a bit of a lesbian fiction jag lately, and that makes it easier to pick out the wheat from the chaff. I am afraid that Kenna White's Braggin Rights was in the Cream of Wheat category: not nearly as tasty as something homemade. It had several elements that made it promising (including one of my favorites, Enforced Bed Rest), but the narrative never quite came together in a believable way.

    Taylor Fleming is a rough-riding cowboy who consistently has trouble with a senile neighbor, Rowdy Holland, stealing her family's cattle. When she confronts Rowdy's daughter about his behavior, she is stunned to find that Jen Holland is the "dream woman" she had met and pissed off at a gay bar the night before. After the women agree that Jen will talk to her father, neither expects that the next time they meet will be when Jen hires on to nurse Taylor through an accident that resulted in two broken legs. Jen needs the money to save her father's farm from foreclosure, but will their initial dislike of each other ever turn to love?

    Yes, yes it will.

    On the plus side, Taylor and Jen are very tame names, by lesbian romance standards. The romance had some nice elements, and the story took a twist that I didn't expect at the end. There were some believable obstacles, which doesn't always happen in romance novels. The main problem I had was that White didn't show enough of the development of their feelings for one another. They got off on the wrong foot, and then it seemed like they were suddenly deeply in love and negotiating cast-bound intimacy. More time was spent, page-wise, on a scene where Jen conquers her fear of horses than was given to, say, them discussing how Taylor was rude to Jen at the bar because she was looking . . . for Jen. Rewriting the book in my head had the effect of completely taking me out of the story. In addition, some of the euphemistic language used was more, um, creative than erotic (my favorite was the repeated use of "chamber"--I'll leave you to guess what body part that described), often destroying the flow of the scene as I recovered from my amusement. I do like Kenna White, and I will no doubt read other books by her, but I don't feel like this was her best effort.

    Grade: C+

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher [2008]

    I have not read much nonfiction in 2010, in contrast to my somewhat regular consumption in 2009, but Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective has been on my TBR list for several years now. When the folks at Unshelved noted that the audio version was narrated by Simon Vance, that was all the incentive I required to put it on my holds list immediately.1

    In a country house in 1860, three-year old Saville Kent was brutally murdered and his body disposed of in a privy, most likely by a member of the household. Suspects in what came to be known as the Road Hill Murder included Saville's father, governess, and siblings. After local police bungled and obstructed the investigation, detective-inspector Jack Whicher was sent from London to work the case, which had gained fervent national interest due to detailed and sensational newspaper accounts. When Whicher identified Saville's sixteen-year old half-sister Constance as the murderer, but was unable to produce anything but circumstantial evidence, his career was seriously jeopardized and the family's privacy was permanently shattered. The solution to the mystery, unraveling in the eye of a scandal-hungry public, took intriguing twists and turns over the course of the next century.

    The book is nonfiction that reads more like fiction. On the surface, it's about a crime committed in Victorian England, but Summerscale uses the murder to tease out the complicated relationships between public and private spaces, between the working and middle classes, between husband and wife and first families and second families, and most importantly to examine the rise of the detective, both historically and in popular literature. Along the way, the reader learns word origins, peculiarities of Victorian behavior, historical tidbits, and a little bit about the religious controversies of the late 1800s. A fascinating read.

    Grade: A-

    Random Thoughts:

    As an ex-Victorianist-in-training, I often had the sensation that I was reading someone's dissertation, particularly because she tied it so strongly to detective and sensation fiction like The Moonstone and Lady Audley's Secret. Therefore, I spent a lot of the book thinking about how much grueling research Summerscale must have conducted in order to generate such a well-nuanced depiction of not only the crime itself, but the overall atmosphere of Victorian society. She uses weather reports, railroad schedules, portraits of the people involved, and other primary sources to set the scene with minute details for each stage of the investigation. One of the reviews described her approach to the material as "fastidious," and that pretty much nails it. The voracity of Victorian appetite for sensation (fed by and resulting in a constant stream of newspaper articles) no doubt gave her an absolute wealth of information from which to generate her story. The overwhelming amount of information about the case also points to a public fascination--on the level of an OJ or similar trial today--with murder and scandal that clearly did not develop as recently as one might have theorized.

    The pros of reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher in print form include the photo pages, as well as voluminous end notes that reveal the scholarly approach behind Summerscale's fiction-esque narrative. The pros of listening to the audio book: Simon Vance. The audio version also has an insert that depicts the floor plan of Road Hill House, which is pretty cool, even though you wouldn't necessarily be scanning it while driving.

    For more about how the book was written, see Bookslut's lengthy interview with Summerscale here.

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes

    1Seriously, I am strongly considering checking the catalog for whatever Simon Vance has narrated and putting it on my list. I know him primarily as the dreamy voice of the Temeraire series, but I am more than willing to listen to him talk to me on just about any subject. Needless to say, I follow him on Twitter.

    Wednesday, September 29, 2010

    Book Review: Uglies [2005]

    In the world of Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, people live in an isolated, self-sustaining cities and routinely undergo surgery to become generically "pretty" when they turn sixteen. Kids between the ages of twelve and sixteen are considered "uglies" because of their disgustingly mismatched developing faces, and spend their time playing pranks to pass time before the operation. Tally Youngblood is nearly caught while infiltrating New Pretty Town to see her (recently prettified, and strangely uninterested in her) best friend when she meets the equally daring Shay. Her new friend shares Tally's birthday, and will therefore turn pretty at the same time, but Shay doesn't seem that interested in her upcoming transformation; instead, she'd rather visit the Rusty Ruins (vestiges of our wasteful, oil-based society) and try to connect with the mysterious David. When Shay disappears rather than undergo the surgery, Tally is forced to turn spy for the sinister entity known as Special Circumstances or remain horrifyingly ugly for the rest of her life. But after she finds out the truth about the operation, the Rusties, and the community of uglies so desperately sought by the Specials, she must make decisions that will impact more than just her own life and Shay's.

    Grade: B

    Random Thoughts:

    It has actually taken me years to finish reading Uglies. I started it shortly after it came out, and gave up in the middle due to its unsympathetic characters. I call this the Wuthering Heights Syndrome, because I dislike every character in that book and would rather have miniature gnomes pound on my eardrums with tiny golden mallets than be forced to read it again. And I am (I swear!) a huge Emily Brontë fan.

    So I took the tack I have been getting great results from lately, where long-overdue TBR books are concerned, and checked out the audio version. Something about the middle of the book almost made me throw up my hands again, but I persevered, and I'm glad that I finished. Given that dystopian1 fiction seems to be a growing trend in young adult literature, it's good to finally have Uglies under my belt.2

    Uglies is the first book in a series, and my library has, as an indication of its popularity, Bogus to Bubbly: An Insider's Guide to the World of Uglies. It contains background on the origin of the series and details about some of the technology.

    Dead Mother: No
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    1On dystopian fiction, particularly from a YA slant, a thought-provoking post by Diana Peterfreund.

    2Looking at this list from LibraryThing, I realize that I've read several, including Feed, the Hunger Games trilogy, and Little Brother; interesting that The Phantom Tollboth is on there, obviously I need to re-read it, but nothing is going to induce me to go back to Watership Down.

    Monday, September 27, 2010

    Book Review: Howl's Moving Castle [1986]

    I am slowly but surely making my way through a theoretical list of books I should have read many years ago, and Howl's Moving Castle was definitely on that list. Reader, I very much enjoyed it! But I am getting ahead of myself.

    Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, and expects (according to well-established fairy tale rules) to live an unadventurous life as a hat shop owner. However, fate intervenes in the form of the nefarious Witch of the Waste, who sees something potentially powerful in Sophie (that she can't quite see herself) and transforms her preemptively into an old woman. Despite being physically ancient, Sophie is incredibly stubborn and resilient, deciding that she will set off to seek her fortune. She ends up working as a housekeeper for the peculiar Wizard Howl, who appears to do nothing but groom his appearance and court women whom he discards as soon as they return his affection. Howl lives with his apprentice, Michael, in a floating castle with doors that lead into several different places (including Wales), powered and maintained by the magic of a cantankerous fire demon, Calcifer. With the Witch of the Waste looming as a formidable opponent (and cast-off lover), Howl does everything he can to avoid responsibility and a potential appointment as Court Wizard, even as he courts one of Sophie's sisters and circumstances threaten to put the little household directly in harm's way.

    Grade: A

    Howl's Moving Castle is a fascinating mix of traditional fairy tale, romance, fantasy, and comedy. The characters and setting are slowly and deliciously developed, and it's totally the kind of story where the dog that you help in the first act comes back to repay you in the third and everything is sorted out tidily.

    Random Thoughts:

    I'm not sure how I feel about the connection between Sophie's world and ours through Howl's doorway into Wales. I suppose creating the connection is a way of making the reader relate more sympathetically to Howl; seeing his family did give his character a necessary depth and humanity. However, it brought up a whole bunch of unanswered questions for me, such as how do people in our world learn how to cross over? Can non-magical people do it? What are the rules of magic in Ingary, anyway? Are they different in our world? And so on.

    I am a sucker for chapter titles that start with things like "In which"--some of my favorites were "In which Howl expresses his feelings with green slime" and "In which there is a great deal of witchcraft."

    I have the movie in my possession, I just haven't gotten around to watching it yet. I will update this post if/when I do.

    ASK THE READERS: Should I read Castle in the Air and/or House of Many Ways?

    Dead Mother: Yes (see above re: fairy tale)
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    Friday, September 24, 2010

    Book Review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson [2010]

    My friend Cassandra was off the squee-meter upon the announcement of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, written collaboratively by bestselling YA fiction authors John Green and David Levithan. I've read both Boy Meets Boy and An Abundance of Katherines, so I had at least a faint idea of what I was getting myself into. The book is divided into alternating sections, each narrated by a character named Will Grayson, whom I have decided to differentiate using their relationship with the fabulously gay Tiny Cooper. Best Friend Will is straight and written by John Green, while Boyfriend Will (however short-lived that relationship may be) is written by David Levithan. In the audiobook, two different actors perform the narration.

    Best Friend Will tries as hard as he can not to care about anything or get involved, but he doesn't always succeed. As the best pal since 5th grade of the giant, gay, football-playing Tiny Cooper, who also happens to be writing, directing, producing, and starring in his own autobiographical musical, Tiny Dancer (later renamed Hold Me Closer), Will winds up doing a lot of things he's not comfortable with, including not only joining the school's GSA, but meeting Jane, who may or may not have a boyfriend. Boyfriend Will is deep in the closet and pretty much hates everyone except his secret online crush, Isaac. His dad left him and his mom on their own when he was younger, and he loathes school and what he feels is the general pointlessness of life. When the two Wills meet accidentally at a porn store in Chicago, their lives become intertwined in interesting and unexpected ways, leading them to reevaluate their similar fears of engagement with the world.

    Grade: B+

    Random Thoughts:

    I listened to the book in the car, and the audio format was both a blessing and a curse. The downside was that the Emo Will Grayson's parts are not only all in lower case in the paper version, they are also conducted a good part of the time as online chat conversations or stage dialogue. Listening to someone read chat transcripts out loud is not actually that fun . . . BUT there was also a big upside, and that was hearing all of the songs from Tiny Cooper's musical (that appear in the book--I am waiting impatiently for someone to come up with a CD) actually being sung out loud. The awesomeness of this cannot be understated. So, as usual, I am forced to recommend both reading the book and listening to the performance.

    I liked the book's concept, even though I am generally wary about collaboratively written books and can't quite say why. I do love Sorcery and Cecilia, so perhaps my protests are mostly for show. The John Green parts were very . . . John Greeny. I'm not complaining, but the vigorously extended Schrödinger's Cat metaphor was a dead giveaway. They definitely did a great job of switching the narrative between the two characters.

    I have a deep fascination with other people named Anna, so I totally get the idea of being startled and interested by someone who happens to have your exact same name. However, the end was a bit too contrived for my taste, what with all the [spoiler alert] Will Grayson variations showing up at Tiny's play at the last minute. I also felt like the book struggled at times to be about the Wills and not about Tiny Cooper, as if, having created such a magnificently flamboyant and compelling character, Green and Levithan were reluctant to cede space to their protagonists.

    Dead Mother: No
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    Thursday, September 23, 2010

    A Meditation on Hair Loss

    To be brutally honest, I adore my own hair. I feel that it is one of my most attractive features. I love it without reservation. Sometimes I have been known to pause while I am driving to work and admire the way it smells nice and sparkles in the sunlight, despite the fact that if I have passengers, this inevitably opens me up to ridicule. I started growing out my hair in eighth grade, largely due to the fact that I was tired of people asking if I was a boy or a girl. It used to be lighter, but under certain circumstances I think it still qualifies as "blonde," (although I may have just removed most of the qualifying parts on Friday). Since then, I have established a hair life cycle that goes like this:

    Grow out hair. Time passes.
    Complain about heat in summer, threaten to cut hair. Fail to cut hair.
    Complain about unruliness of hair, yet admire it at the same time. Keep it restrained, usually in braid form.
    Start talking about donating hair. Drive people around crazy by not going through with it for at least a year.
    Finally cut hair and send it to worthy organization.

    The first time I did this was July, 2006, sending off 12+ inches of hair. My mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and had lost all of her hair after chemotherapy (you can actually see her bald head in the background of the picture below), but I'd actually been thinking about cutting my hair and sending it to a charity for quite a while. The charity I chose was Wigs for Kids, because they provide "hair replacement systems to children under the age of 18 who have lost their hair as a result of medical treatments, health conditions, or burn accidents."

    Me and My Severed Part 

    A lot of people don't realize that it takes hair donations from many people (as many as 30, according to Wigs for Kids) to make one wig for someone who has lost their hair. In addition, though they vary from organization to organization, the requirements for donation are fairly stringent: donated hair must meet a minimum length; cannot be permed, color-treated, or highlighted; and should have less than a certain percentage of grey. If you, or someone you know, fits this description, I strongly encourage you to think about donating your hair. As much as I love my hair, I know it's a renewable resource for me, and that there are plenty of people out there, children and adults, for whom this is not the case. Hair, or the lack of it, contributes a lot to how we view ourselves. Our society is not very good about treating people nicely when we think they might be sick or disabled. We certainly aren't that kind to balding men. But enough preaching, let's get to the before and after photos from last week:

    I felt, after four years of growing (with occasional trims of 1 inch or so to keep it healthy), that it was finally time to donate again. I had them cut off about 10+ inches, and I am donating it to Pantene Beautiful Lengths, which "encourages women and men to grow, cut, and donate their hair to make real hair wigs for women who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments."

    Additional observations:

    My hair is amazingly flippy at this length.
    I have a phantom braid/ponytail that I keep trying to lift out of my shirt when I get dressed or brush aside when I go to the drinking fountain.
    I hardly have enough hair to admire without looking in the mirror. COMMENCE GROWING PROJECT.
    I waited until there would be enough hair left (after cutting 10 inches) to keep putting it up, since that is how I prefer to wear my hair. However, I have nicknamed the resulting effect "Stumpy," because that's what I've got to work with.

    Helpful sites:

    Book Review: Starting from Scratch [2010]

    I put Starting from Scratch on my To-Read list as soon as I knew Georgia Beers had another book out, assuming that it would have a dog in it and it would be set in or around Rochester, and also hoping against hope that it wouldn't involve a couple being on the run from the law. I was right on all three counts! Avery King is a graphic designer who uses baking to relieve stress. She is convinced that she hates children, largely due to the fact that her mother abandoned her at a young age to be raised by her grandmother, but she gamely steps up to coach a friend's tee-ball team. When one of the kids' parents turns out to be longtime crush-from-afar Elena Walker (and also someone with whom Avery has been flirting online), she realizes that she will have to rethink everything about her past and her expectations for the future if she wants to have a real shot at love.

    Grade: B

    Random Thoughts:

    What bothered me about this book was the parts that seemed to be missing. We never had a scene where Avery admitted to Elena that she had had a crush on her for months, and some reciprocal confession on Elena's part. We didn't really have a scene where Avery baked with her grandmother, despite its vital importance to her character. In addition, I kept expecting Avery to chuck her graphic design career and open up a bakery--I think the title is to blame for that. Things like this made me feel that the book was not quite finished and could have used a little more polishing. Then again, I am very picky.

    I do like the cover much more than some of the eye-hemorrhage-inducing and raunchy covers of a lot of lesbian fiction. Kudos to the graphic designer who came up with it.

    I see from the author's blog that she is working on recording the audio version of Starting from Scratch. Good for her! I am pro-audiobook in all scenarios (yes, even Ann Coulter scenarios), and I have a feeling that the number of lesbian romances available in audio form is sadly minuscule.

    I also couldn't help thinking about Averil's Atonement while I was reading, specifically the part where Averil bakes the cake . . .

    I enjoy any book that advocates cooking things from scratch! It's not that hard, people, and it doesn't take much more time than opening that devil box from the store!

    Dead Mother: No
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    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    Book Review: Victory of Eagles [2008]

    [SPOILER ALERT--Don't read this if you want to remain innocent about events in the previous books in the series, particularly Empire of Ivory]

    Victory of Eagles, the fifth book in the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, finds our heroes in dire straits indeed, with Laurence convicted of treason and Temeraire exiled to a boring existence at the breeding grounds in Wales as they wait for Laurence's death sentence to be carried out. And, as a special bonus, Napoleon has finally managed to invade England and occupy London, scattering the British forces and moving far more quickly than anyone anticipates. Despite their treasonous past, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves deeply involved in the organized resistance, struggling to save a nation that does not believe in their right to freedom.

    This book is the first in which Novik has given us narrative blocks from Temeraire's perspective, which is something that I missed (retroactively) in the first four books , since his voice is so distinctive and interesting. In addition, it is a relief to have the perspective of the sometimes comical self-organizing dragon militia, campaigning for equal pay, to offset Laurence's depression as he comes to realize that his actions have caused death and destruction; may result in Napoleon's permanent control of the British Isles; and have completely severed him from his comrades, his family, and the country he loves. All that he has left is Temeraire, and the continuing desire to Do The Right Thing, despite sometimes devastating consequences.

    Grade: B

    Random Thoughts:

    Perhaps it was the bleak subject matter, but I found this installment very sad and draining. It is hard not to miss the camaraderie and unity between dragons and crews of the aerial corps and feel that the uncharted territory (in this case, Australia) of future volumes is a bit daunting.

    I did not listen to this on audiobook because the audio version didn't make it through interlibrary loan before I ran out of patience and hunkered down to read it on paper. I miss you, Simon Vance!

    Dead Mother: No
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    Book Review: Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging [1999]

    Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison, is the first in a series of ten books about Georgia Nicolson, who is fourteen and obsessed with two things: her looks and boys. When her best friend Jas develops a crush on a local grocery clerk, Georgia finds herself falling for his dreamy older brother, "sex god" Robbie. Obstacles to Georgia uniting with Robbie and living a decent life include her uncomprehending parents, the fact that she shaved off her eyebrows, the way that boys always say "see you later" without indicating what it means, a best friend who can be cruelly unsympathetic, the fact that Robbie thinks she hates him, the fact that one feels one must have kissing lessons in order to learn how to do it properly, and the way that her cat Angus (a Scottish wildcat) is always terrorizing the poodle next door.

    I found the book entertaining and eye-rolling at the same time. Many of the vignettes are quite amusing, but I never quite found the sympathy for Georgia as a character that I felt I was supposed to have. While listening to Georgia's trials and tribulations, I realized something frightening: I sympathized much more with her parents than I did with her. I'm not sure whether it's because I never had a boy-crazy, makeup-wearing, obsess about looks phase, or whether I am suddenly mature and unsympathetic. I do hope that it's the former. Reading this book did, however, make me feel pangs of sympathy for teenage girls everywhere.

    Grade: B

    Random Thoughts:

    The way that Georgia convinced Jas to break up with Tom was oddly Pride and Prejudice-y, which would make her Darcy, which would be . . . very odd. The book also reminded me of a British version of The Princess Diaries, what with the diary format and the breathless pace of narration. I think that Mia is a bit more socially conscious than Georgia, however, whether that is realistic or not.

    I really enjoyed Georgia's relationship with her three-year-old sister; it seemed to be the time that she was most human and unguarded.

    I listened to the audiobook version, which made it easier to get into Georgia's world (and accompanying British slang) with the help of the narrator's delicious accent. However, the audio format doesn't let itself very well to a diary format with lots of short breaks.

    ETA: I haven't seen the movie (renamed Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging), should I?

    Dead Mother: No
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