Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Year In Review

Photo courtesy KOTY Design Studio
Can't hardly believe that the year is almost over and that today is my last post of 2011. Actually, since I'll be taking a mini-vacation my next post will be on January 8th so I better make this one count, right?
Since the end of the year is traditionally the time to reflect upon the last twelve months I've been thinking about the books I enjoyed most this year and tried to narrow the list down to top three. A short while later that proved to be an impossible task so I settled on choosing at least one per genre and below are the titles I came up with. They all managed to stay with me throughout the year and I have a feeling that I'll remember them fondly no matter how much time passes. Some are by established authors, some are debut novels but all are good and all have depth, range, great characters, engaging plot and beautiful writing. So without further ado here are my top picks:

Best of Fantasy:
The Abhorsen Chronicles by Garth Nix tied with The Left Hand Of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
Runners-up: Forever by Maggie Stiefvater and Iron Queen by Julie Kagawa

Best of Mystery:
Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie

Best of Historical Fiction:
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett tied with The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai
Runners-up: Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Next To Love by Ellen Feldman, and The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Best of General Fiction:
Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Von Booy tied with Domestic Violets by Matthew Norman

Best of Non-Fiction:
Entre Nous - Debra Ollivier

I'll see you guys on January 8th but in the meantime, what are your favorite books of 2011?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolCruel miser Ebeneezer Scrooge has never met a shilling he doesn't like... and hardly a man he does. And he hates Christmas most of all. When Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, he learns eternal lessons of charity, kindness, and goodwill.

Merry Christmas, my friends! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and spent lots of time with your loved ones. My family's Christmas celebration is always fun and I'm always happy to be surrounded by such great people on holidays. This year we toned everything down a bit, the food, the presents, and just enjoyed each other's company, and I'm glad to say that the day wasn't any worse for it!
When thinking about what to read over Christmas break I remembered that I've never read A Christmas Carol and decided that there couldn't be a better time than now to pick up a copy, especially since it's so easy to get carried away by all the "things" and forget about the true meaning of Christmas. It was difficult at first to adjust to the archaic writing style and strange sentence structure (sometimes whole paragraphs reminded me of Yoda) but by the time the second ghost made his appearance I had no trouble reading Dickens' English and enjoyed the pictures he painted with words.
It was interesting to see that although generations have passed some things never change - we worry about all the family members making it home in time for the celebration, we hope that there's enough food for everyone and that every dish turns out just right, and the hostess will always talk about the adventures that accompanied the cooking now that all is well and the guests have paid her many compliments. At the same time it was interesting to get to peek into the lives of Victorian Londoners. I didn't realize that the poor had to take their dinners out of their homes to be baked!
As I read the book I wondered whether Dickens wrote it for adults or children. The plot was much too simple and the mystery much too transparent for an adult reader but would be completely engrossing for a child, but the vocabulary he used appears to be more suited for an adult reader. It's understandable of course that some terminology that was widely used then has become outdated since his time but there are plenty of words that are still common today, just not so common as to be part of our regular speech. Do you by any chance know who was Dickens' intended audience?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Special Feature - Book To Movie: Jane Eyre

I was going to talk about something else today but when I got home the new Jane Eyre movie was waiting for me so I settled in to watch. It makes me nervous a little bit to watch movies based on books I love. The movie people hardly ever seem to put my favorite parts in the movie the way I want them to so the adaptations are often disappointing. Not this time though. This adaptation hit all the right notes and I really enjoyed the way Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender and Judi Dench portrayed Jane, Mr. Rochester and Mrs. Fairfax respectively. All the good parts were included, the way the story moved from Jane's adulthood to memories of her childhood and back made the cinematic narrative more modern and throughout the film there was a sense of understated elegance and quiet sensitivity which I enjoyed. I'd love to hear what you thought of the movie if you've seen it and if you haven't here's the trailer:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review: City Of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare

City of Fallen Angels (The Mortal Instruments, #4)The Mortal War is over, and Clary Fray is back home in New York, excited about all the possibilities before her. She's training to become a Shadowhunter and to use her unique power. Her mother is getting married to the love of her life. Downworlders and Shadowhunters are at peace at last. And—most important of all—Clary can finally call Jace her boyfriend.
But nothing comes without a price.
When Jace begins to pull away from Clary without explaining why, she is forced to delve into the heart of a mystery whose solution reveals her worst nightmare: She herself has set in motion a terrible chain of events that could lead to her losing everything she loves. Even Jace.

Despite all the criticism of derivativeness and downright plagiarism I've enjoyed the first three Mortal Instruments books immensely for their fast pace, witty writing, action-packed plot and Clare's fearlessness in following the story to some dark and twisted places. Granted, many things in her books have been done before, but she managed to tell the story in her own way and won me over with that. So you shouldn't be surprised that I look forward to reading other books set in the Shadowhunter universe and couldn't wait to read this one when I finally got my hands on a copy.
Clare immediately sucked me into the story and I was glad to see how well she accomplished the task of giving the reader some backstory without flatout saying "this happened, and then this happened, and that's how we ended up here" the way a lot of authors do in the first chapters of sequences.
This book is a lot more focused on Simon and it was interesting to learn about what he is going through since his life changed most drammatically in City of Glass, he's gotten himself into a mess dating two girls at once, and he's trying to live a regular life depite it all. Combined with everything else going on that's fertile ground for a writer's imagination and helps keep the story grounded and personal. After all, what is more personal than figuring out who you are and where, and with whom, you belong?
I was glad that some of the focus was taken off Clary and Jace because those two have gotten entirely too angsty for my taste. You know how Edward was all self-loathing in New Moon? Yeah, he had nothing on Jace and there's only so much angst a reader can take. Besides, the interaction between these two seemed locked in a perpetual cycle of "I'm dangerous and evil, I have to stay away from her" to "What if he doesn't love me anymore?" to "But we love each other and can't be apart" to heavy make-out session and then Isabelle walks in on them and it all starts over again. Once in a book is entertaining, over and over - not so much.
Clare didn't shy away from things that are dark and twisted and plain wrong in the previous books of the series and she's not starting now either. Evil in the world she's created is more twisted than in any other I've read about and is depicted in such a way that is truly chilling. Come to think of it, Clare cuts through to the essense of both good and evil and brings that essence forth and makes it the center of her characters making them seem ready to walk off the page. What book wouldn't benefit from such characterisation?
I can totally see the ending as being the most polarizing part of this book and I have to admit, if left me sitting for a couple of minutes staring at the page thinkging "Whoa, what just happened? And... what the heck is going to happen next?!" That ending was more of a beginning than an ending, a beginning of a brand new mess that I just can't see everyone getting out of alive, let alone unscathed. Those who read the novel, what did you think of that last scene and the whole book?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Reader (aka Springtime) by Claude Monet
Oil on canvas
50 cm x 65 cm (19.69" x 25.59")
Presently located at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Curious tidbit: there is a theory that the lady portrayed in this painting is Monet's wife, Camille

Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: Cedardale Court by Nathan Lee Christensen

Cedardale CourtCedardale Court is a neo-gothic murder mystery with enough fools and old flames to keep you happily mixed up for most of a long weekend. When Canner Connelly and his daughter, Chloe, move in with their Uncle Henry, and a simple drainage problem turns a normal Sunday morning into a slightly darker affair, it's not easy to tell where everyone might end up, or if they'll even make it at all.

When Mr. Christensen e-mailed asking to review his book he had me at "neo-gothic murder mystery". I had no idea what such a novel was and decided this was the perfect time to find out, and let me tell you, I'm glad I did. This book turned out to be a very enjoyable read with great characters, plenty of plot twists, some laughs, engaging writing and a surprise ending.
Christensen's characters are so different and so quirky in their own unique ways that it's hard to pick a favorite. I loved the spunky 10-year-old Chloe, her perpetually paranoid dad who sees his deceased wife's ghost on a regular basis, the good old Uncle Henry, the take-charge detective Birch and even Charlie the cat who gets his own time in the spotlight and adds to the charm. The villains were a total surprise and not just because of their identities. I just never expected them to be quite the kind of people they were, or became, and that made the story more intense.
I really enjoyed Mr. Christensen't writing. It was fun and easy to read, the dialogue felt fresh and realistic and moved right along, and I felt that the voice was perfect for this story. There were some minor spelling issues and grammatical errors in places where editing obviously took place, so I think the book would benefit if someone read it through with a fresh eye and corrected those problem areas.
Cedardale Court was a lot of fun and I would recommend it to those who enjoy an offbeat murder mystery and aren't put off by occasional grammatical or spelling error. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Christensen does with his next book.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Special Feature - Site: March House Books Blog

Today I'd like to share with you a wonderful blog that brightens my day every time I visit it - the blog of March House Books, an online shop that specializes in antique and out-of-print books. The lovely Barbara posts images from the books she offers for sale, little curious tidbits about them, as well as the surprises she sometimes finds inside the books. I love the beautiful illustrations, the old-fashioned charm of the stories and the warmth with which Barbara talks about the books. Stop by for a visit, you're guaranteed a trip down memory lane you'll want to repeat time and time again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Review: The Artist of Disappearance by Anita Desai

The Artist of DisappearanceAward-winning, internationally acclaimed author Anita Desai ruminates on art and memory, illusion and disillusion, and the sharp divide between life’s expectations and its realities in three perfectly etched novellas. Set in India in the not-too-distant past, the stories’ dramas illuminate the ways in which Indian culture can nourish or suffocate. All are served up with Desai’s characteristic perspicuity, subtle humor, and sensitive writing.

In just a few days this book will hit the stores and I hope that many of you will go out and buy it because it is, in a word, wonderful. The rich and elegant writing transports you into the characters' worlds and makes you feel like you're right there with them, living their lives, feeling their pain, their joy, their turmoil and their bliss. It did that for me anyway. The relatively short novellas surprised me by how much substance there was in their pages, how I had to take a break between each one to reflect upon the characters, the time and place, the circumstances. This reflection wasn't a matter of choice, I really had to do it, let everything sink in, work its way through me, and that made the experience all the more fulfilling because it's not often that I find books that pack that kind of punch.
All three novellas are powerful in their own way but the third one, the one that lends its title to the collection, is my favorite because it is the most multi-faceted and most positive of the three. While Ravi is a textbook recluse his joy from creating and his lack of desire to have anyone else's approval were in such refreshing contrast to the mode of thinking which almost dictates that if one spends their time doing something the activity must be financially gainful or at least bring some sort of renown. My favorite thing about Ravi though wasn't that he was a person who created simply to create, but that he was a person who didn't become discouraged by setbacks, he just changed direction and proceeded on a different path. I think that's an excellent message since we all can become discouraged if things don't go exactly the way we plan.
There really wasn't anything that I didn't like about this book, it was deeply satisfying and made me curious to read Anita Desai's other works. I highly recommend it to anyone.