Wednesday, February 28, 2007

February Reading Reviews

February was a most fruitful month for my reading goal of 100 for 2007. Although the shortest month, I kicked it into high gear and read a book every 2 days with a few days off here and there, for a total of 12 books this month.

I have been considerably aided on my quest by PaperbackSwap--whenever I hear of a book that sounds pretty good, I order it on there when I have the credits and it comes and I'm ready to go. Additionally I took a little field trip to Riverby Books--the used bookstore here in town--and came away with several books. All in all, my "to be read" shelf is full with 20 books and I won't be bored for a while (plus I have 4 books on order from PBS).

Without further ado, the books I've read and what I've thought of them...

1. March by Geraldine Brooks. Again, this is a book club book, so I'm not going to say too, too much before our meeting on Monday. Suffice it to say that Geraldine is fast rising on my favorite authors list. When you finish her books, you really feel like you've accomplished something. Now, fortunately, there were only 2 or 3 words I didn't know in this book, and in typical grown up fashion, I did just skip them, I must confess.

March is the story of the father from the Little Women story, the tale of his early life before meeting Marmee and his entry into the Civil War. Towards the end of the book, the perspective switches over to Marmee's point of view as Mister lies unconscious in a hospital in Washington DC (I'm sorry, I truly don't know if Papa March has a first name or even if Brooks invented one for him).

Brooks has a true gift for painting pictures with her words and you could nearly smell the decay and disease in the hospitals, you could see the plantations and slave masters, you could feel the heat and the fear. I did take slight umbrage with one particular part, that being that Papa March takes up with a slave woman. I've never read Little Women, although I have seen the Katharine Hepburn movie several times, and in it and according to the letters March pens to his family in this book, his family is his top priority and they have little doubt of his love for them. Yes, I know, we're all human, but still, that seemed out of character to me... Here's a man so enamored of his wife and children that he carries locks of their hair with him wherever he goes, but when he comes upon a former slave whom he got into trouble, he can scarcely keep away from her... Something doesn't really jive for me with that picture.

Overall, an amazing book. Definitely recommended!

2 and 3. On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake. My Little House on the Prairie reading is moving along nicely. By the end of March I hope to have finished all 6 books. The first follows the Ingalls family as they move to Plum Creek to establish a wheat farm. Unfortunately for them, just as the wheat pops up and starts to look like they'll be rolling in money by the harvest, a plague of locusts swoops down and eats and destroys everything in its path. Despite the family's best efforts, the crop is destroyed and the Ingalls family has no way to pay their bills. Pa sets off to work in the east, leaving the women to fend for themselves, but when he returns, he's made enough money to keep them in their home.

Flash forward a couple of years, and you abruptly begin the next book. I can't really argue with the classics, but... Suddenly it is two years later, Mary is blind, and baby Carrie has a baby sister named Grace. The wheat crops have failed miserably, despite their best efforts, and then salvation arrives in the form of Laura's Aunt Docia, who arrives to offer Pa a job out west, working near where the new railroads are being built. Despite Ma's reservations, Pa immediately accepts the job and sells his farm to his neighbors. He uses the money to pay off their debts, and then heads west with Docia, sending for the girls later. They arrive and watch the great railroads arrive and the homesteaders come through in the winter, and Pa takes advantage and claims a homestead for his family as well. I must confess, Silver Lake has thus far been my least favorite book. Due to Mary's blindness, it spends a lot of time in description, as Pa tells Laura she must see with her words for Mary. At times, even Mary says she doesn't care to hear about everything Laura has seen, and I agree! The subject matter itself has been interesting enough, but I just didn't love it.

Still, I'm getting a real charge out of reading the Little House books, and if anyone hasn't, I'd recommend them!

4. The Mulberry Tree by Jude Devereaux. Ok, ok, granted, I've read this before. There are two books in my collection that I read occasionally when I need a light read and something kind of fun, and this is one of them. It is the story of Lillian Manville, the wife of billionaire James Manville, who is killed when his plane crashes in the middle of the night. He dies, leaving Lillian a decrepit old farm house and a mysterious note that reads, "Find out what happened." Lillian undergoes plastic surgery and moves to the farm in rural Virginia, trying to reassemble her life, which has been lived in the lap of luxury for 12 years. Now on her own, she relies on the strapping Matthew Longacre, her new boarder, and some friends to help her rebuild her life, discover the truth of what happened to her husband, and prevent her deceased husband's half-brother and half-sister from destroying the Manville empire with their narcissistic greediness.

I love this book. It is, in places, so beyond belief as to be grossly entertaining, and at the same time there are parts of it that I can't get enough of. Matthew Longacre is the leading man I love to hate--at one point he tells Lillian (who is newly-named Bailey James) that the pressure is off for them to be anything more than friends, and not two pages later, he kisses her in front of his whole entire family! Plus he agrees to rent one room from her and winds up taking over her whole entire house, and he is basically reverting back to his high school years while living at home licking his wounds from his failed marriage.

The half-brother and sister are so evil, and the people who rally around Lillian/Bailey are so overwhelmingly selfless and wealthy themselves, you really have to read this book with an eye to entertainment versus believability. James Manville makes Bill Gates look like a pauper. Seriously.

A fun, quick read, as close to a romance novel as I'll ever truly get and still enjoy it.

5. Murder in Foggy Bottom by Margaret Truman. Now, unless I'm mistaken, my parents went through a phase where they read many Margaret Truman books. So when I saw this one on the discount rack at B&N, I decided to take a crack at it, and thought Michael would enjoy it. Being set in DC and a mystery, it was sure to be his cup of tea.

The story begins with the murder of a Canadian diplomat in a park in Foggy Bottom, DC. Within 48 hours, three planes are shot out of the sky, and a whole pile of proverbial poo hits the fan. The story leaps from DC to the Pacific Northwest to Moscow, deals with a religious cult, environmental fanatics, terrorists, and everything in between. Throw in a couple of love stories and a vindictive ex-husband, and you've got Murder in Foggy Bottom

This book really lost me. I was not into it at all. Michael loved it. To me, it was just so, so scattered and way too all over the place. That's more or less all I have to say about it. I don't recommend it, but I'm sure Michael would!

6. Plum Lovin' by Janet Evanovich. What can I say? I love Janet Evanovich, I love the Stephanie Plum series. It is the sole series of books that every single time I read them, they cause me to laugh out loud. Every one of them has been clever and well written and absolutely hilarious.

This is a "between the numbers" book, meaning she just wrote a small Plum book to keep us entertained after releasing #13 recently. In it, Stephanie agrees to help out a match maker with her most difficult clients, one of whom is her sister Valerie's fiance, who faints at the idea of getting married.

Very short book, not overly taxing, but a whole lot of fun!!! If you love Plum, you'll enjoy this.

7. Round Robin by Jennifer Chiaverini. The second of the Elm Creek Quilt novels, the first of which I read last month. In this book, the Elm Creek Quilters have set up a camp in Sylvia Compson's estate, in which different quilters come to stay and learn quilting or work on quilting projects while learning new techniques. All of the Elm Creek Quilters work on their personal lives during this book. For instance, Sarah is shocked when her mother enrolls in the camp and decides to stay for several months and try to mend fences with her daughter, who wants nothing to do with it. Diane copes with the joys of being a mom to two radically different teenage sons, while Bonnie discovers her husband is having an affair with a woman on the internet. Judy receives a letter in the mail from her half-sister, her father's daughter (her father is a Vietnam veteran, her mother a Vietnamese woman, you do the math), while Sylvia is revisited by a blast from her past.

I enjoyed this book a whole lot better than the first one although it was still a bit saccharine. In this book, the women face real problems and go about rectifying them. I still cannot stand Sarah, I think she's the least sympathetic character in the books, and sadly is one of the main characters. In a funny bit of life imitating art, there was a scene in which Sarah's mother suggests that Sarah cut the carrots she's working on differently so that they won't roll around the counter. Just before reading it, Judy was making me some chicken noodle soup and zinging carrots all over the kitchen. I recommended she cut them differently. That kind of tickled my fancy.

So all in all, a good quick read, not one of my favorites for this month, but definitely a good one. Somewhere in the middle.

8. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. A winner of the Pen Hemingway Award, Housekeeping is the story of Ruthie and Lillian, two girls left orphaned when their mother drives herself off a cliff and into a river. They move in with their grandmother, who promptly dies and leaves the girls to the care of their two aunts, who are so anxious and nervous that they call upon the girls' mother's sister. Sylvie comes into town and immediately the girls lives are transformed. Not necessarily for the better. Eventually Lillian leaves and goes to live with a teacher and Ruthie becomes a younger picture of her eccentric aunt.

Housekeeping is one of the two best books I read this month. It was written like poetry, and the pages seemed to flow into one another like the river that plays so prominent a role in the entire book. Lillian and Ruthie's lives are disrupted by the deaths of the women close to them, and turned on their heads by this strange woman who has strange ideas about everything. For instance, when the town suffers through a flood, rather than go to a shelter or escape the waters rapidly rising through their home, Sylvie simply moves the girls to the second floor of the home and they live there until the floodwaters subside. Sylvie then begins to collect tin cans, and doesn't seem to mind that the girls are skipping school on a daily basis, even when the sheriff arrives. Eventually, Sylvie decides to leave town, and Ruth goes with her, leaving her sister, about whom she writes my favorite line in reading, "Having a sister is like a warm window in the dark."

I absolutely loved this book, go read it. Now.

9. The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg. This is my other favorite book of the month. I was feeling kind of pokey mid-month and didn't really feel like reading when this book popped into my mail box.

This is the second book by Berg that I've read after hearing her on the Diane Rehm show, and I absolutely love her. In Talk Before Sleep, which I read a couple of years ago, Berg explores female friendship in the face of terminal illness, a book that had me sobbing for a good hour.

In The Art of Mending, Laura Bartone is heading to her annual family reunion and looking forward to the fair and a fun and relaxed time with her children, parents, siblings, and husband. Upon her arrival, however, her black sheep sister Caroline makes some shocking allegations about their mother, and Laura must figure out how to deal with and come to terms with her sister's allegations. The matter is further complicated by a death in the family.

Berg is an amazing writer. She keeps you interested and entertained just long enough without dragging the stories out. One thing she did here that I found interesting was that she only told Caroline's stories about her mother's abuse in fits and starts, so until you read the entire book, you were never sure what the whole story truly was.

I could relate to Laura's reaction as the "big sister" to her younger sister's allegations, and when the truth of the matter emerges, to Laura's way of dealing with everything. Unlike Housekeeping, which I savored over the course of a week, I read this in one night. Couldn't put it down, and it jumpstarted my reading for the rest of the month.

Highly recommended!

10. Blessings by Anna Quindlen. I have wanted to read Blessings since it was first published some years ago and I heard an interview Anna Quindlen gave on Imus. The book was turned into a made for tv movie (I think it was a Hallmark Hall of Famer) and got rave reviews. I finally remembered to put it on my wish list and got it from PBS a week ago.

Blessings is the story of a wayward man who finds a home at Blessings estate after leaving prison. He is hired by Lydia Blessings, an elderly widow, to care for her family's home. One morning he wakes up to go about his duties and finds a box on the garage steps, and in the box is a newborn baby.

Skip attempts to conceal baby Faith from Lydia for some time, but eventually she does find out and helps Skip to keep the baby for her own reasons.

To be honest, I had built this book up so high in my head that it couldn't help but fall flat of my expectations. I liked it okay, but I didn't LOVE it. And I really, really, really wanted to love it. The story covers only the first four months of baby Faith's life, and I think I was expecting more of an epic story, that Faith would grow up and what would happen when she found out she had been abandoned, etc. None of this comes to pass.

The book was fine, but just nothing to scream about. Judging by user reviews on Amazon.com, I am in the minority on this one. But I've already re-listed it to send it back out. Not worth keeping on my shelves. I'm glad I read it and got it out of my system, but nothing I would return to again!

11. Double Shot by Diane Mott Davidson. I am a big fan of the Goldy Bear catering mysteries, although I must confess it's been a while since I've read one, and she's published two books since I last read her work! In this offering, Goldy is the prime suspect in the murder of her ex-husband, the Jerk, and I for one was cheering, as I was a bit tired of the Jerk showing up in every single book and being such a pain in the rear end.

I thoroughly enjoyed Double Shot, although there was a LOT of death in it, including the death of the town's gossip columnist, which I think could be a huge loss to the series. Of course, Goldy and Marla are up to their usual hijinx, and Marla is more and more a source of information, so perhaps she will become the new town gossip...

This was not my favorite book in the series, which remains reserved for Dying for Chocolate, with great literary character General Bo Farquhar. Still, it was a good read, and definitely a great addition to the Goldy Bear series. Goldy's son is becoming more human in his teenage years and it was nice to see Julian back a bit. The recipes look great, although I haven't yet tried them! I'm definitely going to make the almond cookies. Certainly worth the read if you're a fan of the series, if not, start with the aforementioned Chocolate.

12. Rotten Rejections, edited by Andre Bernard. With the spectacular crash and burn of chapter 1 of my novel in the recent contest in which I entered it (I think I ended up with a less than 5 star rating), when I saw this book in Riverby's, I had to pick it up. It is a compendium of all the rejection letters publishers wish they had never written. It made me feel quite good about my own tentative forays into the world of publishing, as I learned through the book that many authors have self published to begin with and moved on to bigger and better things once their book has been read. More and more I'm sure that's what I'll have to do, although I will submit it to a few places that are accepting books right now, just to see. Among the authors whose letters are listed are E.L. Doctorow, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Rudyard Kipling.

My personal favorite was a rejection George Orwell received for Animal Farm, which stated: What was needed was not more communism, but more public-spirited pigs.

It was a really fun and quick little read and I agree with the reviewer who wrote, "the perfect book for any writer, amateur or professional."

So, a great month over all... To break it to down:

Great Books:

March, Housekeeping, The Art of Mending, and Rotten Rejections

Good Books:

On the Banks of Plum Creek, The Mulberry Tree, Plum Loving, Round Robin, Double Shot

OK Books:

Blessings, By the Shores of Silver Lake

Stinkers:

Murder at Foggy Bottom

Totals for the year:

February: 12 books
2007 Total: 18 books

February # of pages: 3461
Total # of pages: 5413

Upcoming reads...

Well, as I said, my TBR shelf is quite full. I'm looking forward most especially to Unless by Carol Shields, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (book club selection of the month), The Magic of Ordinary Days by Ann Howard Creel, and Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley.

A lot of reading, but it'll be fun! (I'm giving my brain 2/28 to recharge)

2 pearl(s) of wisdom:

Scott Hughes said...

I don't remember reading any of those books, but they sound interesting. Thanks!

Lauren said...

Hah! I wrote down the words I didn't know, this time, but I never bothered to look them up. :)