Thursday, January 27, 2011

To Shield the Queen by Fiona Buckley

One of a mysteries series set at Queen Elizabeth I's court. Ursula Blanchard, one of the Queen's Ladies of the Presence Chamber, is our spy and detective. This is the first book of the series and the only one I'll be reviewing, (although I've read and can recommend them all!) Ursula's recently lost her husband and she has very little family. She must support her young daughter and herself. She is asked by the queen's secretary of state to be a spy. She desperately needs the money, so she agrees. This is her first adventure.

General rating: 3 out of 4 (not all my criteria can really be applied to mysteries)--a fun and interesting series!

1. Plausible: well...our heroine is very modern. Is this realistic for the 16th century? And there were so many close shaves. But! That's kind of par for the course for mysteries. And the historical settings seem very plausible to me. Interesting as well!

2. Thought provoking. Yes, in the way that mysteries are.

3. Engaging. VERY. This is book one of an 8 book series. I devoured all 8 in a week. Not only is each mystery engaging, but Ursula's life altogether is very interesting. I am always eager to see what happens next to her.

4. Uplifting. Hm. Well, like I say about all mysteries, the bad guys were caught. And that's not depressing.

Language: no
Sex: mild and married (note: in A Pawn for a Queen, Ursula is forced into bed with a man not her husband. It's not graphic, but it's there)

My recommendation: I seem to have been reading a lot of historical fiction-type books lately, all set in England. The titles in this series are (in order): To Shield the Queen, The Doublet Affair, Queen's Ransom, To Ruin a Queen, Queen of Ambition, A Pawn for a Queen, The Fugitive Queen and The Siren Queen. They should be read in order because there are many little side stories that are progressive throughout the series. Ursula is intelligent and committed. In each book, we learn more about her character as she learns more about herself. I also love the glimpses of Queen Elizabeth (and many other historical characters) that we get. I feel like I'm being educated a bit as well as totally entertained. I've really enjoyed this series!

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

This was Ms. Didion's memoir of the death of her husband and her reactions to it.

General rating: 4 out of 4. A great book.

1. Plausible: Of course.

2. Thought provoking: yes, and touching too

3. Engaging: Very

4. Uplifting: yes

Bad language: a little bit
Sex: nope

My recommendation: I loved this book. I really loved it. It was full of beautiful things. I loved her honest, clear account of her feelings and her memories. I loved the stories about her family. I really liked her style of writing. I wonder if this book would be comforting to someone who has experienced the loss of a husband or a child or even a parent. It was a great book.

Listen to Your Heart by Fern Michaels

A rather silly romance. The back of the book sounded interesting. Not so much, though.

General rating: 1.5 out of 4. Total fluff and not even well-written fluff.

1. Plausible: Probably not. Lots of co-incidences.

2. Thought provoking: Uh, no. Well, the male lead makes a big life decision based on his heart rather than his head and his sense of duty. Is this thought provoking? No.

3. Engaging: Yeah, I think so.

4. Uplifting: It was a romance, happily-ever-after. That's not depressing.

Bad language: not so much (I can't remember any)
Sex: Yes. One love scene. I think. I'll refrain from soapboxing on that.

My recommendation: Sigh. I've not read Fern Michaels before. I didn't know this was a romance. The back of the book sounds like something else. I have learned, though, that Fern Michaels is a serial romance writer. This book felt very formula to me. The prose was choppy. It was very easy to read, though. Very quick. It was sweet, there was the requisite first attraction, conflict, heart-warming co-incidences, happy resolutions, marraiges all around. Does there exist an intelligent, principled, moral romance? I won't be reading Fern Michaels again.

Best in Beauty by Riku Campo

Subtitled, "An Ultimate Guide to Makeup and Skin Care Techniques, Tools, and Products" 'Nuff said.

General rating: Rating not really applicable in this case. It was a reference book. An interesting reference book.

1. Plausible: Of course

2. Thought provoking: Hm. Well, it's instructive in places. Does that count?

3. Engaging: Yes

4. Uplifting: More or less

None of my criteria really apply to this book.

Bad language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: It's informative. The tone is genuine and the instructions are easy to understand. New information? Not really. If you like make-up, there were some cool ideas. This book was quick and easy to read and there was some interesting stuff. If I were in my 20s I would buy it, put it on my shelf and consult it. I like all the make-up ideas. For young women. For anyone over 20? Not so much. Still, I liked it.

Precious Bane by Mary Webb

This book is considered a classic. It's the story of Pru Sarns who has a harelip--her "precious bane". It's really her telling of her own love story. With twists.

General rating: 4 out of 5. It's a really beautiful book, with some very sad parts.

1. Is it plausible? I suppose so.

2. Is it thought provoking? It really is. Pru describes her brother as "a strong man, which is almost the same, times, as to say a man with little time for kindness. For if you stop to be kind," she says, "you must swerve often from your path. So when folk tell me of this great man and that great man, I think to myself, Who was stinted of joy for his glory?" Very interesting idea. Among other interesting ideas.

3. Is it engaging? Yes, once I finally sat down with it, I read it all in one sitting.

4. Is it uplifting? Well... Pru's story ends happily. Virtually everyone else's life is, um...destroyed. The language is absolutely beautiful. Transporting in places. Pru's love interest in the book is a man among men. A wonderful person. Uplifting? I think that after a few reads under my belt--so I get used to all the sad parts--it could be considered uplifting. Surely Pru's point of view, her generous personality and her love is very uplifting. The rest of the story.... not so much.

Bad language: None
Sex: none. But! There is a modestly (and surprisingly!) erotic naked Venus scene. Yeah. And some premarital relations going on. All very low key. This book was published in 1924.

My recommendation: When I first finished this book I did not like it much. So many sad endings in it. But after some time and thought, I decided I did like it. Pru's point of view is steady, positive and uplifting. The prose is unique and is my favorite kind: it feels natural and flows like a dream. I was not distracted by the dialect, but some of my book club ladies were. Will I read it again? Hm. Maybe. I really want to like this book because a woman I love and admire LOVES this book. It is her favorite book. When she told me why, I could see it. So I think this book is very worth reading. Prudence Sarn is a beautiful character. Just look past the sad parts.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ark Angel by Anthony Horowitz

This review is by Isaiah, age 12.

This book is about Alex Rider, a 14-year-old spy, who has been forced to work for a British spy agency called MI6. He is currently investigating a Russian multi-billionaire for the CIA.

General rating: 3 out of 4, low grades in plausibility and not particularly uplifting.

1. Is it plausible? I guess so, once you get over a 14-year-old kid being a spy. And some of the other unbelievable stuff. I guess it's all really possible. The author says he did research to make sure all the stuff he writes about is possible.

2. Is it thought provoking? No

3. Is it engaging? Yes, very engaging. You don't want to put the book down.

4. Is it uplifting? Yes and no. Some people die, but in the end Alex gets the victory.

Language: some mild swearing
Sex: none

My recommendation: Ages 10 and up would enjoy this book. It's a good book, from my favorite series of books. I really like the idea of a teenage spy. The book is very gripping. Anthony Horowitz has a good sense of humor too. There are some things I don't like, such as some of the people who died were good, and there seem to be too many coincidences. But it's a good book to read and I really like the series.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

This is a book written for young adults. The protagonist is 9th grader Melinda Sordino. She has a secret that causes her pain, confusion and that makes her a social outcast at school. We see her find healing.

General rating: 3.5 out of 4. Not really uplifting, but meaningful and well written.

1. Is it plausible? Yes.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes. Quite.

3. Is it engaging? Yes, very much. You don't find out her secret until the middle of the book, for one thing. And even though she behaves badly, she is very lovable.

4. Is it inspiring? Not really. Not depressing, though.

Language: none
Sex: of a sort. Mom (or Dad), you'll want to read it first.

My recommendation: This, I think, is Laurie Halse Anderson's first book for young adults (she wrote a few childrens books before this one). I liked it. It was meaningful without being heavy handed. Having never had Melinda's experience myself, I can't say for certain, but it felt authentic to me, although I question the reality of EVERYONE ignoring her. Or was it that she made herself an outcast even to those who may have accepted her? Hm. This is one of those YA books that dehumanizes adults (including parents), which I always feel badly about. It perpetuates a stereotype that is unhealthy, I believe. But also it was an adult who really saw through Melinda's behavior to the pain underneath. That's also significant. I think a parent might want to read this before her daughter reads it. It's a book that should be discussed. Very worth reading.

Mom: A Celebration of Mothers edited by Dave Isay

This is a collection of interviews with mothers and fathers and children. It's from an organization called storycorps.

General Rating: 4 out of 4

1. Is it plausible? Well, it's reality. Certainly it's plausible.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes.

3. Is it engaging? Yes. Reality so often is more engaging than fiction.

4. Is it inspiring? Yes.

Language: none
Sex: none (a little discussion of homosexuality here and there)

My recommendation: I liked it a lot. I felt it broadened my understanding of people--especially mothers. I am amazed at how many very strong women there are out there. It's a book worth reading and, incidentally a cause (storycorps) worth supporting. Dave Isay urges people to record their family stories. I agree. I found these stories (most of them, anyway) meaningful and engaging--and they weren't even my family! A lovely book.

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

This is Robin McKinley's second retelling of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast.

General Rating:3.5 out of 4--Basically lovely

1. Is this plausible within the genre? Yes

2. Is it thought provoking? A little bit.

3. Is it engaging? Yes

4. Is it uplifting? Yes

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: I actually like Robin McKinley's first "Beauty" better than this one--it's simpler and more straightforward. This one is lovely--full of imagery, complex and rich. AND the ending is better, I think. But! It feels overwrought to me in places, especially on repeat readings. The story is buried under velvet descriptions, lyrical passages and complicated situations obscurely presented. Too many words! Despite these criticisms, though, I really do like this book. It's part of my collection of Robin McKinley.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beauty by Robin McKinley

This is a retelling of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast".

General rating: 3.5 out of 4. One of my most loved books.

1. Is it plausible? Within its genre, it certainly is.

2. Is it thought provoking? Well, maybe a little.

3. Is it engaging? Yes, very much.

4. Is it uplifting? Yes.

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: Robin McKinley is one of my favorite authors. I've loved almost everything she's written (with a few very notable exceptions--be careful!). I particularly love fairy tale remakes, so I've always particularly liked this book. Ms. McKinley has written 2 versions of Beauty and the Beast--this straightforward tale (which is very much what everyone imagines the story of Beauty and the Beast to be) and, 20 years later, another, "Rose Daughter". They are very different. I enjoy them both (I'll post a review of "Rose Daughter" in a few days), but I prefer the first, "Beauty". This book is just what I think the story should be like. Except the ending is too brief. After a book full of logical progressions and comprehensible emotions, the beast transforms and all ends happily in just a few pages at the end. It really felt abrupt. Other than that, I love this book and highly recommend it.

Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

This book is a WWII story also. Our main character, Rebecca, promises her dying Grandmother to investigate their family history, to find her "inheritance". Over and over, Rebecca's grandmother (Gemma) told her the story of "Briar Rose" (or "Sleeping Beauty"). It is only when Becca digs into Gemma's past that she finds that the princess in the fairy tale WAS her grandmother! How is this connected to the Holocaust? You'll find out in this 240 page YA book.

General Rating: 3 out of 4. A stunner.

1. Was it plausible? Yes, unfortunately, it was all too plausible.

2. Was it thought provoking? Yes, see my rant from "Above Suspicion"

3. Was it engaging? Yes, very.

4. Was it uplifting? Kind of.

Language: none
Sex: reference to homosexual relationships, no descriptions. One of the main characters is a homosexual man. This bothered me a little bit just because I wasn't into reading about his party life. But it reminded me that homosexuals were tortured and killed too, along with all the others that were labeled as subhuman by the Nazis.

My recommendation: This book is worth reading. I actually found it kind of stunning. It wasn't a comfortable book, by any means. From the title, I initially assumed it was a retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Which is is, really, but in a way I could never have predicted or even imagined. [It's a book written for young adults, but is easily read by adults too, of course. I often find great favorites among YA literature.]

Above Suspicion by Helen MacInnes

This story is set in Nazi Germany, before the allies joined WWII, but after the persecution of the Jews had begun. Our protagonists, Frances and Richard Myles, are ordinary people called into undercover service. They are given what seems to be a simple task, but turns out to be more complex and dangerous than they supposed. This book was written in 1941 and is about 290 pages long.

General rating: 3.5 out of 4. Very good book.

1. Is it plausible? Yes.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes. Lots of philosophizing in this book.

3. Is it engaging? Very much so.

4. Is it uplifting? Not particularly. The way the Nazi rhetoric captured generations of Germans is hard to understand. It's really lowering to think of so many people willing to betray and murder their neighbors. Every time I read about Nazi Germany, or the Kmer Rouge (I do not know how to spell that) or Communist Korea or the French Revolution, or Communist Russia or Rwanda (etc etc), I just cannot understand how or why people are convinced that killing their fellow countryman is the right thing to do. It dumbfounds me. Am I as easily led as so much of humanity seems to be? Why are we so vulnerable to the prevailing thought, why are we such blind swallowers of media-driven values? I just don't get it and I think it's frightening. So, in that this book is about the time when Germany was embracing all things Nazi and the rest of the world was just waking up to the insanity of it... this book is not uplifting. However, it is about "good" having a triumph over "evil", so in that was it is uplifting, I suppose.

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: I really, really like Helen MacInnes. I like her characters, I get caught up in the worlds her books report. I found this book exciting and thoughtful without being excoriating. I highly recommend it.

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

This is an English country mystery, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie. It's about 250 pages long.

General rating: 3.5 out of 4. A very enjoyable book.

1. Is it plausible? Hm... I think pretty much all mysteries are not really plausible, as far as I can't imagine this sort of thing happening in "real life"--especially with just regular joes investigating and solving things. But! Within the fiction genre of "mystery" it was just as plausible as most, more plausible than many.

2. Is it thought provoking? Well, I have to admit that this book actually prompted me to think about keeping confidences. At one point, when our main characters are "in the know" about the police investigation, they are pressed to share their information with good friends. They resist, even though these friends are certainly trustworthy! Their integrity in keeping their word not to "tell" made it possible to solve the case. I wondered, can I be trusted to keep confidences even when I'm "sure" the person I'm tempted to tell is "completely trustworthy"? I don't usually find mysteries particularly thought provoking. But this one did make me think about my own integrity as far as secret-keeping goes.

3.Is it engaging? It was in a gentle way. Really, like Agatha Christie. This wasn't a book I couldn't put down. I certainly looked forward to picking it up again! The mystery was engaging, but the characters were even more so. And I enjoyed the little romance that was thrown in.

4. It is uplifting? Well, sure. It was more uplifting than some mysteries are, simply because of the satisfying relationships between the characters. And the English countryside--images of that are always uplifting, right? It was a fun book. Is that uplifting?

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: Well, I love Georgette Heyer. My favorites are her regency romances, but I have enjoyed the mysteries of hers that I've read as well. I particularly enjoyed the touches of humor in this book, and the repartee between her characters. I do particularly enjoy British characters and this book is, of course, full of them. It was a little bit predictable. It wasn't difficult to identify who would be murdered and, towards the end, it wasn't too hard to guess who the murderer was, either. But I'm the kind of reader to who enjoys the journey just as much (and sometimes more) than the conclusion, so the slight predictability didn't bother me. If you like classic British mystery--Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James, Margery Allingham, Dorothy Sayers, etc--you'll likely enjoy Georgette Heyer's mysteries as well.