Monday, December 28, 2009

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland - 480 pgs

Book CoverAs the plague races across the English countryside during the summer of 1348, a company of nine unlikely travelers come together in a desperate hope to outrun it. Each carries a devastating secret that they are hiding from the others and one will bring about a swift and terrible retribution upon those who are keeping things hidden. The group includes Camelot, an itinerant peddler of holy relics who quickly becomes the leader of the company; a minstrel and his young, hot-headed apprentice; and a strange disfigured man on the run from the law. As they journey from one devastated village to the next looking for refuge, they each discover that their companions are not what they seem and they must band together, despite their reluctance, to escape the strange predator that is shadowing them and slowly decimating their group. Filled with haunting drama and unforgettable characters, Company of Liars is a dark work of fear, retribution and secrecy.

I just don't know what it is about the past few months. It seems I just can't pick a really good read for myself and it's been quite frustrating. I am doubly aggrieved that this book was so disappointing because I had been so excited to read it and had saved it for myself to savor during a reading slump. Needless to say, it didn't pull me out of my slump at all. This book had great potential and a truly terrific sounding plot, but somehow things really fell short for me. I don't know whether this is because I had some unrealistic expectations for it or because it was just such a messy book. First of all, I felt that the pacing of the book was just glacial. There was too much space between action scenes and that space was not utilized in a creative way at all. There was a lot of useless meandering of the plot and character descriptions and it gave the book a very unwieldy quality that I found intensely boring. In fact, it took me forever to get through the book because my attention wandered so much, and once I put it down, I was hard pressed to find a reason to pick it up again.

As I have said in other reviews, books that deal with the plague have instant appeal to me. I guess you could say that the plague is one of my specialties. I was very disappointed that this book was ostensibly about the plague but failed to deliver what I had hoped for. It seemed that the plague was only included in the story as a plot device. It was the impetus for the story, but not the story itself, which I only discovered about halfway through the book. Normally this wouldn't bother me so much, but I felt like I had been a bit snowed into expecting something that was not fully delivered to me. In fact, the plague took up such little page space that it was easy to forget it was there at all. It felt like the author pulled the plague card out of her pocket whenever the story became too heavy handed, as a way of reminding the reader just what the purpose of the travelers' journey was. I think that if the author had focused a bit more on this element of the story the book would have been more appealing to me.

On the other hand, I did feel like the book had some great character portrayals and that each character was fully realized and three dimensional. The problem that I had was that despite this, I didn't really feel like I could connect with any of them, and that made it harder for me to get invested in their plights. Don't get me wrong, I did like some of them, but there was just such a strangeness to them and they were just too secretive to get a real handle on. I think that might have been an intentional construct by the author, but whatever the reason, it left a bad taste in my mouth and frustrated me. The characters were creatively crafted and were very unique, but the author didn't use that to her advantage. Instead she dulled them and softened their impact by making them so hard to connect with.

Another problem that I had with the book was that the writing felt very raw. There were points where there was just too much exposition and the back story was introduced in a very clunky andunsmooth way. I am aware that this is the author's first book, but there is a reason that editors exist, and in my opinion, the editing was lax. I didn't like the wandering and unfocused quality of the writing and I felt that much of the book lacked direction. The writing felt labored and slow and it gave the appearance that the author was really struggling with her story.

In all fairness, I don't think I can recommend this book to anyone. It was much too dark to fully enjoy and the myriad problems I had with it prevent me from giving it a thumbs up in any way. I am hoping that I can soon find a book that not only whets my appetite but fully delivers on its potential. In the meantime, if anyone knows of a book that surely won't disappoint, I am all ears!

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Cost of Dreams by Gary Stelzer - 296 pgs

Book CoverAfter a treacherous border crossing from Mexico with her younger siblings, Flora Enriquez starts a new life in Texas and slowly begins to realize the American dream. Soon Flora is living life as a mother, wife and teacher, but fate has other plans for her. These unexpected plans arrive in the form of Roy, Flora's violent, drug dealing brother-in-law, who comes to chase her down with a gun after she destroys a stash of drugs he has hidden in her home. After shooting her and leaving her for dead in the Texas desert, Flora is whisked away by a group of well meaning refugees to begin a grueling trek across the country that will test her in ways she never expected possible. This harrowing debut novel witnesses Flora's extreme struggle, first for her survival, then to rebuild her shattered life and family.

Though the premise of this book really intrigued and excited me, I ultimately ended up feeling a little disappointed by it. At times I felt that the practicalities of the story were not very realistic or believable and I really had a hard time engaging with the characters. First off, I felt that the sections that took place after Flora's accident didn't seem at all plausible. After being shot at close range in the neck, I had a hard time believing that she was able to survive the incredible trek across country in the back of a rail car before receiving medical treatment. Even someone who is not well versed in medicine, like me, knows that the first few hours after a spinal injury are critical to a patient, and that I felt that the author, who is also a doctor, should have known this as well. I just didn't believe that Flora would have survived these events, much less eventually make a full recovery.

Another thing that bothered me about this book was the fact that the characters' personalities were not finely delineated at all. I never felt that they were real people with distinct personalities. It felt too much like they were artificial constructs, characters made for the sole purpose of acting out the events in the story. They seemed very cardboard and stiff, and even in their dialogue they had no spark or life. As I was reading through the narrative, I kept wishing that the author would do something to make his characters more memorable and human but that never came to pass. There was a huge dearth of individuality in these people that made it really hard for me to care about them, which ultimately kept me from connecting with their story.

The writing style was also something that I took exception to. The story felt very forced and rushed and there wasn't a natural cadence to the narrative. It was more like a set of events that kept relentlessly moving forward, one event after the next, with no pause for meaning or insight. Though I did find the nuts and bolts of the story to be very engaging and interesting, I felt that the intended impact of the story suffered a bit in the execution. There was a lot going on plot-wise and some of the plot elements were honed perfectly, but those points were not left to percolate or absorb gravity. Instead they were smashed between other high-impact plot points, which gave the book an overwhelming feel of haste.

Though I had some problems with this book stylistically, I felt that there were some really exciting aspects of the story. One of the things I particularly liked was that it didn't rely too heavily on coincidence. Most of the plot felt very natural, and despite the reactions I had to the circumstances surrounding Flora's injury, I felt that her recovery and the emotions she had surrounding it were very genuine and heartfelt. I also thought that the book had a lot of suspenseful moments, which gave the story and writing a stirring quality that I had not been expecting. As a matter of fact, I think that this book would probably make a great read for those who enjoy the suspense genre and are looking for something a bit atypical. It was definitely a very thought-provoking read.

Readers may want to visit the author's website.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry - 416 pgs

Book CoverTowner Whitney has just journeyed home to Salem Massachusetts to recuperate from illness and deal with a strange tragedy that has befallen her aunt. Home is a place that Towner never thought she would be revisiting after the catastrophic traumas of her early life, and she is none too pleased to have to return to the place where so many horrible memories lay buried and forgotten. Towner comes from a long line of lace readers: women who can tell others' fortunes based upon the natural patterns found in lace, a talent which Towner knows she shares but refuses to acknowledge. Upon returning to the small town, she discovers that the life and people she left behind haven't really changed all that much and she begins to become enmeshed in all the old eccentricities that she thought she left behind. But odd and frightening things begin to play out almost as soon as she enters the town, beginning with the disappearance of two local women, one of whom is her aunt. Foul play is suspected in both disappearances and one very dangerous and charismatic man is at the center of it all. But Towner has much more to focus on than the two women, for there are huge and painful gaps in her memory and being back home threatens to rip open all the old wounds that she had thought were healed. Now, with the help of John Rafferty, a man she knows almost nothing about, Towner will attempt to uncover the truth about the missing women and the shocking truth about herself. Filled with mysticism and darkness, The Lace Reader takes readers on a wild ride of deception, suspense and mystery.

Reading this book was a strange experience for me. Though I can't truthfully say that I enjoyed it, I was still very much glued to the page. I think that the story was just too messy for me, with a lot of jarring plot elements thrown together and so much going on that the book felt really crowded. It was funny because early on in my reading, my husband asked what the book was about. When I began to explain, he said "Wow, all that? You've only read a hundred pages!" which I think sums up my reaction to the book pretty well. I thought that the writing and feel of the story were extremely well done and that the author had a gift for making the reader really get tangled into the story and want to follow it to it's natural conclusion, but I didn't feel like this was a story that I loved. Overall the pacing was very tight and there were some suspenseful moments throughout the book that had me wondering what was coming next, and I really liked the inclusion of the lace reading. But I thought there was just too much of everything, and after awhile I began to feel a bit overwhelmed.

I also didn't have strong feelings for the protagonist. I thought Towner was a bit unlikable and cold and it was a mystery to me why it was that I should care so much about her. For most of the book she remains aloof and never really invests herself in any of the other characters or their situations. Without spoiling the plot, I guess part of her distance has much to do with the revelation at the end of the book, but she was really hard for me to like and care about because her emotions and actions always seemed so dysfunctional. I was really surprised that Rafferty got roped into helping her because for the most part, it didn't seem to me that she had a lot to offer, either as a friend or confidante. Mostly I felt that she was closed off and unreachable, which in my opinion doesn't make for all that interesting of a character. I want to see emotion and fire in a character. I want to see someone who is invested in life and has a strong grip on her emotions, not someone who doesn't seem like she cares at all about anything.

I did, however, feel like the author did a fabulous job with the setting of the book. She imbued a lot of detail into the Salem setting and I felt that it was both arresting to read and easy to imagine. There were times when I felt I was standing in the town looking around at the places she described, due to the attention to detail that the scenery and setting was given. As a matter of fact, I can't remember a time when I have felt so drawn to the feeling of place in a book, and whether she was describing the island that Towner's mother inhabited, with it's craggy shorelines and freezing waters, or the overgrown and lush garden of her aunt, I think Barry did a magnificent job with giving her characters a place in which to live and work the life force of their story.

Though I felt that the plot was overcrowded, I want to stress that I don't think the plot lacks verisimilitude. There were a lot of sections that had me mesmerized and I felt that there were many great moments in this book. So great in fact that I think what would have made the book even better would have been to spread the action out more and not try to throw in everything but the kitchen sink into this one book. I would have liked to have seen some of the action plotted a bit more slowly and with more care given to Towner and her personal story, instead of the hyper-plotted reality that I got. I mean, there was just too much happening, and I think that had the book been a bit more subdued and slow, it would have made a greater impact in terms of character and the relevancy of the story.

I have so far avoided talking about the end of this book for two reasons: First is that I am not sure how I felt about the ending and second is that I don't want to give too much away. First off, I will have to say that I am not sure if I found the ending to be to gimmicky and predictable or if I thought that it was the perfect ending that enabled the story to lock all its elements into place. I think I feel a little of both. I've no doubt that the ending was meant to be a shocker and the kind of ending that people just exclaim and wow over, but when I look back I don't know if all of the events leading up to the ending quite ring true for me. It felt a bit like a tease to me, the kind of thing that is meant to be the pièce de résistance of the book, but I don't know if I was completely buying it. To say anymore about this would indeed be spoiling the book for those who have not read it, so I will have to leave it at that for now.

Though I am on the fence regarding this book, I think I would still recommend it to other readers who relish dramatic and involving stories. I am certain that for the majority of readers this would be a great book to while away the hours with, and when I am forced to admit it, I think I might have to conclude that I might be a little to picky for this story to really work for me in all the ways that the author wants it to. This is definitely a darker read, so those readers who are looking for something light might want to avoid this book, but I think the book would work on many levels for those who love a good haunting read.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

This post is a little late, but last Friday I received my gift from the Book Blogger Holiday Swap. It comes from Cecelia over at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia, and it is a gift that is filled with many wonderful surprises! First off, she sent two funky and cool bottles of nail polish, one in taxi yellow creme and one in deliciously dark, which is a deep and dramatic purple. This is great because I have been wanting to expand my nail color selection beyond the same tame colors I have been using all year. Next was a cute little pencil that has little hearts with cute and toothy little faces printed all over it. She also included a packet of Crabtree and Evelyn lotion (one of my favorite brands!) and a small Picadilly notebook, which will be perfect for me to keep in my purse and jot down book titles I come across. Last, but certainly not least was a lovely paperback copy of Soulless, which is the first in a new urban fantasy series by Gail Carriger. I have been reading some very favorable reviews of the book, and am super excited to have gotten my own copy! everything was wrapped in festive santa claus wrapping paper and came with a gourgeous card wishing me a Happy Holiday. I must say that this was an extremely awesome gift and I couldn't be happier with it ! Thanks so much Cecelia, and I hope everyone out there has a wonderful holiday season and a spectacular new year!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Brightest Moon of the Century Giveaway

Book CoverJust wanted to let you all know that Christopher Meeks has done a really great interview over at Backword Books, and is also hosting a giveaway to win a copy of The Brightest Moon of the Century, which I reviewed here. Please stop by here for your chance to win a copy of the book, it was a splendid read!

Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord - 352 pgs

Book CoverLeo Binhammer is an English instructor at Carmine-Casey Academy, a private high school for girls. Adored and admired, Leo finds great contentment and solace in his profession as the only male teacher in the English department, doting girls following his every move. But Leo's world is disrupted when, one day, a charismatic new teacher named Ted Hughes arrives. This teacher is also a young and attractive man, and although he is friendly and amiable, Leo begins to feel displaced from his high perch at the school when the girls begin to notice and appreciate the attractive newcomer. As Leo learns to adjust to his new circumstances, life continues on at school and complexities and rivalries crop up in not only the students' lives, but in the teachers' as well. Leo and Ted become unlikely friends and Leo begins to unwittingly uncover all the many secrets and intrigues that Ted has kept hidden. Wryly amusing and stylistically deft, Hummingbirds is a cautionary and provocative tale about the overly fragile egos of two very educated men.

I really enjoyed this book, and for the most part, I would have to say that it was extremely well crafted. I was impressed with the author's writing style. It was very fluid and engaging, and in addition, most of the writing was very witty and humorous. The author seemed really adept at creating humorous situations and dialogue that really made the story sparkle and sizzle. Other sections of the book were written a bit like prose: great imagery and succinct word choices that made an impact without being overbearing. The writing struck the perfect balance for me by being neither too sparse nor too wordy, and instead I felt that the author was able to capture the emotions and conundrums of his characters perfectly. The narrative was told through several points of view, but these shifts were handled very solidly and without a lot of confusion, making the multiple narrator strategy very successful.

The story actually had three subplots: two involving the teachers, and one involving the students. It was very amusing to see that the teachers and staff had more drama and intrigue going on than the students did and that they handled their dramas with much more immaturity and snark than a group of teenage girls ever could. Though the story that focused on the students was interesting and involving, I thought that the grist behind the teachers' escapades was much more satisfying to me personally. I think on the whole, the story was integrated very well, with neither side dominating the limelight excessively.

I also thought that all of the characterizations were done very well and were remarkably detailed, though my favorite was the exasperated Binhammer, who sometimes could be a bit churlish when it came to his waning popularity. The author really had the knack for crating well rounded three dimensional characters, and I thought that he was quite brilliant in his creations of the schoolgirls. He managed to capture all the innocence and seductiveness that was teetering on the edge of their femininity remarkably well, and it was not hard at all to take them seriously as both girls and women due to their expert creation.

The only part of the book that I took exception to was the ending. Up until the last section of the book, I was happily reading along and spending most of my mental energy in being impressed by the author's turn of phrase or expert scene creation. I was completely taken by surprise by the turn the book took towards the end, and the main thing that bothered me was not the direction that the action took in the story, but the way the characters reacted to it. I don't want to say too much about the plot twist because I fear I will be giving too much away to those that are going to read the book, but after a certain point, I didn't think that the reactions of the surrounding characters were very realistic, especially in the case of Binhammer. It was almost as if he changed some of the fundamental aspects of his character. After examining it more closely, I also draw the conclusion that perhaps the reader doesn't know the true Binhammer until the ending of the book, and that these revelations about his character had always been there just waiting to be exposed under the right circumstances. Whatever the case may be, I felt that the ending left me a little bewildered, if not taken aback. I don't think that my bewilderment at the conclusion of the book drastically affected my enjoyment of it, and to a certain degree, I think it may have changed or even enriched the complexity of the story, so I can't really say that the ending was a disappointment. Rather I will say that I think it was a little unexpected and made me reshape the terms under which I was reading.

There were a lot of wonderful aspects to this story and I think that if you are the type of person to appreciate witty and satirical writing, this is definitely the book for you. The plot and character creation were first rate, as was the smooth writing. This is not only a great book to lose yourself in, it is a book that will make you think and evaluate the power of interpersonal relationships. A great read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Replacement Child by Judy Mandel - 256 pgs

Book CoverJudy Mandel is a replacement child: a child born to take both the emotional and physical place of her sister Donna, who was killed in a freak plane accident when she was just seven years old. Judy's older sister Linda was also seriously injured in the accident and spends her life bouncing from one reconstructive surgery to the next. Although Judy longs to be loved and accepted by her parents, it seems as though she lives as a shadow beside the memory of Donna and the perpetual care that is the hallmark of Linda's life. Though the plane accident that robbed the family of so much is broadly hinted at, it is not until Judy begins to research her own memoir that she discovers the horrible secrets about the day that changed her family's lives. As Judy tells the story of her life, she intersperses chapters from the past and chapters that relate the minute by minute countdown to the moment when the fateful accident occurred. Judy paints individual portraits of each of her family, from her stern and distant father to her overwhelmed mother and brave sister; each member touched differently by their torturous trial. Her journey centers around trying to understand her role and place among those marked by tragedy and trying to find her own small voice above the din. Both disturbing and sensitive, Replacement Child exists as part tell all family chronicle, part examination of the the attempts to reconstruct a family out of the ashes.

I was really moved by this story and thought that it was written very respectfully and with great conscience. It was not until the later sections of the book that Judy discovers that the term for people like her is "replacement child" but it was easy to see that once she found the definition, her story seemed to fit perfectly within the boundaries of the definition. It wasn't that her parents were cold or calculating people who disrespected Judy's individuality or singularity; instead it seemed that they were just unconsciously trying to fill a hole that existed within their family.

I found it very sad that Judy's father decided to never call attention to his daughter's beauty because it might diminish something in his other surviving child who had been so disfigured by the accident, or that he never really showed any outward affection toward her either. I also found it very sad that the family never seemed to notice Judy or the trials that she experienced in her life, instead focusing so much energy on Linda and the memory of Donna.

For the most part, I would have to say that Judy was extremely well-adjusted and, remarkably, not bitter about the experiences of her life. Instead of becoming isolated and angry, she seemed to realize what her role in the family was and responded by becoming more loving to her sister and more understanding to her parents. I can imagine that it probably hurt her very deeply to be thought of as second best, a replacement or substitution for the sister that she never knew. In reading the book, it seems clear that her situation mostly manifested itself in some very severe self-image and self-esteem problems, problems that her parents never addressed or spoke to her about.

I also got a very clear picture of what a family living through constant grief must go through in their day to day life. It seemed as though the girls' parents spent a lot of time rehashing the accident while still trying to keep the actual facts of that dreadful day under wraps. As Judy examines the family both through the past and the present, she comes to some startling realizations about her family's financial situation, her parent's marriage and the realities of Linda's future that shape the way that she deals with them and reinforces some of the ideas that she has held for years.

There were bits in this story that were humorous and comic, but overall the book cast a somber and reflective tone throughout Judy's analysis of her family's particular dysfunction. The book also examines the many unsuccessful relationships that Judy found herself in after moving from her parents' home. As she explains her reasoning behind her choices in mates, it was vary easy for me to see the influences in her past that had led her to make the types of decisions that she did, and I was genuinely happy for her when she broke out of the pattern of choosing distant and emotionally cold men.

I thought this was a very powerful memoir and very different from any that I have read before. The book was very balanced and didn't attempt to portray either camp in a damaging or negative light; instead the author chose to spotlight the situation and respondents in a clear and unambiguous way that gave me a great deal of respect for her. If you are a reader of memoirs, I would definitely recommend picking this one up. It is the unusual story of a life of compromise, told with affection, grace, and respect. A very moving and incredibly solid read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Elynia by David Michael Belczyk - 173 pages

Written as a mix of prose and vignette, Elynia takes the reader on a journey through the lives of four generations of people who are struggling with various heartbreaks, disappointments and struggles. The characters are examined both in the way they react to their situations and in the way they connect to each other, crossing social, economic and familial divides in a heady mixture of poetry and narrative. Each character except Elynia (who is only referred to in the second person) remains unnamed and, by extension, somewhat anonymous; but all embody the diverse aspects of need, desire and fulfillment that are common to us all. Both unconventional and evocative, Elynia seeks to elucidate the struggles for identity and clarity that face each of us during the various stages of our lives.

I'll admit that I was at first baffled by this book. I hadn't an idea about the way in which to read it, and the first couple of sections really threw me. I wasn't sure if it was the book for me, and I wasn't sure how I was going to review it. But as I gradually waded into the story, I began to read it with a much more open mind, and stopped trying to impose my expectations of the story upon what I was reading. As I got further and further into the book, I was able to better appreciate and understand what the author was trying to do with the book, and my comfort level with it increased.

The thrust of this book is told as a set of loosely intertwined character studies, bridged together by snatches of poetry. Now, I am not really one to have had a lot of luck or experience with poetry and have shied away from reading it for quite sometime. I think this is because I tend to have a hard time visualizing and interpreting what poetry is trying to tell me. Knowing that in advance, I think I was mostly worried about being able to really grasp the poetry sections of the book, and felt that at least during the beginning sections, the vignettes reached me more straightforwardly. But curiously, when I began to really get into the story, I began to anticipate the poetry and search it out on the page. Here's what I discovered: Belcyck has a real gift for making his readers feel strong emotion through the use of his verse. There were several sections where I stopped and read a section two, maybe even three times and got an intense understanding of the emotions and situations he was attempting to portray, and his use of emotion laden and heartfelt descriptors was something that I truly came to relish.

Another thing I discovered was that the story in this book, and especially the poetry, had more to do with loss and dreams that had dissolved into bitterness than it had to do with any other emotion. I think that was also a bit of a surprise to me because while on the one hand the story had the flavor of hope, in reality, it dealt more strongly with the opposite. I did find that some of the ideas that were put forth were a bit advanced, and I have to say that this is the first book that had me reaching for a dictionary so consistently. As I delved deeper into the book and gradually came to understand more and more, it became more obvious to me that what Belczyk was doing in this book was not only unconventional, it was also rhythmically adept. I feel that the book worked on multiple levels, but that reading it with an open mind is critical to the understanding and enjoyment of what the book has to offer. In fact, after closing the book and thinking over the story I had just read, I felt that the lyricism of the poetry sections were the parts of the book that I remember most vividly and clearly. Rarely have I had the experience of reading a book that defies expectations in mid-read, and rarely have I ever truly experienced poetry in such an innovative way. Reading through this book supplied my mind with a lot of fodder about what really constitutes a work of fiction and enlarged the repertoire of writing styles that I am familiar and comfortable with.

While I know that this book won't work for everyone, I think that it would be a very enjoyable excursion for those who are new to, or already enjoy the pleasures of exploratory and unconventional fiction. I think it very clearly and adroitly manages to capture the emotions and longing of it's characters in way that is fundamentally different than most fiction or poetry treatments of the same themes and I am really pleased that it enabled me to break some of my preconceived notions about the structure and relevancy of poetry and lyricism. A very interesting and different reading experience.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Candleman, Book One: The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance by Glenn Dakin - 320 pgs

Book CoverTheo Saint lives a very uncomfortable life. Locked away from society and put through painful daily medical treatments, Theo has been told that he has an illness that makes it much too dangerous for him to go out into the world. Along with being physically sheltered, his guardian, Mr. Saint, also makes sure that Theo is not unduly stimulated mentally by the things around him, much to Theo's chagrin. But everything begins to change when one night, a duo of bumbling thieves break into the mansion that Theo calls home. As the thieves grab Theo and force him to show them where to find the loot, Theo comes upon a secret room strewn with pictures of a mysterious figure named Lord Wickland. Theo's discovery of Lord Wickland is just the beginning though, because, to Theo's surprise, the illness that he has so long feared may not really be an illness at all. Soon other new faces creep into Theo's life and miraculously unfold a new destiny for him. But it's not all good news for Theo, because he also begins to discover some surprising facts about those who he once trusted so blindly, and it will be up to Theo to right the many wrongs that have been committed in the name of goodness and order. Fast paced and inventive, Candleman is wickedly fun romp for readers of all ages.

I haven't read many books that are targeted to the 9 to 12 year old age bracket but I thought that this was a very satisfying read overall. I really liked that the characters were quirky, yet not too quirky to be believable, and I thought Theo was a protagonist that kids would really be able to relate to and find compassion for. The story itself moved along briskly, which I appreciated, and it was a spectacularly unusual tale and one which I think many will enjoy.

As Theo began to discover more and more about the people who were raising him and what and who he actually was, I found that he began to grow into a sympathetic character and begin to embody many of the characteristics of a real hero. I also appreciated the unusual ironies in the story and felt that at times it had similar hallmarks to, and reminded me of a cross between, The Phantom Tollbooth and A Series of Unfortunate Events books.

There were a handful of unique characters in the book, one of which I enjoyed most was The Dodo, a terribly disfigured and haunting criminal who finds himself in a very interesting conundrum by the end of the story. I found him to be a character that was easy to relate to while still not losing any of the sinister aspects of his personality. I also think that Dr. Saint and his lackeys will appeal to readers, who won't be able to help themselves from getting caught up in their nefarious deeds.

I think one of the things about this book that will grip younger readers is the excellent tension of the storyline and the fast-paced style of the narrative. I believe readers of this book will not only be drawn in by Theo and his very strange circumstances but also by the unpredictability of the storyline and the writing style.

Another thing that I really liked about the book is the fact that it is not dumbed down for its target audience. There are a lot of complicated themes and ideas in the book as well as some really challenging vocabulary, which is one of the reasons that I think that this book will translate well for a more mature audience. This book is the first in a series, and although the story does come to completion by the last page, it does leave itself open for its forthcoming sequels.

This was a light and engaging read that I think many outside of its target audience will enjoy. It was very elegant in its imparting of messages and it was full of quick wit and whimsical situations. I am really looking forward to seeing where these books are headed and finding out just what Theo makes of his discoveries. I think this book would make a great gift for anyone who loves to get wrapped up in a greatly exciting story.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg - 288 pgs

Book CoverIn this touching and eye-opening memoir, Irene Pepperberg reflects on the three decades she spent both teaching and bonding with the amazing African Grey Parrot, Alex. Pepperberg, a life-long bird lover, describes Alex's life in great detail, from the nervous first days of Alex's homecoming to the gradual instruction into the cognitive tasks that eventually become his hallmark. Alex is a bird like no other and shows that for a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut, being a bird brain is not such a bad thing. In his amazing ability to label objects, his ability to add and his stunning demonstration of expressing the concept of zero, he begins to show the world at large that he is indeed an exceptional animal. This in turn begins to change the way that scientists and the average population view the intelligence and capability of animals in general. Along the way, Alex becomes a cultural icon and a much loved celebrity. But Alex's story is not only filled with his remarkable accomplishments, it is also full of his particular brand of humor and the displays of independence that truly made Alex one of a kind. Both riotously funny and blindingly sad, Alex & Me takes a peek into the life of a truly exceptional bird and the woman who shared and celebrated his life.

I love animal books, so I was really delighted to get a chance to read Alex & Me. I had previously seen Alex and Irene on television and thought that he was a simply amazing bird. But until reading the book, I had no idea just how amazing he was. From the very beginning of the book, the stage was set for Alex to come along and wow me, which he did. But the parts of the book I really enjoyed the most were the parts where Alex shot from the hip and became a comic genius. Like the time he told a very upset Irene to "Calm down," or when, failing to receive a treat after competing a task successfully, he phonetically spells out the name of the treat that he wants. Or the times when he admonishes another bird in the lab to speak more clearly. There were lots of really great moments like that in the book, and as I read it became harder and harder for me to see Alex as just a trained animal and easier for me to see him as a very intelligent and sentient creature of nature.

A lot of the page space in this book was given to describing the experiments that Pepperburg was working on with Alex. I thought this was interesting because it really highlighted the methodology and inventiveness of what Alex was being taught and compared it to the tests that had previously been run by other animal behaviorists. I was also surprised to discover that Alex always surpassed what was expected of him and that he sometimes taught himself new concepts. Though Pepperberg worked with several other birds, and speaks about them in this book, it is clear that Alex was her greatest success and the star of the show.

The book also explores some of the problems that Pepperburg had securing funding and lab space for her work with Alex, and her frequent moves across country in her attempts to find the right place for the continuation of her work. I was particularly fond of her descriptions of her stint at The Lab at MIT, a sort of geeky technological warehouse that hosted a smorgasbord of studies and a host of inventive departments.

Though most of the book was very informative and funny, the first sections deal with Pepperburg's tremendous grief at Alex's unexpected death, which occurred on September 6, 2007, and the huge public outpouring that the announcement of Alex's passing received. I think that it was very clever to start the book off this way, because it immediately drew me into Alex's story and really humanized him for me. It was also astonishing to see how much support flooded in for Pepperberg. Some people even included testimonials about how seeing Alex perform his wonderful feats had changed their lives in some way.

One thing that was very interesting was the fact that early in the book, Pepperberg mentions how she had really wanted to attempt to limit the personal bonding that she and Alex shared. She had been afraid it would taint the work she was doing with him and their attachment to each other would not enable her to see him in an objective light. I find this kind of funny, because it is clear throughout the book that Alex is not just another project to Pepperberg, and that despite her attempts, she and Alex had formed a very unique and special relationship that went way beyond anything that I have ever known with even my most beloved pets.

I really enjoyed this book and think it's a must-read for people who love animal stories. I have to admit that I laughed out loud a lot while reading this book, both at Alex's cleverness and at his inventiveness. It makes me sad to realize he is gone and that Pepperberg lost such a close companion and friend. The matter-of-fact tone of the writing coupled with the extraordinary story it captured was really a winner for me, as I think it would be for may others. A greatly engaging read.

TLC Book ToursI read and reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these sites:

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Home by Marilynne Robinson - 336 pgs

Book CoverGlory Boughton has come home to Gilead to care for her dying father, the Reverend Robert Boughton. As Glory strives to fulfill her father's exacting demands, she laments the loss of her fiancé and former life, all the while regretting her move back to her stagnant hometown. One morning, the Reverend receives a letter from his wayward son Jack, telling his father that he will soon be returning home. The letter comes very much as a surprise and blessing for the Reverend, as Jack has been absent for 20 years and has had no communication with the family. Jack's history of rebelliousness is long and fraught with shame and pain among the family, and as Jack moves ever homeward, those he left behind struggle with the hope of reunion. As Glory and her father prepare for Jack's arrival, they both find themselves thinking of past hurts and are ever hopeful that Jack's homecoming will be a much needed balm to his father's suffering spirit. But Jack's homecoming is not easy, and it soon becomes apparent that although his father wishes for nothing more than to forgive his son, he cannot. Jack, a quiet and emotionally wounded man, brings with him secrets of his own, and as Glory begins to forge a tentative relationship with him, they both come to find that the peace and contentment they so long for in their family will come at a very dear price. In this poignant tale of the prodigal son, Robinson takes us into the hearts and minds of a family that is at fierce work to be whole, to a place where redemption and reparation are so desperately desired, but unable to come to fruition.

This was an absolutely beautiful book. There were several sections where I found myself so moved by the drama unfolding on the pages that I couldn't help but cry. Robinson writes with such grace and tact that it is impossible not to be moved by her characters' quiet proclamations and heartfelt utterances. Whether it is the sorrow of a life that has been forsaken or the terrible humbleness of Jack's return, the writing is replete with wellsprings of sentiment and passion. The words are quiet and serene, but just underneath the surface I was witnessing torrents of ragged emotion and years of suppressed pain.

The Reverend, ever hopeful and gentle with his children, cannot seem to ever be able to wrap his mind around what it is that his son needs. Although he longs to give his son the forgiveness that he has come home for, he is unable to let the transgressions of the past be unburdened from his heart and give his son peace. It is such a juxtaposition, to see the tenderness that he expresses toward Jack, all the while withholding the one thing that his son most desperately needs, the thing that is so hard for him to ask for. He is constantly at odds with himself, his heart longing to grant pardon and his head ever refusing. It broke my heart to watch these two men fumble so blindly with their intentions, to see them both in so much pain but be unable to express it or relieve it.

Jack, despite being the miscreant in this tale, was the one character whom I felt the most for. He was so spiritually depleted and it seemed as if all of his hope had been abandoned. He was quiet and gentle, yes, but also pitifully humbled and sorrowfully contrite. He seemed to worry himself to distraction, mostly about what others thought of him or what they would think. There was a quiet struggle taking place within: his need for acceptance and forgiveness pitted against his need for self-preservation and secrecy. He had a wry and very self-deprecating attitude in his interactions with Glory, a way of making both more and less of the situations that he found himself in. In his desire for his father's blessing he seemed to expect the wounds he would incur, believing in some way that he deserved them.

I also really liked how the view of Jack from Glory's eyes gave his character more depth. The relationship between the two was fraught with tension, but it was there that Jack seemed to open up. Though he would never really reveal all of his secrets, his attempts to reach out to Glory brought the gentleness and meekness of his character into full relief.

Though I found the last section of the book to be the most emotional section, there were several instances when an ordinary situation would provoke a response from one of the characters that was deeply affecting. Reading this book was much like walking in a minefield; I never knew when something was going to come out and grab me and shake me to the core. During one of the more touching arguments between father and son, the Reverend, full of sorrow, exclaims to his son, "If I'd had to die without seeing your face again, I'd have doubted the goodness of the Lord." The fact that this statement comes from a man of the cloth makes it all the more powerful and affecting. What the book really boils down to is the conundrum of a man of God refusing his most beloved child release, the child in turn unable to finally give his father the peace he so obviously needs. But it is within the framework of this story that Robinson drives her characters to strive and twist in their yearnings to exist as a family complete, a situation that sadly never comes to pass.

I really felt strongly for this book, and I think that anyone who enjoys literature steeped with emotion would enjoy it too. Robinson touches profoundly on the themes of forgiveness, absolution and regret with beautiful accuracy, making this a very quiet but stunning read. This book is a companion to Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead. Both books take place at the same time, so it's not necessary to read them in any particular order. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Looking After Pigeon by Maud Carol Markson - 192 pgs

Book CoverLooking After Pigeon tells the tale of a woman named Pigeon, reminiscing about the summer when she was just five and her life was dramatically changed forever. Through the eyes of the young girl we witness the small idiosyncrasies of her family after her father mysteriously abandons them one spring morning. Amid the confusion of Pigeon and her siblings, her mother decides to move the family to the Jersey Shore to live with their uncle Edward. Although Uncle Edward is very affable with the children, he is frequently away from the house, as is their mother who has had to take a job to support them. Because of this the three children are mainly left to their own devices over the summer. Dove, the oldest, decides to take a job at the local diner and quickly gets enmeshed in relationships and flirtations with older men, while the middle child Robin makes the acquaintance of a fortune teller with whom he spends much of his time. This leaves Pigeon alone most of the time to fend for herself in the small beach-side house. As each family member struggles to come to terms with the circumstances of their new lives, they slowly drift further and further from each other and their old lives. A touching and revealing coming of age story, Looking After Pigeon captures the imagination and determination of a little girl to understand the adult world around her.

This book had a lot of different elements working in it, and I felt that some were more successful than others. One of the first things I noticed was that the writing was very fluid and lyrical and that the narrative seemed to flow very smoothly. The writing style felt perfect for the story, because the language was unhurried and polished in a way that seemed to reflect the circumstances. There were no jarring or startling aspects in the way the story was told; instead there was a beautiful feel of economy and deliberateness in the author's choice of word and style.

On the other hand, it did take a bit of effort to believe that the story was told from a five-year-old's point of view, because much of the introspection and dialogue given from that point of view seemed like it came from a much older mentality. In some ways this kept me from really being able to relate to the book because it took me out of the story and kept me wondering how a five-year-old would have been able to think in such a sophisticated manner. For example, during much of the story Pigeon is left alone to take care of herself. Now, I know quite a few five-year-olds and I can't imagine that even one of them would be capable of remaining home alone for even an hour, much less a whole summer. I also used my experience with this age group to try to figure out if Pigeon's thoughts and reactions were in line with other typical five-year-olds, and I have to say that they were not. Much of her reasoning and thought processes were that of a much older child, or even an adult. While the story was told as the recollections of an adult, I did not feel that those recollections could have been accurate because I felt that the actual immaturity and innocence of a five-year-old were not really accurately captured.

I also had some issues with the way that the family interacted. Their mother seemed very unmindful of her children and was somewhat cold towards them emotionally, while the children were extremely disrespectful and snide to her. Though this family was not very close or conscientious of each other, I felt that the way they acted towards one another was a great catalyst for the events that took place in the closing sections of the book. Though it did bother me somewhat, it really worked very well for the story. I also thought that Pigeon's longing and fretting about her father felt very authentic, and I imagine that any child dealing with abandonment by a parent would feel much the same as she did.

One of the things I found really interesting about this book was seeing how each child manifested the loss of their father in a different yet entirely convincing way. Their loss of an integral part of their family had varying consequences for all three of them, and I felt that each was acting out their unmet needs and desires in a way that highlighted character aspects of each of the children individually. Keeping this in mind, I began to see their struggles as a painful processes of grief and change that was shaping them into people that were hopelessley trying to gain a foothold in their lives. I found this aspect of the book to be particualrly moving and resonant for me, and I felt the author was really able to capture those feelings very well.

Though I had some issues with parts of this book, overall I felt that the structure of the story and the writing was done very well. I felt that the author was able to capture the prevailing moods of loss, longing and regret very powerfully in her narrative. I think that the overarching story was one that was very moving and emotional, and that if you are the type of reader who can overlook the minor quibbles of the narrative voice, you might really enjoy this book. It certainly gave me a lot to think about.

TLC Book ToursI read and reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these sites:

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - 304 pgs

Book CoverTucked away in the English countryside, the students of Halisham, a seemingly elite boarding school, live an almost idyllic life. As Kathy H. reminisces on the friendships and rivalries of her early life at Halisham, she also begins to touch on the strange and puzzling aspects of the school and her fellow students. For the students of Halisham are special in some undefined and unknowable way, and their futures are clouded and obscured from themselves and each other. Fed only the most basic information about their unusual lives and circumstances, they are reduced to living lives filled with rumor, conjecture and speculation amid the more typical everyday occurrences of childhood. As Kathy begins to unfold her curious tale that spans the unfathomable years of her adolescence, more and more curious facts about the children come to the surface, and eventually their bizarre fate is unmasked. Both lucid and frightening, Never Let Me Go takes its readers to the borders of an unimaginable world, where nothing is what it seems and peculiar things are hidden in plain view.

This is the kind of book that doesn't make its full impact until a few minutes after you have closed the cover. Written in lush but subdued prose, the narrative seems to unfold with a calmness and clarity that belies the book's true nature. From the outset, Ishiguro seems to be able to do something miraculous with this tale. He begins by describing some very commonplace events in the lives of a handful of students at Halisham, but peeking from beneath the more typical story he begins to interject random flashes of theme that seem almost disconnected and alien to the story itself. As more and more of the students' experiences are related it becomes clear that something "other" is going on, but with touches of brilliant technique, the readers of this story, like the characters themselves, are left on the precipice of understanding, splendidly misdirected into believing that things are just as they appear on the surface.

During the middle sections of the story, when both reader and character are just beginning to understand what is going on, a conversation occurs between the characters that documents just how much and in what ways the truths of their existence have been kept from them. In explaining it to each other, they come to conclude that they have been told, yet not told, about themselves, the facts being released to them at a time when it is almost impossible for them to understand them. Later, when these initial facts have set in, they become similar to ingrained truth and make the monstrous reality seem commonplace. It was at this point that I began to realize that this is exactly what was happening to the reader. It was the perfect specimen of art imitating life and it was one of the things that made the book so distinguished.

There were really two tales going on: the somewhat placid and serene tale of life as a Halisham student, full to the brim with the minutia of friendships, relationships and education, and the hidden and horrendous reality that was taking place underneath. Throughout the story it became clear by degrees what was really in store for these children, but I still found it both shocking and distressing when everything was finally brought to the surface in the last third of the book. Much of what was planned for them was spelled out in a direct way, but most of the horror of these discoveries was based on what was implied about what had been going on and its inevitable conclusion. The full story, once revealed, was extremely sad and I felt that Ishiguro was really able to capture the despondence and unfruitful hope that permeated these characters' lives. It was curious how detached they seemed to be, how resigned and accepting they were as they walked towards their destines. It was only later that I realized that they had no other basis for comparison and that the strange life they led was the only life they had ever known.

The characterization in this book was immaculate as well. Though the characters were meant to be somewhat indistinct, I found that they were all fully formed and that they were easy to identify with because they embodied the characteristics of people I have known throughout my life. That was one of the things that was so haunting about this book: I felt as though I knew these people in some way; one in particular reminded me of a friend I had long ago, so it was all the more disturbing to realize what was in store for them. To see their fate played out was frightening in a way that I tried not to examine too closely. I suppose the closeness I felt to the characters was in itself another of Ishiguro's deft manipulations, and that the book would have lost a lot of its impact if one were not so attuned to the characters' individuality and emotions.

I really loved this book for its intricacy and beautiful construction and think that its an excellent example of literary writing infused with just the right amount of psychological suspense. There is so much to explore within the constructs of this story, and in the end, the discussions that could be had about this book might be almost as complex as the book itself. I would definitely say that this is one of the better books I have read this year and that its subtlety and revelations were created with a master's touch. Reading this book was pleasurable, and in many ways, scary, but I am thankful that I have had the experience. A great read and highly recommended. I would love the chance to explore this book further and hear other's opinions, so if you have read it and would like to discuss it, please let me know!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter - 304 pgs

Book CoverAfter losing his job as a journalist, Matthew Prior took a gamble on creating a website that mixed financial news and free verse. Needless to say, things didn't work out. Now he and his family are living under crushing debt and are about to lose their home, and their finances are in total meltdown. To make matters worse, Matt suspects his wife is having an online affair with an old lover from high school and his senile father has just moved in with the family. Then Matt makes a late-night trip to the 7-Eleven for milk and gets caught up in a very unfamiliar situation with some local thugs after agreeing to take a hit of their superior weed. As Matt winds his way through the trouble
with his finances, marriage and family, he comes to find himself disastrously enmeshed with his new friends and must find a way to disentangle himself from all his weighty encumbrances, both new and old.

I found this to be an uproariously funny book, and also one that was very economically portentous. From the moment that self-depreciating and clever Matt was introduced amid his myriad of difficulties, the humor seemed to pour off the pages in a casual and original way. I don't want to give away too much of the plot and ruin the book, but I really felt that Walter managed to create some outstandingly hysterical satire that focused on middle class American society. Although this book really brought the funny, there were some piercing and frightening fiscal portraits of today's tail-spinning economy, and it was eye-opening to see a protagonist like Matt having to navigate his way through the financial wasteland that was his life.

There were two stories going on in this book: the tale of Matt's misadventures with his buddies and the interlocking story of personal financial ruin. Both played off of each other and took focus at various times in the book, and both focused on different and specific emotions. In a lighthearted way, the author manages to fuse both the reality of today's economic crisis and the story of how that crisis reflects itself in a typical American family. I thought it was really cool that some of the story was told in poetry asides, most of which were both elegantly written and fabulously funny. Walter even managed to stay grounded in popular culture and language in the sections that focused on Matt's new friends.

Aside from being culturally significant and exceedingly funny, the book had some very touching and emotional scenes that made me snap back as a reader and take notice. There were, for example, many glimpses of conversation between Matt and his ailing father, some of which were startlingly sad and poignant, and Matt's nearly non-stop internal monologue on the slow destruction of his marriage and family. I thought that as a character, Matt was very straightforward and perceptive, and that his voice throughout the book was not only credible, but endearing. At times it was as if he was stuck in the middle of a comedy of errors, one situation building upon another as all threatened to collapse in a heap at his feet, but the fact that he never really lost his composure was something that I marveled at and admired.

The book mainly focused on the protagonist as he fought his way through the quagmire of his life, and as such there wasn't a lot of development of secondary characters. I felt that this was just right for this book because it enabled me to realize that the focus of the narrative, in fact the very point of the narrative, was to be a reflection of Matt's thoughts as he raced to find some magical cure all for his life's ailments. As such, Matt remained the only fully developed three-dimensional character throughout the book.

I also liked the fact that the book was very realistic, and that there was no license taken for dramatic effect or a more seemly narration. Matt was forced to take a real inventory of his life and face his problems in the way you or I would have to, and not everything was neatly tied up in an effortless way. Much of this book was ferociously funny, and I totally appreciated that, but what I appreciated more were the real bits of life that poked through the laughter and comedy, the real reactions and fears of the main character, who did his best trying to hold it all together.

This book was one of the most engaging reads I have had in a long time, and I think that this book is one that I am going to hold on to and pass on to others who are looking for a witty and satirical slice of life. I had a lot of fun laughing at Matt's antics and situations, but in the end, I sympathized with him a lot more than I ever thought I would. I haven't read any other books by this author but I am planning on taking a much closer look at his work. His writing is powerful and at the same time capricious, and tells the story of the everyday man who is not so different from ourselves. A great read. Highly recommended.

I read and reviewed this book as part of a TLC Book Tour. Please stop by these other sites and continue following the rest of the tour!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Guest Appearance

I'm pleased to announce that Elizabeth at As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves has invited me to do a guest post for her feature 451 Fridays. Click over and check it out!

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larrson - 608 pgs

Book CoverMikael Blomkovist has just been sentenced to prison for libel. Blomovist, part owner of the financial magazine Millennium, watches his prospects slowly swirl away from him after his disastrous attempt to uncover the shady secrets of industry leader Heins Erick Wennerstrom. Unexpectedly, Blomkovist is contacted by the distinguished Heinrik Vanger, a rich and influential businessman who wants to offer him a deal. The deal is this: If Blomkovist agrees to investigate the mystery of the disappearance of Vanger's niece, who has been missing for 36 years, Vanger will help Blomkovist out of the hole he finds himself in and will sweeten the deal with the real goods on Wenerstrom. Though at first reluctant, Blomkovist agrees to work on the Vanger disappearance, if only to have another shot at the Wenerstrom affair. Lisbeth Salander, an exceptional computer hacker afflicted with Asperger's syndrome, will eventually find her way into Blomkovist's investigation as an unlikely partner, and as the two begin to uncover secret after secret about the disappearance of Harriet, they will discover a series of violent and sadistic unsolved crimes that will threaten both their lives and their investigation.

This book was an unusual choice for me. I normally don't read suspense/thriller novels, but after hearing so much praise lavished on this series of books, I decided to put my prejudices aside and read the book. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that this book was not really for me. First of all, it took an extremely long time for there to be even a hint of action in the story. For the first few hundred pages, the story revolved around court cases, Swedish finances, and elaborate descriptions of the Vanger family's complex history. I kept wading through all this because I knew there was a story to be found here eventually, but the amount of exposition on the business world was overwhelming. Though I tried really hard not to gloss over all these sections, it was very difficult for me to stay focused and hang on until the grist of the story actually started, and though I was eventually rewarded, I found that the actual bones of the story were not as original and stunning as everyone had made them out to be. Though there were some unique elements in the narrative, I found the story and the revelations to be pretty common and not much to write home about. In fact, I had figured out the main mystery of the story pretty early on, and though there were a few surprises, there weren't really any jaw dropping moments or times when I felt that something extraordinary was being done.

I am assuming that the main reason that this book got so much praise is because of the fact that it is more literary than other books in it's genre, and also for the inclusion of Lisbeth Salander. I will admit that Salander was pretty much the only bright spot in the story. It was really interesting to read about her and the life she created for herself despite her affliction. Though she was pretty uncommunicative and antisocial, she seemed to have a heightened awareness of social injustices and went to great lengths to mete out retribution to those perpetrators that she felt were deserving of punishment. Her demeanor was usually chilly, but underneath the gears were churning and there were complex stratagems being devised within her. Her paranoia in dealing with the world at large, especially anyone in a position of authority, was something that made her character really unique in a book like this, and the sections dealing with her history were some of the more robust and complex sections in the book. I found that the sections focusing on Salander were too few and far between, and it was clear from the way the book was arranged that the fundamentals on Salander were included in the story more as exposition for later books in the series than to satisfy the readers curiosity or flesh out the story.

One of the main things that annoyed me about this book was the ridiculous amount of detail that the author included in his descriptions. It was not enough that someone bought a particular brand of computer, he need to go into all the specs, the color, the size, how much it cost, and on and on. This would not have been a problem if it had happened, say, once or twice in the book. Instead it was everywhere, and it really detracted from smooth reading. I got so fed up with all the minuscule details and began to feel that the book would have been much more readable and enjoyable had things been a bit more concise. The details were not only furnished for electronic devices, but for almost every situation, from the multi-paged descriptions of the Vanger family history to the mind numbing repetition of the research done for the investigation into Harriett's disappearance. I thought that it was a shame to waste so much word space on these lengthy trivial details and wished that an editor had been a bit more engaged with the book.

I have read my share of suspense/thrillers, and from what I could tell, there was not much differentiation between those books and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Though I am quite sure that I am in the minority in my reactions to this book, I do think I gave it a fair shake and tried to read it without a host of preconceived notions cluttering my mind. I am not willing to go so far as to say that this was a bad book, because I do think that people who like this genre would really be impressed with it. For me it was not a groundbreaking read that I found breathtaking or thrilling, which is how it had been presented to me. There were a few aspects of the book that I thought were very well done, but overall, I think this story lacked the originality and punch that I had been expecting to find.

**The Last Dickens Winners**

The winners of The Last Dickens giveaway are:


Each have won a copy of The Last Dickens, courtesy of Random House publishing. Thanks so much to everyone who entered the giveaway, and keep checking back, as I will be hosting more giveaways in the near future.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel - 256 pgs

Book CoverConstantly on the run from her past, Lilia's life revolves around setting up temporary homes and jobs for herself, only to run and leave it all behind when her fancy for flight strikes. After arriving in New York, she begins a relationship with Eli, a young man jaded about his future prospects and friends. In fact, the only thing that seems to excite Eli anymore is his fledgling relationship with Lilia. She unexpectedly leaves him one morning, with no clues to her disappearance or contact information left behind. As Eli finds himself slipping back into depression and obsessing about where in the world Lilia has gone to, he is surprised by the arrival of a strange postcard telling him to come to Montreal, where he will be reunited with Lilia. Leaving everything behind, Eli rushes to find her. As the story of Eli's pursuit continues, it is interspersed with flashbacks of Lilia's childhood, to a time when she was abducted by her father and the ceaseless traveling began. After arriving in Montreal, Eli meets the woman who sent the postcard, Michela, a young woman with odd ties to Lilia, and who is anxious to find and question her as well.

This book seemed to have a corner market on atmosphere. From the first few pages, I felt that there was something singular about the mood of the story, and I was pleased to discover that this ambiance remained strong throughout the book. For example, there were a few scenes depicting the insomnia of one of the characters that I felt were pitch perfect, and I thought that the author had managed to capture the gritty feeling of greasiness that accompanies those long nights when sleep will not come easily. She also managed to convey the realities of the unyielding travel that Lilia had so perfected and the strangeness of being in a landscape foreign to your own.

It was these descriptions and the unique flavor that pressed dauntlessly throughout the prose that really held me to the page and made me want to see this story to the end. There was something so starkly realistic and unwavering about the way these scenes came together and the way that the plot played out that made the story within the pages seem very immediate and pressing. The book very gracefully explored the unique qualities that an unexpected absence of a loved one can take and how that absence can affect even the smallest details in someone's life.

In delving into Eli's emotional reactions to Lilia's disappearance, I felt the author was exposing some very fundamental truths about the pain of loss and the agonies of unexpected separation. When I was about halfway through the book, I realized that Lilia, being the on the other side, had never had to experience these longings and anguish. Lilia, being the perpetrator of these disappearances, dealt with other sufferings, but even these were of her own making.

Although I did really like a few of the characters, the only one I felt any emotional attachment to was Eli. I think this was intended, because he was the only one who got an ample amount of exposition and it was mainly through his eyes that the story unfolded. Initially I found him to be slightly detached, but as the story progressed he became more involved, both in his own circumstances and those of the people surrounding him. He evinced a great growth of character, which is something that is always pleasing for me to see.

I didn't feel the same affinity for Lilia or Michela, and though I tried, I couldn't get fully invested in either of their personal circumstances. I think this was due to the fact that they were much more disconnected from reality than Eli was. Lilia and Michela had some very similar character traits and behaviors, yet they were still starkly different and singular. I took some time to compare and contrast the two girls and was surprised to find similarities that I had initially not noticed.

Though the plot of the book was somewhat winding, it was not convoluted and therefore was easy to follow and get invested in. There were a lot of clever surprises hiding in the narrative that gave the story multiple levels and depth. I also appreciated the mood of the story, which was very somber and serious. The emotion seemed very consistent throughout and the characters showed a great and believable range of sentiment given their circumstances and situations. There were various aspects of emotional layering in each of the characters, particularly in the case of Michela. She was at once domineering and in charge, but also curiously lost and vulnerable in ways that did not outwardly manifest themselves. I also really liked the writing style. It was very fluid and nuanced, which gave the book a great readability and denseness, and the alternating sections were intertwined with a precision that wove the two sides of the story together effortlessly.

This was a very diverting and emotional read. I think it would be great for those who appreciate novels with both a well developed plot and set of characters, and those who really enjoy lyrical writing. Though it is a wistful and sad story, I think it deals with the themes of loneliness, abandonment and disillusionment very deftly and absorbingly, and the plot is highly original. If you are looking for something that is a bit out of the ordinary but cleverly written, I would definitely suggest this book.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, October 5, 2009

In the Arms of Immortals: A Novel of Darkness and Light by Ginger Garrett - 313 pgs

Book CoverWhen a mysterious ship lands in Sicily in 1347 bearing a handsome yet strange man, the the townspeople are curious just who he is and where he has come from. But before they have time to act on their curiosity, they begin to fall ill. First the sickness affects only a handful, but by morning, most of the townspeople are dead and more have been infected. Soon the town begins to fall apart, the Church is overwhelmed and the wolves that lurk around the edges of the village are suddenly becoming more bold. Through the confusion a handful of people begin to galvanize themselves in response to this curious tragedy: the priest who has forsaken those he loves to teach his community the word of God, the local Baron who greedily lives off of the backs of the townspeople, the Baron's proud and spiteful daughter and the outcast healing woman who some think practices witchcraft. But beyond the world of those things that can be seen, the town is being watched and aided by unseen observers, an evil presence is thriving on the town's destruction, and an unwilling visitor from another time is silently watching events unfold. As the Black Plague begins to decimate the village, the fate of it's inhabitants will be determined by the sentinels who are concealed from their view. Both imaginative and suspenseful, In the Arms of Immortals tells an extremely unique version of the most terrifying and brutal epidemic in all of history.

I wasn't sure what I was getting with this book, but by the end of the story I was very surprised that the book had made such a strong impression on me and that I was led to feel so many contrasting emotions. Although I have read many books labeled as Christian fiction, this book was unlike any of them. Usually I find that Christian fiction tends to always have the same hallmarks: non-offensive characters and plots that are studded with heavy-handed messages that can sometimes seem alienating. Not so in this book. The first thing I noticed was that there were some really opinionated and unlikeable people populating the pages. These characters weren't only depicted to be subjects of a revelation. They were at times the center of the narrative, and it was really interesting to watch them function in their natural capacity and play off of the more benign characters in the story. In this respect, the character creation demonstrated that the author was willing to be a bit ambiguous in telling her tale, which is something I really liked. There was not the usual struggle taking place inside me when reading a book of this type, no worrying that the characters and their experiences would be too unreal for me to sympathize with or that they would espouse emotions that didn't ring true. The characterizations were much more realistic and gritty than any I have discovered in most Christian fiction.

Another thing I noticed was that the supernatural elements of this story were depicted very elegantly and with almost a mythical quality. The angels and demons that watched over the village were by turns wondrous and frightening. Up to this point I had never really considered that angels might act in these unfamiliar ways, or that they might not look like those visions of beauty with glowing wings that we have all come to expect. Nor had it occurred to me that demons could exist in so many forms and be so loathsome and revolting. The creatures created in this book were vibrant and startling, and I think the author showed incredible use of imagination in capturing these images in her story.

I also liked that the messages were not expressed in an elementary and basic structure. Yes, this book did have messages, but the way in which the characters grew to understand their predicaments and fates was very multi-dimensional and couldn't be expressed or understood from oft-used platitudes and simple homilies. Here too I was pleased, for the messages didn't come bluntly or with awkwardness. There was something much more complex in the author's revelations, something that I failed to understand until I was almost at the end of the book.

From what I made of it, what made this book so unique was the author's acceptance of the fact that there is a definitive evil in the world. Instead of creating an atmosphere where only goodness and innocence existed, this story explored the realm opposite of justice and light: the darkness and unfathomability that some Christian authors are afraid to examine. The important messages in the book relating to faith and forgiveness were written in a very natural way that fully meshed with the drama and the verisimilitude of the narrative. The story put forth the idea that there are many layers and shapes to faith and showed me that not all books of this genre are created equal.

Another plus for me was the authenticity of the sections relating to the plague. I have always enjoyed historical fiction that deals with the plague, and this book was no exception; it was mainly for this reason that I wanted so much to read this book, and it did not disappoint. I found the sections dealing with the village's descent into the illness fascinating and convincing, and I was pleased that this book did a great double as historical fiction. As an added bonus to this immersive story, I discovered what the plague's impact on Christian women truly was, and how the Church was fundamentally changed by the rapid spread of the Black Death.

This is the second book in a planned trilogy which explores the historical changes that women have wrought in the Christian faith. I already own the first book in the series and I am anxiously awaiting the last, which will deal with the role of women of witchcraft in the Christian community. I was very impressed with this book and thought it was an amazing read. Though I am usually pretty lukewarm about most Christian fiction and sometimes wary of recommending it, I feel very differently about this book. I urge readers of historical fiction to take a closer look at this series of books, this novel in particular. The writing was very fluid and moving, and the story was animated and enigmatic in a way that took me completely by surprise. An unexpectedly involving read. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Guest Post and Giveaway

I am so excited today to welcome author Matthew Pearl to Raging Bibilomania. Matthew is the author of the three blockbuster books The Last Dickens, The Poe Shadow, and The Dante Club. Matthew has agreed to guest post here today, and has written a very interesting post about the differences between hosting a book tour back in 1867 during Charles Dickens' time versus hosting one today in 2009.

The Charles Dickens Book Tour

In 1867, Charles Dickens came to the United States and embarked on an enormously successful reading tour. Reading tours were not unique, but the way Dickens did it, and the reception he received, was.

Approximately 115,000 people saw Dickens perform in about 75 engagements around the country. I use the word "perform" because Dickens wouldn't just read in a monotone way, as was usual then, but would act out the various characters in each excerpt. At every engagement, Dickens would read from two specially prepared excerpts, each from a different novel. Tickets were one dollar, though scalpers or “speculators” (as Dickens called them) sold them for five dollars, ten dollars or more. Dickens knew he could have charged more, but refused.

One of the very fun parts of writing my novel The Last Dickens was to recreate the behind-the-scenes operation of the Dickens tour. It was a big operation. Dickens's manager had gone to America months in advance from England to choose venues. In addition to his theatrical manager, Dickens also brought with him his own entourage: a private dresser, a ticket agent, and even a gas lighting expert to ensure the lighting in each venue was optimally flattering. Thousands of people would pack the theaters.

Dickens left the U.S. with about $150,000, which would constitute about a 1/3 of his estate when he died about two and a half years later.

We still do book tours today, though for the most part authors do not get paid. Dickens was trying to make up for the fact that he received no royalties from American book sales because there were not yet international copyright laws. Book tours today also don't come with entourages. Sometimes, we do get assigned what's called an author escort or media escort. The media escort shuttles you around to hotels, airports, readings, and interviews. If you're really nice, sometimes they'll gossip about authors who aren't. My lips are sealed on stories I've heard, or I'd get them in trouble.

Once, I was giving a talk about being a writer to a fourth grade class, while the media escort, a tall rugged man in a dark leather jacket, waited outside the room. The students asked if he was my bodyguard.

Dickens actually did need a bodyguard at times while on his tour. Someone was always stationed in front of his hotel room door.

Today, we also can promote books online through our own sites or what they call a blog tour--appearing as a guest in an interview or post on different blogs (like I'm doing right now).

I think Dickens would have appreciated connecting to readers this way. On the one hand, he was thrilled by the crowds and the adulation. On the other hand, he was left debilitated by each strenuous performance combined with general health problems. “On Monday night, after the reading,” Dickens wrote home a month into his six month American tour, “I was laid upon a bed, in a very faint and shady state; and on Tuesday I did not get up till the afternoon.”

There can never be another Dickens (which is part of the meaning of my title The Last Dickens, in addition to referring most directly to his last, unfinished book). But that aside, book tours now have to compete with a slew of entertainment that has much heavier promotion and visibility. More difficult than that, people have busy schedules and the 7pm weeknight reading is more likely to conflict with work or family than not. Online promotion can invite readers to connect with an author, through a blog or podcast, on their own time.

At one point during the Dickens tour, several women threw themselves on stage at the end of the performance to collect the flower petals that had fallen from Dickens's buttonhole. One thing that can't happen online!

The publishers of the book have generously provided me with 2 copies of The Last Dickens to give  away to two lucky winners. All you have to do is leave an e-mail address in the comments section of this post where I can get in touch with you should you win. The contest is open to everyone, so good luck to all entrants. Winners will be announced October 17th.

Many thanks to Matthew Pearl for being here today and TLC Book Tours for including me in this book tour. If you would like more information on Matthew or his books, please stop by his website:

Other tour stops for The Last Dickens:

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Last Dickens by Matthew Pearl - 400 pgs

Book CoverPart mystery, part history, The Last Dickens spins the tale of the complex and multi-faceted fate of Dickens' last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Told primarily through a dual narrative style, the book examines the famous and difficult American reading tour that Dickens undertook in December of 1867, while also exploring the dark and dangerous forces that sought to steal the original manuscript from it's rightful publishers after Dickens' untimely death. With Dickens gone, the book, it seems, would not be able to be completed. But a few of the employees of the publishing house of Fields, Osgood and Co. believe that that the six final chapters may exist, hidden away by Dickens for its protection. In this hope, the company sends James Osgood and his bookkeeper Rebecca off to Dickens' ancestral home in England to seek out the missing chapters, knowing that if their discovery pans out, the company will be saved from financial ruin and that the author's pinnacle work will be forever preserved in history. But from the very beginning of the voyage other malevolent forces are at play, some that wish to possess the manuscript for themselves, and others who will do anything to make sure that those pages never see the light of day. Interspersed throughout the mystery is the tale of Dickens himself. A celebrity of the highest order in his time, Dickens sets out across America to give public readings to his adoring fans, scarcely avoiding illness, danger and the law. In these sections, Dickens comes to life as a reserved yet courageous man, both brilliant and humble. A man that gives his lifeblood to his creations and to the people that wait breathlessly for them. From the bustling wharf side docks of America to the filthy opium dens of England, Pearl creates an adventure not to be missed, and gives a stirring alternate history of the most widely speculated-on book in all of literature.

This was a wonderfully rollicking read, with a swift plot line. The action began immediately, with the apprehension of a curious criminal and a trip down to the docks where the newest installment of Dickens' great manuscript is anxiously anticipated. Soon the story was barreling along, full to the brim with dastardly mischief makers, all waiting for the chance to have Dickens' masterpiece in their clutches. From the first moment the affable James Osgood was introduced, it was easy to see that he definitely had the mettle with which to fight these foes. I really enjoyed the alternating story sections between past and present, and thought that it was a interesting and colorful way for the readers to get to know Dickens and have a first-hand look at his public and private persona, while also spinning the wildly embroiling fate of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. The story was a great juxtaposition between two types of stories, and both halves were equally impressive and well rendered. This story was very unique in that it was a meld between a history both real and imagined.

In the last part of the book, the author explains that most of the sections regarding Dickens' American tour were heavily researched and as historically accurate as possible. I even came to find out that more than a handful of characters came straight out of history as well, including James Osgood. It was surprising to read that Dickens was so overwhelmingly popular during his time. I had known that he was considered one of the foremost authors in all of history, but I was unprepared to discover the depths of the public fervor for him. From what I understood, he was feverishly followed and lavish amounts of attention came his way, from both the famous and the unfamous alike. I can imagine that if there was such a thing a paparazzi back then that Dickens would have been one of their foremost attractions. I was both amused by this and a little taken aback by the lengths that people would go to just to touch an item the author himself had touched. Through it all, Dickens remained a consummate professional and always presented himself with a wonderful geniality to his admirers and maintained a humble attitude regarding his success.

One of the things I found most interesting about the book were the descriptions of the rivalries between the competing publishing houses of the time. Some looked at books as a business, rather than art or entertainment, and I was struck by how the attitudes of those forgotten times seem to be so reminiscent of the publishing world today. Another thing that stood out was the evocative and authentic historical flavor and ambiance of the book. The author did a great job with the small touches that gave the book a very realistic historical feel. The effect was transporting, and it was fun to be able to get lost in the details and setting of the book. The character creation was outstanding as well, with many unique and wonderful voices coming to life on the page. I got a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction from all the villains in this story, for there were many, and each had their own vices and loyalties. It was very diverting trying to figure out just what each character's motivations were, and I have to admit that I was shocked when many of the characters I was sure were gentlemen revealed themselves to be scoundrels. The conclusion of the book was clever as well. It was as if the author was well aware that he could not rewrite the history of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and instead formed a credible and plausible culmination that would validate both the real and the imagined.

This was a very smart read that held me spellbound with both its twisting plot and its singular characters. There was a great deal to relish in the book, and I think the author did a wonderful job of creating a narrative that one can get invested in on many levels. I also loved getting to know Charles Dickens a little better. Whether or not you are a fan of Dickens, I recommend this novel as one that is completely enveloping. An excellent read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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