Monthly Archives: June 2010

Summer reading recommendations

Summers are when my reading traditionally kicks into high gear.  I still work full-time but some of my evening or weekend commitments go on hiatus.  Also: vacations!  Last year, the Fourth of July weekend revived my voracious reading appetite, so that when I took a two-week vacation later in August, my backpack was stuffed with library books.  That is a personal reason why summer and books go together in my mind.  But I think that for similar reasons, we see summer reading recommendation lists pop up, whereas we don’t see, say, winter reading lists.

So today I brainstormed books that I thought were particularly suited for summer reading and came up with a few titles. There is not a single defining characteristic that makes them ‘summery’, but for most of them, ‘fun’ would be an accurate adjective.

Fiction

Murder with Peacocks by Donna Andrews

– I’m not usually a ‘cozy’ mystery person, but this book won me over with its engaging protagonist and nutty mystery.  Meg Langslow is a blacksmith / artisan who has somehow ended up being the maid of honor for three summer weddings.  She returns to her hometown in Virginia to engage in the flurry of dress fittings (for some outrageous themed wedding ensembles) and insane maid-of-honor duties.  Meanwhile there’s a suspicious death and other not-quite-right stuff going down in the community.  It is actually Meg’s father that is playing the amateur sleuth and Meg gets dragged into it.  Funny, with a bit of romance . . . I think I might have to re-read this one myself this summer. 🙂

any Nevada Barr mystery with Anna Pigeon

– This is a mystery series where each book takes place in one of the U. S. National Parks.  Anna Pigeon is a tough but likable National Park ranger / law enforcement officer.  The settings are fantastic because almost every mystery ends up involving some survival tale element.  It’s not necessary to read these in order.  Off the top of my head I recommend Firestorm and Blind Descent.

Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

– The setting is post-WWII England and eighteen-year-old Penelope is befriended one day by an impressively self-confident girl, Charlotte while they are on the train.  Through Charlotte, Penelope meets Charlotte’s brother Harry, a would-be magician.  The friendship of all three drives the book, along with other delightful characters including Charlotte and Harry’s aunt, Penelope’s brother, not to mention the decaying estate where Penelope lives, a character in its own right.  There’s a lot of buoyant energy to this book that totally charmed me when I read it last summer.

Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith

This book takes us from an Appalachian girl’s adolescence up through her old age.  It is a bittersweet but wholly satisfying story arc that is told through letters written by Ivy Rowe, who lives way up in the holler as a child, spends some time in a coal mining town and a couple other locations as an adult before moving back to her family home.  There are some tragedies in her life, but ultimately I was left with the impression of a life fully lived.

Non-Fiction

The Cloud Garden by Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder

Two British travelers (the authors) ill-advisedly took a trip into the dangerous Darien Gap in Central America.  They are captured by guerrillas and held for nine-months.  It is a surreal experience for both that involves parasites, orchids and singing a song from Monty Python.  This is a great adventure read.

Speaking of Monty Python  . . .

Michael Palin‘s travel books are ambitious, entertaining reads.  They include Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole and Full CircleFull Circle is the one I liked the most, where Palin travels through the countries that rim the Pacific Ocean.

The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Pretor-Pinney’s enthusiasticc love of clouds will help you appreciate the summer sky, whether the clouds are fluffy or building up into thunderheads.  This is a non-fiction book that one should feel free to skim at times, in favor of the most interesting passages.  The true story about the guy who fell through a thunderstorm (and survived!) is a must-read.  The Morning Glory cloud, a recurring phenomenon off of the Austrialian coast is also fascinating.  I was gazing a lot more at clouds after reading the book.

What are some books that you consider good summer reads?

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Kindred by Octavia Butler

1979. 264 pages. Paperback. Beacon Press.

From: public library

For the challenge: 2nd Reading Challenge

In a nutshell:

Dana, a young black woman, is moving into a new apartment with her husband in 1976 when she is suddenly transported to another place and time.  There she saves a young boy from drowning, and is quickly returned to her own time.  She is involuntarily taken back in time again later, again to save the same boy, Rufus, who is now years older.  Dana realizes then that this is the antebellum South and that Rufus is her ancestor, the white son of a plantation owner on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  Through Dana’s repeated trips back in time, she comes to know all the members of the plantation, the free and the slaves.  Dana’s relationship with her ancestor is an increasingly fraught one, especially as Dana knows her existence is due to Rufus fathering a child with Alice, a slave woman.

Review:

I had read only one book by Octavia Butler before: the odd vampire story, Fledgling.  That book had some intriguing ideas but left me with mixed feelings.  I have no mixed feelings about Kindred.  I adore it.  It’s one of those books where I wanted to re-read it immediately after finishing it.

First off, my word, what a premise.  After reading this, I told my friend and also my sister about this book and they were immediately intrigued.  And fortunately Kindred more than fulfills the promise of its story idea. There is so much that is packed into this novel.  It really delves into the complexity of race relations, cultural memory, how to live life in the face of cruelty.  And yet Kindred never seems dense.  Rather, the pages flew by as I was sucked into the tension of the tale.

A huge part of the tension for me was how the time-travel affected Dana’s relationship with her husband Kevin.  On one of her trips back in time, Kevin grabs onto her and is also transported back.  As Kevin is white, he tries to offer protection to Dana by pretending to be her master, but it’s a tricky business.  Also, the couple must face the possibility that Dana will go back to her own time and Kevin may be left behind.  (For they learn that they can spend months in the past, and yet only a few hours may have passed in their own time, 1976.)

All the characters feel fleshed out.  Their interactions with Dana feel human, based on moods and context, rather than responses of character ‘types.’  Dana’s relationship with her ancestor Alice was filled with both conflict and attachment, so that another woman commented that the two “fought like sisters.”

With a scary climax and a satisfying resolution, the book ends very well.  Kindred is certainly one of my favorite reads of the year so far.  I highly recommend it!

Other reviews:

Age 30+ . . . A Lifetime of Books

arch thinking

Jenny’s Books

Linus’s Blanket

Misfit Salon

Page 247

Regular Rumination

the little reader

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Chanel: Collections and Creations by Daniele Bott

2007. 206 pages. Hardcover. Thames and Hudson.

From: Interlibrary Loan through public library

In a nutshell:

This book describes the fashion design of Coco Chanel, accompanied by photographs of Chanel collection pieces.  The book is grouped into sections: the suit, the camellia (Chanel’s signature symbol), jewelry, makeup and perfume, and the little black dress.

Review:

After watching the film Coco Before Chanel, I wanted to find a book that displayed her fashion designs.  Chanel: Collections and Creations perfectly fits the bill.  There are lots of gorgeous photographs in this coffee-table sized book.  I particularly liked the suit and the little black dress segments.  I skipped the makeup and perfume section because that’s not where my interest in fashion lies.

While containing some interesting facts, Daniele Bott’s prose annoyed me in the way it fawns over Mademoiselle and her fashion house.  I speculated whether access to the Chanel collections had been given to Bott on the condition that she meet a certain quota of superlatives and gushing sentences.

Here’s a couple of excerpts (sorry I forgot to note the page numbers):

No two camellias are alike, not a single collection uses last season’s creations.  Sometimes, 15 centimetres of fabric measuring 90 to 130 centimetres in width is enough to make three or four camellias – what precision, what sophistication and elegance in the cutting, the mounting, the finishing!

The house’s perfectionism is apparent in the skilful combining of fabrics in typical Chanel style, transfiguring a black evening gown into a jewel in itself.

Now imagine the cumulative effect of a book where every sentence is like that and maybe you’ll understand my exasperation.

Oh well.  I really do admire (and appreciate) Chanel for her design philosophy that prioritized comfortable, attractive clothes for women.  And the whole reason I picked up the book was for the pictures.  I was definitely coveting some of the suits and black dresses pictured.  Thus, it seems fitting to conclude my review by including a sample of the photographs.


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The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan

2009. 308 pages. Hardcover. Delacorte Press.

From: the public library, yep.

In a nutshell:

Mary lives in a village that is fenced in to keep out the Unconsecrated (a.k.a zombies) who live in the forest.  When her mother becomes one of the Unconsecrated, Mary becomes a ward of the Sisterhood, the religious and civil authorities of the village.  Her curiosity about the outside world, and particularly her desire to see the ocean, makes her an object of suspicion to the Sisters.  Meanwhile, as she and her friends have come of age to marry, romantic complications also occupy her mind.

When unthinkable disaster strikes the village, Mary and her friends must make some difficult choices to survive.

Review:

For this review, I’m going to look at The Forest of Hands and Teeth in comparison to the zombie stories I know.  I came to the book already familiar with zombies.  I have seen the movies Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later (and its sequel), and Shaun of the Dead.  I’ve read and loved Max Brooks’ World War Z, which tells about world-wide zombie catastrophe in the form of oral history.  Heck, I’ve even participated in a zombie walk.

Zombie narratives are certainly about the horror element, what with all the cannibalism and the spectre of loved ones resurrecting as mindless shells wanting to eat you.  However, in my experience, successful zombie tales usually serve up some social commentary with the gore.  The joke of Shaun of the Dead is that Shaun can’t tell that there are zombies at first, because prior to the outbreak, many people went about their days in a dull stupor.  World War Z strikes a nerve as it describes government and military failures to respond to widespread disaster.

In this context of zombie-stories as social commentary, Carrie Ryan has set herself a challenge.   By placing The Forest of Hands and Teeth far into the future, into an unfamiliar culture and society, she undercuts any commentary’s ability to strike home with the reader.

Indeed, the story’s tropes are more in line with a dystopian narrative than a zombie narrative.  There is the closed-off nature of the village, with its strict rules and rituals.  The heroine is determined to find out the truth about her village and the world, even if it puts her in peril.  So, while The Forest of Hands and Teeth has zombies, I can’t really think of it as a zombie narrative.

Now I do like dystopian stories and there’s certainly nothing wrong with them.  Still, I can’t help feeling like the point of zombies has been lost by combining it with this unfamiliar dystopian society.  That said, Ryan does offers some tantalizing dystopian plot threads regarding the Sisterhood, their governing and beliefs.  I was especially intrigued by their behavior to a visitor from outside the village.

Unfortunately, these somewhat promising storylines are given short shrift in favor of a really annoying love quadrangle.  Mary loves Travis.  Travis’ brother Harry loves Mary.  Mary’s best friend Cass is tied to Travis.  And so on.  I was hoping this storyline would settle down as the body count got higher, but it persists despite the carnage, draining my sympathies for all of the characters as I read on.  In particular, I struggled to understand Mary’s motivations and actions.

I did finish the book, so obviously I cared to know what happened in the end, but I was really disappointed when I finished. My thanks to Jenny of Jenny’s Books, whose recent ‘discontented’ review of The Forest of Hands and Teeth gave me the gumption to not hold back on my own reaction to the book.

So I don’t know if I’ll pick up the quasi-sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves.  I’ve read in some reviews that it’s better than this one.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you think it compares.

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Final Jeopardy by Linda Fairstein

1996. 398 pages. Hardcover. Scribner.

From: the public library!

Recommendation from: I heard of this series through nomadreader

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense

In a nutshell:

Alexandra “Alex” Cooper is an Assistant District Attorney for sex crimes in Manhattan.  She’s good at what she does, and also has acquired some level of social status thanks to her job and her family money.  When a sponging actress “friend” is killed while staying at Alex’s Martha’s Vineyard summer home, Alex’s life gets complicated and even dangerous.

Review:

At the time she wrote this book, Linda Fairstein had been running in the Sex Crimes Unit of Manhattan for more than twenty years.  So the day-to-day activities of her fictional counterpart, Alex Cooper, ring very true.  I loved reading about how Alex prosecuted the perpetrators of sex crimes.  Fairstein is at her best when she offers the reader these informative, fascinating inside peeks at this type of work.  However, she has a tendency to slip into an unnatural didactic style at times.  At one point, Alex is flying with her detective friend Mike to Martha’s Vineyard and Alex describes all seven towns of the island to him as if she were reading from a travel brochure.  It was boring and unnecessary.

I didn’t really warm up to Alex Cooper, to be honest.  As a prosecutor she was great, but her personal side was harder to like.  I couldn’t identify with her love of fine clothes and perfume and expensive lifestyle.  Her failure to pick up on some threats is common in the genre, but still doesn’t reflect well on the protagonist.  Still, I appreciated that Fairstein gave her protagonist a good network of friends, and a number of them are not in her line of work.  So many leads in mysteries are lone wolves or are only friends with fellow law enforcement officers or lawyers.  So the fact that Alex has friends that she keeps up with is refreshing.

The mystery did keep me guessing though others may figure it out sooner than I did.  I will continue to read this series as I really did like the description of Alex Cooper’s job and the cases she handled.

Other reviews:

Confessions of a Bibliophile

Intersecting Sets

Jen’s Book Thoughts

Tales of a Book Addict

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The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott

1825. 358 pages. Hardcover. Dodd, Mead & Co.

From: University Library

For the challenge: Read 19 books older than myself

In a nutshell:

Set in the time of the Crusades (circa 1191), The Talisman primarily follows the travails of a Scottish knight, Sir Kenneth.  Due in part to the extreme illness of King Richard, the European allied armies have established a temporary  peace with Saladin, the Sultan leading the Muslim forces.

The story opens as Sir Kenneth travels alone in a desert.  He soon encounters another lone fighter, an Emir from Kurdistan and they battle.  When each recognizes the other as a worthy adversary, they declare a truce between them.  Sir Kenneth is on his way to see a hermit in Jordan and the Emir offers to show him the way.  Thus begins an adventure that will involve disguises, dastardly villains, trickery, romance and a climactic duel.

Review:

The Talisman is a straight-out old-fashioned adventure tale – I think the word “rollicking” would be an appropriate adjective.  There’s a real cinematic quality to the book: I could see the action unfolding clearly in my head as if it was on a movie screen.  I’d never read Sir Walter Scott before, but the man knows how to lay out a scene.  Here is a spoiler-free excerpt from the climactic joust scene:

The silence of suspense was now general: men breathed thicker, and their very souls seemed seated in their eyes, while not a sound was to be heard save the snorting and pawing of the good steeds, who, sensible of what was about to happen, were impatient to dash into career.

The characters are well-drawn and distinct and even the minor characters all add to the story in some way.  For example, the Duke of Austria is continually followed around by two attendants: a sayer of sayings, who says wise and poetic words, and a jester.  The two play off each other to hilarious effect.

Indeed, one thing I didn’t expect in The Talisman was the humor.  I laughed out loud several times.  At one point, King Richard’s faithful friend, Thomas de Vaux, is unsure whether they should accept Saladin’s offer of his personal physician to treat the ill King.  (Saladin was much admired by King Richard.)  de Vaux consults the Archbishop of Tyre about the matter, and the Archbishop launches into an explanation of how even ‘infidels’ may be used by God for the service of Christians.

“Again, Jews are infidels to Christianity, as well as Mohammedans.  But there are few physicians in the camp excepting Jews, and such are employed without scandal or scruple.  Therefore, Mohammedans may be used for their service in that capacity – quod erat demonstrandum.”

This reasoning entirely removed the scruples of Thomas de Vaux who was particularly moved by the Latin quotation, as he did not understand a word of it.

p. 113

A praise often given to current historical novels is that they are well-researched.  This is not that sort of historical novel.  Sir Walter Scott assumes that his readers already know the history of the Crusades and is not interested in retelling the details of that history.  Rather, Sir Walter Scott was taken by the contrast and similarities between King Richard and Saladin and decided to take that impression of historical figures and run with it.  As for staying true to history, Scott says in his introduction:

One of the inferior characters introduced was a supposed relation of Richard Coeur-de-Lion – a violation of the truth of history, which gave offence to Mr Mills, the author of the History of Chivalry and the Crusades, who was not, it may be presumed, aware that romantic fiction naturally includes the power of such invention, which is indeed one of the requisites of the art.

Basically: yeah, I made things up because it’s, you know, fiction.

The cross-cultural interactions between the European characters and various Muslim characters are entertaining.  Though I wouldn’t trust Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century perspective of the Muslim characters to be complete or accurate,  his depiction seemed respectful, by and large.  I loved how Scott had the Emir poke fun at the excesses of European chivalry, especially that tradition’s tendency to place women on pedestals.  The Emir observes that the woman Sir Kenneth loves would “when pressed by opportunity and a forward lover . . . thank him for treating her as a mortal than as a goddess.”

Some of the ending revelations come off as a little too convenient, but these overly neat plot turns were soon counterbalanced by the tartness of a villain getting his due in a dramatic fashion.  I was very content when I closed the book.

So, in sum, I really enjoyed The Talisman and I will definitely be reading more Sir Walter Scott in the future.

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Snow Blind by P. J. Tracy

2006. 311 pages. Hardcover. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Thriller and Suspense

In a nutshell:

In this fourth book of the Minnesota-based Monkeewrench series, the corpses of two cops are found disguised as snowmen in a park.  When a third body similarly staged is found in the rural upstate region, it seems it might be a serial killer case.

Minneapolis detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth head up the investigation in the Twin Cities, with the assistance of the close-knit tech wizards – the Monkeewrench gang.  The story also pulls in Iris Rikker, the inexperienced new sheriff of the county where the third body is found.

Review:

Plot-wise, Snow Blind is not as thrilling, edge-of-your-seat as the first three of the Monkeewrench series.  Even so, it is still satisfying and twisty.  The detectives are thrown by some unexpected moral complexity.

I really liked the new character of Iris Rikker.  At first, her inexperience is frustrating as you want this beleaguered new sheriff to instantly find her feet and prove her naysayers wrong.  But it doesn’t work quite like that and I like how P. J. Tracy gradually revealed the truth of Rikker’s position.  I also liked how you can’t tell whether her Sheriff Lieutenant, Lt. Sampson, is going to be her ally or detractor.  I hope that Rikker shows up in later books, just as I hope for the return again of Wisconsin detective Mike Halloran and deputy Sharon Mueller.

Strangely enough, the characters that make up the Monkeewrench gang are not my favorite part of the Monkeewrench series.  The authors have fun describing their quirks and clothing choices and their tech wizardry, but it’s always the cops that I want to read more about.

In any case, Snow Blind continues what is a fun thriller series by the mother-daughter team that is P. J. Tracy.  I look forward to the next book, Shoot to Thrill.

Edited to add other reviews:

Aspi’s Drift

Chadzilla ROARS!!!

Confessions of a Book Habitue

disorganized, as usual

Raspberry Latte: The Bookworm’s Book Review

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