Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Finds: 31 July 2009

Found several new titles this week (well, new to me anyway), but only two of them look like they might actually make it to my TBR list. Don't know if that's a good or a bad thing – I love adding new books to my list; but it's already so ridiculously long that I'd need more than one lifetime to make a dent in it. Or some time all by myself on that well-known desert island with only a fully-stocked library for company.

I discovered Richard Russo's new book, That Old Cape Magic, while I was browsing my "Local" section at Library Thing. Russo is going to be reading from and discussing the book on August 12th, at Politics and Prose, the Washington DC bookstore/coffeehouse on Connecticut Avenue. Don't know if I'll make it to the event, but I'll definitely be taking a closer look at his book.

And I first heard about Her Fearful Symmetry over at Deslily's Here There and Everywhere blog. The new one by Audrey Niffenegger, it's due to be released in September. I was never able to finish The Time Traveler's Wife, but this one sounds spooky and interesting enough to give it a try. It's being issued with different covers – apparently, one in the U.S. and a different one in the U.K – so I'm including pictures of both. The first one with all the vines or branches or whatever, is the Scribner cover that will be available in the U.S. The other cover is from the UK edition by Jonathan Cape.

So which do you prefer? I think I like the Russo cover better than either of them. But doesn't the U.S. edition of "Symmetry" remind you of the cover on Tana French's In the Woods?

And why all these copy-cat covers? And why do books have to have different covers in different countries anyway? Ah, the mysteries of the universe – I could sit here pondering all day. But I really need to get back to my reading!

Friday Finds is a weekly event hosted by mizb17 at Should Be Reading. Participants are asked to share with other bloggers about the new-to-you books found during the week - books you either want to add to your TBR list, or that you just heard about that sound interesting.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Recent Funny

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is about humor:

What’s the funniest book you’ve read recently?

Good question. I love to read books with lots of humor in them, and looking back over my lists of reads from the last few years I realize there's not much humor to be found. And for this year alone, the line-up is positively grim. I suppose, out of this year's crop, the books with the most humor have been Drawers & Booths by Ara 13, and Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons – and the humor in that second book is not exactly of the uproarious variety. And from last year, I'd probably pick Barbara Pym's Civil To Strangers; although again, we're talking about a very subtle and unique brand of humor. Well, it's Barbara Pym.

But in order to find any really funny books on my reading lists, I'd have to go back a couple of years – back to my pre-blogging days. Probably the funniest books I've read in recent memory were Pontoon: A Lake Wobegon Novel by Garrison Keillor, Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror by James Hynes, and The Hills At Home by Nancy Clark.

Publish and Perish includes three different stories of professor types in various stages of falling apart, so the humor is acerbic and firmly rooted in the world of academe. Probably not for everybody. But if you're an English professor (or an English professor's wife), you might actually laugh out loud at lines like:
And then she smiled and tossed her head back and started to laugh, walking toward him beaming, with that certain glow that only tenure gives a woman. [p. 66]
"I never mix my metaphors," Gregory said, with some heat. He prided himself on the elegance of his prose. His first book had been called "lucid" by Edward Said. [p. 99]
The humor in Pontoon is, of course, that very special Keillor variety; and the book has one of my favorite opening lines:
Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.
I first read Nancy Clark's wonderful novel The Hills At Home three years ago, and it immediately became one of my all-time favorites. It's a modern comedy of manners about the elderly Lily Hill who is visited one summer by just about every member of her far-flung family. One by one, they come to spend a few days or weeks, and then when autumn arrives they just never leave. And the book follows the goings-on in the family's big New England home during the ensuing year. Not a situation I'd want to find myself in, but it makes for some very funny reading. In fact, I think it might be time to give it a second look – I could really use some laughs right now.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Tuesday Thingers: Go Local!

For this week's Tuesday Thingers topic, Wendi is asking about using LT's "Local" tab:

When you click on the Local tab, do you see any information? Do you find the information you see useful? Have you added any information? If you don't already use the Local tab, is it something you would use more often if there were more events listed?

Yes, indeed. Since I live in the Washington DC area, with all its surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs included, I have plenty of offerings to choose from in my "Local" section. But while I do enjoy checking out all the local happenings, I haven't really taken advantage of it much. The only bookish event I've attended within recent memory was last year's National Book Festival in DC. That was fun, but I just don't really go to readings or book signings much. So I don't know how useful the information really is for me – but I do find it interesting.

I'm more interested in the book store and library listings. I've found several good used book sources there. And I've even added one or two, myself – although I don't really remember which ones they were!

Tuesday Thingers is hosted by Wendi of Wendi's Book Corner. If you'd like to see more or participate yourself, head on over to her blog and leave a comment.

Teaser Tuesdays: Cadavers Are a Girl's Best Friend

This week, I'm still reading Ariana Franklin's Grave Goods, the latest in her Mistress of the Art of Death series of mystery novels set in 12th Century England. If you're not familiar with the books, I should probably explain that they center around Adelia Aguilar, a sort of Medieval version of a medical examiner. This bit comes from page 279:

He kissed her hard and settled back comfortably. "If you're a good girl, I'll try and bring you a corpse or two to play with."

I'm not sure who's promising Adelia such pleasures in this scene – haven't got that far in my reading yet. But since messing around with corpses and crime scenes is her specialty, I'm sure his offer made her little heart go pitter-pat.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: The Fire

Written by Katherine Neville
Ballantine / Random House, 2008

This review refers to an advance reader's edition of the book.

In Katherine Neville's The Fire, a follow-up to her earlier best-selling novel The Eight, chess whiz Alexandra Solarin (called Xie) is drawn into a sinister mission to find a mysterious chess set which is said to be imbued with ancient and arcane powers. Alexandra, once a chess prodigy and now a young apprentice chef in a Washington DC restaurant, has been called home to Colorado to celebrate her mother's birthday. But when she arrives at the family lodge, she finds that her mother, Cat Velis, has vanished and left behind a string of clues to help Xie find both her missing mother and the long lost chess set. Aided by her friend Nokomis Key, her aunt Lily Rad (also a chess grandmaster), and her former childhood opponent Vartan Azov, Xie reluctantly sets out upon a confusing and dangerous quest that will eventually lead from Washington DC to the Russian wilderness, and involve a host of characters – many of them historical figures, including Albanian Sultan Ali Pasha, Lord Byron, Talleyrand, and Catherine the Great. Even Alexandre Dumas makes an appearance.

I received an advance copy of the book through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program, and read it without having first read Neville's earlier novel in which the history of the Game and its players is laid out. I realize now that was a mistake – I believe that accounts for a lot of the confusion I felt over and over as I was reading The Fire. It was an interesting story, albeit convoluted. But I'm not sure I ever really understood exactly what was going on. There were so many story lines – most of them confusing and hard to follow. The mixture of alchemy, chess wizardry, cooking, mathematical puzzles, and eternal life seemed very mish-mashy. The transitions between places and time periods were abrupt and wrenching, and seemed to be building to some ultimate climax that never fully materialized. White Queens and Black Queens kept turning up all over the place, and then disappearing. And why were all those Basques involved in the story?

Neville has obviously done a huge amount of research (there's no actual bibliography in the book, although the author's Acknowledgements section does contain a listing of some of her sources), but much of the book sounded as though she'd simply dumped her raw history notes into the dialogue, without even trying to work them into the story. Altogether, I think there was just too much telling and not enough showing in the book.

However, I think I could have put up with all of these problems if the main character had been more intriguing. But I'm afraid I found Alexandra just a bit – well, boring I guess. Or maybe just irritating. For one thing, she has to be told everything – she discovers almost nothing on her own. She has a hard time making even the most obvious connections between events. For someone who's supposed to be a world-class chess wizard, she has a curiously hard time coming up with anything resembling a strategy. She's constantly being blind-sided by everything and everyone – and is constantly remarking on the fact, herself. Eventually she starts to resemble those heroines in the old "cliff-hanger" movies – at the end of each of her sections of the narrative, there she is being tied to the railroad track or thrown off the side of a mountain – again! Well, not actually of course, but that's how it feels.

On the other hand, Alexandra's best friend and co-adventurer Nokomis Key seems unbelievably (indeed, almost preternaturally) able and mature for her years. She has personal resources and worldwide connections that James Bond might envy. And she single-handedly engineers key (her name – get it?) developments in the plot and outwits "players" many years her senior, who've been playing "The Game" far longer. She also has an irritating habit of using just about every cliche, catch-phrase and aphorism in the English language. I assume Neville meant it to be amusing, but after four hundred pages of the shtick, it just becomes annoying. At one point in the action, she even comes out with "Lawdy Miss Clawdy"! I kept waiting for "see ya later, alligator," but fortunately the gator never showed up.

And, finally, the ending itself was a bit of a let-down. Well, that's always a risk with stories about the search for supreme power, supernatural or otherwise. If the search goes wrong, the story can seem pointless. And if it's successful, just what do you do with the power once you've got it?

One of the reviews of the book suggested it should be marketed as a cure for insomnia. I certainly wouldn't go that far (or be that nasty), even though at times I did have to force myself to keep reading. But I really didn't mean this review to sound so negative, and I'm not sorry I read the book, because it made me very curious about the original novel, The Eight. In fact, I've already bought a copy of that one – it sounds much more exciting and I'm hoping it will clear up a lot of my questions and frustrations. As for the sequel, I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone unless they've read The Eight and just want to find out what happens to the characters later in life. But as a stand-alone work, I'm afraid there's just not much fire to be found in The Fire.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Finds: 24 July 2009

Wow, it's already the 24th! Can you believe that? Only one more week to go and the month of July will be outta here. I think this summer is traveling along faster than any other I remember - and I remember quite a few!

OK, enough of that.

Just a couple of new finds this week. Well, actually I discovered The Atlantis Revelation by Thomas Greanias earlier this spring - it was one of the three books I requested in Atria Books' "Galley Grab" back in May. Just got my copy a few days ago and put it at the top of my TBR list - it's due for general release in August. And I believe I first read about Mackenzie Ford's Gifts of War in a BookBrowse newsletter; it was published last month. Ordinarily, I'm not interested in books that center around wars, but this one sounds like it might have more to offer than violence and mayhem.

But I'm afraid all my recent discoveries will have to wait a while. For the moment, I'm immersed in Katherine Neville's The Fire. I received it quite unexpectedly last November (I believe that's right) as a bonus Early Reviewer book from Library Thing, and (also quite unexpectedly) immediately forgot all about it. Well, we were traveling and there were the holidays coming up and things just got really hectic - OK, I have no real excuse. Just poor mental wiring, I suppose. Anyway, I need to get that one read and reviewed ASAP to keep myself in LT's good graces. Wouldn't want to anger the algorithmic gods, now would we?

Friday Finds is a weekly event hosted by mizb17 at Should Be Reading. Participants are asked to share with other bloggers about the new-to-you books found during the week - books you either want to add to your TBR list, or that you just heard about that sound interesting.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Preferences

This week's Booking Through Thursday topic is "Preferences" and asks participants to give quick answers to a series of either/or questions ("Which do you prefer? Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date").

OK, first of all – I prefer not to give quick answers to anything. I probably wouldn't do at all well on a polygraph test – they'd have me locked up in about a minute! And some of these questions aren't really the kind of thing that can be answered quickly – well anyway, not by me. So I'll play along, but only by my own rules.

Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?
Sometimes one, sometimes the other.

Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
Hardcovers unless I'm having to tote the book around with me.

Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
Both, although these days I read more fiction than non-.

Poetry? Or Prose?
Prose. I used to edit a poetry journal and it sort of dulled my appetite for verse. I'll recover someday.

Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
They each have their charm. Autobiographies are usually fun, but not always reliable in the areas of truth and candor.

History? Or Historical Fiction?
History. I've read more historical fiction lately, but in general I'm not a huge fan.

Series? Or Stand-alones?

Classics? Or best-sellers?
Both, although these days I read more current lit, I do try to read at least a couple of "classics" every year.

Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
Again – each has its appeal and place. Although I'm really of the opinion that writing can be better than basic without being lurid or "fruity."

Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
Plots. I love a good story. Guess that's why I'm attracted to whodunits.

Long books? Or Short?
Doesn't matter that much if it's a good read.

Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
I would love it if all books were illustrated. Although maybe not so much that they become graphic novels. But I think a few illustrations are a nice addition to any book. Guess I've just never gotten over my childhood love of picture books.

Borrowed? Or Owned?
Owned, but I'm a big fan of public libraries, too.

New? Or Used?
Love being the first person to crack open a shiny, new just-off-the-press volume. Also love the idea of reading a book that's been discovered and enjoyed by other readers before me. Love browsing all kinds of bookstores – online or brick-and-mortar. Just love getting my hands on all kinds of books – new, old, used, or freshly minted!

So, was that quick enough fer ya? Yes or no?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday Thingers: You've Won WHAT??

This week, Wendi's question for the Tuesday Thingers group is about the new feature that shows a list of the Early Reviewer books you've won and whether or not you've reviewed them:

Have you checked out your ER list? Is it accurate? Did you need to mark any books as not received?

I have checked it out. And it was mostly accurate. I had to remind it of one book I'd won that didn't show up right away. And I had to mark two books as never received.

Hmmmm. And after looking at it just now, I notice they've added a copy of a book that I received from a bonus batch one month but never reviewed. I'll have to get busy with that one – I'd forgotten all about it! So I guess this is probably a pretty valuable new feature (even if ever so slightly annoying).

Tuesday Thingers is hosted by Wendi of Wendi's Book Corner. If you'd like to see more or participate yourself, head on over to her blog and leave a comment.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Hot Reads of History

This week, I'm reading Ariana Franklin's Grave Goods, a mystery novel in her Mistress of the Art of Death series. The setting of the book is Glastonbury Abbey in 1176, and the story centers around Adelia Aguilar, a sort of a medieval medical examiner who is called in by King Henry II to do a little crime solving. In this excerpt (which is, alas, a bit longer than two lines – so sue me), Adelia is reflecting on the popularity of the legends of King Arthur, spurred on by that recent big bestseller, History of the Kings of Britain, by Geoffrey of Monmouth:
His fame had even spread to the continent – Adelia could remember her foster mother in Salerno telling her about Arthur's exploits on Vesuvius. The stories appealed to women like no others; Emma adored them. "Don't you just love the bit where Uther Pendragon steps out of the darkness at Tintagel and seduces Ygraine?" she'd said. [p. 62]
So it seems that even in the twelfth century, readers appreciated a really good bodice ripper.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Let's Play Thirty-two Questions

I don't usually succumb to this sort of thing. And I'm not going to pester anyone else with tagging or anything like that. But I found this meme on one of the message boards at Library Thing and thought it sounded like fun (the person who left the message called it a "funny meme thing"). If you want to borrow it and fill in your own info, go right ahead. I stole it from someone who stole it from someone else. So, feel free. Oh, and if you do – let me know. I'd love to read your answers.

1. What author do you own the most books by?
Well, if we're just counting individual books, it would be Anthony Powell. I have 25 separate works by Powell in my library; however, four of those are the Dance To the Music of Time series with three novels in each volume. But if we're talking actual physical objects, I'd have to say it's Henry James. There are 24 volumes of Henry James's writings in my library – I think we have all of his Library of America volumes, and that's an awful lot of Henry James.

2. What book(s) do you own the most copies of?
Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and Huckleberry Finn.

3. Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?
Yes, mightily. I'm a loyal and active member of the Grammar Police.

4. What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
Sherlock Holmes, Adam Dalgliesh, Aloysius Pendergast (from the novels by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child), and Laurie Laurence from Little Women.

5. What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children; i.e., Goodnight Moon does not count)?
Lewis Carroll's Alice books, and Mark Twain's Huck Finn. I guess that's obviously why I have so many copies of them.

6. What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?
365 Bedtimes Stories by Nan Gilbert.

7. What is the worst book you've read in the past year?
Probably a tie between The Book of God and Physics by Enrique Joven, and The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. Neither were terrible – just not as good as the other books on my list.

8. What is the best book you've read in the past year?
Well, I've read some really great books in this last year. I guess if I really have to choose just one it would be The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

9. If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
I'm not tagging anyone, and I'd never force anyone to read a book (although I strongly recommend The Age of Innocence, if you haven't read it).

10. Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
Hmmmm. Still thinking about this one. Maybe Philip Roth? Although it's not likely an American will ever win it.

11. What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
Well, since the films usually don't do justice to the books, I'd have to say I hope Hollywood doesn't decide to make a film of any of my favorite books anytime soon. But if they do, I hope they get Martin Scorsese to direct it.

12. What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
Potty Train Your Child in Just One Day.

13. Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
I don't dream about writers or books or literary characters. But I do sometimes dream plots for stories I'd like to write. The weirdest one of those I've ever had was not suitable for discussion here.

14. What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?
I could not possibly answer this. I've read lots and lots of these, and I've been an adult for a long, long time. However, I can safely say the most lowbrow book I've read recently was The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel (who, sad to say, died earlier this month).

15. What is the most difficult book you've ever read?
This would be a tie between Molloy by Samuel Beckett, and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

16. What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?
That I've seen? Well, I think I've seen just about all of them at one time or another, either live or in movies or TV productions. And I'm not sure exactly what the criteria for "obscure" would be. Maybe Coriolanus?

17. Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
I'm assuming we're talking about writers here, not about whole nationalities of people. And with that understood, I'd say I prefer the French – or, at least, I've read more French authors than Russian authors.

18. Roth or Updike?
I like them both. Haven't read as much as I'd like by either of them.

19. David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?
Haven't read any David Sedaris, and I have no idea who Dave Eggers is. Sorry.

20. Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

21. Austen or Eliot?
T.S. or George?

22. What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
Well, I'm not embarrassed by it, but there are many works by Charles Dickens I haven't and probably never will read. And even though he's so well-represented in my library, I've only read a few of Henry James's works – and admitting that is sort of embarrassing. Never read Dante. Never read Cervantes. Never finished Paradise Lost (but I know how it ends).

23. What is your favorite novel?
I could not possibly choose just one. But something by Barbara Pym or one of the novels from Anthony Powell's Dance To the Music of Time sequence would definitely be in the running.

24. Play?
Again, impossible to pick just one. And I'm not sure my favorite play to read would be the same as my favorite play to see performed, or to perform in. (There's that sentence-ending preposition thing again.)

25. Poem?
One Art by Elizabeth Bishop, Not Waving But Drowning by Stevie Smith, Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet CXVI) by William Shakespeare.

26. Essay?
Most likely Jonathan Swift's satirical "A Modest Proposal," although I probably shouldn't admit that.

27. Short Story?
Again, too many to choose from.

28. Work of nonfiction?
I don't read a great deal of nonfiction at the moment, but in the past I read quite a lot of it. And I usually say Joan Didion's The White Album is my favorite nonfiction work. However, I also enjoyed all of Anthony Powell's memoirs and Quentin Bell's biography of Virginia Woolf. And I love James/Jan Morris's Oxford about the history of the University and the town, and Who Killed Society? by Cleveland Amory – I've re-read both of those several times. But I suppose the one nonfiction book I've re-read the most times would be A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters by Barbara Pym. Oh, and Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi (true crime is one of my guilty pleasure genres).

29. Who is your favorite writer?
Several of those, too. Barbara Pym, Anthony Powell, Muriel Spark, Joseph Heller, Larry McMurtry, P.D. James, Jane Austen. I could go on. But I won't. You can take a look at my Library Thing list.

30. Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
J.K. Rowling.

31. What is your desert island book?
That would be hard. I guess something by one of my favorite authors. Possibly Some Tame Gazelle or A Few Green Leaves, by Barbara Pym.

32. And ... what are you reading right now?
Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin, Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment, and Dance of Death by Preston & Child.

The Sunday Salon: Back to the Books in July

Wow, more than half of July has managed to sneak right by me. Doncha hate it when that happens? And here I was saying I wanted to try to slow down and savor (yes, I think I actually used that word) July a little more than I did June. (June was here and gone before I even turned around.) But so far, I don't seem to be doing much savoring. Well, I blame it partly on the cold I had during the first couple weeks of the month. Didn't really get much reading done. Mostly just slept and blew my nose. And watched the first season of "Man Men" via our cable company's On-Demand service. (Is it really possible Peggy didn't know she was pregnant? No, don't tell me what happens – I'm going to start season two this week.)

But the slow-down has really blown my reading schedule all to pieces. I was trying for a book a week this year, but here we are just about thirty weeks into 2009 (can that be right?) and I've only read twenty-seven books. So I'm obviously going to have to pick up the pace a bit. I'm doing a little better now, though. I finished Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game this past week (review, I hope, to come tomorrow), and I'm going to be finishing up Sarah Dunant's Sacred Hearts later tonight. So at least July won't be a total loss.

And I've got a couple more underway: Dance of Death, one of the Pendergast thrillers by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child; and Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin. I suppose I should have started with Franklin's Mistress of the Art of Death, before tackling Grave Goods, but I found GG among the new releases at the library the other day and it reached out and grabbed me, so I just had to bring it home.

Today I've been doing a little assessment of the books I've read this year, but haven't reviewed yet. Didn't realize there were quite so many. Out of the twenty-seven books I've read in 2009, there are a dozen I still need to review:

Blasphemy. Douglas Preston
Brimstone. Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Ellen Foster. Kaye Gibbons
Index to Murder. Jo Dereske
Land of Marvels. Barry Unsworth
Moon Tiger. Penelope Lively
The Old Man and Me. Elaine Dundy
The Private Patient. P.D. James
Rest in Pieces. Rita Mae Brown
The Valley of Fear. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Mothman Prophecies. John A. Keel
The Angel's Game. Carlos Ruiz Zafon

So I need to get busy. And since I'm taking stock, I should admit that there are a few books I've started this year, but put on hold for now: Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand, Stone's Fall by Iain Pears, and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I think I'll probably get back to Stone's Fall eventually, but the other two may just stay on the shelf, unread. Sad.

Anyway, that's where I stand at the moment. Now I need to go find out what becomes of Suora Zuana and the young Novice Serafina in that appalling convent in Sixteenth Century Ferrara. No, don't tell me what happens – I'm still hoping for a happy ending.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friday Finds: 17 July 2009

This week I added four new titles to my "new finds" list. I have a feeling they'll all be going on my TBR list once I've had a chance to check them out a little more closely. And although I hate to admit it, I might buy the Lowry book for the cover alone!

My list:
I discovered the first and last books in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review supplement; Girl in a Blue Dress was released this month, but I believe The Bellini Madonna came out a little earlier this spring (Good Reads says April).

Not sure where I first heard about Evil at Heart or Homer & Langley. Shelf Awareness, maybe? Or possibly a publisher's newsletter. They're both due for official release in September, so I'll have to try to remember to track them down in the fall.

Friday Finds is a weekly event hosted by mizb17 at Should Be Reading. Participants are asked to share with other bloggers about the new-to-you books found during the week – books you either want to add to your TBR (to be read) list, or that you just heard about that sounded interesting.

Booking Through Thursday: TBR

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is a follow-up to last week's topic about unread books:

Do you keep all your unread books together, like books in a waiting room? Or are they scattered throughout your shelves, mingling like party-goers waiting for the host to come along?

Well, I've got loads of unread books on my shelves that aren't necessarily on my TBR list. So I'll just talk about the books I tell myself I am going to read someday. And those books are pretty much scattered out all over our apartment – on shelves, on tables, in boxes and bags, on the floor. Not so much like party-goers, though. More like unruly kittens, always tumbling about, and getting underfoot, and disappearing into hard-to-reach places, and never coming when you call them.

For a while, I played around with various ideas about what to do with the books on my "read soon" list. You know – those books I'm planning to read in the near future. Challenge books and ARCs. That sort of thing. Tried separating them out and keeping them on special shelves, or in a box all by themselves. But I ended up spending more time moving books around than I spent reading them. So now, I mostly just keep the TBR books shelved with the other books – those I've read and those I have no intention of reading but don't want to ditch. I do try to keep the recent ARCs in a pile all by themselves, but they frequently get mixed in with the other books – another example of best laid schemes going "aft agley."

As you can see, I've still got a few shelves in the bedroom with TBR books on them. (You can also probably tell that I'm not going to be featured on HGTV anytime soon.) This bookcase has some "read soon" books mixed in with books about to be stored, or just coming out of storage (hence the plastic covers on some). Of course, "read soon" is an extremely erratic concept around here.
The second photo is a close-up of a couple of the shelves – and I'm realizing that some of those are actually books I've started, but put aside for one reason or another. I really need to get back to those. Gee, maybe I should take photos of my unruly books more often.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tuesday Thingers: Tagging

This week's topic for the Tuesday Thingers group is about using tags in your Library Thing library. Wendi asks:
Do you tag? If so, do you tag for your own purposes (make lists, sort, clouds, etc)? Do you tag to help classify a book (historical fiction, self-help, sci-fi, mystery, etc)? What is the most helpful thing for you about tagging?
First of all, about that connection between tags and Early Reviewer books ("the more you tag your books, the more likely you are to snag a similar Early Reviewer book"). Well, I had a similar theory when I first signed up with the Early Reviewers program – I figured if I could just hit on the right system of tagging, or the right number of tags, it would help me get more of the books I was interested in. And I still believe that tags play a part in the sacred "algorithm" (well, I think the people in charge say they do, anyway), but several of the books I've gotten have been from genres that don't really "fit" with my library, if you're just judging by my tags. And I've also noticed that people who use few or no tags for their collections still seem to receive their share of ER books. So I think tags are probably a help, but many other things figure in the overall decision.

But I do use tags. Lots of tags. Over four hundred different tags. Mostly I use broad classifications like "American literature" or "Mysteries" or "Science Fiction." But I use smaller and more focused groupings, too – like "Prehistory," "Poirot," and "Pop-up Books." I'm pretty sure every book in my LT library has at least one tag attached to it, and most have more than one. I like tagging because it allows me to sort my books by category if I want to do that, but also because I'm able to tell at a glance how many books of various genres I have in my collection – and anyone looking at my library can see that, too. And that sort of serves as my bookish introduction to the rest of the LT world.

Tuesday Thingers is hosted by Wendi of Wendi's Book Corner. If you'd like to see more or participate yourself, head on over to her blog and leave a comment.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Little Illumination

So far this week I've finished one book and started two more. The book I've just managed to wade through is The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I don't mean that to sound negative – I did enjoy the book, just found it hard to keep reading. For some reason, it's taken me several weeks to finish. So right now I've got about four books going, which is fairly normal in my case.

My teasers this week come from Jill Ciment's new novel Heroic Measures. I haven't gotten very far into it, but I can tell you it's about an older couple, living in New York City and preparing to sell the apartment they've lived in for many years. This snippet is about the husband, Alex, an artist whose latest works are illuminated manuscripts:
As monks once illustrated the Bible with gold leaf and devotion, he is illuminating the seven-hundred-and-fifty-page file that the FBI had kept on Ruth and him during the heyday of the cold war. Initial showings of the manuscript pages have garnered him just enough attention from the art world to offer promise, though at his age, he isn't exactly sure what promise means anymore. [p. 31]
Alex is seventy-eight years old, so I suppose I can understand his skepticism about any potential fame that might be staring him in the face. But it's never too late to court success, of course. Alex should take my advice and just remember Helen Hooven Santmyer. She was 88 when her most famous work And Ladies of the Club was published and became a best-seller in 1984. So you see, there's hope for all of us aging artists, even if we haven't had our fifteen minutes yet.

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Finds: 10 July 2009

Here are my finds for this week. Actually, for the last couple of weeks – didn't post any finds last Friday, since the hubby and I were away for the weekend. I first read about Heroic Measures in a recent New York Times Book Review. I'm not sure exactly where I discovered the other three, although I'm thinking Shelf Awareness is a good bet for The Rapture and possibly for the others as well.
I believe they're all "out," except for The Rapture which is scheduled to be released in early August.

Friday Finds is a weekly event hosted by mizb17 at Should Be Reading. Participants are asked to share with other bloggers about the new-to-you books found during the week – books you either want to add to your TBR (to be read) list, or that you just heard about that sounded interesting.

What An Animal! Challenge: The Wrap-Up

The What An Animal! Challenge ended June 30, and I've let ten whole days go by without writing my wrap-up post. I really didn't forget about it – just haven't felt very energetic the last few days because of a bad cold. But I don't want to let the month get too much farther along without putting this one to bed.

The Challenge began one year ago, on July 1, 2008, and participants were to read at least six books that fulfilled any of these requirements:
an animal in the title of the book; an animal on the cover of the book; an animal that plays a major role in the book; a main character that is or turns into an animal (define that however you like).
This was a fun challenge. Even though I didn't read as many books as I thought I might, I managed to read my six and enjoyed every one of them. I still need to review a couple of the books – thought I'd done it already, but I see now I still have some work to do. Will try to get that done in the next few days. For right now, though, here's what I read, with links to reviews:

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon
Moon Tiger. Penelope Lively [review to come]
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Robert C. O'Brien
Rest In Pieces: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, by Rita Mae Brown [review to come]
To Dance with the White Dog. Terry Kay
Wish You Were Here: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery, by Rita Mae Brown

A few of the titles might need a bit of explanation. For anyone not familiar with the Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series – Mrs. Murphy is a pet cat who helps her owner solve mysteries. I'm slowly making my way through the series, and the challenge gave me the perfect reason to read a couple more of those. Also, the "moon tiger" in the title of Penelope Lively's novel doesn't refer to an actual tiger – it's the name for a kind of candle-like lamp that burns itself away as it provides light.

All of the books were great reads. And one of them, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, has been on my TBR list since way back in the '70s when it first appeared. Can't imagine why in the world it took me so long to get around to it. But my favorite of the six was definitely Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In fact, it's going on my list of all-time favorite books. If you haven't read it yet, you're missing a great experience. In fact, just sitting here thinking about it is making me want to start it all over again.

I want to thank Kristi of Passion for the Page for hosting the challenge, and all the other participants for making it happen. Now I just have to make up my mind about signing up for What An Animal! II.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Curse of the Unread?

This week's Booking Through Thursday topic comes from The Toddled Dredge (via K for Kat), and it's about that ever-expanding To-Be-Read list:
So here today I present to you an Unread Books Challenge. Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, 'No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!'
Gosh, what a request! List or show a photo of "the books you have not read, but keep meaning to." Such an innocent-sounding request, too.

But since I "keep meaning to" read just about every book ever written, that would take in an awful lot of books! OK, that's an exaggeration. But just in my own home library, there are hundreds of books I haven't read, but would like to get around to reading someday. And I have an actual physical TBR list that has now expanded to two volumes of spiral-bound 3-subject-size notebook space. You guys don't really want to wade through that, and I'm not going to spend the day photographing all those tomes.

And none of these books weigh on my mind. I love adding books to my list. Even though I know it would take me two or three lifetimes to read them all, I have no qualms whatsoever about throwing one more book onto the must-read pile. You'll never catch me saying anything like "Don't give me another book to read!" My sentiment would more likely be "I can't finish the ones I have! What the hell – bring on a few more new ones!"

However, in the spirit of playing along, here's a photo of me with a few of those books – some I've read, and others I haven't yet but fully intend to read someday. Yes, I know it's blurry. I think that has something to do with the wine my hubby was drinking when he snapped it. Yes, I know the place is a mess, but it was taken on a Sunday and we have a "day of rest" policy at our place on Sundays (guess you could say I'm religious about my relaxation).

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Tuesday Thingers: Too Much Networking?

This week's topic for the Tuesday Thingers group is all about social networking:

How do you feel about social networking sites? Do you have any you like more than others? Are there any you don't like? Do you have any that you don't associate with your blogs and/or book reviewing? If you could only belong to one of these sites, which one would it be and why?

Well, I guess I should start off by saying that I don't really consider Library Thing a social networking site, although I know that technically it is one. I first joined LT in order to have a way to catalogue all my books, and that's still how I see it – mainly. I do have a few discussion groups I follow, although I don't often post any messages (yes, I'm one of those famous "lurkers"). The only one I'm really active in is the 50 Book Challenge discussion group – it allows me to keep track of the books I read, and even post little mini-reviews, without worrying too much about how other people are going to react.

I'd be very upset if I had to give up LT. As I say, I love their cataloguing feature – I believe it's the best on the Internet. So I suppose if I had to pick just one site to continue with, LT would be it.

I do have accounts with Facebook, Good Reads, My Space, Shelfari, and Twitter. But of all those the only one I really use with any regularity is Good Reads: I use it to keep track of books I've actually read and books I want to read, whether or not they're actually in my library. Of course, when I started doing this, LT hadn't yet come up with their "Collections" feature. Now that they have, I can list books I don't own as "read but unowned" or "to be read" or "wish list"; so I suppose there's really no reason to keep up with the two separate accounts. But there are a few discussion groups at Good Reads I keep up with, so for the time being I'm going to keep things as is.

And all the other sites? Well, I've always found Shelfari a little awkward. I do like the look of all my books on those virtual "shelves," but the site just seems difficult to maneuver around in. I joined Twitter because I had heard that sometimes publishers give away free books there; but so far, no free books have materialized – and I rarely do any tweeting.

I signed up with My Space several years ago because I had found Grace Slick's My Space page, and had to be a member to look at all the info there. I played with my own account for a while, but soon realized it wasn't anything I'd ever be interested in. Still have the account, but I haven't signed in for months now. I find Facebook a little more interesting, although again, I haven't really looked at my account there for a couple of months. I guess I just assume that if anyone wants to contact me, they'll use email or leave a comment on one of my blogs, since that's probably the surest way of getting my attention. I know it says terrible things about my character, but I have to admit that when all is said and done, I'm just more of a blogger than a social networker.

Tuesday Thingers is hosted by Wendi of Wendi's Book Corner. If you'd like to see more or participate yourself, head on over to her blog and leave a comment.

Teaser Tuesdays: A Brief Editorial Moment

This week I'm getting back to a book I started a month ago in early June, Dance of Death by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I think I'm developing an addiction to their Pendergast thrillers. This snippet is from page 139 of the paperback edition. I know it's more than two lines; and, yes, I know cheaters never win.
"With his high, soft voice and effeminate mannerisms, Davies might look to the uninitiated like a pushover. But Smithback had learned that this was not the case. You didn't get to be an editor at the Times without at least a few pints of barracuda blood coursing through your veins. But his delivery was so mild it sometimes took a moment to realize you'd just been disemboweled."
Well, I've known some editors who were perfectly lovely people, but then they weren't working at the Times (New York or London).

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by mizB17 at Should Be Reading. If you'd like to read more teasers, or participate yourself, head on over to her blog. And these are the rules: Grab your current read; Let the book fall open to a random page. Share with us two (2) "teaser" sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12. You also need to share the title of the book that you're getting your "teaser" from … that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you've given! Please avoid spoilers!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Wrapping Up the Victorian Challenge

The Victorian Challenge came to an end on June 30. I actually finished the reading several weeks ago, but I didn't want to write a wrap-up until I had all the reviews written. Now that I've finished that task, I can say finis. I chose Level 2: A Walk in Hyde Park, which meant I read four books for the challenge. Started out with quite a list of possibilities, but as it turns out only two of the books I actually read were on that list. So, the best-laid plans and all that . . . .

Here's what I read, with links to reviews:
  1. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
  2. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt
  3. The Master, by Colm Toibin
  4. The Valley of Fear, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I'm also noticing that while all my books were set during the Victorian era, none was actually written then – something of a disappointment. Guess I'm just a modern girl at heart.

I enjoyed all the books, although of the four I think The Valley of Fear was one that didn't really live up to my expectations. My favorite was without a doubt The Age of Innocence – it's now on my list of all-time best reads, and it's inspired me to go back and give Wharton's House of Mirth another try, after abandoning it many years ago.

I want to thank Alex for coming up with the idea for the challenge and hosting, and all the other participants for all those great reviews and blog posts. This was a wonderful idea – I only wish I'd had time to read a little Trollope. Well, maybe next time.

Review: Angels & Insects

Written by A.S. Byatt
Random House, 1992; 339 pages

Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt, is made up of two novellas, both set in Victorian England. The first, "Morpho Eugenia," is the story of explorer and amateur entomologist William Adamson who has come to live in the home of his wealthy benefactor, the Reverend Harald Alabaster, after a shipwreck leaves him homeless and without other means of support. Sir Harald is also an enthusiastic naturalist, and has an extensive collection of specimens that he wants Adamson to help classify and catalog. There, in the Alabaster household, Adamson meets and falls in love with the Reverend's oldest daughter, Eugenia. Eventually, he asks the young woman to marry him and is thrilled, and more than a little surprised, when she accepts. At first ecstatically happy with his bride, Adamson soon begins to be puzzled by her frequent changes of mood and behavior. Eugenia's brutish brother frequently voices his disapproval of the marriage, believing Adamson to be an unworthy match for his sister. And more complications arise when Adamson begins to form a close friendship with another young woman in the household – a sort of governess or tutor who shares his interest in insects and the natural world. Eventually, the story's Gothic plot turns very dark indeed, as Adamson's discoveries make him reconsider his seemingly perfect existence.

The second novella, "The Conjugial Angel," is (quoting from Library Journal's description) "a philosophical ghost story, bizarre and comic." It's the story of Lilias Papagay who believes her sailor husband has died while on a sea voyage. She gets herself involved with a group of mediums who meet to conjure up spirits for their clients and patrons. One of those patrons is Emily Tennyson Jesse, sister of the poet Alfred Tennyson. As a young woman, Emily was engaged to Tennyson's great friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died suddenly in 1833 while traveling to Vienna. Tennyson dedicated his famous poem "In Memoriam" to Hallam, and that poem plays a role in Byatt's novella. It's a little difficult to write much about the story without giving too much away, so I'll stop there.

Of the two stories, I think the second one was my favorite, even though I suspect it requires a fairly extensive knowledge of Tennyson's poetry to be fully appreciated – and that's something I don't really possess. But I liked the humor – something you don't usually expect from Byatt's work. Also, having seen the film "Angels & Insects" before I read the book, I was familiar with the plot of "Morpho Eugenia" – the film was based on that first novella. Although, even if I hadn't seen the film first, I think I'd have seen the surprises coming – they're not particularly subtle. And I found all the talk about ants and insects and Darwin and nature just a tad boring after a while. OK, maybe more than just a tad.

Would I recommend it? Well, I always have problems with Byatt – I think she's an acquired taste. Her work tends to be fairly scholarly and can be very rewarding if you don't mind doing a certain amount of intellectual work. I generally like that. But if you're just looking for a quick, entertaining read, I'm not sure this is the book to choose.

Review: The Valley of Fear

Written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Book-of-the-Month Club Special Edition, 1994; 320 pages
First published 1915

The Valley of Fear was the last Sherlock Holmes novel written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. First published in installments as a magazine serial in 1914, it was brought out in a single volume in 1915. The action takes place before the period of "The Final Problem," the story in which Holmes and his archenemy Professor Moriarty apparently plunge to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls.

At the beginning of the tale, Holmes receives a coded letter informing him that something sinister is about to happen at a country estate called Birlstone. Shortly afterwards, and before Holmes can act on the warning, he receives further word that Birlstone's owner, the American Jack Douglas, has been found dead in his study at the manor house, his face destroyed by a shotgun blast. Douglas's body was discovered by his old friend, Cecil Barker, who was a frequent visitor at the estate.

As Holmes and the local authorities pursue their investigations, the plot thickens (doesn't it always?). Certain clues point to the fact that the killer might also have been an American. Then there's the problem of the drawbridge – the estate is equipped with a large moat and a working drawbridge which was raised (that is, closed) every night. The moat is too extensive to cross easily, and with the drawbridge up and no strangers in the house, the murder begins to look like "an inside job." Add to that the odd behavior of the dead man's widow, a strange tattoo on his body, the discovery of a hidden bicycle which might have been used by the murderer, and a single dumbbell that seems to fascinate Holmes – and the mystery becomes more and more puzzling. Of course, Holmes eventually presents his solution of the crime – but only after uncovering the story of Douglas's past life in America.

I've read most of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories and novels – well, a lot of them anyway. But I had managed to neglect this one until now. I believe by the time Conan Doyle brought this one out, he'd really grown pretty bored with Holmes; he'd already tried to kill him off at least once. And I think that boredom shows here – much of the story revolves around several recycled plot elements from other Holmes stories, and only half of the book is concerned with Holmes and his investigation of the murder. The other half is taken up with a lengthy flashback to the apparent victim's earlier life in America. Interesting enough, but not what I signed on for. The book definitely loses momentum when Holmes disappears from the action. If you've read all the other Holmes stories and novels, by all means finish up with this late appearance of the master detective. But if you're just making his acquaintance, I'd definitely recommend starting with one of the earlier works.

Booking Through Thursday: Celebrities?

Thursday again. And July already. How can that be? Ah well, time for another Booking Through Thursday question, suggested this week by Callista83:
Do you read celebrity memoirs? Which ones have you read or do you want to read? Which nonexistent celebrity memoirs would you like to see?
Well, at first, I was tempted just to say no. But I do read the occasional memoir or autobiography. And some of the authors of those would, I suppose, qualify as celebrities – at least in the literary world. I read the entire series of memoirs Anthony Powell wrote back in the '70s and '80s, and I think I'd definitely consider him a literary celebrity. And I've got Muriel Spark's autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, on my TBR list at present.

But if we're talking about more traditional celebrities – movie stars, sports figures, political types – then, no I don't generally read those. I've read a few in the past, but these days I read mostly fiction. Although, come to think of it, some celebrity memoirs might actually qualify in that area.

I guess the problem I'm having here is with the word celebrity. Because today we're saddled with so many "celebrities" who are mostly famous just for being celebrities. Like those instantly-famous individuals from the "Survivor" TV show. Or lottery winners. Or Donald Trump. I'm sure they've all lived fascinating lives, but it's unlikely I'm gonna be reading about them.