"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Friday, August 26, 2011

Film Friday pt. 2: 10 Things I Hate About You

Okay, so, we've talked about reading it and seeing the play.  But there have been plenty of movies based on The Taming of the Shrew, and the one I've chosen to talk about is 10 Things I Hate About You.  Obviously, the most important thing about the movie is that Heath Ledger wonderfully serenades Julia Styles with "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."  Well, to some of us anyway.  The movie deals with the complication of the play by eliminating it.  Patrick Verona (Petruchio) does not starve or sleep deprive Kat (Kate).  He is just very nice to her.  Though, when Petruchio first meets Kate, he does the same thing.  He spend the entire time complementing her, no matter how "shrewish" she is.  The Bianca (aptly named Bianca) is much more likable in the movie, and since we actually see her relationship develop with Cameron (Lucentio), it is more believable that they will actually be happy together.

It may seem unlikely that a Shakespeare play set in a contemporary high school in California would be successful, but the general plot suits teenagers well.  It works well as an adaptation of a classic work for a modern audience.  Kat's father actually likes her, he's simply paranoid about teenage pregnancy, so he uses Kat's disinclination to date to keep Bianca at home.  And this is something I particularly like about the movie: it focuses much more on the family relationship.  We see both daughters interacting with their father, and we actually see more interaction between Kat and Bianca.  Because they actually care about each other, when they admit difficult things to each other, it makes it all more meaningful. 

Naturally, in simplifying the play and smoothing off the rough edges, the movie loses some of the richness of the play.  But it maintains much of the essence, acting as an excellent interpretation of the play.  And, of course, if it inspires more people to explore Shakespeare, then it has done an excellent job.

Theater Week/Film Friday: The Taming of the Shrew

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. New York: Barnes and Noble Shakespeare. 291 pages.

The Taming of the Shrew is a problematic and complex play, and is all the more enjoyable for both of these qualities. Before this summer, I'd seen it twice, but I'd never read it.  Reading it not only reminded me how much I enjoy reading Shakespeare, but it also reminded me just how rich and rewarding this play is, as long as you are willing to think about it.  To begin with, Bianca has much more of a role in the play than I remembered.  It is easy to think of the play as the Kate and Petruchio show, but it is equally about Bianca and her suitors. I also noticed how Kate's father seems to prefer Bianca to her, and one has to wonder if Kate is a shrew because her father prefers Bianca, or if her father prefers Bianca because because Kate is a shrew.  Either way, Kate does not seem to have the happiest home life, and it seems to have embittered her (just a bit).  Kate's speech at the end is certainly infamous, but it is important to notice that Kate and Petruchio seem to have formed a working partnership, whereas Bianca and her husband have not.

I'm used to reading Folger Shakespeare editions of the plays, but for this one I had to get the Barnes and Noble Shakespeare, and I found it to be both informative and user friendly, not just a Folger Shakespeare knock-off.  The notes not only explained words and phraseology that have become anachronistic, but it also placed certain comments in the context of the play itself, such as what Shakespeare might have meant by giving Lucentio such flowery lines ("I burn, I pine, I perish") when he first sees Bianca.  For anyone looking to delve into Shakespeare for the first time, I highly recommend these editions.

As for the play, the director obviously had a clear interpretation of the play.  For him, the "taming" of Kate was less an act of domination and more an act of compassion. Petruchio wanted to mold Kate into, not a more traditional woman, but one who could function in society without being a mean person.  Shakespeare does not take away Kate's snarky tongue, since at the end Petruchio encourages Kate to bring the widow down a peg.  Rather, Petruchio wants Kate to trust him, and he wants to prove to her that he will be there for her. I confess, I care less about whether I agree with a director's interpretation of Shakespeare than whether the vision is strong enough to carry the play (because I have seen instances where it wasn't).  But the director didn't just focus on Kate and Petruchio.  He also had ideas about Bianca and her suitors, and about Lucentio and Tranio. The whole play had a cohesive feel, and every character was important.  When Kate made her speech at the end, with utmost sincerity, it may have begun as a lecture to Bianca and the widow, but it turned into a demonstration to Petruchio of how much she loved and trusted him.

What helped illuminate the production and open new insights onto the director's view of the play was one of a series of podcasts produced by APT this season, called Behind the Curtain.  If for no other reason than it presents interesting views of the play, I'd highly recommend listening to it.  You can listen to the podcasts online here, or you can download them from iTunes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Theater Week: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment was the only play I hadn't read before seeing it this past weekend, and I think it may have worked best that way.  The program labeled the setting of the play as "the Mind of Raskolnikov," which gave the play a more stream of consciousness feel than could come from a traditional linear plot.  It had three actors: one for Raskolnikov, a second as Sonia and all the other women, and a third as Porfiry and Sonia's father.  The play flowed the way life usually does, with something Porfiry says triggering Raskolnikov's memories, which he steps back into, before coming back to the present.  For those who don't know, I'm not spoiling anything by saying that  Raskonikov commits two murders. I assume they happen near the beginning of the novel, but we don't see them in the play until half or two-thirds of the way through.

The structure of the play, combined with all of the supporting characters being played by two actors serves to focus on Raskolnikov's mental state, and its decline from guilt. The acting required to carry all of this off was absolutely superb.  While playing multiple characters successfully is certainly impressive, it was the changes in individual characters (specifically Raskolnikov and Porfiry) that were the most impressive. When Porfiry came clean to Raskolnikov about what he knew, at was as if a switch had been flipped. He was a different person, though he maintained the same core of compassion throughout. Raskolnikov's decline was raw and absolutely excruciating.

The play took place in APTs indoor theater, a small, extremely intimate space that served to concentrate all of the emotions from the play, making them stronger and more intense. It also created a deeper relationship between the audience and what was taking place on stage.  That made it extremely powerful when Raskolnikov broke the fourth wall and tried to justify his actions to the audience and himself. When the lights went out at the end, I am sure I'm not the only person in the theater crying (including the actors).  It was an experience that will stay withe me for a long time. I definitely want to read the book now, but I find it hard to imagine that it can be any more powerful than the show.  When I read it, I'll be sure to let you know :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Theater Week: Of Mice and Men

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Dramatists Play Services, 1964. 71 pages.

I know I said in my post last week that I hadn't read Of Mice and Men. Well, I picked up a copy of the script on the trip and read it before seeing it.

Now, before I begin, I ought to confess that I have never liked John Steinbeck. I read The Pearl in seventh grade and  The Grapes of Wrath in my junior year of high school, and I did not like either of them. In fact, I strongly disliked both of them. So I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about seeing a Steinbeck play. After I read the script, however, things began to look up. I found the plot and characters to be more engaging and sympathetic than in my previous experiences with his writing. And the ending was heartbreaking. I found it interesting that the stage directions explicitly say that there's no need to be realistic with the set and some of the props (such as Candy's dog and Lennie's puppy). Nothing in the play, no bit of action or line of dialogue was unnecessary. Everything moved toward the final tragedy.

So, I was finally looking forward to seeing the play by the time we sat down. For the second evening in a row, I found myself crying at the curtain call. The play was extraordinarily moving, with absolutely fabulous acting from the entire cast. George was less angry and antagonistic toward Lennie than suggested  by the notes in the play, which made the ending even more poignant. I also appreciated the portrayal of Lennie. It would be easy to make Lennie a caricature of stupidity, but instead he was just simple and sweet-natured, with an absolute devotion to George. George and Lennie's effect on the ranch is profound, and they spread hope and make some friends, and a few enemies.  When the dangerous naivety of Curly's wife brings everything down, the tragedy seems inevitable.

The set design was fairly realistic, with a small rive cut into the stage for the opening scenes. Curly's dog never appeared on stage, which worked just fine. Not surprisingly, the stage being outdoors was absolutely perfect for the play, adding the right touch of verisimilitude. It was a beautiful ensemble cast with absolutely wonderful chemistry. I think it has even started changing mind toward Steinbeck...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Theater Week: Blithe Spirit

Coward, Noel. Blithe Spirit in Three Plays. New York: Vintage International. 102 pages (for just Blithe Spirit).

Let's start off the week with one of the comedies, though it was the third play I saw this weekend: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward.  Since I will be focusing on comparisons between reading the plays and seeing them, my posts this week won't follow the normal structure of my book reviews.

In my copy of Blithe Spirit, the play is referred to as an "improbable farce," which is a fairly apt description. A novelist (Charles) and his wife (Ruth) invite a medium to preform a seance for themselves and some guests, as research for Charles's new book. The medium ends up summoning the ghost of Charles's first wife (Elvira). As Charles is the only one who can see her, hijinks not surprisingly ensue. Noel Coward's strength is certainly his dialogue ("Surely even a protoplasmic manifestation has the right to expect a little of the milk of human kindness."), which certainly comes across in reading the play, as of course does the general ridiculousness of the plot. None of the three main characters is close to perfect, but each of them thinks they are perfectly in the right.

When reading the play, I assumed that the humor would come almost entirely from the dialogue. What I discovered from actually seeing the play were all of the possibilities for physical humor. The majority of it comes from Madame Arcati (the medium) and Elvira.  The production at APT took full advantage of these possibilities, with Madame Arcati's seances played to their fullest possible extents. And Elvira took full advantage of being unseen to flop all over the furniture and play tricks on people, such as watching people talk to thin air where they think she's standing. And that was one of the most impressive things of the whole show: the other characters' ability to not see her. They weren't ignoring her, that would have been obvious. They simply weren't seeing her.

The show also had one of those joys of live theater: ad-libbing. The main stage (Up-the-Hill) theater at APT is outdoors in a beautiful natural amphitheater. This means that the outside world can intrude on the play. During this performance, there was a particularly loud and annoying plane that seemed to be circling overhead. Charles told his doctor that he was planning on going into town, to which the doctor replied "I hope not by plane." It got one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon.  It's moments like that, creating that connection between the audience and the actors, that is truly the biggest difference between reading a play and seeing it live.

If you are interested in learning more about APT, check out their website: http://americanplayers.org/

Monday, August 15, 2011

Brief Break for Vacation and the Inaugural Theater Week

First of all, I apologize for the lack of posts last week.  One of my close friends moved to New Jersey last week, and I helped her pack and hosted her for a few nights before she left. 

I am also leaving for vacation this week (which means that evenings are taken up with packing and laundry).  Every year, my family goes to see plays at American Players Theatre in Spring Green Wisconsin. I have read three of the plays we're seeing: The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare, Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams.  Ironically for the purposes of this blog, the two I have not seen (Crime and Punishment and Of Mice and Men) are both based on books.  Next week, my reviews will be of the three plays I've read, and will combine impressions of the plays as both books and performances.  This will be my inaugural Theater Week. If it goes well, then I will do it again next year (assuming whatever job I get post graduation permits seeing plays). So, next week, look forward to what promise to be some entertaining plays :)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Clapton: The Autobiography

Clapton, Eric. Clapton: The Autobiography. New York: Broadway Books, 2007. 328 pages.

"More than a rock star, Eric Clapton is an icon, a living embodiment of the history of rock music.  Well known for his reserve in a profession marked by self-promotion, flamboyance, and spin, he now chronicles, for the first time, his remarkable personal and professional journeys....Clapton is the powerfully written story of a survivor, a man who has achieved the pinnacle of success despite extraordinary demons. It is one of the most compelling memoirs of our time." (description from book jacket)

Overall Rating: *** (out of five)

  • Tone. The general narrative style is casual and personal, like having a friend sitting and telling you a story. This helps draw the reader into the narrative.
  • Writing. In spite of the author's enthusiasm, the quality of the writing, though not horrible, is by no means memorable or outstanding in any way, which makes it a bit difficult to get into the story.
  • Plotting. Both the beginning and end of the story feel less like a cohesive narrative with a point and more like a repetition of events that have been put their for the sake of completeness rather than because they truly serve the story.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Film Friday: Casino Royale

Fleming, Ian. Casino Royale. New York: Penguin, 1953.

"Introducing James Bond: charming, sophisticated, handsome; chillingly ruthless and licensed to kill. This, the first of Ian Fleming's tales of secret agent 007, finds Bond on a mission to neutralize a lethal, high-rolling Russian operative called simply "Le Chiffre"--by ruining him at the Baccarat table and forcing his Soviet spymasters to 'retire' him. It seems that lady luck is taken with 007--Le Chiffre has hit a losing streak. But some people just refuse to play by the rules, and Bond's attraction to a beautiful female agent leads him to disaster and an unexpected savior." (description from book cover)

Book Rating: *** (out of five)
Movie Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Plot. Fleming's inaugural James bond novel is certainly gripping.  Bombs, hit men, torture, gambling, sex. This book has it all, and the mixture is entertaining. Fleming's world of espionage is based backstabbing and double agents, and he knows just how far to go before it gets ridiculous.
  • Lack of Judgement. I like authors who present their characters on their own merits,without trying to force a ready-made definition of good or evil down the audiences' throats, and Fleming often succeeds at doing just that.
  • Dialogue. Fleming may be able to spin a yarn, but his characters could use some better self-expression.  It's not that it is overtly cliched, it simply seems stilted at times.
  • Sex and Violence. As I think most people know to expect, the book has plenty of, well, sex and violence. There are also less than flattering observations made of the women in the book, though the sexism is more tempered than I anticipated.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Children's/YA: April's Kittens

Newberry, Clare Turlay. April's Kittens. Troll Associates, 1969.

A book about April, a girl who lives with her parents and cat, Sheba, in a one-cat apartment. However, what happens when Sheba has three kittens?  April's father insists that three cats must go. What will April do when she falls in love with one of the kittens? Does she keep Sheba or the kitten? (original description).

Overall Rating: ****(out of five)

  • Story. This story emphasizes one of the most important aspects of family life: compromise.  The best part, however, is that we see compromise from both the child and the parents, which teaches the importance and equality of every member of the family.
  • Illustrations. The illustrations of the book are absolutely beautiful.  They are simply black, white, and pink, and their softness is nearly tactile.  You just want to pick up the kittens and cuddle with them.
  • Story to Illustration Ratio. For small children who cannot yet read, the story is what they hear their parents saying and the pictures they see on the page. I feel as though the book might be more effective for kids who can't read if it had more illustrations.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Bored of the Rings

Beard, Henry N. and Douglas C. Kenney. Bored of the Rings. New York: Signet, 1969.

"'Never have I laughed so hard at any other book. The Harvard Lampoon's BORED OF THE RINGS is unquestionably a comic masterpiece as well as a brilliant parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's famous THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. A gem of irreverence...filled with an incredible menagerie of mad characters including lustful Elf-maidens and a roller-skating dragon. A side-splitting swipe at the Eternal Quest and the castles, wizards and other folderol of 'ancient' lore...a CATCH-22 for lovers of the days of yore.'" (Harvard Daily News description from book jacket)

Overall Review: *** (out of five)

  • Intelligent Humor. It is obvious that the writers of this book both know the material they are mocking and a great deal about intellectual history and the pop culture of their time. Most of the jokes in the book are spot on, including the meta-humor.
  • Dated Humor. Many of the jokes are very specific to the culture of the '60s.  This means that some of these jokes would go over the head of younger audiences, unless they happen to be up on their 1960s history.
  • General Drug Use and Amorality. It is difficult to mock the '60s without their being references to drugs and sex. So, while there is pervasive bad behavior, it is important to remember that it is mocking these practices, not condoning them.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Film Friday: Sin City

Miller, Frank. Sin City. Vol. 1: The Hard Goodbye. Milwauke, OR: Dark Horse, 2005.

A Woman named Goldie takes pity on an unattractive and unstable man named Marv, and when she's murdered in bed with him, he sets out to not only discover who framed him, but to get revenge for one of the few women to ever show him kindness.  His quest for answers leads him to a tangle of political deceit centered around a man with somewhat...unusual appetites. But all of this is just business as usual in the crime-riddled Basin City.

Book Rating: **** (out of five)
Movie Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Drawings. Frank Miller's drawing style is dark and evocative.  In this particular story, there's no color, just pure black and white.  Miller switches between detailed images and outlines and shadows, which creates a feeling very much like film noir.
  • Plot. The story is dark and disturbing (not kidding, corruption and cannibalism, for beginners) but it sucks you in.  Marv exemplifies the "anti" in anti-hero, and in spite of his issues,  he is a sympathetic character.
  • Sex and Violence. This book is a graphic novel, in more ways than one.  Murder, hookers, and did I mention cannibalism earlier? Yeah...  Razor wire, and sawing off limbs, and, oh yeah, corrupt clergy who are covering up the murder of prostitutes.  Stay away if such things offend you.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Children's/YA: The Witches

Dahl, Roald. The Witches. New York: Puffin, 1983. 208 pages.

"'A REAL WITCH is easily the most terrifying thing on earth.' That's a pretty thought. More horrifying still is that real witches don't even look like witches. They don't ride around on broomsticks. They don't even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, despicable, scheming harridans who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you're face to face with one? Read this story and you'll find out all you need to know. You'll meet a real hero, a wise old grandmother and the most gruesome, grotesque gang of witches imaginable!"

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Trustworthy Adult. The grandmother in this story is every child's dream authority figure.  She tells you all those deliciously scary stories that parents don't want children to hear.  She takes you on fun vacations.  And when your confrontations with witches go sour, she loves you anyway.  Who wouldn't want that?
  • Exciting Story. Let's face it, this book is a wonderful adventure story for children. It has a wonderful everyman hero and a whole cast of dastardly villains. If the boy was Harrison Ford and the witches were secretly Nazis, it could be an Indiana Jones movie. Well, almost. But it's that kind of black and white, unapologetic adventure tale, but for kids.
  • The Witches. The witches as described in the book, are fairly terrifying. Any child taking it seriously would be looking sideways at all women forever, looking for enlarged nostrils or toeless feet, or signs of a wig, or blue spit. While this doesn't seem to be a problem with most children, it is worth keeping in mind.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Christie, Agatha. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 304 pages.

"Roger Ackroyd knew too much. He knew that the women he loved had poisoned her brutal first husband. He suspected also that someone had been blackmailing her. Then, tragically, came the news that she had taken her own life with a drug overdose. But the evening post brought Roger one last fatal scrap of information. Unfortunately, before he could finish reading the letter, he was stabbed to death." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: *** (out of five)

  • Mystery. Christie's classic locker room mystery is well-constructed, not surprisingly.  The story provides all the clues to solving it, but the conclusion can still come as a surprise.  While people familiar with Christie's writing might know enough to assume that the obvious suspect may not be the right one, there are loose threads galore that complicate the solving of the mystery.
  • Plot.  Though the mystery is good, the surrounding plot is less than stellar.  It seems as though all of the actual story happens in the brief period before the murder and Poirot's arrival.  This sort of mystery that is focused more on clues than characters works better as a short story than requiring the development of a novel.  The mystery is compelling enough to over come this, however.
  • Characterization. The sub-par plot is compounded by the one-dimensionality of the characters.  Their tendency toward being one-note stereotypes rather than fully realized people can make the reader wonder why they should care about them. The mystery is compelling enough to over come this, however.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Children's/YA: The Phantom Tollbooth

Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. New York: Bullseye Books, 1989. 256 pages.

"For Milo, everything's a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he's got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the island of conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and , even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it's exciting beyond his wildest dreams!" (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Story. The idea of a mysterious package showing up in a boy's room to try and drag him into an appreciation for life is just fun.  I can think of times when life has gotten into a rut of repetition that a surprise trip to a magic land would have been in order.
  • Wordplay.  In terms of clever character names and witty references, Norton Juster is Jasper Fforde for kids (without all the literary allusions). With characters like Short Shrift, Faintly Macabre, and Kakofonous A. Dischord.
  • Heavyhandedness.  The allegorical nature of the story can some times lead to a lack of subtlety in the message of the story. After all, Milo is on a hunt for Rhyme and Reason.  I think it comes off as clever, but it might annoy some people.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Dick, Philip K. Ubik. In Four Novels of the 1960s. New York: Library of America, 1997. 189 pages (for Ubik, which is pages 609-798)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

"Ubik (1969), with its future world of psychic espionage agents and cryonically frozen patients inhabiting an illusory 'half-life,' pursues Dick's theme of simulated realities and false perceptions to ever more disturbing conclusions, as time collapses on itself and characters stranded in past eras search desperately for the elusive, constantly shape-shifting panacea Ubik." (description from book jacket)

  • Premise. The idea of putting people who are dead, but not entirely dead (insert Princess Bride joke about being mostly dead here) being put in stasis where they live in an alternate world, but can be communicated with once and awhile is interesting. Particularly once the worlds start bleeding into each other.
  • Writing Style. Dick's style is descriptive and simple, which suits the complexity of the plot well.
  • Complexity of Plot.  Dick's plot can be convoluted, and the futuristic world of 1992 that he created can be a little hard to follow. At times it has a hallucinogenic quality that might not be to everybody's taste.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Film Friday: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 1997. 309 pages.

"Harry Potter has never been the star of a Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley--a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry's room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn't had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry--and anyone who reads about him--will find unforgettable. For it's there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great discovery that's been waiting for him...if Harry can survive the encounter." (description from book jacket)

Book Review: **** (out of five)
Movie Review: ** (out of five)

  • Engaging Characters. The main characters in this book offer something for everybody.  None of them are even close to being perfect, but that makes them more relateable for children.  It is encouraging for children to see misfits making friends and succeeding, while struggling with all of the normal trials of adolescence, such as school work and teachers who play favorites.
  • Well-Realized World. One of the things that makes the book interesting is the idea of a world of magic hiding just around the corner of the world we know and sometimes love.
  • Minor Characters. Some of the ancillary characters are somewhat one-dimensional, which is not as much of a problem in children's books, since kids tend to see the world in black and white. I could envision this annoying some of the adults (but stick with the series. it gets better).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Children's/YA: The Secret Garden

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. The Secret Garden. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2005. 272 pages.

"When Mary Lennox is sent home an orphan from India to live with her hunchbacked uncle at Mistlethwait Manor, she can have little idea of the new life that awaits her there. She arrives a sour-faced, sickly little madam with a furious temper, but through her friendship with local Yorkshire lad, Dickon, and their discovery of a secret garden, soon becomes a happy and healthy girl. She shares her new-found love of life with her sickly cousin, Colin, and together the three children restore the garden to its former glory. Between them they work their magic on the garden, and in turn the garden works its magic on the children and everyone around them. Enchanting and illuminating, The Secret Garden is a richly imaginative story about the potential for transformation." (description from book jacket)

Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Description. Burnett's descriptions, whether of Mary in India, or the moor and the people on it, are rich and evocative.  I think that this especially important for young readers, as they get used to reading books without pictures, providing an excellent springboard for their imaginations.
  • Symbolism. The characters and landscapes in this book are highly symbolic, reflecting various changes in the characters and their relationships. This adds an added layer of meaning that children can appreciate as they get older.
  • Time and Setting. A book set in Victorian England might seem odd and difficult to relate to for children, with them wondering about all sorts of things that are different now.  But the characters are so engaging that I hardly think it matters. Also, it could give children an opportunity to ask questions and learn some new things.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Midwife's Tale

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Vintage, 1990. 444 pages.

"Between 1785 and 1812 a midwife and healer named Martha Ballard kept a diary that recorded her arduous work (in 27 years she attended 816 births) as well as her domestic life in Hallowell, Maine.  On the basis of that diary, Laural Thatcher Ulrich give us an intimate and densely imagined portrait, not only of the industrious and reticent Martha Ballard but of her society -- a portrait that sheds light on its medical practices, religious squabbles and sexual mores. At once lively and impeccably scholarly, A Midwife's Tale is a triumph of history on a human scale." (description from book cover)

 Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Fascinating Story. Few works about early America focus on women, particularly non-famous women.  Ulrich's work focuses on one woman, a midwife, and what her diary says not only about her daily life, but also about her family and the culture of her town.  And Martha Ballard's story is interesting, because it shows how wide the involvement of a woman could be in the community.
  • Narrative Style. Ulrich begins each chapter with the relevant entries from Ballard's diary, followed by Ulrich's interpretation and  analysis.  Not only does this introduce the reader to her most important primary source, but it also gives transparency to her discussions of her process of research.
  • Style.  Ulrich's storytelling style could also detract from ease in following the narrative. Going back and forth between excerpts from the diary and Ulrich's writing could make it more difficult to follow the story.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Film Friday: The Story of the Trapp Family Singers/The Sound of Music

Trapp, Maria Augusta. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. New York: Image Books, 1957. 312 pages.

"...Abounding in humor, freshness and love, the book embodies a joie de vivre unequaled in most contemporary literature. The humorous situations in which the neophyte citizens find themselves because of the newness of mores and language provide a lighter side to the story. The freshness of the New England hills in the springtime is typified in the very lives of this unusual family. The love of God, of one another, and of their very fellowmen has proved a sustaining influence against 'the roar of the world.'" (description is a quote from America on the book cover)

Book Review: **** (out of five)
Movie Review: **** (out of five)

  • Writing Style.  The storytelling is not only simple, but it is told in as though Maria Trapp is sitting with you, telling the story to her friends.  This quickly draws the reader in, making a connection between the audience and the story.
  • Story. The story of the Trapp family is full of hope and the strength found in perseverance and family.  They are a wealthy family that not only has to learn how to be poor, but they also need to learn to fit in and survive in a new country during a war.  They are a model of how not to give up.
  • Slow Pace.  The story is not exactly exciting.  Even some of the greatest moments of upheaval in their lives are treated with the same calm acceptance and simplicity that characterizes the whole story.  This could make the book seem boring, depending on the readers' tastes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Children's/YA: Where the Sidewalk Ends

Silverstein, Shel. Where the Sidewalk Ends: 30th Anniversary Special Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 

"Come in...for where the sidewalk ends, Shel Silverstein's world begins. You'll meet a boy who turns into a TV set, and a girl who eats a whale. The Unicorn and the Bloath live there, and so does Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout who will not take the garbage out. It is a place where you wash your shadow and plant diamond gardens, a place where shoes fly, sisters are auctioned off, and crocodiles go to the dentist. Shel Silverstein's masterful collection of poems and drawings is at once outrageously funny and profound."

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Variety.  The collection offers a nicer variety of poem types.  There are particularly short ones and longer ones, as well as ones that are completely silly and ones that actually say something.  There's something in here for everyone.
  • Illustrations. Silverstein's drawings are a necessary and integrated component of the book.  In some cases, they form the punchline of the poem they accompany (such as with "The Loser" and "Jumping Rope"). They are simple and silly and whimsical, just like the poems.
  • Subject Matter. As I've increasingly discovered as I've gotten older, if you actually stop and look at what happens in children's books, it can be worrisome.  In Silverstein's book, people get eaten by animals, someone cooks himself into a stew, etc.  Yet children don't seem to ever take such things seriously, and frankly adults shouldn't either.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Fourth of July!!!

I'm afraid there's no review today.  I spent a wonderful weekend with my mom and her family in Ohio, and I decided to take the day off before returning to work tomorrow.  I was going to review A Midwife's Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich today, but decided that I needed to skim through it again before writing my review to do it justice.  You can look for that next Monday.

But I'll be back on Wednesday with a review of Where the Sidewalk Ends, by Shel Silverstein, and Friday with The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp.  Next week I'll be blogging from Madison, where I'll be visiting my sister, brother-in-law, and new niece.

I hope that everyone is having a wonderful Fourth!!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Film Friday: October Sky

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. October Sky. New York: Island Books, 1998. 428 pages.

"It was 1957, the year Sputnik raced across the Appalachian sky, and the small town of Coalwood, West Virginia, was slowly dying. Faced with an uncertain future, Homer Hickam nurtured a dream: to send rockets into outer space.  The introspective son of the mine's superintendent and a mother determined to get him out of Coalwood forever, Homer fell in with a group of misfits who learned not only how to turn scraps of metal into sophisticated rockets but how to sustain their hopes in a town that swallowed men alive. As the boys began to light up the tarry skies with their flaming projectiles and dreams of glory, Coalwood, and the Hickams, would never be the same." (description from book cover)

Note: The book was originally published under the title Rocket Boys, and some releases following the making of the movie were re-titled to match the movie.

Book Rating: **** (out of five)
Movie Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Readability. One might expect a memoir by an engineer to lack, how shall I say, interest to a general reading population.  Yet this book is well-written and accessible.  His prose is clear and elegant in its simplicity.  Sometimes, it is  easy to forget that you're reading non-fiction.
  • Story. Hickam's story of being a bright boy trying to escape a future of coal mining is beautiful and poignant. As a coming of age story, I think that most readers will find something to which they can relate.
  • History. not only does this book have a lot to say about life in a coal mining town, but it also illustrates cold war life and the changes caused by the beginning of the space race.
  • Slow Pace. The book is not an action filled adventure novel.  It is a fairly leisurely book, which sometimes includes small digressions that, though they add color to the story, don't necessarily drive the plot.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Children's/YA: It's A Book

Smith, Lane. It's A Book. New York: Roaring Brook, 2010. 32 pages.

"Can it text? Blog? Scroll? Wi-fi? Tweet? No...it's a book." (excerpt from book cover)

Overall Rating: ***** (out of five)

  • Plot. I am strongly in favor of exposing children to the value of books, and though this book highlights all of the things that books can't do, it also highlights what books can do.
  • Illustrations.  The pictures in the book are adorable and evocative.  The full page spread without words that shows the jackass (because, hey, that's what donkeys are sometimes called) discovering how engaging a book can be is beautifully illustrative of the magic of the printed word.
  • One of the Characters is a Jackass. Literally (see above).  And it is introduced as such on the first page, setting up to the book's punchline.  If anyone objects to exposing their children to a less than flattering term used in its correct context, then just read it for fun and don't share it with the kiddies.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. 368 pages.

"Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world....Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons....Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Shiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order." (description from book jacket)

Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Excellent Scholarship. Shiff not only did extensive primary source research, she takes advantage of her subject matter to explain something of the difficulties of doing primary research, during the ancient period particularly.  And though I have a background in history, I believe that she explains it well enough for a non-historian to both understand it and find it interesting.  Which beings us to...
  • Engaging Writing. Well-researched history doesn't have to be boring, and Shiff's masterful writing proves it.  She weaves a compelling narrative of a period of time about which many people don't truly know that much.  Popular history often leaves something to be desired in scholarly rigor, and academic history is often depressingly dry.  Shiff neatly balances the two, creating a scholarly work that is eminently readable.
  • Non-Fiction. Shif's book suffers from all of the drawbacks of non-fiction work, such as lack of dialogue and the sort of fast pace found in fiction.  It is also much more scholarly than most popular history, and Shiff deals at length with the methods and practices of historical research.  Readers who are simply interested in the story itself may find some of her method discussions to be tedious.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Film Friday: Jurassic Park

Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park. New York: Ballantine Books, 1990. 399 pages.

"An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now mankind's most thrilling fantasies have come true. Creatures extinct for eons roam Jurassic Park with their awesome presence and profound mystery, and all the world can visit them--for a price. Until something goes wrong...." (description from book cover)

Book Rating: **** (out of five)
Film Rating: *** (out of five)

  • Premise. As a cautionary tale of the dangers of unbridled scientific power has the potential to be dry and didactic, but when the story is that we've used our power to create dinosaurs that are in turn destroying us is highly entertaining.  It is also absolutely terrifying at times.
  • Writing Style. Crichton's writing is engaging and when characters such as Ian Malcolm are explaining technical concepts, they are are clearly, while still being relevant to the plot.
  • Characterization. Some of the characters, such as Hammond, are rather one dimensional (though Crichton makes his narrow-minded focus disturbingly plausible).

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Children/YA--The Girl Who Owned a City

Nelson, O.T. The Girl Who Owned a City. New York: Laurel Leaf, 1977.

"A killing virus has swept the earth, sparing only children through the age of twelve. There is chaos everywhere, even in formerly prosperous mid-America. Gangs and fierce armies of children begin to form almost immediately. It would be the same for children on Grand Avenue but for Lisa, a ten-year-old girl who becomes their leader. Because of Lisa, they have food, even toys, in abundance. And now they can protect themselves from the fierce gangs that roam the neighborhoods. But for how long? Then Lisa conceives the idea of a fortress, a city in which the children could live safely and happily always, and she intends to lead them there." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Strong Female Character.  As an antidote to some young adult fiction that girls read these days, it is nice to have a book where the main character is not worried about boys.  Rather, Lisa is worried about surviving by some method other than violence.
  • Premise.  The appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is seeing ordinary people survive and even thrive.  What is more interesting than seeing the weakest and most unprepared members of society, children, attempting to face what we might consider grown-up challenges.
  • Violence. There is fighting, children with guns, and other potentially problematic behaviors in this book.  Usually, this is limited to the "bad guys" of the story, but in some cases the good guys, too.  It's not on the scale of The Hunger Games.

Monday, June 20, 2011

American Gods

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: Harper Torch, 2001. 588 pages.

"Shadow is a man with a past. But now he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life with his wife and stay out of trouble. Until he learns that she's been killed in a terrible accident. Flying home for the funeral, as a violent storm rocks the plane, a strange man in the seat next to him introduces himself. The man calls himself Mr. Wednesday, and he knows more about Shadow than is possible. He warns Shadow that a far bigger storm is coming. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same." (description from book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Premise. As he admits in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Neil Gaiman is not the first author to discuss what gods, both modern and the modern fates of the increasingly archaic.  Yet Gaiman's sweeping narrative says so much about modern faith, but also how gods feel about being left behind. But more than that, as a non-native of the U.S., Gaiman is able to present an unflinching view about how this country treats gods, and it is fascinating.
  • Narrative Style.  In order to add substance to the feelings of the gods in America, the narrative jumps back in time to present stories of how different gods were brought to America by the beliefs of immigrants.  This not only highlights the breadth of the gods that came here, but how the difference in life here made it hard for them to survive.
  • Narrative Style.  While the stories presented in the flashbacks enhances the overall message of the novel, there are times when the main story line is so engrossing that the sudden shift in story feels jarring.
  • Language, Sex, Violence.  This is always a personal choice moment, but there is plenty of profanity, explicit sex (see "Somewhere in America" at the end of chapter 1), and quite a bit of violence.  If none of those are your cup of tea, then be forewarned.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Friday: Gone with the Wind

Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Pocket Books, 1964. 1448 pages.

"Many novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone with the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives. In the inimitable Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, Margaret Mitchell not only conveyed a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, she also created the two most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet" (description from book cover)

Overall Review: **** (our of five)

  • Writing.  Everything else aside, Margaret Mitchell is a damn fine writer.  She's not afraid of using complicated words and language (unlike some modern authors I could mention) and her descriptions are vivid and lasting.
  • History. While her view is undoubtedly biased, Mitchell's descriptions of life during the Civil War and Reconstruction are painful and haunting, and (from my limited knowledge) fairly accurate.
  • Racism. The attitude of white Southerns towards blacks is patronizing and paternalistic, the Klu Klux Klan is a fine upstanding organization, and Northerners are crazy for thinking the Southerners mistreat their slaves.  But these sorts of items are few and far between, and are indicative of both the setting of the book and the time when Mitchell was writing.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mary Cassatt

Venezia, Mike. Mary Cassatt. Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists. Chicago: Children's Press, 1989. 32 pages.

"Mike [Venezia] believes the best way to introduce kids to art and artists is through fun. If kids can look at art in a fun way, and think of artists as real people, the exciting world of art will be open to them for the rest of their lives." (description from the book cover)

Overall Rating: **** (out of five)

  • Illustrations: Mike Venezia's original illustrations are amusing and add the the appeal of the text.  They are perfectly tailored to the young audience of the book.
  • Painting Reproductions.  The reproductions of Cassat's paintings that appear in the book are beautiful, with bright colors that would be appealing to children.
  • Text.  The text of the book is simple, well geared toward children, particularly those that are reading on their own, but it would also be good for parents to enjoy with their children.
  • Length.  The book could stand to be a little longer.  Cassatt's life was complex, and it could have benefited from slightly more exploration.  However, that is an occupational hazard of children's non-fiction, and Venezia succeeds with the limitations.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Strange Wine

Ellison, Harlan. Strange Wine. Kilimanjaro Corporation, 2008. 252 pages.

"From Harlan Ellison, whom the Washington Post regards as a 'lyric poet, satirist, explorer of odd psychological corners, and purveyor of pure horror and black comedy,' comes Strange Wine. Discover among these tales  the spirits of executed Nazi criminals who walk Manhattan streets; the damned soul of a murderess escaped from Hell; gremlins writing the fantasies of a gone-dry writer; and the exquisite Dr. D'arque Angel, who deals patients doses of death..." (description from the book cover)

Overall review: **** (four stars)

  • Variety of Tone.  This collection of short stories provides a little bit of everything.  It ranges from the lighthearted ("Working with the Little People"), to the bleak ("Croatoan), to the whimsical ("From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet"), to the cautionary ("In Fear of K").  Being short stories, the reader can choose to read what tickles his/her fancy.
  • Variety of Genre.  Ellison is a master of transcending genre.  This work contains a fairly straightforward ghost story, as well as stories of pure science fiction, stories of fantasy, and stories that go just beyond the possible.  The variety helps to keep the reader interested throughout.
  • The Introductions.  Not only did Ellison write an introduction to the whole collection, but he also wrote intros to each individual story.  As these stories were originally written and published in magazines, he had time to reflect on them before they were collected.  His comments often add insight, not only into the stories, but into the person who created them.
  • Subject Matter.  Harlan Ellison is a man of strong opinions who does not apologize for them.  The contents of some of these stories might very well make readers uncomfortable.  The first story, for example, deals not only quite bluntly with abortion (and this was first published in 1975, mind you), but with some unintended consequences thereof.  
  • Format.  The stories in the collection are in no way related.  There is no connecting thread among them.  As not everyone is a fan of short stories, this collection might not please everyone.
Favorite Stories:
  • "Working with the Little People"
  • "Hitler Painted Roses"
  • "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet"
  • "Seeing"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Almost There!

My many week long, somewhat epic, journey of reading Gone with the Wind is almost over.  With about 200 pages left (which is saying something; the whole book is 1450 pages), I hope to have it done by the end of the week.  With luck, it will be the feature of this week's Film Friday.

As for the rest of the week, tomorrow you can expect a review of Strange Wine, a collection of short stories by Harlan Ellison.  On Wednesday, look forward to Mary Cassat by Mike Venezia, one book in the "Getting to Know the World's Greatest Artists" series.

I appreciate all of the positive response to the blog so far, and I can only hope that you all continue to enjoy it and that the following will expand :)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Chevalier, Tracy. Girl with a Pearl Earring. New York: Plume, 1999. 233 pages.

 "History and fiction merge seamlessly in Tracy Chevalier's luminous novel about artistic vision and sensual awakening. Through the eyes of sixteen-year-old Griet, the world of 1660s Holland comes dazzlingly alive in this richly imaginative portrait of the young woman who inspired one of Vermeer's most celebrated paintings." (description from the book cover)

Overall rating: **** (four stars)

  • Historical Setting. Chevalier paints a fascinating picture of life in Holland in the 1660s.  Not only does the novel explore the class differences in Delft, but also the religious differences. We also get to learn about the camera obscura and its role in Vermeer's painting.
  • Characterization of Vermeer. Though the novel is about one of his paintings, we do not see Vermeer as often as we might.  He says little, but Griet observes him carefully. The other characters, however, discuss him constantly.  This character creation not only serves to keep Vermeer elusive, it also imbues his moments of presence in the story with that much more meaning.
  • Description of Painting.  One of the most beautiful aspects of this novel is the exploration of Vermeer's way of seeing the world and his method of paining.  Chevalier also provides wonderful details of some of the technical aspects of painting, such as preparing the paint itself.
  •  Motivation.  Some of the ancillary characters are more two-dimensional than they might need to be. Van Ruijven is a fairly stereotypical lecherous rich man, and Vermeer's daughter Cornelia is spite personified. While they elegantly serve their purpose, they could be more fleshed out.
  • Dialogue.  For a first person narrator, Griet is fairly silent. She thinks a great deal and listens to other characters, but she says little herself. For people who need dialogue to understand a character, this may be a problem.  The novel is highly internal, rather than based on action, and this could be a problem for some people.

Film Friday

I've settled on a tentative schedule of what I will review:
  • Mondays: Whatever I happen to be reading, what I've read in the past that just calls for a review
  • Wednesdays: Children's/Young Adult Literature
  • Fridays: Books that were turned into movies, books about the movies, movies based on books, or movies about books.
As today is Friday, expect a review later of Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring, including comments about the book versus the movie.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Schwartz, Alvin. Illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. New York: Scholastic, 1981. 109 pages.

"Phantom footsteps! Ghostly wails! Creatures that go bump in the night! Turn the lights down low. Now get ready for the fright of your life. Here are chilling, thrilling stories that will make you shiver and shake -- and make your friends quiver and quake!" (from the book cover)

Overall Review: **** (four stars)

  • Length of Stories. The stories tend to be nice and short; perfect for both the attention spans of younger children and for reading aloud at sleepovers or around the campfire.
  • Historical Notes. The notes at the end of the book are invaluable.  Not only does Schwartz discuss the various types of ghost stories/folk tales presented in the book, he discusses his sources for the stories and presents reasonably comprehensive lists of references.  These notes enhance the interest of the collection for precocious children and older audiences.
  • Illustrations. Stephen Gammell's illustrations, replaced with more toned-down drawings in the latest edition, add to the ambiance of the book.  They are creepy and are what I personally most remembered of the book as I grew up (according to reviews on Amazon, the same is true of many readers).
  • Read-aloud-ability. That isn't a word, but the stories lend themselves well to recitation (as do most folk tales, being from oral traditions), and some include instructions on what the narrator should do while reading the story.  It would be a good way for young readers to practice reading aloud.
  • Subject Matter of Stories. This book and its sequels have been highly challenged over the years for the sometimes disturbing subject matter.  The stories are simple, but they are not watered down.  If you are the type of parent who objects to stories of ghosts and Sweeny Todd-style cannibalism, then perhaps you should monitor your child's reading of this book and its sequels.
  • Illustrations.  Gammell's drawings are, to quote The Horn Book, "ghoulish."  Creepy and disturbing are further appropriate words.  In some instances, the illustrations are more disturbing than the actual stories.  Of course, this is solved by the new illustrations in the latest edition.  Again, parental oversight is important when it comes to what children read.  For older children and adults, however, both the stories and the illustrations are likely to simply send good shivers down the spine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Madame Tussaud

Moran, Michelle. Madame Tussaud. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. 448 pages.

"Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire.  From her popular model  of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie's museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics....Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war?  And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?  Spanning five years, from the budding revolution to the Reign of Terror, Madame Tussaud brings us into the world of an incredible heroine whose talent for wax modeling saved her life and preserved the faces of a vanquished kingdom." (description from the book dust jacket)

Overall rating: **** (four stars)

  • Main Character. Marie Grosholtz (later Tussaud) was a strong, single career woman back before such a thing really existed. Her story is compelling and provides and excellent platform for a book about the horrible tragedy that was the French Revolution.
  • Other Historical Figures. Some of the most fascinating historical developments in the book relate to the more ancillary characters, such as Robespierre or Marat.  We see the change in Robespierre from talkative commoner at a political salon to the architect of the Reign of Terror.  And seeing Marat through Marie's eyes, it is less than sad when he is stabbed in his bath.  
  • French Culture. The presentation of the importance of the newspapers and Marie's Salon as venues for new is a fascinating insight into life very much before the information age.
  • Historical Liberties. It is a historical novel and, as such, the writer has altered some bits of history in the narrative to make for a better story (which she addresses very well in her historical note at the end).
  • Character Development. There are a few times near the beginning of the book when a character has a change of heart or does something without what seems like adequate motivation.  These moments are rare and fade out, so they do not detract too much.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Da Vinci Code

Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Doubleday: New York, 2003. 452 pages.

"While in Paris on business, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon receives an urgent late-night phone call. The elderly curator of the Louvre has been murdered inside the museum, a baffling cypher found near the body. As Langdon and a gifted French cryptologist, Sophie Neveu, sort through the bizarre riddles, they are stunned to discover a trail of clues hidden in the works of Da Vinci....Langdon and Neveu find themselves matching wits with a faceless powerbroker who appears to anticipate their every move. Unless they can decipher the labrynthine puzzle, the Priory's secret--and an explosive ancient truth--will be lost forever." (description from the book dust jacket)

Overall review: *** (three stars)

  • Pacing.  The book keeps a fairly constant fast pace which draws the reader quickly through the book without making it feel like the mysteries and riddles are being solved too quickly.
  • Riddles.  Sometimes "obvious" sounding riddles or prophecies in stories can end up having solutions that seem to be stretching credulity a bit (see "no man of woman born" in Macbeth).  Brown's linguistic puzzles, however, are well-constructed with reasonable and fitting solutions.
  • General Plot.  Despite some weaknesses (see below), the plot is engaging and hooks the reader fairly early, even if you disagree with some of the interpretations presented by the characters.
  • Character Motivation.  At times the motivation of the characters feels contrived or convenient rather than realistic. Characters should never feel as though they are simply serving the plot at the convenience of the author.
  • Conspiracy Theories.  Yes, the theories presented in this book are compelling.  However, there are times when characters seem to be making interpretations that seem a bit far-fetched. (Let's face it: sometimes men in Renaissance art look like our idea of women.  That's just the way it is.  See the angel in the Virgin of the Rocks, about which Dan Brown makes other comments.  Totally looks like a chick.)
  • Portrayal of Religion.  Despite some comments obviously tossed in to show that the book is not anti-religion, the Catholic Church is not portrayed in a particularly flattering light.  This may or may not bother readers, depending on their religious inclinations and feelings about Catholicism.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Llama Lama Red Pajama

Dewdney, Anna. Llama Llama Red Pajama. New York: Viking, 2005. 30 pages.

"A bedtime story. A good-night kiss. And Mama Llama turns of the light. But is everything all right? NO! At least, Baby Llama doesn't think so. . . .And soon his whimpers turn to hollers. It's an all-out llama drama! Until Mama returns to set things right." (description from the book jacket)

Overall review: **** (four stars)

  • Fun to read aloud.  Naturally, children's picture books are meant to be read aloud by the parents, and it helps when the words and rhymes are genuinely fun to say (especially as small children, when they really like books, want them read aloud quite often).
  • Illustrations.  The illustrations are simple but enjoyable, sometimes depicting multiple scenes on one page, such as Mama Llama downstairs and Baby Llama upstairs.
  • Good story.  It is important for kids to know (especially as they get older) that their parents often have other things that they need to do, and just because they are not with their kids all the time does not mean that they don't love and care about them.  I imagine that most parents will sympathize with Mama Llama's plight of trying to get things done after she has put Baby Llama to bed, until Baby Llama throws a fit.
  • I find myself unable to think of any weaknesses for this book...hmm.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or On the Segregation of the Queen

King, Laurie R. The Beekeeper's Apprentice: Or On the Segregation of the Queen. New York: Picador, 1994. 346 pages.

"In 1915, Sherlock Holmes is retired and quietly engaged in the study of honeybees when a young woman literally stumbles into him on the Sussex Downs.  Fifteen years old, gawky, egotistical, and recently orphaned, the young Mary Russell displays intellect to impress even Sherlock Holmes--and match him wit for wit. Under his reluctant tutelage, this very modern twentieth-century woman proves a deft protegee and a fitting partner for the Victorian detective." (description from the book cover)

Overall rating: ***** (five stars)

  • Subtle social commentary.  Though this book is not about WWI, many interesting observations are made of the effect of the war on British society.  This is a theme which becomes more important in later books.
  • Narrative style.  The book is told in first person narration by someone who is looking back over past experiences.  This often leads to amusing side notes by the narrator. ("Looking back I am deeply embarrassed at the effrontery of a girl not yet nineteen pointing her finger at a man nearly three times her age, and her teacher to boot, but at the time it seemed appropriate.")
  • The mysteries.  In many mystery books, such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot stories and the original Holmes stories by Doyle, the detective is entirely outside the case, with the only personal thing at stake being the detective's reputation. King is not afraid to bring the mysteries home to her protagonists, giving us more emotional insight in the psychological tolls of such work.
  • Characterization. Not only are the two main characters both fully-fleshed, real people with plenty of strengths and flaws, the minor characters are never treated just as handy tools to move along the plot.
  • Chronology.  Early in the book, the narration skips about in time a bit, making it a wee bit difficult to keep the chronology straight until the book has settled back down into a more linear structure.
  • Appropriation of an already existing character.  This is not a problem for me, but for anyone who is a Sherlock Holmes purist and who strongly disapproves of anyone trying to write stories about someone else's characters, I would not recommend reading this. 

"Begin at the beginning..."

So, I've decided, just for the heck of it, to start keeping a blog reviewing the books I'm reading, as well as maybe posting various random book-related thoughts.  I'm a graduate student in library science and history, a new aunt, and an all around bibliovore, so I hope that I should be able to talk about a wide variety of books.  Depending on my mood, I might even look at movies based on books, but we'll see :)  I also hope to cover both older and newer books.  Just because something was published before I was born does not make it undeserving of reading today.

I might start by importing some book reviews from Goodreads, where I keep track of the books I read and the books I own.  Feel free to comment and share your opinions about any books I'm discussing!

Guide to Ratings (following the Goodreads method):
* (one star) = disliked
** (two stars) = neutral (it was okay)
*** (three stars) = liked
**** (four stars) = really liked
***** (five stars) = loved 
Keep in mind that these ratings are purely subjective.  In addition, for full reviews with stars, I will try to always include a list of the strengths and weaknesses of a book to help readers understand my rating and to help them make an informed opinion as to whether they would like to read it.

Note: I will try to tag each post so that readers can easily find posts relating to their interests.  I'll tag by author, by form (novel, non-fiction, short story, etc.) and anything else that seems pertinent.