Way behind, but here we go….
Montmorency: Thief, Liar, Gentleman? by Eleanor Updale Well, you know, when someone puts a book in my hand and says, “Read this – you’ll like it”, I usually do read it. This one the teen librarian put into my hands. It’s a fine Victorian adventure of a swashbuckling type, even though there are no actual duels involved. Montmorency was an ordinary thief in Victorian England, when a fall injured him badly enough to make him a curiosity to an upper-class doctor – could he possibly be fixed? As he is escorted from prison to the homes and lecture halls of the upper class by the doctor, he hatches a plan to make a better life for himself using his new knowledge of the ways of the aristocracy and – most important – the brand new sewer system. At first, he plays his own servant, using a lower class persona to steal and an upper class persona to sell the goods. But soon, the line between pretence and reality blurs, and Montmorency becomes tangled in even bigger things.
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud You know I have a weakness for a good fantasy, and this one got starred reviews in all the publishing magazines. The story is set in an alternate-reality modern London, where wizards run Parliament. The narrative alternates between the third-person story of Nathaniel, a young and ambitious wizard’s apprentice, and Bartimaeus, the ancient and powerful djinni he calls up to serve him. The djinni was for me the best part of the story – in the audio book, his voice sounds like a jaded and snarky Tim Curry – tired of the magicians who always think they know best, proud of his own exploits. But the rest of the story was pretty disappointing for me. Yes, it was exciting and fast-paced, but the plot was motivated by nothing but fairly routine revenge, lots of politics, and little to no character growth. The only women in the story were weak characters who, though loved by our hero, did nothing in the end but inspire him to more revenge by their failure to survive. There was a very interesting subplot about a group of commoners trying to overthrow the repressive wizard government, but so far our characters are firmly aligned with the wizards. I can hope for more from the two sequels currently planned. In the meantime – it’s great stuff for adolescent boys who want fast-rolling adventure without too much subtlety.
No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee The quote which begins this book says something along the lines of, “Truth is stranger than fiction only because we can’t make things up as strange as the truth.” The book then launches into a highly improbable plot that nevertheless manages to be both entertaining and thoughtful. Veronica Moore, soap-opera writer, has always felt in the shadow of older sister Lillian, a successful neurologist. Lillian has recently become pregnant, having chosen an unwitting sperm donor for a one-night stand. When the same man is hired as an actor on Veronica’s soap, she falls in love with him, but can’t tell her sister. In the meantime, the sisters have hired a detective to help them discover the secrets they think their father had when he died 25 years earlier. It only gets crazier from there.
Naming Ceremonies by Mandy Ross
Birth and Growing Up Ceremonies by World Book “How does one welcome a baby into the community?” a friend recently asked me, “Especially if you don’t want to promise to raise him exclusively in one religion?” Well, as it turns out, books on such things for adults are in short supply. Instead, I found these two books. They’re aimed at children, but have helpful and interesting information on how birth is celebrated in different cultures, with double-paged spreads featuring traditions from major religions and cultures. The World Book offering includes general coming-of-age ceremonies with the naming and birth ceremonies covered in the Ross book. The Ross book seems geared towards slightly younger children, with potentially unfamiliar terms bolded and defined in the glossary. Overall, though both are good resources with lots of information and pictures, I felt that the Ross book with its more limited focus was able to cover the topic better. It focused more on current traditions and the people that follow them, with fewer stereotypical statements such as, “Children in the middle ages were often abandoned” or “All Native American cultures lived in harmony with nature,” which seem to me neither helpful nor relevant.
Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle This is, I admit, a 15-year-old book by a favorite author, which I was re-reading for comfort fare. L’Engle is one of my favorites for her ability to write about complex things happening to complex people, and yet have the stories be about hope, not despair. This story follows Emma Wheaton, successful actress and daughter of the wildly famous actor David Wheaton. As the story opens, they and various other family members are taking a last cruise in his small boat as he is dying. David Wheaton has seen himself much like the Biblical David, especially regarding the many wives that both of them had (there’s a handy chart in the front to keep them straight.), and dreamed of starring in the play about King David that Emma’s now-estranged husband never finished writing. Chapters take their names from the wives of both Davids, and the story alternates between the present and Emma’s past, including scenes from the play. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, and an engaging and thoughtful book.