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.