avanta7: (I Heart Books)
Readers Imbibing Peril VIII

Last year around this time, I re-read Stephen King's IT as part of a group read-along sponsored by Softdrink, and, through this read-along, was introduced to Carl over at Stainless Steel Droppings and his annual R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge. Constant readers may also recall that last year about this time I was in the midst of preparations for the Big Atlanta Move, and therefore did not take part in R.I.P. VII, although I really wanted to. (I did contribute a blog entry to help folks find books they might want to read for the challenge.)

True to the word "annual", Carl is again hosting R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, the VIII of its kind, and this year? I'm all in! I'm so in, in fact, that I'm going for the top challenge:
Peril the Firstin which I pledge to read four, count'em, four books of the scary-ish variety between September 1 and October 31 (although Carl says we can start now if we want).

My chosen four are:

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I'm taking my own advice from last year's blog entry and pulling this one out for a re-read.

  • Breathers by S.G. Browne. I loved Browne's writing so much that I ran out and bought Breathers before I was even half-way through his other novel, Fated.

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I bought this one maybe a year or two before the movie was released, so it's been sitting on Mt. TBR for several years. Time to dust it off and take a road trip.

And finally:
The Historian Read-along
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. Another book that's been languishing on Mt. TBR for several years. RIP VIII is the perfect time to read it because it's also been chosen for a read-along by The Estella Society. These folks are new to me, so I look forward to making their acquaintance as we explore the Dracula myth together.

So, my reading material has been planned for the next two months. I need to finish up my current read (A White Wind Blew by James Markert) before I get started. I may be able to do that today, since I'm home rather than at work (feeling a little puny, but nothing serious). Of course, I could spend the rest of the day catching up on writing reviews of the over 30 books I've read since last October, too. Yeeesh. Self-induced guilt trip. I think I'll read instead.

Should you care to join us, click on any of the badges above to be magically whisked away to the host blogs where you can sign up. And, of course, stay tuned for progress updates.


This entry was originally posted on Avanta Knits, which is where I usually blog these days. Come pay a visit!
avanta7: (CartoonAngela)
The Devil in Silver
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time, in Queens, New York, a man named Pepper got in a squabble with three plain-clothes police officers. The police officers were nearly off-shift and didn't want to deal with the paperwork involved in actually arresting him, and so they washed their hands of him, more or less, by dumping him in New Hyde Hospital's psychiatric ward for a three-day observation.

Three weeks later, Pepper is still on the psych ward. Not necessarily because he's mentally ill, but because he has trouble with rules. He's a big man, you see, loud and boisterous and rowdy, and accustomed to blustering other people into getting out of his way. None of this behavior does him any favors with the psychiatric staff. He ends up in restraints and medicated into submission.

Gradually, Pepper begins to find his place, even as he works at fomenting insurrection. He makes a friend or two on the ward, while still wondering how the hell he wound up there in the first place; he participates in therapy; he questions procedures; he gets placed back in restraints; he eventually learns the unspoken rules of every institution, which, boiled down to their essence, all say: Don't rock the boat.

Lavalle's portrayal of life in a locked ward -- the diffidence of the nurses; the casual, if unconscious, cruelty of the orderlies; the burnt-out psychiatrists and their reliance on medication rather than therapy, control rather than cure -- rings true. And Pepper's outraged reaction to his wholly unexpected circumstances is dead on. Even while he plays at accepting his situation, he's plotting.

As would I.

Many thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for this book.

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avanta7: (Banned Books)
And I wrote about it here, if anyone cares to take a gander.

avanta7: (I Heart Books)
Interesting things happen when you click a link, and it leads to another link, which leads to another....

I ran across a website devoted to Rory Gilmore of The Gilmore Girls, a TV show I've never watched and know nothing about. It seems Miss Rory was a reader of renown, and this website had listed all the reading material she had mentioned or read during the course of the series.

And so, in the best interest of all readers everywhere, I copied the list, alphabetized it, eliminated the duplicates, corrected spellings and authors as necessary, and lastly deleted the travel guides and dictionaries. I hereby present to you:

The Rory Gilmore Reading Meme!

Bold those you have read, italicize those on Mt. TBR, strike through those attempted but never finished.

And please let me know if you see any duplicates, misspellings, or misattributions that I missed.

Cut because the list has 239 books )

Whew! That's a lot of books to be mentioned in one TV series.
avanta7: (Dukedom)
The following books were consumed in 2011. The reviews were all posted in LJ as they were read, but consolidated here for your convenience.

  1. In the Company of Angels by Thomas E. Kennedy
  2. The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor (tied with The Map of Time as my favorite read of 2011)
  3. Fated by S.G. Browne
  4. Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez
  5. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  6. Headcrash by Bruce Bethke
  7. The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (tied with The Anatomy of Ghosts as my favorite read of 2011)
  8. Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
  9. Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz and David Hayward
  10. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  12. Half A Life by Darin Strauss
  13. The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll
  14. The Likeness by Tana French
  15. The Hair of Harold Roux by Thomas Williams
  16. Ill Met By Moonlight by Sarah A. Hoyt
  17. Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
  18. Faithful Place by Tana French
  19. The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman
  20. The Colorado Kid by Stephen King
  21. Sepulchre by Kate Mosse
  22. Discovering the Body by Mary Howard

22 total, far better than last year's dismal showing. I wished I had liked many of them better, but maybe it's reflective of stepping a little outside my comfort zone and reading things I wouldn't normally have chosen. Growth? Perhaps.
avanta7: (Reading in Bed)
Discovering the BodyDiscovering the Body by Mary Howard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two years ago, Linda Garbo walked into her friend Luci's kitchen and found her dead on the floor. Linda's testimony was instrumental in convicting Peter Garvey, a local mechanic and Luci's secret lover, of the crime. But lately, Linda has been having flashes of memory, leading to doubts and second thoughts about her statements during the investigation and at trial. Was it really Peter Garvey she saw outside the house that day? Or was it someone else?

Linda sets out to explore her memory, if only to set her mind at ease that she did not help convict an innocent man. But in her quest for truth, she uncovers a few secrets that others would rather have kept quiet. Such is the result of questions raised in a small town.

The story is quietly told, low-key, almost meandering, and seemed to take forever to come to the point. I can't argue that it's badly written -- it has lovely prose and engaging characters -- but its less than 300 pages felt interminable: one of the reasons it took me over a month to finish it. I kept putting it down and walking away.

Potential spoiler, don't click if you intend to read )I'm sure this unmet expectation has a lot to do with my lack of enjoyment of the story.

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avanta7: (BookWorms)
Sepulchre (Languedoc Trilogy, #2)Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked up the Sepulchre audiobook from the bargain bin at the local megachain bookstore because I wanted something to listen to on a cross-country road trip and I didn't want to spend a lot of money.

Let's just say I'm glad I didn't. Spend a lot of money, that is.

As with Mosse's previous novel, Labyrinth, I wanted to like this story. Historical setting juxtaposed against modern setting, with a supernatural-ish link between them: just my cup of tea. As with Labyrinth again, the premise was better than the execution.

17-year-old Léonie Vernier and her older brother Anatole leave their mother behind and flee 1891 Paris for the country at the invitation of their Aunt Isolde, widow of their mother's estranged brother. Anatole has some rather nasty people after him, and Léonie just wants to get out of the city for a while. Upon arriving at the country estate, the Domain de la Cade in Rennes-les-Bain, they settle in for a long visit. But all is not as it seems at the Domain, and the siblings, along with their aunt, may not have left all the danger behind them in Paris.

Jump to modern-day France, and meet 26-year-old American graduate student Meredith Martin, who is researching a biography on Debussy as well as her own family history. She has also come to the Domain de la Cade, now an exclusive hotel, in search of both a family connection and a Debussy connection. She is eerily familiar with the Domain although she's never before visited. And soon she also discovers danger lurking for her in the recesses and grounds of the estate.

The story pops back and forth between these eras in a fairly logical pattern and is entertaining enough. I had some difficulty with character differentiation: the reader, whose name escapes me at the moment, had a convincing French accent although she made little distinction between the female voices. She did not give Meredith an American accent, which did not help. I found Léonie annoying, whiny, and overly childish for her age. I didn't care much for any of the female characters, which is unfortunate since the story was essentially theirs. In fact, I didn't care much for any of the characters. If I'd had been reading a hard copy rather than listening while driving across Oklahoma, Texas, and the desert Southwest, I'd have put it down and found something else. As such, I was a captive audience. But I breathed a sigh of relief -- "Thank heavens that's over!" -- when I finished the last disc just as I pulled in front of the hotel where I would be staying in California. It's hard to say whether the relief came more from the drive being done or the book.

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avanta7: (Books By The Yard)
The Colorado KidThe Colorado Kid by Stephen King

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a general rule, I don't "read" audiobooks. I prefer the weight and heft of a real book in my real hands. But, when I decided to take a cross-country road trip, I set aside that general rule and purchased two books on CD from the bargain bin at my local megachain bookstore.

Like many reviewers before me, I picked up The Colorado Kid because I love the television series Haven, which cites this story as its base.

Before we go any further, let's make one thing perfectly clear. The only thing the book and the TV show have in common are the two crusty old newspapermen who know more than they let on, yet less than they want.

Stephanie McCann, a University of Ohio journalism student, is serving an internship at a tiny newspaper in Moose-Lookit, an island off the coast of Maine. Her mentors, Vince Teague and Dave Bowie, have lived on the island their entire lives and know everything and everyone. They school their young charge in the ways of a small town, and specifically in the ways of a small town newspaper. Along the way, they tell her about the biggest mystery they ever encountered: the death of a Colorado businessman on their local beach.

How he died isn't the mystery. The mystery lies in the fact that he was in Moose-Lookit at all. As Vince and Dave relate the tale of their investigation into the "why" of it all, we are treated to a marvelous character study: of Vince and Dave themselves, of Stephanie and her questioning nature, of the insularity of a small coastal village, and even of the Colorado Kid himself: although he says not a word, he speaks volumes through his death.

Jeffrey DeMunn reads the novella with excellent down East accents and engaging, easily differentiated character voices. And with only four CDs, it's a good choice for a day's drive.

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avanta7: (Book Whore)
Faithful PlaceFaithful Place by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tana French takes on Frank Mackey in her third outing with the Dublin Murder Squad. Mackey, as you may recall, is with the Undercover division of the Dublin police department, and takes his responsibilities as the coordinator of undercover operations and operatives very seriously. In Faithful Place, however, his work gets shunted aside as he is sucked back into his old neighborhood to deal with family drama and his own history.

At 19, Frank was prepared to run away to London with Rosie Daly, the love of his life, and together take the music world by storm. But she never appeared for their rendezvous and, although Frank himself left the neighborhood soon after, he never left Dublin. He never heard from Rosie again. Frank spent many years wondering where she was, imagining her life, while he married and had a child and divorced and built his career with the Dublin police, and eventually stopped wondering. Then one day, his sister calls to say the wreckers had found Rosie's suitcase in an abandoned house on their street, and would he please come back home to help them decide what to do.

Frank, desperate to know what happened to Rosie, allows himself to be pulled back into the sick family dynamic he fled more than 20 years previously. And, try as he might against it, he easily falls into the old pattern of family interaction as if he'd never left. Ah, Irish guilt. Nothing like it. As he investigates the discovery of the suitcase and comes to a conclusion about what really happened to Rosie, Frank struggles also to deal with the legacy of his family and his neighborhood: the reputation, the history, the neighbors, the bad blood...so much bad blood.

With Faithful Place, Tana French again creates a taut mood and tight story, and three-dimensional characters who live and breathe and bleed and grieve. Wonderful stuff. I can't wait for the next book.

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avanta7: (Default)
The Red GardenThe Red Garden by Alice Hoffman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a series of chronological vignettes, Alice Hoffman gives us the story of Blackwell, a fictional Massachusetts small town, from the time of its founding in the mid-18th century to the present day. Each story stands alone, but builds on the previous stories, with characters descended from or otherwise connected to people we met earlier. Some stories are straightforward, some are mystical, and some are just a little frightening. All are beautifully written, with Ms. Hoffman's trademark lyricism and eye for pertinent detail.

Thank you to Goodreads' First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.

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avanta7: (Book Whore)
Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there's been no rain for weeks."

With that opening sentence to set the tone, Johan Harstad moves us gently into the world of Mattias, age 29, a gardener, a resident of Stavanger, Norway, a man who wants nothing out of life than to be unnoticed and unnoticeable.

I was the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, in college, whose name you can't remember when you take out the class photo ten years later...the one you didn't miss when I left your class and started at another school, or when I didn't come to your party...the one you thought didn't have a life....I was practically invisible, wasn't I? And I was perhaps the happiest person you could have known.

Mattias lives with his girlfriend Helle and works at a nursery. He idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was second. One fine day, he loses both job and girlfriend and decides to accompany his friends' band to a gig in the Faroe Islands as their sound tech. But something happens....and the next thing both we and Mattias know, he's in a residential psychiatric facility in Torshavn.

Mattias spends the next year navigating his new surroundings and coming to terms with his illness. During that time, he integrates himself into a community, making a human connection, with his psychiatrist Havstein, with the other residents, for perhaps the first time.

Havstein runs the facility with a loose rein and dreams of moving to the Caribbean. Ennen listens to The Cardigans and rides buses obsessively and believes she isn't real.

Ennen gets it into her head that she is, in fact, that person, that person from nowhere, the person who looks at you that way, on a bus, on a train, or catching a plane, the woman you never see again, she's convinced that anyone who mentions such an experience has in fact seen her, which is why she doesn't exist.

Palli, a welder and sailor, barely speaks. Anna is the mother hen, the domestic goddess, the quiet center who keeps the household running. Together with Mattias, a family of sorts forms...or, more accurately, Mattias is adopted into the family already formed, each member with a weakness, a fragile hold on reality, each strengthened and perfected by the solidarity of the group.

Mattias's thoughts tell the story, streaming in clear, spare prose and paragraphs punctuated almost solely by commas. This run-on running train-of-thought style provoked the occasional "Oh, come on, give me a period already!" response, but for the most part was unobtrusive and served the story well. The bleak far northern European locale -- unfamiliar enough to this untraveled American that I had to find it on a map -- is so fundamental to the psyche and behavior of Mattias and the others that it can be considered a character of the novel itself. And the story is bleak, gray, cold, like its locale, locked in a perpetual winter, but in the end, spring comes round again, and there's warmth and sweetness and just the merest hint of sunshine for Mattias.

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avanta7: (Books By The Yard)
Ill Met by Moonlight (Shakespearean Fantasies, #1)Ill Met by Moonlight by Sarah A. Hoyt

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

William Shakespeare, aged 19 or 20, a small-town schoolteacher, comes home one day to find his wife Nan and his infant daughter gone. A small log lies in baby Susannah's crib, giving him the only clue to their whereabouts: they've been snatched by the Fair Folk.

Quicksilver, heir of Oberon and Titania, comes home to find his his parents murdered and his throne usurped by his brother, Sylvanus. He enlists young Will in a scheme of revenge, with Nan as both bait and reward.

Alternating between happenings in the world of Faerie and events in Stratford-upon-Avon, we follow Will's desperate search for Nan, Quicksilver's desperate quest for vengeance, and Nan's indoctrination into the ways of the Fey.

It's possible I might have liked this book better had I read it in one sitting. It's a short thing, less than 300 pages, but even at that it felt too long. None of the chief characters, save Nan, engendered much sympathy. Quicksilver especially annoyed me -- arrogant, duplicitous, selfish, and self-righteous, he had no qualms about using and deceiving a "mere mortal" to his own ends, and I never quite bought the idea that he fell in love with Will. Will, even given some leeway for his youth, seemed much too wishy-washy and easily led. Only Nan seemed to have any strength of character.

Still, on the whole, it's not a bad story, a decent way to spend a few hours if you don't have anything better to read.

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avanta7: (BookOwl)
The Hair of Harold Roux: A NovelThe Hair of Harold Roux: A Novel by Thomas Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Aaron Benham, writer, professor, husband, father, is having a midlife crisis.

He's stalled on his latest novel; he's dealing with the hysterical mother of a missing student as well as the worried wife of a doctoral candidate who won't finish his thesis; and he's disappointed his family once again by forgetting about the family trip they had planned. During that long weekend alone, while his family has gone on without him, Aaron wrestles with age-old questions: Who am I? How did I get here? What is my purpose?

Set in New England of the early 1970s, the novel ranges through time and memory and fiction itself. We are treated to Aaron's stream-of-consciousness reminiscences of WWII Army life, the goings-on of the present day, and his struggles with his novel. In fact, we spend a lot of time inside Aaron's novel itself..."a thinly disguised memoir of his college days," to quote the back cover. And even some time inside the novel's novel...each story interconnected by outside events, haunting regrets, and foolish young decisions. Aaron's world allows him to be selfish and self-indulgent -- a guilty flaw he fully recognizes and explores at length through his own internal dialogue and that of Allard Benson, the alter ego of his novel. By the time we reach the conclusion, Aaron may or may not be a better person, but he's certainly aware.

Although it took me a little while to get into the rhythm, the story flowed easily, with beautiful language, well-drawn fully-fleshed characterizations, and smooth transitions. Well worth reading.

Thank you, LibraryThing Early Reviewers for the opportunity to read this book.

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avanta7: (BookOwl)
The LikenessThe Likeness by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In an effort to discover a killer, Detective Cassie Maddox is put undercover after a young woman who bears her a stunning resemblance is discovered murdered. Said young woman was known as Alexandra Madison, or Lexie, the alias Cassie used in a drug sting operation some years prior. So who is she? And why was she stabbed and left to die in a tumbledown crofter's cottage on a remote country lane?

Pleading amnesia as a result of the attack to cover any gaps in knowledge, Cassie takes Lexie's place in a house shared by four other young people. She begins to live Lexie's life: going to school, working on the house, fixing dinner, talking with her roommates -- a life so ordinary and comfortable that Cassie's boundaries start to blur.

I thought about her differently that night. Before, she had been an invader or a dare, always something that set my back stiffening and my adrenalin racing. But I was the one who had flashed into her life out of nowhere...I was the dare she had taken, years before the flip side of the coin landed in front of me. The moon spun slowly across the sky and I thought of my face blue-gray and empty on steel in the morgue, the long rush and clang of the drawer shutting her into the dark, alone. I imagined her sitting on this same bit of wall on other, lost nights, and I felt so warm and so solid, firm moving flesh overlaid on her faint silvery imprint, it almost broke my heart. I wanted to tell her things she should have known, how her tutorial group had coped with Beowulf and what the guys had made for dinner, what the sky looked like tonight; things I was keeping for her.

Tana French takes us deep into Cassie's psyche, and by extension into Lexie's, with heartbreaking prose and keen observation. Her phrasing is so sharp it cuts. She imbues her characters with grit, determination, bravado, so much sheer humanity...even the minor players have dimension. She gradually builds the tension and darkens the atmosphere -- Lexie's world isn't so safe after all -- but leaves us guessing about the killer until the very end. And even then, are we really sure what happened?

Well done. Very well done.

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avanta7: (Book Whore)
The Marriage of Sticks (Tom Doherty Associates Book)The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Miranda Romanae is a successful thirtysomething woman in today's modern word, yet she feels alone and adrift on the sea of her life. At her high school reunion she makes a shattering discovery that further undermines her already shaky sense of who she is and where she is going. When she meets the remarkable Hugh Oakley, her life takes a 180-degree turn for the better -- but at what price?

When they move to a house in the country to start a new life together, the reality Miranda had once known begins to slip away. Miranda is haunted by alarming, impossible visions and strangers whom she feels certain she has known, although they are all from other times and places. As these phantom lives consume her own and begin to affect all that she knows and loves, Miranda must learn the truth to reclaim it. But sometimes the hardest truth to accept is the knowledge of who we really are.
(cover blurb)

Jonathan Carroll's novel of love and loss and memory and life is wonderfully told for the first 200 pages, with his trademark strangeness tiptoeing in bit by bit by bit. I thoroughly enjoyed Miranda's story until I turned that one page and suddenly found myself in an entirely different novel...and one I didn't care for at all. The break was so abrupt, so jarring, it took me completely out of the story...and the big twist as revealed in these last 70 pages was an overdone plot device and a tremendous disappointment.

Despite this major shortcoming, several of the characters Carroll has created are simply marvelous. I loved Frances, the old woman who leads Miranda to her truth. I really liked James, the high school boyfriend, until the point he turned into a whiny git and blamed Miranda for his poor choices. Hugh was interesting but not sympathetic. And given how the story turned out, I'm rather conflicted about Miranda herself...in a way that's impossible to discuss without spoilers.

Don't get me wrong: The Marriage of Sticks is not a bad novel, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It's just this particular tired plot twist is one that sets my teeth on edge, and I'm dismayed that he employed it. I suppose if this had been my first Carroll novel I wouldn't have been so disappointed.

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avanta7: (BookOwl)
Half a Life: A MemoirHalf a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1988, when author Darin Strauss was barely 18, he struck a fellow student, Celine Zilke, with his car. She died.

Now 40, Strauss examines the past 20-plus years with as clear an eye as he can muster. As might be expected in this sort of memoir, he agonizes over the guilt, over whether he has the right to be happy or even to enjoy something as innocuous as a movie at the local cinema. It isn't easy: Celine's mother laid a tremendous burden on his back at the funeral by telling him that from this point on, he had to be twice as good as anyone else at everything, because now he had to live for two people. For the rest of his life. Strauss promised her he would.

As Strauss takes us through his life after the accident, he unsparingly points out the perceived flaws in his own behavior: how he prepared speeches, rehearsed facial expressions, tried to give the public what he thought it wanted to see -- guilt, despair, sorrow -- but he was only a boy. And he was in shock, a shock that remained with him for years, even decades. Strauss went through the critical years of college and into adulthood with a glass between him and the rest of the world, the glass of Celine's death, through which he filtered all emotion, all relationships, even whether or not he could allow himself to enjoy a fine wine or a beautiful day. Because Celine couldn't.

I came away from this book feeling more than a little angry with the adults in young Darin's life. It seems no one who mattered -- a parent, a friend, a teacher-- ever really sat down and talked with him, tried to see what was going on inside, to help him process such a catastrophic blow to a young life. Oh, they sent him to a therapist, which lasted all of one session. Otherwise, nothing. Eventually, after many years, Strauss returned to therapy. This book is part of the result of that therapy.

Darin Strauss has my admiration, not only for his courage in sharing this story, but for the story itself. He's written a bewildering and hurtful tale in clear beautiful language. There are no easy answers here. No pat responses, no pithy platitudes. Just a powerful story, powerfully told.

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avanta7: (Throw Books)
The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madame Renée Michel is the widowed concierge of an apartment building in Paris. On the surface, and to the casual observer, she is the epitome of such an individual: cranky, dim, and interested only in her soap operas and her cat, Leo. In private, and apparent only to those who know how to see, she feeds her amazing intellect by devouring art, music, and literature while secretly looking down upon the less intelligent but vastly more wealthy social elite who inhabit her building. Since her husband's death several years ago, Renée shares this side of herself only with her friend Manuela, a housekeeper in the building, and thus her social equal, although not her intellectual equal. Renée wants desperately to maintain her disguise of dull mediocrity. She is petrified of being found out; she cloaks the fear with pungent disdain to hide it even from herself.

Paloma Josse is the the youngest daughter of one of the families in Madame Michel's building. Behind her disguise as a typical vacuous 'tween, she is full of herself as only a 12-year-old can be, especially one who is vastly smarter than the rest of her family. She cannot see the point in life. She intends to commit suicide by burning down the building on her 13th birthday, but she keeps a journal in which she writes her observations and thoughts in case she finds some reason to continue living.

Renée and Paloma have much in common -- their intelligence and the disguising thereof chief among them -- but it takes a new resident to bring them out of their protective shells and, eventually, together. When wealthy Japanese businessman Kakuro Ozu buys one of the apartments, the whole building is abuzz with gossip and speculation. Monsieur Ozu is polite but distant. A shared involuntary flinch at the misuse of language during a conversation with a fellow tenant brings Renée to Kakuro's attention, and Paloma endears herself to him when she addresses him in schoolgirl Japanese while they are stuck in the elevator.

Alternately told by Renée's inner dialogues and Paloma's journal entries, the story of how these three disparate individuals become friends and confidantes is a marvel to discover. Renée begins to blossom, Paloma becomes open to possibilities: even the abrupt and unexpected tragedy that ends the story does nothing to diminish the hope and joy Kakuro brings to these two lives.

A beautiful story, beautifully told. And more than occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. I loved it.

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avanta7: (Book Whore)
The Art of Racing in the RainThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Enzo the large breed mutt tells us the story of Denny Smith, a mechanic with a passion and talent for high-performance racing: his life as a single man, his courtship of and marriage to Eve, the birth of their daughter Zoe, the death of Eve from cancer, and the fallout from that untimely passing.

The life of one family as seen through the eyes of their dog is not the type of novel I would normally choose. But The Art of Racing in The Rain was a book group selection; so, like a good little group member, I bought it. Then I moved and left that book group behind. Thus, Garth Stein's book sat on the To Be Read shelf for many many months.

After I finally decided to read it, I nearly put it down when the first chapter made me cry. Wiping my tears, I persevered. About halfway through the book, I got so angry at the direction of the storyline, I nearly put it down. But I cheated and turned to the last few pages of the book to find out the resolution to that particular turn of events. What I saw convinced me to go ahead and finish the story. Grudgingly.

In other words, I did not enjoy the time spent reading this book. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which is excellent; or the development of the characters, who are fully-fleshed for the most part; or the voice of the narrator, which is surprisingly enchanting.

I just don't like books told by animals.

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avanta7: (I Heart Books)
Heads You LoseHeads You Lose by Lisa Lutz

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Take one mystery involving marijuana-cultivating siblings in Northern California. Add two dueling authors writing alternate chapters. Throw in a headless corpse, a cat with an unnecessary backstory, a mysterious plane crash, snippy footnotes, and increasing disagreement over the direction of the plot. Mix thoroughly.

This is the recipe for Heads You Lose, a new laugh-out-loud entry in the cozy mystery shelf of your local book store.

When siblings Paul and Lacey Hansen find a corpse on their front lawn one night, their first thought involves law enforcement, but not in the sense of "Quick, call the sheriff!" Instead, their first thought is, "Quick, get rid of this body so no one finds the pot plants in the basement!" And so they trundle the corpse into the back of the pickup and dump it in a remote area of the county. Cue one verse of "The cat came back, he wouldn't stay away..." and the corpse reappears on the lawn within another day. This time they decide to hide their cash crop and call the sheriff.

Thenceforth, our hero and heroine get pulled in multiple misdirections depending on who wrote the chapter. Authors Lisa Lutz and David Hayward write notes to each other between chapters, and footnotes in the chapters. Said notes begin in a civil enough manner, but quickly become snippy, rancorous, and even downright rude, but they're funny as hell, especially when they begin to reference events from their past romantic relationship which apparently ended rather badly....Ms. Lutz accuses Mr. Hayward of pretentious literary aspirations and Mr. Hayward dismisses Ms. Lutz's chapters as "Nancy Drew escapades". New characters show up as a deus ex machina with a tidbit of necessary information. Established characters are killed off in retaliation for events in a previous chapter. And just what exactly is going on with the folks in the assisted living facility and what about that plane crash?

All these questions, including whether or not the authors can satisfactorily finish the book with sanity and plotline intact, can be resolved by setting aside a few hours and tickling your funny bone by reading this highly entertaining and original novel.

Thank you to Goodreads First Reads Program for the opportunity to read this book. It was pure delight.

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avanta7: (Dukedom)
Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death, #1)Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town's Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews -- or anyone, really -- but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, Henry calls on his cousin the King of Sicily -- whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe -- and asks for his finest "master of the art of death," an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia -- the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death.

Adelia and her companions -- Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor -- travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king's tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia's investigation takes her into Cambridge's shadowy river paths and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again...
(publisher's blurb)

Medieval Europe -- especially medieval England -- fascinates me. It's almost a given I'll like any novel set in that milieu. That being said, this is an exceptional story with an exceptional heroine.

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the adopted daughter of a prominent Jew in Salerno. Having decided at an early age she was not meant for marriage, and so indulged by her family, she devoted herself to the medical arts, specifically the art of forensic autopsy. Upon being sent to England at the request of her King, she and her companions join a train of other travelers on their way to Cambridge -- a train which contains an ailing Prior Geoffrey, who subsequently reaps the benefits of Adelia's medical knowledge, albeit in such an embarrassing fashion he goes along with the conceit that her Moorish companion Mansur is the doctor who treated him. This aid to Prior Geoffrey, however, provides a small measure of protection and oversight to the foreign trio upon arrival in Cambridge, as they step on toes and break class boundaries in their quest to uncover the truth of the children's ghastly deaths.

And ghastly they are. The clues on the bodies and the manner of their deaths lead Adelia and her companions to a specific local geographical feature, but it's a dead end. Thus frustrated in their efforts, Adelia and Mansur more or less set up shop as a physician and his assistant while Simon -- who, although Jewish, has an easier time asking questions and acquiring information -- mingles with the community and pursues the investigation. Then Simon turns up dead. And Adelia and Mansur are no longer even relatively safe.

Franklin has created some lovely memorable characters in Adelia and her companions, as well as in the townsfolk: Ulf, the young boy who steals his way into Adelia's affections; Gyltha, his grandmother, hired to cook and care for the trio in their rented accommodation; Prior Geoffrey, alternately bemused and bewildered by Adelia's uncommon and forthright manner; Rowley Picot, tax collector, king's man, suspect, and thorn in Adelia's side. Lots of period detail, an amazing depth of research, and stellar writing make for a wonderful medieval whodunnit.

I already have the second book in this series, and intend to purchase volumes three and four. I had hoped it would continue for many many years, like Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series, but sadly Ms. Franklin passed away in January 2011.

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August 2013

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