Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Sunday Salon: The Books of Summer

I've been going around all day, singing that Don Henley song about the boys of summer (“I feel it in the air / the summer’s out of reach” – watch the video). I always find it so depressing when we come to the end of August – summer’s almost gone (OK, that’s the Doors, not the Eagles). Even though, where we live, summer weather will still be with us for a while longer (at least off and on), the beginning of September undoubtedly will bring with it that feeling of the air getting brisker and life speeding up again. The wonderfully languid days of summer are already fading to a fond memory as I write this.

And speaking of fond memories, we’ve just come home from a week at the beach, and I’ve still got tons of laundry calling me away from other more enjoyable activities. So I haven’t done much reading today – just a couple more chapters of The Gargoyle, out by the pool this morning (a really good book, but a really long one). And the book review supplements in the Sunday papers, of course. The Washington Post has a “Fall Preview” section in today’s Book World – I love fall previews, even TV Guide and the fashion mags can keep me riveted for hours when I have no intention of watching any of the new shows or wearing any of the new designer offerings.

My only other bookish activity today has been to pull together a list of the books I read this summer. Thirteen books, counting the one I’m reading at the moment (which I should be able to finish tonight).

Hmmmm. Thirteen. Well, just to avoid bad luck, I guess I better try to sneak in another title or two before Labor Day is over. Maybe a couple of the children’s books I’ve got on my list for the Young Readers Challenge – they should go quickly, right? I’ve also got an ARC of American Wife (another chunkster) that I was planning to read this summer, but still haven’t managed to start. I know it’s officially out this month. I still fully intend to read it – but that’s not gonna happen between now and the end of the Labor Day holiday. (What can I say? I’m old but I’m slow.)

Anyway, here’s the list – my books of the summer of 2008:

The Bookman’s Wake, by John Dunning
Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper [see review]
The Grey King, by Susan Cooper [see review]
My Fantoms, by Theophile Gautier [see review]
The Fires, by Alan Cheuse [see review]
2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke
Wish You Were Here, by Rita Mae Brown
The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman [see review]
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows [see review]
So Long at the Fair, by Christina Schwarz
Summer Reading, by Hilma Wolitzer
Love and the Incredibly Old Man, by Lee Siegel [see review]
The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson

I'd be hard pressed to say which was my favorite. There were really no clinkers in the bunch. I think, of all of them, the only one I was disappointed with was So Long at the Fair (review to come this week – maybe it just wasn’t my kind of book.) The book that I was most surprised by was The Aviary Gate. It really reminded me that the old warning about not judging books by covers is not to be forgotten. But I guess if I had to choose just one as my favorite, it would have to be The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – in fact, I think I may have to add it to my life list of favorites. It’s always nice when a book sneaks up on you and lands a killer punch to your heartstrings just when you’re not expecting it.

So that’s my summer’s list. And how many books did you get through this summer? Any favorites to recommend? New discoveries? Warnings about books to avoid? Now I guess it’s time to start planning those “Books to Read” lists for autumn. A little personal “Fall Preview” for the season ahead.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: LibraryThing Authors

Today’s topic from Boston Bibliophile: LibraryThing authors. Who are your LibraryThing authors? What books of theirs do you have? Do you ever comment on an author’s LT page? Have you received any comments from an author on your LT account?

Well, as far as I know, I don’t have any LT authors. Once again I have to confess, until today I’ve never looked at the list of LT authors. It’s a pretty long list, isn’t it? But after a quick scan, I don’t really notice anybody that sounds familiar. Well, just Meg Waite Clayton – I haven’t read her books, but I do recognize the name.

And I’ve never commented on an author’s page. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever commented on anybody’s LT page – I keep a pretty low profile on LT. And I believe the only comment from an author I’ve received (again Meg Clayton) wasn’t on my LT account, but rather on my blog review of The Lace Reader.

So I guess you could say I haven’t really been paying much attention to the whole LT authors feature. But now that I know about it, I’ll keep it in mind for future reference.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Random Photo Monday: Shore Leave

This is beach week (hooray!). We’ll be heading for Rehoboth, DE tomorrow on our annual trek. Don’t know how much blogging I’ll be doing for the next few days. A week without blogging or email seems pretty traumatic and maybe even un-American, but we’ll just have to see how well the hotel Internet access works. Oh, well – at least I’ll get lots of reading (and shopping!) done.

Here’s a shot from one of our previous trips. This guy seemed really interested in my photo-taking, and posed for a very long time while I hassled with camera, beach bag, hat, and various other paraphernalia. But our neighbors on the beach that day were handing out French fries to all the shore birds in the vicinity – so maybe he thought the camera might actually be a treat-dispensing machine of some sort. No such luck from me, I’m afraid. I learned my lesson in that department from the pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Review: The Fires

Written by Alan Cheuse
Published by The Santa Fe Writers Project, 2007, 113 pages

The pair of short novellas that together make up Alan Cheuse’s The Fires are excellently crafted and emotionally compelling works exploring themes of memory, love, loss, and renewal. As I read them I was often reminded of J.D. Salinger – almost as if we’d dropped back in on Franny and Zooey, now in their middle years with adult problems (and problem children) of their own. I’m not sure whether or not Cheuse would like to hear that, but for me it’s a great compliment.

In the first work (also titled “The Fires”), Gina Morgan, middle aged and menopausal, must travel to Uzbekistan to deal with the complications of retrieving her dead husband’s body after he’s killed in an auto accident. If that’s not bad enough, she also has the problem of carrying out his last wish – to be cremated – in a Muslim country where cremation isn’t practiced. In “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson must deal with the aftermath of his daughter’s expulsion from college for setting fire to a grand piano in the college concert hall. Thus, the two instances of fire, another uniting element.

There was really only one part of the two novellas that I felt was something of a let down, and that was Cheuse’s use of the sudden, unexpected return of menstrual flow as a convenient metaphor for renewal and rebirth. (Didn’t Erica Jong use this, too? Maybe I’m not remembering exactly – it’s been a lot of years since I read about Isadora Wing and her high-flying zipless sexual escapades.) Anyway, it bothered me, and it was the only part of the story that seemed a bit forced. And I also kept worrying about when the poor woman was going to find a pharmacy in the midst of all her other problems.

I enjoyed The Fires so much I immediately sat down and read it over a second time – something I rarely do, even with short works. And I think it will stand up to many re-readings. These are very fine stories by a gifted and insightful writer.

Book Bloggers Appreciation Week, September 15-19

Just a brief post to make mention of Book Bloggers Appreciation Week, an event originated by My Friend Amy and coming up the week of September 15th. You can read all about it in Amy’s announcement post, here. As she says:

Acknowledging the hard work of book bloggers and their growing impact on book marketing and their essential contribution to book buzz in general, I am excited to announce the first Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Think of it as a retreat for book bloggers and a chance for us to totally nerd out over books together. And of course, shower each other with love and appreciation.

I’m not exactly sure what form all this appreciation is going to take, or what will ultimately come of it, but I’ve signed up just so I can find out. You can, too, by visiting My Friend Amy.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Libraries

This week’s BTT topic:

Whether you usually read off of your own book pile or from the library shelves NOW, chances are you started off with trips to the library. (There’s no way my parents could otherwise have kept up with my book habit when I was 10.) So . . . What is your earliest memory of a library? Who took you? Do you have you any funny/odd memories of the library?
Well, I suppose my earliest memory of a library (that is, a public library) would have to be the San Pedro Park branch of the San Antonio TX public library system. And I’m not sure how old I was when I was first taken there – but probably sometime while I was in the second or third grade. Earlier than that, I had to rely on my own little collection of picture books and the ancient children’s books that were passed down to me by my older cousins. It’s strange – I don’t really think of my family as being particularly bookish. But we always had books around. I was read to from infancy, and some of my favorite possessions, from the cradle on, were books.

The San Pedro Park Branch Library is housed in a very pretty little Spanish-style building constructed in 1930, and located in the middle of the oldest municipal park in Texas (and, so the story goes, the second oldest municipal park in the US, after Boston Commons). It consists of two separate wings built around a central atrium or hallway – one wing for adult literature, and one for children’s books. As a child, I spent countless Saturday mornings and afternoons, happily browsing its collections. I can still remember exactly where certain titles were located on the shelves. And although I’m sure I must have visited during the school year, in my memory it’s always summer when I’m at the library.

I usually went to the library with my cousin MLB, and we were always accompanied by our mothers – the library was too far to walk to, by San Antonio standards, so we had to be driven. And after a brief visit inside, our moms would retire to a shady spot outside the library and wait while my cousin and I got lost among the books. At some point, having wasted an entire morning or afternoon waiting for us to choose our books, either my mother or my aunt would storm into the library to hurry us up. Of course, the nice thing about being in a library was that we could shush our mothers with impunity and linger just a little longer.

After I got to be a teenager, I started going to other libraries, primarily the main library downtown. And then another, newer branch library (the Westfall Branch) closer to the part of town my future husband liked to hang out in. We would frequently go there on Friday-night study dates. In fact, we were so habitual in our routine that his buddies would sometimes stop by the library in search of him. No doubt with some dastardly hi-jinks in mind. But I digress, as usual.

The old main library in downtown San Antonio was all boarded up the last time I visited. I’m sure the downtown developers have something in mind for it – it’s a great old 1930s classic-revival style building and backs up onto the San Antonio River Walk which has experienced a fantastic facelift in recent years. And the Westfall branch has undergone renovation and expansion several times since the 1970s, and no longer resembles the small mid-century modern style library I knew. But the San Pedro Park library is still there, looking amazingly like it did when I was a child. I always loved it, and it’s still one of my favorite libraries, even though I haven’t actually walked through its doors in over twenty years. On a recent visit, my cousin took some photos of the library and I’m including one below – I hope she doesn’t sue me for copyright infringement.

OK, while we're on the subject of libraries and our memories of them - there's this book that I've been trying for ages to track down and just cannot remember the title or author. Talking about the San Antonio library reminded me because that's where I first found the book. It was a children's book (well, for "young people," anyway) and would have been published probably in the 1950s or l960s. It was about three girls who were friends (or possibly sisters) and a ring they lost one summer and then found again a year or so later when they discovered it had fallen into the cracks in the floor of a porch or gazebo or something. Sound familiar? If you have any idea what book it might be, please please please let me know. It's been driving me crazy for years now.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: LT and Real Life

Tuesday again, and once more Boston Bibliophile has another thought-provoking question for the Thingers group:

LT and RL (real life) – do you have friends in real life that you met through LibraryThing? Have you attended any LT meet-ups in your area? Would you be open to attending meet-ups or is LT strictly an online thing for you?

Well, I only know of two “real-life” people who have LibraryThing accounts. One is my cousin, and she’s definitely a friend (and surrogate sister). And the other is a former colleague of my husband’s – and he was also a friend before either of us signed up for LT. But I don’t have any real-life friends that I’ve met through LT.

And I haven’t attended any meet-ups. Would I be open to attending one? Well, I don’t know. It would depend a lot on what sort of a meet-up it would be, I guess. And when and where (and how convenient). Generally, I’m not much of a joiner, online or in the real world. And I’m still a fairly recent arrival in cyberspace, so I think I’d be a little cautious about meeting someone I’ve only “talked to” via the Internet.

Still, I have met some very nice people through book blogging – especially the Thingers group, of course. And I certainly like the idea of being part of such a book-obsessed bunch of weirdos individuals. So even though I do sort of think of LibraryThing as “strictly an online thing” for me, I guess I can’t say I’d be absolutely opposed to meeting up in real life.

Can you get more wishy-washy than that?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Review: Love and the Incredibly Old Man

Written by Lee Siegel
Published by University of Chicago Press, 2008, 227 pages

Lee Siegel’s Love and the Incredibly Old Man is a novel about a professor and novelist named Lee Siegel who agrees to ghost write the memoirs of a man claiming to be Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador who explored Florida and, legend has it, went in search of the Fountain of Youth. According to Mr. de León’s story, he actually found the life-sustaining fountain and is now over five hundred years old. But the fountain, alas, has run dry; and now the ancient explorer is facing his fast-approaching end of days. He wants his story told, and he thinks Mr. Siegel is just the man to do it. And after he offers the writer a massive amount of money for the job, Mr. Siegel thinks Mr. Siegel is just the man to do it, too.

Mr. de León has had five wives over the centuries and loved countless other women (in fact, at times it seems he’s made love to just about every woman he ever met, including the Queen of Spain). He’s been an actor and masqueraded as a priest. He’s taken on many different identities over the centuries, to avoid having his secret found out. And he claims to have discovered cigars, rum, and popcorn.

The story unfolds mainly through daily interviews between Siegel and de León, alternating with the writer’s night-time attempts to pull together some kind of a manuscript that will pass muster with his employer. Juan Ponce has definite ideas about what he wants the book to be. It’s to be about love in all its forms (“Love and time, love and age, love and death. Love true and false, glorious and foolish, tragic and comic.”) and it must tell his unbelievable story in a way that will make people believe it.

Well, by the end of Love and the Incredibly Old Man, I think Mr. Siegel and Mr. Siegel have both done their jobs pretty well. It’s a tall tale, but one you’d really like to believe.

To be honest, I never would have chosen this book on my own. I received it through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program, and (even though it was one of the titles I requested) at first glance I really thought maybe the famous LT algorithm had experienced a major glitch this time. But I guess they knew what they were doing after all, because in the end I found myself really enjoying the book. Sometimes it’s good to step outside your comfort zone and treat yourself to something new and unfamiliar.

Still, it’s probably not a book for everyone – a lot of it is very bawdy and mildly pornographic. Not a lot happens – it’s mostly description, not action. And the first third of the book, with de León telling Siegel over and over how he wants the book written, I found really tedious after a while. But overall, it’s an imaginative, erotic, and very funny piece of metafiction.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Greetings from the Mosh Pit

I’ve already done my Salon post for today, and ordinarily that would probably be just about all I could manage on a Sunday. But I just read Chris Bohjalian’s guest essay in this week’s Washington Post Book World wherein he writes about online reviews of his novels, and just had to get my two cents in. He doesn’t exactly savage web reviewers, but he does use a few of the obviously less articulate examples from Amazon to make his point – which seems to be, as he says:

“. . . all critics are equal, but some critics are more equal than others. I confess that I put more stock in the opinion of the novelist who questions whether an ending in one of my books is fully earned in a Washington Post or New York Times review than I do in ‘Bic Parker’ at Amazon, who wrote about one of my novels, 'Stoopid.' ”
He says he appreciates “the way that the Web has made possible an intimacy with the public that didn't exist 15 years ago,” but he certainly doesn't demonstrate it. And he also claims to believe that “there are plenty of critics – and I am not using that term facetiously, I promise – who understand a book in precisely the fashion I intended” and that “a lot of people who are far smarter than I have said things about my books – both good and bad – that left me humbled.”

Well, I can understand that his ego might have been injured. But you’d think he might have shown his appreciation by including at least a few examples of the more thoughtful reviews from some of the many book bloggers out here in the blogosphere. We, after all, are the ones actually buying those books – accounting for those sales he’s so interested in.

I’ve never read any of Mr. Bohjalian’s works, but I can’t say this piece makes me terribly eager to sample them. And the most annoying part of the essay is that it’s occupying the spot regularly filled by one of my favorite critics, Michael Dirda.

The Sunday Salon: We Interrupt Your Regular Reading Schedule...

Just a brief post today. Sunday has barely gotten started, but I know if I wait till later in the day, I’ll never get anything written. Just like last week. For me, the Sunday Salon seems to be a fortnightly event.

Due to circumstances beyond my control (hint: Beijing 2008), I haven’t been able to do quite as much reading this week as usual. And I don’t expect today to be any different: There’s more gymnastics and the women’s diving among many other events (like the women’s beach volleyball which seems to be my husband’s favorite, for some unfathomable reason). Of course, Michael Phelps has been incredible, but what about Usain Bolt? Amazing! Does he even touch the ground when he runs?

So any reading I’m able to get done will most likely be: A) the Sunday papers and book reviews; and B) Lee Siegel’s Love and the Incredibly Old Man, which is the book I received in the last Early Reviewers batch at Library Thing.

It’s a novel about a professor and novelist named Lee Siegel (let's all give a big postmodern wink) who agrees to ghost write the memoirs of a man claiming to be Juan Ponce de León. Yes – that Ponce de León: the Spanish conquistador who explored Florida and, legend has it, went in search of the Fountain of Youth. I’m not sure what I think of the book yet, but it seems to be taking me much longer to get through than it really should – probably not a good sign.

But I’m eager to get that one read and reviewed because our annual beach week is looming in the very near future, and I have other more “beachy” books to take along. So Juan Ponce is gonna have to stop sucking on those cigars and swilling down that rum punch, and get some serious story-telling done today.

Adding this a little later in the day. There’s an interesting guest essay by Chris Bohjalian in today’s Washington Post Book World. All about his take on web reviewers and how they affect his delicate writer’s ego. So sad. My reaction is here.

For more of today’s Sunday Salon offerings or to find out how to participate, go here.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Random Notes: In Memoriam

"You cannot escape Fate, and Fate, I have always felt, is not in the future, but in the past."
-- Leonard Woolf (born 1880 / died 14 August 1969)

"There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."
-- Oscar Levant (born 1906 / died 14 August 1972)

Booking Through Thursday: Gold Medal Reading

This week's BTT topic:
You, um, may have noticed that the Olympics are going on right now, so that’s the genesis of this week’s question, in two parts:
First: Do you or have you ever read books about the Olympics? About sports in general?
Fictional ones? Or non-fiction? Or both?
And, Second: Do you consider yourself a sports fan?
Because, of course, if you’re a rabid fan and read about sports constantly, there’s a logic there; if you hate sports and never read anything sports-related, that, too … but you don’t have to love sports to enjoy a good sports story.
(Or a good sports movie, for that matter. Feel free to expand this into a discussion about “Friday Night Lights” or “The Natural” or whatever…)

Yes, I consider myself a sports fan, but I'm not rabid about the subject. While I'm not very athletic myself, I enjoy watching all sorts of sports. The only sport I absolutely can't stand is volleyball. I think that's probably because of Mrs. Butler's gym class in junior high, but I'm not going to get into that now.

And although I'm not crazy about sports movies in general, there have been some that I've liked. Yes, "The Natural" is a great movie – also one of my husband's favorites (but then, baseball was one of his youthful passions – I think he actually wept during "Field of Dreams"). Others I've liked include "Chariots of Fire," "North Dallas Forty," "Downhill Racer," "Bull Durham," "Hoosiers," "Breaking Away," "American Pastime," and "Rocky I."

But although I like to watch sports, I'm not likely to read books about them. At the moment, the only ones I can recall reading are Malamud's The Natural (read it because of the movie, of course), Larry McMurtry's Moving On (not about sports exactly, but it has a lot of rodeo cowboying in it), and Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (olé!). And I think I once glanced through a biography of Larry Bird.

I did, however, once write a poem called "The Christmas Quarterback" that was rejected by Sports Illustrated. But that's another long, sad tale for some other time.

Speaking of the Olympics, however, do you have a favorite? Summer or winter? I like them both, but I think I prefer the winter games because of the figure skating. When I was a child, I always wanted to be an ice skater. Probably because of all those old Sonia Henie movies I watched on TV – those outfits she wore, with the little matching caps, were to die for when I was seven or eight.

Related post: TV Musings: Olympics Watch

What's the Buzz?

I've been tagged by Rebecca at readerville for the Book Buzz meme, started by My Friend Amy . (Thanks for the tag, readerville!) Here's how it goes:

I am going to list three categories of books. 3 MUST Read Books, 3 Keep Your Eyes on These, and 3 Look For These Soon. Keeping with the theme, I am going to tag at least 3 bloggers. They should put these same lists on their blog but SUBTRACT one book from each list and ADD one of their own. Then they should tag at least 3 more bloggers. It will be fun to see how the lists change as it goes around the blogosphere. Please come back to this post and leave a comment and click here to leave a comment for Amy so she can see how the lists are changing as they go around the blogosphere. Since this is Book Buzz…please keep your lists to titles released in 2007-2009.
I'm going to go ahead and add my titles. Then as soon as I get a little caught up on my review writing (I've been really lazy lately), I'll do the tagging.

So, here's the list from readerville, with my additions starred and my subtractions crossed out:

*The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows [See my review]
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
One More Year: Stories by Sana Krasikov

*Daphne by Justine Picardie
The Memory of Water by Karen White
My Father’s Paradise by Ariel Sabar
The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry [See my review]

*The Private Patient by P.D. James
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan
Aberrations by Penelope Przekop

Haven't yet had time to check any of the other lists, so I may be duplicating titles. The problem with this meme is that my TBR wish list is going to get even longer now!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Favorite Bookstores and Book Shopping

This week, Boston Bibliophile has a really interesting topic for the Tuesday Thingers group:

Favorite bookstores. What's your favorite bookstore? Is it an online store or a bricks-and-mortar store? How often do you go book shopping? Is your favorite bookstore (or bookstores) listed as a favorite in LT? Do you attend events at local bookstores? Do you use LT to find events?

Well, I'm tempted to say my favorite bookstore is just the one I happen to be in at the moment. Any bookstore is better than no bookstore, right? And I go shopping as often as possible, either online or in "real" bookstores – usually at least once or twice a week. Of course, shopping doesn't always mean purchasing (my husband will be glad to hear that).

These days, I'm really kind of sorry to admit, the majority of my book shopping takes place online. High rents have driven most of the independent and used-book stores out of our area. So if I shop in a "real" store, it's likely to be the local Border's or Barnes & Noble. And if I'm going to do my shopping in a chain store, I figure I might as well check out Amazon first – and, of course, they almost always have the best prices and free shipping. Actually, I think Amazon is pretty much set to take over the world. At least the world of retail shopping. You can buy everything there – I just bought a swimsuit and a pair of bedroom slippers from Amazon. You can buy groceries from Amazon. You can buy plumbing fixtures.

But I digress.

I suppose my favorite bookstore would have to be Blackwell's in Oxford, but it's been many years since I was last able to pay it a visit. I also used to like the Dillon's bookstore on Gower Street in London, but I'm not even sure it's still there. (I've written an earlier blog post about my favorite no-longer-there bookstore, Brock's Books in San Antonio TX. See Doomsday.) And then there's the Strand in NYC, of course. Always fun to visit. Not what it once was, but then what is?

Around home, I have a couple of local Borders and Barnes & Nobles that I frequent. And in addition to Amazon, I like Daedalus Books & Music for online and mail order shopping. When I was working in DC, I used to like to browse Kramerbooks and Second Story Books. But again, I haven't really shopped at either of those for several years now.

Lately, I have managed to find a few interesting used-book stores not too far from where I live. There's a Book Rack in the Kingstowne area of Alexandria – they have good prices and huge selections of sci-fi and mystery fiction (they divide their mystery books into two sections, by male or female authors). And there's a tiny place called Already Read Used Books, near Old Town Alexandria. They have higher prices, but the atmosphere is very pleasant (there's a resident tabby cat) and the whole experience is like browsing in someone's rather disorganized book-filled attic.

I think I do have most of my favorite stores listed on my profile page at LibraryThing – I'll have to check that. So far, I haven't really used LT for finding local events. I'm not actually much of an event-goer – I've made plans to attend the National Book Festival two years in a row now, and talked myself out of going two years in a row. But maybe this year. . . .

Monday, August 11, 2008

Review: The Aviary Gate

Written by Katie Hickman
Published by Bloomsbury, 2008, 341 pages

"We come here as slaves, all of us: slaves of the Sultan. We give up everything, even our names. It is a strange fact – don't you think? – that not one of us was born Ottoman, or even a Muslim. Not one of us. There is nothing to unite us except the fact that we have the honour to be the Sultan's women. And do not forget this, . . . : there is no higher honour." [p. 55]

I so very much did not want to like this book. Yes, I did request an advance reading copy from Bloomsbury. But I was guilty of doing something I hardly ever do – asking for a book I knew absolutely nothing about. I almost always do quite a lot of research on an author or any given book before I buy it or request a reading copy. Not this time, though. And from the reclining odalisque with the come-hither stare on the cover, to the jacket flap description of "a rare glimpse into the forbidden confines of the Sultan's harem," the whole package just screamed "bodice-ripper" and "not my kind of story."

But guess what. You know that old adage about not judging a book by its cover? Well, it's been proven true once again. Even though, the whole time I was reading The Aviary Gate, I kept telling myself I should not enjoy it – I did.

Can a Barbara Cartland marathon be far behind?

No, seriously, although it certainly has elements of the romance novel, The Aviary Gate is nothing like a Harlequin. It's a thoroughly engrossing historical tale of murder and intrigue in the Sultan's harem in 16th Century Constantinople, juxtaposed with the story of a present-day academic whose research brings the episode to light.

Based partly on fact, Hickman's novel shifts back and forth between the story of Celia Lamprey, a sea captain's daughter lost in a late-16th Century shipwreck and sold into slavery at the Sultan's court, and that of Elizabeth Staveley, the Oxford researcher who becomes obsessed with finding out what actually happened to the young woman. Did she escape the Sultan's harem and return to England? Was she rescued by diplomat Paul Pindar, the man she was engaged to at the time of the shipwreck? Did she live out her life as a Sultan's concubine? Or was she somehow involved in the poisoning of the Sultan's chief black eunuch and possibly imprisoned or even executed?

Well, I'm not going to give away the ending – I'll just say it wasn't really what I expected. But then the entire book was a pleasant surprise. And some of it was just, well, surprising. Like the descriptions of a 16th Century version of a bikini-wax session, and the mechanics of producing eunuchs to guard the Sultan's harem (actually, I could have done without that last episode altogether).

The book does have its flaws. Some of the dialogue sounds a little too modern to be thoroughly believable Elizabethan speech: One of the characters agrees with another by remarking "I'll say!" and another expresses his doubt about the success of a plan by arguing that "we'll be dead meat." And the current-day story frequently seems rather lackluster in comparison with the thrills and escapades of the Sultan's palace. Perhaps the fact that Hickman's earlier work was mostly nonfiction might have something to do with that.

One of the interesting things the novel points out is just how much power women could attain in the ancient harem system. There were, of course, the "powers behind the throne" – the Sultan's mother, and chief wives and concubines. But for the other most-favored slaves, there was also the possibility of a marriage outside the court, to a rich and powerful nobleman or merchant. These women were highly sought after because of their ties to the royal circle.

The Aviary Gate is a fascinating combination of academic mystery, historical adventure, and thrilling love story. I can heartily recommend it as a romance novel for people who hate romance novels.

Random Photo Monday: Events in August

Monday again, and time for another Random Photo post. Actually, two Random Photos today. You can see them on my other blog, Joysweb. And thanks for visiting!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Booking Through Thursday: Other Worlds

This week's BTT topic:
Are there any particular worlds in books where you’d like to live?
Or where you certainly would NOT want to live?
What about authors? If you were a character, who would you trust to write your life?

Great subject. Volumes, obviously, could be written about it. But I'll try to keep my thoughts brief. Well, relatively brief.

Taking the last question first: If I were a character in a work of fiction (and sometimes I feel exactly like that), I'm not sure I'd trust any author with my life. Writers are notorious for their erratic behavior when it comes to the characters they create – dropping them out of the narrative with great abandon, or killing them off for fun or profit. I don't think any of them are to be trusted completely. If you wake up one morning and find you've turned into a character in a book, watch out!

And as for worlds in books I'd like to inhabit – well, I can't think of many. Here again, most writers are best at coming up with worlds I definitely would not want to live in – like Lewis Carroll's Wonderland (absolutely overflowing with thoroughly nasty types), or Tolkien's Middle Earth (too many hellish surprises and talking trees), or the constantly-at-war world of Orwell's 1984 (too much like our own).

I can really only think of a handful of fictional worlds I'd like to spend a lot of time in – although I'm not sure I'd actually want to live in any of them. One would be The Hundred Acre Wood in A.A. Milne's books about Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends. It's always sunny, and everyone is pleasant and friendly, and just about the worst thing that ever happens is Pooh not getting his fill of honey. And I'd really love to play with Piglet.

I wouldn't mind visiting the world of Jane Austen, if I could be an aristocrat – wouldn't want to have to live in the 19th Century as one of your garden variety middle-class nobodies. I have enough trouble getting the housework and the laundry done in the present day. And Barsetshire would be another interesting place to see – but I'd prefer the Barsetshire of Angela Thirkell to that of Anthony Trollope. Much more amusing, and without all the whalebone corsets.

I think all the other worlds I'd like to be able to hang out in come from the many mystery novels I've read. Of course, they're fairly dangerous worlds – but, if you can ignore all those nasty little murders that keep cropping up, they all seem like such fascinating places. St. Mary Mead, for instance, from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books, or Hazel Holt's Taviscombe from her Mrs. Malory mysteries. And then there's Midsomer County, the setting for Caroline Graham's series of Inspector Barnaby novels. (At least some of which, I understand, is based on the actual county of Buckinghamshire. See On the Trail of Midsomer Murders.)

And then there's the Oxford of the Inspector Morse books by Colin Dexter, but Oxford is a real place so it doesn't really count. Although if the real Oxford had as many murders going on as Dexter's fictional city does, they'd be hip-deep in dead bodies most of the time.

It's interesting, I think, that all my favorite fictional worlds are in England. I guess it's just those ancient genes trying to get back home.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tuesday Thingers: Me and My Memes

This week, Boston Bibliophile has questions about memes for the Tuesday Thingers group:

. . . what other weekly memes or round robins do you participate in? Is this the only one? Why Tuesday Thingers and not some other weekly Tuesday meme? Or do you do more than one?

I think Tuesday Thingers and Booking Through Thursday are the only memes I definitely try to participate in on a regular basis. I'm a member over at Sunday Salon, too, and try to post every week – but Sundays can get pretty busy around here, so I actually end up checking in about every two weeks.

I like those three memes because they're like little weekly writing assignments, and allow for some rumination. They're a little unusual, generally not just quick-answer variety. And, of course, they're more literary than some of the other memes out there.

Among those countless others, I usually (but not always) do the Friday Fill-Ins (on Fridays, of course) and Unconscious Mutterings (on Saturdays/Sundays) if I have the time. They don't take a lot of brain work, and they give me a chance to indulge my slightly warped sense of humor. I keep those two on my other blog (Joysweb) since they're not strictly book-oriented. (Examples of my Fill-Ins and Mutterings.) And although it's not really a meme, I also have Random Photo Monday just about every week on Joysweb.

So I'm not actually spending every day of the week meme-ing, but close to it.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Another Award? Excellent!!!

I need to say a really big Thank You to Tapestry100 for nominating Joy's Blog for another award. I'm very flattered that he thinks my blog is fun to read, and I feel exactly the same way about his. Of course, his blog (from my bookshelf. . .) is also gorgeous to look at, and has lots of insightful reviews (and he likes Agatha Christie, so he has very good taste). You'll definitely be doing yourself a favor if you go take a look at it.

I think now I need to nominate seven other blogs for the award, and I'll do that as soon as I get a little caught up on reviews. Also want to see if I can find a few "new" deserving bloggers who haven't received the award, so it's going to take a bit of browsing – but that's work I always like doing. So, more on this a little later.

Random Notes on Monday

What I should be doing this morning: writing reviews. What I've actually been doing: scanning blogs and online journals. Oh, well, it's Monday so I'm having a little trouble getting going.

First of all, Russian author and Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died Sunday evening at the age of 89, reportedly of heart failure. The Associated Press announcement noted that "Solzhenitsyn's unflinching accounts of torment and survival in the Soviet Union's slave labor camps riveted his countrymen, whose secret history he exposed. They earned him 20 years of bitter exile, but international renown. And they inspired millions, perhaps, with the knowledge that one person's courage and integrity could, in the end, defeat the totalitarian machinery of an empire."

Also in the bookish news: is acquiring According to Publishers Weekly, AbeBooks' current president and CEO Hannes Blum said a bookseller roundtable will be held August 7 to answer bookseller questions about what the deal means for the future.

And in the who-woulda-thunk-it department, Costco has picked Brunonia Barry's novel The Lace Reader as their book pick of the month in their August online magazine The Costco Connection. I didn't know Costco had book picks or a magazine, or even that they sold books, for that matter. Costco's book buyer, Pennie Clark Ianniciello said "Barry's writing is detailed and vivid, and the characters are so real you'll lament that you can't call them up or pop by for a visit . . . ." Well, I don't know about that – the characters were certainly memorable, but I'm not sure I'd want to "pop by for a visit" unless I knew I'd be getting them on a good day. But I loved the novel anyway – you can read my review of it here.

Random Photo Monday: TV Musings

For today's Random Photo Monday offering, see my other blog (Joysweb). And thanks for visiting!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

The Sunday Salon: What's Up in August?

Gosh, it's August, isn't it? I'm just not ready for summer to be so far along. But at least I'm getting some reading done. The July Book Blowout helped a lot in that area (see my wrap-up post about the challenge) – forced me to read a lot more books in one month than I ever would have on my own. July was very definitely my biggest reading month in years.

Today I'm getting back to one of the books I started and then abandoned earlier last month – Stealing Athena, by Karen Essex. It was an advance reading edition when I got it, but by now it's been out for a while. I've been having a little trouble sticking with it – not sure why because it seems well-written and it's an interesting subject (the Elgin Marbles). I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction, but I like it well enough. So I think I just need to give the book a bit more of a chance.

Of course, since I'm almost always in the midst of several books at once, I've also got a few more going right now. But it looks like my main books for August (besides Athena) are going to be The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I've heard wonderful things about TTTW, so I'm expecting a lot. It's quite a chunkster for me – I don't usually commit to 500-page tomes unless I'm pretty sure I'm going to like them. Hope I'm not disappointed this time.

And I've had A Wrinkle in Time on my to-read list for at least 20 years. Don't know why it's taken me so long to get around to it. But my husband read it not long ago and liked it well enough (well, he said it was "not bad"). And as he's not usually a fan of fantasy or young adult fiction, I'm considering that to be quite a recommendation.

But right now, I have to go see about the potatoes and the asparagus, and find out if said husband needs any help grilling the tuna for dinner. Then I can get back to London and Athens and those amazing sculptures!

Friday, August 01, 2008

July Book Blowout: The Wrap-Up

Well, July is at an end, so we've also come to the end of the July Book Blowout Challenge, hosted by Blue Archipelago (see my original post about the challenge). Time to wrap up and say thank you to Mrs S for hosting.

This was a really fun and easy challenge – no rules, just read as many books as possible during July and then do a post about your reading. I set a fairly modest goal for myself, compared to some. My target was six books, and I actually read seven (with two counting as "half books"). Here's the list:

The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman. This was a review copy from Bloomsbury publishing company – I think I requested this one through Shelf Awareness.
The Fires, by Alan Cheuse. Free review copy from The Santa Fe Writers Project.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows [see my review]. I received this through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. Lovely book.
So Long at the Fair, by Christina Schwarz. Another ARC.
Stealing Athena, by Karen Essex. Yet another ARC, and a gorgeous book. Got about midway through this one in July but then abandoned it, so it only counts as half a book. I'll probably try to get back to it later this month.
Summer Reading, by Hilma Wolitzer. Very appropriate book to be reading in July, right?
2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke. I read this one for the 42 Science Fiction Challenge, hosted by Becky's Book Reviews. I actually started it in June, so it counts as half a book.
Wish You Were Here, by Rita Mae Brown. The first book in the Mrs. Murphy mystery series.

That's six whole books, plus two half books, which makes up seven altogether. So far, I've only managed to get one of the books reviewed, so now I need to work on that. And the challenge blog had a few suggestions for wrap-up questions:

1. Did you discover a new author? Yes I did. All of them except Arthur C. Clarke and Rita Mae Brown were new to me.

2. Where was the most unusual place you found yourself reading? Hmmmm. I guess it would have to be our cabin in Shenandoah National Park earlier in the month – I read Wish You Were Here during the thunderstorms that kept us indoors much of the time. Not all that unusual, but different from the sofa in our living room, where I usually do my reading.

3. Did you read more than usual? Yes, seven books in one month is quite a lot for me – I'm a really slow reader.

4. Did you give up anything in order to read more? Probably a little computer time. And maybe some sleep.

5. If you won the Amazon voucher what would you spend it on? Well, definitely books! I don't really have anything in particular in mind, but I have a very long wish list.

6. Would you like to see a 2009 Book Blowout? Absolutely. I'll be there.