Saturday, May 31, 2008

42 Challenge: Science Fiction Stuff

Well, I've just wrapped up one challenge (see below), so naturally it's time to jump right into a brand new one. I've known about this for a week or two now, and fully intended to join up, but I'm just now getting around to it. It's the 42 Challenge and it's being hosted by Becky, of Becky's Book Reviews.

The challenge "mission" is to "read, watch, listen, and review 42 sci-fi related items." Actually, you don't even need to do reviews – lists are OK, too. And, as Becky says, this is much more than a reading challenge because "short stories, poetry (???), novellas, novels, episodes of TV shows, episodes of radio shows, movies, comic books, graphic novels, audio books, essays or articles about science fiction or science fiction writers, biographies of science fiction authors" are all acceptable as items.

The official beginning of the challenge is January 1, 2009, and it ends December 3, 2009 – so it runs 42 weeks and 42 days. But Becky says you can begin whenever you join, which gives you a little cushion of extra time. Well, I'm even extending my cushion to include a review I did a few days earlier this week, about the new TV version of Michael Crichton's "Andromeda Strain" (see review).

So I'm all set to start immersing myself in science fiction stuff. Now if you book bloggers will just stop coming up with such tempting challenges, I'll be fine (really, I will).

Wrap-Up: The Eponymous Reading Challenge

The Eponymous Reading Challenge, which began back in March and has been hosted by Coversgirl at Between the Covers, ends today. The participants were supposed to read four books "whose titles are the name of one or more of the characters . . . or a description of one or more of the characters."

This is the second reading challenge I've finished this year, and I really enjoyed it. Over the course of the challenge, I changed my book choices a couple of times, and ended up going with one of my alternate titles and one completely new book that wasn't on my original list at all.

This is what I read (linked to the reviews):

Chatterton, by Peter Ackroyd
Emma, by Jane Austen
The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry
Mrs. Malory and Death by Water, by Hazel Holt

And here's a link to my original post about the challenge.

Just want to say thanks to Coversgirl for doing the hosting. Any chance of a second round of the challenge? I'd be up for it.

And did everyone enjoy their reading as much as I did?

Friday, May 30, 2008

Tagged! Author Meme

Marie, at The Boston Bibliophile, tagged me for an Author Meme (you should visit her blog – she's got a nice summer reading give-away going). And even though I really should be doing some reviews of recent reads, I'm easily distracted and this looks interesting. So here goes:

1. Who's your all-time favorite author, and why?
I really don't think I could name just one author as my "favorite all-time." You know – that single author whose books I'd take along to that famous desert island. That would be hard. There are several writers I've always tended to read and re-read – Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Barbara Pym, Anthony Powell, Muriel Spark, Joan Didion. Whenever there's a new P.D. James novel, I snap it up immediately. I'm sure if I sat here long enough, I'd come up with an even longer list.

2. Who was your first favorite author, and why? Do you still consider him or her among your favorites?
Well, I guess that would have to be Lewis Carroll. I can say without any reservation at all that the Alice books were and still are my favorite children's books. I still re-read them quite often. I just love everything about them – the fantasy, the whimsy, the nonsense, the tiny glimpses of 19th century Oxford life. And I always found Alice such an appealing character – she's always so plucky and down-to-earth even when reality begins to splinter all around her. And I love the Tenniel illustrations – none of the later versions equal his. It should be against the law to publish an edition of Alice without Tenniel.

Actually, I should say Carroll is the first author I really remember being smitten with, as a child. My mother always said the first book I fell in love with and "read" was Clement Moore's Visit from St. Nicholas ('Twas the Night Before Christmas) – apparently I knew it by heart at the age of two or so and would sit and recite it while turning the pages, making everyone think I could actually read at that age. Even back then I was more of a con artist than an intellectual.

3. Who's the most recent addition to your list of favorite authors, and why?
That would probably be Arturo Perez-Reverte. I read The Club Dumas a couple of years ago and fell in love. I picked it up mainly because of the tie-in with the Polanski film "The Ninth Gate," but discovered that the book is much richer and more interesting. Then earlier this year, I read The Flanders Panel (see my review), and loved that one, too. I've got a couple more books by him on my TBR list – The Nautical Chart, and The Fencing Master. He's a very fine writer, and apparently has a huge following in Europe, but is really just getting well-known here.

4. If someone asked you who your favorite authors were right now, which authors would first pop out of your mouth? Are there any you'd add on a moment of further reflection?
Well, aside from those named in my answer to question number one: Jorge Luis Borges, J.D. Salinger, Milan Kundera, Steven Millhauser, Larry McMurtry, Edgar Allan Poe, Harper Lee. I could do this forever. In fact, I have a blog post about this very thing (see My Top Ten List of 59 Favorite Books).

5. Tagged:
(Rules: Link to the person that tagged you, post the rules somewhere in your meme, answer the questions, tag six people in your post, let the tagees know they’ve been chosen by leaving a comment on their blog, let the tagger know your entry is posted.)

I know I'm supposed to tag six other bloggers, but I've only come up with three I think might play along:

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Written by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic Inc., 1999, 312 pages

There's something to be said for being the last person on the planet to read and review a book – you certainly don't need to worry much about plot summaries or "spoilers."

And if I'm not the last person to succumb to the HP experience, then I'm in a group with a very small membership. I've seen a couple of the films and read all about the legal fracas over who has the right to talk about the books and who hasn't. Like everyone else, I've been aware of the phenomenon of Harry Potter for years.

But until now, I had resisted reading any of the books. Not sure why, really. I guess deep down I just felt, as my husband always says, there are some forms of virginity that shouldn't be tampered with. Well, I've finally shed the innocence and read the book and become an initiate. And it wasn't at all painful.

So, for any other Potter virgins out there orbiting Jupiter, the bare (and I mean completely skinned) bones of the story are these. Harry Potter is a young English orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle and cousin Dudley – the Dursleys. The three Dursleys mistreat Harry and force him to sleep in a cupboard under the staircase. As Harry's eleventh birthday nears, he begins to receive mysterious letters which his uncle attempts to hide. But on the eve of his birthday, Harry is visited by a giant named Hagrid who is there to bring Harry his admissions letter to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry finds out for the first time that he's a wizard, and the son of wizards – a fact his aunt and uncle have kept from him all these years.

A month later, Harry makes the journey to Hogwarts and on the way meets two other young wizards-in-training, also just arriving – Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. The three soon become fast friends and have many adventures and fun times learning the ins and outs of wizardry. Harry eventually tangles with the evil Voldemort, the "Dark Lord" who killed Harry's parents when he was just a baby (that's when Harry was a baby, not Voldemort – is this making any sense?), and who is seeking the Sorcerer's (read: Philosopher's) Stone in order to restore himself to power. After their struggle, good triumphs over evil, Voldemort is vanquished after nearly killing Harry, and the Stone is destroyed (or said to be, anyway). After that, the school term is over and everybody goes home for their summer holidays.

I know I haven't said anything about Harry's owl, or his magic broomstick, or the sorting hat, or Professor Dumbledore, or Snape, or Quirrell, or quidditch, or Fluffy the three-headed-dog. Or Voldemort drinking the unicorn blood. And there's a lot more to be discovered. Ms. Rowling does have an imagination – you have to give her that.

I never really understood why the publishers thought they needed to change the book's title for the American market – why "sorcerer's stone" should be any more acceptable or convey any more meaning than "philosopher's stone." I assume they wanted potential readers to make the connection with Tolkien's Ring trilogy, where sorcerers play a mighty role. And I suppose the term "philosopher's stone" does have a slightly less romantic sound – unless you're a student of alchemy.

I must admit I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would. Well, I've always liked fairy tales and stories that involve magic, so I suppose that's not so surprising. And I can see how once a kid reads the first book, he/she would want to go on and read the whole series – I'm a series addict myself. What I don't understand is what makes these books so special to young readers. As I say, it was enjoyable, but certainly no better than any of Lewis's Narnia books, and nowhere near as interesting as Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence (I'm on the third book in that series and Harry and Hogwarts pale by comparison).

So while I'd definitely recommend it as a good read, I can't say I'm making haste to read any of the other Potter books. I certainly have no plans to buy any – if I do read another, it'll have to come from the library or a book swap. Given the evidence of her recent behavior, I'd say Harry and his friends have already brought J.K. a lot more money and fame than is good for her. She doesn't need my $8.99.

The Once Upon a Time II Challenge
Young Readers Challenge

Booking Through Thursday: What is Reading, Fundamentally?

This week's BTT topic:
What is reading, anyway? Novels, comics, graphic novels, manga, e-books, audiobooks – which of these is reading these days? Are they all reading? Only some of them? What are your personal qualifications for something to be "reading" – why? If something isn’t reading, why not? Does it matter? Does it impact your desire to sample a source if you find out a premise you liked the sound of is in a format you don't consider to be reading? Share your personal definition of reading, and how you came to have that stance.

Oh, my. I think Booking Through Thursday may be getting too profound for me. And so early in the morning, too!

So, what is reading? Well, I'm assuming we're not going for a dictionary definition here. Or anything clinical. Still a thorny question.

Of all those examples mentioned, I guess I personally consider them all reading, except audiobooks. To qualify as reading I think there has to be a visual component. I suppose if I were blind, I'd feel differently, but I'm going on my own experience. So I'd probably put audiobooks in the same category as listening to music or the radio. You're still experiencing the written word, but you're not reading it.

Now about my own personal preferences. I'm not an audiobook enthusiast. Nothing against them, from a philosophical standpoint – I just prefer to hear my own voice when I read (even if it's just in my head). And I don't read many e-books; I don't own a hand-held device for reading, and I've only read a few online books. I'm such a freak for books as objects and icons, it's hard for me to let go of that enough to accept the idea of reading electronic texts. So I guess the answer to that question about whether or not format affects my desire to sample something would be yes, it does.

As far as graphic novels and manga go, while I haven't had much experience with them, I do find them interesting. I've always loved illustrated books, and graphic novels are really just an extension of that form. And some of my fondest reading memories come from the comics I read as a kid. I considered that Little Lulu and Superman and Bugs Bunny and Katy Keene and their ilk were the subjects of legitimate literature when I was six or so, and some of that enthusiasm has stuck with me all through the years.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tuesday at LibraryThing

Here's this week's question for the Tuesday Thingers group (sorry, I still cringe when I hear that name):

. . . how many books do you have cataloged in your LibraryThing account? How do you decide what to include – everything you have, everything you've read – and are there things you leave off?

I'm still in the process of cataloguing all my books – I tend to do it in fits and starts, and at odd hours. So far, I've got a little over 600 books listed. It's slow going, but as soon as my CueCat shows up, I expect the work to speed up quite a bit.

Well, I should say all our books because, as I said on my LT profile, some of the books were actually acquired by my husband, some by myself, and some by the two of us together. I only list books we own – not library books, or books I intend to buy or would like to buy. I have a "wish list" of books that I keep separately, in one of my journals, but I wouldn't include those books in my LT listing.

I'm cataloguing all the books we own – not just the ones I've read. I figure we've got at least a couple thousand books here at home with us, and something over a thousand more in storage.

I think if I got rid of one of the books that I'd catalogued, I'd delete the title from my listing. Which means, I suppose, that I'll have to hold on to all the books I post reviews of – not that many, so far. But it hasn't become a problem yet and I don't think it will, since getting rid of books isn't something I do very often!

TuesdayThingers is hosted by Boston Bibliophile.

Book Awards Reading Challenge II

I know this is madness. And I keep promising myself, "no more reading challenges." But 3M at 1 More Chapter is hosting the Book Awards Reading Challenge II, to run from 1 August 2008 through 1 June 2009. And since I missed the first go-round, I'm going to give myself permission to take part in this second incarnation.

The full guidelines plus listings of some of the eligible awards, can be found on the challenge announcement page. Participants will read ten books from at least five different award groups. Overlaps with other challenges are allowed, and there are hundreds of books to choose from!

My list is (as usual) subject to change and also (as usual) a lot longer than it really needs to be, but these are the titles I'm considering:

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller (Hugo Award, 1961)
An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro (Costa/Whitbread Prize, 1986)
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner (Pulitzer Prize, 1972)
Atonement, by Ian McEwan (National Book Critics' Circle Award, 2002)
The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald (National Book Critics' Circle Award, 1997)
Central Europe, by William Vollmann (National Book Award, 2005)
The Double, by José Saramago (Nobel Prize, 1998)
The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing (Nobel Prize, 2007)
The Great Victorian Collection, by Brian Moore (Governor General's Award, 1975)
Moon Tiger, by Penelope Lively (Man-Booker Prize, 1987)
The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene (James Tait Black Memorial Award, 1948)
The Mandelbaum Gate, by Muriel Spark (James Tait Black Memorial Award, 1965)
The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot, by Angus Wilson (James Tait Black Memorial Award, 1958)
The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner (National Book Award, 1977)
Them, by Joyce Carol Oates (National Book Award, 1970)
Three Junes, by Julia Glass (National Book Award, 2002)
The Wapshot Chronicle, by John Cheever (National Book Award, 1958)
The Way Through the Woods, by Colin Dexter (Gold Dagger Award, 1992)
The Wench is Dead, by Colin Dexter (Gold Dagger Award, 1989)

As well as a few that I'm already reading for other challenges:

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle (Newbery Award, 1963)
Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner (Man-Booker Prize, 1984)
The Master, by Colm Tóibín (IMPAC Dublin Award, 2006)
The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis (Man-Booker, 1986)

Monday, May 26, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Rebecca and John

Random Photo Monday has moved! It can now be found on my other blog, Joysweb. Hope you'll check it out.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Sunday Salon: I Love a Mystery

Does anybody else remember the old radio show with that name? I'm not really even sure that I do – maybe it's one of those situations where I've heard so much about it that I just think I remember sitting there every night, in my father's favorite easy chair, with all my three- or four-year-old attention focused on our little RCA portable. Perhaps that might seem a tad too young to be tuning in to murder and mayhem every night, but in early 1950s Texas, you took your entertainment where you found it!

All of which has pretty much nothing to do with anything I was intending to write. But I've often wondered what it was that made me such a lover of mysteries and suspense stories. My mother was never a huge fan – she preferred romance novels. And I don't think my father ever opened a book after he finished school; but if he had, it probably would have been a western. So it's not genetic.

But I certainly do love a good mystery novel, and I've got several going at the moment. I'm almost a hundred pages into The Bookman's Wake – a Cliff Janeway mystery by John Dunning. Janeway is (rather implausibly – but hey, this is fiction, folks) an ex-cop turned rare-book dealer who lives and owns a bookshop in Denver, Colorado. The stories are a strangely appealing mixture of hard-boiled detective fiction and esoteric book lore. This is the third Janeway novel I've read – I really enjoyed the first two and this one looks to be the best of the lot. So as soon as I get done here, I'm heading right back to read a little more after dinner.

I'm also reading Flowers For His Funeral, by Ann Granger. What a contrast. This is one of the Meredith Mitchell/Alan Markby series, set in England. I haven't gotten very far into it, but I've liked all the other Mitchell-Markby novels I've read, so I expect to like this one, too (unrepentant Anglophile that I am).

The third whodunit I've got going at the moment is Wish You Were Here, by Rita Mae Brown (and her cat Sneaky Pie Brown). It's one of the Mrs. Murphy series (in fact, the first title in the series, I believe) – Mrs. Murphy being a cat who "owns" the other central character of the novels, Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen. Harry is the postmistress of Crozet, Virginia, where the novels are set; and she and Mrs. Murphy, along with Harry's Welsh corgi Tee Tucker are constantly turning up one heinous crime after another among the fair citizens of Crozet. I've only read one other Mrs. Murphy book, but there are about fifteen or sixteen works in the series by now. Who knew the back roads of the Old Dominion led to such an alarming amount of nefarious shenanigans?

Of course, I have a few other books going right now, in addition to the mysteries. I seem to keep getting involved in almost every reading challenge that comes my way – so I'm in the midst of several challenge books, too. But it keeps me off the streets and away from the TV screen. And since there's no Jane Austen on PBS on Sunday nights anymore (at least not around here, darn it), I should have a nice long, mysterious evening to look forward to.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Happy Birthday, Bernie and Sir Arthur!

"Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."
--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (born May 22, 1859)

"And everywhere I look there's something to learn
A sliver of truth from every bridge we burn
--Bernie Taupin (born May 22, 1950)

Booking Through Thursday: Books vs Movies

This week's BTT topic:
Books and films both tell stories, but what we want from a book can be different from what we want from a movie. Is this true for you? If so, what’s the difference between a book and a movie?

Well, of course, not all books or all films tell stories. But we all know that, so I won't elaborate.

This question was hard for me to answer because I really felt that comparing books and movies would be a little like comparing apples and aardvarks. They just seem like completely different life forms.

So I had to do a little considering. And after thinking about it for a while, I'm pretty sure that basically what I want from both books and movies is to be entertained and/or amused. Or, failing that, at least mentally engaged for a period of time. It's also nice if they affect me emotionally and ultimately leave me with a fresh perspective or way of thinking about the world, but that's asking a lot and doesn't happen very often.

As a "bookish" person, my first impulse was to say I much prefer books to movies, and feel they have greater potential for emotional and intellectual impact. But to be honest, a good film can affect me just as strongly as a good book can. So while I think of them as very different entities, I guess I'd have to say that what I expect from them is not really so dissimilar after all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Discussion Groups

"Tuesday Thingers"? Really? Hmmmmm.

Well, for the second edition of Tuesday Thingers, Marie at Boston Bibliophile (and thanks, Marie, for taking this on) asks:

Discussion groups. Do you belong to any (besides Early Reviewers)? Approximately how many? Are there any in particular that you participate in more avidly? How often do you check?

I had to go to my profile and check my groups listing to answer this, so I guess I'd have to say I'm not really what you'd call an active participant in any LT groups. But I "belong" to eight, besides the Early Reviewer group: Blog the Book, Bloggers, Children's Fiction, Cozy Mysteries, Crime Thriller & Mystery, FantasyFans, Read YA Lit, and Science Fiction Fans.

I think some of these groups are pretty dormant right now, but then I haven't really checked most of them for quite a while. The only group I really keep up with is the Early Reviewer group, mostly to read what other people are saying – I'm a notorious "lurker."

But even though I probably use it more for its organizational value than for social networking, I have to say LibraryThing is seductive and quite addictive. And also relaxing in a strange way. Is there a Zen of cataloguing?

I've been spending more and more time listing our books – I've almost got 500 titles now, which is a mark I thought would take me years to reach! It gives me a strange sense of accomplishment to see my list growing, one book at a time. Makes me wish I hadn't left library school all those years ago.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Catch-up Reading

As I think I've said before somewhere on this blog (probably many times), I'm always doing catch-up reading. For some reason, I can't seem to keep up on anything like a timely basis with all the newspapers and magazines that come through here. So at least one day a week – frequently on Monday – I try to sit down and leaf through the back-up.

And this morning one article from last Thursday's (May 15) New York Times jumped out at me right away. In "A 30,000-Volume Window on the World," Alberto Manguel writes about his love of books and about the library he's spent his life accumulating. The collection now lives in a converted barn on his property in France – "an old stone presbytery" – which he chose primarily because it would be the perfect place for his books ("I knew that once the books found their place, I would find mine").

Manguel has written at length about libraries (his own included) in his recent book, The Library at Night, published last month by Yale University Press – a book I'm certain to read as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. As a book addict, I know Manguel is a kindred spirit. How could I not love a guy who buys a house with a barn big enough to accommodate his 30,000 books (that's thirty thousand books), and then admits even that's not enough space: "Barely seven years after setting it up, it has already spread into the main body of the house, which I had hoped to keep free of bookshelves."

Like Manguel, I really can't remember a time when I didn't have a library of my own – from that very first collection of board books and Little Goldens, I've always had a book collection. And, as he says, "In every place I settled, a library began to grow almost on its own." Years ago, my husband and I used to enjoy the wonderful privilege of spending the summers in England; and every year, by summer's finish, we'd end up with stacks of books decorating every surface in our room in the B&B, and taking up precious space in our suitcases on the journey home.

One thing in the article I can't really identify with, however. Manguel writes:

"These days, after my 60th birthday, I tend to seek the comfort of the books I’ve already read rather than set out to discover new ones. In my library, I revisit old acquaintances who will not distract me with superficial surprises."

I find that, for myself, just the opposite is true. The older I get, the more eager I am to sample new books and authors that I've never read before. I'm encouraged that at my advanced age, I seem to be ready for new discoveries and experiences, and new surprises. Well, the literary kind, anyway.

Random Photo Monday: Book Line-up

These are some (most, I think) of the books that have come into our place since the first of the year. I know the photo is a little blurry, but then I'm feeling a little blurry myself this morning.

The group doesn't include several Library of America editions we've received, and a few books M. bought and took to his office or filed away in his study.

Altogether about forty books, I believe. Not an unreasonable number, but way more than we should be acquiring right now. With M's retirement and a move back to Texas right around the corner, we really should be narrowing our library down - not adding to it. But books just seem to follow me home (honest they do!).

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labor Redux

This week's BTT topic:
Following up last week’s question about reading writing/grammar guides, this week, we’re expanding the question….
Scenario: You’ve just bought some complicated gadget home . . . do you read the accompanying documentation? Or not?
Do you ever read manuals?
How-to books?
Self-help guides?
Anything at all?

Do I ever read manuals? Gee, I'm tempted just to say No and let it go at that! But that wouldn't be the whole truth, I suppose. In reality, it probably depends on how urgent the situation is (i.e., how quickly I need to use said gadget), and what language the instructions are in, and how long the instructions are, and whether or not I need to put my glasses on to see the print.

I generally only read instructions and the manuals that come with "gadgets" when I absolutely have to. That's usually when I can't get my hubby to read them first and then tell me what they say! I say "usually" because if it's something I'm really excited about, I might do the unusual and read the manual myself – I read the instruction booklet that came with my new digital camera, and discovered I really needed an instruction booklet to help me figure out the instructions in the instruction booklet.

How-to books? Again, if it's something I'm really jazzed about (can't think what that would be at the moment, but I know there must be something), I'd certainly look at a how-to book.

Self-help guides? OK, here I can definitely say No – I think the last self-help book I read was I'm OK, You're OK, back in the '70s. That was about the time I decided I was as OK as I was ever gonna get, and it was OK to give up on self-help books.

Addendum: I noticed someone asked about cookbooks. Well, if you include cookbooks under the heading of instruction manuals, I'd have to say yes and no. I have been known to read an occasional recipe (although mostly for the amusement value, since cooking isn't one of my strong points). But the instructions on frozen food packets are absolutely some of my most frequent reading material!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tuesdays at LibraryThing

Marie, an Early Reviewer for LibraryThing, has offered to host a weekly online get-together of LT book bloggers at her web site, The Boston Bibliophile. As she says, "anyone is welcome to participate but the idea is to catch up with each other on what's new in our LT libraries- new books, books just finished, thoughts, anything like that." To participate, simply write a post in your blog, then go to her entry ("Thinging Through Tuesday") and leave her a comment containing the link to your post.

Well, I've been hanging out at LibraryThing quite a lot lately, checking out the various discussion groups and cataloging a few more books in my personal library listing. I'm doing the cataloging in spurts – and at this rate, it's going to take me about 10 years to list all our books. I'm tremendously impressed with all those people who've listed thousands of titles. But I think if I had that much time on my hands, I'd be more likely to devote it to actually reading the books (or maybe blogging about them).

I recently signed up with the Early Reviewer group at LT, and received my first book in the April hand-out – The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. You can read my review of it here.

My blog isn't exclusively a "book blog," but it is bookish. In fact, I've really been using the blog as a way of getting myself back into reading – something I'd let slide, over the last few years. I try to post reviews of most of the books I read, but I'm a very slow reader – so the reviews don't appear at a rapid rate, I'm afraid.

I have pretty eclectic tastes in reading matter – literary fiction, mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy, children's and young adult literature, humor, biography, history, cultural studies, even some poetry. Not really into romance novels, although I've read quite a few in the past. And I mostly try to stay away from what's known as "chick lit." Well, I think I'm a little too old to qualify as a chick anyway.

I'd like to say thanks very much to Marie for coming up with the idea and hosting. Hope to see a lot of LT bloggers participating.

Bookworms Carnival

Bookworms Carnival is a monthly online event organized by Dewey over at The Hidden Side of a Leaf. The Carnival's aim is "to build the community of book bloggers," but you don't need a dedicated book blog to participate. Each month a different theme is featured: This month's Carnival has "Contemporary/Urban Fantasy" as its theme. You can take a look at the latest edition here. Many thanks to Scott at Scooter Chronicles for hosting!

The next Carnival (Edition #12) is being hosted by Nymeth; the theme will be "Fairy Tales," and the deadline for submissions is June 13. Anyone interested in participating can find more information and guidelines by visiting Nymeth's 12th Bookworms Carnival Info page. And for a look at past Carnivals, see Dewey's Information for Carnival Participants.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Rain, Rain, Go Away!

This is not what I'm seeing in the sky this morning. But it's what I wish I were seeing. Yes, we probably need the rain, but we could do without the floods. My seasonal affective disorder is revving up into high gear!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Sunday Salon: Taking Stock

I'm a little late getting to the Salon this week, and I dithered a bit about whether or not even to write a post. Today hasn't been a big reading day for me – too many other things contending, what with Sunday errands and the basketball playoffs! My reading has been confined to scanning the Sunday book review supplements, and catching up on a few of the recent New Yorkers that have been piling up.

I've also been doing a little stock taking – looking at how my reading life is going this year. And I'm pleased to see that I've done quite a bit better than I did last year. By May of 2007, I had read exactly one book! And while I'm not making nearly the progress I'd like, I've now read twenty books in 2008, with another two almost finished. So that's –what? – almost a book a week. Still need to make myself sit down and write a few reviews, but I think I'm making progress. Maybe my brain isn't turning to absolute mush after all.

I did get a couple of book reviews written and posted to my blog this week. One book – The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry – was an Early Reviewer selection from LibraryThing. Good book – you can find my review here. The other – Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman – was my first experience with Hoffman's works, and I've become a real fan (see my review here). I definitely want to read more of her books – I'll probably be buying the new novel she has out now, The Third Angel (although I may try to get it from the library, since I've already gone over my self-imposed limit of new books for this month).

I have about two dozen books lined up to read for the various challenges I've signed up for this year, in addition to a number of short stories. That sounds do-able, even if I don't step up my pace as much as I hope to – especially since some of those books are kiddie lit or young adult titles. On the other hand, one of those books is Cornelia Funke's Inkheart, which at something over 550 pages is likely to be a much more formidable read than, say, Winnie-the-Pooh!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Review: Practical Magic

Written by Alice Hoffman
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995, 244 pp.

Alice Hoffman begins her novel Practical Magic by telling us that "For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town," and then she proceeds to show us why.

The book is the story of two sisters, Sally and Gillian Owens, "only thirteen months apart in age." Sally, the older of the two, is dark-haired, level-headed and practical. Gillian is blond, self-indulgent and dangerously beautiful ("Boys looked at her and got so dizzy they had to be rushed to the emergency room for a hit of oxygen or a pint of new blood."). Sally and Gillian are orphans, raised by their two aged aunts – Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet (short for Bridget) – in a world of charms, spells and magic powers.

Each of the girls, for her own reasons, longs to escape this bizarre existence. And eventually they do. Sally marries, has two daughters of her own, and is widowed. She gets a job as assistant to the vice-principal of a high school, and goes about fulfilling "her personal heart's desire" – "being like everyone else." Gillian runs away, marries several times, works as a waitress, and constantly gets involved with men who are all wrong for her – one of them very wrong, indeed. Many years later, the sisters and their aunts are reunited after a weird and disastrous accident causes Gillian to call on Sally for help.

This basic synopsis makes the novel sound much more straightforward and commonplace than it is. Hoffman writes in a style that some have called "Yankee Magic Realism," and the story of the Owens women is touched, over and over, with magic. Lilacs bloom out of season in a lush profusion that causes women to stand weeping on the sidewalks beneath the bushes. A deathwatch beetle found beside someone's chair is an inescapable prediction of doom. A toad shows up on a windowsill and spits out a silver ring.

And men fall helplessly in love with the Owens women, often at first sight and frequently to their own detriment. When Aunt Jet was sixteen, two local boys committed suicide over her: "One tied iron bars to his ankles and drowned himself in a quarry. The other was done in on the train tracks outside of town by the 10:02 to Boston." It's a trait the ladies have passed on to their nieces.

I hadn't read any of Hoffman's books before I read Practical Magic, and I haven't seen the movie that was based on it. So I came to the novel with no real preconceptions or expectations, and was pleasantly surprised. Sort of a gothic romp, it's a little like a screwball comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock – a darkly humorous tale featuring the most average-American-type witches I've ever come across. It's probably not everyone's cup of chamomile, but I loved it and I'll definitely be reading more Alice Hoffman in the future.

This review is included in the 11th edition of Bookworms Carnival.
Also one of the books I'm reading for the 342,745 Ways to Herd Cats Challenge.

Booking Through Thursday: Manual Labor

This week's BTT topic:
Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?

Do I read them? No, not since my undergraduate days. (Back when they used to teach you how to write with quill pens!) I know there've been several very popular recent books on writing, and I've glanced at a couple in the bookstore, but haven't read any of them.

How many do I have in my library? Well, make that our library, and the answer is lots, especially if you include things like books on literary theory, grammatology, etc. M. taught college English for many years, so over time we've acquired quite a few various guides, dictionaries, books on rhetoric, and the like. (My favorite was always the compact edition of the OED with its little built-in drawer housing the magnifying glass you need for reading the entries.)

And since we were both English majors and both find it almost impossible to part with a book, we've still got a lot of the texts we used back in the day. But it's been a while since I curled up on a winter's day with a cuppa tea and my old copy of Strunk & White.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review: The Lace Reader

Written by Brunonia Barry
Published by William Morrow

“My name is Towner Whitney. No, that’s not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time.”

These opening lines from Brunonia Barry’s debut novel, The Lace Reader, perfectly set the tone for the rest of the work. Nothing in the book is what it seems at first view – events and people constantly shift and turn and realign themselves, as the reader is drawn ever more deeply into the world of Towner Whitney.

The Lace Reader is an ingeniously plotted tale, nearly impossible to review without giving away too many details. Which would be a horrible thing to do because this a terrific read. The story twists and changes on almost every page. The ending is a stunning roller coaster ride that made me want to turn back to the beginning and read the whole thing over again. And the characters are so life-like and well-drawn, by the end of the book I was almost beginning (somewhat disturbingly) to compare them with members of my own family.

The book’s central character, Towner Whitney, is an emotionally damaged young woman in her thirties who is living in California – a self-exile from her home in Salem, Massachusetts, and her eccentric, troubled family. She’s recovering from recent surgery when she’s called home to Salem after the family matriarch, her beloved 85-year-old Great Aunt Eva, is reported missing. Towner returns home reluctantly, having left under traumatic circumstances fifteen years earlier. The search for Eva brings Towner back to Salem physically and also stirs up memories of past events and relationships – memories she’s been holding at bay for many years.

The women in Towner Whitney’s family have a unique gift – they’re able to “read lace.” Specifically Ipswich lace, the lace made by the women of Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the 1700s. And Towner’s Great Aunt Eva, who runs a ladies’ tearoom and holds etiquette classes for the “wealthy children of Boston’s North Shore,” is the most famous of the lace readers – she can “read” a person’s past, present and future “just by holding the lace in front of you and squinting her eyes.”

Towner’s mother May Whitney is also able to read lace, although over the years she has come to believe “that knowing what is in people’s minds or their futures is not always in anyone’s best interest.” On her small island retreat, a few miles beyond Salem’s harbor, May runs a shelter for abused women and children, and teaches the women to make lace. The relationship between mother and daughter has always been troubled, and May’s refusal to leave her island home makes Towner’s return to Salem necessary and even more troublesome.

As backdrop to the main story, Barry provides us with quite a lot of “atmosphere” material concerning the town of Salem and its history – known primarily for the infamous witch trials. But Salem was also an early center of this country’s shipping trade, and therefore a very prosperous place in the 18th and early 19th centuries. With Towner’s return, we get glimpses of the present city as well as flashbacks to Salem in the 1970s. And, of course, the Salem witches are a presence throughout the book – not just the unfortunate victims of the witch hunts of old, but modern “witches,” as well: the followers of the Wiccan religion.

Over and over again, I was impressed with Barry’s sure hand with detail. For instance, I loved the description of Eva’s labels for the tomatoes and eggplants in her garden – “TOM and EGG respectively, as if they were little people.” Or the way Detective Rafferty runs his cup under hot water before pouring in the coffee. And the book includes one of the best descriptions of the onset of a migraine that I’ve ever found in a novel.

In reading The Lace Reader, I did something I hardly ever do – that is, take a chance on a book I knew almost nothing about. Generally, I do quite a lot of research and review-reading before adding a book to my want-to-read list. In this case, I’m very glad I broke my pattern. The book is an exploration of many themes, including love and abandonment, truth and illusion; itself as intricate as a piece of lace – part psychological drama, part police procedural, part family saga. All very adroitly and skillfully handled by a terrific new author. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I have a feeling Brunonia Barry isn’t going to be an unknown novelist for very long. I’m already eagerly awaiting her next book!

Just one last thought. I usually try to restrict this sort of thing to mental exercise. But I have to say it. This book would make a wonderful movie – it would provide some really terrific roles for “mature” actresses. I’d love to see Marian Seldes as Eva. But if Meryl Streep or Anjelica Huston or Blythe Danner doesn’t buy up the film rights immediately, they’re missing a bet!

I received this book as part of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. I believe it's scheduled for general release in July.
I'm also listing it as one of my books in the Eponymous Reading Challenge.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Number 100

This post has no purpose other than to mark the fact that I've now made one hundred posts to this blog!

Wow. Back in January 2006, when I started the blog, I would never have imagined that someday I'd be posting my 100th entry. At that time, I hadn't even read many blogs. So I had no idea what I'd do with one. And here I am, more than two years later, still sort of trying to figure that out.

Random Photo Monday: Sidewalk Café

This past Saturday we had nearly perfect weather – the only thing that could have made it absolute perfection would have been a little less pollen in the air (achoo!). So M. and I took advantage of the odd situation by having lunch at a nearby Mexican food restaurant, where we were able to sit at an outdoor table and watch the world go by while we enjoyed our tamales and enchiladas.

This is not a photo of that restaurant. But since I don't have a photo of that particular restaurant, I'm putting up a shot of my favorite sidewalk café instead.

The restaurant in this photo is Casa Rio, on the river in San Antonio, Texas. I haven't eaten there in many years, although every time we're in town we go take a look at it. I have many fond memories of Casa Rio from my childhood – it's where we always ate when we went downtown to shop. Usually me, my mother, and my Aunt B. and my cousin MLB. My cousin and I would stuff ourselves with chili con queso and guacamole, and then inevitably go home with tummy aches. But only after finishing off a couple of sugary pralines for dessert. Ah, happy days!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Sunday Salon: First Salon in May

Another Sunday and another Salon. I have to say, since joining the Salon a couple of months ago, I've really enjoyed spending time here every Sunday. Not that I've always had something pithy to contribute (well, I've never actually had anything pithy to contribute). And I don't always get around to reading every single post. But I try to read as many as possible, and comment on as many as possible, too. I love the wide array of ideas and tastes represented – and that each member seems to have a slightly different take on what to bring to the table, as it were.

Just a brief post this week. We've finally had a really beautiful day on a Sunday for a change, and I've mostly just been enjoying the great weather.

But I have been doing a bit of reading, too, and plan to do more this evening. I'm trying to finish up the last hundred pages or so of The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. It's the book I snagged in LibraryThing's "Early Reviewer" program for April, and I'm eager to get it read and reviewed. So far, I've liked it much more than I expected to. And I feel fortunate to have received it so fast, since some members of the group are apparently still waiting for February and March offerings!

Well, that's it for this week. Think I'm going to go make myself a large gin & tonic and take my book out on the balcony for a while. Oh, yeah – the swallows came back this week, and they're out there right now, swooping and diving around the poplars – so I know spring is really here!

Happy Salon-ing, everyone!

2008 Edgar Award Winners Announced

The winners of the 2008 Edgar Awards have been announced by the Mystery Writers of America. The 62nd Annual Awards banquet was held last Thursday in New York, where outgoing MWA president Nelson DeMille passed the torch to the incoming president, Edgar winner Harlan Coben.

And the winners (and some of the nominees) were…

Best Novel
Winner: Down River, by John Hart (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Other Nominees:
Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt and Company)
Priest, by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur)
The Yiddish Policemen's Union, by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)
Soul Patch, by Reed Farrel Coleman (Bleak House Books)

Best First Novel By An American Author
Winner: In the Woods, by Tana French (Penguin Group - Viking)
Other Nominees:
Missing Witness, by Gordon Campbell (HarperCollins - William Morrow)
Snitch Jacket, by Christopher Goffard (The Rookery Press)
Head Games, by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books)
Pyres, by Derek Nikitas (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Paperback Original
Winner: Queenpin, by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)
Other Nominees:
Blood of Paradise, by David Corbett (Random House - Mortalis)
Cruel Poetry, by Vicki Hendricks (Serpent's Tail)
Robbie's Wife, by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime)
Who is Conrad Hirst?, by Kevin Wignall (Simon & Schuster)

Best Short Story
Winner: "The Golden Gopher," by Susan Straight, Anthology: Los Angeles Noir (Akashic Books)
Other Nominees:
"Blue Note," by Stuart M. Kaminsky, Anthology: Chicago Blues (Bleak House Books)
"Hardly Knew Her," by Laura Lippman, Anthology: Dead Man's Hand (Harcourt, Inc.)
"The Catch," by Mark Ammons, Anthology: Still Waters (Level Best Books)
"Uncle," by Daniel Woodrell, Anthology: A Hell of a Woman (Bleak House Books)

Best Critical/Biographical
Winner: Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley (The Penguin Press)

Best Fact Crime
Winner: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, by Vincent Bugliosi (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Best Young Adult
Winner: Rat Life, by Tedd Arnold (Penguin - Dial Books for Young Readers)

Best Juvenile
Winner: The Night Tourist, by Katherine Marsh (Hyperion Books for Young Readers)

In addition to the major categories, a number of special awards were announced. The award for Best Play was given to Panic, written by Joseph Goodrich and performed at the International Mystery Writers Festival. And the award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay went to Michael Clayton, written by Tony Gilroy (Warner Bros. Pictures).

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Mayday!

This week's BTT question:
Quick! It’s an emergency! You just got an urgent call about a family emergency and had to rush to the airport with barely time to grab your wallet and your passport. But now, you’re stuck at the airport with nothing to read. What do you do??
And, no, you did NOT have time to grab your bookbag, or the book next to your bed. You were . . . grocery shopping when you got the call and have nothing with you but your wallet and your passport (which you fortuitously brought with you in case they asked for ID in the ethnic food aisle). This is hypothetical, remember….

OK, in the first place, I would never go out grocery shopping with nothing but a wallet. I'm too girly for that (well, old girly). I would have my handbag or shoulder bag or some sort of purse type thing with me, and my phone (assuming I remembered to take it along) would be buried down under all the other junk I carry around.

And I'm not the sort of person who goes around with a cell phone permanently attached to my ear. In fact, I'm really not much of a phone person at all. To me, the telephone is mainly for conducting business and handling emergencies. Phone chatting is something I never really took to. Even as a teenager. Somehow, I find talking to a disembodied voice rather unsettling.

I know that's strange and disturbing and un-American, but there it is.

So the point here is – I would not be likely to hear the phone ringing while I was shopping. Whoever was delivering the news would probably have to call my home phone. I would get the message on my answering machine (yes, I still have an answering machine attached to a landline phone – and no, I don't remember VJ Day). I would get the message when I got home from the shopping. So I would definitely have a chance to grab a book on my way to the airport.

And then there's the whole problem of that phrase "family emergency." That sounds scary and I might not feel like reading if the emergency was too upsetting. I might just feel like spending the flight in a Vicodin haze.

But, since we're speaking hypothetically here . . . .

I can't imagine an airport without a book store or a newsstand, can you? So one never has to board a plane empty-handed, reading-matter-wise, does one? I'd buy a book! Probably a mystery novel, if I could find one. Or sci-fi. Something to take my mind off the family emergency and the fact that I was actually having to (oh, my God!) get on a plane.

And I'd probably buy several magazines as well – I find I do better on a plane flight if I'm reading something with lots of pictures to distract me. Otherwise, I spend too much time helping the pilot keep the plane in the air.