Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Best of 2007

Wow, I read a lot of really great books this year, but I've already beat the "best of" list thing to death, so I've decided to go the awards route. What better way to honor more good reads without having to make any more decisions than absolutely necessary?

And now, without further ado, I present to you in no particular order and with no set categories 2007's Leafy Awards!

(For the record, my name on LibraryThing is yourotherleft since the permalinks to my reviews seem to be rejecting me for some reason.)

The Good...

Best Fiction That I Read at the Beginning of the Year that Has Stuck With Me

Black & White by Dani Shapiro

Best General Non-Fiction

There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene (for so skillfully combining a heartwarming story with a well-researched expose of big African problems)

Best Memoir

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett (for honoring a real friendship with all its highs and lows honestly)

Best Historical Fiction

Small Island by Andrea Levy (for capturing four voices distinctly and bringing each of their experiences to life)

Best Young Adult

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (for capturing the "I'm a normal guy" narrator)

Best Historical Fiction written for Young Adults

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (for creating a brilliant narrator and successfully keeping the narrative in character and in the time period)

Best Re-Read

The Reluctant God by Pamela F. Service (Because if you're a big history nerd like me, you'd sure like the events of this book to be long as nobody got hurt...too badly)

Most Powerful Descriptions

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Because I could taste the strawberries, feel the snow in the air, sense the start of the rainstorm. Wow.)

Best Pageturners

Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz (Dear old Dean makes a recovery from his overuse of the wildly awkward metaphor!)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (well, obviously)
Shout Down the Moon by Lisa Turner (a new author for me, I devoured this book)

Best Tearjerkers (and this is quite an honor considering how few books actually make me shed tears)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (Come on, I've "known" these characters for seven books...who can help but cry at some of the stuff in here?)
After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell (For achieving that same aim in six fewer books)

Best Love Story in a book not categorized as "romance" in your local book store

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (also taking the more obscure categories of "Best Use of Art" and "Engaging Use of a Biblical Passage")

Surprise Hits

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty (for being a book that I didn't like when I read it, but found that I couldn't stop thinking about)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Cbosky (because it's written in letters, and I usually hate that, but I loved this!)
Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot (because it takes an extra-special touch to help me forget I'm reading chick lit and actually enjoy it)

Most Likely to Help Me Start Liking Short Stories

The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day (And they are interconnected, which I like...a lot)

Best Use of Animals

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (This could also fall under "best stunningly realistic account of living in a nursing home by a nursing home resident")

Best Depiction of People of Irish or Scottish Descent living in Canada

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod (So different yet so much the same in their new land)
Away by Jane Urquhart (Both these books were beautifully written...this one gets some awesome points for its nifty mystical qualities and for *gasp* actually managing to include a little humor to lighten the mood of the typically depressing Irish immigrant story)

And the Not So Good...

Most Depressing

The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens (Wherein the writing was good, but I had to put it down every page or so because it seemed like absolutely nothing good ever happened to the poor narrator...unfortunately, may also take "Most Realistic Depiction of the Irish Immigrant Experience")

Biggest Disappointment

When Madeleine Was Young by Jane Hamilton (So, I felt like a victim of false advertising. Maybe I would have liked it had it been about what it was supposed to be about or described on the cover as what it actually was.)

The Notable DNFs (did not finish)

The Alienist by Caleb Carr (I just kept waiting to get excited about what was happening...and waiting, and waiting, and waiting)
Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali (I just kept waiting for it to start seeming like maybe it had a plot of some sort...before it did, the nastiest description of something unpleasant won this a place in the DNF pile)

Well, that's all for this year. Hope you had a great year of reading, too! Here's to many more!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

Having not signed up for a bookring on BookCrossing for a long while, I was surprised to be contacted to receive this book. Despite wanting to escape from the bookring craze, I decided to read this one. I'm so glad I didn't miss it. I can't say enough about this book, but I had to dance around the plot summary because I'd hate myself if I gave away even a little bit of the story. Oh, and I'm pretty indebted to it because it gave me a great bookish quote for my blog header, and I've been waiting for the right one to come along for awhile.

"To me it feels as if everything has been tilted to reveal this whole other picture which has existed just out of sight, all along."

After You'd Gone begins at its end. One Saturday morning Alice Raikes decides on the spur of the moment to visit her sisters in Edinburgh. She's barely just arrived when she sees something, something that remains a mystery until the end of the novel, that is so unspeakable that she departs for home again immediately. Later that night, Alice steps out into traffic and falls into a coma. Was it an accident? Or something worse?

The novel proceeds in various tenses, voices, and points of view, peeling off layer after layer of Alice's story, showing us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. After You'd Gone is many things: a story about true love, about family, about loss, about grief, and about healing. All of these things are beautifully rendered in a style that deceives readers into thinking that maybe they aren't all that involved in the story only to find that they've been so wrapped up in the web of Alice's life, that the core of the story is all the more gripping and heart-wrenching.

At first, I found the story's style of stringing together seemingly unrelated vignettes into larger chapters to be difficult, but as I came closer and closer to the end of the novel, I was stunned at how effective this tactic had been in helping me to know Alice inside and out and to become emotionally engaged with her. What seems so haphazard is, in truth, a surprisingly well-crafted narrative. In After You'd Gone, Maggie O'Farrell has crafted an incredible story that takes us into all the highs and lows of her character's life. All the time, O'Farrell manages to stealthily manipulate emotions without ever being cheesy or melodramatic. She is a master of not just telling but showing us her story - capturing the awkwardness of the beginning of a relationship, the blossoming of love, and the intense pain of grief and heartbreak.

It's hard to make me cry, especially for a book. This one did make me cry - not once but twice - despite my best efforts not to. Maggie O'Farrell has an astonishing grasp of emotions and the human condition. This novel is beautiful, heart-breaking, and not to be missed.

"Today I am bothered by the story of King Canute. (...) The story is, of course, that he was so arrogant and despotic a leader that he believed he could control everything - even the tide. We see him on the beach, surrounded by subjects, sceptre in hand, ordering back the heedless waves; a laughing stock, in short. But what if we've got it all wrong? What if, in fact, he was so good and great a king that his people began to elevate him to the status of a god, and began to believe that he was capable of anything? In order to prove to them that he was a mere mortal, he took them down to the beach and ordered back the waves, which of course kept on rolling up the beach. How awful it would be if we had got it so wrong, if we had misunderstood his actions for so long."

Monday, December 24, 2007

On Books and Me

While bloghopping this morning, I came upon a post at BiblioHistoria reflecting on a New York Times article which talks about how, at one time, reading was perceived to be lazy and unhealthy. I saw a lot of myself in her post, so instead of leaving a ridiculously long comment, I wrote a whole ridiculously long post of my own! (It's been awhile since the last blogly novella, hasn't it?)

I think it's quite ridiculous that reading was once equated with laziness. I have been told that I watch TV too much or I'm on the computer too much, implying laziness, and I've been inclined to agree that there is some laziness in those pursuits, but not always, especially when it comes the computer. However, in my life, reading has been anything but lazy. I've been told that I "read too much" but never in the sense that that made me lazy, perhaps only anti-social. I'm the person that sits in the living room while my parents watch TV and reads. I love to be around my family, but I'd much rather have my face in a book or a magazine or a newspaper than be staring mindlessly at the screen. To me, that's lazy. Hmm...makes you wonder if there will come a time when people will look back on us now and wonder at us thinking that watching TV is lazy!

I've been a book worm from a young age. My mom says that as a youngster I once asked her, "How do you learn to read?" She claims to have replied something like, "Well, you just have to practice." So I went and got all of my books and stacked them up on the floor and began to "practice." Stacks of books have surrounded me ever since. I used to have a bunch of books and now, having discovered the wonder of the library used book sale, I have tons and tons.

They say that when you give gifts, you give the types of things that you would like to receive. I think it's true! Every year, try though I might, I can't seem to resist buying the people that mean the most to me books. This year is no different. My parents both just read The Kite Runner so I picked them up a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. My mom is a huge fan of Jan Karon's Mitford series, so I picked up Karon's latest book, Home to Holly Springs for her. My dad loves a good mystery/thriller by Dean Koontz and, more recently, Dan Brown, so it's Angels and Demons for him. My pets, always astute in giving my mother presents (by way of me, of course) chose a hilarious copy of The Dangerous Book for Dogs to enlighten my mom to all their mischievious secrets. That's this year, alone. I love love love to unwrap a book on Christmas day or a gift certificate to get more books and often preferred them to toys or even the electronic gadgets that people of my age seem to covet so much - not that I don't like my gadgets, but not as much as my books. I'm sure my aunt had a hand in nurturing that love for books as gifts, as she always went out of her way to give me beautiful picture books when I was young that I really treasured.

Some of my best memories are book related. I would hardly say that staying up deep into the night reading is lazy. Sometimes I'd sneak out to the edge of my room after bedtime to huddle in the doorway reading by the hallway light until my parents would come chase me back to bed. When I was a little older and permitted to read whatever suited me, being completely absorbed into Stephen King's or John Grisham's page turners long after I should have been asleep could hardly be considered lazy, right? Even now, my reading tastes are little more serious and my reading itself is a little more serious, but I love to fall into the more realistic literary fiction and find that it taps into some of my deepest feelings and longings while also learning new words for my vocabulary and new things about the world far outside my front door. I love to know these things and to share them with the people around me, and doing that, I can tell you for certain, is no lazy pursuit.

Friday, December 21, 2007

So I'm a procrastinator...

...which is why I'm Booking Through Thursday on Friday.

1. What fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
(Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
2. What non-fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
(Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
3. And, do “best of” lists influence your reading?

Thanks to Elle magazine, I got in a bunch of new reads this year that I very likely wouldn't have picked up on my own. In general, I don't think I tend to read many brand new books, but with the advent of amateur reviewer Megan, I've been reading some newer stuff.

Here's a few that deserve some kudos this year for fiction:

Black & White by Dani Shapiro (for just being an out and out excellent read)

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (for beautiful, absorbing prose and a plot that really made me think - in a good way)

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty (because I thought I didn't like it, but a week after finishing it found myself still thinking about and wondering if maybe I did like it after all)

And Harry Potter. But that goes without saying, right?

As for non-fiction, I only read one book published this year in the realm of non-fiction. Unfortunately There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene didn't quite make the cut as it was originally published in October 2006, but it is definitely a great book! As it stands, though, after some inspection of my "read this year" list, I remembered I did read Jenna Bush's Ana's Story, but I probably wouldn't nominate it for a "best of." To be fair, though, it was a good way to illuminate some big world problems for younger readers and goes so far as to suggest ways the average person can get involved (instead of merely saying "here's a problem, someone should fix it!" which seems to be oh-so-popular these days), and the pictures were fantastic!

To the third question, I have to say I love best of lists. Love them. When I see them in magazines or on websites, my heart goes pitter-pat. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but I do quite enjoy them. I love to make my own, and I love to read other peoples' lists of their "best ofs" for the year (I've found lots of great books this way!). That's not even to mention the many lists put out by websites and in print publications (where I've found even more great books!). No, I don't sit down and read everything off any one list, and there are definitely books on best of lists that I really didn't like, but I find that the lists are a great way to look for books that might strike my fancy that obviously someone thought had some merit. I think they're a very fun way to keep up with what's new and good or what's been under-loved down through the years or even what from the literary past should be a part of my current reading repertoire. In my opinion, they're great fun if you don't take them too, too seriously.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot

Okay, fine readers (all what, four of you? Or am I being over-generous?), I've told you some lies. I said that having finished the Elle books it would be back to business as usual, but now I've gone and read some chick lit which is hardly usual. Nonetheless, it's been so long since I've actually talked about a book here in my book blog, I figured it couldn't hurt to post about my most recent read. Besides, I really needed some brain candy (after the aforementioned book lacking indication of dialogue), and despite it's shortfalls in the great literary scheme of things, Boy Meets Girl is nothing if not great mind candy.

Kate MacKenzie's life is kind of sucking. She just broke up with the only guy she's ever been with, her loser boyfriend Dale, who despite being with Kate for some 10 years can't muster a real committment. Now she's living on her best friend's couch and working as a Human Resources Rep for a Tyrannical Office Despot (T.O.D.). If all that isn't bad enough, Kate has to fire the lovable Mrs. Lopez, her office's dessert-maker who happens to have some rigid moral concerns about who is worthy of her desserts. When she's involved in Mrs. Lopez's wrongful termination lawsuit she finds herself falling in love (lust?) with the company's despicable (or is he?) lawyer.

Though the book is told entirely through e-mail, voice mail messages, notes written on receipts, journal entries, and the like, Cabot manages to use these things to help you get to know and love her characters (or hate them, as required for some, of course). Sure the characters are exaggerated...the good ones very, very good and the bad ones quite absurdly miserable, but Kate and her foibles are laugh out loud funny. It's pretty obvious how things will turn out, but that doesn't keep you from rooting for her as she struggles to act like a normal person in front of the guy she likes, deal with the T.O.D., and find an affordable apartment in Manhattan not on the same block as a methadone clinic. Some of it definitely reminded me of myself - hunting for jobs ("I didn't go to college to file all day... I should have been an electrician!"), hunting for apartments that don't suck that won't suck my bank account dry (first month, last month, AND security deposit?), and who can't relate to feeling like you look like a blithering idiot in front of the person you're most trying to impress (Uh...right?)? All in all - a ridiculous but lovable tale that kept me laughing and that I could read in the length of day. Just what I needed!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Ode to Quotation Marks

Let's all heave a big sigh of relief. I've finished reading the books for Elle magazine, so it's back to business as usual here at the old blog, if, indeed an "old blog" so young as mine can indeed have a "business as usual." As for the books, one was not especially my cup of tea, one I strenuously disliked, and one...well, one I surprised myself by liking in spite of the nature of the topic covered and the rather unorthodox way in which the author chose to communicate dialogue.

I love quotation marks. Okay, there it is, the whole truth. I love how they set off what one character is saying and then what the other character is saying and so on and so forth. I like neat little lines of a dialogue - one character speaks? That's a paragraph. A second character speaks? Look, another paragraph! I think we could all agree that, in general, the teachers of basic writing across the world had a pretty good thing going with this system.

Now, on to my point. I don't know what it is about quotation marks, but a surprising amount of well-known and respected authors (not to mention some less well-known and respected authors) have felt the need to abandon our old friends, the quotation marks - signifiers of dialogue, markers of clarity, gloriously simple ways of shouting out to the world "Hey, somebody's talking here!" Maybe they replace them with little dashes to indicate speech. Maybe they forgo any punctuation to signify dialogue at all while still maintaining the new speaker, new paragraph rule. Either way, I have to admit that this blatant disregard for quotation marks distresses me to no end.

This is not say that dialogue without quotation marks cannot be "pulled off." A good writer writing a good story without quotation marks is still a good writer with a good story, but also a writer that has the vast potential to irritate me. A so-so writer pushing through a so-so story can be broken by their disuse of the standardized methods of quotation mark usage. I see no quotation marks, I see a book that stands at least twice the chance of my putting it down without ever drawing near to its stunning/poignant/brilliant conclusion. Frustrated by the ambiguity of when and which characters are talking (or wait, is this still narration?), I'm wildly tempted to heave a book across the room. However, quotation mark lover that I am, I can still be won over by a quality story such as the one I just read or maybe something like The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason who I seem to recall, also doesn't share my enduring need for quotation marks.

So, you say, there are plenty of books in the world that have dispensed with the standard usage of quotation marks in dialogue. Why rant now? Why the trouble over this one book?

This book made use of no quotation marks, no dashes, and no, my friends, not even any paragraph breaks to signify speech on the part of the characters. The dialogue is weaved into the narration distressingly eliminating most of the sense of speech, not to mention eliminating any clarity that might have been drawn from say, some...any indication of when and which characters might have been speaking rather than a mere continuation of the first person narration. The hulking paragraphs full of the first person narrator's thoughts tossed about with his speech and the speech of several other characters in his presence at one time made my mind go numb with confusion.

Am I too traditional? Is it too much to hope for to have clearly marked dialogue in every book I read? Am I so "inside the box" that I can't appreciate originality in dialogue presentation? I don't know. What I do know is that I love quotation marks, so much so that I've used more of them in this post than the author whose book I am opaquely referring to used in his entire novel. Oh, quotation marks, how I love thee!

Thank you. Good night.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

My first blogly reading challenge - Man Booker Challenge

I tried and tried and tried to resist joining a challenge despite mounting temptation from all sides (or should I say all blogs?). I don't like to overplan myself and not give myself enough flexibility in my reading. I've done it before many a time and have emerged from the experience hopping mad at myself. I mean, who needs another thing in life to fail at?

Nevertheless, Dewey has managed to sufficiently tempt me with the Man Booker Challenge, which involves reading six books in 2008 that have either won the Booker Prize or have been short or long listed for it. I have about a zillion books that qualify on Mt. TBR, and I only have to commit to 6 books, so I figure I'll be able to manage it - and I'll have knocked some books off said Mt. TBR and have enjoyed some good reading by this time next year. So here it goes with the list...

1. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally
2. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
3. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
4. Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
5. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
6. Quarantine by Jim Crace

It goes without saying (said the committment-phobe) that the list is subject to change. These are just the ones that are especially striking my fancy now.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Boredom and Boredom Begat Boredom

My blog is lonely...and I'm pretty sure the title of this post is probably not going to incite great excitement. I need a schedule, wherein I write here more often (and less at a time). Unfortunately, I'm kind of in a bit of a lull with my reading and don't really want to post reviews for the books that Elle sent me because that just seems kind of uncouth despite their not expressly telling me not to. Not to mention the fact that two out of three are on pace to - how can I say this nicely? - not make a lasting impression on me. I like honesty in book reviews but not out and out snarkiness so I'm going to have to work through this a little. Needless to say, this lack of books to review at this time kind of throws a wrench into the whole book blog thing, right? That, and I've got significantly less time on my hands this week and possibly even less time on my hands in the near future. I need to learn some balance between the reading of the blogs, the reading of the books, and the writing of the book reviews and/or mindless drivel that fills the pages of the blog you see before you now.

This week was (un)exciting because I quasi-started my new job. This means, of course, that I was subjected to two full days of nearly pointless orientation wherein a vast assortment of people enlightened me and about 60 other people about matters that have little relevance to me while speaking in dull monotone voices. As if this weren't exciting enough, said boring speeches were accompanied by always exciting informational videos telling us through ridiculously exaggerated scenarios that people don't like to go to the doctor because of the miserable customer service they experience there, that I really shouldn't spew peoples' confidential health information to everyone I know, and, of course, how to wash your hands properly. A monkey probably knows these things without being told but the "elite" new members of one of the larger healthcare providers in Pennsylvania need to have this things expounded upon at great length. The good news is, I am getting paid, I did get a free lunch that was rather very good, and I did get my daily workout hiking to and from their vast parking lot on the side of a mountain (in 50 MPH winds, through 4 feet of snow, with no shoes...or am I getting carried away?). It should be noted that I also almost did manage to lose my mother's car, which is not difficult considering it is a green Chevy Cavalier, which is owned by 1 out of every 9 people in north-eastern Pennsylvania (and possibly the continental United States). But yes, you'll be happy (or maybe completely apathetic) to know that having jumped through 48 hoops, jumped 75 hurdles, and listened to about 10 hours of mind-numbingly obvious information I am now sufficiently eligible to wait by my phone which will hopefully one day soon ring and result in the offer of a temporary job in an immense hospital system of which I have little practical knowledge. Someday someone will ask me how on earth I got my start working in the healthcare field to which I will respond, "I don't know, I guess it just happened," which will be both true and wildly ironic.

Now, I promised myself I wouldn't write my once weekly novella here this week (at which I appear to failing), so I'll stop ranting here and briskly move on to the good news.

On my first time requesting, I have been granted a advance copy of Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum from the fine folks at LibraryThing and Random House through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. It sounds like a great read, and I look forward to reading and reviewing it both there and here!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Booking Through...Yes, It's Still Thursday!

Do you get on a roll when you read, so that one book leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on and so on?

I don’t so much mean something like reading a series from beginning to end, but, say, a string of books that all take place in Paris. Or that have anthropologists as the main character. Or were written in the same year. Something like that… Something that strings them together in your head, and yet, otherwise could be different genres, different authors…

Hmmmm...this is a good question to which I will answer yes and no. I get burned out really easily when I read too much of the same thing at once, so I would say no, I don't really get on a roll in that sense. I try to mix up my reading so everything's a little new and fresh so I don't get bored and fall into the dreaded reading lull. I find myself wanting to join all the sparkly reading challenges in the litblogosphere and then quickly second-guessing myself because I don't know if I'll have the attention span to stick to any one theme because of this whole "variety is the spice of reading" thing I've got going, and I fear that I'd miss my reading being a bit unpredictable.

On the other hand, though, if I read something I really love about a certain topic or decide some random topic is wildly interesting to me this week as a result of something I'm doing, something I'm thinking about, somebody I met who has an interesting job that I happen to know almost nothing about, I'm very prone to going on crazed wish list addition fests. For example, I read two really great books about circuses, found that was something that really interested me and combed Amazon all night to find more ideas for books about the circus. No, I didn't want to read them right then, but I did want to file them away for the future while I was thinking about it, so I'll have no shortage of circus books when I decide I'm ready for another. Last year in January I took a road trip from Pennsylvania to Montana (yeah, I know, some time for that road trip, right?) and decided I just had to read more about the American west/ranching/Native Americans and found myself wandering the bookstore in Wall Drug with a notepad writing down titles of books to read about the west which have been deposited on my wish list for, again, future enjoyment.

So, no. But, well, yes.


In other news, I just finished my 53rd book of the year which makes this year a record year of reading in terms of quantity since I've begun keeping track of what I read. I think it's been about 5 years that I've kept track, so it's been awhile since I've read this much in a year...and it's not even over yet. Yay me!

Monday, November 26, 2007

On "Sisters," Mist, and Employment

This year, I'm thankful that Thanksgiving is over. My imposing "sister" has been safely packed off to her home without too much stress. My tactic in dealing with her was to welcome her to be here but not to cater to her every whim, so if I was planning on watching a TV show or playing a game with my family or helping my grandparents with their computer I went forth and did so and found that not up-ending my life on her behalf made it a good deal easier to deal with her over-intrusion into my life. Upon her arrival I discovered that her boyfriend had insisted on being the gentleman and bringing her down and that she would have just as gladly taken a bus. I can't very well blame her for that and was again reminded that her boyfriend, a very decent if rough around the edges sort, has a much better basic grasp of manners in the presence of my family than she seems to, so I was able to embrace his presence a bit more - that and he was great to me when I was living in Boston, so I feel like a jerk for being so bent out of shape about him coming. He thanked my mother profusely for dinner, watched whatever TV show we were watching without complaint, and proclaimed himself to be homicidal ("I'd kill somebody to get another piece of this!") over the dessert my mom prepares every year - and so won our love because my "sister" did none of the above. Another year passes without confrontation, so I've got until next year to work through my feelings about this situation again.

On a slightly more bookish note, I went to see The Mist this past weekend, yet another film adaptation of Stephen King's abundant body of work. Usually I pass on horror-type movies. I'm ridiculously squeamish and can't stand horror movies' portrayal of people being unreasonably stupid. Alas, I had read the story and enjoyed its depiction of how people react in the face of the unknown and the knowledge of their imminent deaths as a result of said unknown, and I couldn't help but be curious about how it would look on the big screen. Needless to stay, the film version took a perfectly decent story and screwed it up. Yes, the element of putting a group of people in a room with only their imminent deaths and big, scary creatures from the unknown to think about remained intact. The human part was actually rather well-executed. The people start out working toward a solution and end by fighting to the death with each other in a way somewhat reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies. Marcia Gay Harden turns in a great performance as Mrs. Carmody, an insane evangelical Christian sort, who is really, really loathesome and far scarier than gigantic spiders and creatures with distressing-looking tentacles as, I think, Stephen King intended.

Nonetheless, I left the movie feeling disappointed. Despite the success of the human part of the story the horror part was just well...horrible. Full in the knowledge that something is waiting outside to kill them, the characters don't rush to their destination, no, they lollygag and ogle the ominous otherworldly mist until the promised gigantic bug/tentacled creature/monstrous spider attacks them leaving just about everyone paralyzed in fear until the body count can mount sufficiently at which point some blessed soul will finally have the presence of mind to bash the evil creature with a big stick giving the few remaining survivors time to get away. Run, people! What's wrong with you? Even that aside, my biggest bone to pick, by far, was definitely the artsy, ironic and depressing ending which is a rather considerable departure from the original story not to mention being painful to watch. Even had I not read the story, this ending would have driven me to an intense dislike of this movie. Having read it, the ending becomes that much more unbearable for its unwarranted change from the written work.

Finally, in news that should make me happy but really doesn't - the last document that will enable me to become a temp for a major local hospital which is one of the few truly good places to work in my area of residence arrived in today's mail. Yes, I'm happy that I can say that I've got a job again and that I will have income and feel productive again instead of laying about fiddling with my computer and mooching off my parents, but gosh I'm bummed that I'll be spending the happy holiday season learning everything there is to know about working in healthcare administration which is rather a lot. I fear that my brain has atrophied over these last few months of unemployment, and it's just going to be a little much to take. Not to mention I won't have nearly as much time to fiddle around with my computer. And read. And write. And buy Christmas gifts. And enjoy happiness.

Okay, so maybe I'm just scared of doing something new. And maybe I feel a little bit like you do when you've gone on a nice and enjoyable vacation only to find it's ended a few days short of when you expected to as a result of unpleasant circumstances. I'm 23, I've been working in some respect for about 7 it really too early to retire?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The week or so in books and some whining

It's slowly dawning on me that I'm probably going to be too lazy/busy to compile the 13 things I'm thankful for today/tomorrow, and the old blog has been a bit light on content the last few days, so I bring you a recap of my week in book acquisitions and a special bloggish Dear Abby letter.

I gave up on The Alienist. I'm not proud of it, nor am I proud of the exboritant amount of money I then I had to put out to ship said initially free book to the fair country of Australia (almost $10 - and that's not as bad as I thought it was going to be). I read about 150 pages trying desperately to become interested enough to want to continue, but being a spoiled instant gratification-craving modern American I couldn't help repeatedly thinking that I could get the equivalent of this story minus the historical atmosphere (which I found to include not quite enough gentle shaping of the environment and a little too much boring info-dumping on the part of Carr's narrator) on this week's or any week's episode of Criminal Minds. Criminal Minds is one of the two TV shows on of late that I would say is a "can't miss," for me, at least. So off The Alienist has gone to Australia, with nary a regret from me except for the the regret that comes with emptying my bank account.

This week's reading includes a copy of After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell which I've heard much good about, interspersed with a few sparkley ARCs from Elle Magazine. Last year I had the privilege of taking part in their Reader's Prize program and read a few great books as a result, and, of course, a few duds, too. Happily, when I came crawling back asking to play again, they said yes and sent me three of the above-mentioned sparkly ARCs with the promise of 5 more sparkly brand new hardbacks come next summer and the potential to be published on the shiny pages of Elle magazine which is always a nice rush. My joy and happiness at receiving these books in the mail was slightly tempered by the fact that the first of the books I've deigned to read appears to be bona fide chick lit. I guess I lucked out last year by not receiving any really real chick lit. And I loathe really real chick lit - which can be defined as any chick lit that can't make me feel like I'm not reading chick lit. Loathe it. The shallow characters! The name dropping! The superficialty of it all! Argh! I will try to get a grip and give it a fair shake, but I'm sure it will be a bit of struggle if it continues on as it has begun. Speaking of struggles, in order to not anger the fine folks at Elle who send me shiny books and on occasion put my writing and my name in their magazine, I probably should withhold my reviews from here until they've published the March magazine. Which is why I'm attempting the reading of two books at once, which I've done before but with dubious consequences. Stay tuned to see how and if it turns out.

In other exciting book news, I managed to end up with The Book Thief in a BookObsessed historical fiction swap last week. I've heard so many great things about this book, and can't wait to get my hands on it! Also, I managed to win one of the raffles at Love of Reading during their online book fair, which if I were a decent sort of blogger I really would have gotten around to posting the link before it was over instead of I'll pause here for a moment so you can throw rotten vegetables at me, and then will gleefully announce that I'm expecting a copy of Ask Now the Beasts to arrive on my doorstep thanks to them sometime in the nearish future.

Of course, all the happiness wrought by books in my life is overshadowed by the struggles of this thing we call real life where distant relatives are passing away causing funerals and memorial events to coincide with major holidays, pets are sick, and Thanksgiving lurks over my shoulder. Thanksgiving, yes, that brings me to the next part of my lengthy post of randomness which will take the form of a Dear Abby letter. I'll expect all of my readers' wise responses within the next few hours so that I'll still have time to solve all my life's problems before sitting down to enjoy my turkey dinner.

Dear Abby,

I am really close to my family and as tradition dictates, when holidays come around we have fantastically large and tantalizingly awesome family get-togethers. Thanksgiving is hosted by my very own mother in our very own house which, is, I'll have you know, not all that large. I also have a friend whom I view as practically a sister who I have kept close in touch with for something like the last 10 years. Having been invited to and attended Thanksgiving dinner with my family once, she now makes it a point and a tradition to come to dinner every year. This is fine. As a matter of fact, at first we were honored to be her second family and be graced with her presence as we were giving her something she hadn't experienced in her own family. However as the years have passed, this has become increasingly burdensome as she views herself as even more a part of the family than we have given her license to be. This year, having sold her car, she has prevailed upon her boyfriend of a year to bring her to my home from Massachusetts for dinner. So, not only do we have to feed and keep happy all of our own family members, we also have to cater to the whims and needs of my best friend and her boyfriend who, while a decent guy, doesn't really fit in with our family and was never actually invited to Thanksgiving dinner. All this difficulty is compounded by the fact that she stays in my grandmother's house when she comes to visit - leveling great amounts of stress on her as she prepares for their 4-day stay. And today, my friend says to me that she wants to invite her brother along to dinner as well so he won't be alone on the holiday. All of this puts a strain on my family whose kindnesses are being abused which then puts a strain on me because I want everybody to be happy with each other and with me. I want her to keep coming because I love her, but I don't want to cater to or be judged by every virtual stranger she decides she wants to bring along without ever asking if it's okay. So, how do I tell the "sister" who has made herself a bit too much at home the stress she is putting on all of us and the bitterness she is engendering in much of my family by taking this all a bit too much for granted without seeming like a jerk who doesn't mind her glomming on to our holiday tradition but couldn't care less about the rest of her loved ones and where or how they spend their holiday? Please help!


Ticked About T-Giving

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly

Mattie Gokey has big dreams for her future in a difficult present. Around the turn of the century, she finds herself serving as a farm hand for her father whose oldest son has fled as well as mother to her three sisters after her own mother dies from cancer. As she deals with her day to day struggles Mattie takes refuge in words, looking up a new one every day in her mother's treasured dictionary and committing it to memory. Mattie aspires to get her high school diploma and go to school in New York City where she can develop her talent for writing stories and eventually write books of her own. However, much stands in her way. Even attending school past the age of fourteen is unusual and puts a strain on her relationship with her father who counts on her help with the farm in the absence of her mother and older brother. The family has little money, and Mattie knows she can't count on any financial help to make her dream come true. And there's the "problem" with the handsome Royal Loomis who, it seems, is sweet on her.

When her father allows her to spend the summer working at the Glenmore, a lake resort of tourists, Mattie's dream seems within reach, but her love for Royal and a promise made to her mother on her deathbed force Mattie to reconsider her formerly single-minded pursuit of a college education. In the meantime, a mysteriously drowned young woman is taken from the lake, and as Mattie reads the dead woman's letters to her beloved as her own life marches on, Mattie finds the answers she's been looking for.

Donnelly creates parallel storylines; one which begins with the discovery of the drowned Grace Brown at the Glenmore and the other which explores Mattie's life up until that point. Each "past" chapter is headed with Mattie's word of the day which not only helped to enrich my vocabulary but also helped to shed light on crucial plot points. The portion of the story involving Grace Brown and her letters, though weaker than the rest, still serves to illuminate Mattie's experience; and when the two stories meet with a brilliant "ah-ha" moment for Mattie, the use of this structure really pays off.

Donnelly spectacularly channels Mattie's first person narrative making it seem like we truly are in Mattie's head. Down to the finest detail she stays in character, describing feelings, events, and even other characters' facial expressions in ways that always relate to Mattie's experience. Take, for example, Mattie's reaction to Royal's appraising look at her:

He looked at me closely, his head on an angle, and for a second I had the funniest feeling that he was going to open my jaws and look at my teeth or pick up my foot and rap the bottom of it.

Using Mattie as a jumping off point, A Northern Light thoughtfully works through problems facing women at the turn of the century that continue to apply in some measure today. At the time, new doors were opening for women that didn't involve husbands or babies, but strong expectations that women would still follow that path were still predominant. Even today, I felt like I could see parts of myself in Mattie as she struggled with whether to follow her dream to attend college and write books of her own or to choose to value marriage and family more. Donnelley is successful in portraying the good and bad things about each scenario, which really impressed me. While I appreciate how far women have come, I feel that so many women have become overeager to deride "traditional" roles, and I really appreciated that Donnelly didn't seem to stoop to that level. The balanced view of things really helped me to care deeply about Mattie and what decision she would make in the end. All in all, A Northern Light is a spectacular read about a young woman learning who she is and what she wants out of life and then choosing to go after it. I look forward to reading more from this author in the future.

Read another review at Valentina's Room.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Thursday Thirteen #5 - Excuse Me

Last week's Booking Through Thursday about "volume" gave me the idea for this one. I read quite a bit, but I used to read so much more...

Thirteen Excuses for Why I Don't Spend As Much Time Reading Books As I Should/Want To

1. TV (My parents are addicts, and they've sucked me into their evil web! EVIL!)

2. Magazines (My dad got this weird thing about his frequent flyer miles expiring and we used them to get roughly a zillion periodicals. One of my choices was The Economist - as poli sci major, it just makes my heart go thumpathump)

3. My Attention Span (Uh...what attention span?)

4. Blogs (I write in this one, I've got a growing list of ones I read, I have a growing list of ones I should visit so I could start reading them)

5. LibraryThing (Why read my own books when I can covet other peoples'?)

6. Pets (Obviously, my sole purpose in life is to feed the pets, play with the pets, let the pets outside, let them back inside, give them treats, make sure they aren't being bad, etc.)

7. Chores (You know the ones. The ones you have to do one day and the same the next day and the next day endlessly forevermore - laundry, dishes, yuck.)

8. Guilt (I'm sure there's something "productive" I should be doing. Or there's something that needs done rightnow before I forget!)

9. Employment (Not such a problem at the moment, but that whole earning a paycheck think sure takes a chunk of time out of the day.)

10. Bed (When I lay in it to read, which I often do, it lures me to sleep! Evil!)

11. Family (I love them, but when I pick up a book, they they emerge in force to talk about...well...usually nothing of consequence)

12. Shopping (Can't read, must go purchase more books!)

13. Book lust (I heart my book collection. I like to look at the books and touch the books and smell the books and contemplate reading another book than the one I'm reading or contemplate other peoples' books via their blogs and think of even more books I could/should buy that I can look at and enjoy but oddly not read...)

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. It’s easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Musing at random

I love reading but hate starting. Or do I? I love the promise of a new book in my hands just like I loved the first day of each of my college courses, before the first boring lecture or looming test. However, once I've opened to the first page and begun my trek into whatever reality exists within the pages, I often struggle. Picking up a book that I enjoy from the get-go has been a rare pleasure lately, as so often I find myself in a slight book-starting lull. It's especially bad when I've just come off a few good books only to find one that is presenting somewhat of an obstacle to me. I finished A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelley on Sunday, and enjoyed it very much, but though I've begun another book, I still feel like I'm between books because the new book has yet to get its hooks into me. The new book is The Alienist by Caleb Carr. I'm nearing the magical 50 page mark and while I'm not thoroughly disliking it, I don't really feel engaged with it either. One review on LibraryThing suggested sticking with it through 75 pages and then I'd be hooked, so I guess I'll attempt to persevere until then and see how I feel. If anybody happens by that has an opinion on the book or on matters such as this in general, I'd welcome your opinions and suggestions as I do so hate to give up on a book that might be good but hate to dedicate valuable reading time to something I'm just not enjoying.

In less bookish musing, I bring to you one of my least favorite things: the telephone. Though I enjoy many of the interchanges with people I have on the phone, the ring of it still strikes me with fear. Who might I have to talk to? Who might be about to ruin my day's plans or lack of plans? What are they trying to sell me? What havoc will this friend, relative, or stranger wreak on my life?

I can't for the life of me think of why the ring of the phone puts me into a momentary terror, but it most certainly does. I like to talk to my friends. I like to talk to my family. I like to intercept offers of job interviews without having to go through the struggle of having to return some elusive possible employer's calls. I like to talk to people. I even like to solve their problems should the need arise.

Maybe it's because my immediate family, while a bunch of fun loving life of the party sorts, is at its core, tremendously anti-social. Maybe it's because we are all-too-often prevailed upon to complete familial tasks which have no apparent reward and merely open us up to spending all our time on familial tasks. Maybe it's from having, for far too much of my life, the types of jobs where when someone calls in sick or doesn't show for work at all, the boss comes looking to ruin my day by begging me to work their hours on my day off. Maybe it's a leftover feeling from my tenure as a bookseller at a busy, busy store where answering the phone left me wide open to attempting to have a conversation with someone who was likely to be a bigger blithering impatient idiot than anybody currently on the premisis who not only wants me to find "a fiction book with a blue cover that was reviewed in the Times a few weeks ago...or was it last year?" but also has a dismal phone connection, an impenetrable accent, little to no speaking knowledge of the English language, and a short fuse when I tell them I know not of which book they could possibly be speaking. Maybe it's from getting too many job interviews that I'm certain will end with me either making a fool of myself in the initial phone encounter or even succeeding at that first encounter, but eventually being rejected anyway. Or maybe it's from being offered several jobs which I can neither afford to turn down nor want to accept.

Either way, the phone's ringing, and I just can't handle it at all.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Almost - AKA Monkey See, Monkey Do

So I was blog hopping at random this evening and what did I come upon at A Fraternity of Dreamers but a fun meme. I said to myself, hey this looks fun. I'll just try it, but I don't need to post it, except I am...because it turned out to be really fun and who wants to miss all

Here's how it goes...

Set your Mp3 player on shuffle and write the title of the first song that comes up as an answer to each question no matter how stupid it sounds...

I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)

Chasing Cars (Well, I need a car, but I haven't really started chasing them yet.)

Haven (Hmmmm...okay, sure)

Strong Enough (Oh, that's a pretty good one)

Turn Me On (Uh. No comment)

Tell Me Ma (apparently they get a lot of info on me from my mother??)

She's My Kind of Rain (*shrug*)

The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (I love that some of these could actually be true...)

WHAT IS 1+1?
Sugar We're Going Down

You Belong To Me (Nice!)

Getcha Some (if you mean books, that is, or maybe some dictionaries...I mean...getcha?)

Dance, Dance (Ha!)

Addicted (Uh...I tried to make you happy but you left anyway?)

I Don't Wanna Be (Um?)

One Last Drink (Hah! I think I will wait til tomorrow to die...?)

Blessed Be Your Name (not so much...)

Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree (okay, so this one's no good)

One Thing

River (That works, I guess. I wish I had a river I could skate away on...)

Almost (as in I almost didn't post this meme! LOL!)

How'd this blog go from being all bookish to being musical? Oh, whatever. I'm enjoying myself.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Thursday Thirteen #4 - Sing, Sing a Song

Here's another list brought to you by no creativity minus no creativity = this list. By way of explanation, I love music a lot. My musical tastes are slightly schizophrenic, but here are 13 songs that have personal meaning for me, that I associate with certain important moments of my life, or well...that I just really, really like and can't seem to get out of my mind. Most of the links are to lyrics unless otherwise noted.

Thirteen Songs That I Love

1. I'm Movin' On - Rascal Flatts - This song came out my senior year of high school when I was so ready to get away and be somewhere else and be somebody new. How fitting. "I've lived in this place and I know all the faces
each one is different but they're always the same.
they mean me no harm but its time that I face it;
they'll never allow me to change."

2. Boston - Augustana - "I think I'll go to Boston,
I think that I'm just tired
I think I need a new town, to leave this all behind...
I think I need a sunrise, I'm tired of the sunset,
I hear it's nice in the Summer, some snow would be nice..."

Because I did move to Boston to start a new life...

3. Home - Daughtry - ....and then I came home. And I'm pretty sure that on the whole I don't regret it, except for when I do, obviously. "But these places and these faces are getting old,
So I'm going home."

4. River of Dreams - Billy Joel - I almost moved to Montana, too. My dad and I drove there in the dead of winter in my ancient and not as decrepit as we thought Subaru which made it from Pennsylvania to Montana and back. For some reason I remember listening to this song during some of the prettiest part of our trip through eastern Wyoming with the sun setting and snow falling on the mountains out in the distance. *sigh*

5. One Last Drink - Enter the Haggis - Last year I fell in love with Celtic rock music (partly as a result of my lingering memories of a trip to Scotland - see #10 - and partly as a result of The Departed)...and this song. It made me smile. It still does. The song title link is to their MySpace if you happen to be interested in hearing the song...

6. Only Hope - Switchfoot/Mandy Moore - "When it feels like my dreams are so far, Sing to me of the plans that You have for me over and over again."

7. I'm About to Come Alive - Train - This was last year's song and this year's, too. I feel like I've been in limbo since I graduated from college, and I'm waiting to come alive again. "Don't give up on me, I'm about to come alive..."

8. Damn - Matchbox 20 - "This old world well, don't it make you wanna think damn?" Well, I've had tons of days where I couldn't argue with that line...

9. Both Sides, Now - Joni Mitchell - Come on, who do you want to listen to when you want to be depressed? And gosh, it's depressing when most of your best friends graduate and you've got one year left. Other things are depressing, too, but that's what I was depressed about when I was really into this song...

10. I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) - The Proclaimers - My best friend and I went on a Haggis tour of Scotland in my junior year of college. What an awesome time, including a few appropriately overcast misty days and one sparklingly, blue-skied astonishingly beautiful day while on the isle of Skye. Our slightly cracked yet hilarious Scottish tour guide really got a kick out of making us all sing this song while he was driving crazily around the mountain roads of the Highlands. You know your bus driver is truly a out of control when you wake up one morning to find one side of your body is sore from gripping the seat in front of you trying to hold yourself in your bus seat all day, right?

11. The Dance - Garth Brooks - This one goes way back. "And now, I'm glad I didn't know the way it all would end, the way it all would go. Our lives are better left to chance; I could've missed the pain but I'd have had to miss the dance." Because lately I've been enjoying things for the experiences...definitely not the outcomes.

12. Both Hands - Ani DiFranco - My college had an acappella group, the Four Scores (in Gettysburg...get it? I'll pause here so you can groan and roll your eyes if you get the idea) that recorded this song and I couldn't get enough of it. I learned the lyrics, and it's still one of my favorites for singing in the shower, of all places.

13. Life for Love - Enter the Haggis - "No man, no man is an island way out on the water all alone to stand, but I am tired of the dry land, ready for a new shore, ready to expand."

Get the Thursday Thirteen code here!

The purpose of the meme is to get to know everyone who participates a little bit better every Thursday. Visiting fellow Thirteeners is encouraged! If you participate, leave the link to your Thirteen in others comments. It’s easy, and fun! Be sure to update your Thirteen with links that are left for you, as well! I will link to everyone who participates and leaves a link to their 13 things. Trackbacks, pings, comment links accepted!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

Books like Snow Falling on Cedars are so hard to review. For one, I loved it, and any book I absolutely loved is hard to review because I can't possibly hope to say, nor should I say, everything that made me love it. For another, there was so much going on in it that it's hard to bring it down to something nice, neat, and concise to stick on ye olde blog. That and I promised myself I would retire the phrase "brings to life" for a while, and it's going to be hard to avoid with this book. This all being said, my best advice to you would be to scrap this feeble attempt at a review and just go grab a copy of this book and read it. If I haven't deterred you, here's the review all sad and short and revealing very little of the awesomeness.

Snow Falling on Cedars, set on a scenic island off Washington state known for its fishing and its strawberries, begins and ends with the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto who is charged with the murder of fellow islander and fisherman Carl Heine. As the testimony in the trial proceeds, we meet and become intimately acquainted with many members of the community of islanders which is divided between its white citizens and its significant population of Japanese-Americans. Taking place just after World War II, the novel deals with lingering prejudices from wartime when the island's Japanese Americans were "resettled" in California for the duration of the fighting and when even those white islanders who might have once been favorably disposed to their Japanese counterparts struggle to reconcile their post-war relationships with their Japanese neighbors after fighting the Japanese during the war.

Guterson takes on so much with this novel and does it beautifully. Starting at the center with the trial, Guterson works out throught the entire community exploring a forbidden affair, intense prejudice, war wounds of both the physical and emotional sort, hopes, dreams, struggles, and finally healing for a community that is coming to terms with itself. Guterson's narrative flows seamlessly between past and present between trial testimony and deeply personal memories. His prose is vivid and makes it totally possible to see, smell, and even taste the unique surroundings of San Piedro Island. The greatness of this book lies in the community that Guterson creates and his immense talent for perfectly capturing moments we might have some sense of but could never describe so deliciously.

He captures the feel of a thunderstorm...

Late in the afternoon, at about four-thirty, heavy clouds shadowed the strawberry fields. The clean June light went softly gray and a breeze came up in the southwest. It was possible, then, to feel the cool pause before the first drops fell. The air turned thick; sudden gusts caught the cedars at the edge of the fields and flailed their tops and branches... The pickers craned their necks to watch the clouds and held their palms out to check for rain. At first just a few drops raised tiny wisps of dust around them and then, as if a hole had been punched in the sky, and island summer rain poured hard against their faces...

...Kabuo's memory of the sea from his prison cell...

From his bunk in the Island County Jail he felt the sea again and the swells under his boat as it rode over the foam; with his eyes shut he smelled cold salt and the odor of salmon in the hold, heard the net winch working and the deep note of the engine. Rafts of seabirds rose off the water, making way in the first misty light with the Islander bound for home on a cool morning, half a dozen kings in her hold, and the whine of the wind in her rigging.

and the essence of a snow day:

Yet on the other hand the snowstorm might mean a respite, a happy wintertime vacation. Schools would shut down, roads would close, no one would go off to their jobs. Families would eat large breakfasts late, then dress for snow and go out in the knowledge that they'd return to warm, snug houses. Smoke would curl from chimneys; at dusk lights would come on. Lopsided snowmen would stand sentinel in yards. There would be enough to eat, no reason for worry.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward

Amanda Eyre Ward is a great author that I discovered this year upon reading How To Be Lost, which I enjoyed. Sleep Toward Heaven is arguably even better.

Ward's debut novel explores the lives of three struggling Texas women while at the same time probing the death penalty issue in a way that is neither overbearing nor preachy. Karen Lowens, after suffering a very unfortunate childhood, comes to know the only love in her life with Ellen, her junkie girlfriend. Karen's love and desperation for Ellen's love in return drive her to unspeakable acts that finally land Karen on death row as penalty for several counts of murder. Franny Wren, a workaholic doctor recently burned by getting too close to a dying patient, returns to Texas upon the death of her beloved uncle, a part-time prison doctor. In doing so, she flees a life and a fiance in New York City that no longer satisfy her to temporarily replace her uncle as doctor in the prison. Celia Mills, young librarian and widow of Karen's final victim, struggles through life without her husband Henry. She attempts to fill the void by writing a letter to Karen on death row in an attempt to make her husband's killer understand just what has been taken from her and then having an affair with a boy-author she meets when she goes to mail the letter.

Added to the main characters are the women Karen lives with on death row. These women, while we never quite understand what drove them to their crimes, are convincing characters each dealing with their incarceration and impending deaths in their own way. Somehow Ward manages to make these characters and their interactions in their small prison both appalling and strikingly ordinary.

Ward's characters are damaged and real. Karen, Franny, and Celia's stories suspensefully intertwine as Karen's August execution date approaches. Ward graces Sleep Toward Heaven with a deeply satisfying ending successfully doing justice to the rest of the story and the characters that readers will come to care about.

Having read two books by Ward, it's obvious to me that Ward's greatest strength, which is very well demonstrated in Sleep Toward Heaven, is her great sense of timing. While developing her characters' current situations, she gives us a steady trickle of their histories that we find ourselves longing for as we become acquainted with them in the present. Her ability to perfectly time the "doses" of this information combined with her skill in knowing when to cut away from one character's story to another's make this novel quite literally unputdownable.

Friday, November 2, 2007

It's a slippery slope...

All right, so it seems that, until recently, I had been the last internet loving book junkie to not catalog my books online in some way that doesn't include BookCrossing. All of the evil bloggers (and I mean evil in the nicest kind of way) with their shiny, pretty Library Thing widgets showing random samples of their libraries have been wearing me down and wearing me down...and down. Slowly I approached the Library Thing, wandering by the site every other day or so thinking, "I could just give it a try. See if it's so great. I certainly won't ever need to pay for it. No, no I don't need it at all. The Bookcrossing and the books and the blogs, not to mention a vast amount of free (but often subpar) periodicals that have begun to flood our mailbox as a result of a strange Delta Skymile rip-off (or is it?) is plenty to do. I don't need anything else to keep me busy. Really, I'll pass."

But the pretty, shiny widgets...they're everywhere. And the people with their early reviewer books from there that look all shiny and pretty and scrumptious, they're everywhere, too, it seems. So every few days I found myself wandering casually by the site thinking "Oh that looks like fun, I could... - No, I don't need it!" Until, as is the case with anything having to do with books, my resolve began to weaken until in a series of supremely weak-willed moment I found myself signing up...and adding my books...and making my profile all pretty and informative...and, finally, this morning, paying my $25 lifetime fee to be able to catalog all the books I feel to be necessary. And now I need it. And I love it. And it's a good deal of fun.

What's wrong with me? Why is it that I can hold myself back from pretty much anything, clothes, music, movies...but I have no control over myself when it comes to books and book-related gizmos?

Hello, my name is Megan, and I really am obsessed with books.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Thursday Thirteen #3 - 13 of This Year's Great Reads

I was just going to post my top 13 favorite reads from this year, but those would have included ones that I'd already talked up in my first T13 (Small Island, Black & White, Water for Elephants, and Truth and Beauty). In light of this, I've decided to include 9 of my absolute favorites for the year and 4 runners up, so those 4 can get their moment in the sun, too. The rest aren't really in any order, but the last four are the runners up.

Thirteen of My Favorite Reads From This Year

1. The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers - I could kick myself for not having reviewed this one right after I finished it. It was a slow read, not because it was boring, but because I wanted to absorb the prose and contemplate the themes in this story of a therapist who discovers a breakthrough of his own after hearing the heart-rending story of one of his patients.

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling - Because who can say enough about Harry Potter? Actually, I've never been the person that runs right out and buys the new Harry Potter, but I'd certainly grown to love this series and since I was working at a bookstore when it came out decided I'd better get right to it so nobody would spoil its end. Glad I did. Loved it.

3. The Reluctant God by Pamela Service - I read this book when I was in middle school and then came upon another copy through BookCrossing and decided I had to read it again. I'm quite certain I loved it just as much the second time. An ancient Egyptian travels through time to the present where he and his discoverer, an archaeologist's daughter, must seek out something that has been stolen from them. History! Action! Time travel! Awesome!

4. Away by Jane Urquhart - I love to read about the Irish experience in history. I also don't like to be depressed all the time. Luckily, here's a book that allows one to read about the Irish immigrating to Canada without being depressing the entire time. It's a mystical story of a woman who falls in love with a drowned man whose legacy follows her ancestors down through history even after they leave Ireland for Canada. The mystical part of the story, a few slightly kooky characters, and Urquhart's beautiful writing made this a fantastic read.

5. There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene - An incredible story of a woman who opened her heart and her door to Ethiopia's orphans. A book that manages to touch your heart and also be a powerful expose of the AIDS problem in Africa.

6. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky - A coming of age story that understands that growing up entails feeling "infinite" but also feeling like crap. Loved the honesty.

7. Shout Down the Moon by Lisa Tucker - Single mother and singer, Patty Taylor, tours with a jazz band that is hostile to her presence while facing trouble from her recently-paroled and very explosive ex-husband. I loved the look into touring with a small-time band, the emotionally charged encounters with her ex-husband, and most of all, watching her learn to stand up for herself and what she wants in her life instead of letting all the forces in her life bowl her over.

8. Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger - One of the first I reviewed here. I loved that she came at this love story from the straight guy's point of view. You don't see that much. You see it done well even less.

9. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson - Guterson's descriptions of even the most ordinary things make it feel like you are there seeing, smelling, feeling it. Guterson delves into love, prejudice, the effects of war on its veterans, and even gets a little bit of legal thriller in there, too. Wow.

10. The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty - The narrator of this story is so unlikeable that it is difficult to continue reading about her or it might have made the top thirteen. This story is an all too realistic look at a family in crisis, what they learn about each other as a result, and also what they learn about themselves.

11. The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day - I think I may have mentioned my "thing" for circus stories. This is a novel in short stories about a circus wintering in a small town in Indiana which takes place while the circus is still touring in season and also well after the show has been disbanded. The themes of the stories are woven together perfectly, and Day creates a few characters and scenes that are simply unforgettable.

12. No Great Mischief by Alistair McLeod - McLeod made a slightly bumpy transition from short stories to a full-length novel, but this "blood is thicker than water" tale of Scots in Canada certainly proves its theme that "all of us are better when we're loved."

13. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings - Matt King, husband and father, seeks out his wife's lover after she falls into an irreversible coma. In the process, he tries to repair his damaged relationship with his daughters, sell off his land-holdings, and come to terms with his own feelings about his wife's imminent death. This novel also suffers from characters that aren't immediately likeable, but I grew to accept them and root for them to work through their problems. All in all, it's a great debut novel from Hemmings.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Good Year

I just finished my 50th book of the year, which is huge for me, especially considering it's just the end of October. Usually, I'm lucky to finish 50 by the end of the year. To celebrate, I'm going to list the books I've read this year thus far. I'll probably add to this post as I finish books, so I'll have a nice comprehensive list of books read in 2007, but as of first writing, it's just those original fifty. The links are mostly to my BookCrossing journal entries (I'm yourotherleft over there, for the record). While, for the most part, I wasn't doing much in the way of comprehensive reviews, the entries usually share my thoughts on the books in general. If the link is to Amazon, that's because I had a rather slackerish mid-year period where I wasn't saying anything much about the books that I was reading because I was all busy living my life in Boston (and because my internet connection in my apartment there was virtually worthless). It's sure been a great year for reading so far!

1. Sing Down the Moon - Scott O'Dell
2. The Fifth of March - Ann Rinaldi
*3. Truth & Beauty - Ann Patchett
*4. The Reluctant God - Pamela Service
5. The Best Place to Be - Lesley Dormen
*6. Black & White - Dani Shapiro
7. Angelica - Arthur Phillips
8. Disobedience - Naomi Alderman
9. A Place Called Ugly - Avi
10. The Dream Giver - Bruce Wilkinson
11. The Law of Dreams - Peter Behrens
*12. Away - Jane Urquhart
13. Dovey Coe - Frances O'Roark Dowell
*14. There Is No Me Without You - Melissa Fay Greene
15. The Circus in Winter - Cathy Day
16. The Man of My Dreams - Curtis Sittenfeld
17. Briar Rose - Jane Yolen
18. The Rich Part of Life - Jim Kokoris
19. One Mississippi - Mark Childress
20. Razzle - Ellen Wittlinger
21. Kira Kira - Cynthia Kadohta
*22. Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen
23. Castaways of the Flying Dutchman - Brian Jacques
*24. The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
25. The Descendants - Kaui Hart Hemmings
*26. Shout Down the Moon - Lisa Tucker
27. Sloppy Firsts - Megan McCafferty
28. Seventh Son - Orson Scott Card
29. Echo - Francesca Lia Block
30. How To Be Lost - Amanda Eyre Ward
*31. The Other Side of You - Sally Vickers
32. Gingerbread - Rachel Cohn
*33. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling
34. Ana's Story - Jenna Bush
35. The Disciplines of a Godly Woman - Barbara Hughes
36. The Rest of Her Life - Laura Moriarty
37. Song of the Magdalene - Donna Jo Napoli
38. Bound - Donna Jo Napoli
39. The Phantom Tollboth - Norton Juster
40. Women of the Silk - Gail Tsukiyama
41. When Madeline Was Young - Jane Hamilton
42. Life Expectancy - Dean Koontz
*43. Small Island - Andrea Levy
44. A Three Dog Life - Abigail Thomas
45. No Great Mischief - Alistair Macleod
*46. Hard Love - Ellen Wittlinger
47. From Ashes to Life - Lucille Eichengreen
48. Even the Stars Look Lonesome - Maya Angelou
49. The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke
*50. Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson
51. Sleep Toward Heaven - Amanda Eyre Ward
*52. A Northern Light - Jennifer Donnelly
53. The Spare Wife - Alex Witchel
54. The Wentworths - Katie Arnoldi
55. Willing - Scott Spencer
56. Boy Meets Girl - Meg Cabot
57. After You'd Gone - Maggie O'Farrell

Now a side note of reflection...

Having completed this project and thus reflected on my writings about the books I've read so far this year, I do proclaim that I will resist the urge to use the phrase "brings to life" or any form of the word "engage" in any and all future book reviews as my overuse of them thus far rather makes me ill. Every book's review or comment after about the 24th I approached with trepidation wondering whether I'd found the book "engaging" or whether "the author really brough the characters/situations/plots to life." I'm pretty sure I've dishonored at least two-thirds of these great books with my bizarrely redundant writing. Ugh! Should you catch me in the act of using these terms rigorously in my book reviews, kindly leave me a derisive comment or travel to north-eastern PA and give me a good kick in the head.

That being said, in the process of completing this project, I also noticed (with some glee) that of the 50 books I've read this year, I'd marked 13 as favorites on the list on my BookCrossing bookshelf. Hmmmm...wonder what you'll see in my blog tomorrow?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Booking Through Thur...Friday

Due to the fact that Snow Falling On Cedars, though shaping up to be an excellent book, is rather a long and involved read, I'll have no choice but to entertain my readership (*crickets chirp*) with a sequence of memes and introspection at random. Hey! Wait! Come back! I promise it'll be interesting! But as my cousin sagely recommends, "People should never make promises they can't promise!" Ah, the simple genius of it all. But anyway, on with the show!

I would enjoy reading a meme about people’s abandoned books. The books that you start but don’t finish say as much about you as the ones you actually read, sometimes because of the books themselves or because of the circumstances that prevent you from finishing. So . . . what books have you abandoned and why?

Hmmm, this question appealed to me because I tossed a book aside early this week. Like a lot of people, I used to be the sort that was rather unable to give up on a book. Then I joined BookCrossing and that all changed. I have roughly a zillion books. Rather, the total, I believe is hovering in the 900 range. Books come in a good deal faster than they seem to go out. That and I've undergone a pretty major shift in my reading preferences. I used to be wild about mysteries and horror novels and even the occasional romance. Now, literary fiction is my bread and butter, but I like to keep the others on hand as well for those many moments when I just want to breeze through something quickly. However, I've become a lot more critical of them, so if they aren't calling out to me right away when I start reading them, I usually don't hesitate to let them go. There are so many books in the house that I'm excited about reading, so if books don't grab me in pretty quick they get thrown by the wayside. I try to give everything a fair chance and try to divine when my mood is what's keeping from like a certain book rather than the book itself so I can save it to try again later. That's a few that have remained unfinished...

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali - I dug into this one earlier this week. It didn't even last long enough for me to put it up in my Books I'm Reading thing on the sidebar. I have to admit, I read Brick Lane by the same author, and despite all its critical acclaim and the fact that I've been to Brick Lane in London (which made me all the more excited about reading it)... I found it to be kind of boring, which was so unfortunate because I thought I was going to love it. I don't know why, but I thought the premise of Alentejo Blue sounded good, and maybe I'd enjoy her sophomore effort. Not so much. I tried twice...forced myself through about 30 pages, failed to get a sense of where it was going at all and upon reading a very unpleasant scene involving a dead cow and a truck decided I'd had just about enough. I have a really hard time with stuff that is just straight out gross and if I didn't love the book to start with, I'm so much more likely to put it down after something truly unpleasant.

Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles - Please don't write your books without using quotation marks when people speak. Unless your book is absolutely spectacular, I think it's a big stumbling block for readers...or maybe just for me...

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. This was a book I had to read in high school. I was always the kid who liked to read and would dutifully read all my summer reading (even if I didn't like what was chosen and was irritated at having to read something assigned during a portion of the year where I should have been allowed to read whatever I felt like...but that's another story). This is the only one I ever deliberately said, "I really can't stand this. I'm not going to finish it." and then consulted some Cliffs Notes to know the end for class. I was bored from the first page and couldn't understand the main character and his willingness/need to continually return to the ugly and self-serving Mildred (I think that was her name). He certainly was enslaved to her - as perhaps the title makes reference to - but I certainly had no interest in being enslaved to this.

The Stand by Stephen King - This falls into the category of books I didn't mean to abandon. I started reading it while on vacation, was really into it, then returned to school (or maybe I had to finish my summer reading, the cursed Of Human Bondage) and got distracted. Unfortunately, by the time I was able to get back to it I had forgotten so much of what happened I knew I would have to start it over in order to enjoy it at all. So back on the shelf it went. And there it remains.

Hmmm...well, that's all for today. Tune in tomorrow when it's possible that I'll discourse on my newfound verbosity (I'm sure you haven't noticed) and argue that it's okay to continue buying books regardless of the amount of books you already have, your total lack of funds, and the amount of friends and family members crushed by your collapsing book shelves.