Friday, February 14, 2014

Books of 2014 - January

*clears throat*
*taps mic*

Hello. Hello? Is this thing on?

Ah, yes, I have a blog.

Renovating and moving (and snowstorms and daily trips to Lowes) have taken nearly every waking minute since the middle of January.

No, we did not get out of the rental before February 1. We made it pretty close. And had some pretty close calls (a stove was broken, a mattress flew off a truck) but here we are now, in our new home, still working away at this renovation but also dipping our toes back in to the "Real Life" pond.

As a first step toward that here on the ol' blog, let's turn back the clock to January and do a quick review of the books I finished before life got so busy I haven't finished  a real book since.

No, I don't remember the last time that happened either.
1. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Nonfiction edited by Mason Currey. My Goodreads review:
Ever wonder how your favorite author managed to write that amazing book? This book can help you figure that out. These are the rituals, routines, and occasionally bizarre methods that creative people have employed to help them create. (The book covers artists and musicians as well as writers)

One conclusion: entirely too much creating has been fueled by alcohol and drugs. It's almost surprising when you read an entry in here about someone who didn't drink or indulge.

Recommended for: writers (including wannabe writers) and those fascinated by creative types.

Also available for Kindle:Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

2. Five Windows. Fiction by D. E. Stevenson. My Goodreads review:
Sweet, wholesome, usual fare from Stevenson. Similarities to Dickens' David Copperfield - protagonists named David, move to London to make their life, become writers...only David Kirke has a much happier background and fewer trials to endure. Stevenson pokes fun at herself by having Kirke live over a bookshop where the owner likes to read but pretty much only Dickens. Also has some fun (I suspect) with the publishing industry in the US versus the UK.

Good fun. No big surprises but the characters are finely sketched. I would have liked a little more about Scotland during WW2, and a bit more about David's "National Service" time, but that's a personal bias.

Recommended for: fans of Miss Read, anyone needing a pleasant break from grittier fiction.

3.Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains. Fiction by Catriona McPherson. My Goodreads review:
A fun read with witty dialogue, interesting supporting characters, good historical context and research and a classic whodunnit plot.

In my opinion the culprit is not really hard to figure out, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless.

Series mystery, but I haven't - to my admittedly faulty memory - read any of the others in the series. That hindered me a little but not much since I enjoy jumping right in and not reading a lot of backstory.

Recommended for: fans of Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series. If you think the Downstairs folk on Downton Abbey have issues, just wait until you meet this cast.

Also available for Kindle:Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains

4. Red 1-2-3. Fiction by John Katzenbach. My Goodreads review:
An updated take on "Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf". The suspense in this book is well done - it kept me guessing and afraid for the three Reds.

The bad guy? Well, not so much. Calling him the Wolf quickly became ridiculous. It did feel like the author was having fun with the fact that his bad guy is a mystery writer who also murders. The writing emphasis is interesting throughout the book, as well as the significance of numbers. However, the metaphors go over the top and starting bashing the reader over the head.

The ending, after all that build-up, just sort of squishes out. I suppose that much suspense is hard to bring in for a landing.

Notes: lots of profanity, tense situations.

Recommended for: fans of suspense movies. You can practically hear a later Hitchcock soundtrack while you read this.

Also available for Kindle:Red 1-2-3

5. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Nonfiction by Colin Woodard. My Goodreads review:
The premise is intriguing: The U.S. (and, to some extent, Canada, and Mexico) is made up of 11 rival cultures. These cultures persist despite time, immigration, wars, and progress.

If I were rating this book simply on the first sections, it would probably rate higher. The connection between the English Civil War and the U.S. Revolutionary War is, I think, fairly easy to prove and quite an intriguing situation. The problem comes as the chapters approach modern times. The author is simply unable to keep his own biases and presuppositions out of the text. (Ever feel like telling an author, "Don't take that tone with me"?)

His dealing with the Southern region becomes problematic because Woodard spends much of the book telling us about the three nations (Tidewater, Appalachia, Deep South) that make up "The South" and how they maintain an uneasy alliance. In the chapters that consider the post-war South, he takes to calling the entire region "Dixie" and paints with a wide brush a picture of racist, backward, hateful people. This is, to put it mildly, offensive.

The eleven nation concept is interesting, but they turn out to be a bit more fluid than Woodard's original thesis suggests. It is possible to make the case that Tidewater, as he describes it, ceased to exist long ago.

In the end, Woodard issues a lot of dire warnings about what will happen to the U.S. if the South doesn't learn to play nice with its Yankee betters. (That's not exactly how he puts it, but it's the gist of the thing.) I'm sure the reader is supposed to be scared by these warnings but I found myself pleased with what Woodard suggests will the be the result: "The United States might continue to exist, but its powers might be limited to national defense, foreign policy, and the negotiation of interstate trade agreements." (p. 318)

Forgive me, but my reading of history suggests that is what the Federal Government is supposed to do. I guess that could be because I'm a Midlander / Appalachian mix who thinks "the gubmint" is just too doggone big already.

Some of his bugbears are just comical. For instance: "It [the United States] cannot survive if we end the separation of church and state or institute the Baptist equivalent of Sharia law." I'm Baptist, and I can tell you I have NO IDEA what he's talking about but I might like to see what that looks like. No Baptists I'm aware of insist on women not driving cars or wearing full body veils. Some of us are Creationists though, so I can see how the author got confused. On a serious note, this suggests a lack of understanding both of Islam and Baptist theology that is inexcusable.

Woodard rhapsodizes about First Nation culture (and, forgive me, but isn't lumping all indigenous peoples into one nation simplistic in the extreme?) and their communalistic style of living but he has just written an entire book based on the thesis that these 11 nations have very little in common. Communal life works best (when it works at all) when there is a higher driving force. For example, 1st century Christians who "had all things in common". You must either have a Higher reason for sublimating individuality or you must have a powerful state that can force you to do so. Neither of those seem likely for the diverse 11 nations Woodard describes that make up North America.

My final criticism is that this book is so lightly footnoted. I read a lot of nonfiction and a book of this type needs to be well supported by footnotes and research. Otherwise, it's just a really long, and occasionally highly interesting, opinion piece.

Recommended for: history buffs, folks who want to know more about how we got to our current Red State / Blue State paradigm.

Also available for Kindle:American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America

6. The Interrupted Tale. Fiction by Maryrose Wood. My review on Goodreads:
Thoroughly enjoyed this latest installment in the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series. We only had one copy from the library and my daughter and I were competing to see who could finish it first.

Some mysteries are answered in this book but many more aren't. I, for one, hope the series goes on for several more books. They are literary, witty, mysterious, and just the right touch of strange. The Incorrigible Children and their governess are fantastic characters (in all senses of the word).

Recommended for: people who liked aspects of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" but considered them a bit dark, fans of vintage books for children with missing parents, mysterious identities and classic poetry. (You know you're out there!)

Also available for Kindle:The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: Book IV: The Interrupted Tale

7. The Widow of Larkspur Inn. Fiction by Lawanna Blackwell. What I said on Goodreads:
A re-read. Blackwell endeavors to write well rounded characters and her efforts are generally successful. My problems with this book: the male counterpart for our heroine is dropped in with a thud about half way through the story; the research, while adequate, is not thorough to the time and place (for instance, neither sleepovers nor homework would have been discussed. "Homework" would more likely be referred to as simply school work or lessons); several characters are described as attending "The Baptist Chapel" but I'm not sure why they bother since the Anglican church in their village is overtly evangelical. (I could be theologically nit-picking, I'll admit.)

Still, it's not as formulaic as some Christian fiction and it helped pass the time on a trip.

Recommended for: fans of Christian fiction, gentle stories set in Britain.

Currently FREE for Kindle!The Widow of Larkspur Inn (The Gresham Chronicles Book #1)

8. Create: Stop Making Excuses and Start Making Stuff. Nonfiction by Stephen Altrogge.
Practical and inspiring. Just the swift kick you might need to get yourself out of "I should write / paint / throw pottery" mindset and into the actual doing of a creative project.

Recommended for: creative types and those who think they're not creative but wish they could be.

Only available as an ebook (currently $2.99, but I got it for free a few weeks ago):Create: Stop Making Excuses and Start Making Stuff

9. Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers. Nonfiction by John Sutherland.
I liked the idea of this book more than I liked the book itself. The author's tone can be witty but it can also be catty (which is which, is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder)

Anecdotes about famous books, authors, and the writing life. Occasionally deals with vulgar topics, so may not be suitable for all readers.

Recommended for: those who enjoy reading about writers.

Also available for Kindle:Curiosities of Literature: A Feast for Book Lovers

Totals for January: 9
Fiction: 5
Non-fiction: 4

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