Thursday, February 25, 2010

From the Reviewer's Stack

I've been quiet here but not here in real life. Busy with a long stretch at work, then getting the house back in order afterwords-still working on this, being the second in command for girl scout cookies sales...all this has made for a busy week. Speaking of cookies, those Samoas are like crack. Is there another cookie out there sold year round that approximates this? Please advise.

Well, I wrote late last year about how things are going to change around here, blah blah blah, and that I was going to greatly cut down on the number of review copies I accept and write about. I have been successful in this. There aren't exactly people banging down my door begging me to review their book, but I do get requests, perhaps a few a week and sure it's flattering, and nice to have such fun mail. Some of the requests are admittedly odd, for books outside any genre I read - self help, romance, etc. Then there was the illegible request that was formatted in some crazy way. I mean, AOL has a habit of making email look wonky by the time I receive it, but I could seriously not even read the text between the crazy http&^%$ stuff. And then the publicist contacted me again, saying 'how else can we get the word out' and I almost emailed back and said 'how bout start by sending me an email I can actually read!' but I didn't.

All this to say, that I'll be trying to keep my ARC reading to 12 books this year, that's one per month (I'm good at math too!) and here are the first two books of the year.

I actually received Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been: A Novellast year. I was drawn to this story primarily by the Victorian period in which it is set, and secondly to it's literary nature. Benjamin was inspired by a photograph of Alice Liddell - the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderful - and was moved to think and write about who she actually was.

Alice I Have Been is divided into three sections, in the first Alice is young girl and counts teacher Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll among her friends. There is a strong sense of unease in this section of the book, as we discover that Mr. Dodgson's favorite companions are young girls. When you think about the photograph above, that Dodgson took this photo of a child of a respectable Victorian family in such a state of undress -those couldn't have been her clothes, and with such an expression on her face, well it certainly seems that to an outsider something was Not.Quite.Right.

Something Happens.

Something really did happen to cause a break in the relationship between Dodgson and the Liddell family, but history does not tell us exactly what. The second section of the book deals features Alice as a young woman, having a romance with Prince Albert and meeting Mr. Dodgson again. It is uncomfortable. And finally, we see Alice as an older woman, somewhat surprised by the attention she still garners as Alice in Wonderland.

I liked Alice I Have Been very much. The period felt authentic to me and I thought the author used her imaginative powers very well here, conjuring up what Alice might have been like.

Next we have One Amazing Thingby Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This woman really knows how the spin a sentence and I wanted to read this book after enjoying Sister of My Heart: A Noveland The Vine of Desire: A Novelso much.

One Amazing Thing takes place in a visa/passport office in the basement of a building in the US. San Francisco perhaps? There is an earthquake and the 9 people trapped inside this office must find a way to stay safe and survive until they can hopefully escape. One way they take their minds off their troubles is to each share 'one amazing thing' from their own lives and through this we see into each of their hearts and minds.

Despite the beautiful writing this was just an okay read for me. It was hard to get to know so many characters in so little time and really care about their stories. I was often mystified when the stories would go from first person to third person in one paragraph. Between stories, the survivors would deal with the immediate effects of the earthquake. I think the stories coming out of the earthquake in Haiti really lessened the impact of this part of the story.

Ultimately, what I got out of this book is being reminded that everyone has a story and a motivation that we'll probably never know nor understand. It is that story that makes each person who they are and may affect their daily life in ways we can never understand.

Many thanks to Delacorte Press and Hyperion Books for providing these books for review.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dying to Know

Well. Perhaps you've been dying to know what books were bugging me last week. Maybe not! In either case, here they are:

1939: The Last Season

I was expecting something different, I think, in this book by Anne De Courcy. I thought it would be about British 'Society', debutante balls, the last hurrah before WW2 intervened. It was sometimes about those things. I enjoyed chapters about what the process was to be presented at court, health and medical care at the time, the lives of servants and the upkeep of those enormous country estates. I did not so much enjoy chapters about particular parties, and who attended, and what they wore and what was served for dinner, all told in a dry journalistic tone. I suppose that is what bothered me about this book - it was very dry and almost too 'stick to the facts' in form. I wanted personal stories and anecdotes; that is what brings history to life, I think, and it was not really achieved here in my opinion. Certainly I learned some things, but reading this became a chore.

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me

It surprises even me that Ruth Rendell wrote a book that was at times yawn inducing. This is the story of several women whose boyfriends and husband have died or disappeared and how they are all connected. Then there are a series of murders (we know the culprit) that affect all of these women, and we peer over the shoulders of police as they discover who-done-it. This book feels like Rendell and if you've read her, you know what that means. It's suspenseful and mysterious, people are a little At first the reader is in the dark and is let in on the secret a few chapters in. Then we wait for things to come to a head. They do. Then I wondered what on earth is going to happen in the second half of this book. This is actually a good book and a decent read, it's just not up there with the other Rendell/Vine books I've read. It's much, much more psychological novel than it is a straight mystery/suspense/detective story. Published in 2001, I think it might be the most current Rendell/Vine book I've read and it's worth reading - it's just not her best or most typical book.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I pulled something in my back again and I'm on the third day of gingerly moving around the house. Standing is okay, so is laying down, but sitting is not so good. Computer = not good.

On the bright side I am in The Good Book Zone. I have a few deliciously good books on the nightstand and just in the past 24 hours have read what will likely wind up on my 'Best Reads of the Year' list. That book is Still Aliceby Lisa Genova.

I'd wanted to read Still Alice for some time and recommended it to my bookclub who chose The Help instead. Now that I've read it, I know that everyone who raved about it was right. It brought me to tears at least twice. I woke up a couple times last night and the first thought I had was about Alice, and what would happen to her in the last part of this book.

I'm sure you've read enough reviews of Still Alice to last you a lifetime, instead I will just share a few random thoughts I had while reading this amazing book about a 50 year old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's.

*First of all, I haven't had much exposure to anyone living with Alzheimer's disease so this book was really an eye opener for me in terms of how it is diagnosed and how quickly the disease can progress. That shocked me, actually.

*Alice really gave me cause for thought when she thought about the fact that she'd rather have cancer, something you can at least fight instead of something that just gets worse until you finally lose yourself. She thought about how having and fighting cancer would lead society to perceive her as a hero; having Alzheimer's just makes you an outcast. People are afraid of what is perceived to be mental illness.

*This is a terrifying book. Any one of us could get Alzheimer's and there is NOTHING WE CAN DO to stop it or make it better. That is so frightening to me. The idea of not being present inside my body is so scary as is being a complete burden on everyone around me.

Still Alice is beautifully written and completely heart wrenching. I recommend it to everyone.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On A Roll

I'm still reading D.E. Stevenson. She's been a beacon of light in my dark reading days, which have now thankfully turned around.

Amberwell was the third Stevenson novel I read and the first that I would say I loved. It was a page-turner for me and unlike her other books that I've read, I wasn't completely sure how everything would turn out halfway through. It's been a few weeks since I finished this so I'm having to jog my memory to come with a synopsis. Amberwell is a house that has been the home of the Ayrton family for generations. At the start of the book Amberwell houses Mr. and Mrs. William Ayrton and their children, two older boys from Mr. Ayrton's first marriage and three little girls from their own. They had wished for more boys. Thus, these girls grow up in a home where there is no love from their parents and they seem to spend virtually no time together. These girls lives revolve around each other and their nanny and as they do not attend school or Sunday School, they know no other children. They live for the days when their older brothers come home from school and bring excitement to their days. This is the setting for the first part of the book, and it's really very heartbreaking. Rather suddenly, these little girls become big girls and two of them go away leaving middle sister Nell at home with her parents. War comes and things change around Ayrton, with many of the servants leaving, and the grown up Ayrton's too incapable and self-absorbed to be of any use. Nell must come into her own and it is really lovely to see her become a strong young woman. One of the sisters went away rather mysteriously, the reasons around it are kept from us until the end when things are very satisfyingly revealed. There are still a few strings hanging at the end, and there is apparently a sequel which I'm hoping to read. This is why I'm currently applying for a library card for the neighboring library system - they have it and mine does not! I haven't read Miss Buncle's Book yet, but Amberwell seemed very close to the sort of thing Persephone might publish, not exactly, but very, very close.

I've also finished Stevenson's Vittoria Cottage. This is very similar to The Musgraves in that the main character is a young widow (this one less happily married) with three adult/teen children who are trying to find their way. The Dering family lives in a small village several years after WW2. This gives the reader a peek into how WW2 was still affecting the British, with petrol and food being rationed and people being encouraged to keep chickens and grow food. There are engagements and parties and small town life galore, also an interesting side story of a young woman with thyroid disease who is afraid of the treatment despite growing larger and larger. It is obviously early on where the book is going and it's an entertaining ride all the way. My only criticism is that the book ended quite abruptly and the reader misses out on a particular moment of happiness.

These are two Stevenson novels that I did not get on with. The first is The Four Graces. The story was okay actually, but the print of the book was so close together that it made me dizzy. I'm sorry to say that the other book that I did not finish was Mrs. Tim Christie/Mrs. Tim of the Regiment. This was recently republished and has been raved about everywhere so I am sort of embarrassed. I read about 50 pages and wound up asking myself - Why are you reading this? It's supposed to be entertaining and frankly, fun, but it feels like a chore. I think I just don't care for diary-style books and prefer a more straight forward style of storytelling that I can lose myself in. The 50 pages I read didn't flow well for me, it felt abrupt and more like a series of anecdotes. Oh well. Next I am going to give Celia's House a try and soon I many have to bother the grumpy librarian again.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Weird Reading Week

There is a stack of books on my nightstand, okay actually there are a few stacks, but the one I'm talking about is the stack of 6 books I've started, some as long ago as the beginning of 2010. Everything just seems 'blah' to me right now. No book is clever enough, engaging enough, well written enough to suit me it seems. Dare I say it? I'm bored by many of them. Every few days I get so annoyed that I start another book which is how I came to have so many in the stack. Another thing I keep doing is picking up something I know will be quick and pleasing, read it quickly in about the span of a day and then I'm back to where I started. I think I am going to finish 3 of the books in the stack for sure. Not sure when. The other three I could walk away from and never look back. Isn't that sad? I'm not sure what I need. In any case here are a couple of books that have worked for me lately.

I read the sixth installment of Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series, Among the Mad (Maisie Dobbs Novels), a couple weeks ago. It was such a divine feeling to read the first page and sigh with relief knowing where I was headed. I think I said it with the fifth book but I am going to say it again; Winspear gets better and better and these last two installments are my favorites next to the first book in the series. The main storyline in this outing deals with the sufferings of those who served in WW1 and Maisie works closely with Scotland Yard to solve the case. The other main storyline deals with Billy's wife and her depression **spoiler!** over the death of her child in the last book **end spoiler**. The entire book is really a fascinating look at mental illness and how it was dealt with in the past. I look forward to the next book!

Harry Bernstein's memoirs are remarkable not just for their remembrances of a Jewish English boy, who grew up in poverty with an alcoholic father, then immigrated to the US. What is most remarkable about Mr. Bernstein is that he became a published author in his 90s and went on to write two more books. Having enjoyed both of Mr Bernstein's previous books, The Dream and THE INVISIBLE WALL, I knew I wanted to read his third book which chronicled the story of his marriage. The Golden Willow: The Story of a Lifetime of Loveis the story of Harry and his true love and wife Rose. They had the sort of marriage most people only dream of. The Golden Willow goes back and forth between Rose and Harry's early days together, and their last days together as Rose died from cancer. It is a touching book and it's most poignant moments came when the author wrote about the grieving process, and how old age has affected his body and mind. The Golden Willow doesn't have the same narrative power as Mr Bernstein's previous books. There are times when it is repetitive and one wonders if life was truly always so cheerful. I think if you are a fan of the author's work already, you won't care about this, and instead will enjoy this book for what it is - a love letter to Rose.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Bites: The Good and the Not-So-Good

Let's begin with the not so good.

Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions is our first book club read of 2010 which will be discussed tonight. I cannot wait to hear what everyone thinks about it! We have a journal in which information from each meeting is recorded, quotes and such. I suspect my quote of the night will be this:

This is 0% of what I am looking for in a reading experience.

Shall I elaborate? I just couldn't stand anything about this book. The writing style, the story itself, the mention of every one's race in a 'hey I'm not racist but everyone else who mentions race is' way, the bizarre mention of the length of the genitals of every male character. What the heck was that all about?? I think I 'get' Vonnegut's point, that this is a satire on 'modern' society and it's ills, but overall it felt like a waste of time. Not funny. Not entertaining. Sort of gross. Just annoying. The only positive thing I would say about it was that occasionally this 1973 book felt current. I wouldn't have finished this book had it been for my husband who has been bugging me to read Vonnegut for years. He thinks I'm nuts. So would all the reviewers on Amazon who love this sort of thing. Maybe you think I'm nuts, too. I don't care. I won't be reading any more Vonnegut, but it seems he has plenty of fans already.

On to better things.

Day After Night: A Novelis Anita Diamant's new book which perhaps I wouldn't have read for some time, but I came across a copy at the library. The library has been my friend in 2010! Anyhow, Day After Night is set in an interesting time period, that just after WW2. I've read a fair number of holocaust books, but I've rarely read detailed accounts of what happened to the many survivors after the war was over. We know they didn't just go home and resume their lives. Day After Night is set in Atlit internment camp in Palestine; basically another prison for those who had just been freed from persecution. The story focuses on four women with varied stories, as they experience Atlit and eventually their rescue/escape from it into Israel. I enjoyed this book and thought Diamant did an excellent job bringing this bit of history alive by making it personal through the characters.

On another subject, can I just say that this blogging change that I talked about in November is working for me. I am happy with the amount of time that I spend blogging and reading the blogs of others. I am commenting less but it means more if you know what I mean. I am very happy with the reading choices I have been able to make and the fact that I have very few books that need to be read on a time frame. My reading feels like me again, instead of feeling like I am following the herds reading the same things. It feels good.