To Say Nothing of the Dog — Review by Chris

O! O! O! How I enjoyed To Say Nothing of the Dog!

I'd give another screamlet, but I'm afraid it would be as baffling and off-putting to you as it was to Ned, the narrator and one of the central characters of Connie Willis' novel. Ned found himself faced with swooning, screamlets, punting on the Thames, feuding dons of Oxford, mediums, drowning cats and preg**** cats in Victorian England.

That is, once he managed to get out of Coventry, circa 1940.

Willis takes us back to Oxford in the mid-2000s, when Oxford has knowledge and use of time travel. Mr. Dunworthy is back, as is Finch (a Radar O'Reilly of the 21st century), whom we first met in The Doomsday Book. Also on the scene is the dynamic and demanding Lady Schrapnell, whose support of the program is a means to an end. She is rebuilding Coventry Cathedral, only one thing missing, the one thing important to her ancestor whose diary inspired her to take on the endeavor.

Ned Henry must find the bishop's bird stump or face the wrath of Lady Schrapnell. Going back in time to scour a smoldering cathedral, still simmering from the recent Nazi Blitz, isn't enough. Scouring jumble sales isn't enough. A dozen time leaps that frazzle his nerves and exhaust him beyond all reason is not. And when he is sent to the hospital and put on two weeks' mandatory rest, even he knows that's not enough to keep the indomitable Lady Schrapnell from conscripting him to another leap.

So he turns to the only person who can help him: Mr. Dunworthy, whom we first met in The Doomsday Book. Finch, however, rescues him from wandering about on a playing field and brings him to Mr. Dunworthy's office.

And there his life changes. Verity Kindle, another historian, storms out of Mr. Dunworthy's office, her red hair streaming behind her. In his time-lagged state (whose symptoms are absolutely hilarious, especially how they manifest themselves), Ned waxes romantic over her.

Only he hasn't the time. Mr. Dunworthy wants him to do one last "leap," to Victorian England, 1888, do one errand then sleep for the mandated two weeks.

If only it was that easy.

It seems a fellow historian has caused an incongruity, which Ned must help fix. The longer it goes un-mended, the worse the problem: slippage, locking out of the net, possibly the end of time, the universe and everything.

And that's not the worst of it.

Willis makes the story so fun and compelling to read. The description of the bishop's bird stump alone is worth the price of admission. I found excuses to steal a few minutes every day to try to get a few more pages under my belt. Let's just say my time on the stairclimber was too short because this book was too enjoyable.

Ned is surrounded by a comedy of errors. And apparently it gets worse when the time-traveling historians interference continues to influence the world of 1888. One person is supposed to meet someone whose last name begins with a "C" and there's no one of the sort in the area. Another is supposed to meet a future spouse on a train platform, only it never happens. Without these few circumstances, people aren't born, secret weapons are revealed and, well, the wrong world power wins the war.

There are a whole host of new characters who are endearing, unbelievable, quaint, charming, lovely, confusing and plain wonderful. Professor Peddick is obsessed with fate and fish. Colonel Mering doesn't bother to use subjects in his sentences. Terence is besotted by the vapid Tossie whose baby-talk makes even a cat-lover ill. Everyone is strong-armed by Mrs. Mering, who hasn't met a medium she hasn't liked and can "O!" and faint at the drop of a hat. Baine, the butler who was "stolen" from a neighbor, runs the house with a precision that would make the Marines seem slovenly. Colleen-cum-Jane, is the Irish, er, English maid. Madame Iritosky is a medium looking for opportunity. Then there's Princess Arjumand .... to say nothing of the dog.

Victorian England was complex but simple: they simply skirt language, issues and ideas that aren't "polite." The women are fragile, giving what Ned called screamlets, such as "O!" And the reader can hear just that. A reader could see and hear it all: the apparent vapidness, the focus on marrying well, the Colonel's obsession with exotic fish in his pond, Princess Arjumand's calm grooming after eating said fish, and Cyril's good-natured participation in the whole affair.

The title is a play on a famous comedy written by Jerome K. Jerome, which I started to read a couple of years ago and never finished. I think I will have to give Three Men in a Boat another try.

I am so sad that I missed the author's appearance at this year's Balticon 42, though I'm grateful that when I do see her, I'll have another book over which to gush when I have her sign them. (Rumor has it that she is returning to time travel in her next novel. I can't wait!)

You will enjoy To Say Nothing of the Dog. It stands on its own as a fun frolic. It's light and fun, with a deeper idea underneath about fate and circumstance. If you don't get that part, still, you haven't missed a thing. It's still a blast, and a book you'll be glad you read.


Bookish Advice on Marriage

Today is the big day--Chris and David are getting married. I've thought about how best to wish them well, and I decided to let some of the many, many authors who have written on this subject say a few words.

James Herriott's endearing stories of his career as a country vet in Yorkshire are always run through with stories of his marriage to his beloved Helen:

"Grab the love. Hold on tight. Treasure it. Put that love you have for your husband first, arrange everything else around it, and all else will work out. Love must be cradled and nurtured and enjoyed and danced with. Never, ever, forget the love. It's why we want to live."

"He was sure that they had married for love, the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered."

"Love: a temporary insanity, curable by marriage."

"Love at first sight is easy to understand; it's when two people have been looking at each other for a lifetime that it becomes a miracle."

"There is nothing nobler or more admirable than when two people who see eye to eye keep house as man and wife, confounding their enemies and delighting their friends."

"All weddings are similar, but every marriage is different."

"Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up."

"Marriage is not just spiritual communion, it is also remembering to take out the trash."

"Happy marriages begin when we marry the ones we love, and they blossom when we love the ones we marry."

"Getting married for sex is like buying a 747 for the free peanuts."

"I was married by a judge. I should have asked for a jury."

"A man's wife has more power over him than the state has."

“Bachelors know more about women than married men; if they didn't they'd be married too.”

“My mother once told me that if a married couple puts a penny in a pot for every time they make love in the first year, and takes a penny out every time after that, they'll never get all the pennies out of the pot.”

"Marriage has no guarantees. If that's what you're looking for, go live with a car battery."

“When a girl marries she exchanges the attentions of many men for the inattention of one.”

"Marriage is an adventure, like going to war."

“One advantage of marriage is that, when you fall out of love with him or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you fall in again.”

"An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can have. The older she gets, the more interested he is in her."

“It's a funny thing that when a man hasn't anything on earth to worry about, he goes off and gets married.”

"The man who says his wife can't take a joke, forgets that she took him."

"Some people ask the secret of our long marriage. We take time to go to a restaurant two times a week. A little candlelight, dinner, soft music and dancing. She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays."

In the Princess Bride, we're treated to these classic words on the subject:

Whatever advice Chris and David choose to follow for their marriage, I wish them every happiness. My own advice is to take care of each other, cherish your marriage, and choose to be happy.


American Woman - Review by Carole

I just finished American Woman by Susan Choi, and I'm still mulling it over. I found Choi's writing quite beautiful, but there are a few things that bother me.

In the book, Choi delivers a fictional story that combines many events that really happened, such as Patty Hearst's kidnapping, conversion to activist/terrorist, and capture. But the Pauline/Patty character isn't the main character of the story. Jenny Shimata, a 25-year-old Japanese-American, is wanted by the federal government for setting explosives in government buildings as a form of protest against the Vietnam War. Approached by a former colleague/fellow radical, Jenny agrees to watch three fugitives. One of the fugitives is Pauline, the famous girl who was kidnapped because she is the daughter of a very wealthy family. Jenny is drawn to Pauline's story, but I wasn't sure why. I also didn't understand her decision to help the three fugitives in the beginning. Their cause was not her cause--she just felt a connection because of what she heard on the radio? That's not much to go on. Many people in the country were caught up in by Patty Hearst's story and followed the events closely, but that's not the same as throwing your lot in with them. Jenny's life as a fugitive seems to have changed her, but we didn't know her before, so it's hard for the reader to judge.

Jenny's an interesting choice for the main character--her character seemed to assess everything dispassionately. She alludes to the rage (near the end) that inspired many of her admittedly bad life choices, but as the reader of her story, I didn't feel her rage.

I didn't truly like any of the characters in the book, but I wanted to like Jenny, and I couldn't.

Jenny has realizations that the things she did were wrong, but they seem like ruminations rather than revelations. It wasn't enough for me. Her realizations, in retrospect, that the bombings she had participated in were wrong seemed to lack convinction--her supposed rage led her to participate in bombing government buildings to protest the war. Instead, her realizations seem to center on the fact that it was all for nothing--none of the things that they did affected anything, more so than on examining her actions. And she didn't seem to come out on the other side of all this any the wiser or to be able to put what she's ultimately realized in anything other than her personal survival. Why does Choi tell us this story through Jenny?

Jenny's connection to Pauline was also hard to understand. She knows all along that it will end, but when it does, she doesn't seem to feel anything. It all feels so inevitable. I think that the book is slim on dialogue and heavy on description and that flattens the emotional appeal.

We never truly understand Pauline, just as people didn't and don't understand Patty Hearst, particularly when she became Tania, so in that sense, Choi's description of this rather surreal world reflected real life.

Choi also seemed torn by what story she ultimately wanted to tell. Jenny's father and his interment during World War II had a profound effect on Jenny's life. Throughout the book, Jenny and her father are separate, and I wanted to see them reconcile. I think that subplot could have been the main plot of the book to great effect, so when Choi chooses to make it secondary to everything else, I wonder why. Why show us this? It almost felt like Choi told us this elaborate tale to slip in a history lesson on the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war. Jenny's father's description of things, from the black plastic covering the broken window from the brick to taking his daughter to Japan because of his anger, had more emotion to it than the rest of the book. By taking her father to the reunion at the end, was she acknowledging that she knows that everything stemmed from that? If so, what does that mean for her and for him?

If that's what Choi truly wanted to explore, then this story could have had nothing to do with Pauline (aka Patty Hearst) at all and been effective.

Choi didn't make it easy for me to connect the dots.


Under the Tuscan Sun—Review by Carole

Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun warmed me. I confess I observed all of the hoopla that surrounded the book and subsequent movie and intended to read and see them, respectively, but I just never picked them up. So, I’m grateful to my sister-in-law for picking the book for our club.

I prefer to read books and then see the movie, but of course I saw many, many clips of the movie when it was in theaters and on DVD. The impression I formed from those clips and the reality of the book seemed quite different to me. I hope to see the movie in its entirety soon and I’ll comment further at that time. My mother said she loved the book, but hated the movie. Chris asked me in a tentative voice, "Why did she pick that book?" So I knew that reactions to book and movie were mixed.

I was under the impression that the book was a novel—I didn’t know it really was a memoir (a favorite genre of mine, although I worry about its reputation in light of many recent scandals—I’ve blogged on this topic previously.)

Once I adjusted my expectation accordingly, I was delighted with much of the book. The recipes were quite appealing—I immediately made the cherries in wine. Proclaimed a big hit in my house! While I didn’t feel they were necessary to the narrative, they provided a welcome bit of texture—I just wonder what Mayes went through to decide which precious few recipes made the book. I ask you, how do you choose from the incredible depth of possibilities in Italian cooking? With that said, I’m looking forward to make her giant gnocchi next.

I also marvel at Mayes and her partner as they committed themselves to refurbishing an abandoned Tuscan villa into a lived in and loved home. Granted, it’s a home away from home. A long way away. To live parts of the year in San Francisco and part in Italy conjures many logistical nightmares to me. I can only conclude that Mayes has much deeper pockets than mine to make it all work.

We have a place two hours from our home, and we are forever sure that something is at one place when it is really at the other. We can usually rectify the situation the next weekend. Having to think through entire summers to be sure you have what you need exhausts me, and I’m a planner! Hats off to Mayes and company for their logistical prowess.

And I won’t even mention that Mayes’ work ethic makes me look like a slacker—I admire her ability to keep her eyes on her goal and not be dissuaded. While we struggle with putting up a simple split-rail fence, they refurbished entire walls and stone foundations.

What really came across to me was the deep love she has for the land, the history, and the people. Her accounts of finding bits of Etruscan civilization on her own land awed me—this is a civilization so old that its origins are lost in prehistory. We get excited if we find bits of Civil War era gear or bullets in our neck of the woods. I can’t imagine what it would be like to unearth something so old on my own land.

I also enjoyed Mayes slow unfolding of her journey and saga. She didn’t say that she waltzed into Tuscany, whipped the house into shape, and just joined the local community. She shares bits and pieces of her tale with us so that we understand that the slow rebirth of the house and land reflected her measured pace on assimilating into Tuscan ways.

So I’ll bask a while in the warmth of the world Mayes created and shared with me. When I need to revive that feeling, I’ll dip into the sequels, Bella Tuscany and In Tuscany.


The Somnambulist — Review by Chris

The Somnambulist sounded like an interesting story: a magician who helped the London police solve crimes was drawn into a weird crime that became of great importance. I purchased the book with great anticipation.

I am sorry I purchased it and I'm sorry I read it.

I have never felt so out of the loop in a story I was reading. Jonathan Barnes worked hard to make his mystery mysterious — and to keep it that way.

I knew very early into the book that I might be in trouble. First, the narrator was trying too hard to be mysterious. He began with great familiarity with the reader, as though the reader should know who he was, but gave no real clue as to who he might be. Finally, the narrator inserted himself into the story time and again in ways that suggested readers should know why — and yet I didn't. Was he of historical significance? Literary significance? Biblical? (It will not spoil the book to tell readers the narrator is none of the above. His significance is wholly within the realm of the world Barnes created — a world to which we have not yet been introduced.)

Many of the clues were heavy-handed and, at the same time, obscure. A character, prop or situation would scream, "CLUE!" but it remained unclear as to why. Should one know how a lesser-known Bible scripture reads? Should one know what poison is being used because of a single indistinguishable symptom? How would the reader know why a particular interaction between father and son is suspicious, and exactly what did the father and son really do?

Characters were introduced in ways that suggested the reader was supposed to be familiar with them. The problem is, this is a debut novel and the characters were not of literary or historical significance. The author was creating a world unto himself — which is fabulous, only we need to be introduced to the world and its inhabitants before we can be familiar, even intimate, with them.

I did not enjoy the novel and I would not recommend it. If you liked it, please tell me why.


A Good and Happy Child — Review by Chris

Do you believe in demons? Demonic possession? What would you need for irrefutable evidence of such a thing? And exactly what would you do with the information when you got it?

Some perfectly good books let readers off the hook, let them set down the book and shake it off because "it's only a novel." By the end of A Good and Happy Child, readers who are brave enough will ask themselves what they could permit themselves to believe — and admit only to themselves at the end of the day as they shut off the light on the nightstand.

The book begins when George is 30 years old and has a son whom he cannot touch or even approach. Being in the same room with the infant frightens him, and he literally cannot be alone with his own child. After six months, George agrees to see a therapist. In their first encounter, George eludes to a childhood experience that might have affected his current situation, which the therapist asks him to record in notebooks.

The novel is a tapestry that weaves the notebook content with George's current life experiences. Author Justin Evans moves deftly between the two times. While I'm with the adult, I can't wait to get back to his childhood. When I am reading about the child, I'm compelled to wish myself forward to see how it all winds up.

The writing is fresh and vivid. I am able to picture the situation, the location, his home, his friends, his family. I am there, and I am captivated. There are many moments that require reflection, and these are a pleasure to contemplate. Even now, long after the last page has been turned, I still think about a scene, or a conversation, and what it ultimately meant to the characters in the novel.

The novel begins at a comfortable pace and accelerates as the story progresses. When I got to the part where the police began searching the nearby woods, I read with my mouth agape, fearing that my prediction was correct. I can understand why the ending made the author's wife wake up screaming in the middle of the night after she read it. (Of course, she read multiple iterations, so I can only imagine what previous drafts might have contained.) However, for me, it was the material that immediately proceeded that gave me my nightmares. As the tension built, I suspected the worst, and that's what I got. It was creepier and more moving than I expected, but it was perfect, sheer genius and blood-curdling.

Frankly, this reads more like a rich memoir than a novel — which is fabulous for the reader but makes me worry deeply for the writer. When we ask how much the writer delved into his own psyche for material, I pray he did not. I pray that his long conversations with Jesuit priests in the dark quiet of the office after hours, the obscure materials he might have dredged up on Lexis-Nexus, his own quirky perspective of stories he read as a child, maybe even stories told around the campfire in his native Virginia, are what make this story so compelling.



Chris and I have been hard at work coming up with the right look and feel for our bookish blog. Blogspot has been a great place to house our blog, but their templates left us feeling a bit constricted. There was too much reversed type against dark backgrounds for our tastes, so our new look reflects our wish for a lighter, more inviting, distinctive look.

Our wonderful designer friend, Joe Butera of Solefire Design, came up with our fabulous new look. After months of playing around with the possibilities, we've decided we are ready to launch.

We would love to hear what you think of the new look!