Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Murder at Mansfield Park by Lynn Shepherd

As I read Murder at Mansfield Park, I experienced the full range of emotional responses: I nearly flung the book across the room, I chuckled at Shepherd's mastery of Austen-like humor, I flipped back in frustration to the pages establishing the revamped relationships among characters. As I read, my star rating vacillated wildly. I have finally settled on three stars, which feels a bit like a copout. But this is really two separate projects shoehorned into one, and ultimately, I'm not convinced they coexist well.

Those unfamiliar with Mansfield Park will miss a huge chunk of the fun here. In Austen's original, three sisters marry with varying degrees of success. Lady Bertram married well up and produced three children, Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Mrs. Norris did just fine, marrying the parson of the estate, and is now widowed with no children. The third sister married imprudently for love and produced a passel of children they can ill-afford, among them Fanny, the oldest girl, Susan, the next oldest, and William. Fanny is closest to Susan and William and misses them the most when she is sent to live with the Bertrams as a money-saving measure, where only Edmund treats her with kindness. Sister and brother Mary and Henry Crawford come to live in the parsonage. Henry begins a flirtation with all the girls, while Mary has her sights on Edmund. Shepherd interferes with the relationships and status of Austen's characters. Now Fanny is a spoiled orphan heiress who comes to live with her socially inferior cousins, the Bertrams, Edmund is Mrs. Norris's son, Henry Crawford has a profession, and Mary Crawford is a virtuous girl. This is the first reimagining of the novel. The second turns Mansfield Park into a Regency crime novel when Fanny turns up dead and Mr. Maddox is summoned to get to the bottom of the matter. This second approach has a number of effects: the servants figure more prominently, since they are a great source of information to Mr. Maddox, Mr. Maddox himself adds a wrinkle into the class portrayals, and much of the social commentary is redirected into the murder investigation.

I found a great deal of enjoyment in this novel, but I felt it was overly ambitious. Either of the two premises would have been sufficient, but both crammed together seemed excessive. Either shed light on class divisions by turning the relationships on their head or reimagine the novel as a murder mystery, but both is too much departure from the original material. Austen's own words are incorporated extensively, but Shepherd's prose blends almost seamlessly. She has an impressive command of Regency language and of Austen's brand of humor. Ultimately, there is simply too much going on here to really shed light on Austen's original, and the reader has far too many departures of which to keep track. I kept forgetting that WIlliam wasn't Fanny's brother in this interpretation, the class change for Henry was a sticking point, Edmund as Mrs. Norris's son...all this and more AND with a murder mystery thrown in. While there were fun, insightful parts, the rest was chaos.

An overly ambitious reimagining of Austen, but one with plenty of enjoyable moments.

Source disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quick Note

I forgot to mention yesterday in my Picture Book Post that Abbie is hosting a giveaway this week. All you have to do is go over to Greening Sam and Avery and leave comments on the guest posts. You could win fun prizes from Acorn Naturalists!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Picture Book Thurday: Guest Post at Greening Sam & Avery

My friend Abbie has started a new endeavor with her young children: to teach them in a hands-on way about nature and the environment around them. She asked me be to be a guest blogger for her blog Greening Sam and Avery. At first I was a little nervous, what could I contribute? Other than recycling regularly, using reusable bags, and doing a garden in the summer, we don't do nature activities very often. Then she said she wanted people to write about an interest of theirs but somehow relate it to "being green". Okay, I could do that!

While at the library with my kiddos last week, I picked up a couple picture books that I thought would fit into the environmental theme of her blog. Since Abbie's daughters are in the two and under age group, I wanted to find at least one book that might appeal to a very young audience.

The Earth and I jumped out at me both for the title and the author. I LOVED Frank Asch's Popcorn when I was a kid. LOVED it! And I have to say I really enjoyed this book as well. There are very few words, the pictures mostly say it all, which makes it great for a younger audience. It depicts one child's friendship with the earth: listening to the earth, helping her grow, playing in the backyard together. The book also shows the earth being sad (polluted) and how we can help clean the mess up to make her happy again. The pictures are really great and colorful. He also wrote the companion book Water which looks to be just as colorful and interesting.

For the girly girls out there (this would include my girls!), Fancy Nancy: Explorer Extraordinare is the perfect guide to investigating nature. Nancy and her best friend Bree start a new club. Nancy writes on the first page of the book, "Bonjour, everybody! Welcome to our club! Bree and I love to go exploring in the wild. We collect leaves, watch birds and butterflies, and inspect insects. If you're like us, then you can be an Explorer Extraordinaire too." The pages that follow show the club rules (Nobody in the club thinks bugs are gross. No touching; just looking. We never catch butterflies because they are fragile.), talk about various bugs, their life cycles, birds and trees. Photographs depict different types of insects, birds and leaves. My favorite part of the book are the little activity ideas sprinkled throughout. They tell you how to make a cookie-cutter bird feeder, a pine cone bird feeder, a lavish leaf crown, and more.

The last two books, I actually haven't read, but wanted to include them because they are on the less girly side of things. I've seen them around and have been meaning to take a look at them. Ellie Bethel has written two pictures books starring Michael Recycle; Michael Recycle and Michael Recycle Meets Litterbug Doug. He's a superhero whose power is to teach people to recycle. In the second book, the green caped crusader must teach Doug to be less lazy and clean up after himself.

These are just a few of the books that fall into the category of the environment or promoting being green. If you're interested in finding more books, here is a link to what I found when I searched "environment" in children's fiction books on the Barnes and Noble website. There are so many fun books to take a look at!

Source disclosure: I borrowed these books from the library.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

"Je me souviens" (I remember) is the motto of Quebec, and Bury Your Dead echoes this sentiment in every plot thread. In the acknowledgements, Penny says, "Bury Your Dead is not about death, but about life. And the need to both respect the past and let it go." (Advance Reader's Edition) The main action takes place in Quebec City, an ancient, walled settlement literally built on the bones of those who came before. Here, the dwindling English minority huddles together, surrounded by the Francophones who mostly resent their presence. Their symbolic last stand is in the Literary and Historical Society, the depository for all English-language books and papers. The old building needs an infusion of cash, but the Anglophone community responds poorly to attempts to sell off the worthless books and papers choking the Lit and His, insisting that to sell off a few books to save the many devalues the English language. It is here, in the Lit and His, that Inspector Gamache seeks refuge in the past, and is pulled into a murder investigation in the present.

Bury Your Dead is the sixth entry in the Inspector Gamache series. I first read the fifth, The Brutal Telling, then immediately ordered the first four books in the series. I was delighted to receive a review copy of the sixth, which picks up some time after The Brutal Telling. Gamache and Jean-Guy are both on leave following a disastrous case that left both men wounded, physically and emotionally. Gamache seeks refuge in Quebec City with his mentor, Emile, researching the history of another leader whose mistakes piled up until it was too late. In the basement of the Lit and His, the half-buried body of amateur archaeologist and eccentric Augustin Renaud is found, his head caved in with a shovel. Renaud is well-known as a fanatic obsessed with finding the final resting place of Champlain, the father of Quebec. French-English relations are threatened by Renaud's death in the English stronghold, and Gamache is asked to act as liaison between the two communities and assist with the investigation. Penny has dealt in intriguing fashion with the Anglophone/Francophone relations in Quebec in previous books, but this marks her most thorough discussion so far. I was fascinated by the political/historical implications of the unfolding events.

Meanwhile, Gamache is haunted by doubts and sends Jean-Guy (also on leave) to Three Pines to reopen old wounds. I can't go into detail without spoiling The Brutal Telling for those new to the series. But Jean-Guy's covert investigation is a welcome return to the charming village, intersecting with Jean-Guy's attempts to deal with his own past. The final plot thread, the disastrous last case, is teased out in remarkably effective fashion as Jean-Guy and Gamache attempt (separately) to come to terms with the tragedy. So much of both men is revealed in this entry of the series, and this unifying idea of respecting the past, but letting it go, is carried through this psychological exploration as well. It's really a breathtaking book, and I found it difficult to put down.

While a newcomer to the series wouldn't be completely at sea, I recommend against starting with the sixth, which refers to many events in The Brutal Telling. In addition, The Brutal Telling marked a deepening psychological examination of the main characters, which is further explored in Bury Your Dead. Readers will find the most satisfaction in reading the series in order from the beginning as the characters are fleshed out and relationships evolve.

Bury Your Dead is available in hardcover September 28, 2010.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

My blurbs for #1-4, Still Life, A Fatal Grace, The Cruelest Month, and A Rule Against Murder.
My review of #5, The Brutal Telling.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Clouds Beneath the Sun by Mackenzie Ford

Books don't often shock me. I read so much that I seem to be in tune with the narrative flow, I see plot twists coming from miles away, and I'm good at spotting foreshadowing. However, in his second novel, Mackenzie Ford has created a story of such surprising richness that I closed it on the last page, then promptly began thinking if the surprises were fair, if they had been foreshadowed. I had to conclude that I had fair warning of the plot developments all the way through, which makes The Clouds Beneath the Sun all the more extraordinary. In fact, some events were foreshadowed, but I discounted them as impossible to pull off in a realistic fashion. How delighted I was to have been mistaken.

The book opens with Natalie Nelson taking her newly minted Cambridge Ph.D and broken heart to her first dig, in Kenya. Ford (a nom de plume for historian Peter Watson) eases us into the setting with Natalie passing elephants involved in a mourning ritual on the way to the remote camp. I actually had trouble getting into the book at first. An archaeological dig in 1961 Kenya is not an easy setting to evoke, and the "Attention: You Are Now In the 1960s!" details did not feel as effortlessly part of the story as the history and political climate of Kenya. (Examples: that newfangled birth control pill, friends of Natalie's who (gasp) live with men instead of marrying, Natalie's parents utter shock at her disastrous affair with a married man, the publication of Lolita, talk of men going to the moon.) And Natalie's mooning about Dom, her lover, is a bit overdone. However, once I'd made it through the set-up, I could not put this book down. Ford's Kenya is beautiful, vibrant, and complex, so well-drawn that I had no difficulty visualizing it. He lays out the political climate neatly. The moral complexity of the story means that I'm still thinking about the implications.

As Natalie and the others on the dig begin to make extraordinary discoveries in the gorge, she develops relationships with her colleagues. Eleanor, the widow of a celebrated paleontologist, wants to take Natalie under her wing, forcing a confidence that Natalie isn't sure she wants. Eleanor's two sons, Jack and Christopher, vie for her attention, as does Russell, an Australian on the dig. When Richard Sutton, Jr. is found murdered after he and Russell commit an unforgivable act against the Maasai, Natalie is thrust into the center of a political minefield, as the only witness who can implicate one of the Maasai. The tensions between the Maasai and the colonial paleontologists, between blacks and whites (some want a system of apartheid for Kenya, while other groups seek an integrated society, and still others want all the whites ejected), between English law and tribal custom, are absolutely riveting. Jack, having grown up in Africa, is an honorary Maasai, so his insights are invaluable. These are not easy questions posed by Ford, and he doesn't offer easy answers. The pressure on Natalie to refuse to testify in order to diffuse the political situation is not unwarranted, and she herself wavers between doing what is morally right to her, and doing what may be politically and culturally appropriate.

This is a morally complex novel that evokes a realistic picture of 1961 Kenya, of a country divided by race on the brink of independence, and of an impossible choice. I highly recommend it.

FTC Source Disclosure: I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James

I chose this as an Early Reviewer book from LibraryThing because I thought the storyline sounded intriguing and I usually like psychological thrillers. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I read this book in two days which is quite a feat for me these days with three kids.

In Beautiful Malice, Katherine has suffered through losing her sister in a family tragedy. She is living with her aunt and trying to start over at a new school when she meets Alice, a popular and fun girl. After knowing Alice for a bit, Katherine thinks there is something that seems a bit off about her but dismisses it. As the story unfolds, Alice is not who she seems to be and starts wreaking havoc on Katherine's life just as she starts to move past her sister's death.

The author took her time revealing all the secrets of the book and paced it just right to keep the reader moving through the pages. I didn't really guess any of the story before it was revealed to me which I always think is the sign of a good book.

It only received mildly warm reviews on LibraryThing, but I felt it was one of the better books I've read in awhile.

Source disclosure: Received from the publisher through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Mystery Monday: Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer by John Grisham

I enjoyed John Grisham's first foray into juvenile fiction better than his recent adult novels. His knack for storytelling never gets old and translated well for a younger audience.

Theodore Boone is the thirteen year old son of two lawyers. He spends his afternoons at their law office doing his homework and helping students with occasional legal troubles. He is good friends with many of the cops, lawyers, judges and secretaries in town. When the trial of the century takes place, Theo is chomping at the bit for a front row seat. During the trial, a fellow student comes to him with information that could change the outcome of the verdict. Theo must figure out how to help without risking breaking a promise and without messing up the whole trial.

I enjoyed reading this novel and whipped right through it. I only have two complaints. One is very minor. Grisham tended to overexplain things with regard to the courtroom and he defined random words here and there. But, I realize many kids reading this book would not have knowledge of how a courtroom works so these explanations are necessary. It was just a little much for me as an adult reading the story.

My second gripe is that I felt like the book just sort of ended. I wanted a bit more closure. Not sure if Grisham's enthusiasm for writing the book just fizzled out, but I didn't feel like the ending was very polished. There was one man creeping around (Omar Cheepe), and maybe I was reading too fast and missed the background on this guy, but I didn't feel like I fully understood what this character was up to. He was following Theo around but I couldn't figure out why or how he was related to the defendant in the trial. I guess I sort of wanted an epilogue what would neatly tie it all together.

All that being said, I definitely recommend this to any young reader out there looking for a good mystery or interested in how a trial is run. I think this is a great book for children who may read above their level. Content-wise this is very appropriate for younger readers. No real violence, no bad language. Just good storytelling.

Source disclosure: I received this from the Penguin Group as part of their summer promotional package.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

Arcadia Falls had a little bit of everything! Good storytelling, interesting characters, and awesome atmosphere.

After Meg Rosenthal's husband passes away suddenly, she finds herself in need of a job to support her and her daughter, Sally. They move to Arcadia Falls where she starts teaching at an arts school. Meg's background is in fairy tales and part of the appeal of Arcadia Falls is the town's rich history in both the arts and storytelling. One of the schools founders created wonderful fairy tales which Meg grew up on. She couldn't resist going to the place that inspired it all. Just as Meg and Sally arrive and get settled, a student mysteriously dies. The death starts to reveal the dark side of the school and the town. Meg stumbles upon many secrets from both past and present.

Arcadia Falls has a very atmospheric Gothic feeling to it. I really liked how the fairy tales were woven into the story. I also liked the multi-layered historical aspect of the book. Without giving too much of the story way, everything and everyone seems somehow connected to the past and current stories taking place.

My only gripe about Goodman's book is that there seemed to be an abnormal amount of people drawn to one particular cliff on the school grounds. The number of people falling, dying, threatening to kill themselves at this cliff provided over the top drama.

I highly recommend this book, especially if you were a fan of Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. This had a very similar feeling to it.

Source disclosure: I received a review copy of this from Ballantine Books as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.

First Come Love, Then Comes Malaria by Eve Brown-Waite

I read various reviews of this memoir last year and suggested it to my book club. I'm glad I did, because everyone who read it loved it!

Eve Brown-Waite recounts how she met her husband while joining the Peace Corps, her brief stint as a Peace Corps worker and then their experiences as ex-patriots living in Uganda.

Brown-Waite's husband is the type of guy who loves traveling the world and helping out in third-world communities. Eve isn't so sure she's up for the same adventure but goes along with it anyway. Arriving in Africa, she doesn't quite know what to expect. The other ex-pat wives teach her all that she needs to know to be as comfortable as possible in this strange place. When she believes she might be pregnant, she sees a doctor who can't really tell her if she is pregnant or not. She is "maybe" pregnant. She also spends a good part of the book trying to figure out how she can use her background in public health education to help educate the people there about HIV/AIDS prevention.

I thoroughly enjoyed joining Eve on her African adventure and her entry into motherhood in less than ideal conditions. It was interesting how they learned to adapt to the different culture and climate and returning to the fast-paced, overstimulated world of America was so overwhelming to her. The end of the book hinted at a sequel of their next adventure when their time in Uganda was finished. I certainly would jump at the chance to read anything else by this author. She had me laughing out loud at her stories.

Source Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the library.