Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Three Free Books

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (1902-1974)
This writer started a whole new genre--Regency romance--hit a home run her very first time at the plate. Here is her description of the wicked, fascinating, and impeccably dressed Duke of Andover, who is attempting to seduce a young woman:

"He walked coolly forward into the full light of a great pendant chandelier, standing directly beneath it, the diamond order on his breast burning and winking like a living thing. The diamonds in his cravat and on his fingers glittered every time he moved, until he seemed to be carelessly powdered with iridescent gems. As usual, he was clad in black, but it would have been difficult to find any other dress in the room more sumptuous or more magnificent than his sable satin with its heavy silver lacing, and shimmering waistcoat. Silver lace adorned his throat and fell in deep ruffles over his hands, and in defiance of Fashion, which decreed that black along should be worn to tie the hair, he displayed long silver ribands, very striking against his unpowdered head."

Sadly, we have to wait a few more years for any of her other works to fall into the public domain. This gem of a book was the first Heyer I read, and it's every bit as thrilling and romantic as you could wish!

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Anyone who has only seen a movie version of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster probably doesn't know that the original is slightly more philosophical than the groans and screams of the many adaptations. Its alternate title is "The Modern Prometheus." The Goodreads summary does a good job here:

"Frankenstein, an instant bestseller and an important ancestor of both the horror and science fiction genres, not only tells a terrifying story, but also raises profound, disturbing questions about the very nature of life and the place of humankind within the cosmos: What does it mean to be human? What responsibilities do we have to each other? How far can we go in tampering with Nature? In our age, filled with news of organ donation genetic engineering, and bio-terrorism, these questions are more relevant than ever."

All this philosophizing doesn't make the story of monstrous hubris any less sinister than it was when it first came out in 1818.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (1820-1849)
The youngest and least-known of the famous Brontë sisters, Anne wrote two novels: this one and Agnes Grey (a governess story!) Goodreads says that her writing is sharper and more ironic than the romantic style of Charlotte and Emily. The lesser known female novelists of the Victorian era are hidden gems, and I look forward to reading the last Brontë's works.

(So I gave you more than three this time. Bonus: here are Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë's tiny but wonderful oeuvres in Project Gutenberg. Enjoy!)

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nick Hornby Strikes Again!

The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man's Struggle With the Monthly Tide of the Books He's Bought and the Books He's Been Meaning to ReadThe Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man's Struggle With the Monthly Tide of the Books He's Bought and the Books He's Been Meaning to Read by Nick Hornby
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of essays about books bought, books read, and occasionally Arsenal football, Nick Hornby's voice remains consistently funny and smart. He reads literary books and thick biographies, but undercuts any hint of snobbery with a wry and self-deprecating humor (perhaps this is a uniquely British skill). I love hearing his thoughts about his reading life, and I always come away with a few unexpected additions to my to-read list.

Sometimes I know he's thinking my thoughts:
"I don't reread books very often; I'm too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality.[...] But when I try to recall anything about [a certain book] other than its excellence, I failed. [...] And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of, say, fifteen and forty, I haven't even read the books I think I've read. I can't tell you how depressing this is. What's the fucking point?"

On why he bought a book right then even though it wasn't the one he had come for:
"I didn't know for sure I'd ever go to a bookshop again; and if I never went to a bookshop again, how long were those several hundred books going to last me? Nine or ten years at the most. No, I needed that copy of Prayers for Rain, just to be on the safe side."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Now THIS Is Science Fiction

A Fire Upon the DeepA Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Two human children crash-land on a planet populated by wolf-like aliens, and they are soon enmeshed in a local war. But beyond the planet an even more desperate war is being waged--one that will determine the fates of entire species and change the fabric of the galaxy itself, but hinges on the doings on the surface of the alien world.

Wow. Reading this book reminds me why I love grand-concept science fiction. It's been a while since I read a story that absorbed me so completely, and to my joy it's a stand-alone (though there is a prequel and a sequel)! There is genocide on a galactic scale, ethnic cleansing on a medieval scale, and a complex, satisfying story in one volume. It's amazing that in telling the story of such huge events, Vinge never loses sight of the individual characters we come to care about.

Human beings are only one sentient race in a galaxy populated by super-intelligent beings known as Powers, which exist in a special area of space known as the High Beyond. Their doings are as unfathomable to us as our doings would be to an ant. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, this does not stop us from messing around with things beyond our comprehension and resurrecting a Perversion, a Power dedicated to the subjugation and destruction of other creatures.

The human survivors crash-land on a planet populated by the Tines, a species of alien absolutely brilliant in concept and execution.

I won't add more, simply because Vinge tells the story so well and spins out the difficult exposition slowly, building tension in the reader as new understanding illuminates this complex and well-designed universe. If you liked David Brin's Uplift trilogy, Orson Scott Card's Enderverse, or even the 2004 Battlestar Galactica TV series, you'll enjoy this book as much as I did. (I do not recommend it as an entry point for non-science fiction readers, however.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nonfiction Reader's Advisory

Nonfiction Readers' AdvisoryNonfiction Readers' Advisory by Robert Burgin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every reference librarian should recognize the value of suggesting nonfiction to patrons. Ultimately, the fiction/nonfiction divide, useful though it might be, is still an artificial one.

The essays in this book discuss everything from theory to practice, including sources for finding books worth recommending, the reading habits of avid readers, and multicultural nonfiction. I suggest reading with an eye to expanding your personal to-read list as well: I must have added dozens of titles that piqued my curiosity. I'll be a nonfiction reader yet!

I especially enjoyed the chapter on nonfiction for school libraries. I myself only started enjoying nonfiction as an adult after I read two excellent books: Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, both books that showed me the power of nonfiction storytelling. I did read nonfiction as a kid, but mostly when I was curious about a topic (sharks, 19th century clipper ships, books on etymology and language - you'd be amazed at what kids will pick up when given the chance). And I'll never forget those trusty DK Eyewitness books with their densely packed pages of text and pictures.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I know I should be working now....

But I'm too busy racing through Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. I've never read his stuff before. It reminds me a lot of Brin's Uplift trilogies in scale - there are a dizzying number of races and expanses of time in this universe.

02/15page 32

Whoa. Just figured out how the aliens work, and I'm hooked. They are mind-blowingly cool: lupine creatures with a gestalt organization to their telepathic packs. One individual, many creatures. If that makes no sense to you, fine. (But it would if you read the book, and that is why this is great science fiction.)

02/15page 88

Get back to the wolves! The "zones of thought" are only slightly less cool than the gestalt packs: basically in our part of space physics works slowly. Brains are dumber, light speed travel is impossible. But the further out you go from the central "Unthinking Depths" (where everything, including intelligence, stops working), the faster and smarter things get - including AI. There are many traps for the unwary there, including malevolent computer intelligences that trick you into writing them...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Two Princesses of Bamarre

The Two Princesses of BamarreThe Two Princesses of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the kingdom of Bamarre live two princesses: the brave Meryl and the cowardly Addie. When Meryl is stricken by the incurable Gray Death, Addie must find her courage if she is to save her beloved sister's life.

It's been a while since I picked up one of Gail Carson Levine's books, and I'm glad I chose this one. I didn't love Ella Enchanted: despite the promise of its brilliant premise, the execution was flawed. Though The Two Princesses is the second of the Enchanted books set in the same fantasy world, it is a completely separate story from Ella Enchanted. This series can be read in any order.

In The Two Princesses, the simple fairy-tale style fits the story well, and I found myself completely absorbed in Addie's quest to save her sister. Levine is known for writing strong female characters and the sisters' friendship is the central relationship of this story.

The dragon Volly is a great, complex villain - in spite of her charms, it's hard to forget that she's a monster who likes to play tyrannical mind games with her unfortunate victims (and future meals). She's a true descendant of Smaug from The Hobbit.

I love seeing classic fairy tale elements used like this: the specters that try to mislead travelers are extremely creepy, and I want a pair of Seven League Boots for myself (as well as one of those nifty magical tablecloths). In the background is the story of Drualt, a hero of ages past who left Bamarre after its people failed to live up to the example of his endless courage. Levine knows her fairy tales and Drualt is a combination of King Arthur and Beowulf: a monster-slaying hero who is too good for his world.

Fans of Levine might also try Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness series, Robin McKinley's Beauty, or Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle.

For other strong female characters in unique fantasy worlds, check out Garth Nix's Sabriel (darker than Levine's stories), Kristen Cashore's Graceling, Patricia C. Wrede's Dealing With Dragons, or Terry Pratchett's funny and charming Tiffany Aching series, beginning with The Wee Free Men.

There are so many fairy tale/fantasy books out there for the YA crowd that star great heroines. Add this one to that list for the YA readers in your life!

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Talisman Ring

The Talisman RingThe Talisman Ring by Georgette Heyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eustacie longs for romance and a lover who rides ventre a terre (she's French). Sir Tristram, handsome and sensible, is not that lover (he's English). But when Eustacie stumbles across Ludovico, a man in hiding after being framed for murder, she and her new friend Sarah Thane get more adventure and romance than either of them bargained for.

Heyer delivers her usual sparkle with this caper. The MacGuffin is a valuable antique ring that can prove one man's innocence and another's guilt. The chemistry between playful and smart Miss Thane and the level-headed Sir Tristram is a delight, and Eustacie could be related to another Frenchwoman: Léonie from These Old Shades (also by Heyer). Fans of regency romance and adventure stories couldn't ask for better.

I could have wished for a few more scenes between the Beau and Sir Tristram. Both are worthy adversaries, and few techniques work better for ratcheting up the tension than having two well-matched opponents circle, each trying to guess how much the other knows and what he might do next.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Welcome To Xanth

A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth, #1)A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Laughably sexist but nevertheless funny in the right ways, Xanth is a magical land full of hidden dangers, strange magical creatures, and powerful Magicians. When Bink faces exile after exhibiting no magical talent, his quest for a way to stay within his homeland of Xanth takes him to places he never imagined.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An Easter egg that holds the key to an eccentric billionaire's fortune is hidden in the virtual reality world of OASIS - and a high school boy has just deciphered the first clue.

Wade Watts, master of obscure 80s geek culture, lives in a trailer park stack in the energy-starved America of 2040. His only relief from his dangerous life comes when he plugs into the expansive OASIS to hunt for the holy hand grenade of questers all over the world. To figure out each clue, he must rely on his extensive knowledge of 80s pop culture touchstones - from Ladyhawke to Dungeons&Dragons to Atari. But he has stiff competition - not only in the form of fellow questers, but also the ruthless corporation IOI and its hordes of "Sixer" hunters - men and women hired to hack the game to win control of OASIS. Can one otaku hope to prevail?

I only happened to be born in the 80s and have never once played an arcade game or entered the World of Warcraft, but I read this book in a day, sucked in by its puzzle premise. Cline pays tribute to leagues of gaming geeks without mocking them. In fact, he shows the value that connections forged in virtual reality can have IRL (though eventually Watts realizes that going out into the sunlight now and again might be a good idea). It lacks Snow Crash's electric style, but Ready Player One is another great trip through a fun and vivid virtual world.

This book would definitely appeal to fans of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. (The premise reminded me of Ellen Raskin's children's book, The Westing Game, too.)

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Jane Austen

Jane Austen: A LifeJane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The facts we have about Jane Austen's life are sparse (thanks to a few letter-destroying relatives), and much of her life is an absence, drowned out by the bustle of a large and semi-prosperous family. She was self-effacing, and little of her personal thoughts are known beyond the great works of literature she left us and a few letters.

Tomalin's book is well-researched and gracefully written; I am rarely able to finish a biography, but I enjoyed every page. She weaves together the many lives around Austen skillfully, with an eye toward capturing the telling details. I could have used a few helpful reminders in the text to keep the women straight - there are plenty of Marys, Janes, Elizas, Fannys, and Annas/Annes to mix up.

I even teared up at the description of Austen's death, and the grief of her beloved sister, Cassandra. I'll consider forgiving her for the letter-burning, but that ninny Fanny is beyond saving for me.

You will be inspired to reread every one of Austen's novels (don't worry, there are only six completed ones), so be warned!

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Good Omens

Good OmensGood Omens by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When an angel and a demon mislay the Antichrist, the Apocalypse comes as expected - but doesn't proceed according to plan..

For fans of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, it will be clear that the majority of the writing and style is Pratchett's. The humor, plus his ever-present humanism, is a lot like what you will find in the Discworld books. So you'll meet funny characters: witches who are ahead of their times, the Four Horseman (including Death, who speaks in all caps!) and the Satanic nuns, a gang of imaginative kids, a dog-like Hellhound, telephone salespeople, and bikers - all of whom will irresistibly remind you of the good people of Ankh-Morpork.

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P.S. A friend asked me why I didn't give this book more than three stars. Here is my response:

"While I enjoy the works of both of these writers, I confess that I can't fully love a book where two atheists reinterpret the Bible to fit their own worldview. That makes me a little uncomfortable, and I am definitely not a secular humanist like Pratchett.

If not for my philosophical differences, I might have enjoyed "Good Omens" as much as the best of the Discworld books (for me, "Small Gods" has the same problems with religion as "Good Omens"). A lot of people love this book to pieces, though, and you may not have the same reservations I did.

That's not to say that I don't find the characters charming and the book well-written. It's just a personal hangup that kept me from fully engaging in the story."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls

The Cavendish Home For Boys and GirlsThe Cavendish Home For Boys and Girls by Claire Legrand
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Victoria Wright's well-ordered town suits her perfectly - but when her messy friend Lawrence goes missing, she begins to sense the wrongness crawling behind each shiny facade.

This book definitely reminded me of Coraline. Mrs. Cavendish could be the Other Mother's creepy twin, and the House and its inhabitants reminded me of the other side of Coraline's door. I liked the precocious and prickly Victoria, whose affection for her one and only friend carries her through some truly terrifying experiences. This book is not for the faint of heart. If you can't take multitudes of cockroaches, tortured children, and (shudder) mystery meat, stay away!

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Tom Lefroy

Jane Austen's only love:

Pretty handsome guy (the white is undoubtedly powder, fashionable at the time). His brief non-courtship of Jane Austen is the subject of Becoming Jane, starring Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. The real Lefroy married an heiress, had oodles of kids, sat in Parliament, and was appointed Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, his native country. He had a good life, it seems.

I'm reading Claire Tomalin's wonderful biography of Jane Austen, and this is what she has to say about Jane's brief and joyful flirtation with Lefroy:

"We can't help knowing that her personal story will not go in the direction she is imagining in the letter; that, as it turned out, it was not Tom Lefroy, or anyone like him, who became her adventure, but the manuscript [Elinor and Marianne*] upstairs. Not marriage but art: and in her art she made this short period in a young woman's life carry such wit and human understanding as few writers have managed to cram into solemn volumes three times the size."

It makes you wonder if the great female writers who are known to have remained single all their lives (I'm thinking of Emily Dickinson here, too) would have managed to produce their art if they had the added demands of marriage and motherhood. Would they have been happier? Maybe, maybe not. Would we? We would be unfortunate in the sense that we would never know what we missed. Imagine all the great works lost -  works that might have been created by men and women who were too burdened by other concerns.

Okay, stop thinking about it. It's too sad.

*Elinor and Marianne was later renamed Sense and Sensibility.

Year Zero

Year ZeroYear Zero by Rob  Reid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Humanity is about to be tricked into destroying itself by musicophilic aliens unless Nick Carter (a lawyer, not the Backstreet Boy) can figure out a way to thwart Earth's absurd copyright laws.

Year Zero is not destined to be a classic like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it's certainly a breezy, fun read. Lawrence Lessig-quoters who agree that worldwide copyright laws are greedy and penny-pinching will certainly enjoy this send-up (in spite of the hero being a copyright lawyer himself). A few jabs at pop music, and a very funny take on what aliens might do with reality TV complete the fun.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Found on Netflix Streaming

Yesterday I discovered that many classic Disney animated films are available. I promptly rewatched The Rescuers and The Rescuers Down Under (did you know that the poacher Percival C. McLeach is George C. Scott? Fantastic voice work!). So many childhood memories...and I only just realized how disturbing it is that the poacher spent his time interrogating the little boy by throwing knives at his head! Holy goodness! Scott's heartwarming version of "Home on the Range" still gets me, though.


Dumbo is there, too. No Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast. What gives, Disney?

Today I found out that Going Postal, the first Discworld book I ever read, is a movie, and it's available on streaming! So far so good! I like the Richard Coyle, who plays Moist (less impressed by Angua's stupid eye makeup, but I do like her sneer).

I enjoyed Hogfather a while back, which stars an actress Downton Abbey watchers know as Lady Mary Crawley (called Michelle Dockery in her real life). Lady Mary plays Susan, Death's adopted granddaughter.

Oh yeah, and Hogfather is also available streaming, as is The Color of Magic, which stars Sean Austin and Tim Curry, among others.

In short, what homework?

Friday, February 1, 2013


In my reviews, I try to be even-handed and suggest additional titles I think readers may enjoy. I'm not always right by any stretch of the imagination, so argue away if you disagree with what I write!

Please feel free to comment on my posts or even suggest titles you think I might enjoy! I love hearing about new books, though my to-read list is longer than a person with only one pair of eyeballs can view in one lifetime.

One star = Hated it with a burning, loathing passion
Two stars = Meh. It was just okay (not quite bad enough to hate)
Three stars = Liked it (not quite great enough to love)
Four stars = Really liked it
Five stars = Loved it completely

My ratings don't indicate the objective quality of the fiction I read, but instead reflect how much I enjoyed it (or not). Only a five star review is a clear recommendation from me for quality and enjoyment. I take genre considerations into account, too, and don't judge a romance novel the same way I would a literary novel.

In short, it's totally subjective and you can feel free to love the books I hate and hate the books I love (but why would you?)