Book Reviews: Shiver and Linger

Thursday, September 30, 2010

by Maggie Stiefvater

At age 11, Grace is attacked by a pack of wolves in the woods behind her house. She survives, but becomes obsessed with them, one in particular. Years later, as a teen, she discovers that "her wolf" is really a werewolf named Sam. He lives as a teenager during the summer months and as a wolf during the cold winter months.

I was surprised that it was so well written. It would have been easy to make the characters come across as whiny teens, but Stiefvater manages to avoid that. One things that I found incredibly disturbing with this book was the portrayal of parents. All of the major parents are selfish, absent people who should never have had children. It was both sad and disturbing to think of the emotional damage they've done to their kids. Both Sam and Grace have had to grow up quickly because of all they've been through.

I liked the fact that Sam is the artistic one of the two and Grace is more pragmatic and logical. I think my favorite scene of the book takes place in a candy shop. It's both sweet and intimate, without being too sappy. I really enjoyed this first installment and will continue the series.


by Maggie Stiefvater

Instead of a sequel, Linger feels a bit like a rehashing of Shiver, except some of the roles are reversed. It felt much more contrived to me. In the first book the main couple fights to find a way to keep Sam human. In the second it's Grace who is now showing signs of becoming a wolf.

Sam and Grace, who we got to know in Shiver, seem to play against character in Linger. Responsible Grace decides to throw caution and ambition to the wind, sweet-natured Sam is dealing with anger and frustration. Grace's parents', who are absent in every sense of the word, become incredibly interested in controlling their daughter's life. It just doesn't follow in the same vein as the first book.

I still enjoyed reading Linger, but it didn't impress me. One of the new characters, Cole, is a selfish jerk that I couldn't make myself care about at all. Isabel gets a bit more of a voice in this second installment, but even that never seems to get below the surface. Instead of getting to know her better we just learn that she can't resist the charming Cole... who isn't charming.

I liked reading about Sam's struggle with becoming a leader, which felt real to me. On the other hand, Sam's songs and poems became annoying fast. I'm not a fan of the overly saccharine and found myself rolling my eyes when he would burst into song.

In the end, I think my major complaint is that Linger feels immature where Shiver feels mature. It lapses back into some of the teenage clichés the first one so deftly avoided. I'm not sure if I'll read the next one or not. I'm pretty forgiving with series and have found that the second book is often the weakest of the bunch.

Wordless Wednesday: Sacré-Cœur

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Paris

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

iPad Book Cover

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I don't have an iPad, but this case makes me want to get one. I think I'm just a sucker for anything that hides technology in the guise of a book.

When it's closed it looks exactly like a book! I think it's funny that where the title would go on the spine it says "This is not a book." It can even stand up on its own. Whoa.

Photos from here.

Book Reviews: The Killer Angels

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Killer Angels
by Michael Shaara

Most Americans know at least a little bit about the Civil War. I may know a bit more than some, because when I was 12, my history buff parents took our family on a three-week tour of all the Civil War battlegrounds. Because of that I think I've always been especially fascinated by the Civil War. It was so full of contradictions, brother fighting brother, a nation turned against itself. The Killer Angels is the best book I've read on the subject. It shows how thin the lines were between the two armies. Soldiers frequently knew the people they were fighting against.

The Killer Angels deals with the battle at Gettysburg, which is considered the turning point in the war. Shaara delves into the thoughts of the men who orchestrated the battle, specifically General Lee and General Longstreet on the confederate side and Col. Chamberlain on the Union side. Each of the men made decisions they regretted or struggled with and none of them walked away completely unscathed.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the book hooked me. Colonel Chamberlain is presented with 120 men who tried to abandon their posts and head home. He is torn about how to convince them to stay. He's instructed to shoot them if they leave, but instead he stands in front of them and gives a speech about why they are fighting and the beauty and truth of his words inspire all but six of the men to fight with him.

It's no surprise this won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It's brilliantly researched and written. I understand why Shaara chose to make it a fiction book. Even though it's based on fact, making it a "fiction" book gave him the freedom to express the men's feelings and thoughts, which prevents the book from feeling dry. Shaara's main focus is on the leaders' decisions that led to the battle and the motivations behind those decisions.

It's not a quick, entertaining read, but it's one that is so important to fully understand what our nation has gone through to get to this point. It's a heartbreaking story, because it's our country, destroying itself. One of the things that stood out to me the most was the confederate soldiers feelings about the war. They didn't believe like they were fighting for slavery, they believed they were fighting for their states freedoms. They were fighting because they loved their state and were loyal to it. Even though there were wonderful things that came about because of it, it was truly a tragic war.

Friday Favorites: The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Friday, September 24, 2010

It all starts with a quiet British man named Arthur Dent... who hitches a ride on a space ship just before the earth is destroyed. What follows is a five book "trilogy" featuring travels through space and absurdity at it's best.

It's hard to explain just how hilarious Douglas Adam's writing is. He creates characters and situations that make you laugh out loud no matter where you are. His wit is legendary and just when your stomach stops hurting from laughing so hard, he throws another curve ball, like an alien race that tortures people by making them listen to horrible poetry.

This books are filled with unforgettable characters like Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian. My personal favorites are Dent, who's bumbling, sweet-natured confusion is irresistible and Marvin, a depressed robot who is constantly bemoaning the fact that no one listens to him.

I think the first three books in the series are probably the best, but by that point, you're so attached to the characters that you can't help love each new foray into their world.

I would recommend Adam's writing to most people, but I would say if you love Monty Python's sense of humor these books are an absolute must. You should start at the beginning of the series with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and no matter what... don't forget your towel.

Book Reviews: The Dark Is Rising

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Dark is Rising
By Susan Cooper

Young Will Stanton finds out on his 11th birthday that he is one of the "Old Ones." He and the others must find the six signs that will give them the power to keep the "dark" evil forces from gaining control of the world.

To be honest, I'm a bit surprised that this is the second book in the series. It seems like the obvious choice for the first book. Over Sea, Under Stone explains much less of the mythology of the series and perhaps that's why it's the first books in the series, but it still seems like an odd choice to me. The three Drew children we meet in the first book don't appear in this one at all. Uncle Merry returns in this book though and I was happy to get more of his character.

Cooper's writing is ripe with suspense and it's a much darker tale than the first book. It reminds me a bit of the Chronicles of Narnia (which is a good thing) in which good and evil are clearly defined forces and children must help conquer evil. I was swept away by the story and I particularly liked seeing the contradictory life that Will is forced to live. At only 11-years-old he understands his destiny and has huge responsibility, yet his family doesn't know so he must still act like a carefree child around them.

I have three more books in the series and will definitely be finishing it.

"There was something about Christmas Eve that demanded company; one needed somebody to whisper to, during the warm beautiful dream-taut moments between hanging the empty stocking at the end of the bed, and dropping into the cosy oblivion that would flower into the marvel of Christmas morning."

p.s. This is a famous British series (much more well-known over there) and this book won the Newbery award in 1974. I wonder if Will, who we meet at age 11, might have inspired bits of Harry Potter.

Wordless Wednesday: Rome

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Colosseum in Rome

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: Beneath a Marble Sky

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beneath a Marble Sky
John Shors

Set during the 17th century, Shors' novel tells the story of the heartbroken emperor who has the Taj Mahal built in memory of his deceased wife. His brave daughter Jahanara tells the story of their family, which includes her love affair with the Taj Mahal's brilliant architect, Isa. It also discusses the family rivalries between her scholarly oldest brother and her power-hungry, evil brother.

I might not have ever picked it up if my book club hadn't chosen it. I knew very little about the building of the Taj Mahal before reading it and was fascinated to learn about the culture and traditions of the people responsible for the beautiful building. There are moments that feel melodramatic, but at the same time, the stakes are high. I liked that the novel spans such a long period of time. Jahanara and Isa's love has to withstand years of turbulent challenges, which strengthens it and proves it's not a fling.

I loved the character of Jahanara, though I was occasionally frustrated by the choices she made. Regardless of the decisions she made, she still showed a courage that is admirable, especially considering the times. Her dear friend and companion, a eunuch, was another wonderful character. He is loyal to the end, showing an unbelievable devotion.

The book tackles the building of an icon, a love affair, persecution of women, religious fanaticism and family feuds, which is a lot for a novel. Shors doesn't over reach his ability though and the book is a fast-paced read. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoy historical fiction with a great story.

Powell's Books

Monday, September 20, 2010

If I had a solid week to wander I would still probably feel like I didn't see all of Powell's Books. It's a huge, massive bookstore in Portland, OR that literally takes up an entire city block. We visited the bookstore for the first time last month and I was smitten.

There are multiple floors, dozens of categories and hundreds of books that wanted me to take them home.

If you get the chance to visit while you're on the west coast make sure to give yourself plenty of time. That was my only regret. I could have spent a few days there, but unfortunately we didn't have that long. Although that's probably better in the end for my sagging bookshelves.

Here's my loot from the trip. I ended up with a gorgeous copy of The House of Mirth, Man Walks Into a Room (same author as The History of Love) and the graphic novel French Milk. Also, that's my copy of Treasure Island that I bought at the City Light Bookstore in San Fran.

Photos by moi.

Book Clutter

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Does anyone else's console table look like this? Mine has been this way for far too long and I've been trying to find a way to keep myself from covering the top with magazines and books. I'm always clipping articles or reading a chapter or two from a book and then leaving the reading material sprawled out on the table. I finally came up with this solution...

I bought two baskets that sit on the bottom level of the table and whenever someone comes over I can just scoop all the piles of books into the baskets.

(The magazine-filled basket)

Do you guys have any similar problems with books taking over your home? I won't even get into the mess that is my bedside table.

Photos by moi.

Friday Favorites: Me Talk Pretty One Day

Friday, September 17, 2010

My first introduction to David Sedaris was an essay in The New Yorker chronicling his trip to Amsterdam while in the midst of house hunting in Paris. He saw Anne Frank's house and all he could think was that if it wasn't a historical home it would be the perfect flat!

Sedaris' irreverence and dry humor sucked me in so completely. Nothing is sacred.

Me Talk Pretty One Day was the first of his books I read and after that I knew I was hooked. It remains my favorite of his, though that might be because it was my first. It's a collection of 26 essays, mainly dealing with Sedaris' personal life and experiences.

Whether he telling stories about his unconventional family, dealing with a lisp or trying to learn how to speak French, he brings an absurdity to the most banal situations.

"You Can't Kill the Rooster" is Sedaris' story about his hillbilly brother... who refers to himself as "the rooster." It's one of my favorites in the bunch. I first read it, then later listened to Sedaris read it and it literally made me laugh so hard I was crying. He does a squealing, high-pitched imitation of his brother's voice, which is too ridiculous to be far from the truth.

Yes Sedaris can be crude and occasionally the situations he finds himself in are a bit disturbing, but he tells the stories in a way that's irresistible. I once attended a reading he gave and was thrilled to discover he was even funnier in person. If you've never read anything of his I would highly recommend starting with this book and get the audio version if you can!

"I noticed an uncommon expression on Alisha's face. It was the look of someone who's discovered too late that she's either set her house on fire or committed herself to traveling with the wrong person."

Book Reviews: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford

I've always been fascinated by the Japanese internment camps during WWII. There's something about it that's so disturbing. Whenever I read a book about it I'm always left thinking, surely this didn't happen in America, elsewhere maybe, but not the land of the free. Perhaps that's why this book resonated with me.

Henry is a Chinese-American widower trying to find his footing after his wife's death in 1986. Then a local hotel reopens after decades of sitting empty and the new owner announces she's found hundreds of personal items in the hotel's basement. They all belong to Japanese-Americans interred during WWII and have been left, unclaimed, for years.

The story flashes back and forth between Henry's life in 1986, where he has recently lost his wife, and his life in the 1940s, when his best friend, a Japanese girl named Keiko, is taken to an internment camp. Henry's own father is a harsh man filled with prejudices against the Japanese and he forces his views upon his family.

Ford's story is such an original take on internment camps. The whole situation is shown from the point-of-view of a Chinese-America. He's a man of Asian decent, spared from this horrible situation, but still persecuted by ignorant Americans who assume he is Japanese.

I loved how the story switched back in forth in time, allowing the reader to see how Henry turned out and the events that lead him there. The plot culminates on VJ day in a haunting bittersweet scene. The book is in part a love story, but the more importantly it is the story of friendship that rises above racial prejudice despite the worst possible circumstances. I'd highly recommend it.

p.s. Aren't the title and the cover just wonderful too!

Wordless Wednesday: Bonaventure Cemetery

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

City Light Bookstore

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

During my recent trip to San Francisco I made sure to visit the City Light Bookstore. It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the USA and rose to fame after publishing Allen Ginsberg's controversial "Howl." Yay for visiting famous bookstores!

Next door to City Light Books is the infamous bar, Vesuvio, where Jack Kerouac and other beats used to hang out. My husband indulged me and stopped for a drink there with me after we visited the bookstore.

In the alley, aptly named Jack Kerouac Alley, that runs between the bookstore and the Vesuvio, the pavement is covered with quotes from authors. The above quote is by the poet and co-founder of City Light Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

(Stairs leading to the basement of City Light Books)

I exercised some serious self-control and left with only one book. I chose the new cloth-bound Penguin edition of Treasure Island, because the author, Robert Louis Stevenson, lived just outside of San Fran in Napa Valley for a few years.

Photos by moi.

Book Reviews: The Handmaid's Tale

Monday, September 13, 2010

This month I've been participating in a read-along over at Classic Reads Book Club. We've been reading The Handmaid's Tale and will be wrapping it up discussions on Sept. 27. So if you've read if before and want to chime in, please do! That being said, here are my thoughts on the book.

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

Offred is a handmaid's whose story unfolds in Atwood's famous dystopian novel. She lives in a world run by men, where women are powerless. They've lost their right to make decision, to learn how to read and even to have a job. The rulers claim they have "freed" the women from the painful tasks of having to find a husband or take care of themselves. Any women who are fertile are turned into handmaids and assigned to a home where they are forced to bear children for a married couple.

When I began the book I assumed this was a dystopian set decades in the future, where the women had no memory of life as we know it. I quickly learned that Offred used to have a job, money of her own, a husband and child, etc. The decline into her current policed state was swift and terrifying.

I loved Atwood's bleak prose. Offred's resignation and despair were palpable. The tense relationships between the characters were thrilling. Offred was forced to walk a tight rope of suspicion in every conversation, never knowing who she could trust.

In one scene Offred is using butter she hid and saved from a meal as lotion on her skin. It's been so long since she's been anything but the potential carrier of a child that the concept of being loved is almost obsolete to her now. She says...

"As long as we do this, butter our skin to keep it soft, we can believe that we will some day get out, that we will be touched again, in love or desire."

It was the small acts of rebellion like this, breed from a spark of hope, that made Offred such a heartbreaking character. After Offred loses her ability to support herself she struggles in her relationship with her husband. That shift of dependance in their relationship changed everything...

"We are not each other's, anymore. Instead, I am his."

I can't recommend this book highly enough. Though it's 25 years old, it's more relevant than ever. Atwood's writing reveals the story bit by bit, allowing the horror of the changed society to creep up slowly. The story is masterfully told, creating a chilly world that's a far too easy to imagine.

Friday Favorites: The Westing Game

Friday, September 10, 2010

I first read The Westing Game when I was 9-years-old. I think my older sister read it and recommended it to me (which any of you with siblings know, probably means she told me I was too young to read it, so I had to steal her copy and read it immediately).

From the first pages I was hooked. It was completely different from anything I'd read before. A wealthy man, Samuel Westing, dies unexpectedly and leaves riddles and games in his wake. His strange will leaves his fortune to 16 tenants who live or work in a local apartment building, but it's not without a catch. Those 16 people become competitors in a game to find Westing's murderer.

The book was the 1979 Newbery award and introduced me to the world of quirky mysteries. Ever since I've loved reading books with a good twist. This was my precursor to Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier and dozens of others.

The Westing Game also taught me that any book is made richer when you care about the characters and not just the plot. In The Westing Game, a 13-year-old named Turtle gave me someone to identify with. She's a tomboy and a spitfire and I loved her. The other 16 competitors include a young track star, a bride-to-be and a Chinese couple among others. There's such a rich cast that the wonderful plot becomes secondary, always a plus for me.

I wish that all of you read this book when you were young, because I'm sure that's when it would have the biggest impact. But if you missed it then, I hope you pick it up soon.

Book Reviews: The Passage

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Passage
by Justin Cronin

A military experiment gone wrong leaves the world in ruins. A virus is accidentally released on the public, creating vicious monsters. The survivors are left to try to maintain some semblance of civilization. That's an incredibly simple summary of the plot, but there are so many reviews of this one out there that I'm not going to go into more detail.

My favorite parts of the book were the sections that gave us the characters' back-stories. The "thrilling" action sections left me a bit cold. So even though I really loved some parts of the book, there were just too many chapters that I wasn't interested in. I think that the first 250 pages were great and the last 250 were pretty great, but there's another 250 pages in the middle, which drag the whole book down.

The frustrating thing about this novel is that it truly feels like Cronin took two separate books and crammed them together into one. You get used to one style of writing, setting and group of characters and then the author hits the restart button. I did enjoy his writing style, but I don't know if that's enough to make me read the rest of the series when it comes out. By the end of the book I was attached to many of the "new" characters, just not enough to leave me desperate to know what happens to them.

"The lie had worked so far, but Lacey felt its softness like a floor of rotten boards beneath her feet."

p.s. Isn't it interesting how different the UK cover (on the right) is from the American cover.

Wordless Wednesday: Coventry

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Coventry Cathedral in England

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Book Reviews: Vacation Reads

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

When I go on vacation I love to take easy reads that I can pick up and put down easily. I want something that won't suck me in when I would rather be checking out a new city. So here are a couple of this year's reads. None of them are earth shattering, but they make plane rides go faster.

Girls’ Poker Night
Jill A. Davis

Ruby Capote decides to leave her boyfriend and her boring job and move to New York. There she finds a new job, a tasty boss and enjoys weekly poker games with her eclectic group of friends. Then we find out what happens when the job gets hard and romance leads to complications with said tasty boss.

Does it sound like a dozen other similar book premises yet? Girls' Poker Night is nothing special when it comes to the plot. It is well written, smart and funny, which is all I really ask from a chick lit book. It was an entertaining read, but nothing I would recommend or pick up again. Davis does give her characters more depth than most similar books. They have actual feelings, back stories, problems, etc. So if you're looking for a light read this would be a good fit.

Michael Crichton

A psychological thriller set in a 300 year old space ship found at the bottom of the ocean. The military sends a team down to investigate made up mainly of civilians. Norman, a psychologist, Beth, a zoologist, Harry, a mathematician, etc., find a large sphere on the ship and soon their fears begin manifesting around them. Trapped together at the bottom of the ocean, they have to decide who can be trusted.

I like reading Crichton's books when I go on vacation, because they are easy to pick up, get sucked into and are fast-paced. They are easy reads, but are definitely enjoyable. This one was no exception.

Book Reviews: Mockingjay

Saturday, September 4, 2010

by Suzanne Collins

My Mockingjay review... aka I finally get to join the discussion. For the record I did pre-order this book from Amazon and was looking forward to reading it when it came out. Then I waited... and waited and finally received it on Thursday (9-2-10), a week and a half after it came out. I'm a bit frustrated, but anyway, on to the review. I'm going to attempt to avoid all spoilers. If you're surprised that people die in this book you're probably reading the wrong series.

The book isn't perfect, no book is, but I kinda loved that. War is messy, love is messy and I was glad there was no easy ending. Katniss was so completely broken by everything she had been through that it would have been silly for Collins to reduce the series to a shallow love triangle, so I'm thrilled she didn't. Instead, that triangle became a moot point by the end. Katniss ends up with the one who she needs to be with after everything unfolds. I wasn't shocked, but I wasn't expecting it either. To be honest I never thought too much about the love aspect to begin with. To me, it was fitting that the focus of the story was on all of the people she lost during the series, instead of who she decides she loves more.

The book is heartbreaking. So many characters that we love are killed, but that's war. That's the grim reality that Katniss has to deal with everyday. Sometimes it's hard to remember that Katniss is both a girl and someone who has been repeatedly broken, both psychically and psychologically. This book gave me more of an opportunity to see that pain because she wasn't in the midst of staying alive in every scene. She's really happier when she is in those situations, because she understands how to deal with them better than the stillness. When she's not fighting she's flooded with all the pain she's experienced.

In the end I felt like it was a fitting conclusion to the trilogy and I'm glad I read it. It's not my favorite book of the series, but I think it gave the whole trilogy more depth and gravitas than the other two books. It took the horror that Katniss faced during the Hunger Games and spread it throughout all of the Districts, explaining the importance of the rebellion to anyone who had yet to realize it.

Just like many other readers, I had a few things I wished would have been handled a bit differently. Some of the deaths felt too sudden and abrupt, but then again, that's how war truly is. You don't always get a glorious death moment. In the end there was more good than bad and I'm firmly in the camp of liking the whole series.

"'It costs your life,' says Caesar. 'Oh no. It costs a lot more than your life. To murder innocent people?' says Peeta. 'It costs everything you are.'"

"All around the dining hall, you can feel the rejuvenating effect that a good meal can bring on. The way it can make people kinder, funnier, more optimistic, and remind them it's not a mistake to go on living."

"We are fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and  a great gift for self-destruction."  

Friday Favorites: Maeve Binchy

Friday, September 3, 2010

In 2003 I went to Ireland for the first time and I stumbled upon Maeve Binchy's books. That year I went on a bit of a binge, but have since limited myself to about one a year. It's my go to for a reliable comfort reads. Obviously when you've written more than a dozen books, some will be mediocre, but most are great character driven stories.

My favorites are Tara Road, Evening Class, The Glass Lake and Circle of Friends. In each books Binchy creates characters that have stayed with me for years. The books are always about people, not plots. Some of her books are collections of stories, tying people together in some small way. Those books are a good way to get a little taste of her writing style to see if it's for you. Some of the novels blend together and she tends to rely on a few specific types and seldom deviates, but they're still enjoyable reads.

Do you guys have any comfort read authors?

Book Reviews: The End of the Affair

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The End of the Affair

Graham Greene

Author Maurice Bendrix narrates the story of his affair with a married woman named Sarah. It's a story of jealousy and hate, mixed with passion and heartbreak. Sarah mysteriously ends the affair one day during a blitz on London. Maurice is convinced that she has found a new lover. Her husband Henry is also worried about her and not knowing of their affair, he recruits Maurice to help him figure out what's wrong with his wife.

This was the first Graham Greene book I've ever read. There something delicious about the way he writes. He finds ways to express common feelings in extraordinary ways. He also turned emotions that could make you hate a character, like jealousy or piety, into something relatable. I'm excited to pick up another of his books.

In the end the story is really a question of faith. The main characters are forced to face the belief or lack of belief in God. I heard one person describe this book as "Henry, his wife, her lover and God," and that's exactly it. It's about those four characters and how they each relate to each other.

"If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we have been able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?"

"Sometimes I see myself reflected too closely in other men for comfort, and then I have an enormous wish to believe in the saints, in heroic virtue."

Wordless Wednesday: Palace of Fine Arts

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Palace of Fine Arts
in San Francisco

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.