Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It's Over!

And so my great reading experiment for 2008, my New Year's resolution from exactly a year ago, has come to a close. With it, I bring you glad tidings and sad tidings.

Sad tidings: I didn't come anywhere near my reading goal of 100 books.
Glad tidings: I read more books than I have in recent years. In fact, I read 10 whole more books than last year, which is excellent progress.

Sad tidings: I didn't read from nearly as many genres as I hoped I would. I didn't touch Christian fiction, sci fi, or really popular authors.
Glad tidings: I'm proud of how many mystery books I did read, and the genres I tried like Western.

Sad tidings: Inevitably, the blog as I know it must come to an end. I never thought it would all turn out the way it did. It's been hard work, a whole lot of fun and a labour of love all the way. I've had readers from all over, in fact every continent except Antarctica (I'm still hoping to hear from a polar researcher one of these days). I've learned that mentioning James Purefoy makes my readership level skyrocket and that lambasting a crappy show about Pride and Prejudice gets fangirls into an ire until the author of The Jane Austen Handbook comes to your defense. I've learned that if you write a site reviewing books, authors will imundate you with requests to review your books. (Please. For the love of heaven, send me a copy. I have too much to do to hunt for it myself.) Most of all, I've learned that I love talking about the books that I've read, which is why I started this blog in the first place.
Glad tidings: Wait! It's not over yet! You can't get rid of me that easily. No, for a long time now I have made a decision that I wanted to share with you at the last possible moment. This blog will continue, with a few small changes. Obviously I'm going to tweak the title a bit and add some useful links to the sidebar. I'm still going to review books on here, but to a lesser degree. Since I have a hard time reviewing a lot of "fact" books I like to read, I'll cut those out. But you'll still be getting reviews of most of the books I've read, including scintillating stories, crappy romances and of course snark-worthy tomes. I'm just having too much fun to give it up now. We'll see if I still feel the same way a year from now.

So what's in store for 2009? I don't have big plans in mind like I did last year. Mostly I want to continue tackling my backlog. Maybe this will be the year I finally read all the books I own. Just kidding! If I did nothing but read the next three years I still couldn't do that. I have some vague notions of working my way through Jane Austen and reading some hilariously bad romances, but other than that I'm pretty free. See you in 2009!

2008 In Review

62 books later and my reading for the year has come to an end. Now comes the fun part. I get to dole out rewards for the best, the worst, and honourable and dishonourable mentions.

First up, fiction category:
Best re-read (tie): Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
Best mystery: Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann (although best shirt ripping goes to Emerson in The Last Camel Died at Noon)
Best new to me author/best romantic mystery: And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander
Most disappointing: The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
Book that everyone else loved, but made me go "meh": Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen
Best menage-a-huit: Enchanted by Nancy Madore

Funniest book that made me depressed about my job: Free for All by Don Borchart
Most disappointing: Heavy Words Lightly Thrown by Chris Roberts
Funniest overall: Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson
Topic literally made me feel ill: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Best book published in 2008 (fiction and non-fiction): By Hook or By Crook by David Crystal. Runner-up: Fabergé's Eggs by Tony Faber

And now, the top five best and worst overall!

5. Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann
Sheep detectives: brilliant. Flipbook sheep in the corner: genius.
4. By Hook or By Crook by David Crystal
Like the author, this book was all over the place but never uninteresting. Readers were taken for a ride in the best way possible. I'm still not sure if this is a real word, but unputdownable just about describes it.
3. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susannah Clarke
I've said it before and I'll say it again: the actual, physical book was so beautiful I wanted to marry it. And oh yeah, the stories were fantastic, especially the title one. It may not have been sexy or romantic, but every time it surpassed my expectations, I felt like screaming, "How did she do that!?" This book messes with your head in every possible way and then hands it back to you gently.
2. And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander
For a book that I just found mouldering in my library's back room, it sure was a glorious read. I'm a big fan of a book that does several genres well, and this one hit all the high notes in history, romance, intrigue, comedy and drama.

And the best book of the year goes too...
1. The Devil's Delilah by Loretta Chase
This book couldn't get any more perfect. I laughed so hard I cried, yet it was the sexiest romance I've ever read. I mean, check out the pistol in her hand on the cover. Please. That says it all.

And now for the bottom of the barrel:
5. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton
A beautifully written book with unlikeable characters that you wanted to give a good smacking to.
4. Heavy Words Lightly Thrown by Chris Roberts
A book about nursery rhymes shouldn't be this bad. Heavy words, indeed.
3. The Blue Roan Child by Jamieson Findlay
Maybe you have to like horses to appreciate this book. But shouldn't it be able to stand on its own without any prerequisites? A complete yawnfest.
2. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler
Yes, the book was cheesy and bad. What really made me dislike it, though, was the author's constantly pimping it over and over on every Regency blog out there. Yes, you wrote a book. You're the world's biggest Jane Austen fan. We get it. Here's hoping things improve with Rude Awakening of a Jane Austen Addict, the sequel.

And now we come to the absolute nadir of the year, the "winner" of my first ever Kiss of Death, aka the book I wish I could kill with just a kiss. I'm sure it will come as no surprise to you that this book surpassed all the others by miles in its awfulness, and I didn't even have to think twice before giving it its just reward:

What can I say about this book I haven't already said in my review? Even looking at the title of this book still gives me chills ten months later. I keep half expecting that Wayne is going to come after me with a machete as I write this.

So that's it for another year! What books will top the list in 2009? Only time will tell...

Fall roundup

Time once again to see how my goals matched my actual reading this fall. Sadly I didn't quite meet all my expectations.

1. Read at least one children's book. Yes, several times over. The Blue Roan Child. The New Policeman. Sea Queens. A Season For Miracles. Ballet Shoes. Christmas with Anne.
2. Read one of my many, many Christmas Regency romances. Just eked in with this one, A Midnight Clear.
3. Read at least one book that I bought in New York City last spring. Um, okay. Still working on this one, but I have started it, really. It's been on my bedside table for the last three months and I'm slowly picking away at it.
4. Read at least one book that's been on my shelves, waiting to be read, for way too long. Does Anything Eat Wasps? can suffice for now.
5. Finish reading a couple of books that I've been working on all year but can never get around to finishing. Cough.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

62. A Midnight Clear

The title: A Midnight Clear (tagline: 'Tis the season for something a bit naughty-and very nice...)
The author: Karen L. King
Publication: Zebra, 2005
Got it from: DC, Christmas 2006

If this book were a movie, I would give it the following soundtrack listing:

1. Impoverished Woman, Sexy (Impoverished) Duke
2. Gotta Get Myself in a Compromising Position with a Rich Dude, Else My Family's Toast
3. What Woman Could Heal My Broken Heart? (The Duke's Lament)
4. Your Hint of Red Satin Underwear Makes Me Loco
5. Rich Dude is Ugly, But Duke Makes My Heart Race
6. I Can't Stop Thinking About Your Heaving Bosom
7. My Best Friend is in Love With My Sexy Stepmom, Oh Yeah
8. Getting Rid of My Nasty Former Mistress is Hard Work
9. Under the Mistletoe, We Get Down and Dirty
10. Don't Wanna Marry Cause Daddy Beats Me
11. The Ending Goes On (and on and on)
12. What's The Title Got to Do With It?

Roxanna Winston, the daughter of a poor nobleman, is sent to the home of her mother's old friend to try and land a rich husband to save her family from poverty. Roxy, being a spirited lass (aren't they all?) doesn't want to have a husband because she's independent and fears her husband will beat her like her father does her mother. Sister, I hear you. It would have sucked to be a wife back then married to a nasty husband. I would have rather been compromised and paid off, too.

Roxy's plans to go awry when her attempts to seduce pie-faced Mr. Breedon are thwarted by her host, the sexy and emotionally scarred Duke of Trent, Maximilian St. Clare. Max has got troubles of his own. For reasons that aren't made clear he's intent on not marrying and settling everything on his wayward nephew. He's also still healing from losing his dad and two brothers. Thus sets up the main conflict of the book: Roxy and Max's heads say no no, but their loins say yes yes.

This book was a bit of an old Oreo for me. The beginning and end felt somewhat stale, but the middle was a creamy centre. It seemed to take forever to set up the story and characters, but once the sparks started flying between the Duke and Roxy it really took off. I was actually more interested in the love story between Max's old friend Scully and Max's young stepmother. Years ago they'd had an affair while she was still married to Max's dad and he's been in love with her ever since. I almost wish the story had been reversed and that Max and Roxy's love story had taken the secondary place. I found the older woman/slightly younger man story a refreshing change of pace from the usual rakish duke seduces innocent virgin story.

A couple of things really made this book work for me. One was that there was only a smidgeon of info dumping, allowing the characters to be revealed nice and slow. The other was that there was a definite attempt to flesh out some of the secondary characters. I've already mentioned Max's friend and stepmother, but it was good that the oafish Mr. Breedon, the object of Roxy's clumsy attempted seduction, was also made somewhat sympathetic as the story unraveled. The only sour note was hit with Lady Malmsbury, the Duke's former mistress whom he recently broke things off with. The Duke's treatment of "Malmsy" seemed heavy-handed at times and her over-the-top hysterics and attempts to win him back seemed forced. After all, if the Duke is such a great guy, I can't see him going for such a loonie in the first place.

Something was a bit off in the ending, too. The pace of the story changed dramatically, throwing off the original plotline as the characters were thrust a year ahead. Also, there was a huge wtf moment at the end that left things dangling inexplicably. I tried to discover if this book had a sequel or prequel that would explain such a weird last page, but I don't think it does.

Since the story mostly entertained me, although it disappointingly didn't talk much about Christmas, it earns a B.

As an aside, I've discovered a fantastic new blog about traditional Regency romances here. There's tons about Christmas Regencies, so it's really a blog after my own heart!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Drawing to a close

As 2008 draws to a close, I know you are waiting with much anticipation. Which books ranked highest this year? Which terrible tome will rate my first ever Kiss of Death Award (as if you even have to guess)? Stay tuned New Year's Eve for all the highlights of this past year's gigantic reading experiment.

Plus, an exciting announcement that is sure to make your 2009 one hundred per cent more fantasterific and certified Grade A fresh.

61. Christmas with Anne

The title: Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: McClelland and Stewart, 1995
Got it from: Mom and dad, Christmas 1996

Christmas Day may be officially over, but here at Reading Outside the Lines it goes on and on (and on, and on as a Journey song that shall remain nameless gets stuck in my head). That's good! In all fairness, at least two of these stories take place at New Year's. That counts, doesn't it?

Okay, okay. This one was purely sentimental. It's overly treacly in parts and downright predictable, but isn't that what Christmas is all about? It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which is just as it should be at Christmas. B.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

60. Ballet Shoes: the Book, the Movies

This review will take a different format. I will be reviewing the book (a childhood favourite of mine) and then the 1975 and 2007 movies based on the book. I'll review them in the order I read/watched them.

First up: the book.

The title: Ballet Shoes: A Story of Three Children on the Stage
The author: Noel Streatfield
Publication: Dent, 1936
Got it from: Friends from England, Christmas 1994

It has been many, many years since I read this book. It appeared one Christmas from somebody from England. I can't remember who exactly, in those years we had several friends from our England days who were still sending my family Christmas presents. I still remember reading it in January during our "Sustained Silent Reading" period in school and loving it so, so much. Nearly fifteen years later, I still enjoyed it. It has held up surprisingly well.

For those of you not familiar with the book, it tells the story of "Gum" (Great Uncle Matthew), an eccentric old man who travels around the world and collects Fossils. He becomes the guardian of his great-niece Sylvia, who lives in his house on the Cromwell Road in London with her Nana. Gum is largely absent from the book, appearing only at the very beginning and very end. When Sylvia is grown-up, he starts sending babies home instead of fossils. First comes Pauline, who he rescues from a sinking ship, then Petrova, a Russian orphan, and finally Posy, whose mother couldn't keep her but sent along a pair of ballet shoes as her legacy. When the girls are old enough they adopt the last name "Fossil" because Gum had described them as "his fossils."

So we watch as Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil grow up, each having their own unique talents and interests. Pauline, the beautiful, blonde, spoiled one, is the little actress; Petrova the dark outsider who detests the stage but lives for cars and planes; and Posy, the bratty redhead who is a child prodigy in ballet. Across the chapters we see Sylvia (they call her Garnie as they couldn't pronounce Guardian at first) fret and worry as their money dwindles. They take in a series of interesting borders to help their finances. One of the borders, Theo, convinces Garnie to send the girls to "the Academy" where they will be able to earn money on stage. Lots of hard work, hard lessons and hard times ensue.

What's interesting is that this book provides a window into a world not so long ago, but impossible to return to. Nowadays children wouldn't think about having to earn money for their families, but in 1930's London it wasn't so unusual. And the hours that they kept! They basically had to work from early morning to early evening (with a few breaks) and then to bed at 7:30. Ye gods! They never had time for much fun except on Sundays. Yet their world still seems fascinating in a "I-can't-believe-ten-year-olds-had-to-memorize-so-many-lines-yet-they-did" sort of way. Exciting, but way too much work.

Highly recommended for everyone and especially young girls of a certain age. Make sure the edition you read has the original Ruth Gervis illustrations, they're delightful. Even after all these years, I still vividly recalled the one with Pauline and Petrova standing on the stool in "The Blue Bird" and Pauline sobbing by her bath after her Alice in Wonderland freakout. A-

And here comes the ominousness. (Cue "Jaws" theme. Dun dun. Dun dun.)

The 2007 movie version, aka NOBODY EVER SMILES:

I had a number of problems with this movie, which I will outline in point form:

- The casting. Pauline (Emma Watson) and Petrova (Yasmin Paige) were both too old for their roles, and Emma is much too tall and willowy to be short Pauline. Lucy Boynton fares a little better in the age category, but her hair is so clearly dyed red that it's almost laughable. The actresses playing Garnie and Nana were better suited to their characters. And Richard Griffiths, I'm sorry, is not Gum. Gum is an ancient, wizened little man and Richard Griffiths is definitely not.

- The ridiculous additional plots tacked on for "dramatic" effect:
*Garnie is not sick or dying in the book. Having her appear to be so in the movie seems contrived at best and cloying at worse.
*Theo, the border who is a dance teacher, is portrayed as an alchoholic, chainsmoking, middle-aged trainwreck, when she is none of these things in the book.
* The completely ludicrous "love triangle" between Garnie, Theo and Mr. Simpson which NEVER HAPPENED in the book because Mr. Simpson was married and Garnie was just fine without a man. (As a side note, yay that Mr. Simpson was played by that guy who almost gets eaten by the Abzorbaloff in Dr. Who!)
Really, I don't mind directors leaving things out but can they please not add things. as if they're telling the author what they should have put in?

- The house on Cromwell Road felt all dark and wrong. Perhaps the movie portrayal was more realtistic, but I always thought the house was smaller and sunnier than the big, overstuffed mausoleum they showed it as in this movie.

-The fact that they kept hitting you over the head with the fact that it was the 1930's. Just when you feel you might start getting into the movie for a second, boom! Here's another 1930's song to help you remember that this is THE 1930's!

-The childrens' out-of-the-blue freakouts. Okay, I understood Posy's tantrums, as she was a little snot in the book. But Pauline? She played the whole movie as if she was constantly on the verge of tears, and would suddenly snap and scream at people for no apparent reason. Note to director: random freakouts do not equal dramatic tension. Oh, and what was up with Winnifred's tantrum? Never, ever happened in the book. Very un-Winnifredlike.

-The general pacing of the movie. Everything seemed as crammed as the house itself. Stuff that was important in the book was addressed in just a few seconds if at all, while Theo gets several minutes of drunken moaning. Say what?

Disappointing, disappointing, disappointing. C-

The 1975 BBC version, aka EASES THE PAIN:

This movie wasn't perfect, but I enjoyed it much more than the recent version. For a start, I felt that it could stand on it its own as an enjoyable film even if one hadn't read the book, while the same can't be said about the new movie. There's a certain charm about the old BBC dramas. They bring a degree of realism to novels that new, slicker movies just don't. (The 1970's BBC version of Anne of Avonlea is a good example of this. The Megan Follows movies were good, but they practically butchered the original story beyond recognition). I think this has to do with the fact that the old dramatizations weren't afraid to be corny, even when the novels themselves were.

The casting for this movie was excellent. The three girls looked attractive but ordinary, not glossy Hollywood starlets. Garnie and Nana were good, as was Mr. Simpson, who was missing his wife in this one but also the silly love story with Garnie from the 2007 movie. Theo was neither drunk nor man-hungry: hooray. The Doctors' roles were cut down to just one, Dr. Jakes, but I didn't mind that so much as they were secondary characters and the actress playing the Dr. was very good. The real standout in this movie was Mary Morris as the great Russian ballerina Madame Fidolia. They fleshed out her role for this movie, making her as driven and bitchy (in a good way) as you would expect and she was so believeable it was scary. And Gum! He was wonderfully crazy and absentminded, just as I imagined.

The setting, too, seemed much less gloomy and more like a real 1930's household. The way they captured the dance academy was spot-on. I was a little disappointed at first that they jumped into the story partway through the book, but they did such an excellent job explaining the history of the girls near the beginning that I can't fault them.

I was going to give this movie a B+, but I'm giving it an extra point for when Manoff drops his monocle at the end. A-

59. A Season for Miracles

The title: A Season for Miracles: Twelve Tales of Christmas
The author: Jean Little et al.
Publication: Scholastic, 2006
Got it from: The library

Remember Susanna Merritt? Of course you do. She is the heroine of one of the Dear Canada series. (Americans have a similar "Dear America" series.) This book is a compilation of short stories focusing on the heroines of each novel in the series at Christmastime.

Just down the street from where I live, there is a statue of William Hamilton Merritt, Susanna's brother.

For some reason, I have had the urge to climb up on the statue and put a Santa hat on his head. Also, the library where I work is named after him and we have a big picture of him by our book drop. But alas, my request to draw a Santa hat on his head was denied by my boss. Sigh.

I have only read a handful of books in this series. People going to this book with no previous knowledge of the characters may be confused by the names of all the family and friends who we have little time to get to know before moving on to the next story. Those who have read the series will surely love revisiting familiar characters.

There is lots of Christmas spirit here. Many of the stories tell of harsh pioneer Christmases and poverty, bratty brothers and overbearing relatives. Everything always works out in the end, of course. In "An Unexpected Gift," by Gillian Chan, Mei-Ling describes the discrimination she faces as a Chinese girl in a predominantly white, rich society. She finds an ally in a neighbour's son and experiences her first true Canadian Christmas. Another interesting story was one told by Angelique Richard, an Acadian girl banished from Grand Pre (sorry, my accents aren't working) and living in Baltimore, who manages to warm a curmudgeon's heart so that he gives her father the woodworking tools he desperately needs. My favourite by far was that of Kate Cameron, a girl living in 1883 British Columbia, who accidentally stirs her grandmother's ring into the Christmas pudding.

Of course you'll enjoy these stories more if you're familiar with Canada and/or have read the series already. Even if you haven't, they're still entertaining. B+

Monday, December 15, 2008

Update soon

To all five of you who regularly read my blog, thank you for waiting patiently for updates. I'm about halfway through five books now and will post in a few short days. Also, exciting end-of-year news to come!

Friday, December 5, 2008

58. Free for All

The title: Free for All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library
The author: Don Borchart
Publication: Holtzbrinck, 2007
Got it from: The lib, of course!

D. asked me while I was reading this if it was more horrifying or funny. I replied that it was a little of both. The funny is the horrifying and vice versa, if you catch my drift.

Free for all (get it? free-for-all?) is a "tell-all" book about the highs and lows of library life. There are some things that are universal to all libraries, and I'm sure librarians everywhere are nodding their heads in recognition. Mentally ill patrons who stay all day? Uh-huh. Flashers? Seen a few. Troubled schoolkids whose parents use the library as a baby-sitting service? Tell me something I don't know. And we've all got stories. Heck, I just figured out that I've worked on and off for over ten years in ten different library branches or departments, and if I hadn't seen some crazy stuff I'd have to be literally blind. As my career is just beginning (gulp!) I'm sure I ain't seen nothing yet.

Of course, as the author works in LA, his stories are slightly more horrifying than mine. Latchkey kids number in the tens rather than the hundreds around here, gang wars are not exactly an issue (unless you count the current rivalry between Conservatives and coalition supporters), and I've never had to deal with anyone setting up a drug ring in the bathroom. Although I once worked with someone who made a girl take off her skirt in the ladies' room to get some stolen books. That was a fun day.

Whether you're a librarian looking for confirmation that you have to be slightly crazy to work in a library, or an outsider shaking your head in disbelief at the shenanigans that go on in these public institutions, this book is sure to entertain. B+

Monday, December 1, 2008

57. Does Anything Eat Wasps?

The title: Does Anything Eat Wasps? And 101 Other Unsettling, Witty Answers to Questions You Never Thought You Wanted to Ask
The author: New Scientist
Publication: Free Press, 2005
Got it from: My sistah, Christmas 2006

Oh, crap. Now has that stupid "click to look inside" feature now, just like Now that dumb logo is going to appear on all the pictures I steal from their site.

Here's a question you never thought to ask: why did Kathryn buy $35 worth of fruitcake just because she liked the box it was in? It is a question for the ages and one which no scientist will ever be able to unravel.

This here book is divided into several subject categories based on the questions asked: the body, plants and animals, weather, etc. For instance: how fat does a person have to be to be bulletproof? I won't give away the answer, but let's just say that you'd be so fat your cause of death is unlikely to be lead poisoning anyway. How long will it take before my guinea pig Fluffy just becomes bones after he dies? Answer: it varies depending on conditions. Is the north of England rising and the south really sinking? I already knew that one going in.

In short, this book had some interesting and some boring questions. The section on how long a human head can remain conscious after detaching from the body was riveting but also made me want to throw up for three days afterward. However, the plethora of questions about beer and wine was tedious and got old fast. Really, was it necessary to find a way to slip in alcohol questions every chapter? Yawn. Overall, I'd rate this book a B.