Friday, October 29, 2010

Barefoot in Baghdad

by Manal M. Omar
Naperville, Ill. : Sourcebooks, c2010.

*This book was received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

Manal Omar is a Palestinian-American, a Muslim and a woman. When she was given the opportunity to work in Baghdad for an agency dedicated to providing women with training to allow them to be more financially independent and put their war-torn lives together, she felt uniquely qualified to do the job. Omar's story focuses primarily on her thoughts, feelings, interactions, and a few "outside" cases working for Women for Women International, a non-governmental agency (NGO) starting a branch in Iraq in 2003. As she spends time in Iraq, she finds herself attempting to negotiate between distinct worlds, and making compromises she never expected.

The memoir could have used more stringent editing, as there was some repetition of thought (even within the same paragraph), some awkward sentences, and sometimes minimal connection between the chapter headings and content. Despite this, Omar presents a broad spectrum of women in Iraq, from the elite and well-off to the poorer women she was drawn to help. She is up front with her political leanings, and stubborn to a fault about certain things. I sometimes wished that she would include facts or statistics to back up some of her broader, opinionated claims. Since I was expecting a story about her work for the international aid organization, I was surprised at the tight focus on Omar herself. I did not learn much about her regular work; instead, she focuses on interactions she has with staff, friends, and U.S. military in Iraq, as well as detailing a few of the cases considered outside the purview of her position. Towards the end of the memoir, however, I realized that this is more a reflection of her time in Iraq and the memories that haunt her rather than an enumeration of success stories.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Shape of Water

by Andrea Camillieri
New York : Viking, 2002 (published in Italy in 1994).

Two garbage collectors find a dead politician in a car parked on the notorious Pasture, the local place where people go to find a prostitute. Signor Lubarello died of a heart attack, but the situation surrounding his death suggests to Inspector Montalbano that all is not as it appears. He convinces the judge to let him continue his investigation, even though the death is apparently natural and all Montalbano has to go on is a hunch.

I never would have heard of this Italian police procedural if it hadn't been for Richardderus's recommendation based on my enjoyment of the Three Pines series. I don't read a lot of mysteries; I like them cozy, and I'm picky about it. Well, the Inspector Montalbano series is rougher around the edges than a cozy without going quite so far as the characters in The Maltese Falcon (I despised them, with no exceptions). Montalbano's informants are seedy people but trustworthy in their own fashion. Montalbano himself is not a saint, though he lives by his own code of ethics. Politics are dirty, allegiances are complicated, and it can be a little difficult to follow when you're as completely unfamiliar with Italian police and politics as I am. Even so, I was surprised that the seediness of some people and places didn't bother me more. Interactions between characters are believable and often humorous. The plot is fast-paced, keeping me reading late into the night to get just that much closer to the end, and intrigued me enough to want to continue the series.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Speak; or, Better Late than Never

by Laurie Halse Anderson
New York : Speak, 2009, c1999.

Over the summer, something happened to Melinda. Her friends won't talk to her because she called the cops during a party. Her grades are slipping; art is alright, but she's failing almost every other subject. Her parents are barely there, and when they're present, they're arguing. She doesn't talk more than she has to. Will Melinda be crushed, or be able to speak?

It's always a challenge to read a book that has so much buzz, expectation, both positive and negative comments surrounding it. Plus, Speak has been around long enough that I've meant to read it for years and I already knew what happened to Melinda. When I started reading, I was a little afraid that the book couldn't live up to my expectations or that knowing the crux of the plot would ruin its impact, but Melinda's voice pulled me in. I cared about her, I wanted to help her, but could only sit back and read and hope her character's change and growth meant that she could be healed.

**Spoiler Discussion** One of the reasons I checked it out from the library when I did was all the publicity surrounding the recent challenge by someone who called the rape scene "soft porn." So I read it with that in mind, too, and frankly I find that characterization ridiculous. The scene was one of the least-descriptive I've ever read, much more about the emotion of the character than any details, either grisly or titillating. (Not that I've read many - I'm comparing it with Just Listen and a rape scene in a book by Bodie Thoene, a Christian author who had much more detail included, though it was an adult book.) This is the type of book that, if I had gone through some of the same issues as Melinda, I would have wanted to read as a teen to see that I was not alone. Over ten years after its printing, Speak is still powerful, relevant, and a book I highly recommend.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


by Ingrid Law
New York, N.Y., U.S.A. : Burlington, MA : Puffin ; Walden Media, 2010, c2008.

The Beaumont family is special. They each have a savvy - kind of like a knack for something, though in a big way, like Fish's ability to conjure up storms when water's nearby - that generally comes to them on their thirteenth birthday party. Mibs is about to turn thirteen, and she can't wait to find out what her savvy is. Then her father gets in a car accident, her mother and brother Rocket go to the hospital in Salina, and her birthday appears to be ruined. Running away from her unwanted birthday party at the church, Mibs ducks into a bus that has Salina written on it, figuring she'll make her way to the hospital to her father to help him with her new savvy. But a few extra passengers and a travel detour derail her plans.

In some ways, this story reminded me of tall tales. Everyone has a certain knack for something or a quirkiness to them, but in the Beaumont family, it's just one step beyond - yet not quite far enough to make the story a fantasy. Mibs is an engaging narrator, with every inventive adjective, alliteration and internal rhyme adding to the storytelling sound of the book. She was a fun heroine to cheer for as she came to know herself and, through her savvy, her family and new-found friends, Bobbi and Will. I'm just a teensy bit disappointed that the next book in the series, Scumble, is about her cousin.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


by Elizabeth Gaskell
Winnetka, CA : Norilana Books, 2008.

A young visitor recounts her adventures with some of the older ladies - primarily spinsters and widows - of Cranford as they live their lives in a charming small town.

My idea of Elizabeth Gaskell's writings was completely different from reality. I had read a couple of short stories as an English major, confused them, and had this image of Gaskell as the John Steinbeck of the Victorian Era. I overcame some reluctance to even add Cranford to my TBR list. And am I glad I did! This book is a delightful, episodic tale of a small town and its inhabitants. The narrator often stays with Miss Matty while visiting the town, so many of the events involve this lady in some way or another. As I think about the book, I'm realizing that very little actually happens by way of plot, but the characters are by turns sweet, funny, and quirky. The story gives a picture of small town life in general as well as the class distinctions of its time period in an amusing, rather than depressing, way. Cranford has definitely convinced me to try more by this author.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Unusual Suspects

by Michael Buckley
Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2006.

Series: The Sisters Grimm, Book 2

Sisters Sabrina and Daphne Grimm have been living with their grandmother for three weeks. In that time, they fought off a giant, learned the secret of Ferryport Landing, and have been researching how to free their parents by consulting the vast number of fairy tales collected by their families. Yes, they are descendants of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, and now they have to begin the most annoying mission of all: going to school.

As in the first book, the prologue takes an exciting moment of the climax, suddenly stopping to start the story from the beginning until that portion of the story makes sense and it is repeated nearly word for word - only now we understand its significance. The series is a fun blend of fantasy and mystery, with some odd characters thrown in for good measure. The girls' social worker really gets me, though, she's downright abusive at times and her entire discussion with the grandmother about school seemed forced and not actually legal, I think. A bit extreme. But once the story got going, and I started meeting some of the new fantasy characters - it's always fun trying to recognize old characters with a new spin on them - I really enjoyed the story and the humor. In the end, I liked it even better than the first book, and I'm looking forward to starting The Problem Child soon.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Eagle of the Ninth

by Rosemary Sutcliff
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993 (originally published in 1954).

Thirty years previous the Ninth Hispana, a legion in the Roman army in Britain in the 2nd century AD, went to the north country and disappeared. Now, Marcus Aquila, a Cohort Centurion, requests Britain as his first assignment because his father was among that legion and he would like the opportunity to solve the mystery of their disappearance. Perhaps he can even recover the Eagle, the symbol of the legion and the lack of which has meant the Ninth never reformed. But an injury leaves Marcus with little choice but to leave the legion, unsure that his purpose in coming can ever be fulfilled.

I've said before that I tend to be more analytical with stories that I'm not fully immersed in. Well, with this book I was analyzing throughout, but as I think about it more, I wonder if it's like the chicken and the egg problem - what came first, my analyzing keeping me from getting thoroughly immersed or my lack of immersion causing me to keep my interest by analysis? You see, I went into this book ripe for analyzing on so many fronts: What makes Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction so compelling to her fans? Will her influence on future authors like Megan Whalen Turner be apparent? How will the ring show up? Why is this classified as children's literature? After reading, I don't know the answers to all these questions, but they were what I was wondering as I read. This historical fiction is the first in a series, and set in a time I was unfamiliar with - the Roman occupation of Britain around 130 AD. Sutcliff's writing is full of rich descriptions and slowly unfolds her plot. The dialog between characters seemed a little stilted to me, and I wasn't sure if it was because she was trying to suit the time period with a touch of old-fashioned speech or because of the time she was writing in (1950s - and there was a reference to "making love" in the old-fashioned sense that made me laugh). Because of descriptive writing and lack of a fast-paced beginning, the age of the characters, and the exploration of what motivates Marcus to look for the Eagle, I am still shaking my head over its characterization as a children's book. I have a hard time coming up with a young audience for this book (not that this would be the first time that I'm wrong). Though there is no language or sex or even much violence to put parents off, I would more likely recommend it to teens or adults that enjoy historical fiction with a rich sense of place.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

by Allison Hoover Bartlett
New York : Riverhead Books, 2009.

The world of rare books can be a strange place to those not given to collecting or interested in books-as-objects rather than holders of information. In fact, it's quite an impressive business and has the thievery rate to show for it. When a friend showed her an old book that was apparently stolen from a library some time ago, Allison Hoover Bartlett was intrigued enough to look into the rare book business, collecting, and stealing. In particular, she heard about one thief, John Gilkey, who stole quite a bit to keep for his own personal use rather than to resell, and the man who worked as security chair for the ABAA, Ken Sanders.

Much of the information comes from Gilkey himself, as well as Ken Sanders and other book dealers. Bartlett also enters the narrative, as she describes her reaction to some of Gilkey's comments, her experience going to a rare books fair, and ethical dilemmas she wrestles with as a reporter. Though I found much of the beginning ruminations on collecting repetitive, and wished the narrative covered more details of the psychology behind the desire to obtain rare books or other collections, this is a nonfiction book that reads quickly and one I would recommend to anyone who would like a glimpse of the rare book trade.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mrs. Mike

by Benedict and Nancy Freedman
New York: Berkley Books, 2002 (original copyright 1947).

In the early 1900s, sixteen-year-old Katherine Mary moves to Canada to live with her uncle, hoping that the air will help her pleurisy. She meets Sergeant Mike Flannigan, a Mountie. He makes her mad with her teasing, but as she confides in her new friend, Mildred, "he has eyes so blue you could swim in them." When they marry, duty calls him to the North, where there are few white women and being a Mountie isn't so much being a policeman as it is peacemaker and doctor.

This was a sweet, sad, but hopeful tale. I enjoyed Kathy and Mike and their growing relationship as the years pass and they go through various experiences in their married lives. Having just read The Egypt Game and The Summer of My German Soldier, I couldn't help but notice how this book from the 1940s dealt with race. "Mrs. Mike" lives in a territory where there are primarily trappers and Indian women, and her opinions include historically accurate generalizations, such as when she wonders about introducing strikes to the Indian women, but concludes that they're "savages and wouldn't understand." Yet the portrayal of some of the individual characters, especially when compared to some of their white counterparts, give a much more nuanced picture. Though Kathy's spoken opinions never say as much, one can see a difference in the way she responds to characters in given situations as she continues to live and work with Indians and half-Indians. This is a story I would definitely read again, and I'm going to look for the sequels as well.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Summer of My German Soldier

by Bette Greene
New York: Dial Press, 1974.

Patty Bergen is a twelve-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Jenkinsville, Arkansas during World War 2, the summer that German POWs are imprisoned right outside of town. She's a lonely girl who tries to be good so her parents will love her, but nothing she does seems to turn out right. Then, several POWs come to her father's store, and she begins a friendship with one of them, a young man named Anton Reiker who speaks English and isn't really a Nazi at all.

I'm not really sure what I expected when I picked this book up, but I found the story surprising in many ways. The book was originally published in 1973, and I couldn't help but compare the way race was dealt with in this story versus The Egypt Game, which was published in the 1960s. Patty's family is described as not having a lot of money, but Patty and her sister Sharon are looked after by a black woman, Rose, who lives in "Nigger Bottoms." I'm fairly sure that the use of the word "nigger" in this example and others was historically accurate, but I still found it jarring when I came across it. On the other hand, the people Patty loves most are Rose and Anton, a fact that's clearly not socially acceptable in the 1940s when the story is set. I was also surprised by the presence of child abuse, an issue I did not expect to see addressed in a children's book of its era. The age difference between Patty and Anton was a little shocking, and I dearly wanted an "Author's Note" at the end to explain whether or not some of the events could have (or did) happen, but no such luck. When I first started reading, I wasn't exactly taken by the story, but it grew on my as Patty herself, narrating the story started to grow on me too.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Bury Your Dead

by Louise Penny
New York : Minotaur Books, 2010.

This is the sixth book in the Three Pines / Inspector Gamache series and necessarily has spoilers for previous books. Here are my reviews for the previous books in the series: Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, A Rule Against Murder, and The Brutal Telling.

Inspector Gamache is taking a leave of absence from the Surete, after an incident that scars him, both physically and emotionally. He is the old city of Quebec, spending time with his old mentor and browsing the shelves of the Literary and Historical Society, a library that keeps a collection of English historical materials. When a man fixated on Samuel de Champlain is killed in the basement of the "Lit and His," Gamache helps the local police with their investigation. Meanwhile, he has daily received letters from Gabri, friendly, but insistent that Olivier did not kill the hermit.

My sister has this habit of keeping books so she can read them over - not usually the whole thing, but portions here and there, reading the beginning, or a favorite chapter, or the ending over again. Now that I've finished Bury Your Dead, I understand a little better why she would do that. The story lines - the historical and current mystery Gamache works on, Beauvoir's story, and the revelation of just what happened to cause Gamache to take a leave of absence - are expertly intertwined and perfectly paced. I experienced a range of emotions following these characters, coming the closest I have in years to crying over a book. I want to start all over again to tease out the details and start to understand the chronology of some events that are given out piecemeal, in an order dictated by what I need to know about the characters and their choices rather than a time frame. An incredibly satisfying read that will stay with me a long time, Bury Your Dead is, in my opinion, the best of this series so far.