Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon (The Dresden Files #2)Business has been slow. Okay, business has been dead. And not even of the undead variety. You would think Chicago would have a little more action for the only professional wizard in the phone book. But lately, Harry Dresden hasn't been able to dredge up any kind of work, —magical or mundane. But just when it looks like he can't afford his next meal, a murder comes along that requires his particular brand of supernatural expertise. A brutally mutilated corpse. Strange-looking paw prints. A full moon. Take three guesses —and the first two don't count...

If Storm Front was Butcher flexing his writerly muscles Fool Moon is a great sequel where the author is clearly finding his stride and becoming more comfortable with the characters and the world he has created. It is definitely better in terms of writing and gives the reader a taste of what's coming in the Dresden Files universe. Wondering what kind of sign of things to come I'm taking about? I'm talking about werewolves. Butcher doesn't have just one kind, they're all different, there are different ways they are made and different ways to kill them. I really enjoyed how the usual lore was incorporated into the story and made unique in this way without really repeating anyone's work.
Whenever I read a sequel I always worry that the author will be heavy-handed in revealing the backstory, so before I even started Fool Moon I wondered how it was going to be handled here. I really shouldn't have worried, Mr. Butcher made sure that if a new reader picked up the book they wouldn't be completely lost and that a reader who's observing the sequence wouldn't be bored with the flat recounting of what happened in the previous installment or an roll call of who's who.
Having read three books in the series so far I can tell that every one has a theme that's related to the real world. Storm Front was about two criminals wrestling over control of the illicit drug trade in Chicago, Fool Moon is about law enforcement going rogue with dire consequences for everybody. The author is again very creative in the way he sets up the premise and for this series the execution is excellent. I could really see the metaphors he's drawn and appreciated the issues he raised.
This wouldn't be a Dresden Files novel if there wasn't enough wisecracks to fill two non-Dresden Files novels and if the action didn't move at breakneck speed. Butcher delivered on both counts and in the process made sure to add in some pretty intense fight scenes and a real Oh-oh moment. I have to say, I really like adventure that's written by men, if it doesn't go overboard on the violence it's a lot more satisfying than the action from women writers that I've read so far. There's more grit and less hand-wringing. It's not all testosterone-charged exploits though, there are a couple tender moments thrown in to please the fair sex, and as one such representative I can attest that they hit the spot.
My main gripe with this book is that a) Harry needs to give himself a break every once in a while and b) things were starting to feel formulaic in terms of plot development: I could clearly see the developing pattern of "start working on the case, get beat up, make two potions, continue working on the case, drink potions at two separate opportune moments, save the day while barely avoid getting killed". I really enjoyed the book regardless (there was so much going on that I forgot to watch for patterns) but worried about how things would go in the third book of the series once I was done. I'm not telling how all that turned out though, you'll just have to wait till next Sunday. Aren't I a veritable Sheherezade? ;)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What to read next...

If you're anything like me your ever-growing list of books to read is so long you'll need a couple of lifetimes to get through it and that's when you start asking yourself what of all these titles should you read next. Or at all. You can use prestigious literary award shortlists as your guide, or you can read what's at the top of the best seller lists, or you can read something by your favorite author that talks about their favorite books, but what if all those options aren't yielding any intriguing results and your home library with shelves bowing under the weight of books is like a woman's closet, full but with no acceptable options whatsoever? Fortunately there are people out there who take the dilemma so seriously that they've created websites to help those of us in need of someone to make the decision for them. Here's a handful:
What Should I Read Next is extremely simple, it only asks you to type in the title of the book you liked and then produces a list of similar titles. BookSeeker operates in the same way but has better graphics. Another site that's a cousin to these two is YourNextRead which has even better graphics, shows blurbs and reviews from Amazon, and generates 8 options based on the title of your choice. A word of caution, it is very addictive, with every click the options morph into something else and it's hard to stop clicking.
WhichBook is a UK site that offers a much more complex approach: it asks you to select what you are looking for from a dozen different parameters and based on those generates a list of books that match them all. If you prefer looking for a read based on character, plot and setting they have an option for that too. WhichBook gets bonus points for providing not just titles but also summaries and a chance to see similar titles. If you don't feel like playing around with the sliders there are also lists with headings such as Short and Sweet, Weird and Wonderful, and A Terrible Beauty.
I think I'll go play on WhichBook, if none of these appeal to you here's a list of resources from the Hackley Public Library page. Happy hunting, ahem... reading!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Storm Front (The Dresden Files, #1)Harry Dresden is Chicago's only wizard for hire and the only one in the country with an ad in the yellow pages. He is also the consultant for Chicago's Special Investigations unit and when Lt. Karrin Murphy calls him to the scene of a grisly double murder the less-than-solvent Harry's eyes light up with dollar signs, but then he realizes that the crime was committed with the blackest of magic. Where there's black magic, there's a black mage and this one's got Harry in the crosshairs of his dark powers.

The first time I heard about Harry Dresden was when someone mentioned a TV series to me called The Dresden Files and lamented that it was canceled after only one season. Networks do that sometimes, cancel shows leaving fans scratching their heads wondering what the heck happened. So I looked it up, watched the episodes that were available in a Dresden-a-thon of sorts and loved it. Then I discovered that the show is actually based on the books and you can guess what happened to my TBR list right after. This year after reading several serious books in rapid succession I was ready for some light-hearted fun and picked up an omnibus of the first three Dresden Files books at the library.
Storm Front is Butcher's debut novel and it shows. It's obvious that in writing it he was testing himself, flexing his writerly muscles, becoming comfortable with the characters and Chicago's clandestine underworld. It isn't perfect but it is so much fun that it's hard to care about perfection. Harry Dresden is a black duster-wearing detective in the tradition of noir mysteries, a scruffy, wise-cracking bachelor, behind on his rent and with no personal life. He is also very old-fashioned, self-deprecating and with a past so painful he would rather not know what a person who looked into his soul would see. Murphy is his only friend, hesitant to believe in the supernatural but wise enough to go in with her eyes open and hire the only guy in the city who actually can help.
In this novel, and its sequels, Butcher combines three of my favorite genres: fantasy, mystery and adventure, add in tremendous imaginativeness and a break-neck pace that doesn't let up and we have a book I couldn't put down. There's also another very important ingredient: this book has heart, most likely because all the good guys know what's worth fighting for and they'll do it every time, and also because amidst all the witty banter and spell-casting there's always a quiet attention to the people involved, understanding of their feelings, hardships and humanity.
One of my other favorite things about the world of Dresden files is how the supernatural is tightly woven into the regular crime underbelly of Chicago: there are competing drug barons who go beyond the regular unsavory means to reach their ends and there's a madam who is on a very special diet and is more two-faced than one would think. Who said that a semi-automatic is all it takes to succeed in shady business?
I really enjoyed this book and couldn't wait to read the second one when this volume's bad guy got his due. Stop by next Sunday to see what I thought about it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Special Feature - Blog: Underground NY Public Library

Since 2008 Ourit at Underground NY Public Library have been sharing pictures of readers on the trains and platforms of the New York City subway. Every day, except for Saturday, she gives us photographic evidence that people do still read, and read widely, and this makes for an uplifting message for a hopeless bibliophile such as myself.
From the library's Facebook page: "The Underground New York Public Library is a visual library featuring the Reading-Riders of the NYC subways. This library freely lends out a reminder that we’re capable of traveling to great depths within ourselves and as a whole."
Well said.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: In Leah's Wake by Terri Giuliano Long

In Leah's WakeThe Tylers have a perfect life - beautiful home, established careers, two sweet and talented daughters. Their eldest, Leah, an exceptional soccer player, is on track for a prestigious scholarship. Their youngest, Justine, more responsible than seems possible for her 12 years, has a brilliant mind. Their blissfully peaceful life ends when Leah meets Todd, a former roadie for a rock band. As Leah's parents fight to save their daughter from a world of drugs, sex, and wild parties, their divided approach drives their daughter out of their home and a wedge into their marriage. Meanwhile, Justine observes her sister's rebellion from the shadows of their fragmented family questioning whether anyone loves her and if God even knows she exists. Can this family survive in Leah's wake? What happens when love just isn't enough?

The author asked me to read and review this novel and I'm very glad that she did. It is heartbreaking and infuriating, there's not one character I really like, it scared me at times and reminded me of things I'd much rather not think about. It also gripped me, made me care about everyone there, repeatedly took me on a terrifying ride in a few simple words, and when it was over left me sad and hopeful for the Tyler family all at the same time.
The author very skillfully evoked alternately the warmth of happy moments and the desperation of moments when everything seemed to be unraveling faster and faster. I admired her ability to avoid making the characters caricatures of the problems that ruled their lives, instead she made them flesh-and-blood real and I sympathized with them every step of the way. The gradual revelations of facts about this family made for a reading experience that felt very natural without the sensation of an information dump and I appreciated not being given a tour or a detailed description of characters immediately after opening the book. Instead I got a feel for what kind of people they were, their family dynamic, and saw the beginning of what would become the downward spiral for Leah and the other Tylers. I appreciated the very distinctive voices of the conflicted Leah who knows what the right thing is but can't seem to do it, the intelligent and responsible yet insecure Justine who only wants her big sister's approval and ends up growing up much too fast, the volatile dad plagued by his own feelings of inadequacy, and a mom who helps others to make the best out of their lives and yet can't help herself and her own family.
The things that happened kept the plot moving and benefited the story, and at the same time were very realistic. I often wondered how the author came up with it all and yet didn't go overboard. There was a nice balance between reflection and action and alternating points of view allowed for fuller character development and all the good guys got a voice while at the same time allowing the troublemakers to not fade into shadows.
I mentioned that I didn't really like any of the characters and that is true. They were all flawed, in one way or another, and seemed to be filled with regrets and delusions. When it came to the parents I kept remembering that old proverb, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions". When it came to Leah I kept remembering myself when I thought I was so grown up and independent and in fact was beginning to find my way into trouble. This was the main factor that made this book so scary for me, in a way I saw what could have happened to me or someone else in my life then.
This is not an easy book to read but it is so well-done I would recommend it to anyone without reservation.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Adventures In Digital Realms

Recently I decided to go ahead and set up a Facebook page for Bibliophile's Corner and while I was at it liked a bunch of pages thinking they'd have interesting content for me to enjoy and share. I really had no idea what I was getting into.
It all started with the Underground NY Public Library page. The "curator" posts daily photos of readers in the NYC subway and the variety of people and books is really heartening. You know how you hear that people don't read any more? Those who say that are not looking in the right places. Then I added BBC World Book Club (I look forward to their monthly interviews with authors about their most popular books and had the best time catching up on the archived sessions), NPR Books, Goodreads, a couple authors, a blogger and Reading as a general interest (seemed kind of odd not to). It took a while for everything to update and then posts and links started trickling in. Articles, news, updates. Clickedy here, clickedy there and soon I was also following Improbables Librairies, Improbables Bibliothèques (you must check these guys out, they're great), Huffington Post Books, Guardian Books and The New Yorker. The flood gates opened. An incredible in its variety and scope wealth of information showed up on the page and soon I'd forgotten about everything and was reading the very interesting articles that I wouldn't have found otherwise. Why, oh why have I not done this sooner?! Hindsight 20/20, for sure. And then someone mentioned The Paris Review, briefly, in passing, not even talking about them. One more Like later and I was hooked. Interviews with authors, art, fiction, letters and essays, my already declining eyesight may get worse even quicker but this will be so completely worth it. I started reading an old interview with Nabokov and had to stop to tell you about all these finds because the awesomeness of it all was making it hard to concentrate.
Here's a handful of the articles I bookmarked because a girl's got to eat, sleep, and work, and you know, read:
88 books that shaped America, at the Library of Congress
Santiago Codex Calixtinus, Priceless Stolen Book, Found In Handyman's Garage (the nerve of some people)
Myers Briggs in fiction
17 Famous Literary Characters Almost Named Something Else
What's The Big Idea? 5 Books To Inspire Innovation
And of course the whole section of interviews on The Paris Review website. I may never come up for air.
I've already been sharing some of the finds on the FB page and Twitter and the fun will continue, so stop by, explore, Like or Follow or just bookmark if that's your thing. Everybody's welcome!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review: The Earthquake Machine by Mary Pauline Lowry

The Earthquake MachineOn the outside, everything looks perfect in Rhonda's world but at home she has to deal with a manipulative father who keeps her mentally ill mother hooked on pharmaceuticals. The only reliable person in Rhonda's life is her family's Mexican yardman, Jesús. But when the INS deports Jesús back to his home state of Oaxaca, Rhonda is left alone with her increasingly painful family situation. Determined to find her friend Jesús, Rhonda seizes an opportunity to run away during a camping trip with friends. She swims to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, cuts her hair and assumes the identity of a Mexican boy named Angel. She then sets off across the desert to look for Jesús.

I have really mixed feelings about this book. On one hand I loved it. It is an interesting coming-of-age tale that is well-written, has sympathetic characters, and is honest and unapologetic in its portrayal of life and people. I enjoyed the author's ability to create the two startlingly different worlds of Mexico and the United States. I appreciated Rhonda figuring things out gradually, making mistakes and only after a time realizing where and how she erred or failed to see a more logical course of action. I liked that Rhonda's search for Jesús and her crossing the Rio Grande played both literal and metaphorical roles in the shaping of her identity. I was glad to see that the author detailed events that were significant for the story and glossed over the parts that didn't have any important developments or where Rhonda was too single-minded in her purpose to really pay attention to her surroundings. Even the predictability of the ending didn't spoil the experience for me and I smiled through much of the last chapter.
Sounds pretty perfect, right? Not quite, and it took me a while to figure out what it was exactly that was bothering me. Finally I decided that everything being about sex at the end of the day combined with the fact that the protagonist is only 14 years old rubbed me the wrong way. May be I'm naive and had a more sheltered adolescence than I realized, maybe that's how it is for a lot of teenagers, especially those who don't grow up in happy families and look for the affection and warmth of a loving relationship in all the wrong places, but the lascivious comments, the boldness of advances, the graphic descriptions of encounters made me uncomfortable. Rhonda is only 14 through most of the book, turning 15 towards the end, and yet the adults around her act as if she is one of them and even her own thoughts and actions seem at times more fitting for an older young woman. Then again, none of the events rang false, none were hard to believe in the context of the novel, so my discomfort is not due to the author's inability to convince me but rather my own conviction that some things should not happen.
I would recommend this novel to any reader who enjoys books about growing up, adventure and serious soul-searching. Just bear in mind, there are adult scenes and some pretty uncomfortable subjects.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Special Feature: The Vatican Library

The other day my husband and I were watching a History Channel program about aliens where they mentioned documents kept in the archives of the Vatican Library that allegedly talk about ancient people reporting UFO sightings. We casually joked about people trying to get their hands on these documents after watching this program, and I remembered Dan Brown's Robert Langdon almost suffocating to death in the depths of the library's Secret Archives. I haven't thought of the book in a long while, and much less about the library itself, but now I wondered about what's all stored there. In my wanderings around on the internet I found a CBS 60 Minutes segment about it from April of last year that made me wonder even more.
Formally established in 1475, though in fact much older, the library contains approximately 2 million printed books and 80 thousand handwritten manuscripts in virtually every language known to man, a collection of ancient coins and so many other treasures that apparently nobody knows what exactly is there (sounds like they need a digital catalog). The contents of the library are the Pope's personal property and while scholars use the documents for their research only the Pope is allowed to borrow anything.
The Vatican Secret Archives is the central repository for all of the Holy See documents. In the 17th century, under the orders of Pope Paul V, the Secret Archives were separated from the Vatican Library, where scholars had some very limited access to them, and remained absolutely closed to outsiders until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened them to researchers, of whom now more than a thousand examine its documents each year. You might wonder why they're called "Secret" if everyone knows about them, and that would be because originally "secret" meant more "private" or "special" than "clandestine". Does have a nice ring to it though, doesn't it? I imagine if there are any UFO-related documents stored in Vatican they'd be hidden in the Secret Archives.
Last but not least, the Vatican Library is where any visitor can enjoy the beauty if the Sistine Chapel. The picture above shows only a part of it, can you imagine being able to see the whole every day? I wonder whether the scholars and archivists who work there every day are still amazed by the exquisite frescoes or if the novelty wears off eventually.
And now, if you have 12 minutes or so, here is the video I talked about in the beginning of this post. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Review: The Art of Being a Woman by Veronique Vienne

The Art of Being a Woman: A Simple Guide to Everyday Love and LaughterWith its spirited prose and witty illustrations, The Art of Being a Woman informs and celebrates the many ways we all can release our insecurities, count our blessings, and experience what the French call “joie de vivre,” a lively tryst between heart and mind.

I picked up The Art of Being a Woman after abandoning a book that proved incapable of holding my interest, and immediately saw that I would enjoy it because Ms. Vienne seemed to approach life with a healthy dose of respect for being both a woman in her own right and a woman who enjoys roles we've come to see as almost archaically traditional. To top it all off she included this quote by Nelson Mandela in the preface: "Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure" adding "Take his word for it, and let your own light shine!".
The authhor was born and raised in France and after reading impressions of the French by an American, an Englishwoman and an Australian it was interesting to see what a Frenchwoman had to say. Her French sensibilities are clearly evident throughout the book and I think that if most, if not all, of her countrywomen are of the same opinions it's no wonder that the French have such poise and that certain something that makes them fascinating. They love all the little things that make them individuals, they don't copy details but strive to learn from them and emulate the concept while remaining true to themselves, they aren't afraid to assert themselves and at the same time they aren't afraid to use their feminine wiles, they value intellect over cookie-cutter beauty and they have no doubt that quality trumps quantity every time.
This isn't a self-help how-to guide but rather a collection of essays on the subjects that matter to us women: ourselves and other women, friendships, men, self-improvement, homemaking, fashion and beauty, shopping, entertaining, love, sex, and family. There aren't steps or bullet-point lists or anything of the sort, just some keen observations that had me nodding my head in agreement, a handful of ideas of the "cleaning the house doesn't have to be a detested chore" variety, and a liberal dose of peptalk thrown in with a sprinkling of reminders to maintain a sense of humour about life and above all oneself.
I'm going to keep this little book for now and will revisit it in the future when I need a nudge to press the Reset button and not hurry so much after "bigger-better-more" and instead slow down to enjoy the simple things and appreciate what I have. If you happen upon a copy in your bookstore wanderings pick it up, it'll make for an enjoyable afternoon or two and maybe will renew your appreciation for the quirks that make you undeniably and distinctively unique.