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.