Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: Amongst My Enemies by William F. Brown

Amongst My EnemiesAt the end of World War II a German submarine U-582 slipped into the Baltic Sea on a top-secret mission for the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, never to be heard from again. Only Michael Randall, a battle-scarred American who survived four months in the frozen Hell of northern Germany, knows where it is. When the U-boat's captain turned up a few years later as an up-and-coming NATO official, Randall decided it was time for him to go back to the Baltic to find proof about a high-ranking spy inside NATO itself and take revenge for the atrocities that cost his best friend his life. He and his team are not alone in the Swedish waters though: the U-boat's former owners want their gold and the Russians want the identity of their spy to stay a secret, so Michael Randall better watch his back.

I've never read any spy novels before now so when Mr. Brown contacted me asking to review Amongst My Enemies I was happy to explore this new-to-me genre, especially since his writing credits were encouraging. I'm glad to say the book did not disappoint.
Amongst My Enemies is a tightly-woven thriller with practically non-stop action and characters who are easy to care about or dislike. As I read and saw how different threads of the story were coming together I began to enjoy the book even more and soon I didn't want to put it down - I wanted to see if the bad guys were going to get what they deserved and of course if Randall would have the guts to get the girl. There was a point when I though I knew what was going to happen (the short paragraph before chapter 1 spoiled that secret) and although I was right about the outcome the "how" took me by surprise. I did not expect the story to take the turn it did and that is always a good sign. That was just one of the many twists and turns and although I grew to anticipate them they did not become less satisfying.
There was a lot of action in this book and I'm pleased to say that those scenes were done well and were balanced with more low-key scenes that allowed for character development. It was fun to watch the spunky Leslie boss Michael around, or try to anyway, and seeing the antagonists during relative down time made them more human, if not less evil.
As engaging as the book is the copy I received is in dire need of a thorough proof-reading - the awkward punctuation, missing spaces between words and descriptions that repeated word for word time after time didn't do the novel any favors. Had a careful copy-editor gone through the manuscript and eliminated all the distractions I would have given the book a higher rating. And one more thing that has nothing to do with proof-reading but it ruffles my feathers because everyone, including NPR, does it: why is it always "the Ukraine"? It's one country, not a collection of states or territories, so just like Uganda, Uruguay and Uzbekistan it doesn't get a "the". It's just "Ukraine"! I'm from there, I know.
If you enjoy spy novels with compelling characters and a fast-moving plot I'm sure you'll like this book, especially if it gets a little TLC in the copy-editing department.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Giveway: While I'm Still Myself by Jeremy Mark Lane

While I'm Still Myself This straight from the author himself:
I will give away a free eBook of While I'm Still Myself to everyone who wants one for a full 24 hours after you announce it.
It is a good book, I still remember most of the stories vividly. You can read my review here and if you'd like a copy please e-mail me at bibliocorner [at] between now and 1:00 PM EST on 4/26/12. I will forward all the requests to Mr. Lane shortly after the deadline. Happy reading!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review: We Bury The Landscape - Kristine Ong Muslim

We Bury the LandscapeWe Bury the Landscape is an exhibition of literary art. One hundred flash fictions and prose poems presented to view. From the visual to the textual, transmuting before the gallery-goer’s gaze, the shifting contours of curator Kristine Ong Muslim’s surreal panorama delineate the unconventional, the unexpected, and the unnatural.

This collection of flash fiction was inspired by paintings and photographs and each story is an extension, an interpretation or a look inside the separate works of art. Ms. Muslim's writing is very visual, so much so that reading her stories is like looking at images on canvas, all you need is a tiny bit of imagination to see it in color.
The stories may not describe the art that inspired them but they are tied to it, especially in execution - abstract works yield equally abstract fiction, and more traditional subjects result in stories that are more easily processed by those with limited appreciation for modern art. Being one of the latter while I can see the merits of this collection the pieces aren't something I particularly enjoyed reading - in literature, as in visual art, I prefer fiction that reads more like Vermeer's paintings look, as opposed to Bosch's. If your artistic preferences tend in the opposite direction and you enjoy flash fiction I would venture to guess that you will very much like this collection.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Review: Almost French by Sarah Turnbull

Almost French: Love and a New Life in ParisA delightful, fresh twist on the travel memoir, Almost French takes us on a tour that is fraught with culture clashes but rife with deadpan humor. Sarah Turnbull's stint in Paris was only supposed to last a week. Chance had brought Sarah and Frédéric together in Bucharest, and on impulse she decided to take him up on his offer to visit him in the world's most romantic city. Sacrificing Vegemite for vichyssoise, the feisty Sydney journalist does her best to fit in, although her conversation, her laugh, and even her wardrobe advertise her foreigner status.

My project of experiencing France vicariously through others continues with Ms. Turnbull's adventures as an Australian living in Paris, and I have to say, this account surprised me more than once. My previous experiences were through the frivolous and gossipy All You Need To Be Impossibly French by Helena Frith-Powell and the reserved but admiring Entre Nous by Debra Ollivier. These two ladies presented the French, Parisian women in particular, as confident, chic intellectuals who prefer to spend the afternoon reading a good book in solitude. Ms. Turnbull showed us a different picture. Her Parisians are lonely people riddled with insecurities, fatigued by the structure and rules of the city. Her Paris is a city of contrasts, with perfectly manicured gardens and parks, charming quartiers, beautiful architecture, and streets smelling like urine because while asking to use the bathroom of the people you're visiting may be considered a faux pas apparently urinating outside their building is perfectly acceptable.
Fortunately this is only one side of the story and Ms. Turnbull does a good job of finding and maintaining balance in her narrative. Perhaps it's a journalistic trait, to examine the subject from all sides and report on both the positive and the negative. Or may be it's that life's full of both. In a way Almost French is like a Cinderella story: an Australian girl risks it all by moving to France, has a terrible time of it at first, then finds her stride, learns the language and how to navigate the society, and settles in to a happy life in a city she loves with a man she adores.
The book is full of stories of how all that happened, from the desparation of not being able to find work and eating all the chocolate in the apartment, to the exhilaration of telling off a rude stranger without missing a beat, to the surprise of being overshadowed by her own dog, and they're all written in a fun, engaging way that's personal without becoming too sentimental or giving too much information. There are times when the author sounds a bit whiny, or somewhat pushy, but fortunately those times are fleeting.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it doesn't focus only on the usual subjects of fashion, food and seduction but ventures beyond to the issues of actually living in the city, meeting new people, growing to love the villages and towns beyond Paris, learning to appreciate all the different layers of society in one's quartier and getting things done despite the many rules and regulations that come with living in a coveted zip code. When I finished it I felt like I've actually seen some of the reality beyond what tourists usually see, or what the other two authors either didn't experience or didn't choose to share with their readers. It's a nice to have a differet view even though Ms. Turnbull writes about Paris and France in the 1990s and things may have changed, although I am confident that whatever changes took place they didn't radically alter Paris, France or the French.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Review: This Side Of The Grave by Jeaniene Frost

This Side of the Grave (Night Huntress, #5)With the mysterious disappearance of vampires, rumors abound that a species war is brewing. A zealot is inciting tensions between the vampires and ghouls, and if these two powerful groups clash, innocent mortals could become collateral damage. Now Cat and Bones are forced to seek help from a dangerous "ally" —the ghoul queen of New Orleans herself. But the price of her assistance may prove more treacherous than even the threat of a supernatural war... to say nothing of the repercussions Cat never imagined.

After tackling a heavyweight such as The Book Thief I felt I needed something light to cleanse my reading pallette and another installment of Cat's adventures seemed perfect. From the very first book in the series I've enjoyed Frost's fast-paced storytelling and witty writing, and this book brought all that to the table.
There are several things I like about this series in general and this book in particular, aside from all the humor and scene-stealing secondary characters (Vlad Tepesh is awesome in this series). One is that while the characters are supernatural Frost puts bigger, society-spanning issues in the center of the story and by doing this makes them even more human than she already has by giving them some very human traits and problems - in the past she talked about slave trafficking and spousal abuse, here we have vamp vs. ghoul vs. ghost conflict akin to our racial and political tensions. It's like she's saying "people are the same everywhere, even the undead ones". And when they're not fighting each other and plotting against each other on the world stage they also have the same family and personal problems as we all do.
My other favorite part is Frost's creativity in pulling all sorts of historical facts and people into the story and making them part of it, and doing it very well. Vlad Tepesh aka Dracula made his entrance in the last book with excellent results, now we got a taste of another historical figure (and no, I'm not telling who), I can't wait to see who else will make an entrance in the next book.
Writing is a big part of any book and here Frost lost some points with me because of occasional strange word choice and repetitions of things she's already said (how many times do we need to hear that Bones used to be a gigolo in his human days? One mention per book is plenty, we got it, thanks). I do enjoy the narrative voice though, it's easy and keeps things moving and down to earth, and here it works with the story, which is always a plus.
What I couldn't shrug off as easily is the constant shagging. In graphic detail. Yes, I know people do that. No, I don't need to be holding the proverbial candle every single time they do it, especially if it's going to be that often. Which raises another question: do Cat and Bones really need to be that amourous to advance the plot? I do look forward to reading the next book, I just hope there are fewer bedroom scenes and more actual story.
All in all this is an entertaining and engaging read packed with adventure, laughs and great characters and if that's what you're looking for I think you won't be disappointed. And if you're a romance fan you'll love it even more.

My rating: 4

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

National Library Week

Happy National Library Week, everyone! As you know I'm a huge fan of libraries (The Book Thief volume came from my local branch) so this week is kind of special for me. To commemorate it I'd like to share some interesting information about three digital libraries you may not have heard of or haven't used:

You know how if you have a Kindle you can borrow ebooks from your local library? Well, Kindle users aren't the only lucky ones - any other e-reader that can read documents in ePub format has the same capability. Many libraries nowadays offer ebooks and audio books to their patrons through their websites, but a lot of patrons don't know about this service and therefore don't use it. In fact, a quick poll of some friends and colleagues revealed that I was the only person who knew that this service existed, so on an off chance that you don't know about it either I'd like to talk to you about it. The way libraries make digital content available is through a platform called Overdrive (you can visit their website here) and the number of books they offer grows every day. My library website has 660 fiction titles and 110 nonfiction titles, and many are new and very popular. The lending period is usually 1 or 2 weeks, and all you need is a free piece of software that gets installed on your computer and within minutes you're good to go. So if you have an eReader and like free books (who doesn't, right?) visit you library's website and see what they have in terms of downloadables.

ICDL Books for Children - International Children's Digital Library. The largest collection of its kind, the ICDL spans the globe with thousands of children's books from 60 countries, in a wide assortment of beautiful languages with captivating illustrations. Visit the ICDL website at and stop by the iTunes store to download the free app here.
The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) is a free program administered by the Library of Congress that produces and distributes books in accessible formats -- notably digital audio and braille -- to persons with print disabilities. The NLS collection has over 400,000 titles. Each year, its 113 regional and sub-regional libraries circulate about 30 million books to nearly one million disabled readers. For more information and to find a library visit

And to wrap up, a quote:
No possession can surpass, or even equal, a good library to the lover of books. Here are treasured up for his daily use and delectation, riches which increase by being consumed, and pleasure which never cloy.
~ John Alfred Langford

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book ThiefIt’s just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. Set during World War II in Germany this is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

I wasn't planning on reading this book this year despite its reputation as a very good novel and all the positive reviews. WW2 and its horrors seemed just too close, too terrible to read about when my grandmother, who was a girl of about Liesel's age when it tore through her childhood, still sometimes talks about it. However a friend invited me to her book club and The Book Thief was next up so I picked it up from the library. The first few chapters were a bit difficult to get through (Zusak's writing style is somewhat unusual) but the more I read the more I understood what all the fuss is about. Very soon I felt invested in Liesel's story and wanted to know more about her and the other characters. They've gradually come alive and I found a certain sensitivity and wisdom in the way the author was depicting them and telling the story. I particularly liked Rosa, Liesel's foster mother. She was the one who surprised me on more than one occasion with all the layers to her personality and I applaud the author for creating her just the way she is.
The more I think about this book the more I appreciate its prose where a few spare words hold more meaning than whole paragraphs elsewhere and descriptions are so strange that they make perfect sense and stay with you for days ("frightened pajamas and torn faces" did).
Having Death as the narrator allowed for both the more intimate first person storytelling combined with the omniscient third person point of view that is much less limiting and I feel that this combination served the novel very well. It was startling sometimes how human Death seems, with his fatigue, regret, sarcasm, insights into humanity and the occasional bitterness over the things he's seen. Another device I have grown to enjoy were the regular interruptions to provide explanations, translations (much needed with a book so full of German words), and other such asides, it kept things moving and was a little bit of a distraction in an otherwise very serious novel.
The subject of WW2 isn't an easy one, despite being widely covered. Lives were destroyed, whole countries were devastated and something like that isn't easy to get over. There's a lot of books and TV and radio programs that talk about the genocide, about Hitler and his party, but I haven't seen or heard any that would talk about the regular German citizens who were in the middle of it all, their allegiances, their problems, their relationships with the people in their communities who found themselves ostracized for their heritage. Admittedly, I didn't look, but this book was my first window into the lives of ordinary families who lived during those tumultuous years and had to choose which side they were on. The more I read the more the realization that Nazi Germany and Socialist USSR were very similar despite all their differences. The propaganda, the need to be a member of the Party to be able to lead a life that wasn't artificially complicated for you, the poverty and the division of society were present on both sides of the divide, and as much as the leaders of both countries preached from their podiums that the others were evil incarnate now I think that they were just different sides of the same coin. I'm glad that I read this book, for this if for nothing else.

P.S. There is now a beautiful movie out that's based on this wonderful book, I haven't seen it yet, but judging by the trailer the film-makers have stayed close to the story

Friday, April 6, 2012

In Honor of Hans Christian Andersen's Birthday

Browsing through the past years' Google Doodles I saw one dedicated to his 205th birthday and immediately was transported into childhood when I read his fairy tales and imagined my own Thumbelina and her adventures. The great writer's birthday was on April 2nd so I'm late everywhere (what can I say, it's been a crazy week), but we'll call it HCA Birthday Week and enjoy the Doodles Jennifer Hom created. Aren't they beautiful?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Review: The Best Advice I Ever Got by Katie Couric

The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary LivesWhat was the tipping point for Malcolm Gladwell? What unscripted event made Meryl Streep who she is? How did Mario Batali cook up his recipe for success? In this inspiration-packed book, Katie Couric reports from the front lines of the worlds of politics, entertainment, sports, philanthropy, the arts, and business—distilling the ingenious, hard-won insights of leaders and visionaries, who tell us all how to take chances, follow our passions, cope with criticism, and, perhaps most important, commit to something greater than ourselves. Delightful, empowering, and moving, The Best Advice I Ever Got is the perfect book for anyone who is thinking about the future, contemplating taking a risk, or daring to make a leap into the great unknown. This book is for all of us, young or old, who want to see how today’s best and brightest got it right, got it wrong, and came out on top.

I found this book while browsing the ebook offerings on my library's website and immediately thought a book of advice from successful journalists, artists, entertainers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and athletes would be interesting and informative. After all, their respective formulas worked for them, it can't hurt to find out what they are.
Some essays are very short (Twitter co-founder Biz Stone's is fittingly 140 characters long) and some are longer and filled with reminiscences but they all tell us something about the people who wrote them and in retrospect they all have the same messages: work hard, follow your heart and your dreams, stay true to yourself, don't give up, don't be afraid, don't quit, pay no attention to nay-sayers.
My favorite essays were the ones that tell a story as opposed to just throwing an idea my way. For example Bill Cosby talks about his first big break as a stand-up comedian and how he almost sabotaged his own chances at success, and Kathryn Stockett talks about going to a hotel to continue writing The Help despite all the rejections, and lying about it to her friends and family. Those are the essays that really stay with you because of how personal they are and I only wish they all were like that (no offense, Biz Stone). Another thing I wish for is that I didn't read this book as a novel, gulped it down, as it were. It is perfectly suited to reading an essay or two a day, letting the messages sink in, and should you decide to pick it up I would recommend that you take your time with it.
One thing that was very interesting for me is that while the general gist is the same for all the contributors' messages there were some differences and to me that reinforced the idea that has appealed to me for a while: the same thing doesn't work for everybody. For example Michael Bloomberg stressed the importance of coming to the office early and leaving late while another prominent gentleman (unfortunately I can't remember his name right now) talked about not dedicating all of yourself to your job and about remembering to spend time with your family because that part of life is of incredible importance.
This book is a great read, very inspiring and very motivating. If you're at a crossroads and thinking about the next step or are simply curious about how the people we see on TV and hear about on the radio got to where they are this book is for you.