Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Gemma finds herself getting her wish: she’s placed in the Spence Academy, an English boarding school. There, she goes through trials and tribulations of being the new girl: dealing with cliques, bullies, and adult authority figures while continuing to experience her “visions.” The goal of Spence is not so much to educate girls but to transform them into society wives and mothers. Gemma connects with three other girls: beautiful Pippa, who’s about to be married off to a man older than her father; contrite Felicity, whose thirst for power seeks to fill a gap left by absent parents; and Ann, the poor orphan who is at Spence on scholarship and knows that in the future she’ll be no more than a servant to the girls who are now her peers. Together the girls enter into a pact that has long-lasting (for some, eternal) consequences, and along the way they learn what really happened to Gemma’s mother.
A Great and Terrible Beauty provides strong female characters while also commenting on the social order of the Victorian era, a time when keeping up appearances was more important than truth and substance. I don’t think my niece is quite old enough to appreciate this book (it’s probably better for readers 16 and older), but I did, and I already bought the next book in the series – Rebel Angels.
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Monday, December 15, 2008
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Author: Margaret Maron
Warner Books/Hatchette Book Group USA, 1992
Sometimes you just need something "light" to read. (I may be about to go through a "light reading" phase to balance an otherwise complicated life, so bear with me if you start to see more of these types of books.)
I had been seeking a mystery series set in the South, and came across this one (set in my home state of North Carolina) at my local B&N. According to its cover, The Bootlegger's Daughter won several awards in its day, including the Edgar Award and the Agatha Award (both awards for mysteries). The first few pages are filled with excerpts of praise from critics and other writers - including some well-known authors. So my expectations were pretty high for a $6.99 trade paperback.
Thursday, November 27, 2008
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Friday, November 14, 2008
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Saturday, October 25, 2008
Author: Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial, 2004 (originally published in 1988)
I bought this book at Bandi and Luni's Bookstore in Seoul, thinking (by the appealing cover and subtitle) that I'd stumbled upon something really good. Simon Winchester has written lots of books, with several of them (The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World) appearing on bestseller lists and receiving high praise. So I was let down hard when this book didn't meet my expectations.
The author went on a walking journey of South Korea - from tourist haven Cheju Island to Panmunjom up by the DMZ and border with North Korea - in the late 1980s. Along the way he met some really weird people - most of them not even Korean but American or Irish or British. The American soldiers were a rough and rowdy bunch who all seemed to be sex maniacs. The other foreigners seemed slightly mad and/or alcoholic. His portrayal of the Koreans he met seemed to be just as stereotypical.
The only part about the book I liked (if "liked" is the right word) was the very first part, which was a chapter providing some historical perspective and background.
I was so disappointed, I couldn't read it all. Too bad, because having been to Korea I was really interested in reading a good book about it.
Rating: 2 stars, and that's being generous.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Author: John Boyne
David Fickling Books, 2006
This is not a book I would have selected to read on my own, but it was highly recommended by one of my Vienna colleagues who hasn't done me wrong yet, so I picked it up in the young adult section of B&N recently and dropped it in the suitcase for the Asia trip. I started reading it last night but only read a few chapters before getting too drowsy. At 2:30 this morning, jet lag kicked in, and I was wide awake, so I started reading again and didn't stop until I was done (only about an hour and half later.)It's about Bruno, the nine-year old son of an upwardly mobile military father during early 1940s Germany. Bruno seems to be a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow until the day he learns that his family is leaving their nice Berlin home for a place faraway due to his father's promotion. He calls this place Out-With, and he calls his father's boss the Fury. So it's not too difficult to figure out that Bruno's father is a Nazi, and the family is moving to Auschwitz.
Bruno hates his new home. It's boring. He misses his friends and the action back in Berlin, and he doesn't find a comrade in his older sister. One day while looking out the window, he notices some people wearing "striped pajamas" and slowly, he enters their forbidden world. From his innocent perspective we go on a bittersweet philosophical journey, meeting interesting people such as Pavel, the doctor who now serves dinner for Bruno's family, and Schmiel, the young boy (and character in the book's title) with whom Bruno strikes up a forbidden friendship.
To tell you more than this would surely be wrong. Don't be fooled, though - this isn't necessarily a book just for kids. A movie version is expected soon. I just hope it's done right.
Rating: 4 stars for the writing, but 5 stars for the message.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Author: Kathleen Kent
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
The Heretic's Daughter is fiction, but first-time novelist Kent is an actual descendent of Martha Carrier, one of the many people accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Martha wasn't the first person accused, but she was the first person who stood up to her accusers. This is Martha's story told through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah.
I don't know about you, but I've always asked myself how people could have been so stupid to believe the antics of the girls who started the witch hunts. I've probably been swayed by watching too many bad dramatic versions of this story. But you know, there is always background information that we might not have that can help us understand why people behave the way they do. In this case, the people of Massachusetts (and the rest of New England) had just been through an outbreak of the plague that had killed hundreds of friends and relatives, and increasing violence between the settlers and Native Americans had people on edge. It was a bad time in general, and an especially bad time to be a woman who thought or behaved differently.
The story begins in the winter of 1690. The Carrier family has fled their home in another town for Andover to live with Martha's mother until the plague threat dissipates. Unknowingly and unintentionally, they bring the plague to Andover, and thirteen people (including Grandma) die. This begins a chain of events that will create great sorrow for the Carrier family.
Martha Carrier is at first portrayed as a cold sort of woman who has little interest in nurturing her children. She doesn't conform to the expectations of their "Puritan" society, which creates disorder in the family and community. Despite these shortcomings, Martha really is the backbone of the family and Sarah will eventually come to understand that perception is not always reality.
Sarah's father is also a nonconformist - and isolationist. A Welshman of large stature, he has a mysterious past and for the most part just wants to be left alone with his family. Sarah is perplexed that people in the community seem to fear him, yet from her perspective he avoids conflict and never stands up for his wife and children when they need it. The plot thickens as this subplot unravels.
Sarah - the heretic's daughter - experiences more pain and sorrow between the ages of 9 and 12 than most people experience in a lifetime. She blames herself for more than she should. And when her mother asks her to do something she's never asked her to do before - lie - she's not sure she can. Her journey will take her to prison - not a modern prison but a dark, danky, lice-filled cell where people are basically living on top of each other in human misery. Many of The Heretic's Daughter's characters are based on real people and situations, and Kent has translated her research well to fiction: At least one woman gave birth in prison, only to watch the baby die and then die herself. Children were accused and imprisoned, too. A four-year old girl was convicted of witchcraft and the judges actually struggled over whether to give her the death penalty.
There are many other interesting characters in the book, such as Sarah's favorite cousin, Margaret, who has visions; Margaret's likeable yet tragic father, the man whom Sarah simply calls "Uncle"; and Mercy Williams, the older teen just ransomed from Native Americans after a violent kidnapping years before.
The story is fascinating (it is historical fiction, after all!) The writing is tight, some of the best I've ever read from a first-time novelist. I read it in one sitting -- literally! -- on the plane from Chicago to Tokyo yesterday/today. Highly, highly recommended.
Rating: 4.5 stars.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Saturday, September 20, 2008
Friday, September 12, 2008
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Friday, August 22, 2008
Saturday, August 16, 2008
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Author: Paulo Coelho
Harper Perennial, 2007
Paulo Coelho is an internationally-acclaimed, bestselling author from Brazil. I first heard of him a couple of years ago when I saw his book The Alchemist on sale at Borders. I bought The Alchemist, but haven't read it yet . . . it sits in a pile of unread books back in Indy. I bought The Witch of Portobello on Amazon.com.uk and had it delivered to my home in Vienna. When I was packing for my trip to South America, I thought: "Wouldn't it be nice to take along a book that has some connection to that continent?" I looked around and my eyes landed on The Witch of Portobello, so I brought it with me. I started reading it in Buenos Aires this weekend.
The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks by various people who are telling the life story of a woman who - by all accounts - is now dead. The woman, who called herself "Athena" after the Greek goddess of wisdom, was born in Romania, adopted by Christian parents from Lebanon, and raised in London. She's always been just a bit different. As a teenager, for example, she was strongly attracted to the idea of becoming a saint.
Over time, Athena evolves into sort of a guru and advocate for "God the Mother." She's the kind of woman that The Establishment loves to hate because she inspires others to think differently, therefore threatening the status quo. But is she sincere, or just another religious megalomaniac? As the tale is told through the flashbacks, we encounter thoughts about love, freedom, and the divine feminine. There's a lot of philosophy in The Witch of Portobello, and apparently this is a common theme in other Coelho books.
It's a quick read, thought-provoking, and has a surprise ending that didn't quite sit well with me.
Rating: 3.75 stars - a tidier ending might have earned an even 4 stars.
Now I'm freaking out because it's only Tuesday and I'm out of English language reading materials. Here's hoping I can find a bookstore in Argentina or Brazil where I can get something to read for the rest of this trip.
Friday, August 8, 2008
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Author: Laurence Gonzales
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004
Back in mid-June, I was attending one of those work things where they bring in a Suit to motivate the masses. Our Suit wasn't really a Suit but more like Business Casual. He mentioned this book, and how it's one of the best business books he's ever read, even though technically it's not a "business" book, and how much he'd taken away from reading it.
If I hear anyone say the words "best book", I pay attention. A few days after the work thing, I went to my local B&N to look for it, and found it in the "Science and Nature" section. I started reading it on the flight back to Europe, and found that I couldn't put it down. It was more interesting to me than sleeping (which I should have been doing on the overnight flight to reduce the jet lag.)
Gonzales has an amazing ability to weave a tale, inserting just the right amount of research, dialogue, and action. The slightly biographic element - his father's amazing World War II story - adds a nice personal touch and provides insight into the author himself. After all, if his father hadn't been through those experiences, perhaps Gonzales would not have become the adventurer and writer he is. The other stories about survival - or not - of fighter pilots, mountain climbers, hikers, sailors, and others will have you biting your nails. And the other stuff - the psychology, the history, the science - contributes to this "best book."
I took notes in the book as I was reading it, and when I was finished, I typed up a summary. Here are some of the points in the book that rang true for me. As you read through these, think of the business implications for each:
* When you think you know everything, you close yourself off to learning other stuff. This attitude can cause you to miss out on something important.
* Regarding chaos theory - yes, a certain amount of chaos in business is good, because it forces people to work harder and become more creative. But there can also be too much chaos, and this isn't good because it makes people (and the system) break down - and then nothing gets done. People can only deal with so much change at once. (Do you hear that, Suits?!)
* There are times when you need to question the rules and even break the rules. Many people who die in accidents die because they followed the rules. So, if you're in a building that's on fire, don't wait for "Security" to tell you to get out. Just get out.
* You're only lost when you believe you are lost. And when you believe you are lost, you will either: 1) find yourself, or 2) die.
* The best way to ensure your own survival is to help someone else. This takes you out of the victim mindset, which helps you rise above your fears. You start to see yourself (and others start to see you) as a Rescuer instead of someone who needs rescuing.
* To be able to survive in the world, you have to get out there and experience it.
* Versatility is one of the characteristics of survivors. You have to be able to perceive what's really happening and then adapt to it.
* A sense of humor is another characteristic of survivors. If you can't find the humor in a situation (no matter how morbid), you might as well give it up.
I really got a lot out of this book personally, and I think you will, too. Maybe as you read it you'll recognize survivor characteristics in yourself. Or maybe you'll learn some new strategies to help you next time you're in a situation. It won't be a waste of your time.
My rating = 4.25 out of 5.