One-Minute Book Reviews

July 4, 2021

The Case Against Reading on the Beach

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You might think that I (or any other critic) would be leading the cheers for reading the beach this summer.

But I’ve never been able to concentrate well amid all the distractions of a beach–the shrieks of the gulls, the crashing of the waves, the sounds of Drive-by Truckers coming from a boom box two blankets away. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that reading on the beach isn’t ideal. Research has found, for example, the background noise reduces reading comprehension.

Here’s my attempt to tie all of it together, “Why Reading on the Beach Is a Terrible Idea.”

July 1, 2009

‘We Women Were Not Made for Governing …’ — ‘We Two,’ a Biography of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Gillian Gill

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A royal couple who combined an affair of the heart with affairs of state

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.  By Gillian Gill. Ballantine, 460 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

We Two is something you don’t see every summer: a good beach biography. It’s not so dense and scholarly that you’d have to squint at agate-type footnotes through your Ray-Bans to make sense of it. But neither is it so lightweight that you might be embarrassed to carry it onto a beach even here in New Jersey, the proud home of Boardwalk attractions such as the Shoot the Geek concession stand that lets you fire paintballs at a luckless teenager dressed like a terrorist.

This book is rather the enjoyable story of two fascinating people: Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and Prince Albert, her cousin and husband,  and how they helped to shape the modern world during a marriage that ended when Prince Albert died of typhoid at the age of 42. We Two is is a love story but not just a love story, and Gillian Gill makes affairs of state as interesting as those of the heart.

Gill notes that Victoria won praise on an official visit to Paris when, from a box at the opera house, she waved to people below and then sat down again without a backward glance: “The crowd was impressed. Experts on protocol emerged to note in the French press that only a real queen never looks to see if her chair is in place.”

But Gill also gives vivid accounts of the domestic life of Victoria, who had nine children at the rate of one every two years, and the German-born Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. For all her privileges, Victoria felt so keenly the disadvantages of womanhood – and especially of child-bearing – that she wrote to her eldest daughter, “I think our sex a most unenviable one.”

Gill’s prose, to put it mildly, doesn’t always sing. She has the pedantic habit of continually starting sentences with “However” and a weakness for projecting 21st-century clichés and psychology onto 19th-century royals. Thus we read that the daughters of a king had “dysfunctional” parents and that, in the days of Victoria and Albert, “full disclosure and transparency were not to be expected from royal persons.”

But Gill excels as a storyteller if not as a prose stylist and serves up a banquet of memorable tales, some involving almost comically soap-operaish behavior by royals. One story involves Prince Albert’s father, a notorious rake, who one night summoned a mistress named Pauline Panam to his favorite retreat.

“After a long walk in a violent rainstorm that soaked her to the skin, Panam waited outside the house alone for hours,” Gill writes. “Finally she was obliged to climb up a ladder to the duke’s window and, when this proved too short, to scramble onto a chair he lowered for her from his bedroom.”

Best line: “Since it was strictly forbidden ever to turn one’s back upon a member of the royal family, the key skill required of women at [Victoria’s] court was to walk gracefully backward, even when wearing a train and a headdress eighteen inches high.” We Two abounds details like these that make you see its era.

Worst line: “Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives among Cambridge graduates did their utmost to block the prince’s election [as chancellor of the university], but, happily, they failed.” But they probably weren’t too happy about how “happily” they failed.

About the headline: Queen Victoria’s comment about women and governing, as quoted by Gill, is:  “We women were not made for governing – and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations; but there are times which force one to take an interest in them mal gré bon gré [whether one likes it or not] and  I do of course,  intensely.”

Published: May 2009

About the author: Gill wrote Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.

Furthermore: An otherwise favorable Wall Street Journal review found several small errors of fact in the book.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 22, 2009

Win These Books for Children or Adults – Summer Reading Giveaway

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[Update, June 4: This contest has closed.]

Late last year, I promised to bring back my former contests that let you win books reviewed on this site. It’s taken me a bit longer than I’d hoped, but here’s the first in the new series of occasional giveaways. Happy Memorial Day! Jan

You can win any book on the list below if you’re the first to link to One-Minute Book Reviews after you read this post. To enter, link to this site, then send the link and your mailing address to the e-mail address on the contact page, and tell me which book you’d like. (Please do not leave a comment with the link — e-mail entries only.) You don’t have to link to the review of the book you want or to say anything special; you can link to any post or page, and winners are determined solely by the time of arrival the e-mail.

You need to be over 18 and a resident of the U.S. to enter. If you win, I’ll put the book in the mail to you within a week. You can win only one book, but if more than one interests you, you’re welcome to mention an alternate choice in case someone has won the book you want. Winners’ names are not announced on the site.

All books are the copies I used to review them, so they’ve been read gently but are in very good condition unless specified. As noted below, some are advance reader’s copies or ARCs (uncorrected proofs with the art for the cover of the hardcover edition on the front).

Here are the books you can win.

Children’s Books
The Poky Little Puppy: A Little Golden Book Classic. By Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. This book is reported to be the bestselling American hardcover children’s picture book of all time. Hardcover edition. (Won)

Baby Farm Animals: A Little Golden Book Classic. Illustrated by Garth Williams (who illustrated the best-known editions of Charlottes Web and Little House on the Prairie). Hardcover edition. (Won)

Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Books Classic. Story adapted by Jane Wenner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Art from the 1950 movie (with Cinderella in her pre-princess garb on the cover). Hardcover edition.

What a Great Kid! Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Tell Kids “You’re Loved.” A tear-out coupon for every week.

Advance Reader’s Copies/Children

PerpetualCheck. By Rich Wallace. A short novel about two brothers who face off at a chess tournament. This ARC shows a bit of wear, but a young chess player might enjoy it. See note about ages in review.

Books for Adults

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. The hardcover edition of a comic novel recently out in paperback.

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. By John Demos. The hardcover edition of a National Book Award nonfiction finalist now in paperback. (Won)

Advance Reader’s Copies/Adults

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. An actor’s story of the big breaks that got away.  This ARC shows wear.

My Little Red Book. Edited by Rachel Kauder-Nalebuff. Girls and women remember their first menstrual periods.

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Memories of a difficult other by the editor-in-chief of Gourmet.

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa. By R. A. Scotti. True crime about a famous art heist.

How to Buy a Love of Reading. By Tanya Egan Gibson. A novel about a teenager whose parents hire a novelist to write a book for her.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.By Maria Laurino. An argument for a new vision of feminism by the author of Were You Always an Italian?

July 27, 2008

Only a Few Days Left to Talk About ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher’ and Other Books at the July Meeting of the One-Minute Book Reviews Online Book Club

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We’ve been talking about The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and other books you might want to take to the beach at the July meeting of the online reading group on One-Minute Book Reviews. The club has no required reading: You can “join” by leaving a comment about any book you’ve been thinking about lately at on or before July 31. A new conversation will start on August 1.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved. and

July 3, 2008

The Five Essential Crime Novels Published Since 2000 Are …

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Since the 1970s, the two major branches of crime fiction — the English cozy and the American hard-boiled — have “divided and proliferated,” Richard Shephard and Nick Rennison argue in their 100 Must-Read Crime Novels (A&C Black, 2006), a Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide One result is that the field now ranges from “the tartan noir of Ian Rankin to the Roman scandals of Steven Saylor, from Donna Leon’s shadow-filled Venice to the mean streets of Walter Mosley’s LA.”

But can the recent expansion be sustained? How many of those “must-read” crime novels have appeared in the 21st century? Among the 100 essential books reviewed in their guide, Shephard and Rennison list five published since 2000:

Flinch (2001) by Robert Ferrigno. Ferrigno has set his books “mainly in the sun-kissed idyll and moral vacuum” of southern California, and he returns to it in Flinch. Reporter Jimmy Gage becomes involved in the hunt for a serial killer in a novel that, Shephard and Rennison say, “may well be Ferrigno’s finest offering.”

The Bottoms (2000) by Joe R. Lansdale. “Joe Lansdale is best known for his series of violently farcical novels in which Hap Collins, white and straight, and Leonard Pine, black and gay, join forces in an odd crime team let loose among the rednecks in the Deep South, but The Bottoms is something very different,” Shephard and Rennison write. The novel, set east Texas in the mid-1930s, involves the discovery of a mutilated body bound to a tree in the river bottoms near the home of its young narrator, Harry Crane.

Tell No One (2001) by Harlan Coben. A young married couple plan to celebrate the anniversary of their first kiss at a lake in Pennsylvania, but during the tryst Elizabeth is murdered and David is beaten and left for dead. Eight years later to the day, David receives an e-mail message telling him to visit a Web site that contains the command: “tell no one.” “Coben masterfully piles on the suspense and tension,” the editors say, and sets “a relentless pace that holds till the final page.”

Mystic River (2001) by Dennis Lehane. The plot may hinge on implausible coincidences, but Shephard and Rennison see this as an “entirely compelling story” about three friends and something terrible that happened to them twenty-five years ago in Boston. For an alternate view of Mystic River, see the review posted on this site on Oct. 17, 2006

Dialogues of the Dead (2002) by Reginald Hill. In a novel that brings back Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Chief Inspector Peter Pascoe of the Mid-Yorkshire police, two deaths regarded as accidents come under new scrutiny when stories entered in a library’s short story contest contain details only someone close to the crimes could have known. All of Hill’s fiction shows his love of word games and literary allusions, Shephard and Rennison say, and this book places that love at the heart of the plot.

Not sure you’d like any of those books? Bill Peschel has an archive of reviews of other mysteries at Reader’s Almanac

Have you read a good crime novel that you would recommend that others? If so why not leave a comment on the post for the latest meeting of One-Minute Book Reviews online book club, where people are discussing the books they are taking on vacation?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 1, 2008

July 2008 Meeting of the Ruthless Book Club — What Books Are You Taking on Vacation or Reading in a Hammock at Home?

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Welcome to the second meeting of the Ruthless Book Club, the online book club with no required reading. All you have to do to join is to leave a comment on this post about a book you like (or want to warn others away from) on any day in July. The book doesn’t need to have been reviewed on this site, but it can’t be one you got for free from the author, publisher or anyone else connected to it. (That sex-education manual your parents gave you at the age of 9 is, of course, fine.) A new virtual meeting will begin August 1.

I promised that I’d get the conversation started each month. So here’s my question: How do you decide what books to take on vacation? I’ve spent hours – sometimes days – winnowing the options.

Last year I packed On Chesil Beach, but it turned out to be overrated and so lightweight I finished it on the train before I arrived at the shore. The only bookstore in my resort town sold mostly bestsellers, so I bought Lone Survivor. It had more to say than Ian McEwan’s novel but was partly a screed against journalists. Am I a masochist?

I probably had the least trouble with the vacation-reading dilemma the year I read all of the Jane Austen novels in a one-volume edition that Oxford University Press has, tragically, allowed to go out of print. I’d read a few of the novels before I left town, enough to know I’d probably like the others, and the book was compact enough to be easily portable.

So what are you taking with you this year?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 7, 2008

Burned by a Beach Book? Nominate the Author for a Delete Key Award for the Year’s Worst Writing in Books

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Last summer I considered doing a special beach books edition of the Delete Key Awards, which this site hands out every March to authors who aren’t using their delete keys enough. I decided that I wasn’t masochistic enough. But I may revisit the idea this year, and if you’d like to nominate a candidate, you can do it by leaving a comment on any post or by sending an e-mail message to the address on the “Contact” page. What beach books have burned you this summer?

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 26, 2008

Should This Line From the ‘The Devil in the Junior League’ Make the Shortlist for the 2008 Delete Key Awards?

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:50 pm
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Here’s the kind of question I’ve been wrestling with while compiling the shortlist for the annual Delete Key Awards that will be announced Friday: Should the following line from The Devil in the Junior League (St. Martin’s/Griffin, 341 pp., $12.95, paperback) appear on the list? Linda Francis Lee writes in this comic novel about backstabbing Texas socialites:

“Sure, I wanted the chance to explain why I had been less than mannerly to him, but that didn’t mean I wanted all those overly feelingish feelings he had an uncanny ability to make me, well … feel.”

Why it should be on the list: Would you buy this novel if the book flopped open to this line while you were looking at it in Borders?

Why it shouldn’t: No. 1: The writing on the Delete Key shortlist tends to be unintentionally funny. This line is – I think – supposed to be funny (and, if delivered by the right actress, could be). No. 2: The Devil in the Junior League is pop fiction that’s up against heavier-hitters like On Chesil Beach. No. 3: Would I libel the state of Texas by suggesting that this is how women there think ?

I’m leaning against it. Lee may be just too good for this shortlist.

The finalists for the Delete Key Awards will be announced Friday in separate posts that will begin at 10 a.m. Eastern Time and appear at about 30-minute intervals throughout the day. The full shortlist will be posted by the end of the day.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 3, 2007

Smart Fun in the Sun: 5 Good Nonfiction Books to Take to the Beach

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Don’t want to get burned by a brain-deadening beach novel that’s so dumb, you can almost feel your IQ dropping in the sun? Try a smart-but-entertaining nonfiction book instead. All of these are new and widely available enough that if your holiday plans call for a flight instead of a car trip to the beach, you should be able to find them in any airport bookstore:

The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival (Putnam’s, $24.95). By Stanley Alpert. You think a book about getting kidnapped can’t be funny? Try this memoir by a former federal prosecutor who was abducted on the eve of his 38th birthday on a Manhattan street. With a gang-that-couldn’t- shoot-straight ineptitude, his captors kept him blindfolded for 25 hours in a car and Brooklyn tenement as they tried to figure out how to lift the $100,000 in his bank account.

Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog (Morrow, $21.95 regular edition, $29.95 gift edition). By John Grogan. A columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer remembers a lovable but incorrigible dog in a bestseller about a yellow lab that was kicked out of obedience school. HarperCollins has just published a companion picture book for preschoolers, Bad Dog, Marley! (Harper Collins, $16.99, ages 3 and up), by Grogan and Richard Cowdrewy.

A Star Is Found: Our Adventures in Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies (Harcourt, $25). By Janet Hirshenson and Jane Jenkins with Rachel Kranz. Hollywood casting directors tell how they matched stars like Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise with roles, and found Daniel Radcliffe for Harry Potter. A book for adults that would also appeal to many high school and college students. and

Stuart: A Life Backwards (Delta, $12, paperback). By Alexander Masters. One of the best memoirs of 2006 has just arrived in paperback, not long after after it was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. If you don’t think anybody could tell a charming story of the life an “ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath,” this book could change your mind.

Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, $14.95). By Majorie Hart. Hart looks back on her work as one of the first female pages at the Fifth Avenue jewelry store in this lovely memoir of the summer of 1945, a gardenia on the lapel of the season’s nonfiction. She tells lively stories of seeing Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich at Tiffany’s, falling in love with a midshipman and visiting places like the Stork Club. But her book is equally memorable for its poignant account of how New Yorkers celebrated V-J Day, which occurred while she was working in the city.

[Click on “Children’s Books” under the “Categories” heading on the right-hand side of your screen for ideas on what children might enjoy reading on vacation.]

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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