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Book Review: An Appetite for Murder

An Appetite for Murder
An Appetite for Murder by Lucy Burdette
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I found this book as a result of Twitter. As a librarian and author of the Writer’s Guide to Government Information, I sometimes get authors following me.

I don’t always follow back, but @LucyBurdette‘s profile said she was an author of a series based on a food critic living in Key West Florida. I think Key West is beautiful. I also appreciate food and mysteries, so I followed her back and asked what the first book in her series was. I didn’t realize till later that she is also one of the people who write the Jungle Red Writers blog, a blog I enjoy for its friendliness, wit and food references.

An Appetite for Murder has appealing characters, plausible situations and honestly kept me guessing till the murderer was revealed. I also liked how a gay couple was worked into the script as just two more characters. One partner was a psychologist friend of the protagonist who just happened to be gay.

As you would expect from a food based mystery, there are many descriptions of food. These are done well, whether set in a restaurant or if it’s something the main character is making for her friends. As a bonus, a few of the dishes mentioned in the book have recipes at the end.

There was nothing in the story that really set my head shaking and brought me out of the story. It was a great read for a weekend and I will definitely be checking out the other books in the series.

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Review: Initiates, The: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs

Initiates, The: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs
Initiates, The: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs by Étienne Davodeau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recommended without hesitation. This a graphic novel with a “small is beautiful” subtext.

This is the story of a graphic novelist (Etienne Davodeau) and a vinter (Richard Leroy) who agree to learn about each other’s work. The graphic novelist prunes vines, plows fields and attends wine tastings, vinter interviews and cooperage demonstrations. The vinter goes to publisher meetings, writer interviews, conventions and reads many graphic novels. Some novels are to the vinter’s taste, but others are not. We learn a number of details about both crafts. These are two men who take great pride in their work and willing to expand their horizons. It was a joyous and uplifting read.

The illustrations are almost photorealistic and draw you into the world of the book. It’s black and white but that seems to fit the intensity of the craft going on. Many bottles of wine were drunk and many books were read over the course of this work. The end of the book features the first bibliography I’ve seen that also features a wine list.

This very enjoyable book would have never hit my radar if I hadn’t read it on the “Staff Picks” section of the Juneau Public Libraries web site. See http://www.juneau.org/library/picks_category.php?subject=1 and scroll down.

Caution: If you were bored by either My Dinner with Andre or Mindwalk, this book might not be for you. Otherwise, you’re in for a treat!

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Review: Upsetting the Balance

Upsetting the Balance
Upsetting the Balance by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I may be sounding like a broken record here, but the third book in the WorldWar series is just good enough for me to move onto the next book.

As in the previous books, situations and characters are plausible. There are few moments of “but why …” The historical characters feel authentic to me, though that’s really a measure of how the book matches how I was raised to view Stalin, Hitler, Churchill and FDR.

And yet, the problems of the first two books continue to plague this book. Today’s fun fact, repeated several times in all three books is that the best tank commanders will open their hatch and stand in their cupola because it allows them to see more of the enemy, but that exposes them to more danger. In addition, there seems to be more unerotic sex than in the second book, though less than in the first book.

Overall though, it is worth continuing to read the series, at least for now. I just can’t bring myself to give it four stars.

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Review: American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon

American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon
American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon by Stephen R. Prothero
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A well researched book on the concept of Jesus in American culture. Starts off with the surprising but documented claim that Colonial America was an unchurched place outside of New England. The various culture reinventions of Jesus were for the purpose of getting more people to believe in Him. This seemed to occur, but at the cost of more and more theology and doctrine.

The first part of the book, called resurrections, focuses on how US Christians reinvented and reinterpreted Jesus within the context of Christianity. Part two, reincarnations, focuses on how American Mormons, some black churches, Jews and Hindus gave the United States Jesus figures entirely divorced from Christianity.

Stephen Prothero is careful not to endorse any particular version of Jesus. He claims throughout the book that he only intends to lay out the various claims made for Jesus by Americans throughout our nation’s history and I think he does a good job of staying even handed.

I think Prothero’s book really explains how the United States can be both a nation where Jesus is an unavoidable national object of veneration and where our national elites have little discernible conduct that can be traced back to the Christ of the Bible. The book also uses historical context to explain why the loudest Christians in our country are far more likely to quote and venerate the Ten Commandments then the Sermon on the Mount.

But enough editorializing, I guess. In addition to a generous bibliography, American Jesus features a six page timeline of Jesus related events in America, over two pages of notes and an index. This book seems like it would be useful for cultural scholars while still being interesting for a general audience.

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Review: The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin': Learn How to Survive Moose Attacks, Endless Winters & Life Without Indoor Plumbing

The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin': Learn How to Survive Moose Attacks, Endless Winters & Life Without Indoor Plumbing
The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin': Learn How to Survive Moose Attacks, Endless Winters & Life Without Indoor Plumbing by Brookelyn Bellinger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve lived in Alaska since 1998 and think this was an excellent book. Should be required reading for people thinking about moving hear or who want to take an extended vacation. Great mix of authentic, actionable information along with humorous asides. Interesting stories from the author along with interesting interviews with offbeat characters. When you put it down, you’ll have a feel for why we like it here in Alaska. And you won’t take your partner canoeing. Or be a winter caretaker for an Aleutian cabin. Bonus – book is indexed!

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Book Review: A Thread of Grace

For one of the Juneau-area book clubs I’m involved with, I just finished:

Russell, Mary Doria. 2005. A thread of grace: a novel. New York: Random House.

Here’s the summary of the book from WorldCat:

Set in Italy during the dramatic finale of World War II, this new novel is the first in seven years by the bestselling author of The Sparrow and Children of God. It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to be safe at last, now that the Italians have broken with Germany and made a separate peace with the Allies. The Blums will soon discover that Italy is anything but peaceful, as it becomes overnight an open battleground among the Nazis, the Allies, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive. Mary Doria Russell sets her first historical novel against this dramatic background, tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty-three thousand Jews during the war’s final phase. The result of five years of meticulous research, A Thread of Grace is an ambitious, engrossing novel of ideas, history, and marvelous characters that will please Russell’s many fans and earn her even more.

The complicated scenarios that Ms. Russell lays out in her book seem to be mostly accurate, although there is argument over the details. The emotional impression the book made on me was similar to that of the movie Training Day with Denzel Washington. That movie was extremely well crafted with fully three dimensional characters. The movie was very engaging from the opening credits. It truly was a work of art. And I never, ever, ever want to see it again.

Same with this book. I will bring it to my book group and discuss it, but I’m NEVER reading it again. Not because it is badly written, but because reading it was a harrowing and depressing experience for me. There are signs of hope and reminders that even in the darkest times, people can do the right things – whether for noble reasons or for mere self interest or hatred of an occupying power.

Ms. Russell does an admirable job of creating fleshed out characters that you really care about. She’s actually able to make you feel sympathy for some war criminals – how the path to the gas chamber could START with good intentions. It’s like the frog boiling in water. She also shows how war crimes can be the result of accident. Ms. Russell does not excuse these crimes but does show they don’t have to originate as full-blown intentions of evil. And in some ways, this is no real comfort.

Character arcs are well explained. If someone breaks from previously established reason, a good reason is usually offered. Aside from it being too depressing (but what novel about a war zone under occupation won’t be?) my only real complaint about the book is that it had about four spots where I just didn’t get the transition from one scene to the next. I re-read those sections but just didn’t really get how the scenes tied together. It might have been me. Even if it wasn’t, we’re talking about less than five percent of the book.

If you want a realistic portrayal of life under Nazi occupied Europe and partisan resistance and you don’t mind characters you come to love being ground to dust under the heel of war, this book is for you. If you’re looking for a good fictionalized account of the motivations of characters in extreme situations, this is for you. If you want to know how trauma can affect someone for both good or ill, this is a good read for you.

Me? I find life grinding enough. Give me something from the Vorkosigan Saga any day. Almost anything from Mercedes Lackey would do too. In fiction, I want to know everything will be ok in the end. My one exception is Sarah Rees Brennan books but at least SOME of her books have happy endings.  If someone recommended a Mary Doria Russel novel that did have a mostly happy ending, I’d be willing to read it. But I won’t be picking up another of her well written books unprompted.

References:

Italy – USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive (Introductory Notes) – http://libguides.usc.edu/vha

H-Net Review of Daniel Carpi. Between Mussolini and Hitler: The Jews and the Italian Authorities in France and Tunisia. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994. ix + 342 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87451-662-3. – http://www2.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.php?id=1166

Book Review: Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History

I recently finished the audiobook version of:

O’Donnell, James Joseph, and Mel Foster. 2009. The ruin of the Roman Empire a new history. [Solon, Ohio]: Playaway Digital Audio.

Author James O’Donnell is currently provost of Georgetown, but was previously a professor of classics. His book was narrated by Mel Foster, who I thought did a good job of appropriate narration on material that was usually academic, but sometimes veered toward the snarky. Mr. Foster handled both tones of writing well.

Dr. O’Donnell’s book has three main divisions: The Roman Empire around 500 CE, just prior to the reign of Emperor Justinian; Justinian’s reign (527-565) and that of a few successors; and a look at the Western part of the failing empire during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604).

One flaw of any non-fiction audiobook is the lack of access to an author’s notes. So I cannot make a fully informed decision about Dr. O’Donnell’s evidence for ideas that even he admits may spark controversy. Having said that, he uses quotes from classical texts well to make his point. He also does a good job of bringing ancient authors to life, which helps readers to understand what biases they may have had in their writing.

Dr. O’Donnell posits that the main reasons that Rome (as represented by the Byzantine Empire ruled out of Constantinople) fell were:

  • Lack of interest in the peoples and regions beyond the Empire’s borders
  • Obsession with conformity in religious belief under Emperor Julian, which alienated the largest Christian cities of the east.
  • The waging of unneeded wars on the periphery of Empire while doing little about growing alienation in the Balkan heartland near the capital.

Along the way he attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of Theodoric the Great and other “barbarian” rulers that Dr. O’Donnell sees as Roman in education, outlook and ruling style. Based on the material he presents, I find him successful. But this is the first time I’ve even thought about Theodric since my Western Civilization course back in the 1980s.

We also learn more about the competing versions of Christianity in the period of late antiquity and how the particular doctrines nearly universal in the West can be traced back to Emperor Justinian.

Overall, I think the book is an engaging listen and I think the print version would probably be good too.

 

 

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt

I’m a member of our local chapter of the Alaska Library Association. A few months ago we started a book group that seems to be one of our more successful ventures. For that group, I recently finished the Kindle edition of:

Robinson, Kim Stanley. 2002. The years of rice and salt. New York: Bantam Books.

This is a book of two intertwining stories – A story of three civilizations: China, the Muslim world (Dar al Islam) and India (plus its allies) and a story of reincarnated souls dealing with themselves, each other, the world at large and sometimes with a bewildering assortment of gods.

Europe is not a factor because the book assumes that 99% of Europeans were killed off by the Black Death in the 1300s. Despite the chronological table in the front of the book, I was confused at times by when events were supposed to be happening. So I recommend the spoiler laden Wikipedia article on this book for people who wish to explore the chronology further.

The years of rice and salt is divided into ten books, which usually switch between civilizations. Book I was teeth grinding for me. Each of the book’s eight chapters ended with a remark from a 3rd person omniscient narrator that reminded me I was reading a book. This was particularly jarring because Robinson did such a fine job of immersing me in the empty world of Bold, a deserter from the Tamerlane’s army. Temur had decided to invade Europe. But all Bold and his advance party found were empty towns. Emptied by plague. When Bold reports this to Temur, he orders Bold and all of his fellow scouts to be killed and burned. Bold escapes into the now empty European wilderness and wanders for weeks. When he is finally caught by passing Arab slavers, he is grateful — and we understand why. But then the narrator reminds us we’re reading a book and the spell shatters.

Fortunately, this device is dropped for the remaining books. I think it should have been edited out of Book I before publication. If you can get through Book I, the rest of the work is fairly enjoyable.

One of the more notable differences between the world of Rice and Salt and our own, is that Native Americans in what we know as North America managed to hold onto the middle part of the continent fending off Chinese colonies on the West Coast and Muslim colonies on the East Coast. They eventually join with a system of democratic leagues in India to dispute the main empires of China and Dar al Islam (collection of Muslim states) for control of the planet.

One surprising similarity between our world and the world of Rice and Salt is that after a brief period of enlightenment, Islam was perceived as a backward and woman-hating civilization with small pockets of progressives. This is rather surprising to me. The pressure of China on Dar al Islam in their world was different from the pressure Europe put on our world. For one thing, Christian Europe was obsessed with the Holy Land that was also sacred to Islam. China was different – it only competed for trade and territory.  This lack of a religious war component on the part of China should have been a bar against fundamentalism in Islam as it had less to react to.

One thing that did bother me was that most of the scientific advances in the world of Rice and Salt came in the same order as our world. Additionally, most of the most important advances came from the same two Muslim characters – think of Newton, Galileo, Pasteur, van Leeuwenhoek and a host of others rolled up into two people. While I think think there would be scientific advancement on Earth if there had been no Europeans, I do think it would have developed differently because different peoples have different interests – maybe the Chinese would be more advanced in medicine but less advanced in labor saving devices because of their larger population. Maybe the Muslims around the Mediterranean would be very advanced in irrigation and desalination but deficient in something else. Or very advanced in optics, but not electricity, and so on.

Turning from the story of the worlds to the story of the reincarnating individuals, it is hard to say much without providing spoilers. One spoiler that I think is in your best interest is that for the most part, characters are reborn with names starting with the same first letter as the name of their previous incarnation. So Butterfly is a reincarnation of Bold, and Kheim is a reincarnation of Kyu. This information is offered in the Wikipedia article and by Robinson himself very late in the book. While it was somewhat entertaining to guess which new character was which old character, it was sometimes confusing and took away from the flow of the story. So I think you’re better off with the secret decoder ring. Once you identified a character’s previous reincarnations, the similarities and growth of the character were apparent.  Robinson does a good job of making characters similar to, but not exactly like the person they were in a past life.

Overall though, it is a good read. It’s a decent alternative history story with good characters. It does get a little preachy on what justice looks like but it is not overbearing in doing so.

Book Review: Casual Vacancy

I’ve read as much as I can deal with of:

Rowling, J. K. 2012. The casual vacancy. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

I read pages 1-72 and 411-end. This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a book I hadn’t read completely, but thought some of my 30 or so regular readers might benefit. If you’d like to read reviews from people who did finish the book, check out the Goodreads page for Casual Vacancy.

My take, from skipping the middle? I find it to be well written for what it is. It’s not my cup of tea but could be yours.

Unlike several innocents I saw at Goodreads, I knew several things going into this book:

  • This was Rowling’s first book for adults.
  • It had a lot of swearing and sex.
  • It asserted that the quaint English countryside covered a sea of conflict.
  • Casual Vacancy referred to an unscheduled opening in the local city council.

This did not prepare me for a whole town of people whose sole delight appeared to be in cutting one another down. Not that this really made them happy, but not seizing a chance to make someone miserable increased their own misery.

I think I’d met up to a dozen characters, maybe more before I closed the book at page 72. I had not met even one remotely sympathetic character – only the vile, more vile and cowardly. That’s when I started looking up reviews. I wanted some hope that eventually at least one of these characters would grow into a full human being. The reviews told me not to hold my breath. I told a friend and fellow book group member about this. She told me that she was pretending that Pagford was Lord Voldemort’s home town. If that were true, I can certainly see how Tom Riddle picked up his lifetime loathing of muggles.

The other thing I got from the reviews is that what plot there was (as opposed to developing the characters as backbiting savages) started around 300. I couldn’t make myself start that early, so I started on page 412, the second chapter of the last part.

There was indeed a plot, including three major incidents that did seem to bring about changes in some characters. One couple’s marriage gets better. One teenager steps back from suicide and begins to value others. But other people get even more mean and backbiting.

One of the reasons I assert Casual Vacancy is well written is for a scene where a teenager does something that is deeply scandal provoking, but when explained from the teenager’s point of view is necessary to protect a loved one.

In some reviews, Rowling gets hit for ending the book abruptly. I don’t think that’s really fair. While the book does end at a funeral, it does finish the event. At its heart Casual Vacancy is a character story – the bit about the Council and the drug treatment center is just a sideshow. Once Rowling showed how the many characters in the book changed, intensified, or stubbornly resisted change, the work is done and no more pages are needed.

Overall the effect of this book reminded me of the movie Training Day with Denzel Washington. The movie is about the truly harrowing first day of a new LAPD narcotics officer. Pretty much all of the rookie’s woes are inflicted by his deeply corrupt partner. It was well written. It was well-directed. The plot made sense for what it was. And I never want to see it again. Admittedly I did watch the whole movie, but if it were a book I probably would have dropped it at page  72 and not read more.

So, if you think humanity is scum and want a book that validates your beliefs in a well written way, Casual Vacancy is for you. People wishing realistic depictions of domestic violence or drug abuse may also find this work of value. If you enjoy uplifting books or want adventure, stay away.

Book Review: Unspoken

What if your imaginary friend wasn’t? This is the question answered in Sarah Rees Brennan’s book:

Brennan, Sarah Rees. 2012. Unspoken. New York: Random House.

This book made me scream out loud at the end, a testament to how much Sarah Rees Brennan made me care about the characters.

It’s hard to write about this book without giving away important spoilers. Aside from the one I just gave. It’s set in a small town in the English country. For many years the area has been lacking its leading family. Local folk, when you can get them to talk at all, are divided on whether this was a bad thing.

Around this time, Kami Glass, who is both a local girl and an outsider owing to her heritage, plows her way into creating a school paper. Kami sees herself as an investigative reporter and has the will and charisma to dragoon friends into her investigations.

Which is a good thing, because with all the odd things going on in her town of Sorry-in-the-Vale, Kami needs all the help she can get. Even from the newly enfleshed voice inside her head.

Aside from the main story, the scenes with Kami and her family are endearing. Also of interest are the scenes where various secrets are revealed. Most of them are unexpected and a few are deadly. The whole book was well paced and hard to put down.

As with Team Human, I actually read Unspoken awhile back but it has stuck with me too. I also, really, really want to read the sequel!

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