Sunday, March 27, 2011

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Book:  Wolf Hall 

Author:  Hilary Mantel 

Grade:  B+ 

Recommended To:  Historical Fiction Fans who want a new perspective.  

This book is a Tudor Era historical fiction from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, who rises to be the foremost adviser to King Henry during the reign of Anne Boelyn as queen.  I learned quite a bit from this book, I had no idea, for example, that Cromwell wasn't noble.

Hilary Mantel has won a ton of awards for this book and it is clear that the award givers were on the right track with this novel.  I haven't read anything from Thomas Cromwell's perspective and it is a truly unique picture of the King, his relationship with Anne, and all of the incredible politics Cromwell mastered to essentially create an entirely new church, the Church of England. 

The book begins with Cromwell's childhood and ends when Thomas More, a hold out for the Catholic Church is beheaded.  In most historical accounts, Cromwell and his mentor Wolsey are painted as the absolute bad guy.  There isn't any room in those accounts for a humanization of Cromwell or Wolsey, but this is exactly what Mantel does so well.  She creates a portrait of Cromwell that makes him seem decent; he takes in various wards and gives them a start in the world, he serves the King unceasingly, and he is portrayed as one of the most intelligent men of the time period.

The one unfortunate part of this book is that Mantel chose to write this book in second person. What? What editor was like "oh, hey, that's not confusing at all!"  It is all he, he, he, throughout the entire book and it is often difficult to keep track of which 'he' is speaking, thinking, or acting.  It took me an extremely long time to get used to this writing style and even 600 pages later, I still had trouble keeping track.  It was distracting and I'm not sure that writing the book this way actually lent anything to the story. 

Otherwise, it was an extremely thorough and well-done novel.  I recommend it to anyone looking for a fresh perspective on England in the 1500's.  I gave this book a B+ because despite the writing style, it was truly excellent.  You should read it.  All 604 pages of it.

Happy Reading!!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Less Reading - More Basketball

It is March Madness time!  I am not a big sports fan, and usually when Jon is obsessed with a game (the Bears, I'm not even allowed to speak) I use that time to read-for-fun.   It is a great arrangement, until of course March Madness comes around.  I have been glued to my television for the last three straight days, and it is starting to interfere with my blogging and reading-for-fun schedule.

My team of choice is the Butler Bulldogs - I went to Butler and when Butler was in the final against Duke last year, Jon and I were at the game.  This isn't to say that I actually follow Butler Basketball at any time except for the NCAA tournament, because I most certainly do not.  I am a very fair-weather fan and I'm not afraid to admit that.  March Madness is just so addicting and it is most definitely because of the brackets and the betting.

My friends and I fill out brackets on Yahoo! Sports and it is so much fun to track my wins and losses.  Jon and I usually have a side bet each year on whose bracket is best - but, I think he was so afraid of my psychic-picking prowess that this year we conveniently didn't think of a good enough bet in time.  If I'm honest, I had Pitt winning last night against Butler - and my punishment for choosing against my team? A busted bracket.

So, did you watch the Butler/ Pitt game last night?  I don't have any fingernails left after that game and consequently this is what I've been reading this morning:

Pitt/Butler Refs

This guy, who thinks losing is "cruel," No, the Nazi's were cruel - the NCAA tournament isn't cruel. Idiot.

This Kind Soul thinks refs should call every foul. Duh.

This becomes even more ridiculous when you find out that I actually commented on a sports article and made legitimate points.  What is happening?  March is truly a time for Madness and I just can't get enough basketball.  In short, that is the reason why I'm only 1/2 way through Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - but hopefully that post will be coming soon.

Happy March Madness!  And, Go Butler!!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk

Book:  The Bradshaw Variations 

Author:  Rachel Cusk 

Grade:  B+ 

Recommended To:  Jonathan Franzen Fans who want to read a good story. 

I won this book on GoodReads and although I think the description on the back cover of the book needs serious attention, I really liked the book as a whole. 

Usually, I don't like and try to avoid books that are just about stuff.  Books that are just about people's lives but are magnificently well written are not my usual read.  I must have been in the right frame of mind today because I really enjoyed this book.  For example, Jonathan Franzen's style is very similar to Cusk's, but not once during this book did I want to throw it across the room and refuse to finish it. Unlike Franzen, Cusk's characters are full - they have a round, three-dimensional quality to them that makes them pop off the page.

I felt myself wondering how Rachel Cusk would describe my own life if she were looking in on it with her literary eye. Her descriptions are very beautiful and some ring truer than others. I especially liked the description of the gay piano playing couple. I could feel the exasperation that Benjamen expressed when his partner encroached on the piano lesson.  This is certainly an exasperation that extends to all couples and the tension was tangible. This was one of the best written passages in the book!

I suppose the biggest problem with this book is that the characters in this book lead perfectly normal lives, but they are all so deeply unhappy.   A woman goes to work while her husband stays home with the daughter. Tonie is deeply unsatisfied and is drifting, and Thomas is trying to find satisfaction in the piano of all things. In another relationship, Claudia just wants to paint, but can't seem to make time for herself because she feels so oppressed by her non-oppressive husband.   These are normal lives and relationships and I can understand why this book has been criticized for its attempt to elevate the normal. 

My all time favorite passage was: "The truth is that for the past week Thomas as worked on the adagio like a solitary prisoner tunneling under the fortress walls. It has felt like cheating just as it did when he studied all night to pass an exam, or got through the tedium of meetings by knowing more than anyone else, or planned down the last detail his strategy of attracting the attention of a woman he liked."  I love this description because this is how I feel about most of my life's accomplishments. 

I'm not sure if I will read other Cusk novels, because this isn't at all the type of book that I usually enjoy. The description of emotion and feelings often means that there are few descriptions of actual action and that can make a book extremely vague and frustrating, but I thought this book was beautiful.

Happy Reading!!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Silent Man by Alex Berenson

Book:  The Silent Man 

Author:  Alex Berenson 

Grade: C+

Recommended To:  Spy Fans who want a book to be over as fast as possible.

This is Alex Berenson's third book in the John Wells series.  I also reviewed his second book and you can find that review here.  This book was better, but Berenson needs to work on his character development and either needs to ditch the romance or improve upon it.

This book is about some terrorists that obtain two nuclear bombs from the Russian arsenal and then bring them to the United States to dismantle and use in their own "special weapon."  His words, not mine; but that phrase kept making me thing of a bad romance novel instead of a spy/thriller.  In a sort of unrelated story line, a guy from the second novel also tries to kill Wells, but instead shoots his GF, Exley.  And, Wells, being the completely one-dimensional character that he is, can only think about revenge.

Here's the first problem.  These characters are so flat!  Wells has zero personality and all he wants to do is kill kill kill.  That makes for a very fast read, but not necessarily for a good story.  Also, Wells doesn't do anything that the CIA tells him to do.  He goes rogue a lot, which lends an unrealistic element to this novel.   Sure, he's a national hero from Book #1, but does he really lack all common sense?  Apparently so. 

The second problem is that the romance between John Wells and Jenny Exley is one of the worst that I've read in a spy/thriller novel in a very long time.  For example, she gets shot and he hangs out by her bed for a while, but can't think of anything else but murdering the guy that he thinks did this to her.  So he leaves her, and of course she asks him not to go, but he does anyway.  At this point, I just want them to break-up.  He has earned the worst-boyfriend-of-the-decade award, and I mostly want her to succumb to her wounds so I never have to read about their "relationship" again.  Berenson tries to describe the characters' emotions with their actions and it makes for an extraordinarily thin love story.  In my opinion the entire line needs to be scrapped.  These books would be better without it.

Finally, and I know I'm going long here, Berenson spends 98% of the novel trying to find this bomb.  Russia is playing games, the terrorists are dismantling the "special weapon" in extreme detail,  Wells is flying all over Europe and terrorizing children, and then BOOM, the story is finished in literally 5 pages.  All because Wells sees an SUV that is probably carrying the bomb.  Sigh.  I felt like I invested a lot of time in reading the first 98% only to be totally let down by the lack of action at the end.  Let's be honest, we only read these books for the action and this failed.

So, this book gets a C+.  That's the best I can do.

Either way, this is a very fast read and I recommend it to people who love spy/thriller novels and don't much care about the substance or characters in the story.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

Book:  Total Money Makeover 

Author:  Dave Ramsey 

Grade:  C+ 

Recommended To:  People in Financial Straits, Wealth Builders 

Dave Ramsey has a radio show/podcasts and had written several books about how to get rich and stay that way.  After reading this book, it seems that his main focus is getting out of debt, and then using all of that money towards wealth-building and investing.

The thing about this book, is that most of these concepts aren't new.  1.  Don't buy things you can't afford like new cars; 2. Don't accumulate credit card debt; 3. Pay off your debt first;  and 4.  Try to pay cash for big things so you aren't stuck with ridiculous interest. 

These concepts aren't novel and most of them feel like common sense.  It was interesting that Ramsey suggests that people in debt live as frugally as possible (and to hell with anyone that wants to make fun) and use every single extra cent to pay off debt.  In theory, this is a great idea and the book is full of true life stories about people who followed his steps to pay off ENORMOUS quantities of debt in something like 2 years.  

I did the math and in order to pay off my student loans in 3 years with a moderate salary, I would be living on 600 bucks a month.  Interesting, Dave, very interesting - and impossible, considering the cost of living in Chicago.  

The one real issue I had with this book is the serious lack of detailed helpful information.  Ramsey yells at you to make a budget, but gives no real tips on how to do this for people who have never made one before.  Plus, I had no idea that Ramsey was a Christian financial counselor, which I think might drive away a large subset of people who don't necessarily think that prayer will aid their financial decision-making. 

This book is a good reminder of the basic concepts of living frugally and saving as much as possible, but with the obvious flaws, I gave it at C+. 

Happy Reading!!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Small Sacrifices by Ann Rule

Book:  Small Sacrifices 

Author:  Ann Rule 

Grade:  B

Recommended To:  True Crime Fans,  Farrah Fawcett Fans.  

Small Sacrifices is the true crime story of Diane Downs, the mother that shot her three children and then drove them to the hospital with a dramatic and terrifying tale of a 'bushy-haired stranger' who had demanded Downs' car and then inexplicably shot her children when she refused.

Some of you might know this story from the Farrah Fawcett made for TV movie by the same name, personally I've not seen it, but it is on now on our Netflix.

The book has an air in incredibility, how could a mother not fight to save her children? And, when Downs becomes the prime suspect, how could a mother have shot her children as they lay sleeping in the backseat of her car.

Ann Rule writes many true-crime novels, although this it the first that I've read of hers.   I think it is difficult to write true-crime stories without getting boring, but for the most part, Rule accomplishes this and weaves together all of the incredible evidence with precision.  There are times when the story drags a bit because Rule is literally just recounting factual data or testimony.  Her sentences in places also are a bit choppy, but this seems to be part of the problem with a lot of true crime books.

The story is powerful.  When Christie Downs, Diane's daughter takes the stand and definitively points to her mother as the shooter, Rule captures the event with enough description to make the reader feel as if they are really in the courtroom witnessing the exchange between the child and the prosecutor.

I gave this book a B because it was very well put together, if a bit lengthy.  Diane is an extraordinarily interesting and terrifying woman and this account captures her personality well.  I recommend this book to anyone who really enjoys true-crime novels.   I will certainly be reading more of Rule.

Happy Reading!! 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Book:  Dragonfly in Amber 

Author:  Diana Gabaldon 

Grade:  B

Recommended To:  Scottish, People who like love stories, Witches. 

This is the second book in the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon and I think it was even better than the first.  If you have not read this series - you should take a trip to a closing Borders and get it at a discount.

This book begins with a Claire that is 20 years older and her daughter's trip to Scotland (circa 1968) where Claire tells Brianna about the circumstances of her birth and her father, Jamie.  Yay!  I was so excited for this, but was totally disappointed in Brianna's reaction.  What a total moper.  Jamie is possibly one of the most attractive male characters that I've read about since Gabriel Allon (Daniel Silva fans, please stand up).  Who wouldn't be happy to have Jamie as their dad?  Hello, Brianna - you don't know what great news this really is!

But, of course the story wasn't really about Brianna, but about the fateful battle of Culloden that Gabaldon took about 700 pages to actually write about.   Even though this book is written in a series of small events that happen to Jamie and Claire in the months leading up to the culminating battle - this book never failed to keep my attention.  Everything absolutely comes full circle at the end with a serious twist in the last 30 pages.  And, a serious cliff-hanger.  Damn it, Diana, don't you know that I have fifty-three books on my to-read shelf?  I don't have time to engross myself in another 1000-pager.

One thing I didn't like was the obsession with Jack Randall and allowing him to live.  He's a really bad guy in this book with absolutely no redeemable qualities.  I wish Jamie had just killed him when he had the chance so I didn't have to keep reading about what a horrible person he was.

Otherwise, this was a pretty good book.  I gave it a B because her writing is absolutely fantastic, the attention to detail is unparalleled in most of the historical fiction that I've read.  I can't wait to read the third book, Voyager, and see what happens to this glorious couple next.

Happy Reading!!

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Book:  A Reliable Wife 

Author:  Robert Goolrick 

Grade: D+ 

Recommended To:  Poisoners, Repliers to Personal Ads.

Okay, you know how Barnes and Noble or Borders ropes you in with those buy fifteen get one free deals, that aren't really a good deal because you can get it all cheaper on Amazon anyway?  I'm sorry to say, but that is what happened to me with A Reliable Wife.

The back of the book sounded so interesting, but evidently the snippet writer didn't actually read the book, or sugar coated the story into a few sentence blurb. 

The problem with this book is that it had such potential.  A man writes a personal ad for a "reliable wife," gets a picture of an ordinary woman and sends her money to come live with him in Wisconsin.  She comes, but she is a different woman than the one in the picture and had all sorts of secrets in her past including a very shady gentleman who in a spoiler twist turns out to be the son of the ad-writer.  This book sounds great right?  Wrong-o.

If this book was well written, didn't have all of the ridiculous sex scenes and dream sequences, and wasn't so damn repetitive, then it would have been a great book.  Unfortunately, this book lacked/had all of those things and the characters that could have been interesting fell totally flat. 

I don't mind sex scenes in books - but this seemed like the sex in this book was geared towards men and that is certainly not how this book was marketed.  I think any book with the word "wife" in the title is an immediate turn off for a male reader.  But, the writing in this book shouldn't appeal to anyone.  It was strange, repetitive, and warrants a D+ rating.

Happy Reading!!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

February Failure

I didn't do it.  I failed this month.  By a whopping .75 books.  I have to read 6.75 books each month and   I was over 6.75 books in January - so I'm not actually off track, but I didn't make my goal of 6.75 for the month of February.

Maybe it was moving to a new apartment.   Maybe it was working 50 hours a week.  Maybe it was because February is two days shorter.  Maybe I watched too much Jersey Shore and Teen Mom 2 and just didn't have time to read.  That's probably it.  Do you watch Teen Mom?  Totally addicting. If that was a book I would read the sh*t out of it.

Speaking of moving - I unpacked my books yesterday and my to-read pile is 53 books deep and takes up an entire bookCASE - not just one shelf!  Shocking.  I went to Borders and couldn't bring myself to buy anything because I have So. Much. To. Read. 

This is a picture of the bookcase. That second shelf is two rows deep.  The Optimash Prime is not mine.  I swear. . . .

Currently Reading:  The second book in the Diana Gabaldon series - look forward to that review in a few days!  It is spectacular so far. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Choosing a New Book

I've been meaning to write a post about this for a while.  I have a serious problem.  After finishing a book, I waste an incredible amount of time choosing my next book!  Does anyone else have this issue?  I think it stems from the fact that I have so many unread books that I don't want to make the wrong choice and pick something (a.) too similar to my last book and (b.) a book that I'm not interested in right now, but might be later.

After finishing a book, I frantically scan my bookshelves searching for the next great thing to read.  Occasionally, I'll ask Jon and he'll halfheartedly point at something on my to-read shelf and then I have to make a very specific decision about whether or not that is the next book.

I know this all sounds crazy - but this book blog has made me ever more aware of what I read next.  I don't want to have too many historical fiction reads or thrillers in a row because that will make the blog less interesting and unique.  So, this issue has become even more precarious for an already indecisive reader!

Does anyone else have this issue?  I can't imagine I'm the only one with a gigantic pile of "to-reads."  Does anyone have a system of picking or ordering their books so that they always know what comes next?

Happy Reading!!