Wednesday, March 28, 2007

book clubbing in March

This month my book club discussed The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

The Golden Compass is a young adult book that can definitely appeal to adults as well. Everyone in my book club enjoyed the book, even those you generally shy away from fantasy and young adult books.

I think one of the things that sets The Golden Compass apart is how Pullman is able to present this wonderfully complex world, one that is very much not our own, but that bears enough resemblance that things feel familiar. One of Pullman's best inventions is the daemon, a physical manifestation of each character's soul in animal form (when the characters are children their daemons are continually changing form, at puberty the daemons set for life).

The Golden Compass includes a wonderful array of characters -- including witches, child-stealing "Gobblers", armored bears, absentee parents, evil scientists, and ship-going gypsies -- and an interesting plot.

The novel is a page turner and readers quickly become invested in protagonist Lyra and her quest. Once I read The Golden Compass, I had to continue the series so I also read The Subtle Knife (definitely the second book in a trilogy, somewhat disappointing) and The Amber Spyglass (a good conclusion to the series, satisfying).

If you haven't read these books, I'd encourage you to pick them up. They're not perfect, but they are good reading. I don't want to say too much more for fear of giving too much away (I had to zip my lips a bit at the book club meeting precisely because of that). A few more descriptive words should suffice: unique, subversive, enchanting...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Random "literary" discovery of the week

Moonstruck Chocolates of Portland, Oregon is offering a drool-worthy new item... a "Chocolate Novel"
What a novel idea! Go get yours now at their online store...

Friday, March 23, 2007

Ten books you can't live without

Inspired by The Guardian's poll to mark World Book Day, Kailana set out to conduct her own poll to create a list of bloggers' essential books. She's asked bloggers to post about their ten essential books (read more about this here) and I'd encourage all of you to participate.
--To give credit where credit is due, I found out about this from Susan at WestofMars--

Personally, I had a hard time trying to narrow down to a list of ten. In the end, I decided to focus on rereadability (books I have read multiple times). So, here's my list of ten books (or sets of books) I don't think I could live without...

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I just adore this book. I've read it so many times...

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My favorite Austen, though many of her books bear rereading.

3. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books
Yes, I'm one of those people who rereads all the Harry Potter books each time a new one debuts.

4. The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
I haven't reread this book in quite a while, but for some reason, I still count it as my favorite book.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Two words: magical realism.

6. 1984 by George Orwell
A wonderful, timely book.

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I first read this book in high school.

8. The Wump World by Bill Peet
This was one of my favorite books as a child. I have no idea how many times I've read it.

9. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books
My mom read these aloud to my sister and me.

10. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
While I could never appreciate Lord of the Rings as others have (I given up every time I tried to read the massive trilogy), I have read Tolkien's earlier novel a number of times.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Blue Shoes and Happiness

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith

Blue Shoes and Happiness is the seventh installment of Alexander McCall Smith's successful No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Not typical mysteries, the books meander gracefully to their conclusion rather than proceeding with page-turning thrills. As Assistant Detective Grace Makutsi says, "Mma Ramotswe [proprietor of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency] does not solve crimes. She deals with very small things. [...] But [...] these small things are important for people" (53).

Set in Botswana, the books are full of full of wisdom and humanity as well as sympathetic and subtly drawn characters. Smith writes in such a way to emphasize the different pace of life in Botswana. Just reading one of the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books forces the reader to slow done and relax, making them the perfect fare for a weekday evening.

In Blue Shoes and Happiness, Precious Ramotswe and her detective agency take on a number of new cases; her new assistant-assistant detective gets a chance to prove his detecting skills; and a new character appears in the form of Aunty Emang, the local newspaper's agony aunt. Additionally, Grace Makutsi's relationship with her new fiance is on rocky ground after she admits to being a feminist. The novel's most shocking thread, however, concerns Precious Ramotswe's decision to go on a diet. Yes, there's blackmail, and a home intruder, and a cobra in the office, but none of these things is nearly as significant as Ramotswe, a champion of the rights of the "traditionally-built," deciding that she needs to lose weight.

While the books do stand alone--each begins with a little summary of what has happened in the previous books--people new to the series should probably start with a different book. Blue Shoes and Happiness, while continuing in the same vein as the earlier books, may be slightly less accessible to neophytes. Readers familiar with Ramotswe and the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency novels will appreciate the mysterious pumpkin that threads its way through the book and Smith's exploration of gender issues. To others, these things may feel just a bit too foreign.

Read the full review at Armchair Interviews...

Monday, March 19, 2007

work in progress

Despite the fact that I haven't posted recently, I have been reading.

Right now I'm busy working on reviews for:
Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith,
A Mortal Glamour by Chelsea Quinn Yarbo, and
River Secrets by Shannon Hale.

Expect some more posts later in the week.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Sacred Hunger

Yesterday my friend Milan asked me what I thought of Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. He'd noticed its disappearance from my "currently reading" sidebar.

Obviously I don't post about every book that I read (according to my list, I've read 45 books so far this year), but there's not always a rhyme or reason to what I do blog about and what I don't. Since he asked, though, I figured I might as well post about Sacred Hunger.

The first thing I need to admit is that I had the book as a book ring (for those of you who aren't in the know, here's a link to relevant section of the BookCrossing FAQ) and probably didn't give the book as much time as I normally would (as it was, I kept the book for just over a month).

Honestly I was a bit disappointed in Sacred Hunger, but I think that's because my expectations were too high. I expected it to be a fabulous book (Booker Prize and all). I was really intrigued by the mulatto at the beginning of the novel and the reference to the utopic community in which he was born, but I felt like I had to read so much to get to that point (especially because Sacred Hunger is not a book that you can rush through). That being sad, I thought it was a very powerful book.

And Baby Makes Two

And Baby Makes Two by Judy Sheehan

Jane Howe is a thirty-seven-year-old single woman living in New York City. She has what some would call a perfect life: a satisfying and well-paying job, a great apartment in Greenwich Village, good friends, and family close enough to visit, but not close enough to be involved in her daily life.

When her biological clock starts ticking, Jane realizes what is missing in her life and readers learn the reason for her childlessness and her single status. Apparently the love of Jane's life died of Lou Gehrigs Disease. Although throughout the novel, this relationship is mentioned only in passing, a part of Jane's back-story that has relatively little bearing on her current life. Jane's mother seems more affected by Jane's younger sister Sheila eloping than Jane is by the death of her fiancé. To anyone who suffered a significant loss, this is incongruous.

Jane stumbles across a reference to a group on single motherhood and, from that point on, seems propelled along a trajectory that leads to her adopting a girl from China. While Jane is supposed to be making the most important decision of her life, it never really seems like she's consciously making a decision. Jane doesn't choose to adopt from China after thoroughly investigating international adoption and the various options available to her. Someone else adopts a baby from China and it just seems right to her -- so, China it is. Yes, she faces roadblocks -- a traditional father who disapproves of her becoming a single parent, a demotion at work, delayed paperwork -- but these things end up seeming like minor hiccups in the great scheme of things. Jane's biggest problem really has nothing to do with the adoption, it has to do with a love interest, a married love interest.

Apart from Jane's love interest Peter (who is horribly indecisive, but a very realistic character because of that), And Baby Makes Two has a wide variety of strong supporting characters. There's Ray, Jane's gay best friend and "hubstitute," who despite being a stock character is probably one of the most sympathetic characters in the book; Sheila, a scattered stepmom who was disowned after the incident mentioned above; the Chinamoms, a support group of women adopting babies from China; and a mother-figure in the head of Jane's adoption agency, who turns out to be her former professor (the same one in whose class she met her fiancé).

Read my full review at Front Street Reviews...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Wind Rider

Wind Rider by Susan Williams

Set on the steppes of western Asia six thousand years ago, Wind Rider is a multifaceted tale of one girl’s coming of age interwoven with a narrative about the first domestication of horses by the Botai people of modern-day Kazakhstan.

Fern and her brother Flint live with the stigma of being the only set of twins in their community. By all accounts, Fern should have been left to die, but, after suffering from stillbirths for many years, Fern’s mother Moss fought against the odds to keep both children. Already an anomaly in the superstitious ahne (a group of families that travel together during the warm months), Fern’s unique personality makes her stand out even more. She’s a strange girl who befriends animals and would rather be out hunting than sewing herself a new tunic.

As Fern begins to become an adult, she envies her brother’s freedom:
Choices, excitement, and honor lay ahead for Flint. I, on the other hand, would no sooner find blood running between my legs than I would be packed off to begin growing babies, tending pots and scraping skins for some young man as reckless and stupid as my bother, who, like him, would not listen to anything I had to say. (6)
Everything changes for Fern when she finds a young horse trapped in a bog. Unwilling to let the filly become her ahne’s next meal, she rescues the young horse and cares for her in secret. With Thunder, Fern’s life has new purpose. As Fern experiments riding, she and Thunder only grow closer.

It is only when Thunder is needed to bring an injured Flint to safety that Fern risks revealing her secret. While many in the ahne see Thunder only as a potential meal (and Fern with her animal “magic” as a witch), a few elders are convinced of the efficacy of keeping Thunder as a pet and workhorse. As Fern shows the community all the things that Thunder can do, they become more accustomed to and accepting of the horse in their midst. However, when famine strikes, it becomes increasingly difficult for Fern to justify keeping Thunder.

While this first-person narrative is a bit slow to start — which may be reflective of the pace of the life in this prehistoric community — it evolves into a suspenseful adventure story, in which both Fern and Thunder’s lives are at risk.

Courageous and rebellious, Fern is an imperfect character sure to strike a chord with young readers. Fern’s coming of age is less about becoming an independent woman than it is about growing into her role in the community. When severe depression makes Moss unable to care for Fern’s baby sister, Fern does everything in her power to keep Spring alive. It is only then that Fern begins to realize that the life of a wife and mother is more than just a life of servitude.

More than the story of the domestication of horses, Wind Rider charts the course Fern must take in order to develop the self-confidence to be comfortable in her own skin. While Fern becomes a legend in her own time, her greater accomplishment is learning to see her twin as a friend and partner rather than a rival.

Well-crafted and carefully researched, Wind Rider is a novel that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Williams’ descriptions of the Botai people and their life are at once completely foreign and surprisingly recognizable. Her mix of folklore and anthropology, as well as her obvious love for her characters, lend the novel a sense of authenticity.

Read my full review of this lovely book at Curled Up With a Good Kids Book...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Christine Falls

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls is the debut crime novel from Booker Prize-winning author John Banville (writing under the name Benjamin Black). Set in 1950s Dublin and Boston, the novel is slow, but well-paced. Its finely-drawn protagonist is pathologist Garret Quirke, who as an orphan was sponsored by a prominent judge (and who will hopefully be starring in future Black offerings).

Quirke stumbles into his office late one night after a hospital party to find his brother-in-law Malachy Griffin (the city's most prominent obstetrician) working on a file. When Quirke compares the file to the corpse it refers to he realizes that Griffin was falsifying the record and wonders why. When he begins to ask questions he receives thinly veiled warnings not to look further. Those are followed by the murder of one of his contacts (which rather than scaring him off makes him more determined) and gross physical harm to his own person. The closer Quirke gets to the root of the mystery the more it seems that both his family and the Catholic Church are somehow implicated.

Banville/Black's characters -- Quirke as well as many of the novel's secondary players -- are multidimensional and satisfyingly real. And, the 1950s setting is perfect for what the author is trying to accomplish in the novel.

Christine Falls is atmospheric. It definitely reads more like literary fiction than a traditional crime novel. Banville/Black's prose is precise and beautiful, however his attentiveness does slow down the plot especially at the beginning of the novel (I can see many crime novel enthusiasts losing patience with him). That being said, toward the end of the novel there are enough twists and revelations to satisfy the reader.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed three of Auster's novels in the past year, I was surprised when I had a hard time getting into this one. I was excited to read Travels in the Scriptorium especially since it's foreshadowed in The Book of Illusions (my favorite Auster novel so far), but each time I picked it up I couldn't get much past the first ten pages. Eventually I figured out why: I was spoiled. After listening to audio versions of two of Auster's novels, I'd become addicting to hearing him read (he's a wonderful reader); to me, Auster novels weren't Auster novels without his voice. Armed with this realization, I decided put Travels in the Scriptorium away for bit, to wait until the right time. That time, it seems, was this afternoon. I devoured the slim volume in one sitting.

Travels in the Scriptorium focuses on one day in the life of a character known only as Mr. Blank. Blank suffers from a certain amnesia. Under constant video surveillance, he's being held in room. But he doesn't know why... is he in a prison? a mental institution? Throughout the course of the day Blank has a series of visitors. From each of them he gleans more information about his past, sparking of vague memories. Only at the end of the novel do we readers/viewers come to understand who Blank is and full meaning behind the novel's title.

One of the things I like most about Auster's work is the sense of interconnectedness. Auster is a bit repetitive in his devices (though he handles them masterfully each time), but beyond that there are references and cross-references, subtle and not-so-subtle. For readers familiar with his work, this lends a incomparable (and joyful!) sense of discovery to the act of reading.

In The Book of Illusions, Travels in the Scriptorium is one of Hector Mann's lost films. And, Travels in the Scriptorium reads very much like something that could be a Hector Mann film. Once I got myself to read beyond the first few pages, I found my hook: the reappearance of things thought lost. I won't say much more than that because I hate to spoil surprises, but that, for me, is what makes this book special.