Friday, December 25, 2009

The Greatest Christmas Present for a book lover

This year for Christmas my parents gave my husband and I each a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore. Glee! This afternoon we sat down with the computer and put together a list of all the books we have been wanting that are not easily accessible from the library. We decided to go online rather than in the store because too often we can't find the books we want when we're shopping (I could go on a rant about bookstores becoming gadget, toy, and stuffed animal stores rather than bookstores, but I'll save that for another day).


I started by pulling books off my Goodreads to-read list. Those are books that I have added over the past year when friends have recommended them. Here is our list:

  • Winter in June (Rosie Winter #3) by Kathryn Miller Haines - part of a good 1940s mystery series
  • Chrysalids by John Wyndham - classic sci fi recommended by a friend
  • Passage by Connie Willis - sci fi by one of my all-time favorite authors
  • Sleep, Pale Sister by Joanne Harris - fiction by the author of Chocolat; a great author
  • The People of Sparks (Book of Ember #2) by Jeanne DuPrau - second book in kids fantasy series
  • Wolf Who Rules by Wen Spencer - second book in the light, fun fantasy series
  • (a handful of heavy sci fi picked out by hubby that I may read depending on his recommendations)
  • Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - steampunk
  • Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart - mmmm, baguettes...

Woo Hoo!!

Thanks to the friends who have recommended the above books. And keep your eyes posted to this page (because I know you live and die by my blog) for reviews of my Christmas book list.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Winter of Her Disontent by Kathryn Miller Haines

I recently read Kathryn Miller Haines' first novel in the Rosie Winter Series and enjoyed it. A touch of film noir spiced up with theatre and cozy-mysteryness all added up to a fun light diversion. I picked up The Winter of Her Discontent after putting down Inkheart and found that the second novel in the series is even better.

As a hopeful aspiring writer, I enjoy reading the first book in a series. I am curious how authors set up their characters and their worlds. The descriptions that they employ and the worlds that they create capture my imagination. In many cases I think the first book in the series is the best. Authors work so hard to set up a world that they too often rest on their laurels and the books quickly go downhill and become derivative. However, in the gap between first and worst, there are great mysteries and Haines' second Rosie Winter story is one of those.

One of the best changes in the two books is Haines' willingness to drop the excessive use of film noir slang. While I liked her accurate terminology in War Against Miss Winter I did want her to stop using "jawing" and occasionally write, "she said." In this novel she does just that. Haines incorporates the occasional slang to liven up the story and remind the reader that it is 1943 New York City. But the occasional dab is significantly more effective than the excessive glop from the first novel.

In addition, I read until page 380 before I knew the whole plot. It is rare for a regular mystery reader to not have a decent clue whodunit and why within the first half of the novel. I admit, I had a good sense of who was overly suspicious, but I didn't find out until Rosie did exactly what the mystery entailed. I liked having the gasp of understanding that a good mystery creates.

Last, but most assuredly not least, I respect Haines for putting out there the negative aspects of World War II on the homefront. So many movies and stories have appeared in the past ten years which show the horrors of the war and the optimism of the homefront that I can't keep track of them. Haines shows the horrors of the homefront. Life was not pleasant. Everyone was not perfect. People took advantage of their fellow man and their government. And Haines does a good job showing the complicated world of navigating patriotism, greed, and practicality.

All in all, if you like historical mysteries, a good read and a good addition to the mystery genre. Now I'm going to have to add the third book to my to-read list.

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If you would like more Historical Mysteries try:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke


Harry Potter proved that young adults could read books of longer than 200 pages. It created a new world for young adult literature that is longer and more detailed. Inkheart emerged onto the scene playing heavily on the appeal of J. K. Rowling. And in my opinion, fell flat on its face. What a boring book. Cornelia Funke accomplished in 520 pages what she could have accomplished in 250. Rarely would I suggest an abridged version of a book, however in this case the only way I would give the Inkheart series to a child was if it were heavily shortened and tightened. This book will not encourage most readers and is not a good choice if trying to instill a love of reading in a youngster.

I feel guilty being that negative. I SO wanted to like this series. And I have specifically held off watching the movie until I had read the book. But in this instance I think cutting out all the extraneous unnecessary description to create a tight screenplay will improve the work.

Part of my hope for the series was that it revolves around a father and daughter who love books. They love to read. They are wholeheartedly invested in the world of stories and literature and losing oneself in a new world. How can all of that be bad?
When it goes nowhere.
The plot spins in endless circles with very little forward motion until I finally put Inkheart down and begged my husband to tell me what happened.

I am curious about one thing: Is this my failing as an American reader who has fallen into the trap of expecting action in every chapter? I hadn't initially realized that Inkheart is a German novel (although it helps to know that in the beginning. Otherwise the lack of setting up a locale is slightly disconcerting). I haven't read much German literature and would like to know if this is stereotypical. Do German novels focus on heavy description and move forward at a slower pace than an "average" American book? If anyone has any insight, please share.

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If you would like more books like Inkheart try:

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

I should have read The Elegance of the Hedgehog with a highlighter in my hand (Not that I'll tell the librarians that I seriously considered defacing their property). I needed a highlighter because there were amazing one-liners I would love to have now. But of course looking back I can't pinpoint them immediately. They were the type of statements that you write out in pretty script and attach to your bedroom mirror to ponder on rising in the morning.

Alas, no quotes. Instead I will have to remember this book through its themes and totality. I requested Elegance of the Hedgehog because of a book group but had to wait nearly three months to get a copy. It is a popular book, but also a slow read which meant a long wait. I put the book down in the middle and considered returning it to the library without finishing it myself. I'm sooo glad I chose to keep reading.

It's important to understand that Barbery is French and the book has been translated into English. The translation is sound however the plot is so very French that it might put a reader off. The story has very little action and a lot of navel gazing. It's philosophy like most French literature. It discusses post-structuralism and Proust and Tolstoy. It is not a book to be read at the beach while keeping one eye on kids playing in the sand. It is a book that has to be read with both eyes and one's mind fully focused on the text.

The two main characters are Paloma a twelve-year old genius who finds her family ridiculous and beneath scorn and Renee a fifty-something concierge who waters plants and cleans brass doorknobs for a living but reads "transcendalist idealism" for fun. The two live in the same building and would never interact were it not for the introduction of a Japanese man named Kakuro who moves in.

More than anything what kept me going were the great satirical comments made by the two characters. They have incredibly unique views of the world and have no qualms about voicing their dislike of modern society, class-based society, hierarchy... Coming from two very different worlds they reach similar conclusions about the lack of depth in many of the people with whom they interact. But the book is in no way a farce. I cried reading it too.

I wholeheartedly recommend Elegance of the Hedgehog if you are looking for social commentary and have the time and attention to invest in the novel. Do not get frustrated in the middle and stop reading - believe me it is tempting. Keep pushing until Kakuro arrives and then the story picks up.

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If you liked Elegance of the Hedgehog try:

  • Marguerite Duras The Lover - one of my favorite French novels
  • Vikram Seth A Suitable Boy - a tome about Indian identity in a post-colonial world
  • Khaled Hosseini - The Kite Runner - a story of modern day Afghanistan

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The False-Hearted Teddy and The Crafty Teddy by John J. Lamb

I rarely read two books in the series back to back. I like to try and vary my book choices. But a holiday bout of the flu left me on the couch and ready to read the next two Bear Collector mysteries by John J. Lamb. I finished The False-Hearted Teddy and picked up The Crafty Teddy next. Lamb's series has been described as a police procedural cozy. Those two terms seem at odds for a conventional cozy mystery reader. But after reading The Crafty Teddy I better understand the designation.

It is refreshing to read a cozy mystery written by a man. I would argue that the vast majority of cozies are written and read by women. Lamb's stories add a fun twist with a sarcastic, punny, ex-cop for the main character. He loves to insert sexual innuendos and groan-worthy puns throughout the story - characteristics that I haven't found in the typical cozy.

As the series progresses the stories have become more police procedural as the main characters become involved with the local sheriff's office and work in an official capacity to assist with criminal investigations. But, given that the plots revolve around the teddy bear making world the stories are firmly entrenched in cozy-land.

The False-Hearted Teddy takes place at a bear show in a hotel in Baltimore. Brad and Ash Lyons have set up shop to sell their homemade bears when one of the other vendors is murdered. Confrontational cops cause Brad to investigate on his own. By the middle of the book he allies forces with the police and the book becomes a more familiar police procedural with rules and regulations, car chases, and witness interviews making up the bulk of the story. However, Lamb convincingly remains wedded to the cozy style of writing and does not fall into too much heavy police lingo.
I like this story, but it wasn't my favorite. I found the good cop/bad cop a bit heavy handed. And the transition to allies was too easy. Nonetheless, it was a fun, light read. Oh, and a pet peeve, the blurb on the back cover. In this case, it was flat out wrong. It says the cops thing the murder was not a murder - which is not true. Who writes those things?

In The Crafty Teddy Brad and Ash are back at home in the Shenandoah Valley. The book opens with the theft of two of their antique bears. In a seemingly unconnected fashion three Japanese Yakuza (gangsters) show up in town to visit the local history museum. Brad, questioning the motives of Japanese businessmen being interested in quaint Virginia history, he follows them and finds a dead body.
Lambs explanation for the presence of the Japanese is an amusing twist in cozy-land. I found myself smiling at the image of a Japanese gangster wandering through Boyds Bears in Pennsylvania picking out cute teddy bears.
In this book Lyons becomes an employee of the local sheriff's office and the percentage of police focus in this book has grown exponentially since the first. He successfully blends the two styles by giving weight to the investigation and legitimacy for the characters to have guns and be tramping through suspects homes. Yet he interjects a light fun air and a focus on teddy bear making that places the series firmly in cozy land.
My only complaint about this book is Lamb's description of the UVA History department. But that could be because I know too much about that particular school and faculty.

I have to say, while I originally dismissed a teddy bear making series as bad fluff in the world of cozy mysteries this has actually become a preferred series. I will happily recommend it to other mystery readers.

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If you liked the Bear Collector Mysteries try: