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!