Saturday, March 30, 2013

Trinity Rising by Elspeth Cooper

This book seems in many ways to change from the previous one: it spends most of its time following a new character, Teia, who has a lot of the Talent and sees only bloodshed and death on her clan's current warlike path. From that story, we get inconsistent jumps to about three other places: Gair going on a journey with Alderan, Tanith trying to get the White Court involved, and a woman trying to become a knight. I can definitely see how the series is still in the "get a bunch of balls in the air, to be juggled into submission later" phase, but this book still hasn't persuaded me that the stakes of the story are as important as it thinks they are.

An Imperfect Spy by Amanda Cross

This mystery starts with Kate and her husband Reed taking a sabbatical to teach at Schuyler Law School, where they quickly find that the Old Boys Club is still in full swing and that all is not well at the school--and maybe not in their marriage either. The mysteries play out without a lot of suspense: the heart of the story is about the state of their marriage (at least it seemed to me). So, like many of Cross's books, this one is not a conventional murder mystery. But I still enjoyed it, mostly for watching Kate be a detective.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss

This book makes an impassioned plea for the continued importance of punctuation as marker of clarity and style. It consists of several essays (some longer and some shorter) on different punctuation marks including the comma, the dash, the semi-colon, the colon, the apostrophe, the hyphen, the question mark, the exclamation point, and even the emoticon. I agree strongly with some of its observations, and disagree just as strenuously about others (although the latter is hardly surprising as the author punctuates according to British conventions, and I find some of them, especially regarding the location of terminal punctuation marks and closing quotation marks, entirely unsettling). But I applaud her two most important theses: punctuation matters, and some rules about punctuation should be strictly observed, while others are matter of style and taste. The essays themselves cover a wide swath of ground: the history of punctuation, humorous observations on why punctuation is important and why those who care about punctuation are so-self important, and some rules and guidelines to effective (British) English punctuation. If you're just looking for a style guide, there are better places to go. If you're looking for entertainment and someone who cares deeply about language, you've come to the right place, in addition to helpful observations about style.

Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn

I really enjoyed listening to this book, which is a heist-story set between the first two Star Wars movies. Han Solo and Chewbacca have lost all their reward money, and are looking for a way to get Jabba the Hutt off their backs. Enter Eanjer, who's recently been wounded in a disfiguring way during a robbery, and who is looking for revenge (and a large payout). Eanjer convinces Han to assemble a team of eleven scoundrels to steal back his money from one of the most secure safes in the galaxy, located in the home of a Black Sun sector chief. Winter, Kell Tainer, and Lando Calrissian are all part of the team (in addition to a variety of new players). I thought the story was fantastic--there are multiple layers of plots as everyone on the team is not always on the same page at the same time. While there are clear limits on the story because we know a lot about what happens to many characters later, there's still plenty of room for surprises. The audiobook was great: like Mercy Kill, the production involves a lot of music and sound effects, which I felt really added to my enjoyment of the story. Finally, there's a plot twist in the last few seconds of the story which I didn't see coming but added a whole new layer of pleasure and meaning to the experience. I highly recommend this book to Star Wars fans.

The Art of Courtly Love by Andreas Capellanus

This book is Andreas Capellanus's guide to courtly love. Capellanus was chaplain at the court of Marie of Champagne, and supposedly wrote the book at her request to portray conditions at the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, who was Marie's mother. The first book describes what love is (pain--and, by the way, it can't be experienced between a husband and wife) and how to woo a lady (with descriptions giving sample conversations between eight different couples of different social statuses); the second book describes how to retain love once you've wooed someone; and the third book is a palinode that suggests rejecting love in favor of religion. The book reminded me a lot of Machiavelli's The Prince in genre and style (and perhaps even in content at times). There were some really lovely allegories scattered throughout the book, which added interest to its narrative.

Night Watch by Terry Pratchett

The Time Monks are at it again, in this novel: they've sent Sam Vimes back to the beginning of his career just before the birth of his first child. And Sam realizes that he can't go home until he deals with the criminal who came back with him, lest time be altered too much and his home, family, and career disappear. I thought this book was a time travel story at its best: it pushes the imagination to figure out how all the parts work together, but in the end I was satisfied with how all the parts worked together. I thought the time travel device also worked really well in allowing the series to fill in some great backstory to both the Night Watch and the city's political structure. This book is a great entry in the Discworld series.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

I enjoyed listening to this book, which is about the way that an environmental anomaly makes a woman reconsider her life and the choices and options available to her. Dellarobia Turnbow, who lives on a farm in rural Tennessee with her husband and two children, wants something more than she has. At the point the story opens, she imagines this something more only in terms of a different man. But everything changes when she suddenly sees monarch butterflies on the family property. Now Dellarobia can see that what she wants might not just be a different husband, but a different life entirely--one where she can put her intelligence to use. At times I found Dellarobia to be an extremely frustrating character, but I did enjoy the path of self-discovery her character took. Barbara Kingsolver read the book herself, and she really brought the book's lyricism to life.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Phaedrus by Plato translated by Christopher Rowe

This dialogue is a conversation between Phaedrus and Socrates. Phaedrus has just heard an impressive speech of Lysius's which contends that it is better to separate sex and love. Socrates, again adopting the pose of an ignorant man, at first gives a speech in agreement (with his head covered!) but then argues that love is a kind of divine madness (the highest of four kinds, actually) and that because the madness is divinely inspired it is actually good. This work is short, but very dense.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Symposium by Plato translated by Walter Hamilton

This dialogue reflects on the nature of love. It uses a fairly involved frame narrative set up--we hear about the party third-hand--to report only the most significant speeches. We get many different views on the nature and purpose of love, but the dialogue especially shows off Socrates's wisdom (which he displays only after several other people have spoken on the topic). There are mythological explanations of love, but the most convincing and beautiful account of love asserts that at its best, it encourages people to become more virtuous and to pursue excellence. A lovely piece of work--I wish I could have read it in the original Greek instead of in translation.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

This book is first in a trilogy set in a world that seems to have Russian roots. Alina, an indifferent mapmaker, and Mal, an excellent tracker, have been friends ever since they grew up in the same orphanage. But in a moment of danger, Alina discovers she has great powers--a magic that no one else has--and is taken away to learn to use them. But Alina discovers that she may not have the whole story and that those teaching her have been lying to her. The magic system in this story strikes me as original, but it wasn't terribly difficult to figure out. I enjoyed this book.

The Players Come Again by Amanda Cross

I really enjoyed this mystery, which starts with Kate Fansler being asked to write the biography of the wife of a famous modernist, whose masterpiece Ariadne features a female narrator. Kate is persuaded to write the biography by a childhood account written by a woman peripherally connect to the writer's family--but as Kate begins her investigations, she discovers this woman (and her two close friends, also connected to the writer) are alternately encouraging and stonewalling her investigations. This story didn't work like a conventional mystery, but I really enjoyed the literary detective aspect of it. It's definitely one of Cross's finest stories.

All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen

This book provides three more-or-less well-developed biographical sketches of three women who traveled in similar circles during the years of modernism. It contends that in understanding the lives of these three women (Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland) we can uncover a feminine side to high modernism, which seems to consist of a writing side, a fan side, and a fashion side. But I don't think the book makes its case particularly well. Even though all three women knew each other, I had trouble understanding why we needed their stories to be told together. The biographies are certainly entertaining, I just am not sure the premise of the book holds together as well as it might.

Fire Down Below by William Golding

This book is about the end of Edmund Talbot's journey to Australia. After a risky repair to the mast (which involves setting a fire in the very bowels of the ship), the ship limps its way into Sydney harbor. But as they arrive, Edmund realizes that everything has changed--both internally and externally. I think that this book is a great conclusion to the trilogy, and that the trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts. While I really disliked Edmund in the first book, he's grown and changed in realistic ways into a much better hero by the end of the trilogy. Stick with these books--all three are vital.

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

I didn't realize that this book was the third of a trilogy until after I read it, but I think it stands fairly well on its own. It's a World War I story, with its perspective shifting between a doctor (and his memories of his previous imperial service) and a working class officer, friends with figures such as Wilfred Owen, who is determined to go back to war despite the fact he no longer believes it is just. Winner of the 1995 Booker Prize.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

This book is the first young adult entry in the Discworld series, and the first with chapters. It starts at the Unseen University when a group of rats (and through the rats, a cat) eat something discarded by the wizards and find they can think and talk. Maurice develops a scam in which he uses the rats and a dopey-looking boy with a pipe to make money on unsuspecting towns. But when they arrive in a mysterious town in the Ɯberwald, they find that the joke may be on them! The book was well-plotted and engaging throughout. I really enjoyed it.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

This book tells the story of a woman's life through the viewpoints of her children--starting with the twins who died young, and ending with a granddaughter. I loved the way each viewpoint expanded the story, so we could see Hattie's many different sides and her struggle to determine her identity in the face of the demands of her family. The book was lyrical and well-plotted. I look forward to Ms. Mathis's next book.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Trap for Fools by Amanda Cross

This mystery starts more quickly than most Kate Fansler mysteries: we know from the first chapter who has died (an unpleasant professor who had locked horns with Kate--and many others--on many occasions). Partly because Kate has investigated mysteries in the past, and partly because she is one of two possible suspects with an unimpeachable alibi (the other, the victim's widow, was out-of-state at the time of the murder), the university asks her to determine what happened. I thought this story started out more quickly than usual, but in some ways it fell behind and relied a lot on the reader's trust of the detective, rather than the reader's ability to put things together. I enjoyed it, but it's not one of Cross's best mysteries.