Monthly Archives: December 2009

Now & Then by Jacqueline Sheehan

2009. 386pages (paperback)

From: The public library

In a nutshell:

Anna O’Shea and her nephew Joseph are transported from the 21st century Massachusetts to 19th century Ireland.  Separated by the time travel, Anna is taken in by kind coastal villagers while Joseph becomes the charge of a wealthy English lord in the eastern country.


Despite reading mixed reviews of this book, I was intrigued by the time travel aspect of it.  I had really liked the intricacies of the time travel aspect in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

Alas, this book is not very good.  I’ll give it credit for at least being interesting enough for me to finish it.  I liked Anna’s friendship with the Irish woman, Glenis, for instance.  And I wanted to see how Anna and Joseph would return to their own time.

I like supernatural and surreal elements in books but I have decreasing patience with the sort of mushy ‘second sight’ mysticism as displayed here.  It doesn’t feel like it’s been thought through.

The characters never felt fully credible, only half-fleshed out.  I didn’t quite understand why they did some of the things they did.  Poor book had to follow I Capture the Castle so its failings in this regard stood out starkly.

And the book doesn’t really have much to do with dogs, as the cover picture and back description would lead you to expect.  I knew about the misleading packaging beforehand, so it didn’t affect me, but I feel like I should tell others this.  Indeed, the book has more to say on horses, wrestling and dental health than on dogs.

On an interesting note, this was a library book but a previous reader had penciled in critical comments there and there, mostly on anachronisms or possible historical inaccuracies.  I think it’s a big no-no to write in library books, even in pencil, and found the comments distracting.  I cannot get too outraged, considering I did not like the book overall myself, but still.

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Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

1948. 352 pages (paperback)

From: The public library

In a nutshell:

17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain lives in a rundown castle with her family, sometime in the mid-20th century.  When two brothers, the adult grandsons of the Mortmains’ recently deceased landlord, arrive to check the inheritance, it means change for everyone in the family.  In a series of insightful and witty journal entries, Cassandra captures all of these changes as well as her own coming-of-age.


I am always impressed by writing that successfully articulates the life of the mind – that feel psychologically real.  I love reading a passage that manages to describe an idea, mood or emotion in such a way that I go: ‘Yes, I know exactly what that is but had never been able to capture it in words before.”

I Capture the Castle does that.  Sure, plenty of things happen in the novel, but the book is distinguished not by plot alone, but by its understanding of people.  We are complicated packets of changing motivations and contradictions and Dodie Smith conveys this through the clever voice of Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra is a thoroughly likable narrator, clear-eyed but conscious that she has much to learn about life.  The rest of the characters are engaging as well, as seen through the prism of her viewpoint.

Most passages of the book would do for an excerpt, but I’ll pick one that demonstrates Cassandra’s (and Dodie Smith’s) wry humor.  Simon, one of the two brothers, has fallen for Cassandra’s beautiful sister Rose and is talking to Cassandra about it:

He went on to talk of her for quite a quarter of a mile . . . Everything Rose does is original, apparently, even the way she dances, inventing little steps of her own.  And she is so intelligent – he kindly said I was, too, but Rose is a wit (a fact not as yet disclosed to her family).

I had to laugh at Cassandra’s parenthetical comment.  I can imagine her surreptitious raising of eyebrows at hearing this particular praise of her sister, who is vivacious but not particularly witty.

I Capture the Castle is definitely one that I will purchase down the road.  All those who spoke to me of this book did so with great affection and I will now join their ranks.


Filed under Book Review

A Day in a Medieval City by Chiara Frugoni

A Day in a Medieval City by Chiara Frugoni

Trans. by William McCuaig

2005. 224pages. Hardcover.

In a nutshell:

In this short scholarly work, Frugoni paints a picture of life in a medieval city.  She extensively uses medieval literature, art and other primary source material to support the text and to show details.  There are many illustrations contained in the book.


I’ll be upfront and say that I skimmed parts of this book.  I did this partly because of an impending library due date.  However, sometimes Frugoni would go off on a detail or a medieval tale that did not interest me and I skated over those parts.  It’s an academic work, so it was easy to slip into the information gleaning habits from my college years while reading it.

There are a lot of fascinating tidbits to glean.   Medieval townspeople were constantly in each other’s lives, borrowing fire and water, exchanging gossip at the well, at benches outside their door and in the narrow streets.  Medieval city-dwellers often built their kitchen on the top floor so that if a fire started, it would not be so devastating.

Medieval doctors operated mostly by examining the patient’s urine in a glass container made for that purpose.  You can spot them in medieval illustrations because they hold this signature container.  Obviously these doctors were usually quacks and so it was sometimes professional envy that stoked witchcraft accusations against the more effective midwives.

The book talks at some length about medieval people’s religious worldview.  I thought perhaps Frugoni could have gone into less depths about this worldview and said more about how their daily lives were directed by the worldview.

The illustrations are definitely the book’s greatest asset.  I’m guessing that some of these illustrations would be hard to see published anywhere, not to mention published with helpful commentary.

A number of these pictures consist of stories told in panels.  One such story is of a gambling woman who, piqued at a betting loss, throws a stone at a statue of the Virgin Mary.  As the shocked bystanders watch, an angel statue to the left of Mary blocks the stone’s trajectory.  For her blasphemy, the people burn the woman and the last panel shows them looking at the fire in great satisfaction.

Certainly the book makes me glad to live in the 21st century.

My favorite illustration is that of medieval townspeople engaged in a snowball fight.  For all that their ways were strange to me, seeing them at play in the snow was a fun moment of connection to the past.

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Memorable Memoir Challenge and Take a Chance Challenge

I’m going to add two more cool-sounding challenges to my 2010 roster of challenges (which already includes Poetry, Flashback, Thriller & Suspense, Colorful, 2nd Reading, and What’s in A Name, as well as my personal 19 books older than I am.)  I expect a number of books will meet more than one challenge, and I may not finish some, but I won’t let that stress me out.

So the two new challenges:

Name: The Memorable Memoir Reading Challenge

Host: The Betty and Boo Chronicles

In sum: Read 4 memoirs (can also be books of letters)

Why I’m joining: I took a class about memoirs in college that was really enjoyable, so I’d like to get back to reading more of them.  Plus Jeannette Walls’ wonderful The Glass Castle has whet my appetite for it again.

1. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick

2. Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman



Host: Find Your Next Book Here

In sum: There are twelve intriguing challenges and participants can join either 3, 6, or all 12.

I will take on 6, since 3 seemed too few.

Challenge 1: Read Your Doppelganger (author with same last/first name or same initials)

Challenge 7: Break a Prejudice (read an author/genre/whatever that you have always avoided and after, write about how the prejudice has been broken or reinforced)

The Rescue by Nicholas Sparks

Challenge 9: Same Word, Different Book (worth 2 entries because you read two books that share the same word in their title)

Challenge 11: All in the Family (worth 2 entries because you read two books by authors related by blood or marriage)

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamaties, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman


Filed under Challenges

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine

The Hakawati

by Rabih Alameddine

2008. 528pages (Hardcover).

This copy from: Public Library

In a nutshell: Osama al-Kharrat returns to Lebanon to be at his dying father’s bedside.  Alameddine weaves in al-Kharrat’s family history with traditional Middle Eastern tales, including two lengthy, episode tales: tales of the courageous Fatima and tales of the slave prince Baybars.

Review: The length of the Hakawati was daunting, but I never felt that reading it was a chore, or something to slog through.  Not long into this book, I thought “now this is a natural storyteller.”  Alameddine’s writing has an effortless flow and is very vivid.  You can see the expressions on Osama’s sister’s face, or hear the dialogue of Fatima and the djinn.

There are many stories packed into the book, and many kinds.  There’s action, humor, tragedy and romance.  There were little stories inside other stories.  Some of the tales got a little crude for my tastes, especially the one involving Shams and Layl. But overall, I found the stories delightful in their variety and appealing characters.  I loved the legendary character of Fatima.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is how immediately engrossing it was.  And it didn’t matter if I put it down for a few days and picked it back up – there was very little reacclimation needed.

Goodreads link

Other reviews (if you have one, let me know and I’ll add it):

Haiku Boxer

Leap in the Dark

Prof Mike’s Weblog

The Boston Bibliophile

Things I Can’t Live Without


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal, Historical Fiction

Return from Holidays and Teaser Tuesday

Hello, I’m back from spending Christmas and some vacation days at my older sister’s home in Illinois.  Snow followed me there – lots and lots of snow.  We stayed indoors mostly, played Settlers of Catan and other games.  We also ate plenty of good food.  I caught a cold which was unfortunate but didn’t take away the enjoyment of the holiday with family.  One of my favorite memories of this holiday season will probably be of Christmas Eve.  My sister and her husband live in the upstairs apartment in a house that has been converted into two apartments.  Their downstairs neighbors, two parents and a young teenage girl, have a piano and we joined them for singing carols together.

Book-related happenings:

My sister gave me Laurie R. King’s Touchstone as  Christmas gift.  For those of you familiar with Laurie R. King’s writing, this is not part of the Mary Russell series, but is a standalone book.  I read Folly, another one of King’s standalone novels, a while back and enjoyed it, so I’m expecting good things here too.

Also, when I returned home today, there was a package waiting for me!  Inside was A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions by Katharine Hayhoe and Andrew Farley.  I was one of five winners for a giveaway of this book hosted by Bookfoolery and Babble.  Her review of the book can be found here.  I am quite interested in the topic so it was truly a delight to win and I look forward to reading the book.

Since my last post, I have finished I Capture the Castle, read Now & Then by Jacqueline Sheehan and am almost done with Nechama Tec’s Defiance, which will be the source of my Tuesday Teaser:

The Judenrat and some ghetto inmates objected to all illegal activities.  They were convinced that hard work would result in their survival and any resistance would lead to death.  They argued that the entire community would perish because of a few “sinners.” (p. 97)


Filed under Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers.

I pulled my mind off the table and stared into the dimness beyond, and then I gradually saw the servants as real people, watching us, whispering instructions to each other, exchanging glances.  I noticed a girl from Godsend village and gave her a tiny wink – and wished I hadn’t, because she let out a little snort of laughter and then looked in terror at the butler.

from page 115 of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith


Filed under Teaser Tuesday

Review Round-up: Memoirs and Personal Essays

This is the last of my review round-ups for 2009!

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (2005, 288p, paperback)

I loved, loved, loved The Glass Castle.  The book opens memorably with a snapshot story of Walls as an adult.  She is going to a party in New York City, sees a homeless woman digging through a dumpster and realizes it’s her mother.  From that ‘wow’ start, Walls takes the reader through her childhood. She and her brother and sisters are neglectfully raised by her parents as they constantly move their brood from town to town and state to state: Arizona, California, and finally in West Virginia.  This is a past that Walls has been ashamed to tell for years and she finally gets it all down in this heartbreaking, but rallying, memoir.  I love the fierce loyalty between Walls and her siblings.

Jeannette Walls spoke at the National Book Festival in D.C. and she was my favorite speaker by far.  She seems a very warm and down-to-earth person.  Walls described the various reactions she’s received to the memoir.  A privileged teenage girl came up to Walls, having read The Glass Castle while on vacation in the Caribbean.  The girl said to Jeannette, “There is this girl at my school and we make fun of her because she is poor.  You know, I don’t think I’m going to do that anymore.”  Walls described her internal reaction to this girl’s resolution as, “Well, the Lord can now strike me dead!  My mission on earth is accomplished!”

Walls also related a story a teacher from the South told her about a student’s reaction to the book.  This teacher observed a boy who never read books, carrying around The Glass Castle.  The teacher said to him, “I thought you didn’t like books.”  The boy said, “I don’t.”  The teacher said, “Well why do you like this book then?”  The boy said, “That there is a fine white trash story.”

Ditched by Dr. Right: And Other Distress Signals from the Edge of Polite Society by Elizabeth Warner (2005, 256p, paperback)

I heard about this book through Entertainment Weekly some years ago, and had to interlibrary loan it for reading this year.  Elizabeth Warner is a New York City-based writer and this collection of essays tells stories of her life in New York as a copywriter and other ventures, a stint in L.A., as well as growing up in an upper middle class Philadelphian suburb.

I find it odd that Warner portrays her upbringing as something very strange and almost exotic.  I suppose we all think that way though at times.  As children, we typically do not think our world is weird.  It is only when we grow up and move into wider circles and hear of others’ backgrounds that we begin to see our backgrounds in a new light, through others’ eyes.  And then we see the weirdness.

Warner is a decent enough writer.  I read aloud parts or even whole essays to my friend and we laughed out loud in moments.  My favorite story was one from Warner’s childhood when she and her siblings inadvertently lead to a big police bust of some local sports players.  Her essay about L.A. was also rather amusing.  However, there is nothing must-read about this collection, unfortunately.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (2004, 252p, hardcover)

Sedaris’ book was in danger of over-hype from the get-go.  I hadn’t read anything of his before, but I had heard his name spoken or written with great adoration and awe.  So I finally checked out this book from the library and was unsurprisingly, underwhelmed.  The book was certainly had wit and humor and poignancy, but it didn’t really have the ‘wow’ for me that it does for others.  I suspect it is because Sedaris is best taken in audio rather than written format, so I think that the next time I check out his work it will be for listening.  My favorite story from this book has to be the one about his sister and how his writing about the family, including her, has affected their relationship.  I’d like to listen to him read that essay because I would think it would be even more powerful then.


Filed under Memoir and Personal Essays, Year in Review

Review Round-up: Non-fiction

In my non-fiction choices, I dabbled in a variety of topics this year.


I read John McWhorter’s Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (2001, 352p, paperback).  If the title subject sounds daunting or dry, be assured that it definitely is not in McWhorter’s hands.  He has an accessible style with great analogies and humorous notes.  He’s not a snob about language, both in the way he explains it and in his understanding of it.  He delights in how languages change and that delight rubbed off on me.  Lots of cool facts and interesting language stories are contained within its pages.

Ecology / Environment

Okay, so I technically did not finish Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating by Jane Goodall (2005, 295p hardcover), which was a Christmas gift from an uncle.  However, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it, because I read most of it, and it did cause me to alter my food-buying to some degree.  I’m not intending to be vegetarian like the author, but I want to make better choices on what I eat and where that food comes from.  And Goodall provides suggestions for eating animal products more responsibly.  For instance, I like buying shrimp for stir-fry dinners and thanks to reading the book, I don’t buy the shrimp farmed in Thailand but rather I track down shrimp that have been caught in the U.S.  The shrimp farms in Thailand damage the environment.

A number of the ideas presented in the book I had heard before, but it was good to see it laid out and explained in detail.  I want to use farmer’s markets more frequently, buy local produce and meats.  Goodall had the great suggestion of visiting farmer’s markets while traveling, to see what the local region has to offer.  This year, I had the chance to go visit the Heritage Farms of Seed Savers’ Exchange, which works to preserve biodiversity by saving seeds of heritage plants and animals.


A History of the Middle East: Second Edition by Peter Mansfield (448p, paperback)

This book was first published in 1991 and then re-issued in 2004 with an update chapter written by Nicolas Pelham.  I was looking for a comprehensive book on Middle East History because I wanted more context for understanding what is happening in current events.  It took some serious determination to finish this history because it is written in such a dry manner.  However, the book met my criteria of being comprehensive as it swept from Mesopotamia to almost the present day.

I will say of Mansfield that he is restrained in showing any bias in his history.  Any bias is of the scholarly sort: I wasn’t surprised at finding out that he had written other books about Egypt because A History of the Middle East became most lively when Egypt was involved. Pelham was considerably more opinionated which was jarring and not entirely welcome.

This book was sometimes a chore to read, but it did pay off.  I do feel more informed about Middle East history and will use this foundational knowledge to delve into more detailed accounts about segments of this history and region.  Already, several of my fiction choices have been influenced by reading this book, including The Hakawati which I hope to review tomorrow.


The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny by Nicholas Carr (2008, 224p, hardcover)

This was one of Newsweek’s 50 Best Books for Our Time that was published earlier this year.  I was particularly interested because it involved ‘cloud computing’, a term I had encountered a number of times but never felt like I fully understood.  If you haven’t encountered that term, don’t worry.  If you know enough technology to be reading this blog, you’ll be able to understand and appreciate this book. At the risk of over-simplifying, The Big Switch is talking about computing as utility, kind of like how electricity became a utility (though there are limits to that analogy that Carr points out.)  Carr illuminates both the possibilities and the danger of where we’re headed with the internet.  I feel like I’ve done an inadequate job of summing up here, but maybe I can make up for that by giving you a quote from the book itself:

[The Internet] stresses immediacy, simultaneity, contingency, subjectivity, disposability, and above all, speed.  The Net provides no incentive to stop and think deeply about anything…It’s easier, as Kelly says, “to Google something a second or third time rather than remember it ourselves.”


The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness by Michael Stein (2007, 240p, hardcover)

Stein describes four feelings experienced by ill people: betrayal, terror, loneliness and loss.  He uses case stories from his own experience as a doctor and also includes the story of his brother-in-law who died of cancer.  It was an interesting book for me, and Stein has such a compassionate voice.  However, I think it is a book really meant for a specific audience, for those who are dealing with illness, whether as a doctor, patient or caregiver.  I feel that more could have been said on how best to reach out to someone in ill health, but I think the book explains why it is so difficult to do so.  Illness is such a lonely state of being.  When one is in pain, you can’t imagine being healthy.  When one is healthy, one cannot truly imagine pain.


Filed under Non-Fiction, Year in Review

Review Round-up: Mystery / Thriller

I might have mentioned before that I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers this year.  I’ve already reviewed a few of the standouts – the P.J. Tracy books and P.T. Deutermann’s Cam Richter books, #1 and #2.  Here’s a quick run through the rest (all of which came from the library):

Let There Be Blood (1997, 196pages, paperback)

The Egyptian Coffin (1998, 263 pages, paperback)

The Fool’s Gold (1999, 248 pages, paperback)

by Jane Jakeman

I came across this trilogy when seeking books set in Egypt, but not in Ancient Egypt.  The second book was in that category, and I grabbed the whole trilogy off the shelves.  They read quite fast.  I was done with the first by the time I was picked up from arrivals at the airport.  The main character, Ambrose Malfine is a half-Greek, war-scarred recluse who is a lord of an estate in 1830’s England.  In each book, Malfine becomes (sometimes reluctantly) involved in a mystery.  A book blurb describes Malfine as a blend between Mr. Rochester and Byron, and as the narrator, he is guarded, and unapologetic for his standoffish manner and lifestyle.

A couple of books from supernatural thriller series:

Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs (2009, 304pages, paperback)- *Love* the Mercy Thompson series and this fourth book is just as good as the previous ones.  Mercy has some interesting (read: scary) interactions with vampires and ghosts.

Poltergeist by Kat Richardson (2007, 352pages, paperback) – Second in the Seattle-based Greywalker series.  I like the main character, private investigator Harper Blaine and this mystery was better than the first of the series, as Harper is more acclimated to her special ability to see and navigate through the supernatural.

In late August and in September, many books I checked out from the library were from authors expected at the National Book Festival in D.C.

I read Eagle Catcher (1995, 186 pages, hardcover), the first of Margaret Coel’s mystery series set on the fictitious Wind River reservation.  The two main characters are Father John O’Malley and Arapaho lawyer Vicki Holden.  In mysteries, I’m intrigued by unusual settings and good characters.  The plot here was okay, but because the book had those two other elements, I’m sure I’ll be reading more in this series.

I also read China Trade (1995, 275 pages, paperback), the first of S. J. Rozan’s series with NYC-based private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith.  I liked it and also will be reading more of this series, especially as Rozan switches perspective with each book.  The first book was from Lydia’s perspective and the second is from Bill’s and so on.

The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006, 384pages, hardcover), number something or other of the Jack Reacher series, was another book I picked up in anticipation of the Book Festival.  I did not care for this one.  I liked that the main character was wrong and thus not infallible, but did not like Jack Reacher overall.  I found him a dull sort of hero.  I also did not care for the writing style, which came across rather clinical and cold, at least in my memory.

Non-book festival related:

North Korea-based A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church (2006, 288p, hardcover) had an excellent main character in Inspector O: he makes a distinct and engaging narrator of the story. There was some cheeky dark humor that made me laugh out loud, but also the book conveys the impossibility of the world our narrator inhabits. My one complaint is that, in the end, the cryptic nature of the book interfered with my enjoyment of the story. I didn’t need to have everything tied up neatly, but I felt rather lost by the end.

Very unique YA-mystery:

Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233 by Jordan Weisman (2006, 144pages, hardcover)

The book is structured as a journal, with hilarious addendums and interesting sketches placed in the margins.  There is even an instant message conversation at one point.  Cathy is a teenager who is far too inquisitive for her own good.  So when her mysterious older boyfriend suddenly ends their relationship, she senses that there is more going on than he said.  The book comes with supplemental clue documents that Cathy finds during the story.  The best element of Cathy’s Book is Cathy’s friendship with Emma, a whip-smart teenager who is Cathy’s voice of better reason.  The plot twist was also unexpected and rather cool.

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Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers, Year in Review