Monday, November 30, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This past week I finished reading:As always I have loads of titles waiting in the wings, but here are the titles I'm actively reading:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody

Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody by Michael Gerber

"Stop that movie," Headmaster Alpo Bumblemore said, "or Hogwash is history!"
Already overrun by brawling, fetid fans of the bestselling Barry Trotter books, Hogwash is certain to be pulled down brick by brick after Barry's new big-budget biopic debuts. So Barry Trotter, Ermine Cringer, and Lon Measly are hauled out of retirement to face their toughest challenge yet. Not only do the twenty-two-year-olds have to elude packs of rabid fans, outwit Barry's sponging godfather Serious, and vanquish their old foe Lord Valumart, they have to face the most powerful enemy of all: Hollywood!

When I first started listening to the book (I received the audio version on tape from a friend) I really hated it and thought that I wouldn't bother finishing it, but because I listen to books-on-tape in the car when I'm more or less a captive audience I ended up listening to the whole thing anyway. While I wouldn't recommend it (it was most definitely not my cup of tea), I will say that I found that the book got better toward the end.

To clarify, I'm not against parodies on principle and I have no problem with the author poking fun at Rowling and Potter, I'm just not the right person to give any kind of review of a book like this as my sense of humor does not tend to jive with that of the general populace (which is why I generally eschew "funny" movies). Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody is not appropriate for kids (mostly because of sexual references), but adults may find it amusing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Women on Wednesday: Orange Prize

The Orange Prize for Fiction is one of the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary prizes. It is awarded annually (usually in June) for the best original full-length novel by a female author of any nationality, written in English and published in the England and/or Ireland in the preceding year. The winner of the prize receives £30,000, along with a 7.5 inch bronze sculpture called the "Bessie" created by artist Grizel Niven.

A relatively young prize, Orange Prize for Fiction honored its first winner in 1996. The founders of the Orange Prize for Fiction (including Kate Mosse) were concerned that many of the most significant literary prizes often appeared to overlook writing by women. To that end, only female authors are eligible for the prize and the competition is judged exclusively by women. The longlist for the prize is usually announced in March and the shortlist in April.

The first Orange of Oranges Prize (a take on the Booker of Bookers Prize) was awarded Andrea Levy for her novel Small Island in 2005 in celebration of the Orange Prize for Fiction's tenth anniversary. Also christened in 2005 was the Orange Award for New Writers with a £10,000 award.

- Posted as part of Women on Wednesday

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

I've been looking forward to reading Leviathan since I happened across a copy while browsing at Barnes and Noble. The publisher's synopsis is in this post and if you go to this page and scroll down you can see a really excellent trailer.

Leviathan is set at the dawn of the Great War, but in an Europe much different from our own historic Europe. In the world of Leviathan, Europe is divided between Clankers (powers that employ high-tech steam-driven machinery, ie. Central Powers) and Darwinists (who rely on fabricated animals created through advanced biotechnology pioneered by Charles Darwin himself, ie. Allies). The novel's main characters are Aleksandar, the only son of the murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn, a teenage girl trying to pass as a boy and join the British air force.

I enjoyed Leviathan so much that I read it with conflicting desires: I wanted to get through it quickly to find out what happens, but I also wanted to savor it. I'm very much looking forward to the sequels (apparently Leviathan is the first in a four-book series).

I liked the characters. I thought the story was compelling (and that there was enough meat to it to nourish a series). I was fascinated by the world Westerfeld was able to create. And, I thought Keith Thompson's illustrations were wonderful.

Highly recommended. Russell is reading our copy now and then I'm loaning it to a friend.

Monday, November 23, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This past week I finished reading:As always I have loads of titles waiting in the wings, but here are the titles I'm actively reading:

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

I mentioned Wintergirls in this post when it first came out. It's been six months now and I've finally gotten around to reading the novel. I have to admit that while I wanted to read Wintergirls, I was a bit leery because of the subject matter. I knew Anderson would have handled the subject well since I'd read Speak, but I knew Wintergirls would be a difficult read and I wasn't sure that I was up for it. After reading it I can report that Wintergirls is not an easy read, but it definitely was not as difficult as I expected it to be.

The novel opens with protagonist and narrator Lia finding out that her best friend Cassie had died the night before ("...body found in a motel room, alone..."). At this point 18-year-old Lia, suffering from anorexia nervosa, has already been hospitalized twice. She is living with her father, stepmother, and younger stepsister and doing everything she can to keep losing weight without letting any of the authority figures in her life catch on.

Wintergirls is written as Lia's interior monologue. As such it is very effective. Things don't always make sense, but that's because Lia's perception of the world (and herself) is skewed. I really liked the way that Anderson represented Lia's self-editing and recurring thoughts.

The novel is haunting and Lia is not necessarily a sympathetic character, but Wintergirls is a well-written and important book. It's a book that you might not want to read, but that you can't help but keep reading once you've started. My biggest frustration when reading the novel was with Lia's father and step-mother. It seemed so obvious that Lia was not doing well, that she was falling into her old patterns, that she was lying and sneaking around, but they were almost willfully oblivious.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Subtitled "a memoir of going home," Mennonite in a Little Black Dress begins with what is arguably the worst week of author Rhoda Janzen's life. A debilitating automobile crash on the heels of her husband leaving her for a man he met through* is more than she can handle. Janzen decides to recenter herself by spending some time with her family and the Mennonite community from which they are inseparable.

While the narrative is very open and chatty, I found Janzen to be far too self- and Mennonite-deprecating for my taste. The author doesn't portray herself as a sympathetic character. Additionally it seems that that because the Mennonite culture is perceived to be a selling-point, the author felt the need to make that the focus of the memoir. I think the book would have been stronger if I had just been about this difficult patch she went through and her going home (even with all the reminiscences about her childhood). Throughout the narrative, though, Janzen feels the need to make all kinds of witty (or snarky) observations about the Mennonite community in which she grew up. This detracts from the overall story.

I was also disappointed in the ending. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress ends with a strange appendix entitled "A Mennonite History Primer" in which Janzen goes over things that non-Mennonites need to know about Mennonites (many of which had been mentioned multiple times in the course of the memoir). I think the book would have had a better sense of closure without the appendix. The beginning of the appendix looks exactly like the beginning of any of the other chapters so readers are liable to read it as if it is the last chapter (like I did, I didn't realize it was labeled as an appendix until I sat down to write up this book) and as a last chapter it is a bit inexplicable.

This all isn't to say that I didn't enjoy parts of the book and that I didn't laugh out loud at some points, just that I was disappointed. This book seemed to have so much potential so my expectations were high. In particular, knowing that the author is an English professor, I expected the writing to be better.

* Janzen uses the phrase "Bob, a guy he met on" many times (too many times!) during the course of the book.

Friday, November 20, 2009

44 Scotland Street

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

44 Scotland Street, the book and the house, is peopled with a variety of interesting personages: Bruce, a narcissistic junior surveyor; Pat, a 21-year-old girl struggling to find her place in the world before going off to college; Dominica,* an eccentric widow; and Bertie, a brilliant little boy who is plagued by an overzealous, overbearing mother, Irene. Originally published serially in The Scotsman, 44 Scotland Street is the story of those five characters and the people they encounter in their everyday lives.

I enjoyed 44 Scotland Street so much that I've already checked out the second book in the series, Espresso Tales. The story threads were interesting and all the characters full-bodied. Some of them were wonderfully sympathetic and others were irritating, but in that people-you-love-to-hate way. I also loved the guest stars who pop up from time to time.

The nature of serial novels makes them perfect candidates for audio books, I think, because they make it easy to pick up where you left off and to reorient yourself in the book's world even when you haven't had a chance to listen to the book for quite some time.

* I may not have the names spelled correctly as I listened to the audio version

Thursday, November 19, 2009

book clubbing in November

I'd been looking forward to our book club meeting this month because I expected that we'd have a good discussion. It seemed like people were falling at all points in the spectrum in their response to this month's selection, Loving Frank: some loving it, some hating it, and some feeling neither here nor there.

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

This biographical novel is the story of Mamah Borthwick Cheney, architect Frank Lloyd Wright's longtime mistress. Mamah first met Wright when her husband convinced her to have the architect design a new house for their family. She works closely with Wright during the design and construction of the house, her affair with Wright, however, doesn't begin until three years later. Mamah's feelings for Wright and her dissatisfaction with her staid, married life, compel her to leave her husband and children.

Loving Frank follows Mamah throughout her relationship with Wright, from its genesis, through her years with Wright in Europe and her homemaking at Taliesin in Wisconsin. The novel's ending comes as a complete shock to those unfamiliar with Wright's lifestory (like me).

Loving Frank was indeed a good book club book. It gave us lots to talk about. We discussed:
  • what we did and did not know about Wright before reading the novel,
  • how we felt about the main characters (the majority of us found both Mamah and Wright completely unsympathetic),
  • how much Buffalo featured in the novel (not at all really, only references to Darwin Martin loaning Wright money),
  • who Ellen Key (the Swedish feminist that Mamah befriends) was, what we thought of her beliefs, and what her role was in the story;
  • how much architecture featured in the novel,
  • why Catherine Wright (Frank's first wife) doesn't grant him a divorce,
  • how many times Taliesin burned down and whether Wright should not have taken it as an omen,
  • why the author focused so much on the press coverage of the affair,
  • how we felt about Mamah's choices and why she might have made them,
  • the writing (particularly the pacing, how the author told us things rather than showing them to us, and what we perceived as a lack of romance in the lovestory),
  • the reader (of the audio version), and the abridgment (also of the audio version)
among other things.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Women on Wednesday

I'm really keen to participate in the the new weekly meme that my friend Susan is starting on her Rocks 'n Reads blog, Women on Wednesday. This post explains it all, but here's the gist: Every Wednesday, write about a book you loved that’s written by a woman. Celebrate a woman author whose books you love. Talk about a book you’re dying to read.

Today is the perfect day to start as it is the birthday of a certain Margaret Atwood. Canadian writer Atwood turns 70 years old today and is most definitely worthy of celebration.

I have read quite of few of her books (and Moral Disorder is on our book club schedule for February), but The Handmaid's Tale is my favorite (and one of my favorite books overall). I'm looking forward to reading the recently released The Year of the Flood.If you haven't read Atwood yet, I'd definitely recommend The Handmaid's Tale. It's definitely in line with her more recent work with its dystopian themes, but it's extremely accessible (definitely more so than Oryx and Crake).

Monday, November 16, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This past week I finished reading:As always I have loads of titles waiting in the wings, but here are the titles I'm actively reading:


I haven't finished this book yet, but it comes likely recommended from Russell and I needed a nonfiction title for the November book of the month for the student services blog.

Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture by Taylor Clark

Published in 2007, Starbucked sets out to answer the question of how Starbucks became so popular. More than just a company history, Starbucked is an exploration of America's love affair with coffee.

While author Taylor Clark is not a fan of the coffeehouse chain, it is clear that his journalist roots compel him to strive for balanced reporting. Clark makes an effort to dispel myths about Starbucks and shows how it compares favorably to other infamous corporations like Walmart and McDonalds. This objectivity is precisely what makes Starbucked different from other books about the company, the majority of which are either aggressively pro- or anti-Starbucks.

You don't have to be a Starbucks fan or coffee lover to enjoy Starbucked because economics, cultural change, and quirky trivia are equally part of its narrative.

Monday, November 09, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This past week I finished reading:As always I have loads of titles waiting in the wings, but here are the titles I'm actively reading:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Lexicographer's Dilemma

The Lexicographer's Dilemma:
The Evolution of 'Proper' English, from Shakespeare to South Park

by Jack Lynch

I wasn't sure what to expect from The Lexicographer's Dilemma. I received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers. There's so much competition for books that I tend to request any- and everything that I think looks interesting because there's such a slim chance that I'll actually get any individual book.

Descriptivism vs. prescriptivism, that is the lexicographer's dilemma described in the book. Should the dictionary writer describe language as it is actually being used or should (s)he write only of "proper" or "correct" usage?

The Lexicographer's Dilemma is not a quick read, but it is definitely a worthwhile one. Rutgers English professor (and Samuel Johnson scholar) Jack Lynch charts the history of the English language in a surprisingly accessible way.

Lynch describes how the English language has developed and changed over time, focusing specifically on the genesis of our grammatical rules. Lynch also takes a bit of a biographical approach to language, spending numerous chapters on famous lexicographers like James Murray of the Oxford English Dictionary and Noah Webster.

The stories of some of our words, however, are the most interesting bits. Here's an example:
The English had long been using the words swin or swyn (first written down around 725), cu (before 800), and scep (around 825) to refer to common barnyard animals. The newly arrived French speakers, though, used their own terms: around the year 1300, they began referring to the same animals as porc, boef, and motoun. All six of these words, as it happens, have survived into modern English, but now they have different meanings: swine, cow, and sheep refer to the living animals--which would have been the English-speaking peasants' experience of them--and pork, beef, and mutton to the meat that they provide, the only way the French-speaking aristocrats would have dealt with them. (141)
While Lynch does spend quite a bit of time on grammatical problems like the split infinitive, the serial comma, and the inability to distinguish between who and whom,* The Lexicographer's Dilemma is an empowering book. Rather than making readers bemoan their writing skills, the book encourages them to engage with their language. Lynch ends The Lexicographer's Dilemma with this thought:
Speaking and writing shouldn't be a chore; we should resist all attempts to make us feel ashamed of speaking the way that rest of the world speaks. Using the language should be an opportunity for inventiveness, even playfulness. It's the only way to retain our sanity as we grapple with this big, messy, arbitrary, illogical, inconsistent, often infuriating but always fascinating language of ours. (276)

* Lynch has good news for many of us here. He predicts that whom will not last out the 21st century.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

a couple mysteries

Pride and Prescience:
Or, a Truth Universally Acknowledged
by Carrie Bebris

Another Pride and Prejudice spin-off, Pride and Prescience is the first in a series (the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Mysteries). It combines paranormal elements with Austen's characters and social milieu.

Caroline Bingley announces her engagement to a mysterious American at the Darcy/Bingley wedding reception, characteristically trying to showup the two brides. After her own whirlwind wedding, however, Caroline begins to act quite strangely. After a number of inexplicable incidents, Elizabeth begins to wonder whether other forces are at work in their small community.

I don't think the book is at all true to Austen (not even Austen's more gothic novel Northanger Abbey), but it was a quick read and can be fun if readers accept Elizabeth as a sleuth with possible psychic abilities and overlook some obvious flaws. The way that the various characters address each other is inconsistent and not appropriate to the timeperiod. Harder to overlook is the fact that the two main American characters are more or less stranded in England because of the war breaking out, one of them suggests that Caroline should be taken to the Louisiana estate to recuperate from her nervous disorder.

Shakespeare's Landlord by Charlaine Harris

Shakespeare's Landlord is the first book in Harris' Lily Bard series. Unlike the Sookie Stackhouse and Harper Connolly series, there's nothing supernatural going on in Lily Bard's Shakespeare, Arkansas.

Shakespeare's Landlord is a cozy mystery, but darker. Lily is a fiercely independent woman who runs a cleaning service and studies martial arts. Shakespeare's Landlord opens with Lily happening upon someone disposing a body with her own garbage cart. Because she doesn't want the police unearthing her own past, Lily withholds the information she knows about the killing and tries to figure out the mystery on her own.

The backstory that Harris gives Lily is horrific and may turn off readers who normally enjoy reading cozies.

Monday, November 02, 2009

It's Monday! What are you reading?

This past week I finished reading:As always I have loads of titles waiting in the wings, but here are the titles I'm actively reading:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Second Glance

Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

I've decided that I like Picoult's early novels best. They don't seem to be unbearably depressing like some of her more recent novels have been.

I enjoyed Second Glance very much. I liked how Picoult focused on the eugenics movement and drew comparisons to modern gene therapy.* I also liked the supernatural elements in the novel and how they were used to tie the past to the present. I thought the twist at the end was particularly satisfying.

* maybe gene therapy isn't the right term, but the right term is escaping me right now