Monday, June 6, 2011

A couple of half-baked book reviews...

Since my boss went dark on all things interwebs, I've read a bunch of stuff.

Except that I didn't take notes and now I'm trying to catch up.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: Great! I really liked the mixture of regency and magic. And the true-to-form combination of wit and brooding. Downside: the diary. Upside: glamours. Definitely enhanced by having known Mary and what a mixture of whimsy and propriety she is. Her book so beautifully reflects her.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: GAH! I was so addicted to these. So believable and dark and addictive. I know I was the last person in the world to read these, and I'm very glad I did. Wish I could start all over again.

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen: Oh, I like her. They've gone from whimsical to a tiny bit guilty pleasure, but I like her voice nevertheless. This one was a bit fluffy, but I did like how the man in this one was non-butch. Not many mainstream writers extol the appeal of androgynous men.

Somewhere in there I re-read Jane Eyre. Reinforcing (again) how I would never ever have married in that era based upon her portrayal of male behavior. I've loved this book since I first learned to read, but DANG, Rochester gets worse upon every read. And St. John? Mother of all things manipulative. Ugh!

What else...? I've stayed up late a handful of times finishing books. I'll have to think harder about what those were...

Monday, May 30, 2011

The state of the blog

...I haven't posted forever. I blame my employer's block of the internet. Sad sad sad.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones - A sad day for readers everywhere

Diana Wynne Jones died Saturday, March 26, 2011. Something I learned from reading Neil Gaiman's online journal entry today.

DWJ is so far and away my favorite author that there isn't really a 2nd-favorite, and even though I'm just one of millions of fans, I feel devastated, as if she was a favorite relative or someone else I knew well.

Really, though, I merely knew a small piece of her world, through which she created a small piece of mine.

Monday, March 21, 2011

March Birthday = NEW BOOKS!!


In honor of turning the magical number forty-one, my mother-in-law gifted me a generous Powell's card, with which I purchased:
In addition, I won a GoodReads contest!! (Favorite new discovery - free books in exchange for free reviews! Best magic thing in 2011 to date!!)
AND! I won one of the Locus Challenge giveaway books:
Sadly, the book, had I but paid attention, is #3 in a series, prompting me to spend my own money on books 1 and 2. Despite bleeding my own money: WHEEEEEE!

Again, March proves why it's my favorite month of the year: Many delicious books to read!! Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

12 books, 12 months #6: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, by Alison Arngrim

This is part 6 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman.

Holy fun. Clearly I've been blocking a key part of my childhood - the one where I watched 3000 hours of Little House on the Prairie, obsessively read the books, wore prairie skirts, and played out endless Little-Housian stories with my staff of dolls and toys.

Last night it all came roaring back as I read Alison Arngrim's snappy autobiography about growing up playing Nellie Oleson in the wildly successful prairie TV (melo)drama. This is a fun, quick read, and Arngrim definitely keeps everything fresh - light-handed with the serious stuff and laughing companionably (and often) at the histrionics of actors everywhere.

There's not a lot to pick apart. Her narrative is quick-paced and sweet. Arngrim had eccentric, fairly bohemian parents who were bent on their own and their children's success. Money was iffy and her family's coping mechanisms - which could easily sound bleak and sad in other hands - come across as upbeat and quirky.

Even the heaviest piece of her childhood - long-term sexual abuse at the hands of her also-famous brother - is dealt with matter-of-factly. Not dismissively, but not overly sentimental. I had to admire her ability to say "I will share this with you, stranger, and give you the summary. But keep your pity out of my way." It's certainly good for the sake of her mostly comic memoir, and keeps her overall persona glib, humorous, and slightly detached.

Arngrim clearly could write another story about her life, interpreting her odd parents, her brother, some post-Little House life experiences in a much more untangling, wallowing way. But she chooses at every point to make the glossier, humorous punchline. And it works. It IS a memoir and she IS an actor, but for all the layers of narcissism inherent in those two things, it's a good, candid, non-precious read.

Arngrim knows she's writing a book that will primarily be read by fans of Little House, and uses that as her motif, despite the many non-actor things she's done since Nellie (most notably AIDS activism and campaigning for the rights of incest survivors). And she isn't all sunshine and lollipops: she's candid about a few people, including the (scandalous!) rudeness of Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary) and Katherine MacGregor (Mrs. Oleson)'s infuriating habit of directing other actors. But (aside from Anderson, who sounds difficult to know), Arngrim's voice is generally fair and loving, even when she describes some of the most difficult situations in her life.

Given that, it's tough to call her to task for her glib, defensive humor. Lots of people use humor as a wall, and Arngrim at least acknowledges that her humorous shield has saved her. She calls it bitchiness, born from playing a well-known girl-you-love-to-hate. But, you know, not so much. I'd call her direct and humorous and admirable - not much of a bitch at all.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

More challenge!

I'm attempting another book challenge through Locus Magazine. The list of possibles is LONG and DELICIOUS! I've been wanting to read Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal (squee! I know her!) and the new Jasper Fforde... wish me luck!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Book of Johns: 12 books, 12 months #5: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This is part 5 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman.

I can't do it. Much as I believe the payoff would be pleasurable, this book is the most difficult to enjoy audio-book I've yet tried.

I own 2 hard copies, so I WILL try again with the bound copies, so I can make mental notes as to the page upon which someone named John appears. That way, when the eleventy-seventh John says something dry and witty, I can remember which effing John it is - or at least page back to figure it out.

8 hours into an approximately 32 hour audio-book, I throw up my hands.

The good: It's a fun capture of regency-era stiffness and linguistic quirks in a parallel universe where magic lurks in the shadows. The bad: the cast of thousands, the interchangeable stuffiness of address, and the footnotes, OH, the footnotes...AAAAAHHH! I can't do it. I drift off into a deaf mental fugue whenever I try to sit and listen. Or jog and listen. Or anything and listen. A few paragraphs into the narration and I'm completely bored AND have to cull my brain to remember if this is the John who wrote the treatise on Magic in Britain, or the John who is the selectman, or the John who is going to marry the fussy Miss R, apprenticed to the fussy magician Mr. Norrell. Or possibly it's the one married to the brought-back-to-life Miss C? And by the time I've figured it out, I've once again lost what may be critical information to the book's plot.

I really like Clarke's voice. But this is a book to be careful over, and my life, full as it is of job, family, and etc. is not allowing the careful, note-taking reading required.

My vote: A- for Clarke (I don't care for the narrator choice, and think his dry voice contributes to my dilemma) and an F- for me for the realization that my life needs books with more spoon-feeding.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Grammar slammer: in/out or on/off

This past Saturday I had a chat with a Jordanian barista with AMAZING English. He said he'd been in the US for 6 months and had studied the language conversationally in Jordan with other English-speakers for only a few months prior to that. I'm always amazed by people who are adaptive linguists. I am not. Like many things in my life, I can be clunkily adept at something only after a lot of repetition and even then am best when I can do one thing over and over again until it comes "naturally".

Aaaaanyway, my new barista friend was joking about all the painful English idioms he'd encountered that make no sense nor do they follow language rules that are uniformly enforced. Having (briefly) studied his native Arabic, I can see his point.

My favorite of his idiomatic head slappers: We get in and out of a car, but on and off of a bus, train, or airplane. Why?

I have it on good authority that Brits say things like "on" line instead of "in" line for a queue. (Also, they use the word queue.)

I know there are English idiom books and studies out there that would, at length, answer any query I encounter, but it's more fun (for me) to ask you what you think?

Monday, January 10, 2011

12 Months, 12 Books: #4 - The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

This is part 4 of my portion of a book review series brought to you by The Latter Day Bohemian via Middle-Aged Woman.

Sometimes you think you want something, and then - shaZAM! - you find it right there in front of you – at home! And sometimes that thing is a big treasure chest full of gold!! And you can find it using Ruby Slippers! Or maybe if a bell rings on a Christmas tree… Whichever, be assured that it is your DESTINY to find the treasure, and the UNIVERSE will help you find it!...sigh...

A few months ago, my niece wrote a review of The Alchemist, a book I was, until then, sure I’d read (I hadn’t). I wanted to read it until I did; I now I wish I hadn't.

The story follows a poor shepherd named Santiago who has a specific dream about a treasure. Lots of mysterious strangers help him follow this dream. Many years, adventures, and magical powers later, he finds the treasure back at home where he started. The end.

The Alchemist is set vaguely back in time far enough to strip away all modern contrivances like ease of transportation or communication – or literacy. Throughout the book, speech and exposition walk a thin line of fake-o ethnicity, sort-of Tonto-meets-Swami-meets-Yoda: "in heart one will find truth!". This is maybe one of the drawbacks of anachronistic writing, and not universally true of the novel, but true often enough to grate on me.

Clearly - CLEARLY - I’m disinclined and sarcastic when it comes to modern books of spiritual allegory, which generally have the appeal of Christian tracts. When I was in college, or maybe even in High School, somebody recommended to me Illusions by Richard Bach; at the time, I thought Bach’s desire to allegorize his anti-materialist world-view very interesting and enlightening. That was probably the last time an allegory made me feel more enriched than condescended to. As with my feelings about self-help books, allegorical novels have to be especially terrific in both premise and form to not make me roll my eyes. And I don't think The Alchemist has either going for it.

Coelho is not a bad writer. In fact, one of my favorite reads in 2009 was The Witch of Portobello, a sort-of mystery novel about politics, gypsies, adoption, parenting, death, and love. And I really savored that book and Coelho’s writing. And although I set myself up to not enjoy The Alchemist once I realized the overall conceit, I must acknowledge that it’s also written in a sparse, pleasing way, despite the occasional dips into caricaturizing:

"Hmm…" said the old man, looking at all sides of the book, as if it were some strange object. "This is an important book, but it's really irritating."

The boy was shocked. The old man knew how to read, and had already read the book. And if the book was irritating, as the old man had said, the boy still had time to change it for another.

"It's a book that says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say," continued the old man. "It describes people's inability to choose their own destinies. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world's greatest lie."

"What's the world's greatest lie?" the boy asked, completely surprised.

"It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie."
The Alchemist had a lot of my own anti-authority, anti-dogma issues to overcome, at which (naturally, perhaps) it failed. It might be a pleasurable book – it certainly has been very well received both critically and in overall sales – but I found myself frustrated with the moralizing intent. Like Richard Bach or O. Henry, I was unwilling to open myself to the homily-laden language to find the path to the obvious Higher Power (Love, God, Faith, or, in this novel, the Universe within). Overall, I found it simple and elegant in its way, but more irritating than compelling.