Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review: Julie and Julia by Julie Powell

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking DangerouslyApproaching 30 and stuck in a dead-end job Julie Powell decides to reclaim her life by cooking every recipe in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. In the end she finds something she didn't expect - joy and her way in the world.

When trailers for Julie & Julia the movie started to show up on TV I decided I wanted to see it. Meryl Streep is one of the best actresses out there and Amy Adams is just adorable so I figured I'd enjoy the story and them in it. Then a friend of mine told me she bought the book the movie is based on and offered to let me borrow it when she was done with it. Of course I couldn't pass that up and when it was my turn to read about Julie Powell's adventures I dove right in.
Julie's writing style is very conversational and that made it an easy and quick read. It was fun to read about a modern American woman cook things that usually don't even register on the radar of dinner possibilities and it was no less fun to see her navigate the changing landscape of her life when she became a local and later a national celebrity. So I just kept turning the pages well into the night.
Julie herself struck me as a spunky young woman, albeit a bit unhappy about her stagnant life and quite unpardonably whiny and selfish on a number of occasions. Sometimes I though to myself "Really, woman?!" but I loved the humor with which she described both her successes and her failures, and the part where she talked about the comments on her blog resonated with me, as I think it did with most if not all bloggers who read the book - it is extremely exciting to get comments from people you don't already know. I loved how her husband and friends supported her through the highs and lows of this sometimes stressful endeavor and merrily consumed the fruits of her labors. It was also a lot of fun to see how Julia Child inspired Julie to continue with the project and Julie's tribute to Julia at the end of the year made me laugh out loud. It was just too perfect.
I very much enjoyed the book in its entirety but my very favorite part of it was this quote: "Julia taught me what it takes to find your way in the world. It's not what I thought it was. I thought it was all about — I don't know, confidence or will or luck. Those are all some good things to have, no question. But there's something else, something that these things grow out of. It's joy." This book was pretty much a fun romp and had it not been for this little paragraph I wouldn't have given it another serious thought but after I read it Julie's story gained a little more heft and made me look back at it and life in general from a different angle. It made me want to go and do things "just because" because we all need more joy in our lives, don't we? Can't hurt, that's for sure.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review: Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

Bitter is the New Black : Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment OfficeJen Lancaster was a successful executive living the privileged life and confident that she had it made until she got fired and in the blink of an eye the unemployment check was all she had to live on. This is the story of a fairy tale being replaced with real life and a woman who goes through dramatic changes before she can get her head above water again.

When a co-worker recommended this book to me she described it as very funny and I expected something along the lines of Erma Bombeck - a light and funny take on serious things from beginning till end. Bitter... wasn't quite like that. Oh it was funny. Uproariously so. Sometimes I laughed till I cried and read passages out to anyone who would listen. I loved Jen's wit and could imagine every person or situation she described in few but always on-target words that cut to the essence of the episode.
But it wasn't always light. It's easy to understand why - being laid off and living on unemployment is scary. Being qualified and unable to find work is infuriating. Trying again and again and failing every time can make one bitter and it is at that time that Jen's incisive humor became mean, merciless and sometimes vulgar and with that it wasn't so funny any more. All that vitriol bothered me in the second half of the book and I was relieved when things started turning around for Jen and I could see the lighter side of her coming out again. It wasn't the same though - I've already seen the dark side.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Joe and Rika Mansueto Library

You're witnessing Bibliophile's Corner history in the making: this is my first ever late post. Had every intention of writing it, even drafted a portion, and then life happened and blogging had to be postponed. Thankfully all is well again and I'm eager to get back on schedule.

If you're wondering what in the world this picture has to do with libraries I'll tell you - it's the brand new book storage facility at the University of Chicago Joe and Rika Mansueto Library. All we hear these days is about libraries not being used, having their funding cut, closing or planning at least a partial conversion to e-books and electronic reference systems and here is a beautiful and heartening example of printed books not being discarded in favor of eInk displays but rather made even more easily accessible. At Mansueto up to 3.5 million volumes can be stored in bins in an underground vault of sorts with a 50 foot crane moving on tracks to retrieve the bin containing the book requested through an online system and deliver it to the ground level where the librarian will take out the needed volume and send the bin back to its designated spot in the vault. When the book is returned the librarian scans it into the system and the process repeats in reverse.
If you're wondering whether this really is more efficient than storing books in stacks we see in traditional libraries the answer is Yes. This storage system uses only 1/7 of the space that would've been taken up by stacks holding the same number of volumes and the whole retrieval process takes about 5 minutes (although the request system does indicate that the wait is 15 minutes I think they're erring on the side of caution there).
I love to see technology and old-fashioned learning coming together the way they do here and it was heartening to find out as I was reading up on this new library that Mansueto is not the only one where a high-density storage system such as this is used. It is the only one however with the book vault completely underground and as far as I understand it is the only one that utilizes the automatic storage and retrieval system the way they do.
If you're interested in learning more about this library visit its website here: They have pictures, statistical data and information about the people who made this innovative library possible with their generous donation. There's even a great video showing the ASRS in action. Check it out!

Monday, July 25, 2011

And the winner is....

Thank you so much to everybody who entered the giveaway! Our lucky winner is *drumroll* LAMusing! Congratulations, my copy of The Illuminator is yours! I will e-mail to get your mailing address in a bit. Have a great Monday, everybody!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at StylesA wealthy widow is murdered at an estate in England and her step-sons and new husband are at the same time suspects and possible beneficiaries of her will. It is up to the Belgian detective Ercule Poirot to not only determine who the murderer is but also how he managed to kill a woman in a room locked from the inside. This just might be the case he won't be able to crack.

The first time I read The Mysterious Affair At Styles... Well, I can't even remember the first time I read it so recently decided to re-read the book that was the beginning of Agatha Christie's wonderful career. It has a great reputation and it was probably completely amazing for its time (otherwise it wouldn't have been as successful as it was) but to me it was little more than Agatha Christie starting out, testing her pen, coming into her own. The writing isn't as precise and engaging and Poirot is more exuberance than method but this mystery already has the elements I've come to expect from her work: the detective's presence is more serendipity than anything else, there's a rather large cast of characters and if you dig deep enough every one of them has a motive but none of them actually had the opportunity to commit the crime (not at first glance anyway), and the culprit is not at all the person you've suspected.
As different as Poirot may have been in this book from his later appearances he was ultimately my favorite part of this story. Because of his lack of reserve in his interactions with the English, his status of a refugee, even how stumped he was as for the identity of the murderer made him much more endearing than when he gradually transformed into an infallible force of intellect who always keeps his cards to his chest in the later books. I also liked his role in the human element of this story when he attended to the personal lives of some of the characters as a side project during his investigation. What can I say, the man cared and I like seeing that in fiction!
All in all this is a good debut novel and although because of the writing I can't give it more than a 3 I believe that if one decides to read all of Christie's novels the way I have one might as well start at the beginning and watch the master perfect her craft.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller

The Bridges of Madison CountyWhen Francesca's husband and children leave for the county fair she looks forward to a quiet weekend alone but when a stranger stops at her house to ask for direction she finds love she didn't even hope for.

This is a wonderful novel about love and sacrifice and it was one of my most memorable reads of 2009. It's incredible really how such a small book can hold a story as deep as this with characters as real as these. There aren't grand adventures but the fact that it's set on a quaint farm makes it only better because it allows us to focus on the characters who deserve our full attention.
Let me tell you what was the first thing I did after I finished reading this book. I went straight to my computer and typed "Robert Kinkaid National Geographic" into my browser search window. I knew that Francesca was too obscure to yield any results but believed that he could be found and hoped to see a picture of a rugged man with eyes attentive to the beauty of the world around him, perhaps holding his camera. I cannot describe to you how disappointed I was when the only mention of Robert Kinkaid I could find was in relation to the book. I wished for him and Francesca to really exist because love such as theirs had to exist. And then I realized that of course they are real, that the fact that there isn't an actual Robert or Francesca somewhere doesn't mean that there aren't people just like them who love and make decisions that affect their lives forever.
The story unfolded as unhurriedly as only a hot weekend can and at the same time there was an urgency about it that comes from knowing that soon the perfect uninterrupted time they had together would be over and they would have to make a choice. I still remember that pivotal scene and can almost see it whenever I think about it. Robert isn't a knight in shining armor come to save the day, he's just a man in love with a woman who realizes that she is the only one for him but he has to let her make the decision for both of them. And Francesca isn't the badass heroine we're used to seeing nowadays who makes history or challenges convention but she is a woman who made an incredibly difficult decision and lived with it for the rest of her life. This book isn't really about "what happens", it's about the people.
If you're looking for a book with lots of action and epic heroes out to save the world this book isn't for you. It is for a reader who is looking for a story with quiet strength and characters who find that once-in-a-lifetime thing we all hope for and know that just like life it isn't perfect.

N. B. The giveaway for your choice of one of three great books is still running! Check it out here

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

William Shakespeare, should I read your plays?

Growing up I didn't like Shakespeare much. Poetry in a difficult to understand language was just not very appealing and the fact that Romeo & Juliet was part of the school program did little to entice me to read it. As I grew older however and read quotes of Shakespeare's sonnets and plays in various books and articles they made sense and the language didn't seem so odd or difficult any more and I even began considering reading his works.
A while back while at a second-hand shop I glimpsed a stout volume with a cover embossed in gold. Complete Works of William Shakespeare it said. It was so beautiful and the price was so right that I bought it and lugged it home. It's still sitting on my book shelf but after leafing through Interred With Their Bones the other day after announcing the giveaway I started thinking about Shakespeare again. May be I'll start slow, with the sonnets. Who knows, I might even like them.
Central Park is the perfect place to go if you're looking for open air and some impressive artwork. This particular statue was commissioned in 1864 as a celebration of the tricentenary of Shakespeare's birth in 1564. Funds were raised by a performance of Julius Caesar where Edwin Booth took the lead role, with John Wilkes Booth playing Mark Antony. The statue was designed by John Quincy Adams Ward. (Source)

Monday, July 18, 2011

First ever GIVEAWAY!

I've participated in giveaways before but have never hosted one until now so this is very exciting.
There are three books I want to offer you:


I reviewed The Illuminator yesterday and the other two books earlier this year and all three are great reads in different ways.
The giveaway is open for US residents and all you need to do to participate is leave a comment here telling me which book you'd like to receive if you win. Every comment gets one entry. If you are a follower just let me know under what name/user name you're following and you'll get an extra entry. The winner will be determined by the nifty little feature on It's that simple! Sunday, July 24 is the last day to enter and I'll announce the winner on Monday, July 25th. Good luck!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: The Illuminator by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

The IlluminatorRecently widowed Lady Kathryn is struggling with paying the king’s taxes and the church's tithes and keeping her estate from going to ruin so when the local abbot asks her to take on a lodger and his daughter she welcomes the chance to gain a protector and some extra coin to add to her purse. The lodger is Finn the Illuminator, a master craftsman employed by the church to work on the approved texts and appears to be a safe addition to the household.  But all is not as it seems – Finn’s secret project is the forbidden English translation of the Bible and this work can cost him and anyone who knows about it their heads. Things become even more complicated when the body of a murdered monk is found and when suspicion falls on one of her household Kathryn must decide who to protect.

Freedom is the main theme here and the author explores it from a number of different angles. There’s the freedom of reading the Bible in your own language and worshiping without the need for a priest. There’s the freedom of writing our thoughts down in whatever language we please regardless of the subject of our writings. There’s the freedom to be a woman without a man by her side and not have everyone she encounters try to take advantage of her just because she is a woman and as a result isn’t able to stand up for herself properly. There’s the freedom to marry whoever we choose and their social standing and religion having no bearing on the situation. How easily we take these things for granted and don’t even pause to consider when we open our New World Translation of the Scripture that there was a time when people could lose their lives for having such a volume in their possession.
A variation on the theme is the power of ideas with freedom at their core. Finn is a simple man, he isn’t wealthy or famous and he isn’t trying to change anyone’s thinking but inevitably he does. By living his life according to his beliefs and speaking about them he affects the way several people see the world and gives the gentle push they didn’t even know they needed to begin living without, or despite, fear of the consequences just because they believe in their vision of what is right and wrong.
I really enjoyed the characters here, sometimes the secondary ones even more than the protagonists. Half-Tom, Magda and Agnes are just too lifelike and colorful to ignore and they give some extra spice to the story and allow for the nobility to reveal sides of their characters that otherwise would have stayed hidden. Kathryn was my favorite character of them all because of how strong and selfless she is and because when trapped between a rock and a hard place she finds a way to ensure freedom for herself and those she loves. Hers was a rather ingenious solution and I can’t help but admire her for it.
This book is perfect for a rainy weekend when there’s not much to do other than curl up with a thoroughly good story and enjoy the unhurried pace and the interesting characters. I must admit that the first half of the book was a bit too sluggish for my taste, I like there to be more excitement, more “adventure” so to speak, but since the second half fully made up for that with unexpected and sometimes shocking developments and a general escalation of pace all is forgiven and I look forward to reading other books by Ms. Vantrease.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Review: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater

Forever (The Wolves of Mercy Falls, #3)Sam is firmly in his human skin and Grace can stay neither wolf nor girl for very long. Summer is almost here though and soon they’ll be together again. Too bad Isabel’s father is planning a hunt to kill all the wolves in the area and the police are beginning to investigate Sam for the disappearances of Grace and Olivia. And what will happen to the pack if Culpepper does manage to bring in sharpshooters on a helicopter, will they all die?

Forever is the last installment in the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy and what a finale it is! If you haven’t read Shiver and Linger I suggest you read them first and then you’ll be able to fully appreciate Forever.
Since there’s next to nothing that I don’t absolutely love about these books I’ll just say what makes me a fan. First off there’s the narrative voice. There are four protagonists and every one of them has a voice so distinctive that even without the chapter headings stating whose chapter it is I would’ve been able to easily identify the narrator. Sam and Grace’s chapters are like talking to your best friends who you’ve known for years. These two are calm and steady even when they are indecisive or are going through a particularly hard time. Isabel and Cole’s chapters are full of witty humor, raw feeling and the sensation of being on the edge and I literally laugh out loud when I read them.
I like books that flow at a good pace without moving into breakneck territory and here the author achieved the perfect balance with shorter chapters, moderate use of description and alternating thoughtful introspection with snappy dialogue. It also helped that there wasn’t a lot of leading into a scene. It was more like the literary equivalent of “hit the ground running” – the narrator changes and things are already in the middle of happening.
Any reader of YA is familiar with the archetypal completely oblivious if not completely absent parents. The teens grow up and go through all sorts of things with the parents vaguely somewhere in the background, included only because you can’t really have children living by themselves with no adult supervision. It would be too unrealistic even for fantasy. That is why it was very refreshing to see Maggie Stiefvater buck the trend with her parent characters. They’re all very much there and the level of their involvement actually has an effect on the kids. There’s Isabel who doesn’t speed fearing the parental wrath; there’s Sam, conflicted about his adoptive father but cherishing the time they had together; there’s Grace, scarred by the indifference of parents who only remember that their daughter is a minor when she decides to have a life where she actually matters; there’s Cole, trying so hard to not be like his father but not managing to escape the similarities. None of the relationships are simple but they are there and it was good to read the parent-child scenes that didn’t feel like protagonists were talking at cardboard cutouts.
There are plenty of readers who want their fiction to wrap everything up tidily and present the ending with a pretty bow on top and a “happily ever after” in the post script. I’m not one of those readers. Life is messy and rarely perfect and I enjoy reading a book where not everything works out and not every single question is answered every single time. I like seeing how characters deal with the unpleasant bits and believe that it allows us to discover things not only about them but about ourselves as well. That’s why I was very satisfied with the ending of this series. There are things that are not definitively one way or another and not everything is explained but there’s hope for the protagonists to have lasting happiness. They are on the right track, they’ve got each other’s backs and I turned the last page with a firm belief that all will be well in Mercy Falls.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Novel Reader by Vincent Van Gogh

Oil on canvas
c. November 1888, Arles
73.0 cm x 92.0 cm (28.74 in x 36.22 in)

This painting is part of a group of works Van Gogh made for or about his family members and is thought to be of his sister, Wilhelmien. It is currently part of a private collection.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review: The Night Huntress Series by Jeaniene Frost

Destined for an Early Grave (Night Huntress, #4)Cat Crawfield is a half-vampire who as a girl set out to find and kill her father and as many other blood-suckers as she could while she was at it. He ruined her mother's life after all. One night she herself is captured by a very handsome vampire Bones, a bounty hunter, who for some reason doesn't kill her but instead agrees to train her to be truly deadly. Their partnership proves to be more than a mutually-beneficial collaboration and soon Cat and Bones are a force to be reckoned with, which is a very good thing because new enemies keep coming, each more dangerous than the last.

There are currently six books in the series but I've only read the first four: Halfway to the Grave, One Foot in the Grave, At Grave's End and Destined for an Early Grave. The last two are already wish-listed and I look forward to getting my hands on them, if for no other reason than that they are a lot of fun to read. They are side-splittingly funny, the pacing is excellent and if there's any way Jeaniene Frost could share how in the world she gets this many ideas I would be forever in her debt. I got these from a relative and spent a week in the company of Cat, Bones and the rest of the gang, following their adventures, laughing at the endless humor and blushing at all the non-PG13 action. Yes, it was blush-worthy, some of it so much so that I would not recommend these books to a younger audience.
The books follow the relationship of Cat and Bones as much as they do the developments in the clandestine paranormal underworld. There are vampires, ghouls, ghosts and who knows what else and every faction has a complex hierarchy and laws and feud constantly. In the middle of it all our two protagonists find each other, fall in love, get separated, find each other again, save each other's lives, have a bit of trouble and finally get married according to the traditions of vampire society. (I'm not telling you anything you wouldn't find out from the synopses so as far as spoilers go this doesn't count). Every installment has a theme, such as Cat becoming the Huntress in the full sense of the word, her making the choice to be with Bones and owning her nature and everything it brings, stepping up and defending her choice to her family and co-workers. Those are all good things to have at the core of a book but for me #4 had the most substance because it wasn't just personal issues that the characters had to deal with. There was also a social issue that a lot of people in the real world have to deal with as well - abuse in a relationship and at the end of the book when that chapter of Cat's past was firmly behind them both she and Bones were a lot more than what they started out as. I think that if this book was just as essentially fluffy as the first three I wouldn't have wish-listed the sequels and instead would've just picked them up if I happened upon them. This last installment showed me that Ms. Frost is capable of more than just witty banter and action sequences and I look forward to the next books.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Review: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, #2)While in Paris for a conference Robert Langdon, the famed expert on symbology, becomes the prime suspect in the investigation into the death of the curator of Louvre. With the help of Sophie Neveu, the curator's estranged grand-daughter, Langdon must uncover the mystery of the Holy Grail and find the killer terrorizing an ancient secret society.

I remember a time when this book was the absolute talk of the town and I wondered what was so revolutionary about it that it had people split into camps either rejecting or embracing its ideas. I haven't even heard of Dan Brown back then and only became interested enough in his work to wishlist the book on PaperBackSwap after watching the movie by the same name with Tom Hanks playing Robert Langdon. When it arrived it was no mere mass market paperback. It was an illustrated special edition hardcover with glossy pages and color pictures of the things and places described in the book. It was fascinating. It was like reading a history book that actually did something other than bore me to the point of stupidity. I blew through the thick volume in no time at all, immediately wishlisted the other books by Dan Brown and went back to savor the illustrations one more time - I have to admit, they added to the experience.
One thing about Brown's Langdon and the rest is that they are likable. Even the villains are sympathetic because they are misguided in one way or another but for the most part they are motivated by faith or thirst for knowledge as opposed to greed or prestige. I actually felt sorry for Silas, the albino priest, because he really believed that he was doing God's work and suffered for it.
What wasn't very apparent when I first read the book but is more so now that I've read two more by Brown is that strong female leads are a staple in his novels. While Langdon is the fount of knowledge who comes up with ideas as for the location of the subject of their search and can gain access to otherwise off-limit places because of his renown it is the women who protect the professor and figure out the logistics of getting him out of jams. Sophie Neveu is no exception and it was great fun reading about a woman with such an unusual profession and life.
Pacing in this book is characteristic of other Brown's work - Langdon and Neveu are always on the go in their mad race against time and the police and that's a lot of action even for a hefty volume such as this. It sucks you in and I haven't met a person yet who hasn't been reading faster than usual to get to the bottom of the mystery, impatient to find the characters at their destination. Because of this there isn't too much character development but we do get a sense of who these people are when the events happen, what motivates them and what their backgrounds are, which is more than adequate for an action thriller.
The only thing that slowed down the story were the explanations connecting the pieces of the puzzle into one whole. While necessary, they sometimes went on for too long and kept me from finding out the location of the Holy Grail and I was really tempted to skip over those passages but read on because I didn't want to miss anything important.
As far as the controversial subject goes I really didn't see what all the fuss is about. Yes, it is a very non-traditional take on Jesus and his disciples and it is very convincingly written but this is a novel and anyone who starts taking it particularly close to heart should remember that a novel is by definition fiction, make-believe if you will, and has no claim on historical accuracy. Its purpose is entertainment and here it is masterfully fulfilled. Thumbs up to Dan Brown for writing a book I couldn't put down.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Special Feature: NetGalley

As a voracious reader I love to see what books are going to be released soon, what looks interesting, what I might want to add to my ever growing Read Pile. As a blogger I love to be able to get my hands on a yet-unreleased titles and possibly make my readers interested in them with my reviews (Rage and Lost Voices are two books I received from NetGalley and reviewed recently). There's one site that allows me to do both and that site is NetGalley. An extremely wide variety of publishers working with what seems like every genre out there make digital galleys for their new releases available there and registered users can request them. It does help if you have an audience so librarians, book store associates, bloggers with a wide readership have a much better chance of getting approved to receive a galley than, say, humble book lovers who share their thoughts only with their trusty journal - publishers do want to have word of their new releases spread far and wide after all. So if you'd love to get your hands on some brand new books NetGalley is a great place to visit.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: The Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix

The Abhorsen Trilogy Box Set (The Abhorsen Trilogy, #1-3)It is the first half of the 20th century and the world is changing. The peaceful existence of the country south of The Wall is threatened by the possibility of a war and to the north dark powers are getting stronger as well and death itself is finding its way into the living world from the other side. The Abhorsen is the only one who can control the dead and send them back where they came from, beyond the last gate on the cold and tumultuous river. When the Abhorsen’s daughter, Sabriel, receives a distress signal from him she must leave the comfort of her boarding school just South of the Wall and cross into the magical land to rescue him and accept her heritage. In the meantime high up in the mountains Lirael is growing up in a community of Seers. She is one of them but does not have the gift of foretelling the future. What she does have is a grand and grave destiny that none of them can predict and when the time comes to make a stand against the ultimate evil it is her gift that can save them all. But are Sabriel, Lirael and those who stand with them strong enough to defeat the evil that existed before anything else or will the universe's hope for salvation perish with them?

The last time I read epic fantasy was in college when I stumbled upon a copy of the Lord of the Rings and figured that I might as well give it a try because the calculus textbook wasn’t ever going to become even remotely interesting. Tolkien’s heavyweight was definitely better than calculus and helped pass the time but it didn’t thrill me (yes, I know, blasphemy) so when I realized that the Abhorsen Chronicles is also considered epic fantasy I proceeded with caution. The box set was already there though and there were girls on the covers so seduced by the promise of girl power I read on.
This was a rather dark series set mainly in the first half of the 20th century on a continent reminiscent of Great Britain, which is split in two by a great ancient wall. On one side the world is modern with technology thriving and phenomena explained by science. On the other side the world is archaic because none of the new inventions will work there, magic is everywhere and even the calendar is different. I really enjoyed the parallels between the worlds in these books and the Europe of that time - it was an interesting take on the reasons behind the World Wars and the part the people who were at the helm played in the events. These parallels weren't immediately obvious but as the story progressed I felt they were undeniable.
The first book, Sabriel, sets the stage for the events that take place in the second and third volumes and prepares the reader for all the magic, action and a bit of drama that unfolds as the great battle that holds life and death in the balance approaches. The pacing lagged a bit in some instances when some of the main characters had to grow up a bit before they could continue on their quest but the general feel of the series is not slow by any means. There are several plot lines and mysteries that arise and develop throughout the books and Nix skillfully drives them either to a logical conclusion or untangles the secrets in a very satisfying way that isn't forced or contrived. When I turned the last page of the last book I felt that everything was as it should be, which can be challenging with as many character and story arcs as we have here.
Garth Nix does a great job of developing the characters in the trilogy. These books are as much about a quest and a battle as they are about growing up, learning about oneself, accepting who one is, owning it and becoming stronger for it. All the main characters start out in the story when they are teenagers and they all have challenges they must deal with, be that their past that haunts them, their perceived shortcomings or a destiny that feels completely wrong. I was very impressed with how their personal growth was woven into this mainly plot-driven story and how in the end every oddity became a perfect puzzle piece.
This series was on the Goodreads Best Fantasy list and I thank those who included it and voted for it to push it up higher in the rankings. These books are some of the best I've read this year and if you enjoy fantasy I recommend that you check them out.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Review: Crooked House by Agatha Christie

Crooked HouseWhen Aristide Leonides dies and it is determined that he was poisoned the entire family is under suspicion and it is up to Charles to find the murderer if he wants to marry Aristide's granddaughter, Sophia.

Usually when I read an Agatha Christie mystery my mind is fully occupied. I suspect everyone and try to figure out if a clue is a red herring or not. Her books are usually more logic for me than human interaction and I tend to not become very invested in the characters or the plot. They’re a great way to unwind and recharge and have fun playing detective. Imagine my surprise when I put down Crooked House and sat there pretty much stunned for a while. Better yet, imagine my surprise when I caught myself coming back to the story and the characters days later. Even now, quite a while after reading the book all it took is a brief synopsis and a description of characters to bring it back.
The first thing that made it stand out is how non-formulaic the setup is. There is no uninvolved detective at the helm for whom the whole affair is little more than a challenging riddle – the amateur detective here must solve the crime if he wants to marry the woman he loves. The parties involved are not strangers thrown together by chance but members of the same family living under one roof. None of the characters are particularly ordinary at all; they are all curious personalities, sometimes as outlandish as the house they live in (the scientist and the actress alone are reason enough to read the book). The second thing that impressed me is how the characters are even less what they seem than usual. The whole idea of a stereotype is upended and the result is very engaging. Then of course there was the ending. I can’t tell you who was behind the tragic events but the unraveling of the mystery left me speechless. Finally, and possibly my favorite thing about this story, is that it’s not all logic and categorization of characters and motives and traits that might or might not make them the murderer. There’s a social issue deeper and bigger than money or jealousy or the desire to hide a shady past, and Christie shines a light on it in such a way that rouses emotion even now, when sometimes I think I’ve seen it all between the hours of 8 and 12 PM on network television.
It is rumored that Agatha Christie said that Crooked House is one of her two favorite books out of all that she’s written. I can see why. It has more heart and soul than almost any other book of hers that I’ve read so far. I highly recommend that you read it, even if mystery isn’t really your cup of tea.