Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year In Review

Photo courtesy KOTY Design Studio
Can't hardly believe that the year is almost over and that today is my last post of 2011. Actually, since I'll be taking a mini-vacation my next post will be on January 8th so I better make this one count, right?
Since the end of the year is traditionally the time to reflect upon the last twelve months I've been thinking about the books I enjoyed most this year and tried to narrow the list down to top three. A short while later that proved to be an impossible task so I settled on choosing at least one per genre and below are the titles I came up with. They all managed to stay with me throughout the year and I have a feeling that I'll remember them fondly no matter how much time passes. Some are by established authors, some are debut novels but all are good and all have depth, range, great characters, engaging plot and beautiful writing. So without further ado here are my top picks:

Best of Fantasy:
The Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix tied with The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Runners-up: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater and Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa

Best of Mystery:
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Best of Historical Fiction:
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett tied with The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai
Runners-up: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Next To Love by Ellen Feldman, and The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Best of General Fiction:
Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Von Booy tied with Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Best of Non-Fiction:
Entre Nous - Debra Ollivier

I'll see you guys on January 8th but in the meantime, what are your favorite books of 2011?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolCruel miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has never met a shilling he doesn't like... and hardly a man he does. And he hates Christmas most of all. When Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, he learns eternal lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill.

Merry Christmas, my friends! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and spent lots of time with your loved ones. My family's Christmas celebration is always fun and I'm always happy to be surrounded by such great people on holidays. This year we toned everything down a bit, the food, the presents, and just enjoyed each other's company, and I'm glad to say that the day wasn't any worse for it!
When thinking about what to read over Christmas break I remembered that I've never read A Christmas Carol and decided that there couldn't be a better time than now to pick up a copy, especially since it's so easy to get carried away by all the "things" and forget about the true meaning of Christmas. It was difficult at first to adjust to the archaic writing style and strange sentence structure (sometimes whole paragraphs reminded me of Yoda) but by the time the second ghost made his appearance I had no trouble reading Dickens' English and enjoyed the pictures he painted with words.
It was interesting to see that although generations have passed some things never change - we worry about all the family members making it home in time for the celebration, we hope that there's enough food for everyone and that every dish turns out just right, and the hostess will always talk about the adventures that accompanied the cooking now that all is well and the guests have paid her many compliments. At the same time it was interesting to get to peek into the lives of Victorian Londoners. I didn't realize that the poor had to take their dinners out of their homes to be baked!
As I read the book I wondered whether Dickens wrote it for adults or children. The plot was much too simple and the mystery much too transparent for an adult reader but would be completely engrossing for a child, but the vocabulary he used appears to be more suited for an adult reader. It's understandable of course that some terminology that was widely used then has become outdated since his time but there are plenty of words that are still common today, just not so common as to be part of our regular speech. Do you by any chance know who was Dickens' intended audience?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Special Feature - Book To Movie: Jane Eyre

I was going to talk about something else today but when I got home the new Jane Eyre movie was waiting for me so I settled in to watch. It makes me nervous a little bit to watch movies based on books I love. The movie people hardly ever seem to put my favorite parts in the movie the way I want them to so the adaptations are often disappointing. Not this time though. This adaptation hit all the right notes and I really enjoyed the way Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench portrayed Jane, Mr. Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax respectively. All the good parts were included, the way the story moved from Jane's adulthood to memories of her childhood and back made the cinematic narrative more modern and throughout the film there was a sense of understated elegance and quiet sensitivity which I enjoyed. I'd love to hear what you thought of the movie if you've seen it and if you haven't here's the trailer:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review: City Of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

City of Fallen Angels (The Mortal Instruments, #4)The Mortal War is over, and Clary Fray is back home in New York, excited about all the possibilities before her. She's training to become a Shadowhunter and to use her unique power. Her mother is getting married to the love of her life. Downworlders and Shadowhunters are at peace at last. And—most important of all—Clary can finally call Jace her boyfriend.
But nothing comes without a price.
When Jace begins to pull away from Clary without explaining why, she is forced to delve into the heart of a mystery whose solution reveals her worst nightmare: She herself has set in motion a terrible chain of events that could lead to her losing everything she loves. Even Jace.

Despite all the criticism of derivativeness and downright plagiarism I've enjoyed the first three Mortal Instruments books immensely for their fast pace, witty writing, action-packed plot and Clare's fearlessness in following the story to some dark and twisted places. Granted, many things in her books have been done before, but she managed to tell the story in her own way and won me over with that. So you shouldn't be surprised that I look forward to reading other books set in the Shadowhunter universe and couldn't wait to read this one when I finally got my hands on a copy.
Clare immediately sucked me into the story and I was glad to see how well she accomplished the task of giving the reader some backstory without flatout saying "this happened, and then this happened, and that's how we ended up here" the way a lot of authors do in the first chapters of sequences.
This book is a lot more focused on Simon and it was interesting to learn about what he is going through since his life changed most drammatically in City of Glass, he's gotten himself into a mess dating two girls at once, and he's trying to live a regular life depite it all. Combined with everything else going on that's fertile ground for a writer's imagination and helps keep the story grounded and personal. After all, what is more personal than figuring out who you are and where, and with whom, you belong?
I was glad that some of the focus was taken off Clary and Jace because those two have gotten entirely too angsty for my taste. You know how Edward was all self-loathing in New Moon? Yeah, he had nothing on Jace and there's only so much angst a reader can take. Besides, the interaction between these two seemed locked in a perpetual cycle of "I'm dangerous and evil, I have to stay away from her" to "What if he doesn't love me anymore?" to "But we love each other and can't be apart" to heavy make-out session and then Isabelle walks in on them and it all starts over again. Once in a book is entertaining, over and over - not so much.
Clare didn't shy away from things that are dark and twisted and plain wrong in the previous books of the series and she's not starting now either. Evil in the world she's created is more twisted than in any other I've read about and is depicted in such a way that is truly chilling. Come to think of it, Clare cuts through to the essense of both good and evil and brings that essence forth and makes it the center of her characters making them seem ready to walk off the page. What book wouldn't benefit from such characterisation?
I can totally see the ending as being the most polarizing part of this book and I have to admit, if left me sitting for a couple of minutes staring at the page thinkging "Whoa, what just happened? And... what the heck is going to happen next?!" That ending was more of a beginning than an ending, a beginning of a brand new mess that I just can't see everyone getting out of alive, let alone unscathed. Those who read the novel, what did you think of that last scene and the whole book?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Reader (aka Springtime) by Claude Monet
1872
Oil on canvas
50 cm x 65 cm (19.69" x 25.59")
Presently located at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Curious tidbit: there is a theory that the lady portrayed in this painting is Monet's wife, Camille

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: Cedardale Court by Nathan Lee Christensen

Cedardale CourtCedardale Court is a neo-gothic murder mystery with enough fools and old flames to keep you happily mixed up for most of a long weekend. When Canner Connelly and his daughter, Chloe, move in with their Uncle Henry, and a simple drainage problem turns a normal Sunday morning into a slightly darker affair, it's not easy to tell where everyone might end up, or if they'll even make it at all.

When Mr. Christensen e-mailed asking to review his book he had me at "neo-gothic murder mystery". I had no idea what such a novel was and decided this was the perfect time to find out, and let me tell you, I'm glad I did. This book turned out to be a very enjoyable read with great characters, plenty of plot twists, some laughs, engaging writing and a surprise ending.
Christensen's characters are so different and so quirky in their own unique ways that it's hard to pick a favorite. I loved the spunky 10-year-old Chloe, her perpetually paranoid dad who sees his deceased wife's ghost on a regular basis, the good old Uncle Henry, the take-charge detective Birch and even Charlie the cat who gets his own time in the spotlight and adds to the charm. The villains were a total surprise and not just because of their identities. I just never expected them to be quite the kind of people they were, or became, and that made the story more intense.
I really enjoyed Mr. Christensen't writing. It was fun and easy to read, the dialogue felt fresh and realistic and moved right along, and I felt that the voice was perfect for this story. There were some minor spelling issues and grammatical errors in places where editing obviously took place, so I think the book would benefit if someone read it through with a fresh eye and corrected those problem areas.
Cedardale Court was a lot of fun and I would recommend it to those who enjoy an offbeat murder mystery and aren't put off by occasional grammatical or spelling error. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Christensen does with his next book.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Special Feature - Site: March House Books Blog

Today I'd like to share with you a wonderful blog that brightens my day every time I visit it - the blog of March House Books, an online shop that specializes in antique and out-of-print books. The lovely Barbara posts images from the books she offers for sale, little curious tidbits about them, as well as the surprises she sometimes finds inside the books. I love the beautiful illustrations, the old-fashioned charm of the stories and the warmth with which Barbara talks about the books. Stop by for a visit, you're guaranteed a trip down memory lane you'll want to repeat time and time again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

The Artist of DisappearanceAward-winning, internationally acclaimed author Anita Desai ruminates on art and memory, illusion and disillusion, and the sharp divide between life’s expectations and its realities in three perfectly etched novellas. Set in India in the not-too-distant past, the stories’ dramas illuminate the ways in which Indian culture can nourish or suffocate. All are served up with Desai’s characteristic perspicuity, subtle humor, and sensitive writing.

In just a few days this book will hit the stores and I hope that many of you will go out and buy it because it is, in a word, wonderful. The rich and elegant writing transports you into the characters' worlds and makes you feel like you're right there with them, living their lives, feeling their pain, their joy, their turmoil and their bliss. It did that for me anyway. The relatively short novellas surprised me by how much substance there was in their pages, how I had to take a break between each one to reflect upon the characters, the time and place, the circumstances. This reflection wasn't a matter of choice, I really had to do it, let everything sink in, work its way through me, and that made the experience all the more fulfilling because it's not often that I find books that pack that kind of punch.
All three novellas are powerful in their own way but the third one, the one that lends its title to the collection, is my favorite because it is the most multi-faceted and most positive of the three. While Ravi is a textbook recluse his joy from creating and his lack of desire to have anyone else's approval were in such refreshing contrast to the mode of thinking which almost dictates that if one spends their time doing something the activity must be financially gainful or at least bring some sort of renown. My favorite thing about Ravi though wasn't that he was a person who created simply to create, but that he was a person who didn't become discouraged by setbacks, he just changed direction and proceeded on a different path. I think that's an excellent message since we all can become discouraged if things don't go exactly the way we plan.
There really wasn't anything that I didn't like about this book, it was deeply satisfying and made me curious to read Anita Desai's other works. I highly recommend it to anyone.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Special Feature: GoneReading

GoneReading is a website of a company that markets an exclusive line of gifts for readers and has pledged 100% of its profits in perpetuity to fund reading libraries and other literacy projects in the developing world. It's a wonderful cause, they have some really cool designs and you have your pick of all kinds of products: shirts, mugs, bottles, aprons and totes as well as baby and pet products. My favorite design is the one of a lady reading in a hammock hung between two palm trees and this travel mug is totally going on my wish list!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: My Sweet Saga by Brett Sills

My Sweet SagaAt nearly 30 years old, Brandon is barely able to make it through life, much less enjoy it. He is weeks away from what should be one of the happiest days of his life, his wedding day to his fiancée, Clarissa, but death itself seems more enjoyable than the prospect of spending the rest of his life with her.
Desperate for even a brief escape from his reality, Brandon reluctantly goes to Stockholm, Sweden with his father, who says he lost a bet to a Swedish man and now has to buy him dinner in his home country. Brandon is ready for disaster but his life changes completely the moment he sees the mysterious Swedish man's daughter, Saga. On a cobblestone street in the middle of Stockholm, Brandon reawakens to life but struggles to navigate the messy love triangle with Saga and his fiancée, which includes arrests, hospital stays, terrorist bombs, acts of heroism and foolishness, family secrets and even a bit of public nudity.

My recent experiences with authors and publishers sending me books to review have been somewhat underwhelming so I was a bit wary about reading My Sweet Saga. I shouldn't have worried. This is a well-written story about a guy who's so used to going with the flow that he can't even find the strength to end a relationship that makes him miserable and how his life changes when he meets a woman who is so unlike his fiance that she upsets his routine and shows him that a different life is possible. It's funny and although the start is slow it picks up pace and flows nicely all the way through. I could really see what kind of people all the characters were and Brandon and Saga's character development and relationship arc was interesting to watch. Saga's original secretiveness and general "take it or leave it" demeanor seems mysteriously odd at first but as the novel progresses it begins to make sense. With Brandon it was a bit trickier - his inactivity in the face of an undoubtedly miserable future and the choices he makes when he actually does act are maddening (the guy did everything exactly the wrong way) but at the same time his weakness makes him sympathetic and I was glad when he actually did what he knew was right all along. I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot and had fun with the characters when they were having a good time and commiserated with them when things weren't quite working out. The writing was light and easy and reminded me a little of Matthew Norman's so if Domestic Violets appealed to you this book may as well.
The only but serious drawback was the constant and very graphic referenced and descriptions of sexual encounters, body parts and bodily functions that are better left to the privacy of a bedroom or behind the closed doors of a restroom. Once or twice would've been fine but what I saw here was excessive and more often than not did nothing to move the plot forward.
All in all this is a good debut novel and I look forward to seeing what Mr. Sills does with his next book.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Special feature: The Project MOBILIVRE

A while back somewhere online I saw a brief reference to Projet Mobilivre and the idea of a library in an Airstream trailer intrigued me. Must be something about that sleek silver shape packed with books traveling all over the North-American continent. So here's what I found on the project's website:
The projet MOBILIVRE-BOOKMOBILE project explores the long held tradition of bookmobiles as traveling libraries that promote the distribution of information.The BOOKMOBILE travels across the United States and Canada in a vintage airstream trailer visiting a variety of communities. Our annual traveling collection of approximately 300 book works range from handmade and one-of-a-kind to photocopied and small press publications.
It looks like the project hasn't been on the road since 2005 so I hope it picks back up. Or may be they're just not posting updates?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Review: Crazy In Paradise by Deborah Brown

Crazy in ParadiseMadison Westin arrives in Tarpon Cove to attend her aunt's funeral and take possession of the property she has inherited and finds that although she is the heir her aunt's lawyer and the guy he has running the vacation property have no intention of handing over the reigns. As Madison is about to find out they are not only dishonest but are also very dangerous. She'll need good friends to watch her back and hopefully she can make some fast.

When I read the blurb for this book I was intrigued by the promise of a tough heroine and plenty of action so although it took me a while to get to it I was excited about this novel. The first paragraph was good and so I settled in to read.
There are things that worked for me: the villains are chilling and infuriatingly in control of the situation, the good guys aren't averse to breaking and entering, and the guys in between apparently don't know that playing both sides isn't the smartest thing to do. Madison herself is a woman with a past and is ready to reclaim her life, ready to take some risks and there are plenty of risks to take. Action scenes flowed very well and I was glad to see that things didn't always end well for the good guys and Madison didn't always escape unscathed. Another positive is that things did move along rather quickly and this wasn't a laborious read.
There are also things that didn't work for me: the dialogue was often robotic with no real segway between subjects and there were few details that helped create a living-breathing atmosphere for the scenes that would pull me in. The insta-lust between Madison and Zach was way too instant and way too intense, and the fact that she welcomed him into her life as quickly as she did and to the extent that she did was weird for me. Half the time I wished she would remember that she's only just met the guy and tell him to quit groping her in public. Another thing that didn't work for me was how the truth about the main villain was revealed, I felt it was too contrived.
I usually don't complain about blurbs because their whole job is to hook the reader and they rarely represent what the book is about with any degree of accuracy. I will complain here though: the blurb makes Madison out to be a go-getter who is on first-name basis with guns and who's going to "wrestle" her inheritance from the bad guys, but when I read the book I saw her as more of a scaredy-cat whith a swim in her pool at the top of her to-do list who needs others to help her with her problems, although she tries darn hard to break out of the pattern and therefore makes some audacious choices and actually sees some action.
All in all this isn't a bad read but while I think that Ms. Brown's writing has potential this book wouldn't be my first choice to recommend to a friend in search of a thrilling mystery.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A wall of books in Amsterdam

If you're ever in West Amsterdam look for this building with a 10-meter tall section filled with ceramic books. It must be a well-kept secret because I found very few referenced to it online and they all seem to come from one source: andrevanb's photostream on Flickr. (Thank you for sharing this unique landmark with the world, Andre!) And if anyone has any information about it please share, I'd love to know how this "book case" came about.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: Ghellow Road by T.H. Waters

Ghellow RoadGhellow Road is the story of a young girl's journey from happiness to misery and back, the story of her creating a life for herself in the middle of her family's troubles and finding a place she can really call home.

Several weeks ago T.H. Waters contacted me with a request to read and review her book, Ghellow Road, and in short order I had the volume in my hands. I only got to it now because of my crazy self-inflicted schedule (which is now, thankfully, over) and am glad to say that I liked it. The beginning was a bit rough, so much so that a couple of pages in I caught myself hoping that it would get better and fast. As the saying goes "ask and you shall receive" and in no time the author hit her stride and I was caught up in the disfunction of the Waters family.
The book follows Theresa for about 10 years from her childhood in the 1960s into adolescence in the 1970s, and the story and the way it was told struck a chord with me. It was horrifying to see that Theresa's mother was allowed to keep the children despite her terrible illness and inability to adequately care and provide for them and that apparently nobody thought there was anything wrong with children not having a permanent home. Was it just the way things were or were the Waters kids particularly unlucky?
Throughout the book Theresa longs for someone to embrace her and take care of her, wants someone to pay attention to her. She doesn't get that from her mother, Rainy, so she invests her time and energy outside the house to get the recognition and love she needs. Rainy is generally portrayed as someone unreachable, who smiles upon her children one day and disregards them the next, so it was interesting to see that she herself was locked in the same cycle with someone whose love and acceptance she was desperate to have. When I read that scene I felt that a whole new dimension was added to the story and wondered whether Theresa ever saw it.
I've always been a daddy's girl and seeing a similar dynamic here made me feel more in touch with the story. It was interesting to see Theresa's father go out of his way to spend time with his daughter despite his own troubles, show and teach her things and support her however he could and then turn around and reveal unexpected sides of his character, although I kind of saw what was coming way before Theresa ever figured it out.
Although I generally enjoyed the book the unevenness in writing and character development soured the experience for me. Some chapters just flowed and were a pleasure to read, with the atmosphere of time and place being revealed perfectly. Some felt forced, with writing becoming too "writerly" with unnecessary flourishes and the same type of sentence structure repeating over and over to the point where after a while it would jump out at me and not in a good way. The same thing happened with the characters: some of Theresa's friends were easy to imagine and with others I just didn't feel the connection that made the girls "best friends forever" and can't say that I ever really knew what made them so different from each other despite physical descriptions and page time dedicated to them. Looking back I think that Teresa's parents were the only characters besides Theresa whose development didn't have gaps and who actually made a difference in the story every time they appeared, the rest just kind of blended together for the most part.
There was one thing that confused me, and continues to do so - this book's genre. The front cover of the book says that it's a novel, which is by definition fiction, but then on the back cover at the end the author says "This is the story of my life". The About the Author section reveals that the book is based upon the unique experiences of her life, the acknowledgements confirm that, the story is set in the same town where the author grew up and even the names in the book are the same as the real names of the author's family: Theresa's father is Rick V. Waters and the author's father is Richard Valentine and both the author and the characters have the last name of Waters. This makes me wonder, how much of this book is really fiction? I'm not sure that changing the names of the extended family turns a memoir into a novel, then again, I don't think that this confusion about the genre made the story any less poignant.
All in all this was an enjoyable book and I'm glad that I agreed to read it. Best of luck to Ms. Waters in her future writing endeavors!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Who in this world doesn't recognize the deerstalker hat and cape of the great detective? It's difficult to imagine that such a person exists. Growing up I loved reading and re-reading all the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories and watching the Russian adaptations of his and Watson's adventures time and time again. And yes, I still prefer the detective and good doctor I grew up with to every other portrayal out there.
There are plenty of monuments around the world commemorating the master of deduction but this bronze statue at Picardy Place in Edinburgh is most interesting to me because of its location: it stands close to the house where his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle was born. Sculpted and cast by Gerald Ogilvie Laing at Kinkell Castle in Sutherland in 1989, it is today one of Edinburgh landmarks.
Now I want to re-read The Study In Scarlet... That's how it all began after all!

P.S. Did you know that Sherlock has never actually said the much-quoted phrase that is the title of today's post? Yep, apparently he never even got close. Who would've thought!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review: All The Queen's Players by Jane Feather

All the Queen's PlayersWhen she becomes a junior lady of Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber, Rosamund is instructed by her cousin, the brilliant and devious secretary of state Sir Francis Walsingham, to record everything she observes. Her promised reward: a chance at a good marriage. But through her brother Thomas, Rosamund finds herself drawn to the forbidden, rough-and-tumble world of theatre, and to Thomas’s friend, the dramatic, impetuous playwright Christopher Marlowe. And then Rosamund meets Will Creighton—a persuasive courtier, poet, and would-be playwright who is the embodiment of an unsuitable match. The unsanctioned relationship between Rosamund and Will draws the wrath of Elizabeth, who prides herself on being the Virgin Queen. Rosamund is sent in disgrace to a remote castle that holds Elizabeth’s cousin Mary Stuart, the imprisoned Queen of Scots. Here, Walsingham expects Rosamund to uncover proof of a plot against Elizabeth.

I must confess, when I read the many lukewarm reviews of this book I prepared myself for the worst. Fortunately I shouldn't have worried, I actually enjoyed this novel even despite the romance-y parts (all the between-the-sheets adventures are not my cup of tea).
One of my favorite things about this novel is that little about it was straightforward. There is a lot of intrigue, both political and personal. Everyone has something they want and the means they employ are hardly ever savory. I've always thought that "life at court", wherever and whenever the court exists, is a dark place and this novel only supports this belief of mine. What would anyone want to be there is beyond me. Excitement? Closeness to the ones with power? Are they really worth the need to constantly watch one's back, literally and figuratively? But I digress. Fortunately all the talk about the intrigues didn't swallow up too much page time and didn't slow down the story as it often does. Another element I enjoyed is tied into the intrigues and has to do with how quickly it all can suck one in. Rosamund, the protagonist, went from an innocent, sheltered girl to one of the key players in a conspiracy at the highest levels in the blink of an eye and with no way out, and she wasn't the only one trapped in the quicksand.
In a simple but effective device the author gave almost every character an antipode, which served to highlight their personalities. Elizabeth had Mary, Will had Arnauld, Mrs. Walsingham had Agathe and interestingly enough Tom had Kit. Kit was the most intriguing of them all, a man with seemingly no moral compass but showing more scrupples and higher standards than any of his associates and at the most unexpected of times. If nothing else he was more true to himself throughout the novel than any of the others, even Rosamund who even in the most dire of circumstances managed to go her own way.
The novel spans less than a year but Rosamund's growth in just several months is incredible. The girl who was most concerned with capturing the apple blossom just right on her parchment grew into a young woman familiar with the price of life and death and the pain of loss and deceipt. In short, she grew up and as traumatic as the journey was it was interesting to follow it.
The whole book is permeated with Rosamund's love for the theater, which in fact is the cause of all her troubles. It was interesting to look in on this world that wasn't considered suitable for the gentle-folk and women in particular, and the appeal it held for people of all layers of society. Nowadays theater isn't all that popular and reading about people being willing to risk their reputation and their future to attend a play is a bit surreal. I can't even imagine what would be comparable in today's world. Makes me glad to be living a simple life in this century and not at court in Elizabethan England - it would seem that even those not involved with the performing arts found themselves acting every day whether they liked it or not.
The parts I didn't enjoy had to do with the particularly descriptive intimate scenes that I felt were gratuitous most of the time and the fact that some ideas kept being repeated, as if the author either forgot that she's already had her characters say things exactly the same way before or wanted to reiterate them but didn't do it very well. In either case, the effect wasn't favorable. Another oddity that caught my eye is that the novel is set in England, the language appears to be true to the period with archaic turns of phrase and sentence structure but the spelling is infallibly American. I'm sure it isn't too much of a stretch to believe that the readers on this side of the Atlantic can figure out that "theatre" is the same as "theater" and "colour" is "color" and it would've kept the atmosphere consistent.
All in all this was an enjoyable read that satisfied my appetite for historical fiction. And I found myself using words I've forgotten I knew, which hasn't happened in a while.

Friday, November 4, 2011

A thought has been lurking in the back of my mind for the last several weeks but I've been so busy that it didn't fully shape itself. Until yesterday that is. Last night, as I was settling down to read, I realized that my main concern was with finishing in time for the scheduled post today and the thought alarmed me. When has reading turned into another obligation? This is what I do for fun! Or is it?
Writing is hard work and while it may take me several hours or several days to read a book it may have taken the author weeks, months, sometimes years to write it. This makes me want to give all the attention I can to reading and have fun doing it, and when the time comes to write the review I want to be able to think about the book for a while and relay more than just superficial impressions. Another side of it is that I want to invest more into my own writing and unfortunately a time turner remains little more than a product of J.K. Rowling's imagination. So the inevitable conclusion is that by committing to read and review two books a week I have bitten off more than I can chew and yesterday it became obvious that it is time for a change. Starting today there will be only one scheduled review post a week - on Sundays. I'm keeping the Wednesday Special Feature post - those are too much fun to not do any more.
I've already begun updating the BiblioCalendar and first order of business is to honor my review request commitments. That'll keep me busy until the end of the year and after that I'll do my best to maintain the fun spirit and do surprise review posts whenever I can. Bookish surprises are always nice, aren't they? ;)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Special Feature - Blog: Let's Book It

Today I'd like to shine the spotlight onto a fellow book blogger's site, Let's Book It. Dana has an excellent review blog where she talks about books in a variety of genres and rates them on the basis of character development, editing, readability/flow, sex, violence and romance. She posts about twice a week and holds giveaways (the current giveaway is for Welcome to Fred by Brad Wittington). Stop by and check it out!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: Forbidden by Ted Dekker &Tosca Lee

Forbidden (The Books of Mortals, #1)After several nuclear bombs have been detonated on Earth the survivors followed the new leader Sirin and his teaching of excising emotion to guarantee peace and survival. Almost 500 years later humanity is still rebuilding itself and the new Order shuns everything to do with the past age of Chaos that lead to destruction. All emotions with the exception of fear have been genetically eliminated and people live to serve Order and to be guided by it. When Rom discovers a vial of ancient blood that promises "life" and takes one of the five portions he awakens everything about himself that is human. But the vial came with a task encrypted on piece of velum and now Rom and four of his newly-alive friends must find out what it means and complete their quest. Everything they know and believe will be tested and all their strength and courage will be required to survive for dark powers want nothing more but to kill them and claim what they possess.

When I first saw the galley of this book on NetGalley I was intrigued by the cover. The whole "metal badge on a stone wall" design was appealing all by itself but with the bleeding heart in the middle the concept became that much more interesting. But there it sat, waiting for its time, which finally came late last week. I was immediately swept into this odd world where people feel nothing but fear and into Rom's life that's turned upside down when an old man gives him a mysterious box and almost immediately gets killed for it. I felt for this simple young man who didn't ask for anything that follows, who struggles with the onslaught of feelings that couldn't be any more strange. I hoped that the bad guys would fail once and for all and yet I knew that things couldn't be that simple. I recoiled at the twisted and horrific things the villains did and wondered about their leader's apparent omniscience.
There are plenty of dark and terrible things in this book and at first all the violence and blood spilling shocked me a bit but then I remembered that this is not a YA book and kept reading. Everything that happened made sense and I'm not sure that the book would've gripped me as it did had the authors shied away from the blood and gore or even toned it down. Morbid of me? Maybe. Doesn't make the book any worse.
The combination of highly advanced science and hardly any technology accessible to the masses creates a very interesting atmosphere. It kept me wondering what else was possible in this strange society, what else wasn't destroyed and what kind of advancements were actually made in the centuries when the world's population just tried to survive. The last several chapters sure opened up a lot of possibilities.
There are some things that weren't very believable. No matter how trusting people are how many times can the same trick really work? Wouldn't they be on the lookout for that exact thing? Shouldn't they be on the lookout for it? Similarly, if someone knows that something that doesn't fit with their plans is going to happen and they know when exactly it'll happen and where wouldn't they take steps to prevent it? Apparently not in this world.
The book didn't end on a cliff-hanger and I'm grateful for that - we all know what it's like to impatiently wait for a year or more to find out what happens next. The authors tied up the plot threads without leaving any loose ends but making plenty of promises for the sequel and giving an idea of what to expect in the future books of the series. I'm still wondering what will happen next, but at least I can wait without biting my nails to nothing.

The galley of this book was provided by Center Street, the publisher, via NetGalley.com

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: A Spy a At Home by Joseph Rinaldo

A Spy at HomeFor Garrison retiring from the CIA means returning to his wife and son and learning to be a husband and father full-time. Not the easiest thing for a guy who spent most of his life under-cover, especially since his past life is never really in the past - the quiet, frugal family is hiding millions of dollars in an off-shore account and terrorists whose money Garrison stole are after them. And what will happen to Noah if both his parents die before him?

With a title like A Spy At Home it is easy to expect this book to be a mystery or a thriller but it is neither. Sure, there is a mystery, and sure, there are incredibly hard to find bad guys but this novel is more about being a part of one's family than surviving in a war zone.
This is a relatively short book, only 122 pages, but it took me a while to read it, possibly because it was not like the books I'm used to where the author takes the readers into the story. Instead Garrison is the narrator, telling us about things that happened and somehow even though there's always talk about how this or that event made him feel the scenes that engaged me weren't as frequent as I would have liked. There simply wasn't the sort of detail that brings the story into the here and now and makes the characters come alive. For example when I read "Louisa began her subtle prodding..." I wished I knew what she said and how she finally got the police officer to tell her what she wanted to know. In addition to that sort of telling and not showing the copy I got had many spelling and grammatical errors and while I allow that the manuscript may have gotten proofed and revised to eliminate those at a later date they were too much of a distraction for me.
There are few characters in this book and Noah, Garrison's son with Down syndrome, is the most developed one. I repeatedly caught myself thinking that the author must have either done extensive research or has personal experience with this condition because the way Noah is portrayed feels very authentic and the family's reactions to the changes he undergoes are particularly believable.
It is understandable that secondary characters, like the family's friends and Garrison's former superior and CIA contact, weren't written with much detail but I expected that by the end of the book I would know this family. Instead while I found out what they did for a living, how they managed to keep the stolen money hidden and some very intimate particulars about their sex life I didn't really feel that I knew them. They were a family with a highly unusual story but they were a family an acquaintance told me about, not a family I got to know myself.
I really wanted to enjoy this book and in the light of some very favorable reviews out there I'm inclined to think that my state of mind wasn't ideal for it. There were quite a few very insightful moments that I felt came from experience and gave authenticity to the writing, and the final sentence was so strong that as soon as I read it I knew it was my favorite part of the book, but as a whole this novel didn't really do it for me. I urge you to check it out though, may be it'll be just right for you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Community Bookshelf in Kansas City

When you think of Kansas City, MO what's the first thing that comes to mind? I'm betting it's not the parking garage of their library. And that's a shame because it should. When the good people of Kansas City decided that the library needed more parking they came up with a unique way to make the new structure attractive as well as functional. The mural in the picture is actually the south wall of the Kansas City Public Library's parking garage, which in its entirety presents 22 titles that were suggested by Kansas City readers and then selected by The Kansas City Public Library Board of Trustees. The Community Bookshelf page on the library's website lists all the titles on the spines of the books and it's a pretty eclectic collection! I wonder whether the library saw an increase in patrons interested in checking out these titles once the mural was finished. The Romeo and Juliet cover is my favorite, must be the tooled leather and the combination of brown and gold. Which one do you like best?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review: The Iron Knight by Julie Kagawa

The Iron Knight (Iron Fey, #4)Ash, the last Prince of the Unseelie Court, has made a vow that he would find a way to be with Meghan in the Iron Realm, to be her knight again and to protect her as long as they both drew breath. To do this he must win a soul and his path is full of danger and trials so difficult and painful no-one should be subjected to them. Will he prove himself worthy of a soul and will he see his quest to the end? It will take everything he's got and fortunately for him his friends have his back.

I really looked forward to this book, wondering how Julie Kagawa would do with changing the narrator and essentially taking the story in a completely new direction. The Iron Knight was definitely very different from the first three books in the series. While Meghan is very direct, no-nonsense, doesn't agonize much every step she takes and her story is all about action Ash is her opposite and his story is as well. Oh, don't get me wrong, he may be torn up about all kinds of things but he's not going to just sit there, he is a warrior after all. There is a lot of introspection here and the decisions Ash has to make aren't just whether to go and fight, they involve matters of the heart and soul and that complicates things tremendously. There were times when I was terribly disappointed in him, felt that he was continuing on his quest out of the sense of duty, not out of love, but gradually he was able to understand himself and I was glad to see how things turned out.
The Iron Knight thrilled me from the very first pages with the lore that is introduced here. There is an old witch who lives in a house on bird legs and there's the gigantic Wolf. I don't know whether these characters are common in Western lore but they are a constant presence in the Slavic fairy tales and when I realized what was going on I was absolutely delighted. These are the characters I grew up with after all and Ms. Kagawa did them justice. The entire time they were in the story I didn't have any problem with what they did or said and this made me appreciate the novel that much more.
With Ash, Puck and Grimalkin in the core of the cast here the dynamic between the characters is essentially familiar but the new additions give it a bit of a new flavor and I saw sides of them I didn't really expect. With Ash and Puck almost competing with Grimalkin and Wolf in who can bicker better there's plenty of verbal dueling that could turn dangerous any minute and the new surprise companion in the quest brings the tension that makes it impossible to be confident in the outcome. And don't worry, we do get to see Meghan again before the story wraps up and she's still her old self, despite being the Iron Queen and ruling a whole realm.
The main thing about this novel is how introspective and thoughtful it is, and it's not just about making difficult decisions and coming to terms with one's past, it's about what it means to be human from beginning till the end. I'll admit, I didn't enjoy all the parts of the story, some felt just too surreal and some didn't seem relevant, but as a whole it made me think about who we are as humans and what we have. (See, told you this book isn't like the first three.)
I can't believe I'm saying this and you may strongly disagree with me on this but I didn't feel that this book was as inspired as the others. It felt like more "I have to do this" than "I want to tell this story" and although it was done well it just wasn't the same. If you prefer a happy ending to a story though I highly recommend that you read this book: with The Iron Queen ending as it did I can imagine that the lovers of Happily Ever After weren't exactly satisfied and with The Iron Knight Kagawa tied up the most important loose end of all and I'm sure you won't be disappointed.

A galley of this book was provided by the publisher, HarlequinTEEN, via NetGalley

Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex

Leonardo's SwansEver since they were little girls Isabella and Beatrice d'Este were betrothed to very different men. Isabella's fiance is to take her to the country, to the estate of a family knows for breeding the best horses in Italy and she was to become a marquesa. Beatrice's betrothed is a learned man, the regent to the duke of Milan, a renown patron of the arts, a politician like no other and one day Beatrice may become a duchess of greatest city-state in Italy. It's too bad that Isabella has a brilliant mind and loves to collect beautiful works of art and Beatrice wants nothing more than to spend days on her horse. Their sisterly rivalry turns serious when the girls fall in love and begin to fight for the affection of one man and the opportunity to have a great artist paint their portraits.

My favorite thing about this book is that it exposed me to some very interesting people who lived in 15th century Italy. Without it I may have never heard about the incredible Isabella d'Este, may have never looked up the paintings mentioned in this book, may have never thought about Leonardo da Vinci as a man outside of his work.
Ms. Essex did a great job of getting into the women's heads and showing us what they thought and felt at the most important times of their lives. I preferred Isabella not because her character was easier to relate to but because her sections were deeper, more intimate and showed what the ways of the Italian nobility were at the time. She was a woman of great intellect, an art connoisseur, a formidable opponent for any man in the political arena as well as a woman of great beauty, grace and charm. It was fascinating to learn about her and I intend to read more about her in the future.
Leonardo da Vinci is a prominent character in this book but we never get to hear about the events from him. He is always talked about by either Esabella or Beatrice and while their descriptions paint an interesting portrait (no pun intended) it would've been very interesting to get his take on the events of the time and the people with whom he was in such close contact. Throughout the book there are excerpts from Leonardo's notes that are both his reflections about the subjects of his studies and to-do lists that give us a glimpse into the mundane part of his life. These excerpts are not invention of the author, they are actually taken from da Vinci's notebooks and effectively bring the reader closer to the time and the characters of the book.
As impressed as I was by the characters this novel fell a bit flat for me because of the writing. The narrative went from lively scenes that were very engaging to sections that read more like a chronicle and back. Because of this the story didn't hold my interest as much as it could have and I had no trouble setting it down and sometimes even found myself zoning out during the accounts of who invaded whom and who was suspected of whose death. The fact that the narrative often changed between past and present tense from one paragraph to the next didn't help eather and even though eventually I managed to ignore the back and forth between the "is" and the "was" the challenge of having to do it detracted from the enjoyment of the book.
I would recommend this novel to those readers who are interested in learning about Italy at that tumultuous time in history, enjoy fascinating characters and feel they'll be able to ignore the inconsistencies in tense and less than stellar bridges between the scenes that actually had some life to them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hay-on-Wye: The Town of Books

Honesty Bookshop
Photo by Deb Harding from the Hay-on-Wye website
Several weeks ago I was lazily browsing through random pictures on the web and a picture of bookshelves next to a wall that looked like it belonged at a castle caught my eye. Bookshelves? Outside? Next to a castle wall? I've never seen anything like that! A quick investigation showed that the picture wasn't a result of someone's photoshop-equipped wistfulness but an actual honesty-system bookstore in a small town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, UK. And then I couldn't stop reading about this tiny town with a population of 1,500 in Southeastern Wales that boasts three dozen bookshops and a world-renown Hay Festival of Literature - the Sundance of book lovers.
The festival is a 10-day annual event that attracts 85,000 people from around the world who come to participate in some 500 events that take place in the tented festival village in late May - early June. What started out as a festival on the border between Wales and England grew to international proportions and now there are thirteen locations worldwide holding festivals of their own throughout the year. The official Hay Festivals website has plenty of information about all the events but if you want to visit the original festival in 2012 plan to be there May 31st to June 10th and to prepare visit the town's website, they have plenty of information on accommodations, attractions and activities to occupy your time outside of the festival.
If you don't like crowds, want to have your choice of lodging and prefer to quietly browse Hay's many bookstores there's plenty to do the rest of the year as well and judging by the photos online the town and the nearby areas are absolutely lovely and worth visiting. Here is an interesting article on the NY Times website by a writer who visited the area 2 months before the festival and it sounds like she and her husband had a wonderful time. The article was written in 2006 but I'm sure the spirit of the town and the people hasn't changed too drastically.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: The Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa

The Iron Queen (Iron Fey, #3)My name is Meghan Chase.
I thought it was over. That my time with the fey, the impossible choices I had to make, the sacrifices of those I loved, was behind me. But a storm is approaching, an army of Iron fey that will drag me back, kicking and screaming. Drag me away from the banished prince who's sworn to stand by my side. Drag me into the core of conflict so powerful, I'm not sure anyone can survive it. This time, there will be no turning back.

Whenever I really enjoy a book it's difficult for me to review it because I keep trying to shape my thoughts into something coherent and all my brain throws back at me is "It was Awesome!". Which is exactly what's been going on all day today. Julie Kagawa took the series to a new level with this book and fulfilled all kinds of promises in the process. The character development, the story arc, the very unexpected but logical and satisfying resolution of the love triangle that kept bugging me in the last book and the epic ending I did not see coming all hit the right notes and when I turned the last page the only thing I didn't like was that the book was over. You know how they say that when you're dreaming up a story don't be afraid to dream big? Ms. Kagawa isn't afraid, not even a little bit.
I enjoyed seeing the characters' growth in this book. Meghan's transformation from a teenage girl into an adult who understands what's important is complete and she is now strong enough to do what needs to be done, no matter how painful it is. Ash and Puck are not just boys with a centuries-old feud, they are finally acting their age, showing that they can do more than draw swords at the drop of a hat, that they can take a step back and do what's best for the girl they both love.
Speaking of love, I can't resist telling you that this book has an amazing scene that is my absolute favorite of all the romantic scenes so far. I can gripe about love triangles and immortal beings falling for a teenager all I want but when there's a scene like that all my gripes melt away and all I can do is sit there soaking up every word, rereading the paragraphs and grinning like a real hopeless romantic in the face of true love. You want a hint now, don't you? Well, the title of the next book is a huge spoiler as far as this particular scene is concerned.
Of course it's not all about mushy stuff (what kind of Iron Fey book would it be if it were, right?), there are excellent action sequences and great standoffs that keep you hoping things don't turn nasty. Pair that with terrific dialogue throughout and you've got yourself a thrilling adventure with plenty of chuckles along the way.
Fortunately for the series the more mature characters, themes and relationships didn't change the writing. It's just as light and effortless as it's always been, making this book an extremely easy and fun read and proving that it is possible to talk about serious things without being stiff and drowning in big words.
A lot of the conflicts that were established and developed in the first two books came to a resolution in this volume and while the story came to an end on one level there's still more to come before it can really be over. I look forward to finding out what kind of deal Ash made with the Queen of Exiles, how he will be able to overcome the challenges Meghan's new role in the Nevernever brought and how he'll get along with Puck now that they actually have a chance at friendship again. The faerie adventures continue and I could not be more pleased about it.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

Wild Mind: Living the Writer's LifeNatalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones, shares her invaluable insight into writing as a source of creative power, and the daily ins and outs of the writer’s task. Topics include balancing mundane responsibilities with a commitment to writing; knowing when to take risks as a writer and a human being; coming to terms with success, failure, and loss; and learning self-acceptance—both in life and art.
Thought-provoking and practical, Wild Mind provides an abundance of suggestions for keeping the writing life vital and active, and includes more than thirty provocative “try this” exercises as jump-starters to get your pen moving.

Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down The Bones, has been sitting on my shelf for a while, started but not finished. There were so many references to Zen Buddhism and Ms. Goldberg's Zen teacher that she lost me before even really capturing my interest so I never got very far. This volume started out the same way but since I got it from NetGalley I felt obligated to review it and so kept reading. I'm glad I did because there is a lot of very good advice in it, such as to slow down and notice things we don't usually notice, to write regularly and no matter what, to learn to differentiate between procrastination and productive waiting, to remember that our writing isn't who we are and to live a life outside of it too and Ms. Goldberg's personal motto of "Shut up and write".
I really enjoyed her 7 rules of writing practice which are essentially what every other writer tells you to do: keep your hand moving, lose control, be specific, don't think, don't worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar, you're free to write junk and go for the jugular. I liked the chapters on writing the truth and what to do with it if by publishing it you'll hurt your loved ones, on the value of reading your writing aloud and on cutting through all the extraneous noise to the heart of the matter. There were a lot of personal examples which kept me interested because I felt that the author was a real person, not some abstract entity who I knew nothing about (which is actually one of Natalie's recommendations to writers) and there were plenty of exercises to try and I've actually jotted down quite a few to use myself.
This book isn't only about writing, a lot of the things covered in it are about life and the challenges a writer, and any other person, faces every day. The chapters on stepping forward with your life, living your life for yourself and not for someone else, and making a positive effort are like that and I liked that they were included.
As you see there are a lot of good things about this book but when I turned the last page and thought about it I felt overwhelmed. There didn't seem to be a particular rhyme or reason to the order in which the chapters appeared. Moreover, pretty much every chapter felt like Ms. Goldberg sat down for her writing practice, gave herself a topic and said "Go". Setting one's wild mind free is wonderful for being creative and authentic but if the first word that comes to mind when one thinks about the resulting work is "scatterbrained" I think some editing is in order.

The galley of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Once you shut yourself inside a wardrobe, you can imagine anything."

Back in 1998 the good citizens of Belfast, Northern Ireland commemorated C.S. Lewis's 100th birthday by unveiling a life-sized bronze statue titled The Searcher that depicts Digory Kirke, C.S. Lewis's alter ego, entering Narnia through the magic wardrobe.

C.S. Lewis was born in Belfast and many believe that the world of Narnia was inspired by his childhood in Ireland. He spent majority of his adult life in Oxford, writing and teaching at the Magdalen College. In addition to his scholarly work, Lewis wrote a number of popular novels, including his science fiction The Space Trilogy and his fantasy series the Chronicles of Narnia. The Chronicles is Lewis's most popular work, it has sold over 100 million copies in 41 languages and has been adapted for TV, radio, stage and most recently, and most famously, a series of movies.
In 2008, The Times ranked him eleventh on their list of "the 50 greatest British writers since 1945".

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: The Iron Daughter by Julie Kagawa

The Iron Daughter (Iron Fey, #2)Deserted by the Winter prince Meghan thought loved her, she is prisoner to the Winter faery queen. As war looms between Summer and Winter, Meghan knows that the real danger comes from the Iron fey—ironbound faeries that only she and her absent prince have seen. But no one believes her. Worse, Meghan's own fey powers have been cut off. She's stuck in Faery with only her wits for help. Trusting anyone would be foolish. Trusting a seeming traitor could be deadly. But even as she grows a backbone of iron, Meghan can't help but hear the whispers of longing in her all-too-human heart.

With the second book in the series Julie Kagawa continues Meghan's adventures in the Nevernever and if you thought the first volume was full of danger prepare for an even wilder ride this time around. I think my favorite thing about this book was how while Meghan is underestimated by everyone, possibly even those on her side, she emerges as the most powerful figure in the faery world - she is half-human so she is immune to the effects of iron, she is the daughter of the Seelie King so her faery powers (when she can use them) are above average, and it seems like her encounter with Machina left her with extra abilities that even she doesn't clearly understand just yet. Now that The Iron Daughter is wrapped up I am all kinds of excited to see Meghan in The Iron Queen, fully expecting her to kick some serious butt shock-and-awe-style. So yes, girl power gets the highest marks here and the guys frame it very nicely. It was good to see Puck and Ash in frenemy mode again, their bickering is just too sharp-tongued not to enjoy. Grimalkin is back too with his signature attitude and he is as amusing as ever. I have to admit, all the characters are very much smart alecks and their dialogue makes for great reading. Mix that with practically non-stop action and major plot twists (betrayal, anyone?) and the book is almost impossible to put down.
Another thing that keeps the tension up is the solidification of the love triangle. We all knew it was coming so no major surprise there and now Meghan has to choose between the two guys vying for her affection, which is no easy feat because she (wait for it) is in love with both of them. At least their unexpected ally is keeping a respectable distance and is sticking with the role of friend and protector, otherwise it would've been simply too much. There is plenty of angst, drama in the best traditions of Romeo and Juliet, deadly encounters because this is the Nevernever after all, and even a makeover.
I mentioned earlier that after her confrontation with the Iron King Meghan has acquired some extra abilities and I'd like to compliment Ms. Kagawa for giving us glimpses of what she can do and shaping the general idea of what's in store without giving too much away. I really can't wait to read Iron Queen to see how she fulfills these subtle promises because if things go the way I think they will the balance of powers will be changed in a manner I don't think anybody in Neverever expects. Except for maybe Grimalkin. That cat is tricky beyond belief.
Remember how the series started with Meghan thinking about the day her father disappeared at the edge of a lake in a park while she was buying ice cream? Remember how later she gave a memory in exchange for clues as to how to find and destroy Machina? Those little plot threads that could've been so easily forgotten and abandoned have come back in this book and the mystery behind them is probably the most fascinating one of all. I'm not going to tell you too much, but just know that there is more depth to these books than may appear at first glance. Those threads are like Stanislawski's gun - if it's there in the first act it will fire in the third act, and I think Kagawa has already begun to pull the trigger.
The one thing that detracted a little bit from this novel and my impression of the series in general is that the main plot elements of the love triangle between the girl who doesn't fit it, her best friend, and the very cold and dangerous other guy, as well as the weakest player becoming strongest player kept reminding me of Twilight. I imagine that Stephenie Meyer probably didn't invent those either but it's just so recent that it's almost like deja vu. I will give Ms. Kagawa props for making it her own though - the relationship between the two rivals is more complex than the plain "enemies forever" formula, the emergence of Meghan as a powerhouse is very gradual and very subtle, and I don't think anybody's going to be able to talk themselves out of fighting to the death in this series. Except for may be Grimalkin.
All in all this is a wild ride you don't want to miss, so strap in and hang on, the fun is just getting started.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for ElephantsThough he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski's ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell and in the end it was a life he never expected.

I looked forward to reading this book ever since the movie based on it was announced but by the time I finally got my hands on the paperback the much-anticipated film was so close to release that I decided to wait to read the book until after the movie has faded from my memory. And so it is only now that I've read it, staying up late to enjoy Sara Gruen's beautiful prose and to be impressed by the diverse cast of the book's characters. Getting to know Jacob, Marlena, Rosemary, Walter, Camel and even August and Uncle Al was an absolute delight, especially since they continued developing until the very end, revealing new facets of their personalities and details about their past that made them who they are.
The narrative alternates between the past, set in 1930s, and the present, which could really be now or 10 years ago, we don't get much information as to what decade it is. In the present the 90, or 93-year-old Jacob is at a nursing home, struggling with his age and helplessness and remembering the beginning of his life at the circus and the beginning of his love affair with Marlena, the beautiful and talented performer in the liberty horse act. In the past he is 23, living the most exciting and the most perilous months of his life. Sometimes the back and forth such as this can be confusing, detracting from the experience, but in this particular case it was executed so well that seeing the past and the present helped create a fuller picture. It's so much easier to understand old Jacob and his frustrations when you know what he's lived through, and watching the events of the early 1930s unfold you always have a sense that it's not just a story, it's the turning point in a life, several lives in fact.
Although Jacob's relationship with Marlena is central to the story and is a catalyst for pretty much everything that happens my favorite relationships are the ones he has with Rosemary and Walter. They may not be as emotionally charged, but there is a depth and a poignancy to them that I didn't see in his relationship with Marlena. Similarly, I was a bit surprised when he talked about being almost in love with the elephant, feeling protective of her and not being able to let her go when the time came. Throughout the book I didn't see much distinction in his connection with Rosie and the rest of the animals in the menagerie apart from the fact that she was the newest and most expensive member of the team and a lot of attention was paid to her. If I had to choose one animal with whom I could see he had a bond it would be Bobo the ape. There was the tenderness and the affection that wasn't present in the scenes with Rosie, that's where I could see a friendship being born. With the two main relationships feeling under-developed I couldn't help but think that Ms. Gruen did a wonderful job with the secondary cast but could've devoted more attention to the main players.
As much as I enjoyed the novel the very end of it seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. Up until then I believed everything that happened. It seemed logical and completely plausible with even the most outrageous turns of events seeming unexpected and amazing at the most. This is circus after all, anything can happen there. But when it came to the final chapters I just couldn't shake the feeling that I didn't believe it, it was just too good to be true. I can't tell you more but once you read the book, or if you've already read it, I'd love to hear what you thought.
This really is a very good novel and I'll wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone. After all, may be I'm just becoming picky :)

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Special Feature - Blog: Tiny Library

One of my favorite book review blogs is Tiny Library and I always look forward to Sam's posts because the books she reads and reviews aren't among the usual suspects in the month's rotation and I know that her reviews are going to be thorough, honest, insightful and fun to read, regardless of what the books are.
Sam reads a lot and it's a very varied list. This year alone she's read Charlaine Harris, Philip Pullman, Bram Stoker, Audrey Niffenegger, Charlotte Bronte, Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rudyard Kipling, Leo Tolstoy, Suzanne Collins, H.G. Wells, Stephen King, Michelle Moran, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates and Nicholas Sparks, and this is just a sampling of the authors whose names I recognize from the long list of titles. There's definitely more fiction than non-fiction on the list so if this is your preference Tiny Library is a great place for remembering old favorites and discovering new titles with which to fill your leisure hours. So pay Sam a visit, you're sure to have a good time. I always do.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Review: Iron King by Julie Kagawa

The Iron King (Iron Fey, #1)Something has always felt slightly off in Meghan's life, ever since her father disappeared before her eyes when she was six. She has never quite fit in at school... or at home. When a dark stranger begins watching her from afar, and her prankster best friend becomes strangely protective of her, Meghan senses that everything she's known is about to change. But she could never have guessed the truth — that she is the daughter of a faery king and is a pawn in a deadly war. Now Meghan will learn just how far she'll go to save someone she cares about, to stop a mysterious evil no faery creature dare face... and to find love with a young prince who might rather see her dead than let her touch his icy heart.

On October 26th the latest installment of the Iron Fey series hits the stores and in anticipation of it I've decided to dedicate the next four Sundays to reviews of this series. Yes, that's right, I am in possession of the ARC of The Iron Knight (thanks to the publisher and NetGalley) and in order to prepare for it I got the other three volumes from the library. After all, can't read the fourth book and not read the first three. Besides, everything I've heard about the Iron Fey seemed to say that if I didn't read these books I would be really missing out. So there I was, on a sunny Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, sitting at a Starbucks, my coffee long gone, unable to close The Iron King and go home to continue reading it there because closing the book would mean that I'd have to stop reading and I really didn't want to! Julie Kagawa's fey got their sharp little teeth in me and were not letting go.
There are many things that charmed me. One is the narrative voice. It is so light and keeps the story moving so well that I knew immediately that this would be an easy and delightful read. The other is how all the magical creatures we've heard and read about in a variety of different stories come together in the Nevernever and every one of them has a place. This isn't all fun and adventure though - the faerie world is full of danger and I really liked that too, it reminded me of the stories I read as a child, they were really scary at times! Even better was the fact that that there wasn't a grand tour of "here's is a piskie, there is a goblin", it made me dive head first into the story and figure it out as I went, or rather as Meghan went. It was a bit confusing at times because everything seemed to have razor-sharp teeth and carnivorous appetites, or at the very least a malicious intent, but it all worked out in the end. I really liked how the author interpreted the technological development of our world and its influence on the faerie world. I haven't read much fey fiction lately so this seemed like a very innovative approach to me, and well-executed at that.
If you were to risk your life and shake me awake in the middle of the night to ask me who my favorite Iron King character is I would immediately say that it's Grimalkin. The cat's totally awesome and such a scene stealer! He clearly has his own agenda but at the end of the day he's on the side of the good guys and his sense of humor got laughs out of me every time. Actually the rest of the main cast are pretty funny too. Meghan is just because of her teenage attitude, Puck is the jokester no matter how close to death he is and even Ash cracked a joke or two and they weren't bad either. Spending time with these guys was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed seeing their evolution from who they were in the beginning of the book to who they became in the end.
Here's something I didn't enjoy very much: the ever-present scenario of "girl who doesn't fit in falls in love with the mysterious and dangerous guy from the enemy clan the moment she lays eyes on him; fortunately it seems the guy isn't all evil although he keeps pulling away and probably will kill her if the stars align just right but she doesn't care, she wants to be with him". What the heck? Can't people fall in love gradually any more? They're magical creatures and teenagers at that but seriously? At least I could console myself that there wasn't a love triangle in all of this, although Puck did seem to be looking at Meghan with googly eyes once or twice. And that's another thing, they're thousand-year-old creatures, why do they keep falling in love with teenage girls who barely know anything about themselves, let alone the world around them? I get it, love conquers all, but seriously?! Ok, rant over.
Despite this slight short-coming I did enjoy the book very much. So much so that I stayed up till 3 in the morning because Ms. Kagawa kept ratcheting up the action and I just couldn't wait to find out what happened next. And when the last page of The Iron King was turned I had to resist to not pick up Iron Daughter and keep reading. A girl's gotta sleep after all.
So these are my impressions of The Iron King. Come back next Sunday for my review of The Iron Daughter!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Review: Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Domestic VioletsTom Violet has problems. He has erectile disfunction, a mind-numbing job he hates, an arch-nemesis who'd love nothing better than to have Tom fired, a wife who he thinks is having an affair, a novel in his desk drawer that nobody apparently wants to read, a crush on his beautiful and too-young coworker, a father who's just won the Pulitzer and is getting yet another divorce, and a dog with acute anxiety. Anybody would go off the deep end, which Tom does, with true Violet flare.

When I started reading this book I immediately thought that the beginning did not bode well - the protagonist, Tom Violet, kept going on and on about his erectile disfunction in the most descriptive fashion and I just could not imagine reading a whole book of that. Tom did prove to be a funny guy with an off-beat sense of humor and a hilarious comeback for whatever life throws at him and ED soon stepped off the center stage so I kept reading. In no time at all Norman charmed me with all the characters in Tom's life - his beautiful and intelligent wife, his budding artist daughter, his excitable dog, his brilliant philandering father, his too-good-looking subordinate, his agent and even his mental mother-in-law. They are all so alive and so far from being cliché that it's impossible to remain indifferent especially since they all do something unexpected or funny on a regular basis and the story never gets boring.
While there is a lot of humor in this book it's not a literary romp. Things are never that simple in the Violet family and while their relationship with the truth has always been touch-and-go, as Tom himself admits, they make it work because they love each other. The value of family is up-front and center here and all the funny parts aside it's a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that is mainly about Tom's relationship with his father and it had me reeling on a number of occasions from Tom's actions and their consequences.
There's a lot of talk about books and writing in Domestic Violets, which makes sense considering that two of the characters are writers. The bookish atmosphere made this world a very comfortable place to be for me because books have always been an important part of my life and here's a full book worth of characters for whom reading is as natural and important as it is for me. And for those of us who write or want to write there's quite a bit of talk about writing itself with some interesting observations and some tips thrown in as a matter of course.
I am not at all a fan of profanity in books but in this one it works. It very naturally blends into the characters' speech and is in no way gratuitous so while I'm not changing my mind about it in general I'm not going to object to it too strongly in this particular case.
One of the things that were a bit off for me was the ending. It seemed long with a number of instances when the story could have ended right then and there and wouldn't have been any less satisfying. There was even that "the end" type finality to the paragraphs and yet Norman kept going, wrapping everything up neatly and giving us a promise of a happy future for the Violets despite all the difficulties. Then again, there's nothing wrong with that, is there?
This is a very good debut novel, well-written, funny but not slapstick, profane but not vulgar, sad but not depressing, and best of all when I turned the last page I was smiling. A word of caution: it is most definitely not appropriate for younger audiences.

ARC of this book received from the publisher, Harper Perennial via NetGalley. The book is now available in stores.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

World's Smallest Library

A little while ago I blogged about the largest library in the world, or should I say "libraries" because The British Library and the Library of Congress tied for the title. Today I decided to find out what the smallest library in the world is and guess what? The US and Great Britain tie again! In all fairness, had this idea occurred to me a month ago there wouldn't have even been a tie because the American contender didn't exist before the beginning of September and the concept is clearly borrowed from our friends across the Atlantic. But I should stop talking and introduce the winners:

Westbury Book Exchange is a traditional English telephone booth in the village of Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset, England that has been converted into a library and now houses over 100 books and music CDs. The villagers entered the idea into the British Telephone National competition and although they did not win the first prize they sure have received a lot of publicity since 2009 - their kiosk has been featured in many magazines, newspapers and blogs and BT even used a picture of it in their latest "Adopt a Kiosk" campaign brochure. The Book Exchange is free to use and anyone can take a book from the booth if they bring one to leave in its place. You can read more about the Westbury Book Exchange on the Westbury-sup-Mendip website.

About two years after the residents of Westbury came up with their idea for repurposing a telephone booth Claudia Cooley of Clinton Corners, NY opened The Book Booth in her town with the help of Clinton Community Library in an effort to better reach the community. The kiosk is now officially the smallest library in America, it is open 24/7, 365 days a year, is never locked, has its own Facebook page and has also gotten plenty of publicity in the short time that it's been open. Read more about it in this Huffington Post interview.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Review: The Secret In Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri

The Secret in Their EyesBenjamín Chaparro is a retired detective who is writing a book about a murder case he worked on years ago, and as he revisits the details of the investigation he also recalls the beginning of his long, unrequited love for Irene Hornos, then just an intern, now a respected judge. Set in the Buenos Aires of the late 1960s, Sacheri’s tale reveals the underpinnings of Argentina’s Dirty War and takes on the question of justice — what it really means and in whose hands it belongs.

Last week I got so excited about a fantasy series that I stayed up way too late to finish 3 books in a little over a week. By the time I finally remembered about the tendency of time to keep going no matter how engrossed we are in a story it was Sunday and I was nowhere near ready to write the review for The Secret In Their Eyes, especially since I had mixed feelings about the book. The mixed feelings persisted until the very end and in a way I feel like I've read two different books about the same characters. One is set in the present day and tells about a retired court employee struggling with writing a book and with his love for a woman he believes is out of his reach. The other is the actual book Chaparro is writing and it is set in the 60s and tells about Chaparro's investigation into the rape and murder of a young woman and how it ties people together for decades and affects the course of their lives. The past and present alternated and I really enjoyed the "past" parts. The voice was direct and strong, although not invulnerable, the events unfolded at a good pace and I really liked the characters, sympathized with them and hoped they would succeed. The present was more difficult. Half the time it read like a stream-of-consciousness rant about how much Chaparro is in love with Irene and how he can't live without thinking about her all the time. These parts were much less enjoyable, to me they were in the way of the real story and it was tiring reading about Benjamin's lovesickness over and over, how he couldn't sleep for days after every meeting with Irene, remembering the way she smiled and looked at him and smelled. It was more like reading about a teenager living through his first crush than about a 60-year-old man and whenever these chapters started I wished the author would go back to telling us about the investigation.
If someone asked me to quickly name one thing that sets the writing of this book apart from the others I've read this year I'd say it's the vocabulary. There were more SAT words in this one novel than I recall seeing in all the rest of them combined and the best part is that it felt natural, like that's just the way the author talks and it was thrilling to read a book where words you don't see every day, let alone use, don't feel forced. The sentence structure and the way the sentences fit together was unusual, I'm just not sure whether that's because the novel is translated or that's the way it was meant to be. It took some getting used to but eventually it became charming in a way and I almost stopped noticing it.
Reading The Secrets In Their Eyes made me think about justice. There are so many crime TV shows these days and at the end of almost every episode the guilty get what they deserve but here things aren't so simple and I keep thinking about how more often than not the scum of the earth keep going, adding one wrongdoing after another to the scorecard they feel no remorse about while the honest and the righteous suffer at their hands, make sacrifices to ensure that the guilty get punished and even then there are no guarantees that it'll actually happen. I guess that's the reason we have the superheroes and the TV shows - we want justice to prevail and for the good guys to come out on top. And here they do. Eventually.

P. S. In 2010 a movie by the same name won an Oscar as the best foreign film and in case you've seen it and are wondering whether it would spoil the story for you I can say that both yes and no. The general direction of the plot is the same but the film-makers took quite a few liberties with the story so regardless of whether you watch the movie after reading the book or the other way around there are still plenty of surprises.

The ARC of this book was received from the publisher, Other Press, through NetGalley.
The novel is scheduled for release on 10/18/2011.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Versatile Blogger Award

Today I was supposed to review The Secret In Their Eyes but unfortunately time somehow shrank itself and I wasn't able to finish it in time. Fortunately there is something great I'd like to share with you:

This week I received the Versatile Blogger Award from the lovely Barbara Fisher at March House Books Blog. Thank you Barbara, it is absolutely amazing to be in such wonderful company. Please check out Barbara's blog at March House Books Blog.

By accepting the award I agree to:
1. Thank and link to the person who nominated me.
2. Share seven random facts about myself.
3. Pass the award on to five blogger friends.
4. Contact and Congratulate the nominated blogs.

So, seven random facts.... Ok, here goes:
1. For about 5 of my early teen years my favorite book series was about the adventures of Angelique by Anne Golon (here known as Sergeanne Golon). Whenever I would share a factoid obviously not learned at school dad would smile and say that Angelique was a very educational series. I think that was one of the few reasons they let me to keep reading it.
2. In addition to English I speak Russian and Ukrainian fluently.
3. I keep telling myself that "this year I will most certainly run a 5K" and then never do. Laziness and books emerge victorious time and time again.
4. I love pasta and baked goods of any kind.
5. I am an african violet enthusiast.
6. For about a year after we got married my husband continued to work on communication towers and I traveled with him.
7. I'm already working on a list of books I'd like to read next year and have to constantly remind myself to leave some room for the wonderful unexpected finds and recommendations that are sure to come.

And here are the 5 blogger friends I'd like to pass this award to, in no particular order (drumroll please!):

Watts in a Word - Ali reads books in a variety of genres and her blog is great for ideas when you're looking for something other than what's been reviewed by a lot of people already.
Have You Read... - Linda's reviews are brief but informative and always fun. She also includes her favorite quote and tidbits such as other books in the series or a link to the author's page.
A Book A Day - Mary reads and blogs mainly about YA books and includes an age group recommendation in her reviews.
Reader's Dialogue - Esther reads both general and genre fiction and her reviews are always interesting and thoughtful.
Kindle in Hong Kong - Shannon blogs about her life in Hong Kong and the books she reads while there. Reading her posts is like taking a road trip to the other side of the world.

Give these wonderful and fun blogs some love! Hope you enjoy them as much as I do.