Wednesday, May 30, 2012

BookExpo America Tips

BookExpo America (BEA) 2012 will be held June 5-7, 2012 at the Javits Center in New York City and a lot of people are already preparing for the trip. A friend of mine will be going for the first time (I so wish I was going with her!) and a while back began soliciting BEA newbie advice. I figure some of you might be going yourselves so here is a handful of links to blogs and sites with information on what to expect and how to prepare for the possibly overwhelming awesomeness that is BEA. Here goes!
And here are tips from fellow bloggers:
  • Bite My Books posted tips in 2010 and in 2011, check out both posts, they are full of great information.
  • The Story Siren did a post last year that's set us as a Q&A. Check it out here.
  • La Femme Readers have another Q&A in their BEA: All You Need to Know + More! post.
  • Something Bookish did a post in 2010 based on the blogger's experience at the Expo. Although the blog seems to have fizzled in 2011 this information is pretty interesting.
  • Beth Fish Reads is another blogger who posted tips on two different occasions. Check out both Part 1 and Part 2.
  • Cindy's Love of Books has some great tips for this year's BEA.
If you are a blogger who can't attend BEA there's a site just for you: Armchair BEA. I will be stopping by for sure. And if you're going to NYC next week have a great time and tell me how it was!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Review: The Truth About Us by Dalene Flannigan

The Truth About UsWhat happens when the past catches up to the present and the truth surfaces? Three women, roommates back in college, find their lives forever altered when one of them feels compelled to confess the secret sin of their past.
And whose truth is it?
'The Truth About Us' weaves the past and the present in a page-turner that explores the shifting quality of truth, and the cost of secrets.

I'll say this right now: I loved this book. From start to finish it kept me invested in the story and the characters' lives and when I knew it was nearing its conclusion I didn't want it to end. I even told a reader friend how good it was before finishing it, which I hardly ever do because as we all know there are no guarantees against things deteriorating and leaving you disappointed. Fortunately my praises were not dampened but rather reinforced by the last few chapters. I think I'm getting ahead of myself...
The narrators are three women who shared a house in college and are bound together by a secret they've sworn to keep. Their voices are as distinctive as their personalities and lives, and their alternating chapters helped create a fuller picture of the past and present events. I don't know what it cost the author to piece together these three characters. Their pain, fear and struggles are right there on the page, and if any of it was inspired by reality Ms. Flannigan lived or witnessed writing this book can't have been easy. It is possible that the degree to which I became invested in the story is due in part to me recognizing traits of a person I know in one of the characters, and although she is by far not as extreme there is a lot of truth in the portrayal. It is also possible that the realism of one lead affected how impressed I was by character development of the other two. These women were so well-written I believed they could really exist, and I sympathized with them even though their actions didn't exactly put them in the "good girl" camp.
I've read a few debut novels in the last several months and few impressed me as much as The Truth About Us. Actually, By Fire By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan is the only other one I can put in the same class as far as writing goes. It's vivid and personal, emotional and thoughtful, and every word builds the larger picture, like pieces of a puzzle that fall into place one by one to reveal more and more of the whole to the point where at the end you really understand why the characters act the way they do and what their worlds are like. There's never any confusion but rather an increasing understanding that comes with bringing things to light and seeing every detail.
The thing that made this novel particularly satisfying was the last chapter. You know how often you finish a book and want to know what happened next? Here we have that last little bit that gives us a degree of closure and understanding of what happened to the characters when they could finally go on with their lives. It also gives us the last few details we were missing about the events of the night that started it all, and that was like the last full stop that said 'this is it, there is nothing more to tell'. I loved how the finality of it brought the story to its true conclusion.
Some may be inclined to categorize this book as a mystery and although there is an element of that genre here I think that this novel is more an exploration of what truth is and what it means to different people, how our lives affect our understanding of it and how our circumstances determine the grey areas around it. The concept of truth runs through everything in this book, not just the parts associated with the secret that's weighing on the characters and spurs them into action. It underscores the idea that every day we are living out our own truth, struggling with it or reveling in it. This is the truth about us, however we understand it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Special Feature: The earliest intact European book

When it came time to decide what to blog about today I remembered an article from the recent news about the British Library acquiring a certain book for nine million pounds ($14 million). That's a nice chunk of change for a book, don't you think? Especially for one that is this small. The book in question is the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest fully intact European book, created in the 7th century and discovered in a saint's coffin more than 900 years ago. For the full slideshow including photographs of the book's beautiful cover click here.

Here is what Reuters has to say about this news:
The manuscript copy of the Gospel of St. John called the St. Cuthbert Gospel was produced in the northeast of England in the late 7th century and was placed in the saint's coffin on the island of Lindisfarne, probably in 698.
His remains were carried to the mainland when the monks and people of the island fled Viking invaders, and ended up in Durham where the coffin was opened in 1104 and the gospel discovered.
Cuthbert's body was reburied in the new Norman cathedral there and became a focal point for pilgrims.
"It is undoubtedly one of the world's most important books," said Scot McKendrick, head of history and classics at the British Library.
"Most people who know about books know about the St. Cuthbert Gospel. The staggering fact is that we don't have a European book that looks as it did when it was made before this. It's quite astonishing."
According to the British Library, which has had the gospel on long-term loan since 1979 and exhibited it regularly, it will be displayed open temporarily after conservationists and curators deemed it safe to do so.
The manuscript features an original red leather binding in excellent condition and is the only surviving "high status" manuscript from this period of British history to retain its original appearance both inside and out.
In 2010, the library was approached by auction house Christie's who were acting on behalf of the gospel's owners the Society of Jesus (British Province), or Jesuits.
The national library was given first option to purchase the manuscript which was valued at nine million pounds.
Scot said that Jesuits came into possession of the prized artifact in the middle of the 18th century.
The Earl of Lichfield gave it to a priest who in turn passed it to Jesuits living in Europe. They later brought it to Stonyhurst, northwest England, explaining why it was formerly known as the Stonyhurst Gospel.
Little is known of its whereabouts between 1104 and the 1700s, although academics assume it was kept in Durham for much of that time.
Half of the price of the gospel came from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, established in 1980 to safeguard works of art and wildlife havens for the nation.
Other major gifts came from the Art Fund, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Foyle Foundation as well as donations from unnamed charitable trusts and individuals.
The book will be displayed to the public equally in London and the northeast after a formal partnership was agreed between the British Library, Durham University and Durham Cathedral.
The British Library has opened a special display exploring the creation, travels and "near-miraculous" survival of the gospel across 13 centuries and it has also been digitized and made freely available online.

Isn't it amazing that something so old can be so well-preserved? I am in awe.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Review: A Will To Murder by Hilary Thomson

A Will to MurderWhen wealthy and eccentric patriarch James Boyle dies a peculiar death, the DA declines to investigate, convinced that the victim died of natural causes. Yet even the police are stunned when members of the Boyle family gather at the estate of Rollingwood for the reading of James' will - and begin to die, one at a time. Only when long-lost relative Bradley Smith appears, along with reporter Eric Maxwell, do the mysterious deaths finally receive a proper investigation. Even so, no one is prepared for the lunacy that hides beneath the mansion's bizarre facade.

The cover of this book intrigued me. Edward Steichen's famous photograph of actress Gloria Swanson promised a story from the flapper era and the font of the title and author's name reminded me of works that have to do with mysticism, so it's no wonder I expected an old-fashioned mystery with maybe some ghosts or at least a nice spooky seance. Out of these three I only got the old-fashioned mystery, and then only partially.
From the very beginning I could see that this book resembles one of Agatha Christie's cozy mysteries and the small-town setting, the multiple suspects who all have a motive, the extremely rich family with many secrets, and the amateur detective who just happens to be at the right place at the right time immediately endeared it to me. Another thing I saw right away was that the author has a real knack for setting the scene and characterization: in just a few short paragraphs I knew what sort of man James Boyle was and understood his reactions to what was going on. In fact, this continued throughout the book with the rest of the characters as well and made the book that much more enjoyable. I did have some trouble deciding at first when the book was set because the elderly gentleman in his bowler hat being driven around by a chauffeur hinted at a historical mystery but the clearly modern details indicated a much more recent time. The writing also reminded me of a bygone era with its thorough descriptions of places and people as well as a level of familiarity that never crossed into the intimate as it often does nowadays.
I appreciated the idea of having a portion of the story told from the point of view of a child. This provides a perspective an adult wouldn't have and Ms. Thomson seems to have a pretty good grasp on the complexities of a child's life to which we adults are often oblivious. I even missed the boy telling his version of the story when it was the adult's turn.
One of the things that pleasantly surprised me was how funny this book was. On one hand there's nothing humorous about death but the characters and their interactions brought me so many laughs I'm tempted to categorize this book as a satirical mystery. Not only is the dialogue clever, but the author managed to present her characters' peculiarities with such keen attention to detail that I applaud her for how observant she is and for her skill in bringing it to the page.
One of the things that dampened my enthusiasm for this book had to do with connecting the dots of the plot. It just didn't flow as smoothly as I would have liked it to. For example there was the matter of Eric's girlfriend appearing in the beginning of the book in a seemingly non-sequential role and then halfway through it turns out that somehow she's become an influential figure. I really did a double-take because I had no idea how that happened. The characters being alternately referred to by their first and last names was also troublesome. I'm not very good with names to begin with so feeling like an already populous cast has suddenly doubled did nothing for my comfort level. I often had to reread the paragraphs to figure out who was who and what it is they were doing.
A good mystery is supposed to leave the reader suspecting at least a few people and A Will To Murder succeeded at that. I of course got it all wrong, as usual, although in hindsight the identity of the murderer shouldn't have surprised me as much as it did. Oh well, better luck next time.
This was a very enjoyable and quick read and I would readily recommend it to any fan of mystery, especially one who can appreciate a few laughs on the side.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Special Feature - Blog: Literary Relish

In the last several months I've grown very fond of Literary Relish. Lucy's insightful and thoughtful posts provide just enough information to give the reader a pretty good idea about the book being reviewed without giving away anything important while also being fun and talking about the book in the context of her other reading. I love how she ties everything together and fits her family and friends (cleverly disguised with pseudonyms) and life in general in with the book talk.
Lucy mainly reviews literary fiction and classics and titles on the recent lists of note make a regular appearance on her blog. She doesn't post too frequently, once or twice a week on average, but those posts are always such a treat that I really look forward to them. There's lots of pictures and some videos, book-related and just fun, so it's not all words on a page. Stop by for a visit, I'm sure you'll fall in love with Literary Relish just as I have.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan

Mutant Message Down UnderIn this New York Times bestseller, Morgan leads readers on the spiritual odyssey of an American woman in the Australian outback. Is it a memoir or a work of fiction? It is up to you to decide.

While I was reading the book I really enjoyed it. There was adventure, there was humor, there was reflection and evaluation of one's past, present and future. It was a fun read and a lot of the lessons the protagonist learned along the way resonated with me, such as appreciating the experiences and not things, knowing that if you've helped one person you did well because you can only help one person at a time anyway, having faith in oneself, appreciating and developing one's talents, not taking more from nature than you need and always making sure you don't take everything. The book was written in a compelling way, it was fun and at the same time thought-provoking, and I breezed right through it even though I acknowledge that this is not one of the more skillfully-done book I've read so far. And then I finished reading, sat back as I usually do, and thought about it longer than usual because something was nagging at me. It took me a little while to figure out that I was having trouble with the fact that some of the events didn't really fit in with the whole, some of the actions of the aborigines went against the characterizations the author gave the tribe earlier in the narrative, and even the timeline was often flexible at best. So I decided to look up what the internet had to say about Marlo Morgan and her book.
A brief search later I learned that when this book was originally published in 1991 it was promoted as nonfiction and in the foreword the author says that the story the reader is about to discover is a true account of what happened to her in Australia. Years later however the book was republished as fiction and there are a few websites that post a wide variety of information intended to prove that the account is in fact fictitious. I have read the articles protesting it, as well as the account of the statement Ms. Morgan's made to the representatives of an Australian Aboriginal association acknowledging that her book is a work of fiction, I've even read about Ms. Morgan's Australian employer saying that her entire stay in Australia was spent working in his pharmacy and there was no time that she was absent from the city. Having read all this I find that more than anything this whole situation makes me sad and disappointed. If what Ms. Morgan writes about really happened then why are people so determined to discredit her and her book? And if her story is fiction then why did she make such an effort to make people believe that it's not? Why apologize to the Aboriginal representatives if there's nothing to apologize for? And if there is something to apologize for then why shrug it off and continue as if nothing happened?
Still I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. What if it was just haters doing their thing. Besides, I wanted to believe that the book is a memoir because the idea of a small society living in peace with themselves and the world around them, and not upsetting the natural balance of their environment is reassuring at a time when we keep hearing about climate change, whole species disappearing, pockets of land that has not been touched by humans becoming smaller and smaller. Now, I'm not a person who'll willingly move out of the city and live without electricity and plumbing to reduce my carbon footprint, but I will recycle and conserve water and power whenever I can, and I do believe that our actions affect the planet in a way that's ultimately detrimental to the length of time the human race will be able to enjoy themselves on Earth. After all, if one uses resources faster than they can be replenished sooner or later they will run out, and we have not yet figured out a way to make natural gas and oil or grow trees faster than it happens in nature.
As much as I wanted to believe in the authenticity of the story I couldn't get past aborigines speaking like urban dwellers, I couldn't reconcile the fact that the author seemed to go between needing an interpreter's help during the simplest of conversations and having complex discussions with members of the tribe without the interpreter present. I did not understand why everybody had names that meant something when translated, such as Secret Keeper and Female Healer, and even Ms. Morgan was given a name fashioned in the same way, but the man who served as interpreter was known simply as Ooota? I was also put off by frequent talk about how the author was losing weight on this walkabout, how pounds were literally melting off of her, and yet we have only relatively general depiction of her life with the tribe. I don't know about you, but I would much rather hear more about the daily life of a people so unlike my own than about how much thinner one American has gotten over the course of several months in the outback. There also seemed to be an undercurrent of "if you reject this account as truth then you're with those who say that people living without technology in the bush are lesser beings and that's just wrong", which grated on my nerves with its one-sidedness.
There is quite a bit of what can be referred to as "new age-y" talk about how all humans are linked to each other, how every experience is a lesson to be learned and if we don't learn it then we're presented with the same lesson again, about living in peace and harmony with ourselves, each other and the world around us, etc. In some things the author completely lost me, in others I agreed with her because ultimately there is tremendous personal value in actively pursuing areas in which one is talented, and being aware of our impact on the world has value for all mankind. These are all good messages, I just wish that Ms. Morgan hasn't cheapened them by trying to pass an account which I believe is fiction as something that really happened to her. All that said, I'm glad that I've read this book, if nothing else it made me think about the world and my place in it while I was reading and about people's goals and intentions when I finished it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

J.M. Barrie's Birthday Google Doodle

A little while ago I posted Doodles dedicated to H. C. Andersen's birthday. Today is J.M. Barrie's turn. Today the creator of Peter Pan would have turned 152 and in 2010 in the honor of his 150th birthday this Doodle appeared on Google.
Long live the boy who wouldn't grow up!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review: All That Remains by Patricia Cornwell

All That Remains (Kay Scarpetta, #3)In Richmond, Virginia, young lovers are dying. So far, four couples in the area have disappeared, only to be found months later as skeletal remains. When the daughter of the president's newest "drug czar" vanishes along with her boyfriend, Dr. Kay Scarpetta knows time is short. Following a macabre trail of evidence that ties the present homicides to a grisly crime in the past, Kay must draw upon her own personal resources to track down a murderer who is as skilled at eliminating clues as Kay is at finding them.

Conditioned by my previous experiences with detective novels whenever I begin a Scarpetta book I expect a straightforward mystery, and every time Cornwell crafts a story that's everything but. Oh, there is a mystery alright, but there is also a very strong human element and the more I get to know Kay Scarpetta and her circle the more clearly I see it. It is possible of course that this human element is becoming more prominent, with every consecutive book being more about the people than the crime, the crime being a catalyst for this humanity to manifest itself and provide a macabre backdrop for it. And you know what? I like seeing something more layered than an cold investigation into disappearances and deaths, I like seeing characters stretch themselves, doubt themselves and their friends and colleagues, struggle through life's problems and emerge changed, even just a little bit. I like seeing relationship develop through the mundane things, and Cornwell delivers that every time. In case you're wondering what it is I'm talking about: here Kay doubts her friendship with Abby Turnbull, the reporter she first met in Postmortem, because Abby isn't being particularly straightforward about her involvement in Scarpetta's latest case. It is also in this book that she realizes that the more she works with Marino the more she likes him, despite his unkempt appearance and irritating behavior, and a true friendship begins to emerge. And last but not least there are the frustrations of finding herself in the middle of basically a face-off between the FBI, the DA's office and higher echelons of government. Cornwell uses these situations wonderfully to develop her characters and since they are so significant in the story they become the stage of power plays and the really dramatic scenes.
Politics is big in this book and Cornwell explores the effects of it on people's lives with her usual delicate but firm touch. The potential of a cover-up in her daughter's murder case pushes a prominent politician over the edge and the question of whether she ruined her own career or was helped along the way is a major point of contention in this book. There is also the matter of whether being a public figure at a time like what this politician's family is going through is a blessing or a curse and the reality that there is more than one answer to this question. The fact that Cornwell raises these issues and that everything filters through Kay, the protagonist, makes her a complex individual who navigates a personal and professional maze every day and knows that things are much less straightforward than she would like them to be, a person who regularly thinks about life and people, and not just on a simple day-to-day level.
My only concern with this novel is that if Cornwell continues along the path she is on the politics will grow to dominate the story and while it is a fertile field for character development I would hate to see it happen - politics tend to make things convoluted and much talk about views and positions on issues is not something I enjoy in my fiction. I think she struck a nice balance in this book and hope the next novels don't veer off into a lot of talk and little action.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Special Feature: Le Bal des Ardents Bookstore

Did you notice how really old bookstores that have books piled and stacked everywhere in seemingly impossible ways often look like they're actually made of books? That's what the arch over the entrance of this store in Lyon, France made me think about. Of course this is not a fairy tale so the place is much more more organized, but the entrance is definitely eye-catching.
I wonder why this bookstore is called Le Bal des Ardents, which means "the dance of the burning ones", since the gruesome story behind the name has nothing to do with books: Le Bal des Ardents, aka the Dance of the Savages, was a masquerade ball held in 1393 in France at which dancers impersonating savages and dressed in highly flammable costumes caught fire from a torch the king's brother carelessly brought in; the king was one of the dancers (don't tell me the brother was just trying to figure out who the masked dancers were) and only he and one other dancer survived. The phrase might be an euphemism the almighty internet isn't mighty enough to explain, or an allusion to knowledge being capable of enflaming minds, but whatever the reasoning behind the name is the store is there and it is beautiful.
There are pictures and even a virtual tour on the official website (check out that ceiling!). The equivalent of the About Us section describes the store as general, but with a strong will to explore areas not usually popular, promote unsung authors and small publishers, and continually grow the catalogue. They host readings and signings and apparently are quite popular with the literary crowd. The store's official website is and while there's no English page it's still fun to look around. I'll leave you to it while I go find that book I got when the idea to take up French again was new and exciting. May be it's not completely buried somewhere.