Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Serpent's Tale

Book No: 23
Title: The Serpent’s Tale
Author: Arianna Franklin
Genre: Historical Mystery
Completed: 5/26/09
No. of Pages: 371
Rating: 3.5/5*****

The Serpent’s Tale returns us to 12th century England and all of the plotting and intrigues of Henry II and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Adelia Aguilar, introduced to readers as The Mistress of the Art of Death in the first book in the series, is living a quiet life in the fens when she is once again summoned by the King to employ her skills to learn who has murdered his mistress. Eleanor is the main suspect and in order to avoid a civil war Adelia joins forces with Rowley Picot, now a Bishop, but also Adelia’s former lover and father of her infant daughter. Taking along her trusted servant Mansur and Gyltha, her friend and nursemaid, Adelia once again uses her knowledge of the sciences to find a murderer.

This book starts out extremely well with the intriguing prologue that lets us know that there is an assassin at work and an extremely clever one at that. The scenes involving the labyrinth where Rosamund Clifford, the King’s mistress, lived and died are creepy and set a very eerie tone to the start of the story, but a lot of that dark suspense is lost when the tale moves onto to the snowbound convent that Adelia and her party are isolated in during a blizzard and where the body count is rapidly rising. This part of the story seemed to drag on a little too long.

A lot of the things that made “Mistress’ such a great read aren’t present here. The mystery is not as complex, there is not enough of Mansur and there is almost none of the romance between Rowley and Adelia that made the first book so much fun. That said I find Franklin’s writing very accessible and love all the historical details she provides. I am not a purist when it comes to historical fiction and don’t mind some of the liberties taken with historical facts, I do appreciate the notes included by the author at the end, which clarifies some of the liberties taken.

Overall I found this to be an entertaining read and a nice blend of historical fiction and forensic mystery. I’m looking forward to book three in the series Grave Goods.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Book No: 22
Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Author: Alan Bradley
Genre: Mystery
Completed: 5/20/09
No. of Pages: 373
Rating: 4/5*****

Ladies and Gentleman meet Flavia Sabina De Luce, the most precocious, obnoxious and at times funniest eleven year old you will ever have the pleasure to meet. It’s 1950, England and Flavia lives in her slightly rundown estate Buckshaw. Surrounded by an eccentric cast of characters, her family and extended family/staff, Flavia spends most of her time in her chemistry laboratory, a leftover from one of her ancestors who died in the lab 20 years earlier. Untouched since then it has become Flavia’s escape from her two sisters, who barely tolerate her existence and her father who rarely acknowledges her. When Flavia discovers a body in the cucumber patch one night and her father is arrested for murder Flavia decides to solve the crime.

This book was a cross between I Capture the Castle and Nancy Drew. Mixing murder, kidnapping, magic and stamp collecting it was a clever mystery with a truly original protagonist. Flavia knows her way around poison, it may be risky to have tea with her. She has an appetite for revenge on the sisters who largely ignore her, including one delicious little bit including lipstick and poison ivy. At times you don’t know whether you want to shake her or give her a hug. Trust me by the end of the book you will be a little in love with Flavia and looking forward to another one of her adventures.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

John Adams

Book No: 21
Title: John Adams
Author: David McCullough
Genre: Biography
Completed: 5/19/09
No. of Pages: N/A
Rating: 5/5*****

Most school children probably know John Adams was the second President of the United States, in between the more lauded George Washington and Thomas Jefferson; they probably also know that he was married to Abigail Adams, was the father of John Quincy Adams, the sixth President and that he signed The Declaration of Independence. For most of us that would be the sum total of our knowledge of one of our Founding Fathers. David McCullough has stepped in to reacquaint us with this fascinating portrait of Adams and his life, including his considerable role in the founding of this nation.

Written in a very enjoyable and easily read style, this biography is well researched and full of detail about much of Adams' life as a country farmer, revolutionary, diplomat to the courts of France and England emissary to Holland and eventual rise to the Presidency of the fledgling nation. McCullough tackles the often prickly relationship between Adams and Jefferson, a lifelong friendship that had many ups and downs. Using many of the letters written between Adams, Jefferson and his many friends and relatives, the story that evolves is that of a man who was clear in his convictions, often stubborn and just as often brilliant. Almost all of his life was devoted to public service, often sacrificing his own pleasures in his family and home, enduring years of separation from Abigail and his children.

For me the most enjoyable parts of this book involved the relationship and obvious love and respect between Abigail and John. Quite clearly she was his bedrock and as they often addressed one another in their correspondence they were each other's `dearest friend'. Abigail Adams was a remarkable person, enduring many hardships as a woman alone in New England, raising a family and keeping the home running smoothly during some harrowing times and hardships. She was truly the great woman behind a great man.

I came away from this book with a genuine admiration for the sacrifices made by Adams, and many of the other patriots and a thirst to read and learn more about this fascinating time in our American history, in particular some of Adams own writings, starting with his letters to Abigail. I recommend this book very highly to anyone interested in learning about one of the men who helped establish some of the very freedoms we cherish in this country.

Monday, May 11, 2009

It Sucked and Then I Cried

Book No: 20
Title: It Sucked and Then I Cried
Author: Heather Armstrong
Genre: Memoir
Completed: 5/11/09
No. of Pages:
Rating: 3/5*****

I had never heard of Heather Armstrong prior to reading this book, I’ve never been to her blog and had no idea what was. I do however enjoy books written by women who look at life with a lot of humor and a slightly skewed view of the world, Jen Lanacster, Laurie Notaro, and Chelsea Handler to name a few. So when I read the description of this book, a funny look at pregnancy, birth, motherhood and postpartum depression, all things I have dealt with, I felt sure it would be right my alley. In the end I was disappointed.

There are a number of good things in this book, some laugh out loud moments. Her descriptions of pregnancy and the alien inside your body were extremely funny and her depiction of labor was right on target. Heather’s love of her daughter shines through on every page and the lovely letters she writes to her throughout the book were very sweet and poignant.

There were a number of not so good things in this book too. For one thing it reads just like blog postings, which apparently is where many of the stories in this book originated. There were far too many descriptions of poop and boobs, and way, way too many CAPITAL LETTERS and I grew tired of feeling like I was being screamed at. The post partum depression seemed glossed over a bit, in that it didn’t seem so terrible at times, not worse than many people have dealt with and then suddenly she is in a mental hospital, where she spends four days and comes home all better. It seemed very rushed and although I felt her pain it seemed to happen in a blink of an eye.

I believe Ms. Armstrong has a talent for writing and taking on a subject like the difficulties of motherhood and making you read it and nod your head in agreement, even when she is being way over the top. I would like to see her write an actual book and not just a rehash of her blog entries. I also think that for those looking for a book on postpartum depression Brooke Shields book Down Came the Rain would be far more informative.

True Colors

Book No: 19
Title: True Colors
Author: Kristin Hannah
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 5/7/09
No. of Pages: 343
Rating: 3.5/5*****

Kristin Hannah’s books are some of my favorite reads, focusing on women, family, friendship and what I suppose is often labeled chick lit or women’s fiction.

True Colors centers on the three Grey sisters, Winona, Aurora and Vivi Ann, sisters who have a special relationship because their mother died when they were young and they have been each others closest allies and friends since then. When Vivi becomes engaged to Luke, whom older sister Winona is secretly harboring a long time crush on, the sister’s loyalty to one another is put to the test. A murder tears the family apart as one sister turns her back on the other. Over the next sixteen years a fragile peace will be forged between the three, until questions are raised about the murder, reopening old wounds as one sister tries to atone for her betrayal.

I have to admit that I had a little trouble getting into the story at the start, as the three women seemed written as stereotypes, the fat sister struggling to prove she is good enough, the middle sister trying to keep the peace and the oh so perfect beautiful young sister who seems to sail through life. Although it took a while for me to warm up to the story once I became involved with the characters the pages began to fly, especially the last third of the book. My biggest quibble is with the father of the Grey girls- there seemed to be no depth to him and I would have liked a deeper look into why he was the way he was.

As usual Hannah knows how to tug at the heartstrings and sometimes I felt a little manipulated, but all in all I enjoyed the story, was happy with the ending and look forward to another book in the near future.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Help

Book No: 18
Title: The Help
Author: Kathryn Stockett
Genre: Fiction
Completed: 4/27/09
No. of Pages: 464
Rating: 5/5*****

From the first paragraph of this book I was captivated by the story of “The Help”. Set during the very early years of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s this is the story of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan a privileged young white woman and her slow awakening to the injustices heaped upon the black people of her community. When she decides to write about the maids of her town she finds two allies in Aibileen and Minnie, maids who are good enough to raise and care for the white children of their employers, but are made to use their own outdoor bathrooms. The book is told in alternating chapters of the differing viewpoints of these three women.

When reading books set in this time frame the vernacular of the blacks of that time period can often come off as almost comical if not done well, but Ms. Stockett manages to keep the tone and cadence just right. The development of Skeeter from a naïve and sometimes insensitive girl into a morally responsible and aware woman of the sixties was also nicely depicted. The description of the first time Skeeter hears a song by Bob Dylan is priceless; I identified with her reaction having felt much the same when I first heard Dylan.

The stories of Aibileen and Minnie, two women who deal with prejudice and discrimination every day, but still hold their heads high really tugged at my heart, even though they both dealt with things in very different ways. I really came to care for these women and their struggles. I was so sorry when I came to the last page of this book; I wanted it to go on so I could spend more time with all of “The Help”.

This is Ms. Stockett’s debut novel and I am already anxiously awaiting her next book, I hope it won’t be too long.