Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Books of 2014 - May

May was a great month for reading: several new novels, a few series mysteries, and one of the most important books I've ever read. Want to see this list? Read on:

1. Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War. Nonfiction by Stanley Weintraub. A broad look at what was going on in the world in December 1941, with a focus on Churchill's visit to North America. Well researched and accessible, with a few dry spots.

Recommended for: WW2 buffs, students of history.

2. Something Borrowed, Someone Dead. Fiction by M.C. Beaton. Series mystery (#24). I've kept up with Agatha Raisin through all her many adventures. Stylistically, I ought to find fault with these books. The POV jumps around. Sometimes there's more telling than showing.

And yet Agatha keeps right on detecting (though never quite aging) and I still enjoy reading these like I enjoy eating chocolate chip cookies with milk. They're not sophisticated or complicated, they are just good (and fun).

3. Death on Blackheath. Fiction by Anne Perry. Series mystery (#29). I gave this one three stars. Perry's novels are always well crafted & researched but I felt this one lacked some spark, for whatever reason.

4. The Camelot Caper. Fiction by Elizabeth Peters. Another early effort (1969). If this were a TV show, it would have far too many jump cuts. Still, the humor is good (as ever), the characters are interesting, and it's all good fun with tongue firmly in cheek. Plus, it's set in England. Elizabeth Peters + England = two of my favorite things together.

5. Why Kings Confess. Fiction by C.S. Harris. Series mystery (#9). I think this series is improving as it goes on. Kat is not present in this one, and not missed. Hero is not quite as active (in the story she is nearly ready to have her baby). Paul Gibson gets a lot to do and the addition of the French female doctor is a welcome shake up. Good plotting, good research. Still a few scenes that make me hesitate to recommend this whole-heartedly to all my readers.

6. Christian Unschooling. Nonfiction by Teri Brown & Elissa Wahl. I wanted to give this one a fair reading. We are not "unschoolers" and I found the arguments in this little book ultimately unpersuasive. I like to call our homeschooling "Relaxed Classical" and I think our way (while not perfect, since no system is) preserves the strengths of both unschooling and Classical education. I'm right with the authors on the need to preserve a love of learning, on how we ought to be helping our children follow their interests, and how education is actually happening all the time.

But I find an argument like "We don't 'do' Math, my kids play Yahtzee, go to the store, and build with legos," unpersuasive because - wait for it - my kids do all that too AND in addition (little math pun, sorry) we use a rigorous Math curriculum. If your homeschooled child is hating "school", resisting every subject (not just one or two) and you need to take a step back & focus on heart issues and finding joy in learning, well, yes, do that. Homeschooling should work for you.

If, however, you are never introducing a subject that challenges your child, you are doing your child a disservice. Newsflash: we don't get to do everything we want to do as adults and sometimes we have to do stuff we outright hate to do. We live through it and so will they.

I have more thoughts on this but it looks like they will need to be their own blogpost. This is a slim book and, while I am not going to become an official unschooler, I do recommend it for getting ideas on how to inspire your children, how to make learning fun, and so on.

7. Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education. Nonfiction by David V. Hicks. Five stars. All the awards. I've seen this book discussed on other homeschooling blogs (and highly recommended by folks at CiRCE) and it definitely lived up to the hype.

This is not a book to rush through. This is a thoughtful, reasoned look at what education is in the US (published in 1981) and what it could be.

It's sobering to realize that 30+ years have passed. The educational system has only worsened, and many dire predictions that Mr. Hicks made have come to pass. It's actually poignant to read his suggestions for what education could be. How different might things look today if this book had been applied in the '80s?

Highly recommended for anyone.

8. The Wives of Los Alamos. Fiction by Tarashea Nesbit. The style is a gimmick: first person plural. It catches the reader's attention but it also wears thin fairly quickly. Using this voice causes some unsettling subject - verb agreement problems ("We wiped our hands on our apron").

The underlying story is good and the research is thorough. I consider it a shame that the style holds you aloof from the characters and events, because this could be one of those books that grabs your imagination and lingers there instead of an experiment.

And maybe that is what Ms. Nesbit hoped to achieve after all: that eerie and unsettled feeling that the real wives of Low Alamos must have felt. "What just happened here?"

Recommended for: history buffs, those interested in WW2, anyone who'd like to see how the gimmick works.

9. Heart Wide Open. Nonfiction by Shellie Rushing Tomlinson. See my review here.

10. The Red House Mystery. Fiction by A.A. Milne. As one of those folks who has only ever read Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books and his poems (like Now We Are Six), I wasn't sure what to expect from this but figured it was worth a shot considering the price (free for Kindle).

I'm glad I did because it was good fun, one of those British manor house mysteries that, it seems to me now, all British writers must write at one time or another. This one has it all: the dry wit, the memorable characters, even a secret passage.

The plot? Well, it creaks a bit. If you've read a Christie or Marsh or two or even seen a Poirot episode or two, you'll figure it out. And the reveal is a bit of a let down after the build. But all the elements of a good cozy are right here and who knew that Milne was more than Christopher Robin's dad? And did I mention that this is Free for Kindle?

Recommended for: anyone who's running out of Christie, Sayers, & Marsh to read.

11. Wake. Fiction by Anna Hope. I'm not sure this is the kind of novel that one can "like". It is unsettling, sometimes dark, and there are some scenes where this reader pulled back thinking, "Did we really need to know that?"

The story has three main female characters: Ada, Hettie, & Evelyn. They are from different stations and situations in life yet the Great War has changed all of their lives and they are tied together, though they don't know it. The POV switches between these three and I personally never had trouble following the change. It is unfortunate that the present tense writing - a style I am seriously weary of - holds you aloof from the characters, particularly Evelyn, who never quite becomes sympathetic. (I found Ada the most compelling of the three main characters.)

This is well researched (if you are interested in this book, you would also find Juliet Nicholson's The Great Silence: Britain from the Shadow of the First World War to the Dawn of the Jazz Age, one of the books the author used as research, worth your time. I read it a while ago and it is quite good) and fairly demanded to be read through without stopping.

Sweeping generalization ahead: Americans tend to know far less about the First World War than the Second. Books like this could help U.S. readers to understand just how momentous "The Great War" truly was, and how it affected an entire generation.

Recommended for: those who have read Juliet Nicolson's book, history buffs. Can't recommend it without reservations because of realistic depiction of war including coarse language, and several scenes I personal could have done without.

Totals for May:
Fiction: 7
Nonfiction: 4

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