Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The HistorianThe Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family's past connect to an inconceivable evil: the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages. The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe and back to modern-day America where it all began.

When I first picked up this book I thought it was good old historical fiction (don't judge the book by its title as well as its cover, I guess. And no, I didn't read the blurbs on the jacket, the hype was enough to intrigue me). Imagine my surprise when I realized that vampire lore was such a large part of the story! Not just any vampire lore either, the good old traditional lore, steeped in the superstitious culture of Eastern Europe, with frequent references to Bram Stoker's Dracula. I dived right in and while things seemed to start out a bit slow soon I couldn't put the book down. Let me tell you, this isn't flat-out a vampire book. It's more of a historical adventure novel with a search for a missing scholar in the center of it, and just so happens that Dracula himself is the main suspect.
Elizabeth Kostova has done a tremendous amount of research for this book and while more often than not I really enjoyed all the historical background sometimes it got to be too much. There's just so much scholarly-ness a casual reader can take! Fortunately that is my biggest gripe, the rest of it worked: the fact that majority of the novel is told through letters, the characters, the suspence, the detective work the scholars have to undertake, the gradual reveal of the past and the gradual build-up of danger. Kostova really knows how to set the scene and create a sense of the place. When I read about the events set in Eastern Europe I felt that she got it so right, the blend between modern and archaic, the old beliefs that permeate everything, the rich culture stained and whittled away by the Communist efforts to mold everything into their special brand of uniformity.
The chapters where fantasy took center stage seemed almost too surreal after all that historical detail. It all made sense and the horror of the situation was always understated in that old-fashioned manner of Stoker's Dracula but somehow I just didn't expect it to happen quite the way it did. What redeemed this part of the story is the ending. I really enjoyed the way Kostova wrapped things up, although I can see how some readers might dislike it for this exact reason.
I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, adventure and fantasy and if you don't mind a hefty tome that's just as well because this one is huge!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Rusty Nail by J.A. Konrath

Rusty Nail (Jack Daniels Mystery, #3)After ridding Chicago of the sadistic serial killer the Gingerbread Man detective Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels is surprised to receive a new snuff video and evidence that he is back. Is it a copycat or was he not working alone? Blood is thicker than water and psychopaths too have family.

Konrath has a certain degree of renown in the writerly circles for often going the non-traditional route in publishing and promoting his books. I heard a lot about him and reading his blog peaked my curiosity enough to pick up Rusty Nail at the store when the bright green cover caught my eye. It sat on the shelf for a while until finally its time came and I settled in to read.
From the very first pages it was clear that this was going to be a gory story with enough creepiness to deserve a spot on the most twisted episode of Criminal Minds. There was plenty of graphic detail to send my imagination into overdrive but not so much as to save it from doing any work. One device stuck with me in particular: the killer tells the victim that he's going to be fed his own intestines and then in a later chapter asks the victim a question and comments that he can't answer because his mouth is full. Nothing else, just that, and you immediately imagine all the horror of the situation, you don't need to see any of it described on the page.
If horror was all there was to the book I wouldn't have continued reading, however fortunately Jack and her friends provided enough levity to balance out the terror. They are clever, fast with a witty retort, and the way Konrath writes them is vastly entertaining. There's also depth and humanity to them - Jack's personal life is a mess and the competent detective has trouble dealing with more downs than ups, and her partner has to contend all the discomforts associated with medical procedures that are routine for a man of a certain age. They are people who actually have lives outside of the office, not some superheroes fighting crime every day and going to hybernate in their work locker in the off hours, and seeing them when they're vulnerable was touching and endearing.
There was plenty of action with competitive shooting and hand-to-hand combat to the death, races against time and lives on the line. I did enjoy those sequences although sometimes they got bogged down in too much detail. I had the same problem with Jack's daily routine - do we really need to know the brand, style and color of every item of clothing she puts on in the morning? Yes, she is fashion and label-conscious, but I don't know anyone who catalogues their outfit every day. In fact, had some of the attention Konrath dedicated to Jack's wardrobe been used to keep the physical descriptions of other characters straight the book would've been better - unless there's a wig or a trip to the salon in the picture (which I'm sure would've been mentioned) going from a bob to long hair in less than a week is just not realistic.
The idea of drink names for book titles is interesting but when I started reading I couldn't imagine how a beverage could have anything to do with what was going on in the book. After all this isn't a drunkard's chronicle. Konrath didn't disappoint though - the title tied in nicely with the story and the way the rusty nail appeared in the beginning and the end brought the narrative a full circle in a very satisfying fashion.
There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book but while this would be a good choice for those who like a police thriller with a generous helping of stomach-twisting violence this was too gory for my taste. On a number of occasions I started to wonder how Konrath came up with the ideas for the next torture and then realized that I didn't really want to know. I'd recommend Rusty Nail to fans of the genre but I myself will not be reading more of Konrath's work unless he scales back on the horror.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Special Feature: Margaret Mitchell House & Museum

If you're ever in Atlanta and have some free time make sure to stop by the Margaret Mitchell House. The building survived several fires, endured multiple renovations and is now open to the public as a museum where visitors can tour the apartment where Margaret Mitchell lived and wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gone With The Wind. The apartment was preserved the way it was when the writer and her husband occupied it, down to the leaded-glass window through which Ms. Mitchell looked out while working.
Visit the official website of the House in preparation for your visit, and then just for fun stop by the Tiny Library blog post where Sam talks about her visit of the museum last year.

Interruption

There wasn't a scheduled post today as a sign of protest of internet censorship which I believe will begin to take place if the SOPA and PIPA laws are passed. Come back tomorrow though for a glimpse at a Southern landmark where an iconic novel was born!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: Crusade by Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguié

For the past two years, Jenn has lived and trained at Spain’s Sacred Heart Academy Against the Cursed Ones. She is among the few who have pledged to defend humanity or die trying. But the vampires are gaining power, and the battle has only just begun.
Forced to return home after death takes a member of her family, Jenn discovers that San Francisco is now a vampire strong-hold. As a lone hunter apart from her team, Jenn is isolated — and at risk. Even worse, Jenn is betrayed by one who was once bound to protect her, causing her to doubt all she had held as true. To survive, Jenn must find the courage to trust herself — and her heart.

Crusade was a book that originally ended up on my TBR list because of the cover. It was so full of promises of dark action and adventure that I immediately wanted to know what it was about. The blurb made me even more curious and when a copy landed in my mailbox last year I knew I'd get to it sooner rather than later. It didn't disappoint - the characters, the writing, the suspence and the action kept the story going and me glued to the book for a full two days. The premise of vampires revealing their existence to the world, forming alliances with humans under false pretenses and then taking over was new to me and the idea of teens from all over the world learning to fight them at specialized academies seemed like a pretty cool counterweight and I liked the way it was executed.
Crusade packs an interesting cast of characters and in a series of flashbacks tells a bit about them. There's a witch, a werewolf, a devout Catholic vampire, an IRA fighter, a wannabe samurai, a priest who's got more secrets than all of them put together and those are the good guys. Holder and Viguié are very gradual with the revelations and by the time the novel ends it's clear that we don't know the half of it. That's actually one of the things that dampened my enthusiasm - you usually expect that by the end of the last chapter there'd be a resolution of sorts but here at the end of the book things are just getting started. Not a bad thing for a series of course, but I guess I expected more of an "ending" than a minor lull in action.
I'm not usually a fan of extensive flashbacks because they tend to slow down the action but here they were actually very effective at making the characters more real. Through their past we get a better sense of who they are which is great because they are secretive with each other and without these insights they'd be a lot more one-dimensional, which is never a good thing.
Another thing I didn't particularly enjoy was the angsty vampire and the much-heard/seen/read "I love her so much but we can't be together because I'm no good". Come on people, there are only so many ways this sort of thing can be spun and seems like they've all been done. And here's another thought - why not make the girl the dangerous one, the one who has to hold back? Why is it always the guy?
I liked the writing and the way things developed. The dialogue flowed well, every character had a unique voice and there was just enough suspence to keep me guessing as to the identity of the possible traitor in the midst of the Hunters. I think I know where things are heading but then again the authors have planted enough false clues to keep things interesting.
It was refreshing to see vampires as the bad guys and here they are very bad guys. Cunning, cruel, crafty and murderous. Sunlight and holy water hurt them and a stake through the heart is a sure way to get rid of one. (I can hear the Twilight haters cheering.) There's also black magic, warewolves allied with the vampires and humans ready to betray their own kind so this book is pretty juicy and it sets up the scene well for an even jucier sequel, which by the way is already out so look for Damned if you like this first book in the series. I sure will be looking it up at the library.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Special Feature - Sculpture: Dr. Seuss

The Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden at the Springfield Museum commemorates one of Springfield's most famous German-American residents, Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as the famous children book author Dr. Seuss. Did you know that the creator of Cat In The Hat was an immigrant? Neither did I. There's an interesting article about the community he came from on the STCC website and you can find it here.
What is your favorite Dr. Seuss story?

[ Photo by Richard Norman, Ph.D. used on the STCC website with the permission of the Springfield Museums. ]

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review: The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs

The Friday Night Knitting ClubGeorgia has her hands full, juggling the demands of running her yarn store and raising her spunky teen daughter, Dakota, by herself. Thank goodness for Anita, her mentor and dear friend, and the rest of the members of the knitting club that meets every Friday when the shop closes for the day to talk, sample Dakota's baked treats and knit. The ladies are just as varied as the skeins of yarn in the bins: there's Peri, a prelaw student turned handbag designer; Darwin, a somewhat aloof feminist grad student; and Lucie, a petite, quiet woman who's harboring some secrets of her own. When unexpected changes throw these women's lives into disarray, and the shop's comfortable world gets shaken up like a snow globe they stand by each other and keep each other strong. And when the unthinkable happens they realize what they've created: not just a knitting club, but a sisterhood.

Hello, everybody! It's been a very relaxing week of much-needed down time after all the fun of the holidays but a girl can't spend too many hours lounging on the couch watching Sherlock reruns without missing her blogosphere buddies. So I'm happy to be back and today I bring you a wonderful book that kept me reading late into the night and even got me to cry on a couple of occasions.
It is the story of several women's journeys of self-discovery, self-realization and self-appreciation and the knitting lessons that accompany it highlight the life lessons the characters learn. The way the author talked about the craft in the first chapter, about learning it in childhood, the joy of it, it reminded me of learning needle crafts with my mom and after those first pages I couldn't stop reading. It was like I had a connection with these people and their stories mattered to me. And what stories they are! A single mother who made it as a business owner in New York City, a 12-year-old planning on taking over Martha Stewart's empire, a young woman who's supposed to go to law school secretly taking classes in fashion merchandising, a 40-year-old learning to love herself for the first time ever, and that's just the beginning.
I really enjoyed the little pearls of common sense wisdom mixed in here and there. They're nothing ground-breaking but every once in a while we all need to hear them. "Your life is what you make it", "And there’s always a better time than right now and there always will be. But right now is what we’ve got" and "Be your own safety and security" are my favorites.
I really liked the voice Jacobs used. It was so easy, so accessible, and it helped create some very real characters, showing them at their strongest and most vulnerable, and it was so touching to see them stand behind each other.
There were few things I had trouble with while reading this book. One was the trip to Scotland (it reminded me of Cameron Diaz's character's trek to England in The Holiday) and another was the vocabulary of some of the characters that didn't seem to fit. I could understand Georgia and Dakota using words like "nosh" and "kibosh" after spending so much time with the Jewish Anita, but I just couldn't see a Baptist black man who's spent the last decade in Paris or a Chinese-American woman from California talking like that. These are pretty minor things in the grand scheme of things though, (besides, I didn't live in New York, may be everyone talks like that there!) and they didn't spoil my overall impression of the book too much.
I would recommend this novel to anyone looking for a quaint read full of strong yet believable characters to curl up with on a cold afternoon. The ending will most likely surprise you, and you might shed a tear, but if you're anything like me you'll turn the last page with your faith in people and friendship having received a solid boost.