Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Serial Garden

The title: The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories
The author: Joan Aiken
Publication: Big Mouth House*, 2008
Got it from: MC

Before there was Harry Potter, there was his smarter predecessor, Joan Aiken's delightful Armitage family.  Back when Mr. and Mrs. Armitage were first married, Mrs. Armitage made a wish on a wishing-stone that their lives would never be boring.  Years later, young Harriet and Mark Armitage experience a life full of strange occurrences (usually on a Monday), which they take in stride with good humour.  A unicorn that shows up in the garden?  A governess ghost who is still trying to teach?  A doll sized family in the attic?  No big deal.  

Each of these short stories can be read as a self-contained treasure, but they are loosely linked and best read in chronological order.  (Joan Aiken wrote them starting in 1944 and continuing until, incredibly, her death in 2004.)  Each story is really a mystery to solve.  The formula runs like this: bizarre events happen, children uncover the reason why, unexpected resolution, things return to normal, Mr. Armitage makes a hilariously sarcastic comment, The End.  Toward the end of the book, the stories start taking on darker, deeper layers that I won't spoil.  Suffice to say that intelligent adults and children will be satisfied.

*Looking at the back of the book, I see the publisher has the following statement: "A new imprint devoted to fiction for readers of all ages.  We will publish one or two weird and great titles (short story collections and novels) per year. We expect to publish books for readers ages 10 and up."  How awesome is that???

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Ivy Tree



The title: The Ivy Tree 
The author: Mary Stewart
Publication: HarperCollins, 1961 
Got it from: Amazon

A few years ago I reviewed Mary Stewart's marvelous Touch Not the Cat, and hearing that The Ivy Tree was a similar story, I was eager to read this one.  Mary Grey is a young woman on vacation to the north of England, where she is mistaken for Annabel Winslow, another young woman who ran away from home eight years ago and was presumed dead.  Annabel's distant cousin Connor hatches a plan with Mary: she will impersonate Annabel in exchange for a share of the inheritance given by the dying Winslow grandfather.

Like Touch Not the Cat, this is a classic Gothic mystery, steeped in atmosphere and description.  But compared to that story, this one was a big meh for me.  There's a Big Secret at the heart of the plot which is fairly easy to guess if you know anything about this kind of novel.  Unlike in Cat, the revelation of the true hero at the end of the novel wasn't a happy surprise.  One of the reasons Cat worked for me was that the romantic revelation was a huge payoff for all the slow pacing beforehand.  In Ivy Tree, there's the slow pacing but no payoff.  I didn't dislike the book but I also wasn't rushing to read it.  I think it would much better suit someone looking for an old-fashioned Gothic story.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Desired

The title: Desired
The author: Nicola Cornick
Publication: Harlequin, 2011
Got it from: The library

In what may be Romancelandia's greatest opening scene ever, the heroine, thrice-widowed Tess Darent, is being chased by guards who have broken up the political reform meeting she was part of.  Making her escape from a nearby brothel, Tess shimmies down a bedsheet and (unknowingly) into the arms of one of the guards, soon-to-be hero Owen Purchase, Viscount Rothbury.

The following exquisite exchange takes place:

"Good evening, Lady Darent," he said.  "What an original way to exit a brothel."

"Lord Rothbury," Tess said coolly.  "Thank you - I never follow the crowd."

Did I mention the dress she stole had just fallen off her?  Because it did.

Well, gosh darn it to heck.  I loved this book so much, I don't even know how to properly convey it.  It was funny, emotionally complex, sweet, smart, wonderful.  I loved that the heroine was seemingly wanton but wasn't (kind of like the female equivalent of the fake rake). I loved that she was involved in political reform.  I loved that the hero was so sweet and thoughtful and helped Tess move past the terrible abuse she'd suffered in one of her previous marriages.  It was just all-around satisfying and near-perfect and...sigh of happiness.

I honestly don't know how I'm supposed to get any other reading done when there are so many wonderful, complex, sexy new romances out there to read, and they all have an accompanying series.  The only sensible solution is for the authors to just stop writing and give me a chance to catch up.  I'm serious - between Elizabeth Hoyt and Sherry Thomas and Nicola Cornick and Courtney Milan and a whole bunch of others, you really just need to stop right now.  It's too much.  Sensory overload.    

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Book of Lost Books

The title: The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You'll Never Read
The author: Stuart Kelly
Publication: Random House, 2005
Got it from: JP Morgan Library, NYC, 2008

It has always fascinated me that what remains of history's greatest writing is just a fraction of what was.  I once wrote a (not very good) paper in university about the many ways in which books of history are forever lost.  This book attempts to tackle the same subject.  Where my paper dealt with the generalities, Stuart's highlights specific authors from ancient to modern times.  What, exactly was lost in the great fire of Alexandria?  (Actually several fires and a looting.)  Was Love's Labour's Won a great lost Shakespeare play or an alternate title for The Taming of the Shrew? (Answer: probably original and totally fascinating.)  Like a literary archaeologist, Stuart digs up the most obscure references to remind us of what could have been.

Except - Literary Indiana Jones he is not.   Gosh darn it, I wanted to love this book.  For one thing, I have extremely happy memories of the beautiful spring evening I bought it at the JP Morgan Library in New York City, with the sounds of a classical quartet drifting in from the atrium.  And of course I love the subject matter, the thrill of thinking about discovering some long-lost text that will offer us new insights into history.  But I just can't ignore that, besides those little fascinating nuggets that Stuart occasionally drops, most of this work is as dry as the brittle rolled-up parchment of Alexandria's lost library.  I mean, he actually comes out and states he's only going to talk about dead white male authors, with a few token exceptions.  Sigh.  In addition, rather than focusing on the lost works themselves, we are treated(?) to full-blown biographies of every famous dead writer dude in Western Civilization, in the most rambling, incoherent manner possible.  I couldn't help but feel like Mr. Burns when he yells at Reverend Lovejoy, "We've heard enough about Bliz-Blaz and Him-Ham already. Get to the bloody point!" 

In conclusion, I wanted to enjoy reading this book, but it was a chore that took me eight months and so all I can think, having finally finished it, is that were it to be lost forever to the annals of history, good freaking riddance.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Disaster Artist

The title: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made
The author: Greg Sestero
Publication: Simon & Schuster, 2013
Got it from: Amazon


My husband and I just finished reading this book (he read it in two days, I read it in three) and we had to stop every few pages to either 1) take a breather from laughing or, 2) discuss the baffling and horrifying psyche of Tommy Wiseau.

If you've never seen The Room, "the Citizen Kane of bad movies" (Entertainment Weekly), then here's a hint of what's in store for you: one reviewer who saw it during its initial 2003 release said that watching it was "like getting stabbed in the head."  I recommend viewing it at least three times before reading this book.  Watch it once to be horrified by how appalling bad it is, watch it the second time to laugh at the ridiculousness, and watch it a third time to stand in awe of how such a movie could ever have been made in the first place.

How exactly it is made forms the focal point of The Disaster Artist.  Young Greg Sestero, an aspiring actor, befriends the infamous Tommy Wiseau, who later writes, produces, directs and stars in The Room.  As the horror of the filming ensues (at least two crews walked off of the set because they couldn't deal with Tommy), we see flashbacks of how Greg and Tommy became unlikely friends.  They are the ultimate odd couple - Greg is just 19, blonde, good-looking, All-American, with a modeling career and a rising star in L.A.  Tommy Wiseau is a mysterious, fortysomething dark-haired vampire-like creature with a mysterious past, a strange, unidentified personality disorder and a confusing temper.  Trying to figure Tommy out will take up most of the reader's time in this book.  The answers are sketchy at best.  Even Greg, who has known him for fifteen years, has only the vaguest idea of Tommy's closely guarded past, which may involve growing up in Communist Europe and amassing a San Francisco business empire.

I have seen The Room about ten times now, and the one thing I wasn't prepared for is how much more bizarre the behind-the-scenes story is.  Greg himself had a front-row seat to the action, being first the line producer and then one of its stars, as he was convinced by Tommy to play Mark, Johnny's (aka Tommy's) best friend.  The narrative is at its best (and funniest) when describing the baffling filming decisions Tommy makes that waste huge amounts of time and money.  (For instance, he spends half a million dollars on film equipment that goes largely unused, but refuses to rent a $200 air conditioner even though one of the actresses faints from heat on set.) 

Whether or not you read this book, and you really should if you've seen The Room, you need to see the movie.  Be prepared to watch and wonder in disbelief how a man could spend $6 million on a vanity project that is just so mind-numbingly bad. 

"You are tearing me apart, Lisa!"

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Paleofantasy


The title: Paleofantasy
The author: Marlene Zuk
Publication: W.W. Norton & Co., 2013
Got it from: Sony Store

It's not too often that I will say that everyone should read a book, but everyone should read this book.  Here's why: you can stop worrying.  I mean it.  Stop worrying that you're a cave person trapped in the modern world, doomed to be out of sync with your surroundings.  You're not.

I've rarely been so reassured by a science book, but reading this just gave me so many common sense lightbulb moments.  I've been skeptical about many "paleo [X]" movements and now I know why.  In simple, straightforward language, Marlene Zuk explains that we're so very much more complex than what pop science would have us believe.  For starters, there was never a time when we were in complete harmony with our surroundings. Humans are like every other living thing: constantly evolving, our genes always being tinkered with, our bodies adapting in many different ways and many different environments.  In one chapter she addresses the notion that men are "hardwired" to be promiscuous (spoiler: they're not) or that women have always been monogamous and faithful (spoiler: no).  In fact, she lays to rest the fantasy that men were the hunters and women the gatherers and we're just programmed that way.  (Actually, we're not "programmed" any way, because we're not computers.)  She also gently and non-condescendingly blows apart any argument for a paleo diet or lifestyle.  The truth is, people can eat a whole lot of things and always have been able to.  10,000 years in plenty of time to adapt.  And why should the paleolithic era be the evolutionary benchmark, anyway?  Why is nobody advocating we live like our fish or small mammal ancestors?  

Go ahead and have a slice of bread.  We're all going to be fine.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Executive Bodyguard


The title: Executive Bodyguard
The author: Debra Webb
Publication: Harlequin Intrigue, 2005
Got it from: Library e-book

At 37, Caroline Winters is not just one of the youngest U.S. presidents, she's also the first woman president.  Three months earlier, her husband Justin died in a plane crash and she's been struggling to hold it together.  Her vice-president is working against her and there are unknown threats to her life.  What she doesn't realize is that the threat may be coming from her own inner circle.  Enter the Enforcers.  They're a top-secret (even from the president) organization dedicated to protecting national security.  Their agents, called Enforcers, are genetically enhanced humans trained to carry out any mission.  One of them must pose as Caroline's miraculously saved husband in order to figure out who the traitor is.

As with any series, I probably shouldn't have read this out of order but it was easy to figure out what was going on anyway.  This book was a mixed bag for me. On the whole I quite enjoyed it.  We need more books about women in power using their intelligence to reach positions of authority.  I was wondering how the whole fake husband thing would play out, but it was actually okay.  As the story progresses, we find out more about Caroline and Justin's back story, such as the fact that she was in love with him but he didn't want to have anything to do with her sexually.  This of course changes when Justin "returns" from the dead.  My biggest disappointment with this book was that of course Caroline had to fall into the, "I need a family, I'm not complete without a baby," trope.  The woman is the president of the most powerful nation in the world - I would have thought that would be fulfilling enough for anyone.  Thankfully this didn't completely ruin what was otherwise an enjoyable story.  I was really in the mood for a suspenseful thriller with lots of action, and this book delivered.

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