Posted by: anovelread | January 23, 2012

Murder on Monday by Anne Purser

Anne Purser’s mystery is the first in her Lois Meade Mystery series. Each of the titles so far has a cute alliterative/day-of-the-week title that go hand-in-hand with Lois, the main character’s schedule. She cleans houses to make extra money for her family and each day of the week has a different house in the village she attends to. I like the premise of the series. Lois is sharp-tongued and observant, making her a good protagonist.

Over the years I have read a decent amount of British “village” books: stories that take place in quaint, rural England. This series doesn’t have the same feel as many of those books. While it takes place in a rural English village, Purser’s world is definitely not quaint. As such, I would not consider this a cozy specifically. There is no clear violence on the page and it is not a police procedural. But in my mind a cozy is a book I could give to a young teenager. While a cozy is about murder, the themes remain relatively benign(this is only my own definition. I think many would consider Purser a classic cozy writer). Purser’s world is a more adult world. The themes behind the murders suggest a more mature, adult world; sex and sexuality play a decisive role in the innerworkings of the village.

I like Lois as the main character. She is relate-able. Her world is far from perfect. Her relationship with her family is not always cozy and cheerful. Her background is not middle-class and comfortable. She is somewhat scrappy without being down-in-the-mouth aggressive. She makes mistakes and her family makes mistakes. It took me a good half of the book to warm up to Lois though. She did not leap off the page as a likeable or empathetic character. But I’m glad I stuck with it.

I did find the book to be a bit long. There was too much second-guessing and rethinking. I felt like sections in the middle could have been tightened without losing the overall focus of the store and depth of the characters. I considered putting it down at one point and I’m glad I didn’t because Purser did tie all the loose ends together.

The ending left me wondering. I already know there are six more books in the series, but Purser made some unexpected choices for her characters. I am curious to see how much for book one comes back into play in the rest of the series.

All in all, I will happily read more about Lois Meade. But I am sad to know that life in contemporary rural England is not always quaint with talking bunny rabbits.

I love kid’s books – especially the well-crafted ones that tell a complete and engaging story in under two hundred pages. George’s Secret Key to the Universe should be a classic example in that genre. I had seen the book at the store many times but hesitated to read it. After all, the book is touted as “science fact” and was co-written by Stephen Hawking, one of the foremost authorities on theoretical physics. How fun and light could it be?

A coupon and children interested in science led to the purchase of the book and I’m SO glad I did. I haven’t started reading it to my boys yet, but I can’t wait until I do. I hope they enjoy it as much as I did. The story revolves around George, a school boy whose parents despise all technology. He lives in a house without electricity or computers and his parents won’t buy a car. Needless to say, his greatest dream is to own a computer. Through amusing circumstances, George meets his neighbors Annie and Eric. Eric is a scientist who is scatter-brained, brilliant, and infinitely patient with George and Annie. The scenes with the scientists sitting around talking is hysterical for any adult who has scientist friends.

But the key to the book’s success is that it has an engaging plot. There is drama, without going overboard, there is action which includes scientific fact without it being in your face and dry. George has a problem, he has to solve it, he learns a lot in the process. There is a bad guy who needs to be caught. The Hawkings even tie together the anti-technology parents and the scientists in a convincing way. There is also kid appropriate humor and tongue-in-check adult goofiness to make it worth reading.

I knew there was a second George book, but I am just now discovering that George is a trilogy: George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt and George and the Big Bang. I need to finish our current read so we can start George, but I hope my boys and I will be reading all three books in this series in the near future.

Posted by: anovelread | January 17, 2012

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I read Sarah’s Key after my mom asked me if I knew the book or was familiar with the story it covered. I had not heard of Sarah’s Key at the time, but when she mentioned the round-up of Parisian Jews by French Vichy officials I was familiar with the underlying plot. Since the book came out, a movie has been made. I have yet to see the movie and at least one person suggested it might even be better than the book based on the topic. We’ll see.

As a French historian, I knew the outline of the historic plot behind de Rosnay’s book. The Vichy French police rounded up the Jewish population in Paris in the mid-1940s, held them in the Velodrome d’Hiver for six days, and then sent them to internment camps before they were herded to Auschwitz. Very few survived. Having studied the history of Europe in the twentieth century – and specifically in France – I realize I know significantly more about this topic than many people do. So I couldn’t walk away from the novel feeling as though I had learned about a wholly unfamiliar topic. Therefore, I was left to unpack the novel simply as a novel. And for me, on those terms, the book fell flat.

As a historic novel, de Rosnay did her research. The chapters that cover Sarah’s life from the arrival of the police to her discovery were well-crafted and historically accurate. De Rosnay paints a realistic and vivid picture of the experiences of the assimilated French Jewish population who were led to their deaths by their own policeman. For someone unfamiliar with this moment in history, I can imagine that de Rosnay’s book was revelatory.

I liked the modern story significantly less. I found the connections between the characters – especially the ending – to be trite and too simplistic. I felt that the French family was wooden and overly stereotyped: cold, unfriendly French family who only sees their American daughter-in-law as an American. I wanted more from Julia’s friends and American compatriots. They needed to be more than just cut-outs for her to have an ex-pat group. While her father-in-law played a concrete and sympathetic role in the story, her own husband was less well-developed. He was a too obvious villain with no redeeming characteristics.

I don’t like books that tell me how to feel. I want to make the decision for myself to be horrified, sad, or happy for the characters. De Rosnay’s story was too forced. The only character I was truly curious to know better was the French policeman who helped Sarah.

All in all, I’m glad I read Sarah’s Key. I would guess somewhere along the way I will be asked my opinion by friends or students and I can give an honest answer. But I will not search out other books by de Rosnay.

Posted by: anovelread | December 7, 2011

Finding Time to Read Every Single Day

I have less time to write than I did in the past (chalk up to work, kids or sheer laziness…) but I did find the time to write an article for the fabulous new magazine Sparrow magazine: inspiring deliberate living. While I might not have as much time to write, I will always find time to read. Find out how and why I read:

 

Soccer practice, guitar lessons, dinner, homework. Then there’s work, exercise, time to talk to my husband. Every woman I know can relate to the never-ending list of responsibilities and duties that plague us on a daily basis. There are not enough hours in any day to do it all. And yet, regardless of how crazy my life is, there is always time to read.I cannot imagine a 24-hour period when I do not have a book in my hand at least once. For me, reading is not a nice bonus if and when I have time. It is a defining and grounding part of every day of my life. And it has been for as long as I can remember.

I distinctly recall at eight years old standing at the Children’s library desk. A well-meaning but unknowledgeable librarian asked if I really needed to check out all those books. After all, I wouldn’t be able to finish them before they were due. My mom jumped to my defense and responded that I would have finished at least one of them before we got home and we would be back for more in less than two weeks.

To read the rest of the article, please visit “Finding Time to Read Every Single Day” at Sparrow Magazine.

Posted by: anovelread | August 15, 2011

Kraken by China Miéville

I read Perdido Street Station a few years ago and fell in love with China  Mieville’s worlds. He is without a doubt, the strangest author I have ever read. The only author I can compare him to is Neil Gaiman (who seems tame in comparison to Mieville). Mieville makes up words, makes up worlds, makes up entire ways of thinking that are remarkably unique. Therefore, he can be tough to read. Kraken was a really slow read for me because on every page there are concepts and words that slow the reader down and force them to stop and really think. However, the way he thinks and the way he forces the reader to think classify him as one of the best current writers. In 500+ pages I found myself pondering modern life – especially the role and place of religion – in novel ways.

Kraken is the story of a missing giant squid from the London Natural History Museum. The first question revolves around how someone could remove the specimen without anyone noticing. For Mieville, laws of physics are malleable so removal is the least of the questions to answer in the story. Quickly it becomes clear that this is not merely “a” squid, but “the” God for Krakenists – a living breathing contemporary religion that worships giant squid. As ridiculous as it sounds, Mieville creates a believable dogma for the followers. And squid  worshipers are one of the more tame groups in the story – I’ll just throw out the name “Chaos Nazis” to give you a taste of what else appears.

In a recent discussion about editing fiction, I realized Mieville’s genius. There is no sentence in his book that does not have a purpose. A character mentioned in passing on page 40 will suddenly reappear on page 300 making the one line earlier suddenly important. The new words he creates set-up a viable living world which is both fantastically unrealistic and conceivable. The ending to the story was a surprise, and yet completely logical within the context of the rest of the story. Mieville must revise and edit 1000 times to create such a tight narrative.

I don’t know that I will pick up any more Mieville stories soon. They take a lot of brain cells. But I will definitely keep him on my to-read list. If you have time and want something strange and fantastical which makes you think, Kraken is definitely worth a read.

Posted by: anovelread | July 21, 2011

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games have received a lot of attention lately. Compared to Harry Potter in popularity, the series is being read by young and old alike. I read it and really enjoyed it. But it brings up the question of what exactly defines a book or series as “Young Adult.” The main characters are young adults admittedly, but the themes and the death and destruction are decidedly more adult.  The Wikipedia definition of young adult fiction runs the gamut from V.C. Andrew (Flowers in the Attic – really?) to J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley Twins series (Collins is listed among the authors for the genre). That’s an incredibly broad age and interest range. It suggests books for those in the 14-21 age range. Again, the books I would recommend for a 14-year-old are vastly different from what I would recommend for a 21-year-old. I guess I’m wondering if there is a more nuanced description like “mature young adult” or something of that nature to describe this series.

Deciding what genre this series encapsulates notwithstanding, I thought Collins wrote a fascinating dystopia that raises a lot of pertinent questions. One part Running Man with a little bit of Lord of the Flies thrown in, The Hunger Games is the story of a futuristic world in which only those who live in District One are well-treated by the government. The other twelve districts suffer lack of food, electricity, and freedoms. Once a year the government hosts the hunger games to remind people why it is in charge – a boy and a girl from each district is chosen to compete. The last man standing – literally – wins for the year and becomes a hero ever after. Katniss, the series main character, volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Games and launches herself into the limelight.

As the series continues Katniss realizes she is the pawn in a much larger game. Seeing the competition on TV is only one moment in an otherwise corrupt world. Katniss remains the reluctant hero until well into book 3 when she finally takes matters into her own hands. Part of the appeal is Collins does not have a clearly defined good guy and bad guy. The “good guys” in book two become decidedly less honorable in book three. (So much so that I began wishing Katniss would get a well-deserved break at least once in a while by book 3.) The debate between Katniss’ loyalty and friends vacillates as human nature takes its course and individuals make personal decisions, regardless of the protagonist’s needs.

I appreciate Collin’s ability to craft an engaging story. But more importantly, thinking of this book as a young adult title, I appreciated her underlying message to think for oneself. Katniss has to learn to rely on her intuition and make difficult choices which cannot appease everyone. There is a central romantic triangle throughout the series. Collins does not overtly assert the romantic angle, but she does show the reality of trying to decide between multiple honorable individuals and different definitions of love.

I would recommend this book to my adult friends – it’s engaging, it is not overly long and tedious. I hesitate to think of what young adults I would recommend it too. At the very least, I would only give it to a select few students younger than high school age. Collins wrote a dark and gritty world which not all young adults are ready to tackle.

Posted by: anovelread | June 29, 2011

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

My first introduction to Tracy Chevalier was her well-known novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring. Since finishing that book I have read most of her works. Chevalier’s specialty is underdog women. Her characters have a quiet strength, but they are not the ones who get books written about them. Many of her books chronicle the lives of real historical women.

Remarkable Creatures is no exception. The book tells the story of two early-19th century women who hunt fossils on the beach in Lyme Regis, England. Elizabeth Philpot is a middle class “spinster”, Mary Anning is a lower class single woman. Together they find incredible fossil specimens which lead to a redefinition of natural history.

I admit I picked this story up 100% because of the author. I honestly had no idea of the plot when I started. I am not a huge fan of natural history and I have honestly never given much thought to fossils one way or the other. I wander through the Carnegie Natural History Museum with my kids because dinosaurs are always interesting to little boys, but I have never paid them undue attention.

I am however, a fan of the early 1800s and the true power of this book is an examination of the role women played in this world. Philpot and Anning were central to the discovery of these fossils and yet their roles were diminished because of their gender. No one expected them to understand what they had found. They were not even allowed to listen to the scientific discussions at conferences about fossils as women were not admitted to scientific societies.

The other subject which I enjoyed was the debate about the age of the earth and how to make sense of the fossils being found in this era. Chevalier does a good job of demonstrating the concern the clergy and therefore the public had with making sense of creatures who had died eons earlier because it did not fit in with their understanding of the Bible and the age of the earth: how long were God’s six days, as described in Genesis?

For as much as I liked the themes of this book, I admit to being glad I listened to it as an audio book. The plot is slow. There is a lot of introspection and discussion of scientific naming. Had I been reading, I may have put the story down and not finished it.

Posted by: anovelread | June 23, 2011

>Blackout & All Clear by Connie Willis

>If you have read my blog over the past few years, than you know that Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors. I love her humor and her attention to detail. The books she has written about time-traveling historians fulfill some of my favorite fields: history, comedy, sci-fi. So I was thrilled when I found out she was writing another book about future historians traveling back to World War II (not just any historians. This book is a return to the world she created in two other books. It makes for a more complete story if you’ve read her other time travel books). Then I discovered she was only releasing half of the book at a time. It is not a series. It is literally one story that stops dead in the middle. You cannot read one of the books without reading the other. I would rather the book had been published together (as though I have any say in the matter, right?) But it did make me hesitate before I read the books.

Blackout was the first book I read on a Nook app. (As an aside, reading on a tablet is worth a discussion of its own which I’ll save for another day.) I appreciated Willis’ attention to detail. She has done extensive research into World War II London and her characters and situations are believable. Yes, the main premise is time-traveling historians but, Willis writes an extremely vivid, realistic War experience. The book jumps between different characters researching the War who find themselves in the middle of horrifying events.
Jump to book two: All Clear. This book literally picks up right where the first one left off. Around page 300 I was frustrated. I was 800 pages into the story and there was a lot of second-guessing and doubling back. Willis spent too much time having the characters question themselves, and debate the same issues over and over. I remember feeling the same way 3/4 of the way through The Doomsday Book.

Around page 900 Willis finally started to wrap parts of the story up. Characters who had been introduced early in the book were finally explained – the connections between different figures appeared. Some of the ideas introduced very briefly in the beginning of the first book reappeared and started to connect. I kept reading.
Then I hit the last 150 pages and could not put the book down. Willis, in her typical fashion, tied everything together beautifully. It wasn’t a happy Christmas bow – not everyone ended up with the perfect ending. There are questions left, but not in such a way to feel as though she’s just trying to write another book and make more money. And the last two pages made it all worthwhile. Willis created a link I had not seen coming but was so appropriate. It does make me want to go back and reread To Say Nothing of the Dog – the first Willis book I read and the beginning of an literary obsession.
I think she could have cut out 100+ pages in the middle. I wish the book had been released as a single 1000-page tome. But, I remain a die-hard fan.
Posted by: anovelread | May 26, 2011

>The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

>I love Neil Gaiman’s books. He can create the most fascinating, dynamic, unique worlds. I have read all of his adult books. But I am not as enamored of his children’s literature. I feel it is a bit dark (who am I kidding, it’s really dark). I liked Coraline as a story, but it is not something I have given either of my kids and probably won’t for some time. So, it was with trepidation that I picked up The Graveyard Book. I was surprised when I found out it had won the Newberry Medalthe highest honor a children’s book can receive in the United States.

I will admit to being pleasantly surprised. I really enjoyed Gaiman’s story. While dark – the premise is that a young boy’s family is killed and he is raised by ghosts in a graveyard to protect him from the murderer – the story is not graphic or scary or otherwise inappropriate for a children’s story. Yes there is suspense and there is implicit violence, but there is nothing over the top (a phrase I could frequently use with Gaiman).
One of the reasons I liked this book was the way Gaiman put the chapters together. There is a clear overarching story that follows from the beginning to the end. But each chapter is episodic. You could read an individual chapter as a complete story – a point Gaiman makes about his own book. In fact, the chapter about the witch was originally published as an independent short story. When reading to kids, having a complete story is a nice touch.
Another feature is Gaiman’s incredible creativity and novel way of seeing the world. His ghosts resemble characters in other literature, but they all have a Gaiman twist which keeps them original and engaging. His perceptions of death and the afterlife while familiar are not overly dark if a kid were reading the story.
Possibly an odd aside, but the copy I read included Gaiman’s Newberry acceptance speech which was amazing. It had Gaiman’s wry humor, a respectful amount of humility, but also a poignancy. Gaiman reminded his readers/listeners that great literature to a child is nothing more than a book that creates an escape. What we read as kids doesn’t ever have to win awards or even be memorable five years down the road so long as it creates a world to explore.
Posted by: anovelread | May 25, 2011

>(Not Beginner) Chapter Books

>Now that my kids have jumped into reading I am beginning to realize how many levels of books it is necessary to have. I knew about the categories of pictures, beginning readers, and chapter books. But my kids are smack in-between beginning readers and longer chapter books. They can handle chapters, but don’t want 150+ pages. They still like pictures on pages, but want themes that relate to them. Thank goodness for librarians and classroom teachers. I have been compiling a list to meet the needs of Eldest who loves to read, likes adventure/fantasy stories, prefers human protagonists to animals, wants to read Harry Potter, but is still only 7. It’s harder than I would have thought. But, in case, you have an avid reader who is still developing his reading ability, here are some suggestions that we are working on:

The first category is the emerging bridge between graphic novel/chapter book which is really popular in my house:
  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (probably the first in this genre. Its popularity has helped create many others)
  • Big Nate (undoubtedly riding on the popularity of Wimpy Kid, but Eldest enjoyed it)
  • Magic Pickle (one book in the series is a pure graphic novel. Eldest was disappointed the others had actual chapters…)
  • Frankie Pickle (while being forced to clean his room, Frankie fights a monster with an old tuna and mayonnaise sandwich…)
  • Dragonbreath (while this seems to be popular for many kids, Eldest has turned his nose up at it. Too cute-looking maybe???)
  • and of course… Captain Underpants (just in case you don’t have a young kid and haven’t heard of this series)
As for actual chapter books, without the graphic novel concept, it has been tougher. Eldest has told me in the past that he can’t see the pictures in his head, so he really prefers the visual. But I’m working on encouraging more chapter books as we seem to be running low on age-appropriate graphic novels. I’m liberal in what he can read, but hardcore manga is not okay. Yet.
Here are a few books that have caught on in our house or we are planning to try this summer:
  • Black Lagoon chapter books (Eldest picked up the picture books at school, so he knows the series. He can read these in one sitting, but he’s reading!)
  • Naruto chapter books (based on the Japanese manga show, this series has been toned down for a younger audience. It appeals to Eldest but is *clean* enough for mom)
  • Dragon Slayers Academy series (these are popular with a lot of kids. I am trying to convince Eldest to read them, but haven’t had any luck yet)
  • Secrets of Droon series (same as above. I think if I could get him started, he’d like the series, but so far Eldest has resisted)
I would love any other suggestions or ideas. Anything to encourage a love of reading…

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