Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book #86: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel

I've heard so much buzz about Wolf Hall (it won last year's Booker Prize) that I knew that I'd have to read it eventually. I'm no novice to books about Tudor England. I've read Alison Weir and Antonia Fraser's books about Henry and his wives and, yes, The Other Boleyn Girl. I found all of those books more readable and accessible than Wolf Hall. I've been in a bit of a slump with my running lately, and I finally decided that it was because I was dreading putting my earbuds in and listening to Wolf Hall for another hour. It's funny, because in retrospect, I feel like I learned a lot about Thomas Cromwell (or at least Hilary Mantel's portrayal of him here as intelligent and paternal-- he's viewed quite differently in A Man for All Seasons, which favors Thomas More), but all of the action in the novel seems to take place in dialogue instead of in actual things happening.

Once again, I didn't love the narrator of the audiobook and was irritated by the voices he assumed for each character, which seemed to insinuate too much about what the characters were like instead of allowing a reader to decide for herself if she liked them. I loved the domestic scenes in the book-- the snapshots of Cromwell as a young man, the snippets of him walking through his orchards and losing his wife and daughters and marrying off the men in the family, but frankly, I found a lot of the chatter between Cromwell and other members of the court to get pretty tiresome after a while. It makes me imagine that being a member of Henry's court was pretty tiresome too. Tiresome, that is, when you weren't worrying about being sent off to the Tower of London. Now that I've finished Wolf Hall, I hope that running will become fun again.

Book #85: The Rag and Bone Shop

The Rag and Bone Shop (Readers Circle)Title: The Rag and Bone Shop
Author: Robert Cormier

I need to disabuse myself of the notion that Young Adult novels are all of the Beverly Cleary variety-- well-scrubbed kids saying and doing cute things. I know that's not true, but when a Young Adult novel is dark or doesn't have a predictable story arc, it always takes me by surprise. Robert Cormier's The Rag and Bone Shop doesn't feel much like a Young Adult novel, although one of the main characters is a young boy. It doesn't, in fact, feel much like a novel at all. Instead, it's more like an exploration of one man's character. In fact, it reminded me a lot of the play Doubt. In The Rag and Bone Shop, twelve-year-old Jason ends up the prime suspect in a murder investigation after his friend turns up dead. He's interviewed by a master interrogator, who uses every every possible tactic to get Jason to confess to a crime he didn't commit. I've read other novels by Cormier (The Chocolate War, I am the Cheese) that deal with justice and innocence, so it should come as no surprise that Trent, the interrogator, is so ruthless in his attempts to get Jason to confess, but the spareness of the story, and the terseness of Cormier's writing style made Trent come across as particularly pernicious. It's a very quick read, and an interesting exploration into the worst hours of Jason's young life.

Book #84: What of the Night

What of the Night?Title: What of the Night
Author: Stephen Carter

I've read several of the essays in Stephen Carter's collection What of the Night in Sunstone, and once I realized that they were, for the most part, previously published essays, I wasn't sure that I would enjoy rereading them (although I liked them the first time). But I was surprised and pleased to see that although the essays likely were not written with a collection in mind, the ordering of the essays, although not strictly chronological, tied them together in a way that made them seem richer by being together. I feel that I got a better picture of Carter as a man and a writer and a thinker by reading them together than I did when I read each one separately. As a new MFA student, I was also heartened to read about Carter's own assertion that he went to school to learn how to write because it wasn't something that came naturally to him. It gives me hope that I, too, will one day be able to call myself a writer.

Book #83: The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint: A NovelTitle: The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Author: Brady Udall

After reading The Lonely Polygamist, I was eager to get my hands on another Brady Udall novel (immediately after finishing the novel, I listened to everything he's done on This American Life, which was pretty fun too). Once again, Udall didn't disappoint with the story of Edgar Mint, a half-breed Apache whose alcoholic mother didn't want him, and who was run over by a mail truck at age seven. Udall spins the miraculous story of Edgar's survival, his rehabilitation in an Arizona hospital (where he befriended a creepy doctor and an old man who stayed in Edgar's life, for good or for ill, long after the hospital stay ended), his sojourn in a boarding school for American Kids right out of Charles Dickens, and his eventual meet-up with the Mormon missionaries, who have him placed in the Lamanite Relocation Program living with a family outside of Cedar City.

Throughout the novel, Edgar wonders for what purpose his life has been spared. He feels that there must have been a greater purpose for him to survive a skull-crushing injury, but as a modern-day (or at least 1970s-era) Oliver Twist, Edgar finds frustrating situations and unsavory characters (including the doctor who saved him) wherever he turns. In some ways, characters in the novel (like Dr. Barry and the school principal) seem to be types, drawn with larger-than-life strokes, but he gets the Madsen family right-- they're complicated and conflicted, and not Mormon stereotypes. The doctor the Madsens take Edgar to see after he develops tendinitis from too much "self-love" is also hilarious. I love that Udall doesn't shy away from giving us a happy ending either-- after such a hard first sixteen years, it's delightful to see Edgar get away from all of the dysfunction in his life and find the miracle he's been spared to live.

Book #82: How We Decide

How We DecideTitle: How We Decide
Author: Jonah Lehrer

Eddie and I listened to How We Decide on our drive to and from Minnesota last week. I dozed a little bit during some of the early chapters, but I think I heard enough of the book (at least 80%) to feel justified in reviewing it here. I read Jonah Lehrer's Proust was a Neuroscientist when it came out several years ago and found it a challenging, compelling read. I also really enjoy Lehrer's segments on the Radiolab podcast. I think Eddie liked How We Decide more than I did, maybe because I'm such a decisive person that reading a whole book about making decisions seems like overkill. Some of the material has been covered in other places (in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurtureshock and on Radiolab) so some of it was a bit repetitive for me. And I also think I've started to tire of the small-format nonfiction books about quirky subjects with wide appeal (think all of Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics books).

All of those things aside, the thing that bugged me most about my experience with How We Decide was the narrator. His voice was deep and boring and serious, and he changed it to become the characters in the stories in a highly annoying way. I recently heard one of the stories in the book on Radiolab's "Stochasticity" episode, narrated by Lehrer and including the voices of the people he interviewed. It was so much more interesting than the version narrated by David Colacci and made me wonder why Lehrer didn't narrate the book himself. In short, the book talks about how neuroscience helps us understand why we make the choices we do, and many of those choices that seem to be "gut" decisions, based on instinct, actually turn out to be the best choices we could have made if we went through a rational analysis of relevant data. In fact, too much analysis often brings about diminishing returns. So maybe my extreme decisiveness isn't such a detriment, after all.

Book #81: Anthropology of an American Girl

Anthropology of an American Girl: A NovelTitle: Anthropology of an American Girl
Author: Hilary Thayer Hamann

I'd heard a significant amount of buzz surrounding Hilary Thayer Hamann's Anthropology of an American Girl, originally self-published six or seven years ago, now reedited and reissued after it became a cult hit. I was eager to delve into it after reading the back cover, which proclaimed it as something like "Catcher in the Rye for girls." I think that the buzz had somewhat of a Blair Witch Project effect for me. By that, I mean that it was hyped so much that I expected it to be amazing, and was somewhat underwhelmed by it. I found the first four hundred pages of Anthropology to be extremely slow-going, mainly because while I found the writing beautiful and insightful, I just didn't identify with the main character, Eveline, at all.

Hamann story takes place in the late 1970s and early 1980s on Long Island and in Manhattan. As the book opens, Eveline is a senior in high school, more responsible than either of her divorced parents and basically raising herself, watching out for a friend whose mother (also a maternal figure to Eveline) just died, and trying to recover from being raped by two popular jocks from her high school. She's introspective and hardworking and more than a little broken. When she meets Harrison Rourke, a boxer who is helping out a friend by directing a play at Eveline's high school, she falls in love. As a thirtysomething, I dismissed her love for Rourke as teenage infatuation (and his reciprocation as creepy), as something that would pass. But it didn't pass through all the years of college, through her relationship and eventual engagement with Mark, Rourke's creepy, rich friend. My guess is that the eventual reunion of Eveline and Rourke was intended to be romantic, but it was hard for me to believe that two such damaged characters could ever successfully come together.

I'll give it to Hamann, the book did get good-- about 400 pages into the novel. I found Eveline's struggle between her revulsion for Mark and her comfort with the stability he provided to be particularly interesting. But as a love story and as a character portrait, I just didn't get Anthropology of an American Girl.

Book #80: The Tennis Partner

The Tennis Partner
Title: The Tennis Partner
Author: Abraham Verghese

"Write what you know," is something that beginning writers often hear. When I dream about writing the great American novel, I think about the things I know (things like running and mothering and baking and being a Mormon) and the places I know, and quickly dismiss them as too boring or too hackneyed. But reading Abraham Verghese's The Tennis Partner made me think that it might be possible to write a story about running and friendship and do it well. In The Tennis Partner, Verghese picks up about three years after he left off in My Own Country. He has just moved his family to El Paso, Texas, where he starts a job as an attending in infectious diseases at the local teaching hospital. Verghese is at a crossroads in his life-- he's just arrived in a new city and has few friends, and he and his wife, Rajani, have decided to divorce. Verghese discovers that one of his fourth-year medical students, David Smith, was once a professional tennis player, and Verghese proposes that they play together. Their relationship over the next few years, played out initially on the tennis court, becomes personal as they learn more about one another's families and pasts.

It turns out that David has quite a past-- one that involves several ex-wives, getting kicked out of school, alienation from his family, all the result of a drug addiction he can't shake. Verghese struggles with wondering if he's helping or enabling David as his life starts to spin out of control. Once again, Verghese uses the same observational skills he perfected as an internist (in one scene he takes us through a visual physical examination and helps his students see what they can learn about a patient before they run tests or even lay a hand on her) to guide his way as a writer. While the story is about David, and the relationship between David and Verghese, it's also rich in detail about Verghese's family, his patients, and his own self-doubts. I've now read both of Verghese's memoirs and his novel, and all three have been impeccably written about the things that are dear to Verghese's own heart and experience, and all three have been revelatory. I'm eager to see what he comes up with next.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What I should be doing... What I am doing...

We've been gone to Minnesota for nine days. If I were more organized, more of a go-getter, I'd be at the grocery store, buying milk and cereal and fresh fruits and vegetables. I'd be folding the five loads of laundry piled up in that mess of a laundry room downstairs.

Instead, I'm home, puttering around my blog. I could still justify the puttering if it were to publish cute pictures of my kids at Mount Rushmore and Target Field, the zoo and Mall of America (which Maren calls "South America"), playing with their cousins, swimming in the pool, and decapitating the pinata at the All-Family Birthday Party. But I'm not. I gave up taking pictures after the first day (rest assured, my mom more than made up for my default), and I came home with a phone full of video of stuffed animals and the Nebraska prairie and Isaac getting car sick, all courtesy of Bryce.

The trip was great-- no major mishaps (other than that speeding ticket in Wyoming), but I'm having a hard time psyching myself back up for real life. I spent two days getting ready to go, nine days organizing chaos while I was gone, and now it will take at least a few more days for life to return to normal. While I procrastinate the day of my repentance (or at least the day of my milk-buying), please notice that I haven't been completely idle-- I did reorganize the labels for all of my book posts. Now there will be no doubt in your mind which books I think really suck.

Because I can't get by with complete and utter laziness, here's one picture from the trip-- a teaser of a bigger and better recap that will come once the laundry is folded and the seven books I read while I was gone are reviewed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Airing my Dirty Laundry-- My Laundry Room Needs Your Help

If you've been following my blog over the last year, you know that I've been furnishing and accessorizing up a storm. You've seen my progress in a series of bad iPhone pictures. You know you're a terrible photographer when people who've seen the house on my blog come over and say, "Wow, this looks so much better in person," and that seems to be the general consensus.

When we moved into the house, I figured that it would take me the first few years to get the inside of the house under control, and then I could move to the outside. I'm not completely done yet, but other than putting pictures on the bathroom walls, I have a pretty good vision of where the unfinished rooms are going. I've picked out the new living room couch, but don't want to buy it until we go to Minnesota and have a chance to actually sit on it.  Once I muster up the energy to make another mammoth trip to IKEA, I can finish up the playroom cabinetry, but after the bookshelf of death experience, that may be a while. But there's one spot that I can't wrap my head around, and I need your help. I've moved up the self-imposed deadline (at least the visionary deadline, not the completed deadline) to when school starts at the end of next month, because once I'm taking four classes and teaching another, I doubt that dreaming up what I'm going to do with cabinetry and tchotchkes will be high on my list of priorities.

Here's what I want from the room:
  • I'd like each kid to have his or her own space for bags, shoes and jackets, and if I could figure out a way to make space for the adults, that would be a very nice bonus. 
  • Space for ironing, and either room for the ironing board to be left out, or else some cool ironing board solution that wouldn't necessitate me dragging it out from a closet every time it needs to be used.
  • Closed storage for the bleach and the cleaning supplies.
  • A good dirty laundry solution.
  • A place to display my kids' artwork, a whiteboard for messages, and a spot to tack up things like the school notices and birthday party invites that threaten to overtake the kitchen desk.
Here are even more bad iPhone pictures of what the space looks like:

The main dumping zone. Those are my kids' backpacks, our swim bag, and the mammoth church bag, thrown haphazardly over and under the bench we used in our Texas kitchen. I hate haphazard. I want a place for everything so I can yell at people when they don't put their stuff away right. We also have a small shoe rack in there, but I don't think we ever actually use it for shoes. You'll notice that both Eddie and I have our ditch boots next to the bench. Those need a more permanent home.

Here's where things get really bad. I think that white shelf was in a closet somewhere in our house in Texas, and when we got here, I just tossed it up and forgot about it, but as you can see, pretty it ain't. That huge dark mass on top of the top shelf is my ironing basket, and priority number one is somewhere to hide the dang thing. I never tackle it until it's full, and now that I know that about myself I might as well not torture myself by having it out in plain sight all the time. I'd also like to be able to hide the assorted bottles and containers, especially the ones I don't use on a daily basis. I'll never be a "Real Simple" kind of girl who rebottles her laundry soap in pretty glass containers, so that stuff needs to find a hiding place. I do use a garbage can frequently, but it doesn't necessarily need to be that garbage can if something else would work better.

Moving clockwise around the room, the next problem spot is the ironing board. I like keeping my ironing board out (it gives the illusion that I actually keep up on my ironing), but I also know that space is at a premium in this room, especially if I want it to function as a mud room and a laundry room, so I'm amenable to other options, especially if they're good looking. My main requirement is that there must be room for me to have the ironing board out in this room and still walk without toppling the iron over on top of myself. You'll also notice that there's a laundry basket on the floor near the ironing board. It's not cute, but it is functional. This is where I collect dirty stuff I find throughout the house, in preparation for the "load of all colors" that I do every morning (breathe, Mom, it's okay). There's a vent on the floor under the ironing board, so any storage furniture we put in here must be on legs.

Finally, here's the last wall of the room. The door you see at the end of the hallway is our side entrance and the molding on the right side is where our pantry is located. It's basically a walkway, so I'm thinking that whatever we do here needs to be flush to the wall.

Any advice? I haven't looked much, and the looking I have done has been at IKEA, since I'm on a first name basis with Tom at the info desk since starting the basement project. I found this on IKEA hacker, and love it, but I'm willing to look outside the big blue and yellow box, so whatever suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book #79: The Passage

The PassageTitle: The Passage
Author: Justin Cronin

I used my Audible.com credits to buy Justin Cronin's The Passage because I am a cheapskate. I didn't want to wait through 300 holds in the library system to get my hands on the novel, and I didn't want to pay $25 for the book either, but using my Audible Gold credits, I got all 36 hours of The Passage for about $8. I was reveling in my good deal, but I hadn't bargained that I'd be getting such a good book in the process as well. I'd read reviews of The Passage that said "If you love Stephen King or vampire thrillers, you'll love The Passage." Well, I don't love Stephen King of vampire thrillers, but I did love The Passage.

I'd say that anyone who loves a well-crafted story where all of the characters and storylines introduced over almost 800 pages and more than 100 years come together in a satisfying way at the end will love The Passage. I kept thinking to myself, "Well, that's the end of that story," but he always managed to surpass my expectations and weave it back in somehow. Ordinarily, I use the books on my iPod to keep me company as I run and do laundry after I've exhausted my weekly supply of NPR podcasts, but I'm now almost three weeks behind on podcasts, because I listened to The Passage every chance I got.

The story is complicated, but here's a brief synopsis: the government decides to take on a project infecting death-row inmates with a virus that turns them into vampires, in the hopes that they can unleash the vampires and wreak havoc in the Middle East. They also infect a small girl, Amy, with a variant strand of the virus. The vampires manage to escape and wipe out most of the human population in the United States. A hundred years passes, and small pockets of humans live in continual fear of the vampires. When Amy appears at one of the colonies in California, a group of humans embarks on a quest to take her back to the Colorado testing center where she was changed. Along the way, Amy and the group of people she travels with find meaning and purpose in a world where most people seem to have lost a reason for living.

Were certain aspects of the book improbable? Of course. Millions of people died in the course of the book, but the people traveling with Amy managed to escape the most dire situations imaginable. Of course Cronin and Sister Lacey and Auntie would say that fate played an important part in their staying alive. If you're squeamish about blood and gore, this might not be the book for you, and if you're sensitive about hearing swearing in an audio recording, stick to the paper format of the book. But read it-- you'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book #78: What Hearts

What Hearts (Laura Geringer Books)Title: What Hearts
Author: Bruce Brooks

The disadvantage to reading a book on a Kindle is that the information that is easily accessible in a paper version of the book (the back cover, the author information page, etc...) is much harder to access on a Kindle. It's actually probably not that hard, I just don't know how to do it, so I don't. Anyway, I came to the end of What Hearts this morning and read that Bruce Brooks studied at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and a lightbulb went off in my head. Of course! This was absolutely a young adult novel written by a guy who attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop! If I'd read a paperback version of the novel, undoubtedly at some point in my reading I would have flipped to the back of the book and learned that bit of information, which seems a key factor in the book as a whole.

As I read What Hearts, I was struck by two things: the writing in the book was beautiful and thoughtful and carefully constructed, and it doesn't have a straightforward plot like most YA novels.  The novel begins on the last day of first grade, when Asa returns home to his mother, who tells him that they are leaving his father and moving to North Carolina with Dave, the man who will become Asa's stepfather. As soon as Asa meets Dave, he decides that Dave is not a nice man, and not a man who will appreciate Asa's superior intelligence. Over the next six years, Brooks shows us snippets of Asa's life, his new bedroom, a school play, a baseball game, all of which serve to highlight both Asa's inner life and his struggles with Dave. Ultimately, Asa must analyze the role that Dave has played in his life when Dave and Asa's mother divorce.

While the book is billed as a YA novel and was a Newbery Honor book, it feels more like an adult novel with a young protagonist. There's very little action in the book, and what action there is only tied loosely to the action in the preceding chapters. I don't think my fourth or fifth graders would like it very much. However, I liked the book a lot. I loved the writing and the way that Brooks took risks in what's expected from a YA book and came out with something that could be very emotionally satisfying. It reminded me of Cynthia Voight's Dicey's Song, although I think that Dicey's Song has enough action to keep a young reader hooked.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Book #77: The Girl from Yamhill

A Girl from YamhillTitle: A Girl from Yamhill
Author: Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary's story of childhood through high school graduation demonstrates how memoir, as a genre, has changed (and improved!) over the last twenty years. The book, published in 1988, is a fairly straightforward story, beginning with her parents' courtship and extending through her birth in 1916, her early years at a family farm in Oregon, and extending through a lonely childhood as the only child of distant, unhappy parents in Portland. The story is highly chronological, and only tangentially about writing-- she talks about how she always wanted to be a writer and specifically took classes like typing and journalism in high school in order to further that aim, but since the book focuses on her childhood years, she's not doing much actual writing. It's also appears that if Cleary took inspiration for her stories from real-life experience, it would be from the lives of her children, and not from her own childhood, which was quite solitary.

What struck me most about A Girl from Yamhill is not Cleary's childhood or her frustrating and meddlesome mother (who would have been truly awful to grow up with) but how the quality of memoirs has really improved since this book was written. The 1988 Publisher's Weekly review of the book says, "It's bootless to compare and contrast autobiographical books, since each memorists' experiences and those they select to share are unique," but today we would absolutely compare and contrast autobiographical works, both for what experiences they choose to select, and they way that authors chose to share those experiences.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Playroom and a Near-Death Experience

Remember a few weeks ago when I posted this picture of my playroom?

The shelves and bins had served us well for almost a decade, but after years of being tossed on the floor and dumped, many of the bins were cracked, and over the years I've gotten more and more lax about making sure that everything ended up in the correct bin (when Bryce and Annie were little, it was part of my daily decompressing to put all of the toys in the correct bin-- an errant Little Person in a Lego bin just would not do!). So anyway, after looking at the ugly toy mess for a decade, I decided to do something about it.

Two weeks ago, I returned from Wasatch Back (more on that in an upcoming post) tired, sunburned, and with a plan. Five days later I would be hosting the fine women of Segullah at a sleepover at my house, and I wanted to get the toys out of sight before then. So I measured and searched and drew up a plan. On Tuesday I went to IKEA, returning home with a whole SUV full of walnut laminate and shiny red foil. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I built, realizing by Wednesday night that the pieces I'd built would not fit in the spaces I'd bought them for, due to some serious crown molding issues. So I made due and moved things around. The space wasn't as pretty as I would have hoped for my Segullah friends, but no one complained that they could see stuffed animals and dolls in my basement.

Last week, Leslie and Allen came to town (more on that later too). The time with Les was fantastic, but Allen saved my butt. He took apart one of the units and made the whole thing 1" narrower, which allowed us to slide it in the spot I bought it for without cutting my crown moldings. Yes, it took four adults to get it in there, and I didn't believe it would happen until the magical moment where everything fell (literally) into place, but it worked.

The Graffs left to dig for trilobites, and inspired by Allen's mad skilz with a drill, I decided to go buy one more piece and put it together by myself. I got the frame built and added the doors to the top of the unit without a problem. Then I opened both doors at the same time to put in the shelves, and the whole thing-- shelves, doors, frame and all, fell over on top of me. I stuck my legs in the air as I rolled onto my back, so my legs, not my face, absorbed the brunt of the blow, and for once in my life, I screamed for my kids and they actually came. Bryce saw my distress, and instead of heading out to the garage for a Sprite, he got Annie and the two of them lifted the unit off of me. That necessitated another trip to IKEA to replace a door that got scratched in the process, and when Allen came back the next day, I had him bolt the whole unit to the wall. Eventually we'll build cabinetry all along the south wall, but IKEA is out of legs and extension units, and we don't have a TV that fits in the space yet, so this is how it looks for now.

If not for the pink doll furniture, you might not even know it was a playroom, right?

Book #76: The Battle of the Labyrinth

The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4)Title: The Battle of the Labyrinth
Author: Rick Riordan

Another year at camp, another quest for Percy Jackson. This time he and his friends descend into Daedalus's labyrinth in order to accomplish a few objectives: Grover must find Pan or lose his searcher's license, Percy wants to find Hades' son Nico di Angelo, and the whole team must find Ariadne's string in order to keep Luke from using it to navigate the maze and destroy Camp Half-Blood.

However, you might as well call The Battle of the Labyrinth "the book in which Percy gets horny." Just like J.K. Rowling, Riordan decided that when his protagonist hit the age of fifteen, he couldn't ignore his hormonal urges any more. Even though it's fairly obvious from Book 1 that Percy and Annabeth are destined for each other, there are a couple of girls in this book who give Athena's daughter a run for her money (and when Percy learns that Athena bears children from a communion of minds and not, ahem, in the normal way, that may put a damper on how he sees future procreation with her daughter). Anyway, Percy finds himself mediating between Annabeth and Rachel Elizabeth Dare, the mortal whose phone number Percy has blazed into his memory, and when he ends up recuperating on Calypso's island after falling from Mount Saint Helens, he flirts with the idea of staying forever with the beautiful girl instead of returning to Annabeth and their quest. Heck, Percy even finds the empousae attractive, at least until they turn into one-legged vampires.

I liked The Battle of the Labyrinth, honestly, I did, but after finishing it, I didn't feel compelled to pick up The Last Olympian right away. Does that say more about me or about the quality of the book? I'm not sure. I'm guessing that Percy Jackson and I will reach the end of his story together some day, but I want to read some books for adults first.

Book #75: The Last Rendezvous

The Last RendezvousTitle: The Last Rendezvous
Author: Anne Plantagenet

While I was reading The Last Rendezvous I attended a fiction-writing workshop at the Segullah Writer's Retreat. In the workshop, Angela Hallstrom talked about how authors have to create a character that people care about, and that the events of the story should follow an arc building to a climax. Pretty much the basics of fiction-writing, right? As I sat in the workshop, I kept thinking about this book, and how it hadn't grabbed me, and how I found it deathly boring, and I recognized that Plantagenet doesn't follow a story arc at all. Instead, she tells the story of real-life French poet Marceline Desbordes. Although I expected the book to be historical fiction, it reminded me more of one of those bad childhood biographies, where the author lays out the biographee's (is that a word?) life, and focuses on the high points, using sentences like, "six years passed" to mark the gaps of time.

That's really not exactly fair, because Plantagenet's work isn't strictly chronological-- it jumps around a lot, but I really saw no definitive climax in the work to make it meaningful or interesting to readers who aren't familiar with Desbordes' work. It appears that the rising action is supposed to be centered on the conflict between her love for two men: Henri Latouche, with whom she carried on a years-long affair, and actor Prosper Valmore, her husband. The writing of the book is beautiful-- lyrical and poetic (possibly like Desbordes's poems?) but by the end of the novel, I was just eager to put it away. Plantagenet never succeeded in making me care about Desbordes.

Book #74: The Red Pyramid

The Red Pyramid (The Kane Chronicles, Book 1)Title: The Red Pyramid
Author: Rick Riordan

We at the Miner household were proud of the fact that we got our hands on Rick Riordan's The Red Pyramid before the official release date. I walked into a SLC boutique to buy a Mother's Day present the day before Bryce's birthday (the May 4th release date of the book) and the book was sitting on a table right out front (guess someone didn't read their paperwork closely). I was really excited because it saved me an early-morning trip to the store on birthday morning, and I ended up third in line to read the book after Bryce and Annie (who kept fighting over it). Suffice it to say that we were very excited to get our hands on The Red Pyramid, which is the first installment in the Kane Chronicles, a new series by Percy Jackson author Rick Riordan.

The Red Pyramid tells the story of Carter and Sadie. Since their mother's death in a mysterious accident six years earlier, Carter has been traveling the world with his archaeologist father, and Sadie has been living in London with her maternal grandparents.  The siblings reunite just twice a year, and when Carter and his father Julius arrive at Sadie's flat for Christmas Eve, their father proposes a quick trip to the British Museum. That's where things get weird-- strange lights and voices and people appear and Julius ends up breaking the Rosetta Stone and then gets sucked down into a sarcophagus. At first it appears that Sadie and Carter will be in big trouble, but all of a sudden, they're not only not in trouble, but they're traveling by boat at lightning speed across the Atlantic Ocean with their Uncle Amos, who explains that the kids are the heirs of the pharaohs and are quite possibly hosting the spirits of some of the most prominent Egyptian gods, unleashed during their father's accident. The kids then set off on a quest around the world to stop the evil Egyptian god (whose name escapes me now) from world domination.

I love the way that Riordan uses both Carter and Sadie as narrators in The Red Pyramid. He makes it easy for young readers to follow, since each chapter clearly states at the beginning who is speaking. Since telling a story from more than one perspective is a fairly common convention in novels written for adults, I like to see it employed so well in novels for children. I also thought that the story was exciting and well-researched. One of the things I liked best about the Percy Jackson books is the way that my kids used them as a jumping-off point for a more intense study of Greek mythology. Bryce really liked Riordan's The Ultimate Guide, but then read all of the books in his school library and D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths and has since started reading Oracles of Delphi Keep. But there doesn't seem to be the same amount of accessible stuff out there for kids and Egyptian mythology. Maybe if the Kane Chronicles catch on like Percy Jackson did, someone can tackle that writing project.