Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Tunnel (26/81)

Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel is the first person account of an artist's murder of the one person who understood him best. At an exhibition, Juan Pablo Castel notices a woman captivated by the window that takes up a small section of one of his finished paintings. She is the only person who appears to have realized the importance of the window, which leads to him becoming to become slowly and utterly fixated on her.

He seeks her out in a somewhat roundabout matter, finally running into her seemingly by accident. He learns that she has been thinking about his painting all the time since that showing. They become romantically involved, but Castel feels she is not being completely honest with him. He begins to suspect she has other lovers, perhaps even that he´s just a plaything to her. He becomes increasingly obsessed with possessing her until his actions cross over into derangement.

This is a novel about obsession and man's futile struggle for meaning, and it is no surprise that Camus found it important enough to have translated into French. I must admit I was not entirely captivated by the story. Though I'm fond of eccentrics in literature (especially the obsessive kind), I often found Castel's obsessiveness more irritating than contagious. I also felt the metaphor of the tunnel as reflecting the essential loneliness of human existence was a bit on the literal side.

So, overall an interesting look at one man's obsession and how it reflects modern man's fruitless search for connection, but not entirely satisfying.

The Lizard's Tail (25/81)

When Juan Peron returned to the Argentine presidency for the last time in 1974, he brought along two intimates who would go on to create some trouble. The first was his third wife Isabela, who would ascend to the presidency after his death. The second was Jose Lopez Rega, a character so odd it seems hard to believe he was not invented by Arlt or Borges. Rega was fascinated with occult and mystic arts, including Umbanda (like Santeria or Voodoo) and astrology. His interests earned him the nickname El Brujo, not inappropriate given the Rasputin-like hold he had on Peron and later Isabela. It was under Rega that Dirty War began, which was run out of the Office of Social Welfare under the auspices of the triple-A. (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance)

The Lizard's Tail is based loosely on Lopez Rega, parting ways with the historical facts of Lopez Rega to create a surreal and disturbing meditation on violence and power. After the fall of Isabela's government, El Brujo heads to his childhood home of Laguna Negra in northern Argentina with his followers. Here he organizes new rituals of blood and sacrifice, and stages a very twisted orgy to which he invites prominent members of Argentine society.

Even in internal exile, he is dangerous enough to inspire enemies, among them the ruling junta, a revolutionary, and an author working on El Brujo's biography. The revolutionary and the author have a brief relationship, during which the revolutionary asks the author to finish her book by killing off El Brujo. But can she really pull it off in such a way as to kill the original?

El Brujo soon finds a new enemy in the mayor of the town of Capivari and its little newspaper. He takes over the town and the newspaper, changing the emphasis of the latter to occult themes. This inspires in him the plans for a new ritual, an immaculate conception which will cleanse Argentina in a river of blood.

I was expecting a touch of the strange, perhaps even some magic realism, when I started this book, as can only be expected from a story based on an already strange individual. But the story is strikingly surreal, often disturbing or funny, presenting an exaggerated look at the relationship between power and violence, and the role of the journalist or writer in responding to the terrible.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

James Herriot's Dog Stories - 75/81

James Herriot's Dog Stories, by James Herriot, audiobook category

I have been a fan of James Herriot for years. I read the whole series. And I loved the series 'All Creatures Great and Small,' which I thought exactly captured the things I loved best about the books. The casting of Tristan in particular was brilliant! This audiobook features Christopher Timothy, who played James Herriot in the TV series, as the reader. He does a great job as reader and in getting the various accents just right.

This is a rather brief book, but captures some of my favorite stories from the series, including Tricki Woo, the spoiled Pekinese and his quite nice delusional mistress, who regularly speaks with - and hears replies from - her beloved pet. I also loved the story about the poor dog rescued from a terrible life of neglect and about Herriot's own dogs.

If you are a fan of the series, I think you would really enjoy the audio version. It had me laughing away as I was listening and got my kids listening too. Their clear favorite was Tricki Woo, and they were anxious to see what goofy thing would happen next. Lots of fun!

Talk Talk by T C Boyle (45/81)

Category: The Complete Works of T C Boyle

A deaf woman, Dana, is the victim of identity theft and when the police fail to help, she and her boyfriend set off to find the criminal themselves. Boyle creates great characters and then really makes them suffer!

Like many of his other books, the narrative is divided between characters, swtiching between Dana, her boyfriend and the criminal. The criminal is not what you might at first expect either, and although I didn't ever quite feel sympathy for him, he was more than just a stereotypical bad guy. As well as gripping plot, the book addresses attitudes towards people who are different and is at time genuinely moving.

Definitely my favourite Boyle book of the challenge so far.

The Tango Singer (24/81)

Bruno Cadogan is writing a dissertation on Borges' view of the tango--especially the older, less sentimental tangos Borges would have heard in his youth--when he hears that in Buenos Aires there is a man, Julio Martel, who sings the tango in this older style. Since no recordings exist of Martel's singing, Bruno heads to Buenos Aires to seek him out personally.

When he lands in Buenos Aires, he finds a room for rent in the very same building which housed Borges' Aleph in the story of the same name. From here he begins his quest for Martel, which turns into a labrynthine wandering through Buenos Aires in time and space. Martel, it turns out, has decided to forgo a career in order to use his tango singing to mark off places and events in the city that hold some particular meaning for him. He also becomes fascinated by the possibility of finding the Aleph in the house where he is staying.

This labrynthine wandering was the strongest aspect of the novel, and I really appreciated how Martinez explored and even celebrated the city of Buenos Aires and its lengthy and often tragic history. I cannot say if someone who has never visited the city would feel something similar, but I would certainly hope that the book would provide some motivation for planning a visit.

The novel did have a couple of flaws. Bruno Cadogan is meant to be an American, but he really thinks and acts more like an Argentine. While a minor flaw, it does cost the novel some verisimilitude. For me the larger flaw was that the novel was almost too Borgesian (never did I thought I would say that) in its use of allusions and homages to the point where it almost became distracting. (Bruno himself seems an obvious homage to Cortazar's "The Pursuer," also about a writer named Bruno fascinated with a troubled musician whose art allows him to experience time differently.)

Despite these flaws, I still found it a captivating read and greatly enjoyed its wanderings through the mazes of space and time which make up the reality of Buenos Aires.

Money to Burn (23/81)

A group of Argentine criminals have got what could be a great heist planned out. They will grab the municipal payroll in a daring daytime robbery, then cross the river and slip into Uruguay until the heat dies down. The gang includes Gaucho Dorda and Nene Brignone, who are lovers; Cuervo Mereles, who swaggers with outlaw charisma; and Malito, a cold-blooded and calculating man and their defacto leader. The robbery goes off as planned, but they soon find themselves on the run, guns blazing as they drive their getaway car through the streets of Buenos Aires. Though the events related in Money to Burn seem outrageous enough to belong to a Tarantino film or a pulp crime novel, Ricardo Piglia as invented nothing in this hypnotizing tale of crime, loyalty and vengeance.

Piglia has a minor personal connection to the story, having met Mereles' ex-girlfriend in 1966 while on a train ride to Bolivia. During the trip, she told Piglia a confused and seemingly incredible story of the man she had been in a relationship with and the crimes he had been involved in. Though he never saw her again, he became fascinated by the story and began to research and attempt to write about it. It was a project that he ended up setting aside for the better part of two decades, only to return to and finish later.

Money to Burn is a novelistic retelling of true events, with Piglia acknowledging where the historical record is ambiguous or incomplete. The only license taken is in the extent to which we get inside the heads of those involved, not just the criminals but also the police who are hunting them. What emerges is a fascinating portrayal of criminality and politics in Argentina and Uruguay of the 1960s, as well as an unforgettable portrayal of characters far outside the pale.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith

Category: Books that became the basis for Movies/Television

My sister sent me this enchanting book while I was enduring a very confusing and painful time in my life.  Although my sister had not read the book herself, it was the perfect book at the perfect time. 
Smith's character Cassandra keeps her diaries as she grows up on a very unusual estate that was an old castle.  I love the first line where Cassandra states she is writing while sitting in the kitchen sink.  This completely sets the mood and tone of the book. Her family lives off the royalties of her father's groundbreaking and best-selling novel. Unfortunately, these funds are running low and the family is growing desperate in their financial needs. The father is questionably a genius or lunatic. His wife has passed away and he has remarried a very sweet and beautiful woman named Topaz. 
Cassandra is very close to her older sister, Rose, who decides the best way out of the predicament is to marry for money. Lo and behold the very wealthy Cotton family, including two American brothers come into their lives and add lots of intrigue.  There is also the handsome Steven, who is head over heels for Cassandra, although his love is unrequited. Cassandra falls in love with someone she shouldn't, an unrequited love as well.  All the different emotions create much more than love triangles, more like confusing love octagons, stars, or squiggles! Needless to say all these loves turn into a lovely mess that Smith writes with incredible humor and sensitivity. 
Wonderfully written, clever, and compassionate.  For all of us who love, have loved and will love this is a book to empathize and fall in love with the characters.

The Last Bridge by Teri Coyne (36/81)

category: Authors That Are New to Me
C2009 5stars

"Life just happened to my mother...She lived in suspended animation, waiting for something better. Killing herself was the only real choice she ever made."

It's been a decade since Alex, affectionately known as Cat, has returned to the Rucker farm. Wounded by the emotional and physical damage dealt to her in childhood, and carrying baggage of her own creation, Cat is disintegrating into a pool of destructive vices. Now her mother is gone and her father won't live much longer. Can she find the courage to heal the relationships she needs the most?

I received this book through LT's Early Reviewer program. Last night while my husband prepared dinner, I thought I would read the first chapter. Three hours later I closed the back cover.
Coyne excels at capturing the heightened emotions often present around dysfunctional families: the hate, the shame and yes, the love. Being from a dysfunctional family myself, parts of this book were painful for me to read but at the same time that made it easier for me to identify with these characters and embrace them.
The marketers of this novel have made comparisons to Jodi Picoult's work and several reviews have picked up on that. I have read every Picoult novel and while both women are adept at writing family dramas, each has their own voice and style. I personally believe this novel to be better than Picoult's last few offerings and I am very excited to see what Ms. Coyne does next.
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Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi (44/81)

Category: Crime and Detectives with a global theme
Country: Greece

A mysterious detective arrives on a small Greek island to investigate the death of a woman that police have dismissed as suicide. The book moved between the present and the last weeks of the woman's life.

Central to the story were the traditional Greek attitudes towards marriage, family and honour. and it showed a community dominated by superstitions, pride and shame. These aspects added an interesting dimension to the murder investigation, along with speculation about the identity of the detective.

It was a very engaging story, and the local colour, despite the negative aspects, made me yearn for a holiday in Greece!

Toda Mafalda (22/81)

Joaquín Salvador Lavado, aka Quino, is a cartoonist with a talent for observing the human condition and translating it into striking and darkly comic observations. Many of his works feature recognizable people in situations whose nightmarishness is made more painful by the truths so cleverly expressed. (It should come as no surprise that Quino's representations of bureaucracies at work bear some resemblance to Kafka's.) However, the comic strip Mafalda combines this dark comic sense with the more innocent realm of kids growing up in Argentina in the late 1960s.

If you are already familiar with Mafalda, Susanita, Manolito, Felipe and the rest of the gang, you probably need little convincing as to why Toda Mafalda, which features every Mafalda strip Quino ever created (including several for side projects or that were left out of previous collections) is a very good thing. (Sadly, the book is not in translation, though the individual collections have been published in English under the name Mafalda & Friends.)

Whenever I've tried to describe Mafalda to friends, I usually resort to describing it as "cross between Peanuts and Bloom County or Doonesbury." Like Peanuts, the principal characters are a group of kids with striking personality differences. (Though unlike Peanuts, the parents are also characters in the action.) But like Doonesbury and Bloom County, the comic deals with political and social topics of its time, including the Vietnam War and the crises affecting Argentina.

The appeal of Mafalda, though, is not in its topical commentary, much of which is dated or inaccessible to the non-Argentine. For one, as with Peanuts, the characters are quite memorable. There is, of course, Mafalda herself, a little girl more fixated on the problems of the world than adults around might find healthy. There is a certain poignancy to her, a sense that sometimes we feel a bit like children ourselves when faced with the complicated and seemingly unsolvable problems of the world. Mafalda has a perfect foil in Susanita, a superficial gossip girl who dreams of achieving status through marriage and motherhood. Her ambitions are something of a throwback, even for their time, but her fascination on the social realm and its secrets is still with us today.

I could go on, but I fear that my descriptions would not do the characters justice, nor Quino's often funny takes on politics, work, friendship, life and death. This is the kind of collection worth having on hand and revisiting quite often.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (6/81)

Category: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1/9)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, which is why it was in my pile of books to read. I also went to a book club discussion about it.
The book is really difficult for me to describe. It is basically the story of Oscar, a hugely obese "Dominican ghetto-nerd" who is a character you love to root for, but at the same time he is incredibly pathetic and hopeless (and thus frustrating!). Oscar's family is from the Dominican Republic, although he and his sister Lola mostly grow up in New Jersey. Their mother's family did not survive the Trujillo dictatorship, and she herself fled to the United States as a teenager. Most of the story, including the history of the family, is told by Yunior, a sometime-boyfriend of Lola's who tries to help Oscar out of his depression in college. Two of the sections are told by Lola, but she only speaks of her own view of the situation, and she seems to be writing to Yunior, though it is difficult to tell.
What I liked best about this book was the writing - it was so much fun to read, even if it was hard to follow at times. Yunior throws in a ton of Spanish, as well as a tremendous amount of nerd-slang that I found really amusing. Most of it you can figure out from context, because it is certainly not explained for you at all. Yunior's voice is entrancing, in a way that I would not have expected.

The School of Essential Ingredients (49/81)

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Category: New-to-me Authors

Lillian, now the owner of a restaurant, knows the magic of food. She discovered it for herself as a child, and now she shares it with her cooking classes, "The School of Essential Ingredients." The Prologue sets of the story like so: "Lillian knew that whatever their reasons for coming, at some moment in the course of the class each one's eyes would widen with joy or tears or resolution -- it always happened. The timing and reason would be different for each, and that's where the fascination lay. No two spices work the same" (3).

The story hinges on description and character, as we follow the course of the class and see each character's "moment" through his or her point of view. The descriptions are sometimes awkward but never boring or cliched. The tastes and smells of the kitchen are lovingly rendered. The characters are unique, and I enjoyed their back stories and internal growth. Like the food described, the story has a light flavor that doesn't bole you over with plot but asks you to savor and enjoy. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Mountains Beyond Mountains (48/81)

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
Category: Nonfiction

Dr. Paul Farmer devotes much of his life to caring for the poor in Haiti, where diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS run rampant, made much worse by the abject poverty in which many Haitians live. Dr. Farmer is an absolutely driven man who keeps a crazy schedule, constantly advocates for his patrients, and expects a lot of himself and others. His story is both challenging and inspiring.

I read this for a community group read in my hometown. Kidder takes a very personal approach in writing this story, even showing up as a "character" from time to time. As a result, he emphasizes Dr. Farmer's personal approach to medicine and shows Dr. Farmer in a very human light. I thought it was neat that he loved The Lord of the Rings, and especially liked the story about how, as a preteen, he asked a librarian to find another story "just like this one." Fantasy didn't work, but War and Peace did (I can only wonder how she came up with that - did she make a connection between the stories, or was she just frustrated?). 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (43/81)

Category: Dystopia and Apocalyse

I've renamed the category from just being Dystopia as this book and The Road are probably more about apocalyptic situations than technically dystopian societies.

I vaguely remembered The Day of the Triffids from the television series when I was a child, so I was expecting an adventure story about killer plants. I was expecting it to be dated and corny, but it was a complete revelation. It seemed so modern, it must have felt so ahead of its time when it was first published. The triffids appear directly in the book infrequently, so they remain an ominous when they could have so easily become a silly idea.

The book really does ask some big questions about what people would do faced with the destruction of society, and it succeeds in making you think about it. Some parts of it were actually rather upsetting to read which again I wasn't expecting.

I'll be returning to John Wyndham again.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Brief History of Time (47/81)

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Category: Lost Book Club

The theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, and the search for a unified theory of the universe are the subjects of this mind-boggling explication of physics (I found I could read about 5 pages at a time without my brain hurting). Perhaps I was even more at a disadvantage for never having taken physics, though I did feel a little better when an engineer friend of mine told me that quantum mechanics is covered in Physics 3. Even so, it's ultimately a rewarding learning experience investigating the universe as we know it. I'm interested in learning more, and daresay I'll understand more in whichever book I choose next for having persevered in this one. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Walden Two by B.F. Skinner (46/81)

Walden Two by B.F. Skinner
Category: Lost Book Club

A behavioral psychologist imagines a utopia based on principles of positive reinforcement and training peopl eto act in a way that benefits the community. Professor Burris narrates for us when he and some friends visit his old colleague Frazier, the founder of Walden Two. Each character is on varying levels of acceptance, as Frazier expounds on his Utopia; Castle, in particular, remains a determined skeptic, while Burris finds himself mediating between Castle and Frazier.

I was rather disappointed by this book. It was a fictional way of promoting Skinner's ideas, and there's no story outside of that, only Frazier promoting while Castle digs his heels in further. I remain unconvinced that it could work, and found myself getting annoyed that ultimately Frazier's reasoning was, "Well, you see it working before you" as he led his charges around Walden Two, when I don't know of any such successful community. Also, Skinner is a strict behaviorist and doesn't give much credence to the "nature" or genetic side of psychology. 3 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Monster Nation by David Wellington (35/81)

category: The Monster Mash
C2004 285pages 3stars

Nilla can't remember much. She took her name from the box of cookies someone was nice enough to give her. But those are all gone now. She's just so terribly hungry.The one thing she does remember is waking up in a puddle of her own blood with a wound on her shoulder, as if someone had gnawed on her. And something strange is happening all over California. Dead people wake up, and walk, and bite. Doomsday is here. There are those who want to stop it, and those who want to revel in it. Unfortunately for Nilla, both factions believe she's the key to it all.

I loved Monster Island, the first book in the series, so I was anxious to read this second installment. I'm a firm believer that second books in trilogies are always a little awkward. There were a few moments that recaptured the brilliance of the first novel but I didn't particularly enjoy it. If I want to read an apocalyptic road trip across the USA, I'm going to stick with Stephen King's The Stand.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (34/81)

category: Speculative Fiction
C2005 288pages 2.5stars

Kathy and Ruth and Tommy are Hailsham graduates. Hailsham grads all share a common destiny. They are special. They are dedicated. And they give all for their country. But one day Ruth begs Kathy to stop the process for Tommy. Will Kathy find a way?

I did not enjoy this book. i wanted to. I expected to, having heard good things about it. I patiently kept on reading, waiting for it to get good. But it didn't. In fact, it was so boring. I guess it just wasn't the kind of speculative fiction I am used to. It's so understated. So reserved. Stoic. British. I think that's it. Like the stories you hear about the British citizens on the Titanic who dutifully queued up while the Americans pushed and shoved their way to the lifeboats. These characters were too sedate. I wanted pushing and shoving. I wanted passion and action and vitality. When Kathy and Tommy were in the car I just wanted to scream 'take the car and run, you stupid sheep!' Oh well.

In the Woods by Tana French (33/81)

category: Authors That Are New To Me
C2008 464 pages 3stars

In a nutshell... underwhelming.
Being an Edgar award-winner and having solid reviews, I had my hopes up for this book but it let me down. I didn't like the protagonist at all. In fact, I didn't find myself attached to any of the main characters. They were wooden. Not cardboard, they did have substance, it was just... stiff, contrived. Also, I figured out the Big Bad early on and it seemed to take forever for the detectives to catch up. So I found myself a little annoyed, wondering how many pages French was going to chew up getting to the point. But my main complaint (and this might be a SPOILER, so continue reading at your own risk) is that French does not provide all the answers. There are two murder mysteries in this novel and only one is solved conclusively. I'm not sure if I'll read the sequel or not, I'm ready to wash my hands of French and move on.

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher (45/81)

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
999 Challenge Category: Recommended Reads

Amara, ready for her graduation exercise as a Cursor, travels disguised as a slave, hoping to confirm rumors of a renegade legion. Tavi is an orphan with no fury in a land where furycrafting (using a being called a "fury" to communicate, heal, fight, etc.) is as common as breathing, but when he makes a discovery when trying to recover his sheep, the safety of his people suddenly rests on his shoulders.

A character-rich, in-depth world is introduced in this first book of the Codex Alera series. There's a lot of political maneuvering, and the point of view changes (primarily between Amara and Tavi) mean that the reader knows more than the individual characters. After about sixty pages, the pace quickly builds and never lets up. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (44/81)

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
999 Challenge Category: Award Winners and Honors (National Book Award Finalist, 2008)

The year is 1776. Isabel's owner, Miss Finch, has died. She left a will freeing Isabel and her sister Ruth, but Miss Finch's nephew is in a hurry and the lawyer is in Boston -- unreachable given the current unrest. He sells the girls to a couple who live in New York. Upon arrival in her new home, Isabel meets Curzon, a fellow slave and Patriot who claims they can contact the lawyer if she'll spy for his side.

The narrative weaves a convincing tale in which even the side of liberty is not all that interested in the plight of slaves. Each chapter is titled by the dates it covers (which could be a day or nearly two months), followed by a quote from historical writing -- a letter, a journal entry -- that also highlights the exploration of liberty and justice in the Revolutionary War. I look forward to the sequel. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (43/81)

Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen by Fay Weldon
Category: Books about Books

Well, I heard about this from some other LibraryThing readers and could hardly pass up the chance to read something about Jane Austen! This is about an aunt who (much like Jane Austen before her) corresponds with a niece interested in writing novels. The niece, Alice, is a fictional girl of green-and-black colored hair who can't imagine why Jane Austen would be considered relevant today.

The blend of fiction and literary criticism threw me for a loop at first. The first few letters talk about Jane Austen's life and times, then move on to talk about each of her novels in turn; all are peppered with advice about reading, writing, and listening (or not) to critics. In fact, this struck me as much more about the writing itself than about Jane Austen in particular. At times witty, and other times confusing, sometimes I agreed and at others I wholeheartedly disagreed. But that, as I'm sure "Aunt Fay" would agree, is one of the joys of visiting the "City of Invention" that is made of books. 3.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett (42/81)

The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Category: New-to-me authors

Aibileen is a black woman working for Elizabeth Leefolt taking care of Mae Mobley. Minny is Mrs. Walters' maid, constantly at odds with her employer's daughter for speaking her mind. And Eugenia Phelan (more commonly known as "Skeeter") is an educated white woman who didn't really think about "the help" too much until her own family's maid disappeared. These women at first appear disparate, but find that they are alike where it truly counts.

This historical fiction set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 is surprisingly hopeful in tone, even while depicting tragic and horrific events in history. The narrative voices of Aibilieen, Minny and Skeeter tell us most of the story, each with a distinctive voice and point of view, and the characters feel very real. An emotional but overall uplifting read. 4.5 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Watchmen by Alan Moore
Category: Graphic Novels (uncounted because I decided to count series together)

What if there once had been masked vigilantes, humans inspired by superhero comics, roaming the streets of New York City to keep the world safe? In this dystopian vision of just such a world, such activism has been outlawed since 1977 and most of those who participated have retired. But then one of them is murdered, and no one knows why or if the killer will strike again.

I'm glad to be able to say I've read this title, but I didn't particularly enjoy it. It was gritty and violent and depressing and just not the kind of story I like. It's a complex story that I read much slower than I expected to, and very well-crafted. Recommended for fans of dystopian/apocalyptic fiction, maybe even hard-boiled mystery fans who want to read something a little different. Just not my cup of tea. 2 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear (41/81)

Blood and Iron by Elizabeth Bear
Category: New-to-me authors

Matthew is a magician in New York City, a member of the Prometheans, who works to protect humans from the Fae that would steal them into their world as changelings. Elaine is a human bound to the Faerie world by the Mebd, one of the Queens of Faerie, and by her loyalty to her son, Ian. She is also the Seeker, one who prowls shadows looking for Fae children. A collision of their worlds seems inevitable, and as players are drawn into events beyond their control the morality of either side becomes ambiguous.

This urban fantasy is a bit different from my normal fare -- darker, more sensual than the fantasy I usually choose to read. I kept going because I wanted to see what would happen to Elaine and the other characters, if their fates were truly predetermined or if they could choose a different outcome. Bear throws readers into her alternate universe and leaves them to discover along with her characters (a knowledge of Arthurian legend and the ballad of Tam Lin would be especially helpful, but I got along alright knowing only basics). I'm interested in seeing where the series heads from here. 4 stars.

Cross-posted at Born Reader.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Fine of 200 Francs by Elsa Triolet, 9/81

This is a series of stories about the men and women of the French resistance. Triolet secretly published this book during the war, and thus is not merely a chronicle of, but also part of the actual fight against Nazi occupation. Triolet tells stories of men and women who found themselves, either by choice or necessity, engaged with the resistance movement. Given the subject matter, it likely comes as no surprise that these are haunting stories. They are extremely atmospheric: cold, hunger, uncertainty, all are omnipresent in these tales, and are vividly presented to the reader. While these sensory experiences are so vivid, other things have been normalized. Some privations have been so normalized that they pass with minimal comment. Because this was published during wartime by the underground press there are elements of wartime culture Triolet never fully explains. While these must have been self-evident in 1944, they are not necessarily so in 2009. That said, this was a very interesting look at the day-to-day operations of the resistance movement.

Elsa Triolet, A Fine of 200 Francs (Virago, 1986) ISBN: 0140161341

Category: Virago Modern Classics 3/9, 9/81

The Mad Toy (21/81)

El Juguete Rabioso (usually translated as The Mad Toy), the debut novel of Roberto Arlt, was published with the help of Ricardo Güiraldes. It is arguably Arlt's most biographical work, chronicling the (mis)adventures of Silvio Drodman Astier as he attempts to find some way out of the poverty and alienation he has been born into.

Silvio is the parent of immigrants, an outsider in the world of early 20th Century Buenos Aires. He does not lack for ambition, though it often seems that the world works hard to thwart whatever minor dreams he may nurture. Because his father has abandoned the family, he finds himself having to quit school and seek work in order to support his mother and sister. At first he gets together with a couple of other neighborhood kids to engage in some theft, though their first crime--the break-in and robbery of a library--becomes their last after a close call with the police. Later, Silvio goes to work for a dishonest book seller, lands a job with the mechanic corps of the Air Force, and finally works as a paper salesman. The last of these turns out to be such drudgery, that he begins to consider returning to a life of crime.

Arlt expresses Silvio's drive, his hunger for success, in terms that must have been very familiar to him, as the changing circumstances move Silvio to alternate between hope and despair. The title is perhaps a little obvious in its metaphor: Silvio's overwhelming drives and passions combined with his inability to be enact them make him feel like some fierce frivolity. These different poles of existence are expressed in Arlt's unique prose, which combines lyricism with the street language of Buenos Aires.

The Mad Toy, as with most of Arlt's works, is a bracing, sometimes almost painful, work with moments of dark humor or fascinating inventiveness. It pales a bit in relation to Arlt's later The Seven Madmen (arguably his best work), in comparison with which it seems somewhat conventional, but if you've never read Arlt and are interested in encountering his unique representation of the alienation of modern life (Argentine style), The Mad Toy would be a good place to start.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Compulsive Acts by Elias Aboujadude (2/81) Neuroscience/Psychology category

Compulsive Acts is a look into 5 tales of "rituals and obsession."  The author is a young psychiatrist learning his way through the field and in his tales he describes his own challenges and milestones.  Aboujadude learns through different patients his own "weaknesses" as viewed in the field such as his want to cross the boundaries and go beyond to help patients, or his own biases to like some patients over others. These challenges show varying degrees of admirability for our "hero" and, all the while, getting an interesting perspective on those dealing with different obsessive and compulsive disorders. 
The first case study was my personal favorite with the desparate wife of a man seeking help because her husband is helplessly obsessed with his own nose. He is convinced that harm will come to his nose unless he keeps things at least 3 ft away, imagine his eating troubles! Also as his protective distance grows he can't go through doors and so on.  This greatly disturbs his marriage and everyday life. This is the most entertaining case study of the bunch. 
Unfortunately the writing goes downhill from there. Although there are many fascinating people such as the woman who can't stop pulling out her own hair, two kleptomaniacs, a compulsive gambler and a man obsessed with and ultimately choosing to live a life online rather than in the real world, the author tries to be funny, but fails. His writing is not fluid and he organizes and prioritizes in a very odd way. Also the titles of the sections are not clever and have very little to do with the subject material within each section. 

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks (1/81) Neuroscience/Psychology Category

This is my second Oliver Sack book.  The first book being "An Anthropologist on Mars"... Although I am fascinated by neuroscience, I too frequently find that the books written on these topics by the experts lack in an exciting literary style.  There is nothing wrong with writing in a case study style, but I would love to see more masters that combine a lively style of writing with the neurobiological topics. 
Oliver Sack's approach to connections between music and various brain disorders is well qualified and interesting.  His passion for the topic is obvious and the book is well worth the read, even though reading his style can be a chore at times. Some of the many topics covered include musical seizures,  the role music plays for those with Williams Syndrome and Alzheimers, and a man who is literally struck by a streak of lightning that awakens a talent and obsession for piano and composition.  These true accounts are extraordinary. The varying relationships different individuals have with music are intriguing, informing, and at times either evoke pity, envy, or inspiration.  
Sacks also discusses the importance of music in the healing process. He is helping to legitimize and validate the important work being done through music therapy. An example would be how music helps in memory disorders, autism and Parkinson's disease. For this, I am very thankful for Sack's work, because it is an example of very active nonfiction informing the public in a relatable and interesting way about possibilities in music and medicine that could help or inspire them, or a loved one. 
This book has a lot to offer, and can be read in sections like short stories, or if your like me in a couple sittings because the cases make the book hard to put down. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Don Segundo Sombra (20/81)

Don Segundo Sombra is the story of an orphaned boy named Fabio who has spent most of his early years in a small town living a somewhat rootless experience. One day he meets a gaucho named Don Segundo Sombra, the character who gives the novel its name, and is so impressed by the gaucho's quiet dignity that he decides to take him up as a mentor. He seeks out to the ranch of Sombra's current employer in order to obtain work alongside the gaucho. In the years that follow, he learns much from Sombra and travels widely around Argentina. The narrative details some of the adventures he encounters along the trail, including time spent among other gauchos.

Though there is some overlap, there is also a marked difference between the gaucho life as portrayed in Martin Fierro and that seen in this novel. Martin Fierro may have his honorable aspect, but he is basically an outlaw and a killer. While Sombra has its share of drawn knives, bloodshed is generally avoided. The one death that does result is portrayed as a tragedy and waste, without the outlaw romanticism of the older book.

What is most striking is the extent to which the gaucho is a civilizing influence. It is through Don Segundo that Fabio learns about courage, honesty and loyalty--values it is implied that he would not have picked up had he stayed with the distant relatives with whom he is staying at the beginning of the novel.

Like Martin Fierro, the novel's language draws heavily from Argentine, especially gaucho, manners of speaking, though written in a more natural and readable style. As with much gauchesque literature, the gaucho Sombra serves as symbolic of national character. Unlike those older works, Sombra was written when the real-life gauchos had begun to disappear and so reflects the shift of the gaucho from reality to myth, a lost emblem of the forging of personal and national adulthood.

The Body in the Billiard Room, 71/81

The Body in the Billiard Room by HRF Keating, audiobook category

Inspector Ghote of the Bombay CID has been sent, ordered really, to a quiet resort town in the mountains to investigate a murder. When he arrives, he find that a former British ambassador named Mehta is convinced that Ghote will wrap this all up in no time, just like in his favorite detective stories. Ghote soon tires of being compared to Sri Poirot and Sri Holmes. He does not feel himself to be a 'great detective' and he knows that real life is not like in books.

Just as indicated by the title, a body has been discovered on the billiard room of a private club. This is not the sort of place where people are used to this thing happening. Mehta has come up with a list of suspects, including a professor who is an expert on crime novels, a Maharajah and his Maharanee. Ghote feels quite out of his element here.

I really enjoyed this book. I liked Inspector Ghote and thought the other characters were well done. The narrator had a tough job getting all the accents and names right, but he did such a great job that I checked the package more than once to make sure that there really was only one reader. The book was very funny in places too.

Sworn to Silence

This was my Feb LT Early Reviewers win and it arrived in the mail on 3/13. The plot sounded interesting. I like murder mysteries and have recently been reading about the Amish, so having them combined in one plot was promising.

As I first began the book, I was a little surprised by the language. I have read books before with cursing, so I’m not sure why this caught me. Either I got used to it or it was more appropriately used later in the book because I stopped really noticing.

The plot is straightforward - a serial killer is in action, and his methods are exactly like those of a series of murders 16 years ago. There is reason, however, to be pretty sure that the original serial killer died 16 years ago. The issue is that only 3 people know about that so everyone else assumes he’s back.

The writing is good and the story is interesting. The differences between the English and the Amish are recognized without being belabored. The police work is described well with just enough detail but never drags on. I enjoyed this reading and recommend it for anyone interested in police mysteries.

The book is due to be published in June, 2009.

Here is a good description of the Police Chief - ” A gun-toting, cursing, former Amish female chief of police.”

Here is a good description of how the main character, Police Chief Kate Burkholder, is feeling. “I feel a sense of responsibility to the people I’ve sworn to protect and serve. I hope I can honor my oath of office without dishonoring my family or destroying my own life in the process.”

Dune - 69/81

Dune by Frank Herbert, new author category

Paul Atreides is only 15 when his father is killed and he and his mother escape to the deep desert, in hopes of finding a new life. But he is destined for great things.

This is such a huge book - and I'm not talking about size. I mean in scope. Herbert creates political system, religion, myth, ecology, and whole races of people. It took me a couple of chapters to get into the world of this book, but once there, I found it compelling reading. When I wasn't reading the book, I was thinking about it. I felt that he left several loose ends, but I'm sure that's because there are several more books to answer some of those questions.

I'm not sure why I never read this until now. Maybe because I knew it was 'sci-fi' and I had some preconceived idea of how it would be. It sounded dry and boring. I was completely wrong there. Maybe I thought it would be too technical or hard to read, but that wasn't the case either.

Overall, I'm really glad I picked this one on impulse to fill a slot in the new author category. I think I will have to read the next one in the series and see what happens next.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

La Guerra Gaucha (19/81)

One dramatic footnote in the Argentine War of Independence took place in the northern provinces of Salta and Jujuy, where Spanish-led troops faced off with a guerrila force made up of local gauchos. Though not as strategically important as the campaigns of San Martín, Leopoldo Lugones found the confrontation between Spaniard and gaucho to be fertile ground for an exploration of courage, honor and patriotism. He travelled to the region to learn the oral traditions of the conflict and see the locations where the fighting had taken place.

Though he originally intended to write it as a novel, Lugones found that he could not work everything he wanted to say into one narrative, so La Guerra Gaucha became a collection of stories about the war. The short stories are to some extent disconnected: some feature skirmishes or battles while others feature the more day-to-day aspect of life during the war, and rarely does one get a sense of where each story fits into the larger strategic struggle.

The fighting, however, does serve as the binding force of the narrative. Even a simple local gathering can suddenly erupt into tense confrontation, and there are several stories in which the act of violence occurs suddenly, shockingly. The stories are also connected by several thematic elements, including the harshness of war, the desire for freedom, courage, sacrifice, fatalism.

The book does not want for fascinating characters--the friar who risks his life to signal the patriots, the gaucho who stages a suicide attack on a royalist fort, the young royalist lieutenant falling in love with a local widow--but Lugones' descriptive powers are effectively used to evocatively describe the land and its features. I never really considered Lugones a brilliant writer, as his other short story collections (Strange Forces, Fatal Stories) were longer on concept than linguistic fireworks. La Guerra Gaucha, on the other hand, reflects a sophisticated and striking command of language and imagery in service of the story he tells. Here he crafts a real sense of place to serve as powerful backdrop for the war being waged.

I will admit there were off moments, where Lugones' shades off into a simplistic nationalism. Perhaps these struck me as terrible in part because I was aware of his later embrace of fascism, but luckily there were very few of those moments. Overall, I'd have to call it the strongest of Lugones' short story collections.

(Sadly, this book does not appear to have ever been translated.)

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (5/81)

Category: Hugo Award Winners (2/9)

Spin follows the lives of three friends, beginning when they are twelve and thirteen. The story is told by Tyler Dupree, and we follow what is happening to him in his "present" time, at the same time as he is telling us about his past. It makes for some very suspenseful reading.
Tyler's story of his past begins with the night the stars disappear. He is spending the evening with his two closest friends, the twins Jason and Diane. That October night begins what will later be referred to as the Spin. As the human race deals with this strange phenomenon, they make unsettling discoveries about what it means for Earth and its relationship with the rest of the universe. Because they discover that the Spin membrane (as it comes to be called) not only surrounds the Earth and blocks its view of the rest of the universe - it also effectively stops time for Earth. Each year on Earth is now equivalent to something like 100 million years in the universe, meaning that the sun is aging much faster relative to Earth, and within a few decades will destroy the Earth.
The glimpses we are given of the present, while hearing the history of the Spin from Tyler, make certain things in the story clear. But it leaves you wondering so much, so that you can't wait to get to that part of Tyler's history and find out what happened. I really was drawn into this book, and enjoyed it tremendously. Robert Charles Wilson will definitely be an author that I look for from now on.

Around the World in 80 Days

I pulled up a free copy on the Kindle and I’ve read it in between the more serious nonfiction sitting on my nightstand. I know I’ve read an abridged version but I don’t think I’ve ever read the entire work. I could relate to Passepartout seeking out an employer who could be consistent and dependable. Too bad his first day on the job turns out to be the day the dependable Phileas Fogg gets rash.

The cast of characters:

Phileas Fogg - a gentleman (when that word meant something) of unknown means, very regular in his actions with no time or energy wasted on superfluous activity or emotions. It is easy to believe he has no emotions - he is not excited or irritated by anything, but calmly takes the good and the bad, the beautiful and the mundane, and continues about his business without curiosity or urgency.

Passepartout - naturally good-spirited Frenchman, looking for a stable, reliable master where things are very well regulated. He is a perfect fit for Fogg. He is also, unfortunately, the direct or indirect cause of most of the delays. And he left the gas light in his room running when they left England.

Detective Fix - a policeman determined that Fogg is a bank robber and working hard to get Fogg and a warrant on English soil at the same time so he can arrest Fogg. He starts out by putting obstacles in their way while he could possibly arrest Fogg in India or Hong Kong (English colonies), and then by helping them to rush them back to English soil once they get into Japan and the United States.

Aouda is the Indian widow doomed to be burned to death on her husbands funeral bier until Fogg and Passepartout, along with an English colonel and a native rescue her. She can’t be left in India so she joins their party. She is indeed grateful to Fogg and he is very solicitous of her comfort.

Much is made about how Fogg seems to have no emotions and that is in direct contrast to the other members of the party who are excited by the sites, and depressed by the delays, and fret and worry over the bad luck they run into. I admire that Fogg sleeps calmly and is not disturbed by the things he cannot control. I do think more emotion along the positive side would be welcome. Not that he doesn’t feel it, perhaps, but he could certainly demonstrate a bit more. He is very solicitous of the feelings of others.

I still doubt they could get through the US without realizing they were a day ahead. If the ship left New York on time then it would have left a day before the day they expected (per his trusty schedule). I do understand not looking at any newpapers or otherwise seeing the date. Surely Fix was flooded with information after his embarassing false-arrest and he could have sent a telegram. But, the ending is good, even if it is convenient.

The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa (42/81)

Category: Themed Titles – Animals

I was drawn to this book because I’d heard about its unusual narrator – a gecko. The gecko observes the comings and goings from his vantage point on the wall of the house of Félix Ventura, an Albino who makes a living by faking histories and ancestors for prominent people.

The story is very much about identity with the chameleons of the title referring to all of the characters here. Even the gecko is not just a gecko as he remembers a past life when he was a man.

It was a surprisingly easy read, despite the unusual narrator, unfamiliar names and place, and descriptions of dreams.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Facundo (18/81)

Domingo Sarmiento wrote Facundo while he was in exile in Chile, having had to flee Argentina due to Juan Manuel Rosas, the country's first dictator. Facundo can be read as his attempt to come to grips with the forces that brought his country under dictatorship and sent him to exile.

Facundo is presented as the biography of Facundo Quiroga, a gaucho and fighter in the War of Independence who would go on to serve as one of the most important generals in the civil war which would bring Rosas to power. Sarmiento uses the biography of Quiroga as a basis for a deeper exploration of Argentine politics and society. Even before Quiroga appears, Sarmiento gives a brief account of the geography of Argentina, and how its history led to a divergence between the city of Buenos Aires--cosmopolitan, cultured, with an interest in new political ideas--and the rural provinces, in which violence and corruption had come to dominate. In doing this, Sarmiento lays out the central struggle of Argentina as one between the Civilization of Buenos Aires and the Barbarism of the provincial caudillos, of which he sees Quiroga as an embodiment.

Quiroga makes for a larger than life figure, so there is a certain logic to his centrality (as opposed to Rosas) for Sarmiento. As a young man, Quiroga had a run in with a puma and killed it with a knife, earning the sobriquet "El Tigre de los Llanos" (The Tiger of the Plains). He dropped out of school while still young to pursue a gaucho existence buyt did not really make much of himself until becoming a leader of men during the civil war. Though not a great strategic thinker, his leadership of bands of gauchos turned out to be key in the victory of the Federalist forces under Rosas. Once Rosas is in power, Quiroga shows little interest in government, and ends up being violently assassinated. (Sarmiento alleges Rosas ordered the assassination, though the historical record is unclear.)

Quiroga can be thought of as many things: as novel, biography, history, and an exploration of the forces at work in Argentine history. Sarmiento sees the gaucho and his culture as expressions of the Barbarism which rejects the standards of Civilization. He advocates for the importance of education and the development of commerce in order to allow Argentina to rise to greatness. Though his theory of this struggle between Civilization and Barbarism tends at times towards simplification,(He seems to have a particular fetish for the use of European-style clothing as expression of political sophistication.) the difference between the European-influenced porteños and the insular world of the gauchos does bring insights into Argentina's history. Whatever its flaws, it's a fairly thorough and fascinating portrait of Argentina's internal struggle after independence and one very noteworthy figure in that struggle.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan (5/81)

Category: National Book Award for Non-Fiction (1/9)

The Worst Hard Time: The Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl was everything that I'd hoped for in a non-fiction title. Egan begins his tale by introducing us to many of the characters who will populate his history: real people who lived through the Dust Bowl in the No-Man's Land of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles and the southeastern corner of Colorado, with some stories of northeast New Mexico and southern Kansas thrown in as well. The Dust Bowl is not a respecter of state lines.
The chronological story begins with the wheat boom that brought settlers to the plains. Egan tells us how they were lied to to get them to stay, and how they convinced themselves that agriculture could work on the land. It is tremendously sad, reading how the buffalo were destroyed and the Native Americans removed from their lands. Egan then goes on to describe the first changes, the beginning of the drought, when people did not yet know that disaster was coming. This is a profoundly moving book, as we get to know each of the families - you see how they suffer, how they stick through the worst times, or leave in order to save their lives. It's hard to imagine living through something so terrible, but I suppose that we always want to believe that it can't get any worse. This book is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys reading about history.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Martin Fierro (17/81)

Martin Fierro is a two-part epic poem about a nineteenth century gaucho of the same name. It belongs stylistically to a tradition of gauchesque poetry, written not in traditional Spanish but in a Spanish filtered through the language, wordplay and lyrical traditions of the rural life of Argentina.

The first part of the poem, "The Gaucho Martin Fierro" introduces us to the character of Fierro, a poor and uneducated, but basically decent gaucho who lives with his common-law wife and children and eeks out a a basic existence. Trouble begins when he is pressed into military service by the authorities (a common occurrence at the time) and sent to serve on the frontier with the "unsettled" lands ruled over by fierce tribes of Pampas and Araucans. Here he is underpaid, underfed, poorly supplied, and generally mistreated. When he sees an opportunity, he flees back to the world he left behind. Later, the authorities catch up to him, and his resistance reveals such a depth of courage and nobility that he finds an unlikely ally in this struggle. Together, the two friends travel beyond the bounds of civilization.

"The Return of Martin Fierro" picks up several years later, with Fierro having found life in the wilderness much harsher than he expected. He returns to his home, where he meets up with the sons--all grown up now--whom he had to leave behind ten years prior. Together, they share stories of hardship and struggle, and of dealing with corrupt and callous authorities. While Fierro finds that the authorities have forgotten about his outlaw status, one act of violence from his past returns to haunt him and to leave the narrative with an ambiguous ending.

Martin Fierro is a sympathetic protagonist, though not without his flaws. He is not just an outlaw and a deserter, but also a brawler and a killer, though he is not without his sense of nobility. When contrasted to the authorities, which exert such power over him yet care little for his welfare, it becomes only natural to feel for the gaucho. I found the combination of the outlaw mystique and the realism of the gaucho's social marginalization to make for a moving tale.

To add to this, Fierro is not only a noble outlaw but also a musician, making his role as archetypal figure all the more noteworthy. The narrative is presented as one in which each of the main characters tell his own story in song, and the combination of musical performance with outlaw machismo struck me as just as deeply embedded in North American culture, whether you're talking of cowboys or gangstas. The climax of the second part involves a "payado," a sort of traditional gaucho song duel in which two guitar-players/singers trade off improvising songs on a theme.

The use of gauchesque style and language make for something of a double-edged sword, providing a unique feel while being potentially difficult to fully grasp. The edition I read was bilingual and thoroughly footnoted, which I found to be very helpful. I managed to understand it pretty well while reading the original, with only occasional glances to the translation. If your Spanish, like mine, is good but could be better, I recommend a bilingual edition. If you're more of a beginner, you're probably better off sticking to a translation, though much of the texture of the gauchesque language will be lost.

Marin Fierro is considered among the first classics of Argentine literature, and as with many a book that I'd heard much about, I approached it with a certain sense of wariness, fearing age would have dimmed its power. However, with its portrayal of a heroic criminal confronted by corrupt authority, and its beautiful and unique language, Martin Fierro certainly earns its classic status.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (41/81)

Category: New to Me Authors

I’d heard good things about this book but wasn’t particularly attracted to it, but when it was the monthly choice of my book club, I decided to give it a go.

Despite my misgivings, I was hooked from the first page. This is good old fashioned story telling. The plot is about an amateur biographer who is invited to hear the life story of a famous author, who has always fabricated elaborate stories about her background. What follows is a family saga, mixed with elements of ghost stories and references to classic literature such as The Woman in White and Jane Eyre.

It was a gripping story although the resolution was perhaps a little too neat and did require a leap of imagination to make it seem plausible. But that did seem entirely fitting for the style of the novel.

A great book to curl up with on winter's evening (although I read it in a sunny garden!)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Generation X by Douglas Coupland, 8/81

This book was supposed to be the defining statement of a generation. That said, I enjoyed it less than some of Coupland's other work. This is the story of disaffected twenty-somethings who've found that life has little to offer them except escalating home prices, creeping commercialism, and what one can only describe as middle-class ennui. So, they escape to the desert, work minimum-wage jobs, and entertain one another telling stories. All of the stories highlight the emptiness that defines the characters' lives. I'm not entirely sure why I found this less fulfilling than other of Coupland's works. Perhaps it's because I was born at the tail end of Generation X, so these sentiments were hardly revolutionary to me. Perhaps the nearly twenty years that have passed since its first publication have seen the sentiments assimilated into mainstream culture (irony noted.) Whatever it is, I have enjoyed other of Coupland's works far more.
Douglas Coupland, Generation X (St. Martins, 1999) ISBN: 031205436X
Category: Canadian Fiction 2/9, 8/81

#46/81 DEAL BREAKER by Harlan Coben

This was the first in the Myron Bolitar series by Harlan Coben. The plot centers around a cunning mystery of sex, murder and blackmail. Simon is a multi-dimensional character having been a sports figure turned FBI agent turned lawyer and ending as a sports agent. All these facets of his background come into play in this story where his prize client is involved in a possible murder. Simon's support staff include a college friend who enjoys playing enforcer while in appearance is MR. Preppie and a secretary/receptionist who used to be a wrestler.The fact the Simon is not a detective or policeman or PI makes this series seem a bit more interesting because you wonder what other aspects of his background have you not been told yet. I will admit that I was surprised by the ending, I was not prepared for the solution even though I had an inkling of what was happening. Definitely entertaining!

Friday, April 17, 2009

#45/81 MOVING IS MURDER by Sara Rosett

Ellie Avery is a military wife. She has moved 4 times in the last 5 years but this time it's different. Elie is an organizer but it isn't as easy as it was all the other times because this move involves buying a house and a new baby. Arriving in their new town during a record heat wave, little Livvy makes Ellie wonder if she'll ever manage to get unpacked let alone settled.Ellie meets her fellow Air Force wives at the first Spouse function and senses a little tension among some of the spouses. Later after her first base function, Ellie comes upon one of the other wives, dead in a ditch. Trying to help the mourning husband, Ellie offers to take over the duties of organizing the upcoming garage sale, and this is what leads to enumerable clues and murder attempts as Ellie unravels all the clues that she finds.One really cozy concept appearing in this book are Ellie's tips on how to make your move better organized and hassle free.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah (40/81)

Category: Around the World
Country: Zimbabwe

Horrific political regimes do at least seem to produce some interesting literature, and this collection of short stories is no exception. The stories are centred around Zimbabwe, mainly as affected by Mugabe’s rule with the soaring inflation, AIDS epidemic and social injustice.

Whilst Mugabe doesn't feature directly in many of the stories, the impact of his oppressive regime and the tragedies of the instability in Zimbabwe can be felt across the collection. The stories cover the whole social spectrum of Zimbabwian society, and although there are glimpses of humour, it is overall a bleak portrait. The quality of the writing is however excellent, making it compelling reading and unlike many short story collections, there aren't any weak points here.

I would certainly be keen to read more by this author and hope there will be a full length novel in the future.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

John Adams - 63/81

John Adams by David McCullough, biography category

John Adams is remembered today as the second president. Sometimes he is also remembered because until the Bushes, Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams were the only father-son combination to each serve as president. Sometimes he is remembered as a delegate to the convention in 1776. But this monumental book by David McCullough told me so much more about Adams than I ever knew.

This book really is monumental - over 700 pages. But for the most part, it didn't really feel too long. There were some great pictures in there, which helped a bit, but I think the main thing that made it a fun read is that there were so many stories; that's what I love to read.

I had read a little about Adams before, and about his wife, Abigail. But I loved the story of their courtship and their abiding love for each other. I was also interested to read of the complex relationship between Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Despite their serious differences, both men had an abiding respect for one another.

I couldn't help thinking that there are few such patriots around today. Patriotism is in fact a sort of code word that some political groups use to throw around, but most of us feel a little uncomfortable with such a concept. And yet how long would the United States have lasted if it weren't for unabashed patriots in the infancy of the country? Adams contributed much towards making the continuation of our country a possibility. He had enemies on almost every side, including his own cabinet, but he was able to leave a lasting legacy.

I gave this book 5 stars. It kept my attention, despite the size, and I felt that I knew so much more about John Adams than I did before I started. A really great book.

3 Willows by Ann Brashare (25/81)

Polly has an idea that she can't stop thinking about, one that involves changing a few things about herself. She's setting her sights on a more glamorous life, but it's going to take all of her focus. At least that way she won't have to watch her friends moving so far ahead.
Jo is spending the summer at her family's beach house, working as a bus girl and bonding with the older, cooler girls she'll see at high school come September. She didn't count on a brief fling with a cute boy changing her entire summer. Or feeling embarrassed by her middle school friends. And she didn't count on her family at all. . .
Ama is not an outdoorsy girl. She wanted to be at an academic camp, doing research in an air-conditioned library, earning A's. Instead her summer scholarship lands her on a wilderness trip full of flirting teenagers, blisters, impossible hiking trails, and a sad lack of hair products.
It is a new summer. And a new sisterhood. Come grow with them.

This is from the author of The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants which I really liked ... So this is a new book with new characters ....

Well this is definitely a wee book that my 11 year old daughter would love .... A book about 3 young teenage girls and how their friendships grow !!!

I loved the little factual quotes about the Willow Tree it was very interesting ... It is a sweet book and an easy read .... And I am sure alot of young girls will identify with the girls ... My favourite girl in the novel would have to be Ama ... She is funny, smart and willing to give anything a try !!! I cannot really say anymore just that it is a nice wee read !!!

I rate this book 31/2 ***

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Shadow Kiss by Richelle Mead (24/81)

It's springtime at St. Vladimir's Academy, and Rose Hathaway is this close to graduation. Since making her first Strigoi kills, Rose hasn't been feeling quite right. She's having dark thoughts, behaving erratically, and worst of all...might be seeing ghosts. As Rose questions her sanity, new complications arise. Lissa has begun experimenting with her magic once more, their enemy Victor Dashkov might be set free, and Rose's forbidden relationship with Dimitri is starting to heat up again. But when a deadly threat no one saw coming changes their entire world, Rose must put her own life on the line--and choose between the two people she loves most.

The third book in the "Vampire Academy" and I have to say my favourite one so far !!! .... Rose is facing her final test as to whether she can be a guardian ...... But she is getting haunted by ghostly figures !!! Will she be able to past her final exam and be a protector over Lissa ... And just when you think things are going well she gets summoned to the Royal Court !!! ....

Again this book is an easy read !!! I have enjoyed going back to fantasy novels it is good sometimes just to escape your world into a totally different one for a while !!! Again there is a wee bit of swearing in this book !!! But I did enjoy it overall !! And now waiting to see what happens next ........

I rate this book 4****

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" 61/81

Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! - by Richard P. Feynman, audiobook category

This book was a collection of anecdotes by Richard Feynman. By turns extremely funny and accessible, then technical and confusing, it was still a fun read. It was just a little uneven. I liked the stories about when he was a boy fixing radios. Then there was the long story involving a topless bar near his house. It wasn't explicit or anything, but since I was listening to this as an audiobook with my kids in the car, it made things a little tricky. I wasn't completely crazy about the reader either, but I still enjoyed it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How to be a Domestic Goddess, 60/81 - 21 to go!

How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking by Nigella Lawson, food/cookbook category

First of all, I have to say this - this woman is nuts! She may be a great cook and a very nice person, I don't know, but honestly, she is nuts.

This book, in case you couldn't tell right away, is about baking. She sets it up in several categories: cakes, cookies, bread, pies, Christmas, etc. The pictures are wonderful. But the writing? Wow. It's hard to tell you just how bad it is. So here's an example.

"Coconut Macaroons. These are a very English kind of macaroon, the sort you always used to see displayed in bakers' shops alongside the madeleines (those sponge castles dipped in luminous strawberry jam and dredged in throat-catching grated coconut, and so very different from those that inflamed the memory of Marcel Proust). The difference with coconut macaroons is that you need neither to be ironic or self-consciously retro-cool to enjoy them."


I have SO many problems with this paragraph. First of all, I am reading a cookbook. I do not need references to Marcel Proust. Second, don't just assume I am English. I'm not. I have no idea what you are talking about. Third, I have never in my life worried about being ironic when I ate a cookie. (My daughter wondered if perhaps she referred to the IRON CONTENT of the cookie. But no.) And finally, I don't have any idea what 'self-consciously retro-cool' means.

So the writing is bad. Horrible. But if the recipes were good, you could just skip the writing and get straight to the recipes. Well, the recipes aren't bad exactly, but every recipe assumes that you already know what she's talking about. She doesn't explain things for a beginner.

Then there are some rather weird recipes. I don't plan on ever making persimmon or passionfruit curd. And I definitely will not touch a gin and tonic gelatin mold. Several of the recipes, most, in fact, call for ingredients that I would have a hard time tracking down. Like rosewater and some specialty jams. She also uses special equipment, but doesn't give you a picture of it or really describe well how to use it. I know most English cooks know what a pudding basin is. I don't.

And then I am never, ever going to make lavender milk. (You know, get a bowl of milk, put 5-6 lavender sprigs in it, boil, then strain. Yeah.) She skipped an important step there - make sure the lavender in question is pesticide free and has been washed thoroughly. But really, where am I going to find lavender sprigs?

This was without question the most self-important, preciously droll cookbook I have ever read. Wait, is that too close to self-consciously retro-cool? Maybe I should have said vain and complacent. Either way, I would not recommend reading it at all. I've never seen the author's show or read any of her other cookbooks, but after reading this, I heard from a relative that she is just the same on her show. Maybe that appeals to someone. Maybe it's meant to be funny and I just don't get it. But it was just awful.

Right as Rain by George Pelecanos (39/81)

Category: Crime & Detectives (with a global theme)
Country: USA

The first in the series of books featuring the characters Strange and Quinn. Strange is a black private investigator, hired to investigate the killing of a black policeman. Quinn is the white former police officer who did the shooting and is coming to terms with his mistake and life outside of the police. Despite his connection with the case, Quinn ends up helping Strange to get to the bottom of things, which unsurprisingly involves police corruption and drugs.

It was typical Pelecanos fayre - the mean streets of Washington DC, awash with popular culture references, multi-racial characters and a big showdown at the end. It is a gritty portrayal of Washington, which is central to all of his books, and can't be doing much for the tourist industry.

It was a good read, not the most intellectually challenging, but you know what you are getting and it is easy to lose yourself in the plot for a few hours. However, I am beginning to find the plots a bit formulaic, especially that big risky showdown where the main characters take the law into their own hands, which is how all of his books I’ve read so far have ended.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Europe Central by William T Vollmann - 4/81

Category: National Book Award Winners for Fiction (2/9)

Wow. This book was not what I was expecting, but I am glad I picked it up. (I honestly don't know what it was I was expecting, but anyway.) Europe Central won the 2005 National Book Award for fiction, and it is easy to see why. The writing is magnificent - I felt swept away, caught up in the stories. The book itself is difficult to describe. Each chapter is a parable of sorts, and the chapters are paired in a way that illuminates the story. Basically the book is about World War II, focusing on Germany and Russia. There is no main character, except perhaps Europe Central. Each story is told from a sort of omniscient narrator point of view, with the voice sometimes changing in the middle of the story. Like I said, it's hard to describe.
Even though it took me longer to read than I would have thought, I am really glad I invested the time in it. I know almost nothing about WWII, so a lot of what is described I had never known, but I only felt lost during one story (Airlift Idylls - that one completely lost me for a bit). Some of the chapters focus on real people, telling their stories as the author envisions it, people such as Field-Marshal Friedrich Paulus, Kurt Gerstein, Shostakovich, and then sometimes the story is told by someone who seems to be an individual but is really not (those chapters reminded me of And Then We Came to the End, if you've read that). Basically this book would be enjoyed by anyone who can invest the time, who is interested in that time period, or who loves it when an author can use the language so beautifully (even when describing terrible things). Vollmann obviously did a ton of research for this book, and it makes me curious to see what his other books are like.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Frostbite by Richelle Mead (23/81)

Rose Hathaway's got serious guy trouble. Her gorgeous tutor Dimitri has his eye on someone else, her friend Mason has a huge crush on her, and she keeps getting stuck in her best friend Lissa's head while she's making out with her boyfriend, Christian. (So not cool).
Then a massive Strigoi attack puts St. Vladimir's on high alert, and the Academy crawls with Guardians--including the legendary Janine Hathaway...Rose's formidable, long-absent mother. The Strigoi are closing in, and the Academy's not taking any risks. This year, St. Vlad's annual holiday ski trip is mandatory.
But the glittering winter landscape and the posh Idaho resort only provide the illusion of safety. When three students run away to strike back against the deadly Strigoi, Rose must join forces with Christian to rescue them. Only this time, Rose--and her heart--are in more danger than she ever could have imagined...

This is the second book in the Vampire Academy Series and things are heating up for the Vampires ..... The Strigoi are starting to attack ... So is it safer to be all together !!!! .... Rose not only have as to play it cool but has to deal with her mother who is one of the top Guardians in the world !!! Are they ready and prepared to face the Strigoi !!! ..... Plus a new Vampire comes on the scene Adrian ... Is he a friend or foe !!! ....

I enjoyed this book and it introduces you to new characters and also keeps you guessing as to whether Rose and Dimitri ever get together !!!

I rate this book 31/2 **

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Japanland by Karin Muller (31/81)

Category: Travelogue
C2005 307pgs 3.5stars

Lately my Netflix queue has been full to the brim with anime and J-Horror movies. I find myself with an insatiable curiosity about most things Japanese (if it's small, fuzzy and saccharine sweet I can usually resist). I dream of packing my bags and heading off to the island 'someday'. So when Amazon recommended this book to me, I felt it was the perfect venue for some armchair travel. And indeed, Muller does give you a sense of what being an outsider, a Gaijin, is like: at the home of her host family, at the market, asking directions on the street, in the public baths, etc.
Japanland, as described by Muller, is "an alternate reality", "the mask Japan wears in public". She spent a year documenting various Japanese citizens: monks, sumo wrestlers, drummers, judo practitioners, sword makers, business men, immigrants, geisha, even the homeless, with the purpose of assimilating their true culture. The marketing blurb on the front flap says the book has 'broad scope' and I do agree with that. But it also feels quite shallow, as if Muller never penetrated the 'mask' she speaks of. It's a light, easy read but ultimately I was left somewhat unsatisfied with it and will probably look for another book on the same subject.

Down and Out in Paris and London (38/81)

Category: Non-Fiction

I read Animal Farm and 1984 years ago and loved them both, but somehow was never drawn to any of Orwell’s other work. But I was glad I took a chance on this book.

It is based on the author’s own experiences before he was famous, working in the restaurant trade in Paris and being homeless in London. Despite the subject matter, it was a surprisingly easy read, testament to Orwell’s skill as a writer. Although his poverty was only temporary, his empathy with the eternally destitute is real and his tone is never patronising.

In the first section on Paris, he describes in detail how one can live on a meagre number of francs, and provides an in-depth account of Paris’ restaurant trade, which treats its hierarchy that treats its lowly staff terribly, but provides some interesting anecdotes here.

In the second part of the book, Orwell moves to London, where the promised job falls through and he finds himself homeless. The tone here is darker, as he is living amongst people who are often without hope, but it is still graced with brilliant characters and some astute insights. I particularly enjoyed the section on the evolution of swear words.

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead (22/81)

Lissa Dragomir is a Moroi princess: a mortal vampire with an unbreakable bond to the earth's magic. She must be protected at all times from Strigoi; the fiercest and most dangerous vampires--the ones who never die.The powerful blend of human and vampire blood that flows through Rose Hathaway, Lissa's best friend, makes her a Dhampir; she is dedicated to a dangerous life of protecting Lissa from the Strigoi, who are hell-bent on making her one of them.After two years of illicit freedom, Rose and Lissa are caught and dragged back to St. Vladimir's Academy, hidden in the deep forests of Montana. Rose will continue her Dhampir education. Lissa will go back to being Queen of the elite Moroi social scene. And both girls will resume breaking hearts.Fear made Lissa and Rose run away from St. Vladimir's--but their world is fraught with danger both inside and out of the Academy's iron gates. Here, the cutthroat ranks of the Moroi perform unspeakable rituals and their secretive nature and love of the night creates an enigmatic world full of social complexities. Rose and Lissa must navigate through
this dangerous world, confront the temptation of forbidden romance, and never once let their guard down, lest the Strigoi make Lissa one of them forever...

I seriously must be going through a Vampire phase at the moment .... This is the first in a series of books called "Vampire Academy" And I quite enjoyed them !!!

Firstly let me say there are a few swear words in the book but as the series go's on they become less frequent ... Richelle style of writing is really easy going and if you are an avid reader this will be a quick read !! I read all three books within 3 days !!!

It is about a heroine called Rose who is half Vampire and half Human whose job it is to protect her best friend Lissa .... She is a strong willful character who alot of the time is misjudged !!! They attend a school which trains them on how to protect their Royal Princes and Princess !!! ... And shows that even in a Vampire Academy there are the cool kids and the geeks !! Will Rose rise to the challenge to study and obey the rules so she can be best guardian !!!

Not a bad wee read .... If you like fantasy and Vampire books you will love this series !!!

I rate this book 31/2 ***

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Evernight by Claudia Gray (21/81)

Bianca wants to escape.

She's been uprooted from her small hometown and enrolled at Evernight Academy, an eerie Gothic boarding school where the students are somehow too perfect: smart, sleek, and almost predatory. Bianca knows she doesn't fit in.

Then she meets Lucas. He's not the "Evernight type" either, and he likes it that way. Lucas ignores the rules, stands up to the snobs, and warns Bianca to be careful—even when it comes to caring about him.

"I couldn't stand it if they took it out on you," he tells Bianca, "and eventually they would."

But the connection between Bianca and Lucas can't be denied. Bianca will risk anything to be with Lucas, but dark secrets are fated to tear them apart . . . and to make Bianca question everything she's ever believed.

I blame one of my fellow bookclub ladies (Legs) for recommending me this book .... And I was not disappointed ....

A couple of things if you loved Stephenie Meyers then you are going to love this book .... And make sure you have dinner prepared for the family because you will be too busy reading to worry about cooking it !!!!

This is a great wee book and just when you have an idea what is going on another wee twist sneaks in .... Thankfully the second in the series is out now (which I will be racing down to my bookstore to get ) and the third comes out later next year !! ....

I have been reading alot of teen novels at the moment and really enjoying them ... I don't want to give away to much of the story-line but it is about a school called "Evernight" where things just aren't want they seem !!! ........ And the connection between Bianca and Lucas !!! Lets just say in Facebooks terms "It's Complicated"

I loved this book and cannot wait to read the next in the series ....

I rate this book 5*****