Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advanced Reader Copies

I've seen numerous references on my favorite blogs to advanced reader copies that bloggers have received. I followed up on some of the sources and have received 5 books so far, some I truly enjoyed and one I disliked (personal preference since I've read positive reviews by readers). I'm still reading one.

The House at Midnight: A Novel
by Lucie Whitehouse
This was the first ARC that I received. I wasn't too sure what to expect from a first novel - I usually stick to the tried and true novelists.

Joanna and six of her university friends spend New Year's Eve at Stoneborough, the country manor house of Lucas, one of the seven. Lucas has recently inherited the estate from his uncle Patrick after Patrick's tragic death. Now that Lucas has something to offer her, he confesses his love for Joanna and they begin a tempestuous affair. Somehow the house seems to be a part of their relationship. When Lucas and Danny, a manipulative friend, move into the house full-time, Lucas becomes totally entwined in the house and various family mysteries that revolve around it, almost to the point of obsession. Relationships come and go, lives change and, when the mysteries are explained, no one is the same.

In many ways, I'm not sure I was the target audience for this novel. I'm a member of the older generation - Uncle Patrick and and Lucas' parents Clair and Justin. A lot of the angst the friends are experiencing and the fluidity of their relationships are foreign to my experience so difficult to identify with. The writing, however, was excellent for a first time novelist. As I've said before, I enjoy vivid locations and the house and grounds were real for me - just not some place I'd care to spend much time.
I give the book a 3.5/5

The Aviary Gate
by Katie Hickman

This is another two-points-in-time novel - a university student doing research and the subject of the research (similar to The Rossetti Letter). Elizabeth has discovered a document which could solve the mystery she has been researching. Celia, the daughter of a British sea captain, was rumored to have been captured and held in the Sultan's harem during the late 16th century. The novel switches between Elizabeth's life and the life of Celia in the harem (the rumor was true!) Elizabeth needs to grow up, her portion of the novel was a bit trite and predictable - an affair with an undeserving man, insecurities and lack of focus. Celia's life and the events in Constantinople, however, were fascinating.

Life in a harem always sounds mysterious and glamorous as well as slightly wicked. This harem fits the image - intrigue abounds around every corner, the setting is extravagant with jewels and silks and exquisite tile work and furnishings. If you can survive the jealousies and plots plus the sexual demands, life was luxurious, if somewhat dangerous. Add to the situation the fact that the lady was English and everything about her environment was totally foreign to her.

Was Celia's story plausible - who cares, it was intriguing. Ms. Hickman's research was detailed and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I will definitely read some of the other books she has written.
I give the book 4/5

Feather Man
by Rhyll McMaster

This is the book I disliked. Intensely. I read the discussion on Barnes and Noble's Explorers Book Club about the book and hardly recognized it. Ms. McMaster is a well respected Australian poet and her writing style, which I found pleasant enough, reflects her poetry. The novel is set in Australia in the 1950s and revolves around Sookie and her life in Australia ('50s) and London ('70s). Sookie was molested frequently as a child by her neighbor Lionel, the feather man - he raised chickens. Needless to say, as a molested child, she is confused, with serious emotional issues. I could not finish the book. I picked it up several times and each time found it exceedingly unpleasant - I see and hear about enough evil on the news, I don't want to read about it in my free time. I know Ms McMaster was trying to show the misery of this innocent child and all the horrors she experienced. She reached that goal, I just don't want to be subjected to it.
I give the book 1/5 - the 1 is for the writing.

The Fire
by Katherine Neville
Another book that tells stories in multiple time periods - but this one is all over the historic and geographic spectrum from 19th century Albania, to Charlemagne to Northern Africa to France to Russia to the United States and back and forth. Maybe if I had read The Eight first, I would have had less trouble following the story. The story was complicated (I really should have taken notes) and involved puzzles with solutions that didn't always make sense to me and answers that seemed to come too easily given the clues. I have only a basic knowledge of chess, which didn't hamper my ability to understand the story. But understanding The Game (not necessarily chess) was much more complex. I think I'd like to read The Eight and then try this one again.
I'm not going to rate this one until I read it again.

The Queens of Freeville: A Mother, A Daughter and the People Who Raised Them
by Amy Dickinson

This is the book I'm still reading.

Amy Dickinson earned the opportunity to take over Ann Landers writing the advice column (renamed Ask Amy) for the Chicago Tribune and 250 newspapers nationwide. She is not Ann Landers - she's a bit edgier and blunt in her advice. Her motto is "I make the mistakes so you don't have to." Queens is a memoir of the mistakes she's made and successes she had.

She grew up on a failed dairy farm in New York, raised by her mother after her father left the farm and family. After college at Georgetown, she marries the wrong man who leaves her and their daughter in London. You'd think she'd be bitter or angry or feel like life keeps dealing her an awful blow. But she remains upbeat. Her family, mostly women on their own, gather around her in their hometown, Freeville, NY, where most of the women still live within blocks of each other.

Each chapter is a different short essay on an aspect of her life - religion (Peanut Jesus), pets (Livestock in the Kitchen), the women in her family (every chapter). Is this great literature? Not really, but it's real. These are things that happen to real people and her reactions and her support structure are true to life. I can understand why she her column rings true - she lives or has lived a lot of the problems she addresses. And if she hasn't, she has learned to rely on her common sense to solve problems.
I give the book 4/5.

I took Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday off to enjoy a long Thanksgiving holiday. I have much to be thankful for and it was wonderful to be lazy and take my time doing those chores that fell in the "ought to do" category. I hope your holiday was tasty and relaxing.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Back to Blogging

I've been gone for a long time. No good reason, certainly no excuse. Just busy, bronchitis, business travel, technology issues - the usual stuff. But I had lots of time to read, so here's a partial list with a comment or two:

Rossetti Letters

by Christi Phillips
A modern Renaissance scholar travels to Venice to attend a conference and complete research for her dissertation (and serve as a companion to the daughter of a wealthy family). During her research she finds
  • a letter written by the courtesan who is the subject of her dissertation
  • a handsome Italian dinner companion
  • an academic adversary
The novel moves between modern Venice and the Venice of the courtesan, telling the story of the two women. Both stories were well written, an accomplishment for the author, since too many double stories have one strong and one weaker storyline. Ms. Phillips is writing another novel about the scholar which I definitely will read. I give the book 4/5.

The Shop on Blossom Street
A Good Yarn
Back to Blossom Street
by Debbie Macomber
These are the first three books in the Blossom Street series. (I've requested the fourth book from my library.) I was hesitant to read Debbie Macomber - the book covers suggested saccharine stories, but I was seriously wrong. Each book revolves around group of three women who are taking knitting lessons. They are normal woman with normal issues managing their situations, the men in their lives, their families, their jobs. I could identify with some of the issues and understand the rest. In the second and third books, characters and story lines continue from the previous books - you know, like real life, no clear-cut "they lived happily ever after and that's all you need to know" endings. The women learn to like themselves and each other, as well as how to knit. And they don't hate men or see them as the cause of all their problems! I've read a few of Ms. Macomber's earlier works and found them less satisfying, a bit predictable, but I'll still read anything she writes. I give these books 5/5.

Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell
I've found a new name to add to my favorite authors list. I loved this book! It's a large book - 648 pages in my Penguin Classics Edition, not counting the numerous explanatory footnotes. My only disappointment is that Mrs. Gaskell died before she finished it. (Her editor wrote a Note to wrap up the loose ends, based on what he knew of her.)
Set in the early nineteenth century, it's the story of a young girl coming of age. Molly Gibson's mother died when she was young and she has been living happily with her father, the local doctor. Her father decides that, since she is becoming a young lady, she needs the influence and supervision of a woman. He rectifies the situation by marrying the former governess of the local gentry, a widow with a daughter Molly's age. Complications ensue in true nineteen century literary fashion. I'll be reading more of Mrs. Gaskell soon. I give this book 5/5.

And Only to Deceive
by Tasha Alexander
I kept reading about Tasha Alexander on the many book blogs I read, so, when I found this book for 50% off, I snapped it up. I'm really glad I did. I love the historical romance/mystery genre and this is an excellent example. A strong-willed young woman marries the least objectionable man she has met - to keep her parents happy and end their nagging. When her new husband dies on a safari in Africa soon after the wedding, she is not overly unhappy. Now she can lead the life of the wealthy young widow with more freedom then she had as a wealthy single woman. As she learns more and more about her late husband, however, she realizes he led a very different life than what she thought. She comes, too late, to love him as much as he loved her. As she discovers this other side of him, she also discovers a mystery (of course), a possible romance (also, of course) and new interests for herself. I look forward to reading the next book in the series. I give the book 4.5/5.

The Custom of the Country
by Edith Wharton
I've read a number of Mrs. Wharton's books and enjoyed them all. Her women are strong but often misguided by their own ambitions. Undine Sprague could have been a horrible character. She always wants more of everything. She may have begun her life as the daughter of a small town Mid-Western self-made man, but she plans on ending up in High Society. She doesn't take "no" for an answer from anyone and doesn't care who she tramples in her pursuit of what she wants. Yet the book is enjoyable. Undine was not a pleasant person but she was persistent. Mrs. Wharton draws a detailed picture picture of society's leaders and want-to-be leaders without hiding their foibles and failures. I give the book 4/5.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: And the Beginning of the Modern World
by Thomas Cahill
This has got to be one of the most beautiful non-art paperback books I have ever seen. The calligraphy and medieval art are stunning. Whoever did the book design should be congratulated. The content and the "look" perfectly complement each other.
This is the fifth book in Mr. Cahill's Hinges of History series and an excellent addition. The lives that he profiles provide a quick glimpse of the so-called Dark Ages that were anything but dark.
Having said that, I have one major quibble - why did he have to insert his own personal political hatred of George Bush into the narrative? It was totally inappropriate and disrupted the flow of what he was saying because it wasn't pertinent. He is welcome to his opinions but they didn't belong in this book. (He did the same thing in Sailing the Wine-Dark Seas so often that I stopped reading it.)
I give the book only 3.5/5 primarily because of the political commentary. ( has a number of reviews of this book that also mentioned the reviewer's objections to Mr. Cahill's political statements in an otherwise excellent history of the Middle Ages.)

Since it's the last day of the three-day Labor Day holiday, I'm going to end my labor (I know, corny) and relax with, what else, a good book.

Monday, May 26, 2008

My Shakespeare Challenge

I’ve been out of touch with blogging lately, just a lot going on, but that didn’t stop me from reading. I have completed the Shakespeare Challenge – my first ever challenge. I'm so proud!

I only read one of the books on my original list. It seemed like every time I headed into a bookstore there was another new book about The Bard and his times that jumped off the shelf into my hands. And the local library was equally distracting.

I’ve already reviewed the first book I read, Interred with their Bones below. Not one of my favorites although the author shows promise. My other reads were much more to my liking.

The Lodger Shakespeare: His Life on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl
The author completed a prodigious amount of research to examine Shakespeare’s time though the life of his landlords. During two years at the height of his success (1603-1605) Shakespeare rented a room in the home of the Mountjoy family, French Huguenot immigrants in the clothing trade. The family was well known for its designs for a “tyre” – an elegant circular headdress popular with women at the time. The patriarch of the family was a stingy, promiscuous man who used Shakespeare to persuade his apprentice to marry the family’s only daughter, only to renege on the promised dowry. Shakespeare is called upon to give a legal deposition in a lawsuit brought by the son-in-law, thus the link with the family is verified.

Nicholl’s research is extensive – the last 100 pages of the book are the Appendix, which contains the text of Shakespeare’s deposition, almost 45 pages of footnotes and a detailed Index. Yet for such a detailed non-fiction book, it was anything but dull. I found myself staying up a little later at night to finish a chapter that I was engrossed in. I got this from the library but will probably buy it when it comes out in paperback. I gave it a 4 out of 5.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt
Another non-fiction book that was an excellent read. At first I was a little put off by the constant use of “maybe”, “could have”, “possibly”. But then I realized that supposition was necessary because so little is truly knoknown about Shakespeare’s life, particularly as a child and young adult.

Greenblatt makes a good case for his hypotheses, however, because of his knowledge of events in the Elizabethan era. If a festival is known to have been held less than 10 miles from Avon with certain celebratory exhibitions and some of Shakespeare’s plays have similar gala events, then it is likely that Shakespeare attended the festival – or knew someone well who did.

Coincidence is not a good explanation for so many of the similarities between actual Elizabethan and Jacobean events and scenes in the plays. Some of the relationships seemed a bit of a stretch, but, all in all it was also an excellent read. I give this book a 4.5 out of 5.

The Book of Air and Shadows: A Novel by Michael Gruber
This was the novel that Interred with Their Bones wanted to be. But then Michael Gruber is a much more experienced author.

The story is told from the point of view of two very different men – Jake, a wealthy, self-indulgent attorney who specializes in Intellectual Property law and Albert, a would-be film maker/slacker who works at a antiquarian book dealers and lives at home with his mother. They each separately get involved with a possible missing Shakespeare play, two intriguing mystery women, Russian and Jewish gangsters and, eventually, each other.

Albert helps the co-worker that he has a crush on “save” several books with water damage from a fire. She finds letters used as padding in the book covers that appear to be letters written during the Elizabethan era that may reference an unknown play by Shakespeare. They sell the pages to a disgraced Shakespearean scholar (he authenticated a “lost” Shakespeare manuscript that turned out to be a forgery). The scholar gives Jake a package to hold for him and then the scholar is viciously tortured and killed.

Are the letters forgeries or the real thing? Is there really another play? Who are these huge men dressed in black driving black SUVs who keep showing up and shooting up the place? Eventually, everything is connected, in more ways than expected. It was a thick book – almost 500 pages, but none of the story could have been edited out to make it shorter – it was that tight and well written. I give this book 4.5 out of 5

I had intended to be a bit scholarly in my choice of reading for the challenge, after all I did minor in English literature in college, and I did start three of the books on my original list, but I got sidetracked.

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.) by James Shapiro
This is an interesting book, and the detail is unbelievable. After all, it’s over 400 pages about one year. I intend to finish this book since it is well written, just more information that I could process at the time.

Shakespeare by Allardyce Nicoll
This is a British book, part of the Home Study Books series originally published in 1952, that I bought when I visited Stratford while in college, many years ago. I read about a quarter of the book and realized I was too far removed from the plays to get much out of the book. It is well written, however, so I’ll probably try it again later.

Shakespeare by Mark Van Doren
This book was written in 1939, but I picked it up as a paperback at the Newberry Library book sale a couple of years ago. The first chapter on the sonnets was excellent because he quoted from the sonnet he was discussing. The rest of the book expected the reader to have more than a passing knowledge of the play being discussed and since its been many, many years since I studied the plays, I was totally out of my element. I would consider reading individual chapters as a companion to reading the plays again.

There are so many other books out there that I want to read about The Bard, so I’ve decided to try to read at least 1 book a quarter, just to keep my mind in it. Thanks BiblioShakespeare for the encouragement!!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Shakespeare Challenge Book One

My list of books for the Shakespeare Challenge has changed a bit. I was scanning the New Books shelf at the library and ran across Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell. The front cover flap read

A long-lost work of Shakespeare, newly found. . .a killer who stages the Bard’s extravagant murders as flesh-and-blood realities. . .a desperate race to find literary gold, and just to stay alive . . .

I enjoy a good murder mystery and I loved the premise that another Shakespearean play had been discovered. After I got the book home I read JenClair’s review but decided to try it anyway. I have to agree with her – the plot was much too complicated.

Kate Stanley is an American Shakespearean expert who is directing Hamlet at the Globe in London. Her mentor Rosalind Howard visits, after being estranged from her for several years, and gives Kate a mysterious gift, telling her she needs her help.

That night the Globe has a massive fire and Rosalind’s body is found inside, murdered. A wild chase follows to solve the mystery of who killed her and why she needed Kate’s help. The chase starts in London, goes to Massachusetts (Harvard University), Utah, New Mexico, Washington DC (Folger Library), Spain, back to New Mexico for the climax and then back to London. Loads of frequent flier miles, but not very believable when the main character is trying to elude the police and the murderer.

Lots of red herrings. And murders – in all seven deaths, several of which were totally unnecessary to move the plot along. And the British detective that started out seeming like he’d be an important character suddenly disappears and then reappears a couple of times out of nowhere in far flung areas where he has no jurisdiction and does very little to add to the story.

To confuse things even further, the book opens with a chapter set in 1613 with Shakespeare and a woman and a young man. These three 17th century characters appear several times in chapters inserted between modern chapters. I think I understand why they were there, but I didn’t find that those chapters enhanced the flow of events in the modern part of the story.

The author has a PhD in English and American Literature, has taught at Harvard and directed Shakespeare theater, and it shows. I admit I learned a number of bits of Shakespearean lore that I didn’t know that I found interesting. However, too many coincidences, too many deaths, too many locations, too little substance to the story. All in all, I should have listened to JenClair.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

My Somewhat Rare Personality

Thanks to MMV I now know who I "truly" am. LOL. Actually, not this is a fairly good description of me.

Your Personality is Somewhat Rare (ISFP)

Your personality type is caring, peaceful, artistic, and calm.

Only about 7% of all people have your personality, including 8% of all women and 6% of all men

You are Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, and Perceiving.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Shakespeare in 2008

I think I've found my 4 Shakespeare books for BiblioShakespeare's challenge. I went digging into my bookcases (many shelves have double rows of books so I have to move things around to find what I'm looking at -really need to buy more bookcases, but don't know where I'd put them) and found two really old books to add to my list. I still have one I'm going to buy with my Christmas gift card.
  1. A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare 1599 by James Shapiro, a new book.

  2. Shakespeare by Allardyce Nicoll - this is a British book, part of the Home Study Books series originally published in 1952, that I bought when I visited Stratford while in college, many years ago.

  3. Shakespeare by Mark Van Doren, written in 1939, I picked it up as a paperback at the Newberry Library book sale a couple of years ago.

  4. Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt - this one I have to buy yet.

The Nicoll Shakespeare is a series of essays exploring different theories about Shakespeare and his work, from the point of view of a British author.

The Van Doren Shakespeare has an essay for each of the plays.

As a "just in case" I also have The Folger Guide to Shakespeare from the Folger Library. And if I can find it, my sons' Tales from Shakespeare By Charles and Mary Lamb.

Should be an interesting time reading.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Books & Mysteries

I do enjoy mysteries and, of course, books so when the two are combined, I usually enjoy the read. John Dunning is a Denver-based antiquarian book dealer, who owned The Old Algonquin Bookstore before closing it to become a by-appointment-only dealer. He knows his books and he knows how to write an engrossing mystery. There are five books (so far) in the Cliff Janeway series and I read the first two this past week.

Booked to Die
When the first book begins, Cliff Janeway is a homocide detective in Denver, on the trail of what appears to be a serial killer with a horrible temper - the murderer appears to kill for the sheer pleasure of it. The victims are all homeless men and when the latest victim turns out to be, not only NOT homeless, but a bookscout known by many bookdealers in Denver, the mystery broadens.

Janeway's first suspect is Jackie Newton, a creep with a way with money and a violent temper. Janeway is sure Newton was responsible for the other murders, even bringing him to trial on one. But Newton always manages to threaten his way out of tight spots. When Janeway finally snaps, Newton ends up free and Janeway unemployed, and also free - free to follow his dream of opening his own used and antiquarian book store.

Other suspects appear, including the lovely and reclusive book dealer Rita McKinnley, and Janeway, ever the cop, tries (but not too hard) to stay out of it. When the next murders, however, hit a little too close too home, he can't remain aloof. Eventually, he solves the mystery and indirectly gets revenge.

I enjoyed the story (not always the "tough cop/guy" language, but I don't know how cops talk to each other). The identity of the murderer was unexpected, but logical, once the reasons were explained.
I give it 3.5 out of 5

The Bookman's Wake
Once a cop, always a cop - even when you're finding and selling books. This time Cliff Janeway is asked by another ex-cop/private investigator, to pick up a young woman who has jumped bail in New Mexico after stealing a rare book. The bail jumper with the unlikely name of Eleanor Rigby (yes, it's her given name) has been spotted near her home outside Seattle and doesn't appear to be ready to go any further.

Right up Janeway's alley and easy money - a quick couple of grand plus expenses and the chance to hit the bookstores of Seattle. But, all is not as it seems. The book may or may not be the rumored final publication of Grayson Press, a limited run, fine art press located outside Seattle - a one-of-a-kind edition of Poe's The Raven.

Janeway heads for Seattle and finds the young woman only to have grave doubts about the tale he was told in Denver. People have been killed and more are being killed, all because of the book-that-may-not-be. The Grayson Press closed when the Grayson brothers died in a mysterious fire 20 years before. Now collectors are paying exorbitant prices for anything connected with the press and the brothers. And that can get dangerous for anyone with connections to the brothers and their books.

Dunning exhibits a knowledge of printing and fine presses, as would be expected. As with Booked to Die, the murderer was a surprise, one of many surprises, which kept my interest. But I'm not fond of mysteries where the only way to explain the ending is to explain the ending. I remember my sons' third grade teacher's lessons on "show, don't tell" as a writing method. Dunning could use a few of those lessons. While the story itself kept my interest, I was disappointed that it was necessary to explain what happened and why at the end. The ending made sense. I understood why everything happened, but, somehow, would rather have discovered it rather than been told it.
I give it a 2.5 out of 5. It would have been higher if the ending worked better for me.