Our Top Reads of 2007

Carole’s Top 10 Books Read in 2007
My top 10 list is eclectic. How does a book make my top 10 list? The story has to stay with me. If I find myself thinking back on it over and over again, that means the book really captured something for me. The books on this list did that for me, and I’ve explained why briefly for each one. I do not, however, list them in any particular order.

Cyrano de Bergerac
This sweet, sad, yet funny, story tugs at my heartstrings. Reading the play with my kids was especially enjoyable. The humor really is laugh out loud in many spots, and the sarcasm really conveys across the many, many years since its been written.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
What can I say? The end of an era. We read this book aloud with a real sense of bittersweet. My family has literally grown up on these books. Rowlings did not disappoint us and in the end we were satisfied. See my blog post on this.

Back When We Were Grown-ups
I actually am surprised that this made my list. I picked it up fairly recently, read it quickly, and it has stayed with me. I really enjoyed Tyler’s treatment of her characters—see my blog post on this.

Darcy’s Story
I have not blogged about any of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice spinoffs, prequels, sequels, or re-telling of tales. Suffice it to say that I will in 2008 and that this is my favorite of the many I’ve read. As the popular t-shirt says, “I (heart) Mr. Darcy!”

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books and his nursery crimes are one of life’s great delights. First Among Sequels was this year’s gem. Our big treat was getting to go see him read from it and explain how he turned the whole time travel idea on its ear with this series. It was after seeing him that Chris and I decided to name the blog “Get Your English On!”

The Thirteenth Tale
I’m currently re-reading this for my sisters-in-law book club. I think I’m enjoying it more than I did the first time, and I really liked it two years ago. Very gothic, very creepy — look for an early '08 blog post on this one!

The Book of Lost Things
Think Chronicles of Narnia meets Fractured Fairy Tales meets Stephen King. Once I got into this book, I could not put it down. I have a few images in my head that I could do without, but they sure helped create a most engrossing (and sometimes just gross) tale. We are reading this with Chris and David in January — look for an early '08 blog post on this.

No Angel; Something Dangerous; Into Temptation
I hope to beg a little indulgence here. These three books are a trilogy, but I count them as one story. One marvelous story of the Lytton family that spans several generations and covers the period of time from pre-World War I through to post- World War II. I devoured these books and recommend them as the very best of what we call Fluff 'n Trash™. And I have a very keen appreciation of Fluff 'n Trash™!

The Ha-Ha
I found this book while trying to find something new and different to recommend for book club. I haven’t recommended it yet, but I plan to in '08. I blogged about it last month.

The Time Traveler’s Wife
I just finished re-reading this book for a new book club I’ve joined. Chris and I are both fans of time travel, and I’m grateful that she shared this haunting, poignant story with me. I just posted about it.

Most Hated Book of the Year
I realized recently that I’ve generally avoided blogging about books that I don’t like, and I’ve resolved to do better about that in '08. I think it is because I usually have so much to say about books that I don’t like. I could write volumes about this one. I was the only one in my book club to really hate this book, so maybe it’s me. Did anyone else hate it?

Chris’ Top 10 Books Read in 2007
I am embarrassed to admit that I didn't read as much this year as I have in the past. However, I have encountered some great new (to me) authors, such as Neil Gaiman and Frank Beddor, even with my paltry number. An 11th-hour read bumped off my original 10th book, but perhaps someday I will stop lamenting that The Red Tent did not fit on this list. I have listed my top choices in alphabetical order by title — with such a bounty, how can I possibly rate them?

American Gods
This was my introduction to Neil Gaiman as a solo artist, and I am grateful for it. His humor and unique vision about humanity and multi-ethnic gods were completely unexpected. Now that I'm very familiar with his and Terry Pratchett's work as individuals, I can appreciate what each brought to one of my favorite books of all time: Good Omens.

The Boleyn Inheritance
I can’t get enough of good Tudor fiction, and this is good Tudor fiction. It’s an excellent overview of how Anne Boleyn’s traitorous actions impacted the rest of Henry’s reign.

For One More Day
When you’re down and out, there is nowhere else to go but to Mom. In anyone else’s hands, this would have been a horrible maudlin tale. In Mitch Albom’s hands, it was touching and beautiful. Read more in my blog entry.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I savored every page. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, Rowling proved me wrong. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. I enjoyed every laugh, every cheer, every tear (and there were plenty of all of those). Rowling created a fabulous series, and while I was sorry to see it end, I was very satisfied with her conclusion(s).

Heart-Shaped Box
You need a Reading Buddy for this one, it's so scary. My friend Lois put it down at the same point I would have, had David not been reading it with me. It is simply one of the best horror novels I have read in ages. I'm sorry Joe Hill had to come out as Stephen King's son, but it actually made me even more critical of the book, rather than accepting. Every once in a while, David and I would tell each other what we suspected would happen in the next chapter — and, inevitably, we'd be wrong. I will review it more thoroughly in '08.

The Looking Glass Wars
What if Alice in Wonderland was a real story? Read my blog entry and find out more.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife
I have yet to read a book that was so steamy yet required a dictionary to fully understand. This is the good stuff, what happens after Elizabeth and Darcy say, "I do." And, boy, do they!

On Chesil Beach
After reading about plagarism accusations against Ian McEwan, I set my mind to not like him. Then I watched the movie based on his novel Atonement and decided to give On Chesil Beach a try. This compact and beautiful novel was such an amazing book, and one I will blog about in early '08.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels
Jasper Fforde. ‘Nuff said.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union
If the “experiment” of Israel didn’t work out, where else would the Jews go but Alaska? (Where else, indeed!) In this great story, a Jewish police officer investigates a murder and introduces readers to an alternate universe of frontier American Judaica.

The Book I Hated the Most

The Last Templar
There was literally nothing redeeming about this book: bad characters, bad storyline, bad writing, bad everything. Please see Carole’s blog entry for more reasons to not read this book. And, again, I apologize for bringing it up.


Reasonable Expectations Regarding Book Lists

For the past couple of months, I have kept a close eye on my nightstand books. I have removed one I knew I would not read soon — not because it wasn’t good, but I just didn’t have the time. I might have to do the same again to two other books. When I look at the precariously leaning books on my nightstand and wince at a title or two, it’s time to retire the title(s) to another time.

For truly, there is a time and place for every book. I plan to read the new Dumas in the spring. Maybe I’ll get to that George Washington bio around the late president’s birthday.

At this very moment, however, I crave Fluff ‘n Trash™ (Carole's phrase and one I embrace with great gusto). I must try to finish that Delinsky book that mayhaps has no redeeming value, and I must do it now (and not just because it’s a Hot Pick with a two-week time limit from the library.) Once that’s out of my system, I can focus on a couple of other books.

The City of Dreaming Books (not Fluff ‘n Trash™, but certainly not Dumas) amuses me every time I pick it up; however, slowly but surely, it has sunk too low in the stack for easy retrieval. I’ve eyed A Thousand Splendid Suns since I picked it up the day is hit the bookshelves. I just picked Seeing Redd from the library because I need to visit Alyss and Hatter Madigan again, especially after Delinsky.

I promise to be more like Carole and be more realistic with my bookshelf and nightstand books in 2008.


The Red Tent — Book Discussion Mediated by Chris

Years ago, I found a copy of The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and meant to read it. For years I meant to read it. Then I shared it with Carole, who read and loved it, so I gave it to my mom and promised to read it with her. Which I did, and I'm glad I did.

A number of women who read this share many of my impressions and thoughts about this incredible book. But let me let them speak for themselves.

Carole offers a great overview:
I'm a big fan of a re-telling of a tale, and this is the first time I've encountered a re-telling of a tale from the Bible. The Red Tent tells the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah. Dinah begins the story by explaining that little is truly known about her. She acknowledges that the Book of Genesis mentions her abduction and rape by a Canaanite prince, and how her brothers, Simeon and Levi, seek vengeance.

While that sets the time and place of the story for the reader, Dinah presents her complete story to us. Anita Diamant weaves a beautiful story through her sensitive narrator. In addition to her life's story, Dinah shares with the reader how women were treated and how they treated one another. As an only daughter with essentially four mothers, Dinah is privy to the world of women, a world they keep shrouded in mystery.

The red tent is where the women retreat as they begin their monthly cycle together. They pamper themselves and each other, particularly any of the women who are with child.

Diamant writes beautifully of all this, and it made me wonder, if this truly was how it was, why did we ever stop that? Now, we soldier on no matter how lousy we feel at any given time. Men may still us find us scary creatures, but we have lost that beautiful mystique. Granted, if the price we had to pay for that was returning to a time of multiple wives and no say in how we live our lives, no one would choose it. But the idea that we could have what we have today and still retreat for a few days each month is a seductive ideal.
Lynn agrees:
Loved it, couldn't put it down. Reading about biblical times from Dinah's point of view was great. I finished it with two thoughts:
  • Joseph was, perhaps with good justification, a real whiner. No wonder his brothers didn't like him.
  • But my overwhelming thought was, how in the name of Heaven did women ever, EVER let the tradition of the Red Tent get away from us. Name me one woman who wouldn't love to have three days every month to escape from all daily chores and tasks and be pampered. Can this possible be brought back into modern life?

I agree: the men did not make out as good in this book as they did in the Bible — but who was writing their book? Certainly not the women, such as Dinah.

I also miss the valuing of women’s ideas, stories and histories — do we bond with other women as deeply as these women did with their shared time and history?

My mom, Rita, and Michelle both liked the glimpse into the culture of the time. Michelle wrote:
Wow...what an eye-opener to the culture of that time. I love reading the bible but it is about a different time and a different place and a different way of life that is frequently difficult to image and even harder to understand. TRT really helps me with contemplative prayer when I try to really image the sights, sounds and smells of ancient times.

If you like this and would like another opportunity to contemplate biblical women try the book Women of the Bible by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda. It is a one-year study of some really great and often overlooked women from ancient Israel and really helps to put my "troubles" into perspective when I study how these women overcame their challenges, faults, mistreatment, betrayal, deceptions....etc.

Lois offered great insight and reminded me that it was fiction:
I found The Red Tent riveting and engrossing. It's the only book that inspired me to stay home from work to finish reading it!

I spend a lot of time reading the Jewish and Christian bibles. The biographies presented in their pages can fly by so fast; at most they're only a couple of chapters long, and sometimes only a few lines. It's easy to not feel the full weight of somebody's life history when it's embodied in a paragraph or two.

Although The Red Tent is largely fictional, it helped put flesh and blood on Dinah. Just having the time period painted in such rich, intimate detail was enlightening. As was the revelation of the midwife profession, which contradicts the notion in some circles that historically, most women have been stay-at-home moms.

I will say that I was disturbed by the way the author took unwarranted liberties with the historical record. The Jewish scriptures say that Dinah was violated and defiled by Prince Hamor; Anita Diamant wrote it as a consensual love story. That's like claiming Joan of Arc died peacefully in her sleep.

I do, however, appreciate Diamont's contribution to feminist fiction. And I thank you guys for opening up this discussion of such a substantial novel!

Donna’s response was very practical:
I read The Red Tent a few years ago and the one thought I came away with was: if only the Israelites were NOT nomads, the Middle East would not be in the MESS it is in today. How's that for simplicity and solving the world's problems!?

On a bit more technical note, though: when sheep graze they take the root of the grass and leave nothing, which is why they had to move in order to sustain themselves.
My response, I hope, rounds out the conversation: I, too, love the retelling of the tale and I miss the camaraderie of the Red Tent. What have we lost by making ourselves “equal” to men in a world where in fact we have to be better just to be regarded as acceptable? When did their terms become ours?

I also loved the reminder as to the importance of our foremothers, who are as overlooked in the Bible as they are by historians.

Lois points out one of my major problems with the book: Dinah was raped. There is nothing romantic about rape. The other “rape” scene with the frog statuette is really creepy (and which may be is why Dinah wasn’t clued in beforehand, and I’m grateful she didn’t have an opportunity to pass on that tradition).

I imagine we have a few coming of age traditions that seem archaic and weird right now. I’ve heard of some women who, when they tell their mother about their first blood, are slapped in the face. Others are taken out to dinner by their parents or fathers to recognize their transition to adulthood. How did your families recognize (or not) your menarche?

Every one of these women agree with me: it is a book we all heartily recommend. If you haven’t read it, pick it up right now. If you have read it, please share your response in the comments section at the end of this entry. Join the conversation!


The Looking Glass Wars — Review by Chris

Alice in Wonderland is real. Well, according to this excellent re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, she is — and in a book that is good enough to enthrall a youngster.

Our memories often are of the Disney-fied Alice in Wonderland and Technicolor Wizard of Oz, not the original violent, political books. Re-read “fairy tales” as adults and discover that youth/children’s fiction is not at all for the squeamish. Disney can soften the edges, but the literature cannot be tamed.

This is the case for The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor, the first of a trilogy about Alyss, princess of Wonderland.

Frank Beddor does not disappoint. After I became familiar with Wonderland, I found the book an easy and enjoyable read. It is technically “youth fiction” — but Beddor trusts his readers to take on more grown-up ideas and action sequences.

This book is not for the feint of heart. It is violent and scary and unpredictable and relentless.

In short: it’s fabulous.

Alyss is the mischevious and imaginative 7-year-old daughter of Queen Genevieve and her consort King Nolan. The Heart dynasty seeks to create peace and alliances to prevent the ursurping of the Heart throne by a very distasteful character.

The Heart dynasty’s one problem is psychotic and violent Redd, Genevieve’s sister who has been cast out for her anti-social and dangerous ways. Small asides from Bibwit Harte, Alyss’ tutor (and the tutor of three Heart generations before her) demonstrate that Redd is neither comedic nor should she be dismissed. When she says, “Off with their heads,” Redd means it — aided by beautiful red roses with hungry thorns.

When Redd returns to Wonderland in a fantastic and frenetic series of events that will make even the strongest reader blanch, Alyss must flee — and her mode of transportation will make you look twice at puddles.

Wonderland and 1800s England are brutal, wicked, violent and cruel. Dickens’ pictures are nearly rosy in comparison to Beddor’s.

Her appearance in our world is magical, sudden, violent and absolutely heartbreaking — almost as much as her removal from it. This is a movie waiting to be made. However, it is written with the rich context of a novel, rather than the brief and picturesque writing of screenplay-ready books like “The Last Templar.”

Many of the characters in this book are familiar: Hatter Mattigan, the family’s personal guard; The Cat, a feline exterminator; the Caterpillars, sages of Wonderland (and deep into their hookahs); Bibwit Harte, the big-eared and big-hearted tutor; the Liddells, who adopt a street urchin and introduce her to the family friend, Mr. Dodgson.

Beddor introduces readers to a few other unforgettable characters: Jack of Diamonds, Generals Doppel and Gänger, Dodge Anders, walrus butlers.

The weapons — oh, the weapons. I like Beddor’s ideas of weapons in Wonderland, and how a pogo stick and hula hoop came into being.

Frankly, I like a lot of his ideas, and I am very much looking forward to reading Seeing Redd, the second book in the series. In time — reading a sequel too close to the last book can spell disaster, so I will be patient and pace myself. It will be worth the wait.

While you’re at it, visit Frank Beddor’s Web site for The Looking Glass Wars. It's an experience unto itself.

(By the way, after seeing the unfolding images of the card soldiers, I dare you to put down the book. If you can, turn in your library card and turn on the television. Honestly.)


The Time Traveler's Wife — Review by Carole


The movie is currently in production and will start Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as Henry and Clare. It should be in theaters in 2008.

Chris and I both have a fondness for time travel stories, and we will talk more about this topic in 2008. What are your favorite time travel stories?


I read The Time Traveler's Wife two years ago, and I was fascinated by the premise of time travel being an involuntary action due to a genetic disorder. I found re-reading the book equally engaging--so many events take place in the book that I had not remembered. Because of Niffenegger's non-linear (very appropriate — given the nature of the story) way of presenting the narrative, I had little recollection of what happens when.

The idea of time travelling to different times in your own life — rewinding of the proverbial videotape — makes sense to me, but Henry doesn't just do that. He travels to places in time he hasn't been before — that I don't understand. How it is that he actually first comes to the Meadow and meets Clare when he hasn't ever been there before? I'm willing to believe that it is such a part of his future or destiny that he is drawn to that place, even if he doesn't know why. But he also ends up in places like Muncie, Indiana (1973) and we don't know if that is a new place for him or one he has visited. I prefer to think that all of the places he travels to are places he has visited before except for the Meadow.

The concept of destiny and Henry not being able to change anything in the past because it is has already happened is different from many time-traveling stories. People travel back in time, right some wrong, and effect a positive change in the future (unless they end up meeting themselves and then they rip a hole in the space/time continuum and there are world-ending consequences, but I digress). Niffenegger turns that more-or-less-typical premise on its ear by having Henry meet himself at different ages, in different places, in different times. The idea that there can be multiple Henrys running around is a bizarre concept, and the author illustrates that with some key scenes. I don't think I'll easily forget the scene in which Henry's father walks in on Henry and Henry engaged in a compromising situation.

The various Henrys help each other out, and I found that notion comforting. Older Henry teaches a new-to-time-travel Henry the things he needs to know to survive. An older Henry steps in to get married when the present Henry can't stay. A younger Henry makes love to Clare so she can become pregnant with Alba when the present Henry has had a vasectomy. There seems to be no jealousy or resentment of these Henrys to one another, and I guess that's because they are all the same person. It seems to make Henry feel less lonely as he goes through his solitary time travel.

Throughout the story I felt the weight that Henry carried — he knows things he can't share with people. He has to decide when he can or when he has to. By sharing anything, such as the list of dates with Clare, he alters her life, and his, forever. Which brings me to Clare.

Clare's is a lifetime spent waiting. From the time she is six years old until she is a very old woman, she is waiting for Henry. I find that to be a sad life. Despite the fact that she has known him her whole life, their time together seems very brief. When Henry tells her not to be sad, he will see her again after he dies, I feel like she spends the rest of her life waiting for that moment. And that is a lot of waiting. Should he have done that?

Clare is Henry's constant in life, and she bears it all with a fair amount of grace, I think. I could see where it might become too overwhelming, but she seems well suited to the waiting. The images of her art expressed a great deal of Clare, and I found her use of bird imagery, particularly dark, sinister birds, telling. She doesn't speak the words, but she lived with a great deal of fear of the future, which to me would make the waiting difficult to endure.

Henry and Clare's love story rang true for me — I believed their feelings for one another, and I did find Clare's waiting for Henry to be very like the story of Odysseus, just as Niffenegger quotes at the end. I found the quotes that the author uses between sections to be very provocative, and I think I want to find this story of Byatt's Possession — it seems to have inspired Niffenegger. Does anyone know it?

I also found it interesting that both Clare and Henry assert that they don't or no longer believe in God, yet they find themselves praying for things throughout the book. I think that Clare's faith actually is more important to her than even she realizes. I particularly like the prayer that Henry utters on his wedding day:
"Oh God, let today be a normal day. Let me normally befuddled, normally nervous; get me to the church on time, in time. Let me not startle anyone, especially myself. Let me get through our wedding day as best I can, with no special effects. Deliver Clare from unpleasant scenes. Amen."

I think that actually is version of what Henry generally prays for with his life for Clare.

The name of the second section of the book, "A Drop of Blood in a Bowl of Milk," intrigued me. I wondered why she chose to name the entire section this — she uses the phrase to refer to Clare's blush when they discuss their plans to make love for the first time. Many scenes in this book are bloody images from Clare's miscarriages to Henry's injuries. Why this name for this section?

I found the cast of characters in Henry's life very compelling. His parent's love story and their subsequent tragedy shapes Henry's life from an early age. You can't help but wonder how things would have been without the loss of his mother and his father's withdrawal from life. Except for his father, I was continually amazed at how the people who come to know the reason for Henry's quirky behavior are generally okay with it. They don't seem to be as freaked out as I think people might actually be if someone they knew could just appear and disappear. But I found it comforting that Henry had so many people who loved him.

Characters like Ingrid, Gomez, Ben, and Charisse all have their own issues, but they came across as real people (except of course that they ALL have extremely interesting lives and jobs — no one is the story just sells shoes or works for an insurance company).

I found the touches of humor, though subtle, throughout the book a much appreciated element; it's a nice foil to the many, many sad elements in the tale. I think the poignant scenes, such as those with Henry and his daughter, are contrasted by his light hearted moments.

I could go on and on, but I would love to hear what others have to say. Did the time-travelling premise in this book work for you? Did you find it distracting to keep track of when things were happening and how old the characters were respectively in any given scene? Does anyone have a good explanation for why it is essential to the story that Henry and Clare do not meet again for two years — a break between her childhood and her adult life? Why that break in time? Did you find their lives compelling? Was this first and foremost a time-traveling story or a love story?


The Kite Runner as a Film: What Do You Think?

The Kite Runner, one of the most amazing books I have read in a long time, was just released in the U.S. as a film.

Have you seen it yet? What did you think?

Do you plan to see it? Why or why not?

I don't plan to see it because I loved the book too much. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out: it's never as good on the screen as it is in my head.

Some books translate well to film, and I'm glad to see them.

However, some I cannot bear to see on celluloid, including I Dreamed of Africa and A Passage to India. I am sure at least one of them was a lovely movie, especially in the hands of Merchant Ivory Productions. I also know Mitch Albom would advise me to let it go. And maybe someday I will. But I can't yet surrender the beauty of the scenes told by Khaled Hosseini to the imagination of another human being.

Carole said...

I don't plan to see it, but for different reasons. I saw the preview for The Kite Runner a few months ago, and it started with "From one of the most beloved novels of our time...", and I thought "beloved"? The Kite Runner could be described in many ways, but beloved is not a word I would choose. Then the brouhaha about the boys who appear in the film having to flee their country because their families feared for some retribution for the rape scene they participate in really made me angry. It also made me angry that the father of one of the boys said that he only let his son be in the movie because he thought that scene wouldn't be included. Huh? It's only pivotal to the whole story!

Note: plot spoilers in following paragraph.

Lastly, although I thought that the imagery was beautiful in the book, and the characters were compelling, I didn't actually enjoy The Kite Runner as much as others around me did. I actually found the plot a little contrived. When the main character seeks redemption by going to Afghanistan to rescue his friend's son, he not only finds the orphan in the war-torn country, but the biggest impediment that he faces is the very same nemesis he couldn't confront as a child. It didn't work for me, and I have to say that I really didn't like the ending of the book at all. The slight glimmer of hope we were given at the very end didn't counterbalance all of that despair.

So, the answer to your question, for me, is no, I don't plan to see it.


The Last Cato — Review by Chris

Best Blog Post

A reviewer states this book “will do for Dante what Dan Brown did for da Vinci.” I hope it does.

The Last Cato succeeds on a number of levels. The three characters are assembled for specific reasons, rather than by the author’s far-reaching coincidence. Unlike another popular writers’ characters who are expert divers 20 years after an hour-long course at the academy or know how to slow the heart like a yogi, Asensi’s characters are scholars with credentials of their own — and don’t present “coincidences” that require a test of my willful suspension of disbelief. The story is compelling and the writing is fun and pleasant to read, never getting stuffy despite the serious nature of the story. Not to mention the book gives us something we rarely, if ever, see: nuns as action heroes.

It also made me pull out my own copy of The Divine Comedy, which I now must re-read in a new light.

In The Last Cato, Dr. Ottavia Salina, a learned scholar and nun who works in the Vatican’s historical archive, is asked to research the religious significance of a dead man’s tattoos that appear to be Christian in origin. She is assisted by the captain of the Swiss Guards, a stern man she gives the unspoken nickname of The Rock.

It seems the dead man whose tattoos they were investigating was found with a remnant of the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus Christ was supposed to have been crucified. Other remnants of the cross continue to disappear from churches around the world, even under strict guard, so the two join another scholar to find the culprits and, hopefully, the rest of the cross.

What they find is the Staurofilakes, an ancient society charged with the protection of the True Cross. However, much like other ancient religious societies, the Staurofilakes fell out of favor with the church, which collected its pieces of the cross and discarded the faithful. The sect was reputed to have vanished — but the dead Ethiopian proved that what was once legend was flesh. A few clues about the crosses and tattoos ring a bell with the captain, whose well-thumbed copy of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy reveals the unexpected.

At first I didn’t like part of the ending, but it’s growing on me. Part of it I expected, but the rest was too fantastical for me at first. However, because my mind may change, I’m not ready to pass judgment on that yet.

Finally, the book is the test of excellent translation: the original was written in Spanish, but the English version does not really read like a translation. The language is natural and has the same cadence I would expect from a book originally written in English.

Despite my evolving opinion about the ending, I highly recommend the book. It’s a great adventure with some wonderful characters. Please read it and tell me what you think.

Oh, and visit the Web site — it's very cool!


Back When We Were Grownups — Review by Carole

This was my first Anne Tyler book, and I bought it to read because I was fascinated by the premise. What if we could go back and choose a different path in life? I’m not talking about time travel here, but rather about evaluating how you got to this point in your life and whether you have become the person you thought were.

In Grownups, Tyler presents us with Rebecca Davitch, a 53-year-old woman who is questioning how she came to be the wrong person. In her own mind, Rebecca is a quiet, studious wallflower, but to her boisterous family, she is the matriarch who runs the family party business and who everyone turns to for advice. She even questions why they call her “Beck”, when prior to becoming a Davitch, she was always Rebecca.

A widow for some time, Rebecca has raised her three stepdaughters (NoNo, Biddy, and Patch) and her own daughter (Min Foo); she also now has son-in-laws of quite varied backgrounds with whom she has good relationships. These marriages have produced several grandchildren and step-grandchildren for Rebecca as well. The unusual nicknames serve to illustrate the differences between the Davitches and herself.

Her husband died six years into their marriage, and she while she has taken care of her family, she begins to question her role in it. What if she hadn’t been swept off her feet and married her husband? What if she had stayed with Will, her steady college beau? What if she had pursued her promising career as a researcher? She actually makes a few forays into answering these questions, but the results are never quite what she expects.

Tyler employs a device that I always enjoy in novels—we get to see things that the main character does not. While Rebecca is questioning how in the world she ended up where she is, we readers see that actually she is the very center of her family. Her presence there in the Davitch home and business is essential to their lives.

Rebecca also cares for Poppy, her husband’s 99-year-old uncle, whose sole focus is on the plans for his 100th birthday. His birthday toast is one that will stay with me for some time. It’s remarkable that Rebecca has so many relationships to people with whom she does not share a blood tie.

In contrast, we also get to meet Rebecca’s rather staid mother and colorful aunt, and through them, we get some insights into Rebecca’s growing up years.

Rebecca could have come across as a middle-aged woman going through a mid-life crisis, but Tyler deftly creates a world in which we come to care about the character and can in fact see the value of asking these questions.

As Rebecca takes this self-discovery journey, you want her to see how loved she is by those around her and to be happy that she in fact did become the person she is.

Not a life-changing book, but a library read I enjoyed with characters I’m glad I got to meet. I understand Hallmark made a movie of this a few years ago—I’ll have to check it out.


Banned Book Week Update: Penguins

When it comes to banned or challenged books, my first question seems to be, "What is all the fuss about?" I have to find out myself.

The story of And Tango Makes Three was intriguing: two male chinstrap penguins lived together as a couple and tried to hatch an egg together. When the penguin-keeper gave them an egg, they hatched it together and raised the chick together.

Charming for fiction. Unbelievable for real life. But it was real: Roy and Silo were two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who chose to cohabitate. During their years together, the tried to hatch stones (because both were male and could not lay eggs). The penguin-keeper gave them a real egg to try to hatch — which they did.

So, I decided to read the book to see what the fuss was about.

It was written simply and directly, and the illustrations were adorable and charming. (My personal favorite drawing was the "aerial" view of the egg-warming penguin in the nest.) It was fact-based, and at the end are the details about the true story. There was even a little joke in there for adults relating to the word "Tango."

I also read a couple of Web sites that included entries stating some bloggers' objections to the book and research on same-sex pairing in the animal kingdom.

Perhaps if I shared the detractors' ideology, I would understand their objections better. However, I read no endorsement of any penguin instincts described in the book, whether it was exhibited by same-sex or opposite-sex couples.

In the end, all I did was read a story about two penguins in the Central Park Zoo who hatched an egg and raised a chick, and the story and illustrations were cute. The fact that Roy and Silo were both male didn't seem to make much of a difference to them, so it didn't make a difference to me.


The Nature of Monsters — Review by Chris

Imagine what life was like in England in the 1700s. Not the romantic, chivalric images, but the filth, squalor, oppression and hunger. Then add in creepiness.

Voilà! You have The Nature of Monsters.

Clare Clark's second novel offers great detail into the time. Every character reflects how that particular class of person would live during the years covered by the novel. There are no punches pulled, and the world is filled with chamber pots, leeches, superstitions, herbal remedies and more.

The novel begins in 1666, when a mother-to-be is nearly consumed by the Great Fire of London.

Jump ahead a few decades to meet Eliza, who lives in the countryside with her mother, a midwife and herbalist in the village. The young woman springs to life fully realized — and deeply in love with the son of a wealthy family. The heat between them is palatable, but short-lived, and Eliza discovers the power of money and position in 18th century England.

A young woman in a small town might be trapped by shame, but a young woman sent to the city whose husband is "out to sea," most likely conscripted by the Navy, can become just one of the bustling crowd on the shore of the Thames. Eliza becomes a wounded woman in the house of an apothecary who agrees to keep her as a maid for a year.

While Eliza thinks the apothecary, Mr. Black, will end her troubles, the apothecary in turn thinks Eliza will end his. The apothecary is studying maternal imprinting on newborns, and Eliza is unwittingly drawn into his experiments.

Eliza is not alone in this household. The other occupants of the Black household, and of London as a whole, are richly developed: Mary, a fellow servant; Edgar, the apothecary’s apprentice; Mrs. Black, the wife of the reculsive scholar.

Eliza is ignorant to the apothecary’s studies or her unwitting role in them until she accidentally encounters images in a book of his she is asked to fetch from the Hugenots’ bookshop. Only then does she realize what this position has cost her. And when she discovers that Mary is in danger, she finds courage and resourcefulness beyond her years.

The story is told from a few different viewpoints: Eliza’s, Mr. Black’s and from letters that arrive at the apothecary’s house. Each element provides a thread to the fabric of the story — necessary but cumbersome. Most of the story is told from Eliza’s perspective, and much of the information about Eliza or Mr. Black’s studies cannot be obtained from the observations of an illiterate teenager. The methods by which Clark reveals plot points are ingenius: a letter from Eliza’s father-in-law, Mr. Black’s notes during his studies or his opium-induced rants. However, the perspective shifts are not smooth or easy to follow. They jar the narrative and take us out of London, which is as much a character as Eliza.

The real draw of the book is the description of London. That alone makes it worth reading.

In the end, The Nature of Monsters was a satisfying read — but a library read. Check it out from your local library, and recommend it to Brittania-mania friends.


Devil in a Blue Dress — Book Discussion Summary by Carole

Over Thanksgiving weekend, David, Chris, Steve, and I had the chance to discuss our second book — Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. This conversation was completely different from our discussion of The Last Templar. For one thing, we all liked this book.

The first in the Easy Rawlins series, this book introduces memorable characters, such as Easy and Mouse. Played by Denzel Washington and Don Cheadle respectively in the movie, these characters really come to life with Mosley's deft hand. Using his words like brushstrokes in a painting, Mosley creates characters we can see and picture for ourselves. David and Chris had not seen the movie when they read the book, but David said he could really picture this story as a movie. Steve and I saw the movie years ago and again recently, so it was difficult for us to picture the characters looking like anyone other than Washington and Cheadle. Not that there is anything wrong with that!

Cheadle's portrayal of the pathological Mouse is summed up beautifully in one scene in the movie:

Easy: Mouse, why did you kill him?
Mouse: If you didn't want him dead, why did you leave him with me?

In the book, however, we hear about Mouse long before we see him, but more about that in a bit.

A Houston transplant, Easy lives in Los Angeles in a community that is populated by many other people who have moved from Houston to LA. Set in post-World War II, Easy Rawlins takes great pride in the fact that he owns a home. Mosley gives us little snippets of insight into Easy's life growing up, and Easy says he "loves that house more than any woman he's ever known." The house is almost a character in itself; Easy is willing to go to great lengths to protect it and not lose it.

The story begins with Easy losing his job because he won't apologize to his boss. Easy won't do it because he doesn't believe he is wrong. A veteran of the war, Easy knows how to stand up for himself and what he is capable of. David made the point that Easy isn't always consistent in this--he often doesn't stand up for himself and suffers physically as a result; at other times, he exercises great restraint by not using violence to get himself out of trouble.

Easy's unemployment makes him vulnerable to losing what he values most, so he gets involved in a situation that he knows is going to lead him to trouble. From there, he meets the Devil in a Blue Dress and his troubles get much, much worse.

We all felt that Easy's feelings for the girl and her feelings for him were quite different. We all thought that she was merely using him to get what she wants, despite her protestations to the contrary. Easy, on the other hand, goes to great lengths for her, but we readers felt that the emotions didn't seem deep enough for him to do all that he does. In other words, we "didn't feel the love." Steve did point out that his name is Easy for a reason! Easy definitely does not play hard to get.

As Easy's back gets pressed harder and harder up against the figurative wall, he needs help. He writes to Mouse but is stunned when he actually shows up. You know from several conversations he has with those around him that Mouse is someone that is not easy to be around. Steve pointed out that Mosley somehow makes us like a true sociopath--not an easy feat!

Mouse shows up at a most opportune time, and you can't help but wonder if Mouse is always there to watch Easy's back throughout the series.

Until we read the book, I didn't realize that Mosley had written an entire series with Easy Rawlins as the main character. Chris wishes that Mosley's use of dialect was more consistent, particularly because he makes a point of saying that Easy communicates his true feelings better speaking as he did growing up rather than in proper English as he learned to do to get ahead in life.

Chris and I were very distracted by the Easy Rawlins' short story at the beginning of the book called The Crimson Stain. I started to read it because I thought it would set the context for the book, but I was not happy to discover that the story actually takes place some time much later than Devil in a Blue Dress and reveals certain facts about the characters that we should not have been privy to. If Devil in a Blue Dress is the introduction to the series, why include a short story that is, in many ways, completely disconnected from this story? If included at all, it should have been at the end of the book, not at the beginning.

The consensus was that the book was a successful read for couples. We aren't sure what our next attempt will be, but we'll keep you posted!


The Perilous Art of Book Recommendations

Carole points to a very touchy subject, one that many readers have had to face: to whom do you recommend a book? And to whom do you not?

With Carole, I will recommend anything that has print in it. If I haven't read it, I usually extend my hand clutching the book with these words: "I haven't read this one, but it looks good...." or the summary was intriguing, or the cover caught my eye. I don't always work with my brain when it comes to choosing books — sometimes it's instinct.

With others, though, it might be different. Alicia doesn't read much (perish the thought!) but responds well to very captivating books, or books that have been movies we've watched together. Lynn wants to be an avid reader but fears a bad book, so she gets books I loveloveloveloved (and Carole has loveloveloveloved); for her, there is no "Oops, my bad — how about this one?" Kathy and I find ourselves often reading the same books, unbeknown to each other.

But virtual strangers, or new friends, or casual co-workers, or even friends of friends, get entirely different treatment. The books you recommend to people who know you only slightly are books that define you to those people — not bad, but what message is your first recommendation going to bring?

For Carole, The Ha-Ha had scenes that she wasn't sure would go over well with this group. She knew what they had read recently, but nothing was like The Ha-Ha. Carole chose a different book for her first recommendation (which works to my advantage because now I get The Ha-Ha! Ha ha!). (Oh, like I could resist!) This new group will not be new soon, and at that time she can better judge when to offer The Ha-Ha. (Read her blog on this very thing — I'm sure I do it little justice.)

Parents are an entirely different category altogether. Do you really want your mom to read some of the steamy stuff in Dead and Loving It? And what do you do when you find out she did read it? And loved it? (That's Carole's story to tell.) Mine was a very successful sharing of The Red Tent with my mom, which will be blogged about soon.

One of these days, I'll tell you about The Book of Lost Things and Collin's birthday.

Even with friends, I worry. It was my idea for Carole, Steve, David and I to read The Last Templar, and I will forever apologize aloud for that. (Hey, the synopsis sounded good.) I had read Watership Down and had no problem handing over an unread copy of The Plague Dogs, which Carole found so difficult and sad a story I did something with my (thankfully unread) copy I never thought I'd do: I recycled it.

Sometimes I'm right-on: Lynn carried Angels and Demons with her everywhere while she was reading it and kept eying the book as it sat next to her in the car (and she was driving!). Alicia loved Stardust. Carole loved Jemima J enough to blog about it. After reading the first page of The DaVinci Code when it was first released, I handed Carole a copy in the bookstore and told her we had to read it right away before attending the author's reading a couple of weeks later.

And sometimes it's just not the right moment. I couldn't get into The Rule of Four or The Dante Club, both of which came highly recommended by Carole and Steve, so I will try again later. Carole couldn't bear Life of Pi when she read it, but because I loveloveloved it, she will try again in the future.

In short, there's a strange responsibility when one suggests a book. Each recipient must be judged completely differently and on her/his own merits. New friends get the "good stuff" only after they become more familiar, and old friends (so to speak) get the good stuff before you even read it.

So enjoy that book in your hands — but ask yourself: to whom would you recommend it? And to whom would you not?


The Ha-Ha — Review by Carole

I joined a new book club recently, and I was told that I could choose the next book. No pressure there, right? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time picking a book to recommend unless I’ve already read it.

So, I pored over books at the store trying to find something that would appeal to a fairly large group that wasn’t already standard book club fare. I skipped over such worthy titles as Glass Castles, Secret Lives of Bees, and The Red Tent in search of something not as well known.

I came across The Ha-Ha by Dave King and was immediately captivated by the title and the narrator. Living where we do affords us frequent opportunities to visit Mount Vernon. (Having someone in the family working there doesn’t hurt, either). Mount Vernon has a haha wall, and the name and idea of it always appealed to my kids when they were younger. A haha wall is "a retaining wall built into a ditch. It physically separates the lawn/garden area from the pasture/park, allowing the animals to appear as part of the landscape but keeping them off the lawn without having a fence." The haha part comes in when people don’t know it’s there and topple unsuspectingly into the ditch, causing onlookers to go “ha ha.” I’m not sure that would be my response, but one woman’s "Ha Ha" is another woman’s "Oh my God, are you all right?” But I digress.

The book’s unique narrator intrigued me from the start. Howard is a Vietnam veteran who suffered a horrific head injury that left him unable to speak in anything other than basic guttural noises that are unintelligible even to those close to him. Despite the fact that his recovery is deemed a success story, Howard is also unable to read or write. It is through Howard that The Ha-Ha story is told. A capable, intelligent man aware of the many ironies that his particular situation creates, Howard relates to us how he has come to be where he is now.

He actually is in the house he grew up in, but his parents are now gone, and he has a diverse group of roommates. He works for nuns at a convent doing their landscaping, including mowing their ha-ha wall (see earlier comment about ironies — should nuns ever have a ha-ha wall?). Also significant in his life is his former girlfriend, Sylvia. They were sweethearts when he went off to Vietnam, and she has remained a constant in his life, but her life is a mess. A single mother with a substance abuse problem, Sylvia relies on Howard to do things for her with the unwavering certainty that he will do it.

The plot of the book revolves around Howard caring for Sylvia’s son, Ryan, while Sylvia at last seeks treatment for her addiction. Ryan is not at all keen on this arrangement; Howard’s roommates are equally reluctant for many reasons; and Howard is pretty terrified and unsure of how he’ll cope with the challenges of communicating with this young boy.

Throughout the book, I found myself cringing at the prospect of Howard being hurt. He has already endured great suffering, and you just want him to be happy. You know that more pain is coming his way, and you want him to be spared. Howard shares some disturbing memories that give you some insight into what his life’s journey has been like, and you can’t help but feel that he deserves some measure of happiness.

Finding out if he gets what he deserves is what keeps you turning the pages. Emotions run the gamut as you read along—anger at Sylvia’s selfishness, protectiveness toward Howard at other’s lack of understanding, wistfulness at opportunities not taken. Poignant scenes between many of the characters stay with you long after finishing the book.

I found myself comparing The Ha-Ha to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time on more than one occasion as I read the book. Perhaps because both narrators are challenged in their own ways; perhaps because the action taking place sometimes tells you more than the narrator does about what is really happening; and perhaps because you find yourself rooting for their happiness even if you can’t readily identify what will make them happy.

I devoured the book, but I ultimately did NOT choose it for this book club’s selection (I went for The Time Traveler’s Wife instead). I just didn’t know if some of the book’s graphic scenes were what this book club would be expecting. I know, I know, The Time Traveler’s Wife has graphic scenes too, but read The Ha-Ha and see what you think. Maybe once I get to know the tastes of this book club’s members a bit better, I’ll put it up for discussion. But to you, reader of book blogs, I recommend this book.


Stardust — Review by Chris

The edition of the book I read was the fairy tale by Neil Gaiman illustrated beautifully by Charles Vess. I suppose you could read this book without Vess’ illustrations — but why?

The story is charming, the illustrations very rich and the combination made for a great read.

Dunstan Thorn lives in an English town called Wall that exists next to Faerie, the land of faeries — a land that is dangerous and fraught with peril. Two men from the village guard the gate at all times.

The only time anyone is allowed to cross to Faerie through the break in the Wall is on Fair Day, when the fairy folk bring their wares to sell in the neighboring faerie meadow.

On one such day, Dunstan meets a woman with whom he is smitten. She makes a date to meet him that evening.

A year later, she leaves a baby at the Wall with a note identifying the child as Dunstan’s. He could not deny his child, and his new wife raises the child as her own.

In 18 years’ time, the young man Tristran Thorn becomes enthralled with Victoria Forester, the town beauty and daughter of his employer. One autumn evening when he sees a shooting star fall on the other side of the Wall, he impulsively promises to bring the star back to Victoria if she will marry him. She agrees — after all, no one is allowed beyond the Wall.

But young men smitten with pretty girls do ill-advised things, and Tristran is no different. His father, understanding his son’s nature, persuades the Wall guards to let the young man through to follow his dream.

Tristran is not the only one who saw the star fall. The eldest sister of a group of old witches must have the heart of the fallen star to regain her youth. She takes a potion to re-create herself for the road and goes off in search of this fallen star.

The star, however, is the topaz of the Lord of Stormhold, who on his death bed throws his kingdom’s jewel as a test for his remaining sons. The one who can find this jewel will rule the kingdom. This collection of men is joined by a collection of dead brothers. Each has killed the other as part of his effort to obtain the throne for himself. Let’s just say death does not take the late brothers out of the story.

Between ruthless brothers, a youth-hungry hag and a besotted young man, the star has little chance to remain undiscovered.

Tristran sees a great transformation in himself. He loses the shirt off his back, literally, and must make friends along the way to survive. He also evolves into a new and different person who has talents unknown and undeveloped in the other world, and he finds a confidence he did not have.

The sons vying for the lordship of Stormhold also undergo transformations, but of a more permanent kind.

The hag herself evolves during this search in sad and scary ways, encountering friend and foe, and using her magic for her own end.

I enjoy Gaiman’s work on its own, but I highly recommend finding the illustrated version for this read. You will not be disappointed. It is truly a Faerie Tale worth reading more than once.

(By the way, I hear the movie is a fantastic treat for the eyes. I hope it's because they paid attention to Vess' artwork.)


My Library is Closing

What do you do when your library is closing for a couple of months and any book you check out is not due back until it reopens?

You go shopping!

Well, that's what I did. (Twice. So far.) I made a list of all of the books I wanted to read, all of the books that had great reviews, all the books that look interesting. I started taking them off the shelves with great aplomb, my arms filling quickly. I took as many as I could drag to the car and promised a return trip.

And I also placed books on reserve like mad, anything I wanted to study this winter. Miraculously, every one of those books also came in this week.

I will be reviewing my wish lists on Amazon.com and Half.com to see what other faves the library might have in stock for me. I also will walk through the shelves, both fiction and non-fiction, plucking what looks ripe.

I can't remember if there's a limit to how many books I can keep: 24, 36, something like that. Maybe, if due dates are all cattywhompus, maybe "book limits" are, too.

It's almost like Christmas came early — which is what I usually feel when I walk through the doors of the library. But this time, I don't have to worry about overdue fines, my one Achilles heel. At times, I simply buy the book from the bookstore because I'll wind up paying that much in fines.

But not this time.

This time, I have a chance to actually finish the books before they're due. If there's a reason to look forward to winter this year, this would be it: dozens of books piled high around the living room. (Wait, that's the status of my living room on a regular day.) (Not to mention the bedroom and the den....)

I checked out a book on decorating the house with books. Maybe I'll get some good ideas.

I'll see you in February, when my library re-opens and I come back up for air.


"Potty" Books, or Finding the Time to Read

The next time you want to get that book read but swear you have no time in the world to read it, put it in the bathroom.

At the risk of being a little crude, everyone has to go to the bathroom, and your list of possible activities in that room is just a tad limited. Put the book in there and read a page or two (or five) in the time you have.

One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that one has to devote large chunks of time to an important endeavor. War and Peace doesn’t have to be finished in a single sitting, so to speak, but it can be finished in time.

For those who don’t use the bathroom (or who think it’s gross to put reading material in there), apply this idea to the area of your life where you have a few minutes to yourself.

If you find yourself waiting for the kids to get out of band practice, put the book in the car and read a couple of pages before the car loads up with teenagers.

If you have a commute that puts you on the train or bus, read it then. (And yes, you can train yourself to read on the train because I did just that myself as a commuter.)

Even if the gym puts a television screen on your elliptical machine, turn it off or prop a book against the blank monitor.

At the office, get to the parking garage five minutes early in the morning, or let the parking lot or lobby empty out before you enter the fray at the end of the day. You also can use a few moments of the lunch hour to slip into that book.

Skip the 11 o’clock news and read a few pages before you go to bed. Whatever you’re afraid to miss at that hour will be rebroadcast on some media the next morning, and a good book will give you better dreams than anything you see on television.

Or try audio books, the unabridged kind, and see if you like them. I’ve tried them on long lonely drives down I-95, and they beat the heck out of late night radio (except for 98.9 Liberty, WWLB-FM 98.9, the rock station in Richmond that will “play anything”).

I have had conversations like this with people who argue with me. “No, I don’t have a second to myself,” they insist. That might be true. The care of a newborn is constant and exhausting. A new job is consuming. There are periods in which life is unrelenting. However, like I said, everyone goes to the bathroom — so find your “bathroom” or moment of peace and launch the reading of that book you’ve promised yourself.


1408, Part Deux

First thing to remember: the short story is not the screenplay.

The short story is not bad, but it's not the same.

King's story was creepy in its own way, and it deserved to be made into a movie. I actually can envision a story written just on the entries of Mike's minirecorder. However, I would have preferred that to the skipping between what was on the tape and what the lead character experienced — at least the way King wrote it.

I also preferred the way the movie ended to the story's ending. (Tip number two: don't watch the alternate endings on the DVD. There's a reason they weren't chosen as the final ending.)

The movie, however, included more about the lead character, a writer whose own tortured soul was mixed with the unrelenting evil of the hotel room. The movie wasn't perfect: it could have been a little shorter, and the hotel room scene went beyond the point of exhausting to making me wish it was just over, for the love of Pete (and not in a good way). Having said that, I wouldn't really opt to change much.

I am thrilled that the producers chose the actors they did for the movie. King's descriptions do not jive with the actors, but I preferred the actors to those described in the story.

If I had to choose only one, watch the movie and skip the story. You lose nothing by seeing only the movie, which captured the good parts of the story. And if you are going to do both, watch the movie first.

Banned Book Week Update: Scary!

In honor of 2007 Banned Book Week, I read Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

And boy, were they scary! Some of them were remixes of urban legends, which should be old news and schmaltzy. Au contraire. They were very well-edited, and I made the mistake of reading them when I was alone. I returned the book to the library the next day so it wouldn't scare me. (Had it not been a library book, I'd have put it in the freezer.) The cover of the book alone should have been a warning.....

I have been on a scary story kick lately.

I am reading Heart-Shaped Box, a chapter a night, aloud with David. Scary from the first chapter, people. Lois warned me, so I was prepared and got myself a reading buddy. My advice: don't read it alone. David and I are 11 chapters in, so I'll let you know how it evolves.

I can recommend The Nature of Monsters, a book about an apothecary in 1700s England who wanted to prove maternal imprinting on unborn children. The story is very much a period piece, and it's creepy enough around the edges that when the creepiness works itself into the center of the story, it's shocking and intense. If you are a fan of Britannia, absolutely read this book — but it's definitely a library read. Unless you're a huge fan of Britain, as I am, you might not want to keep this one (and even I am not sure I'd keep it had I not purchased it).

I also read Benefits, a feminist science fiction book that is scary in its own right. Click here to read the review.

I plan to read the short story "1408" from Everything's Eventual, a Stephen King short story collection. I have stopped reading recent King works because I find his work very "insider," as though if I was a true fan I'd know the story without having to read it (Lisey's Story) or gory beyond belief from the first page (The Cell). However, after seeing the movie "1408," I have every intention of finding out how true the fantastic screenplay is to the short story. The movie is vintage King: smart, intense, a little over-the-top but in a way that brings the audience along rather than drown the poor souls. I'll let you know what I think about the story.

Finally, I have another novel in my book stack that sounds creepy: Mistress of the Art of Death.

However, I might have to take a break from the creepy and read something lighter. Any suggestions? Leave a comment on this blog!


A Northern Light — Review by Carole

I'm in a book club with my sisters-in-law, and we met this week along with my teenage daughter (after all, it was her book). We discussed Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light. Described as a young adult novel (I had actually bought it for my daughter who told me to read it), we all agreed that it wasn't exclusively for a young adult audience. Barbara said it best: "I'm glad there are great books like this out there for young women to read." We all enjoyed reading the book, and the discussion about it was lively.

Set in 1906, the story revolves around an event that happened in real life. The same murder that inspired Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy is the backdrop of the action in this story. The main character, Mattie, is a young girl who knows something about the death of a young woman that no one else knows. She has to decide what to do about it and what to do about her life.

The characters that Donnelly develops read as if they are real people. They have good points and bad. Mattie makes mistakes, gets angry, feels overwhelmed, and often doesn't know what to do.

We talked about how the time and place of this story were also compelling. A simpler time, but also a harder time to get by in life. Yet, people had time to care for their neighbors, accept their foibles, and feel empathy for their problems. We don't know our neighbors in many instances today. We agreed that today people rely on public services to take the place of caring for our neighbors, and we wondered what we've lost as a society because of that.

Some thought it was a more innocent time, but others thought that the harsh realities of life and the daily struggles to care for one's family left little innocence.

Throughout the story, Mattie is torn between keeping promises that she's made and doing what she knows is right for her. The reader is right there with her as she deals with the attentions of a handsome boy, helps her best friend through the delivery of her twins, nurses her family through a life-threatening illnes, and becomes aware of other possibilities for her future.

Donnelly stays true to her young narrator throughout the book--the decisions that Mattie makes are quite believable. She makes hard decisions in ways that a young person would. She wraps things up to the best of her ability, but she knows that many things are left unfinished, and that she can't fix everything.

A Northern Light is a memorable read with strong characters that stay with you. I actually read the book several months before choosing it for book club. I had every intention of re-reading it so it would be fresh in my mind for our discussion, but I didn't get the chance. A quick refresher from my daughter on the names brought it all back to me, and I found that the characters were still there in my mind. I can honestly say that is not the case for all books I read.

What Do Couples Like to Read?

Following a recent book discussion (excerpted below), I wrote about what chick lit is, and conversely, what it isn't. Then I proceeded to talk about what books/authors that Steve and I both enjoy reading. The list isn't long. My question is "What Do Couples Like to Read?" My friend, Todd, went home and discussed it with his wife, and he wrote:

"My wife and I talked about what books we both enjoyed, and we came up with James Michener and Thomas Harris.

Otherwise she sticks with her Agatha Christies and various mysteries from the library, and I stick with history and some science fiction."

I have not seen this discussed anywhere else, and I'm curious to see if the answers we get will provide us with new possibilities. Give us your list of authors/books by clicking on the Post a Comment link at the end of this post.

Excerpt from The Last Templar:

"Once we shifted the discussion away from The Last Templar, we got into discussing what is and what is not “Chick Lit.” Because the guys have said that they don’t want to read any of it, Chris and I really wanted their perspective on what is chick lit. We read a variety of subjects and feel that much of the books are not chick lit, so we needed some guidelines.

Here is what we learned about chick lit and what guys don’t want to read about:

• Books that are about relationships and that focus on feelings
• Books that are recommended by Oprah Winfrey
• Books that require handkerchiefs and/or Kleenex
• Books with NO action, suspense, or mystery

If I’ve left anything out, I know the guys will set me straight.

Since our discussion, I’ve looked over some of our books from 2007 (Chris and I are compiling our lists of books read this year), and I realize that some are definitely chick lit: The No Angel series and any of the many Mr. Darcy spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice. I fully acknowledge those as chick lit (they are fabulous, by the way).

Others, though, baffle me. Where do books like Life of Pi, The Reader, and For One More Day, for example, fit in and might they have a place in our discussions? I think many books could fit the criteria above, and the guys still wouldn’t want to read them.

Steve and I have been married a long time, and we have always had books he likes, books I like, and a slim list of those we both read. I would say that even the slim list only exists because of occasions where I cross over into “Guy Buys” (note: new phrase I’ve coined as counterpart to Chick Lit). Ken Follett, Nelson DeMille, Leon Uris, and Stephen J. Cannell are authors Steve and I both enjoy, and I can think of a handful that Steve has enjoyed that I’ve recommended, such as Lamb, but the slim list has stayed pretty slim all of these years. Not a complaint, just an observation.

What books/authors do other couples like to read?"


The Daughter of Time — Review by Carole

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time held many surprises for me. You may be thinking, "Well, Carole, that's because it's a mystery" and you would be partly right, but this was an interesting read for many reasons.

My first surprise was learning about Tey to begin with. Chris gave me the book, saying that she read it in college and remembers liking it. I was immediately intrigued by the title (more about that in a minute). I confessed to never having heard of Tey; when I read the foreword by Robert Barnard, a fellow mystery writer, I learned that Tey, back in the day, rivalled Agatha Christie in popularity. Tey died relatively young at 55, so she didn't have the time to create her legacy and firmly secure her place in the genre. She remains in print, however, and several of her novels have been made into films. See the news story about her under Bookish News.

Her detective is Scotland Yard's Grant, and in The Daughter of Time he lies convelescing in a hospital after a criminal-pursuing chase ends badly. Bored beyond belief and depressed by his forced inactivity, Grant is aided by his actress friend who brings him many photos to pore over from the British Museum, courtesy of a researcher friend of hers. Grant finds himself drawn to one in particular, so much so that he temporarily forgets his own misery.

The face that captivates his attention is that of Richard III, the "monster" who had his nephews killed to ensure that he would wear the crown of England. Or did he? Tey proceeds to skillfully weave a tale of historical intrigue while Grant uses his deductive reasoning to pull apart what is real and true from what has become accepted as such. Tey presents a revolving door of characters to interact with Grant as he puzzles through what he knows, what he learns in books, what he dismisses out of hand because it is secondhand knowledge, and what those around him know and think.

The second surprise for me was how Tey was able to present a relatively brief novel while also providing a great deal of English history in a captivating manner. She presumes the reader knows very little about it, and she explains in detail who has claims to the throne, who is stirring up trouble, and what is at stake for England at the time. Not dull in the least, The Daughter of Time takes us on a journey through English history without ever once leaving Grant's hospital room.

The book surprises with its logical approach to an emotional time in history and its revelations that people are inclined to believe what they want to believe, even when facts tell them they are wrong.

Lastly, I was surprised by the title. The Daughter of Time caught my attention right away, but the page just before the foreword has the complete quote: "Truth is the Daughter of Time." Isn't that a wonderful line? In the book, it is attributed as an old proverb, but when I searched online, I found that is attributed to Francis Bacon. The Bacon quote is fleshed out a bit more: "Truth is the Daughter of Time, Not of Authority."

I recommend reading this little book. I'm off to track down some more of Josephine Tey's mysteries. I want to see what other surprises she has in store for me.



On Friday, when author J.K. Rowling was asked about Albus Dumbledore's passion, she said, "I always thought of him as gay."

I wish I hadn't read that. I have no intention of reading any other news articles about it.

The information about Dumbledore's sexuality does not provide me essential insight into the character that hasn't already been revealed. I have read some of the fan sites, so I know people have invested much in these characters. So have I.

Personally, I absolutely loved Dumbledore, and his character brought me more tears and rewards throughout the series than any other single character.
(Hermione comes in a close second.) Dumbledore's monologue at the end of Book 5 brought me to my figurative knees with his honesty and affection for the boy wizard. Don't get me wrong, I loved Harry, too, and every Weasley on the planet (including Percy, even as a git), but, for me, Dumbledore was the heart of the wizarding world.

That is why I think speculating about Dumbledore's sexuality seems to me very lewd and unnecessary. It would be like writing sex scenes between Harry and Ginny: I know they're married and I know they have three children. I know where babies come from in both the Muggle and wizarding worlds. I don't need those kinds of details.

Now there will be much reading into the character with this new information, apparent in a headline I read tonight pondering the "true" relationship between Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald.

The character of Dumbledore did not change for me with this revelation — though, I have to admit, any of my own imagined untold back story between him and Minerva McGonnegal is officially dead now. Note the use of the word untold. I don't need to know everything. By being told everything about every character, especially something so personal in nature, I am robbed of my own participation in the story and of my own imagination regarding the characters. I wonder how many other fans are lamenting the invasion into their realm.

Carole, what do you think?

I wonder if this is a glimpse of what we will be in for regarding the Harry Potter encyclopedia that Rowling has alluded to. She said she is taking some time off from Harry Potter, but that she has so much more back stories on the characters that she plans to develop an HP reference book, if you will.

I never really got that vibe about Dumbledore in any of the books, but then students should never really be put in a position where they are considering their teachers' sexual orientation, should they? In the sense that Dumbledore was the headmaster of Hogwarts and the character that taught us, the readers, so much about the wizarding world, do anyone of us need to be considering this?

Just as you are now left with your Dumbledore-McGonegall illusions in tatters, I wouldn't want to find out the Weasleys stayed married merely for the sake of the children, instead of the true loving marriage I envision. I don't want to find out that Hagrid has battled a mead addiction since adolescence. If Lily Potter slept around before she married James, spare me.

In other words, I would implore Rowling to consider her readers' imaginations and to allow some room for their mental images to flourish.


The Last Templar—Book Discussion Summary by Carole

The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury was the first book that Chris and I read with the men in our lives for the express purpose of getting together and discussing it. David and Steve joined the discussion enthusiastically, and we were all quite animated in our corner booth at a local Mexican restaurant. Apparently, we were so lively that another customer came up to us and apologized for interrupting, but she couldn’t help overhear what we were talking about. We thought we were going to be fussed at for being too loud, but instead she wanted to know more.

“I heard ‘escaped through a drainpipe’, ‘templar knights’, ‘psycho killer’, and ‘machine guns’, and I wondered if you were all talking about the same book.” We admitted that we were indeed talking about just one book.

She asked if we liked it. We all responded in unison with “NO!”

The Last Templar does have all of the elements detailed above. Set in present day, a high-profile robbery of a piece of Templar machinery turns into a massacre as four horsemen in Templar clothing ride right into the New York museum open fire on the glittering crowd gathered for the exhibit. The hunt is then on for what was stolen and who is responsible.

One witness to this is Tess, a single-mom archaeologist who is “mesmeric” in her beauty, or so says Raymond Khoury through his male lead, Reilly, a veteran FBI agent. One of the most irritating female characters I have encountered in some time (although David argued convincingly that it is hard to say who was more annoying—Tess or Reilly), Tess repeatedly makes the most inane, dangerous, and irresponsible decisions. Reilly, on the other hand, seems so enamored of her that he continually overlooks and/or forgives the offenses. Just to mention a plot spoiler here: she leaves him while he is under fire from unseen bad guys, releases the bad guy they have in custody, and takes Reilly’s car to escape with the bad guy. Reilly’s reaction to this incredibly blatant statement of what-I-want-is-more-important-to-me-than-anything-even-your-life is (once he escapes) is to follow her because he really senses that she needs his help. Puh-leese! David and Steve were unanimous in their views that they would have survived if only to kill her when next they met.

Khoury also writes dialogue for women very poorly; in fact, his treatment of his female characters was lamentable. The characters are drawn and introduced to the readers a certain way, but then their actions do not ring true based on what Khoury has told us about them.

We all agreed that the most compelling parts of the book were the flashbacks to the templar knights and their actions that led to the present day situation. The characters were compelling and the history was fascinating, but Khoury gives us too little of this. And the back-and-forth between history and present day was too erratic — the book would have benefited from a more even treatment of the two.

Steve also felt strongly that Khoury was just one of many authors who have done their best to fly in the face of Christianity and tear down its fundamental beliefs. Chris made the point that Reilly, the book’s character of faith, so quickly abandons his beliefs at the first true test that the reader becomes discouraged for him. Tess professes more agnostic beliefs but her later actions show her to be all over the place in terms of what she believes and why.

Chris has a loathing for any and all reviews that claim that a book is another Da Vinci Code. This book was touted as such by other reviewers, but we all agreed that it certainly wasn't.

Once we shifted the discussion away from The Last Templar, we got into discussing what is and what is not “Chick Lit.” Because the guys have said that they don’t want to read any of it, Chris and I really wanted their perspective on what is chick lit. We read a variety of subjects and feel that much of the books are not chick lit, so we needed some guidelines.

Here is what we learned about chick lit and what guys don’t want to read about:

• Books that are about relationships and that focus on feelings
• Books that are recommended by Oprah Winfrey
• Books that require handkerchiefs and/or Kleenex
• Books with NO action, suspense, or mystery

If I’ve left anything out, I know the guys will set me straight.

Since our discussion, I’ve looked over some of our books from 2007 (Chris and I are compiling our lists of books read this year), and I realize that some are definitely chick lit: The No Angel series and any of the many Mr. Darcy spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice. I fully acknowledge those as chick lit (they are fabulous, by the way).

Others, though, baffle me. Where do books like Life of Pi, The Reader, and For One More Day, for example, fit in and might they have a place in our discussions? I think many books could fit the criteria above, and the guys still wouldn’t want to read them. Steve and I have been married a long time, and we have always had books he likes, books I like, and a slim list of those we both read. I would say that even the slim list only exists because of occasions where I cross over into “Guy Buys” (note: new phrase I’ve coined as counterpart to Chick Lit). Ken Follett, Nelson DeMille, and Stephen J. Cannell are authors Steve and I both enjoy, and I can think of a handful that Steve has enjoyed that I’ve recommended, such as Lamb, but the slim list has stayed pretty slim all of these years. Not a complaint, just an observation.

What, then, to read next? Many suggestions were bandied about, and we finally all agreed to read Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. Chris pointed out that the newest one of the Easy Rawlins mysteries had just been published. Steve and I had enjoyed the movie, Devil in a Blue Dress, but we didn’t know it was a series. Chris and David haven’t seen the movie or read any of the books. So, Book Discussion Number 2 is on!

Maybe our slim list will get padded a little after all. What books/authors do couples like to read?