Friday, December 30, 2011

White Cat

by Holly Black
New York : Margaret K. McElderry Books, c2010.

One morning, Cassel Sharpe wakes up on the roof of his dorm. His classmates and teachers think he wants to kill himself, but Cassel knows that it's just the sleepwalking that plagued him as a kid coming back. But how can he convince the school of that when his family is a group of powerful curse-workers?

The story is set in a sort of alternate universe, where much of our history has happened, but there have also been "workers" who can work magic by touching you - doing such things as altering emotions or memory. In the U.S., this is outlawed and many workers, including Cassel's family, have turned to crime instead. This creates a really interesting scenario that the author plays with in creating the "alternate" parts of history and the way in which society would work as a result, for example, with the crime families and a society that wears gloves. Cassel narrates in present tense, and is a truly conflicted character. He is the non-worker in a family of workers, not out of choice but because he doesn't have the ability, and feels left out as a result. I could empathize with his struggle to do the right thing while still loving his family, but in some ways his way of thinking was very foreign to me. The book reads really fast - I read it in an evening - and I recommend it to fans of teen fantasy looking for an interesting twist.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


by Carl Hiaasen
narrated by Chad Lowe
[New York] : Listening Library, c2002.

Roy, the new kid at Coconut Grove, Florida, has unfortunately attracted the notice of the local bully, Dana Matherson. When Dana is strangling him on the school bus, Roy has a good look out the window and sees a boy, running barefoot. Intrigued, he makes it his goal to find out about the running boy. Meanwhile, Curly, the foreman at a Mother Paula's pancake construction site, has been having difficulty with starting construction due to some creative vandalism.

To really tell you the meat of the story, I'm afraid I'd have to give away about the first half of it, so I'm going to leave my summary at that. I will add merely that one of the themes is the environment, and Roy's struggle of whether he should get involved in protesting - and how. His parents tell him that, when his heart and his head are telling him two different things, he needs to do his best to reconcile it and decide what actions to take. Not overtly preachy, though how much you enjoy the book will definitely be affected by your own take on environmental matters.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Parnassus on Wheels

by Christopher Morley
Garden City, New York : Doubleday, Page & Co., 1917.

Miss Helen McGill lives with her brother, Andrew, on a farm. She is eminently practical and hardworking while he, an author, is prone to let farm work go in lieu of rambles in the countryside - food for his writing. So when a traveling salesman with a "Parnassus" - a wagon full to bursting with books - comes selling his wagon and pony, Miss McGill decides she'll buy it herself rather than let Andrew take off again.

This is such a cute, humorous story. Miss McGill reminds me quite a lot of Marilla Cuthbert, if the latter had a literary brother instead of one who wanted to take in an orphan. Though written in 1917 (and set in 1907), the characters' thoughts on reading and good books will still ring true for today's readers. The course of the plot never really surprised me, but it was such a warm story that I couldn't help enjoying it. The perfect comfort read for curling up on a cool evening with a cup of cocoa.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Exiled Queen

by Cinda Williams Chima
New York : DisneyHyperion, 2010.

**Spoilers for the first in the series, The Demon King.

Han and Raisa's story continues where The Demon King left off. Han and Dancer are on their way to the wizard academy; Raisa travels to Oden's Ford as well to the soldier's school with Amon Byrne and his Gray Wolves. Between the Bayars and civil war in Arden, their journeys are fraught with peril before they even arrive.

Usually I like to give myself a small break between the books in a series so that I don't get too sick of a story, but the end of The Demon King left me really wanting the next installment. Unfortunately, that lack of a break left me chafing whenever there was explanation or reminder of what had gone on before. I was most interested in learning what happens at the schools, and felt that much of the time spent traveling drags a bit, where the first book was more evenly paced. I like Han, Raisa, and Amon a lot, and look forward to seeing how their story unfolds in The Gray Wolf Throne. But now that I know there are going to be four books in the series, I'm planning on spacing it out so I have just enough time to give the series a break of a couple of months, while still being able to remember the story line.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Bit of Christmas Reading

Do you read any books specifically for the holiday season?

If so, do you have favorites you return to, or do you have favorite rereads you return to?

I thought I'd share a bit about my holiday reading. I celebrate Christmas, and enjoy reading a book or two in the month of December specifically about the Christmas season.

Every year - at least for the past five, and perhaps longer - I have read and reread Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It's become a sentimental favorite. There was one year that, besides reading it, I also watched just about every movie version I could get my hands on (including Muppet Christmas Carol and An American Christmas Carol).

But I also like to read something new. This year, I read The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is a really cute collection I enjoyed paging through. I could have read it in one sitting, but I spread it out a bit over two days. The stories of Father Christmas and the hapless Polar Bear are often funny, complete with reproductions of Tolkien's illustrations. While I probably wouldn't read it from beginning to end for myself, it would make a fun family read-aloud around Christmastime.

So now that I've answered the questions I've put to myself, here's a final one for you:

What have you or will you read for the holiday season?

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Hundred Penny Box

by Sharon Bell Mathis
illus. by Leo and Diane Dillon
New York : Puffin Books, 1986.

Michael's great-aunt Dew is one hundred years old, and has a box in which she keeps pennies - one for every year of her life. Michael's mother wants to get rid of it, but Michael realizes the importance of the memories that make Aunt Dew the special woman she is.

This is more of a short story than a picture book. It is 47 pages long, and heavier on text than illustration. The illustrations are sepia-toned and quite striking; I kept thinking this sort of story would have been perfect during my early elementary years, that transition between books with pictures on every page and chapter books with almost none at all. Though it is short, this is a well-told story with characters that you really sympathize with. Even Michael's mother, Ruth, though she wants to discard the box, has taken her husband's aunt in and wants what is best for her, even if she and Michael - and Aunt Dew herself - don't agree on what "best" is. A realistic portrayal of a close family and a woman growing older and less independent.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2)

by Tamora Pierce
New York : Random House, c2009.

Sequel to Terrier.

Rebakah (Beka) Cooper is back in her second adventure. In her journal, she records the events of her day as a Dog on the police force in Tortall. Lately, coles - silver coins with brass hidden in the middle - have been showing up in the Lower City. Beka and her partners' hunt for the colemongers take them outside of their normal stomping grounds to Port Caynn, where they meet a new group of people and a new Rogue, Pearl Skinner, who doesn't have the brains or the finesse of Rosto.

If you enjoyed Terrier, the first book in the Beka Cooper series, be sure to continue with Bloodhound, which uses the same diary format and fast-paced plotting to continue Beka's story now that she is a full-fledged Dog. As with other Tamora Pierce books, I didn't agree with some of the main character's choices in her personal life, and as with Terrier, I found the journal entries sometimes confused things (in this case, by having the dates out of sequence so that the story itself is told chronologically). I think the fact that I took two weeks to read a book I would normally read in about three days had something to do with the fact that I didn't quite like Bloodhound as much as the first in the series.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Haiti After the Earthquake

by Dr. Paul Farmer
narrated by Eric Conger and others
[United States] : Highbridge Company, 2011.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I 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.*

I've been eying this book on the library new bookshelf for awhile. Paul Farmer, as well as his work for Partners in Health, was the subject of Tracy Kidder's book Mountains Beyond Mountains, and the earthquake had a personal connection in its effect on my aunt's process of adopting a Haitian orphan. But the book was too long to read in two weeks, so when it was offered through the Early Reviewers program I was really excited to receive this audio copy.

In this book, Paul Farmer - now UN Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti under former president Bill Clinton - details his experiences in the first year after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. The majority of the book, 8 CDs in the audio version, is his point of view, but includes copious quotes from colleagues and friends affected as well. Dr. Farmer's involvement was more on a political level than anything else, so while he does include some stories of individuals affected by the quake, he focuses much of his narrative on "building back better," and the political policies that he believes will affect change in Haiti. I did not find this as personally interesting, nor did I agree entirely with his underlying assumption that the public sector is the best way to provide certain services.

Dr. Farmer's text is read not by Meryl Streep as the packaging would suggest, but Eric Conger, who does a good job of keeping the narration flowing and making it clear when he is quoting someone else. Since this was a full-cast audio, I half expected quotes from other people to be delivered by other voices, but this is not the case. Instead, each essay at the end - written by various people including Edwidge Danticat, Nancy Dorsinville, Timothy T. Schwartz, and Dr. Farmer's wife Didi - are read by the cast. I particularly liked the narration by the Haitian authors themselves: Edwidge Danticat reading her essay made me want to read her fiction. Because these three narrators' renditions were slower, I found it hard to follow entirely on audio and supplemented by reading the book at the same time. But I loved the individuality and nuance it brought to their essays, and loved being able to hear the Haitian Creole phrases and sentences the way they should sound (for the record, it sounds similar to French, but I wouldn't have guessed that from the spelling). While in some ways this book wasn't what I expected, I am glad I read it, and I will pass it on to my aunt who, I think, will appreciate it even more than I did.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Son of Neptune

by Rick Riordan
New York : Disney*Hyperion Books, 2011.

**Spoiler alert for the first book in the series, The Lost Hero.**

As we found out in The Lost Hero, Percy Jackson has been missing for eight months, in an exchange for the Roman demigod, Jason Grace. Now, we follow Percy's adventures in the Roman camp as he tries to defeat Gaea's forces.

It's been a long time since I read The Lost Hero and the original Percy Jackson series, so I was sometimes a little slow to recognize references to past books and returning characters. But the narration and dialog is as hilarious and sarcastic as ever, and I really enjoyed following Percy and his new Roman friends, Hazel and Frank. There are a lot of references to both Greek and Roman mythology, and their differences, but the fun in the books is primarily the over-the-top adventure and humor.

I actually read this towards the end of the blackout after the October snowstorm - my house had power, but one of my libraries was still out, so I had two days off to read this quickly. Also due to the storm, my sister around to help me remember the references and looked up every so often to ask, "What are you laughing at now?" It was fun to share the read with her, since she had just finished the book recently, too.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Spying Girls Don't Do Normal

I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You
by Ally Carter
New York : Hyperion Paperbacks, 2007 (orig. pub. 2006).

**some spoilers follow**

Cammie goes to the Gallagher Academy, which everyone thinks is a snobby prep school. In reality, it's a spy school. Besides normal classes, Cammie and her friends Bex and Liz learn several different languages, disguise, and how to avoid a tail. Then, she goes out on a school project and meets a cute boy - and her friends decide to make him their extracurricular activity. Is he trying to infiltrate their school, or just a normal guy? Commence background checks, stakeouts, and laughs!

This is the first book of the Gallagher Girls series, which I've been meaning to read for awhile. The plot moves right along, while Cammie throws in some one liners about her school and her life (I am still waiting to learn how to kill a man with a piece of uncooked spaghetti). Other than Cammie, who is narrating, the characters fell a little flat. Liz is a stereotypical nerd. Macey had some potential as the bad girl who's out of the loop in spy school, but there was more of a sudden switch in her behavior rather than any development. Josh seems a little contradictory to me, and I got the idea that Cammie liked the idea of being a normal girl than him specifically. Still, the idea of her having to hide her identity and school from him makes for a unique situation that I think teens can still identify with, as many feel that they are hiding their true selves from others. A story with a lot of potential; I will certainly read the next book in the series.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On Authors I Said I'd Never Read

by Stephen King
New York: Scribner, 2011.

Once upon a time, I claimed that I would never read a book by Stephen King (except, maybe, his nonfiction). I have a strong aversion to having the pants scared off of me, and I have a weak enough stomach that I make my brother warn me when to avert my eyes for PG-13 movies. But one day I was minding my own business at work, reading reviews, and I happened to come along one for 11/22/63.

The premise intrigued me: Jake, a divorced guy with no kids, a high school teacher in 2011, gets a call from a buddy, who shows him a "rabbit hole" into September, 1958. His friend, who is dying and can't go back in time any longer, convinces Jake that he could change the past by preventing JFK's assassination.

Well, I thought. Time travel and history, that I can do. Then the book came in (much sooner than I expected) from the library, all 860+ pages of it. Which, of course, meant that I had to put everything aside and read it sooner rather than later, since - this being a Stephen King novel, after all - there are over 100 holds on the book in my library system. So, I jumped right in, and before I knew it I was absolutely lost in Jake's story and his trip into the past. I was more interested in some parts than others, which is only to be expected in a book this long.. The descriptions were evocative: I could really picture the dingy apartments where Jake stays, and the streets of Dallas and Derry. I can't say I always agreed with Jake's choices or point of view, but I really cared about him and other characters he meets. I didn't know much about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Kennedy's assassination, but I really want to learn more now.

My lesson is learned. I will "never say never again." I was really impressed with this story, my first foray into Stephen King's work, and (dare I say it?) not my last.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

F in Exams - A in Humor!

F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers
by Richard Benson
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2011.

Looking for something quick and light before the end-of-semester or other seasonal craziness? This book is sure to put a smile on your face, collecting the "best totally wrong test answers," as the subtitle advertises.

The layout is well thought out. The chapters are organized by subject, such as Chemistry, Math, and English. Each page has two questions and answers; the answers are in different handwriting fonts and different colors. Sometimes the humor was more evident if you actually knew the correct answer, but it's not always necessary. The answers are goofy, logical, or smart-alecky, but I was laughing out loud for the 30 minutes or so it took me to page through this book.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Treasure Island

by Robert Louis Stevenson
illustrated by N.C. Wyeth
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939 (orig. copyright 1911).

Young Jim Hawkins finds adventure when a "gentleman of fortune" stays at his father's inn, and the old pirate's compatriots come looking for him -- and a treasure map!

Treasure Island is the quintessential adventure tale: a daring hero, a treasure, and dastardly pirates. I had a few false starts trying to read it as a kid, but I drowned in the antiquated language due to a book that's a hundred years old set in the 1700s. But when I was without power for several days after the October Nor'easter, it was the perfect book to take me far and away from my circumstances. Partly because I knew much of the storyline (mostly, I admit, through watching Muppet Treasure Island as a kid), partly because Jim is clearly narrating events that happened before, there was never any doubt that our English heroes would make it through unscathed, but this true blue adventure tale is certainly entertaining.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Re-reading With Audiobooks

One of my favorite choices for audiobooks to read on my commute are rereads of books I've enjoyed. Since I know the story, if I miss something because I'm driving or thinking or woolgathering, it's not a big deal. Also, I can really tune into what a narrator brings to the story because I don't have to focus as much on the plot.

All this is leading up to say that I've really enjoyed listening/re-reading the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny, read by Ralph Cosham. The latest I've completed is A Rule Against Murder, which I originally read last year.

A narrator, I think, can really make or break the audiobook. They may have a different interpretation of the characters and their voices, or what word to emphasize. Ralph Cosham, in my opinion, does a truly excellent job. Most of the voices are spot on; only one, Gabri's, is really dissonant with my imagination. Some of the funny moments are even funnier because of Cosham's reading. His narration truly adds to my experience "reading" the books.

Can I recommend a book twice? I will in this case, once for the books and again for the audiobooks. I'm trying to spread them out, but I'm sure over the next few months I'll be revisiting A Brutal Telling in the same way.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


by Cynthia Voigt
New York : Atheneum, 1985.

In a medievalesque village, times are hard and rumors are flying of unrest in the south. The Lords have all the wealth and are a law unto themselves, while most people are scrambling to pay their taxes and comforting each other with tales of Jackaroo, the masked man outside the law who helps the people, if the Lords won't. Gwyn, the Innkeeper's daughter, is better off than most and doesn't believe the old tales. But she's struggling to determine who she is, as she's nearly past marrying age and has precious few options if she chooses to remain single.

I read this story at least twice as a teen. I hadn't read much fantasy beyond the classics, such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, and I really loved it then, not really picking up on the tropes that the story includes - Lords and people, medieval setting, stew and ale get the picture. It's not a bad story, but it's very traditional fantasy that starts a bit slowly and almost reads like historical fiction because of the focus on politics and finances. When I was a teen, I focused on the adventure and Robin Hood-like character of Jackaroo, but on this reread it actually took much longer than I remembered to get to the more exciting elements. A few scenes stood out in my mind, but the details were fuzzy, so I enjoyed revisiting the story. I've passed on my copy - the library discard, the same copy I read as a teen - on to my sister to see if she enjoys it as much as I did at that age.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Something Out There: Stories

by Nadine Gordimer
New York : Viking Press, c1984.

This collection of nine short stories and one novella (the title story) published in 1984 is my introduction to acclaimed author Nadine Gordimer. When I first went to the library to get one of her stories, I didn't know much aside from the fact that she was a South African author. I left the library with a couple of choices, and decided to pick this one up mainly because I was in the mood for reading something short before I went to bed instead of beginning a novel.

So far, inauspicious beginnings and (possibly) strange choice as an introduction to Gordimer's works. The first story was "A City of the Dead, a City of the Living," and I was gripped. She intersperses one of the character's thoughts, almost like a journal, between several paragraphs with a third-person omniscient narrator. It didn't take me long to figure out which characters thoughts i was reading, and this added to the tension. This was probably my favorite story of the collection, and I am truly in awe of Nadine Gordimer's way with words and ability to write a short story. Her stories are sometimes depressing, but always striking, and she never wastes a word. "Letter from His Father" was the most over my head. It is a "reply" to Franz Kafka from his father, Hermann. Because I have never read Kafka's "Letter to My Father," I missed much of the nuance, though I could appreciate some of its cleverness.

The only real disappointment in the collection was the novella, "Something Out There." I'm blaming myself for this, at least in part, because I know so little of the politics and history of South Africa, and I'm almost certain that I would have appreciated the points she was making, had I been more familiar with South Africa in the late 70s and early 80s. Instead, while I sometimes caught some of what she was saying, I never could quite bring the themes of the story into focus. Overall, this was a very positive reading experience, which included a couple of trips to the dictionary ("shebeen" and "analemma") and just a tad of research on apartheid. I loved Gordimer's writing style. In fact, I was thrilled to find that the day I returned this book to the library, they had July's People in their booksale, so now I'm prepared when I'm ready to tackle one of Gordimer's novels.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Winter's Here -- Already?

Winter has started, apparently, even though the date says that autumn has barely begun.

Here is the news on the Historic October Snowstorm that I just drove through after work today. There's only a couple of inches, but it's heavy and wet, so I drove s-l-o-w-l-y.

Apparently this isn't even the earliest the northeast United States has been hit with snow. It depends on how you measure it, but according to one article I found, the earliest heavy snowfall in Worcester was 7 1/2 inches on October 10-11, 1979, and the Berkshires were hit with snow on October 5, 1987.

At least I'm at home with my books now! If you've been wondering about the lack of posts lately, it's not that I haven't been reading, just that the books I've chosen lately have not been fast reads. I'm still whittling away at North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, a 500-page classic that I started in September and had to reread the beginning to remember what was going on. I have finished a couple of books, though, so check back in a couple of days or so to see new reviews!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

by Elizabeth von Arnim
London : Virago, 1985 (orig. published 1898).

From what I gather, this book is a sort of fictionalized memoir or memoir-like novel. Told in diary form from May to April, Elizabeth writes of her garden in the country, her husband (the Man of Wrath), her children (the April, May, and June babies), and other observations of her life in Germany, making sometimes acute and witty observations of both people and circumstances.

I was first introduced to Elizabeth von Arnim when I read The Enchanted April in 2009. I found the tale warm and the characters endearing, and determined to read more of her works. I've been following through on that determination ever-so-slowly, but Elizabeth and Her German Garden has rejuvenated that resolution. Every one of her books that I have read (Vera is the other) have been very different from each other, though in both The Enchanted April and Elizabeth and Her German Garden, I most enjoyed her wit and humor. Elizabeth clearly lives as a well-to-do woman, with gardeners to do most of the work for her, and much leisure time, but she also discusses the political state of women in her time. I read a bit slower than usual because I had a hard time with the language of the day - long sentences with multiple semicolons make for slow going. But then a sentence or phrase would stand out for how beautifully she captures a description or sentiment. Though The Enchanted April is still my favorite of her works to date, this book stands as a close second.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Al Capone Does My Shirts

by Gennifer Choldenko
narrated by Kirby Heyborne
New York: Listening Library, 2009.

Moose Flanagan's father got a job at Alcatraz prison, so he and his parents and his sister, Natalie, have moved to the island from their home in San Francisco. With such a small group of people, including a small number of kids, living on the island Moose isn't sure about anything - making friends, playing ball. He and the warden's daughter, Piper, have to take the ferry in to school, and Piper has a grand plan involving the notorious gangster, Al Capone, who was in the prison in 1935.

I'm not sure why exactly - maybe it was the title, or the cover, or how I'd heard the book described - but I had the idea that this would be a much lighter, humorous book. Instead, what I found was a sometimes funny historical fiction about a boy and his family. Moose is the narrator, and how I saw the other characters, especially Piper and Natalie, was really colored by his interpretation. At the beginning, I thought Piper was a manipulative little chit, but either she grew as a character or on me, because I grew to like her despite her shenanigans. The historical research is clear in the strength of the story and setting, and the author's note bears this out - there is a note on Alcatraz that includes quotes from people who lived on the island (generally people who worked for the prison and their families), and a note on Natalie. Natalie's condition is never named in the story, though I read her as autistic, and the author's note bears that out. I found that her family's dynamics and challenges rang true, and I liked how clear it was that they all love her in their own way, even if they become frustrated at times.

Friday, October 14, 2011


by Brian Selznick
New York : Scholastic, 2011.

In 1977, Ben Wilson has lived with his cousins since his mother passed away. He has a small collection of things in a box, and finds a book, Wonderstruck, that teaches his about the beginnings of museums. In 1927, Rose Kincaid can see New York City from her window, and has big dreams.

The two stories - Ben's in words and Rose's in pictures - interconnect and intertwine creatively. Selznick shows his fascination with cinema and museums in the historic times he portrays. His illustrations have intricate shading and add a fun twist to the story he's telling. I could tell where the story was going earlier than, perhaps, the book's intended audience would, but I enjoyed seeing it come together.

I recommend it to fans of Selznick's first book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which honestly came to mind before I read the acknowledgments, so when he talked about it then, I felt extremely smart!).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern
New York: Doubleday, 2011.

This is one of those books that is difficult enough to describe while you're reading it, but even harder to do so without spoilers when it's finished. But I'll try, in any case. One day, Hector Bowen - better known by his stage name, Prospero the Magician - comes back from a show to see that his daughter, Celia, is left to him since her mother committed suicide. He has little interest in his child, until he discovers that she has a propensity for magic. Not illusion, but real magic, the ability to affect the world around her. He decides to teach her, and when his friend, a nameless man in a grey suit, comes calling, they decide to play another round in their game: Celia Bowen will be pitted against another, a protegee of the grey suit man's choosing, in a venue as yet to be determined. Interspersed with this story are glimpses of a mysterious circus that pops in and out of town without warning, that opens at dusk and closes at dawn.

Would it be too cliche to call this book magical? The various threads of the story, which is not told entirely chronologically, spin a fantastic web of a fully realized world. I really enjoyed the fully-rounded characters, and found myself wishing I could sit in on a Midnight Dinner. The details of the circus are wonderfully evocative; I wanted to go there and taste the caramel and chocolate mice and cocoa, to see the various acts and tents. Because what this story has most of all is atmosphere. I entirely forgive the almost leisurely pacing of the plot, because sitting for any length of time really getting sunk into the story was a truly incredible, enthralling experience. This is definitely a story I would read again, and I wager I would come away with a different understanding each time.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee
New York : Warner Books, [1982], c1960.

If you haven't read the book (or seen the movie) by now, there's not much else I can say to convince you. Do it. Then come back, and we'll talk.

It's been years since the last time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and I decided that, between my hometown reading it as a group read and Banned Books Week, it was time for a reread. (Well, at least I started it during Banned Books Week). This is the third or fourth time I've read this book. The first was when I was in middle school. I read it for school, and I remember my surprise as I followed Scout through every plot revelation. The next was listening to the audiobook while on vacation, enjoying a new experience of a well-loved story. This time, knowing the plot practically by heart, I could notice details and social commentary that I had entirely missed before.

***spoilers to follow***

I was much more attuned to the comments by adults that by and large went over Scout's head. This is partly because I know the story so well, but also because I know much more about American history and how African Americans were treated in this country (north and south) during this time period that I did the last time I read the story. I noticed the hypocrisy of adults who had a patronizing attitude towards African "savages" and wanted a better life for them, yet thought their help was getting uppity as a result of trial. And here's what really floored me: Atticus isn't entirely free from the societal dictates of his time. During the trial in cross-examination, he calls members of a white family Mr. Ewell and Miss Mayella. He calls his defendant, a black man, by his first name, and in conversation refers to Tom Robinson as "boy." It bothered me, even knowing that of course these characters were products of their time, and people really did talk and think that way. I could see how some teachers might be leery of using this book in classroom, though I think that it brings up a lot of food for thought and discussion on extremely important issues that are part of our history and should not be ignored.

On a less drastic note, I had also entirely missed that the meat of the story is set in 1935; I had always pictured the 1960s in my head (no wonder Aunt Alexandra couldn't stand Scout in explains so much!). I love that every time I've read the book, I've discovered something new. While not a perfect book, it is one of my sentimental favorites, and I certainly plan on rereading it again.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Heart of a Samurai

by Margi Preus
narrated by James Yaegashi
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, p2011, c2010.

Manjiro is just a humble fisherman from a small village in Japan. One day, a storm sends the vessel on which he works and his companions out to sea. They manage to wash up on an island, but in the 1840s, Japan is a closed country, and no one can come in - including Japanese fishermen who have washed up away from home. Will he ever return to his country?

I found this historical fiction about the first known Japanese person to come to the United States absolutely fascinating. You can't help but cheer for Manjiro as he learns to navigate a new way of life, a new language, and the prejudices of his new country. Though I listened to the book and enjoyed the narration, I highly recommend checking out the paper copy for the illustrations, some of which are copies of Manjiro's own drawings.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Wyrd Sisters

by Terry Pratchett
New York : HarperTorch, 2001 (orig. pub. 1988).

When the King of Lancre is killed by the Duke, and the King's heir is taken away, the three witches - Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, and Magrat Garlick - find themselves reluctantly pulled into affairs of the Kingdom. Their cardinal rule, "Never get involved," is going to be severely tested.

If you've read any Discworld books, you know the general idea of what to expect: over-the-top silliness, but a point in that humor that makes you think about something perhaps more than a Serious Novel can. What I've read, I've read entirely out of order - this one is book six in the series at a whole (the earliest book I've read to date), and book two in the mini-series about the witches (I've already read book 6). One thing I've really enjoyed about the witches series are the - sometimes extremely strong - nods to Shakespeare. In this one, it was mostly Macbeth, though there were some definite references to other plays, and at least one sonnet. The character of Hwel and most of what we see him write cracked me up. I really enjoyed this foray into Discworld, and might just try to read some more in order...

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Day the World Came to Town

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland
by Jim DeFede
New York : Regan Books, 2002.

I haven't read any books that deal with 9/11. Though the events were ten years ago, they seem closer than that to me, and have shaped much of my adult life. I wanted to somehow commemorate the tenth anniversary of September 11, but I was afraid to read something that might turn dark and dismal. This story of townspeople reaching out to people whose planes were forced to land when U.S. airspace was shut down would be just the thing - true, yet uplifting. Still, especially in the beginning, when various people - pilots, air traffic controllers, the mayor of Gander - hear about or watch the planes fly into the towers, my heart starts pounding and my muscles tense. I find myself curling up tight in my chair, breathless. I didn't expect such a visceral response, or to feel instantly transported to the confusion and fear of that day, only my second week of college classes, the first class an English class from 9:30-11:15, our professor never breathing a word (did he not know?). And I remember how strange was the absence of the noise of airplanes, then the recurrence of them overhead.

There were 6,132 passengers, plus pilots and crews, on the flights diverted to Gander, Newfoundland. The townspeople could have put up a few shelters, called in the Red Cross, and called it a day. Instead, DeFede tells the stories of ordinary and extraordinary kindnesses - people giving their own towels to shelters, opening their homes, offering rides, and filling prescriptions free of charge. The stories of 6,000+ people could not fit in one book, but the stories of several are told here, often switching back and forth quickly between people keeping events in roughly chronological order through the several days Gander and the surrounding towns embraced their unexpected guests. Their stories made me laugh and cry in turn. I can't promise that I'll read any other books about 9/11, but I'm certainly not disappointed I read this one.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Long, Long Sleep

by Anna Sheehan
Somerville, Mass. : Candlewick Press, 2011.

Rosalinda Samantha Fitzroy wakes up from stasis to find a boy with his lips on hers. Okay, it's not exactly like Sleeping Beauty because stasis froze her body, and he thought she wasn't breathing. But she's been asleep for over sixty years: her parents are dead, her world has changed, and she is the heiress to an interplanetary company, UniCorp. She has to learn to cope with this world as well as learn what has happened in her absence.

I picked this book up entirely because of the cover. It's mostly white, with a roses and thorns in shades of pink, on the front, back, and even the spine. Very eye-catching and attractive, even when it's on a shelf amongst other books, and it led me to believe this would be a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. It's not. Instead, this is Rose's story of coping after waking, and we find out bits and pieces of what happened to her before, and what's changed in the world. In the beginning, it confused me to keep threads of the story straight, as Rose's past and present are my world's future. Other times, like Rose's history class in school, information about what happened after she was put in stasis seemed to be a bit of an information dump. But Rose is a compelling character, and the mystery surrounding her circumstances is a compelling one. Though the story ends satisfactorily, it leaves some possibility open for a sequel, and I do hope that's the case.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Penny from Heaven

by Jennifer L. Holm
narrated by Amber Sealey
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2006.

Penny's real name is Barbara, but she's always been called Penny after the song lyric, "pennies from heaven." She lives with her mother and grandparents; her father is dead, but on his side of the family is a large, loving Italian American extended family complete with grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The summer she is eleven-going-on-twelve is in the 1950s, and Penny gets a chance to work at her uncle's butcher shop.

I found Penny to be a really likable heroine, and her story is charming. Amber Sealey is an excellent narrator, not only capturing Penny's voice, but also managing a bunch of Italian-accented English that still sounded like individual characters (though not having any Italian relatives, I couldn't tell you how accurate the accent was!). Penny's interactions with her various family members are realistic, and easily relatable. Though this is technically historical fiction, it's based at least partly on the author's own experience growing up, and the history is more of a fact of her life - such as her grandfather's experience in the war - rather than a lesson. A really enjoyable read that I highly recommend.

Monday, September 26, 2011


by Veronica Roth
New York : Katherine Tegen Books, 2011.

In a future society, the five factions - Abnegation, Dauntless, Candor, Amity, and Erudite - have ended war. At the age of sixteen, each of their children is given an aptitude test for the traits that the factions most prize, and choose which faction they wish to join. Beatrice has grown up in Abnegation, but her aptitude test is inconclusive. She is Divergent - a rare person who could choose equally between a few factions. Sound good? The woman giving her the test says it's dangerous, but won't explain why. Beatrice's choice of a faction may be more far-reaching than she can imagine.

Wow, what an adrenaline ride! I started reading this book late last night, intending to only read a little before going to bed. Two hundred pages later, at nearly midnight, I went to bed only to pick up the book again first thing this morning. Beatrice, or Tris, as she renames herself, is a compelling, complex character. She narrates her story as she discovers that the original good intentions, such as the end of war, selflessness, courage, and intelligence, have been manipulated and becomes warped by a capacity for evil that humans can never entirely eradicate. The story ends well - a few loose ends, but no cliff-hangers - but even after 482 pages, I was left wanting more.

Friday, September 23, 2011

On the Wings of Heroes

by Richard Peck
narrated by Lincoln Hoppe
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2007.

Davy Bowman can divide his life into two parts: before the war, and during. During World War 2, he and his family are affected by rations, drives for materials such as paper and metal, and by Davy's brother Bill going off to fly B-17's.

Something about Richard Peck's writing fit perfectly with an audio format. Though the subject of war makes this story a bit more sober in tone than others I've read (like A Year Down Yonder and Here Lies the Librarian, his trademark humor and focus on small-town life with quirky characters still shines through. Lincoln Hoppe was an excellent reader, sounding like he was smiling through most of the story, if not about to laugh during the funnier parts. Whether you like humor, historical fiction, or just a good old-fashioned story, I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Whose Body?

by Dorothy L. Sayers
New York : Harper, c1923.

Lord Peter Wimsey loves a thumping good mystery. When a body shows up in a vicar's bath tub, his mother the Dowager Duchess - who can never quite admit that her second son is an amateur detective - asks him to help discover its identity. Then his friend Parker turns up with a second mystery: Reuben Levy is missing. The body is certainly not Levy, but the two men decide to help each other in their investigations.

I didn't know quite what to expect of Lord Peter, since my only other introduction to his sleuthing was in a collection of short stories. In some ways, I was a little surprised that this was the first book in the series - we're not really introduced to people, such as Parker, as if this was the first time we have encountered them. Instead, we're thrown in to Lord Peter's discussion with his mother, told that he's dabbled in detecting before, and even given references to past cases. There are intriguing hints of the past that I hope are explored further as the series goes on. Lord Peter was really quite funny, and I generally enjoyed this tale, even though I figured out who and just a bit of how the murder was done before he did. I was a bit bothered by the antisemitism inherent in some comments regarding Reuben Levy. This was generally confined to the beginning of the book when we're told he has a good character, while "despite..." is implied. The particular copy from my local library was, I think, a 1923 first edition which was a little nerve-wracking (I was a little afraid it would fall apart in my hands, as the spine was damaged and had been repaired at least once), but neat.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night

by Joyce Sidman
illustrated by Rick Allen
Boston [Mass.] : Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2010.

The look of this Newbery-Honor winning book is deceptively simple. It is the size of a picture book. Instead of a linear story, however, the text is made up of poems tracing the course of night from dusk to dawn by focusing on varying aspects such as nocturnal animals, trees, and the moon. Each poem is on the left-hand side of the page, with a small illustration; a larger illustration fills most of the opposite page. On the far right of the illustration, in smaller font that could easily be ignored when reading to a younger or restless audience, is a short paragraph filled with fascinating tidbits about the subject of the poem.

I confess I was so focused on the text - poetry and nonfiction - that I glossed over the illustrations at first. Then, I read about the process on the title page, which made me take a second look. The method used is relief printing, a process in which a drawing is transferred to wood which is then carved, covered in ink, and printed onto paper. In order to create colorful prints as are in this book, this process of carving, inking, and printing must be done multiple times in multiple colors - and aligned perfectly. Think that sounds like a lot of work? Read on: "The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks (and in some instances as many as six) and then hand-colored with strongly pigmented watercolor called gouache." Wow. And I had thought of them as fairly simple! I had to page through again, this time in awe of the amount of work it took to create each illustration. This is a truly lovingly crafted book of poetry, nonfiction, and illustration.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I Shall Not Hate

by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish
New York : Walker & Co., 2011.

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I 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.*

Dr. Abuelaish is a Palestinian infertility doctor who worked in an Israeli hospital. Through hard work and education, he has come a long way from his poverty-stricken childhood in a refugee camp in Gaza. When Israelis attacked the Gaza strip in 2009, a tank shot rounds into his daughters' bedroom, killing three of his daughters and a niece, and gravely injuring more family members. But as Dr. Abuelaish insists, he will not take revenge; instead, he hopes that this will pave the way to true peace, built on mutual respect and understanding of similarities between Palestinians and Israelis.

It's impossible not to have respect for this man, who lost three children, yet continues to hold tight to the belief that there can be a better way, that good comes from bad, and that there can be peace if people would come together and begin a dialogue. I was a little more mixed in my reaction to his book, primarily because I know so little of the history of the conflict that I was reluctant to take Dr. Abuelaish's interpretation as the absolute truth without hearing an alternate point of view. His wording is sometimes stilted or repetitive, but this was a much smaller quibble in the face of a passionate cry for change. His description of the events that changed his life and his family's lives forever was absolutely heartbreaking. I admire him for continuing to campaign for peace in the face of personal tragedy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Love That Dog

by Sharon Creech
New York: Scholastic, 2003 (orig. published in 2001).

Jack doesn't want to write poems, because that's girl stuff. But as he continues writing in his English journal over the course of the school year, he records his reactions to what he's learning, talks to his teacher, and - yes - even writes a poem or two.

Despite Jack's protestations, the whole novel is in verse and took me less than an hour to read. It's a fairly simple story that incorporates both famous poetry and the story of Jack's dog. The poems read by Jack's teacher that he reacts to in his writing are included in the back, making it easy to use this as an introduction to poetry for elementary school kids. Overall, it strikes me as a book that would tend to appeal more to adults than children.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pictures of Hollis Woods

by Patricia Reilly Giff
narrated by Hope Davis
New York : Random House Listening Library, p2003.

Hollis Woods is a foster child, and she's been billed as trouble. Ever since the past summer, she's run away from homes when she gets tired of being there. She's given a new chance, however, when she goes to live with an older woman named Josie, who connects with Hollis through their artistic ability. In between the chapters narrating "The Time with Josie," Hollis slowly explains what happened that caused her to start running.

Because of the similarity in plot - an independent heroine in search of a place to belong - I couldn't help but compare and contrast Hollis' story to The Great Gilly Hopkins. But after awhile, I stopped the mental comparison. Hollis has a different personality and different desires from Gilly. Even though she's "trouble" because of her running, Hollis shows kindness in her unwillingness to leave Josie alone when it becomes clear that the older woman has become more than normally forgetful. She does want a family, but she makes one where she is instead of trying to recreate the past. I really enjoyed this story, and I cheered for Hollis all the way.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In the Teeth of the Evidence

by Dorothy Sayers
New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company [c1940]

I admit, I have never read a Lord Peter Wimsey novel. But since I have heard about them so much on LibraryThing lately, when I saw this collection of short stories on the library sale's "fill a bag for a dollar" day, I thought it would be worth a try.

The first two stories involve Wimsey. Having, as I said, not read any of the rest, I couldn't tell you where they fit into the chronology of the novels. Even with this lack of knowledge, I didn't find them hard to follow. Mostly, I enjoyed the humor and am even more curious to see how her mysteries are fleshed out in a longer story. The rest of the short stories in this collection are mostly mysteries; one is a creepy, almost Gothic sort of story. In some ways they remind me of O. Henry stories, having a similar plot arc, but with different characters and circumstances, each with an unexpected revelation or twist. I enjoyed trying to guess where she was going with the stories and was nearly equally delighted when I'd figured it out as when I was surprised. Though it may have been an unconventional introduction to Sayers, In the Teeth of the Evidence made me impatient to try her Lord Peter Wimsey stories.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

St. Paul's Cathedral in Wartime, 1939-1945

by W.R. Mathews

When I went to England this summer, one of the highlights of the trip was St. Paul's Cathedral.

It's just a beautiful place with a long history, designed by Christopher Wren and built after the "Old St. Paul's" burned in the Fire of London in 1666. To me, one of the most amazing parts of its history was how it withstood World War 2 and the bombing of London by the Luftwaffe, and the people who volunteered as the Fire Watch to keep it from being destroyed. So, when I came back, I was determined to read up more on this history.

I first heard of this account when I read the introduction to the short story "Fire Watch" by Connie Willis. By far my favorite of the short stories in the collection by the same name, "Fire Watch" compelled me to add this nonfiction account to my TBR list. But this is a tough little cookie to track down - I was able to get it on interlibrary loan from not my local system, not my state system, but across the country. This is a short book and an interesting account. The Watch slept in the crypt, sometimes participated in lectures, and learned the many confusing ways in which to get around the church and into the dome in the event of a fire or bombing. Mathews, the former Dean of St. Paul's celebrates their dedication and patriotism, , and his account often has the folksy sort of tone of a small-town history. I found it all the more charming since I have seen the church, have been in awe of its sheer size, and am very grateful for those volunteers who made it possible for me to visit.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

In the Time of the Butterflies

Once four sisters - Patria, Dedé, Minerva, and Mate - lived in the Dominican Republic. They grew up during the rule of Trujillo, a ruthless dictator. Each of them became involved with revolutionaries seeking to end his regime. At the beginning of their story, we meet the living sister, Dedé, and soon learn that the other three have been murdered by Trujillo. The narration, however, is made up of all four sisters' points of view, to show their lives, their motivations, and especially their hearts.

This is an incredible piece of historical fiction that absolutely floored me. As I got towards the end, I didn't want to finish the story - I had grown to care so much about the four women that I didn't want them to be dead. Alvarez, whose family fled to the United States to escape Trujillo's rule when she was ten, has crafted a truly powerful story that will stay with me for a long time.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Trick of the Light

by Louise Penny
New York : Minotaur Boooks, 2011.

The day is finally here: Clara Morrow's solo show at the Musee d'Art Contemporain, and all the big wigs of the art world, as well as her friends from Three Pines, have come to her vernissage, followed by a party at her house to celebrate her success. But then a dead body shows up, in Clara's garden. At first, no one seems to know her, but as the investigation goes on and her identity becomes known, it turns out quite a few people disliked her. Now, she seems to be on the straight and narrow, even a nice person. So who was she - cruel or kind? Can people really change?

In many ways, this book is a study in contrasts: good and bad, light and dark. Forgiveness. Revenge. Clara really comes into her own as a main character. She has always been a central person in the town, but this is about her shining moment, as well. I kept wondering to myself, as she deals with sudden publicity and fame, reviews for her previously obscure and unknown art, how much of herself Ms. Penny put into Clara. I don't mean that I think Clara's personality is like Louise Penny's, just that she makes a clear comparison between the struggle of Clara as an artist and the struggle of writers. I think many of Clara's hopes and fears, the vulnerability she has now that she has become "known" outside her circle of friends, must be similar to what the author herself experienced as her series became better known and began receiving accolades. The more well-known you are, the more you have to lose with bad reviews, and judgments made on your writing or yourself.

As I was reading it, I couldn't help but compare my response to that of the previous book in the series, Bury Your Dead. Then, the complex mysteries and many-stranded story held my interest throughout as I struggled to put the pieces together to find out what happened to Armand Gamache. In A Trick of the Light, I read more slowly and introspectively (though I admit, I still read the book in only two days). I was carried along by the internal struggles of the characters I have come to know and care about. Did I nearly cry over Bury Your Dead? This book made me cry twice, and not only that, but laugh and cry at the same time in the end. While the story, and my reading experience, is completely different from Bury Your Dead, in many ways it was a supremely fitting follow-up. This is a series I couldn't recommend more highly, and it keeps getting better.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Reading Expectations

Have you ever had the experience when someone else's ideas of your reading taste differed from your own? I've been thinking lately about these expectations we have - of ours or others' reading, and how that frames how we think of them as readers, or not.

I had two experiences recently that brought this to mind. The first was when I told someone I was reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She loves the book, so I expected enthusiasm, but her response was, "'s different from what you normally read." (Now, having read both Crime and Punishment and Twilight and quite a few books in between, I was a little surprised.) "What do I normally read?" I asked her. The answer: middle school fantasy. Which is true, to a point. It's a favorite genre of mine, and I read a lot of it. Plus, in many of my interactions in the children's room where we both work, I've recommended a lot of fantasy titles to patrons looking for ideas, because I am the librarian that reads that genre.

The second experience was at my other job, where my supervisor made a comment that I read poetry. I thought to myself, "Sure, during National Poetry Month, but not regularly." This time, I didn't bother to argue since at that very moment I had a collection of John Donne's poetry in my hand to check out. I figured that argument would sound a little weird: "Yes, but generally only once a year. This book? No, it's nothing, not a large Norton Critical Edition of a famous poet's work."

But neither of those interactions really capture what I read. I think it both cases, people have seen a part of what I'm interested in and made more general assumptions of what I like and what I read.

I wonder if we do that to our patrons, to our children. How often has a parent come in looking for a book to read for their kid who "Doesn't read" or "Only likes..." and talking to the child himself (or herself) brings up a totally different picture? I've had many an interaction with a patron who wanted recommendations for their child, and what they really wanted wasn't what the child wanted to read, but what the parent wanted them to read. Making both patrons - parent and child - happy is a balancing act that I admit I haven't fully mastered yet. Because I think the main issue - the expectations parents have of a child's reading - need to be treated carefully. I've thanked my mother several times lately for never telling me "That book is too easy for you" or "You've read that series five times now, let's look for something else." Rereading is a joy in itself. Reading books that are "too easy" boost confidence and still help children become stronger readers. But how do I communicate this in such a way that I'm coming alongside a parent trying to encourage their child to read, instead of placing myself at odds with them?

I still reread. I read children's, young adult, and adult books. I read classics and I read fantasy. I read broadly enough that I can be "mistaken" for both a fantasy and a poetry reader (and, granted, neither of them are fully off-base). Most of all, I'm thankful that I was given the freedom to explore books without expectations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

On My Honor

by Marion Dane Bauer
narrated by Johnny Heller
Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books LLC, p1998.

Joel and Tony have been best friends since they were small. Joel has always been the obedient, cautious one; Tony is a charismatic daredevil. Tony's latest scheme is to bike out to the state park and climb the bluffs. Joel doesn't want to, but what boy wants his best friend calling him a coward?

It almost sounds like the set up to a heavy lesson story, doesn't it? Instead, through a third person narration closely tied to Joel's point of view, we see a realistic boy who wants to do the right thing, but also save face with his friend. While it isn't necessarily the type of story I'd choose to reread, I can see why it was a Newbery Honor book.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The King's Speech (the book)

by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi
New York : Sterling Pub. Co., 2010.

This is the dual biography of Lionel Logue and King George VI, a recounting of their friendship and the many speeches they worked on throughout the years. Despite the title and subject matter, this is a very different work than the movie, with a broader focus and greater span of years covered.

I watched The King's Speech a few months ago, and was intrigued enough to learn more. Mark Logue, the grandson of speech therapist Lionel Logue, had found his grandfather's diaries and papers soon before the shooting of the movie, and much of what he found informs this book. While some years felt a little bit like a listing of the king's speeches, a broader awareness of history, especially during World War 2 really help fill out the story and give it context. I actually wished for a bit more history, but I'll content myself with writing down a few titles contained in the notes at the end.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

by Betty Smith
New York : Trumpet Club, 1989, c1947.

Francie lives with her brother Neeley and their parents, Katie and Johnny, in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. They're a poor but hardworking family determined to make better for each generation. Though we're given information about both parents and their families, this is primarily Francie's book, as we see her grow from a child into a teenager with big dreams.

This is the type of story that's primarily about character and writing. Francie is the one we're rooting for primarily, but we're given enough information to sympathize with her family, such as her hardworking, no-nonsense mother Katie, and even her father, Johnny, a talented singer who has a weakness for drink. I felt with her every roadblock, every trial and joy. I enjoyed the style of writing, a descriptive narration that would often tell me a back-story or information about what a secondary character was thinking, and sometimes tended towards the flowery, but I could definitely see this style annoying someone else (even me, if I was in a different mood). This was my first time reading this classic, and certainly won't be the last.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

So Many Books, So Little Time

by Sara Nelson
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons c2003.

In 2002, Sara Nelson, a book reviewer and journalist by trade, decided to spend the year reading a book a week and writing about her experiences. What resulted is this book, a collection of essays and ruminations on reading: her process choosing a book, reading more than one book, books vs. movies, and much, much more.

I love to read, and I love to read about reading. I am, admittedly, part of that niche, ready-made audience for this book. I enjoyed Sara's thoughts because I could relate and because she had a truly funny way of getting her points across. One essay that stands out in my mind was her discussion of reading more than one book at a time, and how sometimes she has books that she reads at home, but not in public. This could sound snobby, but it didn't to me because throughout the book she's talking about the "low" and "high-brow" literature she's reading, not ashamedly but in a friendly, confessional sort of way. Instead, it reminded me of when I was reading V for Vendetta for a class, but I stopped reading it in public because I kept getting asked if I'd seen the movie (I haven't). So I started bringing out Reading Matters, a collection of research on reading in the United States, that looked smarter and was my "fun" (ie., non-school) book at the time. This was one of many ways in which I found I could completely relate with Sara, which is ultimately, why I fell in love with her book.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

by Jacqueline Kelly
narrated by Natalie Ross
Grand Haven, MI : Brilliance Audio, p2009.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate - generally called "Callie Vee" by her six brothers - discovers an interest in science, much to the consternation of her mother, who would like her only daughter to be a proper young lady. But at practically twelve in 1899, Calpurnia is finding, with encouragement from her naturalist grandfather, a whole wonderful world opening up to her.

I didn't expect to like this book as much as I did, fearing that Kelly wouldn't be able to help bashing Christians in a book talking about a girl learning about science and Darwin in Texas. She does a good job of treading lightly and treating issues more complexly than that, however. A quote from The Origin of Species opens each chapter, and Callie has an adventure trying to borrow the book from the library. But her grandfather, an admirer of Darwin, is also good friends with the local minister, and there are no lectures on believing one way or the other. Callie is a great character. I loved the realistic interactions between Callie and her brothers, or her mother, especially. Callie jumps into things with both feet, like a true eleven-year-old, wondering about the world around her, whether it be the natural world or her oldest brother's love life. Narrator Natalie Ross did an excellent job of capturing her voice, as well as making each of her brothers and other characters sound distinctive.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Unheard

The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
by Josh Swiller
New York : Henry Holt and Co., 2007.

In the 1990s, Josh Swiller joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Africa to build a well. Born with significant hearing loss, Josh was mainstreamed (that is, sent to public school with hearing kids rather than to a Deaf school where he would have learned ASL). He can speak and read lips, but has always felt on the margins in a hearing world; he learned ASL at Gallaudet, but was not a part of the Deaf culture there, either. In Mununga, a practically forgotten village in Zambia, Josh finds that his hearing loss doesn't matter as much. There is less background noise to contend with, people face him to speak, and don't mind when he asks them to repeat themselves. But this small village is fearful and violent, and Josh soon finds out that building a well is the least of his worries.

I had a love/hate relationship with this memoir. The stories Josh tells are absolutely heartbreaking and maddening. I generally felt depressed about the state of Africa while reading - in the face of childhood diseases, AIDS, and fear as he describes, what hope is there? Also, I didn't particularly like Josh. His bullheaded way of trying to move projects forward grated on me, and I was annoyed rather than amused by his anecdote of "cultural exchange" via showing some of the locals the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. But he does know how to craft an exciting narrative, keeping me reading despite my misgivings and pacing his stories in such a way that I was hard put to find a good stopping point.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Searching for God Knows What

by Donald Miller
Nashville, Tenn. : Thomas Nelson Inc., c2010.

What if the Christian church is so focused on theology that it's lost sight of what really makes one a Christian? Miller contends that the American church has reduced a complex relationship with Jesus Christ to a formulaic gospel of steps to becoming a Christian. In Searching for God Knows What, he seeks to emphasize the relational nature of the gospel and demonstrates how different a worldview this would be from mainstream American culture.

A friend of mine lent this to me months ago because it related to a conversation we were having at the time. Of course, I've since forgotten the original impetus, but it didn't really matter in the end. Miller's style is extremely conversational and not particularly well-written, with a few over-the-top analogies to make his points. At least once, he got his facts wrong, as when he says that King Herod had the children of Israel murdered (according to Matthew 2, he ordered that boys under the age of 2 in Bethlehem and the vicinity be killed, not the entirety of Israel). Despite these flaws, from time to time a sentence or a paragraph would make me stop in my reading tracks. He would manage to crystallize an idea or use an illustration that was truly thought-provoking. I didn't always agree with Miller, ultimately. He clearly does not "get" sports, for example, and his politics clash with mine. But I enjoyed the challenge to think about exactly what I believe about my relationship with God, and how this necessarily affects my relationship with others.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Joy of Pi

by David Blatner
New York : Walker and Co., 1997.

This is a quirky history of pi in 130 pages. From the ancients to the modern day, the number that would be able to decipher a circle's circumference by its known radius has fascinated mathematicians. Blatner discusses a variety of history revolving around pi, including the development of equations to calculate it and devices people use to memorize it to several decimal points.

The first thing that drew me to the book was its design. Its cover is yellow, square, and just a bit bigger than the old Beatrix Potter books I read as a young child. Peppered throughout the text are tidbits of information highlighted in squares, rectangles, or circles a different color from the page. And - the most fun aspect of it, in my opinion - throughout the text is, as if a footnote, is pi calculated to one million decimal places. Because most of the information is accessible to a layperson, I was willing to overlook the many equations that went completely over my head.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese
New York : Vintage Books, 2010 (originally published in 2009).

Marion Stone and his twin brother, Shiva, were born to a British surgeon and an Indian nun in the country of Ethiopia. Now 50, he reflects back on his life, his family, and what brought him to where he is today.

In this, my second attempt at reading this book, I found a much different reading experience than when I first picked it up a year and a half ago. Then, I couldn't get past the first hundred pages. As much as I enjoyed the prose and the vivid descriptions, those same vivid descriptions of surgeries and medical procedures did me in. This time, I knew better than to try reading this while eating lunch and actually got past my original stopping point in one sitting. The characters are raw, realistic people and while I didn't always approve of their choices from a moral standpoint, I found myself liking them and caring about them deeply. Marion's story is poignant, sometimes brutal, but ultimately beautiful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Best American Travel Writing 2009

edited by Simon Winchester
Boston [Mass.] : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, c2009.

This collection of 25 travel articles written in 2008 is the tenth collection of Best American Travel Writing. A list was first culled by series editor Jason Wilson, and further pared down to the 25 articles selected by Simon Winchester. The collection begins with Winchester's introduction, an interesting short essay in its own right contrasting the American vs. British attitudes towards traveling the world, and bemoans the lack of geographic aptitude of Americans in general. The essays he has selected include a wide range of writing style, location, and purpose. It's impossible to succinctly summarize all twenty-five articles, so I will just focus on two to give a broad idea of the scope that is included.

One of the essays I thoroughly enjoyed was "The Mecca of the Mouse," by Seth Stevenson. Originally published on March 28, 2008, on, the article takes the metaphor of a religion to vacationing at THE vacation destination, Disney World. In a week of visiting, Stevenson sees several parks, and observes such things as the rides, the intended purposes of theme parks such as Epcot, and the people who visit (pointing out, for example, that a great many adults visit without kids at all). While I didn't always agree with his conclusions, he makes some good points regarding the artificiality of it all, and I found his article both entertaining and thought-provoking.

"Hotels Rwanda" by Jay Kirk, originally published in September, 2008 in GQ, is equally thought-provoking, though perhaps more sobering. The descriptions of where he goes and what he does with his three friends almost sounds like a bunch of college kids out for a lark, until you realize that his travel destination is Rwanda, only recently opened up to tourists since the genocide in 1994. History - and it is an odd thought to read of anything that happened in my lifetime referred to as "history" - has a way of intruding in his trip, striking an odd balance between having a good time, partying, and seeing endangered species in the wild, with the memory, horror, and memorials of ethnic tension, upheaval, and war.

Some travel purposes and destinations interested me more than others, but all were fascinating in their own way for highlighting a different facet of a region - ecology in Honduras, for example, or the government of Burma/Myanmar. While I still may not be the best at geography (I had to look up the locations mentioned in more than one essay), I really enjoyed this glimpse of a variety of regions around the world. It makes me want to read more globally, both in fiction and nonfiction, and maybe pick up another book of travel essays while I'm at it.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fire Watch

This collection of a dozen short stories is from the earlier part of Connie Willis's career. Most of the stories included were published between 1979 and 1984. Even though all are technically science fiction, they show quite a range for a young author, with their variety of points of view and theme.

I knew very little of what I should expect going into this short story collection. I only knew that the title story had some characters related to the time traveling books that I'd already read, and that St. Paul's Cathedral figured prominently. In fact, St. Paul's was why I read this book now: on my recent trip to London, seeing St. Paul's and Westminster Abbey in particular made me want to read as much fiction and nonfiction about London and England as possible. I'd rather expected most of the stories to be interrelated, but that was not at all the case. As in many short story collections, I liked some and hated others. "All My Darling Daughters" disgusted me and I nearly put down the collection for good there. But I'm glad I continued, because the last story, "Blued Moon," was light and funny and left a smile on my face. Most of the other stories were somewhere in between, making this a decent collection and worth a browse for those interested in '80s science fiction.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


by Gail Carriger
New York : Orbit, 2011.

As this is the fourth book in a series, there will necessarily be ***spoilers*** for earlier titles in the series. I highly recommend starting with Soulless, and catching up from there. :)

Lady Alexia Maccon nee Tarabotti receives a rather strange, somewhat garbled, message from a ghost near poltergeist stage (ie., not very lucid): the queen is threatened. The last time the Queen of England was nearly assassinated implicated the former pack of her husband, Lord Maccon. Alexia is eight months pregnant, but she won't let a little thing like waddling get in her way, so she dives headlong into an investigation. Meanwhile, her husband and a few co-conspirators have a rather unorthodox proposition regarding the unborn child, in a move to end the vampire assassination attempts on the baby - and, as an unfortunate side-effect, Alexia.

This fourth book was as witty and clever and ridiculous as ever. If you've read the other books - and I do recommend you read them in order, as there is both plot and character development along the way - you know the sort of story to expect at this point. I enjoyed learning some of the back stories of the characters as Alexia delves into the past of her husband and his former and current werewolf packs. My reaction to the book is a bit ambivalent, primarily because knowing what to expect was both its strength and weakness. I knew exactly what I was in for, and I still didn't entirely engage with the story, not being quite in the mood for this brand of silliness when I was reading. I will, of course, still gobble up the sequel as soon as it comes out.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Lost City of Z

by David Grann

In 1925, Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett went on an expedition with his son, Jack, and Jack's friend, Raleigh Rimell. They were seeking a sort of El Dorado, what Fawcett termed the city of "Z," a place many in his time believed was mythical. For several months, family and newspapers received communiques - and then, nothing. Many bands of explorers have since gone in search of Fawcett, but none were successful.

Intrigued by the mystery, David Grann started researching Fawcett and his obsession with "Z." Grann intersperses a biography of Fawcett with his own search for answers, first through historical documents and then through a visit to the Amazon himself. Fawcett is a fascinating man to learn about, a complex character who on the one hand is a product of his times, growing up in Victorian society, and on the other was a bit of a maverick. I'm not sure I can fully understand the sort of all-consuming passion and obsession that would lead one to drive into the Amazonian jungle and make geological observations, let alone search out a city that many scientists of the day didn't believe existed. I found the dual narratives jarring at first, especially in the beginning when both stories sort of started in the middle, and then backtracked, but once I was a few chapters in, I adjusted and really enjoyed the narrative.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette

by Jeanne Birdsall
narrated by Susan Denaker
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2011.

In their third adventure, the Penderwick sisters are going on vacation. Their father and Ianthe are going on their honeymoon to England, Rosalind is going to New Jersey, and the other three girls are going to Point Mouette with their Aunt Claire. This leaves Skye as the OAP (oldest available Penderwick). She's not sure she can do it. What if something goes wrong? What if Batty's inconsolable, or drowns, or blows up?

Reading the Penderwick books reminds me of Otis. When I was a young kid, my family used to go to a family member's summer homes in this small town in the Berkshires. It was way in the woods, far from "civilization" and trouble and worry and real life, but it was an indelible part of my childhood summers and I have so many great memories of spending time with family there. Reading the Penderwicks is sort of like that. They're a generally happy family with small family woes, but somehow removed from Issues and violence, and it's just plain hard to be stressed when you listen to their everyday, modern-but-no-cell-phones stories. Is the plot line sometimes predictable and sappy? Well, yes, but who really cares when you're enjoying the interactions between Skye and Jane while the latter goes slightly gaga over a boy, and Batty tries to convince her older sisters that she really does enjoy music, and all the other true-to-life family interactions that made me laugh? I can't stay stressed when I read this books, and I loved every minute of the audio production.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

As You Like It

by William Shakespeare
New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 2000.

Orlando's older brother, Oliver, has been trying to kill him, and his newest idea is to have a wrestler take him out. But then Orlando not only wins but catches the eye of the daughter of the banished Duke, with consequences Oliver could never have foreseen.

Though I have all of Shakespeare's plays on my "life list" of books I would like to read, I only moved this one in particular up the list because I saw it performed when I was in London a couple of weeks ago. It's a very interesting experience reading a play that I have once seen performed, and it really brings home the fact that plays are meant to be seen rather than read. Overall, while I enjoyed reading the original and imagining the possibilities of alternative interpretations of lines, they're certainly lacking in the personality that the actor/actress brings to the role. Some of the lines that seem confusing reading just make more sense with actions to go with them. It was also interesting to note that while the production really showed me how bawdy some of the lines were, the notes in the play that I read were generally unhelpful in this area (which, depending on your point of view, could be a good thing). I probably wouldn't read the play again, but I would definitely watch another performance!

Friday, July 8, 2011

To Say Nothing of the Dog

by Connie Willis
New York : Bantam Books, 1998.

About fifty years in the future, time travel is not only a reality, it's how historians work - by going back into the past and observing events. Note the key word: observing. They cannot create paradoxes by getting involved or taking things forward in time, or the entire space-time continuum might break down. One of these historians, Ned Henry, is overworked and "time lagged" due to Lady Schrapnell's insistence that everything be perfect for the recreation of Coventry Cathedral down to the last detail. In particular, was the bishop's bird stump present when the cathedral was bombed during the blitz? He's so tired he can barely function, so when one of the historians in the Victorian time period takes something forward in time, he's sent back to get his rest in a place Lady Schrapnell can't find him, and repair the damage all in one.

Up until a few years ago, I had almost never read a science fiction book, and I asked a friend and co-worker to recommend a book that is a good introduction to the genre. This was her recommendation for me, and I have to say it was spot on. It's a light, funny story that still has a lot to say when you think about it, with a little bit of chaos theory and theories of history thrown in, as well as more than a few nods to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, to Say Nothing of the Dog. If, like me, you have never read that book, never fear - there's plenty of fun to be had in this story in its own right and those (and other) literary references can go straight over your head. Though it's not quite as much fun to reread, it remains one of my favorite science fiction stories.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


by Marilynne Robinson
Toronto ; New York : Bantam, c1987, c1980.

Our narrator, Ruth, and her sister Lucille have been abandoned by many in their lives. The first to leave them was their mother, who dropped them off at their grandmother's house, and drove into the same lake that claimed her father and a whole train full of people many years ago.

It's hard to explain what this story is about since there is very little in terms of plot. These are Ruth's often poetic reflections on living, loss, abandonment, and loneliness. It is atmospheric and melancholy. The lake itself has a presence as strong as any character. The writing is superb, but you have to have the patience (and I admit I often do not) for a slow unfolding and revealing of character rather than a conventional storyline. If you do, however, you're sure to be rewarded.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

First-home Buying How-to

Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home
by Ilona M. Bray, J.D., Alayna Schroeder, J.D., and Marcia Stewart

*NOTE: This review refers to the book I 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.*

I was really excited to see this offered as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer option since I have begun to consider the possibility of buying a house, but have felt at a complete loss of where to start. Then, after I won it and received the book, I put off starting it feeling a little intimidated and afraid that it might be boring and difficult.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While some parts certainly interested me more than others, the writing was accessible and the explanations clear. Two of the authors are lawyers, and they do a good job of explaining general law in layman's terms, even while stressing differences by state. Of course, since the subject matter is so broad, no one chapter can cover every option or every situation; furthermore, since laws are different from state to state, there are going to be individual differences. But this book lays excellent general groundwork for the ins and outs of home buying. The authors primarily focus on the purchase of a single-family home, though from time to time special situations like a new home from a developer or a co-op is considered. Each chapter introduces one aspect of purchasing a house, such as creating your wishlist, how to assemble your "team" (real estate agent, attorney, mortgage broker, etc.) and what each of them do, and how to finance your purchase. What could become dry facts and figures is broken up by real life stories, tips, worksheets (there are a few short examples in the text, with directions to look at the complete one on the CD-ROM included), and more. I especially enjoyed the "Best Thing We Ever Did" features in which something that could have been abstract, like getting a home inspection, translated into something practical by showing how someone truly benefited from it.

As a result of reading, I'm feeling more comfortable understanding such things as what a mortgage broker does, and what I might need to do to see if I'm in a position to buy now or later. I will be able to ask more intelligent questions and not feel completely lost. Though the earlier chapters have much more relevance to my current situation, I'm sure that I will refer to the book as I come closer to truly be in a position to buy.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Mrs. Ames

by E.F. Benson
New York: Bloomsbury, 2010 (originally printed in 1912).

In the small English town of Riseborough, Mrs. Ames holds sway over the fashions and practices of the populace. What has her neighbors abuzz this time? She's invited a husband or a wife to a dinner party, separate from their partner. But things go greatly awry when both her husband and her son begin to have an interest in one of the singly-invited women, Mrs. Evans.

This is the sort of gentle read that those who appreciate the characters and interactions of a story like Cranford may enjoy. There's not a lot of plot action outside of the day to day life of middle aged married people, which sounds boring, but really isn't. The delivery of the thoughts of the Althams, the Ames', and more of the characters, amused me and made me laugh aloud at times; their interactions were gossipy and politely insulting and true.

E.F. Benson is perhaps better known for his Mapp and Lucia series. I enjoyed the humor of Mrs. Ames enough to make me want to read his other books as well.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kat, Incorrigible

by Stephanie Burgis
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.

(first published in Britain under the title A Most Improper Magick)

Kat Stephenson is the daughter of a vicar and a witch, a fact that has left the family poor and just on the edge of good society, despite her Stepmama's wishes to the contrary. Her oldest sister, Elissa, is promised to be married to Sir Neville, a rich older man whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances. But Kat is determined to help Elissa out of this marriage, whether her sisters Elissa and Angeline want her help or not.

This story introduces a series that promises to be fun and inventive children's fantasy, set in or around the Victorian era in England. Kat is a fun and witty heroine to follow, if a bit precocious for a twelve-year-old: "I tried to raise just one eyebrow, like Angeline. They both came up together, so I had to settle for looking surprised instead of sardonic" (98). Unfortunately, the tale suffers just a bit from too much set up, with only tantalizing glimpses of what may be further explored in sequels. I'll be impatiently waiting to see if that is true.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tower of London

by Christopher Hibbert
New York, Newsweek [1971].

This is a history of the Tower of London, which was built under the direction of William the Conqueror and has a long and bloody history.

Though appearing deceptively short, this oversize and double-columned book is also a long and bloody history. I had a hard time following events, partially because the author wasn't quite sure if he was writing a chronological or topical history, and partially because I do not know my English history particularly well and couldn't for the life of me follow the succession of kings in the middle ages and beyond. At times dry and at other times gruesome, I had a hard time really being interesting in reading this book. On reflection, however, it's served its purpose because I did learn enough to feel that I will better understand what I'm seeing when I visit the Tower for myself.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What Happened to Goodbye

by Sarah Dessen
New York : Viking Childrens Books, 2011.

Mclean, named for her dad's favorite college basketball coach, has been reinventing herself ever since her parents divorce. Every time they move with her father's job, she's changed names and put on a persona - Lisbet, Eliza, Beth. Meanwhile, her mother is constantly calling, wanting Mclean to come for a visit. But Mclean can't go back to her old life. This is just one more move, one more restaurant for her father to rescue, one more town, one more school. Before long, she'll be moving on, and she can't afford to get invested in anything or anyone...can she?

Longtime Sarah Dessen readers will not be disappointed with her latest offering. Mclean is a likable character, even if I sometimes felt myself relating more to her mother than her. I caught myself wondering if her mother could really be that bad, before it occurred to me that Mclean is also our narrator, and surely to a teenage girl a mother could feel that overprotective and demanding, even if she really wasn't. The use of flashbacks, particular events only hours prior to the narrative present, broke up the narrative flow for me, though I enjoyed Mclean's story and experiences.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Last Little Blue Envelope

by Maureen Johnson
New York : HarperTeen, 2011.

*Possible slight spoilers* - but nothing past page 50, honest.

At the end of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny's bag - along with her letters from Aunt Peg and the final, unopened envelope - is stolen. Despite this setback, her trip to Europe was life-changing. In fact, it would be the subject of her college essay, if she could ever figure out what to write. Then, she received an email from Oliver, a young man who claims he found has that last little blue envelope. According to Oliver, Aunt Peg left another piece of art, and he will give Ginny her letter back if she gives him a finder's fee from the proceeds of the sale.

I really enjoyed the first book about Ginny and her travels. At first, I wasn't sure if I would like the sequel as much, mainly because of the changing nature of Ginny's relationships once she finds out that Keith (her co-traveler in the last book and "sort of" but never official boyfriend) has a girlfriend, Ellis. All four of them - Ginny, Oliver, Keith and Ellis - are now on this trip, a dynamic that could have made for excruciating reading. But Johnson never makes it as melodramatic oh-woe-is-me that she could have. She realistically portrays Ginny's hurt feelings without making her maudlin or annoying. Once they leave on their trip, guided by Oliver and the last letter, I read nearly in one sitting. If you loved the first book, this is a good follow-up, but I think The Last Little Blue Envelope could stand decently on its own as well.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Strength in What Remains

by and narrated by Tracy Kidder
Westminster, Md. : Books on Tape, p2009.

Deogracias came to New York in the 1990s with little money and no English. He was from Burundi, a country in Africa near Rwanda, and had run for his life during the genocide between Hutus and Tutsis in both countries. Kidder recounts a dual narrative of how Deo survives in New York, and how he survives and escapes the uprising in his home country.

I hadn't planned on reading this book, exactly. Strictly speaking, Home Town is the only book by Tracy Kidder currently on my TBR list, though his name has been on my radar as a good nonfiction author ever since I read Mountains Beyond Mountains. So when I saw this on my library's audiobook shelves, I decided to give it a listen on my commute. The book is read by the author, which made especially those parts in which Kidder is in the narrative feel more immediate, but also meant he didn't always have the delivery an actor or reader might, so it took a little getting used to. Deo's story is an incredible story of survival - not just physically, but also how he mentally survived what must have been absolute horror to witness. I couldn't help but cringe at some of the experiences he had in Burundi, Rwanda, and New York. I sometimes thought that Kidder became somewhat repetitive in the second half of the book, repeating stories that he'd already told. (This feeling was only helped by a quirk of the CDs and my car - there was no "end of Disc 1" or introduction with each CD, so when my car stereo started a CD over from the beginning automatically, I sometimes didn't catch it until several minutes into the first track.) This was a challenging read that has given me much food for thought and a definite need to learn more about Burundi and Rwanda in the 1990s.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Last Little Blue Envelope

by Maureen Johnson
New York : HarperTeen, 2011.

*Possible slight spoilers* - but nothing past page 50, honest.

At the end of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, Ginny's bag - along with her letters from Aunt Peg and the final, unopened envelope - is stolen. Despite this setback, her trip to Europe was life-changing. In fact, it would be the subject of her college essay, if she could ever figure out what to write. Then, she received an email from Oliver, a young man who claims he found has that last little blue envelope. According to Oliver, Aunt Peg left another piece of art, and he will give Ginny her letter back if she gives him a finder's fee from the proceeds of the sale.

I really enjoyed the first book about Ginny and her travels. At first, I wasn't sure if I would like the sequel as much, mainly because of the changing nature of Ginny's relationships once she finds out that Keith (her co-traveler in the last book and "sort of" but never official boyfriend) has a girlfriend, Ellis. All four of them - Ginny, Oliver, Keith and Ellis - are now on this trip, a dynamic that could have made for excruciating reading. But Johnson never makes it as melodramatic oh-woe-is-me that she could have. She realistically portrays Ginny's hurt feelings without making her maudlin or annoying. Once they leave on their trip, guided by Oliver and the last letter, I read nearly in one sitting. If you loved the first book, this is a good follow-up, but I think The Last Little Blue Envelope could stand decently on its own as well.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Reading Promise

by Alice Ozma
New York : Grand Central Publishing, 2011.

When Alice was young, her father read to her every day. One day - they can't agree on exactly when - they challenged each other to read for 100 straight days. They went on to create a daily ritual that they referred to as "The Streak," reading for far more than the initial 100 days they had originally planned.

I had expected this memoir of reading to be more about "the books we shared," as part of the subtitle indicates. To be fair, Alice does include mentions of books read and how they related (or didn't) to her life. But there are also stories like the time she gave her beta fish a funeral and "The Boy-Haters Club of America" super-secret meetings. But at its heart, this is the story of the relationship she shares with her father as a result of the special times they spent together. Reading connected and connects father and daughter, a bond that shows in every vignette and every chapter.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Rest is Noise

by Alan Ross
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

This book is about 20th century classical music. You might think, as a result, that it has a potential reader base about as big as those who listen to such music, but you would be mistaken. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century encompasses so much more. One of the blurbs on the back uses the adjective "sprawling" to describe it, and I think it's truly the best word for it. From opera to minimalism, Strauss to Britten, a glimpse of Germany under Hitler and Russia under Stalin (particularly from the point of view of the musicians), Alan Ross includes much information that would interest a history buff, a music major, or anyone in between.

If the book is hard to summarize on its own, summarizing my reading experience is even more so. I first started reading in February. Since I knew very little about classical music, and even less so about 20th century classical music, I determined to listen to many of the pieces mentioned in the text. Thankfully Ross includes an appendix of recommended recordings - a "top ten" and then 20 additional recommendations. I focused on the main ten, especially when I realized how much of a time commitment symphonies and operas truly were. And mind you, he sometimes lists more than one piece for one composer, so this was still more than 10 CDs I committed to.

What an experience! I didn't like everything I listened to, but it made the book come alive wonderfully. I listened to my first opera. I started to hear the atonality, the dissonance, that Ross so often refers to, especially in the music of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern (I noted next to this that this was "not music to wake up to"). I really enjoyed the connections I was able to make between the text and other, outside elements. For instance, in my notes on the pieces I listened to, I noted that one of Schoenberg's orchestral pieces reminded me of the orchestra playing at the end of "I am the Walrus." I was delighted to read a bit later on that a portion of Sibelius's 7th symphony is referenced in the Beatles song "Revolution 9" - a different song, yes, but I felt the comfort of having a similar idea and bringing together something familiar with the new information I was learning. And the learning will continue - I've made a note of music I want to look into, both referenced in the text and not (after all, now I need to learn about earlier classical music, too!), and of a few composers - Mahler and Stravinsky come immediately to mind - that I enjoyed enough to find more.

A truly memorable read.