Monday, April 27, 2009

Category 2, Book 8: New-to-me Authors - Erica Bauermeister

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Category: New-to-me Authors

Lillian, now the owner of a restaurant, knows the magic of food. She discovered it for herself as a child, and now she shares it with her cooking classes, "The School of Essential Ingredients." The Prologue sets of the story like so: "Lillian knew that whatever their reasons for coming, at some moment in the course of the class each one's eyes would widen with joy or tears or resolution -- it always happened. The timing and reason would be different for each, and that's where the fascination lay. No two spices work the same" (3).

The story hinges on description and character, as we follow the course of the class and see each character's "moment" through his or her point of view. The descriptions are sometimes awkward but never boring or cliched. The tastes and smells of the kitchen are lovingly rendered. The characters are unique, and I enjoyed their back stories and internal growth. Like the food described, the story has a light flavor that doesn't bole you over with plot but asks you to savor and enjoy. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 4, Book 5: Nonfiction - Mountains Beyond Mountains

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
999 Challenge Category: Nonfiction

Dr. Paul Farmer devotes much of his life to caring for the poor in Haiti, where diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS run rampant, made much worse by the abject poverty in which many Haitians live. Dr. Farmer is an absolutely driven man who keeps a crazy schedule, constantly advocates for his patrients, and expects a lot of himself and others. His story is both challenging and inspiring.

I read this for a community group read in my hometown. Kidder takes a very personal approach in writing this story, even showing up as a "character" from time to time. As a result, he emphasizes Dr. Farmer's personal approach to medicine and shows Dr. Farmer in a very human light. I thought it was neat that he loved The Lord of the Rings, and especially liked the story about how, as a preteen, he asked a librarian to find another story "just like this one." Fantasy didn't work, but War and Peace did (I can only wonder how she came up with that - did she make a connection between the stories, or was she just frustrated?). 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Category 9, Book 4: Lost Book Club - A Brief History of Time

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Category: Lost Book Club

The theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and the search for a unified theory of the universe are the subjects of this mind-boggling explication of physics (I found I could read about 5 pages at a time without my brain hurting). Perhaps I was even more at a disadvantage for never having taken physics, though I did feel a little better when an engineer friend of mine told me that quantum mechanics is covered in Physics 3. Even so, it's ultimately a rewarding learning experience investigating the universe as we know it. I'm interested in learning more, and daresay I'll understand more in whichever book I choose next for having persevered in this one. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 9, Book 3: Lost Book Club - Walden Two

Walden Two by B.F. Skinner
Category: Lost Book Club

A behavioral psychologist imagines a utopia based on principles of positive reinforcement and training peopl eto act in a way that benefits the community. Professor Burris narrates for us when he and some friends visit his old colleague Frazier, the founder of Walden Two. Each character is on varying levels of acceptance, as Frazier expounds on his Utopia; Castle, in particular, remains a determined skeptic, while Burris finds himself mediating between Castle and Frazier.

I was rather disappointed by this book. It was a fictional way of promoting Skinner's ideas, and there's no story outside of that, only Frazier promoting while Castle digs his heels in further. I remain unconvinced that it could work, and found myself getting annoyed that ultimately Frazier's reasoning was, "Well, you see it working before you" as he led his charges around Walden Two, when I don't know of any such successful community. Also, Skinner is a strict behaviorist and doesn't give much credence to the "nature" or genetic side of psychology. 3 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 7, Book 4: Recommendations - Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
999 Challenge Category: Recommended Reads

Amara, ready for her graduation exercise as a Cursor, travels disguised as a slave, hoping to confirm rumors of a renegade legion. Tavi is an orphan with no fury in a land where furycrafting (using a being called a "fury" to communicate, heal, fight, etc.) is as common as breathing, but when he makes a discovery when trying to recover his sheep, the safety of his people suddenly rests on his shoulders.

A character-rich, in-depth world is introduced in this first book of the Codex Alera series. There's a lot of political maneuvering, and the point of view changes (primarily between Amara and Tavi) mean that the reader knows more than the individual characters. After about sixty pages, the pace quickly builds and never lets up. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 1, Book 5: Award Winners - Chains

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
999 Challenge Category: Award Winners and Honors (National Book Award Finalist, 2008)

The year is 1776. Isabel's owner, Miss Finch, has died. She left a will freeing Isabel and her sister Ruth, but Miss Finch's nephew is in a hurry and the lawyer is in Boston -- unreachable given the current unrest. He sells the girls to a couple who live in New York. Upon arrival in her new home, Isabel meets Curzon, a fellow slave and Patriot who claims they can contact the lawyer if she'll spy for his side.

The narrative weaves a convincing tale in which even the side of liberty is not all that interested in the plight of slaves. Each chapter is titled by the dates it covers (which could be a day or nearly two months), followed by a quote from historical writing -- a letter, a journal entry -- that also highlights the exploration of liberty and justice in the Revolutionary War. I look forward to the sequel. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 3, Book 6: Books about Books - Letters to Alice

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon
999 Challenge Category: Books about Books

Well, I heard about this from some other LibraryThing readers and could hardly pass up the chance to read something about Jane Austen! This is about an aunt who (much like Jane Austen before her) corresponds with a niece interested in writing novels. The niece, Alice, is a fictional girl of green-and-black colored hair who can't imagine why Jane Austen would be considered relevant today.

The blend of fiction and literary criticism threw me for a loop at first. The first few letters talk about Jane Austen's life and times, then move on to talk about each of her novels in turn; all are peppered with advice about reading, writing, and listening (or not) to critics. In fact, this struck me as much more about the writing itself than about Jane Austen in particular. At times witty, and other times confusing, sometimes I agreed and at others I wholeheartedly disagreed. But that, as I'm sure "Aunt Fay" would agree, is one of the joys of visiting the "City of Invention" that is made of books. 3.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 2, Book 7: New-to-me Authors - Kathryn Stockett

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
999 Challenge Category: New-to-me authors

Aibileen is a black woman working for Elizabeth Leefolt taking care of Mae Mobley. Minny is Mrs. Walters' maid, constantly at odds with her employer's daughter for speaking her mind. And Eugenia Phelan (more commonly known as "Skeeter") is an educated white woman who didn't really think about "the help" too much until her own family's maid disappeared. These women at first appear disparate, but find that they are alike where it truly counts.

This historical fiction set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 is surprisingly hopeful in tone, even while depicting tragic and horrific events in history. The narrative voices of Aibilieen, Minny and Skeeter tell us most of the story, each with a distinctive voice and point of view, and the characters feel very real. An emotional but overall uplifting read. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Playing Catchup

Please forgive me. I didn't have Internet access for a couple of weeks, so as a result over the next two days, I'll be posting, um, all the books I read for my 999 challenge in the month of April. I'll also be redundantly recapping the month at the end of this week, because if I didn't the list at the end of May would be too long.

Graphic Novel #4 - Watchmen by Alan Moore

Watchmen by Alan Moore
999 Challenge Category: Graphic Novels (uncounted because I decided to count series together)

What if there once had been masked vigilantes, humans inspired by superhero comics, roaming the streets of New York City to keep the world safe? In this dystopian vision of just such a world, such activism has been outlawed since 1977 and most of those who participated have retired. But then one of them is murdered, and no one knows why or if the killer will strike again.

I'm glad to be able to say I've read this title, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It was gritty and violent and depressing and just not the kind of story I like. It's a complex story that I read much slower than I expected to, and very well-crafted. Recommended for fans of dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, maybe even hard-boiled mystery fans who want to read something a little different. Just not my cup of tea. 2 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Category 2, Book 6: New-to-me authors - Elizabeth Bear

Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear
999 Challenge Category: New-to-me authors

Matthew is a magician in New York City, a member of the Prometheans, who works to protect humans from the Fae that would steal them into their world as changelings. Elaine is a human bound to the Faerie world by the Mebd, one of the Queens of Faerie, and by her loyalty to her son, Ian. She is also the Seeker, one who prowls shadows looking for Fae children. A collision of their worlds seems inevitable, and as players are drawn into events beyond their control the morality of either side becomes ambiguous.

This urban fantasy is a bit different from my normal fare -- darker, more sensual than the fantasy I usually choose to read. I kept going because I wanted to see what would happen to Elaine and the other characters, if their fates were truly predetermined or if they could choose a different outcome. Bear throws readers into her alternate universe and leaves them to discover along with her characters (a knowledge of Arthurian legend and the ballad of Tam Lin would be especially helpful, but I got along alright knowing only basics). I'm interested in seeing where the series heads from here. 4 stars.

Cross-posted at the 999 Challenge.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Book Review: First Among Sequels

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

It's been fourteen years since the end of Something Rotten, and SpecOps has been disbanded. Thursday is now working for Acme Carpets (at least, that's her story), and Friday is a slothful sixteen-year-old that has shown no interest in joining the ChronoGuard, which rather unnerves his parents as he was supposed to join 3 years ago. Will his reluctance spell the end of time as we know it?

Once again, another fun, unpredictable story about Thursday Next and the BookWorld. One difference from the others seemed to be that there was no one book that was referenced throughout (or if there was, I missed the reference). These are hard books to describe or put in a box, so suffice it to say that I enjoyed it as much as the others, especially the parts about the stupidity surplus. This doesn't fit at all in my 999 Challenge Categories, but it's the 40th book I've read this year. 4.5 stars.