Showing posts from 2010

Top Eleven Favorite Reads of 2010

I found 2010 to be an interesting reading year.  I'm surprised how many on this list were actually published this year, and I attribute most of those finds to Kathy and Carole.  Others are sequels or written by already-favored authors. ArchEnemy — The third (and final) installment of the Looking Glass Wars series, the clash between good and evil of Wonderland is as big as author Frank Beddor's imagination.  Who will be sacrificed to save the kingdom?  Is Queen Alyss strong enough to beat Black Imagination?  Will England survive? Begin at the beginning with this series, and enjoy every page. Black Hills — Paha Sapa is an explosions expert working on carving Mount Rushmore.  Only this Sioux doesn't exactly see the destruction of his holy mountain as a positive effort.  Readers glimpse the history of South Dakota and the nation through a man's life story.  Dan Simmons' sweeping saga with personal anecdotes will make readers think. The Gates — Samuel Johnson, a

Review: The Magicians

The Magicians is less a novel and more a series of novellas fashioned by Lev Grossman — fascinating, imaginative long story stories centering around self-absorbed teen Quentin Coldwater.  The book jacket throws around words like "Narnia" and "Harry Potter" to suck in readers.  Do not be fooled — this dark, relentless book is nothing like those fantasies. Grossman creates a world that separates him from C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling like he tries to separate "magic" from "fantasy."  His gritty, cold and brutal approach are startling, unique — and not for everyone.   Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Quentin is a math genius and a fair hand at magician tricks with cards and pulling coins out of ears.  Life is boring: school is easy, his parents are distantly interested, his friends are expanding and contracting.  On his way to an interview with an admissions officer from Princeton, Quentin reviews his options and finds them all lacking. He a

Spooky Books for Long, Dark Winter Nights

As the nights grow longer and chilly, spooky stories are the perfect companion. Nocturnes is a selection of short stories and novellas by John Connolly.   Many of the stories are quick glimpses into the macabre, while others linger a while longer.  Readers will never look at a circus or clowns the same way again.  I'm also a little cautious about mirrors, too.  Expect to meet witches, vampires, fairies, a tormented stranger and a vengeful ghost.  These bite-sized morsels are delicious. Another short story collection worth checking out is  Fancies and Goodnights , written by John Collier in the early 20th century.  Each story has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost like Collier identifies older fears we think we have abandoned.  After tasting a little Collier, just try to enter a department store without looking over your shoulder.  Collier is praised by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and other fantasy and science fiction writers, who credit him with inspiration and

Review: Beatrice and Virgil

Did you ever have a day you are sorry you spent in a particular pursuit and wished you could get it back?  Thus was the case with Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel . First of all, what in the world is it about: a fictional author with writer's block, a horrible play, a horrific playwright, taxidermy?  I think it may be the first, but maybe the last.  Still haven't quite figured that one out, sad to say. Secondly, is this worthy of paper?  The answer is no.  There are no redeeming elements of the story.  I don't like the narrator, his wife, his music teacher, the taxidermist, the waiter.  I kind of like the veterinarian, but that's because he does what has to be done. That brings me to the gross elements of the story.  Taxidermy isn't my favorite subject, but I stuck with the story because I loved Life of Pi .  It had to get better, right? Wrong. I waded through stories of rabid dogs killing cats, torture of a donkey, the slaughter of all of the animals i

What to Read for Christmas

Everyone has their favorite Christmas stories.  Many of us have migrated from the page to the screen, taking in our stories through video.  Just remember: many of them started out as stories themselves. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash was written by Jean Shepherd, known world-wide for creating Ralphie Parker and his love of Ol' Blue.  The stories take place during the Great Depression, and many of the stories take place outside the Christmas season.  However, with the rich language Shepherd uses to amuse and illustrate the movie, how can someone resist such a read? Take a walk through a different landscape with science fiction writer Connie Willis in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories .  I just met the author during her East Coast book-signing stop in Maryland, and had I realized I would fall in love with this book a week later, I'd have discovered it earlier. This collection pays tribute to other stories that already had shaped the season, but allow us to fit in a f

Review: A Murderous Procession

Adelia is back, and better than ever, in A Murderous Procession . The undercover doctor is, again, doing a favor for that pesky Henry Plantagenet.  This time, however, she is escorting Henry's (and Eleanor's) daughter, Joanna, to Italy to marry a king. Henry, ever the scrupulous and cautious king, is going to get her there safe and sound, at any cost. As the story opens, Adelia is having way too much fun in her life to want yet another adventure.  Allie is growing up, Mansur and Glytha are settled into domestic bliss, her practice in the quiet hamlet keeps her busy and rewarded.  Lady Emma Wolvercote and Pippy, her four-year-old son, are in the neighborhood.  Aside from Rowley being more available in these outlands, her life couldn't be better — even in the face of rugby in its oldest, purest and most violent form. However, Henry won't accept refusal.  It is in Allie's best interest to learn how to be a lady, if she is to marry well — and who better a teacher

Review: Cosmic

One can identify the intended audience for a movie or book by the gas jokes: hamster gas jokes are written for children, and a "dart" gun that emits a noxious gas (but never uses the rhyming word) was intended for a general audience. Cosmic follows the same logic.  Rather than play to the lowest common denominator, Frank Cottrell Boyce takes the game up a notch with a boy on the cusp of adulthood who tries to understand the baffling world of dads. Liam is tall for his age and has started to sprout wisps on his chin, so he often is mistaken for an adult.  Worse yet, he can pass as the father of his contemporary, Florida.  This is a nice problem for a 12-year-old to have when he wants to ride the Cosmic rollercoaster or sit in a Porche — but not as good when the car salesman tosses the conscientious pre-teen a set of keys to said luxury car.  Liam doesn't quite understand how the adult world works, but so far it has proven to work to his advantage from time to time.

Review: The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise

Imagine living in the Tower of London as a Beefeater, a member of the military who has overseen the Tower for centuries.  You'd think it would be exotic and exciting, wouldn't you? So, I imagine, did Balthazar and Hebe.   However, what they got was much different than they expected.  (It always is.) In The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise , author Julia Stuart creates a unique world in which these two people live, with their hurt and anguish, their hopes and dreams — and a tortoise that saw the reign of Queen Victoria. First of all, do not read the book jacket.  Don't remove it because the illustration is just fun and lovely to see every time you pick up the book.  However, resist the urge to see what the publisher wants you to see on the inside flaps: it will spoil some of the fun. The best part of the novel isn't the story, which is absolutely incredible, intense, surprising and entertaining.  For me, it was spending time with Balthazar and Hebe — not to mention

On Veterans Day, Looking at War in Fiction

Fiction is ripe with conflict and war, and I've read a few volumes that can attest to that on this Veterans Day. Ian McEwan's controversial, excellent novel Atonement captures the before and after of war, of tragedy, of irrevocable words.  Briony is a blossoming writer on the cusp of womanhood in the years before England joined World War II.  One stifling summer day, she witnesses private scenes misinterpreted through her youthful filter and comes to a disastrous conclusion.  We see the war through the eyes of a foot soldier on the way to Dunkirk through the French countryside and through the eyes of a student nurse in a London hospital.  It's been named "the book most likely to be thrown across the room," so be prepared. In Blackout and All Clear , Connie Willis shows the heroes of WWII were not just the ones on the front.  In this two-part novel, Professor Dunworthy sends his Oxford historians to Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Dunkirk and London to confirm the i

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry

Audrey Niffenegger's second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry , left me feeling very disconcerted, betrayed, sad and hopeful. As the story opens, Elspeth dies, leaving behind Edie, a twin she hasn't seen in two decades, and Edie's children: Julia and Valentina, identical twins who actually are mirror images of each other.  Julia and Valentina are the main beneficiaries in Elspeth's will and can receive their inheritance when they turn 21 (which is months after the aunt's death).  However, for them to receive their inheritance, they must move to London and live in their aunt's flat for one year — and never let their parents step into the home.  After a year, they may do what they want with the flat, and the rest of the inheritance is theirs. Elspeth also leaves behind a bereaved boyfriend, who was about a decade younger than his lover.  Robert is writing his dissertation about Highgate Cemetery, a Victorian cemetery with a rich history.  He purchased the flat below

Review: One Day

A day in the life is not a new concept, and I was skeptical that David Nicholls could create anything more than the one-trick pony the concept had become.  However, Nicholls gave it dimension and a sweetness, then loaded it with a few surprises and make it wholly original. Emma and Dexter meet on graduation day in college.  Despite the setting, they are not lovers, but possibly can develop into friends.  However, it won't be easy: he's planning to take a year or two to travel, she's going to do something with her English studies (though exactly what has yet to be determined).  It's 1988 in the UK, and these two are about to launch their lives in totally different directions. Nicholls doesn't take the safe route, even if he uses tools familiar to most readers.  Em and Dex weave through each other's lives in a myriad of ways and surrounded by a wide array of people.  Nicholls does not pass judgement on these two: they simply find themselves in situations that

Review: This is Where I Leave You

Judd Foxman has hit a rough spot in life.  He walked in on his wife of more than a decade, Jen, having sex with his boss.  In his marital bed. On her birthday. Then he gets word that his father has died.  His father's dying wish is that his family sit shiva for him. Together. In one house.  All of them. If that doesn't spell "disaster" for you the reader, just wait to see what comes next in This is Where I Leave You . Jonathan Tropper 's writing is spot-on, chatty without being verbose, descriptive to the point of voyeurism, but in a way only a family can handle.  But not any family: the Foxmans. Let me introduce them: Hillary, a.k.a. Mom, a shrink who wrote a seminal book on child-rearing, using real-life experiences of her children written with a frank honesty that to this day makes every one of her offspring wince, and whose breast enhancements seem to want to jump out of her inappropriately low-cut blouses; Paul, the eldest son who helped his father

Rethinking My 'Fill in the Gaps' Books List

I've lived with  my Fill in the Gaps book list  for about six months or so, and I am starting to think I put too many "should-read" books on the list and not enough "wanna-read" books.  Plus, I might already have read a couple of books I listed. First: Ayn Rand.  I read one of her big books.    Atlas Shrugged , I think.  I  think .  Granted, it was nearly 30 years ago, but I  know  I slogged thr — er, read one of her mammoth books.  I also read a short one:  We the Living .  Maybe even  Anthem , too.  I didn't keep a list when I was in high school and college, so I'm at a loss.  Plus, do I want to read it?  Really,  really  want to read it?  If I already did, the answer is "no."  If I didn't, the answer may be "no" anyway.  So, I shall ponder Ayn Rand. While I'm at it, I'd better ponder Edith Wharton, too.  I know I read one of her books.  Was it  The Age of Innocence ?  She's not a one-hit wonder, and I don't wa

Review: Ape House

I should know that Sara Gruen is a big surprise, going places with her books I never would have guessed.  However, I was worried about Ape House : the publication was delayed multiple times (which I wouldn't have known had I not been keenly watching for it) (after Water for Elephants , can you blame me?) and the title didn't wow me. Don't let that kind of foolishness — or any other, really — stop you from this book. I consumed the book in almost a single gulp because it was that compelling.  (Plus, Carole had finished it two days before.)  It was bizarre, compelling and more than a little eerily foretelling. The journalist John meets a group of bonobos (apes who are very similar to chimpanzees in appearance) and is mesmerized by them, as well as by their human caretaker, Isabel.  When tragedy strikes, he tries to find a way to use his journalism and his knowledge about the bonobos to not only help his career, but also benefit Isabel, and maybe even the six ape-friends

Oscar Wilde & Ahmad Shawqi Honored by Google Doodle

by Maryann Yin GalleyCat October 18, 2010 The Google Doodle team honored two writers in select countries last Friday. Oscar Wilde received a mysterious Dorian Gray-style doodle in honor of his 156th birthday. The Google team incorporated Arabic script into the logo to honor the birthday of poet Ahmad Shawqi (above). Wilde’s most notable works include The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray . To this day, he is widely considered to be iconic in the gay community. He passed away at age 40 in 1900 from cerebral meningitis. Shawqi was known primarily as a poet. He was particularly known in the Arabic literature community for being the first to write poetic plays. The play which gave him the most fame and recognition was the tragedy, The Death of Cleopatra . Last month, Agatha Christie received the same honor from Google Doodle. Google remembered her 120th birthday by including the mustache of her famous detective, Hercule Poirot . (Via the Guardian

Happy Inside - IKEA cats advert

IKEA put 100 house cats into a Wembly, UK IKEA store.  Here is the result.  Even if it's not directly book-related, it still is charming and lovely. Enjoy.

Review: Sundays with Vlad

Paul Bibeau is a man who has pondered all things vampire — usually Vlad-related, but he has gone farther afield from time to time.  Those thoughts, vapor trails and experiences are what form Sundays with Vlad , a book with wit, charm and heart. It starts with living in an ancient, creepy house with an older sister.  (And the sibling is the scary part!)  It continues with his youth and, finally, involves his wife.  In fact, the book begins with an affidavit in which his wife takes full responsibility for the decision to honeymoon in Transylvania.  (When he regaled the audience with that fact at the 2008 Virginia Festival of the Book, we all had to buy the book just because it was true.) Bibeau has a very good sense of humor about the entire situation: of course he's obsessed with Vlad, of course history is going to fight him on this, of course a developing nation will want to approach its own folks tales in its own way.  Dressing up like garlic and getting lost in Romania is jus

Banned Book Week

The American Library Association (ALA) has declared this week  Banned Books Week . If you are like me, you read a list of books that have been challenged by members of the public for removal from the library and scratch your head at at least one or two titles on the list — because, if you're like me, you've read the books on the list and didn't have the same reaction. Here is the list from 2009: ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle — Reasons: drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson — Reasons: homosexuality  The Perks of Being A Wallflower , by Stephen Chbosky — Reasons: anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group To Kill A Mockingbird , by Harper Lee — Reasons: offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group  Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer — Reasons: religious vi

At the Tollbooth

I am seeing the author and illustrator of my favorite book ever.  At one of my favorite bookstores ever.  With Carole. Okay, breathe.  (Which is more than I did when I saw the writing on the wall.) When Carole and I were in Politics and Prose for Sara Gruen's reading (more on that later), Carole sought a couple of Newbery Award -winning books for her collection in the children's book section.  (She found two of the rarer titles, which was a lovely addition to the evening.) As Carole stood at the cash register with her purchases in hand, my eye caught a sign on the wall behind the bookseller: Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer will be here at.... At that point, I stopped breathing and grabbed Carole's shoulder. "What?" Carole aske, alarmed.  (Normally I'm not speechless.) I pointed at the wall. The gasp Carole uttered was worthy of a Juster-Feiffer lover. The Phantom Tollbooth is my "desert island" book, and I keep extra copies on hand

Fall for the Book on the Horizon

For those of you who have marked your calendars, you know Fall for the Book is going to start Sunday, September 19. I will be among the crush of people trying to meet Garth Stein , author of The Art of Racing in the Rain . I won't be among those in the crush trying to meet Kathryn Stockett , which disappoints me to no end. Apparently the event planners decided she was too popular to allow us to determine who would attend her event, so it was ticketed. And these required free tickets were gone within a half hour, distributed by an overwhelmed staff that couldn't keep up with demands. I expected someone of her stature to be in the biggest venue on the Fairfax campus. The Help has been on the bestseller list for the better part of a year, and the movie based on it already is in production. Instead, she's in Reston, at a venue I've never visited. Perhaps I shouldn't malign the venue, but I can't imagine it would have more seating than the Center for th

Review: Sacrifice

I am of two minds about Sacrifice . One: what a wild story! Two: I hate the narrator. First, the first.  As with Blood Harvest , the other  S.J. Bolton novel I reviewed, this is one convoluted story with lots of twists and turns.  I'm all about that.  I just always feel like I'm the last one at the party.  Now, part of this issue with Sacrifice I blame on the second issue — but more about that in a moment. This is one rocking story.  Tora is a new obstetrician in Shetland, a small enclave in Scotland (yes, where those adorable little ponies originate).  She's originally from London, from a big raucous family, but moved to Shetland at the behest of her husband, Duncan, the only child of a quiet family with distant parents.  He relocated his business and purchased their house, and Tora transferred to a small but efficient and well-appointed hospital in town. After six months, while digging her horse's grave, Tora finds a body in the peat: a woman who died with

Review: Johannes Cabal the Detective

With so many of my beloved books in boxes in a storage unit two miles from home, I needed a friend.  Johannes Cabal did the trick — in Johannes Cabal the Detective , the second book of this deliciously wicked series by Jonathan L. Howard. It is no secret that I loved the first book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer .  First of all, who could resist the title? Second, the first chapter was riveting. Howard does the same again, only differently, in this second Cabal.  Unlike other serials, this new installment introduces Cabal in a new light: a free man.  Of sorts.  When a man tries to steal a book never intended to see the light of day, he loses some freedom, especially in Mirkarvia.  However, not all is lost: the emperor is dead, and Cabal's special talents are needed.  Freedom for the temporary revival of a country's leader?  Seems like a fair deal.  Alas, not everyone is as honorable as Satan.... Thus begins Cabal's new situation in the midst of a European political

Reacquainting Ourselves With Old Friends

A few years ago, I stumbled across juvenile fiction titled Mr. Putter and Tabby .  I can't remember if this dynamic duo were baking a cake or running a race when we met, but they were up to something. In the books written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Arthur Howard, Mr. Putter is an elderly gentleman who lives alone until he meets his new old cat, the supportive Tabby.  The two of them have their habits — eating oatmeal, taking naps — but every once in a while, they manage to find just enough trouble to get their hearts pumping. Usually it involves their neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry, who lives alone with her good dog, Zeke. Mrs. Teaberry is up for adventure and always wants to try something new.  Zeke wants to be a dog and chew, though he also knows how to be polite (well, as polite as a bulldog can be). The watercolor drawings are charming and expressive, the stories are sweet and the characters are lovely.  I am hooked. They have gotten into a slew of adventures,

Review: Blood Harvest

Blood Harvest is not a book I should have read.  In fact, I should eschew all books described as "crime drama" and "thriller" for the reasons I will put forth in this review.  However, I was in a book funk and Nancy Pearl made it sound rather intriguing, so I gave it a shot. I am glad I did, but, also, I am sorry. The premise of Blood Harvest is simple: boys living near a cemetery are being haunted. They see fleeting images of a young girl and hear voices that sounded suspiciously like their own, or those of their family and friends. The church in town had been closed for a decade, after a  tragedy occurred on the flagstone of the nave.  Since then, tragedies befell the families of young girls of an age in this small, close-knit agrarian town steeped in tradition.  (The title of the book comes from one of those traditions, one not relished by a vegetarian.) In walk the Fletchers, with an English father and American mother, already outsiders.  On their heel

Review: The Help

Mississippi of the early 1960s is beautifully, carefully and exquisitely wrought in The Help , the debut novel by Kathryn Stockett .  The book examines both sides of the issues facing blacks and whites in the American South on the cusp of the civil rights era. The book is told in the voice of three different women: Skeeter, a twenty-something graduate of Ole Miss whose friends represent the Old South; Abileen, a maid in her 40s who raises the children of white women; and Minny, a spunky maid who is a fantastic cook, even if she doesn't know her "place." Through Skeeter, we see what happens when a person of conscience wakes up to the reality of life in Jackson, Miss. for people with both black skin and white.  She isn't married or engaged, and she had the misfortune to graduate, rather than leave school for marriage.  She wants to be a writer, but the only job she can find is as a housecleaning "expert" in her local newspaper.  She knows things aren't

The Reading Blahs

The lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer are supposed to be book-filled and hot — the perfect combination to get you to lounge and work on reducing that pile of books on the nightstand. I've had a combination of things come along and reduce the nightstand pile without a word being read: putting a house on the market and the reading blahs. The house on the market was my own fault: if one wants to sell a house, one must make it seem spacious and inviting — not insufficient for one's book collection.  With mere days to make a home a showpiece, my husband David and I grabbed belongings off shelves, counters and from inside closets, jammed them into boxes and put them in someone else's space. I was told to reduce my library by 50 percent. (Yes, I gasped, too.) I think I managed 35 percent before I had to surrender.  Actually, David did most of the "heavy lifting" of books, and they went into boxes with no rhyme or reason.  Poetry mixed with biography mixed with f