Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Civilized World by Susi Wyss

This books takes place in Africa. Susi Wyss set out to write a book to, as she says, "represent the Africa I know and love, not the sensationalistic one people hear about in the media. Yes, famines exist, as do civil wars and AIDS. But people still live their lives, with the same joys and frustrations and desires all of us experience. I pictured characters who were like people I'd known, often struggling, sometimes succeeding--both supported and held back by their rich traditions."

I think there is no doubt that she did just that in this book.

The Civilized World is actually a collection of short stories that connect to form a bigger story. Some of the stories are independent of the bigger story, but most of them are interconnected.

I enjoyed her female characters especially. Her male characters are either flawed or flat generally, and her portrayal of marriage is rather negative. But her writing is clear and evocative and the book is definitely a good read.

One note of caution, there is a sex scene (married) in the chapter titled "Waiting for Solomon".

The book is well worth reading.

The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

There was a time when I was an avid reader of all things by Anne McCaffrey. I LOVED her Pern series and gobbled up each book as it was released. I believe I've read every single book she's written, even the early ones! However, like so many current authors, her books are all too often less about the story and more about social commentaries and this book is very much in that vein. I think I have lost my taste for the Pern series.

If you have been keeping up with current events on Pern, you will know that the Red Star has been moved out of its dangerous orbit in regards to Pern and that, after this turn, thread will no longer fall. This means that the dragonriders must find another occupation in order to support themselves, since the holds and halls will no longer be tithed to support them in return for their services to Pern. This book chronicles, in large part, this search for and discovery of a meaningful future for the dragonriders.

I was engaged throughout the whole book, as is usual for me with any of McCaffrey's books. I have loved getting lost in her stories for many years. But I found this one particularly heavy handed with its messages of sexual freedom, liberality, tolerance and "down with tradition"! I still read the earlier Pern books with enjoyment, but this one is not nearly as transporting.

Pause for an airing of another one of my opinions (go ahead and skip to the last little paragraph if you want):

 I acknowledge that every author includes his/her opinions and points of view in each book he/she writes. One of the things I really like to do is discover a hidden message, to winkle out how I, as the reader, have been led to feel or think a certain way, to like or dislike a particular character. Mysteries are fun because they trick the reader and then surprise him at the end! Romances are entertaining because they mislead the reader, gently manipulating her emotions all through each book. This is one of the things I really enjoy about reading. But what I do NOT like is when I can really feel myself being manipulated. I look for the subtleties, the ambiguities that gently nudge the reader but still leave room for ambivalence. To be honest, I like best when either a book A) completely agrees with my personal point of view (don't we all!!) or B) challenges my thinking in a subtle way, making me ask questions, but not forcing me into a defensive position.

This book fails to do this. The storyline is still entertaining--Anne McCaffrey is so good at that!! But the social messages that are shoved down the reader's throat are so loud that they distract too much from McCaffrey's fine storytelling. This is an unbalanced book.

Still, if you like Pern, you'll find it a good read.

The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr

This book is the story of a scientist and how he discovered and then proved that scent is not a "shape", but a "vibration".

WARNING: This book is full of foul language. The author quotes the scientist, one Luca Turin, and Luca apparently can't explain himself without a lot of swearing. Strange. I always imagine that the well-educated grow out of that kind of language. But not Luca Turin. In fact, he seems, although brilliant, to be a little morally un-evolved. So I can't recommend this book without serious reservations. If you're the kind that can't overlook more than a few dozen F-words, then skip this book. Or borrow mine cuz I blacked them all out. I found them very distracting.

I stuck with this book (despite the language which is usually a deal breaker for me) because for a long time I have found the study of scent fascinating. I love perfumes of all kinds--the ones you apply, the ones you burn, the oils, the sprays, the lotions... and I've always been very interested in the evocative power of scent, said to be the most powerfully evocative of all the senses. Luca Turin is a perfume expert and there's a lot about perfume in this book. I really liked those parts. But his theory of scent--the vibration theory-- is very interesting as well.

Because of the lack of any willing advocates for the opposing theory (the shape theory), this book is less balanced than it could be. The author excuses this by explaining that the proponents of this theory all refused to be interviewed for this book. In fact, the scent industry as a whole seems to have completely ignored Luca Turin's very convincing work. It is convincing to the reader, of course, because it's all from his point of view and the failure of any other scientists to be interviewed robs the reader of this balanced point of view. We see it all from Luca's side and he is very convincing. I was convinced, anyway. :)

Luca Turin is characterized as a turbulent, sloppy, sometimes crude, controversial, visionary scientist. It's always interesting to me when I, the reader, both dislike and believe in a character. It's a testament to good writing when I can be sympathetic to a basically unsympathetic character. That's the tightrope that Mr. Burr seems to walk when chronicling these years of Luca Turin's life.

I did learn a lot from this book. There were parts that were less interesting than others, but I was continually engaged in this book up until the end, which is saying something when one is talking about a scientific book. Despite the terrible language, I consider this to be a worthwhile read. Come and borrow my copy.

Jovah's Angel by Sharon Shinn

This is book two in this series. The first one is Archangel. This one is set in Samaria, of course, but it takes place some 150 years after the first one and the archangel Gabriel, who is the main character in Archangel is now just a legend.

In this book we meet Alleluia, the newest archangel, and Delilah, a fallen archangel, among a large cast of other characters. Both angels are unhappy and this book chronicles their separate journeys to reach where they both truly belong. There's also flooding, communication problems with their God, interstellar travel, disillusionment, miracles, an exodus... you know how much I dislike summaries. (I do like making lists, though.)

I liked this book a lot. I saw a lot of religion in the first book and if one reads this one from the same point of view, one might be....disturbed? The question of God is further investigated and the conclusions are very ambiguous.

This book was also much more reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey's Dragons of Pern series. The political intrigue, the relationships between a "higher" class of beings...I don't want to make any more comparisons lest I give too much away.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. I am really enjoying the writing of Sharon Shinn. Oh, there is one thing that bothers me in this series (and in the McCaffrey series too) and it's pretty subtle here (less subtle in McCaffrey) and that is that the most sympathetic characters are also the most inclined to glorify extra- or pre-marital sexual relationships. As if these are the most evolved and most enlightened kinds of romantic relationships and those that are more chaste are rather backwards. Hm. Sharon Shinn isn't particularly heavy-handed with this very socially current theme, but she's included it in no uncertain terms. It bothers me. But! There are no graphic sex scenes and no bad language. It's an interesting and an entertaining book. I still really enjoy all the religious references. I find them thought provoking. So far I find this series very good.

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

This is an adorable, totally feel-good book that will join my top ten group of books to read when I feel in need of an uplifting escape (or....more prosaically, they will join my collection of "thumb-sucking" books. As a devotee of the habit when I was young--for far longer, in fact, than my parents would have liked me to have been--I have, in remembrance of that simple source of peaceful comfort and quiet joy, labeled this particular group of go-to books as my "thumb-sucking" collection. So.)

A squeaky clean Regency romance, this one is also uplifting and clever. There are some laugh out loud moments and, of course, there is one very satisfying ending.

Marianne Daventry pines for the country. Her mother recently dead, her father mourning in France, Marianne has been bored and lonely in Bath, staying with a gruff but lovable Aunt. When she's invited to spend a few months in the country with her sister at the estate of the man her sister wants to marry, Marianne jumps at the chance. An encounter with an aloof stranger, a hold-up by a highwayman and a wonderful friendship later, she finds herself conflicted and confused. But don't worry! It all ends well.

I really loved this book. It's not particularly deep, but there are a few layers and a whole bunch of good characters, a gorgeous setting, a lovable hero and heroine...I think I'll read it again tonight.

A Matter of Magic by Patricia Wrede

There are two books in this volume: Mairelon the Magician and The Magician's Ward. They follow the story of Kim who has been raised in the streets of London and trained to be a thief. She is hired to steal something from a magician but he catches her and invites her to join him. This is when her life begins to change.

This was a charming pair of books that I enjoyed reading. They were quick to get through and the main characters were very likeable. They're set in Regency England but the setting doesn't feel as prominent as it does in some Regency books. In fact, these stories are simpler than many--definitely in the Young Adult realm. Still, they are engaging, squeaky clean and fun to read.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

This review is by Isaiah, age 14

This book is about a boy called Huckleberry Finn who ran away with a runaway slave named Jim. They build themselves a raft and go on many adventures on the Mississippi River. It's set in the South during the time of slavery, in the 1880s.

My opinion on this book is that the language is hard to understand. Not only is it older language, but there is a lot of slang, especially from Jim. This made the language very hard to understand.I didn't particularly enjoy reading the book, but I didn't mind listening to the book (on CD). I suppose the book is more enjoyable and easier to read if the reader already knows about the storyline, so next time I read a book like this I'll read a summary or some sort of short version first before I read the full length novel itself.

I enjoyed the story very much, though, especially the part where Huckleberry Finn needed Tom Sawyer's help to get Jim out of jail (after he had been recaptured). The beginning of the book wasn't half bad either.

I know this book is a "classic" and I think it's worth reading. But I recommend that the young reader looks up the storyline first so they go into the novel with a good idea of what is going on.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Piano Practice and Performance by Barry and Linda Wehrli

This is actually one of the most helpful piano books I've purchased over the last few years. I bought it on my Kindle, though, and I'd much rather have a hard copy of it.

The foreword asks: "Have you ignored recurring mistakes . . . set aside a challenging piece in favor of easier music . . . not met your progress or performance expectations?" and then promises to help get you (the pianist) "back on track". It's written, say the authors, for both students and aspiring professionals.

The book is divided into sections covering correct practice routines, extinguishing problem spots, enhancing various piano playing techniques and strengthening memorization.

I found much good advice in this book and will put into practice--for my students as well as for myself--many of the authors' recommendations. It was a short book full of practical concepts--well worth reading.

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming

This is the first book in a murder mystery series starring Chief of police Russ Van Alstyne and Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson (yes, she's a woman). The books are set in the small New York town of Millers Kill. The other two books that I've read from this series are A Fountain Filled With Blood and Out of the Deep I Cry. I'll review all three books briefly in this blog.

I'm not sure this book (and its fellows) belong on my "Out of the Best Books" blog, actually. The mysteries themselves are fairly interesting. But what keeps the reader engaged is the relationship between the deeply religious Clare and the very married Russ. By the end of the first book, these two are in love. Their relationship is unconsummated, it's true. But they are both unfaithful to their vows (hers to God and his to his wife) emotionally. It's basically an adulterous relationship--not qualified to be a "best book".

That bothers me quite a bit. What bothers me even more, however, is how subtly the reader is led to root for this adulterous relationship--we really want the two to be together. We never meet Russ' busy wife so we never come to like her. This makes it easy for us to wish her to be cast off in favor of Clare, who we do know and really like. I find this whole idea disturbing and it's taken me three books of this series to figure out how I'm feeling about Clare and Russ and therefore how I'm feeling about this series.

In book two, A Fountain Filled with Blood there are plenty of exciting parts--including a helicopter crash which draws Clare and Russ even closer to each other. The plot in this book is a little vague--there's a heavy-handed homosexual message that doesn't seem to fit in with the overall motives for murder that end up being (sort of) uncovered. There is bad language scattered throughout the book--not from every character on every page, but enough so that when I finished the book, one of things I remembered clearly about it was the occasional bad language.

In book three, Out of the Deep I Cry there are, again, plot twists which bring our characters closer to each other. There's a historical aspect to this book that is interesting. There is bad language scattered throughout.

It's so interesting to me how beautifully I have been drawn into this series. It is a compliment to the writing of Julia Spencer-Fleming that she's written books filled with relative morality, adultery, foul language and violent situations in a series where one of the main characters is actually an active priest and the other an upstanding chief of police! Very good writing indeed.

This is a well-written series with mysteries that are engaging enough, but with an adulterous subplot that is guaranteed to draw in the reader. Caveat emptor.

Persuasion, a Latter-Day Tale by Rebecca H. Jamison

This book is subtitled "A modern twist on Jane Austen's classic romance." I bought it on my Kindle because it was cheap and it got great reviews (and because, as I said in an earlier review, I am on a Persuasion kick). Much to my delight, I discovered as I read that it was an LDS book! I guess the title should have tipped me off....or perhaps I didn't really read any of those reviews? Anyway, it was a pleasure to read a clean love story along the lines of that of Frederick and Anne and to find so many little LDS (Mormon) references along the way.

Unlike many Christian novels, there was no heavy-handedness, no preaching. There was an extra twist to the basic Persuasion plot. I really liked our main characters, Neil and Anne. It was a fun read. I would be interested to see more from this author.

Captain Wentworth Home From the Sea by Mary Lydon Simonsen

Another Persuasion spin-off, this one is novella length and features Captain Wentworth after he has experienced a traumatic brain injury. He has been invalided out of the navy and returns without his memory to Kellynch hall and his sister Sophie. Anne just happens to be there housekeeping temporarily (the housekeeper is on a little vacation) for Sophie and her Admiral. So the reader is led to wonder: without a history behind them, can Frederick and Anne still fall in love?

That's the plot behind this "re-imagining of Jane Austen's Persuasion". 

As you can see, I'm on a bit of a Persuasion kick. There's one more of this type of novel that I have yet to review. This one is...okay. I didn't feel quite as at home with Ms.Simonsen's characterizations of this famous couple as I did with Susan Kaye's. Both main characters seem rather one-dimensional and stiff. Nothing was added to my knowledge or perception about either Anne or Frederick. Of course, if you are a Persuasion enthusiast, it's just fun to read about the characters in almost any setting...

Note, there were a few married sex scenes that were not too graphic.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Frederick Wentworth, Captain "For You Alone" by Susan Kaye

This is book two, following Susan Kaye's None But You. It was very nice. I think I've said all I need to about these two books in my review of the first (follow the link above).

Oh. These books are, unlike some of the awful spin-offs out there, squeaky clean, as is consistent with Jane Austen. Well, except for at the end of this one there is a modest married love scene. It doesn't seem out of character for these novels.

Persuasion is one of my very favorite Austen novels and I am very pleased that these books are not a departure from a story that I really like. If you're a Jane Austen fan, you'll enjoy these two books from Susan Kaye.

Frederick Wentworth Captain "None But You" by Susan Kaye

This is book one in Susan Kaye's two-volume retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion. This version, as you can tell from its title, is Miss Austen's story from the point of view of Captain Frederick Wentworth.

I've read many spin-offs of the Austen books, but I think this one and its companion, For You Alone may be the best of the ones I've read. I really liked Captain Wentworth's voice. I felt that Susan Kaye's account of Frederick's activities when he was "off stage" in Jane Austen's book were consistent with what we know of him and with what we know of Persuasion. Of course, it was not perfect, but there were no glaring faults that distracted from the flow of the story. I liked it a lot.

FYI, this book ends shortly after Louisa Musgrove falls during their pleasure trip to Lyme. Then of course you won't be able to rest until you acquire and read the second half of the story. Sigh. I can't help but feel that when authors do this their primary purpose is to double dip into my wallet. Why else would they split up this story? Urgh.

My Dear Charlotte by Hazel Holt

This is a charming little book written in the epistolary style--why do I like books that are written in letters so much? In her letters, we meet Elinor Cowper, sister to the Dear Charlotte whose absence makes possible the reading of our story.

This is kind of a Jane Austen-type novel--except it isn't really because it's a mystery. Mrs. Woodstock, an unpleasant, domineering lady of the neighborhood has, after many years of complaining (vociferously) of ill health, passed away. But was it a natural death? The local magistrate, Sir Edward, must investigate. And of course Elinor must report all she learns from Sir Edward and her other neighbors to her absent sister Charlotte.

This is a gentle book--not suspenseful, not unexpected in any way, but charming and sweet, with a satisfying ending.

The Lazarus File by Donn Taylor

This is another very entertaining book by Donn Taylor. It is a spy thriller that takes place in Colombia, Costa Rica and other locations in that part of the world--with a foray or two into the U.S. Our hero, Mark Daniel, is a pilot deep undercover in the world of illegal drugs. He faces danger from the powerful men he flies drugs for and from the mole that is leaking information from the Agency.

 Unlike so many of this type of books, there was ZERO bad language and ZERO sex. Go Donn Taylor! There was a little romance and a lot of fights, suspense, danger....

I really liked this book. Donn Taylor leaves little relationship cliff hangers at the end of his books....they make a reader want to know more about his characters! I want to read more from him (especially more about Mark Daniels and Preston Barclay) but the only books I've found that he's authored are this one, his mystery Rhapsody in Red, and a book of poetry. For your next book Mr. Taylor, I vote for another Preston Barclay book!


Murder on Gramercy Park by Victoria Thompson

This is a mystery that takes place around the turn of the century in New York City.

Sarah Brandt, a midwife from a socially prominent family, is summoned by Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy to assist the wife of Edmund Blackwell, a magnetic healer. Mrs. Blackwell is in labor upstairs, and downstairs Mr. Blackwell is dead, apparently by his own hand. Detective Malloy would like Sarah to just stick with her midwife responsibilities, but of course she won't. They've worked together before, so they have a friendly relationship. Their relationship, as a matter of fact, is one of the most charming parts of the book.

I liked this book. It's part of a series, I believe. Victoria Thompson has been compared to Anne Perry. I like Anne Perry. I liked this book. The mystery was interesting and the main characters were very likeable. I particularly liked a book set at this point in history in The U.S. There are so many that are set in Britain, it seems. I liked reading about my own country's history.

Rhapsody in Red by Donn Taylor

Donn Taylor is a Christian author unlike most. His characters are not always actively religious, but they end up in situations that cause them some religious introspection. And. This little touch of religion is but a small, small part of the overall book. Donn Taylor's personal religious philosophy shows up, though, in the overall squeaky clean nature of his writing. I love that.

This book is a mystery. Our main character, Preston Barclay, is a college professor of history. He is also a widower of several years (4 I think) and is still deeply mourning his wife. An interesting thing about Professor Barclay is the musical hallucinations that he has suffered ever since the death of his wife (who was a pianist). This means that there is an unexpected musical counterpoint to every experience and thought that he has--an interesting and entertaining touch for the reader. I thought it might be distracting from the story, but it really isn't.

Preston's colleague Mara Thorn (she's a comparative religion professor) ends up working with him in investigating the murder of another instructor at their college. They must contend with threats to their jobs, to their freedom and even to their lives.

I really liked this book. The ending just begged for a second book in this series, but this, I discovered, is the only one!! Sigh.