Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

The Dante ClubIt is 1865 and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow works on finishing his translation of Dante Alleghieri's Divine Comedy with the help of four of his friends, some of New Endland's brightest literary stars, when Boston becomes the scene of the most gruesome murders they've ever heard of. The police are baffled and only the members of the Dante Club know that the killer has taken a few pages out of the Divine Comedy itself and it is up to them to stop him.

"John Kurtz, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids." This is the first sentence of this book and it gives us a glimpse into the style of Matthew Pearl's writing. It's clever and witty but not simplistic and at a time when majority of books are written in such a conversational language it's a pleasant change of pace. It also fits the period and serves to create the atmosphere of the formality common in the higher levels of the 19th century society even in familiar company. And what a company it is! Longfellow, Holmes and Lowell were the rock stars of their time and yet Pearl paints such intimate and vivid portraits of them that by the time I turned the last page I felt like I knew them and their doting families. Of course this wasn't accidental - the author perused the poets' personal archives as part of his research for the novel. It still is delightful to see historical figures come to life the way they do here.
With amateurs acting as investigators it would be easy to categorize the book as a cozy mystery but I would say it falls somewhere between that and a hold-on-to-your-seat thriller, thanks to the fast pace and the gruesomeness of the murders, which are described in rather graphic detail. Of course this is 19th century poets being detectives so they were more horrified than majority of us readers would be, what with TV being what it is nowadays.
I appreciated that Mr. Pearl included some information on the plot and characters of Inferno as part of the story - I haven't read Dante yet and this saved me from having to put down the book to look things up online or wonder whether I've possibly missed something. It may seem a bit odd that Longfellow would need to explain what happened in the poem and why to his colleagues, all Dante efficionados, but it kept me reading so I'm not complaining.
What also kept me reading is the elusiveness of the killer's identity. I like to guess who the culprit is as more clues are revealed and here there were plenty of candidates yet the real murder managed to hide in plain sight until the very end. Bonus points to Mr. Pearl for keeping up the suspense.
This books is not just about Dante and murder though, it is also about the effects of war. The events take place after the Civil War and the effect it has on the American people as a whole and the separate individuals is very similar to what is happening in our country now with the veterans of the war in the Middle East coming home scarred for life, them and their families dealing with the consequences of their experiences every day. The gravity of this subject creates a stark contrast with the rest of the story. Granted, there are the horrors of the murders but the fact that it goes much deeper than the effects of literature on an unstable mind I think is as much a startling revelation for Holmes and the rest as it was for me, the reader. It helps demonstrate just how little their daily lives as litterateurs prepared them for the realities of life outside of their gloved circle, the realities of hunting a killer.
I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction who appreciate a suspenseful mystery, intelligent storytelling, compelling characters and a villain you can't believe you missed.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Review: N or M? by Agatha Christie

N or M?The quaint seaside town is the hiding place for the two most dangerous spies the Germans have working on their side. The crux of the matter is that these spies are most likely English and the English officials on all levels of the government who are sympathetic to the Nazi cause make investigation impossible. Intelligence brings in two perfect outsiders, Tommy and Tuppence, and tasks them with discovering who these spies are while working undercover. They are former intelligence agents who are not quite ready to retire and behind their positively ordinary appearance they are the perfect people to take down England's main threat.

I laughed at the loving condescension of the middle-aged sleuths' children for their parents. They think they're so important in their jobs and don't even suspect that their parents do more than knit and play golf to occupy their time. I admired the wits and the guts of the two patriots ready to sacrifice themselves for their country. I marveled at the dedication they displayed to each other, the affection and the partnership in everything their relationship is based on. I suspected everyone and in the end the bad guys were those I didn't even think to suspect. Hope you do better :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jules Verne and Captain Nemo

Jules Verne enfant       Capitaine Nemo Nantes 2

The statues of Jules Verne as a child and Captain Nemo by Elisabeth Cibot were unveiled on 18 December 2005 on the Butte Sainte-Anne near the Jules Verne Museum in Nantes, France. (Source)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Review: All You Need to Be Impossibly French by Helena Frith Powell

All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French WomenI really liked this little volume. It's written by an English lady who moves to France with her husband and children and sets out to find out what makes the French women so chic. She seeks opinions of men and women from both sides of the English Channel on the subjects of style, diet, fitness, lingerie, friends, plastic surgery, children, role models culture and even affairs and relays her finds in an amusing way that left me chuckling on a number of occasions.
This is a good read for those of us who are asking the same question the author did when she began her quest and who want to develop some of the same allure in ourselves. Some of the traits weren't all that flattering but just like Ms. Frith-Powell we don't have to adopt them all, just the ones we like.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Sleepless by Cyn Balog

SleeplessWe all have a Sandman who helps us go to sleep. Eron is Julia's Sandman and he is in love with her. He can't wait for his contract to run out so that he could try to become a part of Julia's life but there's a complication: Griffin, Julia's boyfriend, is Eron's replacement and he has no intention of letting go.

I read the ARC of this book so don't know what will end up hitting the shelves but based on my copy I can say that it's a nice read.
I really liked the idea of a Sandman falling in love with one of his charges and breaking rules to protect her. I am generally a fan of incorporating folklore into contemporary fiction and building stories around it so here Ms. Balog did well as far as I'm concerned. What I was much less fond of is how from a perfectly satisfying middle of the book where the story developed at a good pace we jumped to the conclusion that felt cut short and rushed and where the main trouble-maker acted completely out of character. I literally turned the last page and wondered "What? That's it? Aren't there supposed to be more chapters?"
The characters are interesting, each with their own voice, and you can see how they change and develop over the course of the story. It would have been great to learn more about them. With the book being as short as it is I feel we've been given a glimpse but there's more to know about every one of them and since I think Ms. Balog does a good job with her characters I bet it would've only made the story better.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

aka "A Young Girl Reading"
ca. 1770-1772
Oil on Canvas
82×65 cm (32.28" × 25.59")
Current location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review: Rage by Jackie Kessler

Rage (Horsemen of the Apocalypse, #2)When Melissa Miller can't breathe she takes a razor to her skin and bleeds the pain away. She is only 16 but already her body is covered in scars. One day a delivery man comes to the door and offers her a package. Should she open it when on the brink of death she will accept the office of one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse - War.

My own high school experience was so incredibly uneventful that I had no idea it could be such a traumatic time and while I have heard of self-harming before it was always something that happened to someone else somewhere far away. Jackie Kessler made it real in such a way that by the time I was halfway through I've already decided to look up other books by Jackie Kessler, especially the first one in the Horsemen of the Apocalypse series. Fortunately, if Rage is any indication, while the books are connected by who the protagonists become it is not necessary to read them in order.
Melissa is easy to sympathize with, in part because the world in her head is so dark and disturbing - half the time I just wanted to hug her to reassure her that she wasn't alone. She is intelligent and funny and has a sharp tongue but she is also very hurt and lonely. The extent to which the other characters are developed is in direct correlation with how important and influential they are in Missy's life. Those who matter are vivid, those she sees as little more than scenery are barely fleshed out. I suppose it is a common way to view the world for a teenager and with Missy talking about the things that happen but not explaining them the story reads rather like a diary, which made for much more intimate storytelling.
Another thing I found appealing is how non-preachy this book is. One would almost expect one of the characters to begin pontificating at some point and here there's none of that. It's actually very good fun despite the dark subject matter. And how could it not be fun when the Grim Reaper himself looks like Kurt Cobain, plays guitar and says things like "rock on"?
I really liked the ending because there wasn't closure like there is in majority of books. Life goes on and Missy has to take every day one breath at a time, just like the rest of us do. There's no real closure until you actually die and it's the same for everybody - you, me, Missy and War.
If you are a teen or getting there or have a person of that age in your life I recommend that you read this book. I'd like to think that it may help recognize the signs of self-harming in others, find the courage to get help or the strength to put down the blade for good.

ARC of this book obtained from

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Host (The Host, #1)Wanderer, a being who's lived several lifetimes on many planets in many hosts, is given a new body on planet Earth: Melanie, one of the few remaining humans who don't have a "soul" implanted in them. Wanderer is determined to take control of Melanie's being and find out everything she can about the human resistance, but does she have what it takes to stay immune to humanity?

I really enjoyed this book, it was an interesting take on making our lives our own, regardless of the circumstances we're born into. In a way it was like Ms. Meyer's Twilight series - the main character finds that the one place where she truly belongs is among those who her kind believe to be the enemy, but it was also much more mature and wider-ranging in that it examined society as well as the individual, preconceived beliefs and that people can change drastically if only they'll open their minds to new ideas and allow themselves to see things for what they are.
I'm a big fan of the Twilight books but will readily admit that I prefer the writing and the voice of The Host. Not sure whether the reason for the difference is that the subject matter as well as the characters is adult or that the author has gotten more experienced and knew what she wanted to do with this story but the result is that the novel feels much more solid without sacrificing the page-turner quality I've become accustomed to in the Meyer books.
I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys science fiction with strong characters who are not afraid of change. Don't let the name of the author prevent you from reading this book, it's very different and in a good way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Project Gutenberg

Confession time: I have an e-reader. It's a Barnes & Noble nook and it's my favorite gadget ever. What can I say, I love books in all shapes, sizes and formats and this little device shrinks my entire personal library to the size of a trade paperback. What's even better, it allows me to get books that are in the public domain for free and read them comfortably in my chair instead of staring at the computer screen. I only have to download the book from the internet and load it onto the nook.
"But where do I get these free public domain books?" you wonder. Glad you asked. When the B&N library doesn't have the e-book I want Project Gutenberg is my destination of choice. They have 33 thousand (!) books available for download to be read on all kinds of devices from Kindle to iPad to Android to iPhone and a lot of them are illustrated editions. Now how cool is that? And since in most cases books become part of the public domain 50-70 years after the death of the author anything that's considered a "classic" is out there for all of us to enjoy. For some titles they even have audiobooks and versions in the language of the original if the book was written in a language other than English. So here's the link, check them out:
Go To Project Gutenberg

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Review: The Art and Power of Being a Lady

The Art and Power of Being a LadyThis book is not your traditional guide on how to write thank you notes and arrange flowers and that alone makes it a pleasant surprise. This little volume is grounded in the modern day-to-day life and talks about how to not only be a gracious hostess but also a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman who knows how to change the spark-plugs on her car. I'll recommend this book to anyone who's interested in reading about what it takes to be a lady in today's world.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Review: The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

The Queen's FoolHannah Green is no ordinary 14 year old. She and her father are Jews escaping from the Spanish Inquisition and looking for a better life in England and she has the gift of Sight, which allows her to predict the future. A chance encounter with Robert Dudley, a noble at the court of King Edward, takes her from her father's humble print shop to the royal palace where she becomes the Holy Fool, a trusted companion of the Tudor queen and a spy for the Dudleys. Torn between her obligations at court and her family and heritage Hannah will become a woman like no other in the tumultuous years when the Tudor offspring fought for the throne.

This is the second book I've read by Philippa Gregory and the first one was so long ago that I've all but forgotten how enjoyable her books are. So enjoyable, in fact, that I didn't want this story to end and stretched out reading it as much as I could.
There is a very clear evolution of the main character from a girl who is afraid of her own shadow into a young woman who knows her own mind and can act decisively on a moment's notice. Hannah's fear of being discovered for who she really was at a time when being a Jew was most dangerous is almost palpable. The circumstances have made her into a habitual liar and it is easy to understand the cynicism of this young girl - she's seen the wind change so many times that she very clearly understand that more often than not what the right answer is depends on who is asking the questions and she has grown bitter at her heritage for preventing her from having a peaceful life. It was heartening however to see her lose neither the sight of who she was nor her appreciation of the people around her for what they brought to the table as her fear became less paralyzing.
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction so much is that it gives us a glimpse of what happened decades and centuries before our time in a voice very different from the dull monotone of history books. If the author has done her homework and unless she takes serious liberties with the course of history we get a very good ideas of the events that took place and the people involved. Gregory's mastery is revealed in the fact that I trust every word she writes. I can't help but believe that Mary, Elizabeth, the Dudleys, the Carpenters and the rest really were exactly the way Gregory portrays them and that it couldn't be any other way. It was also very interesting to gain the insight into not only the English court but also the clandestine Jewish community of XVI century Europe. Persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants, forced to hide who they were no matter where they went but not giving up on their heritage and their faith these people showed true courage and resilience in the face of the threat of death at every turn.
There were only two things that I didn't like about the book. One has to do with the plot and to stay true to my "no spoilers" policy I won't go into details. I will only say that what happened seemed unfair and that there was a double standard when actions of characters were evaluated. Another has to do with character development, so here I will elaborate. At one point Hannah talks about how the cattiness at court prepared her to deal with the relationships outside of it and the problem was that we didn't see any of her interaction with any courtiers besides the Dudleys and Will Sommers, the other royal Fool, and there was no animosity there. As soon as I read this little bit I knew that there was no support for it anywhere else in the narrative and while it made sense that courtiers competing for position were no angels it still jarred me out of the story.
These two things are by no means deal breakers and The Queen's Fool put Philippa Gregory on my list of authors to follow and I would recommend her books without reservation to any fan of historical fiction or anyone who wants to "test-drive" the genre.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It's almost here!

For the Special Feature Wednesday I want to share something extra special with you. Maggie Stiefvater's Forever is coming out this summer. Whenever I think about it I can hardly sit still because this will be the last installment of the trilogy and we'll get to find out whether Grace and Sam end up together after all as well as a lot of other things that could go either way and I just want to know what happens next!!! So, in anticipation of the release Maggie shared a book trailer and I want to spread the joy and share it with you. So here goes:

There's also a version with Maggie playing the theme song on the piano but I like this one because the song has a special place in the story.
And because I know that you're already very excited head on over to Fountain Book Store and pre-order your copy. Or order all three books. If you haven't read Shiver and Linger I think you should.
Oh, and if you like the song get yourself a copy here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Review: Mrs. McGinty's Dead by Agatha Christie

Mrs. McGinty's Dead: A Hercule Poirot Mystery  An elderly woman is found murdered in her home. Her lodger, an unpleasant young man, if convicted of the crime, but the police officer in charge of the investigation believes he is innocent and recruits Ercule Poirot to prove that the convicted man is innocent.

Agatha Christie always surprises me when it comes to the identity of the criminal and this time is no exception, which is why I come back to her works again and again. I suspected everyone but the real villain and while many of the characters I pegged as untrustworthy were in fact hiding something (some even concealing secrets related to the case) none of them turned out to be guilty. I particularly enjoyed the characters in this story - the apple-eating authoress, the disheveled hostess, the clingy mother who isn't as weak as she'd like everyone to believe, a publicity-conscious politician, an impoverished nobleman turned farmer, a wealthy heiress who acts like she's the maid... Even if you can't be bothered to keep all the names straight you will know exactly who's who.
One of the themes of this novel is revealed in the alternative title - Blood Will Tell. The notion that character traits are hereditary comes up in conversation and the murder, when discovered, exclaims "I can't help it! It's in my blood!". While there is a reason the saying "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" exists I don't subscribe to the idea that one's predecessors' flaws as well as their strengths are irrevocably a part of one's character and feel that Christie didn't either.