Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street

The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I really enjoyed the first book (The Penderwicks); Brittanie suggested it for Herding Cats II

Description: "The Penderwick sisters are home on Gardam Street and ready for an adventure! But the adventure they get isn’t quite what they had in mind. Mr. Penderwick’s sister has decided it’s time for him to start dating—and the girls know that can only mean one thing: disaster. Enter the Save-Daddy Plan—a plot so brilliant, so bold, so funny, that only the Penderwick girls could have come up with it."

First line: "Their mother had been here in the hospital with the new baby for almost a week."

My thoughts: "Old-fashioned" comes up in reviews for this budding series and it really is - in the best way. It's warm and funny and full of loving (though not sappily so) relationships. Brittanie says "This series is timeless. I did not even realize it is set present day." It's true - remove a few references to things like computers, and it could be set in a bygone era. And that's a good thing!

It also has an undertone of melancholy, as the sisters' mother passed away right after the last Penderwick sister was born. This book looks a bit more at that sad event and also shows that Mrs. Penderwick had a plan - she didn't want her husband to be lonely, so she charged his sister (Aunt Claire) with delivering a letter to Mr. Penderwick ordering him to start dating once the girls were old enough.

So the girls try to set him up on horrible dates (he's required to go on a certain number) so that he won't find anyone to marry. In between, scientific Skye and writer/drama queen Jane get into trouble over switched homework assignments, eldest Rosalind is sure that she really doesn't care at all about their neighbour Tommy, and no-one believes adorable Batty when she says a man who looks like a bug is hanging around Gardam Street. And as for Daddy's dating? He comes up with a plan of his own, only to find that perhaps the answer is closer than the Penderwicks thought...

The verdict: A great sequel, hooray! A sweet, lovely, funny story about a close-knit family looking for a missing piece of the Penderwick puzzle.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Celebrate the Author: Marian Keyes

This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
4.75 stars

Reasons for reading: I'm celebrating Marian Keyes' September 10, 1963 birthday this month for Celebrate the Author, because I lurve her books!

From the publisher: "Paddy de Courcy is Ireland's debonair politician, the "John F. Kennedy Jr. of Dublin." His charm and charisma have taken hold of the country and the tabloids, not to mention our four heroines: Lola, Grace, Marnie, and Alicia. But though Paddy's winning smile is fooling Irish minds, the broken hearts he's left in his past offer a far more truthful look into his character. Narrated in turn by each woman, This Charming Man explores how their love for this one man has shaped their lives. But in true Marian Keyes fashion, this is more than a story of four love affairs. It's a testament to the strength women find in themselves through work, friendship, and family, no matter what demons may be haunting their lives. Depression, self-doubt, domestic abuse—each of these women has seen tough times in life, and it's through Keyes's wonderful storytelling ability that these subjects are approached with the appropriate tone and candor. Her deft touch provides a gripping story and, ultimately, a redemptive ending."

First line: "Everyone remembers where they were the day they heard that Paddy de Courcy was getting married."

My thoughts: Another winner from Marian Keyes! I left of .25 of a star just because I could've used a bit more of her humour and felt it was just a wee bit long. But still very much worth reading!!

Lola is hilariously Bridget Jones-y and gets caught up in a ridiculously funny subplot involving cross-dressers as well as the usual small-town Ireland hijinks in the town of Knockavoy, which Keyes has written about before. (Also, see if you can figure out why there's a toaster on the cover. :-) ) The diary-speak is a bit wearing, but still fun and I really enjoyed seeing her go from a (very funny) wreck to an in-control businesswoman again.

I found Grace to be the most "realistic" of the characters - she has her demons, but she mostly manages to function. She was neither ridiculous like Lola nor tragic like her sister Marnie. In typical Keyes fashion, the Gildee parents are a hoot, particularly when they repeatedly think Grace should leave work to go and hunt for their dog.

Marnie - gosh. What a sad, sad human being. She's not particularly likeable, yet you feel sorry for her (at least up until a point - eventually I was pretty much disgusted with her). Keyes apparently dealt with alcoholism herself and you can tell from Marnie's story - it's an incredibly harsh, scary look at what drinking can do to a person and how it's possible to lose everything and still not be able to give it up. I found that the Marnie sections were what made it a bit too long, but it's still an amazing portrait of addiction.

And Paddy - wow. The most dreadful villain I've read about in a long time, you can hardly believe that such a slimeball could exist, let alone be so outwardly charming, but I'm sure there are some out there. But hooray, as you knew there would be, there's revenge on Paddy by the end! I obviously won't tell you how, but it's great to see and a welcome relief.

The verdict: Another winner from Keyes, who has always written chick lit with a bit of an edge, but is now moving beyond the format into something darker, while still being funny and entertaining.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review: And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

5 stars

Reasons for reading: Mystery for the Genre Challenge; have always meant to read it

From the publisher: "First, there were ten—a curious assortment of strangers summoned as weekend guests to a private island off the coast of Devon. Their host, an eccentric millionaire unknown to all of them, is nowhere to be found. All that the guests have in common is a wicked past they're unwilling to reveal—and a secret that will seal their fate. For each has been marked for murder. One by one they fall prey. Before the weekend is out, there will be none. And only the dead are above suspicion.

First line: "In the corner of a first-class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in the Times."

My thoughts: I was so taken with this book!! It's so very ingenious. Of course, the plot is a bit of a cliche nowadays, but that's because Agatha Christie did such an amazing job of it the first time! I loved how it stuck to the 10 Little Indians poem laid out at the beginning and how that added to the creepiness.

I believe this is the second Christie book I've read - I read Murder on the Orient Express when I was a teenager and remember liking it. I obviously should read some more! Sometimes I find older books dated, but the 30's-40's charm of Christie's books really works for me.

There's not much else I can say - if you've read it (and you probably have) you know what happens and if you haven't (you should!), I won't spoil it. I, as usual, had no idea whodunnit but I've decided that, rather than making me a lazy and non-perceptive reader, it just means life holds lots of surprises for me, which is great! My husband read it when he was like 10 and had it all figured out, of course. He's incredibly smart and is the opposite of me, life holds no suprises for him. :-)

The verdict: Read it!

Fall Into Reading Challenge

I always seem to miss this one, but finally I've gotten in on it in time, yay!

Katrina at Callapidder Days is hosting it again, details are here.

Basically, we just need to come up with a list of books we'd like to read between September 22 and December 20. I think 4 books will be do-able - 1 for each month - since (yet again!) I have quite a few other challenges to finish by the end of the year, too.

So here's the list and, just to make it a bit more challenge-y, the reasons why!

1. Such a Pretty Fat by Jen Lancaster - I MUST lose weight, I'm hoping she'll be both funny and inspirational

2. Addled by JoeAnn Hart - it's been on my TBR list for at least 2 years

3. The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells - it's brand new, hooray!

4. Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - everyone says it's fantastic and I'm so behind, there's a sequel already, for heaven's sake; bad Youth Services Librarian!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: A Short History of Women

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert
1.5 stars

Reason for reading: this month's book club selection

Description: "The novel opens in England in 1914 at the deathbed of Dorothy Townsend, a suffragette who starves herself for the cause. Her choice echoes in the stories of her descendants interwoven throughout: a brilliant daughter who tries to escape the burden of her mother's infamy by immigrating to America just after World War I to begin a career in science; a niece who chooses a conventional path -- marriage, children, suburban domesticity -- only to find herself disillusioned with her husband of fifty years and engaged in heartbreaking and futile antiwar protests; a great-granddaughter who wryly articulates the free-floating anxiety of the times while getting drunk on a children's playdate in post-9/11 Manhattan. In a kaleidoscope of voices and with a richness of imagery, emotion, and wit, Walbert portrays the ways in which successive generations of women have responded to what the Victorians called "The Woman Question."

First line: "Mum starved herself for suffrage."

My thoughts: This just didn't do it for me. I get that it was supposed to be an examination of generations of women's rights. But none of the characters were particularly likeable and most of their stories weren't that interesting. And, really, I'm sick of the "men are oppressing us" story.

And I'm not a fan of the non-linear. This book jumps around in time between the generations and almost all of the characters are named Dorothy, after the starving suffragette, it's really confusing. Also, it just sort of....ends. It's a series of vignettes, basically, and then it just stops.

Suffragette Dorothy is just the first in a line of generally unlikeable characters. While I admire dedication to a cause, leaving your 2 children as orphans and making them watch you die is despicable, in my opinion. And her descendant, another Dorothy, who becomes "disillusioned" with her husband (who, from what we're told, is nothing but decent, if a bit dull) after 50 years? If it were a man leaving his wife to shrivel and die in a nursing home, we'd be outraged. But it's apparently okay for a woman to do it because she basically decides her life has been boring? Her daughter isn't much better, a stereotypically neurotic New York mother arranging contrived playdates for kids who don't like each other. About the only character I could admire was Evelyn, daughter of the starver, who traveled to New York after World War I to attend college and eventually became a professor - how awesome is that?
But she's alone and unhappy, herself.

Are women totally equal with men in every area? No. Is there still work for feminism to do? Yes. But from what I could tell, none of these women were all that "oppressed" - in most cases, it was their own choices (or, in the case of the orphaned Evelyn, her mother's choice) that made them unhappy. Or it was just that life wasn't the 100% fulfilling and didn't turn out exactly as they'd planned. Join the club, ladies.

The verdict: I'm oversimplifying, but the point of this book seemed to be that being a woman has always sucked and that that never changes. Woo hoo.

Update: Nobody in book club liked it, either! The too many Dorothy's, lack of "organization," and general unlikeable-ness of the characters got to everyone. We couldn't figure out why it was a National Book Award finalist. The only positive thing that could be said was that it least it was a fairly short book, so the agony wasn't prolonged!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: California Demon

California Demon: the secret life of a demon-hunting soccer mom (book 2) by Julie Kenner
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Enjoyed the first book in the series last year.

Description: "Between fending off demon attacks, trying to figure out why the mysterious new teacher at the high school seems strangely familiar, and keeping a watchful eye on her daughter's growing infatuation with a surfer dude, Kate Connor is the busiest-and most dangerous-demon-hunting soccer mom on the block. "

First line: "My name is Kate Connor, and I'm a Demon Hunter."

My thoughts: This is turning out to be a fun series. I confess I like the pun-titles a lot (the first is Carpe Demon). I enjoy the Buffy-grows-up vibe - Kate really does have to be both a suburban mom and a Demon Hunter. If there's a demon body to be disposed of and she still has to cook dinner for her toddler, she has to figure out a way around it.

The subplot of the mysterious new teacher, Mr. Long, is interesting and not entirely resolved by the end, so there may be more to come with him. Kate's experiencing some conflicts between her past (secrets about her deceased, Hunter husband's life are emerging) and her present (in the form of her new husband who is spending a lot of time working on his political campaign). And her relationship with her teenage daughter continues to be strong but also realistic, with lots of alternating between, "I love you, mom." and teenage moodiness. Her daughter Allie is turning out to be a chip off the badass block, which is great. Timmy the toddler, one of my favourite characters, continues to be adorable, particularly when entertaining seniors by singing Jingle Bells in the nude.

The verdict: A strong second entry in an entertaining series.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Review: Triple Play

Triple Play: a Jake Hines mystery by Elizabeth Gunn
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Every year for our annual visit to Minneapolis, I try to read a Minnesotan book and this one sounded good (the latest PJ Tracy hasn't come out yet, darn it, or I'd have taken it).

Summary: "He lives just outside Minneapolis/St. Paul, where the city meets the prairie, where the winters are long, the men are rugged, and a stubborn detective with a murky past is a little out of place. But Jake Hines has to worry about more than just fitting in: there's a serial killer on the loose.The first victim was found on home plate in a neighborhood park. The next wore an old softball uniform and an obscene disfigurement. While Jake, a man who can solve any mystery except that of his own orphaned past, rummages through the dirty laundry of people's lives, a group of high-tech crime busters descends from the big city—thrilled at the chance to dance with a serial psycho. But even with a beautiful crime-scene photographer providing a major distraction, Jake takes no pleasure from this hunt. Because this killer is pulling him relentlessly toward one more murder, one more suspect, and one very bitter truth. . . . "

First line: "Come on," I said. "Let's do it now."

My thoughts: Minnesota writers always seem to write so well about Minnesota details, I love it! Just a few pages into the novel I was enjoying Jake's spot-on comments about the weather and the fact that he listens to my husband's favourite radio station, KQRS.

Jake is as Minnesotan as they come, yet his mixed-race features make people wonder about his origins. He can't help them, he doesn't know - he was abandoned as a baby and raised in foster homes. His past and his recent divorce provide some interesting colour for the character, without being too overdone and making him into a tortured, overwrought soul.

Jake is a great detective, but at first it seems he's met his match with this weird, gruesome case. And the murders are pretty awful, not for the faint-hearted or -stomached reader. I'm not a good judge, because I almost never figure out whodunnit, but I think it was a good enough twist for any avid mystery fan, too.

And there's romance, too! The book ends with a lovely date all over the Twin Cities - it was my favourite part.

The verdict: I'll be glad to read more about Jake's crime-solving talents and I want to see how his budding love affair turns out!

Monday, September 7, 2009

I'm back!

Sorry for the long absence. I've just gotten back from a 3-week road trip/visit to Husband's hometown and didn't feel much like blogging, too much fun stuff to do. Such as discovering the world's greatest truffles in Deadwood, South Dakota. The things are the size of golf balls and come in about 2 dozen flavours!

If you're ever in that neck of the woods, it's called The Chubby Chipmunk. (It's worth a visit for the name alone!) In addition to the shop, they have a vending machine outside called the Chub-o-Matic, so if you need truffles at midnight, you can get 'em.