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Monday, April 30, 2012

Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Susan Vreeland

I was blown away by this book. And yet once again reading one book has paradoxically added to my TBR list. I'll be on the lookout for more books by Ms. Vreeland. Girl in Hyacinth Blue tells the story of a painting by Vermeer. It tells the story in reverse chronological order, from the viewpoint of its various owners, tracing the story from the present-day right back to the moment the painting was inspired. I was very impressed by the rich characterization Ms. Vreeland achieved. Her characters seemed alive and real and wholly believable, and each one was unique. We see from their thoughts how the painting impacted them, how they acquired it, why they parted with it. I found a common theme running through each character: longing. Longing that put me in mind of C.S. Lewis's 'northernness,' and my own youthful longing the object of which I was then too young to identify, and my yearning of today for Glory (no, not fame, but Heaven). This book nearly broke my heart, and yet satisfied me, too. I would recommend this book to anyone who reads fiction, and who is strong enough to read a heart-breaking book. I was not strong enough when I was young. As a side note, as I am typing this it shows paragraph breaks, but when I ask to 'preview' it, it displays without paragraph breaks. I am not quite sure how it will look when published. I apologize in advance if it does not have paragraph breaks. I don't know what to do to ensure it gets the breaks when published.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Stolen Lake, by Joan Aiken

The Stolen Lake tells us what happens to Dido Twite during her attempt to return to England. The ship she is on, being a British Navy Ship, is sent to aid Britain's oldest ally: New Cumbria in South America. It seems that someone has stolen the lake belonging to New Cumbria.

Ms. Aiken manages to weave in many bits of Arthurian legend. I chuckled when I read the names of the natives of New Cumbria, mixtures of Welsh and Spanish names, such as Jose Llewellyn (I made that example up because I no longer have the book with me).

However, I thought The Stolen Lake lacked the charm and light-heartedness of the earlier books in the series. It was hard to put my finger on it, but somehow The Stolen Lake, though resembling the earlier books, did not match their spirit and temper.  I would not, in fact, recommend this book. Though my children enjoyed it.

Prize of My Heart, by Lisa Norato

I will state at the outset that I received this as a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion of it.

And here is that opinion, in sum: it is a typical, but not notable, example of its genre.

The publisher, Bethany House, lists it as 'Historical Fiction,' which it is, but I think that leaves out the equally apt and important 'Romance.' This is the sort of book I would have loved during my misspent youth, but which I have come in my more mature years to regard with a certain mistrust.

If you read and like Christian Historical Romance, then I expect you will like Prize of My Heart. It is set in Massachusetts in 1815. Captain Brogan Talvis commissions a ship from master shipbuilder Nathaniel Huntley, whose beautiful young daughter Lorena cares as a mother for a little boy left to the Huntleys as a ward. Unbeknownst to the Huntleys, Captain Talvis is the boy's father, and intends to kidnap him at the first opportunity. But, of course, Captain Talvis and Lorena fall in love before Captain Talvis can put his plan into action.

As a work of literary fiction, I thought this book fell short of Miss Julia Takes Over (which I reviewed earlier today). Captain Talvis and Lorena are somewhat gullible in believing the wicked people who practice deceit upon them, but they are fine, upstanding people of integrity, lacking quirks and faults. As I read Prize of My Heart, I kept thinking I have skill enough to write such a story. But as I read Miss Julia Takes Over, I kept thinking I'd never be an author as good as Ms. Ross.

A Brilliant Idea

I don't know why it is, but I almost invariably calls my ideas 'brilliant.' Perhaps I'm a little vain.

But, my idea was this: I could specially label those posts of books which I own but don't intend to keep, and you, my loyal readers, could request that I send them on to you. Which I would be happy to do. First come, first serve sort of thing. So, if you notice that a particular post is labelled 'Available' and you care to read the book the post is all about, leave me a comment and I'll mail it to you. You'd have to share your address with me somehow (in the comment is fine, if you don't mind sharing your address publicly).

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I'm sure there's not much I can add to what's already been said about Kidnapped. It was a fun adventure for us. I think though, on the whole, that I prefer Treasure Island to Kidnapped. Now I'll have to read Treasure Island to the girls again real soon so I can confirm that opinion.

I'd recommend Kidnapped to any one interested in reading wonderful literature.

A Perfect Mess, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman

What if complete organization of one's home or office did not deliver all it promised? What if its benefits did not outweigh its costs? What if, in fact, it stripped one of something valuable?

Mr. Abrahamson and Mr. Freedman articulate in this book about mess and organization what I have long felt about time and schedules: that too strict standards too stridently enforced cost more than they are worth. Companies, families, individuals who do not enforce or require complete organization are more resilient and more resourceful than those who do.

Some amount of mess may actually lead to connections being made which otherwise would not be. The authors talk about scientific discoveries which were made because of mess, messy offices or messy laboratories. I see this also in the way in which my children think about the books on our disorganized bookshelves: they connect books in ways which I expect they would not if I imposed something resembling the Dewey Decimal system.

The authors turn their attention to homes and to businesses and find repeatedly that some amount of mess is actually more beneficial than complete organization. They do not, however, advocate complete mess.

Any system of organizing requires resources both to develop and to maintain, and in plenty of cases developing and maintaining a system of organization use more resources than the organization is worth.

I agree with many of the authors's conclusions; however, some of their assertions were more forcefully put than their evidence and arguments for the assertions warranted.

I would recommend this book to anyone who struggles with mess, especially to those who feel shame over it. Embrace the (perfect) mess!

Miss Julia Takes Over, by Ann B. Ross

I've found a new winner. I took a chance and bought this book at the library used book sale for $1 (I know, I know, big spender). Now that I've read this Miss Julia book by Ann B. Ross, I'm headed back to the library to purchase the other one that was available.

The plot is outlandish but not to the point of unreality or fantasy. The characters are quirky and deftly drawn. I cared about them, and couldn't put the book down because I wanted to know how they fared through their difficulties. The real charm of the book lies in Miss Julia's character, the sweet but highly opinionated narrator of the book. Ms. Ross is to be commended on skillfully writing a book entirely in first-person narration which reveals more to the reader than to the narrator.

Miss Julia took in her dead husband's mistress and her child (that story apparently being told in the first Miss Julia book, which I haven't read yet). She has come to love both of them, but now their lives and happiness are endangered by the machinations of a crooked fund-raiser and a greedy television preacher. Miss Julia comes to the rescue. While some ugly topics are touched upon (such as adultery), they are not touched upon in such a way as to glorify sin or even to make a spectacle of it.

Having recently read a book (review forthcoming) in which the main characters have no faults except for being a bit gullible, it was refreshing and a pleasure to read a book in which faults abound and seem real.

I would recommend this book to those who enjoy reading contemporary fiction, and especially to those who enjoy written portraits of southern ladies.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, by Kate Summerscale

Mr. Whicher was one of the first group of men to form the detective force which became Scotland Yard. He became the prototype for fictional detectives, and the setting of the mystery retold in this book became the prototype for detective fiction: the closed country estate with a limited number of suspects, all of them seemingly innocent on the surface. The case remained unsolved until one of the suspects, some years later, confessed to the deed. Mr. Whicher's career foundered on this case. But was it solved even when the confession was made?

Ms. Summerscale has done an excellent job of setting the stage, of researching the story, the setting, the details, even the weather. She wrote in an engaging manner. She takes an unflinching look at the gruesomeness of the crime, but not in a sensationalistic way. She excels especially at describing the milieu in which the crime takes place, bringing in such disparate characters as Charles Dickens (an ardent admirer of Mr. Whicher) and Charles Spurgeon (who had some things to say about the crime and the one who confessed to it), and tracing the influence of this real crime on fictional crime.

Ms. Summerscale provides her own solution to the puzzle and argues for it persuasively.

I would highly recommend this book to any lover of detective fiction.

Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James

I do believe I've read three P.D. James's books this year alone. I do enjoy reading her work. I think, of the few books by James which I've recently read, this one is my favorite. I appreciate the humanity of her characters, and the poetry of Dalgleish.

The Zookeeper's Wife, by Diane Ackerman

Jan and Antonina Zabinski were the keepers of the Warsaw zoo in the time leading up to the Second World War. Their zoo was bombed early in the war, but they managed to work matters so they were still in charge of the grounds and they successfully saved over 300 Jews over the course of the war by hiding them in the cages of the zoo.

I learned a lot about how Warsaw fared during WWII (not well), which I had previously not known at all. "Out of its prewar population of 36 million, Poland lost 22 percent, more than any other country in Europe."

The author wrote a relatively interesting story about an especially interesting topic: humanity during WWII. The story did not always seem to flow as a narrative. The author clearly strove to use unusual or creative verbs, but sometimes seemed to overreach. She also focussed a bit more on animal psychology than interested me.

On the whole I would recommend it to those who are interested in the history of WWII, and to those who like true stories of people remaining brave in the face of deadly danger and remaining humane in the face of brutality.

An Attempt to Return to Blogging

Life changes. Serendipitously the idea of blogging coincided with an immobilizing pregnancy and so I began to blog. But that baby has been born and has now reached the stage at which he requires constant supervision. Just this week he began pulling himself into a standing position and crawling up the stairs. One inattentive moment at the wrong time can mean disaster for a curious but incautious explorer, and his loving but grievously inattentive mother. Thus, what with the changes in our normal daily, and rather a lot of out-of-town company lately, I have stopped blogging. Not, I hope, permanently, but clearly for the last several weeks.

And so, here I sit at the computer, hoping and attempting to resurrect a pleasurable pastime. These changing circumstances which have conspired to keep me from blogging have merely slowed down my reading, they have not stopped it, and as a result I am several books behind as I am several weeks behind. Thankfully my oldest is proving to be a splendid and reliable 'babysitter' for me. She is caring for the little man as I type.

Once more into the breach!