Monday, December 31, 2007

Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani

"This will be a good weekend for reading. I picked up a dozen of Vernie Crabtree's killer chocolate-chip cookies at the French Club bake sale yesterday. Those, a pot of coffee, and a good book are all I will need for the rainy weekend rolling in . . . The Wise County Bookmobile is one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. When I see it lumbering down the mountain road like a tank . . . I flag it down like an old friend . . . I even love the smell of books."

I love it when I encounter a soul mate character in a book! Cookies, reading, rain (minus the coffee)--what a perfect combination!
This books was like a chick flick in book form. I could see it as a movie with every turn of the page. It's lighthearted and humorous, and it's one of those stories where you fall in love with the guy before she does, and you just want to smack her on the head and say, "Look at him! He's the one!" It took about 100 pages for me to start getting into it, but after that it was difficult to put down. A review from the back of the books says, "Adriana Trigiani writes with wit and grace about misguided romances and family secrets, and so very winningly about generous hearts. This urban Yankee reader found hours of bliss in Big Stone Gap, Virginia." Well, this southern California reader found a few hours of delight in this quirky Virginia town also.

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I read this book for the "To Be Read Challenge" a little early, but I can always read another book to make up for it if I want to adhere to the challenge rules! I am sure that a lot of people are familiar with the premise of this book: in 1964, a doctor delivers his own twins, but gives one away without telling his wife when he discovers the baby has Down's Syndrome. The attending nurse is asked by the doctor to take the infant to a special home to be raised, but upon seeing the conditions of the facility, she decides to keep the baby and start a new life in another city. The doctor tells his wife that the baby died. And so the twins are raised apart--the boy with his father who closes himself off from everyone and his mother who never recovers from her grief and is constantly running away from it; and the girl with the nurse who fights for her right to an education and a fulfilling life. I loved the psychological aspect of the story, which is told without judgment. This allows you to see inside of each person, their motives and emotions, and just feel empathy for them. Like us, they all make bad choices, some worse than others, and they make their way through life trying to deal with them. The strongest impression (of many) that I was left with when I finished the book is that we cannot shield ourselves or others from pain, no matter how hard we try.
This is a great book for a book club because there is so much to discuss. So if you're looking for you next book, try this one! I also got a little more insight into the book reading an interview with Kim Edwards. She tells about what inspired the story and some background on society's attitudes towards Down's Syndrome children in the sixties.
Note: I would probably give this 4 1/2 stars rather than five, but I didn't make a graphic for that!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

This novel begins in a graveyard of sorts where Kira has spent four days watching her mother die, leaving her an orphan in a post-apocalyptic society devoid of compassion. With a twisted leg she has had since birth, she attempts to negotiate with her hostile neighbors to keep her land and a place in society despite her handicap. This leads her to the Council of Guardians, who take her in because of her talent for embroidery. She is commissioned to make repairs on the special robe of The Singer, one who retells their history each year at The Gathering. As she works, she maintains an affectionate friendship with Matt, one of the few members of the society who shows compassion towards others, and meets Thomas, who is also kept by the council because of a special talent. As the story unfolds, Kira, Thomas, and Matt make discoveries that lead them to question the motives of the Council in controlling their creativity and to discover that there may be a better way of life beyond their borders.
Although Gathering Blue lacks the impact and depth of The Giver, the Newbery-winning companion novel, it is still an excellent book. I love Lowry's writing style and the mood she creates. I am looking forward to reading Messenger, the final book in the set.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Audiobook: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

This is the first in the Bartimaeus Trilogy, a series I had eyed at the library, but wasn't sure it was any good until I read a review at Bloggin' 'bout Books, and decided to give it a try. (I hope I am not breaking any blogging etiquette rules by linking to the review. If I am, sorry!)
At the risk of committing another faux pas, I have copied Wikipedia's plot summary. (I have read four books that I haven't reviewed yet, so I need to cheat a bit in the interest of time and housework.) :

"A magician's young apprentice, Nathaniel, secretly summons the irascible 5,000-year-old djinni, Bartimaeus, to do his bidding. The task for Bartimaeus is an interesting mission: he must steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a master magician of unrivalled ruthlessness and ambition. Before long, Bartimaeus and Nathaniel are caught up in a terrifying flood of magical intrigue, rebellion and murder. Nathaniel learns quickly that he may have gotten into a plot much more in depth than he and his djinni can cope with."

This was an awesome audiobook to listen to--the narrator was up there with the likes of Jim Dale of Harry Potter fame. He perfectly captured the fussy and sarcastic personality of Bartimaeus--his part was the strength of the novel. The narration is shared between first-person Bartimaeus, (who I could not help picturing played by Kelsey Grammar if a movie is ever made), and a third-person narrator (Hopefully I've gotten these terms right!). Another thing I loved about it was the comic use of footnotes. As a chronic digresser, I appreciated these. (And here I should digress and note that I started out reading the book and then switched to audio, where the footnotes are of course less obvious, but the humor not lost.)
I am looking forward to listening to the next in the series: The Golem's Eye, and hanging out with Bart a little more!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Comfy-Chair Reading: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Looking at the cover to the left, you can see that this is not your ordinary Brit-Lit. Written in 1932, it is a comic parody of so-called "rural literature" that was popular in the years previous. Although I found it very entertaining and funny, a lot of the parodic elements must have gone right over my head.
Cold Comfort Farm is inhabited by a host of quirky characters each with a flaw that Miss Flora Poste, the civilized city girl, is determined to fix. Old Adam Lambsbreath washes dishes with a twig and takes care of four cows who's limbs mysteriously fall off. Seth is a gigolo of sorts who really just longs to be in the "talkies." Amos preaches hellfire and damnation in all his conversations. Aunt Ada Doom has not left her room at the farm for many years because she "saw something nasty in the woodshed" when she was a little girl. There are quite a few more characters that Flora seeks to change with her "how-to" book on Higher Common Sense, which is written in both German and Latin. While not for everyone, I very much enjoyed this zany tale of some very colorful characters.
Note: This was Book Buddies December selection. I just joined this group blog this month, and I love it because they pick a book each month and discuss it throughout the month as you're reading it. It looks like January's book will be
Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Just One More Challenge

I'm joining the By The Decades Challenge hosted by 1 More Chapter. The challenge is to pick 8 books from 8 consecutive decades. Here are my picks:
1860's-The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
1870's-Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
1880's-Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
1890's-The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
1900's-House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
1910's-The King of Ireland's Son by Padraic Colum
1920's-Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
1930's-As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Comfy-Chair Reading: The Tale of Despereaux: Being the story of a mouse, a princess, some soup, and a spool of thread

Have you ever read a book that made you feel as though you were wrapped up in a warm blanket, sipping hot cocoa, and all was good in the world? Looking at the wonderfully romantic cover of this Newbery Award winning novel, with a gallant-looking mouse grasping a sword-like needle, and running with a determined look in his eye, I was prepared for some feel-good magic. That illusion ended on page one, and my imaginary quilt was ripped way, and the hot cocoa spilled! When Despereaux the mouse is born "within the walls of a castle," the only one of his litter to survive, his mother complains, "All of that work for nothing" and labels her newborn son a "disappointment." But this is nothing compared to the mouse council who sends Despereaux to his probable death to the dungeons for talking to a human princess; the prisoner who has sold his daughter for a red cloth, a hen and a handful of cigarettes; the man who buys the girl, Miggery Sow, and beats her so badly, that her ears look like cauliflower, and the rats who find joy in making others suffer. The narrator, who often directly addresses the reader, aptly admits (on page 183),

"The story is not a pretty one. There is violence in it. And cruelty. But the stories that are not pretty have a certain value, too. I suppose. Everything, as you well know (having lived in this world long enough to have figured out a thing or two for yourself), cannot aways be sweetness and light."

And I suppose that is true, which is why I still liked the book, blanket-free though it was. There is "sweetness and light" to contrast the darkness of this tale. There is the big-eared Despereaux, who is drawn to the light and falls ridiculously in love with the Princess and unselfishly resolves to rescue her. There is the Princess Pea, whose heart, though not free of dark feelings (are any of our hearts?), feels compassion and empathy even for those who have wronged her. And there is the hope, that even though there is evil in the world, if we seek the light, we can find our own happiness, no matter how ridiculous it may be:

"The world is dark, and light is precious."

Friday, December 14, 2007

To Be Read Reading Challenge

I decided I could handle one more reading challenge for next year. The idea of the To Be Read Challenge is to pick 12 books that you have been wanting to read but just haven't gotten to. The details of the challenge are here. Here's my list:

1. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
2. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
3. Dracula by Bram Stoker
4. Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
5. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
6. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
7. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
8. Bel Canto by Ann Patchet
9. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
10. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
11. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
12. Talismans of Shannara by Terry Brooks

I also have alternates, because with some of my picks, I don't know what I'm getting myself into!

1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
2. Austenland by Shannon Hale
3. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
4. Shake Down the Stars by Frances Donnelly
5. March by Geraldine Brooks
6. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
7. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
8. Roots by Alex Haley
9. The Known World byEdward P. Jones
10. Othello by William Shakespeare
11. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
12. The Golem's Eye by Jonathan Stroud

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Audiobook: Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Our public library has a fairly small selection of audio books, so when one looks even remotely interesting, I grab it. This one caught my eye, having read The Da Vinci Code, and enjoyed it very much (one of the very few books that actually kept me awake into the wee hours of the night). The Da Vinci Code was an adventurous choice for me. I was hesitant to read it because of the controversial content that seemed sacrilegious to me, but it was a book club selection, and I ended up not only thoroughly entertained, but also not really offended by much of the content, and fascinated by the treasure hunt aspect of it. So going into Angels and Demons, I hoped for more adventure, and was not too concerned about having any feathers ruffled.
It's holiday time, and my brain is somewhat fried, so I will be lazy and give you this review from Amazon that I think hits the nail on the head:

"Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is shocked to find proof that the legendary secret society, the Illuminati--dedicated since the time of Galileo to promoting the interests of science and condemning the blind faith of Catholicism--is alive, well, and murderously active. Brilliant physicist Leonardo Vetra has been murdered, his eyes plucked out, and the society's ancient symbol branded upon his chest. His final discovery, antimatter, the most powerful and dangerous energy source known to man, has disappeared--only to be hidden somewhere beneath Vatican City on the eve of the election of a new pope. Langdon and Vittoria, Vetra's daughter and colleague, embark on a frantic hunt through the streets, churches, and catacombs of Rome, following a 400-year-old trail to the lair of the Illuminati, to prevent the incineration of civilization.

Brown seems as much juggler as author--there are lots and lots of balls in the air in this novel, yet Brown manages to hurl the reader headlong into an almost surreal suspension of disbelief. While the reader might wish for a little more sardonic humor from Langdon, and a little less bombastic philosophizing on the eternal conflict between religion and science, these are less fatal flaws than niggling annoyances--readers should have no trouble skimming past them and immersing themselves in a heck of a good read. "Brain candy" it may be, but my! It's tasty. --Kelly Flynn"

Definitely a lot of balls in the air! I also could have done without a few cheesy romantic scenes and a couple of disturbing sadistic situations. I felt like the author was pretty neutral in the battle between science and religion until the end, where I felt as though he depicted strong faith in God as fanatical madness. I can't even imagine how Catholics would feel reading about these characters who represent their religious leaders, and the diabolical or unconventional deeds they enact. Having said all that, Dan Brown is still a master storyteller, as evidenced by the fact that one can still enjoy such a far-fetched, over-the-top literary roller-coaster.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Okay, I am alone. (See previous post.) It's just me and Aragorn, I guess!

Friday, December 7, 2007

Why I Read About Elves

I just finished reading The Elf Queen of Shannara by Terry Brooks, who also wrote a short story entitled "Why I Write About Elves." For some reason, fans and writers of fantasy fiction feel the need to explain and defend their interest in epic tales involving elves, druids, wizards, dwarves, and other invented life forms. I don't know personally anyone who reads fantasy, in fact I know a few who would turn up their noses at the thought, but I know my soul/book-mates are out there somewhere! Terry Brooks has written about twenty fantasy novels that have been on the New York Times Bestseller list. So I know it's not just me. Nonetheless, here are my "excuses" for reading about elves and such:

1. I'm drawn to the idea of the unlikely hero. Just like Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the main characters in the Shannara series often feel an internal struggle between the ordinary person they want to remain and the powerful force or hero they are destined to become.
2. It's a chance to satisfy the inner child in me--a return to the days of reading the Chronicles of Narnia and getting swept away in a magical world as only a child can. I can capture a bit of that magic when I read a good fantasy novel as an adult.
3. I love the concept of the quest and the obstacles met on the way of obtaining the goal. Hmm . . . this sounds a bit like what life is all about.
4. Themes like death and power can be presented in ways that could not otherwise be portrayed in a completely realistic story. A good example--the Harry Potter series. And yes, there are even elves in Harry Potter.
5. I am a geek. (Oops! That's not going to help my cause!)

I began the Shannara series almost twenty years ago, (I still remember who introduced them to me--Jeremy Tietjens--a friend in my art class) I have been rereading the first two series to refresh my memory, and then I want to go on to read the many he has published since then. The next on my list is to reread The Talismans of Shannara, and then it's on to new territory.
I know I don't have many readers, but if there is anyone in my small but select readership who has read the Shannara series or can recommend another great fantasy writer/series, reassure me that I am not alone.