Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t by Nate Silver. Silver is the prediction phenom who successfully called every state in the last presidential election. This book discusses the prediction of many types of events: sports, politics, weather, the stock market, earthquakes, and even terrorist attacks.

Silver’s popular blogging style serves him well here; even in an extended discussion of over 400 pages, I wasn’t bored, and the math was explained well enough that I—or a typical lay reader—could understand it. As Silver explains, the secret to better (not necessarily successful) prediction lies in examining what is known about the event we want to predict and discerning from all the available data which are the patterns that can help with prediction, and which are just noise. Although I’m normally into the humanities, I do enjoy books like this once in a while; if you liked (or might like) Freakonomics, you’d probably like this book. 3.5/5*

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. Sam has had a rough life with parents who nearly killed her, a series of foster homes, and a group home in place of family. A charitable foundation offers to pay her way to graduate school; the only stipulation is that she write to her benefactor under the alias of Mr. Knightley. The letters narrate Sam’s attempts to overcome her bad start and emerge from behind the classic books she quotes whenever she finds herself in over her head.

This was probably my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s very light, but it was a massively fun read (I read it in a day), and the characters, especially Sam, are drawn sympathetically and realistically. It turns out to be Christian fiction as well, and the faith part of the book is written about as well as any I’ve read in a long time: light-handed and understated. Watching Sam fight through to find her voice, her confidence, and her family really made my day. 5/5*

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Meeting the Dragon Pt.2

A few years ago, I posted about Meeting the Dragon, where I was coming up to a situation that I didn’t want to confront. My primary emotion then was fear, and even fear of my fear. (Because really, who likes to be afraid?) So here we are, three years later, and I’m facing a really similar situation. This time, though, I’m not afraid. I’m not dreading it. And I’m wondering, what’s the difference? Have I changed so much in three years?
Admittedly, the situation is a bit different. Here are some ways it’s not the same:
  • Last time, I was still upset. I felt a personal betrayal that went beyond other circumstances. I’d advise not meeting the dragon until your own emotions have calmed down.
  • Last time, the situation didn’t evolve, it exploded. This time, I’ve seen warning signs for months, and I’ve done my best to influence events in the right direction. I don’t feel like there’s anything left on my part that hasn’t been tried.
  • Finally, I’ve learned that sometimes I have to be the one to make the tough decisions, and I have to be able to live with them. So I’d better be pretty sure of what I’m doing going in. If I have questions about the wisdom of what I’m contemplating, I’d better think about it until those questions have been resolved.

I’m the kind of person who likes to put things behind me. If there’s something unpleasant coming up, I’d just as soon deal with it and rip the bandage off quickly. But sometimes, the bandage isn’t ready to come off, and tearing it off too soon just makes the healing take longer. I’m still working on how to figure out what’s going on under there while the bandage is still on. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Case Histories

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. British detective Jackson Brodie is working on three old cases: the disappearance of a toddler; the slasher murder of a young woman, and the location of a teenage runaway. This book moves between Brodie’s detective work and retelling some of the stories of what happened all those years ago

This is actually the second time I’ve read this book; it was chosen for our book group, so I reread it. All of the cases examine family relationships: parent to child, sibling to sibling. Brodie’s life comes in for some examination too as he struggles to redefine his life as a father after his wife leaves him for another man. These cases are interesting, and Atkinson weaves them together intriguingly, but I was a little unconvinced that all three cases could be so neatly solved after stumping the police for decades, and all within only a couple of hundred pages. The book is a mystery, yet it’s more than your average genre mystery, and people who aren’t big mystery buffs might still find it a worthwhile read. 3.5/5*

p.s. This detective series was made into a TV show a few years ago. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: Vienna Nocturne

Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell. Anna Storace is a talented young English singer, classically trained by an Italian castrato. When she began her career, she quickly rocketed to fame as a beautiful young Englishwoman in Italy; while she was prepared musically, emotionally she wasn’t ready to move into the sophisticated and fickle world of professional musicians. After a disastrous love affair, she moves to Vienna and meets Mozart, already a married father. The attraction between the two is strengthened by their professional relationship, and they soon begin an affair. Shotwell follows historical accounts where they are available, so she is constrained by those outlines; an affair between the two was speculated but never proven.

I had looked forward to reading this book, but it fell short for me. The dialogue always seemed unnatural, people seemed to take actions without adequate motivation, and many characters didn’t seem real. I realize that it’s tough to work within the limits of actual historical events, but in this case, it was the writing style more than the historical situation that I wasn’t taken with. 2.5/5* 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: Still Life with Murder

Still Life with Murder by P.B. Ryan. Nell Sweeney takes a job as governess to baby Grace. Although Grace was born to a servant, the servant’s employer adopts the baby and asks Nell to come along as her governess. In Boston, her employer discovers that her son, who she thought was dead, has been arrested for murder. Since her husband refuses to defend their son, Regina Hewitt asks Nell to secretly investigate. The man Nell finds in prison is a Civil War doctor ruined by opium.

This book fed into my fondness for historical mysteries. Nell is an interesting character, observant, artistic, and trained in medicine, but her past is shadowy, and her origins lower class. As her relationship with Will Hewitt grows more complex, Nell comes to believe that he couldn’t have been the murderer. This book, which I downloaded free from kindle, is the first in a series, and I’ll definitely be seeking out the next in the series. 4/5*

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review: The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith.  Isabel Dalhousie is thriving with her little
family: her toddler Charlie, her fiancé Jamie, and even her housekeeper Grace. She meets a visiting philosopher who enlists her help in finding her birthparents. Meanwhile, the dastardly professor Lettuce appears to have sicced his budding scholar nephew on Isabel. 

As usual, this series is less a mystery than an occasion for Isabel and her circle to ruminate, meditate, and sometimes even act on moral questions, some of which are trickier than others. Isabel’s ethics are always based on her knowledge of human nature gained from her thoughtful interactions with her family and friends. Even with her acute sensitivity to appropriate behavior, Isabel isn’t beyond making mistakes herself sometimes, and needing to deal with the consequences of those errors. The day I give one of his books any less than 5* will be a sad day indeed. 5/5* 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: What Angels Fear

What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris (A Sebastian St. Cyr mystery). A while back I read a book that was in the
middle of this series, and I liked it well enough to want to read the rest of the books in the series. So this is the first book in the series (I’m actually planning to read from two ends—read on from the spot I started, and read in order from the beginning). In this book, an actress is horrifically murdered in a church, and the weapon at the scene implicates Sebastian St. Cyr. An accident when the police are arresting Sebastian implicates him even further and sends him into hiding. Staying out of the hands of the police and investigating the murder to find the real culprit keep Sebastian busy. 

I enjoyed this book a good deal, perhaps even more than the previous title I had read in the series, which I found a little far-fetched. Series regulars were introduced here, as were Sebastian’s near-supernatural senses. Harris excels at character development and historical detail, two of my real soft spots when reading historical mystery. The only drawback to this book was the graphic nature of the crime. 4/5*

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Review: A Fine Balance


A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. This novel of epic scope is set in India and covers the entire lives of the three main protagonists. Dina somehow manages to find love, but after her husband’s early demise, she can’t bear to stay with her brother and his family, so she tries to make it on her own by starting a tailoring business. Elsewhere, a low caste family of tanners tries to better their lot by traveling to the city to learn tailoring. When Dina needs tailors, she finds these two, an uncle and nephew. With these three at the center of the tale and many vivid secondary characters, Mistry draws a picture of what it’s like to live in India. Unfortunately, it’s heartbreaking to live in India, for nearly everyone concerned.

This was a huge doorstop of a book, and I had a tough time getting into it. Then, for most of the middle section, I was pretty interested. Then at the end of the book, my heart was broken, broken. Maybe this is because my dad was born in India and I’ve always wanted to go there, and he loved it so much that I want to love it, but this story made me hate it. This book was well written, and probably a work of genius, but I give these stars based on my experience while I’m reading the book (like, the book and me, not just the book). And sometimes I still love a book that breaks my heart, but this time, not. 3/5*

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: The Divorce Papers

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger. Rieger is a lawyer, and this book draws heavily on her experience.
Sophie is a young criminal lawyer who is roped against her will into representing Mia Meiklejohn Durkheim (yes, as rich as she sounds) in an ugly divorce. One of those epistolary novels that you don’t see as much any more, this book is made up only of documents: letters, emails, memos, and legal documents, primarily. Through these documents, the reader follows the divorce from its inception through its resolution, and we also learn about Sophie’s life and relationships and her own parents’ nasty divorce. 

I was interested in this book, but not enthralled. Men didn’t come off very well, and there were a few too many actual legal documents (I don’t mind reading memos, but I’m not crazy about reading laws and numbers, especially the fabulously inflated incomes of nasty people). It’s one of those books that entertained me for a few days, but I wouldn’t rush out and buy it. 3/5*  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Review: Cider House Rules

Cider House Rules by John Irving. Homer Wells lives in the orphanage run by Dr. Wilbur Larch who delivers and cares for unwanted babies, and aborts other unwanted babies. As he grows, he becomes a leader of the other kids at the orphanage, and Dr. Larch even trains him in obstetrical procedures. Though several adoption attempts don’t work out, Homer finally escapes the orphanage with Candy and Wally, who come in for an abortion and leave with Homer to help them with their apple orchard.
Like most other Irving books, this one is the story of a young man coming of age. You should know that I’m a big fan of Irving. The way he tells stories, I could keep turning pages forever. So for me, this review is just a comparison of this book with Irving’s other books, because it goes without saying that I’ll like it. Unlike many of his other books, this one seems to be less “his” story. It’s historical (pre-WWII), and it has a major issue to hype (i.e. abortion). While A Prayer for Owen Meany is still my favorite Irving book, and probably always will be, this one is high on the list (maybe second).

I try not to watch movies before I read the book, but in this case, I had seen the movie several years ago, and the casting was perfect. Tobey Maguire is the only way I will ever be able imagine Homer, and Michael Caine was the ideal Dr. Larch. So if you haven’t seen the movie, imagine those two as you read the book. 4/5*

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: The Swan Gondola

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Ferret Skerrit makes his living in 1890’s Omaha as a ventriloquist/letter scribe for hire. As the city 
gears up for the World’sFair, actors, con-men, and colorful characters of all types gather to make their fortunes. Among these is Cecily, who becomes the love of Ferret’s life. Ferret has competition, though from one of the wealthiest men around, who can give Cecily more than he ever could in terms of material possessions. Told as a flashback as Ferret recovers from a balloon crash in the house of two maiden sisters on a Nebraska farm, the story alternates between Ferret’s present and his past.

The book was very strong in terms of place. The evocation of the Omaha’s World’s Fair is magnificent; it’s one of the richest evocations of carnival that I’ve ever experienced in a book. The other strength of the story is Schaffert’s incorporation of details from The Wizard of Oz. This story isn’t an allegory or a retelling of the Wizard, but allusions and references occur throughout the book.
While Schaffert is masterful at evocation of place, the story didn’t quite hold up for me. I didn’t ever understand exactly what Ferret saw in Cecily (and what any woman might see in a man named Ferret). That human connection between them (or between them and me) didn’t happen. There were some nifty secondary characters; Ferret’s gay friend August was my favorite.

If you are interested in this era, or this geographical region, this book is not to be missed, but as a love story, it wasn’t as great of a success. 3.5/5*

Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

Nora, a graduate student in English, is at a rough spot. Her long-time boyfriend has left her for another woman and her dissertation just isn’t going well. Walking in the woods one day, she finds herself in an unfamiliar setting, the estate of a beautiful woman named Ilissa who inexplicably treats her like a cherished guest and begs her to stay. Soon Nora finds herself involved with Ilissa’s son, Raclin, like Ilissa too good to be true. When this idyll becomes ominous, Nora is assisted by the magician Aruendiel who eventually takes Nora on as an apprentice.

This book had everything I really love in a book: magic, fairies, romance, strong character building, and a fully-formed world. It’s a very long book, and I was completely engrossed the whole time I was reading. The one thing I object to in this book, and it’s sort of a big one, is that nothing at all was resolved. The romance—nope. The villains—at large. The disappeared good guy—missing. I guess in my husband’s favored genres (sci fi and fantasy) this is normal, but I’m not used to it, especially when the book isn’t introduced as “Book one of a trilogy” or something like that.  I did love this world and want to stay in it, and the fact that the book ended unresolved made me salivate for the sequel, but no clue when (if) that will be coming along. 4.5/5* 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: How to Create the Perfect Wife

How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened  Quest to Create the
Ideal Wife
by Wendy Moore

Thomas Day loved reading Rousseau, and he was a true disciple. When the wealthy young man had several unsuccessful courtships, he decided to try a new tactic. Enacting Rousseau’s Enlightenment philosophy of education, he chose two young orphans from an orphanage, ostensibly for “apprenticeship,” but in actuality to train them to be the perfect wife. He educated them to be able to converse with educated men, but also to serve the household needs, not to expect frivolities like fancy clothes or jewelry, and not to have their heads turned by dancing or other feminine foolishness. Author Moore did a fiendish job of researching this extremely odd story and pieced it together meticulously. It was such an odd story that it would have been difficult to believe without the undoubted documentary evidence. I think my only problem with the book was that it didn’t read like fiction, and it was such a freaky story. The central character, Day, was really unsavory and unpleasant. The women don’t seem to come alive (that was probably Day’s fault; he never wanted them to). Obviously, that wasn’t Moore’s fault. She told the story that she found.  3/5*

Friday, March 21, 2014

Book Review: North and South

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

After living with her cousin in London, Margaret returns home only to find that her father, a country vicar, is giving up his living due to doubts. The best he can do to continue to make a living is to find a job as a tutor in industrial northern England. The move is jarring for the entire family, but Margaret tries to make the best of it and to take care of her mother who is in frail health.  Industrialist John Thornton, Rev. Hale’s student, is attracted to Margaret, but it’s difficult for a lady from the rural south to accept the addresses of a tradesman from the north.

First published in 1855, this book is written in the style of the time, so lots of social prejudices, lots of overwrought women, etc. Margaret is basically too perfect to be believed, though she does commit one “sin” in order to give the novel a plot. What I liked about this book: the comparison between the social milieu in the two very different regions; the characters from up north (Thornton, his mother, the Higgins family); Thornton’s hopeless passion. What I didn’t like: most of the female characters; the ending that made me go “that’s it?”; the prejudice all over the place towards everyone. 3.5/5*

P.S. I've heard the miniseries is quite good. I haven't seen it. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: S.

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

This is one of the toughest books to review that I’ve ever read. Start with a book entitled Ship of Theseus by V. M. Straka. This book looks like a library book from 1946, which is what it purports to be. This book is about an amnesiac named S. who seems to be fighting a shadowy and ominous organization. From the introduction, we learn that no one really knows who V. M. Straka is; several people who have a potential claim to the identity are introduced here. The book has been translated by “FXC,” who comments (and perhaps more) in the footnotes. THEN, there are notes written in the margins of the book by two people: Eric owns the book. He’s a (disgraced) graduate student obsessed with Straka. He’s made some notes as he’s read it. Then there’s Jen, who works in the library and found the book. She begins to write notes to Eric in the book, and he writes back. Eventually, they also leave artifacts (newspaper clippings, notes, postcards) in the book as well.

So at some point, I realized that I had no clue what was going on. This means that I’ll have to start it over again and take notes. I am prepared to do this.

This book is more of a puzzle than a “normal” book. In other words, I don’t think it’s possible to read it through (like I did) and “get” it. I’ve seen some websites where people are trying to figure out puzzles in the book that I didn’t know were even there, and there are plenty that I do know about that aren’t solved easily for the reader as they might be in a different kind of book. I’ve made a note to go back through it this summer when I have some time and see what more I can get out of it. In terms of a reading experience, I really enjoyed the story of Jen and Eric. I didn’t like Ship of Theseus much—it wasn’t the kind of book I’d read without the extras. I can’t judge this experience in the same way I usually judge a book, because it’s really more than that. If you like solving mysteries or puzzles yourself, don’t miss this book. If you want the author to solve it for you, skip it. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Review: Atonement

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Briony is just the age to be confused about a lot of things. As a precocious preteen, she wants to be noticed by the adults, maybe even treated as an equal. She especially idolizes her older sister, who is just now realizing she may have deeper feelings for Robbie, the housekeeper’s son. Briony’s spot as both the budding young woman and the cute little one are usurped by her cousins, an older girl and younger twins. When the twins run away, everyone goes out to search, and Briony makes a huge moral blunder. The rest of the book deals with the ramifications of this choice, stretching into World War II and the adulthood of everyone present.

This book is on a number of “great novels” lists, but I wasn’t impressed. There are three main “episodes” in the book: the opening, set when Briony is very young; Robbie in WWII France, and Briony as a student nurse during the war. Of these, only the last held my attention; the first moved way too slow, and the second seemed pointless in terms of the plot of the novel. The characters weren’t at all sympathetic either. Briony was too spoiled and selfish for me to want to spend page time with her, and Robbie was (understandably) messed up and bitter. 3/5*

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review: The Moon Sisters

The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

Jazz Moon is 22 years old, has just found her first real job, and wants to be a writer. Olivia Moon is 18 years old, has synesthesia, and sometimes fools around with boys more than she should. When their mother dies in questionable circumstances (accident or suicide?), the family deals with the gaping hole in the best ways they know how: their dad gets drunk, Jazz gets a job at a funeral home (the same one that served their mother), and Olivia stares at the sun until she is blinded. When Olivia sets out with her mother’s ashes to visit a spot that is significant in their mother’s life, Jazz is forced into her familiar (and unwilling) role as her sister’s guardian. What happens on this unplanned trip changes them both.

The story is told in alternating voices—Jazz’s and Olivia’s, with their mother’s letters to her estranged father thrown in as well. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is how Olivia and Jazz are so different from one another, even openly hostile to one another much of the time, yet both are completely sympathetic characters. The synesthesia provides opportunities for Walsh to use images and metaphors that just make this book sparkle. I don’t say this much, but really, everything about this book was perfect: lots of symbolism, if you like that kind of thing, lots of character building, and an ending that both surprised me and hit just the right tone. Loved, loved, loved this book! 5/5* 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Review: Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t seen the movie; it’s one of our family’s iconic texts. So rather than a normal book review, here I’ll concentrate on book/movie contrasts. First, I started this book once, many years ago, and was supremely bored by it. I put it on a shelf, but didn’t get rid of it. Recently, I decided to cull my bookshelves and rather than just dumping it, I decided to give it one more shot.
I think what bored me the first time was the prologue. The movie’s frame (sick little boy being read to by grandpa) is introduced  by a lengthy and sort of whiny prologue in which the narrator (author?) relates how he’s contemplating adultery  in L.A. but instead returns home to his indifferent wife and spoiled son. He remembers the best book in the world which his father read to him, and determines to fetch it for his son. It turns out to be really boring in parts, so he revises it to just have the good parts so his son will enjoy it more.  (I know, you’re bored just by my relating this much. Imagine 20 pages of it).

Once I got to the story part, it mirrors the movie very closely, down to the dialogue. It does have little bits that aren’t in the movie, though, and of course, it was great fun to find them and imagine them as acted by our old friends. (In terms of casting, the movie nailed it, except for Prince Humperdinck.) When you love a movie this much, it’s a joy to add on to the lore. And don’t feel guilty for skipping the prologue. 5/5*

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Review: Book of the Dun Cow

The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin

This is Walter Wangerin’s first novel; I’ve just now gotten around to reading it, though I’ve read both his fiction and nonfiction in the past. In some time before humans, or world without humans, Chanticleer rules his farmyard and its animals; all is well until they rescue some refugee animals from another coop, including the beautiful Pertelote. Evil has come into the world through another rooster’s failing, and it is up to Chanticleer and his allies to save the world from dark evil. They have help from the mysterious Dun Cow, who comes and goes as she pleases.

Wangerin is a Christian writer, and there are definitely Christian allegorical overtones here, although it’s not nearly so straightforward an allegory as, for example, the Narnia books. One of Wangerin’s strengths is the ability to write about suffering in a way that is profound and wrenching, but not manipulative, and that strength is visible even here in this early work. This book is the first of a trilogy. 4/5*

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review: Engaging Ideas

Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean (2nd ed.)

I'm embarrassed that this review is so short, but it's often a problem I have when I love a book too much. I have a tendency to gush, which isn't fun to read. If you have any interest in teaching critical thinking or writing skills-- no matter what discipline you teach in--read this book!

This book is probably the most helpful book on teaching that I’ve ever read. Bean gives strategies for getting students—in classes across the curriculum—to write more (and better) and to do more critical thinking. He deals with all aspects of writing assignments, including how to respond to writing in ways that won’t take so much of the professor’s time as to make the grading oppressive. The main focus here, though, is on getting and keeping students engaged in their learning. This book is full of ideas to take into the classroom, and it’s both practical and theory-based. 5/5*

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: The Charming Quirks of Others

The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie)

Isabel’s latest puzzle concerns a boarding school searching for a new headmaster. An anonymous note has suggested that one of the three shortlist candidates, if hired, would bring great embarrassment to the school. Isabel’s investigation is complicated by the fact that one of the candidates is Cat’s new boyfriend, and with Isabel and Jamie (Cat’s ex-boyfriend) now engaged, Isabel still has some qualms about her relationship with her niece. Meanwhile, Jamie is acting a little out of character, causing Isabel to wonder if he’s seeing someone else.  Smith is one of my very favorite authors, and I save his books for when I need a real reading treat. Of his three series that I read (also Mma Ramotswe and 44 Scotland St.), this is my least favorite, but this entry in the series was strong. Smith’s strengths are his gentle sense of humor and his reminders that we share the common condition of humanity, so charity and seeing others in the best light possible may eventually come back around to our benefit. 5/5*

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Jacob and his family don’t quite believe his grandfather’s increasingly panicked warnings about danger and strange beings pursuing him, until his grandfather’s murder. Determined to find out what actually happened, Jacob believes the answer lies on a small island off Wales where his grandfather spent time as a child.

I totally wanted to like this book, mostly because I was intrigued by the photographs of (as the title puts it) “peculiar children.” According to the end material, these photographs are real artifacts, collected by the author and some of his acquaintances. It seemed to me, though, like the children weren’t the center of the story; rather, the narrator (Jacob) and  his pursuit of his grandfather’s killer(s) played that role. I think that’s where the book let me down. It’s also a YA book, and I generally find that YA titles, while they might have interesting plots, don’t have the sophisticated language or deep characterization that I enjoy reading. This book was a quick and easy read, but I probably won’t do the sequel. 3/5*

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review: Three Souls

Author: Janie Chang

Title: Three Souls
Description: Leiyin is dead, but she and her three souls cannot move on to the afterlife. During her life on earth, she has made enough mistakes that she must atone for them before she can move along toward reincarnation. The three souls show her her life, then all of them must determine how to move on.  
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: Leiyin falls for a revolutionary poet, Yen Hanchin, although he is older than she is and mostly involved with his communist friends. Her desire for him and for a college education lead her to make a choice that sends her life down a path that she never expected.
Characters: The characters are very well drawn. By portraying Leiyin from beyond the grave, the author shows both her thoughts at the time of her impulsive actions and her reflections later on from a more mature perspective. Secondary characters are also well-realized.
Writing style: The information at the back of the book indicates that the characters are based on Chang’s grandparents and great-grandparents. Chang is a wonderful storyteller, and the family connection gives Chang the desire to truly understand her characters, even those who initially appear less sympathetic.
Audience: Above all, this is a historical novel and gives the reader a glimpse of what it might have been like to be a young girl from a very wealthy family on the eve of WWII and China’s embrace of communism. 
Wrap-up: The only negative--and it's not insignificant--is the souls. I never got why there had to be three souls (not four, not two) and exactly what their purpose was. The story would have been just as good without them. Just the kind of historical novel I love. I was riveted by this story. 4.5/5*


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience

Author: Catharine Hoffman Beyer, Edward Taylor, and Gerald M. Gillmore
Title: Inside the Undergraduate Teaching Experience: The University of Washington's Growth in Faculty Teaching Study 
Description: Researchers at the University of Washington conducted a study which examined professors’ teaching styles, specifically changes that they made to their teaching. They were especially interested in the types of changes that were made and the reasons for the changes.
Writing style: A combination of study results and anecdotes.
Audience: Anyone interested in undergraduate pedagogy.
Major ideas: The study identified a group of the best professors (based on awards for teaching); there were also randomly chosen professors in the group. Both sets change their teaching methods more than the researchers expected, with the best professors showing the most changes.
Wrap-up: This book was not a bad read, but I think I could have done as well with a well-done précis. 3/5*

Friday, January 24, 2014

Review: Eyre Affair

Author: Jasper Fforde

Title: The Eyre Affair
Description: This is a steampunky mystery about literature, so if that doesn’t cover all your bases, you’re too hard to please. Thursday Next is a literary detective in a world where literature affects the “real” world, where time travel is pretty commonplace (in fact, her father only blips in from his time travels on rare occasions), and where the world’s most vicious criminal has just stolen the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit.  
Review source: This was my choice for our book group read.
Plot: I thought the plot was a bit busy, but that may be because the book is the first in a series. Either way, too many genres converging can get a little overwhelming.
Characters: Fforde is writing everything with his tongue in his cheek, so characters have silly (and sometimes scatological) names, and of course, people with silly names can’t be taken seriously, can they?
Writing style: More steampunky science fiction than mysterious, but the mystery conventions are there too. And humor spread over it all. Imagine Douglas Adams with more genres and a female protagonist.
Audience: As I said, if you’re not covered by one of the genres in this book, well, I guess you’ll pick it up because it’s literary fiction. (ha!)

Wrap-up: The book was probably a little too silly for my taste (i.e. I won’t be seeking out the next title in the series), but it was ok for something different. 3/5*

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Declaring His Genius

Author: Roy Morris Jr.

Title: Declaring His Genius: Oscar Wilde in North America
Description: The book tracks Oscar Wilde on his speaking tour of North America.
Writing style: Morris’ discipline is history, not literature, and this book reads very much like a history book. It’s obviously based on primary documents, probably chiefly Oscar’s letters and newspaper accounts from the cities he visited. It reads a lot like a very detailed itinerary.
Audience: Literary scholars of Oscar Wilde might be disappointed. Frankly, I think the topic would have made a good, solid chapter in a biography, but the material was a bit skimpy and uninteresting to form the basis for a whole book.
Major ideas: Oscar took quite a bit of both lighthearted and malicious mockery and managed to remain fairly good-natured through it all. He formed a generally good impression of America and Americans in spite of the grueling schedule and the refusal of many to take him seriously.

Wrap-up: I hadn’t realized how very young he was when he came to the U.S. (28)—it was before his marriage, before the publication of any of his major works, and certainly before the scandal that would mark his later years. In other words, Oscar really had nothing to be famous for except for being Oscar—but he played that role to the hilt. 3/5*

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Review: Einstein's Refrigerator...

Author: Steve Silverman

Title: Einstein’s Refrigerator and other Tales from the Flip Side of History
Description: This book is made up of columns from Silverman’s website called Useless Information. As a high school science teacher, he wanted to be able to catch his students' attention. He started finding historical/science tidbits of information and putting them on his blog. They’re collected here in this book.  
Source: It was free for Kindle.
Writing style: The individual chapters are short and interesting, but there are no connections between them.
Audience: High school students probably would enjoy this book, as would people who enjoy picking up trivia here and there.
Major ideas: There’s a lot we don’t know about science history that we might be surprised to know.

Wrap-up: This book was entertaining while I was on the treadmill. 3/5*

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Lexicon

Author: Max Barry

Title: Lexicon
Description:  Early on we meet two seemingly unconnected characters: Wil, who wakes up with people poking around in his brain, then trying to kill him, and Emily, who is recruited to a mysterious school where she may or may not be chosen to learn the art of persuasion. It turns out that words are even more powerful than we ever knew, and certain people can be trained to use them in ways so powerful they seem like magic. As Emily tries to figure out how this works, Wil tries to escape from the “poets” who are relentlessly pursuing him.
Plot: There are lots of flashbacks and flash forwards, and these two characters are unrelated until fairly late in the novel, so I was bewildered for probably at least the first half of the book. When it all comes together, though, it’s remarkable. Now I just need to read it again.
Characters: It’s tough to sort out the good guys from the bad guys at first (another reason the book is so confusing), but the characters are fascinating, and the idea of a select few people being so persuasive they can virtually tell anyone to do anything is not as far from reality as we might think.
Writing style: Fast-paced, gritty, tantalizing in handing out clues to what’s going on.
Audience: It’s a literary thriller.

Wrap-up: My top book of 2013. Aside from being surprising, original, and dizzyingly fast-moving, it’s just plain fun to read. 5/5*

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Review: Praying for Sheetrock

Author: Melissa Fay Greene
Title: Praying for Sheetrock
Description: McIntosh County Georgia has been under the thumb of white county sheriff Tom Poppell (and before that, his father) for decades. In the early 70’s, though, the majority black population decides they have had enough.  
Source: It’s on the EW list.
Writing style: This is literary fiction, and Greene is a fine storyteller. In many spots it reads like a novel; she has had interviews with many of the principals here, so has access to many of the thoughts and feelings that are often unavailable to authors of this type of book.
Audience: People interested in race relations, history of the South, and literary nonfiction in general.
Major ideas: The black people in McIntosh County really have no idea that they can change the status quo until they are pushed too far. This is an interesting story of how they realize they can take agency and begin to assume a political role in their own lives.

Wrap-up: I really enjoyed reading this book. Greene did extensive documentary research and interviews, and pieces it together to tell a fascinating story. 4/5*