Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: Heidegger's Glasses

Author: ThaisaFrank
Title: Heidegger’s Glasses
It’s WWII Nazi Germany. Toward the end of the war, the Nazi generals are desperate, but don’t want anyone to know. Some of them have taken to visiting mediums; this gives them the idea that letters written to the dead which go unanswered will bring misfortune. The solution is the formation of a top-secret unit of multilingual prisoners whose only job it is to answer these letters, because “like answers like.” This group of elite prisoners is housed underground, in a manufactured village in an abandoned mine, with a mechanical sun and moon. One day the unit gets a letter from Martin Heidegger, who is not dead, nor is the person he is writing to, his optometrist. The Jewish optometrist is in Auschwitz; as a famous philosopher affiliated with the Nazis, Heidegger must be placated about his friend’s fate.
I downloaded this book free from Amazon; it’s no longer free, but it is still available, both in print and for kindle. From reading the description on the Amazon website, I thought that this book would be more about Heidegger; although Heidegger is a character in the book, he isn’t a major character. Nonetheless, since he is in the title, his ideas permeate the book, chiefly, what does it mean to be-in-the-world? Our own views of Heidegger are still inextricably linked to how we feel about his wartime loyalties, so it’s brilliant that Frank set this book during wartime, both to demonstrate how Heidegger lived at this time and also to imagine what it was like for those who were victims of the regime he supported.
The central characters are the Nazi commander of the camp, Lodenstein, who identifies more with the prisoners than with his superiors, and who spends his time trying to keep them all out of the view of those in power, and Elie, his lover, who visits the outside world and trades her flirtatious smiles for small treats for her fellow scribes. Interspersed throughout the book are letters and their replies (supposedly written by the scribes); they provide an ironic contrast to the actual action, since the scribes are required to maintain the fiction that those in the camps are being treated humanely.
This is literary fiction. It appealed to me because of the Heidegger connection, and the author does a great job of weaving the philosophy through the novel, yet keeping the story at the forefront. Even if readers have never heard of Heidegger, they will be able to enjoy the book. This was a gripping novel on several levels. It took me a while to “find my footing” (I kept waiting for Heidegger to show up), but once I did, this was a rewarding read. 4/5*

Article first published as Book Review: Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank on Blogcritics.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Interview with the author: Christopher Buehlman

I reviewed the book Those Across the River earlier this month. Now here's an interview with the author, Christopher Buehlman, a local boy:
After writing poetry and plays, you’ve published your first novel. What attracted you to horror as a genre?
I always loved horror. And comedy. My childhood reading consisted of Stephen King, Mad magazine and Eerie comics, so it’s little wonder I tap both kegs when I write. Poetry tends to come out in the pauses; short flings in between commitments.
One obvious advantage to setting the novel during the days of the Great Depression was the length of time that had passed since the Civil War. The days of slavery were far enough past to be historical, yet close enough to still be affecting people’s lives. What were some other advantages (or disadvantages) to using that particular historical setting?
The 1930’s were the last recognizably modern years in which you could take a town like Whitbrow and really cut it off. I wanted it to have to live or die on its own, without the prospect of the FBI or National guard rolling in to sort things out.
Can you tell me a little about religion in the story? The town of Whitbrow has Christianized their pig sacrifices to the extent that the preacher is one of the strongest voices for maintaining the tradition. How does Frank’s disbelief work against him?
Frank is part of the ‘lost generation,’ a very secular individual to start with, confirmed in it by his ghastly experiences in France. I’m not sure this agnosticism works against him; if anything, it leads him to a place of confrontation and questioning rather than resignation. Whether he can win the conflict with acceptable losses or not, I think we like him better than the ones who are willing to roll over. He’ll try not to fight of course, but he won’t roll over.
A recurring theme in horror is ignorance vs. knowledge. Generally, ignorance is bliss, and the story becomes a battle between those who wish to remain ignorant and those (usually one unfortunate hero) who must know the truth, no matter what the price. How do you see this theme working itself out in the book? Is Frank that archetypal quester for truth? Or is he blundering around stupidly? Or somewhere in the middle?
Somewhere in the middle. He wants to know, but he doesn’t want to pay too high a price. When he is drawn into conflict, it isn’t a matter of high-minded idealism so much as a sense of duty. He fights not for truth, but in order to be able to live with himself-he doesn’t want to be someone who runs away, so he makes himself throw in.
I think I could make the argument that horror is closer than anything else we have right now to classical tragedy. In this context, what is Frank’s tragic flaw? How do you feel about the horror-tragedy comparison?
I think you’re right on with your comparison. Perhaps the aforementioned sense of duty is Frank’s chronic undoing. He went to fight in the trenches because he, like so many others, wanted to do the right thing. He faces the horror in the woods because it has already begun preying on his adopted community-he might well have picked up camp and gone North again, and it would have been wise to do so. But I like Frank because he doesn’t always do what’s wise. He’s no action-hero, but he is a guy you can count on to do his best when things get rough, even if it costs him dearly.
I’m wondering about Dora as a character. During some parts of the book, she comes across as a fully-realized individual, with her own set of motivations, desires, and fears apart from Frank’s. Yet at other times, she appears to be merely a victim. Does Dora get to have a tragic flaw (i.e. would she be considered the “heroine” of the novel), or is her fate merely part of Frank’s ultimate punishment?
Frank is the protagonist, and Dora is, for the purposes of this narrative, caught in his story in the same way that Eurydice is caught up in the story of Orpheus. I think that your observation that she comes across alternately as a self-actualized person and at other times a victim is true for many of us. I wouldn’t necessarily assign her a ‘tragic flaw’ in the Greek sense; if she has a tragic flaw, it’s that she’s a sensualist in a time that hasn’t given women full license to inhabit that role. Eudora is a rich girl who walked away from privilege. She wears her hair in the bob favored during the more open 1920’s, and we sense that she wishes she had gotten to taste adulthood then instead of during the beaten-down 1930’s.  She feels guilt (again, largely informed by societal norms), but this doesn’t prevent her from enjoying life. And she is deeply in love with Frank, even if it isn’t clear that she is capable of being sexually loyal to one partner indefinitely.
The town of Whitbrow has ritualized the sending of the pigs in a way that’s reminiscent of the action in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In fact, I can imagine you asking, “What would have happened had Jackson’s townspeople resisted their lottery?” and going from there. Was “The Lottery” an influence for the book? What other conscious influences were you playing off?
As alluded to before, Greek myth had a great deal to do with this story-the muscle and skin of Those Across the River rests on a mythic skeleton. After I finished the first draft, I realized that ‘Salem’s Lot was an influence as well; both novels involve small towns confronting supernatural predation and slowly unraveling under pressure. You’ve got a keen ear, though-Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House might just be the best horror novel ever written.
Switching to the personal for a moment… how did you become Christophe the Insultor? Have I seen you at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival?
Yep, that’s me. I was asked to run the stocks (pillories) at the Bay Area renaissance festival in 1989. I was twenty years old. People would give me a dollar to humiliate their victim in the stocks-my predecessors had largely used props, and it was a photo opportunity as much as anything else. But that wasn’t enough for me-I started talking to my locked-up victims, telling them (absurdly) what wretched creatures they were and listing their faults for the amusement of onlookers. That was the genesis. Over time it mutated into a lane act independent of the stocks, and then into a stage act that still tours the festival circuit.
There has to be some relationship between a person who can invent creative insults and a horror writer. How would you explain it?

“All comedy has a victim” the man said. I think that’s true. I think that horror and comedy are actually very close cousins; we’re horrified when our friend falls down the cliff, but we laugh when he gets up swearing. I think laughter is a collective primate expression of relief; short-circuited horror, if you like. Of course, this theory should not be mistaken for science-these are just my own musings. In any event, I’ll probably alternate between horror and comedy for the reminder of my writing career-I like to provoke a physical reaction in the reader (or listener), because that’s what I want done to me.

Thanks for asking such thoughtful questions, and kudos on the graphic with the girl leading the pigs. I love it!

Article first published as Interview with the Author: Christopher Buehlman on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: Year of Wonders

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: Year of Wonders
Description: In the 1600’s in a small village in rural England, an itinerant tailor sickens and dies. Although he had told his landlady to burn everything, those who had bespoken clothing demanded it, finished or not, and the plague started. Narrated by the tailor’s landlady, who also kept house for the local minister, Year of Wonders, based on a true story, tells how this village determined to isolate itself in order to avoid spreading the plague, and eventually lost two-thirds of its residents. The ill-educated townspeople tried everything they could think of to ward off the plague, after prayer seemed to have failed them, so the village dealt with accusations of witchcraft and religious fanaticism, as well as with those who would take advantage of others’ plight.
Plot: In a note at the end of the book, the author explains how she came across the story and which portions of it she fictionalized. Brooks deals deftly with a plot in which two-thirds of the main characters die.
Characters: Anna, the narrator, is all you could ask for in a protagonist. Though she was raised poor, she learned to read and write, and used the events she had to deal with to grow and even to gain knowledge. Her metamorphosis from uneducated peasant to woman of wisdom is skillfully portrayed. The secondary characters are also beautifully drawn, especially the Rev. Mompellion and his wife Elinor, Anna’s best friend, and Anna’s wretched father and step-mother.
Writing style: Brooks manages to write this story of death without being maudlin. The style is spare—the book is quite short—but eloquent.
Audience: This is literary fiction which would also be enjoyed by those who are interested in history or women’s studies.
Wrap-up: I really liked this book, which amazed me, since it is about the plague. The key, I think, is in Brooks’ choice of narrator; Anna is engaging and the reader cannot help but cheer for her as she bravely faces one disaster after another. One of my Top 11 for 2011! 5/5*

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011--Top Reads

I decided to go with a top 11 list this year, in honor of the dearly departing year, and also because I couldn't figure out which of these to drop off the list. It wasn't my best year ever in reading for several reasons, chiefly because of my byzantine system of choosing what to read next. I can't go into it; it's a little OCD. Anyway, these are in the order that I read them. I can't rate beyond that. If I had to choose the top book, it would be New York Trilogy, made more surprising and delightful by the fact that it came from nowhere and made my head spin.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Yes, the title essay was funny, but the two that really got me were the one about growing up in east central Illinois (which I did too, at exactly the same time that he did), and the one about the Illinois State Fair, which had me snorting for the better part of an hour.

Songs in ordinary time by Mary McGarry Morris

Paradise Dogs by Man Martin. You all knew this would make the list. I haven't been able to shut up about this book or this author. I loved that it was Floridian in that weird and wacky Florida way. It was funny. It was poignant.  It made me laugh. The author did an interview with me.

Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Now, where did I get the idea that Collins was boring? Because he's not.

The Rose & the Beast by Francesca Lia Block. 

Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell. Expanded ed. OK, this was my favorite book from childhood, but I got my hands on the expanded edition with two new chapters this year. The illustrations were just the same (gorgeous)! So I'm cheating and including it.

Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. You all know that I have a book by Alexander McCall Smith on the list just about every year. I hate to say it, but this was the only book of his that I read this year. My to-read pile is just too unmanageable.

New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I had never heard of him. I'd never heard of the book. And so it was a double delight to start reading and find that I was blown away. I didn't understand it, but had fun trying.

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen. A time-travel thriller that really made me think. Terrific read.

Ironweed by William Kennedy. Try to forget that Jack Nicholson was in the movie. The book is a masterpiece.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. A small England village is stricken by the plague and resolves to isolate itself in order to spare the neighboring villages. While the narrator finds sources of strength she did not know existed, others in the village give in to the temptations that accompany their terror.

Total books read this year: 144. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reading Challenges

I'm pretty excited; now that I've passed my comps, I'm indulging myself with some reading challenges this year. I still have to write a dissertation, so I can't indulge to the extent I would like, but I figured I'd pick one that I was sure to complete. Here it is:
New Authors Challenge
All I have to do is read 15 books by authors who are new to me-- piece of cake.  Then I started thinking, of course. If I can do that one, why not add a couple more that I'll automatically accomplish? 

This one seemed perfect: 
The Hopeful Librarian
All this one asks is that I read books from my to-be-read pile. Since my TBR pile currently consists of one full 5-shelf bookcase plus 2 2-foot piles on the floor (and 200 or so free ebooks on my kindle), that's pretty much my plan this year anyway!

Which brings me to :

a challenge that asks me to read 12 free ebooks. Not a problem!

Finally, my last challenge is a memoir-reading challenge. The basic level is only 1-4 memoirs, and I've got enough memoirs to fulfill that in my TBR pile, so I figure I'm there.

So there you have it, my four challenges for 2012. I'll be posting my reviews here as I make my way through them!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview with Man Martin

Man Martin lives in Georgia and teaches high school, but his second novel, Paradise Dogs features Floridian Adam Newman, an alcoholic who, despite his sweet young fiancée Lily, can’t quite let go of his ex-wife Evelyn. Amid his plots to get Evelyn back, Adam is trying to figure out who is buying up land in central Florida, and for what nefarious purpose. Along the way, he delivers a baby, provides marriage counseling, and helps his son write obituaries. I loved this book—perhaps my favorite so far this year—and I was thrilled when Martin agreed to an interview.

I’ll start with the obvious to get it out of the way. “Adam Newman” and “Evelyn” owned “Paradise Dogs” in the past, but have since lost it. Can you elaborate on why you chose the Edenic imagery? Can Adam hope for salvation, or just make the best of the situation he has gotten himself into? Finally, how does Lily fit into all of this?

At some point when I began writing about a hotdog restaurant, I discovered the restaurant itself would never appear, that it would have closed before the opening pages of the book. Once I knew this, I realized I was dealing with a post-Edenic story, that the characters would be striving to return to a perfect world they could never get back to, and which perhaps never existed.  Then I just had a ball coming up with names. Adam and Evelyn, of course, and their last name, Newman means “New Man.”  Addison means Adam’s son, and Kean is a sort of Anagram for Cain. Lily Manzana’s first name resembles Lilith and her last name is Spanish for “apple.”  They’re to be married by Father Peel, completing the forbidden fruit theme.  Finally, my favorite name of all, Wriggly Adder, is a name that means wiggly snake.  There’s a few other allusions like that running through the story, but I don’t think a reader needs them to enjoy the book. It’s just an author having fun, although the theme is about trying to return to a lost “Paradise.”

Adam seems to have the gift of stepping into any role and playing it perfectly. Why is he such a failure, then, at his own life? Or would you question my characterizing him as a failure?

               Adam is definitely a failure at his own life, and yet he has a magical knack for fixing other people’s problems, almost always in the guise of someone he is not.  He never sets out to pose as someone he isn’t; circumstances seem to put him in that position, and he just goes along with it.  I really don’t know why this is, except that in the early stages of writing I realized Adam was the sort of person who could solve anyone’s problems but his own.  Maybe Adam is a miracle worker only as long as it’s in the service of another person, or maybe it’s only when he’s acting in the moment, without a grand scheme for the future. Maybe it’s because if he never got anything right – even if only by accident – the situation would just be too terrible to bear.  Seeing him pull a rabbit out of his hat every time he comes across someone else’s predicament makes it funnier – and more frustrating – when he’s such a wrecking ball in his own life.

Adam seems to bear a literary kinship to Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Was this novel one of your influences as you set out to write this story? What were some of the others? 

Absolutely – I had that book very much in mind; it’s one of my favorites.  Both stories feature lunatic antiheroes who somehow create order out of chaos.  I hope, of course, Paradise Dogs is more than a rehash of Toole’s farce.  For starters, there’s the Biblical allegory you’ve already mentioned, and I think Adam has a more problematic and interesting backstory than Ignatius, and lastly, there’s the Disney connection.  In this book I also had in mind Fraser’s Flashman series, a despicable rogue who always seems to be on the spot as history is made. Lastly and most significantly, perhaps, I wanted to catch the spirit of P G Wodehouse’s hilarious romps, which always seemed to feature two or three tangled love stories plus some missing jewelry thrown in for good measure.

You were pretty convincing in describing Opoyo; are you yourself an Opoyo believer?

Yes.  The concept was given to me by Stephanie “J S” Buskirk, who once ran a highly eclectic reading series in Atlanta called Info Demo.  She conjectured that the universe is filled with this invisible substance, which is completely undetectable except insofar as it has the power to distort any communication passing through it, the way a glass of water refracts the image of a pencil inside it.  The only way to overcome the effects of Opoyul, she believed, was to communicate slightly off, never say exactly what you mean but always speak through some misdirection or metaphor to compensate for the Opoyul’s distorting influence.  It is sad to say that J S Buskirk did not live to see this book in print, but I think she’d be gratified to know her notion achieved some degree of immortality and amused that I had misheard her, that it is not Opoyo but Opoyul, a misunderstanding that confirms the existence of Opoyul itself!

Addison has a pretty cynical outlook on life, until the end of the book, when, in his “imagination he seemed to hear the grinding of gears of a deus ex machina lowering Zeus onto the stage to tidy up all the loose ends: unsatisfactory in fiction, perhaps, but extraordinarily gratifying when it occurs in real life.” Is Adam really The Amazing Adam Newman? Is there some other “deus” at work here? Or is the reader just being bamboozled (because here it is actually pretty satisfying in fiction, and it rarely if ever happens in real life, because life doesn’t just stop unscrolling at the happy place)?

What a freaking brilliant question.  If there were a Hall of Fame for Freaking Brilliant Questions, this one would be in the main gallery. 
Adam and Addison have a periodic discussion about what makes a proper story.  Addison says that since life basically sucks and in the end you die, stories should reflect this.  A story with a happy ending, Addison says, is like being lied to.  Adam agrees that life is sucky and ends only in death, but that’s exactly the reason he feels stories have to have happy endings.  We need stories to give us what life does not.  Paradise Dogs, itself, of course, reveals what the author thinks is the best ending of the story.  In true Man Martin fashion, I eat my cake and have it, too.  In one sense Adam and Addison get their happy endings, and they are as improbable and zany as anything in a Jerry Lewis movie or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  The diamonds are recovered, Adam’s fortune is restored, he’s about to get married, and Addison is about to kiss the girl.  But as you point out, life doesn’t stop “unscrolling,” and it only takes a moment’s consideration to realize the ending is not as happy as it seems.  Adam is not marrying Evelyn, but Lily, and he is essentially signing up to be a “pretend husband” in the way he’s already been a pretend doctor, lawyer, and priest.  Adam is an alcoholic and a pretty damn serious one – one of the last things he does in the book is steal the communion wine and drink it – his condition can only get worse.  Disney’s arrival, although it gives Adam a temporary financial reprieve, will prove catastrophic to the natural beauty of the region – a beauty Adam already mourns from previous “squalid” developments such as the destruction of the Old Courthouse.  Within the sadness of Disney’s arrival is another sadness, because Disney’s dream – as megalomaniacal as it may be – never comes true, and Disney does not live to see his new “world” created.  And as for Addison’s kissing Kathleen, her last words are, “This is a mistake,” and it is a mistake.  Addison’s brother is still at home locked in the bathroom.  Whatever the future holds for Kathleen and Addison’s romance, there’s bound to be some difficult and unpleasant times ahead between the two brothers.

There are several romantic relationships in the novel, and the characters have varying views on what makes a successful relationship, from “Praise Jesus” to Kathleen and Kean’s doing things next to each other, but not with each other. In your opinion, which of the relationships in the novel is the most successful, and what makes a marriage really work? Will Adam and Lily stay together?

The relationship for which I hold out the most hope is Johnny, Janey, and little Bateman.  They seem devoted to each other and their relationship is complicated by nothing worse than irritating in-laws and poverty.  If you play those cards right, those sorts of problems end up making you closer.  I hope Kathleen and Addison make a go of it, but I don’t know.  The fun and easy part of a relationship is that first kiss – actually the moment just before that first kiss.  Things get difficult when you start dealing with leaky pipes and grocery bills.  Adam will stay married to Lily and she’ll be there for the nasty ending that awaits chronic alcoholics.  As far as what makes a marriage work, what little I know I learned from my own father, himself an alcoholic, on whom Adam was partly based.  For all his faults, and they were large and numerous, Dad never stinted on telling people he loved them.  I have learned this lesson and practice it assiduously.  Each day, and several times a day, I tell my wife I love her.  I mean it, too, but one or both of us might be apt to forget it without the daily reminder.  We have been married thirty-one years next July.  Let not one day pass without remembering to be grateful for her.

More than any other passage, this one sums up the book for me:  “There was absolutely no reasonable pretext for leaving the hospital, and Addison knew this. All responsibility, common sense, and self-preservation were on the side of staying.  On the side of going was only his father’s request. ‘Okay,’ he said.”  Why does doing the absolutely wrong thing so often turn out to be the right thing to do?

Ha!  I don’t know.  Could it really be something as corny as following your heart?  I don’t know, and I don’t recommend you try this at home.  If an alcoholic offers to drive, you’re better off walking. Still.  Sometimes the wiser answer is on the side of love, not reason.  “The heart has reasons that reason knows not.”

How did you get to be so funny?

Thank you for saying I am.  Maybe the best answer was given by Steve Martin who said every morning he put a sliced tomato in each shoe.  That way, he said, “as soon as I get dressed, I feel funny.”

Article first published as Interview: Man Martin, Author of Paradise Dogs on Blogcritics.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: Those Across the River

                In Those Across the River, ChristopherBuehlmann gives us a straight-up horror novel. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t read much horror; usually it is too grisly for my taste. The descriptions of this novel intrigued me for some reason, so I took the chance. During the Great Depression, Frank and his girlfriend Dora are looking for a new start, and Frank is conveniently left a house in a small Georgia town (which his deceased aunt begs him to sell, not inhabit). The first clue that something is really wrong, of course, is that Frank and Dora are adulterous, since Dora was married when she fell in love with Frank. Although they appear in town as a conventional married couple, they are not yet wed. Dora has been hired to teach school, and Frank, a historian by profession, plans to write a book about his ancestor who had a plantation across the river. Stories of the ancestor’s cruelty to his slaves continue to this day.
                As they become more a part of their new town, Frank and Dora are surprised by the monthly ritual of sending two pigs (complete with flower garlands around their necks) across the river. The pigs have never been seen again, although two pigs a month should have produced a thriving colony of wild boars. When the town votes to stop the monthly tradition of sending the pigs, the trouble starts.
                I received this book from Netgalley as a review copy. It was a good “starter” horror novel, as the horror built up gradually, and the grisly descriptions were (to some extent) restrained. By the time things really get rocking in the horror department, the reader is hooked on the story and willing to put up with the gore in order to find out what happens. Typically, the protagonists make mistake after mistake, as they ignore warning signs until it is way too late. The only thing that irritated me about the writing was the repetition of certain phrases. These would first come up in a non-threatening situation, then the narrator (Frank) would repeat them in his head at various times as he remembered something about the situation. The phrases didn’t seem all that sinister, and the payoff wasn’t quite there when the phrases were repeated during the climax of the novel.
                All horror books are sick, and this one is no exception, though perhaps it is less sick than most contemporary horror. Nonetheless, the story pulled me through, and for a couple of days, this was the book I couldn’t put down. 3.5/5* (would be higher if I enjoyed horror J)

Article first published as Book Review: Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman on Blogcritics

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book Review: The Tiger's Wife

Author: Tea Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Description: Natalia’s grandfather, a doctor, grew up in a small village and befriended the tiger’s wife. He also had several run-ins with the deathless man. The novel opens on the day of her grandfather’s death, and Natalia, away from home on a medical assignment, remembers his tales and seeks more information about the circumstances of his death. The novel moves back and forth between the present day, where Natalia, herself a doctor, visits a village where a mysterious family comes to dig in the vineyard, and the past, both that of Natalia’s childhood and that of her grandfather’s youth. Folk tales blend with magical realism in this tale of family, war, and hope.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: There are several storylines going on in the novel, and some are more successful than others. I found the story of the deathless man to be the most fascinating, and always welcomed the sections of the book that dealt with him. The story of Natalia herself, though, was not as gripping—probably because it did not have the supernatural pull.
Characters: Natalia, her grandfather, her grandmother, the deathless man, the tiger’s wife—they all struck me as fairy tale characters; in other words, they have things happen to them, but they don’t seem like people I would relate to. 
Writing style: I enjoyed Obreht’s writing style; she doesn’t back off from strong symbolism, for example, or stories embedded in stories embedded in stories. There was a certain lack of urgency—Natalia herself was never in danger during the novel, so the reader has the luxury of savoring the stories without worrying about the outcome.
Audience: This is literary fiction; I read a review that compared it to YA, and although I disagree with the review, I do think that teenagers would probably like it. The book won this year's Orange Prize.
Wrap-up: The book reads as if it is a collection of tales connected by a loose overarching story; as such, when the tales are gripping, the book is worthwhile. I enjoyed this read, though I kept waiting for more to happen than eventually did. 4/5*

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review: The Vanishers

Author: Heidi Julavits
Title: The Vanishers
Description (source): Julia Severn, a student at a psychics’ training school known as The Workshop, seems to be cursed by one of her professors. Meanwhile, she becomes involved with research on an avant-garde filmmaker of the 1980’s who may have a link to Julia’s deceased mother. The “Vanishers” of the title are those who have disappeared from the lives of their loved ones, either via suicide, or by simply vanishing—although they may choose to leave a video for their families to watch.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: This book was strange. The overall theme was women’s relationships, and Julia encounters several strange women—Alwyn, Madame Ackermann, Dominique Vargas, and, perhaps, her own mother.
Characters: Nearly all of the characters in the book are women, and the book is really about how women, especially mothers and daughters, relate, or don’t relate, to each other. I didn’t get the feeling that I really knew any of the characters, though, even the narrator.
Writing style: The book is sort of surreal—things happen that really aren’t explained, other than that the book is set in some kind of alternate universe in which psychic powers are real. There are some other differences as well, but they aren’t ever really explained. Everything seems sort of dream-like. If you’ve read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, it’s that same sort of feeling.
Audience: literary fiction. From the description, though, it sounded like it could be women’s fiction, paranormal, something of the sort, but it’s not upbeat and cohesive enough.
Wrap-up: The book was an interesting read, but not riveting or especially rewarding. So I’ll give it 3/5*

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: The Prague Cemetery

OK, the one you've been waiting for: the worst book I ever read. DO NOT PURCHASE THIS BOOK; YOU WILL HATE YOURSELF

Pub date: 11/8/11
Author: Umberto Eco
Title: The Prague Cemetery
Description: Nineteenth-century Europe—from Turin to Prague to Paris—abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian republicans strangle priests with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate Black Masses at night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Europe is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. But what if, behind all of these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay one lone man? What if that evil genius created its most infamous document?

Eco takes his readers on an unforgettable journey through the underbelly of world-shattering events. Eco at his most exciting, a book immediately hailed as his masterpiece. (Publisher description)

Review source: Netgalley

I hated this book. Hated it. Let me say up front that I absolutely hated it.
Now that that’s off my chest, I’ll try to do a decent review. I read the blurb above, and it sounds like the kind of book I normally go for, with mysteries and conspiracies and intricate plot twists and revelations. Don’t let this fool you. Maybe I’m doing a spoiler here, but I don’t think so. There is one central character who has absolutely no redeeming qualities. His life is built around hatred, most especially hatred of Jews, and the book explores that hatred in all its dimensions. He is surrounded by other despicable people. They plot against one another. The reader never cares about any of them, so their ultimate fates are of no interest. There is plenty of hatred and invective spewed around for everyone: Jews, first and foremost, but also Freemasons, priests, especially Jesuits, communists, and women. The book is foul to the point where one almost feels dirty to continue reading it; I can’t imagine anyone writing it without either having the pustulence within himself gushing out, or else being permanently tainted by creating these thoughts. The blurb asks “what if one man were behind all of this?” but the book basically answers “so what?” Not nearly as intriguing as the question might suggest.

I don’t know who will hail this book as a masterpiece, but undoubtedly someone will. I, on the other hand, advise you to stay far away from it.

Now, it’s time to bathe my soul and try to forget this book exists.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz

               Published during the height of the Cold War, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr. imagines the U.S. after nuclear devastation. Learning is feared and punished, defended only by small groups of religious brethren in the wilderness. Grotesque deformities, the results of radiation poisoning, are common. Set in the “wild west,” the book follows a monastery dedicated to St. Leibowitz, a martyr for knowledge. In the first third of the book, an innocent postulate stumbles upon a treasure-trove of Leibowitz’ writings. In the second third, set decades later, New Rome sends scholars to study the scientific work being done at the monastery. In the third and most powerful section, the monastery reacts to the renewal of nuclear hostilities.

                I found the disconnect between the three parts of the book fairly disconcerting. Miller did publish the sections separately before he pulled them together into a book, and I wasn’t surprised to discover that. The second section was the most difficult for me—it seemed over-long and a bit pointless. The first section was entertaining and quite funny. The third section, however, really makes the book worth reading as it wrestles with theology, ethics, and suffering. This isn’t really a character-driven book; since decades pass between the three sections, each section has to establish brand-new characters, with the exception of the Wandering Jew character who pops in and out of the story.

Miller writes with a good deal of humor, which doesn’t quite mask a real fear of what humans can and may do to one another. I’m not sure if the book was written primarily as a cautionary tale, but it certainly serves that purpose. I was also impressed by the theology included in the book; apparently Miller converted to Catholicism; here he writes thoughtfully and well about faith. Ironically and tragically, Miller later committed suicide. The book has been marketed as science fiction; it would be a shame, though, to limit its readership to science fiction fans. Since the post-Apocalypse genre seems to be making somewhat of a comeback, anyone interested in questions of faith, ethics, the value of learning, and the nature of humanity should read the book.

My husband read this book years ago; after reading it, he told me that it had convinced him that euthanasia was wrong. I’ve never forgotten this, and I’ve had an image of the book as being about an individual suffering unimaginably. I was wrong (for that story, read Mary Doria Russell’s books), but this background colored the way I read the book, since I kept waiting for the suffering to start. (Don’t worry, it happens, but it’s not like I had imagined.) The main thing I didn’t like about the book was its lack of continuity, which is why it gets 3.5/5*.

Article first published as Book Review: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Blogcritics.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

Author: Thomas Mullen
Title: The Revisionists
Description : The books opens as we meet Z, a “revisionist” who has been sent from the “Perfect Future” to make sure that the future stays that way. His opponents are the “hags,” time-traveling rebels who attempt to change the future by preventing certain events from happening. After Z makes sure that a certain journalist will indeed be murdered, the point of view shifts to three other protagonists: Sari, a beautiful young Indonesian domestic worker who is trapped in her horrific employment by her lack of documentation and her inability to speak or understand English; Leo, a former CIA agent who, a bit at loose ends after his CIA gig went bad, works for some kind of intelligence-gathering company; and Tasha, a lawyer on the fringes of activism who is of interest to both Leo and Z.
Review source: Netgalley
Plot: The plot is riveting. Even though the action alternates among the four main characters, the reader is not confused about what’s going on. Mullen manages to describe the action clearly without revealing motives too soon. During a good amount of the book, the reader wonders how all four of these characters will eventually connect, but there is no doubt that will eventually happen.
Characters: The four main characters form two loose couples: Z and Tasha know one another, and Leo and Sari know one another. As the point of view moves from one to another, each character reveals enough of his or her past to become familiar and sympathetic to the reader. Z is the only character who is written in first-person, and there is no doubt that he is the primary protagonist. He also has the most backstory, though all of the characters have some history.
Writing style: This was my first book by Mullen, and I thought it was brilliant. He kept the plot spinning, drew the characters finely, and still managed to ask the big philosophical questions that make a book memorable.
Audience: While its genre is technically time-travel  sci fi, this book will be of interest to readers of literary fiction as well.
Wrap-up: What is the nature of history? If people lose their past, how much of themselves do they lose with it? Is murder ever justified? Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? These questions are the kind that keep getting raised by this book; all the while we’re trying to fight off fiendish bosses, mourning lost loved ones, and trying to figure out the moral conundrums of postmodern life with the characters of The Revisionists. 4/5*

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Book Review: The Lost Prince

When I first bought my kindle, I wanted some books on it, but I didn’t want to pay for them (since I had just spent a bunch on the kindle). I was going through the free book list on kindle, and I saw some books by one of my favorite childhood authors, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Of course, I grabbed The Secret Garden, just to have it, but I also downloaded a book of hers that I had not yet read, The Lost Prince. (It’s still available for free on kindle, by the way.)

The main character, Marco, is a boy (early teens) who lives with his father in a poor area of London. The pair is in exile from their home country, Samavia, which is in political turmoil. Marco’s father, Stefan, has raised him to be a patriot, even though Marco has never been to Samavia. Marco meets and befriends a crippled boy known only as “The Rat.” Together, the two boys imagine fighting for Samavia and concoct intricate plots involving restoring The Lost Prince, a mythical figure who is the rightful heir to the throne of Samavia.

By now you have probably guessed the “big surprise” of the book. Nonetheless, I’ll continue the review. It is impossible for me to review this book other than with reference to Burnett’s other, better-known books that I loved as a child: The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and A Little Princess. The common theme of these books is a child in wretched circumstances who, by the end of the book, is in a situation better than could have ever been imagined by anyone anywhere. This book follows that same pattern. The difference is first that there is no suspense whatever. Second, the children in her more popular books (at least the girls) grow through their difficulties. Marco is perfect throughout the book, so he isn’t very interesting. The Rat is much more interesting, but he is never allowed to be more than a supporting character.

The other major flaw in the book is the intrusion of some strange religious beliefs. Burnett herself was a well-known religious seeker, especially after the death of her oldest son. She was, at different times, a Christian Scientist and a spiritualist. The religion that crops up in this book wasn’t recognizable to me, but it had to do with a spiritual source of power known as “The One” and implied (perhaps Buddhist?) doctrines of peace, fearlessness, and destiny. There are sections of the book that go into these beliefs in an almost sermon-like way—not quite as bad as Ayn Rand, but nearly so.

In spite of the problems I’ve mentioned, I found myself caring what happened to the boys and looking forward to the revelation of the “secret” which every reader knows from the first few pages (or before, if you have read this review). The real payoff of Burnett’s books is the ending, where “happy” would be a severe understatement, and this book didn’t disappoint. I was reading the final few chapters while on the elliptical, and in spite of my exertion, I actually found myself with chills at one point. Any book that can give me chills must have something to recommend it! Bottom line: Don’t read this book until you have read her better books that I mentioned earlier. If you still haven’t got enough Burnett, this one is fine. It would be fine for kids, as long as you don’t mind your kids praying to The One now and then.

Article first published as Book Review: The Lost Prince by Frances Hodgson Burnett on Blogcritics.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Review: A Paradise for Fools

Author: Nicholas Kilmer              
Title: A Paradise for Fools

Description (source): The young woman in the hair salon raises her shirt in a furtive gesture to show a friend the work in progress- a riot of stunning tattoos. From his accidental vantage point in the barber's chair, Fred Taylor knows that those weird insects, beasts and naked human figures could only come from something nice-a painting that, if he could only see it in the flesh, might prove to be rare, and of significant value. The girls don't have a clue.

Such a painting needs to be understood and identified. But before that can happen, it must be found. Fred's inquiries lead from the hairdresser to the illegal tattoo parlor of an unlicensed genius. Fred is met everywhere by ignorance and denial. Anyone who must have seen the painting denies that it exists, despite the vivid proof increasingly laid bare on the hairdresser's skin.

Fred's employer, the collector Clayton Reed, is out of the country. So Fred, left to his own devices, is free to follow the trail despite being distracted by his first meetings with the intriguing librarian Molly Riley. Not wanting to spook his unwilling witnesses, Fred must proceed with caution even after he encounters the first serious bump in the road - a suspiciously convenient hit and run that turns one potential informant into an abrupt dead end.  (Marketing copy)

Review source: netgalley

Plot: It took a while to figure out what was going on in this book—I haven’t read any in the series (this book is the 8th). Once I got into it, though, I was hooked.
Characters: I really liked Fred, the detective. He’s curiously bereft of all the normal vices (greed, anger, lust), so he strikes me as a walking brain. The supporting characters are interesting as well, including the love interest, a fetching librarian (!)

Writing style: This is where the author shines. I loved his distinctive writing style, which includes dialogue that both sounds realistic and subtly hides clues. I do think that you would either love or hate his style; I just got lucky.

Audience: Mystery readers who tend to like hard-boiled detectives or cerebral mysteries. Generally I wouldn’t probably pick this up, but I’m really glad I did.

Wrap-up: If you haven’t, give Nicholas Kilmer a try. He has a distinctive voice and concocts a tight plot. 4.5/5*

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Notes from faculty seminar

I work at a university, and every year, usually during faculty seminar, and sometimes on other occasions, I hear a variant of this. Some respected person, generally 40+ is speaking and says, “College changed my life. But you know what? I don’t remember a book that I read, I don’t remember a test that I took. It was the professors. The relationship that I had with my professors changed my life and made me who I am today.” This is to make the professors feel good, like we matter. And we do. I had a professor who changed my life too.

But guess what? I actually remember a couple of final exams (perhaps not for good reasons—i.e. perhaps I didn’t do as well as I should have). Even more, I DO remember books that I read. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The works of Charles Williams. John Donne’s sonnets.  The Second Coming by Walker Percy. These books changed my life at least as much as my professors did, and unlike my professors, who stayed while I left, and who have passed away or retired, the books are still with me, like good friends. I have wonderful memories of the professors, but they are fading as I grow older; the books I was introduced to during my higher education haven’t faded a bit; in fact, I have returned to them, and each time, they give me something new, for this time in my life. In turn, they have even introduced me to others of their kind.

I’m not trying to make a case against valuing professors. I just wish that by valuing them, we didn’t have to devalue something similarly precious and underappreciated. Maybe people should say that they don’t remember the college food, or the weekend parties. But please, leave the books out of this.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: All Cry Chaos

Author: Leonard Rosen
Title: All Cry Chaos
Description (source): The action begins when mathematician James Fenster is assassinated on the eve of a long-scheduled speech at a World Trade Organization meeting. The hit is as elegant as it is bizarre. Fenster's Amsterdam hotel room is incinerated, yet the rest of the building remains intact. The murder trail leads veteran Interpol agent Henri Poincaré on a high-stakes, world-crossing quest for answers.

Together with his chain-smoking, bon vivant colleague Serge Laurent, Poincaré pursues a long list of suspects: the Peruvian leader of the Indigenous Liberation Front, Rapture-crazed militants, a hedge fund director, Fenster's elusive ex-fiancée, and a graduate student in mathematics. Poincaré begins to make progress in America, but there is a prodigious hatred trained on him --some unfinished business from a terrifying former genocide case-- and he is called back to Europe to face the unfathomable. Stripped down and in despair, tested like Job, he realizes the two cases might be connected and he might be the link.

This first installment in the Henri Poincaré series marries a sharp, smart mystery to deep religious themes that will keep both agnostics and believers turning pages until the shattering, revelatory end. Anyone who enjoys the work of John Le Carré, Scott Turow, Dan Brown, and Stieg Larsson will relish Rosen's storytelling and his resourceful, haunted protagonist. Others will appreciate his dazzling prose. Still others, the way he bends the thriller form in unconventional ways toward a higher cause, in the vein of Henning Mankell in The Man From Beijing. In short, All Cry Chaos promises to become a critical success that garners a broad readership throughout the nation and across the globe. (Amazon product description)

ARC source: Library Thing early reviewers

I loved this book, plain and simple. Reasons that I loved it: the plot catches your attention and drags you in, right off the bat. No waiting until 50 pages in to see what’s going on. The detective is one of the most sympathetic and riveting characters I’ve encountered in a long while. He is completely believable, and when his heart broke, mine did too. The author weaves math, specifically fractals, into the mystery in a way that is both integral (no pun intended) and educational—but without making the reader actually DO any math. The supporting characters are all well-drawn as well; there are several of them that I would be happy to see featured in their own books. The ultimate solution to the mystery is both believable and surprising. Finally, the author uses the mystery to open up a discussion of questions of import: why are we here? Can good triumph? Can we make a difference?

This book made my life happier for the days that I was reading it. I will for sure look for more books in the series, and I’ll give All Cry Chaos a 5/5*.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: The New York Trilogy

Here’s something I love: You have a book that you did not buy. You know nothing about it but its title and the picture on the cover. These lead you to certain expectations about the book, but when you begin to read, you realize your expectations were totally wrong, and the actual book you are reading is way better than you expected. This is what happened when I read The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. The book’s cover led me to believe that I would be reading three noir novellas. In a way, that’s what the book is, but additionally, it’s much, much more.

In the first book, “City of Glass,” a detective (who is not a detective) is hired to follow a man who may be contemplating his son’s murder. In “Ghosts,” another detective (who is a detective this time) is hired to follow a man who may or may not be aware that he is being followed. In “The Locked Room,” a man is summoned by his friend’s wife to become executor after the friend’s disappearance.

Each of the “books” is related to, and speaks to, the others. Characters from one book may pop up in another; perhaps the author himself will appear. Exactly who is who can be the most confusing question the reader encounters. Auster deals with questions of representation, of meaning, and of agency. How can we make meaning in a world in which no one notices us? Do we even exist? Does it take language to fully represent another human to us, and if so, what is the role of the language as it interposes itself between the speaker and the audience? Does it focus or distort? In each book, a detective figure searches for information on someone who is at first completely other, but becomes more and more like the detective, until in the end the doppelganger is an unspoken figure in each story, haunting the narrative with his ominous presence.

In the end, the protagonists of the books spend a lot of time, write a lot of words, and perform a lot of actions, only to be left wondering why their lives have turned out as they have. As Fanshawe remarks, “You can’t possibly know what’s true or not true. You’ll never know.” The words on the page are all that remains of the bewildered detectives and their antagonist/doppelgangers; what if they too are destroyed? Auster answers his own question: “He had answered the question by asking another question, and therefore everything remained open, unfinished, to be started again. I lost my way after the first word, and from then on I could only grope ahead, faltering in the darkness, blinded by the book that had been written for me.” This is exactly how I felt after finishing the book.

I loved this book. It was one of those books that you never want to finish, so you put it away for a day or so in order to draw out the reading. Yet it destabilized me just as it destabilized the protagonists who were called out of their small meaningless lives in order to be the heroes of lives that are still perhaps without meaning, but on an even grander scale.

Article first published as Book Review: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Oh, Mexico

Author: Lucy Neville

Title: Oh, Mexico: Love and Adventure in Mexico City

Description (source): Adulthood inevitably encroaches on all of us, but it is how we choose to acknowledge it that crafts our own story. For Lucy Neville, the reality of life after college did not provide the adventure she was seeking. Instead of taking the conventional route and starting a career, Lucy longs to further her learning of the Spanish language.  She decides the best way to do so would be to immerse herself in a Spanish speaking culture, and the obvious choice for most young women would be Spain. Instead, Lucy moves to Mexico City without the safety net of money, contacts, or even a thorough understanding of the language and despite the warning of the dangers at every turn. To Lucy, this is all part of the draw.
And so begins a young woman's hilariously dysfunctional love affair with a strange yet energetic city. Lucy quickly finds a job teaching English as a second language and discovers several culturally characteristic personalities as she adjusts to this new world. Against the backdrop of dangers like kidnapping, corruption and drug wars, alongside the delights of Mexican dance and street food, Lucy finds herself in outrageous situations, in both love and life in general. Landing a role in the famous Latin American soap opera, Tequila Loving, and managing to fall in love with two men, Lucy is an unpredictable spirit that proves irresistible to the reader. Her adventures culminate with the arrival of her eccentric relatives - where culture, a love triangle, and truth collide. (Marketing copy)

ARC source: netgalley

Writing style: Lucy has a wonderful writing style for this type of book and blends cultural observations with her own personal encounters in just the right proportion.

Audience: nonfiction, memoir, travel readers. This is the kind of book I would pick up, so I was predisposed to like it.

Major ideas: One reason that I really like to read books about peoples’ encounters as they live in foreign countries is that this is something I’m really drawn to, but because I have commitments, I’m past the stage of life where I can pull up stakes and move to Mexico or Peru. Or else I haven’t hit it yet. Or, a little voice whispers, I’m just not brave enough to show up in a country where I don’t speak the language, have no job and very little cash, and see how I get by. But I am brave enough to read about it.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book tremendously and would have enjoyed it had it been twice as long. Lucy has the generosity of spirit to accept people as they are, even when they are quite odd. For this reason, we’re given a sort of wide-eyed, yet not naïve, view of this exciting and vibrant country. Not to mention I wanted to try all of the food except for the stew that was made to mimic Aztec-human-sacrifice-stew. 4/5*

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review: The Apothecary's Daughter

Author: Julie Klassen 
Title: The Apothecary’s Daughter

 As we meet Lilly, the apothecary’s daughter, she stands on a bridge, wistfully looking for her mother, who deserted the family several years earlier.  Meanwhile, the apprentice apothecary her father recently acquired moves in but has difficulty learning the trade. Lilly’s life revolves around the shop, her family, including her mentally disabled brother, and her best friend, Mary, who suffers from epilepsy. When relatives of her mother visit, Lilly is given the chance to leave her small country village to taste life in London. Although she is courted by several young gentlemen, her status as the daughter of a tradesman and her past, tainted by her mother’s disappearance, hold her back from feeling free to marry. When her father’s serious illness calls her home, Lilly must choose between life as a young lady in London and life as a tradesman’s daughter in her small village.

This book wasn’t what I was expecting; genre-wise, it was more historical fiction than romance. While most romances revolve around the relationship of the hero and the heroine, The Apothecary’s Daughter definitely has a heroine, but several suitors vie for the hero’s role. This more realistic view of a courtship and eventual marriage identifies the book as historical fiction with romantic elements.  I found the details of the business—the apothecary’s shop, the medical treatments of that time, and the interaction between the various medical professions—to be the most fascinating aspect of the book.  For example, during the early to mid-nineteenth century, at least three professions—physicians, apothecaries, and surgeons—competed for patients. As a young woman, Lilly is not free to practice any of these professions, yet her intelligence and her familiarity with her father’s practice make her a natural to follow in his shoes. Her desire to help those in medical need often conflicts with the customs of the time, with potentially damaging results. There was a plot twist at the end of the book that seemed to change the book’s tone more than the author prepared us for—but it wasn’t enough to make me dislike the book.

Lilly is a sympathetic protagonist, if a little passive (actually, she is much less passive than women at that time are supposed to be, but more passive than I like heroines to be). Her friend Mary, the other residents of the village, and Lilly’s suitors are also well-drawn secondary characters. I enjoyed Klassen’s writing style for the most part. The story was engaging, the plot kept moving, the ending was not obvious, and the Christian content did not overpower the rest of the story. Speaking of Christian content, this book marked the continuation of a small trend for me. I tend to put books on my kindle and read them when I get around to it. The books are very generally classified into fiction, non-fiction, or romance, so I don’t know much about them when I start reading, since it has usually been several months since I downloaded the book. Recently, I’ve been surprised by several books which “turn out” to be Christian, sometimes as far as midway through the book. One book that I read all the way through without identifying it as such turned out to be aimed at the Christian market. I’m not sure if Christian fiction is attempting to broaden its appeal as a genre, or if writers are just becoming more subtle. At any rate, this book is marketed as Christian fiction. Both readers of romance and of historical fiction would enjoy the book, and I’d recommend it to young adult readers who like historicals.

I found Klassen’s approach to the “Christian” aspect of the book a little unusual. It seemed that for these characters, Christianity = prayer. So characters who pray in the book are “better” than characters who don’t; characters who stop praying are headed downhill, and their return to better times is heralded by more praying. There is a little bit of church attendance, but mostly, they just pray. This book was enjoyable and held my interest, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek out another by Klassen.  

Article first published as Book Review: The Apothecary's Daughter by Julie Klassen on Blogcritics.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: Words Made Fresh

Author: Larry Woiwode

Title: Words Made Flesh: Essays on Literature & Culture

Description: Larry Woiwode, the poet laureate of North Dakota, presents ten republished essays on Christianity, literature, and culture featuring John Updike, William Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, and John Gardner.

ARC source: Library Thing Early Reviewers

Writing style: I enjoyed Woiwode’s conversational style and his unabashed defense of Christian belief as his standard. The conversation often strayed, however, and the essay ended up discussing something very different than the title subject. For example, an essay entitled “Views of Wendell Berry” ends by discussing Berry’s various publishers.  

Audience: People concerned with literature, culture, and faith. Many of the essays were earlier published in Books & Culture.

Major ideas: Unlike most writers on this topic, Woiwode is quite conservative, which comes out in his essays on guns and his views on CNN (curiously, Fox News is not mentioned). His writing centers around the Christian faith, its treatment by various writers and its preservation in contemporary culture.

Wrap-up: I wasn’t familiar with some of the writers featured in the essays (i.e. Reynolds Price), so those essays were less helpful. The best essays were those that featured Woiwode himself (on guns, home, and Bob Dylan). His essays on other writers were not as good, although this may be partially because I am used to reading academics, not writers, writing about literature. (A sad and somewhat ironic comment). The essays varied in terms of level of interest and level of writing. 3.5/5*

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Always the Baker, Never the Bride

Author: Sandra D. Bricker

Title: Always the Baker, Never the Bride

Description (source): Thirty-six-year-old Emma Rae Travis has been baking specialty cakes and melt-in-your-mouth pastries at The Backstreet Bakery in historic Roswell, just outside of Atlanta, for the last six years. But here s the rub about her job as a baker ... Emma is diabetic. When she tastes her creations, it can only be in the most minute portions. Emma is considered an artisan for the stunning creme brulee wedding cake that won her the Passionate Palette Award last year, but she s never even had one full slice of it. 

When Jackson Drake hears about this local baker who has won a prestigious award for her wedding cake artistry, he tells his assistant to be sure and include her in the pastry tastings scheduled at his new wedding destination hotel the following week. And for Jackson, that particular day has started out badly with two workmen trapped in a broken elevator and a delivery of several dozen 300-thread-count bed linens in the wrong size abandoned in the lobby. But when the arrogant baker he met a week prior in Roswell stumbles into the dining room with a platter of pastries and a bucketful of orders, he knows for certain: It s going to be a really rotten day. 

Can these two ill-suited players master the high-wire act and make a go of their new business venture? Or will they take each other crashing downward, without a net? And will the surprise wedding at The Tanglewood be theirs? (product description)

Review source: Free kindle book.

Plot: A mixed bag here. There were a lot of subplots, some more successful than others. The one about Emma’s aunt gets way too much play time (it’s like the author would pull her out whenever she couldn’t think of anything else to advance the action). Also, read the description… does it sound like a Christian romance? Nor does it begin like one. About halfway through the book, though, all of a sudden, everyone starts praying, worrying about their relationship with God—I don’t mind Christian romance, but it just hit me weird in this book because it was so abrupt.

Characters: The main characters suffer from the “I’m boring because I have to be normal because everyone I know is so eccentric” syndrome. This syndrome seems to only occur in books.

Writing style: I think the novel was at least one-third too long. So some of the things that bugged me would have been taken care of if it had been shorter. There were details that seemed thrown in that never advanced the story. Who cares if she’s diabetic? It didn’t make much difference (except we got to hear how much she wanted sugar all the time). At one point, she was a mechanical whiz, but that was just dropped…

Audience: Christian romance readers. Not me so much.

Wrap-up: The book was readable, but I started to get pretty tired of it. I wouldn’t seek out more books by Ms. Bricker. 2.5/5*