Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dewey's Read-a-Thon

Dewey's Read-a-Thon is today, Saturday, April 25!  I'm getting a late start because I am traveling this weekend.  Not that that will stop me.

I'm starting with a graphic novel/comic book and going from there.  I wonder what other people are reading today.

Book 1 done - Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis
 Lumberjanes Vol. 1

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of Achilles  The Song of Achilles  is a retelling of one of the Iliad's most well known characters.  It is told from the point of view of Achilles's best friend, companion, and lover, Patroclus.  It is a very human story set against a backdrop of gods, kings, and heroes. 

I read the Iliad in high school but don't remember much.  All I remember about Achilles is his arrogance and his vulnerable heel.  Seen through the eyes of Patroclus, Achilles is less arrogant (at least at first) and more kind, honest, and without guile.  Achilles learns about the prophesy that foretells that he will be the greatest among his generation at a young age.  With such a future hanging over his head, he grows up alone even while surrounded by dozens of other boys.  He is friendly to all the boys, but close to none of them, knowingly or unknowingly creating a loyal of group followers who will follow him into battle when the time comes.  

Patroclus is in many ways the exact opposite of Achilles.  He is awkward, not good at fighting or at any of the things a future king should be good at, and therefore is also a son who is unwanted by his father.  When Patroclus commits an uncharacteristic act of violence, his father happily sends Patroclus away to be fostered by king Peleus, Achilles's father.  Despite being shy, awkward, and adverse to anything resembling athletics, Patroclus catches Achilles's attention.  First they are friends.  Then they are more.  Their relationship is both subtle and brightly lit. 

Since the Iliad has been around for hundreds of years I don't feel like it is much of a spoiler to say lots of people die in the end, including Achilles.  Miller sticks to the outline of the Iliad and so you know that Patroclus and Achilles are not going to spend their golden years together.  Still the journey from beginning to end is golden to read about.  Miller's clear and crisp writing makes the story even better.  This is a very good read, even if you have no particular interest in Greek mythology.  

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Bone to Pick by Charlaine Harris

A Bone to Pick (Aurora Teagarden Series #2)  The movie was better.  It sometimes happens, and it happened here.  The movie to which I refer is the movie version of A Bone to Pick that recently aired on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel.  A Bone to Pick is the second in Aurora Teagarden series by Charlaine Harris the first being,  Real Murders.  I read that one a few weeks ago, before picking up this second book and watching the movie. 

The book started out well.  Aurora Teagarden is a librarian with an interest in true crime.  She's not alone.  Aurora was a member of the Real Murder Club where those with similar interests discussed famous solved and unsolved murder cases.  In Real Murders, when one of her fellow club members was murdered, Aurora set about finding out who did it.  This time around Aurora inherits a house, money and a mystery from Jane, a fellow club member and retired librarian.  The money and the house are a Godsend, the mystery not so much.

The mystery centers around a human skull Aurora finds hidden in the window seat of her new house.  For awhile Aurora contemplates the possibility that sweet, old Jane had an even deeper interest in true crime than anyone realized.  The idea that a sick, elderly woman could have bludgeoned someone to death and removed his head is soon dismissed.  So then the question is who was the victim and who is responsible for his death?  Sounds like promising beginning, right?  Unfortunately, after that the mystery sort of fizzled out.  My main problem with this book is that Aurora spent more time worrying about her social life than about the mystery.  A sleuth, amateur or otherwise, should spend time looking for clues, questioning suspects, and well, trying to solve the mystery.  Aurora does almost none of that.  She does spend a great deal of time thinking and wondering about the what might have happened, but she spends little time testing her theories.  In the movie version in contrast, Aurora actively tries to solve the mystery.

So this was a disappointment.  At least there is still Hallmark Movies & Mysteries.  If Hallmark Movies & Mysteries decides to make more movies from the Aurora Teagarden series I will watch them, not so sure I'll read any more of the books.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

John Constantine Hellblazer: Original Sins

John Constantine, Hellblazer Volume 1  I never read comic books as a kid.  It wasn't a conscious decision not to read them, more that they were just not on my radar.  Curiously many comic adjacent things were on my radar, like cartoons.  I still love cartoons, but comic books and graphic novels came much later for me.  The first graphic novel I remember reading is Maus and then later, Watchmen.  Even after realizing comics and more particularly graphic novels were an actual thing, I still shied away from them primarily because I had no idea where to begin.  I like to start things at the beginning.  With comics, particularly superhero stories, it can be difficult to figure out where the start is.  Don't even get me started on all the different tangents or how different characters and universes relate to one another.  Seriously, a chart or graph would be extremely helpful here.

What finally brought me into the world comics was DC's New 52 reboot. With DC's New 52 there was finally a place to start.  Since then I've been reading all sorts of comics, not just the ones about superheroes.  Recent favorites include Saga and Sex Criminals.  I just picked up copies of Lumberjanes and Boxers & Saints and am looking forward to diving into those.

All of this is a long way of saying that with John Constantine Hellblazer I was hoping for an origin story.  This wasn't it.  It was an intriguing, very political which I wasn't expecting but enjoyed.  Still, if not for the television show Constantine I would have been completely lost reading this collection.  As it is, I'm still unclear as to how Constantine came to become a demon hunter, what exactly his powers/gifts are, or generally what his deal is.  He's a great character, not a super good guy but not a bad one either.  I liked this enough to want to read more.  Now it's back at square one trying to figure out where to begin.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Chase Me by Tessa Bailey

Chase Me: A Broke and Beautiful Novel   Roxy is a struggling actress trying to make it in New York.  Louis is a young corporate lawyer with a passion for pro bono work.  Neither does commitment.  Then they meet and though they fight against it, they're committed before they know it. 

Chase Me is a new adult romantic comedy.  There are no real surprises here.  People say and do as one might expect in a romantic comedy.  Still it is a cute, quick, fun read.  It is perfect when you need something light or as a palate cleanser in between bigger tomes.  

Friday, April 10, 2015

Still Life by Louise Penny

  Still Life is the first in Louise Penny's mystery series starring Chief Inspector Gamache.  The story is set in Three Pines, a small town near Montreal where no one locks their doors.  The victim is Jane Neal.  Her body is found near a deer trail.  It appears she was shot with an arrow.  Everyone would like to think it was a hunting accident; that someone shot her by mistake and was too ashamed and embarrassed to come forward.  Gamache is fairly certain that it was more than an accident, but then that begs the question, why would any kill an old lady who by all accounts was friendly, kind and generous to all?

I read different genres with different expectations.  In the case of mysteries I look for either great characters or a good puzzle with an even better solution.  Still Life had a decent puzzle but the characters are the big draw.  With respect to Gamache and his team, Still Life felt like a good beginning to the series.  By the end I had some idea of the kind of detective and man Gamache was.  This was also true of his second-in-command Jean Guy but less true of the rest of his team.

One of the most interesting parts of the story was that of new to the homicide team, Agent Nichol.  It is not unusual to have a newbie on the team who makes lots of mistakes but who eventually proves him or herself.  Agent Nichol does the exact opposite, starting off strong and going downhill.  She is rude and arrogant, lacking any sort of emotional intelligence.  I couldn't help but think of the television characters House and Backstrom (which I guess is also a literary character) only unlike those characters, Nichol genuinely doesn't seem to realize that she is rude and arrogant or how she affects other people.  One of the funniest and saddest moments in the book is when Nichol notices a sticker on a mirror that reads "You're looking at the problem," and her reaction is to search the area behind her.

As rude and arrogant as Nichol was, I felt sorry for her.  Gamache tries to advise her but she does not get it.  One gets the sense that Nichol needs more than someone telling her to be nice.  She needs someone to explain to her that she shouldn't call people stupid to their face even when what the person is saying makes little sense because it hurts people's feelings and also because people tend to not to want to talk to you anymore when you call them stupid and that's bad since a lot of a detective's job involves talking to people and getting them to open up to you.  I kept waiting for Nichol to be diagnosed with some sort of disorder.  I hope she appears later in the series just so someone can figure out what's wrong with her.

I realize I just wrote about a side character than the main story, which says something.  The mystery was interesting up until it was solved.  I did not love the solution.  I don't need to be able to solve the mystery to like the book, but I do like to at least be able to look back and think, that thing that seemed like nothing was a clue and now it all makes sense.  Here the solution to the puzzle seemed a little like, hey now it's time to end this thing so time to pick someone to be the bad guy.

As I've said in other places on this blog, one of things I like about reading novels written by non-American authors or set in countries other than the U.S. is that I get to learn about other parts of the world. Still Life is set in the Quebec province, the French part of Canada.  One thing I liked about Still Life is that it touches on the tension between English and French speakers in the province.  At one point a character complains about being an English speaker surrounded by French speakers.  (One can only how wonder how French speakers feel when they cross over into one of Canada's other provinces.)  And a fun fact I learned: In Canada Thanksgiving is celebrated on a Sunday or Monday.  Further research on Wikipedia reveals that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October!  Who knew?  Well I guess Canadians knew and now I do too.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce Series #1)  First a dead bird with a stamp stuck in its beak turns up on the doorstop.  Then Colonel de Luce is heard arguing with an unknown man in his study.  To top it all off, Flavia finds a red-haired man lying in the cucumber garden.  She arrives at his side just in time to hear his last word, "Vale".  Most eleven-year-olds would probably be frightened, might even run away screaming upon witnessing a man breathe his last breath, but Flavia is not most eleven-year-olds.  No, aspiring chemist, poison enthusiast, and all around adventuress Flavia is not frightened.  She is intrigued.

What a delight!  Flavia is precocious, funny, adventurous, and so much more.  Following her as she tried to puzzle out who killed the man in the garden and left the bird on the doorstep was so much fun.  Sure there were some clues that were easy to spot but then Flavia is eleven; it made sense that she didn't always figure everything out quickly.  But don't think because she is eleven this story is merely for middle schoolers.  Though I would have loved to have had something this when I was eleven and I think some pre-teens could handle this, this book is shelved in the adult section.  There are a few jokes that will make adults chuckle while sailing over the heads of youngsters.  One of my favorites: after being advised by her passionate-for-books sister Daphne to kick any man who tries to grab her in the Casanovas, Flavia wonders to herself, where exactly are the Casanovas?

The rest of the cast characters is just as entertaining as Flavia.  In between searching for clues Flavia battles her two older sisters, 17-year-old Ophelia and 13-year-old Daphne, using chemistry as her weapon.  Dogger, once the family butler, chauffeur, and all around right hand man, now gardener (the war having left him memory loss and hallucinations) is more family than employee.  He gives Flavia a hand when he can.  Harriet, the de Luce matriarch and an adventuress in her own right, disappeared while on one of her adventures and is presumed dead, leaving the girls' father Colonel Haviland to raise the girls.  Unfortunately the Colonel is a recluse who barely seems to notice his daughters exist, preferring to spend most of his time in his study pouring over his stamp collection, leaving the girls to largely fend for themselves.  They seem to do alright.  Ophelia worries about boys and makeup; Daphne loves books and reading; and of course Flavia has her chemistry. 

I enjoyed this so much.  Luckily this is the first in a series so there is more Flavia to read.  I can hardly wait.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

Real Murders (Aurora Teagarden Series #1)   There used to be a series of movies on the Hallmark Channel called Mystery Woman about a female bookstore owner who had a passion for mystery novels, a habit of stumbling over dead bodies, and a talent for solving mysteries.  I always wished that the movies were based on a book because that is a book I would read.  Alas, there is no Mystery Woman book series that I've been able to find, but I found something close: the Aurora Teagrarden series by Charlaine Harris.  This weekend Hallmark is premiering a new mystery movie called A Bone to Pick based on the second book of the series.  Because I prefer to start a series at the beginning I picked up a copy of Real Murders, the first Aurora Teagarden book.

Aurora Teagarden is a librarian in a small Georgia town.  She is also a member of a club called Real Murders, a group of true crime aficionados who like to research and discuss famous solved and unsolved cases.  As their monthly meeting is about to start, Aurora realizes that one of their members has gone missing.   Aurora goes looking for her and discovers her first dead body.  Not only has one of the club's members been murdered, the circumstances of the death are similar to the case the club was planning to discuss that very evening.  Aurora doesn't want to believe it but she suspects that the murderer is one of her fellow club members.

Charlaine Harris, the author of Real Murders, has written multiple series including the Southern Vampire/Sookie Stackhouse series, which I enjoyed very much, and Harper Connelly series, which I enjoyed less.  (To be fair I only read one Harper Connelly book.)  So far, the Aurora Teagarden series falls in between Sookie and Harper.  Aurora reminds me a bit of Sookie in that she's another small town southern girl thrown into the deep end and finding she can swim pretty well.  Unfortunately the characters and the setting in the Teagarden series aren't quite as fleshed out as the Sookie series.  Bon Temps and its inhabitants felt like a real place, Aurora and Lawrenceton, Georgia not so much.  Still this was worth a read.  The mystery was an interesting one and just when I thought I had it all figured out it turned out I got it all wrong.

If you like cozy mysteries this one is worth the try.  I am looking forward both to reading the next book in the series and watching the Hallmark version.  There is a place in my heart for smart, often single women like Miss Marple, Cordelia Gray, and Samantha Kinsey who have a talent for solving murders.  Aurora Teagarden might soon find herself added to that list.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

March in Review

The year started with a sprint.  By the end of January I had read eleven books.  I suspected that wouldn't last.  The next month I read three fewer books, completing eight books, and this past month my total was down to six (including one I finished on April 1st).  Seven isn't bad, but it did feel a bit slow.  Worse, I felt like I was moving very far with my reading challenges.  Looking at my progress chart I realize I'm not doing as bad as I thought.  In particular, I finally starting making progress on my Reading the World Challenge, reading books from Nigeria, Norway, and Australia.  On the downside only one of the seven books counted towards the TBR challenge.

Speaking of TBR challenges...this was a good month of not buying books.  Let me explain.  One of my goals this year is to reduce my TBR pile, which includes both reading books from that pile and not acquiring more.  In March I only bought a couple books and taking into account what I did read, my TBR pile decreased by four.  That will change this month as April is the month of my favorite literary festival - The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.  This year there is also a festival dedicated to young adult books called Yallwest.  Between these two festivals my TBR is likely to increase.  But that's okay.  I look forward to the Festival of Books all year and am glad to support authors.  Plus, there are deals to be had at the Festival of Books.  Yallwest is a first for me but don't be surprised if I come home with a few new books from their too.

March brought the beginning of spring.  It may be a little too early for those May flowers but I'm going to celebrate anyway.


Potted Flowers

Every Breath by Ellie Marney

Every Breath  It's Holmes and Watson as teenagers in Australia.  Rachel Watts is a country girl whose family moved to the city after her family lost the farm to the bank.  She misses open spaces and hates the city.  One of the few bright spots in her new life is her neighbor and friend James Mycroft, a teenage boy with an above average IQ and an interest in forensics.  When he and Watts stumble upon the dead body of their friend Dave, Mycroft suggests that he and Watts solve their friend's murder.  Watts is reluctant at first but who can resist a good mystery?  Especially when the police are completely barking up the wrong tree.  They aren't even looking for Dave's dog Poodle, which by the way isn't a poodle, that's just his name.  Mycroft is sure Poodle is the key.  Watts agrees and with that the game is afoot!

Conan Doyle's famous detective has been reincarnated in multiple mediums in recent years.  There's the BBC's Sherlock, Elementary on CBS, and the movies with Robert Downey, Jr, to name a few.  They each offer something a little different.  In all cases, Holmes is a man (where's the female Holmes, I wonder) with acute observation skills, strange hobbies, an ability to recall obscure facts about a wide variety of subjects, and a talent for pissing people off.  For me the most interesting part of a Sherlock Holmes' mystery is both how Holmes solves it and how he interacts with other characters.  The unresolved question in every story (admittedly I haven't read all of the Doyle's work) is how Holmes got to be the way he is.  One of things I really enjoyed about Ellie Marney's Every Breath is that she provides her ideas about why Holmes is the way he is.

In Marney's version Mycroft, as her prefers to be called, is an orphan living with an aunt with whom he barely speaks.  The tragic and violent death of his parents has given Holmes a certain amount of purpose in life, that of solving crimes.  It has also left him sad, lonely, and at times self-destructive. He's a kid on the verge of adulthood who suffered a catastrophic loss and who is trying to figure out how to move forward and sometimes failing at it.

This isn't a straightforward reincarnation of Doyle's detective.  Watts and Mycroft live in modern day Melbourne and are fully aware of the fictional detective.  They and their friends Mai and Gus make jokes about it.  If anything, Sherlock is a detective that Mycroft admires and perhaps aspires to be.  His friends have to remind him periodically that he is not Sherlock and this actions can have real consequences.

Every Breath was very, very good and I look forward to reading the next two books in the series.  That may be difficult as the series was initially published in Australia.  I was lucky to find this book at a library but so far haven't found any American libraries that carry the other two books in the series.  Hopefully they will grow in popularity and start showing up on this continent.