Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review: Prisoner of the Devil

What if Sherlock Holmes was a part of something real, something historic? That's the question Michael Hardwick and Simon Haugh ask — and answer — about the great detective in Prisoner of the Devil, which is being re-released after three decades.

The prisoner of the tale is Alfred Dreyfus — of the historic Dreyfus Affair, perched on the cusp of the first World War — and the devil is the hellish island to which he was sent on the flimsiest of evidence. It's a worthy read for fans of Sherlock Holmes, and an interesting retelling of real-world history.

Prisoner of the Devil is a tale of French anti-Semitism involving Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of treason in 1895 by a secret tribunal. In the book, narrated by Dr. John Watson, Dreyfus' brother approaches Sherlock Holmes and implores the world's greatest detective to uncover the truth that will exonerate his brother.

The book was as much a world history lesson as a mystery, and a good one. Bringing both Holmes brothers, Watson and a few other familiar characters into the mix helped broaden the scope of the investigation and provide an important global perspective of the world on the brink of war. Thankfully, readers unfamiliar with the case are given all of the information needed to follow the case as laid out in the book.

After the disappointing Moriarty released earlier this year, I was hungry for a better bite of Holmes, and Prisoner of the Devil did not disappoint. Hardwick does not toy with his readers, trick them into believing a lie or twisting the tale in a way that requires copious notes and a list of characters. Although a re-release, the book feels fresh and new. Readers will want to hang on every word recorded by the faithful Watson and appreciate the rich, almost regal language of turn-of-the-twentieth-century England, a country that hung on to its customs and manners in the shadow of one of the longest-reigning monarchs in British history.

Read this book to give Holmes and Watson a chance to shine in a global forum, to risk life and limb for a man not of their nation, but of importance to France and the world as it stood in that time and place. Take away a little history and a bit more appreciation for fine characters in literature.

Mark your calendar for November 24, the book release date, and give yourself an early holiday treat.

(Full disclosure: my review was based on the pre-publication book sent to me by the publisher.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

What I've Heard About Audiobooks

When a friend told me she didn't like to read, I assured her that she just hadn't found the right book. When she did, it was the Shades of Gray series, and she couldn't read it fast enough (or often enough). She found The Book, so we figured her voracious reading habit would commence.

But that didn't happen.

Instead, her reading faltered. No other book captured her attention. The page was cold and lifeless. Books were stilted and boring. At first, she thought she just read too slow. Rich detail was lost in the words. She read for school and retained the information, but the pages for leisure reading never came alive for her like they did for me.

Last summer, when she and her son were planning a long drive, she asked me for recommendations for books she could borrow on audio. I threw a few titles there, as did her son. In the end, they settled on The Help.

She found herself smitten again, and her son enjoyed the book as well. In fact, they were so wrapped up in the book, she and her son sat in the driveway at her destination so they could finish a chapter.

She has since read nearly every book I have suggested, fiction and non-fiction — and she talked me into reading a book she enjoyed on audio: The Martian. Her description of The Martian was rich and vivid, and I read it right away. She was right: I thought it was a great book.

With books, she found the page didn't speak to her — but the words did when they were spoken. She has since zoomed through a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, some I've read and others are on my reading list. It had been fun talking books with her. (Now I have to hurry and read Game of Thrones, not just because everyone I know has read it already, but because Melanie's description of the story from the audiobook is very entertaining. In fact, that book has given us our new shorthand phrase for "it could be worse.")

Apparently, audiobooks are a thing. Another friend is a voracious consumer of audiobooks, and she has sung their praises for years. Recently, two other people told me they "listened to the greatest book," and it was something I had read. Even David Sedaris praised an audiobook: True Grit as read by Donna Tartt. Was I the only person not on the audio train?
I decided to give it a try: I reserved True Grit on CD from the library. (There was no audiobook version, alas.) I borrowed Sacre Bleu on disc to test the waters; I popped in the first CD for my 10-minute drive home from the library, and was mesmerized by Christopher Moore's saucy words read out loud. I could see how it would look on the pages, the parts I knew he knew I would find funny.

Then, as I tried to read them while I was working out at the gym, I got lost. I wasn't paying attention, and iTunes isn't up for easy-rewind (at least for me). I got frustrated and turned off the book. iTunes also doesn't bookmark the audio, but the library's collection is heavy on CDs, and I download them onto my computer so I can listen to them on my phone. (Relax, I delete them when I return them to the library.)

Before I lose my temper, I'll give Audible a try. Rumor has it the service bookmarks the audio and is easy to replay.

I am not convinced that audiobooks are the right fit for me. I am very visual, probably because of my reading habit; I take copious notes when I listen and remember them better than I can recall the spoken words. However, I like being told a story, so perhaps audiobooks will be more entertaining than meetings at work. (One can only hope.)

What do you think of audiobooks: are you a fan, or can they keep your attention? Are they your first source of books, or just saved for road trips? Have you even tried them? Let me know!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a quiet story, told in wisps, like smoke that too late reveals the raging inferno behind the closed door.

No one is quieter than Hannah, a member of the Lee family, each member of which is filled with unspoken words, unfulfilled dreams and unrequited longing.  Hannah may be the first witness revealed to readers, but this masterfully written story doesn't hinge on a single witness. Instead, Ng weaves effortlessly between each of the Lees, who, in turn and all at once, reveal nothing and everything, too often with a brief glance or deafening silence.

One morning, 16-year-old Lydia doesn't come down to breakfast. The only clue to Lydia's whereabouts lies with Hannah, who (like everything else) she keeps to herself. It takes a few days, but the Lees get their answer — and it changes their lives forever.

The story is told in fluid time: past mixes with present, smoothly transitioning between them, and allusions to the future are few and far between but still delicious nuggets that suggest that life goes on.

The intimacy readers have with the Lees is immediate, with a longing of its own. Readers long to know Lydia's whereabouts, they long to comfort those grieving — and they long to shake those who need to be awoken from their frightful slumber.

Ng does something that is, like the story, very subtle: she uses very little dialogue. Most of the characters express themselves through thought or memory, silenced by their own fears and apprehensions. The Lees don't talk to each other. They don't talk to other people. Do they have their own voices? Do they know how to use them?

Their lives are as small as their voices, their dreams as fragile as their silence. Can they dare to dream, to reach beyond what's been allotted to them by their small town, by its small minds?

The novel is set in the mid-20th century, which I'd like to think is a different time. I'd like to think we're more enlightened, more inclusive, less shocked by and less insulated from different cultures. I doubt current events would buoy my hopes. By seeing how things were, we can better see if how things are is how they really should be.

Part of my enjoyment is that I came to the story with little more than the dust jacket description, and the discovery of — well, everything — was rewarding. There is so much I want to say, but I don't want to reveal too much of its magic. It's an amazing read, and I recommend it highly.

Have you read it? What do you think? Let me know!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Down to the Wire, Up to Our Hips — in Books!

We're getting down to the wire here at the Summer Reading Club headquarters: the end is near! Well, the end of summer reading is approaching. (For this club, it's the Sunday of or after the autumnal equinox. This year, that's September 27, the first day of Fall for the Book!)

How are you doing with your reading? Have you deviated from your list, attracted by shiny new (or new to you) books? Or are you focused on what you want to read, book reviews be damned?

I'm cheating on my original book list. (As usual.)

I like the idea of a guideline, but I also like to deviate from my pre-approved script of reading when I read about a "great new book" from Book Riot, stumble across a great book in the library or one of my reading cohorts lets me know what's on their nightstand or Audible list.

Since Memorial Day, I've consumed about 3o books, and I have bookmarks in a few others.

Here are the books currently on my nightstand:
  1. The Monk
  2. Prisoner of the Devil
  3. The Dalai Lama's Cat
  4. Alexander Hamilton
  5. Everything I Never Told You
  6. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work
  7. Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Life 
  8. The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six
A couple of those books have deadlines  — I plan to meet one of the authors, for example, and I'm seeing a musical based on another of the books. The rest will be read when I pick them up, which is a nice way to approach a book.
How has your reading progressed? Are you keeping to your list, or are you veering off when something else good comes along? Let me know!