Thursday, June 27, 2013

Review: The Best Travel Writing, vol. 9

Title: The Best Travel Writing, vol. 9: True Stories from Around the World (edited by James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger & Sean O’Reilly).

Description: A collection of short creative non-fiction about or inspired by travel.  
Source: It was one of the travel books I got to judge this spring.
Writing style: It’s a collection, so of course the style varies by author. That’s one reason that this book didn’t place in my rankings (maybe a personal prejudice, but I like a consistent style throughout a book).
Audience: Folks who like to read about travel.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed picking up the book and reading one or two entries from time to time; I can’t read a book like this straight through or everything becomes a jumble. There were some well-written, powerful  selections, and others that weren’t quite so affecting. 3/5*

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review: Secret Journeys of a Lifetime

Title: Secret Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Best Hidden Travel Gems

Description: This book, published and edited by National Geographic, gives short (one page) descriptions of 500 lesser-known travel destinations and why they’re worth the trip.  
Writing style: Not so much a travel guide (although a few travel hints are offered, mostly websites) as a wishlist generator. The photography is stunning and every page has color photos.
Audience: Armchair travelers.
Major ideas: Just because you haven’t heard of a place doesn’t mean it’s not worth going to.

Wrap-up: Another book that it’s fun to just leaf through a few pages at a time—keep your bucket list handy! 3.5/5*

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Author: Rachel Pastan

Title: Lady of the Snakes
Description: Jane Levitsky is writing her dissertation on the wife of Grigory Karkov, a major Russian novelist. When she discovers new evidence about the authorship of Karkov’s novels, academic politics seem to be preventing her from tracking down the leads. Meanwhile, she is adjusting to motherhood and trying to master an academic career and gain tenure, and her marriage might be slipping through the cracks.
Plot: The plot is very much like that of Possession (one of my favorite books), though the book is an easier read. There are two major plot lines: Jane’s family life/marriage and her investigation of Masha Karkov’s life.
Characters: Anyone who has done this (gone to grad school and attempted an academic career while trying to nurture a family) will immediately empathize with Jane’s predicament. So the stomach-churning tension of trying to arrange child care and hearing hints that not enough work is getting done, all the while feeling that one’s spouse is growing more and more distant are probably familiar to most of us.
Writing style: Pastan doles out the clues to the literary mystery bit by bit, until the big reveal at the end (which many  readers will have guessed). I’ll say it again; it’s sort of a Possession-lite.
Audience: One reviewer called it “highbrow chick lit”—that’s pretty good.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this read for two reasons: 1) the suspense of finding out more about the Karkovs’ literary lives, and 2) the pretty much spot on depiction of the life of a mother in academia. 4/5*

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Review: Vernacular Eloquence

Author: Peter Elbow
Title: Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing

Description: Elbow is further developing his thinking about how to write well and how to teach writing by advocating bringing more of the sound of speech to the page.  Not only his now-familiar freewriting, but drafting and revision can all benefit from more vernacular influence.   
Writing style: If he advocated writing sounding more like speech but then wrote in the typical formal academic style, Elbow would have a major fail. He doesn’t fall into that trap, though; the whole book sounds like he’s sitting in his living room talking to the reader.
Audience: Composition profs and academic writers.
Major ideas: Not only does Elbow prove his point via the writing style of the book itself, he gives lots of ideas about teaching students how to make their writing come alive by writing in the “vernacular.” He also demonstrates that straight speech isn’t appropriate for writing, so there is a trick to making the writing sound like speech, but not strictly duplicating speech.

Wrap-up: I’m already a big Elbow fan, and he’s always delightful to read. I’m looking forward to trying some of these ideas in the classroom. 4.5/5*

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Modern Grimmoire

Title: Modern Grimmoire
Description: This is a collection of fairy tale-inspired stories, poems, and art.  

Writing style: This is an anthology, so each author has a little different approach, but for the most part the authors do capture that fairy tale style of everything being extreme and anything happening. The publisher is a non-profit, and the book is beautifully constructed (and the art was juried along with the stories).
Audience: It’s fantasy short stories. Those people who enjoy fairy tale retellings know who they are. (To clarify, some of these are new takes on old fairy tales, while others are totally new stories written in fairy tale style).

Wrap-up: I’m one of those people who does enjoy fairy tale retellings, so I was looking forward to this book. Those of you who read this blog know that I tend to not love collections, because I like a sustained voice/narrative. So there’s that. The contributors to this collection tend to be MFA students, some creative writing instructors, and so on. There are no really big names. And frankly, the big names are usually big for a reason. So I love fairy tales by Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Robin McKinley, etc. These are a notch below that, but a good effort. 3/5*

Monday, June 17, 2013

Review: Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

Author: Ellen Bryson
Title: The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

Description: Bartholomew lives in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as one of the “oddities”—the thin man. He’s quite content with his life there, and believes that he has been given a gift which he shares with the public who come to view him. He has a close, though non-romantic, relationship with the fat lady, Matina. Everything changes, though, when a new, top-secret curiosity comes to the museum.
Review source: I think I got this at ALA.
Plot: The new curiosity (Iell) is a source of mystery throughout the book. The plot revolves around Bartholomew’s reaction to her and the changes in his life as a result.
Characters: I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the strong attraction Bartholomew feels for the new girl. Part of it is the mystery, but there is nothing in the book that makes her seem so wonderful. Matina is described in much more attractive terms. I do like how the characters in the museum come across as real people regardless of the role they play in the sideshow.
Writing style: I couldn’t help but compare this book to The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb which I read fairly recently. The Barnums come across differently in each book, but they are really the only characters the books have in common. I liked the Autobiography better, I think, because it was more historical fiction, less mystery. And the mystery in this one is sort of a letdown.
Audience: Despite the fact that I keep referring to a mystery, this book isn’t a mystery. It mostly has a mysterious character. But I’d call it literary fiction.

Wrap-up: This book was fairly much of a disappointment, since I didn’t like Bartholomew, didn’t like Iell, and felt like the “payoff” was a letdown. 3/5*

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Review: Ex-Boyfriend's Handbook

Author: Matt Dunn
Title: Ex-boyfriend’s Handbook

Description: Edward’s girlfriend of ten years, Jane, has left him—he wakes up one morning to find her gone, with only a note listing all of his failings. Jane’s off to Tibet, and Edward determines to correct all of his flaws by the time she returns.
Review source: Free on Kindle.
Plot: We never find out much about Jane, or about Edward and Jane’s relationship. Mostly this is a catalog of self-improvement efforts: decorating, weight loss, teeth whitening, etc. etc.
Characters: We see Edward change—not just outwardly, but inwardly, as he becomes ever more self-aware and begins to question not just his failings as enumerated by Jane, but who he really wants to become as a person.
Writing style: Humorous, male point of view.
Audience: Despite the fact that it’s about a guy and features a male first-person narrator, I’m thinking this is chick lit.

Wrap-up: It was free. 2.5/5*.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Review: Love All

Author: Callie Wright

Title: Love All
Description: This is the story of a week or so in the lives of 3 generations of a family. Bob, the grandfather, has just lost his wife and has to move in with his daughter Anne and her husband Hugh. Their teenage children Julia and Teddy complete the family. Central to the story is infidelity, both Bob’s and Hugh’s, and how it affects all of the family members. The week is both a time of great change in the family’s life, and a marker of the last time everything was the way it should be—or at least, before everything changed even more.
Review source: From Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: The stories of all of the central characters are told at the same time, including some flashbacks.
Characters: There’s no one here that I can especially identify with. The teens are self-centered, as teens can be. The parents are also self-centered. And Bob is a complete jerk.
Writing style: Nothing stands out too much here, except for Julia and her two best friends coming up with slang of their own, which mostly came across as just odd.
Audience: women’s fiction? Literary fiction?

Wrap-up: The title puzzled me for most of the book, though I guess it can mean no one has anything, or else that it’s the beginning point—which it is for some, but certainly not for everyone here. I found this book to be a fairly sad book about lonely and miserable people. 2.5/5*

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Review: Unbearable Lightness of Scones

Author: Alexander McCall Smith
Title: The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

Description: Smith writes four series; I read three of them. This book belongs to the 44 Scotland Street series, which follows the lives of quite a few people who share the same Edinburgh neighborhood.
Plot: As usual, lots is going on. Michael and Elspeth are on their honeymoon. Bertie is dealing with a girlfriend he doesn’t want. Domenica plots how to get her Spode teacup back from her thieving neighbor, while Cyril deals with unwanted fatherhood (actually, Cyril’s owner Angus has that burden).
Characters: The characters make Smith’s writing strong—it’s one of his gifts to look upon just about everyone with affection. (Bertie’s mother may be the exception).
Writing style: Smith writes this series as a newspaper serial, so there are lots of short chapters, some cliffhangers, and some jumping around from story to story. It all holds together, though, and every once in a while, he stops to just give us a beautiful little meditation on the human condition.
Audience: Everyone. Trust me on this.

Wrap-up: It’s probably no secret that Smith is one of my favorite authors in the world. It’s rare that anything by him would get less than 5/5*.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Review: Shakespeare's Tremor & Orwell's Cough

Author: John J. Ross

Title: Shakespeare’s Tremor & Orwell’s Cough
Description: A medical doctor examines existing textual evidence about several different authors (also Milton, Melville, the Brontes, Hawthorne, Swift, etc.) to hypothesize about what was going on medically with them.   
Writing style: Most of the selections begin with a fictionalized scenario showing the author interacting with medical personnel and then review the author’s symptoms, describe the diagnoses they were given, and then give a conjecture about how they might be diagnosed/treated today.
Audience: Folks who are interested in literary or medical history.
Major ideas: I found the book most interesting when the illnesses involved mental disorders, since they were often reflected in the authors’ writings.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book as something different. 3.5/5*

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review: Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson
Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Description: Because of my prodigious TBR pile, I’m always late to the party with extremely popular books (well, with any books, but no one has read the others). So I already knew a good bit about this one going in, and I realize that many will have already read it. Briefly, a disgraced journalist is hired to look into a decades old case of a missing girl.  
Plot: This is one of the rare books where plot was more important than character for me. I loved the tight plotting and the pacing with which Larsson revealed new clues and old secrets was just about perfect.
Characters: The two main characters were the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, and Lizbeth Salander, an independent researcher. Lizbeth is, of course, the girl with the tattoo. The fact that the book is named for her gives some indication of her importance to Larsson, though she is definitely secondary to Blomkvist in this book. I did have some problems with Blomkvist, or maybe with Swedish morality (or lack thereof). It struck me as extremely odd that Blomkvist quickly entered into fairly intense relationships with women he hardly knew after they came on to him—he came across as passive and totally emotionally absent. The women, of course, all fell in love with him. 
Writing style: It’s intense. This isn’t one of them cozy mysteries.
Audience: Yep, it’s a mystery and it’s got that sexually fueled violence that turns my stomach faster than anything else. If you can handle that, though, it’s a rewarding read.

Wrap-up: I loved this book from start to finish, despite being reluctant to pick it back up during certain harrowing sections. Can’t wait to get my hands on book two. 5/5*

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: The Sword

Author: Bryan Litfin
Title: The Sword (Book 1 of the Chiveis Trilogy)

Description: In the distant future, after human civilization has collapsed in on itself and people have gone back to living off the land, farmer’s daughter Ana and royal soldier Teo meet and become friends. For some reason, Ana is being pursued by unknown enemies, but Teo is quite capable of stepping in to save her. As they return to safety, they come across some ancient writings that seem to point toward a religion that has long been forgotten, but rings true to them.  
Review source: It was free for Kindle.
Plot: I didn’t realize this was Christian fiction until about halfway through. It’s interesting to speculate about what might happen if every trace of Christianity were eliminated from a civilization (this culture worships deities much like the Greek gods). An awful lot happened in this book. (That means—too much plot).
Characters: Ana is perfect (i.e. boring). Teo is perfect, except that he believes in himself, not in God.  Secondary characters are pretty much one-note.
Writing style: It’s pretty straightforward, klunky at times.
Audience: It’s Christian fantasy.

Wrap-up: Not the best of the kindle freebies I’ve picked up. Also, the book ends in the middle of things, so don’t bother unless you want to read the trilogy. 2/5*