Friday, December 28, 2007

The Best of 2007

Before taking a brief break for the New Year, I have to post my own "best of" list.

Unfortunately, my best of 2007 will not compare to The New York Times'. Since I lack the Times’ resources, my list won’t be the best books published in 2007. Instead, it includes the best books I’ve read in 2007.

As of today, I've read 82 books this year. Here are my favorite ten:

10. Death of a Maid/The Good Husband of Zebra Drive/Love is a Many Trousered Thing: These may not be the most literary or well-written books. However, they were all published in 2007, and I enjoyed reading them more than any other books during the year.

9. The Shadows of Ghadames: I read Joelle Stoltz’s award-winning book before starting this blog. The book gives a glimpse into nineteenth-century Libya as a young girl conspires with her mothers—and defies societal rules—to hide an injured man on her rooftop.

8. Into the Wild: I may not agree with Chris McCandless's choices, but his life fascinates me almost as much as it does Jon Krakauer.

7. A Room with a View: Lucy Honeychurch is no feminist ideal. But she and George Emerson have a delightful love story.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: I am not a Harry Potter fanatic, but I wanted to read this final installment as much as the next person. I just hope J.K. Rowling can finally put the series to rest and let the books speak for themselves.

5. Fieldwork: For a debut novel, Fieldwork is charming. Berlinski is truly talented if he can make a book about murder and cultural imperialism so delightful.

4. Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You: I bombarded myself with books about genocide this year. Over a Thousand Hills stands out from the rest because this biography of the Rwandan genocide actually took place. It is a disturbing memorial to humanity's failure.

3. North and South: I am still in love with John Thornton, even three months after finishing North and South. I will definitely be reading more Elizabeth Gaskell in 2008.

2. Deogratias: Few books affect me the way Deogratias does. Graphic novels may not appeal to most readers. However, the format is key to making this story about the Rwandan genocide the most emotionally-shattering book I read this year.

1. The Book Thief: I actually made this list so I could once again sing The Book Thief’s praises. I recommend this book without hesitation to any reader. It is by far the best book I read in 2007.

Now that I’ve shared my list, what books are on your top ten?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Assumptions and Misunderstandings

As I mentioned yesterday, I was absolutely intrigued by the title of Anne Bates Linden’s book Assumptions and Misunderstandings: Memoir of an Unwitting Spy. Unfortunately, Linden and I have different definitions of the word “spy.” Basically, she suggests to Ukrainians in the early 1990s, all Americans were spies. This may be an accurate observation, but it doesn’t make for an enthralling read.

Instead of an exciting memoir, Assumptions reads like a middle-aged woman’s journal—which is basically what it is. In fact, even the book’s publication is far from professional. The text is littered with errors and entire sections appear to be missing.

Linden shares a few experiences she had as one of the first members of the United States Peace Corps in newly independent Ukraine. Having lived in Ukraine, I could relate to many of her experiences: long lines, erratic water and electricity, “KGB” interference. However, we approached them in very different manners, which made me lose sympathy for her. She seems to be shocked and appalled by the “inconveniences” of living in Ukraine (and Europe, in general). Talk about cultural imperialism.

Ultimately, though, because of my interest in Ukraine, I wanted to read Linden’s memoir. I was disappointed that it ends after she has been in Ukraine for a year and has lost her interpreter (she gives no explanation as to why) and her job with the local government.

Yet, she states earlier that she spent three years in the country. So what did she do for the next two years? Where did she work? Did she ever learn the language? The book is less than stellar, but I wanted to know what happened and wish Linden had been willing to tell me.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Booty

One of the best things about Christmas and birthdays is asking for books I want to read—and not having to spend my own money on them (I can admit to a bit of frugality/cheapness in my nature).

Yesterday, I received four books:

  • Assumptions and Misunderstandings: Memoir of an Unwitting Spy: I heard about this book in a promotional email from Yevshan. How could I resist such a title? Plus, it takes place in Ukraine. I had to have it.
  • The Ladies’ Lending Library: The more I think about The Green Library, the more I like it. This book is also about Ukrainian-Canadians. Unfortunately for my mother (the gift giver), it was only available from the Canadian Amazon. She spoiled me. This book better be worth her effort.
  • Ambassador of the Dead: I rediscovered this book by Askold Melnyczuk on my “to read” list. Clearly, I need also to write down where I heard about a book, but I suspect it may have been from a New York Times book review years ago. The characters in this book are Ukrainian-American—can you sense a theme in my requests? Maybe what I really need is a trip back to Ukraine to get the country out of my system. If only I’d thought to ask for that for Christmas.
  • Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories: I am a huge L.M. Montgomery fan and a great lover of all things Anne. I didn’t ask for this book—because I had no idea it even existed—but I can hardly wait to read the Christmas-themed short stories. In the introduction, the editor mentions collecting a list of over 500 short stories published by Montgomery. Now that’s a collection that needs to be published.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays from Book Rater's Literature Reviews. I hope you all receive oodles of books this Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Due to catching the vomitous illness referenced yesterday, the Book Rater will not be posting today. Guest blogs, however, are always welcomed and encouraged.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Scarlet Letterman

Despite spending the day with four vomitous children (okay, one was an adult), I managed to finish Cara Lockwood’s sequel to Wuthering HighThe Scarlet Letterman.

Clearly, the young adult novel held my interest. More than anything, I wanted to know what happened between Miranda and her two suitors: Ryan (the basketball player) and Heathcliff (the brooding Brit). How would she choose between them? (Though, for me, the answer is clear.)

Of course, in addition to balancing her love life, Miranda must solve the mysterious disappearance of Coach H (Ernest Hemingway) and Ms. W (Virginia Woolf), track down a hooded attacker, and battle a vicious tiger. If only my life as a high school sophomore were an iota this exciting.

Although I enjoyed the sequel more than the original, I am still incredibly disturbed that famous literary figures have been blasphemed as the books’ villains. I can't imagine, as an author, taking such liberties.

I also could have done without multiple references to MTV programs in a book published by MTV Books. Yet, I am hooked on Miranda and her saga. Do I really have to wait until March for Moby Clique?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

American Born Chinese

I’ve been hearing about Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese for months. The book won the Printz Award, was a National Book Award finalist, and was chosen the best book of the year by Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, etcetera, etcetera. This book has amazing credentials.

Considering all the buzz, all the acclaim, my expectations were so high that perhaps I could not help but be disappointed. The book is good, but is really great?

This is only the fourth graphic novel I’ve read this year, so I am far from an expert on the genre. However, I find both Deogratias and Persepolis far superior in both story and content.

In American Born Chinese, Yang interweaves three seemingly unconnected stories: the main plot about a young Chinese-American boy, Jin Wang; a subplot about an exaggeratedly-Anglo teenager, Danny, and his extra-exaggeratedly-Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee; and the legend of the Monkey King.

The graphic novel is ambitious, addressing identity struggles, racism, and learning to accept one’s heritage. All the topics are important and worth discussing. However, the book lacks subtlety and the ending feels flat. Those two flaws keep a good novel from being a great one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

House of Meetings

I've just finished Martin Amis’s House of Meetings, and I am a bit confused by my reaction to it.

The story is absolutely bleak—the tale of two Russian brothers who “love” the same woman and are sent to the Gulag—and the main character completely detestable (he confesses to being both a serial rapist and murderer). Yet, I don’t feel depressed, nor do I despise the narrator.

I suspect my mild reaction is based on the notion that such bleakness and brutality is authentically Russian (or at least is consistent with what I, as an American, imagine Russianness to be).

In fact, only one aspect of the novel truly disturbs me. The book is written as a letter to the narrator’s American daughter. The idea that the narrator confesses his crimes and sexual exploits to his daughter feels totally inappropriate and uncomfortable. As a literary devise, the format rings false, and I wish Amis had simply presented the tale in memoir form.

Although Amis tends to tell not show (completely breaking the cardinal rule of all creative writing courses), he is a skilled writer. However, because of the subject matter, I would only recommend the book to fellow Russophiles.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Goose Girl

Shannon Hale’s The Goose Girl is one of those books I’ve seen at the library dozens of times and always meant to read. I finally did this weekend. Although the book is rather hefty at almost 400 pages, I had a hard time putting it down.

The Goose Girl is certainly not a masterpiece, but I’ve always been a sucker for fairy tales. I’ve read just about everything Robin McKinley and Gail Carson Levine have written, and The Goose Girl fits well into the genre.

Ani, the crown princess, is used as a bargaining chip to keep peace between two kingdoms. On her way to be married off, however, everything goes awry and Ani ends up tending the king’s geese instead of marrying his son.

I’ve found most contemporary fairy tales contain too many fantastical elements for my comfort and interest, and I could have done without Ani’s magical abilities to speak with nature and her great love for her horse.

However, Ani is a strong female, yet her attitude, actions, and speech do not feel anachronistic (another problem with many contemporary fairy tales). She is a fine example for any young reader.

And, of course, Ani has a rather enchanting Prince Charming—the kind only found in fairy tales.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The China Garden

I need to stop reading worthless books. I wasted a whole day with Liz Berry’s The China Garden and will make this review short because I don’t want to waste your time.

Once again, Berry has an interesting premise. Clare moves with her mother to an old English estate and discovers both the people and the land have secrets.

However, the book can’t decide what it wants to be: a mystery, a romance, a treastise on ecological responsibility, or a guide to paganism. One moment Clare wants to save the planet; the next she’s frolicking in the grass with her boyfriend Mark. I was surprised by several rather graphic sex scenes in an otherwise tame young adult novel.

I found this book because it was on Amazon’s bestsellers list, so someone is reading it. I just wish I’d spent my time on something a little more worthwhile.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


I’ve developed a really bad habit: book cheating.

Until recently, I’ve had impeccable reading etiquette. I never flip to the end of the book. I don’t cheat to see if the lovers reconcile or to discover who the murderer is. Instead, I read from cover to cover. It’s only right.

But lately I’ve found myself cheating. I can’t help it—it’s those pesky young adult serials I’ve been reading. They simply aren’t good enough to justify reading the whole series, but they are interesting enough that I want to know what happens. So I’ve started looking online to discover how the series end. I know, shameful.

I never should have started three YA series in one week. Such an overdose could only be dangerous. The latest culprit: Meg Cabot’s The Mediator series. I just finished the first book, Shadowland, and I had to know what happened to the protagonist, Suze, so I cheated.

Suze is a “mediator.” Basically, she is a teen Ghost Whisperer. I confess I have watched—and even enjoyed—the TV series, so I was a bit intrigued by the idea of a teenage girl who both sees ghosts and helps them “cross” to the other side.

The premise is interesting, and the book is a fairly entertaining read. However, it is not entertaining enough to persuade me to read the other five books in the series.

On the other hand, Suze happens to share her bedroom with a nineteenth-century-hottie-cowboy ghost. How could I not cheat to find out how the ghost and the teenage girl progress romantically?

Clearly, the cure to my problem is no more young adult serials.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nursery Crimes

After finishing Fforde’s Nursery Crime Division novel, I couldn’t resist picking up Arthur Geisert’s picture book Nursery Crimes.

In this case, the word nursery refers to a place where plants grow. A couple, Jambo and Marva, moves from France to Iowa to start a tree nursery. Unfortunately for the couple, and their twelve children, someone keeps stealing their topiaries. Jambo and Marva fret over money and plot to catch the thieves.

The storyline is rather serious—particularly when the couple expresses money woes—but the illustrations save the book from absolute dreariness. Without the pictures, I would never have known that Jambo, Marva, and their children are pigs. I also wouldn’t know they live in a railroad station/school bus.

Despite the charming illustrations, and they are charming, the story just might cause both children and parents financial nightmares.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Big Over Easy

It took me years to do it, but I finally finished Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy. However, there is no correlation between my failure as a reader and the quality of the novel.

The Big Over Easy is the first book in the Nursery Crime Division series. Jack Spratt, and his new partner Mary Mary, investigate the death of Humpty Dumpty.

I am a huge Fforde fan, and he has one of the most brilliant imaginations I’ve ever encountered. I am constantly amazed by what he comes up with.

For example, the late Humpty Dumpty was a renowned lover. Imagining a giant egg as a lothario can only bring a smile to my face.

The book is clever from start to finish, with references to nursery rhymes and fairy tales throughout. Rapunzel, the Three Little Pigs, and Rumpelstiltskin are only a few characters who make appearances in the book. Despite the source material, the novel is anything but juvenile.

I’ll admit I was a tidge disappointed by the ending—it felt a bit too Jurassic Park for my taste—and the series isn’t nearly as literary or ambitious as Fforde’s Tuesday Next, but the writing and wit are still absolutely masterful.

As a writer, Jasper Fforde can do little wrong in my book.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Body Bags

Christopher Golden’s Body Bags is another of my Amazon bestseller choices. Jenna Blake is a college freshman. She starts working at the medical examiner’s office and gets involved in a political intrigue and assassination plots.

My summary sounds much more exciting than the actual book. The story is slow to build. Golden dwells on many details that I simply find uninteresting. For example, he practically gives a play-by-play of Jenna’s first day on campus as she sets up her dorm room and buys textbooks. I was bored by those events during my own freshman year; I had no desire to read about them in a young adult thriller.

Because I’m a sucker for love, I was mostly interested in Jenna’s mini-romance with Detective Mariano. I’m not sure what to make of the romance. She is a college freshman (i.e., 18 years old), and he is in his 30s. I find it both repellant and intriguing.

Body Bags is the first in a series. Despite my love for serials, I found the book too slow to read the next installment. Instead, I cheated to find out what happens in Jenna and Mariano’s romance. Got to love the internet age.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Guest Blog--The Man Who Walked Between the Towers

I recently read yet another Caldecott-award winner, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein. The story is a fascinating tale, far more fascinating than the illustrations.

The book tells the story of Philippe Petit who accomplished the amazing feat of walking between the World Trade Center towers in the 1970s. The book recounts Petit's inspiration for the feat, his planning, and his execution. An interesting note is that the book was written in 2003. The book ends with the news that most children might not know--the site of this amazing stunt no longer exists.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Wuthering High

Now that I’m back in the United States, I had to hit the local public library. But what to choose? I feel a bit out of the reading loop, so I decided to check out what the kids are reading—literally. I browsed through the Amazon bestsellers list and somehow ended up in the teen section. I compiled a huge list of “to reads” and started with Cara Lockwood’s Wuthering High.

As a Brontë fanatic, I couldn’t resist the title. And the blurb sounds interesting—a boarding school run by the ghosts of dead authors.

The premise is intriguing, but I’m not yet sold on the execution. Lockwood seems a bit confused about her audience—is it teeny boppers or English majors?

The book is drenched in pop culture references—dooming it to obscurity in a few years. Miranda, the heroine, references iPods, MySpace, Juicy Couture, and Ricki Lake (Ricki Lake, seriously?).

Yet, at the same time, the teachers at the school are Coach H, Ms. W, and Headmaster B. I could figure out the teachers were Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Brontë. But how would a preteen reader (or teen, for that matter) have a clue? even after Lockwood reveals their identities at the end of the novel?

I was also rather disturbed by Lockwood’s characterizations of these literary greats. Charlotte Brontë is a harpy, and Emily Brontë is an insane villainess. Granted, I didn’t know either woman personally, and I am sure each had her flaws, but I found these characterizations practically libelous. (And the disclaimer "[a]ny resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental" is an absolute farce.)

Of course, I am a sucker for a series. And Miranda is having a romance with Heathcliff (the Heathcliff), so despite my less-than-stellar review, I will have to head back to the library for Lockwood’s sequel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Modern Magi

I read The Modern Magi by Carol Lynn Pearson simply because it was there. I don’t normally indulge in sappy Christmas novels, but I desperately needed a reading fix, and it was my only available option (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration).

This book is a perfect example of why I don’t read Christmas novels. Annabelle Perkins dreams of going to the “Holy Land.” She is poor and sick and saves to buy her ticket. Naturally, as the title suggests, when the time comes to travel, she is faced with a situation where she can help someone with her travel funds.

Annabelle is simply too good to be true. I believe in goodness and charity, but Annabelle’s level of kindness lacks authenticity. The entire book, in fact, feels a bit disingenuous. I sensed that Pearson’s sole goal was to make her readers cry. Now, I love to cry in books, but I don’t want to be manipulated into tears (and I didn’t shed any).

The Christmas novel is a specific genre. You know what you’re going to get before you read it (like many other genres), so if you want sickly sweetness mixed with tear-wrenching tragedy, feel free to indulge.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Encyclopedia Brown

I bought four Encyclopedia Brown books off eBay, including Donald Sobol’s original Encyclopedia Brown: Boy Detective. The best thing about these children’s books, of course, is that I could read all four in one sitting.

Even as an adult, I find the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries stimulating. Sure, some of the solutions are incredibly elementary, and some are far from common knowledge (“A left-handed man will almost always cut his left sideburn higher (shorter) than his right sideburn when he shaves.”).

And there is one solution I simply do not understand. “[T]wo words could be read in the normal way – and upside down and backward! . . . They were CHOICE COD.” What is CHOICE COD upside down and backward? I need help.

In general, though, I find myself looking for the clues to figure out “whodunit.” I felt smart as a child reading the books, and I feel even smarter as an adult.

One of the books was Encyclopedia Brown’s 3rd Record Book of Weird & Wonderful Facts. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to read this book—and some facts are either boring or hard to believe—but there are a few tidbits I find interesting. Some favorites:

  • "When sipping a drink, a man is more apt to peer into the glass or cup, a woman to look above the rim.” Is this true? I look above the rim, but do men actually look inside the glass? And why would they do this? Are liquids terribly interesting to look at?
  • “[T]here-fourths of adult women brush their teeth at least twice a day. Only half the adult men do.” Eww.
  • “Men have been noted to fall out of hospital beds twice as often as women.” I had no idea this was such a rampant problem.

If you want to feel smarter—or even get smarter—I highly recommend a dose of Encyclopedia Brown.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Guest Blog--Christmas Stories

I recently read Richard Paul Evan's 2006 novel, Finding Noel. Noel is the story of a young man who finds a saving angel just as he contemplates ending his own life. He, in turn, plays the role of angel as he helps his savior, Macy, deal with her past and find her lost sister, Noel.

In some senses, this isn't a typical Christmas novel. It's not all roses and cheer. The main characters are poor and have tragic pasts. But Evans pulls through with the essentials of a Christmas story--hope, tears of joy, and a happy ending.

The novel is sometimes disturbing, sometimes sweet, and not a bad read if you want a short novel. However, it's also a pretty forgettable story that you likely won't have on your coffee table for years to come.