Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Unless by Carol Shields

This is my third book for the Canadian Book Challenge and was recommended by John after he read my review of The Stone Diaries. This was not originally on my list for the 2nds Challenge, but it does qualify since I read The Stone Diaries first. So I'm going to go ahead and count it as book number two in that challenge as well.

This is set outside of Toronto and is a snippet of the life of Reta Winters, an author, translator, and mother. In the story, Reta is writing her second novel during a period in her life when her eldest daughter, Norah, has taken to living on the streets of Toronto and panhandling at the same intersection on a daily basis. The story is partly about how Reta copes with this, how her family survives, but also how it affects her outlook on life and the role of women.

Strengths of Unless: This is a very different novel than The Stone Diaries. This one is told consistently in Reta's voice and, more importantly, with her temperament and perspective. Norah's predicament is moving and Shields is able to render Reta's emotions without being maudlin. She is actually a quite complex and thoughtful character. I especially liked the section of the book that dealt with the word "unless" - it was philosophical but completely in keeping with Reta's character and her ponderings throughout the novel. I also liked that Shields, through Reta, addressed the roles women play in life and how that is not always reflected in discussions of art, literature, or power. The ending was very satisfying as well. The cause of Norah's trauma made perfect sense given the way her character was created and given the message of the book. It worked for me on many levels.

Weaknesses of Unless:
I really liked this one. My only complaint was that the husband's character was a bit weakly drawn. The story was told from Reta's point of view but I wasn't always sure what she saw in him. He was a bit too absent in the story. I did realize, as I was reading, that this was probably a deliberate choice by Shields to keep the focus on the women in the story.

Overall, this is a very reading experience from The Stone Diaries, but one I equally enjoyed. Thanks for John for the suggestion. I'd love to hear opinions from anyone who has read this one or others by Carol Shields.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Open and Shut by David Rosenfelt

This is one that was recommended by one of my fellow bloggers. Please accept my apologies, in advance, because I have no memory of who recommended it. I do remember that they wrote a wonderful review of this one. Also, this isn't for any of my current book challenges.

Open and Shut is a first novel so I'm curious to find out if there are more by the author. It is a legal thriller based on a retrial of a capital murder case. The lawyer, Andy Carpenter, is asked to handle the appeal by his father, the original prosecutor on the case. In the story, Andy begins to realize that the evidence is too good and starts to truly suspect that his client is innocent. At the same time, he deals with his father's death and the disintegration of his marriage. It sounds rather melodramatic but it's not.

Strengths of Open and Shut: I really liked Andy, the lawyer in the story. He had a bit of a sassy smart-mouth which lightened the mood in the story. Even though it seemed a bit obvious, I liked how the author tied in Andy's personal story to the case. I was actually surprised by some of the revelations, which impressed me. The plot moved along rapidly, and it was a quick, fun read. The author didn't try to overreach and make the story more dense than it needed to be. I also liked Andy's love interest. I'd be interested in reading another book where her character got even more to do in the story.

Weaknesses of Open and Shut: The plot was a bit contrived, but I really enjoyed it. I really didn't like the wife's character, but that was necessary to the story. Andy is such a good guy that the reader wouldn't buy him leaving his wife unless we, as readers, didn't like her much either.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. It was a fun read with entertaining characters. I will definitely try another one by this author, and, hopefully, it is a sequel with more from the main characters in this one.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Book of the Dead by Patricia Cornwell

This is actually not a book I read for any of my current challenges. I've read all the other Scarpetta books and bought this one last week. I've liked most of the other books, but I'm not as sure about this one.

In this one, all of the regular characters are back: Kay; Lucy, her computer-gifted niece; Benton, her lover; Rose, her secretary; and Marino, her investigator and friend. The plot revolved around a series of gruesome murders linked to a famous self-help doctor who has appeared in another one of the novels.

Strengths of Book of the Dead: As always, the forensic science parts are totally cool. It's like James Bond gadgets but with Lucy and Kay in charge. Nice bit of female power. Scarpetta continues to be a strong character filled with flaws and nuances. She is not boring, and Cornwell has allowed her to grow during the series of books.

Weaknesses of Book of the Dead: (Spoiler alert - many of my issues will give away major plot points!) Everyone, and I mean everyone, is much too tragic in this one. Rose is dying of lung cancer ... Lucy has a brain tumor .... Marino loses his mind (and is left in sequel limbo) ... Benton is confused and bewildered ... Kay is engaged but with lots of doubts. I can see a crisis, or even two, in a well-written story, but this became way too melodramatic. Oh, and Rose is dating Kay's main competitor! Come on!

Then there's the murder plot. The reader knows all along who the murderer is but not who he really is. Cornwell pulled his identity out of her hat, and there was no real way for the reader to have that moment of "a-ha" - that's how it all tied in. There were facts the reader couldn't have known that were pertinent to his identify. Further, the ending left Marino lost and in limbo, and it didn't resolve any of the melodrama of cancer and brain tumors. It felt like Cornwell simply ran out of words, or wanted to make sure readers would buy the next book. (Spoiler ended!)

Overall, I was quite disappointed in this one. It was not as well-written as others in the series. The plot was much weaker, and I really didn't like the plot twists for the major characters. I wonder if this happens with other long-running book series. Do the authors run out of ideas for their characters? Do they get too comfortable, sure of themselves and more accepting of less quality in their writing? If you've read this one, I'd love to know what you think. I'm also curious to know if you've had the same experience of being disappointed in the latest book in a favorite series.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Booking Through Thursday - To Note or Not to Note?

Today's BTT question is another pretty quick answer from me so here goes.

Today’s question comes from Conspiracy-Girl:
I’m still relatively new to this meme so I’m not sure if this has been asked yet, but I’m curious how many of us write notes in our books. Are you a Footprint Leaver or a Preservationist?

I'm really not either. I don't write notes in books, but it's not because I need to preserve them for anything. I actually tend to either Bookmooch my books or donate them to my local library. I don't write in them because it distracts me from the story.

In college, I did write a lot of margin notes in books. I think today I'd probably use lots of colored sticky tabs and removable colored tape. That's actually how I teach students to notate books.

Short, quick answer this week! Happy Thursday to everyone!

Monday, November 12, 2007

100 Most Influential Books by Women

I found this list via Alison. I took enough classes in college to get a Women's Studies minor, but I never paid the fee and filled out the paperwork. I was curious to see how many I'd read. The ones I've read are in green type.
  1. Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
  2. Anne Rice, Interview With the Vampire
  3. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
  4. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
  5. Virginia Woolf, The Waves
  6. Virginia Woolf, Orlando
  7. Djuna Barnes, Nightwood
  8. Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
  9. Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
  10. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
  11. Radclyffe Hall, The Well of Loneliness
  12. Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter
  13. Harriette Simpson Arnow, The Dollmaker
  14. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
  15. Willa Cather, My Ántonia
  16. Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
  17. Erica Jong, Fanny
  18. Joy Kogawa, Obasan
  19. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
  20. Doris Lessing, The Fifth Child
  21. Doris Lessing, The Grass Is Singing
  22. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
  23. Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
  24. Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres
  25. Lore Segal, Her First American
  26. Alice Walker, The Color Purple
  27. Alice Walker, The Third Life of Grange Copeland
  28. Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon
  29. Muriel Spark, Memento Mori
  30. Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  31. Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina
  32. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
  33. Susan Fromberg Shaeffer, Anya
  34. Cynthia Ozick, Trust
  35. Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
  36. Amy Tan, The Kitchen God's Wife
  37. Ann Beattie, Chilly Scenes of Winter
  38. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  39. Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer
  40. Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
  41. Mary McCarthy, The Group
  42. Mary McCarthy, The Company She Keeps
  43. Grace Paley, The Little Disturbances of Man
  44. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  45. Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
  46. Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
  47. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
  48. Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here
  49. Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  50. Toni Morrison, Beloved
  51. Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
  52. Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mr. Fortune's Maggot
  53. Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
  54. Laura Riding, Progress of Stories
  55. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
  56. Penelope Fitzgerald, The Blue Flower
  57. Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
  58. A.S. Byatt, Possession
  59. Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
  60. Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle
  61. Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
  62. Angela Carter, Nights at the Circus
  63. Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca
  64. Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
  65. Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
  66. Barbara Pym, Excellent Women
  67. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
  68. Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
  69. Anne Tyler, The Accidental Tourist
  70. Nancy Willard, Things Invisible to See
  71. Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
  72. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Disturbances in the Field
  73. Rosellen Brown, Civil Wars
  74. Harriet Doerr, Stones for Ibarra
  75. Harriet Doerr, The Mountain Lion
  76. Stevie Smith. Novel on Yellow Paper
  77. E. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News
  78. Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem
  79. P.D. James, The Children of Men
  80. Ursula Hegi, Stones From the River
  81. Fay Weldon, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil
  82. Katherine Mansfield, Collected Stories
  83. Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills
  84. Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen
  85. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
  86. Edna O'Brien, The Country Girls Trilogy
  87. Margaret Drabble, Realms of Gold
  88. Margaret Drabble, The Waterfall
  89. Dawn Powell, The Locusts Have No King
  90. Marilyn French, The Women's Room
  91. Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter
  92. Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries (I just reviewed this one!)
  93. Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
  94. Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
  95. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
  96. Iris Murdoch, A Severed Head
  97. Anita Desai, Clear Light of Day
  98. Alice Hoffman, The Drowning Season
  99. Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole
  100. Penelope Mortimer, The Pumpkin Eater
18 of the 100 - that's not so great! What's worse is that I haven't even heard of many of these books or authors. Maybe this is a challenge in the making. I'd be curious to know how many others of you have read.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Unconscious Mutterings

  1. Treadmill :: Sweat

  2. Stroke :: Killer

  3. Exclusively :: Excluding

  4. Lash :: Fake (Many of you have heard my fake eyelash story!)

  5. Red carpet :: Premiere

  6. Credit card:: Offers - way more mail than I need!

  7. Points :: Bad discipline (I worked at a school that used a point system a long time ago - what a disaster!)

  8. Domestic :: Goddess

  9. 21 :: Drinking without a fake ID

  10. Inject :: A bit of humor into life

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

This is my seventh book in the Book Awards Challenge, and it is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award. There is another posted review of this book on the Book Awards blog which enticed me into reading this one.

There are actually three Mrs. Kimbles in the story. They share the same husband at various points in his life. We meet his first wife, Birdie, as a young mother who eventually struggles with alcoholism. His second wife, Joan, is a wealthy socialite who is a breast cancer survivor. His third wife, Dinah, is much younger. The story spans the 1970s and 1980s as Ken Kimble moves up the social ladder, trading spouses along the way.

Strengths of Mrs. Kimble: I loved this book. Each wife's story was as unique as she was. Each woman was portrayed as a complete individual, flaws and all. It was heart-breaking at times how the husband's character preyed on the weaknesses inherit in each woman - her youth or her insecurities. I grew to like each one for a different reason. Birdie, however, was my least favorite because it was hard to read about her descent into alcoholism and its effects on her children. I did appreciate the hints Haigh gave as to her attempts at happiness, and sobriety, with another man. I admired Joan's strength in the story as well as her ability to care about others. Dinah turned out to be my favorite character. I think that is because she grew the most by the end of the story. She became a complete person and was able to unify Kimble's children into an extended family. To some extent, she became the leader of the Kimble clan.

Haigh also did an excellent job of portraying Ken Kimble's character as he romanced and, later, disillusioned each wife. In a strange way, she was able to create a character that I both pitied and hated. He was more than a one note louse.

Weaknesses of Mrs. Kimble: I really enjoyed this one so the only weakness for me is that I could have spent an entire book with each of these women. I wanted to know more about Birdie's past and future, Joan's battle with breast cancer, and Dinah's life after the end of the novel.

Overall, I'd highly recommend this one. It was a fun, well-written read. Let me know if you've read it!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

This is the third and final book in the Book to Movie Challenge. It is written for a middle elementary school audience and tells the story of India Opal whose father is a preacher in a small town. Winn-Dixie is the dog she adopts at the start of the story and the catalyst for change as Opal (as she is called) adapts to life in a new town.

I actually saw the movie of this book before I read the book. That's somewhat backwards for me since I normally read books first, but it was a hot summer day and the movie was $1.00!

I truly enjoyed the book. I loved the character of Opal and how she related to the dog. I also loved the quirkiness DiCamillo created in the characters Opal befriends in the town. I wish I had read the book first because I wonder how I would have pictured these people with my own imagination. It was hard to shake the actors' images from my head as I read.

I did find one significant difference from the book to the movie. In the movie, I found the father to be much more distant, and almost mean, at points in the story. However, in the book, I quite liked the father and felt somewhat sorry for him. He seemed a bit distant and dreamy, but did not have the hard edge I perceived in the movie. I wonder if it was intentional or simply my reaction to the actor in the role.

Overall, I found the book charming and would recommend it highly. It made me wish I still taught fourth or fifth grade because it would be a fun book to discuss with children. Let me know if you've read it and what you thought. I'd be especially curious to know how you felt about the father in the movie.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

I read this book for both the Reading Awards and the Canadian Authors Challenges. It is the second book in the Canadian and my sixth in the Reading Awards Challenge. It is the winner of Pulitzer Prize.

Shields has written a pseudo-biography of Daisy Goodwill Flett and follows this character from her birth in 1905 until her death near the end of the century so her life stories spans the incredible changes in Canada and America in the 1900s. However, Shields chooses to tell the story in selected vignettes of time.

STRENGTHS OF THE STONE DIARIES: The writing is marvelous, and Shields is able to draw the reader into this story even though she changes point of view throughout the telling of this life. I call it a telling, but it really feels like a remembering - how memories are indistinct at time and sometimes skip around to what may, or may not, really be important. That is what I loved most about this story. Shields was able to capture the life of an ordinary woman without an excessive focus on her role as wife and mother.

There is a segment, after the death of her second husband, where we hear about Daisy's life, and job, through a series of letters written by her and by others. These letters truly capture the time period, the 1950s, while establishing Daisy as an independent woman, which was not the norm for that era. Also, there is an incredible chapter where Daisy loses her job and sinks into a depression that is heart-wrenching because we are told about it from so many different perspectives that it is clear that no one really knows Daisy well enough to help her and, ultimately, she has to decide to not be depressed any longer in order to survive. I also loved the role of her female friends throughout the story. It really felt true to the friendships I've experienced with women in my own lifetime.

WEAKNESS OF THE STONE DIARIES: I'm sure the changing points of view and episodic story telling would turn off some readers. However, I adored the book so I really can't speak to its weaknesses. It is probably one of the best books I've read this year.

Overall, as you can tell, I adored this book. I loved the writing and the character of Daisy. I really felt like I was sharing her life, and the chapters where she declined into memory loss, and eventual death, where incredibly moving. I haven't felt this involved with a story emotionally since I cried through the end of Isabel Allende's Paula, and that's pretty high praise for me! Paula is probably my favorite book of all time so this one ranks right up there. I'd love to know what you thought about this one - even if you didn't like it. Let me know.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Booking Through Thursday - Horror!

Here's this week's Booking Through Thuirsday question, and it'll be a quick easy answer for me!

What with yesterday being Halloween, and all . . . do you read horror? Stories of things that go bump in the night and keep you from sleeping?

I thought about asking you about whether you were participating in NaNoWriMo, but I asked that last year. Although . . . if you want to answer that one, too, please feel free to go ahead and do both, or either, your choice!

I absolutely hate horror novels. I am a complete wimp as my husband will attest. I can't stand scary movies or books and avoid them all. If I accidentally start a book and realize it is too scary, I'll put it down immediately. I hate being scared! I'm not talking just blood and gore - I'm not good with the really psychologically twisted stuff either. I've never read or seen Silence of the Lambs, and I avoid Anne Rice novels! I'm sure horror novels are well-written, but they are not for me.