25 May 2008

If You See The Third Angel, Tell Him He Can Go Stuff Himself

The Third Angel written by Alice Hoffman &read by Nancy Travis (Random House Audio, 2008)

My “H” author for the A~Z reading challenge was Alice Hoffman. Sometimes, it seems I’ve been half in love with Alice Hoffman since I was sixteen and read Turtle Moon for the first time. The rich descriptions, lyrical prose, and fantastical characters were very attractive to me coming as I was off a protracted Robin McKinley/Patricia McKillip bender. I’ve since read pretty much every Hoffman work I could get my hot little hands on and, while some were better than others, I’ve never regretted reading any of them.

So, it was obvious Alice Hoffman would be my “H” author. Less obvious was which title to pick. The Foretelling and Skylight Confessions were still on my “to read” list, but when I saw the cover art for The Third Angel my decision was made for me.

The Third Angel told the stories of three women who have all had relationships with the "wrong" men. The novel began in contemporary London with Maddy who had an affair with her sister Ali’s fiancé and then (just when that became interesting) the novel abruptly moved backward in time to Sixties London and Frieda who had a brief affair with a promising, but doomed, young rock star and then (just as that got interesting) the novel again moved backward -- this time to Fifties London and poor Lucy who would grow up blaming herself for causing a terrible accident.

Ultimately, the novel spent too much time connecting characters through action rather than emotion. I presume Hoffman intended to create an emotional bond between her character's, but it never quite came off. There is no insinuation of deep feeling (even though all these women were supposed to have loved deeply). The characters were only interesting for what happened to them and that wasn't particularly compelling or moving or whathaveyou. In the end, I wondered if there had been a point to any of it.

I'm rather bummed out now and have to go re-read The Green Angel or Blackbird House until I feel better.

24 May 2008

"Rule Britannia and pass the mutton.”

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose written by Lauren Willig & read by Kate Reading (Penguin Audio, 2008)

My “W” author for the A~Z reading challenge was Lauren Willig and her The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. While I had listened to the three previous installments in Willig’s Pink Carnation series and found them to be a bit of a mixed bag, the series still had enough going for it that I snapped up The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. Who am I to refuse a tasty confection of espionage, derring-do, and witty repartee?

I will come straight out and warn you that all the Pink Carnation novels follow a familiar romantic formula -- a man and woman who dislike each other are forced to work together. Their dislike ignites a spark between them and (eventually) they fall in love. That said Willig handles the formula quite well and Mary and Vaughn are positively smokin’ in their mutual dislike.

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose is part of a series about a Napoleonic era spy called the Pink Carnation. This series shuttles back and forth between the present day England (featuring Eloise, the American grad student who is researching the Pink Carnation for her thesis and Colin, a descendant of the Pink Carnation) and Europe’s Napoleonic era, where the Pink Carnation and other flowery English spies run around trying to stop that most dreadful French spy -- the Black Tulip.

(Yes, the name is a bit silly, but the spy most definitely is not).

The main plot of the The Seduction of the Crimson Rose deals with Mary Alsworthy’s life after being scandalously dumped by her fiancé when he fell for her sister Letty during a botched elopement (for more on that, read the The Deception of the Emerald Ring). Faced with utterly distasteful financial dependence on her sister and new brother-in-law if she wanted another crack at the marriage mart (which she does, of course, for what are her other choices?), Mary decided to take wicked Lord Vaughn up on his offer to be bait for the dreaded Black Tulip -- Vaughn was supposed to pay for her next season if she did this, but I have no idea how he was expected to pay her without causing a scandal.

Mary Alsworthy was not your typical heroine – she was scheming, selfish, and not particularly given to fits of patriotism. And yet she was also very determined, and fierce, and (in her own way) quite honorable. I felt rather bad for her when she was snubbed by Letty’s friends -- Mary was not nearly the bad hat they had decided she was. Indeed, I found I rather admired Mary and I hope to see more of her in later Pink Carnation adventures.

Alas, the Black Tulip was a bit of a letdown -- not nearly as fascinating or terrible as I had hoped. I wasn't surprised that he turned out to be Mr. St. George, but I was surprised as to who Mr. St. George turned out to be. Masks upon masks and yet nothing all that interesting underneath.

Nor was the oh-so-twee budding relationship between Eloise and Colin very interesting to me. As a framing story, it makes me gnash my teeth and utterly detracts from all the delicious swashbuckling skullduggery and witty repartee going on back in 1830s Britain.

According to Willig’s site, there are another two (probably) Pink Carnation books in the works. What’s next? The Temptation of the Night Jasmine

Hmm. Considering the bit at the end of The Seduction of the Crimson Rose where Eloise and Colin are discussing the Pink Carnation’s supposed activity in India and Russia, I wonder where this fifth novel will take us.

(And who was the Crimson Rose, anyway? There's no spy or character with that name in this novel. I presume it was supposed to be Mary -- thought Vaughn would be the more amusing choice -- but it isn't clear).

21 May 2008

"Damn you, delicious powdered cheese."

I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley (Riverhead, 2008)

My “C” author for the A~Z reading challenge was Sloane Crosley and her essay collection I Was Told There'd Be Cake. I do not know how I came to pick this title as collections are usually not my cup of tea. As Cake isn't mentioned on Bookslut, I'm guessing it must have been the Library Journal review that did it.

(Which is strange, because I usually eschew anything with a starred review as I have been burned once too often by those crack-smoking optimists over at LJ).

I Was Told There'd Be Cake is a slice-of-life essay collection about a mid-20s (?) Manhattanite with roots in Westchester. The essays are cleverly and hilariously written on topics any good girl from the suburbs should be able to identify with. The lax vegetarianism, quasi-religious summer camp experiences, and sporadic litter of good intentions -- it's all familiar stuff.

My favorite stories were "Christmas in July" ("I came close to building my own theological infrastructure at the ripe age of seven, when I memorized a series of words: Sky, Blankey, Speech, Kim"), "One-Night Bounce" ("The second I was old enough to know what sex was, I knew I wanted to have a one-night stand"), and "Lay Like Broccoli" ("As for other vegetarians, I tell them I started eating sushi because I developed a mercury deficiency"). However, I must admit my favorite passage is at the start of "Smell This" (a story of friendship and a stealth turd):
Unless you are a professional, you will find the tart to be a high-maintenance, unforgiving whistle-blower of a pastry. If they could sprout sexual organs and mate, they'd go extinct on the jungle floor. Chocolate chip cookies, impossible to fuck up, would breed like deer. Tarts are the red pandas of the baking Amazon.
Perhaps it was the half bag of dark chocolate M&Ms I had mainlined while reading this collection, but that passage made me laugh like an idiot as I visualized vast herds of chocolate chip cookies roaming the jungle glades while one shy chocolate hazelnut tart, its crust a little crumbly around the edges, cowered in the undergrowth ...

16 May 2008

"The Americans Misunderstood Us"

Imperial Life in the Emerald City written by Rajiv Chandrasekaran & read by Ray Porter (Blackstone Audiobooks, 2006)

My “I” title for the A~Z reading challenge was Imperial Life in the Emerald City, because a good citizen can never know too much about government shenanigans at home or abroad.

In this surreal and disturbing (and yet also surprisingly funny) audio book, reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran recounted his experiences in Iraq during the American occupation. By and large, the Coalition Provisional Authority came off as alarmingly clueless, isolatory, and way too gung-ho -- thinking up grand projects like turning Iraq’s stock exchange into the most technologically sophisticated one in the Middle East -- at a time when Iraq’s basic infrastructure desperately needed shoring up and its people felt less safe than before we arrived.

This is not to say Chandrasekaran found nothing but fault with the CPA -– he did write about CPA members who were genuinely interested in working with the Iraqis to create reform or had real practical plans to improve infrastructure. Unfortunately, they were all thwarted by American politics, corruption, and gross ineptitude.
'If this place succeeds,' a CPA friend told me before he left, 'it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it'."
It's very hard for me to write about my reaction to this audio book. Much of it made me burn with shame -- even while I was chuckling, I was wincing.

Chandrasekaran has a great list of further reading on his site which is definitely worth checking out. Hmmm ... Operation Iraqi Freedom Reading Challenge, anyone?

No. There's not enough alprazolam in the world.

10 May 2008

"T" is Pretty Terrific

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden (Scholastic, 2006)

My “T” title for the A~Z reading challenge was Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden. I pretty much picked this book because of the 20 April Unshelved strip. I admit this wasn’t the first time I picked up a book because of an Unshelved strip – my decision to read Bad Monkeys and 13 Bullets were also heavily influenced by their comic strips. It’s also been a lot of fun to see strips for novels I’ve already read like The Color of Magic, A Wizard of Earthsea, and The Stupidest Angel.

I was under the impression that Tomorrow was a new stand alone novel and was quite surprised to discover it was the first book in a seven book series and was not new, but had been published in Australia in the 90s. I was a little put out, because series starters are not always the best books in the series and I expected to have to wade through a lot of introductory/world building piffle before I got to the real meat of the story. Also, I was annoyed because I was into survival novels in a really big way as a teenager and would have loved Tomorrow when I was seventeen.

I certainly loved it at thirty-one. Tomorrow was a brilliant read with well fleshed out characters and a compelling story line which constantly kept me wondering what would happen next. Ellie and her friends all behave in believable ways and there is nothing that happens in the story which seems improbable in today’s world.

Summary in a nutshell: Teenage Ellie and her friends go camping in the Australian bush. When they head homeward, they find that all the people have vanished and that the town (and, perhaps, all of Australia) has been invaded by a foreign power. I won’t tell you the rest, because that gives too much away.

(I will say, however, that the invading foreign power was never identified and that worked out really well ... the soldier pointing at you could be anyone. Very perspylogical, wot?)

I look forward to reading the other books in this series and I heartily recommend Tomorrow, When The War Began to anyone who is looking for a good adventure/survival story which emphasize themes like courage and honor and has a strong female protagonist.

08 May 2008

Apparently, I Don't Do Cozy

The Quilter's Apprentice by Jennifer Chiaverini (Simon & Schuster, 1999)

My “Q” title for the A~Z reading challenge was The Quilter’s Apprentice by Jennifer Chiaverini. As I quilt and have been giving my quilterly mom Chiaverini’s books for years now, it seemed high time to read one of her Elm Creek Quilts novels. The Quilter’s Apprentice, being the first book in the series, seemed like the obvious choice.

(I know I said The Quilter’s Apprentice would be one of my 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats/tl;dr reading challenge selections, but changed my mind. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of my tl;dr selections – I am a changeable sort of woman).

Anyway ...

When Sarah McClure follows her husband to the small town of Waterford, Pennsylvania, she finds herself at loose ends. Disheartened by a slew of failed job interviews, she reluctantly accepts a temporary position helping crotchety old lady Sylvia Compson prepare her family estate, Elm Creek Manor, for sale after the recent death of her estranged sister. As part of their hiring bargain, Sylvia will also teach Sarah how to quilt.

This novel had its promising moments, I’ll grant you, but those were few and far between. I would loved to have seen the characters and plotlines fleshed out more (or weeded out as, at some points, there seemed to be a surfeit of story surrounding Sylvia’s family -- sisterly feuds, championship horses, runaway slaves, World War II, etc).

I think The Quilter’s Apprentice is one of those novels which are generally described as “cozy,” “heartwarming,” and “inspiring,” but I just found it rather flat and boring. I still recommend Sandra Dallas’s The Persian Pickle Club over this novel.

05 May 2008

F is for FAIL

Doctor in the House by Marie Ferrarella (Harlequin, 2007)

My "F" author for the A~Z reading challenge was Marie Ferrarella, author of many Harlequin romances. I selected Ferrarella's Doctor in the House, because it was part of what I thought was a new Harlequin imprint, NEXT. According to the Harlequin site:
NEXT is a line of entertaining novels about women facing up to the glorious unpredictability of life – warm and compelling stories that are relevant for every woman who has wondered, ‘What next?’ After all, there’s the life you planned. And there’s what comes next.
Sounds pretty good, right? If only. NEXT is already kaput and, if Doctor in the House is any example, I can see why. The novel reads like really bad House, M.D. fanfic and (I don't know about you) but when I want fanfic, I turn to the internets.

Basically, this story is about a brilliant but nasty neurosurgeon who is saddled with a perky and wholesome resident. Sparks fly. Romance ensues. Hard choices are made. Crusty doctor almost says "I love you."

I think this novel would have been better if it had been padded out a bit. While the novel told me Bailey was a missionary brat who got married young, divorced quickly, and then discovered her calling as a neurosurgeon, I never really felt any of that was any more than window dressing. Her life, her family, her choices ... they never felt real.

Neither, alas, did her romance with Ivan the Terrible. If anything it felt formulaic and stilted.

Also, horribly unethical. Sleeping with your resident is never a good idea (and yes, I have a huge hang-up regarding authority figures schtupping their subordinates so I should obviously have had the brains to avoid this book from the get-go).

Read some House, M.D. fanfic here and here (much of it is / so “caveat lector” and whatnot).

01 May 2008

Reading from Alexander to Zabytko

342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Reading ChallengeIn case you hadn't guessed, I have jumped on the A~Z Reading Challenge bandwagon. It seems like quite a lot of fun and a good way to try new authors/genres. Also, it gave me an excuse to build a spreadsheet in Excel, edit it in Open Office, and then import the OpenDocument spreadsheet into Google Docs just to see what might explode. Nothing exploded. Some of my fonts went a bit funny, but that was all.

So, here is my A~Z Reading Challenge booklist. It's a bit all over the place, genre-wise, but that's what I was aiming for. Also, I freely admit I do not intend to read everything on my list. No, I fully expect to listen to about a third of them. I spend ten+ commuter hours per week in my car and I would go crazy without audiobooks. Also, there are books which I just can't read. No matter how interesting they are or how much pleasure I expect to take from them, I cannot stand to read them. Yet I can listen to them. Listening changes something -- makes them bearable or interesting. Weird, but true.

I'm still doing the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Challenge, as well. However, I am not enjoying my first selection (Jennifer Chiaverini's The Quilter's Apprentice) nearly as much as I had expected so I have set it aside for the time being. Hmm. Instead of tl;dr (too long; didn't read), I need tb;dr (totally boring; didn't read). I am hugely disappointed by how little I am liking The Quilter's Apprentice. The characters are all horribly cardboard and the plot so obvious that even Sylvia Compson's back story isn't enough to keep me from rolling my eyes. Heck, even the quilting fails to thrill me.

I'm only a third of the way in, but I would recommend Sandra Dallas's The Persian Pickle Club over The Quilter's Apprentice any day.