Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28: Still Lots of Summer Left

Recently, I've been rereading a few favorite Gil McNeil novels (the Knitting Club series) and listening to I am Malala: wow. I've also started and stopped a few other books that just didn't cut it after the powerful reads during my vacation. However, today I finished a book I'd missed in a favorite police series:

Willful BehaviorWillful Behavior by Donna Leon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had somehow missed this Leon novel, and it was nice to be reminded of what a strong writer Leon is. The food, the atmosphere, the family ambiance--it's all here. There was an extra level, as well, as a theme of the novel is people's actions during WWII and various present-day attempts to avoid guilt. There's a powerful passage where Brunetti asks his father-in-law about his experience fighting with the Resistance: those four or so pages reminded me strongly of All the Light We Cannot See and its meditation on ethics, survival, and our actions. However--without revealing too much--I was disappointed with the conclusion, which ended on a very different note.

Still: a good Brunetti novel is a great way to spend a few summer evenings. Recommended.

and maybe I'll cheat by just pasting my newest review in here, even though I finished it Wed., July 29. . . . but there is STILL a lot of summer left, darn it! And I *did* like this book a lot. The Truth CommissionThe Truth Commission by Susan Juby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read The Truth Commission in about a day (handy to have the carpet cleaning guys come and keep you out of your house for an entire afternoon), and it *might* be a 5/5 stars, but right now I'm confused enough about the ending to say that at this point.

However, this is an interesting, genre-bending, thought-provoking, clever, absorbing novel. It's a tad too cute in some places (but that does capture Normandy's teen persona, especially at first); takes on a few too many topics too glibly (but they are interesting topics), and ties up too many loose ends too easily, keeping the sister's personality in particular disappointingly flat, but. . . . it's a really interesting book!

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

July 14: Vacation = Reading Time! (And Adventures)

So I'll start with my favorite pic of our wonderful two weeks (to date, at least):

Norway, at the Troll Bridge, with an actual troll!

The trip exceeded all my expectations, and really astounded me with the generosity and warmth of the families we visited. I was already glad that we've hosted two AFS students, but these two weeks opened a whole new level of delight!

Now, since I'm updating my Goodreads, I'll focus on the books I got through as we traveled: starting June 29, Bangor =>Boston via bus, then Boston =>Amsterdam => Copenhagen; on July 5th, Copenhagen => Oslo => Molde; on Sunday, July 12th, Molde => Oslo => Paris => Boston, a night at a hotel, and then a bus Boston => Bangor! YIKES! But all went well, and it was a huge blessing to have books to read as I went.

The Marco Effect (Department Q #5)The Marco Effect by Jussi Adler-Olsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read this #5 in the series of Carl Mørck/Danish police/Department Q novels (First one is Keeper of Lost Causes) as we were headed to Scandinavia for our wonderful two weeks, which added considerable appeal, I have to admit! Mørck is still entertaining, as are his various sidekicks. Concern for Marco, the street urchin, kept me reading fast, even through various flights. It was great to actually walk by the Black Diamond and through Christiania after reading the book, too! I enjoy this series a lot, though my husband felt it read roughly, "like a bad translation," and gave it up partway through.

The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation NovelThe Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla: A Pink Carnation Novel by Lauren Willig
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Wow. I have always accepted that Willig writes fluff--one of the reasons I enjoyed her early books was that her writing reminded me of something my sister and I might've cooked up during our pre-teen years when we were fascinated by "the olden days" and pretty much unbothered by historical accuracy. However, The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla has, in my mind, crossed all bounds for "callous disregard of historical likelihood and/or accuracy." It has also ignored character and plot development. While Willig has not indulged in the sex scenes that punctuated some of her earlier novels in this series, this book is staggeringly shallow and inane. I could barely bring myself to listen to it, despite the four-hour bus ride I was facing.

I can hardly believe that this drivel has 4.5 stars--but I'm bracing myself for outrage when I post this review. In light of that clear difference in opinion, let me say: I do like the first few novels of the "Carnation" series. They're funny, light, entertaining, and endearing. This one: not so much.

Here are some specifics, given that I listened to the book and so couldn't dog ear pages to come back to them. I did groan aloud at some points, but my reasons will be a bit general. So:

1. The book is poorly written: if Eloise had referred to "my boyfriend" one more time, I was going to stamp on my ipod; ditto the whole (I'm sure intended to be whimsical) chicken motif. The point of view veered from omniscient to Sally to the Duke and back to omniscient, sometimes in a single paragraph.
2. Nothing happened in either plot. Eloise and Colin decided to move back to Selwick Hall, and he didn't break up with her! The Duke *wasn't* a vampire! The guy who stood to benefit from everything did the murders--a fact which crossed my mind in early on.
3. Character development was trite and ridiculous. Sally and the chicken/poultry thing? What the heck was that? The ferret bit. . . Miss Gwen. . . . etc. . . . Oh: one bit I DO remember was the final Halloween scene, when Twix candy bars became a symbol of loneliness: "I don't want to be a single Twix!" Eloise thinks to herself. Judging from her earlier efforts, Willig is a better writer than that. In the future, I hope she applies her skill to creating entertaining stories that don't insult her readers' intelligence and taste--but I fear I won't be reading them, so I won't be able to judge.

SomeoneSomeone by Alice McDermott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hmmm. Julie gave me this book for my birthday, and I read it in Norway, and. . . . I liked it, but it didn't grab me. The main character's life was interesting and unusual; McDermott's writing voice was clear and unique; the structure (various small events and details from her life, not always fully explained but still easily understandable) was intriguing and certainly kept me reading; the changing historical details were absorbing as well. However, overall, I liked but didn't love the book. Maybe I'll reread it--I have thought about it quite a bit since I finished it--but at this point, it's a 3/5 for me, though certainly a high-quality piece of writing.

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nate made me read this novel, though it was on my summer reading list anyway. I gobbled it down during the last two days of our trip, and Doerr's story kept me involved through several lengthy flights and layovers.

Part of what I enjoyed about the experience was having Nate so enthralled with the book--he'd check in with me, and we'd compare dog eared parts, and read stuff back and forth. THAT was fun. I also found the pressure and suspense of the story, right up to the last 1944 section, compelling. I read, read, read, read, anxious to find out what happened. Doerr's historical detail is amazing: how can he know and describe all the stuff he knows and describes in the book? How can he describe Marie-Laure's experience, her father's vision of how to help her, the cavern in St. Malo, Werner's school and his war? The interwoven metaphors, symbols, and details are beautifully crafted; the story of how Werner's motivation to accept Nazism and his sister's determined rejection of it alone would make the book worth reading, but there's a lot more, too: a three-part story of suspense and discovery; a lot about family love and commitment; a huge meditation on the risks of involvement with human society.

Although the "tell me a story" child in me loved that the story went on and on, into 2014, I do think I'd've found the story more powerful if it had ended in WWII--the power of the experience was slightly diluted (though the essential message of human connection wasn't weakened) by the extended "and then. . . " exposition, which simply couldn't compete with the power of the heart of the story.

So: read it, read it, read it--and discuss it with people you love.

AND LAST (BUT READ CLOSE TO FIRST!): Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark TimesBeautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Times by Eyal Press
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mom gave this to Lyle, who didn't read it, but I scooped it up for the plane, and I found it interesting, thought-provoking, and well worth discussion--would be a great book to read with students! Some parts were poorly edited, and densely written: it's hard to work through a book that challenges one's ideas while also trying decipher sentences like "And even if resistance is justified, what beyond keeping the hands of a few upstanding individuals clean does refusal that's not tethered to some larger social objective achieve?" (7) !

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