Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest in the Isabel Dalhousie series was a real joy to read. McCall Smith is back in his best thoughtful form as he chronicles Isabel's efforts to cope with new motherhood, internal politics at the applied ethics journal she edits, and the distance of her niece Kat.

The best thing about this series is the very low-key mystery that is gently incorporated into each book, and I particularly enjoyed the one in here about a suspected forged painting by a Scottish artist.

Section 31: Abyss by David Weddle and Jeffrey Lang

I've suddenly woken up to the fact that 2007 will be over in a few months and I haven't yet made even a tiny dent in the stack of books waiting to be read on my bookshelf. I decided that since I'm reading so fast and prolifically these days, I had better take advantage of it and start working on my new year's resolution to read at least half of those books. Of course, it really doesn't help that I've acquired yet MORE books instead of whittling down my to-read pile.

So here's my first selection in my renewed effort to work my way through some of these dusty books: a Star Trek novel. I'm not sure if it has been revealed on this blog before now, but I have a guilty secret -- I actually read Star Trek novels! And in many cases, I even like them. This is probably no surprise to anyone who's seen the Starfleet Academy sticker on the back of our family minivan. Laugh all you like - to a trekkie who is starved for new episodes to watch, the licensed novels are a treasure. A well-written Trek novel is pure brain candy for me. It's like watching an episode in my head.

Section 31: Abyss is one of the books based on the Deep Space Nine series, after the events in the final episode. The premise is that once again, Dr. Bashir receives an unwelcome visit from a agent in Section 31, the mysterious rogue spy organization that nobody in Starfleet will admit the existence of. Instead of his planned vacation on Earth with Ezri Dax, he finds himself in a runabout on his way to a planet in the Badlands where a crazed madman is trying to breed himself an army of Jem Hadar. It's up to Bashir, along with Dax, Ro Laren (yeah, she has mysteriously reappeared as a DS9 crew member in the novels) and Taran'atar, a Jem Hadar who is bound to help them as much as he can, although he may not like it very much.

Like I said - brain candy. A fun story, nothing more or less; a way to feed my Star Trek addiction without turning on the TV. If you liked DS9, you would probably enjoy it; if not, you probably aren't even reading this post any more.

The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson is back, and this time he's got friends. A good thing, too, because things aren't going too well over at Camp Half-Blood. The new activities director is a bit of a sadist, and someone has poisoned the protective shield that keeps monsters away from the camp. Meanwhile, everyone is making fun of Percy because of his newly discovered half-brother. What else can a guy do in that situation except to go on a life-threatening quest to save the world from evil?

I was delighted to find this book every bit as hilarious and smart as its predecessor. Riordan has completely won me over to his unique brand of humor, mixing modern America with ancient Greece in a ridiculous and yet strangely believable way.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman

It turns out that Philip Pullman has a whole other series to his name aside from the deservedly-hyped His Dark Materials trilogy. This is the first title in that series, and it's billed as "A gripping mystery from the depths of Victorian London".

For the most part, it lives up to this description. The book has a decidedly Victorian feel to it - a sort of semi-Gothic creepiness, sinister thieves, young street urchins. Sally Lockhart, the heroine, is a smart and savvy young girl who, having just lost her father, is determined to sort out the mystery surrounding his death and find her own way in the world (despite the machinations of the grouchy old maid of an aunt whom Sally finds herself living with).

While enjoyable, this book didn't quite have the unputdownability I was hoping for, based on other Pullman novels I've read. However, I am still looking forward to reading the other three books in this series, so watch this space to see if the stories get any more absorbing after this.

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Wow - I can't believe how many months this gem sat on a bookshelf in Megan's room, collecting dust, before she finally decided to pick it up and then finally decided to recommend it to me.

Our hero is Percy Jackson, a kid who's always had slightly odd things happen to him, a kid who has ADD and dyslexia and has been kicked out of way too many schools because of all those inconvenient accidents that happen near him. (Here, the similarities to Harry Potter end.) One day Percy finally twigs to the fact that he's more than a little bit different from his peers, when his math teacher suddenly turns into a horrible creature with bat-like wings and he's forced to wield a ballpoint pen that turns into a sword to defeat her. Soon the truth comes out - Percy is actually the son of a Greek god. In fact, the entire ancient Greek pantheon (along with an assortment of minor creatures and characters) is alive and well and living in twenty-first-century America. And even more remarkably, there are lots of other kids like Percy - in fact, he soon discovers that he's been admitted to a summer camp for half-bloods. (Honestly, it's really not like Harry Potter, even though it sounds like it... just trust me here.)

Hilariously and cleverly written, this is a very promising start to a series that pits modern kids against ancient sources of evil.

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I started out reading this one to my son every night at bedtime. Well, wouldn't you know it - he picked the damn thing up one night and finished it on his own. As soon as he moved on to the next book, I picked up Matilda so that I could finish it and find out what happened.

As I was reading, I had that vague feeling you sometimes get - some parts were a little familiar, so I was sure I'd read it before, but for some reason I couldn't really remember what happens in this novel. This is odd for me, because I tend to have a pretty good memory for books I've read. Obviously it's been a long time, though, or else Matilda is a particularly forgettable story.

Anyway, it's a fun book in the usual style of Roald Dahl: horrible adults are taken down by smart, good kids. In this case, one smart, good kid - Matilda Wormwood, who manages to overcome a truly unfortunate set of parents and a school headmistress who could give Dolores Umbridge a run for her money. Matilda's primary weapon is her brain, though she gets a bit of help from a slightly more supernatural skill...

East by Edith Pattou

A few weeks ago, my daughter gave me a stack of books with the instruction to "READ!". This was the first one I picked up.

East is a beautiful retelling of the old fairy tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon". It's set in a sort of alternate-historical Norway and told from the point of view of five people: Rose, a feisty girl with a serious case of wanderlust; Neddy, her older brother who is the closest to her of her seven siblings; Rose's father; a troll Queen who has enslaved a young man in the body of a white bear; and the white bear himself.

If you're familiar with the fairy tale, you'll know the basic premise here, though there are many versions of it. In East, Rose is forced to go off with a talking bear in order to save her family from illness and poverty. She spends a year living with the white bear in an enchanted palace and grows to love him. Meanwhile, her family desperately searches for Rose in an effort to bring her back home.

I loved the way this novel was written; it was lyrical and evocative. I look forward to reading more of Edith Pattou's work.

Getting caught up

Thanks to my frequent bus rides, I've had lots of reading time since classes began, but precious little time to sit down and compose thoughtful posts about the books I've read. I'm going to do my best to catch up today with some "short and sweet" comments. Hopefully the more in-depth posts will return in the near future!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I've read much about this book and finally got a chance to read it. I love Ishiguro's novels, with their keen insight into human nature and the relationships between people. Never Let Me Go had all that, with a somewhat chilling science-fiction parcelling. The novel is told from the point of view of a former student of Hailsham, a boarding school for cloned children who are brought into the world for the sole purpose of donating their organs once they're adults. There is a whole subculture within the Britain of this novel for these organ donors, who grow up knowing they are different, but not exactly why, and who then go on to care for others like themselves while they wait for their turn to become donors and eventually, to die. Their longing for a normal life while knowing that it is an impossible dream is what makes this novel both chilling and poignant.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler

You could say Courtney Stone, a sassy modern-day girl from LA, is down on her luck. She's just discovered that her fiance is cheating on her, and that her supposed best friend was covering it up. There's nothing more comforting for Courtney that to get thoroughly pickled while re-reading her favourite Austen novels for the umpteenth time.

Bizarrely, though, when she wakes up the next morning she finds she has been somehow planted in the body of a Regency-era woman named Jane Mansfield. Alarmingly, Jane is on the verge of being "bled" by a physician who wants to cure her from a head injury. Somehow, Courtney recovers from this double shock and even, over time, gets used to being inside Jane's body and living the constricted life of a young, unmarried woman in the England of two hundred years ago. As time passes, she begins to learn a lot of things about herself and come to terms with the life choices that led her to be betrayed by her bastard of an ex-fiance. Now, if only she could get back to LA and live her own life again...

This was a fun, light novel - the characters were believable, and the premise was entertaining, with elements of fantasy fiction that you have to be able to swallow if you want to enjoy it.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

I'm a loyal CBC listener, and though I don't make it a point to listen to any particular program regularly (I wish there were a TiVo for radio!) I still enjoy hearing Stuart McLean read his stories aloud during The Vinyl Cafe when I catch it. I know I've talked before about this program here so my apologies for repeating myself.

This is the latest installment in the large collection of short stories McLean has written about the oafish Dave, his bland wife Morley, and their family, friends and neighbours. Most of the stories fall into the "cute and sweet" category, and they usually have a sappy ending. Occasionally, though, they hit that perfect mixture of absurd, comical and believable and then they become immensely funny. There's one story in this book that made me laugh till I cried, and has earned its place next to the story in Vinyl Cafe Unpluggedabout how Dave tried to toilet-train his sister's cat, which had a similar effect on me. There's another that is quite hilarious but somehow I felt it would have been much funnier if I'd heard it on the radio. In case you read this one, I'm not going to name the stories I thought were funniest, but I'd love to hear your opinion if you happen to be a Vinyl Cafe fan.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Gilda Joyce : The Ladies of the Lake by Jennifer Allison

Here's the second installment of the Gilda Joyce series, and once again my opinion boils down to "cute, but not great". I was again struck by Gilda's ridiculously inflated sense of self-confidence; it just didn't seem realistic.

The premise is that Gilda is given a scholarship to a private Catholic girls' school, and she accepts based on hearing that there's a ghost haunting the lake on the school grounds. She spends her entire first term at school trying to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding the death of a freshman, Dolores Lambert, who drowned in the lake three years previously. Not surprisingly, she figures it out, though her supposed "psychic" skills take a real backseat compared to the first book -- she's more of an investigative reporter this time around, having taken a job writing for the school newspaper.

I've got a lot of reading to catch up on if I want to read through half the books on my "to be read" bookshelf before the end of this year, so I think I'll give the third Gilda Joyce novel a miss.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I enjoyed this more than I expected; it's been a long time since I picked up a classic science fiction novel. The writing is clean and crisp, the characters vividly sketched. This book seems to be laying the --- groan.... -- foundation for the very long series that follows, by skipping between scenarios that take place hundreds of years apart. I hope that future novels in this series will linger a bit more on certain characters, because I found it hard to get to know them, get interested in them, and then suddenly have a new set of characters thrown at me.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison

Gilda Joyce, age 13, is in for a boring summer. Her best friend Wendy is off to music camp, and her mom has had to work long hours since her father's death a couple of years before. Desperate for something exciting to do, she gets herself invited out to San Francisco to visit some relatives she barely knows.

Once Gilda arrives, she sets about annoying her relatives by poking her nose into the intriguing story of a suicide that took place several years earlier. You see, as the title suggests, Gilda has decided to become a "psychic investigator" and she is hard at work learning about the paranormal. The idea of living in a haunted house and actually communicating with a ghost is thrilling for her. Gilda uncovers more and more "family secrets" as she tries to find out what the ghost is up to.

While this book was cute and quirky, it didn't make me want to rave about it. Gilda is a little bit too unique; she doesn't always seem realistic. (Is any thirteen-year-old girl *that* confident in her weirdness?) Apparently the sequel is better, so I'll give it a shot before I dismiss Gilda altogether.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Marley and Me by John Grogan

I was in the mood for a light, fun memoir and this looked like it would fit the bill. It's the life story of Grogan's neurotic, hyperactive lab, Marley, who is advertised as "the world's worst dog". Marley gets kicked out of obedience school, wrecks and eats just about everything, and shows himself to be just about as stupid and bullheaded as any four-legged creature can be. And of course, Marley gets old, goes blind and deaf, has bad hips and eventually passes on to the big doggy meadow in the sky.

I'm the first to admit I am not a dog person; I doubt I will ever own one, and other people's dogs I usually just tolerate. The author's patience with his dog is not something I think I'd ever possess. That said, I did enjoy reading about Marley's rambunctious personality, and I have to admit I had tears in my eyes when the time finally came for Grogan and his family to say goodbye to Marley. If you're a dog lover, I think you'd like this a lot. Make sure you have a box of kleenex handy...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Well, here it is at last - the end of a series that my family and I have been enjoying for many years. And though I have a few quibbles about this novel, for the most part I found it to be a satisfying read in and of itself as well as a very nice ending to the story of Harry Potter. I thought Rowling tied up all the story threads nicely, and when I finished reading I felt happy and satisfied, which is a tribute to her abilities as a fabulous storyteller. I hope that she will continue writing.

I dislike spoilers, so I won't say anything else, but if you want to discuss the book with me click on the comments. :-)

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith

This was a completely satisfying novel that was well worth waiting for. It felt more thought-out than some of the more recent installments in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series. Several overlapping investigations take place in the agency, and Mma Ramotswe allows a couple of helpers to do some independent detective work. There is also some very sweet character development here; even Charlie, the feckless apprentice at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, is given a chance for some "growth experiences".

Overall a highly enjoyable read!

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year old autistic boy living in Swindon, England. A teacher at his school has encouraged him to write a novel, so he's decided to write about his investigation of the murder of his neighbour's dog.

Christopher's voice is unique because of what makes him unique. His writing meanders off topic frequently in a way that must be totally logical to him, but comes across as bizarre and funny to the neurotypical reader. What I loved about Christopher is that Haddon manages to make him so real, and so touchingly funny, without even a hint of condescension. He's just about the worst detective you can possibly imagine - completely lacking in social skills, including tact, brutally honest because he's incapable of being any other way. Yet somehow he manages to make a really important and huge discovery and experience personal growth. Through Christopher's eyes, we can get right under the skin of a kind of person who's normally shut off from the rest of the "normal" world and find out what it really feels like to see the world through the lens of autism.

If you're an avid reader, you've probably heard about this book. It really is as great as people say it is.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Jane Hayes, who feels the need to hide her addiction to Jane Austen and its many film/TV adaptations (including the Colin Firth one), learns that an elderly aunt has left her a gift in her will - an all-expenses paid trip to Pembrook Park. This English "resort" is a place for women who are obsessed with Jane Austen to immerse themselves in the Regency period and in the society depicted in Austen's novels. To Jane, it's a perfect opportunity to get this obsession out of her system once and for all so she can move on with her life.

This book didn't quite do it for me. I love the concept, of course, but the execution felt so contrived. Hale's writing is a curious overlap of modern English (which she does quite well) and her attempt to write like Jane Austen (which she doesn't do so well, especially when it comes to dialogue). The result feels alternately over- and under-written. And the story - well, it is mostly just ridiculous, with its rather heavy-handed attempt to recreate the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy within the artificial setting of Pembrook Park.

Ahh well - many books written by Austenites are not as satisfying as the original source material, so I'm not all that disappointed.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Baby Proof by Emily Giffin

Claudia Parr is a woman in her early thirties who decided long ago that she didn't want to have children. Fortunately, she has found a "soul mate" in Ben, a wonderful man who also says he doesn't want children. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of marriage he changes his mind and starts badgering her ceaselessly about wanting a baby, even going so far as to make hints about their future parenthood in front of in-laws. Claudia quite rightly gives Ben the boot, and then she spends the rest of the book moaning and groaning over her divorce, her lost love and the fact that she doesn't want babies. Honestly, for someone who seems to be fairly confident in her decision she sure doesn't appear to be at peace with it - she goes on and on and on about this issue of not wanting kids, even to the point where she gets mad that people who are interested in becoming mothers (ie, every other female she knows) have the gall to *talk about babies* at her birthday dinner. Honestly, the nerve of some people!

As you can tell, this book didn't quite work for me. Partly it was that I didn't really connect with Claudia (maybe you can tell that already?!). Partly it was Giffin's writing style - it relies a bit too heavily on first-person description and narrative, and the dialogue is sparse and somewhat stilted. Another thing that grated on my nerves was the way people in this book are unable to communicate effectively. A lot of the plot was "driven" by misunderstandings and lack of open dialogue between people who really should be able to talk to one another - ie, spouses, friends and sisters who have loving and open relationships. And oh! The endless, tiresome descriptions of shoes, clothing, furniture and other such Name Brand items. Constant clothing changes and brand-name-dropping do not a good novel make -- and not all readers of the chicklit genre want to read such things!

I think I'll be giving Emily Giffin's other novels a miss.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mail-Order Wings by Beatrice Gormley

I read this book as a child, and for some reason it came back to me very vividly a week or two ago and I decided to try and find it. Fortunately, it was available at the library last night and was a quick enough read that I'd finished it by early afternoon today.

Mail-Order Wings is about a nine-year-old bird lover named Andrea who finds an offer she can't resist on the back of a creepy comic book - for a mere $5.98 she can get her very own pair of wings and fly just like the birds she spends hours watching from her window and the local bird sanctuary. Andrea is old enough to realize that this is probably a scam, but she still can't resist sending off a money order and putting the kit together once it arrives. To her delight, she finds that the wings actually work and she tries her best to learn how to use them in secret. Naturally, though, there is a catch to this wonderful experience and it turns out to be a particularly nasty catch.

Mail-Order Wings makes for a pleasant enough read -- I'm not going to gush and rave about it, but it was a nice trip down memory lane. Now, where has my old dog-eared copy of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing gotten to...

Sleeping Arrangements by Madeleine Wickham

I checked this out of the library because it was written by the same author who wrote all the books by Sophie Kinsella. (Was that an awkward sentence or what? I realize that both names may be pseudonyms.) Honestly, I'd never know it was the same person just based on the writing. This was a fluffy, overwritten and melodramatic romance novel - sort of like someone trying too hard to write the kind of book that Joanna Trollope would.

The basic premise is that two families find themselves double-booked in a friend's Spanish villa for a week, and they try to make the best of the situation by sharing the villa. It turns out that Hugh, who is married to Amanda, had a past relationship with Chloe, who has since become "life partners" with Philip (she and Philip are very clear on the fact that they are NOT MARRIED, and they make a point of saying so to others on many occasions throughout the book - you'd think after thirteen years together they would have become more comfortable with this idea!). Hugh took off on Chloe very suddenly fifteen years earlier, the worm, and clearly they both have unresolved feelings about this; unsurprisingly, they still have unresolved feelings for each other too. Thrown into the mix is the fact that Hugh works for the big, horrible corporation that has just taken over the bank that Philip works for, and the big, horrible corporation is planning to shut down Philip's branch and put him out of work. Ahhh, the drama!!

In spite of my flippant dislike of the book, I felt compelled to keep reading. It was like a train wreck. There was some element in this story that kept me curious to see how things would turn out. Would Ms. Wickham/Kinsella/Whatever-her-name is follow in Trollope's footsteps and have both Amanda and Chloe reject their spouses for good? (In almost all Joanna Trollope novels, men are bastards and women are far better off without them.) Would Hugh save Philip's job? Would the dreadlocked Aussie nanny hired by Hugh and Amanda end up sleeping with Chloe's sixteen year old, hormonal son? All these tantalizing plot lines await you if you should decide to check this book out -- but honestly, I'd recommend that you wait for the next Sophie Kinsella book (or if you're feeling particularly rabid toward men, why not pick up some of Joanna Trollope's better books - "The Choir" and "The Rector's Wife" being two engaging novels which will make you hate men for days afterward?)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Ahh, another wonderful teen/YA novel to sink my teeth into! Evil Genius sort of plodded along for the first 200 pages or so - it was amusing enough, reading about the childhood and school experiences of the quirky Australian genius Cadel Piggott, but then somewhere around page 250 this novel suddenly became un-put-downable. I found myself carrying it everywhere I went so I could sneak in a few pages' worth of reading. Cadel becomes caught up in a very complicated and deadly web of intrigue centering around a school he attends called the Axis Institute, which is supposed to teach him how to be the perfect evil mastermind so he can take over the world and get rid of all the non-genius people. The problem is that Cadel turns out to have a mind of his own (along with his genius IQ). At some point he has to make a decision about just who is friends are what he really believes in - but that's hard to do when you've been brainwashed your whole life by an evil psychologist who claims to have your best interests at heart, and who has taught you one fundamental truth - to never trust anyone.

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian

Captain Aubrey and his pal the doctor are sent off to join a blockade near Toulon, France. After a few months of mind-numbing blockade action, their ship falls apart and they get to reunite with their beloved Surprise. As Aubrey sails off on a dangerous and politically vital mission to enlist Turkish aid in the war against France, he gets to prove that when you put a good Captain and crew on a good ship, lots of exciting action ensues. Prizes galore await Jack and his shipmates in the Ionian Sea!

This wasn't a particularly memorable installment in this series but it was still an enjoyable read.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Magic Study by Maria V. Snyder

This sequel to Poison Study was equally readable. Synder is a great storyteller and her writing is vivid and engaging. It was interesting to see what happens to Yelena when she returns to the home she was kidnapped from many years earlier, meets her family and tries to fit in at Magician school.

Unfortunately, my enjoyment of this novel was somewhat marred by Snyder's use of tired, unnecessary fantasy themes - ie, girls/women being captured and raped by bad guys. What the heck is that about? Why do so many fantasy writers feel the need to include rape scenes in stories that could easily stand on their own without them?

Rant over. I was also rolling my eyes somewhat over the surprising number of petty jealousies that the adults in this novel carried around with them. But I guess since this novel is aimed at teens, maybe that's something that age group can relate to?

Regardless, overall I did enjoy this book and will gladly read the third novel in the series when it comes out next year.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian

Captain Aubrey and Dr Maturin are finally on their way home to England, but they are chased by some very determined and menacing privateers as they leave North America. Then a bunch of other stuff happens to them... this book has lots of good Aubrey/Maturin action including stormy seas, the capture of prizes, a shipwreck and a prison escape. Unfortunately the annoying woman who Dr Maturin continues to be obsessed with makes another appearance, and I was really peeved by the ending of this novel which features this annoying woman. Oh well - the story was really good otherwise.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder

I read this teen fantasy title on the recommendation of Leila from Bookshelves of Doom, who tends to be bang-on when she raves about a book. In the end I find I agree with pretty much everything she said in her review of Poison Study. The writing style can be a little heavy on the description at times, but Snyder managed to suck me right in from the first chapter and I found the story fascinating. It can be hard to pull off a believable world in a fantasy novel but that's not the case here. The main character, Yelena, and the people she meets are interesting and feel real. The story, about Yelena's reprieve from Death Row in exchange for being a food taster for the commander of the military dictatorship she lives in, was quite interesting and new. The only part I didn't like was when the book suddenly turned into a romance novel about 50 pages before the end. What the f***??? I think the novel would have been perfect without that part, and the only thing that kept me from throwing it across the room at that point was that luckily Snyder did not lose sight of the main, interesting story when she threw in the romance stuff.

Anyway, I'm going to read the sequel so I guess it can't have been all that bad. :-)

The Fortune of War by Patrick O'Brian

This book would have been more aptly titled "The Mis-fortune of War" because more bad stuff happens. Thanks to the war of 1812 inconveniently breaking out while they're trying to get home from their ill-fated voyage on the Leopard, our heroes get captured by the Americans and spend most of this book imprisoned in Boston. Also, the supremely annoying woman who is constantly toying with the affections of Dr Maturin puts in yet another appearance. I wish she would go away, but at least she contributes some tension to this book. Although it takes place on land, the story is quite exciting because there are people trying to kill the sweet doctor and his bumbling Captain. So it's well worth a read.

Next up in this series: The Surgeon's Mate

Desolation Island by Patrick O'Brian

OK, so I was wrong about this book - it's not about Aubrey and Maturin taking a trip to the Galapagos. It's more of a "disaster at sea" type of book where they have the worst possible string of bad luck on their ship, the Leopard, which is destined for Australia with a cargo hold full of convicts - not Captain Aubrey's favourite assignment thus far. Things just keep getting worse and worse from the time they leave shore. First, most of the crew comes down with "gaol-fever" (ie, typhus) and a bunch of them die. Then they get picked on by a Dutch ship that is much bigger, has way more crew and outguns them by a ridiculous amount. And it gets worse, but I don't want to give away the whole story. Let me just say that the horrible-sounding Desolation Island becomes a sort of paradise to them when they finally reach it.

This is much more the type of stuff I want out of this series - most of the action takes place at sea! Never mind complicated schemes to recapture islands from the French.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Shopaholic and Baby by Sophie Kinsella

As you can imagine if you've read the other titles in this series, Becky Bloomwood is going to shop her heart out while pregnant so that her future baby can have just as many shoes and clothes as its mother. Meanwhile, her job as a personal shopper is on the rocks because of a lack of customers, and her decision to hire a celebrity obstetrician turns out to be one of the worst mistakes she's made yet.

This was fun, though not quite as hilarious as previous efforts in the series. It's worth reading just to find out what Becky's up to now, but I hope that future books by this author will be back to her previous standard of readable comedic fluff.

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O'Brian

I hate to say it, but this book was disappointing! I think it's because it was closely based on an actual campaign, when the British decided to take the islands of La Reunion and Mauritius off the French in 1810. It seems that French ships were plucking valuable British navy ships and Indiamen out of the ocean, and the Royal Navy wasn't interested in putting up with this any longer.

Anyway, the action in this book was somewhat confusing, but not in a readable sort of way. There were too many ships, too many captains and other assorted secondary characters, too much action happening on land and not enough in the water.

I'm hoping the next novel in the series is more interesting. I think it's about Aubrey taking a ship to the Galapagos. Whee!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Three books by Gordon Korman

Blogger won't let me put all the titles into the post title, so here they are:

No Coins, Please
Who is Bugs Potter?
Bugs Potter Live at Nickaninny

Back when I read The War With Mr Wizzle, I commented that I frequently re-read the three Gordon Korman novels listed above. And for whatever reason, yesterday when I woke up it felt like the day to re-read them. I managed to actually find them on my daughter's chaotic bookshelves and settled down for a day of fluff and laughter. I don't know if I find these books funny simply because I am so fond of them and have read them so many times over the years, or whether an adult who approaches these books for the first time would enjoy them, but I do genuinely laugh out loud each time I read them.

No Coins Please has got to be my favourite Korman book. It's a goofy story about two guys from Montreal who get the bright idea of being counsellors for a travelling summer camp program to earn some money. Instead of staying home and painting houses, they get to escort six eleven year olds all over the United States visiting major tourist attractions. Unfortunately for Dennis and Rob (our heroes), they get stuck with Artie Geller, a boy who has a genius for illegal money making schemes. While they frantically deal with his disappearances in every major city they visit, he is busy racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars which he keeps in the briefcase he carries everywhere he goes.

Who is Bugs Potter is the comical tale of a rock music-obsessed teen drummer who is chosen to participate in a high school band festival in Toronto. By day he takes part in rehearsals and tries to get out of the many "boring" trips to museums, symphonies and lectures; by night he puts on a fake moustache and sneaks out of the hotel to attend the concerts of a number of bands with ridiculous names (all of which are his favourites). Each night he gets a chance to jam with the band and, unknown to him or any of the other band festival participants, his fame is steadily growing. Bugs is hilariously dim and his long-suffering roommate, a flautist from Boston, is a great counterpoint.

Bugs Potter Live at Nickaninny is the sequel to Who is Bugs Potter. Where the first book answered the question of what would happen to Bugs if you put him in his natural element, the second takes him out of it. Bugs's family decides to take a camping trip to a lake in the middle of nowhere, someplace in northern Ontario. Deprived of his concerts and drum set, and told to work on a makeup science assignment during the summer, Bugs manages to surround himself with music, an assortment of new "pals" and, bizarrely, anthropologists from all over North America who are drawn to the remote lake by the promise of a huge discovery.

Any of these books makes a great light read for those days when I'm kind of brain-dead. My 11 year old likes them too and would also recommend I Want to Go Home, a Korman book about a guy who does absolutely everything he can think of to get away from his horrible summer camp.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'Brian

Oh yeah! I'm on a roll here! I'm tearing my way through this great series.

However, before I tell you what I think of this book, I found this fun quiz on one of the many many litblogs I read.

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next three sentences in your journal along with these instructions.

So here goes -- the nearest book, of course, being HMS Surprise:

"Hands wear ship," said the lieutenant of the watch, more from form than anything else, for not only did the Lively have a crew that had worked together for years, but also she had carried out this manoeuvre several hundred times in this very stretch of water and the order was scarcely needed. Routine had taken the edge off the Livelies' zeal, but nevertheless the boatswain had to call out "Handsomely, handsomely, now, with that bleeding sheet"; for the crew had been brought to such a pitch of silent efficiency that the frigate ran the risk of darting her jib-boom over the taffrail of the Melpomene, her next ahead, whose talents and sailing qualities could not have recommended her anywhere.

However, round they went in succession, each wearing in the spot where her leader had turned; they hauled their wind and re-formed their rigid line, heading for Giens once more, Naiad, Melpomene, Lively.

So there you have it, folks - a sample of Patrick O'Brian's knack for the long sentence which is at once replete with incomprehensible naval jargon and still very readable.

That was fun - I think I might do it for future books I write about here.

Anyway, about the book. In this installment, Captain Aubrey finally gets a decent command -- although he doesn't see it that way. He is asked to take an ambassador to China, an extremely long and treacherous sea-voyage which has little possibility of taking home the prize that he needs to help clear his massive debt so he can marry his sweetheart. Meanwhile, Dr Maturin continues to pine for a woman who's no good for him, but manages to distract himself with the local wildlife wherever he goes (and I really do mean wildlife - this guy is crazy for animals, insects, plants, you name it). He manages to acquire two odd pets before the journey is over, and they go over a little better than the bees he installed in the Captain's cabin on the last voyage.

I love these guys! I want to take Dr Maturin home and clean him up and feed him. All he needs to do is play his cello for me and I'll consider it a fair exchange.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Post Captain by Patrick O'Brian

In this sequel to Master and Commander, aside from the obvious promotion of Jack Aubrey to Post Captain (gee, way to pick a title, there!), plenty of other stuff happens to our pals Aubrey and Maturin. They fall in love, fight over a woman, Aubrey is chased by debt collectors, and Maturin begins a potentially promising career as a spy. Who could possibly suspect an eccentric intellectual who forgets to wash his face and has moss growing on his overcoat?

Though the naval jargon continues to be totally incomprehensible in book two, I continue to find the story of Captain Aubrey and Dr Maturin utterly intriguing. There's something compelling about their exciting, romantic, cramped and dirty life on board one of Nelson's navy ships that keeps me reading, even while I continue to have no clue what a xebec is. (I have a feeling that if Hornblower is still reading this blog she will be able to fill me in.)

I was saying to my husband the other day that I feel like the universe has conspired to introduce me to this fabulous genre, naval adventure fiction. In spite of having many other interesting books on my shelf at the moment, I am gobbling up the Aubrey-Maturin series; and when I found myself without an Aubrey-Maturin book one day last week, I picked up the first book in the Horatio Hornblower series from the library at my university. So now you can consider yourself warned.

Kiki's Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono

I'm somewhat embarrassingly behind on book blogging this month...

My daughter signed this book out from the library and I picked it up on a whim, hoping for some light and fun reading. It definitely fit the bill, though overall the book was quite a bit slower than the film. (See? This is why I should stick to my rule of not seeing the movie before I read the book!) I get the impression that Miyazaki pulled out the most dramatic events from this book and its sequels (apparently there are several) to make the movie Kiki's Delivery Service.

At any rate, it's a sweet coming-of-age story which would make a good read-aloud for an older child. The basic premise is that Kiki, the daughter of a witch, has reached her thirteenth birthday and by tradition must leave her home and find a town that doesn't have a witch living in it. So, bringing little more than her radio, her black cat Jiji and her mother's old broom, she sets off for the seaside city of Koriko and begins the sometimes difficult process of becoming an independent witch.

And if you've got kids and they haven't seen the film, can I just say it is truly delightful and well worth renting?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass

Another enjoyable Young Adult read recommended by Leila of Bookshelves of Doom. The protagonist, Mia Winchell, is a thirteen-year-old girl who has somehow managed to keep her family and friends from discovering her Big Secret, which is that she has synesthesia, and sees brightly coloured shapes in response to any sound, word, letter, or number she encounters. I've never read a book about this condition before, and Mia's experience was intriguing, particularly after her secret comes out and she begins to learn more about how to fully experience her "colours".

There were a few areas where the book didn't quite ring true to me; some of the secondary characters are a bit one-dimensional, and Mia's siblings are just a little bit too unique. However, on the whole it was a quick, absorbing read which made a very nice counterpoint to the jargon-heavy novel I just finished.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

I'll tell you what I said to two librarians the other night about this book - "It's mostly incomprehensible, but the story is pretty good."

I had to read this for a school project, if you can believe it, and for the most part it was a pretty decent choice. Captain Jack Aubrey is a likeable dunce with a real knack for taking "prizes" (ie, capturing Spanish ships) and his sidekick, Dr. Stephen Maturin, is a charming intellectual who doesn't mind getting his hands and clothes covered in blood on a regular basis. What's not to like about these guys?

Nothing much happens in this book, but it sets up the extremely lengthy series to follow, where Aubrey and Maturin have many exciting adventures. Aubrey gets his first command, bumps into Maturin on the street and convinces him to be his ship's surgeon, and then away they float with their crew of assorted misfits, cruising around the coast of Spain, shooting cannonballs, and blathering away at each other in their incomprehensible naval lingo. I think I'd have been able to be much more absorbed in this novel if the publishers had taken the time to provide a glossary. As it is, they've included a lovely labeled diagram of the various sails on a ship, but nothing about the ropes, wooden beams, and other parts of a ship that are mentioned over and over again - let alone the various different types of ships.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Throne of Jade and Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

I promised myself that I wouldn't let this blog be a "chore" and so far it really hasn't been, but this semester has been unbelievably hectic for me and I'm falling behind on my book reviews. So about these two books I'll just say a few words.

These books were awesome. Read this series!

More detailed commentary will be coming on future books...

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik

I used to be quite the fantasy reader, but it's been a long time since I've felt compelled to seek out a new series. It just seemed like every book I picked up was a rehash of the same tired old themes. However, when bookshelves of doom highlighted (ok, gushed about) Naomi Novik's new Temeraire series and mentioned that Peter Jackson liked these books so much that he bought the film rights, I knew I needed to check this series out.

If His Majesty's Dragon is anything to judge by, this is a series to get even the most jaded former fantasy reader back into the genre. Set in an alternate Napoleonic era in which British and French forces vie for supremacy of the skies as well as the sea, complete with a separate branch of the military for dragons and their riders, the books focus on navy captain Will Laurence and his dragon partner, Temeraire. It's sort of a cross between the Dragonriders of Pern series and books like Master and Commander. Novik pulls off the addition of dragons to this universe very well - Temeraire and his counterparts are believable and appealing creatures. Laurence himself, with his affection for his dragon and his strong sense of honour and duty, oozes sex appeal in a Mr. Darcy sort of way. Together, they must defend Britain from the French forces determined to conquer their island neighbour.

Watch this space for my thoughts on the sequels, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel

In the sequel to Airborn, Oppel returns to the lives of Matt Cruse and Kate DeVries a few months after the end of their first adventure. This time they're on the hunt for the Hyperion, a mysterious airship that disappeared twenty years earlier, rumoured to be carrying a fortune. Kate and Matt are accompanied on their quest by Hal, the cocky young owner of a skybreaker (a special airship designed to be taken to higher elevations) and the beautiful, mysterious Roma girl, Nadira, who holds the key to the Hyperion's treasures.

Although this book is a sequel, it doesn't tread over the same ground as Airborn - the adventure feels fresh and new, with the same interesting blend of science fiction and adventure that made the first book in this series so thrilling to read. I had trouble putting it down.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

This book came into our home because it's one of this year's Red Cedar Award contenders - and so far, it's my daughter's top pick among the selections she's read for the award. Since I was already in the mood for YA fiction I decided to pick this one up soon after she recommended it to me.

Airborn is set in an "alternate earth" where flying ships powered by a gas called hydrium are used to transport people and cargo around the world. Matt Cruse is the cabin boy of a luxury airliner, Aurora. Born aboard an airship, he is literally in his element when he's up in the sky. His ambition to rise from the ranks of cabin boy are set aside for a while when he befriends a wealthy young passenger, Kate de Vries, who drags Matt along on a crazy adventure involving pirates, uncharted Pacific islands, and incredible flying mammals.

This was one of those novels that sucked me in to the point where I didn't really care that I was reading a "kids' book" - it is well written, fast paced and convincing. Watch this space for my thoughts on the sequel, Skybreaker!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Inkspell by Cornelia Funke

I've been on a YA fantasy kick lately, to help counteract the stress of midterms and too many places to be in one day. This book was at the top of my list, thanks to relentless pestering from my daughter. I am glad she pestered me because I really enjoyed Inkspell.

I found a few faults with the first book in this series, Inkheart, but none in this novel. Inkspell picks up a few months after the events in Inkheart, and continues exploring Funke's ingenious answer to the question of what might happen if characters from a book could come to life. In this case, she has given certain people the gift of reading literary characters into existence; some can even "read" people and animals - both "real" and fictional - into a book. So in Inkspell we get to find out what would happen if someone were to suddenly become part of a fictional world. This is a great twist on a traditional fairy tale - it's got magic, bad guys, fairies and brave heroes, all wrapped up in a package that appeals to avid readers.

Highly recommended!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Comfort me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table by Ruth Reichl

The continuation of Ruth Reichl's memoirs takes us from her early days as a food writer in San Francisco, through the end of her first marriage and her rise to LA Times restaurant critic, to her second marriage and the birth of her first child at age 41.

As before, Reichl's writing about food is evocative and as satisfying as a good meal. Unfortunately, this book is not just about food; I think the subtitle should have been "More Adventures at the Table... and in the Bedroom". There are details aplenty here about her affairs with her editor and the man who would eventually become her second husband. Once she gets done talking about her juicy sex life, the book sort of fizzles out, becoming a series of quite disjointed episodes, some to do with food, some to do with her efforts to become a mother. This book seemed to lack focus; I hope Reichl's next effort at a memoir will focus more on food, which is clearly her area of expertise.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl

This absorbing memoir by a former NY Times restaurant critic gave me some great background on Reichl's life before she became a famous food writer (those experiences were chronicled in her equally fascinating book Garlic and Sapphires). Reichl starts the book off with a highly memorable part of her childhood, reminiscing quite graphically about her mother's complete lack of cooking skills and inability to grasp basic concepts of safe food storage. This hilarious beginning sucked me in, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Reichl's early mentors in cooking, her experiences learning how to cook and appreciate fine food and wine, and her description of life in a 1970s Berkeley commune. Reichl's strength is her ability to describe scenes, people, and of course, meals in a way that is so vivid that I feel like I'm right there with her.

The book ends on a hopeful note as Reichl is introduced to some famous names in the world of food and I got the sense of great things in her future. I am looking forward to reading the continuation of her memoirs, Comfort me with Apples.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

So Many Books, So Little Time by Sara Nelson

This memoir caught my eye at a recent trip to the library, and I couldn't resist the chance to delve into the experiences of a so-called "passionate reader". Well, 41 pages later (I tried, but it became a dreaded chore to even try and make it to 50!) the book fell out of my hands as I slipped into a coma.

I can't imagine how anyone could find this book interesting, to be honest. I hate to use such damning words, but there it is. So Many Books, So Little Time amounts to little more than the stream-of-consciousness of an obsessively self-analytical person with very few original thoughts. I am sure Sara Nelson is a nice person; in fact, I think she and I could probably find quite a bit to talk about if we ever sat down together to discuss books. The problem is that in this book she comes across as unrelentingly dull. I can tell her strength is as a book reviewer; the few glimmers of high-quality writing in here are the paragraphs she devotes to summarizing and describing the books she has read. In between, though, there's little to recommend this book. Nelson fails to make me care about her project to read a book a week for a year; she does not say anything terribly interesting or thought-provoking when she rambles on for paragraph after paragraph about why she reads, why other people read, how she reads, how she chooses her books, how she discusses books with her husband, the history of herself as a reader, blah blah blah.


The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

I picked this one up based on the strong recommendation of the Bookseller to the Stars, who named it his book of the year for 2006. With such a rave review, I thought I might enjoy this title described as an "old-fashioned good read". Unfortunately, the book utterly failed to grab me.

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is the story of a friendship between Penelope, the youngest female member of an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times post-WWII, and Charlotte, a girl she meets at a bus stop one day. Penelope and Charlotte strike up a friendship, and... well, that's about all you get in the first 90 pages. At some point I just put the book down and never picked it up again. Penelope as a character seemed utterly dull, without hope of redemption from dullness within the next 90 pages. Charlotte, who was supposed to be so amazing and sophisticated from Penelope's point of view, also seemed pretty uninteresting. Unfortunately, nothing exciting happens to either of these girls during the first few chapters - tea with Charlotte's aunt, a dinner party at Penelope's crumbling mansion, and a walk in the snow... zzzz... - so I didn't feel compelled to keep reading.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Piece of My Heart by Peter Robinson

Inspector Banks is back, this time investigating a murder that takes him all the way back to the glory days of a sixties rock band called the Mad Hatters. As Banks struggles to determine who killed a rock journalist staying in a remote Yorkshire village, and why, Robinson takes us on flashbacks to another murder investigation 35 years earlier, showing the experiences of DI Stanley Chadwick as he hunts for the murderer of a beautiful young girl killed at an outdoor rock festival.

The storytelling here is flawless; I found I was sucked into both stories, and was just as keen to read about Chadwick as about the more familiar Inspector Banks. It took quite a while for the two stories to finally "connect", so part of the mystery was trying to figure out how they were related to each other aside from one really obvious way. This was an enjoyable novel which I would have liked to read much more quickly, if I'd only had time. I thought the ending was a little bit weak; it can be very hard to wrap up a crime novel effectively, though, so I'm trying not to be picky.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie

Well, what can I say? Dead Man's Folly is a fairly typical Hercule Poirot novel. A cast of suspicious characters who aren't being completely open with the police, who are of course baffled by the mystery of who killed the victim. And then the little grey cells do their usual miracle and there you go. Another successful episode in the life of Poirot.

Sometimes I just need a little bit of fluff like this, and as such it fit the bill admirably.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Julie & Julia by Julie Powell

Julie Powell, a New York City secretary in a fit of angst over the lack of direction in her life, decides to spend an entire year cooking every single recipe in Julia Child's seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This book is the result of her conscientious blogging efforts over the course of that year as she sort of masters the art of some of the recipes, cursing up a storm as she does so. And it's actually quite riveting.

At first I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. Powell's tone is just a little bit too self-deprecating; I think she enjoys making fun of herself, but it often veers into the realm of narcissism. However, her descriptions of her cooking experiences kept me reading. I don't remember the last time that I was so utterly overwhelmed by a feeling of amused, shocked disbelief as I was when I read Powell's description of how she cut up a lobster. I laughed out loud at her description of her brother and husband helping her to cut up a marrow bone to extract beef marrow for a steak sauce. I cheered her on as she tried over and over again to make mayonnaise by hand.

If you like to watch The Food Network and enjoy reading slightly off-colour memoirs, this book is definitely for you.