Sunday, March 28, 2010

29. The Great Divorce by C S Lewis

I had a really hard time getting into this book.  I had no idea what was going on at first; and the setting seemed so dreary and hopeless.  It made so much more sense when I realized that the people on the bus were traveling from Hell to Heaven to see if they wanted to make Heaven their home.  Lewis writes in his preface, "Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good."  This book tells of the choice we must make in order to move toward good.  So many of the passengers on the bus, when they reach heaven, are unable to make that choice.  They can't give up their passions, or favorite sins.  They feel out of place and seem more comfortable below in the dreary environs of Hell.  Some cannot fathom or accept the great joy that is to be attained at they move forward towards the mountain peaks of the heavenly place where the bus has taken them so they turn back.  Some are just afraid to move forward.  Some of the characters depicted in this book were so miserable that you couldn't feel bad for them; others made me stop and reexamine my own feelings.  And this book definitely makes you think; and that it is probably its greatest aspect.  Here are some quotes I marked:

"The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."  There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.  There is always something they prefer to joy -- that is, to reality.  Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.  Ye call it the Sulks.  But in adult life it has a hundred fine names --Achilles' wrath and Coriolanus' grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride."

"There are only two kinds of people in the end:  those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done."  All that are in Hell, choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.  No soul who seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek find.  To those who knock it is opened."

"Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place.  I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell; and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself."

My favorite Lewis book is still The Screwtape Letters but this short story (77 pages) is certainly a thought provoking essay from a great Christian philosopher. 
Rating:  4.25

Friday, March 26, 2010

28. Father's Arcane Daughter by E L Konigsburg

"Once  upon a time, Winston got a new sister. The first time it happened, his parents brought home from the hospital a "creature". Heidi is handicapped and Winston, made to be responsible for her, builds a vocabulary just to describe her - none of the words are particularly nice. The second time, his half sister returned home sixteen years after she was kidnapped. At first unhappy at Caroline's arrival, Winston slowly comes to appreciate her presence in their lives, just as he really begins to question whether or not she is really Caroline.

An interesting story, told in Winston's words as he speaks to his sister (which sister is not identified for some time) about what happened twenty years ago, when Caroline came home. Well told, the reader gets the feeling, eventually, that either answer to the mystery of Caroline would be fine. It is far less important WHO she is than THAT she is."   Review from by Anna M Ligtenberg

This is probably my least favorite of the three Konigsburg books I've read, but even so I liked it a lot.  Winston is such a unforgettable character, torn between his embarrassment and resentment of his younger sister, Heidi, and his need to protect her.  Caroline is much needed addition of sanity and normalcy to the dysfunctional Carmichael family.  This is a well-told dramatic story that draws you in and holds your interest right to the end.
Rating:  4

27. Sam's Letters to Jennifer by James Patteson

I recognized quite quickly that I had read this book previously.  So maybe that is why I enjoyed it less than the other Patterson romances that I read or listened to earlier this year.  It seems my rating have gotten lower with each book.  Perhaps Patterson romances should be read much more sparingly.  I might not read another one.  Even so, I did finish this one because the story was interesting enough to stick with it. 

Jennifer is widowed, living with her two cats, and writing a newspaper column from her apartment.  After the death of her husband and her miscarriage, she has retreated from life.  Until she receives a phone call that her beloved grandmother, Sam, is in a coma.  Jennifer quickly travels to Wisconsin, staying in the family cabin on a gorgeous lake and visiting the hospital daily.  She finds a stack of letters that Sam has written to her with instructions to read just a few at a time.  So the book actually presents the story of Jennifer who meets handsome, divorced Brendan  living next door, and the story of Sam and her less-than-perfect marriage to Jennifer's grandfather.  So Sam, Jennifer, and Brendan are all incredibly good-looking, nice, and appealing people; and the story is just too sweet and very predictable.  In fact, some of the dialog between Brendan and Jennifer is down right silly.   I found myself rolling my eyes several times.  Still there was the beautiful lake; Jennifer's love for her grandmother, Sam's wisdom in the letters and a cute romance.  Enough to make the story just okay for me; but not enough for me to want to read any more of Patterson's romances.  I'll just stick with his Alex Cross series.  Come to think of it, how does a man write these slightly insipid romances and the highly charged and violent Alex Cross thrillers? 
Rating:  3

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

26. Dispatches From the Edge by Anderson Cooper

Anderson Cooper tells of the main tragedies that he reported on during the year of 2005 interspersed with some autographical material and the stories he covered around the world in earlier times.  The earlier memories served to explain his reactions to what he was reporting on as well as to show comparisons between the wars and disasters that he has covered.  I found the jumping around hard to follow and probably would have liked the book better if it had followed a more chronological approach.  However, when he tells about his father's death when he was ten and then jumps to what happened in Rwanda, or his brother's suicide when Anderson was in college and then the next chapter  finds us in maybe Sri Lanka; there's a certain poignancy in the comparison between large-scale tragedy and the sorrow and pain he felt at his own losses.  The most moving story to me personally was when Anderson describes the horrible events of Hurricane Katrina; not just the storm itself but the mismanagement of the rescue and clean up efforts after the storm subsided.  How many more people died because there was not enough food, medical supplies, water, law enforcement is never documented; but you feel many deaths could have been avoided.  Just the thought of dead people laying in the water and streets more than a week after the storm is pretty horrifying.  So it is not a pretty book, but certainly one that makes you stop and think, be grateful for your own circumstances; and maybe feel more compassion towards those less fortunate.  Here are some quotes from the book that I found particularly moving:

" I've seen more dead bodies than I can count, more horror and hatred than I can remember, yet I'm still surprised by what I discover in the far reaches of our planet, the truths revealed in the dwindling light of day, when everything else has been stripped away, exposed, raw as a gutted shark on a fisherman's pier.  The farther you go, however, the harder it is to return.  The world has many edges, and it's very easy to fall off."

"The more you've seen, the more it takes to make you see. The more it takes to affect you.  That is why you're there, after all -- to be affected.  To be changed.  In Somalia, I'd started off serachng for feeling.  In Rwanda, I ended up losing it again."

"My mother once said that she survived the traumas of her childhood because she always felt that inside herself there was a crystal core, a diamond nothing could get at or scratch.  I'd felt that same rock form inside me when my father died.  In New Orleans, however, it started to crack."
Rating:  4.25

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury

This book is a sequel to Dandelion Wine which I absolutely loved.  I found Bradbury's prose and descriptions wonderful and the story made you long for simpler times.  Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Farewell Summer at all.  In fact, I didn't finish it.  Somehow the descriptions overwhelmed me.  There was a storyline somewhere amidst all the flowers but it was very unappealing to me.  Maybe I should have stuck with it but there are just too many other books I want to read.  After fifty pages, I gave up.  Since this was part of my Catching Up Challenge, I feel good at least knowing it is no longer languishing on the shelf. 
Rating:  DNF
Catching Up Challenge

25. Eye Contact by Cammie McGovern

From the back cover:   Two children disappear into the woods behind Woodside Elementary School.  Hours later one of them, nine-year-old Adam, is found alive, the sole witness to his playmate's murder.  But Adam is autistic and can say nothing about what he saw.  Only his mother, Cara, has the power to penetrate his silence.  When another child goes missing and Cara's unsettling past emerges from the shadows, she has to ask herself whether her efforts to protect her son have exposed him to unimaginable danger. 
I really enjoyed the main story of this book, that of the murder mystery and trying to get facts from Adam, who can't understand what has happened and what is wanted from him.  McGovern, who is the mother of an autistic child, does a fantastic job of depicting Adam's world and his mother's struggles to protect her child as well as helping him to learn and grow and also accepting him for who he is.  It is a riveting look inside this disorder.  I found the side story of Cara's past and its eventual resolution to be a mixed bag.  She is an odd character to me except for her fierce protection of Adam which I totally understood.  The conclusion of the mystery itself was unsatisfactory to me probably because there were facts withheld until the end of the story.  Alongside the autistic storyline, Cara's past friendships and hopeful future, there is a side story which deals with bullying and the angst of being an outsider in the preteen world.  This book is just filled with people who don't quite fit in and would be great reading for young adults.  I plan to share it with a friend of mine who has two autistic children because I think Cara's struggles with coming to terms with Adam's autism are something whe can really relate to.  I receommend this book, it's well-written, and deals with some interesting issues. 
Rating:  4
Catching Up Challenge

24. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

"Rosoff's story begins in modern day London, slightly in the future, and as its heroine has a 15-year-old Manhattanite called Daisy. She's picked up at the airport by Edmond, her English cousin, a boy in whose life she is destined to become intricately entwined. Daisy stays at her Aunt Penn's country farmhouse for the summer with Edmond and her other cousins. They spend some idyllic weeks together--often alone with Aunt Penn away travelling in Norway. Daisy's cousins seem to have an almost telepathic bond, and Daisy is mesmerized by Edmond and soon falls in love with him.

But their world changes forever when an unnamed aggressor invades England and begins a years-long occupation. Daisy and Edmond are separated when soldiers take over their home, and Daisy and Piper, her younger cousin, must travel to another place to work. Their experiences of occupation are never kind and Daisy's pain, living without Edmond, is tangible." Review

This book was a strange reading experience for me.  The lack of punctuation and run-on, long, long, long, sentences took some getting used to; but were actually perfect for the voice of Daisy.  She is such a conflicted character and watching her grow up made the book.  She was not appealing at all at first; and it was slow going there for a while; but things pick up and the story becomes so compelling.  This is not a pretty story, but very realistic and thought-provoking.   I liked how a young reviewer on related to setting a war in England in the future without the constraints of actual history but with the all-too-real burdens of the deprivations, grief and hardships of war.  I did struggle with the ending of the book, not the fact that it was not a fairy-tale, happily-ever-after ending; but that it seemed to end so abruptly.  I just needed some more details.  But overall, I found it to be a well-written, topical and fascinating book. 
Rating:  4
Catching Up Challenge

23. The Time Travelers by Linda Archer

I bought this book and Gideon the Cutpurse at the same time, not realizing they are the same book.  What's up with that?  Apparently the author decided to rename it as well as the second book in the series, The Tar Man or The Time Thief.  I like the original titles the best because there are an awful lot of time travel books out there and, frankly, I find Gideon the Cutpurse and The Tar Man a bit more interesting.  Minor beefs, I know, and I read the pictured version simply because it is a paperback and I prefer that.  And it is a nice cover, isn't it? 

From the back of the book:
"1763 -- Gideon Seymour, thief and gentleman, hides from the villainous Tar Man.  Suddenly the sky peels away like fabric and from the gaping hole fall two curious-looking children.  Peter Schock and Kate Dyer have fallen straight from the twenty-first century, thanks to an experiment with an antigravity machine.  Before Gideon and the children have a chance to gather their wits, the Tar Man takes off with the machine -- and Peter and Kate's only chance of getting home.  Soon Gideon, Peter, and Kate are swept into a journey through eightenth-century London and form a bond that, they hope, will stand strong in the face of unfathomable treachery."

This really is a charming book that I think most kids would truly enjoy, most adults as well.  Even though there are a number of time travel stories out there, and I've only read a few; I do recommend this one:  it's clean; the history is well-researched and an integral part of the story; the characters are three-dimensional and interesting; and there is plenty of humor and intrigue. 

Rating:  4.5
Catching Up Challenge

22. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

"Ivan Doig writes about the American West in prose that reads like poetry. His keen eye for physical detail is as sharp as ever in his latest novel, yet the element that truly drives the book is humor.

Widower Oliver Milliron instructs his 13-year-old son, Paul, to read a newspaper want ad to the rest of the family:

"Can't Cook But Doesn't Bite."

It's an ad for a non-cooking housekeeper who wants work in 1909 Montana. The Millirons -- three boys and their dad -- could really use a cook, but Dad is drawn by the humor and refuses to believe a woman exists who can't cook. So he gets Paul to draft an answer to the ad.

Immediately, the school-yard antics begin. Youngest brother Toby can't keep his mouth shut, so everyone knows the Millirons are getting a housekeeper they've never laid eyes on. How old and ugly will she be? Will she henpeck them?

The teasing continues even after the very pretty Rose Llewellyn arrives, unexpectedly bringing along her highly educated brother, Morris.

Eventually, the school-yard teasings of the Milliron boys turn into a contest, a horse race where the riders face the wrong end of the steed. The prize for the Millirons is an end to the teasing.

It's one of the funniest scenes in the book, but that's only the beginning. Writing about kids turns almost everything into an opportunity for humor because of the way children's small fears and dramas reach magnificent proportions in their own minds.

When the teacher of that one-room school runs off with a tent-revival preacher, the only available choice to fill the post is Morris. He may not be conventional, but he's inspiring.

When the school inspector announces his imminent arrival, threatening to close the school if the students don't perform adequately on standardized tests, everyone, including unflappable Morris, gets the jitters.

Doig populates his work with colorful characters, even the minor ones. Perhaps the most colorful this time around is Aunt Eunice Schricker, a pinch-faced complainer who sends the boys into fits of dread every time their father forces them to pay her a call.

She sits around knitting lace doilies until the parlor "looks snowed on." Doig's humor and keen eye extend even to the smallest details, not just to the sweeping Montana landscape.

Only one part of the book seems a bit weak -- the climactic scene where Brose Turley, a violent trapper, and his son confront Morris. The scene itself is tense enough, but the reason for Brose's attack seems too philosophical for this man who ostensibly does nothing but drink and kill things.

Doig's skillful framing device gives this novel a bittersweet air. The action centers on the children, but it's told from Paul's adult eye. He's now the state superintendent of schools, threatened with the possible need to close the one-room schools such as the one where he was educated." 
By Rebecca Sodergren, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Since my computer crashed a couple of weeks ago and I'm four book reviews behind, I'm using this great review of Doig's wonderful book, The Whistling Season.  This is my third Doig book, and I'm a huge fan.  While English Creek remains my favorite, this book is also a fun and interesting read.  I just love the way he uses words.  I agree with the above review that the scene involving Brose Turley seemed lacking, but I also didn't care for a twist at the end of the book.  It seemed contrived and unnecessary to me.  Other than that, I loved this book and welcome it as an addition to my library of keepers. 

Rating:  4.5
Catching Up Challenge

Saturday, March 06, 2010

21. Boston Jane by Jennifer Holm

At first, I didn't really like this book.  The writing was too simplistic and Jane was a very silly character.  Then I realized that it was written for a much younger audience; and I started to enjoy it much more.

Jane is the daughter of a doctor.  Her mother died when she was born and her upbringing has been very conventional for the 1840's.  At the age of eleven, she is humiliated by a older girl and decides to do all she can to become a lady and change her tomboyish ways.  This is where I found Jane to be so silly.  When she is fifteen, she accepts a marriage proposal and travels to the frontier of Oregon to join her fiance.  The voyage itself begins to test Jane's most cherished notions of being a lady; and, once she reaches Oregon, things become even worse.  The humor is great although there is a great deal of sadness in the story as well.  Reading about how Jane reacts to her circumstances was very entertaining and made this book a worthwhile read.  Although Jane is the only really fleshed-out character in the book, there are other interesting personalities who add spice to the tale in small ways.  I would like to have been to know more about them as well. 
Rating:  4
Catching Up Challenge

Friday, March 05, 2010

20. The Great Bridge by David McCullough

I'm not sure you can find better history than what David McCullough writes.  His research is so in depth and broad.  It's no wonder his books are so big, because he packs them with the most interesting historical tidbits and facts.  Who would think that reading about the engineering feats that created the Brooklyn Bridge would be so fascinating?  McCullough is able to make the spinning of the great steel cables and the sinking of the huge caissons that hold up the two towers of the bridge as interesting as reading about the foibles of William Tweed and his Tammany Hall cronies.  I never knew that so much controversy, hope, animosity, despair, stress, pride, etc.  was involved in what would become one of the United States' great landmarks.  Not only does McCullough write about the technical difficulties and triumphs involved in building the bridge, he also brings the cast of characters who contributed to the story come alive.  Washington Roebling, the chief engineer, and his wife, Emily, are especially interesting as you follow their courtship and the sacrifices they make to complete the Great Bridge.  My only complaint is that the book is so big.  I don't know what facts he could have left out; but the last few chapters were a bit hard to stick with.  Maybe I'm just not as into big books as I once was.  Whatever, I do recommend this book to get insight into New York and Brooklyn after the Civil War and also to learn about how ingenious man can be.  Now I wish I had actually crossed the bridge when I was in New York instead of just taken a picture. 
Rating:  4.5
Catching Up Challenge

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

19. Sundays at Tiffany's by James Patterson (Audio)

From the back cover:  "Jane Margaux is a longely little girl.  Her mother, a powerful Broadway producer, makes time for her only once a week, for their Sunday trip to admire jewelry at Tiffany's.  Jane has only one friend:  a handsome, comforting, funny man named Michael.  He's perfect.  But only she can see him.  Michael can't stay forever, though.  On Jane's ninth birthday he leaves, promising her that she'll forget him soon.  He was there to help her until she was old enough to manage on her own, and now there are other children who need his help.  Years later, in her thirties, Jane is just as alone as she was as a child.  And despite her success as a playwright, she is even more trapped by her overbearing mother.  Then she meets a man:  a handsome, comforting, funny man.  He's perfect --"

I probably would have liked this book more if I had not listened to a simlar story by Cecelia Ahern, If You Could See Me Now last year.  The similarities were a little jarring.  Still I liked the character of Michael.  He is perfect but also conflicted in his role as an imaginery friend.  I would have liked Jane better if she had showed a bit more spunk.  Her relationship with her boyfriend, the gorgeous actor who starred in her play, makes no sense as he is a self-centered and incredibly rude jerk.  She is also a bit of a door mat to her mother which is more understandable as she wants her mother to love her, and her mother is also her boss.  Still, it was a pleasant romance to listen to while driving.  I fast forwarded through the obligatory sex scene so I can't tell you if it was plausible or not.  But I enjoyed the relationship between Jane and Michael and found the book pretty good.
Rating:  3.5

18. The Bone Vault by Linda Fairstein (Audio)

I like to listen to Linda Fairstein's books while I travel.  They are fast-paced and full of mystery and intrigue.  Just the thing to keep me awake.  Both of her books that I have listened to were narrated by Blair Brown who does an excellent job of creating voices and accents for each individual character.  This particular book involves Alexandra Cooper, an assistant DA in New York City.  I think there is a whole series with this character.  Alexandra is attending a function at the Metropolitan Art Museum when the head of the musueam receives a call about a problem with a sarcophagus sitting in a truck in New Jersey.  She goes to investigate and meets up with Mike Chapman, a homocide copy from the NYPD.  Together the two have to find the identity of the body found in the sarcophagus and solve her murder.  Along the way, the reader is treated to some back chop workings of the Met along with the competing Museum of Natural History.  Alexandra and Mike are both great and believable characters.  I enjoyed listening to this audio and will probably find more of Fairstein's audio books to accompany me on my trips.
Rating:  4