Friday, May 29, 2009

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón - 470 pgs

In 1920's Barcelona, a young orphan named David Martin is working as a lowly assistant in a newspaper office, with the hopes of one day becoming an author. Living in near squalor and pining for a woman who does not share his passion, he finally gets his chance to write. But far from being a masterpiece, it comes in the form of Penny Dreadfuls that he must write under a pseudonym. Stuck in this unfulfilling career and noticing the early symptoms of a serious illness, David is dispirited and dejected when he is approached by a mysterious man who wishes to commission him to write a most strange and unusual book. David, swayed by the money and promises of untold rewards, takes the commission and agrees to write the tome. Soon though, he begins to see that something is not quite right. He begins having prophetic and haunting dreams, strange and unsavory coincidences begin to crop up in his life, and his publisher seems to have the preternatural ability to know just what his next move is. As David tries to uncover the secrets behind the strange commission and its benefactor, he becomes enmeshed in a world of lies, stolen identities, and a deeply hidden and diabolical plot that may not even be human at all. Richly dark and macabre, The Angel's Game twists the borders of reality, keeping its readers spellbound.

Most of what I have to say about this book can be summed up in two words: utterly fantastic! I had been a bit worried that this book would suffer in comparison to The Shadow of the Wind, which is one of my all-time favorite books, but I was genuinely surprised to find that I liked this one even more. The writing in this book was extremely precise and smooth, and rather than it feeling like a linear set of events separated into sections, it felt more like the type of story a storyteller would tell: a whole and well-polished narrative, like something that could be finished in one sitting.

Zafón also is a master of ambiance and atmosphere, and his talent in this book was no different than in Shadow. The city of Barcelona that he portrays was almost a character in itself, dark, foreboding and completely three-dimensional. The backdrop set an aura of delicious suspense and it was the perfect setting for this Gothic and cryptic tale. There was no abruptness in the story, nothing faltering or out of place; instead everything was created with perfect symmetry and gravity. In fact the whole book moved like well-oiled machinery, and that was one of the elements that made it so easy to lose track of everything else but the story that I was reading.

The dialogue was very natural and most of the character exchanges were witty and barbed, which lent a touch of humor to what would have otherwise been a very morose story. The banter between David and his assistant was particularly amusing, and in general, the ease in which the characters conversed was a high point in the book. Couched into the narrative, there was a good deal of exposition regarding human nature, theology, and philosophy, but Zafón had a knack of not reverting into a preachiness or sanctimony that would have spoiled Daniel's revelations. At times though, his examination and estimation of spirituality and theology seemed to be rather cynical, but it tended to land more into the region of philosophy rather than verge into the areas of morality.

There was a time in the story that I felt as though I may be dealing with an unreliable narrator, but further reading lead me to discover that Zafón had another, more exciting ace up his sleeve, and just when I thought I had this story all pieced together, I realized that that I was completely wrong. I suppose that there is more than one way to digest the conclusion of this story, and I think that because Zafón gives the reader a choice in this matter, it makes this story all the more distinguished. This book had all the qualities that make it unforgettable: narrative force and drive, mystery, and elements of dramatic horror that were masterfully depicted. Above all though, the thing I enjoyed most was that this was a book about books and how they shape, change and enrich your life and the lives of others. This work showed an increased maturity and darkness in the author, and was much more measured and introspective than his debut novel. I have to say that taken together, the two books are an extremely promising piece of the four book endeavor the author has planned.

This is the kind of book that I want to enthusiastically push on every reader I know. It was a stunning reading experience, the kind I am searching for in every book that I open, but rarely find. Haunting, tense and thrilling, The Angel's Game is a modern masterpiece that I give the heartiest of recommendations. A simply fabulous read.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Coventry Giveaway!

Coventry, by Helen Humphreys, is an elegant and haunting novel that tells the story of the World War II bombing of Coventry, England. Told from the perspective of three witnesses who must make their way across the burning city, this historical novel is not only a chronicle of those terrible nights, but a deeply moving tale of human tenacity in the midst of war. Both deeply somber yet ultimately hopeful, Coventry is a novel that will leave you captivated from the first pages. See the full review here.

I have one hardcover copy of Coventry to give away to a lucky reader. If you would like to be entered to win this contest, please leave a comment with your e-mail address. For two additional entries, you can tweet this giveaway. I will randomly pick a winner for this contest on June 24th, and will post the winner on the following day. Good luck to all who enter!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Story of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes On in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen - 288 pgs

Book CoverSpiced, a memoir, tells the story of Dalia Jurgensen, a young woman who decides to quit her job in publishing to become a chef. Although she doesn't have much experience in a restaurant kitchen, she quickly gets an entry level job in New York's famedNobu restaurant plating desserts for the pastry chef. As Dalia learns the ropes, she steadily climbs the restaurant ladder and eventually moves from an assistant to a chef. The story commences the moment she steps through that door and records all the secret little details of a restaurant kitchen that everyone hungers to know. From the clandestine relationships between the staff, the eyebrow raising lowdown of "family meal," and the outright chaos that a kitchen becomes during a dinner rush, the author shares her life and work against the backdrop of the famous restaurants that she has worked in. Often funny and eye-opening, the book showcases the classified side of life behind the restaurant doors.

I love memoirs, and if there is some kind of food involved with them, all the better. From the minute I picked the book up, I was entranced by all the behind-the-scenes adventures in the kitchen. She had a very conspiratorial way of writing that made me feel a bit like her secrets were meant for my eyes alone, and I'll admit that I spent some time rereading certain passages, just to savor them. I loved all the food details: from the information on the proper tempering of chocolate, to her brainstorming of new and exotic desserts, to her stint working as a food designer for Martha Stewart, I found it all totally absorbing.

Although I have read quite a few food memoirs, I felt that this one was a bit different in that this was a memoir about the dessert side of a restaurant, something I haven't seen before. Another thing that was different about this book was the fact that it was written by an experienced female chef. Most food memoirs I have read have been authored by male chefs, and though some of them have been really magnificent books, I really liked the female perspective in Spiced. The author spent a lot of time talking about the camaraderie (or lack thereof) that exists in many kitchens. She detailed the reasons waiters and chefs don't usually get along, the late night debauchery that takes place after the last diner has left and the lights have gone out, and just what it is that it takes for a manager to work with so many conflicting personalities.

Although it wasn't specifically food related, I enjoyed the tales of Dalia's forays into the lives of the other kitchen workers. Her fling with a waitress, the abhorrence that she felt for one of her assistants, and the silent war that was waged between Dalia and a particularly foul-tempered chef were all things that really enlivened the story and made this a really engrossing read. She also speaks about the sexism that runs rampant in most kitchens, and how hard it is to be taken seriously as a chef when you are a woman. I found it frustrating that women still have to be subjected to such idiocies from the men that surround them in the workplace, but Dalia takes it in stride, never letting the men of the kitchen get the better of her. Instead, she chooses to work smarter, faster and harder. Though she does come to earn a grudging respect from the men who surround her, I felt that in all honesty, she shouldn't have to work so hard for the respect that the men in the kitchen get by default.

I felt that the author really put a lot of herself into this book, and as a result, I really got to know a lot about her as a person and a chef. She comes across as a very confident and inventive woman who seems to know just what each situation requires from her, and works hard to make a lasting impression, especially in the area of dessert creation. The story in this book was riveting without being sensational, and although there were plenty of juicy details, it wasn't stiff nor overburdened with minutia. There were some aspects of the book that pertained more to the personal side of the author's life than specifically to the kitchen, and though some may take issue with this, I thought that these moments out of the kitchen did a lot to humanize Dalia and highlight the fact that she is a real person with a real life, not just a pastry chef.

I had a really good time with this book, and I appreciated both the lightness and the candor of the author's story. If you are a fan of the food memoir, you will love this book. I also heartily recommend it to anyone who is more broadly interested in the memoir category. This book adeptly proves that Dalia Jurgensen has made her name in more than just the kitchen. A perfect beach read, but be sure to bring a snack!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Psysick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe - 384 pgs

Book CoverConnie Goodwin has just been accepted as a candidate for the Ph.D. Program at Harvard when her new-age mother requests that she organize and spruce up her late grandmother's overgrown and crumbling home to prepare it for sale. Although Connie is struggling with her adviser, Manning Chilton, for a topic for her dissertation, she agrees to reside in the old house and do her best to get it under control. As Connie struggles with cleaning the sprawling and filthy house, strange things begin to happen. From her intense headaches and visions to the jolt of electricity that seems to rip a book out of her hand, Connie begins to wonder just what secrets her grandmother's house holds. When she discovers the name Deliverance Dane hidden in a key in an old Bible on her grandmother's shelf, she is set on a course of action that will forever change her life. She discovers that Deliverance Dane was one of the original women executed for witchcraft in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and that she may have left behind a hidden spell book. Connie decides to take this information to Professor Manning as the topic for her dissertation. But information on Deliverance and her book is sparse and hard to come by, which seems to infuriate the Professor and puts Connie into fits of the doldrums. While looking for clues to the mysteries of Deliverance's life, Connie meets Sam, a local steeplejack working on one of the churches in town. Sam and Connie hit it off immediately and begin to see each other with the excuse that he will help her with her research, and soon they become a couple. But strange occurrences continue to haunt Connie and grow more pronounced as her search for the book intensifies. Soon she will realize that all that she holds dear is in danger, including Sam, and that there are people out there whose motivations are not what they seem. Connie will begin to discover new truths about herself and the life that she thought she knew, and maybe, if she is lucky, will unlock the secrets of the Psysick Book of Deliverance Dane. Woven in between the chapters of Connie's story is the story of Deliverance Dane herself; a story of accusations, suspicion and confrontation. This book straddles the unknown and asks the question: What if the suspicions of witchcraft in Salem weren't suspicions, but plain fact?

This book was a really interesting ride. From the outset, the story worked in a way that induced plenty of suspense and anticipation in the reader. The book began with a section set in the past where Deliverance was accused of terrible crimes, and flashed forward to the present day where Connie was also in the hot seat while she was being interviewed for her candidacy. I found that the book did that a lot. The author had a way of mirroring the atmosphere between the past and present sections in a way that gave the reader an urgent sense of immediacy, and the result was not only cohesion but palpable suspense in the storyline.

Another thing I liked about the book was the attention to detail in the writing. It seemed that nothing was left to chance and that every plot element and character was fully developed. Even the backstory was done well. It was not shoddily thrown into the plot, but rather placed there just when the reader may have been wondering about what could have gone before. The writing style was not overly formal, instead being more direct and informative, even in dealing with all the sticky elements of academia. I thought that the author really had a broad base in her writing technique, shifting between the speech vagaries of the past, the authoritativeness of the scholarly work that so consumed Connie, the historical atmosphere that was present in the tale of Deliverance, and the modern story of treachery and love in the main body. The author balanced it all very well, resulting in a smoothly flowing narrative.

Overall, I would have to say that some of the plot points in the book were a bit predictable, and although I wasn't overly focused on that aspect of the book, I did notice it. Sections of the book seemed to run on formula alone, which made me more fond of the historical plot line. In addition, I felt that some of the character creation was a little clichéd. At times I felt that Professor Chilton's character was too much of a stereotype and overly predictable. In my opinion, his character would have been more believable had he stayed a bit more vague and shadowy, rather than being so ostentatious and prominent. At times I sighed with frustration when he showed up on the page, because I just knew he was going to continue with his pushing and belittling.

Sam was one of the more appealing characters in the book. He was very much against the stereotype, which I found refreshing, and he was also the kind of character whose easygoing nature makes a reader identify with him and feel comfortable with him immediately. I liked the Sam/Connie relationship a lot, and thought it added a little bit of extra flavor to the narrative. Although I would have liked to have seen this angle focused on a bit more, it was nice to see their relationship grow beyond the parameters of friendship.

Although I enjoyed nearly all aspects of this book, I'd have to say that the historical sections on Deliverance were my absolute favorite scenes. I loved the peek into the time period, and thought that as a woman, she embodied a lot of really interesting qualities. She was stern yet yielding, she was honorable yet not a pushover; there are so many things I could say about her, but in the end it all comes down to the fact that her character was created perfectly. I also liked that the author really did her homework with this story. You could tell that she had researched extensively, not only the time period but the unfamiliar aspects of the occult, and I think that all the research really magnified the scope of the book.

I thought this was an interesting read that firmly held my attention and showed great imagination. I would have to say, if one were making comparisons, that this book is kind of a hybrid between The Secret History and The Historian, albeit with witches instead of vampires. If you enjoyed either of these books or have a love of academia, historical fiction, or thrillers and suspense novels, this would definitely be the book for you. I wouldn't exactly call this a great beach read because it's not really light and fluffy, but it would be excellent for anyone who wants an engaging book to crawl under the covers with.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Life Is Like a Line by Cynthia Sabotka - 336 pgs

Book CoverFrom the early years of her childhood, Cynthia Sabotka struggled with witnessing her parents' tumultuous arguments and contention. As she spent her formative years hiding from the screaming and discontent, she didn't realize that under it all lurked a mood disorder much like her mother's. Through her adolescence and young adult years, she opted to shut out these unfriendly feelings through the use of drugs and alcohol. Although that worked for a time, it was not the cure she had been hoping for, and eventually she left those things behind. As an adult, she struggled with mania and depression at unbelievable levels, but thought that her mindset was the result of severe stress and the anguish of losing her father. But the mental struggles never got better. Cynthia began to exhibit increasingly dangerous behavior along with crippling depression, despair, anxiety, fear and manic episodes of such great height that she felt as though no one could possibly relate to or understand her. As Cynthia's life continued to march forward in confusion, thestressors became more than she could handle, and she began to seek professional help. Initially, the doctor had trouble reading the writing on the wall, and help was not the immediate fix she hoped for. But as she began to open up and do research, Cynthia and her doctor learned the truth of her situation. Cynthia was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began treatment, with several bumps along the way. As she describes her mental and physical reaction towards the diagnosis and the chemicals used to treat it, she begins to find the self that she once lost, and learns that living with the label "manic depressive" encompasses so much more than she ever could imagine. Written with courage and insight, this memoir of one woman's life through mental illness shines a light on the many who are afflicted, yet hidden in silence.

This book captured the plight of individual with mental illness incredibly well. It is not a life of sunshine and roses, and I felt that the author really managed to convey the sense of loss, anger and confusion in a way that almost anyone could understand. Throughout the book the author's voice remains glaringly honest, and if at times I thought she was hostile, I can sympathize and understand that the mental forces she was dealing with were probably ripping her apart emotionally. I found it incredibly sad that she had to witness so much of her parents' unhealthy marriage and that even as a child she felt it was her responsibility to stop the fighting and soothe the wounded parties.

At times, the book lapses into what I would call a journaling style, where the author seems to relive the events of her life and records her reactions and feelings. She describes times of hiding and trying to drown out the sounds of her parents' combat in the other room, and relates her feelings of low self worth and discomfort. These sections seemed very raw and powerful, though at times I felt I had a bit of trouble connecting to them with the proper emotional engagement. I think that taken as a whole, they really fleshed out the struggle and angst of what the author's life must have been like, and they are rooted in a great despair and loneliness that is not easy to ignore.

I was really impressed with the indefatigable spirit of this author. She never succumbed to the tide that seemed to be slowly washing her away, choosing instead to face things in a way that left no room for shirking. This was a passionate and raging reflection that uncovered so much of the emotional side of this disorder, so much of the author's feelings of hesitancy and discord. But don't get me wrong, this book wasn't a canvas for weakness and self-pity. In fact, one of the things I admired most about this book was the author's ability to handle these emotions honestly. Throughout the narrative she remained steadfast, unwilling to fall down and play dead in relation to the problems she was facing both in her personal life and on the mental front. It was inspiring to me that she continued to fight and continued to try to understand these demons that were chasing her.

I did have feelings of anger toward her relatives at times. It seemed that they used her for a scapegoat and mental punching bag more often than not, and it was really hard to see someone in such turmoil being surrounded by people who were just plain unhealthy most of the time. I never got used to the drama that her mother caused her, and her brother was cut from another cloth altogether. I think that her family was so caught up in their own selfishness that they refused to see that Cynthia had some serious issues. Her eventual distancing from them was met by happy cheers from me.

This book doesn't have your stock ending: Instead of everything being nicely tied up in a bow for the reader to put away, Cynthia tells us that her troubles are not yet over. As she struggles with her medications and emotional issues, she is also telling us that she is committed to putting things right in her life, to getting the help she knows she needs and making the changes in her life gradually and steadily, so that her past doesn't stretch into her future. We as readers know that a happy ending will come, in time.

I really thought this book was inspiring and took great courage to write. It was mesmerizing both in the story it told and in the creativeness and fluidity of its writing. I would recommend this book to all who have ever wondered about bipolar disorder and for those who like memoirs that focus on internal struggle. I think that this book deserves attention and would possibly be enlightening to those who struggle with mental disorders, or their families as well. Huge kudos for this author in telling her story, and not being afraid of the labels it would place on her. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

**Contest Winner**

The winner of the contest for the copy of Bedlam South is:


This winner was randomly chosen from all the entries that I received. Please check back in the future for more excellent book giveaways, and congratulations to Dar for winning this book!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Coventry by Helen Humphreys - 192 pgs

Book CoverOn the evenings of November 14th and 15th, 1940, a massive bombing raid destroyed the English city of Coventry. German attack planes flew over the city dropping hundreds of bombs, decimating most of the architecture and killing roughly 600 people and wounding many more. What was left standing was barely recognizable as a once flourishing and beautiful city. In the novel Coventry, Helen Humphreys weaves this tragic time in history into the story of three people who begin that fateful evening alone but somehow end up finding each other. Harriett, a young woman who lost her husband in the first World War, is quiet and unassuming. While she still misses her husband desperately, her emotions have been somewhat calloused and atrophied from the years spent alone. When she agrees to take over a shift on the local fire brigade, she gets more than she bargained for when the bombing causes massive fires to break out in her area of patrol. While she is simultaneously fighting the fire and eventually running from it's destruction, she meets Jeremy, a courageous young man who will be her guide and companion through the burning city. Jeremy is also part of the fire brigade, and after the bombing he and Harriett begin to search for his mother Maeve, the third player in this arresting drama. Maeve, an artist, has raised Jeremy alone and is caught in a pub when the bombing begins. When she makes her way home she wishes to stay there and wait for Jeremy but is persuaded by her neighbors to flee the city for the countryside, where it is safer. As the three players move closer to their reunion they witness terrible havoc and bloodshed throughout the once remarkable city. While they are busy dodging the falling bombs they each discover the hidden sides of themselves that they never expected to find, and become enmeshed with each other in astounding ways.

This is a slim book, but one of tremendous power. The author has a way of being very understated and subtle in her choice of words, but somehow this makes the narrative both more haunting and evocative. There were many things about the book that seemed subdued, from the way in which she portrayed her characters to the situations that she chose to illustrate, but there was something that was extremely poignant in the way that she juggled this huge amount of confusion in her story with restraint and quietness. Had she chosen to construct the narrative in a more hypersensitive way, I think the story would have been somewhat directionless and less focused.

Another thing that I appreciated about the book is that the author used the show and not tell method of storytelling. Instead of trying to explain all of her situations and characters and the reasons for their actions, I felt that she let the characters' actions and reactions speak for themselves. It was not hard to see why Harriett behaved as one wounded, or why Maeve was so headstrong. Their characters grew into these emotions as the book progressed, and instead of laying it all out there in a repetitious and elementary way, the author chose to close all those gaps with the growth of her characters and the emotive power of her situations.

As far as the characters go, I preferred Maeve's character to Harriet's because Harriet at times seemed a bit too detached for me, and her remoteness in the main portion of the book was something that I felt was a bit hard to relate to personally. Despite this, I felt that, as a character, Harriet displayed much more growth than the others did. It was illuminating to watch the shifts in her personality and to see her mentally become more cognizant of her emotions and behavior. The growth that Harriett evinced was one of the things I liked most about this character and this book. There was a type of internal monologue running through her that was both plausible and satisfying to witness.

Of the three characters highlighted in this book, Maeve was my favorite. She was very independent and spirited, and I liked the way that her love of drawing and art was infused into the very fiber of her character. I thought that she showed tremendous courage in raising her son alone. During that time period, I am sure hers was not the most popular or acceptable decision. Her love for her son was touching, but it was not an overpowering force in the story; instead it showcased the bond between the two characters in a tender and gentle way.

I also liked Jeremy. He was very young, but he seemed to show a mature and sound emotional capacity, and was endowed with many characteristics that are rare finds in the men of literature. I found him to be an extremely sensitive and compassionate person while still being somewhat of an innocent. Although he could have left Harriett behind to face the odds alone, he willingly took on her presence and agreed to guide her safely through the maelstrom towards safety.

There was a an interesting chemistry between these three players; they were all so very different, but in the end, they all manifested some of the same characteristics, albeit in different ways. Though the force of the war was huge, the force of their personalities were bigger, and that was something that elevated this from your typical war story.

I really enjoyed this book, and think it would be perfect for those who enjoy character driven novels. Whether or not you are a war enthusiast, this book will probably strike a cord in you because there is a great deal to focus on in the story. The characters and situations in the book feel authentic, and although this is a sad story, it is not permeated with bleakness throughout. If you enjoy books that focus on the people surrounding an event and their reactions towards that event, you might really enjoy this book. Recommended.
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