Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: The Moon in the Mango Tree

Title: The Moon in the Mango Tree
Description: This novel is based on the true story of the author’s grandmother who married a doctor and went to Siam as a missionary’s wife. Although the doctor seems to have had a calling, the protagonist, Barbara, certainly doesn’t, and is more concerned with how many parties she will be able to attend in Bangkok than any life of service. She seems horribly hurt when her husband is too busy ministering to a village with a cholera epidemic to pay her attention during the rainy season.  
Review source: I received this book (signed by the author) at an ALA—not the most recent, I’m ashamed to admit.
Plot: The plot deals mainly with the conflict Barbara faces: stay with her missionary husband and be a good (but bored) wife and mother or leave him and fulfill her dreams of being an opera singer. Either way (she tries both), she’s a vain, self-centered protagonist who doesn’t seem to care about anyone except herself.
Characters: As I mentioned, Barbara is vain and selfish; the husband Harvey is busy at work so much that the reader sees him only as a husband-placeholder. The babies are too young to be characters in their own right.
Writing style: It was refreshing to read a book about missionaries that wasn’t sickeningly sweet, but this book was extreme in the other direction—I can’t think of a single character who actually displayed a believable semblance of Christian faith.
Audience: The missionary plot might fool some people into thinking this is Christian fiction, but it’s not.

Wrap-up: I can’t really think of a reason to read this book. 2/5*

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: The Subject is Research

Author: Wendy Bishop and Pavel Zemliansky

Title: The Subject is Research: Processes and Practices
Description:  This is a collection of essays on undergraduate research aimed at students.   
Source: I read it because I was looking for a text for an undergraduate research course that the library is planning to offer.
Writing style: Since it’s a collection, the writing doesn’t have a consistent voice, but did seem to be at an appropriate level for upper-level undergraduates. One caveat on that book is that it was published in 2001, so any time it gets technology specific, it comes across as horribly dated. (Libraries are still on the cutting edge with their CD-Rom databases, etc.) So anyone who was going to use the book would have to be prepared to teach the current technology and tell the students to ignore any references in the book to stuff their parents used back when.
Major ideas: The strength of the book is its assumption that students are capable of thinking in a sophisticated way about research. Not just one approach or metaphor is introduced, but several. Students are challenged to think about sources and research writing rhetorically.

Wrap-up: I would probably use this book for my class, but I really wish they would bring out a new edition—with NO references to technology! That way it will stay current. 4/5*

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Author: Erik Larson

Title: In the Garden of Beasts:  Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin                                      
Description: Roosevelt needs an ambassador to pre-WWII Germany. When several other choices turn him down, he appoints William Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago. Already out of his element, he arrived in Germany to find Hitler rising in power and various groups competing for his approval. As he began to realize that war was a distinct possibility, he realized that no one in the U.S. took him seriously. Meanwhile, his reckless daughter was making conquests of Nazis, spies, and pretty much anything else that wore pants.   
Source: This was a book group read.
Writing style: This book was straight, documentary history, not my typical reading material.
Audience: People who are interested in WWII and diplomatic history.
Major ideas: There might have been something the U.S. could have done to avoid war, had Dodd’s warnings been heeded.

Wrap-up: Although I believe that everything in the book was found in primary documents, Larson put the facts together in a way that was utterly fascinating.  Some surprises for me: the U.S. agreed that there was a “Jewish problem.” Hitler’s henchmen hated each other (I always figured they were a happy gang of evildoers). Germany had a president when Hitler rose to power. Anyway, it was a gripping story. 5/5*

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Writers Between the Covers

Author: Joni Rendon, Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Title: Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads

Description: Short (8-10 page chapters) detail the love lives of various authors. Of course these are the most shocking and salacious the authors could discover. The chapters alternate with short selections that give just tidbits of information.

Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers

Writing style: It’s gossipy. The authors figure the readers want to know all the naughty details that aren’t in the standard biographies.

Audience: Book nerds.

Major ideas: The personal lives of geniuses are pretty messed up.

Wrap-up: This book is entertaining, but don’t read it if you don’t want to know your literary heroes’ feet of clay. 4/5*

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Review: Royal Pains

Title: Royal Pains: A Rogue’s Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds
Description: This book is made up of unconnected chapters that each document the life of a royal person who the author has deemed to be a “royal pain.” These folks range from the horrendous (Elizabet Bathory) to the merely rambunctious (Princess Margaret), so “pain” has a wide range of meanings here.   
Writing style: The book is pretty straight history; there’s not a lot of personal commentary by the author or inappropriate humor. She seems to have been writing from the historical documents available and news accounts of the time. The chapters are longish, around 40 pages or so.
Audience: History buffs, especially people interested in royalty. Some of the more horrible people here did some horribly graphic things, so young children and people sensitive to extreme violence should stay away.
Major ideas: Unlimited power and few moral restraints don’t exactly produce good character.

Wrap-up: I enjoy reading detailed history, but this book proves over and over again how nasty people are. 3/5*

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Review: Life Among Giants

Author: Bill Roorbach

Title: Life Among Giants
Description:  David (aka Lizard) is a high school sports hero who is fascinated by the beautiful ballerina who lives across the pond from his family (Mom, bumbling Dad, and sister Kate). During a year when he has his first serious girlfriend and gets to meet the dancer, Sylphide, his world comes apart when his parents are brutally murdered.
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: Though Lizard witnesses the murders, his parents’ killer(s) are never brought to justice, a fact that haunts both him and his sister. His search for the motives behind the killings and his obsession with Sylphide are a constant throughout his life.
Characters: Well-written characters abound in this book, from Lizard, Kate, and Sylphide to secondary characters Desmond, RuAngela, and John.
Writing style: The blurb compared Roorbach to John Irving. To me, he was much more like Pat Conroy (or even a mashup of Irving and Conroy—two of my favorite authors). Lots of family emotions and secrets, sensuous descriptions, especially of food, and secrets galore made this book a kick to read.
Audience: Literary fiction.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book more than I’ve enjoyed a read in quite a while. 5/5*