Monday, December 30, 2013

Shattered by Dani Pettrey

Shattered Reef is the prodigal son (or rather brother) of the McKenna family, having left home at 18 to pursue a career as a professional athlete against his family's wishes.  One night he unexpectedly appears on his sisters' doorstep covered in blood.  It isn't too long before the police come knocking on the McKenna's door to arrest him for the murder of Karli Davis, a fellow athlete. 

In addition to Reef, the McKenna family consists of Cole, Gage, Kayden, and Piper.  Also along for the ride are Jake who works at the adventure store the McKennas (minus Reef) run, police detective Landon who is also Cole's best friend, and eventually Darcy, a sports reporter.  Despite the mountain of evidence against Reef, Piper is completely convinced her brother is innocent.  The rest of Reef's family and friends have their doubts, but with Piper determined to prove her brother's innocence the rest of the group follows Piper's lead if only to protect her from getting hurt.

Christian, romance, suspense - these are the three adjectives that seem to get attached to Shattered (which is the second entry in Dani Pettrey's Alaskan Courage series) the most often.  For me the suspense aspect is what worked the best.  The victim, Karli Davis, is much more than she appears.  The investigation into her life and death leads to the world of professional winter sports, an outlaw motorcycle gang, and a suspicious pharmaceutical company.  It sounds like everything and the kitchen sink but it worked.  Each new revelation about Karli's past was intriguing.  Following the McKennas and company as they tried to work out who wanted Karli dead and why was a wild ride.  It is because of this aspect of the book that I would recommend Shattered to anyone looking for a suspense filled story with a little action and mystery mixed in.

The romance aspect of Shattered did not work as well.  Piper and Landon are the couple at the center of this story.  As Cole's best friend, Landon watched Piper grow up.  As Cole was falling in love with Bailey in Submerged (book one in the Alaskan Courage series) Landon found himself developing feelings for the woman he once considered something of a little sister.  For various reasons he decided not to act on those feelings.  In the meantime, Piper is dating Denny.  Landon does not approve of Denny.  He considers Denny to be something of a player, though the only evidence ever given to support this characterization is that Denny is wealthy and used to getting his own way.  When Denny takes Piper on a romantic picnic (and although Denny has never tried anything with Piper), Landon shows up and literally drags her away from her date.  I suppose this was meant to show how much Landon cared about Piper, but it came off as more caveman than caring.  Seriously, I reread the scene to check if he had dragged her by her hair or her arm.  Throughout their so-called romance Landon is condescending and controlling.  He may be acting out of a good place (to protect Piper) but that doesn't excuse his behavior or the way he speaks to her.

The Christian aspect was also somewhat disappointing.  There are lots of examples of people turning to God for help (and that's great), but there was also a lot of judgmental posturing.  There were two instances of this that bothered me in particular.  The first involved Kayden and Jake. 

Jake isn't from Yancey, Alaska but he has lived there for the past few years.  Still, in a small town like Yancey a person could live there for years and still be considered an outsider.  Now Jake's backstory hasn't been revealed yet (that's coming in book four I hear) but so far he appears to be a good guy.  He works at the McKenna store.  When the McKenna's need help, Jake is there to lend a hand.  While the rest of McKenna family considered Jake to be a friend, Kayden is openly hostile for no apparent reason other than that Jake isn't from Yancey.  At one point when they're discussing the investigation Kayden insinuates that Jake is a criminal because only a criminal would say whatever Jake said.  Jake says that he is not criminal and Kayden says something like "and we're just supposed to your word on that," at which point I wanted to reach through the book, shake Kayden and tell her, "Yes, you ignorant little twit, you take his word for it.  You do not have to automatically trust every stranger that crosses your path, but you also do not go around accusing people of committing crimes, especially in the absence of evidence that a crime has even been committed.  You give people the benefit of the doubt until they give you a reason to doubt them."  Okay, enough of that rant.  I just found the character of Kayden extremely annoying, bitter, and almost hateful (as in that she was full of hate).  There was no explanation for her behavior and at no point does anyone call her on her behavior.

The other example of judgmental nonsense considered Meredith Blake, the district attorney prosecuting Reef and, coincidentally, Gage's ex-girlfriend.  Of course, the McKennas are mad at Meredith for prosecuting Reef which is ridiculous because (a) there was ample evidence pointing to Reef as the killer and (b) the district attorney cannot not pursue a case just because the family of the accused swears he's really good guy who would never hurt a fly.  The bigger issue is Gage's and Meredith's past together.  Without going into detail, the couple suffered a devastating loss several years earlier.  Their relationship did not survive the loss.  Now everyone has different ways of grieving and dealing with a loss.  Gage is still deeply upset, which is totally understandable.  Meredith grieved and then moved forward.  She chooses not to think too much about past and what she lost, which is also totally understandable, except that it isn't so understandable to the McKennas.  Gage and certain others attack Meredith for not grieving in the way that Gage grieves.  I found this troubling, obnoxious, and not very Christian or kind.  Gage and Meredith dealt with their pain differently but in the best way they could and neither should be judged for it, at least not by people looking in from the outside.

Notwithstanding the aforementioned complaints, I still enjoyed the Shattered.  The suspenseful story surrounding Karli Davis made it all worth it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries  What could be more perfect than mysteries at Christmas?  Christmas is the happiest time of year and all that, but the cold winter days are also the perfect setting for all things dark and twisty.  Maybe a murder, perhaps a robbery gone wrong, or maybe there could be a ghost.  However you like your mystery there is something for you in The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.  There are ghosts, thieves and cold-hearted murderers.  There are traditional mysteries and modern mysteries, funny mysteries and seriously scary mysteries.  For added measure, Otto Penzler (the editor) threw in a few classics from the greats - Agatha Christie, Rex Stout and Arthur Conan Doyle.

I loved this.  It was perfect Christmastime / end-of-the year reading material, combining one of my favorite genres with Christmas spirit.  I don't often read short stories.  It isn't a conscious decision, it just kind of works out that way.  In any case, the short story form really worked for me in this instance, allowing me to squeeze in a complete story in between Christmas shopping, work and all the preparations that go in making this time of year so special.

The collection is divided into ten kinds of stories: traditional, funny, Sherlockian, pulpy, uncanny, scary, surprising, modern, puzzling, and classic Christmas mysteries.  Though I liked the traditional and modern stories the best (which seems odd but it is what it is), I found something to enjoy in every set.  Donald E. Westlake's The Burglar and the Whatsit was laugh out loud funny.  Joseph Shearing's The Chinese Apple was dark and definitely twisty.  There were a couple of interesting interpretations of Dickens's A Christmas Carol ghost story.  Really, I can't recommend this book enough.  There were so many great stories.

One last thought - in addition to the great stories, you get to know a little bit about each author as Penzler has kindly included a paragraph about each story's author and tidbits about the origin of the story.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Faking It by Cora Carmack

Faking It  Faking It is a new adult (I'm still getting used to the idea of this genre) romance centering around Max and Cade.  Max is a struggling musician with a body covered in tattoos and piercings.  When her parents unexpectedly come to town Max covers up her tattoos, tames her hair into a respectable shape, and enlist the clean cut Cade to pretend to be her boyfriend to satisfy her judgmental parents.  Several years earlier max lost her sister in an accident.  Mourning a sister, juggling jobs while trying to make it as a rock star, and trying to appease picky parents has left Max with trust and intimacy issues.  Cade is the Cade from Losing It (the first book in this series) who fell in love with his best friend Bliss only to find that she was in love with someone else.  His mother died when he was young and his father abandoned him, leaving him to be raised by his grandmother.  Between losing his parents and losing Bliss, Cade has abandonment issues.  When Max and Cade meet, or rather collide, the connection is immediate.  They are drawn together like magnets, but with all their issues they repel each other almost as quickly. 

This is a romance novel so the ending is not a surprise, but the journey there is pretty sweet.  I really fell in love with these characters.  They were believable and understandable.  They had real issues to overcome.  I am looking forward to reading the next entry in the series, Finding It.  This is a definite recommend for all the romantics.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reading Challenges for 2014

In 2014 I plan to once again take on a few reading challenges.  Reading challenges are great because they can hope expose one to new genres and meet reading goals.

Challenge #1: Literary Explorations Challenge
This will be my second year with this challenge.  The goal is to try books from different genres.  There are three challenge levels: Easy with 12 genres, Hard with 24 genres, and Insane with 36 genres.  I will either to do the hard or insane challenge.

Challenge #2: Mount TBR
My to-be-read pile has over 150 books.  It has been an ongoing battle to whittle it down.  I'm hoping the Mount TBR will help me do that.  Ideally I would like to get my TBR pile down to fifty or less.  I don't think that will happen this year, but hopefully I can at least make a sizable dent.

There are several level's to choose from:
  • Pike's Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile
  • Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile 
  • Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile 
  • Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles 
  • Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile 
  • El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile 
  • Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile 
  • Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile

I'm aiming to climb Mt. Vancouver level, but it would be awesome if I made it up Mt. Ararat.

Challenge #3: What's In a Name?
I am also intrigued by the What's In a Name Challenge. For this challenge the goal is to read books whose title falls into the following the categories:
  • A reference to time (Eleven Minutes, Before Ever After)
  • A position of royalty (The People’s Queen, The Last Empress, The Curse Of The Pharaoh)
  • A number written in letters (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, A Tale Of Two Cities)
  • A forename or names (Rebecca, Eleanor & Park, The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D.)
  • A type or element of weather (Gone With The Wind, Red Earth Pouring Rain)

Challenge #4: Goodreads
Lastly, I will do the general Goodreads challenge to read an overall number of books for the year.  My goal for 2013 was 60 books, as of the writing of this post I'm on book number 64.  For 2014, I'm contemplating aiming for 65 or 70.

Now that I look at this, it is quite a lot.  Wish me luck!  And if you know of any other interesting reading challenges let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Bookseller by Mark Pryor

The Bookseller (Hugo Marston Series #1) I love mysteries.  I love books and books about books.  For reasons unknown I've been infatuated with Paris from a young age.  So when Mark Pryor's The Bookseller appeared on my radar, it was a foregone conclusion that I would read it. The story centers around a Paris bookseller named Max who is kidnapped in broad daylight from his bookstall along the Seine.  His friend Hugo Marston, a former FBI agent and current head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris witnesses the kidnapping and sets out to find out what happen to his friend and bring the perpetrators to justice.  

The Bookseller is the first novel by the author and the first in the relatively new Hugo Martson series.  For a first novel, it was good, not perfect, but good.  There are a bugs that need to be worked out.  For instance, the character Hugo is supposed to be from Texas and there are constant references to him being a "cowboy" although other than being from the Lone Star state there is little to support this characterization.  This seemed like a superficial characterization but then maybe that was intentional.  Maybe it was an attempt to portray how the French see Americans, especially American law enforcement.  There is an awful lot of crime and coincidences stuff thrown in the book's 300 pages - Nazi hunters and Nazi collaborators, unexpectedly valuable books, and turf wars between rival international criminal organizations.  There is a new girlfriend who turns out to have several personal and professional connections to Hugo, Max and the case.  References to Sherlock Holmes are thrown in for good measure.  Oh, and I almost forgot about Hugo's sidekick, a semi-retired CIA agent who decides it would be a good time to visit Paris.  It came together in the end but there were times when it felt a little like everything and the kitchen sink had been thrown in. But these complaints are minor.  Overall I enjoyed the book.  It is a first novel and I am willing to bet the series will improve with each new book. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Submerged by Dani Pettrey

Submerged   Bailey Craig was the bad girl in high school.  She drank a little too much and slept around.  Twelve years a later she's sober and has earned a doctorate in Russian history (or something like that).  Despite being on the straight-and-arrow she still feels tremendously guilty and ashamed about her behavior in high school.  Fortunately, Bailey now lives in Oregon, far away from her Alaskan hometown and the people who knew her (and tormented her) in high school.  She had no intention of ever setting foot back in Yancey, Alaska again.  Then she gets a phone call telling her that her Aunt Agnes, a woman who was there for her when her parents weren't, has died in a plane crash.  Bailey returns to Yancey, intending only to stay long enough to attend the funeral and settle her aunt's affairs, but then...

A few years ago I went to Alaska.  It is one of the most beautiful places on earth that I've ever seen.  I am equally intrigued by its history.  Submerged is set in Alaska.  That and the fact that the blurb on the cover promised "romantic suspense" pretty much meant I had to read it.  It is the literary equivalent of a Lifetime or Hallmark movie.  I mean that as a compliment.  It has a simple plot, is light and quick, and has a perfect Hollywood ending.  I found this in the fiction section of a Christian bookstore, which is to say there is a heavy emphasis on redemption and religion.  There is no subtlety on this point.  Bailey's past sexual indiscretions and her eventual redemption are a major theme in the story.  This lack of subtlety is my only real criticism.  I mean, seriously high school is so over.  It's been twelve years.  Bailey has stopped drinking, found God, and has her life is well on track - get over high school already.  Anyway, notwithstanding the heavy handed handling of Bailey's past, I enjoyed the book.  It was exactly was I was in the mood for, but then I love Hallmark and Lifetime movies.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Reading Challenges: Done and Done!

At the beginning of the year I took on three reading challenges.  The first was a Goodreads challenge to read 60 books in 2013.  Though I got behind for awhile, overall this was an easy challenge.  In fact, I am now  on book 62.  Next year I may aim for 70 or 75 books.  That would be a real challenge for me.

I have forgotten the details of the second challenge, as the person or group that was hosting it disappeared.  At first I was disappointed, but then I stumbled upon the Literary Exploration genre challenge.  The idea was to read books from 12 (easy), 24 (hard), 26 (insane) different challenges.  The genres were picked by the moderators of the Literary Exploration book club, but individual readers chose what books to read.  In case it isn't clear below, to complete the hard challenge for example, one would read books from the 12 genres in the easy challenge plus the additional 12 books in the hard challenge.  I started off with the easy challenge but then started reading genres from the other two challenges before I had even finished the first one.  In the end I just decided to read all thirty-six.

The best part about this challenge was that I discovered genres I had never read before, like steampunk and cyberpunk, and was re-introduced to genres I hadn't read in a long time, like poetry and drama.  The hardest genres for me were horror and true crime.  I've never been much of a horror fan and did not love the book I chose, but would be willing to try another horror novel.  As for true crime, I was afraid true crime books were all movie-of-the-week books about whatever sensational crime was most recently in the news.  Luckily I found a true crime story that didn't involve murder.  While the book I read for this genre was fine, I still can't say I'm a fan of the genre.  Perhaps that's ironic since I love mysteries, but true crime just isn't as fun or interesting to me.

Now that I have completed this challenge I'm looking forward to a month of what I'm calling "free reading," which basically I'll be reading without having a challenge dictate what kind of book I read next.  This mostly like means I'll be reading romance and mystery books, two of my favorite genres.

Here's What I read for the 2013 Literary Exploration genre challenge:

  1. Adventure – The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
  2. Auto-Biography/Biography – Mud, Sweat and Tears by Bear Grylls
  3. Chick-LitWhere She Went by Gayle Forman
  4. Children’s Book – The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente
  5. ClassicsHouse of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  6. Cyberpunk Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  7. Drama Macbeth by William Shakespeare
  8. Dystopian – Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  9. Educational –  The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley
  10. Erotica – Hot Ticket by Olivia Cunning
  11. Espionage Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
  12. Fantasy – A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin
  13. Graphic Novels – Captain America (Volumes 1 & 2) by Ed Brubaker
  14. Gothic – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  15. Hard-Boiled – The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  16. Historical Fiction – Sacre Blue by Christopher Moore
  17. Horror – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  18. Humor – Earth the Book, from Jon Stewart and The Daily Show
  19. Literary Fiction In One Person by John Irving
  20. Magical Realism – Chocolat by Joanne Harris
  21. Mystery – Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James
  22. Noir – Toronto Noir edited by Janine Armin and Nathaniel G. Moore
  23. Non Fiction – Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr
  24. Paranormal Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl
  25. Philosophical – Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, edited by James B. South
  26. Poetry – Ariel by Sylvia Plath
  27. Post-Apocalyptic – World War Z by Max Brooks
  28. RomanceA Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant
  29. Science Fiction – The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
  30. SteampunkThe Friday Society by Adrienne Kress
  31. Supernatural The Secret Circle by L. J. Smith
  32. Thriller – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  33. True Crime – The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
  34. Urban Fantasy – Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris
  35. Victorian The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz
  36.  Young Adult Looking For Alaska by John Green

Monday, November 25, 2013

12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

12 Years a Slave: (Movie Tie-In)  In 12 Years a Slave Solomon Northup, a free Black man living in the north, recounts his experience of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.  For twelve years he witnessed and suffered the indignities and brutality of slavery, until one day one of his pleas for help made it to the right person.  He was then rescued and reunited with his family.  It is a compelling and disturbing read.  That it was from the victim’s point of view (as opposed to a third party observer) made it more so. 

In addition to being an account of slavery, it is an account of hope even in the most dire of circumstances.  During his twelve years of captivity, Solomon survived as best he could and somehow, did not lose hope.  He never forgets his family and keeps thinking of ways to get back to them.  Somehow Solomon’s experience doesn’t make him bitter or mean.  I’m not giving anything away by writing that the story ends happily for Solomon.  (If it hadn’t this book would not exist.)  I wish I knew what happened a year, five years, or ten years later.  I want to know how he dealt with the world after going through such a horrific experience.  I wonder how his experience changed how he felt about the country he lived in.  I bet that would be an equally compelling and interesting story.

I read this book in anticipation of seeing the movie of the same name.  After reading it, I’m not sure I can watch the movie.  It paints a vivid picture of slavery and I’m not sure I can sit through images of people being whipped and otherwise brutally treated.  Speaking of the movie, I recently listened to an interview with Steve McQueen (writer and director of the movie by the same name) stated that his goal in making this film was to get book on school curriculums.  I hope he succeeds.  I'd put this on the same level as The Diary of Anne Frank.  Both books put a face on and give a voice to history, reminding us that real people suffered.

One last thought – I read the Penguin Books edition of this book.  It includes an introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. titled, What Is an African- American Classic?  I usually skim, if not skip all together, introductions but this one is well worth the read.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

In The Man Who Loved Books Too Much author Allison Hoover Bartlett recounts the exploits of John Gilkey, an unrepentant book thief, and the people, like Ken Sanders, who try to stop him.  I picked up this book to fulfill the true crime requirement for the Literary Explorations Genre Challenge I'm doing this year.  I thought I hit the jackpot when I came across this book (Yea, a true crime story that didn't involve a dead body!), but I didn't connect with this book as I expected.  It was written well enough, that wasn't the problem.

One thing I realized in reading this is that while I collect books, I am not a Book Collector.  I own hundreds of book and love being around books.  When traveling to new places, my itinerary often includes visits to local bookstores or libraries.  I fully understand the the pleasure of holding a book in one's hand.  I appreciate books the craftsmanship and the artistry that went into creating the object,  But ultimately, I loved to read.  Alas, this is what separates me from Book Collectors.  I'm glad there are people out there who are working to preserve first editions and other books for posterity but for my own purposes, a copy bought at my local Barnes & Noble will do just fine.

In addition to finding it difficult to relate to Book Collectors, I also found it difficult to relate to (or care about) John Gilkey, which is problematic since the story is mostly about him.  Gilkey aspires to create a grand, personal library.  Bartlett posits that Gilkey aspires to not only present the image of a "cultured gentleman" but to become that gentleman.  Wanting to better one's self is understandable and even admirable.  In this light Gilkey could be the protagonist in a Horatio Alger story, except for one problem, he's a thief. 

According to Bartlett, Gilkey's justification for stealing books from rare book dealers, many of whom appear to be small businesses, and libraries is that the world is unfair to him and this is his way of evening the score.  Rare books are expensive and dealers act unfairly when they sell books at a price he cannot afford (though one gets the sense that even if he could afford them he would still steal).  If a salesperson wasn't as prompt or polite as he expected, that store deserves to be stolen from.  Gilkey reasoned that when he stole books, often by using credit card numbers he stole while employed at a department store, the stores he stole from had insurance that would cover the costs, so no harm no foul.  That insurance might not cover everything, assuming the book store even has insurance, that a person might prefer the book to the money, or that people just don't like it when people take their stuff without payment or permission, just didn't seem to occur or matter to him.  It was infuriating to read repeatedly about Gilkey justified his thieving.

The other main character in this story is Ken Sanders, who once served as the security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America.  It was Ken who connected the dots behind a series of book thefts in Northern California.  His diligence and perseverance in protecting himself and others like him from the likes of Gilkey is admirable.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One 

It is the year 2044.  James Halliday, creator of OASIS, a virtual utopia where a person can be almost anything they want to be, has died.  With no friends or family he leaves his vast fortune and control of his company to whomever can find the Easter egg Halliday has hidden deep inside the game.  Five years have passed and no one has made any progress.  Then Parzival (aka Wade Watts) finds the first of the three keys needed to complete the game.  From there, it’s on!  There is a lot at stake, most importantly control of OASIS, and everyone wants to win.  Some are even willing to do anything to win, even kill for it.

Ready Player One is so, so good!  It is a love letter to eighties pop culture - movies, television, music and especially video games.  It is a celebration of the wonders and a warning about the potential dangers of technology.  It is a celebration of the super fan, of the joy of totally loving something to the point of obsession, the kind of obsession that causes you to watch/read/listen to a movie/book/song over and over again and then spend hours researching about the creators who made the thing you love so much.  And it's all wrapped up in an adventure story involving a world wide treasure hunt, danger in the real and virtual worlds, and a dash of romance. 

Ready Player One is one of the most enjoyable books I've read all year.  It's hard to believe that this is Ernest Cline's first novel.  He really hit out of park on his first try.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way In The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Amanda Ripley looks at education through the lens of PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) which is a test administered around the world to test the math, science, and reading skills of 15-year-olds.  In general, student scores indicate that teenagers in Finland, South Korea, and Poland are learning and mastering the skills needed to solve problems and make complex arguments, skills that are increasingly important in the modern economy.  In contrast, the scores of American students seem to indicate that teenagers in the United States are not learning or mastering these skills, at least not as well. In an attempt to figure out why or at least how education differed among these four countries, Ripley followed three American students who spent a year abroad in Finland, South Korea, and Poland.  She also talked to educators, parents, and a host of other people.

I found this subject fascinating.  Ripley does not attempt to provide any easy solutions, or really any solutions at all, to the problems in American education.  She simply reports what she discovered through her investigation.  This is certainly not an exhaustive study on education in the U.S. or the world, but it does present an interesting picture and hopefully will invite discussion.

There were three lessons I took from this book.  The first was the importance of creating a culture of rigor around education.  In the countries Ripley focuses on school is expected to be hard, standards are high, and it is assumed that students will meet those standards.  Of course, not every student does.  Still there is something to be said for assuming that kids can succeed rather than assuming at the outset that are too many obstacles in their way for that to happen.  She points out that sometimes policies aimed at helping kids ends up doing more harm than good by providing the kids with reasons to explain why they're not performing better in school.

The second had to with the teaching profession.  I have to admit I have never put much thought into how teachers are trained beyond getting a college degree.  Ripley suggests that an education major is considered to be an easy major in the U.S.  I don't know if this is true or not, but then I majored in political science and journalism (before going to law school and librarian school).  In contrast, in countries like Finland becoming a teacher is comparatively much harder.  Only the best and brightest are trusted with teaching the nation's youngsters.  Ripley's description of the process of becoming a teacher in Finland and the respect with which they are treated reminded me of law school or medical school in the U.S.

The third lesson I learned, or rather was reminded of, was the importance of reading to kids when they're young and engaging them in conversation when they're older.  According to Ripley, engaging your child in these ways benefits the child far more than baking brownies for school bake sales or coaching sports.  Not that those activities don't have value; they do.  It is just that reading to kids, encouraging them to read on their own, and discussing issues with them encourages them to develop and explain their own opinions which requires critical thinking.  Ultimately, critical thinking skills are what kids need to develop as it is those skills that will enable them to tackle complex problems as adults.

When I was high school my stepdad and I use to argue about politics.  I hated this (well maybe I liked it a little).  In hindsight I'm grateful.  It forced me to think about why I believed what I did and to explain why.  In other words, it forced me to think critically, a skill that has been invaluable throughout my career, and really throughout life.  I have also been in the habit of reading for as long as I can remember.  This habit came in handy when I had to get through the massive amounts of reading one is expected to get through in law school.  I would like to think that most parents are imparting these same skills and habits to their kids too.

Ripley's book left me feeling hopeful.  Prior to reading it education seemed like too big of a problem to tackle.  It still seems big but I would like to think I have better grasp of the problems and possible solutions, at least a little bit.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Envy by Kathryn Harrison

Envy I'm not sure where to begin. With the plot?  It is difficult to describe the plot without it sounding convoluted.  I’m not saying Envy is convoluted, but that my description of it would it be.  It is a complicated story, at the center of which is Will, a man in his mid to late forties.  He is married to Carole and father to Samantha and Luke.  Will has a nearly identical twin brother, nearly identical because Mitch has a birthmark covering 60 percent of his face.  The twins haven't spoken to one another in 15 years and Will isn't sure why that is.  There is a lost child, a lost brother, and the possible discovery of a previously unknown a child.

In a strange way, the details of the plot don’t matter.  Envy is about more than a series of events.  It is a psychological family drama involving sexual tension and competition, obsession, betrayal, and profound loss.  It is crazy and disturbing...and its enthralling.  Envy is the fourth book I’ve read by Kathryn Harrison.  Her other books include Exposure, The Kiss (a memoir), and Thicker Than Water.  When I finished Envy I went and looked at my old book journals to see what I wrote and found that I was just as captivated by Harrison’s writing then as I am now.  Her books tend to veer into  uncomfortable territory, so be warned.  It can be rough journey, but it is such a good one.

Also recommended: Exposure and The Kiss
I'm not not recommending Thicker Than Water, but to be honest I don't remember much about it, whereas these other two books I remember very clearly.
Exposure   The Kiss

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz

Witches of East End (Beauchamp Family Series #1)Witches of East End is the first book (excluding the prequel) in a series about three witches living in the small Long Island town of North Hampton.  The three witches in question are sisters Freya and Ingrid Beauchamp, and their mother Joanna.  For centuries they have lived as ordinary human beings, forbidden from practicing witchcraft.  But the day comes when the three Beauchamp women decide to stop concealing who and what they really are.  Revealing their true selves has consequences, good and bad. 

I picked this up after watching the first episode of the new Lifetime series that is inspired by this book series.  Figuring that the book is usually better than the movie, or in this case the tv show, I figured I would give the books a try. 

The first three-quarters of the story is pretty good.  This is the first book I have read by de la Cruz and I can see why she has sold so many books.  The three main characters were intriguing.  I wanted to know more about their histories and how they handled having to suppress their powers for so long.  Where it began to fall apart for me was when the other supernaturals decided to join the party.  First there was talk of zombies.  Next the vampires came to town.  Then came Loki, some gods from Asgard, and a bunch of other characters from Norse mythology.  It was a bit too much.  I wish de la Cruz had stuck with the witches and explored that more.  Freya (love that name), Ingrid and Joanna were interesting enough without all of the other supernaturals thrown in.  Not that there couldn’t be a universe with all sorts of supernaturals.  Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire / True Blood series does this quite well in fact.  But Harris didn’t introduce them all in one book.  Adding in all these other characters and mythologies at once without exploring any of them in depth made them all seem a bit dull, and vampires and witches should never be dull.

So far only one episode of the television series has aired and I have only read this first book in the series.  Right now it is a toss up as to which version I'm going to like better, but I'm intrigued enough to keep watching and reading both.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Killing Me Softly by Nicci French

Killing Me Softly  Killing Me Softly is an intense psychological thriller.  It all starts with Alice.  Alice Loudon has a pretty great life.  She has a job that she likes and is good at.  She has friends, good friends that she spends time with often.  Alice's best friend is her boyfriend's sister.  Speaking of which, Alice has a great boyfriend called Jake.  They live together.  They haven't exactly said it out loud yet but eventually they'll probably get married, have 2.5 kids and a dog.  Alice's life is on track for a happy ever after ending, or as close as one can expect to get.  That all changes when she meets Adam Tallis.

Alice and Adam meet randomly on a London street.  The attraction is instantaneous.  They end up in bed together so quickly, it is almost comedic.  At first Alice feels guilty about her indiscretion and vows never to see Adam again.  She goes back to Jake and their perfect life together, but it's no use.  Adam is a famous mountaineer who has scaled a bunch of mountains and has been hailed as a hero after saving a bunch of people who nearly died trying to scale one such mountain.  Everyone who meets Adam seems to fall under some sort of spell.  People—men and women—can't help but adore him.  Even Alice's seemingly perfect and fulfilling life cannot save her from Adam's intoxicating presence.  It isn't long before Alice leaves Jake and marries Adam.

The full title of title of this book is Killing Me Softly: A Novel of Obsession.  Alice and Adam are indeed obsessed with each other.  Adam's obsession is possessive and hurtful.  He repeated tells Alice that he doesn't want to injure her, he just wants to hurt her.  Nevertheless, Alice is hopelessly in love with her husband.  Adam adores her and Alice loves that.  She loves the attention.  She loves feeling so very wanted.

Alice's obsession starts out more innocently.  She simply wants to know everything about her new husband, his past, his adventures in the mountains, his family, his friends, basically who he is when he is not with her.  They relationship got so intense and so serious so quickly that they skipped over the getting to know and like each other stage of their relationship.  Adam, however, is of the opinion that nothing matters except his and Alice's life in the present.  He tells his wife that they are the kind of the people who don't care about each other's lives outside their house.  This does not work for Alice, who starts trying to learn all she can about her husband's past.  Her understandable desire to get to know the man she married turns into an obsession with finding out all she can about the women Adam dated before her.  It's here that the novel takes a very dark turn as Alice finds out some things she probably would have liked to have never known.  Digging into her husband's past forces Alice to think about just what kind of man it is she married and what that means for her future.

Killing Me Softly grabbed me from page one and didn't let go.  The relationship between Alice and Adam is passionate, but twisted.  Adam's reticence to talk about his past seems evasive.  Alice's investigation into her husband's past seems intrusive.  They clearly both have issues to deal with, but it isn't clear at first which one of them is to be trusted.  It was fun figuring that out.  I would definitely recommend this book for people who like mysteries and thrillers, especially those who like a little romantic suspense (if you can call it that) thrown in.

Fun fact, Killing Me Softly was made into a movie in 2002 starring Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham

Someday, Someday, Maybe  I have never quite understood terms like "beach read" or "summer read" because my reading choices are generally not determined by the seasons or the weather.  Further, when I go on vacation I like to bring one big, involved book (plus a second book because having backup book is necessary) rather than short, uncomplicated stories since if I planned the vacation I will likely plenty of uninterrupted reading time.  Notwithstanding my lack of a proper understanding of what a beach or summer read is, I imagine Someday, Someday, Maybe might be what people mean when they use those terms.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is the debut novel of actress Lauren Graham.  The story centers around an aspiring actress in New York named Frances (Franny) Banks.  She has given herself three years, the length of time it will take her college boyfriend to finish law school, to make it as an actress.  At the start of the novel, Franny is six months away from her self-imposed deadline and has no agent or acting jobs on the horizon. 

One of the things I liked is that the story doesn't end with everything wrapped up in a nice bow.  For every step forward, there seems to be a step or two backward, professionally and romantically.  She learns life lessons, forgets them, relearns them, kind of gets it, and slowly moves forward.  It is a light, funny, and quick read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

P.S. I can totally see this being made into a movie, at least a television movie.  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Recent Reads from the Library

I've been trying to buy less books this year, primarily because there is already a large pile of unread books sitting in the corner of my living room.  Buying less books is, among other things, suppose to help me focus on reading the books I already own. Still there are books I want to read to now but I don't want to buy now, so I visit my local library.  Here are a couple of the books I picked up this week while I was there.

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

I read Rebecca to satisfy the Gothic genre of the Literary Explorations.  I chose it because the host of The Readers (one of my two favorite bookish podcasts, the other being Books on the Nightstand) constantly raves about this book.  I have to admit, I didn't get why he loved it so much at first.  I found the first part a little slow and found myself getting annoyed with the timid narrator who seemed to be afraid of everything, including her own shadow.  But the second half of the novel made up for it, as the truth comes out about Rebecca.  It was suspenseful, dark and twisty.

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes

I don't read much poetry, but reading Sylvia Plath's Ariel last week inspired me to read a little more.  And so I picked up a collection of Langston Hughes' poems.  Langston Hughes is one of the few poets I have read before, at least a little.  He is part of one of my favorite literary-artistic-cultural periods, the Harlem Renaissance. 

I absolutely loved this collection!  I don't know much about Hughes but after reading this collection he seems like someone who would have been fun to hang out with —the kind of person who could come up with a funny poem on the spur of the moment if you were having a bad day.  Next to the funny poems about men and women and not making the rent, there are these intense poems about being Black in America, injustice, and freedom.  Hughes' poems span the emotional spectrum, from sadness, to anger and frustration, to hope and happiness.  This is an amazing collection of poetry.  I am amazed at how so much can be said in just a few lines. Thanks Langston, this was wonderful.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mud, Sweat, and Tears by Bear Grylls

Mud, Sweat, and Tears: The Autobiography Earlier this summer I was traveling through the seemingly evergreen pacific northwest.  One night I switched on the tv in the hotel and came across two outdoor adventure shows.  The first was Naked and Afraid where two people, a man and a woman who don't know each other are cast off into the wilderness without food, clothes or shelter.  Their challenge was to survive for 21 days.  What they got at the end of it all, I don't know.  It was such a weird show.  I couldn't understand it and didn't make it through a full episode.  I did follow the Twitter commentary, which was hilarious.  The second show I came across was Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls.

I don't watch too many reality shows, especially ones involving competition.  In fact, there are only two or three such shows that I like - So You Think You Can Dance, The Next Food Network Star, and years ago, Project Runway.  Most competition shows are just too mean spirited for my taste.  Plus, if I am going to watch people compete I want to watch people do something they love and are good at, hence the dancing and cooking shows.   

Get Out Alive was a different sort of a competition show.  First off, there wasn't a whole lot of actual competition.  For most of the show everyone had to work together.  They were in the wilderness, hiking up mountains, crossing fast moving waters, building shelters in effort to survive cold nights, all while lugging backpacks that appeared to be the size and weight of a not so small child.  In short, there was no room for sabotage or name calling.  If one person got hurt, it could endanger everyone.  So they had to work together, and along the way the competitors, and the viewers, learned something about survival.  What was key, what intrigued me was that the survival lessons weren't just about technical or physical skills.  There was some of that, but the more important lessons had to do with strength of character, will, working together, and being mentally tough.

All of this is a long way of explaining of how I came across Bear Grylls.  Admittedly, I am late to the game as Grylls has done other shows, including Man vs Wild and Worst Case Scenario, neither of which I have ever seen.  He is also apparently the youngest British man to climb Mount Everest.  I knew none of this when I saw the first episode of Get Out Alive.  I didn't need to.  What intrigued about the show and its host was their adventurous spirit.  The show looked tough but fun, and at times disgusting.  (Seriously is it ever really necessary to drink urine or eat bugs?)  The criteria for getting kicked off the show or winning was vague.  Grylls would say things like how he was looking for the team of people who could dig deep in hard times and keep going, who good keep in good spirits even when the going got exponentially tough.  It was inspirational without being cheesy.  So I picked up Grylls autobiography, Mud, Sweat, and Tears, looking for more about this adventurous spirit.

Celebrity autobiographies are often a gamble.  This one delivered.  Grylls has had a lot of adventures and has no shortage of stories to tell.  In Mud he describes the rigorous training he went through to become a member of the SAS (something I had also never heard of but which is apparently world famous), about breaking his back while parachuting, and about climbing Mount Everest.  The stories are riveting (the short chapters help) but they are not the main reason why I liked this book.  More than the physical strength, what seems to have gotten Grylls through multiple life threatening situations is his mental and spiritual strength.  It takes a lot to be calm in a dangerous situation.  The importance of keeping calm, of self-confidence, and of faith is what I took away from Mud, Sweat, and Tears.  

Some books make you think, and this book has definitely made me think that I need to take more risks.  It is time for an adventure!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reading Drama and Poetry

At the beginning of 2013 I decided to participate in the Literary Exploration Challenge (also see here).  The challenge is all about trying new genres.  Through this challenge I have been introduced to new genres and have revisited ones that I don't think I've read since college.  Drama and poetry fall into this category. 

For the drama category I chose Shakespeare's Macbeth.  This had actually been on my want-to-read list for awhile.  I have read other of Shakespeare's plays, including Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, King Lear, but somehow I made it through high school and college without reading Macbeth.  There are of course several different editions of the play.  I chose to read Sparknotes' No Fear edition of Macbeth.  This edition features the original text of the play on the left-hand page and a modern interpretation of the text on the right hand side.  Since I am not reading this in the context of an English class, I found this to be really helpful.

Macbeth is one of those classics that is readily referenced in a thousand other contexts, so I had a general idea of plot going into it.  I was surprised, and perhaps I shouldn't have been, at how modern the story is.  I get why it is so readily referenced in other contexts.  Now that I've read it I would like to see it.  One of the reasons I don't read drama all that much is because it is an art form that is really meant to be seen and heard or performed.  As glad as I am to have read Macbeth, something was missing from the page.  That something would probably be found on a stage.  Speaking of stage performances, I'm not the only one interested in Shakespeare.  I happen to be on the bus and reading this book when the woman sitting next to me asked if I was reading Macbeth for a class.  I told her no, I was reading Shakespeare on my own for fun.  She then pulled out two DVDs from her bag.  She had just watched two BBC versions of Macbeth and was on her way to return them to the library.  If I can't see Macbeth performed live, I guess I can watch them on DVD. 

For the poetry genre I chose Ariel by Sylvia Plath.  I read poetry even less than I read drama.  It isn't that I don't like poetry, I do.  Yet, the concept of a book a poetry seems odd to me, primarily because a book of poetry does not seem like something that should be read linearly.  I read Ariel in one sitting, one poem after another, and I kind of feel that I read it wrong.  Notwithstanding my uncertainty about how to read poetry, I did enjoy this collection, particularly the poems Morning Song, Sheep in Fog, Lady Lazarus, Cut and Kindness. 

When I picked up Ariel at the library, I also picked up a book of Langston Hughes' poems.  I have enjoyed his poems here and there but have never read a full book of his poems.  This time I will read the poems slower. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In One Person by John Irving

In One Person There are a handful of writers whose work I aim to read all of during my lifetime.  One of these writers is John Irving.  I first discovered Irving by watching tv.  I was what used to be called a latch key kid and spent a lot of time at home alone watching tv, reading books, and writing.  One afternoon either The World According to Garp or The Hotel New Hampshire - I can't remember which I saw first - came on tv.  Upon learning these movies where based on books I started reading John Irving and have been a fan ever since.  It was with a great degree of anticipation that I picked up his latest, In One Person.  Unfortunately, I did not love this book, but I admire John Irving for writing it.

At the center of In One Person is William (Billy) Abbott, who grows up in a small Vermont town with his delicate mother, disapproving aunt, cross-dressing grandfather, and a host of other curious characters.  Long story short, Billy is bisexual.  Unlike many of his friends, Billy is honest about his sexual preferences, something that doesn't sit well with a lot of people.

Although Billy is the protagonist of the story, I'm not sure it is really about him.  It is a more of a fictionalized history of gender and sexuality in America from the 1950s to the mid-2000s.  Billy starts out as an adolescent  with a speech impediment, crushes on the "wrong people," and an interest in both making out with a girl and wearing her clothes.  Over time he comes into his own as a writer and as a bisexual man.  He watches many of his friends die of AIDS.  He witnesses the growing acceptance of what he likes to refer to as sexual differences as evidenced in part by the proliferation of LGBT groups on school campuses.  He even sees a few of his friends be able to marry their partner.

Billy is a witness to a great many changes over his seventy or so years.  That was my biggest problem with the book.  Billy is a witness or observer, but he doesn't really seem apart of any of it.  He doesn't seem emotionally invested.  For the first half of the novel I wondered why I wasn't enjoying it more and the word that kept coming to mind was passive, as in the narration seemed really passive and muted.  Billy is telling the story of his life even he didn't seem that interested.  The story did pick up in the second half but it wasn't quite enough to redeem the whole book.

For those who haven't read Irving before, I would not recommend starting with this one.  He's written thirteen novels, eight of which I've read, including this one.  My favorite is A Widow for One Year. A Prayer for Owen Meany (which I haven't yet read) seems to show up as many people's favorites so that may be another one to try.  In any case, don't start here but work your way to this one.  Even though not my favorite, it was worth the read.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire (Hunger Games Series #2)  In my experience, the second book in a trilogy is often a disappointment.  My theory to explain this is that in the first book the author introduces the characters, sets up the world in which they operate, and outlines the main goal of the characters.  In the third or final book of the trilogy the characters eventually accomplish their goal.  The role of the second book is that of a bridge - it gets readers from one side to the other, but the voyage is often frustratingly slow.  Second books often feel like a holding pattern or a distraction until the third book.  The story may move forward a little, but not in a satisfying way.  Catching Fire is the second entry in the Hunger Games trilogy and for the reasons above, I had a low expectations.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Catching Fire is not only amazing, it is better than the the first book in the series. 

To bring everyone up to speed, the protagonist of the series is 16-year-old Katniss Evergreen (love that name).  In the ruins of what once was North America is the country of Panem, the center of which is the Capitol.  The Capitol is surrounded by twelve districts, some of which are poorer than others, but all of which are subject to the power and control of the Capitol and President Snow.  Every year the Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to the Hunger Games where these children, or tributes, will fight to the death - literally.  The games are televised for all districts and the Capitol, making it a grisly reality show complete with live executions.  Should any of the tributes try to avoid the bloodshed in the arena, the game-maker adds in plenty of nasty surprises to spur them on. The games serve as a reminder to the twelve districts of the time when the now destroyed District 13 tried to rebel, or really as a reminder that they live at the mercy of the Capitol and President Snow.

The tributes are sent to compete are chosen by lottery.  When Primrose Evergreen is chosen, her older sister Katniss volunteers in her place.  Her male counterpart is Peeta.  In the 73-year history of the games (the first book marks the 74th games), only one tribute from District 12 has ever won.  District 12 is one of the poorer of the twelve districts and they don't have the means to train the way some of the richer districts do.  So Katniss and Peeta go the Hunger Games knowing that it is unlikely that either will return home alive.  

I don't think that it is too much of a spoiler to say that Katniss survives the games (after all, it is a trilogy).  In doing so she inadvertently defies the Capitol by essentially not being as bloodthirsty and cruel as they would like.  This is where Catching Fire picks up.  Having survived the games, Katniss must then go on a victory tour.  As she visits each of the districts, Katniss finds that she has unintentionally become a symbol of a people who are sick and tired of a government that forces people to watch as their children are forced to kill each other or be slaughtered themselves.  She is the spark that if it catches fire, could lead to a full scale rebellion.

Again, often with series I find the second book to be a letdown.  It also typically takes awhile for me to get back into the story.  Not so with Catching Fire, I was in from page one.  Collins does a spectacular job of pulling the reader in and immersing him or her into the world of the Panem, with all of its tension and fear.  Even though I knew Katniss had to survive, again it's a trilogy, I was still  worried that she wasn't going to make it.  I felt her fear and confusion. 

Aside from the world building and the character development, one of things I like about this series is the lack of romance.  There is a sort of romantic element involving Katniss and two boys competing for her attention.  But for Katniss, although she cares for them both to varying degrees, there are quite literally life and death matters for her to deal with.  So while there is a hint of a love triangle, getting a boyfriend is not Katniss's main goal, and I find that refreshing.  In fact, she is ambivalent about it all.  Having survived the horror of the Hunger Games, she is not eager to give birth to a child only to see that child's name chosen in the world's unluckiest lottery.

I hope the paperback version of the third book of the series, Mockingjay, is released soon.  I read The Hunger Games in 2009 but only read Catching Fire now because although the hardback was released years ago, the paperback only came out earlier this year.  If it doesn't come out soon I may have to forget about buying it and just go to the library.  (I don't buy hardbacks.)  Catching Fire ended with a surprising twist and I'm eager to find out what becomes of Katniss.  Collins did a great job here and I have high hopes for the next book.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

  On the cover of my copy of Chocolat there is a picture of Juliet Binoche feeding a piece of chocolate to Johnny Depp.  It suggest a light, sexy romance, belying the dark story in the pages that follow.

It is a dark story that begins when Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk move to a small French town.  Vianne opens a shop where she sells delectable chocolate treats, but the way the townspeople react one would think she was selling porn or drugs.  Lent has just begun and Vivanne's chocolates suggest self-indulgence and gluttony during a time that is usually reserved for self-denial and introspection.  The local priest in particular sees Vianne and her chocolates as a personal affront to him and his authority.  That isn't to say that Vivanne doesn't have her supporters.  After all, who can resist chocolate?  Some people in the town visit her shop secretly, others boldly.

Vianne's standing in the community is not helped by her friendliness toward the gypsies who briefly visit the town.  The hostility of the townspeople towards the gypsies, and especially of the local priest, is frightening and disturbing.  Although they have done nothing to harm anyone else, many assume the gypsies to be criminals.  Local business owners refuse to serve them in their cafes and shops.  

Chocolat was not at all what I expected.  I expected romance and magic (I picked this as the magical realism entry for the literary exploration challenge), but instead found racism, domestic abuse and death.  Not that there wasn't joy as well.  There are those in the town who don't view a chocolate treat as a sin, who treat the gypsies with kindness and respect, and who stand behind a wife who decides to leave her abusive husband.  There is a hint of magic.  Vianne somehow knows what each person's favorite type of of chocolate treat is just by looking at them.  She can sometimes sense what people think and feel.  And then there is the wind...when Vianne came to town it seemed that the wind was bringing some kind of change, or at least that is what some in the town say.  It reminded of Mary Poppins, only darker and without the fun adventures involving chalk art on the sidewalk or tea parties.

I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that not to expect the book to by anything like the movie.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

Maya's Notebook: A Novel   One of the things I love to do at bookstores (and one reason why I try to buy most of my books at physical stores rather than online) is to walk among the shelves from A to Z and see what sparks my interest.  I can, and have, spent hours doing this.  I distinctly remember being at a Borders store several years ago and gazing at Isabel Allende's row of books.  Prolific authors intrigue me and her books took up one-and-a-half rows.  However, though my interest was piqued, I didn't pick up one of Allende's books that day. 

Through Goodreads I came across Maya's Notebook  I can't remember what it was that originally attracted my attention.  Maybe it was the partially obscured face of a woman on the cover, looking over her tattooed shoulder, set against a haunting greenish-blue-gray background.  Maybe it was the synopsis describing the story as one about a young woman whose life had gone off the rails, and a cast of characters that includes a torture survivor, a lame dog, and a gang of assassins.  I don't know, but whatever it was, I am ever so glad that I have been introduced to the work of Isabel Allende.

The plot is fairly simple.  Maya has been raised by her grandparents, Nini and Popo.  Nini fled Pinochet's regime in Chile and came to the United States via Canada with her young son (Maya's father).  Popo is an African-American astronomer professor who perhaps more than anyone is the calming, steady influence so needed in Maya's life, given her parents' decision that they don't really want to be parents.  Maya is just fine with this and grows up in a colorful house in Berkeley.  All is well until her beloved Popo succombs to cancer.  After that Maya finds her days filled with of drugs and violence. 

The novel opens with Maya's arrival in Chile, where her grandmother has sent her to escape her enemies and the FBI.  It alternates between Chile and everything that came before.  Nini gives the notebook to Maya to keep her company in this country that is foreign to her granddaughter, telling her, "You're going to have time to get bored, Maya.  Take advantage of it write down the monumental stupidities you've committed, see if you can come to grips with them[.]"

This is not a sad story.  Even with passages about rape, torture, and life under a military coup, it is somehow hopeful.  Ultimately I suppose the story is about survival and even thriving after having surviving very bad things.  It is about facing up to one's past, the good and especially the bad, dealing with it and moving forward.  If the copy I read were not a library book, I would have marked up the pages with underlining and tabs.  From the first page I was mesmerized by Allende's lyrical writing.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about this story grabbed me right away.  It felt like having a friend tell me her story as we sat at a table drinking coffee. 

I would highly recommend this book.  As mentioned above, this is the first book by Isabel Allende that I've read.  I am looking forward to reading more of her work.  Soon there may be a row on my bookshelf dedicated to Ms. Allende.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3)  
A Storm of Swords (ASOS) is the third book in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire Series. A Game of Thrones (AGOT) introduced the rich world of the Seven Kingdoms, Westeros, and those battling for the iron throne.  The story stalled a bit in A Clash of Kings (ACOK) but eventually picked during the last third of the story.  In ASOS the story grabbed hold of me and never let go.  There were revelations and surprises I didn't see coming.  I can see why so many people consider ASOS the best entry in the series.

Rather than relying on one main character or an omniscient narrator, Martin tells the story of the battle for the throne through multiple characters.  In ASOS there are point-of-view chapters from Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Bran Stark, Catelyn Stark, Samwell Tarly, Davos Seaworth (the Onion Knight), Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen.  Arya, Jon, and Tyrion have been favorites of mine since AGOT because... 
  • Arya because she is a girl who, after constantly being told who she is and should become, stood up and said no, that's not me.  This is who I am. She learns how to use a sword even though it isn't considered lady like.  She is smart and brave, reminding herself that "fear cuts deeper than swords" when she gets scared.  When things start to go sideways for her family in AGOT, she doesn't wait for someone to rescue her.  Arya rescues herself.  This isn't to say that she doesn't get help, she does, but she doesn't sit back waiting for others to fix everything for her.  I would a read a book just about Arya.
  • Jon because despite growing up with a stepmother (Catelyn) who was never shy about letting him know about how much she despised him (not because of anything he did, but simply because he existed), and despite growing up with everything he could ever want right before his eyes but out of his reach due to his parentage, Jon is a good guy.  He's loyal, brave, and defends those weaker than him against bullies.  Unlike most Jon is capable of seeing things from the point of view of others and even seeing the good in those that would be his enemies.  Jon's bravery and sense of right and wrong is as evident as ever in ASOS.
  • Tyrion because he's smart and funny.  He's a dwarf, a "crime" he remarks at one point, that he has been made to pay for his entire life.  Like Arya, Tyrion doesn't let other people's view of him decide who he is.  Without the physical strength or beauty of his older siblings Cersei and Jamie, Tyrion instead relies on his wit and brains to carry him through.  He is no pushover, but is capable of being kind, even to those who are unkind to him.
In addition to my favorite characters, I enjoyed Sansa's and Jaimie's chapters.  Though Sansa has never been a favorite character, I suppose she  is meant to represent the fairytale version of a world with kings and queens, pretty princesses and gallant knights, all attired in beautiful clothes.  Unfortunately for Sansa, she doesn't live in fairytale land.  Her king turns out to be a teenage terror and the knights are not so quick to rescue a damsel in distress.  So far Sansa has largely been a pawn in the game of thrones, manipulated by friends and foes alike.  Still, I'm hopeful that Sansa is growing and changing.

It was interesting to learn about Jaimie and his past.  For years he has been involved in an incestuous affair with his twin sister Cersei.  Of all the Lannisters, Jaimie is perhaps the most loyal.  He defies a king to save his father, pushes a child out of window to protect his sister (and their shared secret), and unlike father or sister, respects and cares for his little brother Tyrion.  Not that I'm entirely sympathetic towards him, but he isn't quite the monster he has been made out to be in AGOT and ACOK.  It will be interesting to see how he changes now that he is, shall we say, less than the man he use to be.

There also chapters with Daenery's point of view.  For me, this is becoming a weakness of the series.  After three books her story still seems unconnected to the rest of the story, so much so that whenever I get to one of her chapters it feels like I'm reading a separate book - a good book, but still a separate book.

The one question I have about this series is, where is all this going?  What's the endgame here?  In reading this I was reminded of another long series, Lord of the Rings.  In that series the reader knows that the goal is to get rid of the ring.  Things happen a long the way that distract the main characters, but ultimately it's all about the ring.  With the Song of Ice and Fire series, I'm not clear on the endgame here.  I suppose the general the goal is for peace to be restored, but that's kind of vague. And so with each book, I keep asking where is this all going?

The next book in the series is A Feast for Crows.  I'm anxious to see what happens next for my favorite characters, but can't imagine picking up another thousand page book for awhile.  My next book will be shorter.

In case it isn't clear, I would definitely recommend this, though it would be best to start the series from the beginning.  I haven't yet decided if ASOS or AGOT is the best book (ACOK isn't even a contender), but both are definitely worth the month or so it takes to read them.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Pacific Northwest Book Tour

Recently, I had the great pleasure of traveling around the Pacific Northwest, specifically Seattle and Portland.  The trip was part business, and lots of pleasure.  Among other activities, I visited several bookstores and libraries. 
My first stop was the Seattle Mystery Bookshop.  I read all kinds of genres, but mysteries are definitely a favorite, so when I read about this store, I knew I had to visit.  And oh my goodness, I'm so glad I did.  The Seattle Mystery Bookshop is now one of my favorite places.  It has new and used books, including collector's items.  Whatever type of mystery you like, be it cozies, hard boiled, noir, thriller, or mysteries involving animals, cooking, or knitting (seriously, there is an audience for such stories and plenty of novels to satisfy them), you're likely to find it at the Mystery Bookshop.  Perhaps the best thing about this store are the people who run it.  They really know their stuff.  Case in point: Before I left for Seattle I made a list of books I wanted to look for, which of course I forget to bring with me when I went to the Mystery Bookshop.  Still, I figured it couldn't hurt to ask the man behind the counter if he had heard of a new series centered around a vicar in a small British town who used to work at MI-5.  I didn't really expect to get an answer given my vague description.  To my delight, within a few minutes, he had the author of the series and the title of the first book.  Score!

My second stop was The Elliott Bay Book Company, a store I visited once before the last time I was in Seattle.  This independent store impressed me so much that I have never forgotten it even though the last time I was there was over a dozen years ago.  It's a great independent store, that feels local and global at the same time.  You can find just about any book here, and have a cup of coffee and a snack at the (non-chain) coffee shop in the back.  If I lived in Seattle, I would spend a great deal of time here.

The first time I saw the Seattle Public Library, I didn't realize it was a library and walked right passed it.  The oddly shaped glass and steel building doesn't immediately evoke a sense of books and reading, at least not on the outside.  See what I mean here and here.  Inside is even more amazing.  With so many windows to let in the light, the space feels open and airy, not like being in an office building at all.  One of the amazing things about the architecture is the book spiral which allows patrons to browse the nonfiction collection on four floors without having to take the stairs or go to another part of the building.  Here's a Ted Talk with one of the architects talking about the design of the library.  More than a place to find a great book, this is truly a great community space.

Anytime I mentioned going to Portland, whoever I was talking to told me to go to Powell's Books.  I did.  In fact, I ended up going everyday I was in Portland, just to enjoy the atmosphere.  This might be my favorite bookstore ever.  I am seriously considering making an annual trip to Portland just to go to this treasure trove of books and bookish items.  The store is huge, huge!  I went back the second time in part because I realized I hadn't actually seen the whole store, despite having spent several hours there the day before.  There is so much to love about this bookstore.  One of things I appreciated was in the mystery section.  Like many other bookstores, Powell's highlights certain books that the staff likes for whatever reason.  Powell's has gone a step further and highlighted books set in other countries.  So for example, if you're want to read Canadian mysteries, Italian mysteries or South African mysteries, simply browse the shelves and look for the appropriate sign.  Powell's also has the largest science fiction and fantasy sections I've seen outside of a store that didn't solely specialize in these genres.  There's a whole (and large) room dedicated to art related books.  Thinking about it now, it is probably a good thing that I don't live in Portland because I would move into Powell's and never leave.  There's a coffee shop on the first floor and a bathroom on the second, so really I could survive there for weeks.

So that's what I did (in part) on my summer vacation.  I brought back a carry on full of books and souvenirs.  Can't wait to start reading!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles  I'm not sure how to describe The Martian Chronicles, but I'll give it a shot.  It is a series of short stories set on Mars.  Earthlings went to Mars to explore and to get away from the war and destruction that was the Earth.  The first visit to the Mars doesn't go well.  Neither does the second, the third, or the fourth.  Still, they keep coming.  Mars seems to be a lot like Earth, or maybe that's just how Earthlings perceive it.  Mars feels like home, and it doesn't.

"Science ran too far ahead of us too quickly, and the people got lost in the wilderness, like children making over pretty things, gadgets, helicopters, rockets; emphasizing the wrong items, emphasizing machines, instead of how to run the machines.  Wars got bigger and bigger and finally killed Earth." (The Million Year Picnic)

I don't think I've ever read Ray Bradbury before.  He is one of those authors that I have always heard about, that I meant to get around to, but somehow never did, until now.  Bradbury's writing is beautiful and lyrical.  There is a loneliness, sadness, desperation, but also hope and beauty.  I really enjoyed reading this.  I'm so glad I finally got around to reading this.  My favorite stories were The Earth Men, The Fire Balloons, and The Long Years.  Maybe Fahrenheit 451 should be next on my reading list.  That's another book I should have read by now.

"The Lord is not serious.  In fact, it is a little hard to know just else He is except loving.  And Love has to do with humor, doesn't it?  For you cannot love someone unless you put up with him, can you?  And you cannot put up with someone constantly unless you can laugh at him." (The Fire Balloons)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare or What Makes a Good Series

City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments Series #2)

I am currently reading The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.  Reading this series led me to think about the different series I’ve read over the years, as a child and as an adult.  Looking at my reading history I found that most series could be described as what I would call static or dynamic.  In a static series there is no overall goal that once accomplished, will bring an end to the series.  Each entry in the series can stand completely on its own.  There’s no need to read what came before to get a character's back story because either it is an unimportant or it is succinctly summarized in each individual book.  The characters are clearly defined, sometimes rigidly so, but are not necessarily described in depth. 

Static books are comforting because you know what you’re getting into when you open to the first page.  The best examples of static series are the ones I read as a kid.  Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High come to mind.  Many cozy mysteries might fall into this category as well – Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason or Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series, for example.  These types of books don’t always have great character development, but that’s okay because that’s not really why you read them.  The appeal of a static series is its formula, its non-changing (or little changing) characters, and knowing that in the end whatever problem presented itself in chapter one will be solved by the last page.  It is the ever inquisitive, mystery solving Nancy Drew, the good girl Elizabeth and her semi-bad (or what we might call to today mean girl) twin Jessica.  It is the always winning, stand up for the little guy no matter the odds, Perry Mason that attracts readers. 

A dynamic series has a definitive beginning and ending.  It pays to read the series in order.  The challenge for the author of a dynamic series is making the series as a whole cohesive, while also ensuring that each book can be read on its own.  Each book must have a unique story to tell.  At the same time, each book should further the overall series by having the characters grow and evolve and should move the overall plot forward, even if only incrementally.  Examples of series that do this well are J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.  (I might also include George R.R. Martin’s Fire and Ice series here as well, but with the caveat that I have only read the first two books in the series so far.)

I mostly prefer dynamic series now, though it occurred to me in writing this that although I don’t read as many static series anymore, I do watch them.  NCIS, NCIS: LA, basically most of the crime/cop shows currently on TV could all be described as static.  Again, it is formula that most appeals.

The worst series are those that fall into the valley between the static and dynamic camps.  Books that have the misfortune of falling into this valley are those that tend to be both weak on plot and on character development.  Some readers prefer one over the other.  I can read both, but need at least one of the two. 

City of Bones, the first book in The Mortal Instruments started off as a promising dynamic series, but the series stalled in City of Ashes.  The outlines of the characters were laid out in the first book, but they didn’t grow and evolve in the second.  Clary was still stubborn and shrill.  Jace was still a jerk.  Isabelle was still the pretty girl with the whip.  (By the way, why the whip?  Is this an homage to Wonder Woman and her lasso of truth?)  Making Alec gay and uncomfortable about it might have been an attempt to add depth to the character, but his point of view is never presented and labeling a character gay isn’t enough to add depth any more than making a character heterosexual would be.  There has to be more to his story.

In addition to the lack of growth among the characters, City of Ashes lacked a strong plot.  It was more or less a continuation of the “we have to defeat Valentine” theme, but there was no singular problem that needed to be resolved or accomplished in this book.  This is my biggest problem with City of Ashes.  I suppose one could argue that the soul-sword was meant to be the problem to be dealt with, but that seemed like an afterthought for much of the book.  With the exception of the inquisitor, and she is a relatively minor character, getting the sword never seemed to be at the top of anyone's to do list.  In this sense, the book lacked a certain energy.  There was lots of action – characters getting attacked by demons, fight scenes here and there, vehicles usually seen on streets driven in the air and on water – but it seemed liked characters were just dropped into one crisis after another.   There was never a coherent sense of “we have to do this thing and here’s how we’re going to do it.”  That’s what I mean by energy.  There was crisis after crisis and lots of action, and oh look, the soul-sword happens to be right here in arm’s reach, but no overall plan, no energy directed at a particular goal.

Despite my less than stellar response to City of Ashes, I'm going to read the next book in the series, City of Glass, in part because I borrowed the first three books from the library at the same time and feel compelled to finish at least these three. I have a hard time not finishing books.  Plus I liked the first book enough to give the third book in the series a shot.  Bones was a good start.  Ashes fell short, but I’m hoping Glass picks up the torch and runs with it.

One other last thought - I really like the cover of this book, particularly the flaming red hair against the gray/blue background.  I also like the covers of Bones and Glass.  That being said, I'm not sure captures the the book that well.  Clary doesn't yet strike me as the powerful woman shown on the cover.