Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Seeing Redd (The Looking Glass Wars #2) by Frank Beddor

I was excited to get my hands on Seeing Redd so soon after finishing The Looking Glass Wars, but it left me a little disappointed. I had expected a book that had its own stories to tell, but its sole purpose seemed to be creating a path from book #1 to book #3.

Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. Alyss's relationship with Dodge develops--at an almost painfully slow pace--and all the plot and subplot complications get beefed up; the last book in the trilogy might be an edge-of-my-seat read. Poor Alyss is learning painful lessons about putting her queendom ahead of personal affections. (I love this flaw of Alyss's, because she really resists this.) Hatter Madigan is perhaps the most developed character; he has a lot to do, and it's not all for Wonderland.

But I missed being delighted by surprises. Redd returns (although her return is kind of entertaining) and Arch wants to take over Wonderland--overall, it's pretty predictable. Dodge is still obsessed with The Cat (who has only one life left). Redd still wants to kill her niece and re-take control of Wonderland, which begs the question: Will Redd and Arch gang up against Alyss or will any cooperative relationship between Redd and Arch form fall apart before it can be useful to either of them?

So, the trilogy loses some steam in the second book, but it definitely builds up complexities that will need to be ironed out in the third book. Final verdict of Seeing Redd: Good, but not fantastic.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Shakespeare assignment--for giggles

I was thinking about A Midsummer Night's Dream today when replying to another blogger's inquiry about which play to read next, and I remembered this grad school project for Shakespeare that involved interpretation of scenes. My group (which was about 4/5 of the class) decided to stage the cat fight scene (as we affectionately called it) in two settings: one on Oprah and one on Jerry Springer.

I'm sure you can tell who was in which group. I (in the leopard print) was Hermia and the guy in the fuzzy sweater was Helena.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Unforgettable: Sex with Kings by Eleanor Herman

When I was in grad school, a friend told me I would get a kick out of this book she was reading, Sex with Kings. And I really did. It was most edifying. In fact, I want to reread it, and I wouldn't mind owning a copy.

I'd never thought much about royal indiscretions, but I learned a lot about royal life (and loneliness) from Herman's book. And since reading this, I've heard a lot of references to famour mistresses, like Madame Du Barry, who is one of the most famous royal courtesans ever. As I recall, the book only covers some of Europe's kings and their mistresses, and it opens the path to more research for other scholars.*

Because it's a scholarly monograph, it does get a little repetitive; good for researchers who will read only a chapter or two, but not as much fun for casual readers who just sit down and read it cover to cover. The non-chronological jumping around makes it a little harder to keep track of which mistress goes with which king and the time frames of all the reigns, so I highly recommend keeping a little notebook to jot down names and years--it may sound like a little more work than you tend to do when reading, but such notes will be very helpful.

A must-read for you fans of Phillippa Gregory and other royalty-based historical fiction.

*Herman has also written Sex with the Queen, which I'm adding to my wishlist right now.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn by Alison Goodan

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is the story of a girl (Eona) who has to pretend to be a boy (Eon) in order to reach her potential as a Dragoneye--one of the wielders of the dragon power. To allow females into the arena of the dragons would be unthinkable.

As Lord Eon, Eona will form a symbiotic relationship (of not a friendship) with the realm's prince. The politics run hot--the emperor's brother makes no secret of his intent to overtake his brother's role (or nephew's, as the case may be) and the Ascendant Dragon (leader of the Dragoneyes) has his own vicious ambitions, which he puts above all else.

And poor Eon/Eona is just a girl pretending to be a boy, trying to become as much like a boy as she can, to quash everything feminine about herself. But pretending to be a boy only intensifies all the insecurities Eona would have felt as a young woman if she'd been allowed to be one. On top of all her doubt of her skills and her true nature, and how much she's actually faking everything, if she's found out, she (and everyone who may or may not have known about this secret) will be killed. And yet she still manages to be a strong female character. Yes, it's very Mulan-esque--the real story, not the Disnification of it.

And Eona's isn't quite the only gender delineation being smudged. Though most of the gender roles in this book are very 18th-century traditional, there is Lady Dela, a transgendered member of the emperor's court (a Contraire, a twin soul) who not only encourages a broadening of readers' minds (you can't help but like her) but provides Eon with a new perspective of gender.

I really liked this book. In spite of how predictable most of it was, I held my breath, I trembled in anticipation and anxiety, and I stopped reading for almost a whole day because I wasn't ready to be done.

Just to clear up any potential confusion if you go in search of this book, it's actually been published under three titles, depending on who published it: Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, The Two Pearls of Wisdom, and Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye. It's also been published in French. And they all have fabulous book covers.

These are all the same book--just so you don't accidentally buy your niece or daughter (or self) two or three different titles because you think they're different books.

I'm waiting to hear about a release date for the sequel.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Recipe Exchange revisited: Ravioli with Pumpkin Sauce!

For those of you who were interested in this Ravioli with Pumpkin Sauce recipe mentioned in the October 12 Recipe Exchange post, here you go. It's one of my favorite fall meals, but alas, I can't find frozen cheese ravioli anywhere in this town and the fresh stuff is pretty expensive. The recipe-makers used some light(*) or fat-free(**) options, but I don't bother unless I happen to have the low fat stuff on hand already.

One time I made this for a friend who was a super-calorie-counter and she got me to switch out the butter and just use some butter-flavored nonstick spray; for those of you who are super-calorie-counters, too, it worked pretty well.

Ravioli with Pumpkin Sauce
adapted from Eating Light, March 2003

1 bag (25 oz.)
1 T butter*
1 c finely chopped carrot
1 c finely chopped onion
1 c half-and-half**
29 oz. can pumpkin puree
1/2 t nutmeg
1/2 t salt
1/2 t pepper
1/2 c grated Parmesan

  1. While the ravioli water comes to a boil, melt butter in a saucepan (or skillet) over medium heat. Stir in carrot & onion; cover & cook 8 minutes, till soft but not browned.
  2. Stir in pumpkin puree, half-and-half, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer five minutes.
  3. Add the ravioli to the boiling water--cook according to directions. (My ravioli always took 3-5 minutes.)
  4. Add cheese to sauce, stir until melted. Serve sauce over ravioli.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I didn't finish Three Cups of Tea. It's been nine months since I started it, and now I'm absolutely sure I don't want finish it. (I'm about halfway through, and I wouldn't have even bought it to begin with had it not been a reading group selection.)

The story itself may be good, but the style of its telling could have been much, much better, and it's why I stopped. I found myself making the kinds of notes I'd make on a manuscript--e.g. word choice, fact check, this statement is in opposition to position three pages ago, this scene doesn't make sense because..., readers may find rhetorical questions unnecessary and annoying, etc.

Also, I think this book would have been much better written as a memoir. I was thrown by the fact that the book tells the story of one of the authors, but it's not written in the first person. Even with that said, though, I'm starting to shy away from memoirs written by or with the help of journalists. A lot of them just aren't good at creative nonfiction, and based on this book, I'd have to include Relin in that group.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

An undisciplined imagination is worse than no imagination at all. It can do more harm.

Did you know Lewis Carroll's Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum were based on the commander of Wonderland's royal army? That the Mad Hatter was not a milliner who had gone mad from the amount of mercury used to clean top hats, but that he was instead Hatter Madigan, the Queen's personal body guard? Yeah, me either. Indeed, I've never imagined Wonderland anything like this.

In The Looking Glass Wars, Beddor re-imagines Wonderland. Gone are all those movie-version Wonderlands in my head. Also gone are those movie Alices and Red Queens and White Queens and White Rabbit and purple-stripey Cheshire Cat... The Jabberwocky, though, might be pretty much the same.

The story opens on Princess Alyss Heart's seventh birthday (and will span through her adolescence to adulthood), a day which turns out to be a very bad day (to put it mildly) for all the residents of Wonderland, but especially Alyss, whose parents are both killed by her jealous and power-hungry Aunt Redd. To escape her aunt's homicidal intentions, Alyss has to dive into the world we know--the world where she eventually becomes Alice Liddell, who confides her story to Charles Dodgeson, better known these days as Lewis Carroll. (This story sent me to Wikipedia to find out just who Prince Leopold was, whether he was really interested in marrying Alice Liddell, and whether he was about to die in the pages of The Looking Glass Wars. I love books that make me look stuff up.)

Beddor's Wonderland is a place of singing flowers and whispering trees, but also a place of flesh-eating roses and genetically modified card soldiers. Nearly everything can take readers by surprise. But above all, it is a place where imagination reigns supreme. And which queen, Redd or White, has the best power of imagination?

If you're a fantasy reader haven't already enjoyed this ride, I strongly suggest you do so. Tomorrow I intend to be at my library checking out Seeing Redd.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Monster Blood Tattoo (Book One: Foundling) by D.M. Cornish

I kinda wish I hadn't read Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling as part of the reading marathon, because I think switching from Wintergirls to a steampunk(ish) Australian novel was a little demanding and I don't think I was able to throw myself into the story as much as I would have under normal circumstances.

Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling was one of the books that my friend Jo the Librarian added to my read-a-thon pile. The story is pretty familiar: peer-ridiculed orphan (with a girl's name) finds himself in unexpected situations and eventually discovers that he has a destiny (which may or may not involve a prophecy).

The book looks extremely hefty when it's sitting on a shelf or table, but a third of the book is an Explicarium (appendices, including a very handy glossary). And each chapter is headed with a relevant glossary term, which I greatly appreciated, especially before I discovered that the book was not, in fact, 434 pages.

Though the book got off to a rather slow start, by the time the foundling boards what readers will recognize as the wrong ship, you know everyone's in for one heck of a ride.

I really hope the library gets the second one (Lamplighter) in soon.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

A breath of steam trickles out, filled with the sobs of a grown woman breaking into girl-sized pieces.

Laurie Halse Anderson has for years been a favorite YA author amongst both adults and teens alike, and with excellent reason. Her characters are those who teens--especially girls--can understand, girls who are survivors of others' crimes or their own malicious webs, girls who develop their strength through the pages, through their own words.

Wintergirls is narrated by Lia, an anorexic girl whose former best friend died as the result of her bulimia. They were a team, Lia and Cassie, who motivated each other's unhealthy obsession with thinness, who had a pact to be the skinniest girls in school, even when they seemed close to realizing how dangerous/stupid it was:

I totally supported her. I looked up the names of docs and clinics. I e-mailed her recovery Web sites.

And I sabotaged her every step.
We danced with witches and kissed monsters. We turned us into wintergirls, and when she tried to leave, I pulled her back into the snow because I was afraid to be alone.
I love the care Anderson takes with her character's voice. The unconventional ways she clarifies Lia's obsession: "I eat ten raisins (16) and five almonds (35) and a green-bellied pear (121)(=172)." Or: "I can't see her see me now strong/empty/strong." And her obsession doesn't stop at counting calories, because now she's being haunted by Cassie, who called Lia before she died. 33 times.
Of course the main conflict in the book is internal, Lia vs. herself, but there's plenty of other drama in her life, too--her father and mother, long separated, don't get along. She doesn't get along with her mother (although she mostly gets along with her stepmother and loves her half-sister). And then there's Cassie's ghost to contend with (because even if she's just a figment of Lia's demented, starved head or not, she serves as a character in the book all the same).

If I were still teaching, I would have multiple copies of this on my classroom shelves, and I'd expect at least one copy to go missing every year for the first few years.

I'm very excited that my library finally got this on their shelves. (It was in the new arrivals section when I walked by. I think I happy-danced it all the way to the checkout counter.)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Never before had I known the sudden quiver of understanding that travels from word to brain to heart, the way a new language can move, coil, swim into life under the eyes, the almost savage leap of comprehension, the instantaneous, joyful release of meaning, the way the words shed their printed bodies in a flash of heat and light.
The Historian strives to marry the myth of the vampire Dracula with the life of historical figure Vlad the Impaler. The actions kicks off when the narrator, a teenage girl in the 1970's, finds a strange old book in her father's library--a book with blank pages and a woodcut dragon in the center. Everything that has been mysterious and incomplete in her life stems from this book--including the loss of her mother.

In geekish glee I found myself wading through this narrative of research, eager and amazed at the lengths academics--three generations of them in this story--will go to in order to seek complete answers to their questions. Where did this book come from? Who printed it? Where is the real tomb of Dracula? And is he actually in it?

Kostova does a wonderful job blurring the lines of real research with imaginary research. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Read To Me: The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

My husband has finished reading another book to me, and this time, he'd like to offer the review.

Readers expect a lot from a writer like Carlos Ruiz Zafón and The Angel’s Game will disappoint those who were first introduced to this wonderful story tellers magic in The Shadow of the Wind.

The Angel’s Game begins drawing readers into a Barcelona of the early part of the last century and somewhere around the middle, maybe just past halfway point, the threads of the tapestry taking shape become unraveled. Then, as if an attempted restoration takes place, only portions of the remaining work make sense--and not collectively. The characters remain the same but the story each is living in becomes disassociated with the original narrative and some characters drop away completely with unsatisfactory conclusion to their parts. Mostly there is an overuse of morte et motre extremis to prevent re-occurrence of characters.

I read the book to my wife over successive nights, and it wasn’t long before we were both hoping for the end. The tedious story should have ended but instead there is a flurry of minor characters suddenly becoming important.

I wonder if there is something lost in the translation by Lucia Graves. Certainly there would be much gained if a second edit were done to correct the grammatical phrasing that would put the subject, verb and other sentence parts in an order that would not fetter readability. Maybe if all the strands of incomplete characters, incoherent story lines and incompetent grammar are restored to their possible original luster, it will work.

I really wanted to like The Angel’s Game because I had enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind. My disappointment is extreme, yet I would be willing to give Carlos Ruiz Zafón another chance with whatever he produces next.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Real love was dangrous, it got you from the inside and held on tight, and if you didn't let go fast enough you might be willing to do anything for its sake.

Goodness, in their opinion, was not a virtue but merely spinlessness and fear disguised as humility.

I like Practical Magic. A lot. I'm enchanted by lines like, "Ben is so mixed up that he's begun to do magic tricks involuntarily. He reached for his credit card at the gas station and pulled out the queen of hearts." But I cannot unwind the book from the movie. Even knowing from my first reading (in January) that very little from the movie happens in the book, I still picture Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock and Aidan Quinn. And Goran Visnjic (even though we never even see Jimmy alive in the book--just his apparition in the garden).

One of my book group said she loved this book--until about halfway through. Then she was just ready to be done with it. (She hadn't seen the movie, so she had no expectations of the plot.) Halfway through was when I called it quits for the night (I'd begun it as my last book of the read-a-thon), and the second half seemed much slower the next day. I didn't mind the slowness of it, because Hoffman really developed the characters and they were good, interesting characters, but I still wanted more of the aunts.

I wish I'd read the book before I saw the movie (except that I really like the movie, and I don't think I would have liked the movie at all if I'd read the book first).

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

My husband is a huge fan of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, so I surprised him by requesting a copy of The Death of Bunny Munro for him to review.

Chick Lit this is not.

In the future, women describing the psyche of men will have a new cliché:’ “He's so Bunny Monro.”

Tragically, I myself fall into this category and believe that if left unchecked by spiritual grounding, some situational ethics and acceptable standards of morality, it would take little time for me to find myself thinking along Bunny Monro’s Cligulaian lines.

The Death of Bunny Monro is not a book designed for those who have a hard time looking at the side of themselves they would rather their mother did not know existed.

Bunny Monro is a door-to-door salesman for a product line marketed to women. His career path leads him to the doors of women of all walks of life and often Bunny uses the samples in his product case to massage his way further into the lives of customers and others he comes in contact with. Bunny is almost always bordering on a mindset kind people would simply call depraved.

That his wife kills herself is but one of the first insights readers get into realizing that the depravity of Bunny Monro is going to be paid for--first by those around him and as the title implies, ultimately Bunny Monro.

The introduction of Bunny’s young son, also Bunny Monro, and his sickly and equally perverse father, also Bunny Monro, had me wondering who would be the one who would die. Would it be the young boy, torn from his fathers callous but loving arms. Would it be the aged, sickly oafish prick of a father who would at last expire in a pool of excrement and spittle, while sitting in a chair whose compartments and between seat cushion spaces are filled with stratified food? Bunny Junior is weighted with the childhood responsibility of being the sane voice of reason in a world ruled by adults whose only claim to adultship is that they do not have to dress when someone else tells them to.

Many readers will relate to all aspects of the many manifestations presented and be pleased with the final outcome, as it appears to be just and true.

Women are presented in a variety of modes, sometimes even kindly, yet as a reviewer it is important to remind future readers that the worldview detailed by Bunny Monro is the exclusive domain of Bunny Monro, and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons or maybe "the person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself." (Ezekiel 18:20)

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Read-A-Thon: The One I Stopped Reading

During the Read-A-Thon, there was one book in my stack I started to read and then chose to stop reading: Sima's Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger Ross. I don't know if I would have liked this book had I pushed through, but I got to page 20 and thought, "You know, I don't want to read this."

The story seems to revolve around a middle-aged woman's flirtation/affair with a younger woman from another cultural background. I didn't feel like there was anything particularly new or interesting that was going to come from the story, and the narrator's voice grated on my nerves a little (though I can't remember why it had that effect on me, and I've already returned the book to the library).

At another time, in another place, I might've chosen to finish this book. But, as my friend Jo says, "It's just not a ride I want to take right now."

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Reviews coming soon!

I haven't forgotten or dismissed that I have yet to post reviews for the read-a-thon books--as well as a few others from before the read-a-thon. I just really want to finish The Historian before I do the reviews. Within a couple of days, reviews should begin to be posted. Thanks for your patience!