Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Summer Reading Challenge 2009 Completed

I've been putting this off for a week now, hoping to get a few more reviews written. But since the Summer Reading Challenge ended along with the season on September 21, I suppose I should go ahead and post my wrap-up before we're all buried under snow.

The Challenge was hosted by Susan at A Southern Daydreamer Reads, and it was one of my favorite kinds of reading challenge – hardly any rules, read what you want. Here's what I read (with links to reviews):

  1. The Valley of Fear. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Angel's Game. Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  3. Sacred Hearts. Sarah Dunant
  4. The Fire. Katherine Neville
  5. Grave Goods. Ariana Franklin
  6. Fear the Worst. Linwood Barclay
  7. Rabbit Is Rich. John Updike
  8. Victory Over Japan. Ellen Gilchrist
  9. Dance of Death. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
  10. The Man in the Picture. Susan Hill
  11. The Woman in Black. Susan Hill
  12. New Year's Eve. Lisa Grunwald

I'll get those missing reviews up later this week – well, most of them anyway. I pretty much enjoyed all the books I read (at least I don't regret any of them), and a few of them (especially Sacred Hearts and Rabbit Is Rich) are probably going on my list of all-time favorites. Just want to say thanks so much to Susan for hosting such a fun, hassle-free summer event.

Teaser Tuesdays: Last One In September

My teaser this week is from The Inn at Lake Devine, by Elinor Lipman. I haven't actually started it yet, as I'm still finishing up the book I was reading last week (Ruth Rendell's From Doon with Death). My reading has slowed down a bit lately, but I'm trying to get myself back on track.

Anyway, this excerpt (yes, I know – more than two lines again – tsk! tsk!) is from page 46 of the paperback edition, and the young main character (Natalie?) is checking out the bedroom of a new friend:
A baby doll in what I would soon learn was a christening gown was under the covers, the blanket tucked under her rubber armpits. "Her name's Annette," said Gretel.

I asked her if Annette was named after Annette the Mouseketeer, because I used to have a boy doll I called Cubby.

"No, she's not," said Gretel, an obvious lie, since there was only one Annette in the universe.
Well, it did seem that way back in the early '60s, didn't it? Not that I expect anyone besides me remembers the early '60s (I'm the Oldest Woman in the World). But Annette was certainly very famous at the time, and seemed to be everywhere. She was, however, not my favorite of the Mouse People – I thought Annette was talented and pretty, but boring. I always liked Darlene best – sadly, she had a rather unfortunate history in later life (as far as I know, Darlene was the only one of the original Mouseketeers who served jail time).

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Recent Sadness

This week we have two Booking Through Thursday questions. Let me answer the second question first. "Is any body getting bored with this series of 'recent' questions?" OK, now that you mention it – I am beginning to wonder why I keep coming back here every week. Well, actually I sat out last week's entry because it seemed to me I'd just answered the same question a week or so earlier. (Yawn!) But I'm a creature of habit, so I couldn't stay away very long.

And now for the main topic: "What’s the saddest book you’ve read recently?" This one's hard for me because, in general, I try not to read books I know are going to be terribly sad. (Hello. My name is Joy and I'm a wuss.) I suppose the last couple of books I read, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black and Lisa Grunwald's New Year's Eve might fit the category because they both involved the deaths of young children. Sad events, yes – but the books themselves were more disturbing than sad.I think the book that had the heaviest emotional impact for me recently was Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons. It's the story of an 11-year-old orphan struggling to survive in a world full of abusive and neglectful adults. However, even though some parts of the book are absolutely heart-wrenching, it still contains quite a bit of humor, too; and I really didn't find the overall feel of the book to be sad or depressing.

As I say, I usually avoid books that I know are going to be downers. Don't read war novels, or books about the Holocaust. Stay away from Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult. I'm very careful about books with animals in them. And I've put off reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking for about four years now, even though she's one of my favorite authors – not sure I'll ever build up the courage to face that one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: New Year's Eve

Written by Lisa Grunwald
Crown Publishers, Inc., 1997; 366 pages

Description from GoodReads:
Ghosts haunt the pages of Lisa Grunwald's novel, New Year's Eve. The book opens on New Year's Eve 1985. Erica and her twin sister, Heather, are celebrating the occasion as they do every year, with their husbands and widowed father. Both women are pregnant, due within weeks of each other. Over the years, the sisters have grown apart, and with the death of their mother, their already distant father has become even more difficult to reach. When the babies are born a few months later, it seems that these new "twins" will become the bond reuniting this family. Then, a few years later, Heather's son, David, is killed in an accident and Erica's daughter begins receiving "visits" from him. Soon, the visits drive this family even farther apart than before as Heather desperately clings to the tenuous connection with her dead son while Erica fights to keep her daughter rooted among the living.
My Thoughts

I should say right away that this book was actually un-put-down-able. Grunwald is a fine writer, and knows how to tell a story. It kept me up all hours, gobbling up the pages – so I was able to finish it in just a couple of days. Which is unusual for me. I enjoyed it, but it made me crazy, too. Not the spooky part – because although there is a ghostly presence in the book in the form of Erica's dead nephew David, the novel really isn't a traditional ghost tale. It's a story of sibling rivalry, family history, family secrets, and the ways in which we handle the loss of loved ones.

But while I enjoyed the book overall, there were things about it that I found not particularly attractive. I thought the ending was weak – after the major crisis, things just seem to sort of dwindle and the action fades away. And I found the whole story of Erica and Heather and the interaction between them and the rest of their family frustrating and irritating, and at times not altogether believable. The family is alarmingly insular, self-contained, and self-absorbed; their relationships claustrophobic and suffocating. Not only do the twins spend every single New Year's Eve of their lives with their parents and each other – they seem to have no social contacts outside the family, aside from a few colleagues and servants. No wonder the kid starts seeing ghosts!

Reading this book, the holiday I kept thinking of was not New Year's Eve, but Festivus, the alternate-Christmas event from the Seinfeld TV show. But the family in Grunwald's novel never quite make it to the Feats of Strength – they're completely mired down in the Airing of Grievances. Almost every chapter could have begun and ended with Frank Costanza's line, "I got a lot of problems with you people!"

After a while, I simply lost patience with Erica and her inability to make a break with the people she believed were threatening her child, as well as her own security and happiness. I don't think I would have put up with it so long. But then, I'm not a mother or a twin, or even a sibling – another reader might feel Grunwald got the dynamics just right. And, of course, if Erica had come to her senses early on, there wouldn't have been a story to tell, would there?

I did enjoy the book even though I had a few problems with it along the way. It's a good family drama with lots of suspense, spooky overtones and interesting, if sometimes frustrating, characters. A good read, but not a great one.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays: First Inspector Wexford

This week, I'm reading From Doon with Death, by Ruth Rendell. It's the first in her long-running series of detective novels featuring Inspector Wexford. I've read several of the later books in the series, and decided I needed to go back and see where it all started. In this bit, Wexford and his partner are hashing over the suspects in their murder case – and, naturally, the victim's husband is their best bet:
". . . The thing is, I can't think of a motive."
"Oh, motive," Wexford said. "Any husband's got a motive."
[p. 40]
Now, Inspector, is that a nice thing to say? Probably pretty accurate, though. Well, except for my own hubby, who's married to the world's most perfect wife.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Random Notes: Today in Bookish History

Several of my favorite people were born on this day, including a couple of great writers. H.G. Wells was born on September 21st in 1866, and Leonard Cohen in 1934.

Also, according to Wikipedia, today marks the anniversary of the first publication of Tolkien's The Hobbit in 1937. Frodo Lives!

And the New York Times tells us that on September 21, 1897, The New York Sun ran an editorial that answered the famous question from 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, "Is there a Santa Claus?" So little Virginia was already thinking about Saint Nick in September. What a retailer she would have made!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fall Into Reading 2009

Well, you finish one challenge, you start another – right? I just wrapped up the Battle of the Prizes Challenge, so now I'm signing up for Callapidder Days' Fall Into Reading 2009 challenge. It begins September 22 and ends December 20. It's a "fun, low-pressure reading challenge" without too many rules, and with no real limits on the books you can read. To read all the guidelines, and join the challenge, just visit the sign-up page here.

The only real requirement is to post a list of books you think you might like to read during the challenge, so I've pulled together a short list to work from. Most of these titles have been on my TBR stack for a while now, but I'm also including a few newcomers. The list, of course, is subject to change, but I'm hoping to get through at least of few of these:

  • Homer & Langley. E.L. Doctorow
  • If on a winter's night a traveler. Italo Calvino
  • Lethal Legacy. Linda Fairstein
  • Liberty. Garrison Keillor
  • People of the Book. Geraldine Brooks
  • Play It As It Lays. Joan Didion
  • Seek My Face. John Updike
  • The Inn at Lake Devine. Elinor Lipman
  • The Lost Symbol. Dan Brown
  • The Rapture. Liz Jensen

As the challenge goes on, you can check out my modified list on my progress page here.

This challenge should be a big help in my attempt to read fifty books this year. As far as other reading goals, I really just have one perpetual goal – to keep myself reading as much as possible. Sounds simple, I know, but I'm a terrible back-slider.

Battle of the Prizes Challenge Completed

OK, I know I should have done this weeks ago; the challenge actually ended September 7th. So I'm very late getting this wrap-up posted. No excuses, really – I just had trouble making myself write the reviews and I was waiting around until I got that done.

The Battle of the Prizes Challenge was hosted by Rose City Reader, and it was one of my favorites among all the challenges I've participated in. It didn't require a huge number of books, and it spurred me to read three really wonderful works, all of which had been on my TBR list for many years – and at least two of which I probably never would have tackled without the incentive this challenge provided.

The three books I read were (with links to my reviews):
I enjoyed all three books, and although I was just the tiniest bit disappointed by the Welty and the Gilchrist works, I can still say without a doubt that they're both deserving of their awards. I think reading about them for so many years probably just built up unreasonable expectations in my mind. My favorite of the three was Rabbit Is Rich. It's a beautifully written book about a really intriguing character – and it's made me want to read all the other "Rabbit" books Updike wrote (can't be bad, right?).

I want to thank Rose City Reader for hosting, and all the other participants for keeping it interesting. I believe a similar challenge is in the works for next year, so if you're interested or just want to see the list of reviews and wrap-up posts, just pay a visit here.

Review: Victory Over Japan

Written by Ellen Gilchrist
Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1984; 277 pages

From the publisher's description:

In her second collection, winner of the National Book Award, Ellen Gilchrist creates an unforgettable group of Southern women, enchanted and enchanting, who cavort through life, in and out of bars, marriages, and divorces, through the world of art and culture, drug busts, lovers' arms, and even earthquakes, in an attempt to find, if not happiness, at least some satisfaction. . . . Ms. Gilchrist has her own unique literary voice – and it is outrageously funny, moving, tragic, and always appealing.

My Thoughts

I read Ellen Gilchrist's first collection of stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981) about a quarter century ago. I was living in northern Louisiana, and her tales of young Southern women trying to escape the bonds of their upper-class lives while still enjoying the privileges of those lives, struck a deep chord in my psyche. Do psyches have chords? Oh well, you know what I mean – I liked the darn book. A lot. In fact, I liked it enough to reread it at least once, and recommend it to anyone looking for interesting contemporary Southern fiction.

But for some reason, I'd never followed up with any of Gilchrist's later work. She's not a terribly prolific writer, but she's published quite a few other collections of stories, as well as several novels. And when I decided to read Victory Over Japan for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge, I was looking forward to getting reacquainted with an old favorite.

Well, maybe it's just that my circumstances have altered a lot over the years or that as I've gotten older my tastes have inevitably changed. But I have to admit I was a little disappointed in this collection. Not a lot disappointed – but a bit. It's not that the stories aren't well written – they definitely are that; Gilchrist is one of the finest short fiction writers around. But where the characters in "Dreamy Dreams" were complicated and endearing, I found most of the figures in this second collection unappealing, self-involved, and occasionally just boring. Strange, since some of the characters are present in both books – well, as I said, maybe the problem is just a change in my literary tastes.

Few of the people in this collection seem to have any purpose or aim in life other than having a good time, and they are frequently mean, selfish, and destructive – bad news for anyone who comes into contact with them. Well, I suppose we're all mean, selfish, and destructive sometimes – that's pretty realistic, but also pretty overwhelming when you confront it over and over again in each tale.

I believe my favorite story in the book was the first one, the eponymous "Victory Over Japan." In it, third-grader Rhoda Manning (one of Gilchrist's recurring characters) befriends a classmate, Billy Monday, who was bitten by a squirrel and forced to undergo a series of rabies shots. Sounds pretty horrendous, I know, but the story is actually filled with Gilchrist's brand of sardonic whimsy and humor. Rhoda decides to "interview" Billy for the school newspaper, and sets out to get to know him better. While working together on the school's paper drive (remember those?), they have a brief encounter with a man who may or may not be a closet pedophile – a corner of his basement is filled with magazines featuring pictures of "naked children on every page." And when Rhoda finally tries to tell her mother about the incident, she's side-tracked by the radio news report of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan ("Strange, confused, hush-hush news that said we had a bomb bigger than any bomb ever made and we had already dropped it on Japan and half of Japan was sinking into the sea."). That night, Rhoda dreams she's flying an airplane carrying the bomb to Japan:
Off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high into the sky. I dropped one on the brick house where the bad man lived, then took off for Japan. Down we dive, spouting a flame from under. Off with one hell of a roar. We live in flame. Buckle down in flame. For nothing can stop the Army Air Corps. [p. 16]
Would I recommend the book? Well, not as whole-heartedly as I'd recommend In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. I'd definitely recommend starting with that earlier work; but if you're interested in the literature of the contemporary American South, Gilchrist should certainly be on your reading list. She has an amazing ear for those wonderful southern speech patterns and crazy stories. And no one can beat her when it comes to evoking the modern South, especially New Orleans (albeit the pre-Katrina city, of course) and Louisiana. Here she is, in her story "Crazy, Crazy, Now Showing Everywhere," summing up the state in one short paragraph:
They were on the causeway now, the long concrete bridge that connects New Orleans with the little fishing villages across the lake. Mandeville, old live oaks along the seawall, old houses mildewing in the moist thick air. Evangeline, the moss-covered trees seem to call. Tragedies, mosquitoes, malaria, yellow fever, priests and nuns and crazy people. [p. 87]
So, even though I found this collection uneven and not as dazzling as her debut work, I still believe Ellen Gilchrist is a writer everyone should know.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays: A Ghostly Duo

I'm reading ghost stories this week. I've started my reading for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Finished off The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill (review will be up later this week), and now I'm enjoying The Woman in Black by the same author. This snippet comes from page 61 of The Woman in Black:
"Now, however, as I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in their sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe – and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw – as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed – must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her."
Wow – desperate, yearning malevolence sounds very promising, doesn't it? In a ghost story, I mean. Both these books are creepy but stylish tales of the supernatural, and remind me very much of the master of the genre, M.R. James. And The Woman in Black has an even more familiar feel about it; I'm wondering if it might have been made into a film or TV show I've seen. Have to check into that. But right now, I'm getting right back to that desperate malevolence!

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday Salon: On a Sunny Sunday

This will be short and - well, maybe not sweet, but short anyway. Federer and Djokovic are in the midst of the Men's Semi-Finals at the US Open, the Redskins are losing to the Giants, and M is getting ready to start grilling the salmon for dinner. There's a new "Inspector Lewis" on Masterpiece Mystery tonight, and a new episode of Mad Men later on. So I can see I'm not likely to get much reading done tonight. Hope to get back on track tomorrow.

The week just past was actually a pretty good week in reading for me. Although I didn't finish any books, I did get several reviews posted:
And since I've really been lagging behind in that department lately, it felt pretty good. Now if I can just make myself sit down and write a review of Ellen Gilchrist's Victory Over Japan, I'll be able to wrap up the Battle of the Prizes Challenge - which would be nice, as the challenge ended over a week ago! Yes, I'm old, but I'm slow.

And that's about all I've got for now. We've had some really beautiful weather today - one of those gorgeous end-of-summer days with lots of sunshine, low humidity, and a nice breeze through the poplars out front. It was very welcome coming after the wet, gloomy, cooler than normal week we've just survived. Even so, fall is definitely in the air around here now. And, although it's been a couple of generations since I was a schoolgirl, that kind of weather always makes me want to start drawing up my reading plans and looking forward to the books of autumn. How about you?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Rabbit Is Rich

Written by John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 1981; 467 pages

From the publisher's description:

The hero of John Updike's Rabbit, Run (1960), ten years after the hectic events described in Rabbit Redux (1971), has come to enjoy considerable prosperity as Chief Sales Representative of Springer Motors, a Toyota agency in Brewer, Pennsylvania. The time is 1979: Skylab is falling, gas lines are lengthening, the President collapses while running in a marathon, and double-digit inflation coincides with a deflation of national confidence. Nevertheless, Harry Angstrom feels in good shape, ready to enjoy life at last – until his son, Nelson, returns from the West, and the image of an old love pays a visit to his lot. New characters and old populate these scenes from Rabbit's middle age, as he continues to pursue, in his erratic fashion, the rainbow of happiness.

My Thoughts

John Updike, who died this year at age 77, published more than twenty novels and more than a dozen short story collections. In addition, he wrote poetry, essays, art and literary criticism, and even children's books. He wrote regularly for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. But of all his writings, the series of novels centering around Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom and his family, are probably the most well-known. Two of the books, Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit At Rest, won the Pulitzer Prize. And Rabbit Is Rich also won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Over the years, I've read a bit of Updike's short fiction and some of his essays. But before I read Rabbit Is Rich, I'd only read one of his other novels – The Poorhouse Fair, his first published novel from 1959. I read it many years ago, in college, and have only the vaguest memory of it now. So I really didn't know exactly what to expect from the RIR book; but my husband has read all the Rabbit books and was always very enthusiastic about them, so when the Battle of the Prizes Challenge came along, I decided to give Rabbit a try.

And it was a very good decision. Rabbit Is Rich is a beautifully written portrait of a fascinating, maddening, imperfect but attractive man and the people who come in and out of his life during one very eventful year. It's filled with lots of wonderful, annoying and lovable characters. Harry ruminates endlessly on life and its complexity and mystery. He thinks about religion and wonders about the existence or non-existence of God. He also thinks a lot about sex. Actually, he thinks mostly about sex, in one way or another. In fact, there's quite a lot of sex in the book (some of it pretty raunchy), including an episode where Harry and his wife Janice indulge in a little "wife-swapping" while on a tropical vacation trip with friends from their club back home. Well, it's the '70s, you know. Oh, and the language isn't always the most genteel. So if that's something that bothers you, this might not be your cup of literary tea.

The book is written entirely from Harry's point of view, although he doesn't exactly narrate the story. Updike uses a sort of stream of consciousness style that's a bit startling at first – Harry's mental gymnastics can be a little challenging to follow. For example, here we have the scene of Harry going for a run in the evening after dinner:
Tonight he pushes himself as far as Kegerise Street, a kind of alley that turns downhill again, past black-sided small factories bearing mysterious new names like Lynnex and Data Development and an old stone farmhouse that all the years he was growing up had boarded windows and a yard full of tumbledown weeds milkweed and thistle and a fence of broken slats but now was all fixed up with a little neat sign outside saying Albrecht Stamm Homestead and inside all sorts of authentic hand-made furniture and quaint kitchen equipment to show what a farmhouse was like around 1825 and in cases in the hall photographs of the early buildings of Mt. Judge before the turn of the century but not anything of the fields when the area of the town was in large part Stamm's farm, they didn't have cameras that far back or if they did didn't point them at empty fields. [p. 228]
That's all one sentence – weaving in and out of Harry's mind, from the physical fact of the street and its buildings, into Harry's memories of the place, and back out again. As I said, Updike's style here can take some getting used to. But after a while, as you become accustomed to Harry's rhythms, the text flows almost as smoothly and freely as if Harry's thoughts were your own. And, depending on how you feel about Rabbit Angstrom and his libido, that can be rather exhilarating or quite disturbing – or even both at the same time.

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbit Is Rich comes toward the book's end:
Maybe the dead are gods, there's certainly something kind about them, the way they give you room. What you lose as you age is witnesses, the ones that watched from early on and cared, like your own little grandstand. [p. 462]
And while death comes into the book quite a lot – or thoughts about death and dying – it still manages to be a strangely uplifting tale. Updike reportedly said he found it difficult to end the book, because he was "having so much fun" with Rabbit and his family and friends. And I felt a little that way, too, reading the book's last pages. Even though his son has disappointed him over and over, his mother-in-law might have to move in with him and his wife, and he thinks he may have ruined himself financially by buying the new house he's been wanting for so long, Harry is a contented man in the book's final scene. He sits in his study, watching the Steelers on TV, and holding his newborn granddaughter for the first time:
Through all this she has pushed to be here, in his lap, his hands, a real presence hardly weighing anything but alive. Fortune's hostage, heart's desire, a granddaughter. His. Another nail in his coffin. His.
And fortunately for me, there are three more books in the series, so I don't have to leave Harry's world forever. Now I just need to go back and read the first two books so I can find out how Rabbit and company arrived at this place and time. Definitely something to look forward to.

Review: The Old Man and Me

Written by Elaine Dundy
New York Review Books, 2009; 231 pages

This review refers to an advance uncorrected proof of the novel.

From the publisher's description:
In The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy laid bare the life of the young expatriate in 1950s Paris in all its hilarious and heartbreaking drama. With The Old Man and Me, Dundy tackles the American Girl in 1960s London, a bit older, but certainly no wiser. Honey Flood (if that's her real name) is determined to make the Soho scene, and she'll know she's arrived when she snags its greatest prize, the literary star C.D. McKee.

Set in an early sixties London just beginning to swing, The Old Man and Me is populated by hipsters, pill-poppers, literary upstarts, would-be bohemians, and titled divorcees matching wits in smoky nightclubs and Mayfair flats. By the time Honey gets what she thinks she's after, she may find that the world she was hell bent on conquering has gotten the better of her.

My Thoughts

I read this novel some months ago, and almost decided not to review it. But as it was an advance readers copy, from Library Thing's Early Reviewer program, I did a short review for the LT site. And I'm just now getting it posted here. Yes, I know – disgracefully tardy. Well, it's been that kind of year, folks.

I was really hoping to love this book; the publisher's synopsis about "an early sixties London just beginning to swing" made it sound so attractive. But in the end, I thought the tale of Honey Flood and her quest to meet and win the affections of famous man-about-town C.D. McKee just fell flat. Dundy was a talented writer, but it seems to me she was trying a bit too hard to be cute and outrageous here. I think much of the problem might be that Dundy just made the mistake of not following that old rule: write about what you know. Honey/Betsy Lou is supposed to be roughly my own generation, but Dundy herself was almost exactly the same age as my mother. Now there's really no reason why authors shouldn't be able to write convincingly about those younger or older than themselves, but in this case, I think Dundy just didn't get the era or mind set of the early 1960s quite right.

The basic story is interesting and has a mystery from out of the past at its heart. But it unfolds so slowly and circuitously that by the time I found out just why Honey is dead set on marrying (and/or murdering) C.D. McKee, I was so bored with the whole endeavor, I had to force myself to keep turning the pages. I wasn't charmed by Honey/Betsy Lou, or any of the other characters – except maybe C.D. himself. As a matter of fact, I really didn't find a single admirable or sympathetic character in the novel, with the possible exception of Pauly, Honey's young stepmother who's already dead when the story begins. In general, although the book is well-written and a relatively fast easy read, I thought it hit just short of the mark.

Review: Grave Goods

Written by Ariana Franklin
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009; 337 pages

From the publisher's description:
England, 1176. Beautiful, tranquil Glastonbury Abbey – one of England’s holiest sites, and believed by some to be King Arthur’s sacred Isle of Avalon – has been burned almost to the ground. The arsonist remains at large, but the fire has uncovered something even more shocking: two hidden skeletons, a man and a woman. The skeletons’ height and age send rumors flying – are the remains those of Arthur and Guinevere?

King Henry II hopes so. Struggling to put down a rebellion in Wales, where the legend of Celtic savior Arthur is particularly strong, Henry wants definitive proof that the bones are Arthur’s. If the rebels are sure that the Once and Future King will not be coming to their aid, Henry can stamp out the insurgence for good. He calls on Adelia Aguilar, Mistress of the Art of Death, to examine the bones.

Henry’s summons comes not a moment too soon, for Adelia has worn out her welcome in Cambridge. As word of her healing powers has spread, so have rumors of witchcraft. So Adelia and her household ride to Glastonbury, where the investigation into the abbey fire will be overseen by the Church authorities – in this case, the Bishop of St. Albans, who happens also to be the father of Adelia’s daughter.

My Thoughts

Grave Goods is the third book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series by British author and journalist Diana Norman, writing under her Ariana Franklin pseudonym; it was published in Britain as Relics of the Dead. (Not sure why they changed the title for the American market – it seems to me that Relics of the Dead is a much neater and more descriptive title.) But when I saw the book in the library, it reached out and grabbed me, and I had to take it home and read it, even though I hadn't read any of the earlier novels in the series. I worried about that at first, but once I got into the story I didn't really have any trouble figuring out relationships and the histories of the various characters.

And there are quite a roster of characters, both new and returning from the earlier novels, including Adelia's young daughter Allie; Gyltha, Adelia's faithful companion and Allie's nurse; Adelia's friend, the aristocratic Emma, Lady Wolvercote, the subject of the book's main subplot; and Mansur, the Muslim protector who also masquerades as Adelia's "employer," so that she can pursue her investigations without being accused of witchcraft. Then there are the monks and townspeople living in and around the Abbey, as well as a band of nasty ruffians led by the sadistic Wolf – a sort of evil twin version of Robin Hood and his merry men. Oh, and King Henry is a character, too.

So there's a lot going on, but Franklin handles it all very adroitly. And it's obvious she's done a great deal of homework on the period. She's always coming up with obscure historical tidbits like this one:
Rabbits were comparatively new to England, having been introduced by Norman lords for their fur and meat, but, thanks to the escapees from the warrens in which they were kept, they were rapidly becoming a pest to gardeners everywhere. [p. 161]
And Adelia is quite an attractive character – intelligent, quick-witted, and spunky. You do have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to accept the idea of a woman trained as a physician, and functioning as a forensic investigator for the crown, in 12th Century England – even if that woman was educated in the distant (and presumably more advanced) city of Salerno. And every now and then, the story takes on an almost science fiction feel, even for readers like myself who are willing to accept just about anything for a good read. Such as:
They laid him on the sweetgrass. He wasn't breathing. Adelia fell on him, picking soil from his nostrils. She cleared his mouth and then puffed her own breath into it. [p. 137]
Mouth-to-mouth in 1176? Well, maybe, but I have my doubts.

However, taken altogether, it's a ripping good yarn – well written, with engaging characters, and plenty of suspense, local color, and humor along the way. And when the mystery is finally solved, the answer is one I really didn't see coming, which is always something I appreciate. I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good whodunit, and I'm looking forward to going back and starting the series at the beginning – as I should have done in the first place!

Booking Through Thursday: Recent Informative

This week's Booking Through Thursday question (What’s the most informative book you’ve read recently?) is a little hard for me to answer. I mean, all books are informative in one way or another, aren't they? And even though I don't read much nonfiction, I feel that I learn something from most of the books I do read.

Several of the books I've read this year showed that their authors had done quite a lot of solid research on their subjects before writing. I'm thinking especially of The Longshot by Katie Kitamura, The Book of God and Physics by Enrique Joven, Angels & Insects by A.S. Byatt, and The Master by Colm Toibin; all of these were explorations of subjects I knew very little about when I started reading.

Recently, though, one of the books that impressed me the most was Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. Her descriptions of life in a 16th Century Italian convent were fascinating and seemed chillingly real. I had never really given much thought to what that life must have been like, particularly if you were a young woman sentenced to a life shut up behind convent walls, against your will. It's a great story that really kept me turning the pages, but also taught me a lot. And isn't that what a good historical novel should do?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays: Family Secrets

This week my teaser comes from Ellen Gilchrist's short story collection Victory Over Japan. It's one of the books I've been reading for the Battle of the Prizes Challenge. And although the challenge actually ended yesterday, I'm still reading this book and haven't quite made it to this section yet. So I'm not quite sure what the context is, but it's from the story "Crazy, Crazy, Now Showing Everywhere," and it sounds interesting:
"That's the trouble with getting drunk with your cousins," Sandor said. "They tell everything you did. We called Diane the Duchess because she always tried to boss everyone around." [p. 105]
Yes, cousins can be hard to handle – drunk or sober. Not that I ever made a habit of getting drunk with any of mine. Of course, in my family I was usually the cousin bossing all the others around! And I'm pretty sure "Duchess" would have been tame compared to some of the names they had for me.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

From Me To You Award

I've been awarded!!!

Ryan G at Wordsmithonia has very kindly given my blog the From Me to You Award. I'm extremely pleased and I'm very grateful to Ryan, especially as his blog is one I read on a regular basis – if you haven't checked it out, you should head on over there right away!

Isn't that an adorable button? Fits right in with my teddy bear collection, too!

There are plenty of bloggers I'd like to pass this one on to, so I'll have to give it a little thought and narrow down the field!

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Recent Big

This week's Booking Through Thursday topic is big books: What’s the biggest book you’ve read recently? (Feel free to think “big” as size, or as popularity, or in any other way you care to interpret.)

I suppose the "biggest" book I've read recently, in just about any way you can think of, would be the book I just finished – John Updike's Rabbit Is Rich. At 467 pages of text, it rivals Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game, which I read earlier this summer; although I believe that one is officially over 500 pages in length, the ARC I read was about 470 pages long.

Rabbit Is Rich spent 23 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list when it was first published back in 1981 – so you could say it was pretty popular. And it won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1982 (one of only half a dozen books ever to win both awards), as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1981. So it's definitely had its share of honors.

Hope to get a review of the book posted today or tomorrow. I was nudged into reading it by the Battle of the Prizes reading challenge, and it's been something of a stunner for me – I hadn't expected to like it at all, but I've been very pleasantly surprised. And I've become very fond of the book's main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, even though he cheats on his wife and is really hard on his son. He represents a sort of Everyman (or, make that Everyperson) I find quite annoyingly easy to sympathize with. Especially when he comes up with thoughts like these:
There always comes in September a parched brightness to the air that hits Rabbit two ways, smelling of apples and blackboard dust and marking the return to school and work in earnest, but then again reminding him he's suffered another promotion, taken another step up the stairs that has darkness at the head. (p. 171)
The thing about those Rotarians, if you knew them as kids you can't stop seeing the kid in them, dressed up in fat and baldness and money like a cardboard tuxedo in a play for high-school assembly. How can you respect the world when you see it's being run by a bunch of kids turned old? (p. 275)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays: Happy Families

Wow, was that summer that just zipped by? Can you believe it's September already? I say this every year, but this summer really seemed very short. And I could definitely use another couple weeks of August right now. Of course, if I had small kiddoes going back to school, I probably wouldn't feel the same way!

Ah, well. Back to the subject at hand. This week I'm starting The Horned Man by James Lasdun, one of the books I've picked for the R.I.P. IV Challenge. Or at least I think I've picked it – it hasn't passed the first-fifty-pages-test yet, but it's been on my TBR list for a while now. This snippet is a bit more than two lines (sorry about that):
The next morning my stepfather took me to the Royal Aldersbury. It was a fine spring day: the May was flowering in the hedges and the apple orchards were in bloom. We drove in silence: by tacit agreement we never spoke to each other when my mother wasn't around. [p. 85]
Hmmm. Well, that just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, now doesn't it?

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!