Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Reef by Edith Wharton

I've been a big Wharton fan for a few years now -- I'd never read anything by her in high school or college, then I got completely hooked after I read The House of Mirth. My love for all things Edith was confirmed when I read Ethan Frome. I'm also a huge fan of her short stories. But this book has left me completely perplexed. Mystified.  Confused!  (Much like the woman in the beautiful illustration on the cover.)
Time for the synopsis:  Our story begins with George Darrow, a thirtysomething American diplomat living in London.  He's recently rekindled a romance with an old flame from his youth, Anna Leath, who is now a widow with a young daughter and a grown stepson, Owen.  He's ready to get serious, and is on his way to visit her in France at her estate.  However, he receives a mysterious telegram instructing him not to come after all, with no explanation.  Darrow is very hurt and proceeds to Paris, thinking he'll wait there in case Anna changes her mind.  On the boat over, he runs into another American, Sophy Viner, whom he knows vaguely from social circles.  Sophy, a young, attractive woman in her early twenties, has quit her job, and she's on her way to Paris, where she ultimately hopes to become a stage actress. Darrow is hurt by Anna's rejection, and bored, and he's intrigued by Sophy.  While he waits for an answer from Anna, he amuses himself by taking Sophy to the theater and showing her around Paris.  There's a lot left unsaid, but it's obvious that he's considering an affair with her.

The action then jumps forward several months, and Darrow has reunited with Anna.  They're planning to marry and go off together to his next assignment in South America.  However, this is an Edith Wharton novel, so nothing is ever easy or simple, and usually ends tragically.  This involves a love quadrangle (square? trapezoid? insert your favorite four-sided geometric figure here) with a lot of secrets, lies, half-truths, and jealousy. 

Wharton claimed this was her most autobiographical novel, and portions of the book are really heartwrenching.  After she divorced her husband and moved to France, Wharton had an ultimately unhappy love affair with a man called Morton Fullerton, and I suspect this novel draws heavily on that experience.  After reading this book, I feel like I've lived through her tragic love life.  The character of Anna Leath expresses some heartbreaking emotions when her love for George Darrow is tested.  This book is all about deceit, trust, and forgiveness.  However, she's such a great writer that George isn't a completely awful character, and I was really able to sympathize with all the main characters. There's so much going on here, and the book addresses so many issues, that it would great for an real-life discussion. 

The book started out slowly but really picked up and caught my interest.  However, my biggest complaint about The Reef is in regards to the ending, which is one of the most abrupt and inexplicable I've read in a long time.  Honestly, I'm still not sure what happened. Now I feel like I need to research this book and find an expert to explain the ending.  Which is really sort of irritating, because I like to think of myself as a relatively smart person. 

It's not my favorite Wharton, but worth reading if you're a fan. I recommend it with reservations, but if you're not familiar with Wharton, it's not a good starting point -- not nearly as good as Ethan Frome or the House of Mirth.  If, after reading this review, you are left with Fear of Wharton, I recommend her short stories.  The Ghost Stories are great, and my other favorites are Xingu and Roman Fever.  She was the master (mistress?) of dramatic irony, and I think her short stories showcase that aspect of her writing best.

During the recent Classics Circuit of Wharton's works, two other bloggers reviewed The Reef.  If you're interested, you can read reviews by Laura and The Lady Fern.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Another Newbery winner, an odd one. I was a little apprehensive about this, because my good friend and fellow book blogger Amanda really disliked it (you can read her review here); but a Sherrie, a librarian friend where I volunteer, just loves it.  And I had loved one of Katherine Paterson's earlier books, Of Nightingales that Weep. I read it when I was a youngster and I looooooved it, read it over and over, but by the time Katherine Paterson won the Newbery for this one I had moved on to trashy books like Flowers in the Attic. (Please forgive me -- I did read good stuff too, like Animal Farm and 1984 and Gone with the Wind.).

Anyway, this book sort of intrigued me, because it's all about sibling rivalry (hence, the title): Sara Louise is the older of a pair of 14-year-old twins, and is far outshone by the beautiful, fragile, talented Caroline, who sings like a bird and makes everyone else swoon.  It's about 1940 and they live with their parents and crazy grandmother on a tiny little island off Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, where their father ekes out a living crabbing and fishing and catching oysters and all sorts of Deadliest Catch sorts of stuff.  They are barely scraping by and it seems like every extra cent is spent on paying for music lessons and cab rides and ferry rides to develop Caroline's musical talent.  Even the extra money that Sarah Louise earns goes to Caroline!!!  The fact that she is smart and good and works hard seems lost on everyone.  So, the war starts, a mysterious old gentleman moves back to the island, there are natural disasters, and since they are teens, there are coming-of-age issues and jealousy regarding various males.

This book really intrigued me because growing up I always felt kinda overshadowed by my older sister, who . . . guess what?  Sang like a bird and was the Most Talented Girl in the Whole Wide World.  Or so it seemed. (Talented! Really smart! Lots of friends!)  However -- we were not a) poor fisherfolk on Chesapeake Bay, just middle class people living in a boring Detroit suburb; b) my parents didn't spend every last cent on her; and c) my sister is actually a very nice person and we have always gotten along really well.  So, the parallels end there, though oddly enough, my sister moved to Maryland. To go to music school.  I am not making this up.

Okay, back to the book.  I did really like parts of it -- I thought Paterson did a fantastic job describing life on Chesapeake bay.  I have no desire to go fishing, but I've always liked boats and water -- probably because I grew up trapped in the Midwest.  When I read it, I could practically smell the salt air and the fishiness and hear the sound of the water and all that.  Living on a tiny island sounded sort of interesting compared to my childhood. 

I really felt like most of the characters seemed kind of one dimensional. Caroline didn't seem to have a single redeeming quaility -- didn't anyone notice she just took and took from everyone else because of her "gift???" She didn't seem to contribute one whit while everyone else was slaving away, and just took it all for granted. I wanted Sarah Louise to say hey, what about me? How about a scholarship for ME? She was pretty passive agressive. Her crazy grandmother had all these great lines, like a Greek chorus screeching out what was really going on, but Sarah Louise did nothing. So maybe she deserved to get walked all over.

My biggest issue is that the book seemed really unresolved -- nothing ever happened with her sister, the vague love interest, or her parents -- I was waiting for some kind of confrontation, or for some huge irony, like Caroline dying in a ferry accident on the way to her first performance, or something.   But a lot of plot lines seemed unfinished or thrown together at the end, and in fact, the last five pages or so zip through the rest of her life. And that's the end.  I guess I just I didn't understand the point of the book.  A disappointment.

(Oh, and isn't the cover kind of creepy?  Of course Sarah Louise is the dark-haired twin, and she looks kind of bitter and nasty.  Caroline almost looks like a ghost -- could this be foreshadowing?  Nah.)

Newbery Count: 37/89

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells

I'm sort of sorry I read this book. I probably should have read The Invisible Man instead, but this one just sort of jumped off the shelf and into my hands.  And I am somewhat disturbed by it.  This is an extremely weird, disturbing story.  Maybe I have no business reviewing this book since I hardly ever read science fiction or even much fantasy
This book begins with a prologue, written by a man claiming that years ago, his uncle was rescued nearly a year after a terrible shipwreck, and claims to have absolutely no memory of that period whatsoever.  So, anyway, the protagonist, Edward Prendick, is rescued from said shipwreck.  After drifting for days in a lifeboat, he finds himself on a boat with a nasty drunken captain and a lot of unhappy animals.  Prendick was nearly dead and is nursed back to health on board by one of the passengers, Montgomery, who on his way to a remote island with the animals.  He's also accompanied by a strange sort of deformed man, but Montgomery is very elusive.  The whole situation is very weird, and Prendick keeps hearing horrible animal screams.  The captain hates the whole business, and after a fit of drunken rage, throws Prendick off the boat when it's time to drop off Montgomery.  Prendick has no choice but to land on the island with this mysterious bunch until he can find another ship to take him home.  Ships rarely stop at the island, so it could be months or even years before he can leave, and things quickly become even stranger.

It turns out this nameless island is the home of Dr. Moreau, who left England in disgrace when it was revealed that he was doing some very odd experiments and surgeries on animals in the name of science. He is a vivisectionist, that is, he's doing experiments on live animals. (Apparently, the English love for animals goes back many years).  Dr. Moneau is obviously continuing his gruesome research on the island, and he's less than thrilled about Prendick's presence but can't very well leave him to die.  They allow him to stay as long as he doesn't poke his nose into their business, but of course Prendick realizes there are some pretty horrible things going on, with terrifying results.

H. G. Wells really was an excellent writer.  The writing really grabbed me, and after about the first thirty pages, I couldn't put the book down and read most if it in a single sitting.  However, it wasn't because I liked it so much as I needed to find out what happened.  Here's a great example of the terror that Prendick experiences:

"So long as I live I shall remember the terror of that chase.  I ran near the water's edge and heard every now and then the splash of the feet that gained upon me.  Far away, hopelessly far, was the yellow light.  All the night about us was black and still.  Splash, splash came the pursuing feet nearer and nearer.  I felt my breath going, for I was quite out of training; it whooped as I drew it, and I felt a pain like a knife at my side.  I perceived the Thing would come up with me long before I reached the enclosure, and desperate and sobbing for breath, I wheeled round and struck at it as it came up to me -- struck with all my strength."  

Of course H.G. Wells is known as a groundbreaking writer of science fiction. Published in 1896, The Island of Dr. Moreau  was his second book, after the extremely popular The War of the Worlds. According the book's introduction [Modern Library edition], H. G. Wells actually studied zoology under T. H. Huxley, who was a disciple of Darwin and believed in both social and biological evolution.  I suppose this book is still timely because of all the ethical implications of biomedical research, cloning, and animal rights.  To me, it's just sort of creepy and disturbing. 

This is book #5 for Our Mutual Read Challenge.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

So, The Help.  Number one on the bestseller list!  Book club favorite!  200 holds on the library wait list! The book that everyone in the world is reading, except me.  It had been sitting around the house almost three weeks, and I finally picked it up because I could not bear to return it and go back to the end of the line without even reading a single chapter.  And whoa!  I was hooked.

Sometimes, I am suspicious of hot-selling fiction, the type that is "perfect for book discussion groups."  I am frequently disappointed, like with The Memory Keeper's Daughter, which many, many people love and I absolutely hated.  But darn it all, the reason that The Help is so popular is because it's really, really good.  If you have not read it, please go out and put your name on the waiting list at the library, or put it on your birthday list, or go buy it, because you will not be sorry. 

Oh, but what is this book about, by the way?  Well.  1962, Jackson, Mississippi.  Hmmm, could this be about race relations?  Why, of course!  But so well done!  There are three main characters, and different chapters and sections are told from all three perspectives.  The first two sections are from the viewpoints of two African-American women, Aibileen and Minny, who are good friends and are both working as maids for wealthy white women, Junior-league types.  Aibileen is the maid and surrogate mother for a sweet little girl with a pretty horrible young mother, Elizabeth Leefolt -- she is the seventeenth child Aibileen has raised for other people.  Her friend Minny is working for the mother of Mrs. Leefolt's best friend Hilly Holbrook, who is an evil, racist witch.  Minny has a hard time keeping her opinions to herself, which makes it tough to find employment.

The third section is the viewpoint of Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, who is a young white lady with a trust fund, and a recent graduate of Ole Miss, where she was Hilly's roommate.  Unlike Hilly and Elizabeth, Skeeter did not go to college to get her MRS degree. She is bored beyond belief with bridge games and the Junior League, which is pretty much what young rich white women did back then, if they weren't married.  She wants to be a writer, not a housewife, and more than anything, she wants to find out what happened to her beloved Constantine, who was her family's housekeeper and the person she loved best in the world.  Constantine disappeared while she was away at college and no one is talking, not even the other maids in town like Aibileen.

So, with the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, the lives of these three women become entangled.  I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that they become involved in a project that has the potential to turn Jackson society upside down.  We get to know them and their families, and quite a few secrets as well.

These characters were so believable, and so distinctive, and the plot was so interesting that I could not put this book down.  The Help is about 440 pages and I read it all in one day.  Seriously.  The plot really moved, and the characters so well drawn that they seemed real to me --  I wish Ms. Stockett would write a sequel so I could find out what happened to everyone. Plus there's some really funny stuff in it.  I can absolutely understand why this book is so popular -- not only is it a great study of race relations, it's about friendships, and trust, and families, and thank God I didn't grow up in the South back then.  I can't imagine how awful it must have been as an African-American person at that time.  I hope my book group manages to get enough copies to discuss it soon, because I can't wait to talk to people about this book.  Until then I'll just have to recommend it to complete strangers.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck

Newbery Count 36/89

A couple of winners, in every sense of the word. A Year Down Yonder, the 2001 Newbery Medal winner, is the sequel to the 1999 Newbery Honor book, A Long Way from Chicago.  Each book is distinct enough to stand on its own, but together, they're even better.  Both of them made laugh out loud, and the second made me a little misty-eyed in parts.

I was mildly irked when I realized A Year Down Yonder is the second in a series, since I truly dislike starting a series in the middle -- sometimes there are spoilers, and I'm always wondering if I'm missing something important.  But I saw that the first book is pretty short, and it came highly recommended from a library employee.  It's worth every minute, and it grabs you from the first chapter. 

The setup:  A Long Way from Chicago is a first-person narrative from nine-year-old Joey Dowdel and his little sister, Mary Alice, are sent to visit their eccentric grandmother in a little town in downstate Illinois. The book is subtitled "a novel in stories," and each chapter is a funny story from a different summer in his childhood, beginning in 1929.  Joey and Mary Alice are from Chicago, which is rife with the antics of John Dillinger, so they figure a visit to Grandma will be pretty dull.  Not so -- there's always something entertaining going on.  Grandma Dowdel is cantankerous character, a bit of a trickster, so every summer is a bit of an education for Joey and Mary Alice, like the second summer, when Grandma gets even with some pranksters who think it's funny to explode her mailbox and knock down Mrs. Wilcox's privy.  There's a lot of privy humor in these books, and shotguns, and even some poaching.  Oh, and lest I forget, a little moonshine, a phantom brakeman, and a mouse in a bottle of milk.  Sometimes Grandma's actions are legally suspect, but her motives are ultimately unselfish.

Grandma Dowdel is one of the funniest characters in children's literature.  She's tough, but with a great heart, and I didn't find her quirkiness overly contrived or stereotyped, like in some other children's books I've read lately.  I think sometimes authors try too hard with the quirky factor, and it can just seem fake and annoying.  All of the characters in these books seem believable to me.  This book was so good I couldn't figure out why in the heck it didn't win the Newbery that year.  Well, that was 2001, and the winner was Holes by Louis Sacher, one of the best children's books ever, in my opinion. 

The second book, A Year Down Yonder, is a year in the life of Mary Alice.  She's about 15 and is sent to live with her grandmother during the Depression. There are more stories of Grandma Dowdel getting the best of pranksters, snobby DAR ladies, and nasty high school girls.  Again, it's really funny, but some of the content might actually be appropriate for older children or even YAs -- there are some hints about illegitimate children and a nude artist's model, so you might want to save this one for the 10 and up set. But I still really enjoyed it, and I've been reading chapters (slightly edited) to my third grader. 

Here's a quote from A Year Down Yonder that pretty much sums up Grandma's character:

"Mrs. Dowdel," said Mrs. Sheets, "I'm here to tell you that you're twice as bald-faced and brazen, and yes, I have to say shameless as the rest of us girls put together.  In the presence of these witnesses I'm on record for saying you outdo the most two-faced, two fisted shortchanger, flimflam artist, and full-time extortionist anybody ever saw working this part of the country. And all I have to say is, God bless you for your hard work.

"Mrs. Dowdel. . . . you're not everybody's cup of tea. Well, it's common knowledge, isn't it? But we girls would be proud as Punch to have you join our Auxiliary if you're a veteran's wife.  Did your late husband go to war?"

"Only with me, " Grandma said. "And he lost every time."   This book made me wish I'd had a Grandma like her.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cassandra and Jane by Jill Pitkeathley

Wow, I did not hate this book. Shocking! 

That is a terrible way to begin a review, but seriously, I am not a fan of Jane Austen fan fiction; if I want to read my beloved Miss Austen's works, I read the real thing (or watch one of the many excellent BBC adaptations).  Mostly, I think that authors should make up their own characters instead of appropriating from classic lit.  Plus, I have no desire to read sequels -- I really don't want to know what happened to Darcy and Elizabeth.  They got married and lived happily ever after.  And that is the end of the story.  Period.  I don't want to read about their dysfunctional marriage, or their children, or whether or not they were supernatural.  (Though I would really like to know if Caroline Bingley ever got her comeuppance.)

I'm also not a real big fan of fictionalized stories about real people.  Authors should make up their own characters!  However, I did like the BBC biopic about Jane Austen that aired a couple of years ago, Miss Austen Regrets.   And one thing I actually liked is that the actresses who played Jane and her sister Cassandra (Olivia Williams and Greta Scacci) actually resembled each other.  Which you hardly ever see in TV and movies.  I know it's difficult, but it was a great touch, and they're both fine actresses.

But I digress.  So.  This is a fictionalized biography of Jane Austen, told from her older sister's point of view.  Disclaimer:  I am not an Austen scholar, just a fan.  I haven't actually read any complete Austen biographies other than The Friendly Jane Austen and Jane Austen for Dummies, both of which I recommend highly.  I do intend to read some of the serious academic works, I just haven't gotten around to it yet.  Basically, this book just novelizes her biography, including a lot of excerpts from the letters.  There's no footnotes or anything, but you can tell they're from her letters because they're set apart and in a different font, like this:

Mrs. Hall of Sherbourne was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright.  I suppose she happened to look unawares at her husband. 

However, the publishers had access to more historical-looking fonts than Blogger so it looks much classier.  Anyway, that is one of the quotes, which I'm pretty sure is an actual quote written by Jane Austen.  (She did have a sharp tongue, didn't she?)  The author does a pretty good job in writing in a somewhat Austenish style, and the book includes a lot of excerpts from her letters.  The prologue and epilogue explain how Cassandra destroyed a lot of the letters, of which there were stacks and stacks.  There are quite a few that survive, but apparently Cassandra burned all the ones that made Jane or the family appear in a bad light, which I gather is the general belief among Austenites.

Of course, being historical fiction, the author had to include some events which are probably made up -- in addition to Jane Austen's possible romance with Tom LeFroy, and her brief (one-day) engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, the book includes a romance with a mysterious man at Lyme.  Of course, the novel also implies that events in her life show up in her famous books, like walking up and down the dangerous steps at the Cob at Lyme which are featured so prominently in Persuasion, or a family friend trying to match her up with a pompous curate rather like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice.

I did really enjoy parts -- for example, it would be fun to imagine Jane's family reading and listening to the various drafts of her work, like Pride and Prejudice.  Some of Austen's characters were just hilarious, and the Austen family was known for theatricals, so they were used to this sort of thing and would have enjoyed it.   I did actually skim over the parts in which the characters discuss some of the unfinished Austen works I haven't read -- The Watsons, Lady Susan, and Sanditon.  If you haven't read all of JA's works, there will be spoilers. 

This book was pretty good though mostly predictable -- but it's based on a biography and I already knew the basic story, so I'm not really complaining.  I really think the author should have included a family tree in the beginning; besides her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen had six brothers, several of whom had wives named Elizabeth or Mary, plus some of them had second marriages.  There's a list of family members in the back but it wasn't helpful since I didn't see it until after I'd finished the book.  Also, this book has some unfortunate typos that I found irritating.

So, in a nutshell -- if you are a Jane Austen fan, you'll probably like this, but more than anything it made me want to go back and read her letters or an actual biography.  But it's not bad.  As Jane herself might have said, I found it excessively diverting.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The View From Saturday by E. L. Konigsberg

Newbery Count: 34/89

Now, this is a Newbery-worthy book.  Wow. And why did it take me so long to read it?

I was a little apprehensive reading this book.  To be honest, some of the Newberys I've been reading lately were not as impressive.  And E. L. Konigsberg is the author of one of my absolutely favorite children's books of all time, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I wanted to be just like Claudia, and run away from home and live in a museum. (I hope this isn't a spoiler, I decided it was fair because it's on the back of the book).  Anyway, there's a   gap of nearly 30 years between the publication of that book and The View from Saturday, and I was a little worried -- what if it didn't live up to my beloved favorite?

I was not disappointed.  Konigsberg created an amazingly well-crafted story about four sixth graders and their homeroom teacher, who coaches them in the academic bowl team.  Each of these characters is well developed (OK, the teacher not as much as the students).  It's told mostly in flashback, centered around the state's academic bowl championship, and various questions trigger explanations of events in the four children's lives, and how they were all chosen to be on the team.

I think Konigsberg's greatest strength in this book is creating memorable, realistic characters.  Each of the stories of the four children were so interesting and well written, I wished I could read an entire book about them.  (Seriously -- E. L., if you're reading this, please consider making this a whole series).  These kids are smart and clever and nice.  I wish all them were real so they could be friends with my children.   I loved how this book celebrates academic achievement and friendship.  It might be a tiny bit heavy-handed with the message, but it's so good I'm ignoring that.

There is one thing I did want to make note of -- three of these four children are connected, not just because they are all in the same homeroom in a school in upstate New York, but because their grandparents all live in the same retirement community in Florida.  Now, to some people, that might sound extremely unlikely and contrived, and if I'd read this years ago I would have thought the same thing.  However, my in-laws did retire to Florida about 12 years ago, to the same town where several of their friends live, and now that I think about it, it makes sense.  It's really hard to pick up and move to a new state where you don't known anyone, so it's quite possible that they all did move down there, purposely.  So, not really that unlikely and contrived.

Anyway, I highly recommend this book. This is what the Newberys are all about.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos

I don't know what I expected from this book.  I like historical fiction, and some of my most beloved Newbery winners are historicals-- I suppose I thought, based on the description, that it would be sort of a cross of  The Witch of Blackbird Pond and one of the Little House books.  It wasn't.  This book is well written and has lots of great historical details, but somehow, it just didn't grab me.  Maybe I didn't get enough of the heroine's personality -- in fact, when I sat down to write this I'd already forgotten her name!  [I looked it up.  It's Catherine.]  Basically, this is the diary of a teenaged girl living in New Hampshire, as the title says, from 1830-1832.  She lives with her father and younger sister on a little farm in a small town -- no mother, who died in childbirth years ago -- and it's just what happens in her everyday life.  It starts out when she's 13 and ends when she's 15.

I just couldn't figure out where this book was going.  Of course, it's a diary, and real diaries aren't novels, they're just bits and pieces, like tiny written snapshots of a person's life.  If it was a real diary there wouldn't be any connectedness.  But I have read excellent books for both adults and children in diary form -- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was one that I could not put down and read in one sitting.  I think the best epistolary novels have some kind of overarching plot or theme, some kind of natural progression.  In this book, there were little bits that were introduced and hinted at, but not much follow up, like the possibility of a fugitive slave, maybe a teen love story with her best friend's brother, a new stepmother -- it all sort of seemed disjointed, and somehow I was disappointed.  There's nothing wrong with it, I just never really got excited about reading it. 

Some of the descriptive passages were interesting, and the details of life in the 1830s.  Life was really hard back then, people died left and right, though it doesn't sound like anyone was in danger of starving.  I think one of the strongest points is Blos' descriptions.  Winters in New Hampshire sound extremely harsh, and I felt really cold when I read this passage:

Father had made his way to the barn, re-digging the path as he must each day against the sweillling drifts.  There he'd readied the oxen up and brougtht them out to wait in the yard -- the yard itself reduced by snow with only as much of it cleared each day as we might need to use.

This morning the team breathed out great clouds.  Father, to benefit by their warmth, placed himself between their bodies, but even so kept moving -- it was that cold.

I immediately went looking for my fuzzy socks. And a hot cup of tea. And I thanked my lucky stars once again for being born in the 20th century, with the benefits of central heating and indoor plumbing.

I liked this book, but I can't see myself recommending it left and right like I have with other Newbery winners; when I think of the Newberys, I imagine a book that's somehow really special.  Maybe 1980 was just a tough year in children's publishing.  I checked the Newbery list for the 1980 Honor books to see what were the runners-up, since sometimes the Honor books are more memorable than the actual winner (like Charlotte's Web  -- honestly, how could  that have lost to Secret of the Andes?  Seriously!).  I suppose it's worth noting that the Newbery committee only found one book  in 1980 worthy of mentioning as an Honor book -- The Road From Home: The Story of an Armenian Girl, by David Kherdian.  I looked it up in my library's OPAC, and it's actually nonfiction.  It actually sounds really interesting -- a biography of the author's mother, specifically about her childhood in Turkey before the Turks deported all the Armenians. Now that sounds like a compelling story.

Newbery Count: 32/89

Monday, March 8, 2010

Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale

Montmorency is a thief.  A common criminal, doing time in one of Victorian London's notorious prison in 1875. But what makes him a different than many criminals is that he's very smart, and that he is lucky enough to have a benefactor of sorts -- a brilliant doctor who saved his life.  While fleeing the police after a robbery attempt, Montmorency he crashed through a factory skylight and landed on an enormous machine, and would have died from his injuries if an ambitious young doctor hadn't wanted to use him as a test case.  A year after his accident, following multiple painful surgeries, the thief who is known as Montmorency (from the name on the bag of tools he was clutching as he fell) is routinely trotted out for meetings of the Victorian scientific community.   He's prodded and poked like a laboratory animal, while the upper-crusties are treating him like some kind of rare zoo exhibit, Montmorency, a bright young man with an excellent memory, is actually studying them, and storing away all sorts of useful information.  He's not stealing valuables items any more -- just valuable ideas.

After one such exhibition, Montmorency absorbs up a very interesting piece of information:  a map of the newly renovated London sewer system.  Montmorency realizes that this would be the perfect escape route for a thief, and for the rest of his incarceration, he begins planning.  He will use his burglary skills and newfound knowledge to reinvent himself as a gentleman.

I really enjoyed this book.  Of course, I'm currently fascinated by the Victorian period, but this book was both well-written historical novel and an exciting adventure/crime story.  Though I personally would never have the nerve to burglarize, it's fun to imagine -- I do love heist movies and crime capers, so there you go.  I think Upland did a good job imagining any plot holes and figuring out plausible explanations as to how Montmorency is able to pull off a double life as a Victorian gentleman (a trick in itself) and a thief that spends his nights in the slimy sewers of London without getting caught.  He does encounter all kinds of setbacks and dangers. 

I do wish that Updale had given more details about the actual burglaries -- once it's established that he's a thief, she doesn't give many examples of the crimes, just the fact that he's a burglar.  Also, she doesn't flesh out too much of his character -- Montmorency is so busy trying to reinvent himself, yet the reader learns next to nothing about his history, not even his real name. A little more detail would have been great.  Since this is the first in the series of four, I suspect the reader will get more information in the later volumes. 

While I do recommend Montmorency, I have to point out that there is extensive discussion, especially in the beginning, about the filth of the London sewer system and everything that's in there -- and fairly explicit descriptions of the sanitation systems of Victorian prisons. If you have a weak stomach, you might want to skim those chapters.  I like to read while I eat, but I would not recommend this book for mealtime eating until you get past about Chapter 13. 

It's short, only 233 pages, and a fast read. This volume of the Montmorency series is also available on audiobook, narrated by the wonderful Stephen Fry (aka Wooster from PBS' Jeeves & Wooster).  I've already put Monmorency Book #2 on hold at the library.  Sadly, though there are several copies of the first book in my library system (which has 24 branches) they only own one of each of the remaining books in the series.  It's too bad this book isn't more popular. 

This is book #4 for Our Mutual Read challenge.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Newbery Challenge

Recently, I've been reading a lot about the Newbery Award winners.  Yes, I did read this year's prizewinner -- Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me, which I believe was absolutely deserving and embodies everything that the Newbery should be.  But I've actually been reading lots and lots about the various award winners while researching for a class project for History of Youth Services, which has inspired this new challenge.

I've read a lot of juvenile literature -- I was a voracious reader as a child (shocking, isn't it?) plus I've tried to keep up with what my own children are reading, then three classes of children's lit in library school.  I was so surprised to go through the list and discover I'd read barely a third of them, only 31 out of the 89 winners.   I am amazed that I have missed so many.  I've never read Sounder!  How did I miss Jacob Have I Loved, and Maniac Magee?  Below is the list, from most recent to earliest.  Books I've read are highlighted in bold text.  Quite a few of the early ones I've never even heard of, much less read.  So this is my new challenge.  I have 58 left to go, and there are 43 weeks left in this year.  I don't expect to get them all read by the end of the year, but they are juvenile books, so they're pretty short, and I am a fast reader.  So my goal is one per week, and if I can get through more than that, great.  I'm also planning on joining The Newbery Project.

Now all I need to do is decide the order.  I have a couple checked out already for my class project, so I'll probably tackle those first.  I also have a few unread winners floating around the house, so those should come next.  After that, I'll probably choose them randomly -- the libraries here in San Antonio have all the Newbery winners in a special section, so every week when I volunteer I could just pick whichever strikes my fancy.

I think I've read the most popular ones already (there's a great blog from Allen County (IN) Public Library -- for several years the librarians had a Newbery book group and blogged about all the books.  If you're interested you should check it out here.)  Which is your favorite?  Which should I absolutely read first?  And which ones are real duds and should be put off until the bitter end?  I'd love to hear your opinions and if we review the same books I'll be happy to add links to your blog.  Thanks!

Newbery Count: 31/89


2010 When You Reach Me  by Rebecca Stead
2009 The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
2008 Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
2007 The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
2006 Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
2005 Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
2004 The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo 
2003 Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
2002 A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
2001 A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
2000 Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

1999 Holes by Louis Sachar
1998 Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
1997 The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
1996 The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
1995 Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
1994 The Giver by Lois Lowry 
1993 Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
1992 Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1991 Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
1990 Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

1989 A Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman
1988 Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman
1987 The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
1986 Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
1985 The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
1984 Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
1983 Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt
1982 A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard
1981 Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
1980 A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos

1979 The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
1978 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
1977 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
1976 The Grey King by Susan Cooper
1975 M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton
1974 The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
1973 Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
1972 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
1971 Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars
1970 Sounder by William H. Armstrong

1969 The High King by Lloyd Alexander
1968 From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
1967 Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt
1966 I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño
1965 Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska
1964 It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
1963 A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
1962 The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
1961 Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
1960 Onion John by Joseph Krumgold

1959 The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
1958 Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
1957 Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorense
1956 Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
1955 The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
1954 ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
1953 Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
1952 Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
1951 Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
1950 The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli

1949 King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry
1948 The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
1947 Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
1946 Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
1945 Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson 
1944 Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
1943 Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
1942 The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds
1941 Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
1940 Daniel Boone by James Daugherty

1939 Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright
1938 The White Stag by Kate Seredy
1937 Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
1936 Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
1935 Dobry by Monica Shannon
1934 Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs
1933 Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
1932 Waterless Mountain by  Laura Adams Armer
1931 The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
1930 Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field

1929 The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
1928 Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
1927 Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James
1926 Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
1925 Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger
1924 The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes
1923 The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
1922 The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book is a lot of things. It has a mystery, historical fiction from several eras, Jewish history, and strained mother/daughter relationship, and even a little love story.  Plus, a lot of great stuff for people who love books (Brooks was even kind enough to dedicate this book to librarians, which I found very touching).

The narrator of the book is Hanna Heath, a thirtyish Australian and master book conservator who has the amazing task of studying and preserving the Sarajevo Haggadah, a beautiful illuminated manuscript..  [The Haggadah is a real book, and it really was saved by a librarian during the war.  If you want to read more about it, and see actual photos, click here. Of course, this story is fictional]. The story begins in Sarajevo in the 1990s, during the Bosnian war.  This Haggadah, a priceless relic of Jewish history, was feared destroyed in the bombing of Sarajevo and has resurfaced.  As Hanna begins to examine and preserve the book, she finds tiny clues about the book's amazing story.  It's not told in chapters, but in sections divided by date and location, with different characters who figure in the history of the book.  The historical sections are interspersed with Hanna's discoveries about the mysterious history of the book, and start with 1940s in Sarajevo, then work backward to the book's beginnings, and include tales set in 1890s Vienna, 1600s Venice, the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, and 1300s Spain.  The sections about the Hanna span the globe -- she travels to Boston, London, Sarajevo, Vienna, and finally Australia.    

I've been to hardly any of these places, so I can't testify to the authenticity of the book, but Brooks made them all feel so real; with her background as an international journalist, she does a great job evoking the moods of all these places. I also liked the fact that the protagonist was an Australian.  As a reader, it's nice to get an international perspective once in awhile -- so many of the books I read are American or British literature.  Some of the historical fiction portions of the book were so interesting, and so realistically created, I wanted to learn more of their stories -- I'd give examples but that might spoil it if you're interested in reading the book, so I'll stop there. 

I actually thought Hanna's story was the least interesting part of the book -- she has a terrible relationship with her mother who is so awful I thought she was unrealistic. And there's another development that is supposed to involve a new mystery, a little like The DaVinci Code, which I thought was really unnecessary. I suppose Brooks felt she needed someone to tie all the parts together and bring it into the present day, but I relaly preferred historical sections.  It reminded me of another historical fiction by Susan Vreeland, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, which is also told in reverse chronological order about the various owners of a fictional painting and is pretty good.

I also feel compelled to post a warning: this book includes scenes with sex, violence, and really nasty anti-Semitism. However, I didn't find it gratuitous, just part of the nature of the book -- it's about Jews during some really awful periods of history; honestly, if you're going to write about the Spanish Inquisition, it's going to get nasty. But I could understand how it could make some readers feel uncomfortable or want to skim those parts. It's still definitely worth reading.


I really liked this book, and if Gwendolyn Brooks writes any more, I would absolutely read them.  I've read two of Brooks' other fiction works: March,winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Year of Wonders; and an excellent non-fiction work about Islamic women called Nine Parts of Desire. I learned a lot about Islam and the Middle East from reading it, and I highly recommend it.

Behold, Here's Poison by Georgette Heyer

Behold, here's mystery and mayhem!  Well, not so much mayhem, they're British.  But still, quite witty and fun. 

This is my first reading of the prolific Ms. Heyer, and I would never have read this book were it not for the Classics Circuit. She is known as the Queen of the Regency romances, and apparently her books are incredibly well-researched and historically accurate.  However, I'm not a big fan of romances, so I was ready to pass on Heyer until I found out she wrote some sassy murder mysteries as well.  And as I am terribly fond of Agatha Christie, and British novels of the prewar era in general, I was happy to sign up.

So!  Behold, Here's Poison is a light, fun mystery novel of the classic sort: a bunch of people are all staying at a large British mansion, and somebody gets knocked off -- in this case, the head of the family, Gregory Matthew, who naturally controls all the money; ergo, everyone else's life hangs in the balance.  Residents in the house, aka potential suspects, include his spinster sister, the dithering Harriet; his sister-in-law Zoe, widow of his youngest brother; and her two adult children: Guy, whom Sir Gregory was shipping off to Brazil because of bad business decisions; and the lovely and charming Stella, who was thisclose to marrying the local doctor until Sir Gregory got all up in her business.  Also lots of servants, naturally.

Other characters/potential suspects include Gregory's other sister, the overbearing Mrs. Gertrude Lupton, and her henpecked husband, who live just down the block (so to speak); Randall, the heir apparent (son of the other dead brother); plus the doctor/fiancee, and some friends and neighbors.  Following all this?  At first, I couldn't.  I actually got out paper and pen and began drawing up a chart of the family and who belonged to whom, first time I've ever needed to do this for a murder mystery novel.  Heyer does a good job of creating distinctive characters -- even the dead guy's personality.  It became pretty obvious that Sir Gregory had more money than charm -- pretty much the whole household had a nice motive to kill him, which is as it should be in country house murders. However, they're sort of thrown at the reader all in a lump, which put me off reading it -- I started the first few pages and got confused and annoyed, then put it down for several weeks.  However, I'm glad I picked it up again. Heyer is pretty funny, and the book is a nice light respite from Victorian writers, books about racism and serial killers, etc.

Though it was written about the same time as Christie's early novels, the two writers have little in common. The detective in this novel has barely any personality at all -- though he goes through the motions of sleuthing, he barely registered with me, and I can't even remember his name. (I looked it up; it's Superintendant Hannasyde).  Heyer's real strength is her upper-class characters -- she's funny and witty and pretty snarky, and the characters are too.  Here's a description of one of Gregory's sisters, the formidable Mrs. Lupton:

She was a massively built woman of about fifty-five, extremely upright, and reinforced wherever possible with whalebone.  She even wore it inserted into the net fronts which invariably encased her throat.  Her hats always had wide brims and very high crowns, and her face powder was faintly tinted with mauve.  She had been the nearest to Gregory Matthews in age of all his family, and the most like him in temperament.  Both resembled nothing so much as steam-rollers in their dealings with their fellow creatures, but the difference between them had lain in the fact that whereas Gregory Matthews had been subject to awe-inspiring rages, no one had ever seen Gertrude lose one jot of her implacable calm.

What a great description.  There's a lot of bickering in this book, which I suppose is inevitable if you have to spend your entire life living in the same house with your extended family -- my whole family is spread out over the U.S. and Canada, and though I complain about it during holiday time, it definitely causes less friction when you see them maybe once or twice a year.  But I digress. 

 Behold, Here's Poison reminded me once again how nice it is that I live in the 21st century. While it might be nice to have some rich uncle die and leave you a nice pile of cash (which I have fantasized about, no lie), it seems like many such characters are manipulative and vindictive, playing with the heirs like marionettes. Sadly, less than 100 years ago young ladies like Stella still didn't have education or training to go out and get a real job -- her choices were marry someone her uncle liked, or she'd be cut off with out a cent. (Or a shilling, or ha'penny, or whatever -- I have a terrible time with the old British money. Pence, quid, guineas, half-crowns, shillings, it's all so confusing.  Any readers living in Britain, feel free to explain).  At any rate, this was a fun book and a pleasant surprise.  I'd be happy to read more of Heyer's mysteries and look forward to more reviews all month long on the Classics Circuit.