Thursday, November 25, 2010

Christmas at The Mysterious Bookstore

edited by Otto Penzler
New York, NY : Vanguard Press, 2010.

Otto Penzler, real-life proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York, has a unique way of celebrating Christmas. Every year, he asks a well-known crime author to write a short story that he makes into a booklet to give to his customers with their purchases during the season. This book collects seventeen of these stories, from 1993 to 2009, into book form for the first time. Including authors of a wide scope, from Donald Westlake to Mary Higgins Clark, what these stories have in common are three things: a mystery, The Mysterious Bookshop (at least mentioned if not a part of the story itself), and the holiday season as a setting.

What follows are stories as unique as the individual writers themselves, an excellent sampling of the mystery genre's variety. Though of course each reader will enjoy some stories more than others and these authors, for the most part, are novel writers whose stories often don't read like traditional short stories, there are really no complete misses in the bunch. Before reading this collection, I had heard of some of the authors but read none, so I really have no way of knowing how typical these selections are. Still, I liked some enough - my favorites were "Give Till It Hurts" by Donald Westlake, "The Grift of the Magi" by S.J. Rozan and "The Killer Christian" by Andrew Klavan - to look up the authors' full-length novels.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Great Divorce

by C.S. Lewis
[San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.

In this novella, C.S. Lewis investigates the eternal choice between Heaven and Hell, joy and despair. He structures the story as a dream: the soul of a man takes a journey, stopping at a place where there is a lot of empty space, where houses can be literally dreamed out of the ground and as people get into arguments they move farther and farther away from each other. Souls can choose to stay in this increasing wasteland or travel away from it. As the journey continues, the soul is met by George MacDonald, who becomes his teacher and explains more of what is going on.

I generally love C.S. Lewis. He has an interesting mind, and an interesting way of explaining things. I have loved the Chronicles of Narnia since I was a kid; I loved his more grown-up story Till We Have Faces when I read it for the first time two years ago. Just about any time I have a chance to buy one of his books, I do, so when I came across this in the bargain books several years ago, I snatched it. The Great Divorce, though short and easy to read, was a heady trip. I liked, but did not love it; I'm not sure I understood half of it. I had a similar reaction to this story in its entirety that I did to the end of Perelandra - the points he were making became so philosophical and over my head that I lost track of the argument and what I even thought about it. Still, it passed an afternoon pleasantly.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rereading Harry Potter

So, in case you missed it, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 came out in theaters yesterday. Like the true nerd I am, I went to the midnight showing. It's really quite fun to do that. Even though I'm tired as anything right before it starts, during the movie I'm wide awake and love getting the crowd response of a movie packed tight with huge fans.

I always mean to reread the books, but usually lose steam over book 2 or 3. This time, I figured, why not start with Book 4? I've only read it two or three times, in comparison to the five or more times I've read Book 1 at this point. Plus, it's sort of the "turning point" book where these stop being fun little children's stories and morph into a series with higher stakes and true evil to fight. I started Goblet of Fire on audiobook back on November 8 with the idea that maybe just maybe by the time Deathly Hallows came out, I'd be up to that book.

As these books are pretty much iconic for my generation and those a little younger, I don't really have much new to add. Suffice it to say that I was always in the group that wholeheartedly enjoyed this books. I'm always surprised in revisiting each one with the details that I hadn't remembered, and the wonderful way in which seemingly passing references to characters or events would show up again in future stories. If you enjoy audiobooks, be sure to check out Jim Dale's performance - which I was listening to on my commute to work even while reading the book at home - which is truly superb.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Running the Books

by Avi Steinberg
New York : Nan A. Talese, c2010.

The last thing Avi expected to become was a prison librarian. This former Orthodox Jew without an MLS applied for the job because, well why not? It was full time and came with benefits, which was more than he could say for writing obits. But the job came with much more than the description in the ad could entail.

As a librarian in a public library, I usually skip over books that are about working at a library. It feels too much like bringing work home. This memoir intrigued me, however, reminding me of a class I look en route to my MLS on serving underserved populations. Our class even visited a prison library as a field trip. And, I figured, his job was different enough from mine not to feel like bringing work home.

Well, soon after starting this book I realized how much of an understatement that was. At first I was put off by his casual use of swear words and his attitude towards the religious life he left behind. After he got the job, however, I became fascinated with some of the details of his interactions with inmates, his struggles with "the right thing to do" in various situations, and what his job entailed. It's about as different as a job in the same field can possibly be; we both work with books and try to have materials on the shelves that interest our patrons, but that's about as far as the similarities go. The high stress of his job and the constant battle between serving the inmates and keeping the guards happy gets to him after awhile. The descriptions of prison life and the lifestyle and choice of the men and women who were in that prison are not pretty, and drained me just reading the book. By the time I got to the end, the book started to feel disjointed and hard to follow. I wasn't sure if I ran out of steam or the author did. Still, this is a profession that doesn't get a lot of notice, and I enjoyed this look into an aspect of librarianship that is often fraught with difficulty.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

All Clear

by Connie Willis
New York: Spectra, 2010.

The second half of the story begun in Blackout continues with Polly, Michael, and Eileen still stuck in London in 1940. As the Blitz continues, Polly and Michael start wondering if they've been changing events, something that they were taught historians couldn't do without endangering the space-time continuum. But what else might be keeping them from getting back to their own time?

Every time I sat down with this book I had to make sure that I had a good hour so I could get immersed in it, turning pages to find out more. Though the existence of time travel pegs this book as science fiction, most of the book takes place during the Blitz in 1940-41, highlighting both the events and place of London during the Blitz. As I told my sister, it's not the sort of book you can multitask with because it's not told linearly; events from 1944 and 2060 are interspersed with the main story. Polly constantly reminds Eileen - and the reader - this is time travel, so I suppose it's no surprise the order of events get complicated. Despite some repetition, I really enjoyed spending time with these characters, and would read it again in a heartbeat.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

by Grace Lin
narrated by Janet Song
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2010.

Minli and her parents live in a poor village by Fruitless Mountain. Though her parents, Ma and Ba, work hard, they only make enough to have just enough rice for themselves. Minli's father tells her stories, but her mother doesn't think that the stories do anything but fill Minli's head with fanciful thinking. Then, Minli runs away to see if she can find the Old Man in the Moon - just like her father's stories say she can to change her fortune.

This story felt like one of those dolls that have a smaller one inside, on and on, until the very smallest is revealed at the center. In this tale, story after story after story is revealed in such a way that the reader slowly sees the connections. Despite Ma's feeling, this is truly a celebration of stories and their power. Minli's quest has a mythical feel to it, just like the stories Ba tells his family.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Silver Branch

by Rosemary Sutcliff
New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1993 (orig. copyright 1957).

When Justin, a Surgeon in the Eagles of Rome, is sent to Britain, he doesn't know what to expect. He soon finds a kinsman, Flavius, with whom he becomes fast friends. They uncover a possible plot against the Caesar Carausius, and attempting to warn him changes their lives forever.

This is the second of Rosemary Sutcliff's books that I've read, the second chronologically and third published in the Dolphin Ring series. Justin and Flavius are both related to a character from the previous book, and a key symbol from the first book returns as well. Sutcliff uses descriptive prose to carefully include historical details that add to the realistic feel of the book without ever packing in her research in a heavy-handed manner. The plot is impossible to describe; you get the feeling reading that she won't show you all her cards to the end, and then you'll know what it's all about. I do wish that I could have better understood the characters and their motivations, and I became annoyed with how often various occurrences or items in the story were referred to as "the thing." As in The Eagle of the Ninth, I felt that the dialog was a bit stilted. But when the book was in my hands, I still wanted to see where the story was going and kept reading to find out what would happen to Justin and Flavius.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Solomon's Oak

by Jo-Ann Mapson
New York: Bloomsbury, 2010.

*This book was received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers. As per the rules, I receive a free book in return for a review, and whether it's positive or negative has no affect on my receiving books in the future.*

There was no other tree like it in California, yet estimates suggested the tree was 200 years old. Here, Glory took in dogs from the shelter and trained them for new homes. Here she and her husband, Dan, had taken in foster sons. Here Dan had built a chapel. Now, Dan is gone, and Glory is left alone until the day the pirates had a wedding in her chapel. On that day, the social worker, Caroline, brings her a lonely teenage girl, Juniper. The wedding seems to be going smoothly, until a sword fight brings an ex-cop onto the scene, and Glory asks him to take photographs. All three - Glory, Juniper, and Joseph - have been battling their demons, and slowly begin to form relationships with each other.

I haven't read this sort of fiction in awhile, but it has all the elements I loved in stories as a teenager - especially a foster child and grieving characters. There are no easy answers for any of them, but they each have to deal with tragedy in their own way and decide if and how to move on. As their relationships grow and more of their back stories are revealed, I grew to care very much about what happened to the Glory, Juniper and Joseph. Though it may seem at first glance to be a run-of-the-mill contemporary fiction, questions about loss and closure and what God thinks of human tragedy (if he exists) give you food for thought.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Freak the Mighty

by Rodman Philbrick
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2005 (original copyright 1993).

Max describes himself as just a butthead before Kevin moved down the street. He lives with his grandparents in a room in a basement, or the "Down Under," keeps growing like crazy, and goes to LD classes. Then Kevin moves in. Max remembers him as "Freak" from daycare, a brilliant boy who's crippled by a body which grows on the inside, and not out. When these two boys begin a friendship, they become "Freak the Mighty."

When the audiobook I was listening to stopped working in my car CD player, I needed to find a fast replacement for my daily commute. This book had been on my radar since it was on the school summer reading lists, so I nabbed it at work. Elden Henson narrates; his name might sound familiar either from the Mighty Ducks movies or from the movie based on this book, "The Mighty." Max's voice will always sound like his in my head now. It took a little getting used to, but the narration was pitch-perfect for Max and his point of view. I enjoyed the characters, Max and Kevin (I can't help but think of him as "Freak" because that's how Max refers to him), as the two very different boys grow to be friends and go on "quests." Though the book is nearly 20 years old, it ages well with few references to outdated technology. I have a hard time explaining what the story is about without giving anything away, but it touches on friendship and family, truth and remembrance. It's not a story to give to kids impatient for stories to start off with a bang, but if they don't mind one that unfolds a bit slower, it's hugely rewarding.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Lost Hero

by Rick Riordan
New York: Disney/Hyperion, 2010.

First in the new Camp Half-Blood series, "Heroes of Olympus."

Jason wakes up on a bus with a girl, Piper, and a boy, Leo. They say they're his friends, and have very clear memories of him being with them, but Jason can't remember anything about them, or about himself. While he's trying to make sense of it all, storm spirits disrupt a school trip to the Grand Canyon, and a team led by Annabeth take Jason, Piper, and Leo to Camp Half-Blood. Their quest may just be the key to Jason's lost memories.

Readers of Percy Jackson and the Olympians may be a little disappointed to discover early on that Percy is missing. Give it a chance, though, and you'll find three more compelling demigods to cheer for. Though told in third person, the narrative switches among the points of view of Jason, Piper, and Leo. I rather wish that the chapters had not been named for the character whose point of view we were following at a given moment - unlike first-person narration, it wasn't hard to remember who was interpreting events at any given moment. Plus, the chapter titles were one of my favorite parts of the Percy Jackson series. But though there are a few one liners, this story is a little more serious in tone than the earlier Camp Half-Blood books, which makes sense since the characters we're following are a little older, too. This fast-paced read is one I would recommend without hesitation, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


by Jane Austen
part of an omnibus edition with Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Though the Elliot family has a decent social standing, they are much reduced when Sir Walter, through profligate spending after his wife's death, must let his house and move to smaller accommodations in Bath. Anne Elliot, the middle daughter whose wishes are usually not sought and less regarding by her elder sister and father, stays behind for a time with her good friend and surrogate mother, Lady Russell. Several years ago, Lady Russell had counseled Anne to break an engagement with a young navy officer. Now, it appears that their acquaintance may be renewed when his sister and her husband begin renting the Elliot home, Kellynch Hall.

For some time, at least since I first picked up Pride and Prejudice at age 14, I have been planning on reading all of Jane Austen's novels. Of her completed novels, I only had Persuasion left. I was a little concerned that the very last of Austen's novels would be a bit of a disappointment, especially considering my attachment - by this time a sentimental one borne of many rereadings - to Pride and Prejudice. Anne's story is very hard to compare to Elizabeth's. She is older and less decided, perhaps, in her opinions. If I had to pick two words to describe Anne, it would be "constant," followed closely by "longsuffering" to put up with her sisters and father as she does. While Elizabeth would have made pointed and witty comments regarding the foibles of some of Anne's friends and family, the narrator must make these remarks and leave Anne to being polite even while she internally groans at their behavior. My prior reading had already familiarized me with the primary events of the plot, but as always the wry and witty narrative voice carries the most attraction for me, perhaps even above that of the cast of characters. While I cannot yet say that Persuasion supersedes Pride and Prejudice as my favorite of Jane Austen's novels, I surmise that a few rereadings will bring the two books closer together in my estimation.

Monday, November 1, 2010

History of the English Language

lectures by Professor Seth Lerer
Chantilly, VA : Teaching Co., c1998.

From Indo-European to modern scientific language, this is an overview of the English language, with particular focus on England, the United States, and examples from literature that show not only the language itself, but attitudes about proper usage and grammar.

I cannot pretend to be an expert, but I enjoy popular works on language, and this audio lecture series was no exception. Professor Lerer presents 36 college-level lectures. His delivery is smooth without sounding stilted or droning. Some audience response is also audible, making you feel like you're really sitting in on a lecture. I found the lectures extremely accessible, and found little overlap between the information presented and the Intro to Linguistics class that I took in college several years ago. I especially enjoyed the way in which Prof. Lerer uses literature to back up his points, quoting from such works as The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Moby Dick. In fact, I was a little surprised to find that, yet again, reading leads to more reading and my TBR list has grown as a result.