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Monday, April 20, 2009

Self-Challenge

An update on my Renaissance Mind self-challenge (Inspired by Ingrid Cumming's The Vigorous Mind):

1. Franklin Expedition: 5 books- which began with the novel The Terror by Dan Simmons. The others are all nonfiction: The Resolute, Frozen in Time, Talking to the Dead, and Exploring Other Worlds.

2. The Brain and It's Abilities: 6 books - The Intention Experiment, The Vigorous Mind, The Brain that Changes Itself, Blink, The Three-Pound Enigma, (completed) and How the Mind Works (in progress).

3. Biographies/Memoirs: 6 books - Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Galileo's Daughter, Marley & Me, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, Jane Austen, and Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.

4. Yoga Study: Chakra Yoga, Hatha Yoga Illustrated, (completed), and Yoga as Medicine (in progress).

I've reviewed all of the completed books here on the blog and provided links to each book with the posts.

5. Documentaries: 8 - Secrets of the Samurai Sword: Nova; The Bronte Sisters; The Orphan Trains; 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama; The Cats of Mirikatani; Arctic Passage: Nova; A Century of Quilts: America in Cloth; and Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion.

6. Magazines: The Smithsonian, Mental Floss, and Budget Travel.

The quality of my reading has improved drastically since January in both fiction and nonfiction (and a lot more nonfiction than last year) as a result of this self-challenge. I've been much more satisfied with my reading and have read better books for the most part, both fiction and nonfiction.

While I am making an effort to expand my reading horizons, I'll never give up my escape literature -- science fiction, fantasy, and mysteries. :) The only other reading challenge I'm participating in is Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge which encourages me to read one of my favorite genres.

Ingrid Cummings (The Vigorous Mind) has a blog. I stumbled on it inadvertently from one of those outdated Google Alerts and wondered how many people who have read the book have delineated a plan of action for themselves? I know Booklogged has been reading the book and Kim at Skybelle Arts was using Kaizen (although you've been so quiet lately, Kim!)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dark Moon Defender

Shinn, Sharon. Dark Moon Defender.

The third in Shinn's Twelve Houses series, this book focuses on Justin. I still love the characters and enjoy the basic plot, but feel much the same about this one as I did about the previous one--I prefer having the original 6 and their interaction.

Justin, a King's Rider, is sent to observe any suspicious activity in the convent of the Daughters of the Pale Mother. Although Cammon accompanies him on the trip, his assignment requires Justin to remain in the small village of Neft when Cammon returns to Ghosenhall. Justin is uncomfortable with being separated from his companions (I don't like it either, Justin), but certainly recognizes the importance of keeping an eye on the convent.

Ellynor, a novice, is accosted by a man in the street, and Justin steps in to rescue her. Now, he has a possible contact within the convent, but their friendship develops into something more.

It still (for me, at least) doesn't have the spark of the first book, Mystic & Rider, but was an enjoyable read.

Fiction. Fantasy. 2007. 466 pages.

In Progress

Yesterday another ARC arrived. A very small book from Houghton, Mifflin by the name of Genesis. Kind of...out of the blue.

I have about 6 books in the works and 2 reviews to do, but because this one was so short and the format looked so different, I opened it and read a few pages--until I finished it because I couldn't put it down. I think I'll re-read it today.

Here's the thing that really captured me: synchronicity. I'd begun reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works and the first chapter parallels much of what is going on in Genesis. The difference between the mind and the brain and the idea of consciousness are both explored in a similar manner. Pinker's is nonfiction, Bernard Beckett's is fiction, but the similarities make the arrival of Genesis a strange coincidence, a little quirk of fate. Especially since I don't remember ever being offered this book; it just arrived.

I still need to review Dark Moon Defender and Fault Line and will do those before reviewing Genesis, which will give me more time to re-read and think about it.

Quest the First (5 books of fantasy, fairy tale, or mythology) in the Once Upon a Time Challenge is completed, but I will probably continue reading the genre until the Challenge officially ends.

Completed so far:
The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner
The Thirteenth House and Dark Moon Defender by Sharon Shinn

Good reading to all of those participating in the Read-a-thon.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor

Gooch, Brad. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor.

I really enjoyed this biography; it is one of the best I've read in the last several years. The details of Flannery's childhood, school years, relationship with her father, friendships, attempts to leave Milledgeville, the illness that brought her home, the often touchy relationship with her mother, and her friendships--all fascinated me.

One of the many interesting things in this biography is the revelation of A's name. Sally Fitzgerald who edited The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor, chose not to reveal A's name. I thought that was a curious omission. I assumed that Fitzgerald consulted with A and that she chose not to reveal herself so publicly, but I was still mightily curious. At any rate, the biography gives Betty Hester a name and fills in more about her life. Maryat Lee, another friend and correspondent, was also filled out in more detail. What a wide variety of friendships Flannery managed, in spite of her illness and her quiet life in Milledgeville.

Flannery's friendship with Erik Langkjaer is another interesting peek behind the letters in The Habit of Being. The letters are like conversations, but don't include much about other aspects of her correspondents.

Both Maryat and Eric make appearances in Flannery's writing, disguised perhaps, but recognizable. I really need to do some re-reading of Flannery's fiction.

I found much new information and an entirely readable book in Brad Gooch's Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor. The research is thorough; Gooch interviewed an impressive number of people who knew O'Connor and used public records, Yaddo records, her correspondence, and her fiction as well.

Excerpt from the conclusion:

"Flannery had spent her life making literary chickens walk backward. But she had also spent much of her adult writing life looking down the barrel of the Misfit's shotgun. Just as her friends had to discern the contours of true suffering between the lines of her funny vignettes of invalidism, so her stories included a coded spiritual autobiography."

Another review: Dabroots
and: Betty & Boo's Mommy

Nonfiction. Biography. 2009. 385 pages.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

White, Karen. The Lost Hours.

Unfortunately, The Lost Hours, an Advanced Reader's Copy, did not appeal to me. I looked forward to it because I love secrets, especially old secrets that come to light and change perceptions.

However, from the very beginning, I began having doubts about this one. Piper Mills, the main character, wasn't very appealing and nothing "felt" right or in any way believable to me. I was never able to enter into the story and remained an observer, and a critical observer at that.

It is often referred to as a mystery, but I found it more in the romance category in spite of attempts to guide it elsewhere. I looked up some reviews and found them mostly ENTHUSIASTIC. My feelings were exactly the opposite. Hopefully, Deslily will have a better opinion than I do.

Other reviews: (2 enthusiastic) Peeking Between the Pages, S. Krishna's Books, and (1 negative) Madeline's Photo & Book Blog.

Fiction. Romance? 2009. 368 pages.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Thirteenth House

Shinn, Sharon. The Thirteenth House.

In Mystic & Rider, Shinn introduced the 6 characters who would carry the novel and the series, and I liked them all and enjoyed watching their personalities continue to develop throughout the book and their various adventures.

This second novel in the series concentrates on Kirra. While I like Kirra's character, I would have preferred more of the camaraderie of the first book to the emphasis on one character.

In Mystic & Rider, the mystics (those with various magical powers) and two of the King's Riders (an exclusive military guard) are traveling the country trying to anticipate who might join the marlord of Gisseltess in rebellion against the king. The book is full of high adventure.

The Thirteenth House consists of vassals who hold their land under one of the marlords of the Twelve Houses. In this feudal system, each of the marlords of the Twelve Houses has granted land and property to his vassals who hold and manage their estates at the behest of their marlord. They owe their allegiance to their marlords, and the marlords owe their allegiance to the king. Just as in feudal Europe, this set up leads to conflicts of power.

In The Thirteenth House, the marlord of Gisseltess is attempting to recruit vassals from their own marlords in preparation for a war. Many of the vassals are desirous of becoming more than the stepchildren of the Twelve Houses and feel entitled to possess property in their own names. At the same time, many of the marlords of the Twelve Houses are afraid that the king may die and leave the kingdom in disarray as his daughter is too young to consolidate power, so they, too, are open to the appeal of Halchon of Gisseltess. The fear and hatred of mystics perpetuated by the Lestra and the Daughters of the Pale Mother is still a factor, but is less of a concern in the tour of the Great Houses.

Which Houses will fight for the king? Which ones will remain neutral? Which will join Gisseltess in rebellion? Which vassals will remain loyal to their marlords?

These are the questions to which the group of six must ascertain the answers during a summer tour that will introduce the princess to her people. The mystics (Senneth, Kirra, Donnal, and Cammon) and the Riders (Tayse and Justin) must keep Princess Amalie safe as they also take the pulse of both marlords and vassals.

I enjoyed this sequel, but not as much as the first in the series. The romance between Kirra and Romar Brendyn, the king's regent, took up too much time. There was too little of the other characters to satisfy me. If I figured out Valri in the first book, why can't the little group of heroes figure it out?

I love the magical powers of the mystics and the courage and commitment of the Riders, and there are some exciting episodes, but the focus on Kirra and her romance was a drawback for me. Nevertheless, I like the characters more than enough to continue the series, and I definitely want to know what happens next.

Other Reviews: The Melander Bookshelf, Banter Basement, The Epic Rat, Rosario,

Fiction. Fantasy. 2006. 484 pages.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Sharing Knife

Bujold, Lois McMaster. The Sharing Knife: Beguilement.

The first half of the book was OK. There was some mystery, some excitement. About half way through, however, the book slowed down and took a more romantic turn. This complication dragged on until the end. Blah, blah, blah.

Not even the first section had me invested, but at least it moved quickly. The Sharing Knife is the first in a series, but since the characters didn't appeal to me and never seemed to come off the page, and I'm not sure there was a plot, it will be the last for me. Fawn & Dag can ride off into the Lakewalker sunset, and I'll trouble them no more.

I looked at the Amazon reviews when I finished writing this. I agree with those who rated it 1 or 2, but the majority of the reviews were positive... So remember Bujold fans, my reviews are just my opinion, and we all have different preferences in books.

Fiction. Fantasy. 2006. 372 pages.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The King of Attolia

Turner, Megan Whalen. The King of Attolia.

As good as the previous novels, The King of Attolia takes Gen the thief to Eugenides the king. What an unlikely scenario based on our first look at the rascal in The Thief! Gen, however, has been forced to grow up a great deal since his initial adventure, and as usual, appearances in Gen's case are almost always deceiving.

A reluctant king in many ways, Gen finds himself embroiled in court intrigue, deception, and treachery and must proceed carefully. Attolians are not inclined to accept Gen as their king and reveal their resentment in large and small ways. While Gen appears to shrug off the responsibilities of the kingdom, leaving the details to his queen, he does take steps to ensure his own safety by enlisting a reluctant young guard as his personal attendant.

Costos, the young guard, while grateful not to have lost his head for striking the king, finds his position as personal attendant galling. His irritation with Gen's often foolish and un-king-like behavior continues to grow even as he finds himself drawn to his king in spite of himself. Costos provides the perfect foil to the complex, protean Gen.

Each installment of this series moves into a different realm of conflict and adventure. The byzantine nature of the court provides most of the tension (there is another interesting source of tension as well) in The King of Attolia: on whom does one rely, how does one survive assassination attempts, how to deal with both internal and external threats to the kingdom, personal relationships....

Gen should never be underestimated in spite of his determination to make most people do just that.

I find it very difficult to review these books without giving away spoilers, and my own preference is to discover things on my own. Suffice it to say that Megan Whalen Turner has produced a worthy third novel in this series which has become one of my all-time fantasy favorites.

Comments on my previous posts about the series have given me the encouraging news that the 4th book in the series is in the works. Yea!

Easter Weekend

Easter weekend was rainy, windy, and cold here, so in spite of going to the cabin, we all ended up staying inside most of the weekend.

As a result, I retreated frequently with my books and got quite a bit of reading done. I've got 4 reviews to catch up on now and am going to pace them out over the next few days.

And there was still lots of time to visit, eat, watch granddaughter Bryce Eleanor play (such a Daddy's girl!), admire the singing duck, eat, dye eggs, play cards, and eat....

I took my camera and forgot my card, which was still in the computer. No picture of Bryce Eleanor in her pink John Deere boots and pink dress, but here are the boots themselves.I'd love a pair!

Hope everyone had a great Easter Weekend!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Queen of Attolia

Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia.

I was very surprised as I began this sequel to The Thief, because the light-hearted atmosphere was gone.The novel opens with a thrilling, but heart-breaking episode in which Gen is discovered in the Queen of Attolia's castle. A much more serious and grownup episode than any in the previous book, it came as a bit of a shock and was a foreshadowing of the more serious events to come.

In spite of losing much of the cheerful and humorous aspect of the first novel, Turner manages to probe deeper in a skillful manner and produces a novel that makes the transition from light-hearted to an often somber tale without missing a beat. The humor is less frequent and darker and there is grief and suffering that were not present in the first narrative.

Just as I refrained from mentioning twists and turns that occurred in The Thief, I will keep quiet about much of what happens in this second novel. I will, however, let you know that I still love Gen/Eugenides, although he is no longer the scamp of a boy who drove everyone nuts in The Thief. The more dramatic events in this novel--war breaks out between Eddis and Attolia--call for a more serious hero, and like it or not, Gen must deal with the consequences of his capture by the Queen of Attolia.

The hero's journey continues, but in the process, Gen is forced to grow up and accept some things he would have found impossible to imagine a year earlier. Turner's inventive and carefully constructed plot, her marvelous characters, her creation of a world in which the reader can believe are all deftly managed.

HINT: Do not read the Amazon review or the customer reviews if you want to find out what happens for yourself. I did not and so was able to experience the events as they unfolded. I was surprised at what was revealed in the reviews that I would not have wanted to know in advance.

Final Comment: I loved this one, too! Only one more book left in this series, and I look forward to it, but with a kind of regret that then this adventure will be over.

Fiction. Fantasy, YA. 2000. 360 pages.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

More Fantasy

I've been reading several books at once (including Bujold's The Sharing Knife), but when I got my copy of the Queen of Attolia, the others had to step back in line because as soon as it arrived, it had my complete attention.

I finished it in short order, reviewed it, and scheduled the review for tomorrow as I'll be heading for the country later today. Even though I might take my lap top, the connection is so slow down there that I get impatient.

Here are the latest books for the Once Upon a Time Challenge--














  • The sequels to The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner: The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia. I don't want this series to end, but unless Turner decides to write another one, I'm at the end of the line when I finish The King of Attolia.
  • The sequels to Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn (which I read and reviewed for last year's challenge). The Thirteenth House and Dark Moon Defender are the next two in the series and have been waiting on my Amazon Wish List for quite a while. I really liked the characters in Mystic and Rider and am ready to re-acquaint myself with them. It is also nice to know that if I enjoy these as much as the first one, there are two more books in the series-- and maybe even more to come.
I have several other fantasy series that I've begun and am waiting for future installments, and Kailana also sent me a list of some her favorite fantasy titles that I've added to my list.

Fantasy has some of the characteristics of crack...

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Winner

of The Lost Hours is Deslily! As soon as I get your address, I will drop this in the mail, I have it packaged and ready to go as soon as I add the address!

The Three-Pound Enigma

Moffett, Shannon. The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries.

While not as absorbing as The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge or The Intention Experiment by Lynne McTaggert, this book does take a different approach to the study of the brain--concentrating on different individuals: a neurosurgeon, neuroscientists and researchers, philosophers, a woman with a disassociative disorder, a neuroethicist, and a zen monk.

The main questions concern consciousness, dreams, and memory. How does consciousness relate to the neural system? What is consciousness? How does memory work? What about dreaming and consciousness? Dreaming and memory? What about the changes in the brains of those who meditate as illustrated by fMRI scans?

In between the chapters, there are also chronological (and technical) explanations of brain development in a timeline format. These "interludes" begin with the embryonic period and the initial formation of brain matter and by the end of the book, the final interlude discusses the normal cognitive decline that occurs as a result of deficits in one or both of two systems: executive function and declarative memory.

There are, of course, more questions than answers, but there are some interesting questions in the quest to learn more about that one organ that so markedly differentiates us as thinking beings.

Nonfiction. Science. 2006. 237 pages.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

This Week's Mail

I've finished The Three-Pound Enigma and am happily reading an excellent biography of Flannery O'Connor.

The last couple of days have seen the arrival of several new books: Two Guys Read Jane Austen which Nicole of Linus's Blanket kindly offered to send me when I said I was adding it to my TBR list. I sent her Wild Life in return.

Another "brain" book, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. Read about this one on Stefanie's So Many Books, and it was a perfect choice for my brain books so I ordered it. My Reading Trail on the brain is getting along slowly, but surely.

Two ARC's that look good: Atlas of Unknowns and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I'm looking forward to both of these.

And my library book, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor by Brad Gooch, which caught me up so quickly that I'm nearly half-way through.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief: The Queen's Thief, Book 1.

This YA book is a delightful! My first book for Carl's Once Upon a Time Challenge III proved to be exciting and fun with several great characters.

Gen, a young professional thief, finds himself incarcerated in prison for not only stealing the king's seal, but bragging about it to one of the kingdom's spies. The king's magus decides to release Gen and to use his skills to steal Hamiathes's Gift, a stone given by one of the gods that confers the right to rule on the possessor.

Gen, a filthy charmer, complains and carries on throughout the trip, alternately annoying and surprising his companions. He is funny, witty, whining, egoistical, clever, and clear-sighted-- immediately sizing up his fellow travelers. He refers to Ambiades and Sophos, the other two young people on the journey, as Useless the Elder and Useless the Younger.

A sort of hero's journey with an unlikely hero, this tale has as much emphasis on the characters as on the events. The quest is important and has some exciting moments, but the joy in the book is the characterization and wonderful dialogue.

I really enjoyed the myths associated with Hamiathes, Eugenides, and the gods, as told by either the magus or by Gen. Gen often contradicts the magus, professing to know more about the myths than the magus, which the magus finds amusing. Gen will occasionally win admiration from his companions and then turn around and lose all the ground he gains by stealing food or by other behavior that highlights his lower class sensibilities.

As with all good YA fiction, this book appeals to adults as well. It was a Newberry Honor Book in 1997 and deservedly so, as Turner does such a marvelous job with the characters and the plot. There is a section called Extras at the end of the book that includes a wonderful section about Turner's inspiration and her favorite books and authors.

I did not want the book to end and am delighted to know that there are two more in the series. And I've already ordered them!

Other reviews: Angieville, Literary Fangirl...

Fiction. Fantasy. 1996. 280 pages

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Beach Street Knitting and Yarn Club

McNeil, Gil. The Beach Street Knitting and Yarn Club.

For the most part, I don't care for Chick Lit. I've picked up some that by the time I'm two pages in, I'm already wondering who in bloody hell reads this stuff. BUT I've read some that is really fun and enjoyable.

This one is definitely Chick Lit, and definitely fun. It took a chapter or so for things to kind of settle in and for McNeil to begin finding her voice, but once she did, I was having a great time and finding myself smiling at poor Jo's antics with her two young sons, Jack and Archie.

So...brief summation of the situation: Jo McKenzie's husband tells her that he wants a divorce, then promptly has a fatal car accident, leaving Jo to deal with naturally mixed feelings about his death. She is left stunned, grieving for their boys, and angry--especially as he had taken a second mortgage on their home without telling her.

Jo and her two boys must leave London and retreat to a small village where she will take over her grandmother's knitting shop. She has several interesting characters to deal with as well as trying to transform the shop into a paying proposition.

The narrative is a series of vignettes, little scenes with engaging, often understated dialogue; funny incidents dealing with the children; and episodes with interesting, amusing, and/or annoying minor characters.

A little more than half way through, I began to wonder about a climax. No pun intended, as romance is such a brief part of this novel. But, you know, a turning point? Two thirds through the novel and there's been no real rising action-- so there's no inkling of a turning point. (Kind of like real life...)

With only one and a half chapters left, I realized that I didn't care. I was enjoying the little episodes Jo had to deal with in making a life for herself and her two sons. The story is a warm and witty account of a woman who must make some big readjustments, and who finds herself not only dealing with her own problems, but becoming involved with the lives of others in the small village.

I had tried Knit Two by Kate Jacobs and abandoned it after about 10 pages, so I was pleased to discover that this was a light novel that appealed to my sense of humor. Knitting and the knit shop provide a convenient vehicle for a story about a woman making a new life for herself, maintaining old friendships and making new ones, and raising two small boys who have had some big changes in their lives

After the first chapter, I got a real kick out of McNeil's dialogue and the tricky situations life throws at us in the process of every day life. I would like to see another novel with these characters.

Other reviews: Pop Goes Fiction, YC Reads ...

:) I started this review a week ago and am just now finishing it.

Fiction. 2009. 404 pages.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Give-Away & TBR

I've received two ARC copies of The Lost Hours by Karen White in yesterday's mail. If you would like one, just leave a comment saying so on this post. I'll use the Random Number Generator for a drawing next Friday.

White is the author of The House on Tradd Street, which I have not read, but I remember having read some favorable blog reviews for it.

Received my Amazon order yesterday, too. Now I have some books for the Once Upon A Time Challenge III. I couldn't resist beginning The Thief by Megan Whaley Turner (because I don't have enough books in progress!) and am really enjoying it.

So... more books join the stacks (there are currently way too many already in those stacks).

Two for the Once Upon a Time: The Sharing Knife and TheThief from last year's lists (both are first books in a series); two new ARC copies of The Lost Hours (one for a give away); and one more "brain" book (How the Mind Works by Stephen Pinker via So Many Books).