Sunday, September 18, 2011

Books Read, Late August / Early September

A round-up of mini-reviews for books I've read in the past few weeks but don't have the energy to write full posts for.

Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay
Library. YA. A book about family and belonging. Funny and written with a light touch but not without depth. By the end the author got me to care even about the characters I found the most frustrating (the parents). First in a series; I'd read another if it came my way, but not going to run out and get one on purpose. Age I'd let Z read it: 9 or 10, about (I think?) the protagonist's age.

Murder Must Advertise, by Dorothy Sayers
Own it. Murder mystery. A reread, so I was able to see this time around that Sayers plants the solution in the first quarter of the book and spends the rest of the time having Lord Peter be awesome. Sadly I think this lessens the book a little for me. On the plus side, I've watched all of Mad Men since the first time I read this, so was able to better appreciate the scenes in the advertising agency better, especially considering Sayers was a woman working in that field in the '20s. Crazy. Age I'd let Z read it: 13 or so. Maybe a little older considering some of the shenanigans (murder, extramarital affairs, drug use) some of the characters get up to.

A Civil Contract, by Georgette Heyer
Own it. Historical romance. A reread. This is my go-to book for whenever I feel down about being a housewife, and also the best example I've ever read of the guy getting the girl who'd be good for him even though she's not the girl he thinks he wants. Age I'd let Z read it: 15 or 16, maybe younger if she starts channeling Eponine before that.

The Silent Pool, by Patricia Wentworth
Own it. Murder mystery. Another Miss Silver; not my favorite, since the motive hangs on the murderer being a homicidal maniac, which is not really playing fair. Age I'd let Z read it: 18 or older. The book is really pretty tame but the guy who's supposed to be the hero is seriously creepy.

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Library. Historical...memoir? I never know how to label this sort of vanilla fiction. Very intricately and deftly written story of a butler recalling his career. Not exactly a happy ending but not really the downer I'd heard it was either. Am putting more Ishiguro on my to-read list. Age I'd let Z read it: This book is refreshingly free of profanity, explicit sex and violence, so I think she could read it as young as 13, but it would probably bore her. I'll leave her to discover it on her own.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Confessions From the Realm of the Underworld (Also Known as High School), by Laura Josephsen

This book gives me warm fuzzies.

It's a YA novel about a school year in the life of one Persephone 'Sephie' Benson, who thinks clichés are boring and then proceeds to live through a whole bunch of them in decidedly unboring fashion. I love the solid, loving family around Sephie, and the way those healthy relationships carry over into her equally healthy relationship with her best friend Joey. There's drama, but the way Sephie deals with it doesn't make me want to shake her and tell her to stop being stupid. She's not so perfect that I want to shake her and tell her to stop being so perfect either--the author found the sweet spot in the middle.

Age I'd let Z read it: 12 or 13. There's nothing vulgar or inappropriate here, but the drama Sephie and her family deal with is high-school level drama.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Four False Weapons, by John Dickson Carr

Hallelujah! After working through all of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers (whom I love ohsoverymuch), and then trying umpteen other whodunit writers, I thought second-rate mysteries were all that was left. It is not so!

I picked this up at a library sale based on the cover and the first page. It did not disappoint.

Published in 1937 (ah, the golden age of the whodunit), this book is well-plotted, clever, funny (I made note of a dozen lines that made me very happy), and has a solution that's twisted enough for Jonathan Creek, yet oddly satisfying.

It plays with the conventions of the genre while still being an excellent example of what you want and expect from a 1930s mystery. Instead of a climactic séance, there's a climactic card game. The detective, Bencolin, gets meta a few times. Once he pretty explicitly tells you what the solution is not going to be since it wouldn't be satisfying in a book. Another time he says he's not going to stoop to "it could only have been a man/woman" because that's nonsense--dude was calling out the clichés of the genre while they were being invented.

If I had one nitpick, it's that The Girl really gets short shrift. I didn't buy the turn her story took at the end. She's not really a character so much as the Pixie Dreamgirl (apparently already a Thing in 1937).

But even taking that into consideration, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. And now I am so, so happy, because I can go find the rest of John Dickson Carr's mysteries and read them for the first time.

Age I'd let Z read it: 12 or 13. The victim is a "poule de luxe", a high-class prostitute or kept woman, so there's naturally some reference to that.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Secret Country, by Pamela Dean

This book started out promisingly. Five modern-day kids (two sets of cousins) who are used to playing with each other every summer and acting out scenes from a "Secret Country" they've invented are separated for a summer when one set goes to Australia and the other set have to stay with their other cousins. The kids seemed real and engaging to me and I wanted to know what happened next.

What happened next is they found magic swords that can take them through a hedge into--you guessed it--the Secret Country.

And after that the story kind of fell apart for me. It sounds like a fun premise, but the story never really picks a direction. The kids spend most of their time together arguing and telling each other to shut up, and their time apart flailing without trying to communicate with each other.

The Secret Country isn't exactly as they've imagined it, which they remark on repeatedly, but instead of getting organized and trying to figure out what's going on (what the Secret Country is, whether or not it's real, who they're supposed to be in it), they alternately smash things at random and let themselves be carried along by events. It seems to be a throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach, and it gave me a headache.

The obvious idea, that the Secret Country isn't something they've invented, but rather something that they've discovered, so to speak, isn't even suggested by any of them till near the end of the book. One character keeps back information from the other kids for no apparent reason, again till nearly the end of the book. I hate that.

We're constantly told that the residents of the Secret Country are not what the kids expected, or they look or sound eerily familiar, or they give the kids or each other funny looks. But this happens so often that there's no good way to guess at what it all means.

There are riddles and mysteries, but the reader is not given any power to solve them one step ahead of the characters (in the way of a detective novel), because the answers come from information that the reader hasn't been given yet.

And maybe "answers" is the wrong word, because at the end of the book not one question that's been raised in the story has been answered yet. The author even lampshades this.* Presumably we get some answers in the second or third book of the trilogy, but frankly I'm not all that interested in slogging through a few hundred pages of petty arguments to get there.

*She also lampshaded the character keeping back information for no good reason, and the fact that after going through the events in this book, there's nothing "fun" left for the characters to do. Someone might have to kill someone else to win a war that may or may not be imaginary. I would have an easier time caring about this if the protagonists could decide for themselves what's going on.

Age I'd let Z read it: Meh. 10 or 11.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster

This is a re-read. Most of the people I grew up with read this when we were kids.

Reaction when I was a kid: This book is AWESOME! And FUNNY! And there are so many neat concepts that I'd never thought of! And wordplay I'd never heard!

Reaction now: Well, now some of what I thought was terribly clever when I was a kid seems a little simple and obvious, but it's still a very good read. And I hope that Z has the same reaction to it on her first read that I did. Because this book is all about loving knowledge and being able to put it into practice. And it's also about having fun with language.

Age I'd let Z read it: 7

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi

I had this recommended to me as good new space opera. I enjoyed it, but am a little puzzled by that descriptor. Maybe 'space opera' does not mean what I think it means. It's far-future SF, that flavor where technology is so advanced that nearly everything is mutable, and reality is several layers of artificial. The most notable idea in this novel (for me anyway) was "gevulot", privacy protocols that you can use in real life to hide your appearance and dictate just how much anyone can know or remember from their interactions with you. But there are a lot of cool ideas in here.

The characters and dialogue and settings are all great, and it never loses its sense of fun. I was totally enjoying it right up until the last few pages, when I realized that there was no way some of the big questions were going to be answered by the end (which in and of itself would have been fine--I don't need a story to resolve every mystery) but as I feared, instead of tying off the narrative, the last scene screamed "SEQUEL!" I hate that. Let the story be the story, and if you want to write another one in the same universe, fine (see Bujold, Lois McMaster: Vorkosigan Saga; Pratchett, Terry: Discworld series). But I am tired of cliffhanger series. SO VERY TIRED.

Some explicit sex and nudity, and some coarse language. The narrative also might be difficult for a younger reader to follow.

I'm withholding ultimate judgement on this until I see a sequel. If Mr. Rajaniemi can bring the thing to a satisfying conclusion--not necessarily answering all the questions, just no more cliffhangers--I'd probably let Z read it when she's about 16.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Watership Down, by Richard Adams

Watership Down

I remember this book always being on the shelf in my grade-school library. I never read it, because a glance at the cover always made me think, "Clearly this is about seafaring rabbits," and I don't know why my fantasy-loving self thought me too good for seafaring rabbits at the time, but at any rate I never read it.

Two things: It is not about seafaring rabbits, and it is awesome.

The cover already proclaims this thing a classic, so any praise of mine is superfluous. It's an adventure story--gave me the same feeling as my memories of reading Swiss Family Robinson as a child--and the world is one I thoroughly believed in. It is about rabbits.

Incorporated into the narrative are rabbit myths, which made me extremely happy. Myths or fairy tales are one of my favorite things to make up, and so it was encouraging to see that they can be used, and used well, in a modern book. (Well, relatively modern--it was published in the 70s.)

I borrowed this from a friend and intend to get a copy of my own posthaste.

Age I'd let Z read it: Whenever she wants. 8 or 9, probably.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Wicked Uncle, by Patricia Wentworth

There are two things you need to know about Miss Silver, private detective: She knits while she solves crime, and she speaks in Cough.

I always noticed that she coughed a lot, but in this book I was really impressed by the variety of things she's supposedly getting across to her audience. In the space of two pages I found coughs that were 'introductory', 'gentle', 'gracious', and 'hortatory'. I've decided to accept the absurdity, which may have been easier this time since our intrepid detective hardly features in the book at all.

All that aside, this may be my favorite Miss Silver to date. Patricia Wentworth can be quite witty and observant when she wants to be, and the whodunit is textbook. House party in the country, everyone has a motive, etc. etc. Sometimes that is exactly what you want to read.

Age I'd let Z read it: 11 or 12.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

Picked this up at a library book sale. I read a lot of Roald Dahl as a kid, but never this one; and now I can say I don't think I missed much. The plot is pretty thin and lacks that zaniness that Dahl brings to the books I did like as a kid (The BFG, Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach) -- I really didn't care whether Mr. Fox got shot by the farmers or not. Meh.

I'll probably sell or give this one away before Z's of an age to read it. Things to watch out for: gross farmers, a drunken rat, characters telling each other to shut up, glorification of theft (though that's hardly unique to this book).

Age I'd let Z read it, if she really wanted to: 7 or 8.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is a reread, well on its way to becoming a favorite. It's a small domestic drama played out over the course of 600+ pages, unfortunately left unfinished due to the author's death (but only by a chapter, which her publisher gives the details of at the end, so we know how it wraps up.)

I guess the reasons I love this book are summed up more eloquently by said publisher, thus: feel yourself caught out of an abominable wicked world, crawling with selfishness and reeking with base passions, into one where there is much weakness, many mistakes, sufferings long and bitter, but where it is possible for people to live calm and wholesome lives; and, what is more, you feel that this is at least as real a world as the other. The kindly spirit which thinks no ill looks out of her pages irradiate; and while we read them, we breathe the purer intelligence which prefers to deal with emotions and passions which have a living root in minds within the pale of salvation, and not with those that rot without it.

It's moral but never preachy, funny but never sophomoric, observant but never cruel. The heroine, Molly, is quiet and studious, and always strives (often with difficulty) to control her temper, think well of others, and do the right thing. I'm tired of heroines whose utter lack of tact and self-discipline are upheld as virtues. Please. Give me more heroines like Molly, and more books like this one.

Age I'd let Z read it: As soon as she thinks she's ready for a book this long. I can't say for certain since I first read it in my early twenties, but I suspect this one improves with age and experience.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Frederica, by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer varies more widely in the quality of her writing from book to book than any other author I've read. I've found a good indicator of how much I'll enjoy any given novel of hers is the number of insults (in the case of her Regency romances, period insults) per page: the fewer the number of "you bacon-brained, bird-witted coxcomb!"s flying about, the more I'll enjoy the novel. (She seems to enjoy having her characters insult each other so much, it makes me wonder what her home life must have been like. But I digress.)

Here is a sampling of period insults from the first few chapters of Frederica:

"What a very hubble-bubble creature you are!"
"She must be a wet-goose!"
"Will you bite your tongue, you abominable little bagpipe?"
"Anyone would take you for a regular shabster!"
"Really, cousin, you are too shatterbrained!"

At first I was a bit worried that this one was going to rate on the low end of the Heyer spectrum. But eventually the insults settle down and I really enjoyed the story, about an unrepentant rake who eventually comes to care about our levelheaded heroine and her extremely entertaining younger siblings. Also, the conventional weepy, angsty, love-at-first-sight romance gets a severe thrashing, which earns the book several points in my estimation. It shares a few themes with my favorite Heyer to date, A Civil Contract (which I'll review eventually): a sensible heroine and a hero who falls in love by degrees and not all at once. It's also the story of a person becoming a better human being in spite of himself, which is not everyone's idea of a thrilling narrative, but suits me just fine.

There are one or two oblique references to extramarital sex, and as I mentioned, a lot of insults being flung about (although the heroine is the kind of person who catches herself saying mean things and apologizes immediately, which I love).

Age I'd let Z read it: 12 or 13, with a dictionary at hand to look up some of the more uncommon words. (Even I had to look up lucubration).

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Conjure Wife, by Fritz Leiber

I would describe this as the horror equivalent of a nice cozy whodunit. A nice cozy horror novel.

The basic notion, as handed to us by Leiber in an early chapter, is: "Picture most women as glamor-conscious witches, carrying on their savage warfare of deathspell and countercharm, while their reality-befuddled husbands went blithely about their business."

This was published in 1953, and at first I thought some of the ideas being tossed around were meant to be satire, but towards the end when the protagonist (a male college professor) is able to get a leg up on the Big Bad because the Big Bad (a faculty wife) doesn't understand symbolic logic, I had to shrug my shoulders and roll with it.

There are some violent scenes and a few good scares in this novel (it is horror, after all), but nothing too gory. If anything I'd want Z to wait till she's older on this one to be sure she doesn't take the nonsense about women being more primitive and irrational than men to heart. But in all it was well written. I enjoyed it, wound up rooting for the protagonist, and would cuddle up with it again on a rainy day with a mug of cocoa.

Age I'd let Z read it: 16

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why a Book Blog?

Somewhere in the back of my mind every time I've purchased a book has been the thought, "I am going to have an awesome library when I have kids." Well, now Fabulous Husband and I have a kid, Z, and it struck me today that I am not ready for her to begin borrowing books from aforementioned awesome library. For one thing, I haven't even read all the books I own. What if she starts with a stinker?

So here is my project: To read every book we own, giving priority to the ones I haven't read yet, and to keep a mini-review of each one here, making note of about how old I'd like Z to be, ideally, when she reads it for the first time.

That's pretty much it.