Monday, January 19, 2009

Firefly Cloak by Sheri Reynolds

Book No: 2
Title: Firefly Cloak
Author: Sheri Reynolds
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 1/16/08
No. of Pages: NA-Audio
Rating: 3/5*****

Sheri Reynolds is the author of one of my all time favorite books The Rapture of Canaan. I was looking forward to Firefly Cloak and am sorry to say I was disappointed.

When Tessa Lee Birch was 9 years old her mother abandoned her and her 3 year old brother Travis, leaving them at a campsite with the phone number of their grandparents written in magic marker on Travis’ back. The only item Sheila leaves behind is a cloak decorated with embroidered fireflies, which Tessa Lee wraps herself in.

Skip ahead seven years and Tessa Lee has run away from the home she had been living in with her grandmother Lil, in search of her mother who has been seen working at a nearby boardwalk amusement park. When Tessa confronts her mother, and tells her something terrible has happened, Sheila denies being Tessa Lee’s mom and disappears once again. Returning home Tessa Lee must come to face some hard truths about her mother and face the loss of her mother, her grandfather and ultimately Travis.

The story had a lot of promise, looking at abandonment, death, addiction and family ties, forgiveness and redemption. The problems with the tale begin with the characters. Tessa Lee is 16 yet at times thinks and says things more appropriate for a 10 year old, perhaps to show that part of Tessa is still that little girl that Sheila deserted, but it just didn’t ring true. The next problem is Sheila, a character I had no sympathy for. Reynolds does not shy away from the terrible things drug addiction can do to her a person, yet I never felt anything for this woman except pity tinged with disgust.

I enjoyed Lil, Sheila’s mom and Tessa Lee and Travis’ grandmother, a strong woman, set in her ways, yet starting to change her stern outlook on life and someone who would do anything to help Tessa Lee and Sheila too. The mystery of what happened to Travis was dragged out a little too long and the ending of the book was littered with coincidences so in the end it was just an average book, lacking that spark that made The Rapture of Canaan so wonderful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Book No: 1
Title: Coraline
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fantasy
Completed: 1/06/09
No. of Pages: N/A-Audio
Rating: 4/5*****

What a creepy little story; written for children it’s a fantasy tale adults will enjoy it too.

Coraline has moved with her parents into an old house that has been divided up into several flats. She is happy to spend her days exploring outside and meeting her new neighbors. On a rainy day with nothing to do Coraline explores her flat, and discovers a door that opens upon a brick wall. Her mother explains that it was closed up when the house was divided. Fascinated by this door Coraline decides to explore it one day when her dad is too busy working and her mom has gone shopping. Only this time when she opens the door it opens on a flat that is the mirror image of her own. Things seem a lot more fun on this side of the door, everyone is nicer to her, her room is prettier, everyone says her name correctly and even the food is tastier. Except for one problem, Coraline’s other mother and other father don’t seem to want to let her go back home to her real parents. They want to keep her forever and make her their own little girl. Worst of all they don’t have real eyes, just shiny black button eyes.

Lots of creepy little things that go bump in the night populate this book. But the best part of the book is Coraline herself. She is brave, even when she is most afraid; and above all she is clever. She is going to need all of that bravery and all of her brains to get herself back home because her real parents have disappeared and Coraline is the only one who can save them.

I can see my children really loving this book when they were younger. It’s full of lots of creepy rats, spooky mirrors and mysterious basements, trap doors and a mean ‘witch’. It’s also got a lot of humor in it. It reminded me a lot of Roald Dahl’s darker children’s books and my girls adored them. It might be a bit scary for really young children but most kids and adults will love it.

Going ahead into 2009

For 2009 I am making minor changes in my blog. I'm no longer going to place pictures with my reviews, simply because it's time consuming and is duplicating the pictures that are already on the Shelfari book shelf on the left hand side of the page. I will keep posting the reviews here, although they are also on the book shelf just to allow people to comment on them directly. I have enjoyed my first attempt at keeping a blog, although I'm not too technically disposed, hopefully I can keep it going for this year.

Hope you enjoy!

Summing Up 2008, A Year of Reading

2008 has ended up being just about my best year of reading, simply because of the sheer number of books I read and listened to:

Summary: 93 Total
Books Read: 73
Audio Books: 20
Total Pages Read: 25,882
Total Hours Audio’s Read: 222
Average Pages per Book: 355

I read some great books, and hit a few clunkers on the road. My Top Ten books of the year:

Love Walked In by Marisa De Los Santos
Belong to Me by Maria De Los Santos
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck
The Nature of Monsters by Clare Clark
The Meaning of Night: A Confession by Michael Cox
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by M. Shaffer & A. Barrows
Billy Collins Live by Billy Collins
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

With the exception of Michael Connelly, who is a perennial favorite, each and every one of these is a new to me author, and that is always so exciting to find new authors to share journeys with. These author's cover a variety of genres- contemporary fiction, historical, fiction, memoir, mystery, legal thriller and - who would've guessed? - poetry. I reviewed each of the books, both here and at Shelfari, so please take a look and see if you might enjoy these books also.

Some of the not so great books I read this year:

The History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig
The Quickie by James Patterson
What I Was by Meg Rosoff

The first two I found the writing sorely lacking. What I Was was plain boring.

The biggest disappointment of the year was Dream When You're Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg. An all time favorite author of mine this book felt like a paint by number story with one of the worst endings ever.

I signed up for a number of challenges this year and of the ones I mentioned early in the year I completed only one, the Ontheporchswing challenge. It isn't that I didn't want to complete the challenges, it's that I discovered Shelfari and ended up doing various challenges there, all of them changing every few months. I believe these constantly changing and entertaining challenges are what drove me reading to such heights. So if you'd like some fun and varied challenges check out these Shelfari Groups:

Play Book Tag
The Challenged Reader
Author, Author

For trying to reach a reading goal:

100+ Book Challenge
50 Book Challenge

Also Ontheporchswing at Yahoo Groups is running a new challenge for 2009:

On The Porch Swing Reading Challenge 2009

I also moderate a book group on Yahoo called:

Book A Week

The title is self explanatory. Please note we close membership at the end of February 2009, and only accept new members again starting in January 2010.

So now onto 2009!

#93 - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Book No: 93
Title: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Author: Barbara Kingsolver
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2008
Obtained: 2008/Kindle
Completed: 12/31/08
No. of Pages: 400
Rating: 3/5*****

Barbara Kingsolver’s book details the year her family made the decision to move to their farm in Appalachia and live there full time, growing as much of their own food as possible and eating only locally grown or reared food items.

Filled with lots of information on the many ways big corporations have changed the way we consume foods this book was eye opening in many instances and filled with a lot of interesting information on the positives of eating local and or organic foods. I do try to eat organic produce, mostly because of the herbicide issue, but this book made me aware of many other valid reasons for making this choice.

So the question is why only a 3 star rating?
Well Ms. Kingsolver can sound awful preachy sometimes. There is almost smugness to her tone in describing her life choices. While I think growing your own food sounds pretty interesting, I doubt most of us have a farm waiting for us to move to, or that many of us can afford to just pull up roots, since we often have homes and jobs and don’t write books for a living. Also as much as buying locally sounds good, especially in a farming community, there are not always that many choices available. I know of one farmer’s market in my area and it is only open from late spring through fall. I also don’t can my own goods, bake my own breads, dig, plant, how , weed or reap my crops. I don’t have a greenhouse or root cellar, don’t raise chickens and turkeys. So while the overall concept may be interesting for many people it is often impractical. Also there is never much mention of just how back breaking farm work can be. I also find the waxing rhapsodic over the tobacco farmers of Virginia and the loss of their most profitable crops. It seemed a bit incongruous within the theme of most of the book. So although I did learn quite a bit and I do plan to try and eat more locally produced food I think I could have come to this decision without being made to feel that most of my lifestyle is somehow invalid.

#92- The Interpretation of Murder

Book No: 92
Title: The Interpretation of Murder
Author: Jed Rubenfeld
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2007
Obtained: 2006/Audible
Completed: 12/30/2008
No. of Pages: N/A
Rating: 4/5*****

A very inventive and gripping psychological thriller, The Interpretation of Murder interweaves real life events and characters with fictional ones to create an engrossing and entertaining historical mystery.

In 1909 Drs. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung came to New York City on their way to Clark University in Boston. They are met by Dr. Sratham Younger, a young proponent of Freud’s controversial theories. When a young woman is found murdered and a few days later a daughter of a prominent family is also attacked it becomes clear the cases are connected. The woman, Nora Acton, has no memory of her attack and has lost her capacity to speak. When Dr. Freud is consulted on the case he determines the case will be too time consuming for him and turns the case over to Dr. Younger, remaining only as Younger’s advisor.

This novel was very intricate with multiple plot lines and intersecting stories. Nothing is as it seems and Dr. Younger eventually joins forces with Detective Jimmy Littlemore in an attempt to solve the mysteries of the murder and the attack on Ms. Acton.

There is a lot going on in this book, and some of the storytelling felt a little flat. The final explanation was a little long and convoluted, but overall I enjoyed this tale very much. The descriptions of New York, from architecture to society life were so good the city seems a character in the story too. In particular I loved the character of Jimmy Littlemore and would enjoy seeing him in another mystery. I listened to this on audio and thoroughly enjoyed the narrator; he really brought the story to life.

#91 - March

Book No: 91
Title: March
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2005
Obtained: 2008/Paperbackswap
Completed: 12/29/08
No. of Pages: 280
Rating: 3/5*****

Most of us are familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s classic tale of Little Women. In that story the Little Women and their mother speak of their absent father, who only makes an appearance late in the book, when he returns from his ministry of troops fighting in the Civil War. Using this as a jumping off point Brooks writes the story of Mr. March and his story during that year he served the troops in Virginia.

I’m a big fan of Geraldine Brooks, I loved both Year of Wonders and People of the Book. I was therefore a little surprised that I did not love this Pulitzer Prize winning book. The story is not badly written, Brooks is an exceptional writer. The problem was the character of March, who appears to be generally na├»ve and a bit inept. I found the story of his courtship of Marmee unbelievable and the depiction of my beloved Marmee as a bit of a shrew hard to reconcile. The only time the story really came to life for me was when March is hospitalized (this is the illness mentioned in the original book) and Marmee comes to his bedside and the voice of the story changes to hers. Although not the Marmee I had always pictured, she still had more life and passion than March has throughout this book. In fact the only time I really felt anything for March was in the last chapter of the book when he is again reunited with his family. Although not the ending I hoped for it was the only time I felt any sympathy for his character.

I struggled to finish this book, it is a short 280 pages yet it took over a month for me to finish it, as I had no urge to pick it up between readings. A disappointment, but I will read more of Ms. Brooks books, since People of the Book was written after this and I loved it.

#90 - Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

Book No: 90
Title: Triangle: The Fire That Changed America
Author: David Von Drehle
Genre: Fiction
Published: 2003
Obtained: 2007/Paperbackswap
Completed: 12/28/08
No. of Pages: 340
Rating: 4/5*****

On a beautiful spring day, March 25, 1911 a little over 200 people went to work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. At 5:45 PM, just as everyone was getting prepared to go home a small fire began. Within moments the factory was an inferno. In less than 30 minutes 146 people died, almost all of them women between the ages of 14 and 30. Until September 11, 2001 it was the worst workplace disaster in New York history.

David Von Drehle does a masterful job in not only telling of the events leading up to this completely preventable disaster, it does a fantastic job of giving names and faces to many of the young women, almost all Jewish immigrants, and telling some of their background. He details much of the history of the ‘sweatshops’ of New York and the beginning uprising of the textile workers as they founded the ILWU, the machinations of Tammany Hall, New York’s corrupt patronage system.

Meticulously researched the book also details the ensuing trial and how this fire led to the fall of Tammany and changed workplace conditions for millions of workers. I also applaud his appendix, which lists every victim and gives them all a small biography. A fascinating look at a truly horrific event in New York history.

Monday, January 12, 2009

#89 - The Ghost Writer

Book No: 89
Title: The Ghost Writer
Author: John Harwood
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2004
Obtained: 2008/Paperbackswap
Completed: 12/13/08
No. of Pages: 369
Rating: 3.5/5*****

Gerard Freeman lives in a dull and typical suburban town on Australian’s southern coast, not far from the ‘dead heart’ desert. His mother is extremely overprotective, his father rather distant and absent. At ten years of age Gerard’s favorite time spent with his mother is when she tells him tales of her childhood growing up in the English countryside at her family home of Staplefield. One day while snooping through is mother’s possessions Gerard came upon a photograph of a beautiful woman. When his mother finds him she goes into a rage, beating Gerard and punishing him. It is not until things are patched over between them that Gerard realizes she never speaks of Staplefield again. Lonely and hungry for friendship Gerard begins a pen pal correspondence with a young girl named Alice, who lives in England. She has been in a terrible auto accident and is confined to a wheelchair. Over many years they form a written relationship that evolves into love. After his parents death Gerard decides to go to England to finally meet Alice and perhaps find the Staplefield home of his mother’s family. Is there some strange connection between Alice and his mother? What was it his mother had been so afraid of? And what secrets is Alice keeping?

This book should have garnered 5 stars. It has so many elements of the kind of ghost story I enjoy. There is a slightly deranged mother, a mysterious relative, a haunted house, and a very gothic tone to the story. There were smaller stories within the story, absolutely creepy ghost stories that added to the overall tone of the book. So what happened? The ending happened, an ending that I read two or three times over and am still not sure I understand everything that happened; up until that point the tension and sense of foreboding was palpable, the ending was a complete let down. I would definitely read another book by Mr. Harwood, I think he has a real flair for creating dark, brooding stories he just needs to work on his endings and tying all the loose threads more tightly together.

#88 - The Overlook

Book No: 88
Title: The Overlook
Author: Michael Connelly
Genre: Suspense
Published: 2007
Obtained: 2007/Paperbackswap
Completed: 11/28/08
No. of Pages: 225
Rating: 4/5*****

This is the 13th entry in the Harry Bosch series. While a much shorter version of his novels than usual, Connelly does his usual terrific job of snaring you and reeling you into the mystery so the pages fly by.

Harry is now in the Homicide Special Squad; a squad to handle cases that may be long running or have a special difficulty attached. With his new rookie partner, Ignacio Ferrras, Harry is assigned the case of Dr. Stanley Kent, who appears to have been murdered execution style. When it appears that radioactive material is involved the FBI as well as Homeland Security get involved in the case. Soon Harry is getting pushed out of the case, setting off a cat and mouse game between the various agencies. The government is only interested in the radioactive material and its ties to terrorists; Harry wants to solve the homicide. The appearance of a former flame of Harry's just adds to the intrigue.

A very fast read, I read it in one day and really enjoyed it, clever plotting and some surprise twists made for a good mystery. Also there is a phone number in the book and if you call it you get Harry Bosch's answering machine! Really!!

# 87 - The Last Queen

Book No: 87
Title: The Last Queen
Author: C.W. Gortner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 2008
Obtained: 2008/Audible
Completed: 12/9/08
No. of Pages: N/A
Rating: 4/5*****

Juana de Castile was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain. Under her parents rule Spain became a united Catholic Kingdom. Throughout history Juana has been known as Juana the Mad. Author C.W. Gortner tells this story in the form of Juana’s memoir and raises the possibility that she wasn’t mad at all.

Fourth in line to the throne, Juan’s real value to her family was through arranged marriage, creating ties with allies. A beautiful young woman she is sent to Flanders at the age of 16 to marry Archduke Philip, son of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. Ever dutiful she was terrified at what she would find when she met her husband. To her great surprise she fell very much in love with Philip the Handsome, as he was known, and he apparently with her. They have several years of what appears to be a good marriage, with Juana bearing several children. However Juana had a jealous side, and her rages and attacks upon women whom she believed to be sleeping with her husband are the beginnings of talk that she is insane.

When both Juana’s older brother and sister, and her sister’s young son die over a period of years Juana becomes the heir to the Spanish throne. With this unexpected turn of events her marriage to Philip begins to turn sour as he begins to lay the groundwork to take over her throne. Her father Ferdinand also has plans that do not include Juana ascending the throne. A woman was little more than a pawn in her father and or husband’s life and Juana was no exception to this rule. As machinations from both the men in her life surround her Juana tries to assert her independence, while her husband spends more and more time laying the groundwork to have her declared insane.

I loved reading this novel because it felt very real to me. Although a work of fiction it appears to be very well researched and the writing brings Juana to life. The political maneuvering by everyone is fascinating and the descriptions of Flanders, France, England and Spain provide an absorbing background to one of history’s saddest stories.

Was Juana of Castile mad? After you read this book you may wonder.