Friday, February 29, 2008

China Road

Several years ago, I listened to Rob Gifford’s series "On the Road in China" on NPR. Three of my siblings (or siblings-in-law) have lived in Asia, and though I’ve never traveled in the area, I was fascinated by his series.

With this in mind, I intended to read Gifford’s China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power when it first came out last year. However, my local library did not immediately add it to its collection, so I forgot about the book.

Until I read The Geography of Bliss.

In Geography, Weiner suggests that Rob Gifford is a “hedonic refugee,” that he has an affinity for the United States (Gifford is British). Since Gifford was NPR’s China correspondent for six years, this statement took me by surprise and reminded me to read China Road.

Now that the longwinded introduction is behind me, I’ll write about the book. China is a hot topic and will continue to be so, particularly with the Beijing Olympics this summer. I was surprised, though, by how little I really know about China. For example, Gifford discusses in detail the many ethnic groups that comprise the country. In my Western mind, only Chinese people live in China, but this is just not true.

Like with the NPR series, I was most interested in the “human interest” stories Gifford shares. I was fascinated with the places he visits and the people he meets, so I’ve decided my next trip should be to China.

Much of the book, though, deals with policy, politics, and China’s future. These sections, of course, are of extreme importance. However, they are much less engaging than the rest of the narrative and tend to drag.

Gifford suggests, and I agree, that China’s future (both political and economic) will have a major impact on the global community—and the United States in particular. As such, this is one topic that all Americans should be interested in.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Since the film version comes out in theaters tomorrow, the “it” book of the moment is Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. A few weeks ago, I realized I needed to read the book before seeing the movie. However, the queue at my library is 25-people strong, so I decided instead to listen to an electronic version while doing my housekeeping. Unfortunately, I am only 4 hours into the 24-hour recording. I don’t think I’ll be finishing any time soon.
  • If you can endure an exasperating, yet endearing, heroine, Sophie Kinsella’s Remember Me? came out this week. USA Today gave it a positive review. I’m still recovering from Becky Bloomwood’s escapades, so this may make a nice summer/beach read.
  • Rutka’s Notebook was released today. Rutka was a 14-year-old Jewish girl living in Poland during the Jewish Holocaust. Notebook contains several months of her diary entries during this time. The book was first published in Poland last year.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

My Enemy's Cradle

I picked up Sara Young’s My Enemy’s Cradle after reading a review in USA Today a few weeks ago. The book centers around the Nazi Lebensborn, and I was intrigued.

Despite inundating myself with “Third Reich” literature over the last several years, I’d never before heard of the Lebensborn, homes for women impregnated (both willingly and unwillingly) by German soldiers.

Fair-haired Cyrla, the book’s protagonist, has a Dutch mother and a Polish-Jewish father. For five years, she lives with her mother’s family in the Netherlands and hides her Jewish ancestry. When the family receives threats for harboring a Jew, though, Cyrla knows she must flee.

Cyrla (Young doesn’t explain the name’s pronunciation—Curla—until well into the novel; unpronounceable names is one of my literary pet peeves) assumes her cousin’s identity and takes refuge in a Lebensborn.

The premise of this book is intriguing, and I have a strong desire to read more about the Lebensborn. Rather than a historical narrative, though, the book reads more like a predictable romance novel.

As a romance novel, I enjoyed Cradle. I was interested in Cyrla and her romantic entanglements. I wanted a happy ending and even shed a few tears.

As a Holocaust narrative, though, the book leaves much to be desired. Young’s tale romanticizes the time period. Although it refers to the horrors and atrocities committed during WWII and the Holocaust, the book glosses over these passages. Instead, it concentrates more on Cyrla’s love life and less on the truly perilous situation she and her family members find themselves in.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Hunters

The “two short novels” in Claire Messud’s The Hunters could have been written by two different authors: the writing style, themes, and tones vary drastically.

The first novella, “A Simple Tale,” centers around Maria, a “displaced person” in Canada (i.e., a WWII-era Ukrainian refugee). She works as a housekeeper, abandoning her old life without fully embracing the new. As she watches her employer deteriorate due to old age, Maria questions the authenticity of the life she’s built in Toronto.

In the second novella, “The Hunters,” an unnamed narrator recounts the summer he (or is it she?) spends researching death in London. S/he grows obsessed with her downstairs neighbor, a dumpy middle-aged woman who lives with her ailing mother and is a professional caregiver. The narrator describes Ridley as needy and aggressive, yet it is the narrator who creates a fantasy world surrounding her.

The premise of the novella is intriguing, but the narrator’s rambling internal dialogue is often confusing and off putting. Scenes with Ridley’s rabbits, the titular Hunters, are bizarrely reminiscent of the Shelley Winters’ camp film What’s the Matter with Helen?

Perhaps what intrigues—and disturbs—me most about Messud’s writing is her choice of vocabulary. Intriguing: her multiple use of the word “fug.” I’m trying to seamlessly weave the word into an everyday conversation. Disturbing: her narrator’s description of Ridley as almost “mongoloid” in appearance. I felt like I was reading a book written by a 90-year-old man and not a young woman.

Messud has an interesting perspective and imagination. Stylistically speaking, I was more comfortable with the straightforward “A Simple Tale” than the sometimes-incoherent “The Hunters,” but I’m impressed with her willingness to take chances as a writer.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Secret of Priest’s Grotto

While exploring in Ukraine, caver Christos Nicola first visits Priest’s Grotto, the ninth-longest cave in the world. While researching the cave, he uncovers its fascinating history—38 people hid and survived there for almost a year during the Jewish Holocaust.

Nicola, along with photographer Peter Lane Taylor, recounts the survivors’ experiences in the children’s book The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story.

Their story is interspersed with the authors’ experiences working in the cave. What makes the book interesting is the survivors’ experiences—not the scientific details of Nicola and Taylor’s research.

Priest’s Grotto is similar to other children’s scientific picture books. The photographs feel stark and the content is more textbook than narrative. This scientific focus transforms a harrowing and emotional tale into a rather stark and clinical study.

Nicola and Taylor base much of the book on the memoirs of one survivor: Esther Stermer’s We Fight to Survive. This incredible story deserves a more thorough, more literary, account than Priest’s Grotto. Unfortunately, Stermer’s memoir was privately published, and I have yet to find an available copy.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Guest Blog--Dead Heat by Dick Francis and Felix Francis

I have been a Dick Francis fan for many years. I usually like the cozy cottage or English-style mystery, but somewhere along the way, I got hooked on Dick Francis and Tony Hillerman. In a Dick Francis novel, the hero inevitably gets beaten up badly. Not an element in Agatha Christie novels. I have some Francis books that are favorites and others that I have enjoyed less.

When his wife Mary died, Dick Francis announced that he would not write again since she had been his collaborator in writing the mysteries. I have been pleased to see that he is still writing. It took me about six months to read Dead Heat simply because I am a borrower and not a buyer of hardback mysteries. And the waiting list was long.

Dead Heat is about a chef, Max Moreton, who is part owner in a restaurant in Newmarket, the heart of horse racing in England. First the guests at a dinner catered by Moreton suffer from food poisoning, and then the box where he is again catering a dinner at the races is bombed. It takes a bit of poking around on his part before Moreton realizes that he personally is being targeted.

I enjoyed the book although I am not sure it is one of Francis's better novels. I am a Gordon Ramsay fan (despite his bad language), so I chuckled over the references to his TV show in the book and enjoyed a glimpse into the world of cuisine.

I am sure all of the Dick Francis's fans out there feel as I do and hope there are more novels coming in the future.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Book Buzz

  • I keep running into Julia Bertagna’s young adult fantasy novel Exodus. The book has actually become a best seller to rival Harry Potter in Great Britain. Although published in 2002, the first in a trilogy is just starting to make waves in the U.S. and will be released here on April 1.
  • I’ve read about Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton in both USA Today and Amazon’s “Best Books of February.” The book features a real monster, which makes me a bit nervous, but USA Today called Groff “a talent to watch and celebrate,” so the book may be worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Guest Blog--Did you see what that girl is reading?

I sat by myself at a table in the Rayburn House Office Building Cafeteria on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. I briefly glanced around at the people sitting near me. One person was reading The NY Times; another person was reading The Hill; and I was reading The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. I must have looked quite educated and ambitious among my colleagues - sigh!!

I had started reading Goose Girl on my way home from Paris last fall. After getting a little queasy, I put the novel down only to pick it up again several months later and in Washington, DC. I thought I'd start where I left off and only read for an hour or two on a Sunday evening. The hour or two turned into midnight and me having to force myself to put the book down so I wouldn't be dead for work. I opened Goose Girl on the short metro ride to work and quickly found a quiet place (which is virtually impossible on the House campus) so I could continue reading during my lunch break.

The novel begins with a princess named Anidori and how she grows up learning to speak to animals - weird. Ani turns sixteen and is sent to the neighboring kingdom for an arranged marriage - exciting. This is when I really started getting into the story.

Of course I pictured myself as a princess throughout the novel and the prince was extra attractive - I'd want nothing less from a prince. I ended up skipping a lot of the description and details throughout the novel and just read the conversations which I felt really kept me informed and into the story. Ani eventually learned to speak to the wind which I grazed over- it was just a little too weird for my liking.

The rest of Goose Girl was enthralling and violent with a little romance too - the perfect combination for a teenage girl or a twenty-seven year old woman.

I will definitely pick up Hale's Princess Academy since I always enjoy stories about princesses. I can admit it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Gail Carson Levine

Sometimes, I actually make it out of the house to have a “book” experience. Such was the case on Friday when I attended a lecture by Gail Carson Levine.

Levine is best known as the author of Ella Enchanted, a Newbery Honor Book. She is an expressive, generous, and delightful speaker and started the lecture by reading a chapter from her latest book Ever due out in May. In a departure from many of her other novels (fairy tales), she describes Ever as a “Mesopotamian fantasy.”

The rest of the time was spent in Q&A. Q&As always make me a bit nervous because I never trust my fellow audience members to ask intelligent questions. However, this Q&A went without a hitch. Here are a few highlights:

  • Levine started writing as a child. However, after a high school creative writing teacher called her writing “pedestrian,” she didn’t write again for 25 years.
  • Once she started writing again, it took 9 years for her to receive her first acceptance.
  • She grew to like the film version of Ella Enchanted “gradually.” Her greatest disappointment was Ella’s acts of “disobedience” throughout the film (a fairy blessed/cursed Ella with the gift of obedience) and suggests watching the kissing scene as evidence. However, she also mentioned the film rights to all her other books are still available.
  • The authors that influenced her as a youth include L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and J.M. Barrie.

Levine also addressed her own writing process and made several recommendations for would-be writers. This advice includes:

  • Reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This book teaches there are no shortcuts to writing.
  • Reading Henriette A. Klauser’s Writing from Both Sides of the Brain which recommends a writer “visualize” finishing a book.
  • Joining a “critique” group.
  • Acknowledging that “you can’t torture a story into a direction that’s wrong for it.”

I was disappointed with Levine’s last book, Fairest, but I was completely enchanted with her as a speaker, and I might actually get out of the house more often to experience a book.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Woman in Black

I was perusing the Amazon bestsellers list when I first stumbled on Susan Hill’s mystery The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story. Why the book, originally published in 1983, was on the list in the first place is likely the greatest mystery of all.

Lawyer Arthur Kipps is sorting through a deceased client’s paperwork at Eel House when he first encounters the titular woman in black. The house and the woman are shrouded in mystery, and the local villagers refuse to reveal their history to Kipps. Instead, to his detriment, Kipps is left to muddle through the mystery on his own.

The story is predictable but altogether inoffensive. According to its blurb, the book is meant to be a throwback to the Victorian novel. The idea is intriguing, but I found it rather disturbing to read a contemporary (okay, it is now over 20 years old) novel written in the Victorian style. Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Wilkie Collin’s The Woman in White clearly inspired Hill. The anachronistic writing style, though, is a distraction more than anything else.

Another interesting addition to the book is John Lawrence’s illustrations. The black-and-white sketches are again an unnecessary distraction and inconsistent with a mystery novel. In one case, an illustration reveals a “shocking surprise” found on a subsequent page.

I might recommend the book to lovers of the Victorian mystery—if there weren’t already so many authentic novels available to read instead.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Book Buzz

  • I never watch The View (really, I don’t), but I caught a few minutes this week as Barbara Walters promoted the book Celebutantes. This event was significant for two reasons. First, I watched The View without scratching out my eyeballs. Second, I had just read about Celebutantes in USA Today. Two Hollywood “insiders”—Amanda Goldberg (daughter of Leonard Goldberg) and Ruthanna Khalighi Hopper (daughter of Dennis Hopper)—wrote the book. I am always intrigued when fiction features actual people as characters (in this case, celebrities). I am even more intrigued when those people are still alive. I smell litigation.
  • The New York Times Sunday Book Review featured political books this week. USA Today did the same. Clearly, election fever has reached the book world. Considering the turnaround time for books, though, I am always suspect of their currency.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Guest Blog--Let me check my Blackberry

Yesterday my husband and I accidentally ran into each other for lunch. It was a very pleasant surprise and I looked forward to sitting down and getting a quick break from my day. As soon as I sat down my Blackberry rang. My boss's number flashed across the screen. "Hello? Hello sir?" I kept repeating, silently freaking out that I wasn't getting very good reception. Luckily my boss is a jovial older man who is genuinely kind and easy to laugh - far different from Melinda Priestly, the "devil" in The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger.

I had previously seen the film with Anne Hathaway as Andrea Sachs and Meryl Streep as Melinda Priestly. I was shocked when the characters were described in the novel as looking the exact opposite of these two actresses. Andrea is a tall blond and Melinda is a tiny blond from England. Just the first 10 pages differed from the film and I was glad to be able to picture the characters in my own way and without prejudice from having seen the movie prior to reading the novel.

I actually really enjoyed Devil. From my own work experience I could relate to Andrea's feelings of panic whenever her phone rang or coming to dislike anyone who spoke with the same accent as your boss (mine was Australian). I loved hearing about the fashion and picturing in my mind what it would be like to work for a fashion magazine or a designer label. I found myself feeling blah about my own clothes and wishing for the day that I might have something semi-designer.

Whenever I read a novel, I find myself wrapped up in this new fantasy world and if the novel is well written, I am saddened when the story ends and my fantasy is over. I felt that way when I finished Devil.

Now don't get me wrong - Devil is not amazing, incredibly well written, or the best book I've ever read. But if you love clothes, love New York, and have had some interesting work experiences of your own, you'll like Weisberger's novel.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Wall

Somehow, I missed that Peter Sis’s The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain is a Caldecott Honor Book. Instead, I only knew it won the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award. The ALA-sponsored award acknowledges “the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year.”

As such, I was quite surprised to discover The Wall in the picture book section of my library. Despite being a Caldecott winner, the book reads and looks less like a child’s picture book and more like a young adult graphic novel.

Using illustrations—and very little text—Sis recounts his experiences growing up in Prague under Communism. Despite undergoing Soviet “brainwashing” as a child, Sis joins underground movements as both a musician and artist.

Sis’s Iron Curtain experiences are far from typical. He has opportunities to travel throughout Europe and to study in London. Whereas his experiences make him atypical in the Soviet system, his artistic endeavors also make him more of a target.

Sis’s stylistic artwork and the book’s format is consistent with other graphic novels I’ve read. As such, it would be a shame to simply shuffle the book away with other picture books when it can stand as a strong example of the graphic novel genre.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Geography of Bliss

Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss addresses a question that has been uppermost in my mind for many months. Can geography influence one’s level of happiness?

Although the premise of Weiner’s book, studying the influence of geography on happiness, sounds scientific, Bliss is much more a personal narrative or travelogue than scientific treatise.

That is not to say that Weiner, a correspondent for NPR, has not thoroughly researched the topic—he has—but the tone of the book is far from the neutral journalistic ideal. In fact, the word “snarky” comes to mind.

Weiner visits ten countries, all which claim different degrees of happiness, and recounts some of his experiences in these countries. As I said, Weiner’s tone is downright snarky, and he doesn’t seem to worry about offending anyone in the international community.

He boldly declares the Swiss “boring,” suggests the nation of Qatar lacks any culture, and remarks unashamedly on Moldovan women’s propensity to dress like “prostitutes.” He clearly approaches the subject with a heavy case of “cultural imperialism,” and I felt a bit offended on behalf of many nations.

Yet, I also found myself reading the book almost compulsively, as if it had been written specifically for me. I even reported several times a day—to anyone who would listen—about where I was visiting via Weiner: Iceland, Bhutan, India.

I have struggled for years with the geography-happiness question. I was raised to believe one must “bloom where she’s planted.” In other words, I should be happy regardless of my geographical location. But, try as I might, I simply could not feel content living among the cacti and roadrunners of southwest Arizona.

Geography truly has a significant influence on my happiness.

My family finds bliss on the beaches of San Diego, but I find little joy in the scratch of sand on my feet and the smell of saltwater in my nostrils.

Instead, I am what Weiner calls a “hedonic refugee” (179). Hedonic refugees, he explains, “seem to be more at home, happier, living in a country not of their birth” (179). My first day in Europe, wandering around Goteborg, Sweden, I had an overwhelming sense of peace and satisfaction. I knew, instinctively, that I could live there happily.

I’ve had similar experiences in almost every European country I’ve visited and felt complete contentment when I recently lived in Paris.

Weiner makes several suggestions but comes to no real conclusions about what makes one location happier than another. Ultimately, it is a matter of individual preferences. So, instead of blooming where we’re planted, as a true believer in the geography-happiness correlation, I can only recommend every individual find that location that brings the greatest bliss.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Valley of Fire

After watching (and enjoying) 3:10 to Yuma last week, I had to reread my favorite “Western”—Janet Cox’s Valley of Fire. I wrote about Valley before moving to Paris last fall but never got around to rereading it.

After breaking her engagement, Delores Ashley is banished by her father to St. George, Utah. Lori is rich and pampered and completely unprepared to become a manual laborer at her cousin’s inn. In addition, she must contend with the inn’s financial backer, Jonas Lukar.

Valley is your basic romance novel, so I’m not sure why I’m so enamored with the book. I never reread romances—but I’ve read Valley at least three times. Perhaps it’s because Cox’s writing is actually adequate. Or maybe I’m madly in love with Jonas Lukar. Secretly (or not-so-secretly), I want a handsome, rugged, good-hearted male to love me despite all my flaws. Sigh.

That being said, I must also confess I am not a fan of Christian fiction. The religious messages tend to be overbearing rather than seamlessly woven into the narrative. The weakest parts of Valley are certainly the Christian elements. It’s as if Janet Cox suddenly jumps into the narrative to preach to the reader. The passages are jarring, distracting, and uncomfortable.

Valley has been out of print for many years and is not easily accessible (I found a used copy online). But if you stumble upon the book, can stomach a little religion in your fiction, and need a “clean” romance fix, it might be worth a read.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Book Buzz

  • A few days ago, after weeks of excessive snow, my family discussed the possibility of cannibalism. We speculated over whether or not we would be able to cannibalize each other to survive the winter. Ultimately, I volunteered to be the first sacrifice due to my abundant meatiness. Not surprisingly, I have always been intrigued by the Donner party, and I am apparently not the only one. Sunday’s New York Times reviewed Ethan Rarick’s Desperate Passage: The Donner Party’s Perilous Journey West.
  • USA Today ran an article today about the controversy over Oprah’s book recommendation Eat, Pray, Love (currently #7 on Amazon). I had no desire to read the book before the controversy, but now I need to know what all the fuss is about. Unfortunately, I am #25 in the library queue, so I better develop a lot of patience.
  • #15 on Amazon is Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn. Why is this surprising? The book, the fourth in the Twilight series, won’t be released until August. Meyer also has an adult romance novel about aliens (yes, you read that correctly), The Host, coming out in May. The movie version of Twilight will be released in December. I may not be able to survive so much Stephenie Meyer in one year.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

People of the Book

I try to avoid all things popular (e.g., I’ve never seen Star Wars or Titanic) because I know, after all the hype, I can only be disappointed. When it comes to books, though, I feel obligated to read what’s popular so I can participate somewhat intelligently in the conversation.

That being said, although I hoped Geraldine Brook’s People of the Book would live up to the buzz, I wasn’t too surprised when it did not. The book is good, but it is not call-up-all-my-friends-(or readers)-and-recommend-it good.

People has been compared to The Da Vinci Code, but I find that comparison erroneous. Although better written than Da Vinci (but, come on, a phonebook is better written than Da Vinci), People lacks the plot, mystery, and pizzazz that made Da Vinci a blockbuster.

Instead, People is much more reminiscent of Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Hyacinth follows the provenance of a Vermeer painting. People follows the provenance of the Sarajevo Haggadah.

As such, the book is divided into several sections. Five sections follow the Haggadah back in history—to Bosnia, to Austria-Hungary, to Italy, to Spain. As the title suggests, it is not the book that is interesting so much as what happens in the lives of those people attached to it.

These sections are the strongest and most interesting in the book. However, for some reason I cannot fathom, some parts are written in first person and some in third. This twist seems to serve little purpose other than to distract and annoy the reader.

The book’s greatest weakness is the contemporary storyline that cushions each section. Hanna Heath is a book conservator hired to work on the Haggadah. She finds clues in the book—an insect, a stain, a hair—that reveal its history.

Unfortunately, I found Hanna’s story to be downright irritating. Hanna is 30 years old, has a double bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a PhD. She has apprenticed around the globe, is well published and highly regarded in her field. Perhaps I am just jealous, since Hanna and I share the same age and similar academic credentials (okay, hers are much better than mine), but Hanna’s experience and success is simply not plausible for someone so young.

Similarly, everyone Hanna meets—from Vienna’s chief archivist to Sarajevo’s head museum librarian—is 30 or under. Really? How did Hanna and her cohorts pack in so much and become so successful in so few years?

I could continue my nitpickiness (Ozren, the head librarian, speaks flawless English but stumbles over the word “hoof”?), but the point is that Hanna is so unbelievable she becomes a rather unsympathetic character. I was far more interested in what happens when she is out of the picture.

People of the Book is an okay read, but I see no need to trample your friends and neighbors to secure a copy. Read it if you have the time and inclination. If not . . .

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy

I was going to post my review of People of the Book today, but instead I spent the last two hours waiting in line to vote. I am all for civic responsibilities—but two hours. Instead, I will have to piggyback on notaconnoisseur's review of Ally Carter’s Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy from last week. Since I’m such a know-it-all, I might as well throw in my two cents.

I read Cross My Heart’s prequel—I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You—last July at notaconnoisseur’s recommendation. I enjoyed, but didn’t love, the book, and it clearly made very little impression on me. I honestly couldn’t remember a majority of what took place in I’d Tell You, including most of the characters. This forgetfulness is either the fault of an aged brain (entirely possible) or a not-so-thrilling storyline (also possible).

Maybe it’s because of my amnesia or since reading I’d Tell You I’ve overdosed on young adult novels, but I much prefer the sequel. The hijinks of high school sophomore Cammie Morgan and her best friends at an all-girl spy school are delightfully fun. And I also enjoyed the romance (or was it just a cover) between Cammie and another teen spy, Zach.

This is not to say the book is perfect. For someone trained to be a spy from birth, for someone who supposedly developed spy gear at age seven, and for someone who speaks fourteen languages fluently (Carter repeats this fact about a thousand times in the book), Cammie sure does some stupid things. Can she really be angsting at the same time she’s scoping out how many bald males in a crowd are wearing watches?

The book is entirely fantastic—and some descriptions of the CIA-sponsored school and gadgets are just too much to handle—but one aspect of the book was just too unreal to believe.

SPOILER ALERT: Fifteen male students from an all-boy boarding school move into the all-girl boarding school. Talk about a recipe for disaster. What could be worse—hormonally speaking—than throwing together teenagers who have been deprived of the opposite sex most of their lives? Yet, the book makes no mention of the complications inherent in the situation—surely to maintain its G-rated tone—but I was reminded of my uncle who invited a male foreign exchange student to live with him and his five daughters. Was he really surprised when one ended up pregnant?

Overall, the book is entertaining, and, as notaconnoisseur says, contains nothing offensive for a 12-year-old girl or a 58-year-old grandmother.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Rasputin's Daughter

I’ve always had a certain fascination/attraction/repulsion towards Rasputin. Who was he? And how did he hold so much power over the Romanoffs?

If the animated Anastasia is to believed, Rasputin was basically the devil incarnate. If Robert Alexander’s Rasputin’s Daughter is to believed, Rasputin was a complicated, and potentially misunderstood, man.

Rasputin’s Daughter has been languishing in my “to read” pile for over a year. After unsuccessfully starting half a dozen books last week, I finally picked it up. And I had a difficult time putting it down.

I had only a vague notion of who Rasputin was, and the novel provides insight from an interesting perspective: Rasputin’s eighteen-year-old daughter Maria. Maria narrates the last week of Rasputin’s life, including the dichotomies of his character.

Rasputin is a miraculous healer, calling on the powers of heaven to save the Heir Tsar. Yet, he is also licentious and uses his authority and influence to take advantage of people sexually. Maria tries to reconcile the two seemingly opposite sides of her father’s character.

As an author, Alexander breaks many rules. His narrator is young Russian female. So not only does he write from the perspective of someone from the opposite sex but also from someone of an entirely different nationality—two things an American male can know little about.

Yet, the narration is successful. Despite writing in first-person, Maria’s inner monologue is kept at a minimum. She is shocked at her father’s sexual exploits, confused by his healing powers, and attracted to a young man, Sasha. Such feelings are universal despite sex or nationality.

More than anything, I felt sympathetic towards Maria and even somewhat sympathetic towards Rasputin. Why the nobility hated him is never clearly explained (apart from a vague relationship with the Tsar and Tsarina), so I felt both shock and disgust over his murder.

After finishing the book, though, I had to remind myself that it is historical fiction and not necessarily accurate in any way, so I immediately performed an internet search (the fastest but not necessarily the most authoritative way of finding information) on Rasputin and Maria.

Interestingly, everything I found was very unsympathetic towards Rasputin. And I discovered that many aspects of Maria’s life (SPOILER ALERT: e.g., her relationship with Sasha and subsequent pregnancy) were entirely fictionalized by Alexander. Indeed, Maria actually went on to lead a very colorful life that included cabaret dancing and lion taming.

I enjoyed the book so much, and Alexander’s writing style, that I couldn’t help but be disappointed by how little his narrative apparently reflects reality. Perhaps my next read should be a nonfiction account of Maria and Rasputin.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Guest Blog--Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter

Last spring I read Ally Carter's book I'd Tell You I Love You But Then I'd Have to Kill You and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I had the chance to read the sequel Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, I was enthusiastic. However, it took me about two weeks to read the first 84 pages. Finally last night I picked it up again and could not put it down until I had read the final page.

I did not enjoy this book for young adults as much as I did the first one. The first novel had me laughing and crying as I read about the fictitious life of a fifteen year old girl in a private school for potential spies.

However, I did think that Carter captured the mixed emotions of a teenaged girl who is out done by a boy her age and then finds herself attracted to the same boy who she feels has teased her and put her down.

Although I did not enjoy it as much as the original novel, I would not hesitate to suggest that my twelve year old granddaughter read it. It has feelings she would recognize as well as elements that will make her feel that girls can do anything they set out to do.