Friday, October 29, 2010

Mixed Magics by Diana Wynne Jones (2000)

I'm sure I read this before, and was most likely disappointed then too. Mixed Magics by Diana Wynne Jones (2000). Diana Wynne Jones writes masterful novels, but this book of short stories disappointingly fell short. I guess a great artist can't always be great. "Stealer of Souls" which paired Cat Chant with Tonino Montana was the only story really worth reading.

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounds (St. Martin's, 2006).

I continue to read Catherine the Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounds (St. Martin's, 2006). I'm just over midway through. It's dragging a bit now - there's quite a bit of "then she did this" and "then she did that" and "then she wrote this letter and this is what it said." It's juicy (menage a trois!!!) but the juicy parts are surrounded by dry parts (like a pomegranate?).

If a book of nonfiction has sections of illustrations stuck in the middle, then I always sneak a peak at the pictures. And what I was immediately struck by was this picture of Catherine the Great:


She looks just like a hausfrau, all dressed up! I grew up in a small Kansas prairie town chock full of the descendents of German and Czech pioneers, and many of the women I knew - mothers and grandmothers - looked remarkably like Catherine the Great. Big formally blonde women with pursed lips and big red apple cheeks, ramrod straight, business on their face but a hint of a warm smile somewhere behind the eyes. This is my lovely old neighbor woman who made molasses cookies, but also would kick your butt for running through her garden. Do they even make women like this anymore, in the old country or the new world?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas (2007)

I read Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas (2007), a new author for me. It's pretty Oprah, and more than a little bit chick (although not chick lit), but any book that has me all teary eyed at the end is a good read. I had to leave the break room at work because I was starting to cry, and I didn't want anyone to know...

I wanted to know more about the Japanese internment camps at the end - but maybe not enough to read a nonfiction book. There's probably a good documentary out there.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gorowitz (Dutton, 2010)

I'm giving up on A Tale Dark and Grimm. I'm not sure what the hell this is about, and I don't care all that much now. I have better books to read.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gorowitz (Dutton, 2010)

I am reading A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gorowitz (Dutton, 2010), an advanced reader's copy from a colleague. It's glib, snarky and tongue in cheek - which are difficult to pull off writing-wise. I think it's very much in the vein of Lemony Snicket - which I recall finding very funny and enjoyable (I only read the first book in the series, and that was a loonnnngg time ago). Maybe my taste has evolved into something else -- not necessarily something I could call better, just different - but I've found A Tale... to be sort of annoying, and maybe a little boring. The gimmick / conceit is that Hansel and Gretel are wandering through chapter after chapter of very old school realistic fairy tales (murderously gory as the originals). I'm not exactly sure if they are original Grimms or not (I haven't read each and every one of the Grimms' 200+ tales), but the sheen upon each story is certainly Grimm (and grim). Luckily, it's a pretty easy read, and I think I'm going to finish it - I am curious as to where the story will end up (so it must not be all bad). I do think a certain kind of kid will love this book (Lemony Snicket lovers) and R.L. Stiniacs might love this as well. I'm going to hazard a guess that A Tale... will be booktalked quite a bit; it's full of bloody hooks.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Viriginia Rounding (St. Martins, 2006

What's Russian for steel magnolia? стали магнолии?  I am reading Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power by Viriginia Rounding (St. Martins, 2006), which I heard about on one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Missed In History Class, and while I'm not sure how much I like the book, I have to say that Catherine the Great is one kick ass chick. In a time when women were just beginning to see a faint glimmer of freedom from patriarchy and in a country where most men did not have any civil rights, let alone women, along comes this foreign princess who, while married to an dolt, performs a manipulative political dance in the tsarina's court and intrigues in the background and foreground for a dozen years, has at least one baby by another man (in a court where one could be banished to Siberia for such things) -- and then, on the death of the Empress Elizabeth (another autocratic woman!) - almost immediately stages a coup, has her husband murdered (although she totally made sure she wasn't to blame), and then rules with an iron fist. Do magnolias grow in darkest coldest Russia? Steel magnolias certainly did. All in the name of the Enlightenment and good government too. I'm sure Orlev (her lover at the time and father of her third child) and his brothers thought they were in control of the coup - but it's obvious that Catherine was this master puppeteer and was manipulating everything and everyone!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor (St. Martin's, 1992)

I read Arms of Nemesis by Steven Saylor (St. Martin's, 1992), and what struck me again and again is how much the plotting reminded me of a classic Agatha Christie. Certainly, Saylor took the country weekend murder mystery and set it in Ancient Rome, complete with the same Christien cast of well-to-do characters. I did wonder at one point why the murderer had to be among the guests at the country estate - couldn't a wandering hobo or random serial killer snuck in and ko'ed the old boy? But that wouldn't make for a very interesting story, now would it?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Saving the Buffalo by Albert Marrin (Scholastic, 2006)

I read Saving the Buffalo by Albert Marrin (Scholastic, 2006) and was really quite moved and saddened by the loss of the majestic animals. From untold millions of animals to a few hundred thousand doesn't seem like much of a success story to me. I also didn't realize that among those paltry few, most are now domesticated -- something I didn't know was even possible - a newly domesticated animal, after Jared Diamond said we were out, although perhaps these are considered just another form of cattle. Being from Kansas, it was hard imagining treeless rolling plains covered with herds of bison as far as the eye could see. I wonder if we know that east coast bison were different in any way from Great Plans bison - did they migrate, for example? How was living in the woods different from the Plains? We'll probably never know.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson (Grove Press, 2009)

I read (almost all of) The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age by Juliet Nicolson (Grove Press, 2009) and to be totally frank, I was more than a little disappointed and a little bit bored by the end. From the initial descriptions I read of the book, and even the author's introduction, I thought each chapter was going to be a snapshot of a person from that time between the wars, and how their lives changed and intersected. Not at all. Some historical bits tied together loosely by some more personal historical bits. Definitely could have used a narrative thread, or abandoned the narrative altogether in favor of something else (something far drier though). Gorgeous cover though.

Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones

I read two novels in one: Witch Week and The Magicians of Caprona. I think maybe, just maybe, I've read Angel... only for the second time. Witch Week I've read multiple times, too many to count, and each time I come away delighted.

It's probably reading too much into Witch Week, but I little gay boys and lesbians out there read it and take heart... replace "witch" with "gay" and you don't really have to change too much of the story. Okay, I guess that's exaggerating a wee bit. Minus the magic but keep the sense of outsider, the feeling of being the only one, the wanting to run away, the bullying. I supposed you could say the book is really about all outsiders and their need to both fit in and explore what's special about themselves, which I guess is true. But if I were a little gay in Bumfuck, Kansas, I would want to know that my special, magical talents were going to appreciated someday, and that somewhere, in another world (Oz, New York, West Hollywood) I could be free. Sappy sentimentalism! Which, I have a feeling, DWJ would be aghast at. If there one thing her books are not - thank the gods - it's sentimental.

Witch Week is probably one of my favorite books of all time - I think it's perfectly written. The characters are really, really well drawn and fleshed out. And there is many of them, so that makes DWJ's writing skills even more amazing. She doesn't ever mince words; adults are always bumblers or fools (except for the good ones, and even they are often oblivious). Which, maybe, is how children really see adults to some extent. Characters have layers, even the evil ones (although their layers aren't usually as thick). The mean girls and bully boys in Witch Week seem so real. Theresa and Simon and the rest are all pulled right out of Blubber, but in a much more funny, less frightening way. Simon and Theresa are as evil as those awful mean girls in Blubber, but for some reason they seem less threatening. It probably helps that Charles and Nan had both their own magical powers and Chrestomanci to help them; poor old Blubber had no one (similarly, with the exception of Chrestomanci, who essentially made them solve the problem on their own, both books are full of bullies and the oblivious teachers who don't seem to notice or do notice but don't care).

Witch Week is certainly unique among the Chrestomanci books. Charmed Life, Christopher Chant, and Magicians of Caprona are more related to one another, although Magicians still stands apart. I think the mind of DWJ must be magical and wonderful place, first of all to invent Chrestomanci, and then to invent the Italy she does in Magicians. Come to think of it, to invent all of these worlds and universes. Quirky, yes. Brilliant, definitely.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Diana Wynne Jones

I love Diana Wynne Jones. I get so caught up in her plots and characters, that I start reading too fast - I want to know what happens - that I miss important bits. Her writing is so dense too. Missing those bits sometimes causes big problems later on. But reading so fast makes going back to re-read much easier - you can always pick up something you missed. But even when I re-read, I still read a mile a minute because I love her so much.

Lincoln by Gore Vidal

I went away for a week, did not take Lincoln by Gore Vidal with me - and now that I'm back home, I've lost interest.

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