November 21, 2008

Review: Game Widow, by Wendy Kays

You might have seen Wendy Kays on Dr Phil lately (or as we call it at my house, The Mustachioed Egg Show) promoting her new non-fiction title, Game Widow. Well, I can one-up you: I've read her book.

It's pretty good. It's an extremely quick read -- I feel like I finished it in about twenty minutes, although I know that it actually took a fair piece longer than that. And it provides a brief but broad introduction to the world of video games, gamers, and video game addiction.

Here's the back jacket:
Is your loved one constantly monopolizing your computer or TV to play video gmaes? Is your schedule constantly set back by entreaties of "five more minutes" or "let me find a save point?" [sic] If so, you might be a game widow. Wendy Kays, former game widow, is here to help. In this book, she successfully bridges the gap between those who game and those who don't by sharing invaluable insight and practical strategies for reclaiming your relationship with a video-gaming spouse, friend, or family member.

Yup, that's pretty accurate. Kays digs into the psychological appeal behind gaming, discusses various opinions regarding video game addiction, explains how the video game industry works, and gives some guidelines and suggestions for dealing with gamers, as well as a resource list for further study. It's not a gripping read -- I mean, it's non-fiction, so it doesn't really have a plot -- but it is informative and easy to digest.

One downside I spotted is the lack of an index. This is something that bothers me; the first thing I do when I flip to a non-fiction text is to check if the index is any good. This index is no good, because it doesn't exist. I don't approve.

Apart from that, though, I think that this is a fairly good introduction to the subject and a fairly good book besides.

November 19, 2008

A Change of Pace and Policy

There's been a certain amount of debate in the book blogosphere recently about the role that book bloggers do and/or should play in reviewing books, and about authors behaving badly (here too), and such other sundry things. I haven't been commenting on this much on other people's blogs, but I have been ruminating thereupon, and have reached some conclusions, at least as far as this blog is concerned.

I have decided that, as of this point forward, I will no longer be accepting books for review from authors, publishers, or publicists. There may be some exceptions to this rule, but they are not really worth mentioning at this point. My about page will soon be modified to reflect this change.

I do still have a stack of for-review books to work through, and I will get to all of those in due time. After that, however, I will be concentrating my reading on less-new books, from my own collection and from libraries and from other such sources.

My reasons are as follows:

1) It's not you, it's me.

Right now, I am simply reading too much -- and doing too much with the rest of my life -- to be able to keep up with reviews. I have an awful lot of books to get through for school, which means that books from authors and people get pushed further and further down the pile. That's not particularly fair to those who have sent me texts to read. I cannot get reviews up in a timely manner anymore.

2) Actually, sometimes it is you.

Some of the review copies I've received over the past few months have been really fantastic, super books, books I'm glad that I've read. Others, however, have ranged from mediocre right down to abysmal. I haven't the patience to figure out which is which, and there's nothing more irksome than slogging through some bad book just because I'm obligated to review it. I'd rather spend my pleasure-reading time actually reading for pleasure.

So what will change here? Probably not that much, as far as the rest of you are concerned (those of you who are not me, I mean). Obviously I will keep reading books and writing about books -- I'll just be sourcing the books I read in a different way. Things here might become moderately more amusing, since I'll be more relaxed about the reviews that I am doing (though no promises). I may still participate in the occasional book tour or whatever, but I'm going to play those by ear.

To answer one question that may be asked, I'm not doing this because I'm afraid of having an experience like Trish's. I think that authors like that are not common, and I'm not particularly concerned if authors don't like my reviews. The discussions centred around that were not the catalyst of my decision, although they were timely.

November 18, 2008

Review: The Bible Illuminated (New Testament)

Heads up, everyone, I'm reviewing the Bible. Well, sort of. I am reviewing a particular edition of the New Testament, magazine-style, with pictures. I am, by and large, reviewing the pictures.

All I will say about the text is that this book thing uses the Today's English Version, which I think of as generally pretty crummy as translations go. But it's meant for people who like little words in short sentences, and on that note it achieves its goal of being simple to understand. I just don't like it.

So, the Bible Illuminated project introduces itself thusly (from the website):
The concept originated with a general philosophical dinner table discussion between Michel Gyring and Mats Rabe in Stockholm, Sweden. The conversation, which led to several other discussions with key individuals, asked the question “Why people don’t read historical texts” and they began pondering if the traditional format or design turned people off. They realized there was a huge opportunity to re-design or illuminate these types of old texts. This was the beginning of Illuminated World (formerly Förlaget Illuminated Sweden, AB.)


Illuminated World seeks to introduce today’s audience to a revolutionary contemporary Bible, one that encourages dialogue and is culturally relevant, accessible and easily digestible for any reader regardless of religious, economic, racial or social background.

We have no religious agenda nor do we support a specific faith. Bible Illuminated is intended to be a unique vehicle for reacquainting today’s reader with one of the most important historical, and cultural texts ever written.

Okay. First of all, I don't understand the idea that people don't read historical texts because of their "traditional format and design" (by which I understand them to mean, you know "books") but perhaps this is the case. I dunno. We're all readers here, but maybe you guys know some people like this? And I find it strange that a group out there is publishing Bibles without supporting "a specific faith". Doesn't that seem a bit ... strange? It's like publishing the Quran, and saying "Oh, no, we don't have anything to say about Islam -- we just want to publish the Quran and for everybody to read it." And there's not much to say to that except, "um, okay."

But, whatever, you want to put together a big Bible magazine thingy, you go right ahead. And apparently sales of Bibles in Sweden have skyrocketed (Sweden being where this was originally published) and, as a Christian, I can't really argue with getting the Word out there. And I firmly believe that even people who don't want to read the Bible as a religious text should be reading it as literature, because boy, is there ever a lot of stuff in English lit that you just won't get if you don't know your Bible.

But. But but but but but. So much but.

I have a lot of issues with this particular publication. Can you tell?

First of all, it's shoddily put together. It's just a big magazine -- thicker than the TV guide, not as big as the Sears catalogue -- and it's bound as a magazine. And I can tell you that it crumples like a magazine, too, because my copy arrived damaged. I can't see this being the sort of text that will last for a long time in the same way that a book does. It just doesn't seem very strong. Why put out something that won't physically last? Especially when it costs about the same as a large hardcover.

Secondly, there are the pictures. Now how these work, as I understand it, is that the project people grabbed a bunch of other people and said, "Here, choose some verses and pick pictures for them." The results are... interesting and I suppose that they do "encourage dialogue" (I mean look at me, blah-de-blahing away). But for the life of me, I can't figure out why most of the pictures got in. They are a motly conglomerate of the irreverent and the irrelevant. Some are offensive. Many are blatant in their agenda. Few-to-none of them are particularly helpful in terms of illustrating biblical passages or helping to explain them.

I do believe that the Bible is a text that is "revolutionary... culturally relevant" and largely accessible. I do not think that this text futhers that reputation in any particular way. If you want to read a Bible, there are better editions to choose. And if you'd like to look at pretty pictures, I suggest going to the museum instead. Give this one a pass.

November 12, 2008

Review: Tales from Outer Suburbia, by Shaun Tan

For some reason, I don't know why, I had a strong impression when reading this collection of short stories that it was a Canadian book. There's nothing Canadian in it. It's Australian, actually. But it has a very familiar feel.

At any rate, I got a chance to review Shaun Tan's work through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The most fun part about getting ER books, if you're me, is that I always forget that they're coming -- and so it was a lovely surprise when this book showed up in the mail.

It was a better surprise when I read it.

Here's the back:
do you remember the water buffalo at the end of our street? or the deep-sea diver we found near the underpass? do you know why dogs bark in the middle of the night?

Shaun Tan, creator of The Arrival, The Lost Thing, and The Red Tree, reveals the quiet mysteries of everyday life: homemade pets, dangerous weddings, stranded sea mammals, tiny exchange students and secret rooms filled with darkness and delight.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a hard-bound collection of short stories, a delightful picture book for grownups. It is heartbreakingly whimsical, and the stories feel, somehow, both alien and familiar. There's the story of Eric, a foreign-exchange student small enough to use a walnut as a suitcase. There's the night of the great turtle rescue. There's a wake, and instructions for making your own pet out of discarded household objects. And an explanation for what happens to the world when the map ends.

The great strength of this book is in the illustrations, as the text is mostly spot-on, as in "The Water Buffalo" and "The Nameless Holiday", but sometimes lags a bit, as in "Broken Toys". Tan uses many different techniques: pencil crayon, paint, ink line drawings, and collage feature prominently. The pictures sometimes do more to offer a counterpoint to the text than to "illustrate" it, I think. It is good.

The stories themselves are brief, with a few of them being only two or three paragraphs long. They are, for the most part, unresolved vignettes -- glimpses into other moments in other lives. They ache.

You can view some of the illustrations and Shaun Tan's comments here and here, respectively.

November 11, 2008

Lest We Forget

Veterans: thank you.

This morning I had the honour of participating in my university's Remembrance Day ceremony -- my choir sang an arrangement of In Flanders Fields and also led the congregation in a few hymns and the national anthems. I've participated this way as long as I've been in the choir. We get a good sized crowd out every year, standing quietly in the cold, but every year there are fewer and fewer veterans.

Canada has one remaining World War One veteran. He is a hundred and eight years old.

Sometimes people get uptight about Remembrance Day, usually in my experience those who are particularly anti-war.

"Those soldiers died for a lie -- those soldiers should never have been fighting -- dying for a country, that means less than nothing."

And if this is so, then what? Was their sacrifice any less worthy? Did they suffer less? Did they die easier? My friends, this is not so.

Regardless of your ideas about wars, or just wars, or unjust wars, this is an important day. We must recognize the sacrifices of both those who gave their lives for the country and those who survived -- who, in some ways, have given us even more.

Wear your poppy. Thank a veteran. Read some good books:

November 9, 2008

Those October Books

Which October books? Those ones. Over there. Them what I did got read.

The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis. This is a longstanding personal favourite, because it is both splendidly written and extremely useful. The Screwtape Letters is a collection of letters "from a senior to a junior devil", pertaining largely to matters of sin and temptation, and touching on most of the general ares of human existence, both carnal and spiritual. It is good.

*Tamburlaine the Great, part One, by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine is a shepherd who conquers all of Asia. Everything he does has a positive outcome, at least for him -- not so much for the people he's conquering. In Part Two, which I haven't yet read, he dies fat and happy, surrounded by those he loves. You might have an impression that all renaissance drama is about star-crossed lovers and/or brooding tragedians; I tell you, this is not the case.

One thing that I thought particularly interesting about this play is that Tamburlaine conquers all sorts of armies and such by the power of his words as much as by the sword. I don't think it's plausible, though. As I pointed out in a paper on the subject, everyone in the play talks exactly like Tamburlaine does -- which is to say, like Marlowe does, he of the "mighty line". (Kids: learn to speak eloquently. You too can conquer Asia!)

*What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, I'm Henry James and I couldn't be more uninteresting if I tried.

*Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Catch-22 is deliciously funny right up until it gets horrible. And when I say "horrible" I refer to the contents rather than to the writing; Heller is stellar (heh). I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, although it took me a fair while to finish it, on account of its very large largeness.

*Looking for Alaska, by John Green. My brain wants to have John Green's brain's babies. If you follow me. I devoured Looking for Alaska in one sitting and have added several other books of his to my wishlist. This book reminded me of Catcher in the Rye, except for being cool and interesting instead of insufferably pretentious and boring. Huzzah!

*A Hatful of Sky, by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett is, of course, one of my favourite writers, and so it shouldn't be very surprising that I liked A Hatful of Sky so very much. I liked Tiffany Aching especially; it was the first time I've read one of the books about her, and while I understand that there was one that preceded this novel, it stood on its own very well. She's much more interesting than Rincewind, you know (but then, pretty much everyone is).

*Arrow of God, by Chinua Achebe. Not as good as Things Fall Apart. Still lots better than Death and the King's Horseman (see below).

*The Oath, by Frank Peretti. Frank Peretti is one of the few authors I've found whose Christian fiction doesn't make me want to throw up a little bit. It's raw, not sugary, and full of action, rather than syrup. That being said, I thought that The Oath was particularly weak compared to other works of his. It was a challenge to get to the end of this novel; the action really drags in the last hundred pages or so, where it really should be climaxing. If you're interested in trying some Peretti, I'd recommend Piercing the Darkness instead.

*Dr Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe. Probably you are familiar with the general scheme of the Faust legend. But did you know that in Marlowe's play, the unfortunate doctor explodes at the end of the last act? It is really quite amazing.

*Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad. Under Western Eyes is a dull book about a bunch of dull Russians who run around pretending at being spies in Geneva. As with many books on October's list, I got about three-quarters of the way through before putting it down for the next thing. Perhaps it'll be a special project over the Christmas holidays to finish all of my school reading. But I still don't think I'll finish this one.

*Death and the King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka. A lot of people in my class thought that this play was very good and interesting -- but I've been reading Marlowe and co. lately, and so my opinion is more like: pfft, whatever. I mean, I suppose that it has some good literary qualities on its own, but I don't think that Death and the King's Horseman compares to other literature very well -- neither to other plays I've studied, nor to other African lit. It was a disappointment on the whole. Although the cover is an excellent sort of green. I approve of green.

*Faking Grace, by Tamara Leigh. (reviewed) I read this book and I liked it. But I didn't want to review it, so my mom did it for me. The end.

Read Responsibly, by Bill Barnes and Gene Ambaum. Yes, I'm re-reading my Unshelved books again. Do you want to make something of it? Well, do you?

*Jpod, by Douglas Coupland. A longer review of Jpod will come forth once I've got my act back together here. In the meantime, please enjoy this brief explanation by the good folks at Unshelved. Yes, them again. At least I'm not talking about Marlowe.

*The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly. (reviewed) Oh boy oh boy oh boy. The Book of Lost Things was something else.

*Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe. I know, I know, Marlowe, Marlowe, Marlowe, blah de blah de blah. I know. But a) he's really good, and b) it's on my syllabus and so I have to read it anyway. Edward II is a fairly typical "weak king" play with some homoeroticism thrown in for good measure. That's all, really.

November 4, 2008

Review: The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly

I've written several different reviews for The Book of Lost Things in my head up to this point -- and I'm still not sure how best to capture the flavour of this novel. Or whether I want to recommend it to other people. Or how to process it, still. It seemed like the book kept turning into something different, and I'm having trouble coming up with a sense of the whole.

I still liked it, though. Onward and upward. Here's the blurb:
High in his attic bedroom, twelve-year-old David mourns the death of his mother, with only the books on his shelf for company. But those books have begun to whisper to him in the darkness. Angry and alone, he takes refuge in his imagination and soon finds that reality and fantasy have begun to meld. While his family falls apart around him, David is violently propelled into a world that is a strange reflection of his own -- populated by heroes and monsters and ruled by a faded king who keeps his secrets in a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things.

Taking readers on a vivid journey through the loss of innocence into adulthood and beyond, New York Times bestselling author John Connolly tells and dark and compelling tale that reminds us of the enduring power of stories in our lives.

David has problems. First his mother dies, and then his father takes up with a tart, whom he impregnates and then marries. Now David's got a new mother, a new brother, a new house, and the Germans are bombing London. The book starts like a typical YA novel, with the addition of some amazing passages about storytelling and the value it has in our lives:
Before she became ill, David's mother would often tell him that stories were alive. They weren't alive in the way that people were alive, or even dogs or cats. People were alive whether you chose to notice them or not, while dogs tended to make you notice them if they decided that you weren't paying them enough attention. Cats, meanwhile, were very good at pretending people didn't exist at all when it suited them, but that was another matter entirely.

Stories were different, though: they came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring the music into being. They lay dowmant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination, and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life.

So then it felt like a YA book with a "stories are important!" angle, as well as some generally excellent prose. And then David gets sucked into another land, a land made up of stories, and some things happen and then there is a riotously funny chapter about Snow White and the Seven (communist) Dwarfs, and I thought, "Oh, this must be a funny book."

This is not a funny book. Except for that one chapter, there is nothing remotely funny in The Book of Lost Things. It is gruesome. And it is not, I think, for children. Um. Or some adults . This is not gruesome like CSI, where you get some genteel sort of autopsies and occasionally blood-spattering flashbacks. No, this is people chopping each other in half, and hundreds of heads flying everywhere, and people, I don't know, doing things like pulling out someone's heart and eating it in front of her. And then trapping her soul in a jar. It is the stuff of nightmares, my friends.

I mean, it's still fantastic. But it's also gross and horrible and malleable. Consider yourself warned.

My biggest quibble with The Book of Lost Things was actually not the gore but its ending; everything sort of gets tied up in a few pages, and it just seems a little abrupt and strange. On the plus side, this made room for about a hundred pages worth of author interview, notes, and source material, which is both fun and fascinating. And the prose, the prose is great. And the villains are truly, truly villainous. John Connolly is an excellent writer, and I definitely want to check out more of his work.

I can't think of anything else to say, because I've been watching election coverage for hours, and that does things to the old brain cells. Suffice it to say: read this book.

November 2, 2008

(Guest) Review: Faking Grace, by Tamara Leigh

So, I got an email tonight, with a book review attached to it. Here's the full text:
Dear She Reads Books,

Ur not posting enuf. We need more reviews. Heres mine i hope u like it n u can use it.

I guess that I can't argue with that.

Well, actually this wasn't an unsolicited review (please don't send me those). This was an email from my mom, who is both funny and highly literate. And please enjoy her review of Faking Grace, by Tamara Leigh, which I won from Tami.

I enjoyed this book, which is classed on the back cover as Fiction/Contemporary, but which I would classify as (Christian) Chick-Lit. Here’s the blurb:
All she wants is a job. All she needs is religion. How hard can it be?

Maizy Grace Stewart dreams of a career as an investigative journalist, but her last job ended in disaster when her compassion cost her employer a juicy headline. A part-time gig at a Nashville newspaper might be her big break.

A second job at Steeple Side Christian Resources could help pay the bills, but they only hire committed Christians. Maizy is sure she can fake it with her “Five-Step Program to Authentic Christian Faith.” If only Jack Prentiss, Steeple Side’s managing editor and British hottie, wasn’t determined to prove her a fraud.

When Maizy’s newspaper boss pressures her to expose any skeletons in Steeple Side’s closet, she must decide whether to deliver the dirt and secure her career or lean on her newfound faith, change the direction of her life, and pray that her colleagues –- and Jack –- will show her grace.

With a blurb like that, you know that everything’s going to come out all right in the end – Maizy will grow in her Christian commitment, make the right decisions, and end up with her adversary, “British hottie” Jack Prentiss. (By the way, why do North Americans insist on calling English people British?) So, the question is, how well does the author handle the story? Quite cleverly, as it turns out.

To begin with, the title is very apt –- Maizy is attempting to fake Christian grace, but she is also using her second name, Grace, at the Steeple Side job, essentially creating a new, overtly Christian, identity. Her initial attempts, involving a “Jesus is my co-pilot” bumper sticker and a fish emblem for her car, are quite amusing and lead to Jack’s initial suspicion of her.

Maizy has a book to help her in her act: The Dumb Blonde’s Guide to Christianity. This take-off on the Dummies books is a useful plot device that allows the author to present lots of information on contemporary American Christianity without being preachy.

The characters in the book are, for the most part, realistic – the Christians are imperfect, but take their faith seriously. The non-Christians are also presented sympathetically. In the course of the story there is growth and healing, without an unrealistic fairy-tale ending.

Faking Grace is well-written –- the story flows well, with both humour and suspense, the mystery of Maizy’s past is sustained for several chapters, and the conflict and mutual suspicions between Maizy and Jack are quite ... satisfactory ... in typical chick-lit fashion. There are sparks, disdain, anger, attraction, misunderstandings, and so on, leading to a very felicitous conclusion.

Would a non-Christian enjoy this book? Very possibly, if she (let’s face it, its audience is bound to be mostly female) went in with an open mind. The quotes from the Dumb Blonde’s Guide to Christianity could help someone who is trying to understand a Christian friend, or interested in finding out what Christianity is about –- or simply ready for a good clean fun read (sorry for the clichĂ©!).