Saturday, January 31, 2009

15/81 - The Spellman Files

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz, from Library Thing/Good Reads category

In the Spellman family, it's perfectly normal to be suspicious of everyone. Privacy is nonexistent. Trust no one.

Unsurprisingly, this attitude has profound consequences for the relationships in the family. David is a perfect child, and as a very smart guy takes the first chance he can to get out of the house. Izzy is the wild child, but her rebellion stops short of actually moving away. And Rae grows up thinking everything is a matter for negotiation and expects to be paid for taking a shower.

The reason the family is so messed up is that they are all private investigators. After years of following suspects, digging through their trash, taking surveillance photos, and illegal wiretapping, they have no idea how to have a normal family.

I enjoyed this book. Izzy is a crazy character, but I found myself sympathizing with her. I thought it was funny the way she had case files on her ex-boyfriends. I loved Rae. But I really couldn't understand the parents. They treated their children as suspects. That's just wrong.

When I first heard of this book, I had the impression that it was a teen book. It's not. It's not that it's inappropriate for teens, really. There is drug and alcohol abuse and references to casual sex and the language is a little rough. But that's found in many teen books. It's just that it's written from Izzy's point of view as a 28 year old adult.

I enjoyed this book. It wasn't exactly deep, but it kept me up late last night, waiting to see what happened. I am extremely glad that my family is nothing like the Spellmans.

See Under: Love

See Under: Love by David Grossman 1989 translated from Hebrew by Betsy Rosenberg. Grossman is an Israeli novelist and this is his second novel.
The novel is divided into four distinct sections.
The first section is set in the 1950's and is about a child, Momik, whose parents and neighbours are all Holocaust survivors. There is a wall of silence regarding the War and Momik just has glimpses of the mysterious land 'Over There' and the 'Nazi Beast'. Grossman gets right into the psyche of a young child and creates a small masterpiece in this section as Momik battles 'the beast' on his own. This is a brilliant stand-alone piece that gave me enough stamina to endure the next section which is the most challenging section of the book. Here we find Momik, now a flawed adult, still obessed with the Holocaust even to the expense of his marriage. Communing with the sea, Momik seeks the truth of an alternate fate for writer Bruno Schulz who was shot by Nazis, and here Grossman takes us off into a magical world of the ocean, spawning salmon and Momik himself floating in the sea attempting to find this answer to writer Bruno Schulz's alternate life as a fish.
And on to the third section which takes place in a death camp and there are still magical elements at play here. Momik's greatuncle Anshel Wasserman is forced to tell stories, like Scheherazade, to the Camp Commander Obersturmbannfurer Neigel. These stories are based on the characters of a popular children's series he wrote many years earlier that Neigel loved as a child. Momik has a presence as an imaginary onlooker, a chronicler of the events. Grossman is brilliant here subtly weaving Wasserman and his stories around Neigel until Wasserman’s bitter motive becomes clear. The last section uses encyclopedia entries to take the tale of Wasserman, Neigel and the extraordinary tales of the Children of the Heart to its inevitable end.

Overall this book was a reading experience - challenging, complex, rewarding and also very frustrating. The characters of the child Momik, Wasserman and Neigel are memorable. The magical elements of the book almost overwhelm the reader, some of the crazy characters and plots in Wasserman's stories add to your reading perplexity, but why should reading about the Holocaust ever be easy. While the first part of the book brings elements of the Israeli film - The Wooden Gun to mind the later part of the book is more David Lynch with generous sprinklings of Pans Labrynth.
I definitely recommend reading the first section of this book even if you don't feel like tackling the rest. I’ll be reading more books by David Grossman and am especially keen to read his children’s books. I’m also interested in reading some Bruno Schulz. CarlosMcRey has just reviewed one of Schulz’s books on his 999 thread #43
My 999 thread can be viewed here:

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Evil Seed by Joanne Harris (11/81)

C1992 443pages 3.5stars

Daniel knows her as Rosemary. Alice knows her as Ginny. But she is the same woman, Rosemary Virginia Ashley, a hauntingly beautiful vampire. Danny's tale gives us her past and Alice relates her present. As the stories begin to converge it becomes clear that, though ethereal in appearance, she is unquestionably master of her domain. Will Alice live to fulfill Daniel's plan?

Last year while doing World War II research for NaNoWriMo, I stumbled across a book called Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris, an author I had never read before. I devoured that book in a few hours and when I finished the last page I knew instantly that I must read every word written by this woman. Which is how I ended up with an entire category devoted to Joanne Harris for my 999 challenge. I checked out the few books my library branch had and added the remainder to my BookMooch wishlist. Poking around on Amazon, I noticed that this, her first novel, was a Gothic vampire tale, which thrilled me to no end. Unfortunately it was listed as out of print. Then in the span of a day, two copies became available on BookMooch; it had been reprinted. Seems reading her debut work was in the cards for me after all.
My introduction to Harris was her fifth novel. This book is nothing like that one. It's more similar to Sleep, Pale Sister, her second novel, which makes sense as they were published consecutively. It has the same dreamy quality.
Now I must admit that I struggled through most of this book. Even though it's Gothic and I love Gothic. Even though it has vampires and I love vampires. At times it felt like a obligation, a labor of love. But somewhere along page 300 something clicked and the novel came into its own. I was no longer just along for the ride, I was enjoying it immensely. Here was the Harris magic. So, all in all, it's a little uneven. Not her best work and I'm not saying that it has to be, or should be. Knowing that the best is yet to come makes me itchy to devour the rest of her novels.

favorite quote:
Great thoughts filled my inspired brain, thoughts which I never quite remembered later, but which flowered there in the darkness as I fed upon her and she upon me, thoughts of creation and infinities, each unfurling in the red darkness like hearts in flower, longings and ecstasies undreamed of, pleasures of the blood more monstrous and sublime than were any pleasure of the flesh. For an instant I was void, a wailing infant in the eternal absence of myself, then I was creator, galaxies in my mind's eye, then annihilator, blood at my fingertips, blood in my voice, blood filling my giant footprints as I walked. Afterwards, I could never recapture that fleeting moment of absolute power, but God forgive me, I have lusted after it evermore, though all I can remember with any clarity now is the taste, so like the taste of tears.

Curly Girl by Lorraine Massey (10/81)

C2001 148pages 4stars

I'm not sure whether it was Amazon or LibraryThing that recommended this book to me. It has excellent reviews on Amazon so I added it to my BookMooch wishlist and was surprised when it became available so quickly. And the timing could not be better as mid-winter is always the period when I get the most annoyed with my hair and want to chop it all off. This book fits nicely into my Self Improvement category.

This handbook for women with naturally curly hair is written by Lorraine Massey, founder and co-owner of Devachan salon in New York. I can think of no better person to write it than a fellow 'sufferer'. She holds nothing back, even publishing pictures of herself during 'bad hair' days.
Massey gives advice for three types of curly hair; how to care for it, cut it and style it. But the book is so much more than that. The subtitle is: A Celebration of Curls and it is just that. This book is full of pictures of women-next-door and their reformed manes. By the end of the book I was inspired and proud of my hair. How could I ever think of lobbing it all off? This book really was a mood-lifter for me. I will definitely try some of her techniques. I wish this book had been available to me 25 years ago. I recommend it to all Curly Girls.

#18/81 THE TEMPLAR LEGACY by Steve Berry

When I finished this book, at first I was a little stunned. It didn't end the way I expected. Maybe that's why it was such an interesting novel. The author creates a highly imaginative story using certain facts and theories of others and weaves them together to generate a tale that holds your interest and at times takes your breath away.
Highly religious people may be offended by some of the aspects of this story, but I found fascinating in the same way as I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code.
In total, it was an entertaining adventure worthy of James Bond while and at the same time extremely disquieting in its theories.

14/81 - Life's Handicap by Rudyard Kipling

Life's Handicap by Rudyard Kipling, short story category

This book is a collection of short stories written by Rudyard Kipling. They include one story written when he was only 19, and vary in size from 2 1/2 pages to much longer stories.

All of the stories are set in colonial India, and share some basic themes: the conflict between the races, the doubt over the value of civilization, the frustration over fighting a losing battle, and yet the joy in comradeship, even if the war is a pointless one.

I didn't read the preface until I was at least halfway through the book, and then I spotted the warning that the best stories are placed at the beginning of the book. As I read more, I had to agree with that. The later stories are too brief to be more than mildly interesting and the ideas are not solid enough to be worth a longer story.

I enjoyed this book more than I expected at first. I had a couple of problems. One is that the book makes extensive use of dialect, which can be hard to read. And this edition also included endnotes for each story, which made it feel more like I was reading a textbook and less like I was reading a story.

But I did enjoy some of the stories very much. My favorite ones in this collection were 'The Man Who Was' and 'Without Benefit of Clergy'.

If you are a fan of Kipling, or if you want to read more about colonial India and the British Empire, I really recommend this collection.

Distant Star by Roberto Bolano (16/81)

Category: Around the World
Country: Chile

I picked this up in my local library because of all of hype surrounding the publication in English of Bolano’s 2666. I shy away from long books at the best of times, but 2666 sounded particularly daunting. So I thought I would start with one of his shorter works.

It is about a mysterious poet who becomes both a celebrated artist for his sky-writing poetry and a murderous soldier in the early days of Pinochet’s regime. The early part of the book was excellent. The sinister atmosphere of this time and place in history where it became the norm for people to “disappear” was chilling, as was the glimpses we were given the central character.

Unfortunately, in the later part of the book becomes more concerned with endless literary name-dropping of mainly Latin American writers and poet, plus a chunk on Les Miserables too, which was completely lost on me. I imagine it is this high-brow stuff that earned Bolano his reputation but I preferred the atmospheric part with a plot!

1968: The Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky (15/81)

Category: Retro - Beats, Hippies, 1960s and Counter Culture.

In comparison to many of my other books, this was quite a weighty read and at first I struggled to read more than a chapter or two at a time because there was a lot of information to take in. However, about half way through, I got into the swing of it and completed it quite quickly.

It was a good book to read early in the challenge for this category as it provided a huge amount of background information on the political situation in this period. Although it obviously focuses on the year in the title, there were detailed explanations of what led there. There was a lot on the USA, understandably given the war with Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, but it was just as informative about Czechoslovakia, France and Mexico.

One of the recurring themes in the book was the relationship between the media (especially television) and the events of the year, and a very interesting point was made about the movement away from non-violent protests being due to the media age. In terms of the civil rights movement, anti-war protests and student demonstrations, it is obvious that the author is on the side of these campaigns, but there is still some criticism of them for example the sidelining of women’s rights and the portrayal of Martin Luther King is not always flattering.

The book was fascinating, but was much less about the culture of the period than I was expecting from the blurb on the back. In retrospect, given the huge amount it already covered, this was not really a problem, but I thought I should highlight that in case anyone else reads it expecting chapters on music, film and fashion.

Real World by Natsuo Kirino (14/81)

Category: Crime and Detectives (with a global theme)
Country: Japan

This book was described as Japanese Feminist Noir, which I imagine is fairly small genre. I’m not too sure about the feminist angle although there were four major female characters, but it was certainly dark enough to qualify as noir.

There was a murder central to the story, but this was not a whodunit as we find this very early in the book. A teenage boy, given the nickname of “The Worm” by the girl who lives next door, kills his mother. The girl next door sees him minutes later and because of this the fate of her and three of her friends becomes entangled with his.

The book moves perspective with each chapter so we see the story parts of the story from each of the four girls and the teenage murderer. Each of the girls has a distinctive personality and their monologues discuss not only the events unfolding, but their personalities and relationships with each other. The parts from the point of view of “The Worm” (a name he bizarrely adopts for himself) are less convincing, perhaps unsurprisingly from a female author.

The overall picture is one of alienated youth, detached not only from older generations but also unable to fully connect with each other. It may be intentional then that I never felt emotionally engaged with any of the characters. I was interested in finding out what happened next, but I never really cared about any of them.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde (13/91)

The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde
Category: Award Winners

If you haven't read the other books in the Thursday Next series, this contains ***spoilers*** for the first two books.

Hiding out from the Goliath Corporation in the Well of Lost Plots, Thursday has entered the Character Exchange Program in a never-will-be-published mystery featuring Jack Spratt. She's replacing a character named Mary who has primarily served as a prop so other characters can explain what's going on to the readers. Aornis is still dangerously able to make Thursday forget her eradicated husband, Landon, and Miss Haversham is prepping Thursday to take the test to enter Jurisfiction.

Most of the events that The Well of Lost Plots is concerned with takes place in the Book World. We find out more about the history and politics going on in Jurisfiction, and nothing really moves forward on the Outside. The footnoterphone is back, complete with junkfootnotes. This one was more fanciful than the first two, and didn't hold up as well for me. Still, an enjoyable read. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

The Crocodile Bird by Ruth Rendell (12/81)

I loved this book! Liza and her mother Eve live on the isolated British estate Shrove House. Although Eve is more than slightly unbalanced, with an unnatural attachment to the estate, one senses that she loves her daughter.
Liza is not allowed to go to school to interact with other children, watch television, or develop any other relationships besides the one with her mother. After committing several murders over Liza's lifetime, Eve's luck has finally run out and she is wanted by the police for her crimes. Liza is now sixteen and runs away with the garden hand and also her boyfriend Sean.
In the manner of Scherazade, Liza recounts her life story to Sean and comes to realize she may be more like her mother than she thinks.
Great psychological thriller.

Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (13/81)

Category: 1001 Books to Read Before You Die

This is a very bizarre book and one which I imagine will divide readers. It begins innocuously enough with a description of the narrator’s life following the death of his parents, and how he came to commit a murder. But this isn’t a straightforward tale of wrong-doings and things quickly become stranger. The rest of the book involves greed, guilt, eternity and bicycles!

Absurd is the best way to describe the book, with the situations and dialogue taking surreal turns. Sometimes there is comedy in the absurdity, other times it is nightmarish, or just plain infuriating for the reader.

Running alongside the actual “plot” (such as it is), is this book’s defining feature, its use of footnotes. The narrator has undertaken a project to collect together all the writings on a philosopher/scientist called de Selby and his thoughts (often quite tenuously) turn to the works of de Selby, so extensive footnotes are provided to explain the ideas of the man, and his numerous critics. Of course, de Selby is an entirely fictional character, but the author has created a whole body of work for him and his commentators. Although it was difficult to know how to read at the same time as the main novel, I enjoyed this part most because of the contrast between the ridiculousness of his theories and the serious academic tone of criticism.

This book was very different from anything else I’ve ever read. I would recommend it to others just on that basis, but make guarantee that anyone will like or even understand it.

The Declaration by Gemma Malley (12/81)

Category: Dystopia

In the near future people live forever taking a drug called Longevity, but because of population growth putting a strain on the world's resources, anyone taking the drug must sign "The Declaration" that prevents them from having children. This book is about the children born as "Surpluses" whose parents broke the law in giving birth to them.

This is a Young Adult book, which I don’t normally read, but it was a good fit with my dystopia theme. The society presented here is as plausible as any created in the adult dystopian novels I’ve read, but the execution of it is much more simple. The narrator outlines most of the principles of the society straightaway, so you don’t have to try to figure things out for yourself. Therefore, despite it being a thought-provoking read, it was a very easy read. It reminded me of “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro as that is written from a similar perspective, but it lacked that book’s subtlety and it lacked that book’s emotional power.

There was also a “twist” in this story, which I thought was obvious, but I did think the ending was very good. However, I see there is a sequel and I’m not sure that I will rush to read that, as I think the dystopian element that attracted me to this book was explored fully here.

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (5/81)

It might be fair to say that this is the weaker of Schulz' two collections; that is, it is not 100% consistently mind-blowing. Perhaps only 90-98%. Schuz' prose has the quality of being downright intoxicating. His tales all deal with his family and life in his hometown, but the incandescent profusion of language and imagery reveals the transcendent behind the ordinary.

The first three stories feature an obsession with texts, starting with The Book of the story by that name, in which the Authentic is regenerated, and finishing with the strange season of "Spring," in which a stamp album holds the secrets to the Hapsburg dynasty and a youthful love triangle.

In the title story, the narrator visits his father at a convalescent home, where death is kept at bay through entrechment in the past. As the not-days progress, he soon learns that he is loving in recycled time.

"The Old Age Pensioner" and "Father's Last Escape" are haunting portrayals of the metamorphosis of old age and its approach to the final transmutation of death.

Schulz wrote like no one else, and his fantasies of the everyday are worth getting lost in.

13/81 - An American Childhood by Annie Dillard

An American Childhood by Annie Dillard, new author category

Annie Dillard describes her childhood in post-WWII Pittsburgh. She opens the book with the metaphor that as children, we are all asleep to the wonder of life. Then at some point, we awake and realize how amazing life is. My problem is that I never remember feeling that way. She uses the metaphor over and over in the book, and every time, I just couldn't relate. Maybe it's a personal thing, or maybe it's a generational thing - maybe children in the age of divorce and family stress 'wake up' so much earlier that we aren't even aware of it.

I think the book is better if read in small portions, as a series of individual essay. Reading it all at once (well, over several days) I found myself losing interest. Just not my cup of tea at all. 1 1/2 stars.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (7/81)

When Dashti, a maid, and Lady Saren, her mistress, are shut in a tower for seven years for Saren’s refusal to marry a man she despises, the two prepare for a very long and dark imprisonment. As food runs low and the days go from broiling hot to freezing cold, it is all Dashti can do to keep them fed and comfortable. But the arrival outside the tower of Saren’s two suitors—one welcome, and the other decidedly less so—brings both hope and great danger, and Dashti must make the desperate choices of a girl whose life is worth more than she knows. With Shannon Hale’s lyrical language, this forgotten but classic fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm is reimagined and reset on the central Asian steppes; it is a completely unique retelling filled with adventure and romance, drama and disguise.

I was so excited to find this book the other day and couldn't wait to read it .... It took me all of 2 days ... Mainly because I had to stop reading to look after my family ... :) lol .....

This is a great wee book I absolutely loved it and cannot wait to dive in with the Princess Academy which I will be reading next ... I think I have discovered a new favourite author ...

Dashti is a wonderful character and the book is written in a journal form from Dashti's perspective .... Which is interesting .... You go through the different emotions with her whether it is saddest, joy or humorous ... She just writes down her want she is thinking which is refreshing to read .... I have to say that she has the patience of a saint when it comes to her Lady Saren I think I would have strangled her after day 10 never mind day 932 ....

This is a wonderful book for Young Girls to read and I thoroughly enjoyed it from the beginning to end ... I love how Shannon has mingled drawings throughout and you really feel a close bond to Dashti ...

This is a gorgeous book of Adventure and Romance and it will have you swooning ... No matter how old you are !!! .... I will definitely be giving this book to my daughter to read .....

I rate this book 5*****

It is nice to think to that she is LDS and she says “I say a prayer before I begin my writing time each day. By no means do I think that my books are ‘inspired,’ but I believe the Lord does give us a lift and aids us in completing our righteous endeavors when we seek His help.”

#17/81 GETTING OLD IS MURDER by Rita Lakin

Gladys Gold known as Gladdy is aged 75 and an avid mystery reader. When her best friend Francie dies eating chocolate cake, Gladdy begins to suspect that there is a serial killer on the lose in her Florida retirement community. The story is amusing with all the antics of the elder generation as well as senior romance in bloom. The only shortfall is that not all the minor characters have been fleshed out sufficiently so there are moments of confusion. But overall, a thoroughly pleasant cozy for a snowy cold afternoon.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (11/81)

Category: Themed Title – Animals

This is the most recent Booker Prize winner, and I’m afraid to say it hasn’t done anything to redeem the prize in my eyes after the dreadful The Gathering which won the previous year. It is not so much that it is a bad book, it just isn’t a great book and it makes me wonder that the competition was like if this was the book that won.

The book is narrated by Balram Halwai in the form of a series of emails to the leader of China who is due to make a visit to India. Within these messages, he describes the new economy of India and his raise from a lowly driver to a successful businessman. The name the White Tiger refers to him being a rare creature that comes along only once or twice in each generation.

The book is full of sly observations about the economy built on outsourcing, the Caste system and the differences between urban and rural life. At times it threatened to be interesting or exciting but then it just fizzled away again. I also had the impression that the author was writing specifically for Western audiences in this portrayal of various Indian types.

Overall, rather a disappointing read.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Brida by Paulo Coelho (6/81)

"But how will I know who my Soulmate is?" "By taking risks," she said to Brida. "By risking failure, disappointment, disillusion, but never ceasing in your search for Love. As long as you keep looking, you will triumph in the end." This is the story of Brida, a beautiful young Irish girl, and her quest for knowledge. On her journey she meets a wise man who teaches her about overcoming her fears, and a woman who teaches her how to dance to the hidden music of the world. They see in her a gift, but must let her make her own voyage of discovery. As Brida seeks her destiny, she struggles to find a balance between her relationships and her desire to transform herself. A moving tale of love, passion, mystery and spirituality from the master storyteller and author of The Alchemist. "Coelho is a novelist who writes in a universal language." New York Times

I got drawn by this book mainly because I had read and really loved the Alchemist and the story line is also set in my beloved Ireland .... So I think I had really high hopes for this novel ...

There is throughout the novel certain thought provoking sentences which do make you think but I sort of got lost when it went down the road of witchcraft etc .... And not that I am a prude about matters like that because I have read and enjoyed a number of books with that subject ... But because I found myself feeling abit uncomfortable with some of the spiritual views expressed ... I was looking for the same enlightenment and delight which I received when I read the Alchemist which was missing in this novel ...

Brida the main character is a likable character and you do relate to her search for a Sole mate ... Isn't that what everyone wishes to be able to find their other half ... The special someone who you feel completes you ...

And I do agree with going on a personal journey to find yourself before you can let someone else in ... The wise man Magus is a lovely character and he can see the potential in Brida but has got to let her make her own discoveries while watching in the sidelines ... And there is a real sense when reading the novel to be more aware of the world around you ..

This is a quick and easy read and dotted throughout are bits of magic !!!

Unfortunately not in the same class as The Alchemist which still remains one of my favourite books ...

I rate this book 2 **

Twisted by Jeffery Deaver (11/81)

I greatly enjoyed this collection of short stories featuring twisted people in stories with excellent plot twists. Everytime I thought I knew what was going to happen, I was wrong. This was my first time reading anything by this author, although I had heard of him before. Some of the highlights for me were:
*A beautiful woman goes to extreme lengths to rid herself of a stalker.* A former nerd, now an adult, gets revenge on his former tormentors. *A father's fishing trip turns deadly and the absolute best story features detective Lincoln Rhyme in a Christmas themed disappearance.
I am looking forward to reading the Bone Collector and I will be reading the rest of the Lincoln Rhyme series in the near future.

I am also becoming quite fond of short story collections, I find them to be very satisfying reads and can sometimes be a good break from a longer book.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (12/81)

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Category: Books about Books/Reading/Writing

Anne Lamott, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, distills the advice she gives to her creative writing students. Using her two cornerstones of writing -- short assignments and "shitty first drafts" -- a lot of humor, personal stories, and memorable metaphors, this is unlike any writing how-to book I've ever read.

In all honesty, I included "writing" in this category to read one book in particular. I haven't written in years partly because I never seemed to be able to finish what I started and partly because I read so many really good books that I figured I couldn't write that well so never mind. But Bird by Bird makes me want to write again. Ms. Lamott doesn't beat you over the head with "you must write every day" (though she suggests writing at least 300 words a day, even if you only write about how much you don't want to write) or give you a formula for how to be a Writer. She doesn't making writing sound easy, but she did make it sound doable, even necessary. I haven't taken up writing again yet, but I may well consider it. 5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope - 12/81

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, new author category

The death of the bishop of the fictional town of Barchester sets in motion a pitched battle of religion in this book by Anthony Trollope. One one side is the new bishop, his domineering wife, and his ambitious new chaplain, Mr. Slope. On the other side is practically every other member of the clergy in the town, from the dean, the archbishop, and the entire chapter.

Entangled in the dispute is mild Mr. Harding, formerly warden of the Barchester hospital, providing bed and care for 12 worthy aged men. A scandal forces him from his position and threatens to split the town in half. Mr. Harding's widowed daughter Mrs. Bold is another focus of the story, this time providing the romance. With three eligible men seeking her hand - or is it her fortune - she remains oblivious until her hand is almost literally forced.

I was surprised to find myself really enjoying this book. The beginning was rather rough, started as it does with solely ecclesiastical matters. I know nothing at all of the organization of the Anglican church and was bewildered by the politics involved. But once the personalities behind the offices began to emerge, I was really hooked. The style is rather old-fashioned, but not so much that I couldn't read it quickly. Highly recommended - lots of fun.

8/10 stars

Tea Bliss, 1/81

I read this book for my 999 Challenge, as I have a tea category. Tea isn't just my favorite beverage, it's become a passion. I love trying new blends and harvests, expanding my tea palette. Thus, I'm excited to read more about tea. I began my tea reading with Theresa Cheung's Tea Bliss: Infuse Your Life with Health, Wisdom and Contentment. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Possibly the most important thing to state for potential readers of this book is that this is not a book about tea. Rather, it's a self-help book that's masquerading as a tea book. There's precious little information about tea in here, but more on that later. The basic premise of the book is that ideas and principles of tea can be used to affect positive change in your life. Each of these principles comprises a chapter (or "nourishing blend" to use the author's lexicon) and is linked with a similar principle that one can apply to one's life. Some of them sort of work, for example, not all tea should be brewed with boiling water is paired with the idea that living in a constant state of stress is toxic. Other of the principles, however, seem to bear little resemblance to the tea principle in question. Make sure each cup you serve has the same taste and temperature doesn't seem to bear a strong resemblance to seeking balance in life. And that particular point leads to one of the larger issues in the book. There are a wealth of inaccuracies and misinformation concerning tea in these pages. In a number of cases the author states things that are wrong or unresearched. Making sure each cup of tea has the same flavor every time? Most frequent drinkers of green and white teas are well aware that these teas stand up to, and indeed are expected, to go through multiple steepings (particularly if brewing with a gaiwan), and the entire point of the multiple steepings is that the flavors change slightly with each. A number of other examples are found in the health benefits of tea chapter. The author refers to rooibos as "the only naturally caffeine-free black tea." Sorry, but no. Rooibos is an entirely different plant. It does not come from the Camiellia Sinesis plant; it is not black tea. Or what about "lemon tea," which the author describes as "mainly sugar with tea solids." Ummmmm, does she mean Nestea? Seriously? In a book about making and enjoying tea? She refers to it as energizing, in a chapter on tea and health no less. At this point I've started to wonder how much of the issue is bad writing, and how much is lack of knowledge. I suspect there's some of both. The author's bio indicates that she has written other self-help books, but there's not much I can praise on the self-help side either. Most of the suggestions are basic, standard, self-help filler (the challenges and disappointments give life texture, seek balance, etc. etc. etc.) In sum, the tea theme is never well-wedded to the self-help content of this book, making it seem contrived at best. The research, factual, and writing problems only add to the more fundamental problems. The one positive thing I can say about this book is that the pictures are beautiful, but beyond that, there is little to recommend here.

Theresa Cheung, Tea Bliss: Infuse Your Life with Health, Wisdom, and Contentment (Corgi, 2007) ISBN: 157324211X

Category: Tea, 1/9

Cross-posted to my blog: In Laurie's Mind

#16/81 FEARLESS FOURTEEN by Janet Evanovich

Stephanie is up to her usual tricks and yet I still laugh uproariously throughout the story. After convincing Loretta Rizzi to turn herself in to be rebonded, Stephanie is forced to babysit Loretta's son because Loretta is unable to be rebonded. These are the least of Loretta's troubles for as soon as she manages to be released she is kidnapped and held for ransom. Stephanie struggles to manage the events that continue to unravel around the Rizzo family members and continuing her security work with Ranger and her romance with Joe. She continually lands in one predicament after another but somehow muddles through in the end. For all the Plum series books, this is one of the better story lines.

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co by Jeremy Mercer


“If you ever come to Paris
On a cold and rainy night
And find the Shakespeare store
It can be a welcome sight

Because it has a motto
Something friendly and wise
Be kind to strangers
Lest they’re angels in disguise”

Shakespeare & Co in Paris is one of the world’s most famous bookstores. The original store opened in 1919 and became known as the haunt of such literary heavyweights as Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The shop was forced to lose in 1941 – allegedly after owner Sylvia Beach refused to sell the last copy of “Finnegan's Wake” to an occupying Nazi officer.

A decade later another bookstore with a similar free thinking ethos opened on the Left Bank and 1964, with the agreement of Sylvia Beach, its owner George Whitman resurrected the name “Shakespeare & Co.”

The shop was the principal meeting place for a new generation of writers, and would become renowned for its run ins with the authorities, its cluttered but captivating interior and its open door policy to visitors - even providing beds for those of a literary mindset who found themselves down on their luck.

That tradition continues still and Canadian Jeremy Mercer was one of those who found shelter in the bookstore. He had a career as a crime reporter but, when information from a criminal source that he had promised to hold back was published, he thought it wise to flee. He went to Paris with a vague idea of studying French to complete an unfinished college course.

Jeremy Mercer reveals a world inside the bookstore that seems utterly unbelievable at times. Residents are required to write an essay for admission, evict the previous occupant of their space, read a book a day and help out

Misadventures and anecdotes abound. The most interesting concern owner George Whitman, a man who regards money with disdain, sets fire to his hair in order to give it a trim, and dreams of his estranged daughter taking over his empire. He accommodates an ever-changing group of residents, who rise and fall in his favour.

The story in a reporter’s style and while the book is readable it also has some serious flaws. Jeremy Mercer as a central character is not that engaging and some of the stories are tied up a little too tidily, to the point where I had to seriously consider whether they had been somewhat embroidered.

This isn’t a bad book – I’m glad I read it – but Shakespeare & Co is worthy of better. Maybe there’s another book out there ...

Book 7 of 81

Category: Autobioraphies, Biographies & Memoirs

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


"How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. If it was only the other way! If it was I who were to be always young, and the picture that were to grow old! For this - for this - I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!"

I loved this book. It combines wonderful writing with a striking and engrossing plot and it has contemporary resonances that make it truly worthy of the overused label “classic”.

Dorian Gray sees his youthful beauty captured in a painting and wishes that he could stay like that for ever and the picture age instead.

Dorian’s wish is granted and the picture becomes twisted and ugly as a result of his selfish hedonism in his perpetual youth.

All of this happens after Dorian falls under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry advocates the pursuit of pleasure at any and all costs and the hazard of a virtuous and peaceful life. Dorian is suggestible and Lord Henry’s influence is profound.

Painter Basil Hallward expresses more conservative views but his words are not heeded, and Dorian takes steps to evade him because does not want Basil to see what is happening to his painting.

The story is both horrifying and hypnotic to watch. It was widely believed in the Victorian era that you could see a man's character on his face and, as Dorian becomes depraved, selfish, and cruel, this is etched upon his portrait until it becomes too much for him to bear.

The book is filled out with long conversations about conversations covering a multitude of themes. Sometimes they disturb the pace but the characters are psychologically true and that carries the day.

And best of all, the language used in this book is a joy. Wonderful, flowing, vivid descriptions of characters, places and actions verge on poetry. It may be a bit too flowery for some, but it is the kind of writing I love.

I am only sorry that “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is Oscar Wilde’s only novel.

Book 6 of 81

Category: Books written before 1900

The Deceivers (4/81)

One night, Captain William Savage of the East India Company witnesses a murder. In seeking out the murderers, he finds his efforts frsutrated, and soon comes to realize that a criminal conspiracy has been operating right under his nose. To stop the killings, he will have to infiltrate the group that goes by The Deceivers.

That story is loosely based on the Thuggee (meaning deceivers) of India, who strangled and robbed travellers on the roads. Savage is something of an unlikely hero. He doesn't figure himself particularly brave or commanding, but when he discovers the crimes, he sees no choice but to make himself pass as an Indian and join a Thuggee band.

The Deceivers is a fairly straightforward suspense/adventure tale, where our heroic protagonist finds the hero inside as he faces a terrible evil. The setting is well realized, and the foe portrayed in an interesting manner.

I must admit I didn't find Capt. Savage entirely compelling as a hero, in part because the threat wasn't always well defined. The physical threat, yes, but Deceivers puts equal weight on the spiritual/psychological threat Savage is under while pretending to be a Thug, without really making it plausible that he would have any reason for becoming a Thug. Instead it opts for some weak supernaturalism, and a somewhat vague struggle between Eastern and Western gods.

(One might also accuse Masters of some colonial revisionism, but I'd just urge any reader not to treat the novel as a serious portrayal of 19th Century India.)

Overall, with its interesting locale and heroic protagonist, The Deceivers makes for a pretty entertaining adventure story.

La Muerte y su Traje (3/81)

Santiago Dabove was a contemporary of Borges and, if JLB's introduction is any indication, something of an eccentric. He had little interest in publishing, and it was only the intervention of his more famous friend that managed to get this book edited and published after the author's death.

The stories here make for an interesting collection of strange stories, somewhat in the vein of Poe. The Poe influence shows up early, with the story "Ser Polvo" ("Being Dust") which seems to want to go Poe one better. While Poe was known to write about being buried alive, Ser Polvo describes a man being converted to earth while still conscious. It's a fascinatingly morbid work, rendered ambiguous by the narrators admission that he's dying and has taken large doses of heroine.

Another work which suggests Poe's "Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", with a little Frankenstein (or Reanimator) thrown in for good measure, is "El experimento de Varinsky" ("Varinsky's Experiment) where a doctor uses a strange device to bring a man back from the dead, with strange results.

As you can see, death is a frequent theme in these stories, as one might expect from works influenced by Poe. Intriguingly, like Leopoldo Lugones or Macedonio Fernandez, Argentine authors publishing in this era, Dabove's work goes beyond copying Poe, incorporating philosophical or scientific elements to plum the uncanny in new ways, a process that would bear fruit with Borges himself.

It is an interesting mix of stories, if perhaps somewhat dark, but I found these little variations on the weird tale to be pretty entertaining.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart

This week I read two works about Africa. At least, Heart of Darkness takes place in the physical continent of Africa.

Heart of Darkness was a reread (from high school of course). I did find it a good read, difficult but not impenetrable. The descriptions of what Marlow sees and hears are great, and vividly portray an Africa under colonialism.

I read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe because I saw comments on LibraryThing and in the introduction to my Joseph Conrad book mentioning the book and Achebe's comments about Joseph Conrad. I am glad I did, the book is well written and a great picture of Africa from an African; real people, daily life, and culture clashes.

Things Fall Apart describes a decade in the life of a member of a village on the River Niger. We learn about Okonkwo, his father, his wives and children, his role in the village, and his love of the traditions of his tribe. The first part of the book gives us a picture of what life is like, the rules of the society and the meaning they give to Okonkwo's life. We see things done for tradition's sake that are disagreeable, but accepted. Perhaps they should be questioned, but then arises the difficulty of preserving what is good while allowing debate and change.

In the second and third parts, we see Okonkwo in exile and missionaries (white and black) move in to preach Jesus Christ. There are many clashes, from cultural differences between men willing to listen to each other, to violent clashes between men unwilling to learn about the other side. In the end, Okonkwo cannot bear to see his village destroyed by the change that has come.

In addition to reading his book, to see his portrayal of Africa, I also needed to hunt down his essay. Now, often Achebe's essay is published in the same text as Heart of Darkness, but not so with the version I read. I seem to have found a copy online here. Achebe begins identifying the desire or even need in "Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe's own state of spiritual grace will be manifest." He then uses Heart of Darkness to show that very need.

Further in he mentions that Africa is really just a setting and backdrop for the story, depersonalized and dehumanized. I think the essay covers the topic well, so he isn't just unhappy that Conrad shows Africans as less than humans and then complains that he doesn't show Africans at all. The essay then goes on to demonstrate Conrad's racism from sources other than the plot and characterizations in Heart of Darkness.

The essay is a challenge to me after reading Heart of Darkness. There is always the fear, when reading a critic's take on something, that I am unable to see what they see. It generates this disappointment in my own ability to read something critically and identify the images and motives and meanings. There is, of course, some of that. Even more so, there is the awareness that my interpretation of the novella seems quite satisfactory to me but is perhaps insufficient when faced with Achebe's comments.

I read Heart of Darkness and in Mr. Kurtz I see a portrayal of a man who was good at many things (painting, music, politics, writing) and considered a good man. He took his ideals to Africa, enlightened attitudes of treatment of the natives and bringing them the benefits of civilization. What he found in Africa was the darkness of his own sinful heart. I don't think that Africa turned him bad or wiped away the good of his civilization. I do think that the environment (the greed of the white colonialists who wanted ivory and the vulnerability of the natives) provided the opportunity for his base nature to overpower the veneer of civility. He finds that his goodness is not very deep, his talent is not earned or appreciated, and his ideals do not have enough foundation to withstand the evils that man is capable of. And what I see in Heart of Darkness is all about the white men showing their true colors.

Mr. Achebe challenges me though, as I realize that while I find the natives portrayed sympathetically, abused and wronged by the white man, they are not portrayed honestly. As Marlow travels down the river, I felt he was characterizing our loss of touch with life and the daily immediacy and intimacy with nature and the world as a whole that "civilization" keeps at a distance through business and politeness. An African ceremony is used to get closer to nature and inner emotions, while a European ceremony is much better at keeping emotions and intimacy at a great distance. Achebe sees it all as a cheat of the Africans though. They are producing art and literature and a history at the very time that Conrad is showing them as shadows that appear on the river bank, jump up and down, and then melt back into the jungle.

The other topic I found interesting and hard to understand in Heart of Darkness was Conrad's treatment of women. He find his aunt removed from reality. He finds the Amazon woman at Kurtz's place to be a towering figure of strength with no emotion. He finds the Intended of Kurtz, back in Europe, to be a tragic figure with no real understanding of the man she loved, who must be protected from that darkness. While I understand and agree with the hero/damsel stories and the complementarian roles of men and women, I would have to say that women don't come across with much more characterization of detail in this novella.

I recommend Heart of Darkness for it's exploration of the soul. I definitely recommend Things Fall Apart for a picture of Africa. And check out Achebe's essay for provoking thought.

My summary of Heart of Darkness is here. And my summary of Things Fall Apart is here.
[Also posted at 52 books in 52 weeks]

Possession by A S Byatt (5/81)

Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, two rather unfulfilled young literary scholars, unexpectedly become figures of romance as they discover a surprising link between the two poets on whom they are authorities. Byatt deftly plays with literary genres--Romantic quest, campus satire, detective story, myth, fairy tale--as Maud and Roland become deeply involved in the unfolding story of a secret relationship between the Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. The young people's quest inevitably attracts the jealous attention of the competitive academic world, and all too soon the quest becomes a chase. Byatt's staggering technical ambition and her powerful romantic vision are tributes to the great Victorian age, which the novel brings to life. "For the Victorians, everything was part of one thing: science, religion, philosophy, economics, politics, women, fiction, poetry," Byatt says. "They didn't compartmentalize--they thought BIG"

''The book,'' Ms. Byatt writes, ''was thick and black and covered with dust. Its boards were bowed and creaking; it had been maltreated in its own time. Its spine was missing, or, rather, protruded from amongst the leaves like a bulky marker. It was bandaged about and about with dirty white tape, tied in a neat bow.''

I have to say I have been dying to dive into this book for a while and although it did take me a little bit to get into it I really enjoyed it .... I have to say that it is not for the faint hearted as the language sometimes is difficult but if you take your time with the novel it is really well written ...

The Title of the novel is POSSESSION and it is really adeptly named ... As throughout the book you can see how people wish to Possess either other people or possessions as their own .... And feel that they have a rightful claim .........

If you are a lover of Poetry then you will adorn this book as it is littered with short and long verses ... And it is very cleverly written with the poems of the so called Victorian Poets Ash and LaMotte ......

It does beg the question of the things we write down and record mainly journals and letters can give a get insight into the person ... And the novel is like one big jigsaw puzzle which Roland and Maud both scholars in their own right race to piece it all together ...

It is a romance story and how because of a two unfinished letters written by Ash suddenly open up a whole new world ...... And because of these letters your assumption of Ash changes and you then view his poetry with a different eye !!! It is a love story between two Poets who for a brief moment find each other but can never let that secret become public knowledge ...

I have a few favourite quotes ...

"I have called you my Muse, and so you are, or might be, a messenger from some urgent place of the spirit where essential poetry sings and sings. I could call you, with even greater truth - my Love - there, it is said - for I most certainly love you and in all ways possible to man and most fiercely. It is a love for which there is no place in this world - a love my diminished reason tells me can and will do neither of us any good, a love I tried to hide cunningly from, to protect you from, with all the ingenuity at my command" Pg 193
I must tell you - ever since that first meeting, I have known you were my fate, however from time to time I may have disguised that knowledge from myself" Pg 192

"All creation rushed round us out there - earth, air, fire, water, and there we were, I beg you to remember, warm and human and safe, in the circle of the trees, in each other's arms, under the arch of the sky."

"They say that woman change: 'tis so: but you
Are ever-constant in your changefulness.
Like that still thread of falling river, one
From source to last embrace in the still pool
Ever-renewing and ever-moving on
From First to last a myriad water-drops
And you - I love you for it - are the force
That moves and holds the form.
R H Ash, Ask to Embla, XIII "

I feel that this is a book to be enjoyed slowly and to be discussed but I did enjoy it ...

I rate this book 3 1/2 Stars

Here's the movie trailer to the book ... As with Hollywood they have spiced it up .... In the book it eludes to their relationship but doesn't need to go into details left to your imagination .....

Confessions of a Thug (2/81)

The word "thug" comes from the Thuggee (deceivers) who allegedly plagued India prior to the arrival of the British. Though there is some controversy nowadays as to the extent of their existence, tales of their exploits made a strong impression on the 19th Century British and helped justify a stronger colonial presence on the Indian subcontinent.

Confessions of a Thug is the story of one of these men, Ameer Ali, a Muslim thug who led a long and successful career as a Thug before his luck ran out. Ali relats his story to an English interviewer, starting with the death of his father at the hands of thugs and his adoption by the bands leader. Soon, he is grown up and interested in taking up the family trade, which is bravery and cleverness makes him particularly suited to.

Though the interviewer occasionally interjects to render moral observations on his actions, the voice that predominates is that of Ali, who comes across as an interesting anti-hero. With his cunning and boldness and his travels across India in search of those to rob, he comes across as an exotic adventurer-criminal, like some mix of Sinbad the Sailor and Tony Soprano. This is somewhat underscored by his tales of commanding men under the Pindaris, using freebooting armies to extort treasure from defenseless communities. Ali is as proud of his battlefield exploits as of his work with the strangling cloth.

An interesting story of crime and death on the Indian subcontinent, with many interesting local details. Somewhat dated nowadays, especially in its transliterations from Hindi, but still an interesting read.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Book Review: HEART OF STONE by Diana Palmer

Read & Reviewed by J. Kaye

Book Info

• Mass Market Paperback: 224 pages
• Publisher: Silhouette; Special edition (September 1, 2008)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0373249217
• ISBN-13: 978-0373249213

J. Kaye’s Thoughts

This book is part of the Jacobsville, Texas series. I swear all the men in that town basically hate women. The women who fall for them have self-esteem issues. Boone Sinclair, the hero (not) of the story is rich. Keely, the heroine, is poor. And even though her mother is an abusive drunk and father is a criminal, she’s a Christian with high moral. A star is removed from the five star rating since I don’t believe it. No one can come out of that situation as perfect as Keely.

On the plus side, author excelled once again in giving me clear characters. Considering how short the book was, each character, including the minor ones were well defined. That’s one star.

The next thing I look for in a good story is the plot. I don’t think a romance story with a verbally abusive hero is my idea of a good plot. I am sure there are readers who love this stuff. I’m just not one. Another star is removed.

Since I suffer from A.D.D., having a book that lacks dry spots is very important to me. This story didn't have any. There were plenty of angry spots, but that’s not how I rate books. That’s two stars.

For the final thing I look for in a book is a good ending. In romance, there is a happily ever after. I think it’s always, right? In this case, it would have been better if there wasn’t. When Boone kissed Keely at the dance, she should have planted him one with her knee and walked off. That would have been a happy ending to me. So I can’t possibly give a star for the unification of any woman with a bully.

My rating is . Click here for information about my rating system.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson (11/81)

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Category: Audiobooks, Nonfiction

Sanddancer has already done an excellent review of this book, so I won't belabor over a second description. I will merely add that I highly recommend the audio, with Bill Bryson reading his own work, as you get an excellent feel for his dry sense of humor. 4.5 stars.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

#15/81 SHOOTS TO KILL by Kate Collins

Abby Knight gets herself into trouble without even doing anything. Her past comes back to haunt her in this mystery related to a young woman who Abby babysat years before. Her gut tells her things that Marco, her friend Dave, and the police can't realize until it is too late. I thought this mystery was fun wth all the twists related to Libby's quirks but I would definitely suggest that a new reader get the previous books in the series for the background.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney (10/81)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules by Jeff Kinney
Category: YA/Children's

***minor spoilers***

In the sequel to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Greg Heffley has a new journal to write about his troubles with older brother Rodrick. Rodrick has a band that Greg can't stand, picks on Greg, and -- worst of all -- Greg can't do anything about it because Rodrick might let slip the really embarrassing thing that happened over the summer.

Rodrick Rules is complete with stick drawings and just as humorous as the first book. The characters aren't always nice to each other, but are true to life. Some of the issues parents may have include Rodrick's high school party where he locks Greg in the basement, and Greg's treatment of his classmates. It's a quick read, and I recommend it for those in middle school and older. I'm looking forward to reading the next installment. 5 stars.

Cross posted at Born Reader.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Marraine: A Portrait of my Godmother by Oriel Malet

"Marraine" is best known to the world as actress and musician Yvonne Arnaud.

But this is not a record of Yvonne Arnaud as a public figure. It is much better than that - a goddaughter's memoir of the warm, loving woman who was a major influence during her formative years

"Every morning, Marraine sits at her desk, writing letters. She is a little, fierce dumpy figure in a plum-coloured dressing-gown. She covers page after page with bold green handwriting, underlining heavily, flourishing exclamation marks, dots and dashes, but hardly ever crossing out. For she knows what she wants to say, and says it."

Oriel Malet writes of her godmother with wonderful warmth and empathy. Her devotion and closeness to her subject is clear, and she paints a rounded and convincing picture of a very real woman.

""I don't like children," Marraine said, more than once. She calls me Puss, as if hoping to produce an affinity with the animals which she loves, and does understand. But it is her instinct for giving the right kind of care to anything which she cherishes, plant or animal, that makes her able to help me."

This is a very personal and very charming book and it was a joy to read.

"There are relationships in life which, by their very nature, can only come once; People who stretch down into one's early life like taproots and to whom we owe all that we later possess. Marraine was like that."

Category: Autobiographies, biographies and memoirs

Book 5 of 81

Behind a Mask by Louisa May Alcott


This short novel by Louisa May Alcott is a world away from "Little Women" and the March girls, telling a very different kind of story set in a very different world.

There may be a link though. Jo made money by writing stories for magazines and newspapers. Not the type of writing she admired, but writing calculated to sell. Maybe "Behind a Mask" is the type of story she wrote....

Miss Jean Muir arrives to take up the position of governess with the Coventry family. She presents herself as a sweet and demure young woman who has been compromised by the son of the house in her previous position.

Most of the family are charmed, but two have doubts. And the doubters are right - Miss Muir is not what she claims to be. She is a cynic, seeking money and security. She considers love to be of no consequence and has a past very different to the one she describes.

Miss Muir is clever though, and her greater experience of life tells. The lady of the house and her young charge think she is wonderful, the men of the family all fall in love with her, the elder son who had doubts quite won over, and the female cousin who distrusts her is perceived as jealous.

Will Miss Muir win the ultimate prize of a brilliant marriage that will secure her future?

Or will she be disgraced by the revelation of what lies behind the mask she presents to the world?

The tale twists and turns. It is packed full of last-minute escapes and discoveries forestalled, and the outcome remains in doubt until the very last page.

I loved "Behind a Mask". It isn't great literature, but it is very well constructed and written and a genuine page-turner.

Category: Books written before 1900

Book 4 of 81

Graphic Classics: H.P. Lovecraft (1/81)

(This review covers the first edition of Graphic Classics: H. P. Lovecraft, the one featuring HPL as a seafood vendor on the cover.)

As Gahan Wilson points out in his introduction, Lovecraft is one of the most illustrator-friendly authors of fantastic fiction. Not only do his works feature countless atmospheric settings and outre monstrosities, but he can also be quite detailed in his description of said places and things. So, he's a pretty natural choice for a collection of illustrated adaptations.

As if to underline this fact, the first thing after the introduction is a one-page excerpt of John Coulhart's "The Dunwich Horror" showing the death of Wilbur Whateley. It's a great scene, and Coulhart really brings out the full morbid ickiness of it. Sadly, it's all we see of that work, which underlines some of the weaknesses of this collection.

While it has some great, fun adaptations (though more on that below), it often feels a bit of a scattershot effort which seems to flirt with being a better work. Along with the single page of Dunwich, there is a selection of six beautiful pages from Tom Sutton's adaptation of "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath."

Other items are somewhat amusing but flawed. One of the first items is a brief HPL biography, which leans a bit too closely on the de Camp image of Lovecraft as sexually neurotic. (Although I was amused by George Kuchar's fascination with breasts; even one of Lovecraft's aunts has serious cleavage on display.) Another piece, called "The Chaos Rapant" features a rapping, tenticular Nyarlathotep awakening a cranky Cthulhu. It's funny, but seems like it be better off in a compilation of silly Cthulhu parodies.

And though I was happy to see the Fungi From Yuggoth featured--HPL's poetry isn't generally great, but I think Fungi is an exception--the adaptation left a lot to be desired. Every other poem in the cycle features an illustration, each done by a different artist. Some of the illustrations are quite striking, but too many seem to bear little connection to the corresponding poem and opt instead for a sort of general surrealism.

As for the good illustrations, the first story after the bio is an adaptation of "Herbert West - Reanimator." The story has been trimmed down to four parts from six, with each part given a different illustrator. My favorite was the third section, done by J.B. Bonivert, which really plays up the twisted humor of the original; all of the chapters were quite good, though.

I also really enjoyed the adaptation of "The Cats of Ulthar," by Lisa Weber who's done good work in other volumes of the Graphics Classics series. Her art here really captures the sense of dark fable from the original story.

There are several other good pieces, including the adaptations of "The Shadow Out of Time" and "The Terrible Old Man." Luckily, it appears these were retained in the second edition, along with Cats and Herbert West, so I'd more strongly recommend checking out the second edition, which features Cthulhu on the cover.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (10/81)

Category: Around the World – Afghanistan

I assume that everyone other than me has already read this book, so I won't outline the plot and will just give my impressions.

I put off reading it for a few weeks after a colleague loaned me her copy, because I was never quite in the mood for what I assumed would be a depressing read. So I started it with some reluctance. However, after about 50 pages I found myself being pulled into the story and I finished it in one evening.

Of course, the story it tells of women’s treatment in Afghanistan is not a happy one, but the prejudices and abuse faced by the two main characters never seemed melodramatic for the sake of it. The recent history of the country made an interesting backdrop to the personal struggles of the central characters.

Despite the unpleasant circumstances described, I found this a surprisingly easy-read that was well-paced, encouraging me to read on. I don’t think it is an amazing piece of literature and it won’t make my favourites list but I can see why it has been so popular and I’m glad I finally read it.

Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure by Richard E. Byrd (9/81)

C1938 296pages 4 stars

In 1934 Admiral Richard Byrd set up an observation station near the South Pole "where weather is born". The original plan had been for a three-man team to occupy the base but seeing how short the supplies were, and yearning for introspection, Byrd made the decision to stay there alone. This book is an account of the six months he spent in the polar night, without sunshine or the warmth of human companionship. We are with him as he struggles with the brutal cold, his loneliness and the realization that his only source of warmth is slowly killing him.

I picked up this book at a Friends of the Library sale. I knew absolutely nothing about Admiral Byrd but as I browsed through its pages I was immediately taken with his lyrical prose. Even though it was a far cry from my normal reading fare, I purchased the book and brought it home, telling myself it was the perfect book to read in winter. I fit this book into my Travelogue category although it's really more of a memoir.

"The horizon line was a long slash of crimson, brighter than blood; and over this welled a straw-yellow ocean whose shores were the boundless blue of night. I watched the sky a long time, concluding that such beauty was reserved for distant, dangerous places, and that nature has good reason for exacting her own special sacrifices from those determined to witness them."

Reading this journal made me physically cold. I could not get warm enough. Blankets, hot baths, nothing could take away the pervasive chill I had acquired. I think I identified with Byrd too thoroughly. Honestly, how the man lived, much less slept, in those temperatures is beyond my comprehension.

"Cold does queer things... Below -60 degrees... If there is the slightest breeze, you can hear your breath freeze as it floats away, making a sound like that of Chinese firecrackers."

"There is something extravagantly insensate about an Antarctic blizzard at night. Its vindictiveness cannot be measured on an anemometer sheet. It is more than just wind: it is a solid wall of snow moving a gale force, pounding like surf. The whole malevolent rush is concentrated upon you as a personal enemy. In the senseless explosion of sound you are reduced to a crawling thing on the margin of a disintegrating world; you can't see, you can't hear, you can hardly move. The lungs gasp after the air sucked out of them, and the brain is shaken. Nothing in the world will so quickly isolate a man."

It is hard to fathom a man who would want to spend half a year in a small, one-room shack buried in the snow in Antarctica. Much less, a man who would leave that shack several times a day to adjust weather machinery, even in the blinding snow. He was a scientist, an adventurer, but also a romantic, taking long walks on still nights under the stars. This journal puts the reader directly inside Byrd’s head as he searches his soul, as he witnesses the beauty of nature as few ever will and as he struggles with his own mortality.

"April 7th. The six months' day is slowing dying, and the darkness is descending very gently. Even at midday the sun is only several times its diameter above the horizon. It is cold and dull. At its brightest it scarcely gives light enough to throw a shadow. A funereal gloom hangs in the twilight sky. This is the period between life and death. This is the way the world will look to the last man when it dies."

"I was learning what the philosophers have long been harping on - that a man can live profoundly without masses of things. For all my realism and skepticism there came over me, too powerfully to be denied, that exalted sense of identification - of oneness - with the outside world which is partly mystical but also certainty."

"The dark side of a man's mind seems to be a sort of antenna tuned to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions. I found it so with mine. That was an evil night. It was as if all the world's vindictiveness were concentrated upon me as upon a personal enemy...All that need be said is that eventually my faith began to make itself felt; and by concentrating on it and reaffirming the truth about the universe as I saw it, I was able again to fill my mind with the fine and comforting things of the world that felt irretrievably lost."

As his health declines, the journal becomes more utilitarian and sparse. Even so, it seems to heighten the suspense of the book, to make you feel both his desperation and his hope at the same time. I found the passages where he affirms his faith to be beautifully written. He must have been a very strong man.

"The sun is now twelve days nearer...I have always valued life, but never to the degree I do now. It is not within the power of words to describe what it means to have life pulsing in me again. I've been thinking of all the new things I'm going to do and the old things I'm going to do differently, if and when I ever get out of here."

I would recommend this book to readers of memoirs, biographies or travel books.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Book Review: CASSANDRA & JANE by Jill Pitkeathley

Read & Reviewed by J. Kaye

Book Info

• Paperback: 288 pages
• Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (September 9, 2008)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0061446394
• ISBN-13: 978-0061446399

J. Kaye’s Thoughts

CASSANDRA & JANE is a fictionalize story of the historical author Jane Austin. The story is told through the eyes of the person who knew her best, her older sister Cassandra.

Jill Pitkeathley begins with the author’s birth and carries readers all the way to her death. With such a realistic presentation, it was hard to see the line between fact and fiction.

Normally biographical-type books, fictionalized or not, bore me to tears. From the beginning, Pitkeathley formed an emotional web attaching me to the characters. I felt each painful disappointment as though I was there. In the end, when Cassandra lost Jane, I felt it too.

This is a powerful portrayal of a beloved historical figure and Pitkeathley’s tale stayed with me days after the final page was read.

My rating is .

Click here for information about my rating system.

Bad Twin by Gary Troup (9/81)

Bad Twin by Gary Troup
Category: Lost Book Club

Paul Artisan is a private detective in California, where the cases he receives are mostly petty disputes and insurance fraud. But when Cliff Widmore appears and asks him to find his twin, Artisan knows this case won't be like the others he's had before. He's not sure who to trust or which is really the "bad" twin. The book itself is the "manuscript" that Hurley and Sawyer read in Season 2 of Lost, written by author "Gary Troup" who died in the plane crash. Other connections include the Hanso Foundation (located on floor 42 of the Widmore Building), repetition of the numbers, and a comment about the Paik's business.

Bad Twin is one of those rare books that I finished thinking, "I could've written better than that." Granted, it had a compelling story and characters, but the writing was full of misplaced adjectives and jarring similes. For example:

The sloop--a good size, maybe forty feet, a third of a million dollars' worth of fiberglass and teak with the name Escape Hatch etched into the transom--was lifted in a giant wooden cradle in the hanger-like shed of Hap's Marina; there was something rude and almost obscene about the sight of the boat's raised, bare bottom, its stiff keel stabbing downward like the penis of an excited whale (53).

After that, I didn't read the descriptions to closely, but even then the story structure was somewhat unbelievable until it finally came down to the last four pages of Paul Artisan explaining, "Oh, I talked to ---, so now I can tell you exactly what's been happening." Not recommended. 2 stars.

Cross posted at Born Reader.

7/81 - The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, from Library Thing/Good Reads category

I have read so many reviews of this book. So let me just share my impressions.

I have only read Gaiman's children's books so far, and I have loved everyone I've read. With this book, he has again created something to be proud of. As a retelling of The Jungle Book, he has created something really new and wonderful. The main character Bod, or Nobody Owens, is so well drawn and appealing. In fact, he is really a much better character than Mowgli, because in The Jungle Book, it is the animals which are full and interesting characters. In this one, Bod is definitely the center of the book. I loved watching him grow and develop. The big final scenes were suspenseful and funny. But I admit that the last chapter made me cry.

I would recommend this one for teens or older kids, as long as you warn them that the opening chapter is quite violent. The actual violence takes place 'behind the scenes,' but the sense of danger and evil is very real and shocking, if you are not expecting it. After that, the suspense builds slowly, but it is certainly there. 5 stars!

Monday, January 19, 2009

#14/81 KILLER HEAT by Linda Fairstein

Killer Heat is the 10th in the series centering around Alexandra Cooper Asst DA for Special Victims in NYC. This book's main story line revolves around a serial rapist/murder and the efforts taken to apprehend the perpetrator. There is a subplot which is cleverly woven in to misdirect the reader and keep the tension throughout.
The characters have been well-developed over the previous 9 novels and interact as expected. The behavior of the central character is beginning to become a bit predictable and therefore, removes some of the suspense that could normally be generated in this type of plot. But all in all, I enjoyed the book.

The Undertaker's Widow by Philip Margolin (10/81)

State Senator Ellen Crease is accused of killing her husband, wealthy tycoon, Lamar Hoyt who got his start in the funeral parlor business. Ms. Crease is a cigar smoking no nonsense former cop who may or may not have been set up by her stepson Lamar Jr. or a political rival.
It turns out that Lamar Sr. had a mistress who he may have been leaving Ellen for.

All these events are bad enough, but then we learn that the judge who is presiding over the murder trial proceedings is struggling with issues of his morality not to mention his wife, who cannot understand why her husband would leave a prestigious law practice to become a judge.

There were a lot of twists in this story and I liked the fact that there were not an endless supply of characters to keep track of that I would have to go back and figure out who they are.

This is a good read, I recommend this author's books if you are a fan of the legal thriller/mystery genre.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

6/81 Chalice by Robin McKinley - 4 Stars

Chalice by Robin McKinley, just for fun category

How many times can Robin McKinley rewrite Beauty and the Beast? Well, if every retelling were as fresh and original as this one, she could keep it up for as long as she wanted and I would keep right on reading them! 

Chalice starts with a young woman awaiting the arrival of the new Master of their lands. The young woman is named Marisol, but is called Chalice, because that is her customary function. As Chalice, she is to work closely with the new Master and restore the Willowlands to harmony and balance. 

I really enjoyed this book. My main complaints are that first, there was so much description and not enough dialogue; and second, that the book often jumped around in time and sometimes had me confused about if the event I was reading about was happening now or in the past. 

But I can recommend this book. I liked Marisol as a character and couldn't wait to see how it would end. My daughter, whose book I borrowed, says that she enjoyed it more the second time she read it. Maybe I will try it again myself and see if she's right.

Levels of the Game by John McPhee (8/81)

Levels of the Game by John McPhee
Category: Nonfiction

In 1968, the U.S. Open Championship was first opened to amateur players. They weren't expected to do very well against the players on the pro tour, but both Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner made it to the semifinals. This is the story of that game. McPhee starts right off with the first serve, moving cinematically for a close shot of several points, then backing out to focus on the perspective of someone in the player's box or watching the match on television, or maybe taking a panoramic shot of the background of one of the players and how they started playing tennis, and moving in again for a closeup of a game or two.

I chose this read because in an interview recently the author of The Best Game Ever, Mark Bowden, said that it was a model for his writing in his book about the 1958 Championship football game. I also found it excellent preparation for the Australian Open. Levels of the Game, published in 1969, is a little dated in the description of the "modern" game of tennis, and by comments made by some of the players, like "he plays like that because he's white" or "because he's black", or he has a "Latin temperament". McPhee was definitely at his best describing moments in the match, a tense point, a solid ace, and the reaction of players and fans. A worthwhile read that left a smile on my face in the end. 4.5 stars.

Cross posted at Born Reader.

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman (7/81)

The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman
Category: New-to-me Authors

In the 1960s, Natalie Marx and her family are looking into various hotels and cottages around Lake Devine, where they're going to be vacationing. Most get back to them with rates and accommodations, but one in particular, the Inn at Lake Devine, suggests that Gentiles would feel more comfortable in this lodging. Natalie becomes somewhat fascinated with the establishment that would flout laws (she sent the proprietor a copy of the Civil Rights Act), and finagles her way into a visit.

This is hardly even the start of the story, but the plot is much more delightfully fun when you don't know what's coming. Natalie is the narrator as well as the main character, and she's a fun person to be "in the head" of. All the characters were great: I never had the sense that any of the secondary characters were cookie cutter or background, all of them felt very real. Also, it was a somewhat "local" New England story, so it was fun recognizing a surprisingly large number of locations mentioned in the tale. Though racism is a main theme throughout, it's dealt with both seriousness and humor and isn't a heavy story. I'm definitely going to be looking to read more by this author. 4.5 stars.

Thanks to LibraryThing members detailmuse and bonniebooks for recommending this as my first book by Elinor Lipman!

Cross posted at Born Reader.