29 December 2009

"Only to find some peace of mind / We have to pick-a-pocket or two."

Grace Hammer: A Novel of the Victorian Underworld by Sara Stockbridge (W.W. Norton & Company, 2009).

Truly, I do not know what to say about Grace Hammer. It took me three weeks to read two hundred and seventy-seven pages, which is some kind of record for me. At no time while reading the novel did I think about giving it up, but neither did I find myself rushing back to it. And that it unfortunate, because Grace Hammer seemed full of promise!

Amidst the squalor of East London, comfortably successful thief Grace Hammer is busy raising her brood of children and making eyes at a handsome ne'r-do-well until a ghost from her past comes forth to punish her for stealing his precioussss all those years ago.

Add in a enormous cast of minor characters which I found almost impossible to keep track of (or tell apart), a lot of delicious Victorian window dressing, and the shadow of Jack the Ripper and you have … a book which is modestly entertaining, but too full of tangents. Grace Hammer would have been much better it had been trimmed of its more extraneous plot points and characters. Or maybe it began as a longer novel and was too inexpertly trimmed down? Who knows?

I know I want to go re-read Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith.

27 December 2009

(Always) Books Under The Tree

Christmas was, as always, very good to this bibliophile. I think I got as many books as I gave and (almost) everyone who received gifts from me was unsurprised to unwrap a book (or three) ...

This Christmas was split pretty evenly between fiction and non-fiction -- apparently, people want me to be all practical and do something productive with literature! Or, maybe, they're just tired of me pissin' and moanin' about the fiction I've been reading lately (Grace Hammer, I'm talking about you) and tried to lead me back to safe(r) choices.
Jelly Roll Quilts by Pam Lintott & Strip Happy: Quilting on a Roll by Donna Kinsey

In quilter's parlance, "jelly rolls" are collections of 2½-inch strips of color-coordinated fabric, rolled up so they look a bit like the pastry, and tied with a prettypretty ribbon. They are freakin' adorable and hard to resist, but resist you must for once the barrier is broken and one enters your house, they will reproduce like bunnies. Thankfully, these two books are among the many now available that will help you manage your jellyroll problem collection.

The Ultimate Soup Cookbook by Reader's Digest

A most excellent cookbook I have borrowed from the library too many times to count. There are over 900 recipes in this cookbook and every one I have made thus far was delicious! I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in getting into soup making. Soup is, after all, an extremely comforting and generally economical dish perfect for dreary recession winters ...

Girls With Slingshots, Volumes 1-4 by Danielle Corsetto

Collects a webcomic I've been reading obsessively for a while now -- recounts the fabulous adventures of two girls and their talking cactus. Hilarious and sweet and naughty. Also awesome for introducing you to Internet phenomena you may have missed like "two girls, one cup" (love of god, do not Google it).

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip
Sealey Head is a small town on the edge of the ocean, a sleepy place where everyone hears the ringing of a bell no one can see. On the outskirts of town is an impressive estate, Aislinn House, where the aged Lady Eglantyne lies dying, and where the doors sometimes open not to its own dusty rooms, but to the wild majesty of a castle full of knights and princesses…

[blurb from penguin group (usa)]

How is it I have not read this book, already?

22 December 2009

Book Blogger Holiday Swap 2009, Unwrapped

I am not good about not opening presents. If you do not want me to open a present sooner than I “ought” to, then you shouldn’t give it to me. Also, presents from furrin parts are especially problematic as those darn customs forms usually give me a pretty good idea of what I have been sent.

Oh, I know, a good person wouldn’t even peek at the customs form. I am not a good person.

But I signed on for the Book Blogger Holiday Swap which meant that not only did I send some nice bookish blogger a gift, a nice bookish blogger sent me one in return. And, since we’re all being nice, I thought I should delay opening my present until Christmas. Even though I received my mysterious present the week after Thanksgiving. (Someone has mad organizational skills!)

Hanukkah came and I thought …. but then I thought better (this is in itself a Hanukkah miracle as The Husband and I have not infrequently opened our Christmas presents at Hanukkah). No, I told myself, be good.

But I am not a good person ... I opened my present on Winter Solstice and was delighted by its contents -- a Penguin Classics edition of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth and Intimations of Austen: Stories Inspired by the World of Jane Austen by Jane Greensmith.

I'd been wanting to read more Gaskell since I finished North & South, but hadn't been able to make up my mind as to which novel I would read next. Happily, my mind has been made up for me!
Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret - an illegitimate child. When Henry enters her life again, however, Ruth must make the impossible choice between social acceptance and personal pride. In writing Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell daringly confronted prevailing views about sin and illegitimacy with her compassionate and honest portrait of a 'fallen woman'.
Thematically, Ruth seems akin to works like Tess of the d'Urbervilles or the Scarlet Letter. Do you have any idea how much I love the Scarlet Letter?

Intimations of Austen: Stories Inspired by the World of Jane Austen looks to be (maybe) a lighter read and perhaps well suited to this upcoming long holiday weekend as it is a collection of what-if stories based on Austen's novels. I'm rather looking forward to reading "All I Do" in which Elizabeth Bennett did not *gasp* marry Mr. Darcy! Good fun!

Oh why, oh why did I not open my present sooner?

19 December 2009

"Silent, and soft, and slow ..."

Out of the bosom of the Air,
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent, and soft, and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels.

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

11 December 2009

Book Blogger Holiday Swap 2009

Years ago, I participated in several Valentine and recipe exchanges through Chubby Girl Brigade and that was such good fun! Is anyone ever too old for sweet cards and little gifts through the mail? No, I say, never.

Alas, CGB is no more and I have been wandering the Internet, exchangeless, nigh on forever ... then I found Book Blogger Holiday Swap and The Neverending Shelf's Secret Santa exchange. Lo, my heart did sing!

Or something.

So far, I've really enjoyed reading my "giftees" blogs and getting to know what it is they like. Happily, we seem to have similar tastes so I've bought them a bunch of little things I would like someone to give me. They seem like kind women, so will probably not flame me too badly if my gifts turn out to be much less nice than I think they are!

The Husband is taking all our packages to the post office tomorrow (the bargain was, I would package and he would ship -- he thinks he got the better end of the deal!) so both my "giftees" should get their present by the end of the week ...

09 December 2009

"'Woman,'" he said, "'woman is made for man.'"

The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martin's, 2009)

Thirteen-year-old Kyra lives on the Compound with her mothers, father, and twenty brothers and sisters. Her family is part of The Chosen Ones -- a polygamist Christian cult whose leader (The Prophet) preaches obedience in return for eternal salvation. Kyra's life is extremely circumscribed and she wants to be a good daughter (doesn't she?), but she finds herself committing small rebellions. First, she sneaks off to the mobile library and reads forbidden books. Second, she shares a dangerous flirtation with a boy who really ought to know better.

Oh, and she fantasizes about killing The Prophet.

Little rebellions are fine, but does Kyra have the strength to fight back when The Prophet declares she shall marry her father's brother? Her uncle? Her sixty-year-old uncle who already has six wives?

The Chose One wasn't an easy read for me. Williams' constant juxtaposition of almost-normal life with dangerous cult creepiness made the book especially intense -- one minute Kyra's making breakfast, the next she's watching one of her mothers "drown" her own baby. Happily, the story moves along quite quickly to a pretty satisfactory end (bloody book-mobile chase and all) ... although my cynical self tells me the ending was too happy to be realistic.

08 December 2009

Fight Like A Girl

The Ring by Bobbie Pyron (WestSide Books, 2009).

I found out about The Ring a couple months ago when I was searching for boxing manga and, while it wasn't what I was looking for, it seemed pretty promising. A girl boxer with attitude problems? Where was this book twenty-years ago? I would have et it up with a spoon.

Now, I feel reallyreally old.

Mardie is a promising fifteen-year-old girl struggling to make sense of her life. Her mother died when she was four, her father seems to prefer her brother, her brother is annoyingly perfect, and her stepmother means well, but isn't her mom ... Like many of us at that age, Mardie makes some bad choices and gets in trouble. Her father, outraged by her shenanigans, grounds her for "god knows how long." While grounded, Mardie is dragged along to the gym by her stepmother and discovers boxing. She sees the girls boxing and can't get over "how strong and focused those girls looked, boxing up there in the ring ... they looked like they didn't give a shit what anybody else thought."

With her stepmother's help, Mardie convinces her dad it's okay for girls to box (gah!) and starts working out. Unfortunately, the mess that is the rest of her life keeps intruding on Mardie's fun and she must come to terms with it before the mess ruins boxing.

There are many issues raised in The Ring -- dead mom, stupid boyfriend, distant father, outed gay brother, incipient adulthood -- but somehow Pyron manages to work all these issues together into a ripping good read. The Ring just races along and, at the end, I wanted more. I don't say it often, but I hope this book has a sequel.

03 December 2009

"Such Things Happened."

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books, 2009).

In the bitter cold Wisconsin autumn of 1907, Ralph Truitt waits for his mail-order bride (a self-proclaimed "simple honest woman") to arrive on the afternoon train. Months before, he had placed an advertisement in the Chicago paper for “a reliable wife” and here she is. Surprisingly (or not), the woman who steps off the train is not the woman he was expecting and, as it will turn out, there is little about her that is simple or honest. But that is all right, because Truitt's has plans for his wife ...

I had some difficulty getting through A Reliable Wife. I don't know why -- the descriptions of places and things were stunning (this is a great book for readers who like "setting porn") and the motivations behind different characters's behaviors were compelling -- but I still suffered an overwhelming sense of "meh" when I reached the novel's end.

(I have to admit I picked this book up, because the author was supposed to have been inspired by Wisconsin Death Trip -- a book currently circulating like mad at my library. You don't have to have read it to enjoy A Reliable Wife, but it does add a certain amount of context to all the madness and depravity found within the novel).