Tuesday, September 30, 2008

48. Heavy Words Lightly Thrown

The title: Heavy Words Lightly Thrown
The author: Chris Roberts
Publication: Penguin, 2004
Got it from: The library

It just goes to show you that just because I like a subject matter, it doesn't mean I'll like the book. Who'd have thought I'd be so downcast over a book about the origins of nursery rhymes, and one that spends most of its time talking about British history to boot? Alas, I was gravely disappointed. Roberts' wink-wink nudge nudge anecdote style may appeal to some, but I really don't care all that much about football. Or who Charlie Dimmock is and that she goes braless. This book just went too much all over the place without ever really focusing on the nursery rhymes themselves. If I wanted a book of funny British anecdotes I would have bought one, thank you. I felt less like I was hearing an expert talk about the facts and more like some dude was just showing off his knowledge about dirty British secrets. I wish I could have been more of a merrie olde soul after reading this, but them's the breaks. C

Thursday, September 25, 2008

47. Our Enduring Values

The title: Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century
The author: Michael Gorman
Publication: ALA, 2000
Got it from: SC, Christmas 2005

I doubt that anyone except professional librarians would be interested in this book (and if you're even reading this, congratulations) so I'll just say a few quick words. This book was written before 9/11 when our notion of privacy in libraries via the Patriot Act changed American librarianship dramatically. It would be interesting to see how his views on this have changed, particularly regarding the "privacy" chapter, which he targets as one of the key values of librarianship (the others being stewardship, service, intellectual freedom, etc). I agreed with him on a good many points, particularly when he describes the vague buzzwords of MLIS programs and the ALA accreditation process. And trust me, I know all about the accreditation process, having served as a student council VP during an accreditation year and having to (almost literally) court the visiting panel. Other concepts I had to disagree on, particularly concerning the right to privacy, which I think he takes too far, although I'm probably in the minority on this one. I wish this book hadn't been quite so dry, although again, I'm probably in the minority in thinking that librarians take themselves way too seriously. It was interesting to retread some of the points I haven't thought of since I took my MLIS, but overall it wasn't anything I hadn't heard before. B-

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

I promise I won't mention this again...

...but I just have to include the recent comments by Mags over at AustenBlog regarding crappy Jane Austen adaptations, because I agree with her 100%. And I don't just love her because she calls Lost in Austen "dopey" and refers to the last episode as "goodbye, cruel fanfic."

(This is in response to Seducing Mr. Darcy, but also, I think, by Lost in Austen):

...we are of the opinion that these extraneous items should not be accepted just as they are, like Bridget Jones running through London in her knickers. Each should be judged and criticized on its individual merits. Every Janeite is not going to agree on the quality of a particular book or film or action figure, and some may wish to have nothing to do with them at all, but there is no reason to condemn them on general principles; but at the same time, we are impatient with the idea that “it’s not really Jane Austen so if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Just because one doesn’t like a particular book, that does not mean one must dislike them all, and just because we are critical of certain projects doesn’t mean we are toffee-nosed snobs who can’t abide any of it. We just like quality. Perhaps our notions of quality are different from other Janeites’.

I guess I shouldn't say I hate all Jane Austen spin-offs and homages on principle. Just awful ones.

The Austen diaspora is in a weird place when it comes to these ancillary items, and it is reflected in the either-or attitude. The Brontëans don’t hold their noses when they read Wide Sargasso Sea and the Shakespeare folks don’t freak out over A Thousand Acres or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (at least we don’t think they do; feel free to disabuse us of our mistaken notions). But the Austen fandom hasn’t really had a Wide Sargasso Sea or A Thousand Acres or The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

There we are! See, I'd enjoy a good Austen spin-off. Keyword: good.

...there is a tendency in some quarters to fall into another easy place of “I liked this movie with pretty people in nice costumes so I am going to like this other movie with pretty people in nice costumes, even if the plot has been manipulated so much that it no longer makes sense and it’s so cheaply done that one can see the metaphorical zipper on the back of the monster’s costume.”


...we don’t think we’re doing ourselves or our fellow Janeites a favor by supporting projects uncritically. If we keep watching and reading and buying, The Powers That Be know we’ll take anything, and they don’t have to try very hard or spend much money or offer us the very top quality items. If, perhaps, we are critical of the lesser-quality items, if we maybe vote with our feet and our voices, we’ll get something better. Perhaps. Would it hurt to try?

That, my dear readers, is how I feel about literature as a whole.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

46. The Blue Roan Child

The title: The Blue Roan Child
The author: Jamieson Findlay
Publication: Doubleday, 2002
Got it from: Book Club

"The unforgettable story about the magical bond between a young girl and a wild mare." That's what the back cover says. If you like horses and similes, you'll probably love this book. As for myself, I'm hesitant to say anything harsh about it because I don't think it was all that badly written. But oh my sweet nectarines, was it ever boring. I had to force, force, force myself to read it until the end. If the interest-o-meter was like those hospital vital signs, I don't think mine would register far over "dead." I can't even even write this review without getting a little heavy-lidded, so...C.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Summer roundup, autumn lineup

Autumn 'tis upon us - in two days, anyway - so it seems time to see how I did on my summer goals and make a new list for fall.

My goals for the summer were:
1. Read at least one Western. Check. See Taggart.
2. Read the next book in the Amelia Peabody mystery series. Check. See The Last Camel Died at Noon.
3. Read at least one book in my collection that's been on the shelf for years which I should have read a long time ago. Check - sort of. It's only been in my collection for two years, but I'll let Jane Austen's Guide to Dating suffice for now.
4. Read at least one other Civil War romance. Check. See River Magic.

My goals for this fall are going to be slightly more modest. I have a slew of books on order from the library that are due to come in shortly, so I won't be able to tackle as many of my books at home as I'd like. I also have a couple of other genres that I mentioned at the beginning of the year that I plan to tackle (I've even got some titles picked out) but I don't think I'll be able to get to them until my winter reading list. I can't forget that my resolution was to go outside my comfort zone and I don't plan on stopping, even when the year ends.

So, without further ado, here is my fall list. Can you tell I love making lists? It's so cathartic.

1. Read at least one children's book. This should be easy, as I have one already lined up.
2. Read one of my many, many Christmas regency romances. Again, this should be a cakewalk since I happily do this every year anyway.
3. Read at least one book that I bought in New York City last spring.
4. Read at least one book that's been on my shelves, waiting to be read, for way too long. Hey, I have to get them read somehow!
5. Finish reading a couple of books that I've been working on all year but can never get around to finishing.

Now I'm getting excited! I'm really looking forward to the books I have lined up. There's a hilarious-sounding mystery 'round November, a couple of interesting non-fiction books that will appear here in the next couple of weeks and a fantasy children's book that sounds very interesting. Hooray for autumn!

45. River Magic (Kathryn reads Civil War romances, Part II)

The title: River Magic
The author: Martha Hix
Publication: Zebra, 1995
Got it from: Freemont's Used Books, downtown St. Catharines

You might recall that last winter I was on a Civil War romance bender and bought a huge stack of them for something like $2 at our local used book emporium. My first foray into the genre, as you well know, turned out badly. And by badly, I mean like Krakatoa's eruption turned out badly for the Indonesians. The pain of this particular novel having slightly worn off, like the pain of childbirth, I decided to persevere in my quest for the Ultimate Civ. War romance. So, the burning question is, was it as bad or was it the holy grail?

It was neither, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it. My review won't be as hilarious. I was neither disappointed nor satisfied by this novel.

Assuming that none of you have or ever will read this novel, I'll give you the lowdown. There's this pair of batty aunts, you see, who get hooked up with this magic lamp. Shh, don't ask questions. The round, silly aunt wishes that her three nephews will meet their wives on their thirtieth birthdays. I smell...trilogy! Cut to Rock Island, Illinois, where Major Connor "Easy on the Eyes" O'Brien (and I kid you not, that is what he's called at least once) is serving the Union and looking after a jail full of Rebel soldiers. On his birthday, India Marshall shows up, dressed as a grandmother and tries to worm her way into the prison so she can free her brother. Sexy hijinks ahoy!

You know, I was cool with a lot of this book. Crazy aunts who have no other desire than to see their nephews get married, and get a real-life genie to do it? Sure, why not! Young woman disguised as an elderly woman? All the better for hilarious double-entendres and scenes of old coots courting the fake granny! A heroine whose name is India and has sisters called Persia, America and Europa? Why not Australasia and Siberia, too!

There were, however, several things I didn't like about this novel. The first was that the romance blossomed too quickly between the hero and heroine. I don't like it when books do this. I like the tension to build for a long time before anything happens. Secondly, I thought that the bad guy was too caricatured as the bad guy. He kept being described as the ugliest thing on two legs over and over, and was just too mean and nasty (and I mean like incestuous nasty, among other things) to be believable. I also felt like I wasn't being told something in this book. Often the characters would say or do things that contradicted their personalities or just plain didn't make sense. I mean, I like a book with plot twists, but this one kept setting things up only to have everything veer in a direction I didn't expect. I felt like I was being jerked around and I ended up being confused half the time.

I really think this book could have worked better with more editing and I suspect the author was under time pressure to complete the trilogy. The ending seemed particularly poorly done, with the bad guy and his abused niece meeting bizarre ends. I don't want to give it all away, but the niece gets involved with the hero's brother so this sets him up for major pain and torture for the next novel. Frankly, it doesn't make me want to read about the other two brothers, because one seems to be a tortured jerk and the other one is just a jerk. Because this book was somewhat fun, but had some serious flaws, I'm going to brand it in the B-/C+ category.

Until the next one! We're not through yet, Civil War romance...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

44. Imagining Anne

The title: Imagining Anne: the Island Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery
The author: Elizabeth Epperly (editor)
Publication: Viking Canada, 2008
Got it from: The Library

Oh, what I wouldn't give to spend a week in Montgomery's world. I've spent so much time in PEI and read so many of her journals, it's creepy. I'd wear fancy hats and dresses, go to tea parties and concerts, sleigh rides and dances and concerts. Then I'd come home and admire my flush toilet.

In a way, reading these scrapbooks is a bit like time travel. They're a direct glimpse into the life of a woman in turn-of-the-century Canada, and what a different world it was! No cars, no TV, no Internet, no cell phones (no phones at all, not until later). One had to amuse oneself by doing chores and paying calls and playing with kittens and, at least in Montgomery's case, writing. It's an almost enviable life, because despite lacking modern conveniences, people then were rarely bored.

This book has also reminded me I'm woefully behind in my own scrapbooking. I need to get snipping and pasting fast.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

43. Notes From a Big Country

The title: Notes From a Big Country
The author: Bill Bryson
Publication: Doubleday, 1998
Got it from: My book club

Now that the "lazy" days of summer are over (ha ha - what a joke) my reviews are going to start to come in fast and furious. Watch this space.

I really enjoy Bill Bryson's writing. It's usually fun and light-hearted and I can really relate to it, in as much as I can relate to a privileged middle-aged white guy. His A Short History of Nearly Everything still ranks as one of my top five favourite non-fiction books. It may even be my top one, I haven't decided yet. In this book he tackled American life with his usual folksy style. Some of it is genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. As a librarian, I cracked up at this: "...I took the book to that reading area libraries put aside for people who are strange and have nowhere to go in the afternoon but nonetheless are not quite ready to be institutionalized..." Oh. Yeah. He loves pointing out the absurdity of beauocracy (which I think we can all relate to), how awful American TV is (really, really bad) and the mindlessness of the American justice system. He also loves America in many ways: how trusting the people are, the junk food selection, the fall colours, the convenience of everything. And he's just spot on when he talks about the decline of small-town America and how awful everything is when it's homogenized. It's clichéd, but it really was hard to put down. Kind of like M&Ms. B+

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Quiz time!

I know I've done this before, but it's soooo good. Be sure to read all the results for full hilarity. I particularly like "the hoyden": "Your hero will at first mistake you for a boy, but his inexplicable attraction to you will lead him to deduce that you are in fact female." A perfect overview of the genre.

The Regency Romance Quiz: What kind of Romance Heroine are you?

Your Result

Oh dear, you are Bookish, aren't you? You are a highly intelligent and witty bluestocking, whose beauty is hidden behind spectacles. Your dress sense is eccentric and a little unfashionable, and you consider yourself plain. You have very little use for men, who find your knowledge of Shakespeare, interest in politics and forthright speech formidable. You are undoubtedly well-off. The only reason for your presence in a novel of this kind (which, I might add, you would not dream of reading, although you have occasionally enjoyed the works of Miss Austen), is your mother, who is absolutely determined that you will make a good marriage. Rather than defying her directly, you are quietly subversive, dancing with anyone who asks you, but making no attempt to hide your intellectual interests. The only person who can get past your facade is the man who is witty enough to spar with you, and be amused at your blatant attempts to scare your suitors away. While you will, no doubt, subject him to a gruelling cross-examination to find out whether his respect for your intelligence is real or mere flattery, you may be sure that he is your match, and that you, he AND your mother will all live happily ever after

Monday, September 8, 2008

42. The Last Camel Died at Noon

Amelia Peabody...eases the pain

The title: The Last Camel Died at Noon
The author: Elizabeth Peters
Publication: Warner Books, 1991
Got it from: Vancouver, 2001

Oops, I've painted myself into a corner. Ever since 2001, I vowed I'd read an Amelia Peabody mystery every year until I was finished all eighteen in the series. I'm a bit behind, because I keep missing years. Here's the problem: I'm hungry for more but I know I must wait another year. As Amelia's husband Emerson would say, "Curse it!"

For those of you who don't know, Amelia Peabody Emerson is the star of a series of Egyptology mysteries set around the turn of the 20th century. Those readers who don't share my enthusiasm for Egyptology are still urged to read them for the wonderful characters. The narrator of the story is Amelia herself, heiress to her late professor father's fortune and intrepid adventuress. Amelia is one of the most well-conceived female characters in literary history. Her witty observations, particularly about her husband, are a riot. She takes a no-nonsense attitude with everything, but she's secretly an incurable romantic. She's unstopable, particularly with her most trusty accomplice, her parasol, which she uses to frequently beat the snot out of anyone or anything who gets in her way. Then there's her temperamental husband, Emerson, who hates the world and everyone in it, except for his own family. He has a reputation as one of the most feared men in Egypt, and he's constantly tearing open his shirts, either in rage or in passion. (This prompts Amelia's most frequently-used phrase, "Another shirt ruined?" Her other phrase is "Another year, another dead body.") Then there's the Emersons' lovable, precocious brat of a son, Ramses, who will eventually grow up into a swoonbeast but for now is still a monkey who speaks several dead languages and disguises himself among natives to glean information. Naturally, the Emersons attract attention wherever they go and frequently stumble upon mysteries that they have to solve every digging season like clockwork.

This year's episode has the tireless threesome out in the desert, searching for a lost oasis that may or may not contain some friends who disappeared over a decade earlier. After nearly dying in the desert of thirst after their camels have all died (a reference to the book's title) they are whisked away to said mysterious oasis, restored to health and kept prisoners for some (as yet unknown) purpose. It's all very silly, of course, but the Emersons always make it enjoyable. The story is lifted straight out of H. Rider Haggard (whom Amelia is addicted to reading) and probably merits a B-grade romp, especially considering how the last third dragged a bit. What bumps it to the A-level is the hilarious one-liners. If I'd mark each spot that made me laugh out loud, the whole book would be marked up. Now if only I didn't have to wait until next year to continue the saga. It's like crack, I tells ya... A-

Friday, September 5, 2008

TV review: Lost in Austen

Lest my friends and family bother to ask me what I thought about that TV show on this week, I will clarify my feelings once and for all. I am talking, of course, about Lost in Austen. I could only get about 3/4 of the way through.

It's utter pigswill.

I spent a good half hour last night ranting to D. about why I thought this, and other chick lit-y Jane Austen books (like this and this) give me the squicks. I won't repeat all my points, but Lost in Austen embodies everything I hate about the chick lit empire. First, as an aside, can I just say - leave Jane Austen the freak alone? Seriously. Her works are fabulous, amazing and wonderful. Her heroines, particularly Elizabeth Bennett, are everything literary heroines should be: intelligent, witty, opinionated and loveable with a wonderful sense of humor. I couldn't agree more with Jane herself when she says of Elizabeth, "I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know". So why do other authors think it's okay to piggyback on Jane's greatness? If it's the Regency period you're after, why not create new characters instead of bastardizing beloved ones? Heyer made a fantastic career out of it and you don't have to look further than Loretta Chase to see how wonderful Regency romances can be without Mr. Darcy.

I won't reiterate my points about why I loathe chick lit heroines*, but Amanda Price, the heroine of Lost in Austen, reads like my own personal checklist of chick lit hate. High-maintenance, semi-alcoholic glamour girl? Ding! Living an empty life in some London apartment? Ding! Lameass boyfriend who's over-the-top boorish to make the real hero seem so much better? Ding! Constantly saying stupid things and making mistakes to show how "cute" she is? Ding! Half-heartedly made to seem smart, even though we all know she's stupid and selfish? Ding! Being all Mary Sue and having every freaking guy fall in love with her, even though they never would have gone for someone as lame as her in the real 19th century? Ding! Yes, I believe it was at the point Mr. Bingley pulled Amanda outside at the Netherfield Ball to confess his undying love for her that I couldn't physically cringe any more and had to turn my computer off.

How the heck am I supposed to relate to a woman like that? I wouldn't be friends with her if you paid me, so how am I supposed to react to her coming in and interfering with favourite characters? How many times is my intelligence supposed to be insulted with this drivel that they throw at me, expecting me to like it because it's vaguely related to Austen? Don't give me a chocolate bar and tell me it's swiss truffle when it's cheap, crappy advent calendar chocolate and expect me to like it just because it's chocolate. Give me something edifying or don't make it at all. Pathetic. F-

Good god, what's next? Are we to have James Purefoy as Mr. Rochester, coming in through some hausfrau's kitchen and making sweet love to women in the 21st century? Oh, wait. That sounds pretty good. I'd watch that.

*Okay, maybe just a little bit. It boils down to this: I believe women are more than martini-drinking, shopaholic ditzes who spend their days chasing men. Maybe it's my own narcissism, but I wish the women in books were more like me. I want to see strong, intelligent, funny women actually doing important things in the real world. Women, we are capable of writing better stories about these kinds of heroines. We should not just demand them. We deserve them. I won't settle for less, but I fear that women have started to do just that. This being the case, I won't stop my crusade against chick lit until I start seeing a more realistic picture of women mirrored back to me.