Friday, December 21, 2012

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room: A Novel     When I first heard about Room I was scared off by the subject matter—a woman is kidnapped and held captive in a shed for seven years.  During those seven years she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son named Jack.  Room came out not too long after there were a few big stories in the news about real women who had been held captive for several years.  This story seemed too real and too recent so I shied away from Room.  Then I listened to a discussion of the book on Slate’s Audio Book Club, and though the subject matter still turned me off I was intrigued. 

The entire story is told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view.  Jack was born in the shed (or rather the room) and has never known anything other than the room.  It is his whole world.  His mother has worked hard to create a safe world for him, a world where they sleep, eat, learn, and play.  He doesn't quite understand why his mother doesn't love the room as much as he does.  I was worried about a story written entirely from a five-year-old's point of view would turn out, but it worked.  Jack is smart, but not annoyingly so.  Somehow Emma Donoghue manages to convey the mother’s desperation and fear, while at the same time showing the wonder of the world as only a child can see it, all through Jack's voice. 

I’m so glad I picked up this book.  It is amazing.  If not for work and other life matters, I would have finished it in a matter of hours.  I actually knew many of the plot twists before picking up the book from listening to the podcast and yet I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what was going to happen next.  This is one of the best books I’ve come across in awhile.  Definitely recommend.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

The last two books I've read, The Longest Way Home and Wild, have been what I call travel memoirs. This got me thinking about what makes a good travel memoir. Or put another way, what should one expect from this genre?  For me a "travel memoir" should provide a sense of the place traveled to and if the destination or mode of travel is unusual, also a sense of how to travel or what it takes to make the kind of trip the author took. Notwithstanding the above, a better name for this genre might be travel related memoirs, because the travel often takes a backseat to the memoir part of the equation.  It is the entry point into the memoir.  Memoir implies something personal and so in a travel memoir I also expect something personal to the author - why the author made the trip, how the journey changed him or her, or what made his or her journal unique. Without the personal it would just be a guidebook, and without a sense of the destination and the literal and figurative journey to get there, it would just be a memoir, and probably not a very good one.

With this idea of what a travel memoir should be, I am not sure how to characterize Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  It felt like two stories in one – a travel narrative and a memoir – that didn’t quite sync up with one another.  With regards to the travel portion of the story, I didn't get much of a sense of the PCT or what it takes to hike the PCT. This is partly because, and I don't Strayed would disagree with this, she didn't exactly know what she was doing when she set out.  Her first day on the trail begins with her packing and trying on the pack she would carry for the next few months for the first time. Admittedly I do not know much about hiking and the only backpacking I've done was backpacking across Europe a few times, but even I knew to test out a full pack before starting my trip (to make sure I could handle the weight).  Her pack is ridiculously overweight, a fact that does not go unnoticed by the many people she encounters on the trail.  She brings the wrong fuel for her camp stove and an ice ax that she doesn't know how to use. At one point a fellow hiker on the trail calls her the hapless hiker, a most suitable nickname.  The fact that she survived this trip without serious injury is remarkable in itself (that is if you don’t include her poor her feet which were squeezed into boots that were too small for a significant part of her trip).  

The travel story was also problematic because for me at least, I never got a sense of what it felt like to hike the PCT.  The trail itself just didn’t come through.  I know now that there are deserts and mountains, that the trail is sometimes hot and cold, but the full picture never materialized.  Obviously, this is a very personal response.  In contrast, when Strayed describes being at her dying mother’s side I felt like I was in the room with them.

What I did get a sense of was Strayed herself. Hapless hiker she may have been, but she was also incredibly brave and determined.  This was clear even when Strayed was in her self-destruct mode.  This is period before the hike, when Strayed was mourning her beloved mother who died of cancer.  After her mother's death Strayed fell apart and she went into self-destruct mode which manifested in doing things like cheating on her husband and shooting heroin.  Hiking the PCT was her reset button.  Getting away from everything and everybody seems to have been what she needed to start her life over from a healthier place.

Notwithstanding the personal story about her mother and her family, something was missing in Wild. The story begins with Strayed in this emotionally bad place (in mourning, recently divorced, doing heroin) and ends with her at the Bridge of the Gods ready to pursue her dream of being a writer, no longer needing heroin, and generally with a new lease of life, but there wasn’t a clear sense of how Strayed went from point A to point Z, of her change process.  In contrast in McCarthy’s memoir his thought process plays out against the canvas of his travels.  In Strayed’s case she starts out one way and at the end of the hike, she’s different.  She bounces between the past before the trail and her present on the trail, but the thread connecting them is tenuous as most of her reflections about her life choices seem to have come after the hike, not during the hike.  She’s a different person, a healthier person at the end of her adventure, but it is not clear how she became that person.  In fact at times it seemed like the hike was something that happened in the middle of her life, like a commercial break during a television show that had little to do with what happened before or after the hike.  Conqequently Wild seemed like two unconnected stories, neither of which was wholly satisfying.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down by Andrew McCarthy

The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down

The Longest Way Home is part travelogue and part personal memoir.  Long time travel writer (and of course actor) Andrew McCarthy chronicles his quest to find the courage and the strength to give himself more fully to his fiancee (now wife) and two children.  He struggles between wanting to be close to people, especially his family, and resisting the closeness.  Where his fiancee/wife loves being around people, McCarthy craves alone time.  There's a distance between him and the people around him, the distance being both figurative and literal.  After he and his fiancee decide they are finally going to actually get married, McCarthy plans a series of trips around the world, and when he wants to get away, he really gets away.  His trips take him to Patagonia, Kilimanjaro, Costa Rica, and the Amazon.  (Okay, he also goes to Vienna with his fiancee and soon to be in-laws and to Baltimore where his best friend grew up.)

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.  McCarthy's physical and personal journeys were interesting and easy to relate to.  His writing shifts easily between his literal and figurative journeys, much like the way one's minds work.  One minute he's looking at a flea and the next he's remembering a conversation with this fiancee.

I'm not giving anything away to say that he and fiancee eventually do make it to the altar, that is made clear at the beginning of the book, it is only a question of how he'll get there and what emotional shape he'll be in.  I can't remember the exact wording but there is an old adage about how no matter how far you run you can't outrun yourself.  That is more or less the situation in which McCarthy finds himself.  He could travel to the ends of the earth but he will still have to deal with himself.  As he travels McCarthy does just that, sorting himself out emotionally and mentally.  Reading McCarthy's story sparked my own wanderlust, figuratively and literally.  I have a feeling I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

Boy Toy

Barry Lyga's Boy Toy covers the difficult territory of child molestation.  The story vacillates between  Josh as a 12 soon to be 13 year-old and later when he's an 18-year-old high school senior.  At the age 12 Josh meets Eve Sherman, his history teacher and the woman who would introduce him to sex before he reached his teen years. 

Almost as disturbing as reading about Eve's seduction and molestation of a child, was reading about the reaction of Josh's parents, the police and prosecutor.  Understandably Josh's parents, police and prosecutor want to see Josh's molester convicted and sent to prison.  The problem is they are so wrapped up in achieving their goals that no one pays much attention to how Josh feels.  He is reluctant to cooperate and no one really asks or seems to care why.  Instead they threaten him and make him feel guilty for not helping them more.  For years afterward he blames himself for what happened between him and Eve, not realizing he was victimized.

"I was molested. When I was twelve. And everyone in the world knew it except for me."

I found this story to be powerful and heartbreaking, but also hopeful.  At the age of 18 Josh is struggling.  He doesn't trust himself and is only beginning to heal.  Lyga's writing is emotionally compelling and raw.  One might argue that the parents and other adults are a little one-dimensional.  On the other hand, given that the story is told from Josh's point of view the less than fully realized adults makes sense in context.  In sum, though the subject matter is difficult, I wholeheartedly recommend Boy Toy

Friday, November 30, 2012

I'm a NaNoWriMo Winner!

At the beginning of November I decided to write a novel.  I did it in connection with National Novel Writing Month where thousands (maybe millions) of people aimed to write at least 50,000 words in thirty days.  I wrote 673 words the first day then, well I didn't exactly forget about it, I just got busy.  The NaNoWriMo website has this nifty little statistics widget that tells novel writers how many total words they've written so far, number of words written that day, daily average of words written, how many words are left till the 50,000 goal is reached, and the the predicted time a writer will finish if he or she continues writing at the then current average.  other information.  On day four I logged in to the the website and found that I was far behind.  With a measly 673 words written, according to the numbers I wouldn't finish until mid-January!  From that day forward I made myself sit down and write everyday.  It wasn't easy.  There were many nights spent writing to midnight trying to meet my word count for the day. Eventually, on November 27th, I finished, coming in at 50,457!

Now, whether what I wrote is any good, whether it will ever see the light of day - that I don't know.  November was for writing, next month will be the beginning of the editing.  No matter how it turns out I'm glad I wrote it.  I have always wanted to write.  I've always thought there was a story or two inside me.  Many times I started to write, opened to a new page in a notebook to jot down my ideas, a new Microsoft document, but then I would I always get distracted.  National Novel Writing Month provided the necessary motivation.  So thank you National Novel Writing Month, thank you.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

The Silver Linings Playbook (movie tie-in edition)

I picked up The Silver Linings Playbook because (1) there is a moving version of the book coming out (or maybe it is out now) staring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, two actors whose work I enjoy and (2) someone on Goodreads described it as "the adult Perks of Being a Wallflower," a book that I love.  The story begins with Pat's mother picking him up for the neural mental health facility where's he been staying for awhile.  Pat thinks he was in the "bad place" for about year when actually much more time has passed and a lot has happened while Pat was his way.  When he comes out of the facility, he is surprisingly upbeat.  That's because Pat believes in silver linings and happy endings and that if he works hard to improve himself then "apart time" with his estranged wife will end and they will be reunited and live happily ever after.  He fully commits to achieving his goal, working out for hours at a time and practising being kind rather than being right. 

One of things I liked about this story is that it doesn't take place in a vacuum.  After leaving the institution Pat moves in with his parents where he gets a front row seat to his parents crumbling marriage.  He has to deal with a father who barely talks to him.  His friends and his brother have all progressed in their lives, causing Pat to wonder about all the things he missed while institutionalized.  And then there's Tiffany, Pat's best friend's sister-in-law.  Tiffany has some mental issues of her own to deal with.  Perhaps more than anyone she understands what it is to lose one's mind.

Another interesting aspect of the story is how it uses physicality and movement to represent emotion, healing, and a person's mental status.   For instance, in effort to make himself more attractive to his estranged wife Pat works out for several hours a day, running ten miles at a time and doing so many sit ups my abs hurt reading about it.  In other areas of his life he struggles, but the exercise routine seems to be the one thing he can control so he clings to it.  Tiffany, a modern dancer, choreographs a dance routine to demonstrate how she has danced away her depression.  (I'm really looking forward to seeing this dance routine in the movie, in the book it sounded awesome!)

Pat not only tries to improve himself physically.  In his attempt to become a better person he also decides to read some of the classics his estranged wife, an English teacher, always talked about.  Pat's reactions to books like Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye are priceless.  Let's just say he is appalled at the many unhappy endings he comes across.

While I'm not sure I would call this the adults Perks I did very much enjoy this book.  It isn't a happy book, being that it deals with depression, fragile mental health and other serious issues, but it is funny in that way that real life can be funny and tragic at the same time.  Pat is sincere, though not always a reliable narrator.  I couldn't help but root for him.  I hope the movie does a good job bringing this story to the screen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

I never heard of Mindy Kaling before this fall.  I know she's on The Office but I have yet to see a full episode.  In my defense I have seen the original (that is, the British) Office.  Yes I know the American version is supposed to be a great show.  It will probably end up in my Netflix queue one day, but for now there's The Mindy Project.  After seeing the first episode and loving it I ran out and bought her book.  It's part memoir and part a series of lists, and overall a good read.  It did a get a little slow in the middle, but picked up toward the end.  If you need a quick laugh, this might be just what you're looking for.

Monday, November 12, 2012

National Novel Writing Month

Generic 180x180

I haven't been able to read as much this month because I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month.  Thousands of people around the world have signed up to write at least 50,000 words in 30 days.  As I participate in this I have gained an even greater appreciation for writers.  It's hard work.  Participating in National Novel Writing makes it a little easier.  Knowing that so many people are writing at the same time creates a sense of community.  It is encouraging.  Having a deadline helps to.  So far it has been a lot of fun.  I'm about 20,000 words in and have a ways to go.  Wish me luck!

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Kindle Edition)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the original spy thriller.  I have to admit that I saw the movie first and I'm glad I did.  The story was confusing at times and being able to picture the actors playing the characters helped.  Aside from the confusion, I did enjoy the writing in Tinker Tailor.  It is very subtle.  This is a spy thriller but the action is muted.  There is also the language.  If my understanding is correct Le Carré invented the language of the modern spy thriller. 

The plot is simple but the story is complicated.  Almost retired George Smiley is called back into action to hunt for a mole.  There is a suspicion that the Soviets have a mole that has made it up into the upper echelons of British intelligence.  Arguably what happens isn't so much important as the characters.  It takes a certain kind of personality to not only survive but thrive in the secretive world of intelligence where everyone is lying or least keeping secrets.  Le Carré creates a cast of interesting characters that aren't what I expected.  There is no super spy.  If you're expecting the likes of James Bond, look elsewhere.  There are no flashy cars and very little gun play.  George Smiley is the exact opposite of James Bond.  In fact ordinariness seems to be the key to being a successful spy and maintaining a spy network. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first in a trilogy.  I'm not sure if I'll read the rest of trilogy but I'm glad I read this.  At the very least I got to a read a classic.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Talulla Rising by Glen Duncan

Talulla Rising

Talulla Rising is the sequel to The Last Werewolf.  It picks up nine or so months later with Talulla giving birth to a son and a daughter.  The former is ripped from her arms and the rest of the book is more or less about Talulla searching for and trying to get her son back and keep both her children safe. 

My reaction to Talulla Rising was all over the place.  I liked it.  I didn't like it.  Duncan doesn't write women quite as well as he writes men.  I mean Jake's world weary voice in The Last Werewolf was near perfect, but he was less successful writing the female Talulla.  I can't put my finger on it but there was something missing with Talulla; she was just a bit flat.  That being said, the book was best when Talulla was on her own figuring out her next move.  For the most part it moves pretty quickly with lost of action, which for the most part kept me wanting to read more, except when Talulla was plotting with other characters then things got a bit slow. 

Speaking of other character, in the first book of this planned trilogy we were led to believe that Jake Marlowe was the last werewolf.  Then suddenly there was Talulla, and in this second book even more werewolf characters are introduced.  The species appears to no longer be in danger of extinction.  Even though there was an explanation for the jump in werewolf numbers, the change was a bit jarring.  Further, werewolves, we were told in The Last Werewolf, are solitary animals but here they quickly form a pack.  It seemed a little bit too easy how everyone became friends and family so quickly.

It should be noted that Talulla Rising contains loads of violence, really violent violence.  There was one point when I had to stop reading because I was so grossed out by the many ways the author came up with to describe the torture that can be inflicted on a human body (and I'm not even talking about the werewolves eating people thing).  I suppose this falls into the horror genre so the violence shouldn't be a surprise but as someone who hasn't read many horror novels, I was surprised.

In sum, I liked Talulla Rising and at times I didn't, and I will definitely be reading the next novel in Glen Duncan's werewolf series.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

So Many Books, So Little Time or Tackling My Unread Pile

I am avid reader and book collector.  Every book I acquire personally (as opposed to those are given to me) I do so with the intention of reading.  Notwithstanding my good (reading) intentions, in the corner of my living room there is a pile of unread books.  As the pile grew it came to represent a certain degree of failure and waste on my part.  I mean in some case years have gone by before I got around to reading them.  One day I decided enough is enough and I resolved to get those books read, so I made a list.

I estimated that there were maybe forty books in the pile but after writing down the titles of all the books on a legal pad it turned out there were ninety-three books.    Undaunted I started reading books and scratching them off my list.  This worked for awhile.  The pile shrunk to somewhere in the mid-sixties.  Then I attended my first American Library Association (ALA) conference (where publishers give books away) my list once again grew to about 125.  At the beginning of the year my goal was to get the list down to under 100, but after a second ALA conference (along with continued book buying) the list and the pile grew to 175.  I also joined Goodreads where among other things you can keep track of the books you have read, are reading, and want to read.  I also started going to the library more and when I couldn’t get a book right away I signed up for the waitlist.  The net effect was that not only had my unread pile gotten even bigger but the number of lists had grown from one to three.  It was time for a new plan.

First, I have embraced my Goodreads list and the library waitlist.  Once I’ve bought a book I feel obligated to read it.  It is rare that I’ll discard it without at least giving it a try, but with Goodreads and the library I can delete books from the list without guilt.  Even if the book stays on the list for years it doesn’t bother me since I don’t have a physical reminder of it sitting in my living room.  I still want to reduce the pile of unread books in my living room and these electronic lists help me to note books that I am interested in without spending money on books I doubt I’ll actually read in the near future.  Along with using the library and Goodreads more, I’ve tried to not buy a book unless I actually plan to read it within the next couple of weeks.

There is still the matter of the unread pile.  So second, I decided to pick out ten to fifteen books at a time and decide those are the books I’m going to focus on for the next few weeks or months or however long it takes to get through them.  It makes the overall pile seem less daunting.  My unread pile is down to 149.  I’m not going to make it to 100 by the end of the year, but the pile is slowly getting smaller.

Third, I realized there are always going to be books I want to read.  New books are published every year.  Furthermore, there are a million books that have already been published that I have just now discovered, and thus, I am never going to catch up.  I am never going to finish my unread pile, and that’s okay.  In fact, it is great because it means I’ll never run out of books to read. 
I am wondering how other people deal with their to read list and how they feel about it.  Any thoughts?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Winner Stands Alone by Paulo Coelho

The Winner Stands Alone

Paulo Coelho has written books that I have loved − The Witch of Portobello and Veronika Decides to Die.  Even with the books that I liked but didn't love I was grateful for the experience of reading them because I felt liked I learned something.  Above all Coelho's writing makes me think.  With his latest The Winner Stands Alone all I could think throughout reading it was that Coelho must have been in a really bad mood when he wrote this.  He must have gone to a film festival and just had the most miserable experience ever.

The Winner Stands Alone is set at the Cannes Film Festival and everyone there is shallow, selfish, and scheming to get ahead even if means hurting someone else.  It is not that I doubt that a spectacle like the Cannes Film Festival could bring out the worse in people, what with the slavish attention on celebrity, fame, and money, but in Coelho's version that is all there is.  Almost every character is devoid of any redeeming traits.  They are all caricatures of various degrees of greed and evil.  No one is at the film festival because they actually like movies or art.  It is simply about money and power.  Again, I don't doubt that to a certain degree this is true of Cannes or of the entertainment industry by extension, but the characters in The Winner Stands Alone are so shallow and so one dimensional that nothing about the novel seems to ring true.  Few of the characters are likable and while I don't have to like a character to enjoy a book,  I have to be able to relate to them in someway and here that was hard to do. There has to be some humanity within the character, something to latch onto.  I had a hard time caring or relating to any of the characters in the novel.

Igor is in many ways the downfall of the novel.  He is a Russian billionaire who cannot understand why his wife left him after finding out that on occasion he liked to free people of their sad existence by murdering them.  He goes to Cannes with the intention of "destroying worlds" in an effort to show her how much he loves her and that he would do anything to get her back.  Understandably Ewa is terrified of her ex-husband.  She works up the courage to leave him, but thereafter she shuts down.  Most of her "dialogue" in the book reflects her internal thoughts rather than actual conversations with people who might be able to help her.  When she realizes that Igor is in Cannes instead of saying something to anyone, she says nothing and wonders why her new husband can't read her mind. 

Even the characters I was presumably suppose to root for like Gabriela the aspiring actress, Maureen the aspiring director, or Jasmine the aspiring model, weren't enough to fully draw me in to the novel.  The world Coelho created was so unreal that even these more likeable characters weren't enough to make me care much what happened to them.  On a side note, it is kind of interesting that all more likeable characters are young women aspiring to join an industry that in Coelho's vision will likely lead to a future of botox, and that there are no male equivalents to them.

I'm not giving up on Paulo Coelho.  As noted above he has written books that I loved, namely The Witch of Portobello and Veronika Decides to Die.  He is probably best known for The Alchemist.  So if The Winner Stands Alone does not capture your interest and give one of these other books a try.

Recommended instead
The Witch of Portobello  Veronika Decides to Die The Alchemist

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I first read The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2001 and fell in love with it.  I don't know how to describe this book without sounding trite.  Yes it is about a teenager named Charlie who feels like an outsider, but that description barely scratches the surface.  Charlie is quiet and anxious and spends a lot of time in his head. You know something is wrong, that Charlie isn't just dealing with normal teenage angst, but it takes awhile to find out that that something is.  But Charlie keeps trying, which is one of the things I liked about this character.  He reaches out and make friends, and it helps, but that doesn't make everything alright or solve all his problems.

When I heard this beloved book was being made into a movie, I was worried.  This is one of my favorite books of all time and I didn't want a movie adaption to ruin it.  Turns there was nothing to worry about.  The movie was fantastic.  I loved it almost as much I loved the book.  Chbosky wrote the screenplay which is probably why the movie turned out so well.  The acting was great, and the music was perfect.  Seriously, read this book.  Watch this movie.  They're amazing.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dr. Who - Epilogue About Rory's Dad

Fans of Doctor Who watched as the Doctor and the Ponds said their farewells a few weeks ago.  Here is a brilliant epilogue about what happened to Rory's dad.

The White Lioness by Henning Mankell

The White Lioness (Kurt Wallander Series #3)

Henning Mankell does not write ordinary mysteries.  There is always a bigger picture, sometimes international in scope.  The White Lioness is no exception.  It begins with the execution style murder of an ordinary woman in Sweden.  She is a wife, a mother of two young daughters, a real estate agent, and a frequent church goer.  Nothing about her life explains why someone would execute her.  As Mankell's conflicted somewhat depressed detective Kurt Wallander tries to find her killer, a half a world way in South Africa, a secret committee is plotting to assassinate Nelson Mandela.  As crazy as it sounds the story works and it all comes together.

Wallander himself is the best part of the story.  I read somewhere about how detectives in mystery novels are always these solitary characters with disastrous personal lives and perhaps a drug or alcohol problem.  Wallander definitely fits that description.  He is divorced and has strained relationships with his daughter and with his own father.  He drinks too much and on his best day seems mildly depressed.  Although he chose to become a detective and does work that he values, it is a job that affects him deeply and brings him great sadness.  When the body of the woman in this story is found murdered Wallander seems to mourn her almost as much as her family does.

My only criticism was that at times it seemed a little like the Keystone Kops were investigating the case. For instance, Wallander visits the apartment of a couple who he suspects has been providing shelter to a man connected to the murder investigation. Instead of calling his colleagues a letting them know straight away so they can stake out the apartment and catch the suspect when he returns to the apartment, Wallander decides to go have lunch with his daughter. By the time he and his colleagues return to the apartment the next morning, surprise, the suspect and the couple have come and gone. Later Wallander sends a two-page telex to his counterparts in South Africa. Due to technical problems and human error only one page makes it through. Everyone who reads the one page telex comments that its ending was odd and abrupt but it occurs to no one that there may have been a second page. No one calls Wallander to check if there was more information he could add.  But this is a minor problem, and perhaps it shouldn't even be seen as a problem as these foibles help to humanize the characters. Overall I greatly enjoyed the book. Mankell handled the different viewpoints of multiple characters really well, including the villains.  In the end the various subplots came together in a believable manner.  I look forward to reading the next entry in the Kurt Wallander series.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Soulless (Parasol Protectorate Series #1)

There's something about steampunk that's intriguing.  New to this genre, I picked up Soulless because it appears on several steampunk book lists.  Plus I loved the cover.  Soulless was not quite what I expected.  It had elements of steampunk, but most of all it was a paranormal romance full of vampires, werewolves and a preternatural.  The female half of the romance takes the form of Alexia Tarabotti.  A few pertinent facts about Miss Tarabotti.  She's half Italian which in this world means she a little too smart, a little too spirited and a little too olive skinned.  She is 26-years-old and unmarried, and therefore a spinster of which her mother and sisters are somewhat embarrassed.  Lastly, she is a preternatural, meaning she has no soul. 

I am not new to the various mythologies of werewolves and vampires, but preternatural beings were new for me.  Along with having no soul, Miss Tarabotti's preternatural status allows her to neutralize supernatural beings.  All she has to do is touch a vampire or werewolf and he or she  becomes human.  The effect is temporary, only lasting as long as there is physical contact between Miss Tarabotti and the supernatural being. 

The not having soul thing kind of stumped me.  It was explained that most humans had an adequate amount of soul.  Vampires, werewolves, and ghosts were said to have so much soul that they refused to completely die, hence their immortal status.  Not every human could survive the transformation from human to supernatural, only those with a little extra soul could make the journey.  This was not enough of an explanation for me.  I wanted Carriger to explain a bit more about what having or not having a soul really meant.  I mean Miss Tarabotti is intelligent, witty, and fashionable.  She is not mean spirited or ill tempered.  She is quite fond of tea and treacle tarts.  In fact, aside from her ability to touch a vampire and cause his/her fangs to retract or a werewolf and cause him/her to be unable to transform, there doesn't seem to much that sets Miss Tarbotti apart from other beings, which leads to the question, what does it mean to not have a soul?

Notwithstanding the lack of Miss Tarabotti's soul, Soulless was a pleasant enough romance.  It was a bit slow to start but picked up toward the end. I was hoping for more mystery but got romance instead.  As for the romance, the banter between Miss Tarbotti and her beau was charming.  I am not sure how representative Soulless if of the steampunk genre, but I am interested in reading more steampunk.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Grave Sight (Harper Connelly Series #1)

Grave Sight is the first in the Harper Connelly series by Charlaine Harris, the author behind the Southern Vampire/ Sookie Stackhouse series.  In this series there are no supernatural beings, but that isn't to say that Harper Connelly isn't special.  After being struck by lightening Harper found she had a gift for finding dead bodies and seeing how they died - not who killed them or why, but physically how.  She and her stepbrother Tolliver travel around finding bodies for a fee, along the way solving a murder or two or three.

The novel opens with Harper and Tolliver in a small town called Sarne.  Harper has been hired to locate the body of Teenie Hopkins, a teenage girl who disappeared months earlier, around the time her boyfriend Dell's body was found in the woods.  The assumption is that Dell killed Teenie then himself, but Harper casts doubt on what previously people were fairly certain about and some are not happy about that.  Even though she was hired to find Teenie no one in Sarne really wants Harper there.  Some people think her gift is evil and others believe she and her brother are taking advantage of people, but they can't ignore the fact the results of her gift.   

This was a quick and easy read; good but not great.  Maybe it isn't fair but I couldn't help but compare this to the Southern Vampire series.  Like Sookie Stackhouse, Harper Connelly has a gift that tends to freak people out.  Both had troubling childhoods.  In every novel either Sookie or someone she cares about finds themselves in a life threatening situation.  Bon Temps with all its vampires, werewolves, fairies and ordinary humans is a violent one.  Yet somehow the Southern Vampire series is also funny and thought provoking.  Sookie manages to stay upbeat and positive usually.  She's also smart, resourceful and though she doesn't have super strength, she's strong.

In contrast, Harper, her brother Tolliver, and the world they inhabit is much more solemn.  Most of the time Harper seems to be either panicking, about to faint, or angry.  I alternated between being mildly annoyed by her and mildly sympathetic.  In any case the feeling was always mild - she just wasn't that compelling of a character.  But to be fair, this was the first entry in this series so perhaps Harper's character will come together more in later novels.  I can get past the solemn (even depressing) nature of the book, so long as the overall story is compelling.  The plot here wasn't that interesting but knowing Harris's other work I would be willing to give the next entry in this series a try.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

Deadlocked (Sookie Stackhouse / Southern Vampire Series #12)

Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris is the twelfth novel in the Southern Vampire series.  I am a big fan of Sookie, the Southern Vampire series, and True Blood and was eagerly looking forward to this book.  The major plot piece involves the murder of Kym Rowe, a half human/half were animal, on  Eric Northman's property.  For those unfamiliar with the series, Eric is a vampire and Sookie's boyfriend.  Moments before coming to her demise, Sookie caught Eric drinking from Kym.  To make matters more complicated Eric was entertaining Felipe de Castro, the powerful vampire King of Louisiana, Arkansas and Nevada, when Kym was killed.  Aside from  this murder mystery, Sookie is deciding what to wish for.  In the previous novel in this series, Dead Reckoning, Sookie found a magical object called a cluviel dor in an old piece of her grandmother's furniture.  The cluviel dor is a magical object from the fae world that allows the possessor one wish.  Though she has kept her discovery of this object a secret it seems multiple beings have become aware or at least suspect that Sookie has it.  Another concern is Eric's potential marriage to a vampire queen.  Politically the marriage would be the perfect match, benefitting both Eric and his potential wife.  The question then is does Eric love power or Sookie more.

Though Deadlocked is not the best entry in the series I still enjoyed visiting Sookie's world for awhile.  Unlike other novels in this series, I never felt emotionally pulled into the story.  None of the mysteries or problems ever seemed that important, not even to Sookie.  More than anything this book felt like Harris was tying up loose ends left over from previous books, loose ends relating mostly to the fae world and Sookie's fae relatives.  My hope is that Harris was using this book to clear away some of the clutter and that the next book will be bring new changes and bigger mysteries to the series.  Here's hoping!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Magician King by Lev Grossman

The Magician King

The Magician King is the sequel to Lev Grossman's The Magicians.  Both borrow heavily from the Harry Potter and the Narnia series.  Like Harry Potter Quentin Coldwater finds that magic is real and soon matriculates at a Brakebills, a college for magicians.  Even better he discovers that Fillory, the Narnia like world he grew up reading about, is real. 

I had mixed feelings about The Magicians and have mixed feeling about this sequel, though I did like this one more.  The problem is Quentin, the main character of the series.  In the first book he is a smart and disillusioned teenager who wishes life was more like it is in the Fillory novels.  High school isn't so great, but then he gets into Brakebills and his life changes for the better.  Of course, everything isn't perfect.  Even in a world where magic is real bad things can happen, consequences have actions, and people die.  Still, overall Quentin gets almost everything he ever wanted.  The Magician King picks up where The Magicians left off, with Quentin essentially living his dream. He is one of the four royals who rule Fillory. He lives a life of luxury and ease, and he's bored.  Although his life isn't perfect, it is pretty great and he is still complaining.  It is difficult to feel sorry for him and very easy to be annoyed by him. 

The problem with Quentin is that he wants life to be like a book or a movie.  He want a high stakes adventure full of danger and close calls where he gets to play the part of the hero.  At the same time, he wants the safety of there always being a happy ending.  At the end of The Magicians it seems Quentin has learned his lesson - life can be full of adventure, but a happy ending isn't guaranteed.  In The Magician King it seems that Quentin has forgotten all that he learned.  He embarks on a mini-quest to an island to collect taxes from delinquent taxpayers.  He sets sail across the ocean, meets some new people and has a good time, but it is not enough.  So it is on to a second quest that begins with a magic key that opens a door that leads to who knows where.  Of course he goes without thinking and immediately regrets his decision.  Julia, another one of the royals, accompanies him, but really it's Quentin's story.

In addition to Quentin's quest there is a second plot thread centering around Julia.  A bit of background here - In The Magicians potential witches and wizards must take an entrance exam to get into magic college.  Those who pass are invited to attend Brakebills, and those who don't have their memories of the magic test erased and are sent back to resume their normal lives.  Quentin passed the exam and Julia didn't.  Somehow though the memory erasure spell didn't quite work on Julia and by the end of The Magicians she has found her way to the world of magic and becomes of the four royals (along with Quentin, Janet and Eliot) who rule Fillory.  Her journey left her damaged in some way that isn't entirely clear.  In The Magician King we find out how she fought her way to Fillory.  Like Quentin Julia is not the most likable character, but at least she is an interesting character.

Quentin and Julia take turns being the center of attention and of the two, I enjoyed Julia's story a bit more.  They both went on a kind of quest - Julia because she needed to, Quentin because he was bored.  In the end Quentin's quest turns out to be important for all of the magical world.  Once again Quentin gets his wish - an adventure where the stakes really matter and he gets to play the hero.  But the bigger picture of why Quentin's quest is important for everyone isn't made apparent till close to the end.  With Julia I always had a sense of what was at stake for her. 

I'm not entirely sure who to recommend this book to.  I guess if you liked Harry Potter and Narnia, there is a good chance you'll like this.  Personally I loved the Harry Potter series but was always a bit bored by Narnia.  Perhaps that is why I have such mixed feelings about this series.

Monday, September 10, 2012

More Baths Less Talking by Nick Hornby

More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself

More Baths Less Talking is a collection of Nick Hornby's columns from the magazine The Believer.  This is the fourth collection of his columns, covering the period from May 2010 to December 2011.  Each column begins with a list of the books he acquired that month and what books he actually read.  Like many people, or at least like me, Hornby's book buying is often more ambitions than time allows, resulting in the first list usually being longer than the second. 

I loved this collection.  It isn't just a collection of book reviews.  Hornby writes about books, reading and life, and well, just all of it.  It's funny, so funny that I smiled, chuckled and laughed, even while I was reading on the bus.  I couldn't help it.  As an added bonus I got a few suggestions for future reading adventures.

In addition to Hornby's collections of his Believer columns, I'm also fan of his fiction writing.  About a Boy is my favorite, closely followed by High Fidelity, both of which were made into movies that I also enjoyed.  It's hard to go wrong with a Hornby book.  Pick one up and you're unlikely to be disappointed.   

Earlier collections of Hornby's Believer columns
The Polysyllabic Spree
Housekeeping vs. the Dirt
Shakespeare Wrote for Money

Also recommended
About a Boy
High Fidelity
Juliet, Naked

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dr. Who - The Ponds are Leaving

As fans of Dr. Who probably already know, Amy and Rory will be leaving this season and the Doctor will have to find a new companion.  Amy and Rory have been two of my favorite companions and some of their episodes are among the best in my opinion.  (The Van Gogh episode might be favorite episode of all time; it's definitely in the top five.)  In this video from the Nerdist the cast talks about the impending exit of the Ponds.  Though I'm sad to see Amy and Rory leave, it looks like this season of Dr. Who is going to be an exciting one.

Nerdist News Exclusive: The Pond Farewell

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Once A Runner by John L. Parker, Jr.

Once a Runner

If you love running, Once A Runner might be for you.  There isn't much of a plot.  The writing is good, but not great, except when the writing is about the running, then it is pretty good.  Reading this book reminded me of what I have felt and thought about when running and training, especially the times when I've trained for a marathon.  Not that my training routine has ever been anything like what the runners do here in their quest to become champions. As a runner this book resonated with me.  However, I'm not sure if non-runners will necessarily be interested in this book.  At a minimum this book requires an interest in the minutiae of running, in tempo runs, strides and the rest.  If I wasn't already a runner myself, this would have been a lot less interesting.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Class by Cecily von Ziegesar


Cecily von Ziegesar is the author and creator of the Gossip Girl series which is good, trashy fun, and is usually shelved in the young adult section of at the local bookstore.   Class (also published as Cum Laude) is von Ziegesar’s attempt at an adult novel.  I expected something akin to Gossip Girl but more adult.  I was disappointed.  The characters were flat.  There was no growth over the course of the book.  The plot was...well, there wasn’t really much of a plot.  It was ridiculous and unbelievable.  Of course Gossip Girl is also on the ridiculous side, and yet its version of the upper east side is believable, at least for the brief time it takes to read there series.  Not a word of Class was believable.  So if you're in need of something fun and quick to read in between more hearty fare, the Gossip Girl series might be worth a look, but skip this.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairlyand in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

I picked up this book based purely on the title.  I mean, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making - what a fabulous title!  I'm happy to say that the story is equally as fabulous.  This is not a princess waiting for her prince kind of story.  Far from it.  Here is a girl on an adventure, trying new new things, making new friends, saving herself and others. 

This reminded me of the A Series of Unfortunate Events, another series I would heartily recommend.  Like the  Unfortunate Series books, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland was written up, and not down, to kids.  It is smart and funny.  At times it is melancholy, sad and there is even a hint of violence in the real world.  In other words, although about an adventure in fairy it deals with real feelings.

I quite enjoyed this book, but would think carefully about which little girls I would give this to.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Faithful Place by Tana French

Faithful Place (Dublin Murder Squad Series #3)

Faithful Place is the latest in Tana French's series of mysteries from the Dublin Murder Squad.  The story begins with Frank Mackey, a member of the undercover squad.  Twenty-two years ago he walked away from his family - mom, dad, and his five siblings - Shay, Carmel (Melly), Kevin and Jackie.  He was suppose to run away with his girl Rosie and the two of them were going to escape Faithful Place - a place where those lucky enough to have a job had a dead-end job and where many more were on the dole, a place where no one's life seemed to get any better or change.  He and Rosie were going to move to England and live happily ever after.  But on the night when they were to make their escape Rosie never showed.  It appeared that she had decided to go to England alone.  Frank figured it was because of his family; that Rosie finally realized how utterly insane the Mackey family was and wanted nothing to do with him or them.  Frank leaves anyway, without Rosie. He goes on with his life, becoming a cop, getting married, having a kid, getting divorced, all without a single phone call, postcard or visit to his family.  He thinks they are all horrible and blames them all for his losing Rosie, except for Jackie.  He talks to his baby sister on occasion on the theory that she was too young to be at fault for anything that happened.  But as to the rest of the Mackey family, he is content with never setting eyes on them again.  An 18-year-old thinking and feeling this way is understandable, at 40+ Frank came of to me as self-deluded and selfish. 

What finally brings Francis back to Faithful Place is Rosie's suitcase found among the ruins of one of the houses in Faithful Place. For twenty-two years everyone assumed that Rosie was enjoying her new life in England or wherever, that she had been the one to escape the poverty and the drama of families and neighbors fighting and screaming up and down the street that characterized Faithful Place.  When her suitcase is found and with the tickets to England still inside everyone begins to question their assumptions.  Did she go England?  Where is she now?  Maybe she never left Faithful Place, and if she didn't, what happened to her?

Faithful Place is one-half mystery and one-half domestic family melodrama.  The mystery was good, but not entirely mysterious.  I had a pretty good guess as to the identity of the murderer about half  way through and was certain after another fifty pages.  I spent the last third of the book trying to figure out the why and how and what Frank was going to do when he finally reached the same conclusion I had a hundred pages back. 

Notwithstanding the mystery of what happened to Rosie, and later why another character was murdered, a significant portion of the book is about Frank dealing with his family and all his emotional baggage from childhood. I liked the story even if I didn't like Frank much of the time.  I felt sorry for him, growing up in home with a physically abusive, alcoholic father and his placating mother, but it's like he thought that he was the only one who suffered.  Don't worry no spoilers - I'll just say part of the motive for the first murder centers around shattered dreams and familial responsibility.  Frank was one of five kids, but Frank seems to forget about the four others that grew up in the same house he did and what they endured.  There's one scene when Frank is dumping on Shay for the time when they were kids when Shay locked a young Frank and a 2-or-3-year-old Kevin in a dirty closet in a rundown house.  The kids were terrified and thought Shay was playing a cruel joke on them.  For Frank this is proof of what a bastard Shay was.  From Shay's perspective he was saving them from their father who had come home in an alcoholic rage and threatened to slit the throat of everyone in the house while they slept, especially the kids. Their mother and the oldest daughter Carmel held the dad off while Shay tried to get the younger kids out of the house.  Maybe sticking them in the closest wasn't the best option, but Shay himself was only 8 at the time, and it was the best he knew to do at the time.  For a detective, especially an undercover detective, one might think Frank would be better at seeing things from other people's points of view, or at least realizing their might be more to a story, but he never does.

Overall, I would recommend this book.  French is good at setting mood and atmosphere and at creating a believable world.  Her characters seem like real people, even if I wouldn't ever want to meet them or know them.  Faithful Place is evidence of all this.  This is her third book and French gets better with each one.  Her first two books are In the Woods and The Likeness, two books which are definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Recently I have become obsessed with bookplates - the labels that go inside the cover of book indicating ownership.  They’re a great way to identify your books, which is especially helpful when loaning or borrowing books.  They can also be a way to add a little bit of art into one’s life.  They can be simple with text on a solid color background or more artsy with pictures, drawings, or logos.

My search for bookplates began at my local bookstore.  With only four choices, the bookstore’s limited selection left much to be desired.  I then turned to the internet where I found a much larger selection.  One of the sites I found Etsy.  Etsy has a generous selection of handmade bookplates, many of which can be customized. 

The selection of customized bookplates made me wonder if I could make my own bookplates.  The simple answer seems to be yes.  One idea I had is to have stickers made using the services of Moo.  I just ordered a set of Moo mini cards, which are essentially business cards only smaller.  What I love about Moo cards is that they’re fun and unusual which I hope will make them stand out from the crowd of ordinary business cards.  One side has a design that I chose from among their huge selection (you can also use your own design or picture), and the other side has my contact details.  Anyway, Moo also makes stickers which I’m thinking might work well as bookplates.  Alternatively, I found simple instructions on how to make bookplates from multiple websites.  So now I’m trying to come up with designs so I can make my own bookplates.  When I've made a few I'll post them here.  If you have made any bookplates on your own, feel free to share them here.  I would love to see what others came up with.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic

I saw the movie Practical Magic years ago, but it is only now that I got around to reading the book.  It has been awhile since I saw that movie, but from what I can remember of the movie the book is completely different.  For those who have not seen the movie or read the book, the story centers around sisters Sally and Gillian and the generations of Owens women that came before and after them.  After their parents death, the sisters moved in with their elderly aunts.  For generations, the Owens women have been blamed for whatever went wrong in their Massachusetts town.  I can't remember if the word is ever actually uttered, but essentially the people think the Owens women are witches or at least that something is odd about them.  Unfortunately for Sally and Gillian this translates into being bullied and teased by the other children. 

Though they are as different as night and day, with no others friends the sisters cling to each other.  Gillian is carefree and careless.  She falls in and out of love, marries and remarries several times over, and drifts from one town to another.  With no responsible adults in sight, Sally becomes the responsible one in her aunt's house, insisting on vegetables at dinner and making sure laundry gets done.  As an adult Sally is cautious, craving a white picket fence and a town where people don't whisper witch or cross to the other side of the street when she walks by.  Both sisters seek to escape their aunts and their Massachusetts town.  For awhile they do but in very different ways.

This was a pleasure to read.   I would place it in the genre of magical realism, which is becoming a genre I like more and more.  If you like stories about women's lives, this is something you might consider picking up.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Girls: The Complete Collection by The Luna Brothers

Girls Complete Collection

I did not grow up reading comic books or graphic novels.  Although I love cartoons and superhero stories, it wasn't a format I ever really explored that much until recently.  Last year when DC Comics started its new 52 campaign, I decided to give comics a try.  I heard about Girls while listening to Aisha Tyler's Girl on Guy podcast (one of my favorite podcasts) where she interviewed Joshua and Jonathan Luna, the guys behind the story and art of Girls.  I was intrigued enough to give graphic novels a try.

I'm not quite sure what to think about Girls.  It is beautifully drawn and the story is interesting and compelling.  Once I started it I could hardly put it down.  It is a science-fiction story involving alien women who invade a small town.  They attack the human woman and seduce the men, and after said seduction lay eggs (yes eggs) that within a matter of hours yield more alien women clones.  The townspeople are trapped.  They work together, turn on each other, attack each each, save each other, and so on. 

I felt like the Luna Brothers were making a statement about women, men, relationships, authority, mob behavior, but I'm not exactly sure what that statement is.  The story begins and ends with a set of panels about the cycle of life, its beauty and ugliness and here some of the beauty and a lot of the ugliness is on full display, but what it all means in the end I couldn't tell you.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Headhunters by Jo Nesbø


The phrase that immediately came to mind after reading Jo Nesbø's Headhunters was comic thriller.  There's lots of thrilling action.  The action is horrifying and yet so absurd that it can only be read as funny. 

The story revolves around Roger Brown a very successful corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief.  The people he steals from are often the people who come to him looking for help finding their next CEO job.  At his wife's art gallery he is introduced to Clas Greve, a seemingly perfect candidate for the CEO job of a technology company that happens to need a CEO.  During his interrogation of Greve (Brown uses police style interrogation techniques to interview clients), Greve reveals that he owns a priceless painting.  He also reveals his past in the military where his job duties seem to have involved hunting down criminals (a different kind of headhunter if you will).  Everything about Greve screams danger (at least it did to me), but Brown cannot pass up the opportunity to steal the aforementioned priceless painting that could mean he would be set up financially for life.  While in the process of relieving Greve of his painting, Brown finds more than he bargained for, and so begins Brown's adventure, an adventure that involves an outhouse filled to the brim, mistaken identity, and duplicitous lovers.  There's a love triangle, or maybe its a quadrangle, or maybe it's corporate espionage - it constantly changes.  Nesbø keeps readers on his toes, with one plot twist after another.  I wish I was able to read Headhunters in the author's native language because I have a feeling it would be even funnier.

This was the first book by Nesbø that I've read and I look forward to reading more.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

An Object of Beauty

In a relatively few number of pages Steve Martin manages to touch on a variety of themes - art, its value, ambition, and a culture and way of life built on a bubble that like all bubbles is destined to burst at some point.  The story centers around a young woman with ambitions to not to only thrive but conquer in the competitive art world.  Not the making of art, mind you, but the selling of art.  The story takes place mostly in New York during the last decade of the 20th century and the first one of the 21st, but as it is a tale of the triumphs and misdeeds of an outsider making her way in and up, it is a timeless story and one readers will be familiar with.

Although it is Lacey Yeager's story, the tale is told by Daniel, a college friend and sometimes fling who is and always will be somewhat in awe of and little in love with her.  Lacey's career begins in the basement at Sotheby's but of course she is destined for better things.  As told by Daniel, the story is a bit cold and distant at times, but then so is Lacey.  While charming she is also calculating, and not always the most likable character, but she doesn't need to be.  Lacey is interesting and it isn't too difficult to understand Daniel's fascination with her.

In addition to telling us Lacey's story, Daniel/Martin gives readers a lesson in art and the business of art.  The book even includes twenty-two art reproductions.  Including reproductions of the art could have been gimmicky but here it worked.  In fact, I enjoyed learning about art and the art business as much as I enjoyed reading about Lacey's ups and downs.  Martin also did a great job of tying the story to real life events like 9/11, downturns in the stock market, and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, which had the effect of putting Lacey's story in perspective.

Aside from the story and the art, the main reason to pick of An Object of Beauty is the writing.  I adore Martin's writing.  It is conversational and soothing, as if someone were reading it aloud to me.  The words flowed and my attention never flagged.  I finished the book in two days and would finished sooner if not for having to go to work.  I would highly recommend this book. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Gambit by Rex Stout

Gambit (Nero Wolfe Series) Nero Wolfe - The Complete First Season

In the early 2000s there was a show on A&E called A Nero Wolfe Mystery (or sometimes just, Nero Wolfe) starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. I was a loyal watcher of the show, not only for the acting and writing, but also because of the general look of the show.  The costumes and sets were amazing.  The show also had an usual set up in that while the main characters and the actors playing them stayed the same from week to week, the rest of the cast played a different character each week depending on the particular story.  Although I was born long after the days when there was no tv and everyone listened to the radio, but watching the show often made me imagine what it would have been like to sit around the living room listening to a radio play.  Somehow the show seemed nostalgic and old-fashioned (in a good way) but sleek and modern at the same time.  In any case, it was through the tv show that I was introduced to Rex Stout, who wrote something like thirty-three novels and numerous short stories and novellas starring his famous private detectives, Nero Wolfe (played by Chaykin in the series) and Archie Goodwin (played by Hutton).  

Admittedly, the books in the series vary in quality.  The real attraction of the series are the characters.  The two main characters are in some ways a study of opposites.  There’s the cerebral, eccentric, Sherlock Holmes-like Nero Wolfe who is remembered as much for his intellect as his rotund size, the four hours a day he spends tending to his orchids (from 9 to 11 am and again from 4 to 6 pm), his gourmet appetites, his general preference not to be around women, and his even greater preference not to have to leave the confines of his home to the extent possible.  Playing opposite Wolfe is his assistant, Archie Goodwin, the younger, fitter, street smart detective who does most of the legwork (since Wolfe rarely leaves the house) and who in is his free time often find himself in the company of one young woman or another.  He is the narrator in the Wolfe stories but make no mistake, Goodwin is no Watson.  He is a man of action, with a near perfect memory, and a sixth-sense about people.  Together and operating out of their (or really Wolfe’s) New York brownstone on West 35th Street, they solve mysteries of all sorts.  Rounding out the cast of characters are Fritz, the live-in Swiss born chef who prepares Wolfe and Goodwin’s gourmet meals; Theodore Horstmann, Wolfe’s orchid expert; and Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather, three detectives ready to assist when called upon.  There’s also Inspector Cramer who has a fondness for chewing the ends of cigars but rarely smokes them, and his assistant, Sergeant Purley Stebbins.

I often pick up one of Rex Stout’s mysteries when I need something quick, light and entertaining.  This time I chose Gambit.  The novel takes its title from a chess move in which a player sacrifices a pawn or other chess piece in hopes of gaining an advantage.  Here, the victim is murdered while playing chess.  There is a bet that he can win while playing multiple games against multiple opponents without even seeing the chessboards.  He is kept in one room and his opponents in another, while messengers travel between rooms telling the soon-to-be-victim what moves his opponents have made and awaiting instructions as to how to respond.  Before he is able to prove his supposed chess superiority, the chess player is poisoned. Thus, the mystery begins with Wolfe and Goodwin on the case.

I can’t say Gambit was my favorite entry in the Nero Wolfe series, but I did enjoy it.  Much of the time the detectives find themselves with a theory that proves to be half-right, no evidence, and few leads to get them going.  Around the last thirty pages or so there’s a big hint as to the identity of the murder and then everything gets wrapped up pretty quickly.  There was a lot of Goodwin and Wolfe, but not much of the other regular cast of characters which made the story a little less exciting.  But then again, I wanted something quick and light and this served that purpose and I would still recommend giving Stout’s Nero Wolfe series a try, and would also recommend the excellent A&E television series.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

Over the years I have heard great things about Bel Canto from friends and strangers alike, so I had high expectations.  In the end, although I enjoyed the book, I did not love it as much as others seem to.  The plot revolves around a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country.  Leaders of the South American country hope to entice a Japanese company into building a factory in their country and so they invite the company's CEO to visit their country by throwing him a birthday party where his favorite opera singer will perform.  Other international guests also attend the dinner hoping to get in on the ground floor should a factory indeed be built.  Just after Ross finishes her last song, the lights go out and terrorists break in.  This all happens in the first few pages.  Over the next four-and-a-half months and the next three hundred plus pages, hostages and kidnappers live together in the house as the kidnappers make demands no government would ever meet.  Luckily there is one man who is fluent in multiple languages and therefore hostages (who come from around the world) and kidnappers are able to communicate.

Patchett's writing is beautiful.  As I read her words I kept wondering she ever wrote poetry because the writing in Bel Canto was so lyrical and melodic.  However, although I enjoyed the sentences about fifty pages in I was anxious to get to the end.  It felt like things were dragging on, that time was moving too slow, but then maybe that's how real hostages in a situation like this might feel.  Over time the hostages and kidnappers form relationships.  Everyone relaxes into a sort of routine, and again, maybe that's what it takes to survive in a situation like this.  Still it felt too romanticized.  There seemed to be to little fear on the part of the hostages.  Although Patchett did not paint the kidnappers as pure evil and was fairly non-judgmental and evenhanded in painting portraits of the hostages and kidnappers as a whole, I never once forget that the kidnappers, even though some were mere teenagers, were terrorists holding a house full of people hostage, and found it somewhat incredible that any of the hostages could ever forget that.  The parts that seemed most real was when various  hostages questioned their lives and decisions as evaluating one's life does seem like a realistic thing a person might do when faced with death. 

The ending seemed fitting (and early on it is more or less made clear how things will end, how these situations usually end).  And then came an epilogue which came out of nowhere and made little sense to me.  Overall, I liked the writing (except the epilogue) even if I didn't fully buy into the story.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

Haruki Murakami is a runner and a writer.  I am also a runner, like to write, and love to read about (among other things) running, so this book was pretty much perfect for me.  In this slim volume Murakami writes about running, writing, and getting older  He writes about the pain and beauty, the satisfaction and triumph, and the workmanlike dedication to train and achieve a goal, whether the goal is running a marathon, completing a triathlon or writing a novel.  He also writes about the undeniably affect of growing older, but still continuing to move forward even if it means moving a bit slower than before.

As a runner, I totally got where Murakami was coming from.  When I run I think about everything and nothing.  Sometimes I am working out a solution to a problem or planning the rest of my day.  Sometimes I imagine myself in some sort of adventure where I have to save the day.  And sometimes I just concentrate on each footfall and each breath.  At times I've experienced the runner's blues, as Murakami calls it, and found it hard to put on my sneakers and get out the door.  But like Murakami, I keep going, because that's what you do.  You keep going.  You run through it.  Soon you find yourself on the other side of the runner's blues, and full of energy and enthusiasm once again.  Reading Murakami was reminder of this and has inspired me to recommit not only to running, but to a few other projects I've been working on halfheartedly.

I haven't yet read any of Murakami's fiction (though I plan to) so I cannot compare this to his other work.  I can say that you don't need to be a runner to read this.  If you enjoy good writing, if you know what it is to like to slog through good and bad days as you work to achieve a goal, whatever that goal is, give this book a try.  It is well worth the read.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me by Mike Birbiglia

Sleepwalk with Me: And Other Painfully True Stories

I first heard Mike Birbiglia while listening to This American Life in my car and have been a fan ever since.  He describes himself as a comedian, but I just think of him as a storyteller and I love a good story.  Sleepwalk With Me did not disappoint.  I literally laughed out loud while reading this book.  Many of the stories in this book will be familiar to those who have heard Birbiglia on This American Life, The Moth or any of the other shows he’s been on.  Despite being familiar with the stories I still laughed the second time around. Even when he is describing an awkward, dangerous or emotionally difficult situation, Birbiglia manages to make it funny.  So if you’re in the mood for a good laugh, pick this up.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Talking about Detective Fiction

P. D. James is one of my favorite authors.  I was introduced to her work by Masterpiece Theater on PBS, which many years ago broadcast the film version of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.  I loved the film and when I found it was based on book, ran out and got the book.  (I don't mind reading book even I already know the ending.  For me it's more about the journey, and how the author gets me from the beginning to the end.)  After reading that first book, I was hooked and made a point to read all of James's fiction.

This is the first of James's nonfiction works that I've read.  It is not a definitive book on the subject of detective fiction, but is rather like a love letter to the genre.  She introduces some of the key writers in the field and the detectives they created, and also provides a bit of insight into her own writing process.  For anyone who is a fan of James's work or of detective fiction, this short read is definitely worthwhile.

P. D. James has written several novels.  Her most famous detective is Adam Dalgliesh who finds time to write poetry in between solving murder cases.  Although I love the Dalgliesh books, I am more partial to Cordelia Gray, an amateur private detective.  Unfortunately Gray is featured in only two of James's work: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin.  Other favorites include Original Sin, The Children of Men and The Private Patient

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)

A Discovery of Witches centers around Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch.  Following the death of her parents, Diana, the last in a long line of powerful witches, has avoided using her powers, preferring to live a solely human life devoid of magic.  She has made a career as a science historian, with a particular interest in alchemy and seems to spend much of her time researching old books in beautiful libraries, like the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  In the course of her research she comes across a mysterious book that attracts witches, vampires and demons (or daemons as they are referred to in the book).  For some reason they all want this book, a book that no one has seen for centuries until Diana came along and unintentionally unlocked the magic that had kept it hidden for centuries.  It as the Bodleian that Diana meets the vampire Matthew Clairmont.  At first wary of him, Diana quickly falls under his spell or maybe it's the other way around.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book when Diana is at the Bodleian the most.  (As a librarian and book lover I hope to visit this amazing library someday.)  I also liked reading about the differences between the vampires, witches and demons.  Where the book lost me was the romance between Diana and Matthew.  The last two-thirds of A Discovery of Witches reminded me of the Twilight series only with adults but oddly just as chaste.  I means there's a girl/woman and the vampire she falls in love with about five seconds after he walks into her life.  Before she and Matthew became a serious item, Diana seemed to be a strong and independent woman with interests and hobbies of her own.  With Matthew she quickly becomes the damsel in distress in need of constant rescue.  She is a powerful of witch but denies who and what she is, and it is only with Matthew's help (or one might say at his command) that she begins to explore her own power.  My irritation with the central characters grew and their romance blossomed.

This book has a lot going on, in addition to the romance.  Diana it seems is a very special witch, but it isn't clear why.  Nor is is clear why the mysterious book Diana found is so important or why witch, vampire and demon are all so desperate to get their hands on it.  A Discovery of Witches is the first in a planned trilogy.  I'm not quite sure yet if I'm intrigued enough by the other plot threads to get past the romance and continue the trilogy.