Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Bookish fantasy...

Do you know what first got me hooked on the Harry Potter books? Harry's very first trip to Diagon Alley. Rowling's writing is so vivid...  In Diagon Alley, "there were shops selling robes, shops selling telescopes and strange silver instruments Harry had never seen before, windows stacked with barrels of bat spleens and eels' eyes, tottering piles of spell books, quills, and rolls of parchment, potion bottles, globes of the moon..."

I wanted to go there, too. I mean, who wouldn't want to choose your very own owl at Eeylops Owl Emporium, or buy some magical books at Flourish and Blotts where "the shelves were stacked to the ceiling with books as large as paving stones bound in leather; books the size of postage stamps in covers of silk; books full of peculiar symbols and a few books with nothing in them at all"? Talk about a bookworm's fantasy vacation!

And don't get me started on Hogwarts, or Honeydukes and Hogsmeade. Just thinking about it makes me wish Rowling's fictional world were real. I'd happily spend the summer visiting all of Harry's haunts. Wouldn't that be cool? Good thing I've got all seven books sitting on my shelf any time I feel like 'visiting'. Here's to revisiting your favorite fictional world this summer!

Happy Birthday, Harry Potter!
(P.S. Have you planned your Harry Potter party yet?)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Supernatural suspense...

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses...

A Nell West and Michael Flint Mystery
Antiques dealer Nell West is rational and level-headed; she does not believe in the supernatural. So, even if she'd heard the rumors about Stilter House being haunted, she still would have gone there to appraise its contents. And since it's a school holiday, she takes along her nine-year-old daughter, Beth. They have fun exploring the old house and camping out by candlelight; and every thing seems fine until Nell begins hearing haunting music in the hall. Then Beth claims to have met a young boy named Esmond, a boy who doesn't speak but who plays the piano. Everything would still have been fine, except Esmond isn't the only ghost haunting this house.
Near the door something was moving. It was as if something was picking up the shadows and twisting them into an outline--as if long fleshless fingers were reaching down and gathering up the strings of darkness and decay to weave a human carapace...And then, like a bad connection finally sparking, the woman was there. The ravage-faced creature of rain  and darkness and ancient cobwebs.
Who is she and why is she haunting Stilter House? And what happened to Esmond so long ago? Nell and her friend, Michael Flint, are determined to find the answers.

I love a good ghost story, especially one that involves a haunted house. And Stilter House is full of secrets--secrets Nell and Michael unearth through old letters, diaries and court records. I liked the way they pieced together the facts of this mystery and discovered the truth. Very Wilkie Collins-esque. And I thought their ghostly encounters were suspenseful and chilling...just as a good ghost story should be. This is the third novel Sarah Rayne has written with these characters, but The Silence stands on its own, so you don't need to read them in order to enjoy this one.

Happy Reading!

Friday, July 25, 2014

The 1914 Memoirs of Evelyn Nesbit...

Young. Beautiful. Charles Dana Gibson's favorite Gibson Girl.
Innocent. Intriguing. Scandalous. Sensational. Notorious.

Each of these adjectives describe Evelyn Nesbit and her life. She became an artist's model at fourteen, a chorus girl on the stage in New York at fifteen. Then she met Stanford White, New York's most famous architect. He wined and dined her; invited her to parties; bought her gifts. And then he drugged and raped her.
"White is to me a memory as of a great experience. One remembers an earthquake without blaming or condemning the seismic forces that produced the phenomena. White was an earthquake that shattered to the foundations the fabric of innocence."
A few years later, a rich playboy, Henry Thaw, pursued and married her. Then, on June 25, 1906, he shot Stanford White in cold blood and Evelyn Nesbit found herself involved in the murder trial of the century. She wrote this memoir in 1914. It's her story, told in her voice, but it feels a bit removed and impersonal. She's candid at times, but more often she's evasive and glosses over the most interesting events in her life. Which was frustrating. I wanted to know more about her and her life than she chose to reveal. Bits of her personality did come through, however, especially in her "Philosophy of Life" listed at the end of this short memoir. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Happy is the woman who can say, "I know the worst that can happen to me--I've had it."
  • Plain women often have plain sailing; pretty women find the sea of life pretty rough.
  • The way out of life is trouble; the way out of trouble is work.
  • Women's steps are hell ward, because men are the road makers.
  • Beware of the disinterested man who wants to help you; pay cash--it will come cheaper in the long run.
  • It is much easier to be rich than strong, and much better to be strong than rich.
  • Regrets are useless. You can't repair the foundations from the roof.

While this book fits nicely in with my summer of Reading 1914 books, what it did most of all is make me want to read American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford white, The Birth of the "It" Girl and the Crime of the Century by Paula Uruburu. Maybe then I'd get the real story.

Happy Reading!

Monday, July 21, 2014

A bookish thriller...

"Books. I've never heard of anyone who killed because of books."

It begins with a gruesome murder in the Edgar Allen Poe Museum--the victim's torso is flayed, his head cut off. Felicia Stone, the lead detective on the case, discovers something else strange: a book bound in centuries-old parchment made from human skin. Then there's another murder. This time the victim is discovered in the rare book vault of the Gunnerus Library in Trondheim, Norway. She, too, has been flayed, her head cut off. Trondheim police inspector Odd Singsaker (Isn't that a great name?) is assigned the case. It looks like the two murders have something to do with the Johannes Book, a mysterious manuscript written by a sixteenth century monk. A book that is rumored to be cursed. A book written on parchment made from skin.

What I loved most about Where Monsters Dwell  is how skillfully Jorgen Brekke weaves together the different characters, the puzzling murders, the enigmatic Johannes Book and the past with the present. This mystery is so well-written you move seamlessly from Richmond to Trondheim, from Felicia to Odd, and from the present to the sixteenth century and back again without ever getting lost. All of Brekke's characters are flawed and complicated, yet likeable, too, especially Odd Singsaker and his main murder suspect, Jon Vatten. I also really enjoyed the Norwegian setting. Having never been to Norway it was fun getting a glimpse of that distant, northern land. And, after all the murders are solved, there's one last unexpected twist at the end that I liked best of all. This is a well-crafted, engrossing and suspenseful thriller! A definite must-read for fans of this genre.

Happy Reading!

Similar reads:
     The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seventh Classic of 2014....

The Odyssey: A Graphic Novel by Gareth Hinds

--Based on Homer's Epic Poem

I know what you're can a graphic novel version of The Odyssey count as a classic read? It can't. But when I went to the library a few weeks ago every copy of the original version was already checked out. Can you believe that? So, I was debating whether to go buy a cheap copy, or choose a different classic to read this month when I spotted this graphic novel and thought, "Why not? Might be fun."

And it was. Gareth Hinds stays true to the original story, even quoting a few passages from some of his favorite translations. And the illustrations really speed the story along, especially through some of the less exciting parts of the story. I've read The Odyssey once before (in high school), and I still intend to read the real version again (once my hold comes in at the library), but I'm not sure I like Odysseus very much. Sure he has some cool adventures--escaping the cave of Polyphemus is probably my favorite--but he's also arrogant and a little vengeful, and he ends up causing a lot of his own problems, either through his own actions, or his own inaction. And then, while his wife, Penelope, is stuck at home for seventeen years faithfully fending off suitors, he's off hooking up with Calypso and Circe. What a guy. So, I'm not a huge fan of Odysseus at the moment. But maybe he just comes across that way in this particular version. I guess I'll have to wait for the original read to decide for sure. So until my hold comes in at the library...

Happy Reading!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Art of Reading...

Michael Ancher -- A Young Girl Reading, Maren Sofie Olsen, 1885
"To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself 
a refuge from almost all the miseries of life."
--W. Somerset Maugham

Monday, July 14, 2014

Got Mail?

"I've made a friend through paper and pens and envelopes and postage. 
A true friend!"

I love epistolary fiction. There's something about handwritten letters and the conversations you can have when you put pen to paper, seal it in an envelope, and send it off with a stamp. I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan is a lovely and heartwarming epistolary novel set during World War II.

Glory and Rita, the two correspondents, couldn't be more different: Glory is a young bride with two small children living in Rockport, Massachusetts; her husband, Robert, is serving somewhere in Europe. When she gets lonely, she turns to her childhood friend, Levi, and to Rita.

Rita is in her forties and lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Her worries and fears are on two fronts because both her husband, Sal, and her son, Toby, are overseas; Sal is a medic in North Africa and Toby is somewhere in the Pacific. How can they both survive?

Through their letters, Glory and Rita become more than friends. They support and encourage one another, share stories and recipes, and help each other to hold on to hope when all seems hopeless.
"Loneliness is built into the fabric of this war, isn't it? When it gets bad I say a little prayer before I stick my hand in the mailbox, hoping against hope for something glorious. The 'Rockport, Massachusetts' stamp on the front of an envelope means the clouds will part, revealing a brilliant sun. The funny thing is, I don't really need the letters anymore to talk to you--we have whole conversations in my head. Do you hear me there by the sea? Someday after this crazy war is over, we will meet. I look forward to that day..."

Such beautiful writing! Such beautiful letters! The friendship between these two women made me laugh, and cry. It also made me want to open my mailbox and find a letter from Rita or Glory inside addressed to me. The most amazing thing of all about this book? The two authors have never met. They wrote this enitre book through email, one writing Rita's letters, one Glory's. Which makes this a true epistolary novel! I hope they write many more.

Happy Reading!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Reading 1914...

See if the plot of Josephine Chase's novel, Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College, sounds familiar. Grace is a brand new student at a well-respected institution. In her first weeks at Overton, she makes some new friends, and some new enemies. She gets into some scrapes; experiences several successes as well as a number of setbacks. Persisting through it all, she ultimately triumphs. It could be the plot of the first Harry Potter book. (Minus the magic, of course.) Instead of playing Quidditch, Grace excels at basketball and helps her Freshman team defeat the dreaded Sophomores. She may not be perfect, but she's earnest, kind, and eager to do well. Here's an example of her youthful idealism:
"Being a freshman is like beginning a garden. One plants what one considers the best seeds, and when the little green shoots come up, it's terribly hard to make them live at all. It is only by constant care that they are made to thrive and all sorts of storms are likely to rise out of a clear sky and blight them. Some of the seeds one thought would surely grow the fastest are total disappointments, while others that one just planted to fill in, fairly astonish one by their growth, but if at the end of the freshman year the garden looks green and well cared for, it's safe to say it will keep on growing through the sophomore and junior years and bloom at the end of four years. That's the peculiarity about college gardens. One has to begin to plant the very first day of the freshman year to be sure of flowers when the four years are over."
I thought Grace's adventures at Overton college were light-hearted and funny. You know how it well end when you begin it, but it's still an enjoyable read. The next book from 1914 on my list is Angela Brazil's The Youngest Girl in the Fifth. I have a feeling that it's going to have a similar plot and end up being a VERY similar read to this one. What do you think?

You can jump back to my other Reading 1914 posts here and here.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Rose for the Anzac Boys...

"It's hard to be a girl sometimes, stuck at school when there is such a great cause to fight for. We do first aid training here every Saturday and Wednesday, and bandage rolling Tuesdays, and making baby clothes for refugees on Friday afternoons. But it isn't like DOING something; it isn't glory or adventure." --Midge Macpherson

 With both of her brothers fighting in World War I, Midge wants to do more than study French verbs and embroidery in school. So when her two friends, Anne and Ethel, decide to start a canteen in France to serve cocoa and bread to the soldiers shipping out there, she goes with them. Together they offer a few comforts of home, and a smile, to tens of thousands of English, Australian, and French soldiers. It's not much. And, as Midge soon discovers, it's not an exciting adventure like she thought it would be. It's hard work, heartbreak, and loss. (And also love.)

Jackie French offers a view of World War I from the perspective of the girls who volunteered and fought and served alongside the men. There wasn't much glory in this war, but there were plenty of brave young men and women, each with a story to tell. This book is a tribute to them. As French writes in her author's notes: "This is not a true book, but it is made of true things...Every episode and character in this book is based on the words of those who were there, taken from their letters, diaries, the oral history collected years later...Midge's, Anne's and Ethel's stories are based on the tale of four schoolgirls who really did open a canteen in France."

This book doesn't take place on the front lines; it focuses on the aftermath. It's heartbreaking. And sad. But somehow still hopeful. Ethel, Anne, and Midge are great characters. It's mostly Midge's story, full of the letters she receives from her brothers, from her aunt who's working as a nurse tending to the wounded, and from the young Australian soldiers she meets at the canteen. I loved the way this story was told, even when it made me cry. (And it did make me cry--several times.) This novel is an excellent complement to all the other books written about this stupid and senseless war.

(Special thanks to Brona's Books for recommending this book. I'm so glad I read it!)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reading by the Numbers...

I love lists, especially book lists. I've run across quite a few recently: Ten Best Beach Reads, Ten Best Books Read (So Far) in 2014, Top Summer Reads, etc. It got me wondering if I could come up with a list where the numbers themselves determine the books. (I even came up with a classics version minus numbers nine and ten, because I couldn't think of any books for them.) The result is a bit random and eclectic, but that's what makes reading by the numbers fun.

One Second After by William R. Forstchen
In one second an electromagnetic pulse changes America forever; what follows is one fast-paced, non-stop, action-packed ride. "It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when." -Gen. Eugene Habiger

Two Graves by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast is back to solve another chilling case....only this time it's personal.

The Three by Sarah Lotz
(I'm actually cheating a bit with this one because I haven't read it...yet. (But I've got it on hold at the library so will for sure be reading it this summer!)

The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
An ancient text, an unsolved mystery, and an unexpected murder make this novel a stand-out literary thriller.

Circle of Five by Dolores Stewart Riccio
Mystery and magic combine when Cass Shipton and her fellow Wiccans work together to find two missing boys.

Six Years by Harlan Coben
His first line drew me in: "I sat in the back pew and watched the only woman I would ever love marry another man." Once you start reading this book you won't want to stop.

Seven Dials Mystery by Agatha Christie
This delightfully funny mystery is Agatha Christie at her best!

The Great Eight by Scott Hamilton
Subtitle: How to Be Happy (even when you have every reason to be miserable.)

Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
This is my ALL-TIME favorite Mary Stewart novel--a perfect novel of romance and suspense. If you've never read her before, start with this book!

Ten by Gretchen McNeil
This YA books is very reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians; you might even call it a  modern-day rip off, but with more teen angst. Still, it reads fast.

And, as a bonus, here's my "classics version" of Reading by the Numbers:
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
1984 by George Orwell
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham
House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott

If you like reading lists (like me), here are a few more you can check out:

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bookish Serendipity

bookish serendipity - n. the happy accident of discovering 
an unsought-for but unexpectedly perfect book.

This summer I've been reading books from 1914, as well as a few written about that momentous year, so when I was at the library last week and spotted this book on the display shelf it felt serendipitous.

See what I mean?
Bookish serendipity at its best.

This novel, written by French author, Jean Echenoz, is only 109 pages long and begins in France on the first day of World War I. Charles and Anthime Seze, two brothers in love with the same girl, are quickly mobilized. Charles is positive the war won't last long; Anthime is not so sure. Echenoz paints perfect snapshot moments of what follows next for these brothers: in the air, on the ground, and in the trenches. There's mud, gas, shrapnel, and death; there's also survival, life, and hope. I love how Echenoz was able to show so much with so few words. This is a quiet and beautifully written novel. I'm so glad I stumbled on it so serendipitously.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Brought to you by the letter...

Last week, Simon at Stuck in a Book hosted this fun get assigned a random letter of the alphabet and then you tell your favorite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with that letter. I got the letter 'O', and while I wouldn't have chosen this particular letter, I did manage to come up with the required list of favorites. (Some more easily than others.)

For a favorite book, I scanned my bookshelves for any and all titles that start with O. I found a couple: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather and The Odd Women by George Gissing. Either would have been a good choice, but then I spotted my favorite Kay Hooper novel which, happily, starts with just the right letter:

Choosing an author was even easier because I could only think of one: 

There were several options for an 'O' song, like Ingrid Michaelson's Overboard or Sam Phillips' One Day Late, but in the end I had to go with Joan Osborne's One of Us. 

Coming up with an 'O' movie actually didn't take me as long as I thought it would. I had this DVD sitting on my shelf...a quietly suspenseful ghost story starring Nicole Kidman that I happen to love:

So that left the object, which was surprisingly hard. I mean, ornaments seemed too vague, and I don't really like opera glasses, octagons, or obtuse angles. So I settled on Origami Yoda instead.

Awesome, is he not?