Monday, 30 August 2010

Skullduggery Pleasant: Playing with Fire by Derek Landy

Playing with Fire (Skulduggery Pleasant, Book 2)
Valkyrie Cain has taken a liking to her dead uncle’s friend Skullduggery Pleasant and is now something of an apprentice in his detective agency. Only it’s a bit special this agency. For one, Skullduggery is a skeleton, for another his clients and cases are seldom normal. They mostly belong to the parallel world where vampires and demons really do exist and are usually trying to escape or find something that isn’t really walking on the right side of the law. Valkyrie vastly prefers this life to the dull, boring one she grew up in and cleverly ditches school on a daily basis to learn much more interesting and useful things like how to kill a vampire and use elemental magic.

When Baron Vengeous escapes from his jail cell somewhere deep in the heart of Russia, Skullduggery knows that problems are bound to appear soon. Vengeous wants to continue his quest to return the Faceless Ones to power (anyone called Faceless has just got to be evil, haven’t they?). With the help of Dusk the Vampire, the assassin Billy-Ray Sanguine and various other unsavoury characters, he intends to reanimate his grotesquery as a first step. Skullduggery knows he must stop this before it goes to far to stop it and so he and Valkyrie set out to save the world, again.

I love Skullduggery. Yes, it’s a children’s book, yes, it’s a bit silly, but it’s fun. I especially love the really dry humour that keeps it from taking itself too seriously. Right up my ally. It’s also not always easy to discern where the plot will take you, so it’s a bit of a roller coaster ride and never gets boring. Again, it’s an easy, enjoyable read, perfect for Sunday afternoons when you don’t want to think too much. It’s not going to win a Nobel prize any time soon, but I don’t care. I loved it. 5/5 for sheer fun.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten Garden: A Novel
How to go about reviewing this book. I almost don’t know where to start, so I guess I’ll start by saying that I thought it was a really, really good, well told story which earns a 5 out of 5 rating. I don’t know where to start because it’s a complicated story which spans generations. Some of which the reader is privy to before the characters in their own time and some of which the reader doesn’t know.

Morton essentially tells us the story of Nell, an English woman who was sent to Australia as a small child. No one knows her story, not even Nell. For a long time many things were hidden from her in an assumption to best let things Nell herself forgot remain forgotten. Nell’s granddaughter Cassie, sets out years later to find out what happened all those years ago.

I can’t actually say much more about it without giving parts of the book away. The story is written in a complex manner crossing time and space to fill in the pieces of the puzzle one at a time and although Nell’s story is central to the novel, hers is not the only story told. Understanding the one story requires knowledge of other’s pasts and futures. The events of one era come crashing together to cause waves which will be felt far into the future and, in turn, create further waves of their own. By including so much in the novel, Morton conveys that understanding is imperative; that to judge without knowledge is to judge falsely and unwisely. Not even the figures central to the plot understand how things came to be as they are until the past comes together to explain the future.

In a sense, the book is a mystery in reverse. You know where you’ve gotten to, but not how you arrived there and nothing in the past seems to make much sense. Little bits of the future are revealed as the stories are told. Morton uses this to her advantage by omitting or revealing small facts or clues by way of which she keeps enough tension in the plot to coax the reader along without creating unnecessary tension. It’s almost as if she’s leading you through the maze to the forgotten garden, but all of the maze and not just the path that leads through. She takes you down all of the twists and turns that lead to dead ends, but instead of letting it frustrate the reader, she uses it to help them understand the maze as a whole. Understanding the construction of the maze helps in understanding the way through the maze and what is at the other end. As such, the maze is really a metaphor for the whole story. She repeatedly refers to people getting lost in the maze; even those who once knew the way through can no longer find the correct pathway without thought and reflection. The maze came to be a way to hide and bury the past from the future as family secrets and letting it become overgrown only helped ensure that the past remained buried.

This is another one of those books I could write volumes about but as that would pretty much give the whole thing away, I won’t. I can say that it reminds me a bit of Rosamund Pichard’s novels (the books, not the much less praise worthy films) as far as style is concerned, only The Forgotten Garden adds a mysterious element which I thought added a lot to the book, especially with it’s well-timed revelations. Like I said, 5/5.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Nation by Terry Pratchett

I may have mentioned a few times before that I adore Terry Pratchett. Just maybe. Well, I do. With the exception of the Bromeliad Trilogy, I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by him. Some books more and some less, but they are consistently good and always entertaining. The Bromeliad Trilogy are children’s stories and knowing that Nation is essentially a children’s book made me wonder if I’d like it, but it’s Pratchett, so the risk is low and of course I wanted to try it. My opinion in general? It was worth the read. It’s not one that will list very high on my favourite read list, but it’s still a good book. It’s also another one of those so chock full of sly comments that you could read it ten time and still not have cottoned on to all the remarks. It’s one children will go back and read in ten years time and think, wow, I missed all of that the first time around! As such, it’s not strictly a child’s book and I can recommend it to anyone who has a sense of humour. It helps if you know a little bit about Polynesian and Victorian culture as well, but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Mau is set to become a man. He goes off to the little island alone, finishes his tasks and is already tasting the BBQed fish and hearing the congratulations that will welcome him when he arrives back home. Then the wave hits and wipes out Mau’s world as if the Gods wanted a gigantic do-over. At a total loss, Mau carries on as best he can alone, that is until he meets the shipwrecked Ermintrude, oh, sorry, Daphne. Daphne is the diametric opposite of Mau. She is the product of an English Victorian aristocratic family (her father is 138th in line for the throne; her grandmother is plotting 138 ways of death). She considers being barefoot just short of nudity, eating with your hands is just not done and talking to strangers without a written letter of introduction is a brazen act of wantonness. Consequently, neither understands the other. Fortunately, Ermin…Daphne is intelligent enough to realize that when needs must, convention has just got to pick up and go on an extended vacation and the two rapidly, as children tend to do, begin to understand each other and get on with the business of living and integrating the other stragglers into their Nation.

Nation is a very eclectic book. It tackles any theme that gets in its way and a few that don’t. The obvious ones are coming of age, the excesses of Victorianism, religion, idolatry and belief, but Pratchett really takes on anything that happens to come up. To say much more would be giving too much away, so if you’re interested, I recommend you read the book. It’s a quick and pleasant read but offers a lot to think and to laugh about. 5/5

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island
If I were a more outgoing person, I might start this post with something like “Avast ye hardies!” or Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum! But I’m not, so a quiet dram of rum and the dog wanting a cracker will just have to suffice.

Treasure Island is a book I had been beginning to think never existed. Growing up, we heard about all the Pirates like Long John Silver, Bluebeard etc. but never really knew where they came from. I personally never ran across any pirate stories and I doubt my brother did either or I would have known about it. Anyway, I was beginning to think it was all just random bits of history when I finally found Treasure Island. I can’t for the life of me figure out why no one ever thought to give us this book to read. It’s a brilliant story. This is the stuff little boy’s pirate dreams are made of. Ships, mutiny, maps, buried treasure and gold doubloons, they’re all in there.

Jim Hawkins is a young boy living with his family on the south west coast of England. His parents run an inn there and one day an old seaman, Billy Bones, shows up seeking refuge. He’s a very mysterious character and it quickly becomes apparent that he has something to hide. He even goes so far as to pay Jim to keep his eyes peeled for a sailor with one peg leg. All goes fairly well for a while when suddenly Billy Bones starts receiving visits from fellow sailors who he’s not overly pleased to see. One of them agitates him so much that he has a stroke and must be cared for by Jim. While Jim is nursing Billy, Billy lets slip that he has a map which leads to a mass of buried treasure and that’s what the others are after. Not long afterwards, Billy dies, Jim snatches the map out from under the other seamen’s noses and sets off with the village doctor and squire to find the buried treasure.

It’s an old story, but I won’t give away any more just in case there are people out there like me who manage to spend half their lives avoiding this book like me. As mentioned, I loved it. It’s full of adventure and danger and is just really fun. One surprising feature is that Long John Silver is never really quite as bad as you expect him to be. I always assumed that such a character would be portrayed in the blackest of lights, but he’s actually quite congenial and takes a genuine liking to Jim. In retrospect, the man is a masterpiece because he can wear more than one face as it pleases him. Although this doesn’t actually fit in to the stereotype of a Pirate aux Pirates of the Caribbean, it creates an even greater aura of evil about him as you’re never quite sure which side of himself he’s going to show. In this sense, he translates well into modernity where it’s long since been expected that really brilliant criminals aren’t laden with the neon “I’m the Villain” sign, but are multi-faceted and can adapt themselves to their environment.

The story also belongs to an era where right and wrong, good and evil are clearly marked (with the aforementioned exception of Silver) and as such provides a good role model for children whose world really is still pretty much black and white. While I’m not always for dumbing down things for children, I’m of the school of thought where avoiding confusion in role models for young children is a good thing. They’ll grow up and realize the world is more complex soon enough. If we had more of these types of stories, kids might be a little less confused nowadays. Now I think I’ll just stop before I begin to sound too much like my grandmother. Brilliant book, a good read for all ages: 5/5

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

I’d heard of this book from other bloggers and thought the idea sounded intriguing. After all, I like fantasy/paranormal/vampire stories, so the idea of Werewolves in the forest sounded interesting. It’s also gotten great reviews and was on the bestseller list for quite a long time. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the reviews and blurbs well enough, or didn’t grasp what they were saying because this basically turned out to be a teenage romance story which was completely overrated in my opinion.

A young girl, Grace, is attacked and hauled off into the forest by a wolf during a particularly hard winter. As she is being bitten, one single wolf steps in and saves her from certain death. Ever after, this wolf becomes her wolf. What she doesn’t know is that the wolves in the forest are werewolves. They are people doomed to the transition into a wolf every winter as the temperatures drop, the transition period becoming shorter with each passing year until they no longer turn into humans at all. That end is nearing for Sam, the wolf Grace thinks of as her wolf.

I was disappointed that the main focus of the book turned out to be romance and not the werewolves or even tension within the pack or tension with the human community. There were one or two lines the author picked up and then just sort of dropped as the romance took total control of the book. The whole thing would have greatly benefitted from a branching out to include more of the peripheral characters in the story or including more lore and a longer, more complex plot.

If you’re a teenager looking for a romance story requiring little to no challenge, then this would be a good book for you, otherwise I cannot recommend it.


Thursday, 19 August 2010

Maximum Ride by James Patterson

Thanks for Sync for this free audio book! I know I don’t actually belong to the target audience for either the book or the free book offer, but I do appreciate anything that doesn’t cost me and is entertaining.

Maximum Ride is the first in a series of 7 books for young adult readers. Maximum, or Max, is one of several children who grew up as a lab rat, cage and all. They are, in short, all the products of scientific experimentation. They are also the most successful of the experiments. Most of the creatures created in the lab don’t last very long, so after so many years, Max isn’t sure how long she and the others have. What’s so special about Max and Co? Well, for one they have functioning wings and can fly. They are also faster and stronger than normal humans, so it’s no wonder the scientists want to keep them under lock and key. However, four years prior to the beginning of the book, one of the scientists, Jeb, took pity and helped them escape. Ever since, the children have lived together in a cabin, fending for themselves even after Jeb disappears. Everything is going smoothly and they are all fairly happy until one day, their idyllic existence end abruptly as the lab security personnel drop in on them unexpectedly. They only get away with one of them, but one is too many for Max who sets out to find the lab again and free her friend.

I liked the characters, the plot and the creativity in this one. I think a young reader would find it quite fascinating and I’m not at all surprised there are more in the series. Personally, however, I found the writing geared too much to a younger audience to be really enjoyable. There was too much repetition and too much explanation. Sometimes I felt like I was being hit over the head with a hammer in that Max’s character would stop and explain a reference like the reader wouldn’t be able to get the point on their own. I got it the first time and didn’t need the explanation so it bothered me. A younger audience on the other hand, might have found the references useful and a skilful teacher could even put it all to good use in teaching the basics of literary tools such as foreshadowing, metaphors, symbolism, etc., so I don’t really want to add that as a general negative, just a personal negative. One thing that did bother me as a whole is that the ending is rather abrupt and isn’t really an ending. It feels more like a new chapter should start than a new book. Even if you are going to have a series, some sort of conclusion is in order, otherwise why bother finishing the book?

This is the kind of series I would continue reading if I had access to a free library, but since I haven’t got that option and I don’t have children who would read them as well, I won’t. It just wasn’t good enough for me to justify spending my money on more.


Paloma: A Retrieval Artist Novel by Kristine Katryn Rusch

Miles Flint is a Retrieval Artist. He finds people who have gone off to hide from alien governments who are searching for them. In a universe full of different races and peoples, sometimes even picking a flower can earn you a death sentence and people often wind up fleeing for their lives. As treaties between worlds shift and change, so do the results of those treaties and often people who are on the run no longer need to be, some of them have inherited money, some are proven innocent. Flint has made a business out of finding these people. After returning from a prolonged absence from the Moon, he receives a call for help from his mentor, Paloma. He arrives to find Paloma dead in odd circumstances with himself at the top of the list of suspects. Now Flint must use the resources, wealth and knowledge he gained from his years as a Retrieval Artist to find Paloma’s killer and exonerate himself.

This is another one of my Audible sales purchases. It’s a little bit outside my normal comfort zone, but I thought I’d like to try something new for a change. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really what I was expecting. Basically, it’s a murder mystery set in the far, distant future. The setting was neither different nor exciting enough to really capture my imagination. The characters were realistic, but predictable and not really very interesting. It’s a bit of a B novel, not really very good, but not really bad either. I was able to finish it, but I won’t be reading any more of these. Still, if you’re looking for a non-challenging fluff read and enjoy futuristic settings, you may want to give it a try.


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Who Guards a Prince by Reginald Hill

Royalty is always a target and Doug McHarg spent many years of his life protecting the prince’s life. Only when he own wife falls so ill she can no longer spare him does he leave the job to protect her and becomes a policeman. His wife’s death creates a rift between him and his daughter which leaves him virtually alone in the world. Then one day, a tongue is found buried on the beach. It looks human, but when the results come back that it was a dog’s tongue, McHarg smells a rat and, terrier like, refuses to let it go. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, The Connelly Family has problems of their own. The clan’s leader Dada has found out that Dree is having a relationship with the English prince and cannot stomach what he deems betrayal to their Irish roots. He makes the entire family’s stake in the will dependant on her behaviour, leaving Dree in an impossible situation. What no one realizes is that there is a plot against them all which may take down some of the most prominent people in the world unless McHarg can figure it all out in time.

This one started off a bit on the slow side, or maybe that’s just my take on it. I hadn’t realized there would be an Irish/IRA side to the book and was worried that the story would go down the same old roads with the same old problems. It does to a certain extent, but it also goes much further as Hill pulls the Masons into the whole scheme, which adds an element of interest. The whole plot quickly becomes quite involved with unknown and uncertain alliances taking place as several groups strive to gain or retain control. McHarg is unknowingly stuck in the middle of it all and may possibly be the only one who could figure the whole thing out as the shadowy figures start to take shape. It turned out to be quite a good read in the end. By the last half of the book I was riveted. I also think this one is going to be a good re-read someday. Kind of like the movie Sixth Sense where the connections all come together when you watch it for the second time. Warranting a re-read is always a sign of a good book.


Monday, 16 August 2010

Deadly Intent by Lynda La Plante

Deadly Intent is the first in the Anna Travis/James Langton Series by Lynda La Plante. I reviewed the second of the novels in June. Having bought the book in a sale, I didn’t realize it belonged to a series, and even thought it was a good stand-alone read, I liked it well enough to go back and read the first and will continue to read the rest of the series.

DC Anna Travis is a young, green detective who is following in her famed father’s footsteps as a police detective. She gets her break when another of the DCs is taken ill and James Langton needs someone to step in. He takes on Travis more out of curiosity than anything else; with the hope she will prove to be her father’s daughter. He isn’t disappointed. Travis quickly becomes fully embroiled in a serial murder case where the victims have hitherto been older prostitutes but are becoming younger. With the death of a teenage girl, things begin to heat up very quickly indeed. Anna swiftly proves her worth as a team member with her dogged determination to be of use to the team and her quick mind which picks up on details and avenues others have missed. Unfortunately for her, she is a little too good and winds up playing roles even the most experienced police officers would find difficult.

Again, this is just a really good read if you like detective/crime novels. The characters are brilliant and I found myself often trying to give them advice of the, “no don’t open that door!” type because I actually cared what happened to them. La Plante has finally created a female heroine who is insecure, but doesn’t let those insecurities encroach upon her life. She gets on with things and as such is a good role model. I find a lot of female characters who have to have strength do when they need to, but only when they need to. The rest of the time they lean on others for support. Travis avoids this by using her own strength without making it an issue that gets in the way of her life. She seems balanced and well rounded as a person, which is just such a nice change.

The story itself is well written and contains enough suspense to make it interesting without losing plausibility. It’s also creepy without dipping into Horror, i.e. simply reading it will not give you nightmares. All in all, a really good book.


Sunday, 15 August 2010

Bloody Jack by L.A. Meyer

Mary’s family dies in an outbreak of disease and she is forced onto the streets of London and must live as an urchin. She does so for a while under the protection of a gang, but when that gang’s leader dies, she sets off on her own. She soon realizes that her chances as a boy are much better because at least she’d be able to find work. So she changes her appearance and her name (to Jack) and sets off as a ship’s boy on the Royal Navy ship, the HMS Dolphin. Even though the work is hard, it’s still an improvement on her previous life and she is content for the time being. She always knows that she will be discovered at some point, thus her time is limited and she sets out to make the most of it, engaging in all the adventure she can while she can.

I got this book from the ABC Sync site during their free summer download program. All of the books are YA and are designed to get young readers interested in books, reading and listening so there’s something for all age ranges. I think this particular book would be more suited to younger audiences, despite the references to swearing and carousing (she was on a ship in the early 1800’s so it was appropriate and only referred to, not spelled out, so to speak). The story is one that would appeal to young girls. Even though I like YA books, this one didn’t really do much for me. It was too unrealistic and fanciful for my personal taste. However, I was able to listen to the entire book and be mildly entertained, so it’s still a good book, somehow I just don’t think it’s one that would be universally appealing.


Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

I’ve never found myself particularly attracted to the African continent (it’s hot there and I hate the heat!), nor am I at all fond of boxing so The Power of One isn’t a book I would have normally picked up. It’s actually an Audio Book and was offered for free last month from Sync, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was worth it. I was pretty much riveted from start to finish. The book is well written with a good style that flows, the characters had a lot of depth to them, even though many of them weren’t on the scene for very long and the story was just superb.

Courtenay himself prefaces the book by saying that the reader should remember that it’s all a little larger than life, but most fiction is, so we should be forgiving of that particular flaw, but being larger than life is what made this book really. At this point I have to draw the parallel to Forest Gump. Although the circumstances and stories are totally different, the method is the same. The things that happen to the protagonist, Peekay, are fantastic through their realism. Peekay, as Forest, handles them unknowingly and sometimes unwittingly with a finesse and grace that endear them to the reader/viewer (I’ve never actually read Forest Gump, just seen it).

Peekay is a little boy growing up in South Africa in the early 1940’s. He is happy at home with his black nanny and grandfather, but when his mother has a nervous breakdown, Peekay is packed off to an Afrikaner boarding school where he is derided as being an English Rooniek and is bullied by the other students. Peekay’s experiences at the school help set his character and form the rest of his life as our early experiences often do. The bullying forces him for the first time to use his intelligence to help himself since he doesn’t yet possess the stature to protect himself physically. Peekay eventually leaves the school when his family moves to the East Transvaal where he meets the two most important influences in his life. The first is a German doctor of music who teaches Peekay about botany, music and life. The second is the local boxing group where he hopes to learn the art of protecting himself, and to further himself in his goal of becoming the welterweight champion of the world. The story goes on to follow Peekay through the Second World War and finally prep school, learning and boxing all the while. The older he becomes, the more Fate seems to be moulding him into someone great, although Peekay himself feels quite distanced from it all. It is perhaps this distance that endears Peekay to the reader. While his schemes at prep school can be a bit wild and self-serving, he remains true, honest and fair through it all. Unspoiled is the word I’m looking for. He’s never spoiled by his good fortune and retains his sense of fairness for others.

As mentioned, it is all a bit larger than life but it never crosses the boarder into the impossible or even ridiculous. It all remains quite plausible. The amazing variety of characters helps with this as they each have something different to impart to Peekay along his journey. They also prevent the book from becoming tedious or boring. It is a very long book, but one that’s well worth the read/listen in my opinion. I didn’t often find myself becoming bored and my concentration rarely lagged, which is quite a feat for such a long book. I give this one a resounding 5 out of 5 and would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson has constant problems at school and home. At school because he is dyslexic and has ADHD, at home because of his horrible step-father Gabe who treats his mother like a slave and Percy as if he were an intruder. Because of his learning difficulties, Percy is vaulted from school to school, finally landing at Yancey where he meets his friend Grover, who has difficulty walking and his teacher Mr. Brunner, who believes in him and challenges him to do his best. Then one day the school takes a field trip to a museum where one chaperone, Mrs. Dodds, turns into a Fury and nearly kills him. Percy’s world is turned upside down over night when he finds out he’s not quite as human as he thought he was and the Greek Gods weren’t quite myths after all.

This is the kind of book that makes me glad I still enjoy reading young adult books from time to time, or perhaps even more often than that. There are just some really fabulous stories out there and The Lightning Thief is one of them. I enjoyed reading this and can recommend it to anyone who wants a light, fun read. The only negatives I have about the book are: sometimes the writing doesn’t flow as well as it could and Riordan occasionally demands a little too much willing suspension of disbelief, or better put, his explanations for some phenomenon fall a bit short. However, for someone who wrote the book for his kid, he does pretty well for himself and I’m fairly certain he’ll get better as he goes along. I will certainly be checking out the rest of the series to see if I’m right or not.

Where the book gets huge plus points from me is with the integration of mythology. Learning about the Greek gods can be a bit tedious, especially when learning the list of “Zeus is and he did this”. It’s easier in the context of the stories and will be even easier in this context. It might even inspire some to go on and read the original stories. Any book that gets someone interested in learning for learning’s sake is a good book in my opinion, so big thumbs up for that.

Overall, 4 out of 5 for The Lightning Thief.

Monday, 9 August 2010

A Meme Stolen from The Scrabblequeen Knits, Too

1. Favourite childhood book:
I have absolutely no idea how to go about choosing one. There were the Laura Ingles books, The Wrinkle in Time series, The Narnia series, The Nancy Drew Mysteries, etc. etc. etc. There are so many fabulous books out there for kids that I could never choose just one, especially as I may have forgot a few of them in the interim. I love rediscovering those!

2. What are you reading right now?
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morten. It’s about a little girl who was “left over” from the passengers of a ship which arrived in Australia from England. That’s really just the starting point as the story engulfs the lives before and after the event. It’s turning out to be very good indeed.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
I don’t go to the library because I lack the time to go to the only one with a good English selection (and I really don’t like reading in German for pleasure)

4. Bad book habit:
I cannot pass up an Audible sale and Amazon really knows where to get me too. I have enough books to keep me for a while and yet I still buy more.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
See #3

6. Do you have an e-reader?
NO. I dislike reading books off a screen and only do so when there is absolutely no alternative.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I would say I prefer one at a time, but there are many exceptions. I usually have one audio book going and one DT version for pre-bedtime reading. Sometimes I will switch audio books at the weekend when I'm feeling like something for frivolous than the book I already have on the go.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Yes and no. I read more and I think more about it. I also get a lot of great ideas about new books to read from other's blogs. So rather than change my habits, it's gotten me to branch out a bit more and read genres I otherwise wouldn't have.

9. Least favourite book you read this year:
Don Quixote hands down. I didn't actually finish this one. 2/5ths of the way through I was ready to scratch my eyeballs out at the stupidity of it all and gave up. I've just never found stupidity funny and this book was no exception.

10. Favourite book I've read this year:
Again with the favourites! How to choose?I loved The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. There were also a few good YA books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Maze Runner by James Dashner which I really enjoyed. Then there was Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett which is a new favourite.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I do try and make the odd foray out. It doesn't do to be stuck in one zone and be nice and comfy when it’s possible that there's a lot out there you’re missing. Reading other people's blogs has helped with this immensely as have audio books which give me more reading time so I’m less miserly with that time and am more willing to take a chance on something I may or may not like.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
Mysteries, crime and some fantasy

13. Can you read on the bus?
I could if I ever rode the bus.

14. Favourite place to read:
On my couch or in the hammock on the balcony in summer.

15. What's your policy on book lending?
I loan more books than I should, but never anything I'm not willing to risk losing because they so seldom get returned.

16. Do you dogear your books?
No, but I used to. I will always remember what my mother told me about dog-earing in reference to library books: You may do what you like with your own books, but never cause any damage to a book which isn't your own. I live by this. I don’t dog ear because I want my books to live as long as possible, which is silly because I regularly break the spines when necessary to my comfort. I like being able to read in comfort, which one cannot do when one constantly has to peer into the dark fissure the words in the middle of the book disappear into. If only the publishers would get a clue and print them properly! Sheesh! :P

17. Do you write notes in the margins of your books?
Not unless I’m planning on discussing the book with someone or writing an essay on it. Even then, post its are more helpful.

18. Do you break/crack the spine of your books?
See #16

19. What is your favourite language to read?
English. I could read in German, but don't often as it's not as relaxing as in English. Plus I get German all day and want the comfort of English when I read. That said, I won’t read a book which was originally written in German in English because that would just be silly. I do read some French now and again for learning purposes. My vocab goes down hill so fast since I don’t often use it. I haven’t even tried to read in Italian for years so I don’t know how well that would actually work nowadays.

20. What makes you love a book?
The characters and the language. It must be well written and I have to care about what happens to the characters. Plot is important too since there’s no point in having great characters who spend the whole book sitting at the kitchen table eating cheese sandwiches (or doing something else equally mundane).

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
If I liked a book and I think someone else would like it, I'll recommend it. That said, reading taste is very personal and individual, so I'm careful about my recommendations.

22. Favourite genre:
Mystery and sci-fi and classical lit.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did):
There isn't one that's applicable here. If I wish to read something, I do, end of story. See the next question for more.

24. Favourite Biography:
I would love to want to read biographies, but I don't. They don't interest me in the slightest. This probably screams that I'm anti-social and uninterested in people, but there you have it. Wish I weren't, but I am. Forcing myself to read something I'm not interested in is not going to change this.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
I was probably given books to read on how to lose weight when I was a teenager, but they never did any good so I've disregarded the whole genre ever since.

26. Favourite Cookbook:
Backen für Weihnachten (Baking for Christmas). I dislike cooking, so cookbooks are out. Backen für Weihnachten gets used copiously every Christmas.

27. Most inspirational book you've read this year (fiction or non-fiction):
I can't honestly say I've read anything inspirational, but then I tend to be very non-inspired, so maybe I just missed the point.

28. Favourite reading snack:
Jelly Bellies – This is a very, very, very unhealthy habit and not one I often indulge in.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience:
Well, I just finished Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater and it most certainly didn't live up to the recommendations it got. I’ll be blogging about this one soon.

30. How often do you agree with the critics about about a book?
I don't really care much what the critics have to say. I'm usually only worried about whether I like a book or not. Recommendations I get from other bloggers and the reviews on Audible or Amazon. They’re much more reliable than critics.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I don’t like railing on books and usually try and point out its positive features as well as the negative. I also always try and point out that it's my point of view and that someone else may find it a brilliant read (case in point, Dan Brown and just about any book he’s written. I don’t like him; he cares all the way to the bank.). However, there’s no point in giving a book a good review if I didn't like it. That would be tantamount to lying. Finally, only books I finish make it into my blog. The really bad ones don’t even get that far.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose?
Latin. I really wish I knew Latin (well) since it's the basis for a lot of modern language. Baring that, I suppose I'd choose French. I can read some, but I'd love to be able to read perfectly.

33. Most intimidating book I've read
I'm not sure I've ever been intimidated by a book, unless it was a math book.

34. Most intimidating book I’m too nervous to begin:
See #33

35. Favourite Poet:
Ouch, here's where I have to admit to not caring too much for poetry. *ducks*

36. How many books do you usually have checked out from the library at any given time?
See #3

37. How often do you return books to the library unread?
See #3

38. Favourite fictional character:
Ebenezer Scrooge

39. Favourite fictional villain:
I suppose I could use old Eb for this answer too, but he's really not a villain, or is at least a redeemable one, so in lieu of Eb, Fagin.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation:
Something light that takes little to no brain power and can be put down at a moment's notice to go do other vacationy things.

41. The longest I've gone without reading:
A day. Maybe three when I was in the hospital. Oh wait, there was the time of the concussion which lasted about a week. So voluntarily maybe 24 hours. Involuntarily, a week.

42. Name a book you could/would not finish:
Don Quixote. See #9

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Easily? The noise from the kids next door. I'm not JUST a grumpy old woman, they own a vuvuzela and a trampoline which is apparently not fun unless they are screaming at the top of their lungs.

44. Favourite film adaptation of a novel:
As The Scrabblequeen said: Pride and Prejudice, the Colin Firth version.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation:
There is a Mansfield Park adaptation (1999) which should really be renamed Mansfield Park as I would have written it had I been a 21st century woman living in the 1800s. It was so bad it's put me off watching the adaptations.

46. Most money I've ever spent in a bookstore at one time:
$200 when I was buying books for the semester at Uni

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through?
If it’s ridiculous, has become painful to read or just can't hold my attention.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Yes, I have sections like Fiction and Classics and then by author's last name.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once they've been read?
Keep. I am loathe to relinquish books once they are in my possession.

51. Are there any books that you've been avoiding?
Why would I avoid reading a book? If I want to read it, I do, if I don't, I don't.

52. Name a book that made you angry:
Angry is relative. I wouldnt read a book that was likely to make me angry, or was geared to do so, like political books etc. T'his is mostly because the more they intend to play with your emotions, the less likely they are to be true. The point of playing with people's emotions is to distract them from the failings in a book, so if it makes me angry, I ask myself where I'm being duped. I did, however, get angry reading The Power of One and Uncle Tom's Cabin because of the racist attitudes of some of the characters. That's not really the same kind of angry though, since those are archaic attitudes. (I'm not saying they don't exist today, because I know they do, I'm just saying they are archaic, like believing the god's will strike you dead if you don't sacrifice a lamb to the oracle on St. Peanut’s day kind of archaic. People may still believe it, but those who do are not really playing with a full deck if you see what I mean.)

53. A book I didn't expect to like but did:
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. I know I keep banging on about it, but it was a good book. I did^'t expect to like it because it’s about boxing and S. Africa, neither of which are subjects that fascinate me.

54. A book I expected to like but didn't:
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater. It sounded good but turned out to be mostly teenage romance, which is just not my thing.

55. Favourite guilt-free guilty pleasure reading:
Terry Pratchett and cosy mysteries. Some fantasy.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Viktor Frankenstein is a wealthy Swiss scholar who becomes obsessed with science and chemistry. He takes his studies in his own direction and eventually comes upon a method of giving life to inanimate objects. Although he knows that the creation of life in a laboratory is morally reprehensible, as a scientist, his drive to discover if his theories work and can be expanded upon pressures him into doing just that. He creates his own monster made from bits of the human body he has collected from various places. Upon finishing his creation, he is appalled by what he has done and neglects to take any further responsibility for his work. The monster is therefore forced to learn to survive on his own wholly without the help of Frankenstein, who himself falls ill with the shock of his own audacity and exhaustion from working so hard. Before it is all over though, Frankenstein will be forced to confront both the monster and the true and widespread consequences of what he has done to the monster, himself and the world.

After all these years, it’s good to read the real story about Frankenstein and clear up the inconsistencies between how it all began and what it has become. Today we refer to Frankenstein as the monster when in reality he was the creator, at least on the surface of it all. It’s arguable which really was the monster, the man or his creation. After all, what Frankenstein did was monstrous from start to finish. Not only did he take on the role of God and mess with Creation, he then proceeded to wilfully neglect his responsibilities towards his own work. He created a soul and then left it to itself with no guidance and no help which ultimately caused great harm to himself, his family and his creation. He played God and failed miserably making him the real monster of the two.

The Monster himself shows great depths of feeling and humanity. Instead of laying the land to waste in order to survive, his first thoughts were to learn about the world so he could eek out his own place in it instead of living off others. He showed desire to help and be generous with his time and effort. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the Monster was intrinsically good, or at least better than his own creator. It was his own maker who was determined to make the Monster into something evil. The only evil in him was created out of a desperate loneliness, which really only proves how human he was despite his appearance. The monster really was a Modern Prometheus. He took the blame for the evil of his creator and the lack of humanity in the world at large despite his own innocence.

Frankenstein, on the other hand, was not a good man. It’s not really possible to say outright that he was evil, but he lacked all those things he “gave” to his creation: social responsibility and compassion being the greatest of these. Had he lived up to the responsibilities he incurred with his experiments and shown compassion for the monster, the harm done would have been greatly lessoned. However, he did not and therefore showed himself to be the lesser of the two beings.

Mary Shelley intended this to be a warning about the evils of modernisation and the industrial revolution, but it became so much more. The story is teaming with lessons for humanity, all of which still apply today. There are also the more abstract themes such as conflict between father and son, good verses evil and just what it means to be human. It’s a great story and well deserved of its status as a classic. 4.5 out of 5 for this one. The loss of the half point is debateable since I felt the telling of the story was a bit convoluted, but that’s probably down to the old-fashioned style of writing. More shame on me I suppose.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Joy of Sales, or, The Victim in Victoria Station by Jeanne M. Dams

Audible sales are deadly, especially since they really know that if they give you one book of a series and you like it, you’re going to want to by the others, ergo, more sales for them. On the one hand, this is a good thing, on the other, it can truly be evil.

• You can pick up a lot of books on the cheap (especially their $4.95 sales)
• If you don’t like it, at least it didn’t cost a fortune
• If you do like it, it still didn’t cost a fortune
• The sales are usually limited to a about 100 books or so, so it limits your focus and makes you look at and buy books you might otherwise not have given a second glance
• Said books can widen your horizons by introducing you to new authors and genres
• It helps to keep you from running out of reading material and the resultant state of shock and horror. This is especially important once you’ve gotten used to cleaning with a book. Not having a book to clean to now usually results in little to no cleaning of living area/car/dishes…you get the point.

• You spend more money on books than you wanted to
• You spend more money on books that you needed to
• You spend more money on books than you really should
• You spend more money on books than is good for you
• You spend more money on books period

The entire con section can, however, usually be overruled with the argument “there are many, many worse things to spend your money on”, and besides, needs be you can always just go hungry at the end of the month – if you’re me, this will not hurt you in the slightest.

So, brought to you courtesy of Audible and their sales (again) is The Victim in Victoria Station.

Dorothy Martin is an elderly middle aged woman with a penchant for finding herself in the middle of a lot of trouble, mostly because she can’t leave it alone. On this particular occasion, her husband, a recently retired chief of police, is out of town and she is recovering from a broken leg. While on the train to London, she chats with her fellow passenger for a while before settling down to their own thoughts. She assumes that he has drifted off to sleep, but when she tries to wake him upon arrival, she realizes he’s dead. A doctor happens by and confirms that the man is indeed dead. After noting her name and address, he assures her he will take care of the situation. Dorothy, reassured and relieved, goes off to her appointment. Only later when strange things start to happen does Dorothy realize she has landed herself in the middle of another murder and has made herself a target to boot. With the help of friends, she sets off to get to the bottom of the whole business.

At first I was a little shocked that the reader read with an American accent, but Dorothy is an American, as is the author. Well done to Dams for this because if an American is going to write an English Murder Mystery, it’s a great point of view to write it from. Neither author nor character is pretending to be something they aren’t, so it works well. The narrator was also a good choice, even though her voice is quite a bit younger than the character. Kate Reading, a.k.a. Jennifer Mendenhall and Johanna Ward, is an American who grew up in England and Switzerland, so she’s good with all of the accents. I’ve heard her before under Johanna Ward and like her a lot.

The story itself was a good, comfy English murder which relies more on the characters than action. Dorothy and her friends are likeable, there’s little violence or language and the plot is fast-paced enough to hold the reader’s interest without becoming hectic. All in all, I found it quite a pleasant read, which is what this particular genre is really all about. Since I like me a good, comfy mystery to relax to, I’ll certainly be trying out more of the books in this series.

As a cosy mystery, 4 out of 5.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Passage by Justin Cronin

FBI agent Brad Wolgast took an assignment to gather 12 prisoners from death row and save them from the needle. In return, they sign over their lives to the Federal Government even thought they really don’t know why. With their only alternative being certain death, it’s not hard to convince them that the government is offering them a better option. All go willingly in the end, even Carter, who is not like the others.

Then one day, Wolgast and his partner Doyle are asked to pick up a little girl who was abandoned by her mother at a convent. Suddenly, the whole thing seems a little less morally acceptable to Wolgast. Sending convicted murderers who are destined to die anyway off to be used as lab rats is one thing, using a little girl for the same is another. Wolgast suddenly finds his whole world collapsing around him as he comes closer and closer to an experiment which will change the world. “32 minutes for one world to die and another to be born.” (quote from blurb).

I’d love to go on about this, but don’t want to give anything away for those who still might want to read the book. I bought this on a whim because Audible was selling it for only one credit instead of two for a limited time and I thought why not. 1 Credit for 40 hours of entertainment is not a lot and most of the reviews were good. It was worth it in the end. It’s a highly entertaining, well written book. The prose is good, the characters are good, the story is good and the plot is totally unpredictable, what’s not to like? - I should add that the narrators were all good as well, which is a real bonus when you spend 40 hours listening to a book. - It’s the kind of good book you can’t put down. I finished it in just under 5 days, despite the length. Like I said, the plot was mostly unpredictable which kept me on the edge of my seat. At most points, I could imagine 5 or 6 ways he could have taken it, but Cronin took the novel in directions I never even thought of. It was also easy to care about his characters, even though there are an awful lot of them and it’s not always clear which are going to be the most important. Some seem like they will have a huge effect of the novel, and then pretty much just disappear. Some seem like they are important, but then events change their standing in the book and the fall along the wayside, but those who take their places are just as interesting as the ones who are no longer there.

What I also find interesting is that Cronin leaves quite a bit open to guesswork. In some respects, the reader knows a lot more than the characters, but in others, the reader is clueless. This means that guessing at what’s going on is a bit of a hit and miss and not everything is always clear, even to the reader who is privy to more information than the characters. This is what keeps the story interesting through the parts of the novel where the pace slows up. You never quite know what’s really going on and you desperately want to find out.

The only negatives I have about the book is that it is really long and by the time you finish it, you really are ready for the story to end – and even all good things do come to an end. It only ever drags a bit in one spot, which is part 5 where there’s a lull in actual action, but even that is negligible (see comments above). What I really mean is that you’re just ready for the story to come to some conclusion. This moves us right along to my only other criticism, which is the conclusion. After all the reading and all the worrying for the characters, there really is no conclusive ending. No one expects a Disney ending with all loose ends tied up and a bunch of happy campers running around singing The Circle of Life, but something a little more satisfying would have been in order. As it is, the ending is left wide open, leading me to assume there will be a sequel. I’m perfectly happy for there to be a sequel too, but I would have liked a little bit more of a conclusion of some sort. It feels a bit like having your ice cream fall out of your cone when you’re only half way through, you get a bit of something, but not as much as you would like. At least many of the answers to the many mysteries are more or less provided; otherwise I think Cronin might just have gotten himself lynched at one of his book signings. Reading through all of that and not getting answers? That just wouldn’t be acceptable!

My rating? 40 hours in 5 days? For me to listen that much in so little time means it’s a really good book (either that or someone forced me to listen at gun point…). This one gets a flat out 5 out of 5 from me.

PS, I do wonder if this isn’t a bit of an Anti-Edward book because the “vampires” in this one may glow a bit, but they certainly don’t sparkle!