Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Weekly Geeks #9: Challenges

1. If you participate in any challenges, get organized! Update your lists, post about any you haven’t mentioned, add links of reviews to your lists if you do that, go to the challenge blog if there is one and post there, etc.

2. If you don’t participate in any challenges, then join one! There’s a good selection of possibilities over on my right hand sidebar (scroll down) where I list those I participate in. There’s also A Novel Challenge, a blog that keeps track of all sorts of reading challenges.

3. Towards the end of the week, write a wrap-up post about getting your challenges organized OR if you’re joining your first challenge, post about that any time during the week. Once you have your post up, come back and sign Mr Linky with the link to the specific post, not just to your blog.

This is certainly a timely theme for me. I am new to challenges and I just successfully completed my first one, Carl V’s Once Upon A Time II challenge. I was skeptical at first but wanted to give it a try - see post “What’s the appeal of reading challenges?”. After two months, five books, one play and perusing 476 book reviews of the other participants I concluded that I enjoyed it, would probably try it again with less of a book commitment but for the moment was ready to take a break. See the post about my experience at OUATII Wrap Up. I don’t know how some people do more than one of these at a time!!

P.S. There is a Lost (as in the t.v. show) challenge? I so didn't want to know that! It is very tempting. I can see that these challenge things get to be compulsive.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

May/June Bookmarks

Here are the books that looked interesting from the May/June Bookmarks Magazine.

Maps & Legends - Michael Chabon -NF
Lush Life - Richard Price (also wrote Clockers)
The Invention of Everything Else - Samantha Hunt
The Commoner - John Burnham Schwartz
The Monsters of Templeton - Lauren Groff
Slip of the Knife - Denise Mina
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles - Jennifer 8 Lee -NF
Rock On - Dan Kennedy -NF-S
Bliss - Peter Carey - S
Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey

Friday, June 20, 2008

Once Upon A Time II Wrap Up

Well I completed my first challenge and it was fun but also stressful. I read American Gods which I have owned since it first came out, The Stolen Child which is one of the best books that I have read in the past year, Storm Front which will be a fun new series to explore when I am looking for something light, Harsh Cry of the Heron, book four in the Tales of Otori and Gracious Plenty. I wouldn’t have finished the challenge but for the fact that I read Gracious Plenty for my book club and discovered it was fantasy and so could count. I also read Midsummer Night’s Dream and watched the Hoffman movie which was wonderful.

I had really hoped to read Gormanghast by Mervyn Peake as the first book, Titus Groan, is one of my all time favorite books and I have no doubt that Gormanghast will be as good but it was simply too long. I had also hoped to read Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell which I have had since it came out (I buy books much faster than I can read them), but alas it was also too long. I am currently in the middle of two books that I intended for this challenge, Gods Behaving Badly in audio and Perdido Street Station. I didn’t get very far into Gods but am really enjoying Perdido Street and will post a review when I am done.

All in all I enjoyed the challenge. I enjoyed reading the reviews (465 when I last checked), adding to my wish list and discovering new blogs along the way. The only thing I didn’t like was feeling the pressure to read these five books under the deadline. I felt a little resentful that I needed to move onto the next book that needed to be read instead of going with my whimsey and selecting what I am in the mood for. For me five books, plus my book club obligations, in two months is simply too much of a commitment as it doesn’t leave me any time for outside reading. Will I do a challenge again? I will probably at some point but right now I am looking forward to reading according to my mood. Before I embarked on this endeavor I was reading Borges: the Collected Fictions, just one short story with breakfast in the morning, and I am looking forward to returning to that. I am also craving some science fiction and some classic horror - H.P. Lovecraft perhaps. And after that - who knows, whatever beckons the most beguilingly from my bookshelf.

Midsummer Night’s Dream

by William Shakespeare

As part of Once Upon a Time II Challenge I read the play a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Although I had seen the play several times I don’t think I had ever actually read that play. I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I think plays are meant to be seen and not simply read and they lose so much with just reading. Of course if you are going to really study the dialogue like you would in a class, you need to read it, but for pure enjoyment I need the full play. As I didn’t have a Shakespearean troupe handy to perform it for me I did the next best thing and got the movie by director Michael Hoffman. I think it was remarkably well done, true enough to the original (with some exceptions that I didn’t mind) and had some wonderful acting. Kevin Kline was great as the Ass, Michelle Pfeiffer was perfect as the Fairy Queen, Calista Flockhart was surprisingly good as Helena and Stanley Tucci stole the show as the mischievous Puck. I also thought the sets and special effects set the mood very well. While this was not my favorite performance of the play that I have seen it was certainly enjoyable.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


What's the most popular book in your library? Have you read it? What did you think? How many users have it? What's the most popular book you don't have? How does a book's popularity figure into your decisions about what to read?

Very interesting question. I never really looked at those statistics before. I would have assumed that my response would have been similar to Marie's that if something is really popular I would be less inclined to read it but some of the most popular books are some of my favorites.

The most popular book in my library is the DaVinci Code which I read (I don't put books in my library thing unless I have read them). It is total trash, poorly written but entertaining escapism and I did enjoy it. 23316 readers have it and the only more popular books are the Harry Potters which are the most popular books that I do not have and have not read.

I was surprised to see that two of my favorite books are in the most popular category - 100 Years of Solitude and Enders Game. I also really enjoyed and Memoirs of a Geisha, Life of Pi and Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time. I guess that a books popularity does not make me more inclined to read it but it obviously does not deter me from reading something either. It would have been interesting to see the ranking of 100 Years of Solitude before it became an Oprah book. I know that if I am hearing a lot about a particular book I may look it up and see whether I am interested or not.

Interesting question! Thanks Marie.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Gracious Plenty

by Sheri Reynolds

This is a spare little novel about a woman who is disfigured by burns as a child and grows up isolated from the community. Finch Nobles continues her family business, a cemetery, and spends all her time taking care of the cemetery and talking with the dead. I really enjoyed the idea that the dead don’t go straight to heaven (or elsewhere) but spend time on earth assisting the elements with tasks such as greening the ivy, plumping the tomatoes, bringing rain showers and helping the sun rise. While performing these tasks the dead gradually tell their stories, work out issues and eventually lighten and fade away to who knows where. Finch can hear and see this world of the dead and tries to help one of the dead with her relationship with her mother which results in Finch getting into all sorts of trouble with the world of the living. By the end of the book Finch’s involvement with the dead results in her becoming once again involved in the world of the living.

This was a very quick read and I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. The males that I know that have read it said it was women-y and Oprah-y, whatever that means. I found it very preachy at times and heavy handed with its message. I enjoyed learning about the world of the dead and didn’t really mind the cute love interest story line but the ending just seemed ridiculous. Not one of my favorite reads of this year.

Monday, June 16, 2008


I was just reading Henry Carrigan’s report on this years Book Expo America at BiblioBuffet.com in which he claims that the Amazon Kindle is a sure sign that the book industry is in trouble.

Perhaps the clearest sign that there’s trouble in River City is a booth for Amazon’s Kindle—which is not a book, of course, but an electronic device for transforming digital equations into pixels that resemble the page of a book—nestled alongside the publishers’ booths at BEA. I’m no Luddite trading in apocalyptic proclamations, but it’s a bit ironic (not lost to those canny enough to look at their surroundings this year in LA) for the product that’s touted to replace the book to be nudging up against those books. It’s a little like placing a booth for a slaughterhouse next to the horse stables at the fair.

The ebook is touted to replace the book? It certainly depends on what you mean by “book”. If book only encompasses books made out of paper perhaps that is correct but isn’t it really just the medium that is changing? And is this really damaging to authors or just those that deal in the supply and demand of paper books. Ebooks are a new technology. Just like the monks in the scriptorium copying books by hand, perhaps paper books will be replaced by a digital format, but I don’t think that means the end of books. I am not an author but it appears that some authors and publishers are embracing the new technology. For example, Tor (the well known scifi publisher) releases most of its books in ebook form and at the moment is giving away some of their books in ebook format to promote their new web site. As a reader I am much more likely to try a copy of a free ebook that I can quickly and easily download, perhaps blog about it and recommend it to others in the blogosphere and you have all this free publicity. Of course this works with paper copies too but I just don’t see the ebook format hurting authors or publishers if they choose to use it. And lets not forget that all those Kindle new releases are sold, not given away free.

I personally love my ebook (not a Kindle). My husband was very excited about getting me one because he had hoped that it would do away with all the books taking up too much room in the house. We were both unsure how we would like it but both enjoy it’s ability to hold many books, it’s instant gratification allowing you to download a book at any time and it’s reading comfort being lighter than most books and giving you the ability to change the font size. Years ago I kept every single book that I read. After a major move I got rid of half of my books and have gradually pared my book collection down to two book cases of mostly to be read books. I do have a couple shelves of my absolute favorite books that I keep but in general I do not keep books anymore once I have read them. It’s not the physical book that is the essence of the book but the story and enjoyment and or enlightenment that I received by reading the book that matter. Whether I read it as an ebook or a paper book I get the same enjoyment from the book. I don’t think the ebook will mean the death of books, indeed I am hopeful that it will mean that people read more.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Book Clubs

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (or, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?

Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

Great question. While I didn’t have the chance to read all the posted responses to this (77 when I checked) a random sampling really surprised me with how few belong to face to face book clubs and how many said that they don’t like the constraints of having to read a particular book for a club.

I started a book group in 2001 and it is still going strong with about 15 members at the moment. We take turns meeting at each other’s houses. The host provides a main course and four other members are given food assignments (appetizer, dessert etc.). We always stress that this is book club not food club so the food is low key and may be something ready made from the super market but as we meet on a week night and all come directly from work it assures that we have something to eat that night without cutting the meeting short. People also usually bring wine or beer. We take turns selecting the books. The person selecting the book presents three titles to choose from, explains why they were selected and explains their preference and then we vote on the three. The person that selected the book leads the discussion of that work.

I also briefly joined a book group that was to read the “great works”. I was excited to read Dante and Shakespeare with other people but all the books were selected by the leader and he had other things in mind. The leader believed that only very short works would be actually read by the members and he really loved the Greeks so he ended up selecting short political discourses that I was not interested in. In this group the leader led the discussion.

I particularly like my book club because it exposes me to books that I would never have read but for the group. We have read some truly amazing books that were not on my radar such as Troll, the Book of Salt, Perfume, and Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight. Moreover, often after hearing the book discussion and other people’s opinions I have a much greater appreciation of the book then before the discussion. Reading them for book club does effect the reading experience somewhat. While reading a book club book I make a point of marking particular passages that might be interesting for discussion. If it is the book that I have selected and I am leading the discussion I make a point of reading reviews, online discussions and author interviews before hand.

I was really surprised that so many people responded to this question that they didn’t like the constraints of reading a particular book for a meeting but that they were people that participated in challenges, often more than one. I am trying out my first challenge and that is exactly what I am feeling about it. I feel under pressure to read these five books under the deadline and am reading books that I would not have normally read, at least at this point in time. I am feeling a little resentful that I need to move onto the next book that needs to be read in stead of going with my whimsey and selecting what I am in the mood for. Others have said that they were not interested in joining our book club because they didn’t like the constraint and I never really understood that but I now have a better appreciation of their concern. I personally have never felt that about book club simply because it is just one book (usually less then 500 pages) every 4-6 weeks which still gives me time to read other books that I select. The five book commitment of the challenge however has left no room for outside reading.

I really enjoy my face to face book club and I hope that others give it a try.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Harsh Cry of the Heron

by Liam Hearn

This is the fourth book in the Tales of the Otori and while I greatly enjoyed the previous books in the series I really think that it should have ended with the trilogy (Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for his Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon). The Tales of Otori are set in an imaginary feudal Japan with some very interesting twists. A secret sect called the Hidden that are ruthlessly persecuted, the Tribe which has inherited supernatural powers and act as spies and assassins, the kingdom of the Maruyama traditionally ruled by women, the monks of Teruyama and are dedicated to peace to name just a few. The three books in the trilogy tell the tale of Takeo and Kaede who have overcome great odds and brought peace and prosperity to the Three Countries. The Harsh Cry of the Hearn is about the wonderful world that they have built falling apart as the traditional feudal elements seek to regain control.

While part of my dislike may be due to the fact that I would have liked the story to end on a positive note, I still think that a book about the unraveling could have been well done. Indeed, there are aspects of Harsh Cry that I really enjoyed. For the first time in the series the Three Countries are placed in a larger context. Foreigners (clearly Portuguese missionaries and merchants) are introduced for the first time and with them the opportunity to discuss the similarities and differences between Christianity and the Hidden. Moreover, the emperor of the Eight Islands is introduced for the first time and his interaction with the Three Countries is crucial to the tale. The supernatural elements are also interesting. The twins play a vital role and their involvement with the Dead and the Ghostmaster was fascinating.

What I most disliked about the book was that one of the main characters fundamentally changed in this book and took actions that did not feel true to me. I can appreciate that characters develop over time, just like people, and that someone that was good can turn evil or that appeared good also has an evil side but in this instance it was not skillfully done and I just couldn’t believe it. One minute the character is who I have known for three books and the next the character is someone I don’t recognize.

I highly recommend that anyone read the first three books in the series (the first is certainly the best). I probably would have read this book anyway just because I like to complete things but on the other hand the last book in the trilogy didn’t leave you looking for a sequel and that was a far better ending for the series. Indeed, it was originally intended to be a trilogy i.e. three books. I also note that there is now a Prequel: Heaven’s Net is Wide which I will probably read as it has gotten good reviews.


So I was writing an email to a friend recommending that he read Titus Groan and Gormanghast by Mervyn Peake and googling for a review or two to include when I came upon this post by writer David Louis Edelman. I immediately liked this Edelman guy because he describes Titus Groan in terms of Kafka - I loved it! As surfing will often do his review led me to some interesting websites and added to the list of books that I would like to read.

Infoquake by David Louis Edelman mentioned above.

I found a fascinating Essential Fantasy Reading List by author Jeff VanderMeer. I loved the list because it included books and authors that I really love that I had never thought of as fantasy such as Kafka, Saramago, Peake, Borges, Calvino, Marquez which of course leads me to believe that I will like the others on his list as well.

The list also made me curious to read VanderMeer's books - City of Saints and Madmen sounds like the place to start.

Six months ago if anyone would have asked me I would have said I absolutely do not read fantasy but I guess what I was thinking of was what I have seen described as fluffy unicorn fantasy with dragons or knights or dwarves. But if what you mean by fantasy is that it is not reality, well then that is about all that I read. Steinbeck is very talented but I far prefer books that are not too grounded in reality. I live in reality and when I read I want something different. Plus I find that by not being tied to reality the author can often more easily and effectively illuminate an aspect of reality. If Kafka, Murakami, Saramago and Peake are fantasy then I am a devoted fantasy reader - I just didn't know it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Storm Front

by Jim Butcher

I read this book for Once Upon A Time II Challenge. I don’t remember if I read another participant’s review of another book by this author or whether I just stumbled across it at Amazon.com but the Dresden File series sounded interesting and a quick read. A couple weeks ago I saw an entire window display of Jim Butcher’s newest book Small Favor (Book 10 of the Dresden Files) in an airport book store, so apparently he is popular. Storm Front is the first book in the series and is about Harry Dresden a professional wizard in Chicago. He is down on his luck and in trouble with the White Council when he is called in by the police to assist with a double murder investigation that involves black magic. Dresden deals with fairies, demons, vampires, and black wizards with aplomb and even manages to go on a date. In the course of the book things go from bad to worse but (as this is the first in a series as we might suspect) our hero eventually prevails.

It was a fun light read that I read in one sitting while flying cross country. It was certainly entertaining, I enjoyed the characters, the humor and the plot twists. I found Dresden an interesting character and it made me want to read more books to find out more about his story. (Exactly what did he do to get sentenced to the Doom of Damocles and what is that? It doesn’t sound good.) As I find with all these type of mystery serials I found it very formulaic and I certainly won’t be recommending it to my book club but when I am looking for something fun and light I will definitely read more in the series.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Book Review:The Stolen Child

by Keith Donohue

I loved this debut novel about two changeling boys. The title is taken from the Yeats poem which I had never read before but which adds an interesting dimension to the book. The chapters alternate between the story of the changeling that kidnaps Henry Day and takes his place in the human world and Henry Day who becomes one of the hobgoblins (now called Aniday) that live in the woods. I especially liked how the chapters alternated between the two boys’ stories. For example you get Henry Day’s perspective on being kidnaped and then the hobgoblin’s perspective of changing into Henry Day and fitting into his human family. It would have been easy to dislike the changeling who took Henry away from his family but the author did a marvelous job of developing his story as well and indeed by the end, I found him an equally sympathetic character. While I enjoyed learning about the life of the hobgoblins in the woods I thought the author did a wonderful job in showing how similar the two boys were. Both boys were struggling with their past, who they had been and who they were now.

I also enjoyed the author’s writing style. Aniday speaking of his assimilation into the hobgoblin family:

“They showed me the hidden things silence revealed: a pheasant craning its neck to spy on us from a thicket, a crow hopping from branch to branch, a raccoon snoring in its den. Before the daylight completely faded, we tramped through the wet grounds to the mucky bank of the river. Along the water’s edge ice crystals grew, and listening closely, we heard the crack of freezing. A single duck paddled further down the river, and each snowflake hissed as it hit the water’s surface. The sunlight faded like a whisper and vanished.” p 32 Trade Paper edition.

And I was happily surprised by the many scenes with Aniday and Speck sneaking into a secret basement chamber of the library to spend hours reading. Although many of the hobgoblins had forgotten their ability to read and write Aniday not only held onto and reveled in these human traits but also attempted to keep a diary of his own history. I found this an interesting aspect of the story.

All in all it was one of the best books I have read in a while and I would heartily recommend it to anyone. Indeed, I am thinking of suggesting it for my book club to read.

Poem: The Stolen Child

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we've hid our faery vats,
Full of berrys
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim gray sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scare could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than you can understand.

Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping
than he can understand.

--W. B. Yeats