Monday, March 23, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm

This book, by Stella Gibbons, reminded me a little of I Capture the Castle, in that it was written/is set in England in the 1930s and has some wonderfully witty writing fun. And apparently this one is considered a "classic" even though I had never heard of it before. I actually picked it up at the library because the cover was so much had pictures of "a few of the people you'll meet" such as "Aunt Ada Doom: saw something nasty in the woodshed," "Adam: washes dishes with a twig," and "Seth: a prime specimen of manhood," as well as the famous cows, Feckless, Graceless, Aimless, and Pointless. My favorite was an illustration of a "Scrantlet...Probably something to plow with?!?" And James made me read him the cover of the book every night before bed, because he thought it was so funny....although that might have to do with the special voice I have to use to read a line like "Amos Starkadder: THERE'LL BE NO BUTTER IN HELL!!!" ;)

So the book was fun to read. I didn't connect with it in the same way as I Capture the Castle, but that was sort of the point. This book is all about not letting people wallow in their silly misery, and using your common sense to quit the ridiculous. I loved the writerly jokes. Great fun. And BONUS! The introduction was written by Lynne Truss, who I am finding everywhere these days. I loved her article about how fiction writers don't need to travel to all the places they write about because *gasp* they might be able to use their imaginations!

All in all, recommended, but only if you like writers poking fun at themselves and at language use and one of my old favorites, P.G. Wodehouse. Get my drift? If not, I'll keep snowing.*

*A line from his Uncle Dynamite...also highly recommended!

Savannah Blues and Little Bitty Lies

These are both by Mary Kay Andrews. I enjoyed her books Deep Dish (a light romance about two southern chefs) and Savannah Breeze (a romance with a mystery edge). But these two are earlier writings and I just didn't like them as much. Actually, I quit Lies before I finished it. And Blues is sort of a precursor to Breeze, but from reading Breeze I had expected a lot more details about why exactly Daniel (the main male character of Blues....sort of) was so great and why he had such a great connection with the lead female, but they were just not there. So eh. But her later books were much more enjoyable for me.

And sorry I've been lagging behind in the book reviews. This cold I had was bad that I ALMOST DIDN'T FEEL LIKE READING. Yeah. Crazy bad cold. So. Hopefully I'm out from under it...mostly. Let the reviews begin! =)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Lady and the Unicorn

This is a book by Tracy Chevalier, the author of Girl With a Pearl Earring. I have never before been brave enough to pick up a Chevalier after watching the movie version of GWPE. I just hated it, so even though I got the impression that the book was quite different from the movie, I couldn't bring myself to try it and be scarred, again.

However, I am SO glad I got over my phobia. I devoured The Lady and the Unicorn, read it in one sitting yesterday afternoon, so I think I might give her other books a try. I'm not sure if they all follow this pattern, but the above two take as their starting point a famous work of art. This one is about a set of tapestries made somewhere around 1500. It is the author's imagining of the circumstances and lives surrounding the creation of these tapestries, and it is compelling writing.

To be fair, I must admit that it was hard to get started on this book. Not only was I fearful, but I disliked the first narrator enough to be worried that I would dislike the book. I skimmed forward and was relieved to find that he was not the only narrator, and the story turned out to be quite enjoyable. Thank heavens, because if it was as bad as the movie version of Girl With a Pearl Earring, I think I would've had to shoot myself in the foot just to take my mind off the misery. ;)

Good Harbor

I was hesitant to pick up this book, by Anita Diamant. I'd read her other work of fiction The Red Tent...gosh, many years ago, and mostly enjoyed it, but for some reason, I thought Good Harbor was going to be some sort of tragedy, and also that it was set in the 1920s. Don't ask; I just don't know.

Anyway, it's actually about a friendship that develops between two middle-aged women in the present day. It's about some things that happen to them, but mostly it's about the nature of friendships, of women's friendships, and of the ties that hold people together. I liked it a lot. The only part I didn't like was some of the Patrick stuff, but that's mostly because I feared that was going to turn into a great tragedy, and I was quite relieved with where the author took that storyline. A Good Read.

Prince Caspian; The Magician's Nephew

Obviously, I've been reading more of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

So, I read Prince Caspian, and I was kind of sad, because I didn't remember a bit of it. And because I ultimately didn't connect with it. Maybe I read it too fast; maybe I should have read it aloud to James for a bedtime story or something. But the way things went, it just seemed like the characters didn't have enough time to develop, and I didn't feel like it was a FULL story, whatever that may mean. There was too much going on, the reader was taken in too many directions, so that by the end when the Pevensies are, I think the quote was something like "saying goodbye to their old friends," I sort of thought, wait a minute, what old friends? Oh, I guess the people they've met this time around, but they haven't known them very long or really formed a good friendship. So. Eh. Still a fun story, probably, but at the bottom of the Narnia stories for me so far.

The Magician's Nephew, which I for some reason thought was going to be boring, turned out to be the one that was my favorite as a child. It's about the beginning of Narnia, Narnia's Creation story, as it were, and it was such a pleasure for me to rediscover it. There is such a joy in reading a book that you read as a child, and LOVED, and forgot, in re-awakening to its joys and remembering the things you loved about it. I'm not sure how good the book really is, though; only that I loved it as a child and love it again now. There is something wonderful about the Wood Between the Worlds and in watching the creation of a world and that whole thing that really captured my imagination. I'm so glad I finally cracked this one open.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Agnes and the Hitman

This book, the second collaboration between Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, is quite a departure from the last I read. This was sort of a fluffy romance-action combo, if that makes any sense. I liked the first they did okay, but really I love the Crusie parts of them. I feel like I should probably read a Bob Mayer book to get a better sense of what part of the collaboration is his, because it seems to me like a Crusie book, only the leading male character has to be some sort of Armed Forces hero type, and there has to be a little more shooting (but not much). So hm.

Anyway, back to the story. It's about a woman (unsurprisingly named Agnes) who gets a series of dognappers and then hitmen coming at her. Along the way, her Mob-connected friend Joey brings in his (secret federal agency-employed sexy and tank-truck-like) nephew to protect her. There are a whole host of kooky characters and interesting twists, like you'd expect from Crusie, and there's early, unsentimental...relations between characters, which I'm guessing might come from the guy's input, although the scene's writing style is definitely Crusie.

I liked the book but I'd probably be careful who I recommended it to, especially because of the one part I didn't like much, which is that a lot of people died. And I'm not a big fan of the way people die in action books/movies, where it's completely peripheral and No Big Deal and the story doesn't even pause for breath as someone fairly important is mown down. But if you can ignore that kind of thing, it's a fun read. I always like Crusie's writing style, and Mayer doesn't slow her down much. Or maybe he adds to it, with the G. I. Joe characters. I'm curious to see what his writing's actually like so I can figure out how the heck these two got together to write books in the first place.

Monday, March 9, 2009


This is another Anna Quindlen. And I have to say I'm disappointed. I loved One True Thing, although I have to say I read it several years ago so I don't know what I'd think of it now, after so much of my life has changed...but the other books of hers I've read I just haven't connected with in the same way, they just haven't moved me the same way.

This book is about a baby who's dropped off at a large estate inhabited by an old lady, her housekeeper, and her groundskeeper. The groundskeeper takes it upon himself to raise the baby, and thus creates some changes for the old estate and for everyone involved in it. But the story was frustrating. I didn't like where it went or how it ended. I didn't understand the point of some of the storyline, and I didn't care at all about some of the supposed "mysteries" that were, in fact, not surprising at all. Just eh. I dunno.

I still like Quindlen's writing style. This was just not the book I wanted to read at this point. But then again, maybe in a few more years I'll feel differently about it.

Friday, March 6, 2009

I Capture the Castle

This book, by Dodie Smith, is one of my new all-time favorites. It was GREAT!

It's a book about a 17-year-old girl in England in the 1930s, about her family's poverty and then changing circumstances, and about her growing up emotionally. Cassandra, the main character, has got to be one of my favorite protagonists ever. Although our circumstances are wildly different, I could relate to her--she seemed like a real person. The only thing that ever seemed a little false was her naivete--and of course another character discusses her character flaw of being "consciously naive," so that was appropriate. The characters were all just so real to me. Great writing. And framing the book as Cassandra's journal worked wonderfully.

I loved the secondary characters as well, especially the stepmom. Charley at Bending Bookshelf said the same thing in her review. What a hoot! I definitely didn't expect to laugh out loud at this book, but I did. Here's one quote from the feeling-nostalgic stepmom I particularly enjoyed, from p. 111:

"Look, Mortmain, look! Oh, don't you long to be an old, old man in a lamp-lit inn?"
"Yes, particularly one with rheumatism," said father. "My dear, you're an ass."

Another passage (from p. 258-9) that I enjoyed had to do with Cassandra riding on the train with her dog:

"She behaved beautifully on the journey, except that after we changed into the London trian she took a little boy's cake away from him. I quickly thanked him for giving it to her and he took my word for it that he had meant to."

Yet another thing I loved about this book, that made it seem all the more real, is how Cassandra often mentioned famous female characters in other novels and thought about them in her day-to-day life...sound familiar? Because I think quite a few book-lovers I know could relate to that part! =) Here's one of the best "she's-so-literary" quotes, from p. 233:

"I never had madeira before and it was lovely--the idea almost more than the taste, because it made me feel I was paying a morning call in an old novel. For a moment I drew away from myself and thought: 'Poor Cassandra! No, it never comes right for her. She goes into a decline."

The author had a great sense of humor. So much fun! And the story itself just seems so timeless. As it must be, since this book was published in 1948. Highly recommended!

The $64 Tomato; Enslaved By Ducks; Marley and Me

These three books are all different--one on gardening, one on unusual pets, one on a particularly quirky dog--but they have an underlying theme, a very similar voice, if you will, so I decided to review them all together.

Well, that and I'm pressed for time. =)

Anyway. I got The $64 Tomato, by William Alexander, is ostensibly a memoir about a man's gardening experiences, which sounded like just what i need. But. It turned out to begin with a litany of complaints about the landscapers and the ditch-diggers and the lawn care guys and blah blah blah he's got a bunch of money and he pays people to do a bunch of crap I don't care about, NOT GARDENING. Then he turns to trying to grow pesticide-free apple trees, the conclusion of which was extremely frustrating to me. Let me sum up: "Theoretically I'm against pesticides, but I'm too lazy to research more that can be done, so I'll use them for myself so I can get apples. Ha ha ha, I was so naive to think I didn't need them." Gag me. So I stopped reading it. This one was obviously not my favorite.

Enslaved by Ducks, by Bob Tarte, has been on my reading list for a long long time, since I first saw it in a Chinaberry magazine. This guy somehow (mysteriously, according to him) got himself involved with a menagerie including 5 or 6 house birds, two cats, maybe 7 ducks, 3 bunnies (although not at once) and maybe a few others. They're all neurotic and demanding and do silly things. The book, however, didn't keep my interest as I hoped it would. It was mildly funny. It was interesting in that I learned some things about ducks that I didn't know, and about being cautious and prepared when choosing what breed of animal you would like. But yeah. Just not nearly as great and heartwarming and laugh-out-loud funny as I had heard, and hoped.

But Marley and Me (by John Grogan)? It was everything I just mentioned Ducks wasn't. I laughed out loud a million times. I cried at least twice. I just loved it. I think that's because it has so much more about the man's family and real life in it than the other two, where family plays a more peripheral role. I obviously care a lot more about family and babies and puppies than about budgies and parrots and malathion*, thus the progression of favor these books found with me. Tomato bad, Ducks okay, Marley good. And there you have it.

As for the similarities, I honestly thought the same guy could have written all three books, so similar was the flow of the narrative and the vocabulary and expressions used. Books by middle-aged guys in which they reflect back on their naivete and complain a lot and try to be funny are apparently popular right now. Just be aware that some of them are faaaaaaaaaaar superior to others. And, to be fair, that that might depend on where you are in your own life journey, and what things you value. Duh.

*Okay, maybe I do care about malathion. But in a very different way than the author did. Yuck.

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, and The Horse and His Boy

These, of course, are two of C.S. Lewis' famous Chronicles of Narnia. I picked them up after recently watching the first movie, which was decent enough. My father read me these books when I was a child, and I never read them myself, so decided it was time. I think they're lovely, dashing adventure books, although I wonder a little how I'll feel about the violence and death when my own child reads them.

And of course, as others have pointed out, the second book has some very racist themes in it--all about how the North is so much better than the South, which, in description, sounds suspiciously like the Middle East, and I've heard it was meant to represent Turkey. But the girls in the books tend to be somewhat smarter than the boys, and especially Aravis from the second book is a great lead character.

Generally quite good. Great fantasy and adventure.