31 December 2008

RYOB 2009 Challenge (Partial) List

read your own books challenge logo
Some of the manymanymany unread books that have ghosting around my house and which I intend to read for RYOB 2009:
  1. Hedwig & Berti by Frieda Arkin
  2. The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
  3. The Annotated Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
  4. The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter
  5. Yarrow by Charles de Lint
  6. Trader by Charles de Lint
  7. The Steampunk Trilogy by Paul Di Filippo
  8. Landing by Emma Donoghue
  9. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
  10. Dear Fatty by Dawn French
  11. North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  12. The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki Gemmell
  13. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
  14. The Vision of Emma Blau by Georgette Heyer
  15. Faro's Daughter by Ursula Hegi
  16. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  17. Recipes for the Perfect Marriage by Morag Prunty/Kate Kerrigan
  18. The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence
  19. The Handmaid of Desire by John L' Heureux
  20. The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones
  21. Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna
  22. Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino
  23. The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
  24. Solstice Wood by Patricia A. McKillip
  25. The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
  26. The Annotated Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery et al
  27. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
  28. Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro
  29. Burmese Days by George Orwell
  30. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
  31. Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer
  32. True Game by Sheri S. Tepper
  33. Ally by Karen Traviss
  34. Judge by Karen Traviss
  35. Filth by Irvine Welsh
  36. Porno by Irvine Welsh
Wow, thirty-five titles and that's just the fiction!

28 December 2008

A~Z Reading Challenge Sum Up

Yay! Let's put a done stamp on it and move on to 2009's challenges! A~Z 2008 is so over, baby!

In 2008, I read an author and a title for every letter in the alphabet. That's fifty-two titles! A book a week! O, the insanity!


Author A to Z
A ~ And Only To Decieve by Tasha Alexander
B ~ The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen M. Beckett
C ~ I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
D ~ The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
E ~ This Land is Their Land by Barbara Ehrenreich
F ~ Doctor in the House by Marie Ferrarella
G ~ Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World ... by Taras Grescoe
H ~ The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman
I ~ Old Christmas by Washington Irving
J ~ House of Many Ways by Diana Wynne Jones
K ~ The Walking Dead, Vol 1: Days Gone By by Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore
L ~ The IHOP Papers by Ali Liebegott
M ~ Promethea, Book One by Alan Moore et al
N ~ Emily Carr: An Introduction to Her Life and Art by Anne Newlands
O ~ After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
P ~ Making Money by Terry Pratchett
Q ~ The River Knows by Amanda Quick
R ~ Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
S ~ Dream-maker's Magic by Sharon Shinn
T ~ Crossing the Line (Wess'har, Bk 2) by Karen Traviss
U ~ The Guru of Love by Samrat Upadhyay
V ~ The Forest Lover by Susan Vreeland
W ~ Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig
X ~ Market Street by Xiao Hong
Y ~ Name Me Nobody by Lois-Ann Yamanaka
Z ~ Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms ... by Marlene Zuk

Title A to Z
A ~ The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson
B ~ The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith
C ~ A Curse Dark as Gold by Elizabeth Bunce
D ~ Daphne du Maurier's Classics of the Macabre by Daphne Du Maurier
E ~ Elektra: Introspect by Ruck et al
F ~ Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
G ~ Girl Walking Backwards by Maggie O'Farrell
H ~ How Nancy Drew Saved My Life by Baratz-Logsted, Lauren
I ~ Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran
J ~ Jewel of Gresham Green by Lawana Blackwell
K ~ Klee Wyck by Emily Carr
L ~ Laughing Without an Accent by Firoozeh Dumas
M ~ Madapple by Christina Herendeen
N ~ Never Shower in a Thunderstorm by Anahad O'Connor
O ~ Ocean by Warren Ellis et al
P ~ Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger
Q ~ The Quilter's Apprentice by Jennifer Chiaverini
R ~ Ruby by Francesca Lia Block
S ~ Sunday You Learn to Box by Bil Wright
T ~ Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden
U ~ Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson
V ~ Venetia by Georgette Heyer
W ~ The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
X ~ Xanadu Ed. by Jane Yolen
Y ~ The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town by Jacqueline Guidry
Z ~ Zombie Blondes by Brian James

27 December 2008

Sheets and Figs

A~Z Reading Challenge “Y” Title: Jacqueline Guidry’s The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001).

In 1957, two colored nuns come to teach at the white Catholic elementary school in Ville d'Angelle, a small town in southwestern Louisiana. Now, the idea of colored sisters teaching little white children doesn't sit well with the fine concerned citizens of Ville d'Angelle and tempers flare ...

Alas, the story is told through the eyes of a (unbelievably articulate) ten-year-old girl and so is limited to what she hears/experiences. While there was plenty of character development and more than a few interesting plot threads, the novel seemed to wander with no clear purpose. The parents' bickerings, Mama's relationship with Aussie, Everett's abandonment of his family, the change-of-life baby's blindness, the colored sisters ... how was it all supposed to hang together? Was it all supposed to hang together?

In the end, the only story bits that really stick with me are food related -- the cakes, the pies, the fig preserves. Oh my, the fig preserves. I now suffer from a desperate desire to make me some fig preserves. While it is, unfortunately, the wrong time of the year for figs Stonewall Kitchen sells a very nice Fig & Ginger jam ...

Annoyingly, I also keep thinking about plastic wrap and whether store-bought cookies were really came packaged in plastic in 1957. Yes, that's what sticks with me after reading a novel about racism in southwestern Louisiana. Plastic wrap.

26 December 2008

Books Under the Tree

I got books for Christmas! How about you? Two books in my stocking, and five under the tree! Somebody sure knows what I like:
Ally & Judge by Karen Traviss
Volumes 5 & 6 of Traviss's Wess'Har series will conclude my marvellous adventures with Inspector Frankland. As with all series, I am torn between gobbling up these last two books rightnowthisminute and putting them off for as long as possible.

The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones
Yes, that book -- the controversial novel about A'isha bint Abi Bakr, one of Muhammad wives. I hear it has been over-hyped and is merely a middling sort of romance novel, but that's fine by me.

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
The third book (after Case Histories and One Good Turn) to feature ex-cop turned PI Jackson Brodie. I've not read One Good Turn yet -- heck, I don't even appear to own it! How did that happen?

Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens
A handsomely bound edition with those sexy french flaps I adore so much. Rounds out my Orwell collection and replaces two tattered mass market paperbacks.

Knife Skills Illustrated: A User's Manual by Peter Hertzmann
In-depth coverage of basic knife techniques, because every cook should practice good knife work (if only to save her fingers).

Domestic Violence: Poems by Eavan Boland
Read "Domestic Violence" and other poems at the Poetry Foundation and then tell me you do not like poetry ...
Of course, I also gave books! As much as I love reading, I understand that not everyone shares my passion, so I try to give carefully. Books are only given to those I already know enjoy reading and then only if the book is one I know they will have a strong personal interest in (gift-wise, there's nothing worse than giving a reader a book s/he would never wish to read).

22 December 2008

Undead and Unwed by MaryJanice Davidson


Undead and Unwed is the first book in MaryJanice Davidson’s Queen Betsy series. It's basically a cute and fairly amusing vampire chick lit set in Minnesota.

After being killed in a car accident on her birthday, fashion savvy ex-secretary Betsy Taylor wakes up in a coffin wearing a horrible pink suit and her stepmother's cheap shoes. Even though Betsy eventually realizes she is a vampire, she tries to live her life like a normal living person. This annoys the heck out of the local vampire population -- half of which is led by a total nutter and the other by a tall, dark, sexy stud of a vampire. While Betsy wants nothing to do with either of them, the sexy stud is quite certain she is the prophesied Queen of the Vampires and pursues Betsy most annoyingly.

I thought the story was pretty unique, the pacing good, the world building quite well done. The first few chapters even had me chortling quite happily to myself. And, yet somewhere around Mitzi's verbal smackdown, I got bored and found myself wanting to skim the rest of the book.

While I did (eventually) finish Undead and Unwed I'm not in a tearing hurry to read the next book (Undead and Unemployed). I'm sure I'll get to it eventually ... at the very least as part of The Read Your Own Books (RYOB) Challenge.

A~Z Reading Challenge “U” Title: MaryJanice Davidson’s Undead and Unwed (Piatkus Books, 2004).

21 December 2008

Whose Guru of Love?

A~Z Reading Challenge “U” Author: Samrat Upadhyay’s The Guru of Love (Mariner Books, 2004) Kiriyama Prize Finalist

Married, middle-aged, money-hungry, math teacher Ramchandra does some tutoring on the side. One of his tutees, single-mother Malati, begins to fascinate him and he embarks on an affair with her. Ramchandra’s wife, Goma, is not pleased when her husband confesses his adultery and takes herself and their children off to her parents.

Ramchandra, proclaiming himself utterly bereft without wife and children, continues his relationship with Malati while pestering Goma to come back. Eventually Goma returns and Ramchandra is immensely pleased to have gotten his family back in order. Alas, Malati is thrown out by her wicked stepmother, arrives at their doorstep, and is taken in by Goma.

Yes, Goma tells Ramchandra that Malati must live with them as she is part of their family now. Ramchandra is not impressed, but Goma will not be swayed. She moves into the childrens’ room and offers her side of the marriage bed up to Malati. Malati, in turn, reveres Goma as a much beloved older sister and speaks of Ramchandra’s wife in nothing but the most positive ways. Then Malati begins secretly seeing the father of her (illegitimate) child ...

It’s sounds like a grand soap opera and if you only read the book as such, then I think you will be fairly well entertained. However, if you’re looking for something deeper, you may be disappointed.

For, told from Ramchandra’s POV, the story renders so many of the supporting characters as mere types and never really allows us to explore the reasoning behind their words or actions. The nasty in-laws, who have “always” regarded Ramchandra as an unsuitable son-in-law, are they really so nasty? Maliti, the capricious and shallow mistress? Did she really have a choice? And Goma, the compassionate, suffering, sainted Good Woman ... what was going on in her heart?

The only character I had any real understanding of was Ramchandra, our Everyman, and he irritated me so very very much!

Ramchandra feels guilty about spending money frivolously, yet continues to spend it. Feels remorse when he confesses his affair to his wife, yet continues to commit adultery. Loathes the drudgery of his workaday world, but does not attempt to escape it.

Ramchandra's an unhappy, middle-aged cog. I get it. I just don’t care. If he had developed or changed over the course of the book, I would have liked him better. However, he doesn’t change. Oh, I know the tacked-on epilogue gave me a Happy Ever After, but that seemed almost a summary for a second book.

Which I have no desire to read.

Lost in Translation?

A~Z Reading Challenge “X” Author: Xiao Hong’s¹ Market Street: A Chinese Woman in Harbin (University of Washington Press, 1986)

[Translated by Howard Goldblatt, Research Professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame & 1985 recipient of the Robert Payne Award from the Translation Center at Columbia University].

Market Street is a work of autobiographical fiction -- "an ancedotal, imaginative recreation of the author's life" in Japanese-occupied Harbin, Manchuria/Manchukuo. According to Goldblatt, Market Street "describes a young woman's attempt to come to grips with the realities of her own life, thereby legitimizing her past to understand her present. Market Street is, in sum, literary autobiography at its finest."

Honestly, I am not sure what I think of this book. I admit Goldblatt's introduction felt as if it set me up for a book quite different from the one I read. I had a hard time reading Market Street as the chapters frequently felt disjointed -- as if I were being fed bits and pieces of a story, but never enough to form a complete picture of Xiao's experiences. If it weren't for Wikipedia and the biographical notes in Goldblatt's introduction, much of the book would have made even less sense to me than it did. As it was, I felt I was left with more questions than answers.

I almost want to read The Field of Life and Death & Tales of Hulan River to see if I can get a better "feel" for Xiao Hong's writing.

¹ Also called "Hsiao Hung" (your library catalog may still used this Wade-Giles romanization)

20 December 2008

"Lo, now is come the joyful'st feast!"

A~Z Reading Challenge “I” Author: Washington Irving’s Old Christmas (Sleepy Hollow Restorations, 1977).

This is a facsimile of the first (1875) edition of Irving’s Old Christmas with illustrations by Randolph Caldecott (of the Caldecott Prize). The packaging is quite simply beautifulL. Caldecott’s black and white cover art of birds, ivy, and holly (accented with just a touch of red) is charming. And the small size of the book makes it nice for cozying up to with a good cup of tea. I suspect Old Christmas would make an excellent gift if, say, bundled with Dickens’s The Annotated Christmas Carol (W.W. Norton, 2003) or The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (McClelland & Stewart, 2004) and a nice bottle of something warming.

Old Christmas contains a series of brief vignettes describing the traditional English Christmas customs which were, even at that time, falling by the wayside. The chapters are scenes out of from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day: the stagecoach ride is one chapter, then "Christmas Eve," and so on through "Christmas Dinner" (alas, that the food was not described as often or as well as my little foodie heart desired). Irving writes with good humour and clear affection for his subjects. He include lots of fascinatingly odd little bits and pieces of Christmas tradition in this little book which had me running to my annotated Christmas Carol for additional information.

Now, if only I had a merry group to play snapdragon with!

This Sleepy Hollow Restorations facsimile edition is currently out of print, but I found a few nice copies on eBay which would make very fine gifts ...

Don’t want to buy it? Library’s copy checked out? Google Book Search has Old Christmas, too.

11 December 2008

Name Me Nobody by Lois-Ann Yamanaka


Emi-Lou Kaya is a ninth-grader in Hawaii. Motherless, chubby, and awkward Emi-Lou is subject to teasing and other meanness by the popular girls in her school. If it weren't for her cousin, Von, her life would be extremely miserable. But, happily, there is Von. Von whom Emi adores and would do everything for -- including joining a softball league. Emi sucks at softball, but Von has a plan for her. Emi starts exercising, dieting, and taking pills. She looks better and people react to her more positively, but is Emi happier? How could she be? Von has ditched her for another girl. What will become of Emi?

(I really have nothing to say about this book except that I read it. My cup of teen problem novels runneth over).

A~Z Reading Challenge “Y” author: Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Name Me Nobody (Harcourt, 2007)

"I can see them through the door!"

A~Z Reading Challenge “B” author: Galen M. Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (Bantam, 2008).

I was halfway through Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent when I happened upon Library Journal’s 15 Jul review. Hah! Glad I hadn’t read the review before I started the novel or I would probably not have made it past the first page! The reviewer wrote:
Beckett's tepid debut is partly an homage to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, only without any energy, drama, or originality. He creates a world (the island nation of Altania) with great potential, which he then squanders through slow pacing, minimal character development, an implausible romance, and very little fantasy. Not recommended.
Tepid? Rebecca? Implausible? Was I reading the same book?

To me, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent was an extremely readable doorstop of a historical fantasy. Yes, much of the story owes a nod of the head to the likes of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Victor Hugo, and H.P. Lovecraft. However, that did not detract from my pleasure in reading Beckett’s novel -- quite skilfully manages his homage to these writers and much of his “original” story is entertaining in its own right.

Summary: Nose-in-a-book Miss Ivy Lockwell, the responsible eldest daughter of a mentally ill magician, is trying her best to keep her family together despite a decided lack of funds. Their lives intersect briefly with Dashton Rafferdy, the idle, witty son of nobility, and his friend, Eldyn Garritt, who has been forced to leave university due to lack of funds. For a short time, the story is very Austen-esque, but then it goes positively Bronte when Ivy leaves her home to for a small country estate where she becomes the governess to two strange children ...

Oh, and there's class unrest, a revival of magic, highwaymen, rebels, dark and sinister otherworldly forces, lots of fancy parties, and trees that move.

Yummy stuff.

My only complaint was that the science seemed a bit weak. Oh, I know, complaining about science in a fantasy novel! How silly! Well, the lumenals and greatdays and umbrals drove me batty ...

Apparently, Beckett's world gets uneven periods of day and night, so the sun could be out for four hours then set, then not set at all the next day. Yet, despite the fluidity of day and night, Altania is rigid society. It seems very much to be run by our twenty-four hour clock which has just been twisted and hacked at until it kinda-sorta works in Altania. Hence, going to bed in daylight and lunching in the dark. A society which naturally evolved from such a fluid clock wouldn't function this way, would it?

Despite my hang-up Vis-à-vis lumenals and umbrals, I still encourage readers to try this book. Even if you think you don't like fantasy, I think you will enjoy this novel. For “true” fantasy enthusiasts there is enough magic to keep you amused even if the characters aren't waving around magic swords or playing riddle games with dead kings.

Now, I have a strong desire to go re-read Caroline Stevermer’s College of Magic books.

07 December 2008

Riddled With Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are by Marlene Zuk


In this book, evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk discusses (with much wit and humour) the various parasites and pathogens which create our lives. She suggest that bugs and germs aren't necessarily bad things, that we aren't supposed to be healthy all the damned time, and that sickness serves a function. It's all interesting stuff and Zuk has included a fascinating list of references to back up her writing (seriously, reading the references is almost as fun as reading the book).

I'll admit that I first picked Zuk's book up because quite a lot of it discusses intestinal disorders like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease (conditions I have quite a lot of interest in). Also, the book is largely anti-antibacterial and pro-dirt, which is also a philosophy I subscribe to.

If you medicate at the first sniffle, believe in the superpowers of antibacterial hand sanitizer, and never eat a cookie off the floor ... well, you may not enjoy this book.

A~Z Reading Challenge “Z” author: Marlene Zuk's Riddled With Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are (Harcourt, 2007).

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan ...

A~Z Reading Challenge “X” title: Xanadu (Tom Doherty, 1993), edited by Jane Yolen.

An anthology of fantasy stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Lesléa Newman, Jane Yolen, and the like. As with all anthologies, quality varies. Some contributions were wonderful, others ... well, they just failed to make much of an impression. Admittedly, Ursula Le Guin's "The Poacher" was a clear favorite, but I'm a total Le Guin fangirl ...

In "The Poacher," a nameless peasant boy poaching mushrooms discovers a gigantic bramble hedge in the midst of the wood and spends the next two years hacking a tunnel through and dreaming of what may be on the other side. When he does get through, he finds an enchanted castle with all of its occupants asleep ... Interestingly, he is extremely careful not to wake its sleeping beauty, because he wishes to live her dream rather than break it.

I'm not sure if Tanith Lee's story, "Unnalash," was exactly a favorite but it reminded me I really ought to read The Secret Books of Paradys one of these days. Lee's world building and characterization (at least in her short stories, which is all I know her from) always strike me as rather decadent and dark and, weirdly, make me nostalgic for Moorcock's Elric saga. That said, I'm not quite sure what to make of "Unnalash."

Pity poor motherless Unnalash, a dread magician's daughter born of rape, raised in isolation on a rocky isle with only elementals for companions. No wonder she falls for the first winged man to fly by. Of course, her father is outraged by this disobedience and (I think) demonstration of will so he casts her out. Transformed into something unrecognisable as Unnalash, she is literally consumed by her winged lover who, unknowingly grieving for his lost love, then rapes a young woman and impregnates her (with the spirit of his consumed lover, I think). Less grieved, he leaves his victim who later dies birthing a daughter. Raised in isolation and feared by the locals, the girl is eventually abandoned on the same mountain side her mother was raped upon. Coincidentally, the winged man happens by and claims the girl as his daughter, Unnalash.

Yes, it sucks to be Unnalash. Or Unnalash's mother, for that matter.

02 December 2008

2009 Reading Challenges ... More Than I Can Chew?

For 2009, I'm going light(er) on reading challenges. I considered participating in The 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge, but decided I have an unfair advantage as a librarian, because ninety-nine percent of my household's reading material already comes from the local or state library system. I don't really need a challenge to encourage me to use my library more!

Instead of library books, I will be focusing on my own. My goal for the The Read Your Own Books (RYOB) Challenge is simply to read all the unread books in my house between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2009. This includes the ones I started, but never finished. If a second attempt won't get me through them, I'll donate these "unreadables" to the Friends of the Library's bookstore.

Alas, can't post a list for RYOB yet, because I need to take stock first. While my house is full of bookcases, my books are pretty free range (some might even go so far as to call them feral).


Another challenge I am participating in (which does involve sweet seductive library books) is The Jewish Literature Challenge (21 Dec 2008 -- 27 April 2009). The challenge is quite simple as it only requires me to read four books and allows for many different kinds so I am free to read as widely (or narrowly) as whim takes me!

My "four" books:

How this Night is Different by Elisa Albert (short stories)
Joheved (Rashi's Daughters, Book 1) by Maggie Anton
Never Mind the Goldbergs by Matthue Roth (YA)
Sex, Murder and a Double Latte by Kyra Davis
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (YA)
The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories by Max Apple (short stories)
The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff
The Matzo Ball Heiress by Laurie Gwen Shapiro
The Romance Reader by Pearl Abraham
The Saturday Wife by Naomi Ragen
The Shiksa Syndrome by Laurie Graff
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I've already started in on The Matzo Ball Heiress and The Jew of Home Depot even though I haven't yet finished The A~Z Reading Challenge. I have two titles left (Undead and Unwed and The Year the Colored Sisters Came to Town), but I don't know if I'll complete the challenge before 1 January.

Ruby by Francesca Lia Block & Carmen Stanton


Ruby is gifted with a sixth sense which gives her the ability to know her own destiny. She grows up trapped in an abusive family, but eventually escapes to Los Angeles where she becomes a nanny, and discovers the love of her life -- über hot movie star Orion Woolf.

Problem is, he doesn’t know Ruby exists. But ignorance should never stand in the way of destiny so Ruby quits her job and heads off to Orion’s twee "Merrie England" hometown to make her destiny happen. Conveniently, Orion has injured himself falling from a horse and is bed-bound. Ruby, cozzing up to his Witch mother, becomes Orion’s nurse. Orion is a crabby patient, but Ruby works powerful magic to heal him and bring their destiny to fruition.

Then there’s tons of back story about her family and her abusive bogeyman of a father.

And side lectures on witchcraft.

And other stuff that made me sigh.

I’m sure I would have loved this novel at thirteen, but at thirty-two I found myself regularly irked by the authors’s characterizations and stream-of-consciousness style. Also, I don't really have an interest in Orlando Bloom fanfic and that’s what this story seems to be. I kid you not. Read Ruby and tell me Orion Woolf is not an Orlando Bloom stand-in.

A~Z Reading Challenge “R” title: Francesca Lia Block & Carmen Stanton's Ruby (HarperCollins, 2006).

01 December 2008

My Secret Addiction: Quaint English Countryside Cottage Romances

A~Z Reading Challenge “J” title: Lawana Blackwell's The Jewel of Gresham Green (Bethany House, 2008).

Like many of the patrons I help, I've been looking high and low for sexless romances with uplifting plots and normal characters in a historical setting. No vampires, werewolves, secret heiresses, Crown spies, or whathaveyou. No sexual shenanigans. Just some average people in period costume falling in love, making dinner, and getting on with life.

Do you know how hard it is to find a romance like that? Novelist keeps suggesting historical Christian romances to me and that would be all right, except that the few Christian romances I tried, several years ago, set my teeth on edge. I have no problem with characters of vocal faith, but I do get annoyed when they throw themselves on their knees every five minutes to ask their God what He wants of them. He wants, I should think, for them to use the brains He gave them.

Anyway, a few months ago, I found myself on Bethany House's site tracking down the chronology for the Legends of the Guardian-King for a patron. While I was there, of course I had to poke around and wound up reading excerpts from Cathy Marie Hake's Whirlwind and Lawana Blackwell's The Jewel of Gresham Green ...

It is 1884, and Jewel Libby has fled Birmingham with her daughter Becky to the safety of the Gresham vicarage. Alas, all is not comfort and joy in Gresham. Vicar Phelps is in poor health and the Phelps' children are finding life hard going -- Phillip is stuck in a loveless marriage, Aleda is struggling with her first novel, and Elizabeth is coming to terms with a miscarriage. Will the Libby's arrival in Gresham bring change for everyone?

Considering that this is the fourth book in the Gresham Chronicles, Jewel makes perfect sense all on its own. Yes, there are references to events from other books, but Blackwell makes those references very lightly and they do not detract from Jewel's story. And, yes, this is an "inspirational" work of fiction set within a vicar's family so I kind-of girded myself for Extreme Christianity and ... was surprised, again, by Blackwell's light touch. Yes, characters fall to their knees and beseech the Father and yet their prayers are so succinct and simple, that I found myself marvelling at the characters' common sense. These are Christians I could get behind.

My only complaint with The Jewel of Gresham Green, really, is with its cover. Someone at Bethany House really ought to have photoshopped the aerial off the chimney and the cables away from the roof peak. And then there's that double-glazed uPVC window! So twee and old timey!

I Never Write, You Say

Lately, I have felt a great sense of listlessness and despondency trying to suck me down into the doldrums. Don't know where the listlessness and despondency have come from as my life, on paper, seems pretty darned awesome, but there they are ... nibbling away at the edges of my happiness.

Thankfully, there's nothing large doses of Georgette Heyer, Terry Pratchett, and Little Big Planet can't fix. Seriously! After reading Witches Abroad and Maskerade, listening to The Devil's Cub and Friday's Child, and losing several evenings to Little Big Planet ... I feel I have got past whatever was sucking me down into the doldrums.

And as for happiness, how could I be unhappy knowing that I will be attending the North American Discworld Convention in Tempe, Arizona next September? A whole week in Arizona with The Husband. A chance to meet Terry Pratchett, OBE. Cactuses. Canyons. Quilt shops. Truly, the Turtle moves!
Granny looked out at the dull gray sky and dying leaves and felt, amazingly enough, her sap rising. A day ago the future had looked aching and desolate, and now it looked full of surprises and terror and bad things happening to people ...

If she had anything to do with it, anyway.


--Terry Pratchett, Maskerade.

29 November 2008

Never Shower in a Thunderstorm by Anahad O'Connor


Anahad O'Connor is the “Really?” columnist for the New York Times, where he questions the veracity of old wives' tales, folk-wisdom, and popular medical mysteries. In Never Shower in a Thunderstorm, O'Connor debunks such myths as the idea that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis and that celery has negative calories, while proving other myths … such as the one mentioned in the title.

Yes, you can be electrocuted while showering in a thunderstorm. Lightning that hits a building can travel through the plumbing, along metal pipes, and directly into a metal tap or faucet; additionally, tap water makes an excellent conductor because of impurities and minerals.

While I found Never Shower in a Thunderstorm to be a fun little book well suited for skimming, I was frustrated by the lack footnotes or a bibliography necessary for a more thorough understanding of the science behind the answers. It’s an extremely entertaining book, but citations would have made it even better.

Don’t like the concept enough to buy the book or get it out from the library? O’Connor’s "Really" column is archived on the New York Times website.

A~Z Reading Challenge “N” title: Anahad O'Connor's Never Shower in a Thunderstorm (Times Books, 2007).

Charming Chairman Charmain

A~Z Reading Challenge “J” author: Diana Wynne Jone's The House of Many Ways (Greenwillow, 2008).

Many year’s ago, I fell upon and devoured Diana Wynne Jones’s The Chronicle’s of Chrestomanci -- omnibuses of extremely funny, well-written, and well-plotted stories about an elegant gentleman who just happened to be the magician in charge of all the magic everywhere.

Ever after that I carried a bit of a torch for Wynne Jones. This was only reinforced by Howl’s Moving Castle (both the novel and the film) -- another extremely funny, well-written and well-plotted romance about cursed girl, a “bad” magician, a fire demon, and a castle that moves.

So I picked up The House of Many Ways with great delight ... and put it down with something resembling discontent. This novel, I felt, was just not good enough. It wanted shoring up and filling out. It was, basically, not the novel I was expecting.

The story was certainly promising:

Charmain Baker wants to work in the King's library, but her family has no interest in what she wants. Her obnoxious aunt railroads Charmain's mother into sending the girl to house-sit for Great Uncle William, the Royal Wizard Norland. Charmain, though, is pretty useless for doing anything in the world except for eating and reading and so, of course, is incapable of keeping Great Uncle William's house without suffering a few disasters.

And then there is the boy. And a dog. And angry kobolds. And magical tea trays.

Sounds charming, doesn't it? And yet I was wholly discontented. Why? Well, Charmain and Peter never developed into “real” sympathetic characters, but just seemed like types. Types I kept losing patience with. Then the storyline involving Howl and Sophie seemed shoehorned in as if, perhaps, Wynne Jones worried the Charmain-Peter-Uncle William story wasn't good enough to hold readers. Oh, and the final plot resolution required far too much exposition! Seriously, all the principle characters sat around in a room talking about whodunwhat and why before skiving off to Happily Ever After.

AND, most frustratingly, I spent the entire novel calling Charmain “Chairman.”

Now, I feel I need to go back and re-read Wynne Jones’s The Chronicle’s of Chrestomanci to determine if my memory has made them better than they are.

Neither Shortribs, nor Sheepshanks. Not even Laceleg.

A~Z Reading Challenge “C” title: Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold (Arthur A. Levine, 2008).

As I love twisted and/or re-told fairy tales, I was very excited to read Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold which is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. The story of the greedy miller, the miller’s beautiful daughter, the king, and that weird spinster guy with the thing for babies? We all know the story. Does it need revisioning? Well, yes.

If only so the miller’s beautiful daughter finally has a name.

Upon their father’s death, Charlotte and Rose Miller take on the responsibility of running their family’s (cursed) woolen mill. Rose manages the millworks while Charlotte handles the business end and it looks as if the mill might just manage to survive ... until a seemingly insurmountable debt appears. At a loss, Charlotte makes a bargain with a mysterious man who can spin straw into gold ...

Overall, A Curse Dark as Gold was an enjoyable retelling of an old story. The secondary characters were, for the most part, well drawn and the plot moved a long at a good pace. My only real complaint lay with Charlotte whom I found largely unsympathetic. Yes, I know she fears the Curse. I am told that over and over, again. But that Curse doesn’t appear to drive Charlotte until the end and even then I didn’t feel her fear enough to accept her alienation of everyone around her. Frequently, I wanted to give her a good shaking!

But, heck, who says heroines have to be likeable?



31 October 2008

Zombie Barbies of the Apocalypse

A~Z Reading Challenge “Z” title: Zombie Blondes by Brian James (Feiwel & Friends, 2008).

The new girl in town is having an awful time of it, poor thing, but then the popular girls start being nice to her. Hungry to finally belong somewhere, she wants to be just like them. And they want her to be just like them, too. Now, if only they weren't zombies....

Zombie Blondes seems like it would make a good ninety minute zombie action piece and I wouldn't be surprised if it were already optioned. The "new kid is snubbed by popular crowd, but befriends social misfit and makes good" arc is a familiar hook and the zombie cheerleaders are a nice twist on the old "shambling gray corpses."

I think I would have much preferred the movie to the book, actually. The slipshod editing and lack of depth that frustrated me while reading the book wouldn't have bothered me as much in a film ...

Honestly, I don't really know what I think of Zombie Blondes. I read it all the way through, but I'm pretty sure I complained bitterly the whole time. Zombie cheerleaders sound nifty, right? Well, what's the backstory on that? Who made the zombies? Maggie? Who made Maggie a zombie? Also, where are Lukas's parents? And are Greg's parents also zombies? If not, don't they notice their son is a zombie? And what the heck is up with Hannah's dad? I don't care what Hannah thinks, he seems shady ... and the end is just a set-up for a sequel ...

Gah!

18 October 2008

Jane Eyre in Iceland with an Umbrella

A~Z Reading Challenge “H” title: How Nancy Drew Saved My Life by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (Red Dress Ink, 2006).

After her adulterous relationship with her employer reaches its heartbreaking end, nanny Charlotte Bell decides to take back her life by purchasing and reading all the original Nancy Drew books. Inspired by Nancy, Charlotte accepts a new position in the household of the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland.

When she arrives in Iceland, the novel becomes a contemporized Jane Eyre. Seriously. The Icelandic cast includes:
  • the housekeeper (Mrs. Fairly/Mrs. Fairfax)
  • Charlotte’s charge (Annette/Adèle)
  • her employer (Edgar Rawlings/Edward Rochester)
  • her employer’s dog(Captain/Pilot)
  • her employer’s wannabe wife (Bebe Iversdottir/Blanche Ingram)
Now, I like Jane Eyre, but I picked this book up because of its reference to Nancy Drew. I loved Nancy Drew as a child, and I was whacked over the head with a fit of nostalgia when I saw this title. Unfortunately, I’d have been better off re-reading one of those yellow jacketed novels as How Nancy Drew Saved My Life barely touches upon Nancy Drew. Indeed, my cynical self wondered if the author cribbed the Nancy Drew references straight from Wikipedia -- there’s no sense of love for the series. Mind you, much about Iceland could have been cribbed from a Wikipedia article, too.  Anyway, I wanted George and Bess, but ended up with Jane and Rochester. Fair enough.

As I said, I like Jane and Rochester and I was prepared to like this Jane Eyre In Iceland.  Alas, despite being a near copy of Jane Eyre, this novel just was not very interesting and the ending was so weird I felt as if I had stumbled into a whole different novel. I mean, Bebe Iversdottir/Blanche Ingram, Russian mafia spy? Rawlings/Edward Rochester, ex-CIA operative? Annette/Adèle, princess? How was I supposed to anticipate any of that??

Oh, well. At least I was reminded of how much I enjoyed Mabel Maney’s Nancy Clue books … time to re-read The Case of the Not-So-Nice Nurse!

27 September 2008

Less of a Fangirl

A~Z Reading Challenge “S” author: Sharon Shinn’s Dream-maker’s Magic (Penguin, 2006).

Dream-maker’s Magic is the last book in a three-book series that started with The Safe-Keeper's Secret. This novel is about Kellen, who is raised as a boy because her crazy mother refuses to believe she gave birth to a girl. Kellen doesn't fit in with the other village children (who know she is a girl in boy's clothing) and gets in some trouble. Then she meets Gryffin, an orphan boy with twisted feet and legs. Of course, both being freaks of some kind, they become good friends. They grow up together until (and just as their friendship might be turning into something else) a great discovery is made about Gryffin ...

This book did not thrill me. It read, in many places, like a draft. Most characters felt underdeveloped -- perhaps because there were too many of them popping in and out of the story? Also, some events seem rushed through as if Shinn had an idea, but no time to work it out. I mean, the murder-suicide? The birth revelation? Total non-events. How could this be??

While I've been a devoted reader of Shinn's novels since Archangel in 1999, I thought Dream-maker’s Magic was a complete let down and do not recommend it. If you've never read anything by Shinn, start with her Samaria series or a stand-alone like Summers at Castle Auburn.

Emily Carr: An Introduction to Her Life and Art


A~Z Reading Challenge “N” author: Anne Newlands’s Emily Carr: An Introduction to Her Life and Art (Firefly Books, 1996).
Stumbled upon this in my quest for a book about Emily Carr that might actually include color plates of her works -- looking at Big Raven in a virtual gallery is well and good, but I'd like a big book I can spread across my lap. Of course, I'd really like to see him in the face-to-face, but the Vancouver Art Gallery isn't exactly down the street. Anyway, I acquired this slender volume through interlibrary loan and what a gem it turned out to be! If you know nothing about Emily Carr, this book may serve as a wonderful introduction. Newland presents a brief overview of Carr’s life and work and skilfully compliments full color reproductions of Carr's art with excerpts from her own writing. Indeed, Carr's paintings are well chosen and beautifully rendered -- far better quality than I expected in such a flimsy-looking book. (Zunoqua of the Cat Village with her verdant sea of cat eyes ... who would have thought that was what Carr was writing about in Klee Wyck?)

Running Out of Letters, Thank God

I've been reading lots of books, but writing about them has felt too much like homework and, like any good student, I like to put my homework off to the last minute. Well, this must be close enough to the last minute. Six reviews racked up and more books on the way ... time to get cracking.

(Can you believe I'm finally nearing the end of this challenge?)
A~Z Reading Challenge “E” Author: Barbara Ehrenreich's This Land is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation (Tantor Media, 2008, with Cassandra Campbell as reader).
Do not want. I approached This Land is Their Land with some trepidation. I must admit I had not enjoyed Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed when I read it a few years ago. Oh, I saw her point and agreed with it, but I still found her job experimentation insulting -- probably because, at the time, I had a low-paying dead-end job like those she dabbled with. So why read This Land is Their Land? Because, like Nickel & Dimed, it is one of those books I feel I ought to read and ought to agree with. While I did already agree with many of the points Ehrenreich raised in This Land is Their Land, I found nothing particularly enlightening in repetitive and off-puttingly sarcastic (and I love me some sarcasm) essays. Ehrenreich comes across as bitter and cynical -- which is fine, I can see how the last decade would leave even the most pie-eyed optimist bitter and cynical -- but she offers no solutions to the problems she discusses. It's just one long diatribe. Rather like this review.

A~Z Reading Challenge “K” Author: Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone Bye (Image Comics, 2004).
Read like a badbadbad pastiche of every zombie film or novel ever made. Trite. Derivative. Sexist. Stupid. Gah. Annoying, because I love me a good post-apocalyptic story and I had heard nothing but good things about this series from Comic Book Guys and, maybe, that was the problem. The series is probably intended for a male audience more receptive to uncomplicated heroes straight out of Marlboro/Budweiser ads.

A~Z Reading Challenge “L” Title: Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, At Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas (Random House, 2008).

Laughing Without an Accent is Dumas's follow-up to her memior Funny in Farsi, but I do not think you need to read the first to enjoy the second. Certainly, I did not read Funny in Farsi and yet still thoroughly enjoyed Laughing Without An Accent -- so much so that I followed The Husband around the house, inflicting long passages to him. Apparently, the book is funny even when totally out of context. Not that everything is snorts and chuckles -- Dumas's encounter with Kathryn Kob is quite serious and made me want to weep (as well as inter-library loan Guest of the Revolution). This is an excellent read if you're looking to widen your world view without being made depressed or suicidal. Also, if you enjoyed Dumas's memoirs and now want something a little "heavier," I recommend Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran.

A~Z Reading Challenge “F” Title: Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
Desert guide Nayir ash Sharqi is hired to find Nouf ash-Shrawi, a sixteen-year-old girl who disappeared into the desert three days before her marriage. Did she run away? Was she abducted? No-one knows. And, when her body is found in a wadi, it looks as if no-one needs to know. The girl is dead. Terrible, but that's the end of it. Nayir, however, cannot let the Shawi girl's death go. Finding Nouf was a well written and well crafted mystery. There were just enough suspicious characters and red herrings to keep me reading along without frustrating me (I do not enjoy mysteries in which anyone could be the murderer and then it turns out to be someone who was only in one scene for two lines). The characters, for the most part, seemed very real to me and, while I have no idea about Ferraris's accuracy, the novel's description of Saudi culture was fascinating. Honestly, I'd love to see Finding Nouf on PBS's Masterpiece Mystery! one day.

A~Z Reading Challenge “V” Title: Venetia by Georgette Heyer (HQN Books, 2006).
Heyer essentially created Regency romance as we know it today and, as I love a good Regency romance, I've often wished to read her novels ... except they looked so dated and icky. Happily, many of her novels are being republished by Harlequin and Sourcebooks Casablanca and the like. In Venetia, the eponymous Miss Lanyon grows up in the country, away from the world with only her lame and scholarly younger brother, Aubrey, for company. All is (mostly) peace and quiet until one their neighbor, wicked Lord Jasper Damerel, returns to his country estate. Venetia sensibly keeps away from him after his initial discourteous treatment of her, but when Damerel takes an injured Aubrey into his home after a from his fall from a horse, she revises her first opinion of the wicked rake and they soon become the fast friends. Will friendship turn to love? Will the wicked rake reform? You will have to discover that for yourself, gentle reader. Overall, I enjoyed this book. Perhaps it helps that she is twenty-five, but Venetia is a very commonsensical and refreshingly forthright Regency heroine. Unlike most contemporary Regency romances, there's no sex in this book and very little kissing yet the the desire and attraction constantly zipping between Venetia and Demerel is never in doubt. Besides doing such a marvellous job creating (and maintaining) that constant air of desire, Heyer also writes quite wittily and creates secondary characters worthy of any Austen novel. I'm not saying that you'll love Heyer if you love Austen, but if you're looking for a non-sexual-but-still-smokin' sparkling romance with a strong heroine, you could do a lot worse than Venetia.

A~Z Reading Challenge “W” Title: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (Macmillan Audio, 2007, read by Adam Grupper).
You may have heard of as The World Without Us as it has received a fair amount of publicity since its publication. You know, it’s the “ohmygodnopeoples” book. Or, anyway, that’s how I’d been thinking of it. And while, yes, the sudden disappearance of the human race is the launching point for Weisman’s book, that disappearance isn’t the point. It’s what comes after that is the point. And how do we know what will happen after we've done? We don’t, but we can conjecture based on how the world was before we came along. That’s were it all gets interesting --for me, anyway. Drawing on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, paleontologists, and the like, Weisman took me way back when to examine the rise of humans and its impact on the Paleolithic world. Aside from the world before us, Weisman does of course write about the world with us. This is not a good workd. Did you know we're killing everything, outstripping the potential of our environment, and generally behaving like total idiots? While, the ecological doom and gloom message wasn't new it was well intentioned and necessary -- just not my favorite part of the book. Bring on the pre-historic megafauna!

Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood


A~Z Reading Challenge “G” author: Taras Grescoe’s Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood (Bloomsbury, 2008).
According to Taras Grescoe, much of the cheap seafood we enjoy is neither safe nor sustainable and our greedy anti-ocean habits are driving many fish species to the point of extinction. We are going to start paying for our greed very soon. He writes, "A paper in the esteemed journal Nature reports that 90 percent of the population of top-level predators -- among them tuna, sharks, marlin and swordfish -- have already been caught. A team of ecologists makes headlines worldwide by predicting that, at their current rate of exploitation, all major fish stocks will collapse within our lifetimes; the world, in other words, will run out of wild seafood by the year 2048." I’ll be 72 in 2048. If nothing changes, I’ll be a crazy old lady at the market ranting about how we used to get real food from the oceans while the sweet young things behind the counter roll their eyes and disbelieve that anything ever came out of the ocean but jellyfish stew. Has Bottomfeeder dissuaded me from consuming seafood? No. Will I be more selective in my choices? Probably, but more out of a desire not to poison myself than an actual expectation my buying habits will change the world.

26 September 2008

Graphic Novel News: Oh Noes! No More Minx!

CBR News has confirmed through multiple sources that MINX, the young adult graphic novel line published by DC Comics, has been cancelled. Creators were informed this morning, and some have been assured their solicited or otherwise greenlit projects will be published, while others have been told their books -- at least one of which is actually completed -- will not be released, at least not as part of the MINX line.
                                                            -- DC Cancels MINX Young Adults Line
Well, I'm glad I picked up copies of Water Baby, The New York Four, and Burnout as soon as they hit the shelves, but I'm extremely peeved about the rest of the Minx titles. I was looking forward to Emiko Superstar (written by Mariko Tamaki whose Skim is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time). And Token! And ... and Clubbing in Tokyo!

Oh noes! No Clubbing in Tokyo!

What am I supposed to read now if I want "smart, original stories about real girls in the real world?" Final Crisis?

23 September 2008

Klee Wyck

A~Z Reading Challenge “K” title: Klee Wyck by Emily Carr (Douglas & McIntyre, 2003).

Klee Wyck is a collection of literary sketches from the Canadian artist Emily Carr which focus on her experience painting in the Native Canadian villages of the west coast. Douglas & McIntyre's "restored" edition is supposed to be much closer to Carr's original than the "educational" edition most Canadians are familiar with which omitted much from Carr's work. Educational authorities appeared to have liked the idea of Emily Carr better than they liked her actual writings -- her references to missionaries and schooling were not always kind:
The Missionary said, "It is good for the Indians to have a white person stay in their homes; we are at a very difficult stage with them -- this passing from old ways into new. I tell you savages were easier to handle than these half-civilized people ... in fact it is impossible ... I have sent my wife and children south ..."
"Is the school here not good?"
"I can't have my children mix with the Indians."
Having listened to Susan Vreeland's The Forest Lover, reading Klee Wyck was a little bit odd experience. Many of Carr's experiences were familiar, but Carr's real voice is so much plainer than her fictional counterpart that I sometimes hungered for a few extra adjectives. Also, I was tickled to see how Vreeland had rolled pretty much all of Klee Wyck's Native Canadian women into the character of Sophie. Making, perhaps, for a better story, but also minimizing Carr's variety of experience.

Oh, whatever. Good book. Much enjoyed. Go read.

18 September 2008

I Wanna See You Push It Push It Push It



I've been dreaming about belonging to a book cart drill team every since I read The Library Book Cart Precision Drill Team Manual (McFarland, 2002) and become utterly enamoured with the concept. We librarians are always on the lookout for cheap effective ways to market our libraries to our communities and generate enthusiasm about our services -- book cart drills would certainly make the public sit up and pay attention (if only in the same way one sits up and pays attention to a car wreck).

12 September 2008

Graphic Novel: Promethea, Volume 1

A~Z Reading Challenge “M” author: Promethea, Book One (America's Best Comics, 2000) by Alan Moore et al.
"They're called Manigators, darling. Not Lizard Men."
Promethea is a young girl whose father is killed by a Christian mob in ancient Alexandria. She is taken by the twin god Thoth-Hermes into the Immateria, a realm where stories are real. Over the ensuing centuries, "Promethea" manifests in a series of avatars, the latest being college student Sophie Bangs ...

While I thought the story was a compelling one, I feel I should warn you that big chunks of this sucker read like a Philosophy/Religion 101 paper at too many points. Issue #4 seemed especially thick with mumbo-jumbo and, after I ran into this particular tidbit:
Matter is that part of being that has crystallized, where the mind's light has petrified to concrete substance. Beyond substance is imagination, the moonlit realm of dream and fiction, sexual fantasy and the unconscious mind. These lunar attributes, imagination and romance, are the gem-crusted gateways of the Immateria.
I simply gave up and started skimming.

But, that's not to say I didn't like this graphic novel. Despite it's philosophizing, Promethea is pretty good. The illustrations tend toward stunning, the use of myth is generally interesting, and the ex-Prometheas are so funny they almost manage to steal Sophie's thunder. I will probably read Book Two, but I hope for fewer "Jupiterian skies of universal mercy."

11 September 2008

Graphic Novel: Elektra, Volume 1

A~Z Reading Challenge “E” title: Elektra, Volume One: Introspect (Marvel, 2002) by Chris Rucka et al.

Ηλέκτρα, she's electric.

What happens when you are an unemployed assassin whose whole life is your work? Well, if you're Chris Rucka's Elektra, you begin a downward spiral of violence and emotional unrest which leads you to teeter on the very edge of madness ... and then you get kidnapped by a mysterious wheel-chaired man who pumps you full of drugs and tries to convince you that you are evil and should kill yourself.

Oh, happy days.

Overall, I enjoyed this graphic novel. Despite some of the porntastic illustrations and the gratuitous amounts of blood, this is indeed a story of introspection and self discovery. By the end of this graphic novel it is apparent there is no clear line between good and evil. No matter how conscionable Mr. Locke's intentions may have been, he and his cohorts end up just as bloody-handed as Elektra.

(I've never seen the movie Elektra as it seemed excruciatingly dumb, but now I'm half-tempted to Netflix it).

10 September 2008

Ocean by Warren Ellis et al.


One hundred years from now, UN weapons inspector Nathan Kane is sent to a space station orbiting the Jovian Moon, Europa, where an exploratory team has made an alarming discovery: beneath the frozen crust of the planetary ocean are billion year old sarcophagi containing members of a sleeping alien race, weapons capable of destroying entire planets, and an enormous ring no-one can quite figure out. As Kane and the station crew investigate, they are threatened by a powerful multi-planetary super-conglomerate seeking to exploit the discovery for its own purposes ...

Sounds like good fun, eh?

I read Ellis's Orbiter (Vertigo, 2004) a few months ago and was quite impressed by it. I picked up Ocean hoping to get more of the same quality and was not disappointed. They're very different stories, obviously, and I would say Ocean is much more action-oriented than Orbiter which was far more psychological and science-y. Which is not to say that I found Ocean lacking -- the story has an intriguing hook, just enough witty dialogue, a bad ass law-enforcing protagonist, and lots of strong (alas, secondary) female characters. What's not to like? The artwork is also quite excellent -- lucid and clean, each frame says only what it needs to say. It's like reading a film's storyboard and that's fine, because Ocean would make a kick ass film just as it is.

A~Z Reading Challenge “O” title: Ocean (Wildstorm, 2005) by Warren Ellis et al

04 September 2008

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson


My “A” title selection for the a~z reading challenge was Mary E. Pearson’s young adult novel, The Adoration of Jenna Fox which is, among other things, a Book Sense "Top Ten" Summer 2008 Pick (I ♥ Book Sense) and has been optioned by 20th Century Fox.

Synopsis: Sometime in the near future, Jenna Fox wakes up after being in a coma for a year. She doesn’t remember her old life at all and has to re-learn a lot of basic things she already ought to know – simple stuff like smiling, for instance. Jenna watches home videos of her life, but she’s can’t identify with what she sees. It doesn’t help that, while Jenna was in the coma, her family moved from Boston to California, and she is not in contact with anyone from her “old life.”

Slowly, Jenna begins to discovers holes in the truths she's been given. Can she believe what people tell her about her own life?

I loved The Adoration of Jenna Fox. This novel is probably one of the most interesting young adult science fiction novels I have read in quite a while. It's one of those darned thinky books that stick with you days after you've read it -- I'll be washing dishes and find myself thinking about what it means to be human.

Oh, dishwater philosophy! Dangerous stuff!

My only complaint is that the novel ended too abruptly. I would like to have known more about the adult Jenna Fox and how she became a "standard" instead of an "illegal."

Go. Read this book.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt & Company, 2008)

19 August 2008

Another A~Z Reading Challenge Catch-Up

“D” title: Daphne du Maurier's Classics of the Macabre (Doubleday, 1987) by Daphne Du Maurier.
Why? I loved Rebecca and was completely chuffed to discover Du Maurier had written the short story “Birds” -- supposedly the basis for Hitchcock’s film. I say “supposedly,” because the one seems to have nothing to do with the other aside from, well, birds. I haven’t seen Hitchcock’s film all the way through (too campy), but I liked Du Maurier’s story immensely. All dark and claustrophobic, it creeped me out quite nicely. It’s hard to imagine that chilling tale transferred to Hitchcock’s sunny California town -- the story needs broody rural Cornwall and the memory of WWII (bombing raids, BBC broadcasts, and the very real fear of invasion) to carry it off. The other stories (“Don't look now,” “The apple tree,” “The blue lenses,” “The alibi,” and “Not after midnight”) were also quite excellent. Du Maurier’s stories are, to my mind, reminiscent of those by Shirley Jackson or Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The horrors are subtle and more often implied then explicit. In that way they seem terribly real and far more creepy then something with werewolves or midnight graveyards. I look forward to reading more of Du Maurier’s stories in Echoes from the Macabre (DoubleDay, 1976) and in any other collection I can get my greedy little hands on.
“S” title: Sunday You Learn How to Box (Scribner, 2000) by Bil Wright.
Sunday You Learn How to Box tells the story of Louis Bowman, a bright and sensitive (read: “sissy”) teen who lives in the housing projects of suburban 1960s Connecticut with his abusive mother and stepfather. His mother suspects (fears?) Louis might be gay, so she sets up regular Sunday boxing lessons with his stepfather to both teach Louis how to “be a man” and to help him protect himself from the other project kids. Also, they’re a nice way to legitimize of the physical and psychological abuse Louis’s mother and stepfather already dole out. Louis faces other hardships, too, but Wright handles them skilfully and with a dry wit that takes some of the sting away. While this novel is certainly not sentimental, it does have a certain sweetness and wistfulness about it which made this novel hard to put down. I only wish there were more of it.

09 August 2008

A~Z Reading Challenge Catch-Up

“R” author: Empress of the World (Penguin, 2001) by Sara Ryan

Empress of the World (Lambda finalist and an ALA Best Book for Young Adults selection) is novel about friendship and first love. While attending a summer college program for gifted high school students, Nic(ola) falls in with a pack of geeky-cool teens and befriends a girl named Battle (the perfect daughter of a ex-actor turned Christian minister). Somehow friendship turns into love … and then not-love and then friendship, again.

I enjoyed the fluidness of Nic and Battle’s relationship -- that they could go from friends to lovers and back to friends without the end of that love making them any less friends. Oh, yes, there was teen drama and angst, but the heartbreak was well-managed and realistic. No-one vowed they could Never Love Again.

I was also amused by Nic’s refusal to be pigeon-holed as a lesbian. All her (straight) friends seemed to really want to slap the "L" label on her and her relationship with Battle, but she refused it. Nic had dated boys before Battle and, maybe, she’d date boys again. Or, maybe, she’d find a nice girl. She'd crushed on a girl before Battle. Did any of that matter, anyway? Was it anyone's business what she called herself? On the other hand, she's didn't think much of the "B" word:
[bisexual is a weird world. it sounds like you have to buy sex. or it could be one of those one-celled creatures you study in biology. "today, class," we will study the life cycle of the bisexual." "oh, i thought those were extinct."]
“M” title: Madapple (Knopf, 2008) by Christina Herendeen

I picked Madapple largely because of the cover art. I found the cover image (ghost pale girl with shadowed eyes holding a vibrant orange butterfly under an oppressive sky) to be very compelling and couldn't wait to read the book. The novel's connection with herbalism/natural history also appealed.

Madapple (while nominated for the ALA Best Book for Young Adults list) has received criticism from those who perceive it to be morally and/or religiously objectionable. This isn't, after all, a novel which touches lightly or particularly kindly on Christianity. The novel's religious authority figures don't come off well and belief seems, overall, to be a tool of madness. That said, the novel's take on Christianity isn't really that ground breaking -- there are Virgin Birth and Messiah stories outside of Christianity? Gasp. I never guessed.

Honestly, I really don't know what to make of Madapple. None of the characters were particularly likeable or supportable. Frequently, it seemed as if I was reading an herbal or a religious primer. Very seldom did I feel I was reading about a real girl. Bouncing between the court transcripts from 2007 and the events of 2003-2004 didn't help as I found it really interrupted the flow of the story and just left me confused about what the heck was going on.

Overall, I suppose the novel was ... interesting ... yet I don't feel anything but tiredness when I think of it.

Would I have liked it better when I was thirteen? I don't know. The natural science and incest themes (I liked Flower in the Attic around that age, after all) would have fascinated me, but I think I would have lost patience with all the religion.

Wrong Book? Wrong Reader?

08 August 2008

"Long Live the Glorious Cockroach Revolution!"

Last night, a little girl told me she had eaten a maggot.¹ Bemusedly, I asked her what it tasted like and she said “cheddar cheese.”

Dr. Bugman was at the library last night as part of Children's bug-themed summer reading program. To the delight of many children, he filled the library’s basement with gross and disgusting creepy crawlies. Yes, tarantulas, scorpions, roaches, millipedes, freaky hairy spiders were all scuttling around -- just waiting for the right moment to begin the Glorious Insect Uprising of ‘09.

Sursum per Insecta?

But I exaggerate. All the buggies were quite well-behaved and the humans certainly sounded like they had a good time. Several other brave souls did consume buggy goodness -- the Head of Children’s, bless her, ate a bacon and cheese flavored cricket.

Bacon. Flavored. Cricket. I must reconsider my core belief that there is nothing bacon can't make better.

(Speaking of bacon, Daisy the pot-bellied reading pig, will be at the library next week to "pig out" on reading).

--

¹ Maggots are good eating, you know. Or so Johann Wyss's novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, taught me in my formative years:
In the pith I saw some fat worms or maggots, and suddenly recollected that I had heard of them before as feeding on the sago, and that in the West Indies they are eaten as a delicacy.

I felt inclined to try what they tasted like; so at once kindling a fire, and placing some half dozen, sprinkled with salt, on a little wooden spit, I set them to roast.

Very soon rich fat began to drop from them, and they smelt so temptingly good, that all repugnance to the idea of eating worms vanished; and, putting one like a pat of butter on a baked potato, I boldly swallowed it, and liked it so much, that several others followed in the same way. Fritz also summoned courage to partake of this novel food; which was a savoury addition to our dinner of baked potatoes.


-- excerpted from Chapter VII
(Oh, yes, The Swiss Family Robinson taught me many things. By eleven, I was positively pining to be a shipwrecked on a deserted isle).

30 July 2008

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger


But you can only lie about who you are for so long without going crazy.

My “P” title for the A~Z reading challenge was Ellen Wittlinger's Parrotfish. Like Girl Walking Backwards, Parrotfish is on the San Francisco Public Library's recommended reading list for lgbtq teens. It's also on the 2008 ALA Rainbow List and 2008 NYPL Books for the Teen Age list (pdf). In all honesty, while that's all great stuff, it was Colleen Mondor's July 2007 Bookslut review that made me really want to read Parrotfish.

Unfortunately, Mondor's review was so well written that I don't know what I can write here that won't be overly repetitive or trite.

Parrotfish tells the story of teenager Grady McNair, born Angela, who is brave enough to come out as transgendered in the middle of the school year. Life doesn't go perfectly smoothly for Grady once he outs himself to family and school. He loses his best friend, is subject to harassment, and is dismissed out of hand by adults in positions to support and protect him.

That said, Parrotfish is far from being a doom and gloom coming of age story. Instead, it's actually rather sweet and funny with lots of interesting side characters. While Grady does suffer a bit, in the end he finds true friendship and is accepted by the people who matter most.

And now I've made the novel sound terribly smaltzy ...

Just go read it, okay?

Previously, the only other young adult novel I had read on identity and transgenderism was Julie Anne Peter's Luna, in which a girl was born in the body of a boy. I have to say that both novels are wonderful and come highly recommended.

If you're interested in knowing more about transgenderism, Wittlinger has also included interesting lists of references and resources at the back of Parrotfish.

Parrotfish by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

29 July 2008

The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith


My first night in a strange country and there was a dead man in my bedroom.

My "B" title for the A~Z reading challenge was Nicola Griffith’s The Blue Place. I’ve been meaning to read Griffith’s award-winning novel Ammonite (Del Rey, 2002) for ages now, but it’s pretty hard to find in this part of library land. However, Griffith’s other award-winning novel, The Blue Place (joint winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Mystery), is everywhere.

And that isn’t a bad thing. The Blue Place is a pretty fine novel. In this novel Aud Torvingen (a hard-as-nails half-American, half-Norwegian lesbian ex-cop) is hired by Julia (a beautiful art dealer) to investigate the murder of her friend, James Lusk, which may be connected with a possible art forgery (it’s hard to prove forgery when the possibly fraudulent piece goes up in smoke). I found the novel quite gripping and was, for once, completely surprised by the ending.

This wasn’t a "nice" book. Bad things happened -- sometimes to people who deserved them, but sometimes to total innocents. This was, after all, Aud's world and she made it explicitly clear that the world she moved through was different from the world most of us move in -- one which is always ringed round with the possibility of danger and harm. As the plot thickens, Aud sucked me further and further in until her world (and worldview) became the normal one. So when Aud let John Turkel die and later set Denneny on fire … well, that just seemed inevitable and right.

I really loved that the violence was all so matter-of-fact and in-character with everything I’d come to understand about Aud. Another author might have tried to justify Aud’s behavior with the use of some kind-of emotional breakdown or the insertion of heart-rending monologue. Instead, Griffith writes Aud as she is. A woman who sees what must be done and does it. No hand-wringing or emotional ambivalence. If Aud were male, she’d be just another hard-edged James Bond or Jason Bourne type. As a female, she’s ground breaking (and pretty darned hot):

When everything slows down and my muscles are hot and strong and the blood beats in my veins like champagne I feel this vast delight. Everything is beautiful and precious, and so clear. Light gets this bluish tinge and I feel like a hummingbird among elephants, untouchable.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed The Blue Place and I look forward to reading its follow-up novels, Stay (Doubleday, 2002) and Always (Riverhead, 2007).

(I finally nabbed a copy of Ammonite and, whoo boy, is it ever awesome).

The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith (Harper Perennial, 1999)

24 July 2008

More Ascot Valances

I promise you that someday soon I will find something new to obsess over and stop bothering you about curtains. Right now, however, I have many naked windows and much fabric. You will just have to bear with me a little while longer.


(By "little while" I mean the next few months, of course).

22 July 2008

Girl Walking Backwards by Bett Williams


No one is just one thing.

My “G” title for the A~Z reading challenge was Bett Williams's Girl Walking Backwards. I found this novel on the San Francisco Public Library's recommended reading list for lgbtq teens along with Julia Ann Peters's Luna (Little, Brown and Co., 2004) and Lucy Jane Bledsoe's Working Parts (Seal Press, 1997) -- two of my favorite YA novels.

What can I say? I am a sucker for recommended reading lists.

Girl Walking Backwards deals with issues like sexuality, New Age cultism, drugs, self-mutilation, friendship, sex, and all the usual stuff that comes with being a teenager. Sounds deadly drear, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. Truly, this is a fun and heart-warming novel. Skye moves from disaster to disaster, but she learns from her experiences, finding humor in even the bleakest things, discovering real friendship and love.

If you liked Michelle Tea's Rose of No Man's Land, I think you'll like Girl Walking Backwards (and vice versa).

Girl Walking Backwards by Bett Williams (Macmillan, 1998)