Review of “But Can I Start a Sentence with ‘But’?” by The University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff

Can a grammar/usage/style book be “cute”? Usually not, but this one manages – well, at least if you’re into grammar/usage/style books.

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This book is a short compilation of some questions and answers taken from the website of The Chicago Manual of Style. Basically, most of the answers tend towards advice along the lines of “follow common sense,” “do what makes the text most readable,” and “convention often outweighs logic.” But many of the answers are quite humorous, such as in this exchange:

Q. Is it “happy medium” or “happy median”? My author writes: “We would all be much better served as stewards of finite public funds if we could find that happy median where trust reigns supreme.” Thanks!

A. The idiom is “happy medium,” but I like the image of commuters taking refuge from road rage on the happy median.

Or this one:

Q. How do you spell out the sound of a scream? I’ve seen everything from “aaagh!” to “aahhh!” Please tell me there’s a limit to the number of times one can repeat letters!

A. There is a limit to the number of times one can repeat letters! Unfortunately, the limit is different in almost every case.

There is plenty of “actual” advice of course, such as guidance for citing URLs, illustrations, album names, abbreviations, and so on.

Evaluation: To be honest, unless you write, edit, or publish, you probably would not find this book all that essential for your happiness. Jim and I are both kind of nerdy, however, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by The University of Chicago Press, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois” by Amy Novesky

This biography introduces kids to the artist Louise Bourgeois, who was born in Paris, France, although as an adult she lived in New York City, where she died in 2010 at the age of 98.

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Louise’s family restored tapestries, and when Louise was twelve, she learned the trade as well:

“…Louise’s mother taught her daughter about form and color and the various styles of textiles. Some bore elaborate patterns; others told stories.”

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Louise considered her mother to be her best friend, writing of her later that she was “deliberate…patient, soothing…subtle, indispensable…”

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When Louise’s mother died, Louise turned to painting, sculpture, and weaving, applying what she knew to art:

“With the remaining fabric of her life, Louise wove together a cloth lullaby.”

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An Author’s Note follows the story, filling in some details of Louise Bourgeois’s life. The author relates that the artist had a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art when she was 71, “which finally secured her place as one of the most accomplished artists of our time.”

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Bourgeois specialized in spiders, but thankfully for arachnophobes, there are few to be seen in this book. (Louise Bourgeois was in fact nicknamed “Spiderwoman” because of her large-scale spider sculptures.) Isabelle Arsenault, the very talented illustrator, instead highlights the role of fabrics and patterns in the life of Louise Bourgeois, using ink, pencil, pastel, watercolor, and photoshop to create mixed-media collages. Bright reds and deep blues dominate the palette.

Evaluation: This book has a lot of interesting information on weaving and the source of colors for dyes, and explains why Louise began to make sculptures, and especially, spiders.

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I thought the narrative, while informative about aspects of Louise’s art, didn’t really say much about her life, which was pretty interesting, if you read the entry in Wikipedia. I especially liked this bit:

“Bourgeois aligned herself with activists and became a member of the Fight Censorship Group, a feminist anti-censorship collective founded by fellow artist Anita Steckel. In the 1970s, the group defended the use of sexual imagery in artwork. Steckel argued, ‘If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums, it should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.’”

You don’t really get a sense of Louise as an avant-garde force in the art world from this book. But the amazing artwork by illustrator Arsenault is so creative, nuanced, and evocative, that it is worth perusing.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2016

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Review of “Black-Eyed Susans” by Julia Heaberlin

This is a serial-killer thriller that is a bit unusual in that it begins after the serial killings end, and we really never hear (thankfully) the gory details of how the serial killings were accomplished. This doesn’t mean the book isn’t very scary, however.

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Tessa Cartwright was 16 when she was found barely alive in a Texas field covered in black-eyed Susans. The body and bones of other victims were heaped around her.

Although Tessa couldn’t remember anything about what happened, a black man in the area was arrested and convicted soon after the crime took place and now sits on death row. But Tessa isn’t convinced they caught the right man; someone has been planting black-eyed Susans under her windows out of season since then.

The story weaves back and forth in time between 1995, a year after Tessa was attacked, and the present day, seventeen years later. Tessa is now 34, with a 14-year-old daughter named Charlie, and Tessa is increasingly afraid that whoever her attacker really was will now want to come after her daughter. She is working with an altruistic legal team trying to save her alleged attacker from his upcoming execution by trying to figure out who really did kill the “Black-eyed Susans,” as the victims became known.

But as the countdown to the execution gets closer, it doesn’t look like they will be able to find a breakthrough in the case. And at the same time, there are more and more signs that the real perpetrator is zeroing in on Tessa and her life once again.

Evaluation: This book scared me something fierce, without being gory or gruesome. There was a moment when I thought I knew who the killer was, but (a) since I never guess anything and (b) since I fell hook, line, and sinker for the red herrings, I dismissed my suspicions. And besides, even had I known that I might have correctly guessed who it was, I still wouldn’t have been prepared for the big surprise at the ending.

Thanks to Kathy and her review for putting me onto this very thrilling [double entendre] book!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015

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Review of “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas

Now here is a love story. The center of this fantasy romance is a man who gifts the woman he loves with dreams of a night sky full of stars; a man who is the most powerful High Lord [of the Fae] in history, but loves the only woman who doesn’t bow to or run from that power, but sees who he is inside; and a man who, whenever he sees this woman, feels like he can’t breathe without her. This is an irresistible saga. (This is Book Two in the series.)

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This book begins around three months after the end of the first book. Feyre now presumably has powers equivalent to those of a High Fae, although she has not tried them out. She is basically a prisoner of the Spring Court, because the High Lord of that court, Tamlin, won’t let her go out anywhere or test her new skills. Nor will he confide in her about “business.” She is supposed to be content with painting, and with planning her upcoming wedding to Tamlin, after which he told her she will be “Lady of the Spring Court.” She wasn’t too satisfied with that, but Tamlin aways manages to distract her with sex. Nevertheless, she feels trapped, is wasting away, and suffers from debilitating nightmares. Thinking about Tamlin, she realizes, “though I’d freed him, saved his people and all of Prythian from Amarantha . . . I’d broken myself apart.”

Tamlin doesn’t seem aware of this, but Rhys, the handsome bad boy and High Lord of the Night Court, does. We, the readers, know Rhys is the better pick between the two, but it takes Feyre a while to see the light. Or the dark, as it were.

Eventually, Feyre finds out the truth about the Night Court and about Rhys himself when she joins “The Court of Dreams,” where compassion, self-fulfillment, and happiness are valued over power. And Feyre also finds out the truth about herself, and what her resurrection by the seven High Lords of Prythian really means.

Discussion: This book is epic in several senses. It’s a great story with outsized themes and timeless issues – love, hate, jealousy, family, friendship, loyalty, and struggles for power. (But there are “real world” issues too, like worrying about how clean the bathroom is!) The characters are memorably faced with outsized quests – saving the world, for example. They are not perfect, but they evolve over the series, especially Feyre. She starts out as a somewhat bratty, self-absorbed ingrate, but she gradually grows up and becomes a more well-rounded person. Both she and Rhys, as well as their friends, exhibit outstanding courage and entail great pain and heart-wrenching losses to protect those they love. It makes for a riveting story. And Rhys’s friends? They are the best; you will find yourself as devoted to them as Feyre comes to be.

Then there is the love – and by love I mean epic, soaring love, and the expression of that love, both mentally and physically. Even better is the fact the love that Rhys has for Feyre is deeply imbued with respect, as shown, for example, when Lucien came (on behalf of Tamlin) to take Feyre back to the Spring Court. Feyre wouldn’t go. Rhys later said:

Rhys: “…I found myself deciding that if you took his hand, I would find a way to live with it. It would be your choice.”

Feyre: “And if he had grabbed me?”

Rhys: “Then I would have torn apart the world to get you back.”

The publishers say this book is for ages 14 and up – no way I’m letting my 14-year-old read all these hot sex scenes! Wait, I don’t have a 14-year-old, I forgot. And if I did, she would probably know all about these things from her peers. But be aware, there is hot explicit sex in this book, just so you and your 14-year-old know….

Evaluation: There are very few things one can find to quibble about in this book, even though it is over 600 pages. I suppose my biggest complaint would be that the books you read after it feel like a come-down.

Can’t wait for the next installment!

Rating: 4.25/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2016

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Review of “In A Dry Season” by Peter Robinson

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

In a Dry Season is Peter Robinson’s tenth Inspector Banks novel. I’ve read only two of the others, which were good. This one is very good, indeed.

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North Yorkshire Police Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks has finally gotten a field assignment after a very long “dry season” of disciplinary desk work. He is sent to investigate the accidental discovery of the long-buried bones of a hand that turns out to be human. Excavation of the area where the hand was found – at the bottom of a reservoir that had dried up over the summer (in yet another allusion to a dry season) – uncovers the complete human skeleton of a young woman who appears to have been savagely murdered by repeated knife thrusts. Unfortunately, physical evidence indicates that the murder took place 40-50 years earlier, possibly during World War II.

The novel then alternates between a third person narrative of Banks’ investigation and a first person narrative of a woman living in the area of the murder during the war. Both stories are well constructed and, no surprise here, they somehow come together in the dénouement. The description of civil life in war-time England is particularly fascinating, where the predominating experience is one of shortages and rationing of the necessities of life. Banks’ investigation encounters many loose ends and red herrings, but Robinson skillfully brings all of them together with a clever concluding twist.

For fans of the series, this is the book in which Inspector Banks first gets together with Detective Sergeant Annie Cabbot. DS Cabbot has been having a “dry season” of her own after a traumatic incident nearly two years before. As the book ends, the long rainy winter results in the reservoir filling up once again, and with a hint that the dry seasons of Banks and Cabbot may be over as well.

Evaluation: Robinson does not try to create the harrowing suspense or terror of a Steig Larsson or Jo Nesbo thriller, but his handling of the step-by-step solution to a puzzle is worthy of comparison to Arthur Conan Doyle.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Avon Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, 1999

Note: This novel won a number of prizes for crime and detective fiction.

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