Monday, January 25, 2010

Book Reviews: Two Pluses, a Minus and Something in Between

A goal for this year is to read more "fun" books. Escape reading, you know, instead of research/learning reading. I'm working on it although I still find myself doing some educational reading in the process.

Last month I tried the following (I say tried because I am notorious for being bored by a book, flipping to the end to see if I have already figured it out and then not finishing it. Bad form for a librarian):

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith. This was a given--I was pretty sure I was going to like it because I thought it was one of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Instead, it was the story of La (short for Lavender), a woman who starts a community orchestra during World War II, in England. She also tended chickens as another part of her war effort, and struggled with trust and suspicion of a man met in the course of her work. I have liked everything I've read by McCall Smith except the ones about the philosophers' club and this story joined my list of books to recommend wholeheartedly. The main character, La, reminded me of the stories my mother told of growing up in rural England in wartime. McCall Smith captured perfectly that English toughness and gentility my mother exhibited. This was a quick read and a satisfying one. Don't expect real depth here; it's almost a country cozy but with the author's usual thoughtful rambles and perfect capture of description. This one you will put down and stroke the cover, wishing it had not ended so soon. At least, that's what I did.

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd. Another quick read, the author nevertheless captured the man and his demons, as well as his graces and genius. Throughout the book I felt that exasperation we all feel when we see someone missing chance after chance because they shoot themselves in the foot whenever opportunity comes calling. Poe was a twisted, unhappy man, and yet he had his joys and ambition too. The eeriness of a portrait painted of his wife just after her death summed up his life to me--sad, horrific, beautiful, and filled with longing for what he never managed to grasp. Although I've read a bit about Edgar Allan Poe in the past, I was glad for this quick refresher that offered depth, compassion and a fresh look into an old mystery. Acroyd is a renowned biographer, and he does just to his subject here.

The Canterbury Tales, translated by Burton Raffel. This is the "something in between." I am listening to this new translation on CD, and have been highly entertained. Who would have thought that flatulence and risque, not to say crude, behavior could be so entertaining?! I have laughed out loud many times while listening as I drive back and forth to work. I remembered the Wife of Bath's tale as being fairly bawdy, but goodness me she seems mild compared to the Miller's Tale and a few of the others. What makes it not a full plus is that Raffel seems to have interjected some modern-day language into the text--things like "have a nice day" for example--and to have missed some rhyming opportunities that would have flowed better than the words he chose, and been more in keeping with the language of the Tales. Or maybe that's just me. However, Raffel's labors have brought the Tales to me, and for that I am grateful.

So what was the minus? It was a book I should have known better than to try. I'm not a fan of genre fiction but when I read a review of Susan Wittig Albert's latest book and discovered that her detective was an herbalist, and that her books included recipes and herbal lore, I thought that they'd be right up my alley.


I used to read nothing but mysteries but when I exhausted Dorothy Sayers and tired of V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton's heroine (what was her name? I can't even remember now) I was done with the genre. So Albert's books should have stayed on my Do Not Read list. What bothers me is that the characters and the plot all scream "formula!" The list of female characters reads like a Who's Who of stereotypical women: strong gutsy former lawyer who returns to small town to open a shop (and who has all that lawyer money stashed so she can live in the style to which she's accustomed), her macho boyfriend guy who's studly and a former cop (which should have made the lawyer in her run screaming the other way) and with whom this 40-something lady has wild passion; the pink and prissy lady and the floaty spiritual one, the role model older woman who fights with her daughter, and on and on. Everything ties up tidily and even the murders are pretty tidy, come to think of it. For those who like formula mysteries and are into herbs, this might be a great series. For me, not.

That was January's reading list. February? I'm looking forward to it!


susanalbert said...

Granny Sue, did you look at the pub date on this book? 1992. It was written when those characters, settings, and themes were NOT formulaic--when there were no other garden mysteries, no other former-lawyer protagonists. THYME OF DEATH (now in its 22 printing) was so appealing when it appeared that dozens (literally) of other authors began to copy and spin it. There's plenty to criticize about this book and others I have written, but "formula" isn't one of its problems.

Susan Albert

Cathy said...

I'm going to have to check out a couple of those but I've taken a break until the end of the month. My trip to the library Saturday brought home self help and cookbooks. I think I'd really enjoy the Canterbury Tales. Thanks!

Granny Sue said...

OK, Susan, I'm willing to try again. I started with this one because it was the first in the series and often a reader needs to go there first to get to know the characteristics. Is there a particluar title you would recommend?

Granny Sue said...

Cookbooks are my browsing material, Cathy. They get me cooking even if I don't use the recipes I see in them. Let me know if you pick up one you think is really good.

Markin said...

Have you encountered the Elizabeth Goodweather mystery series by Vicki Lane yet? Fairly minimal on the herb lore, although Elizabeth lives on and runs a herb farm up in the Blue Ridge down near Asheville, North Carolina, but Lane she does wonderfully describe the area and its people through her eyes.

What I especially loved about the first book, Signs in the Blood, was the way Lane wove into the narrative a pseudo-diary, as it were -- the memories of a young mountain girl who died some hundred years ago; it runs in counterpoint to what are ultimately fairly minimal references to her story in the course of the plot proper. One does get the sense that Lane is in touch with mountain / herb lore, even if she doesn't incorporate it centrally in her books. (I've only read the first two, so far, so this might change.)

Granny Sue said...

I have not heard of this author, Markin. I will look for her for my February reading.

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