Thursday, May 31, 2012

Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse, narrated by Martin Jarvis


* * *

The book's description from the website dedicated to P. G. Wodehouse:

A Jeeves and Wooster collection These marvellous stories introduce us to Jeeves, whose first ever duty is to cure Bertie's raging hangover ('If you would drink this, sir... it is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.')

And from that moment, one of the funniest, sharpest and most touching partnerships in English literature never looks back...

The key word here is 'stories'. How on earth did I not see that when I purchased the book?! I don't like short stories, I don't get most of them and generally short stories and I don't get along very well. Inevitably, this selection didn't fare all that much better in my view. I can see that there is much writing talent that Mr. Wodehouse possessed and if it were one, full-length novel, I believe I could appreciate it a lot more than I did.

I did like Jeeves. I suspect, you simply cannot not like him. He says precious few words throughout each story, and yet these few words always present such comical contrast between Jeeves and Wooster, Without uttering a single insult, Jeeves manages to clearly show who the slightly idiotic character is. Again, I wish at least one of these stories could have been longer. I have no doubt I would have laughed my a** off.

The stories did, however, elicit a few smiles from me Bertie Wooster is definitely a very funny, if a little simple-minded, man. If you like short stories and comedy of manners, I'd say you should give it a go. Carry On, Jeeves will make for a summer afternoon or two of easy, pleasurable read.


The version of Carry On Jeeves I listened to is narrated by Martin Jarvis, and this guy just stole my heart. He's splendid. He switches between the voices without a flaw, not a line seems monotonous, and I believe he gives Jeeves and Wooster an extra special something. It is Jarvis's narration that I give credit for keeping my resolve to finish the stories going. Jim Dale is no longer the sole holder of my very 'bestest' narrator, that honor now will have to be shared with Martin Jarvis.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Midwives by Chris Bohjalian


* * * 1/2

The book's description from the author's website:

On an icy winter night in an isolated house in rural Vermont, a seasoned midwife named Sibyl Danforth takes desperate measures to save a baby's life. She performs an emergency cesarean section on a mother she believes has died of a stroke. But what if Sibyl's patient wasn't dead—and Sybil inadvertently killed her? 

As Sibyl faces the antagonism of the law, the hostility of traditional doctors, and the accusations of her own conscience, Midwives engages, moves, and transfixes us as only the very best novels ever do.

The only other book that I read by Bohjalian was The Double Bind, and I really, really liked it. I fell under the spell of Bohjalian's writing and the ending stunned me. It was, therefore, an easy choice for me to go for Midwives, whose ratings are much higher, as the next book of his among many to pick from. I must say though, that Midwives just didn't do for me what The Double Bind did. The writing was probably just as good but I was disappointed with the ending. I was expecting the stunner and I didn't get it. There is a bit too much foreshadowing that helped me make up my mind as to how the novel was going to end, and I was right. Nevertheless, it is still quite a good story, and it definitely didn't turn me off from reading more of Mr. Bohjalian's books. His peculiar style of writing which at once makes the story very quick and easy to follow, and gives it a dreamlike quality, appeals to me.

Besides the writing itself, I enjoyed and appreciated the topic of midwifery and home birth. Despite the story being set in the eighties, it's pretty much just as current today, two decades later. I like controversial subjects, there's much to ponder on and to have thoughtful for/against arguments. A novel such as Midwives simply makes you think a little more. I have delivered three babies, all three of them in the hospital under the care of either a doctor or a certified nurse midwife. Personally, while feeling a lot more confident about the safety of my children and of my own in the hospital environment, I absolutely loved the midwife I had for my second baby. They are just so much more caring and understanding than the doctors, who on the other hand feel a tad too cocky and have an attitude of I've-seen-it-all and you're-not-special-in-your-labor-experience. Midwives goes a little bit deeper than that. It's not only about birth at home with a not certified midwife, but most importantly about a mother's choice and parents responsibility for the consequences if something goes wrong. Sybil alone was on trial but I think that the father should have been right next to her for negligence to take all factors into account, or not sue Sybil at all. In that, Midwives is a very interesting read. as the implications are layered, especially because there was a life of an infant at stake as well. I think that's a choice no one wants to face: who do you save, the mother or the baby?

Midwives is not a novel to send a reader through a storm of emotions. You don't have to be mentally braced to take whichever shocking or awful thing is coming, as in the case of some of the books of Picoult, for example (My Sister's Keeper was just awful in this way, I never want to weep like this throughout the entire book, ever again). Chris Bohjalian, instead, surprises you with subtle moments that stir your emotions, weaved in-between the pages of the book. I like that. If you're not ready to wake up in the morning with puffy eyes and a pounding headache from crying way too much, but with a head full of valid questions to think about instead, I think you'll like Midwives too.


FTC: I bought Midwives by Chris Bohjalian.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


* * * * 
The book's description from the publisher's website:

It’s the year 2044, and the real world is an ugly place.

Like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be, a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets.

And like most of humanity, Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.  

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.
Suddenly the whole world is watching, and thousands of competitors join the hunt—among them certain powerful players who are willing to commit very real murder to beat Wade to this prize. Now the only way for Wade to survive and preserve everything he knows is to win. But to do so, he may have to leave behind his oh-so-perfect virtual existence and face up to life—and love—in the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

A world at stake.
A quest for the ultimate prize.
Are you ready?
Are you ready, indeed?! Because it's going to be the most fun roller-coaster ride you'll have in a while. In some cases, when deciding whether to read a book or not, I let the ratings guide me even though the parts in a synopsis may disturb me. Ready Player One has gotten fantastic ratings and I just had to see for myself, despite my general indifference (in the least)/ dislike (at the most) of pop culture and the 80s. Clearly, I did like it a lot. To put it simply (and hopefully, in the spirit of the 80s pop culture), Ready Player One is awesome.

This book is straight out science fiction. Even though this particular genre used to be my favorite one in my high school years, I have since turned my attention to other books and after having read Ready Player One, I honestly cannot tell you why I abandoned science-fiction. Ernest Cline did gives us a book that is entertaining, engages your imagination but that also forces you to face the reality that one day might very well be. Unlike fantasy which deals with purely imaginary worlds and/or creatures, Ready Player One takes us to a very bleak future, where people have given up and instead of trying to do something, anything to preserve the quickly vanishing good parts of the real world they lived in, they decided to turn to virtual reality, to living in made up worlds, where they can be anything they want to be. Anything but themselves. I must say, I did find it really depressing at times. And, when you really think about it, really scary. Because unlike other dystopian novels, where catastrophes happen to humans, who don't give up and don't go out without fighting, Ready Player One has humanity receding from the world and hiding their heads in the sand. To me, there's nothing more depressing than my own species willing to just give it all up. For the sake of ultimate escapism; escaping from bad reality around them, but really escaping from themselves. 
Anyway, a little bit of a rant there, but that's the beauty of Cline's writing. On the surface it's an entertaining, fast-paced, science-fiction bit, with the nostalgia for the 80s permeating the pages. But if you know how to read between the pages and to dig a little deeper, there's existentialism of the first order there, the one that's probably plaguing most of the humanity right now. Of course, there's never one, good answer. But Ready Player One raises some pretty darn good questions. And honestly, even if you take this novel at face value, you'll get a chock full of action, feeling at times you are in an arcade game yourself.

There is one gripe I had with this book and it's probably not something that will affect readers in America. To me, Ready Player One seems to be America-centered novel, mostly because it couldn't take place around the world because the 80s pop culture the whole plot is involved in, is the pop culture of the U.S., which means that players from other countries (besides Japan, since the pieces of their pop culture were mentioned as well) wouldn't have much knowledge to go on. But that's possible I guess, since they could learn about it. However, the audience this book is intended for has to be American. Why do I say that? Because (myself coming from Poland and living through the 80s there), other countries had their own 80s to live through that had nothing to do with the pop culture used in Ready Player One. I lived through the 80s, one of the most tumultuous decades in the history of my country, Poland on the brink of the civil war, the 'march' to long-dreamed-of and hard-fought-for democracy, people dying fighting rather than living a day longer under a communist regime. Trust me, we had no idea what even a sitcom was. And that's just one country out of many. so unless you know the 80s in the U.S. either because you lived it, have family members who did, or have lived here for some substantial amount of time, it'll be difficult to fully appreciate this aspect of Ready Player One (not that it's not it won't be a hit, I can't know that and it's already been translated into many languages). But anyone can appreciate the message in the end. At least I hope so. Especially our young ones. That it's not all about picking which boy to choose, or how to vie for a girl's attention, and especially not about having the latest iPhone.
Trust me on this, though. You will not waste your time or money if you choose to read Cline's Ready Player One, no matter what age you are. It's that much fun.


FTC: I received Ready Player One by Ernest Cline for review from the publicist, Wunderkind PR.

The paperback copy of Ready Player One will be released on June 5th, 2012.
Make sure to visit Ernest Cline's website & Ready Player One's website.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel


* * * * *

The book's description from the publisher's website:

The sequel to Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn
Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.
At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne's head?
What a pleasure this book was for me! I really enjoyed Wolf Hall, the first book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, but because of the style it was written (present tense, third person), it took some getting used to. Bring Up the Bodies, on the other hand, read a lot more smoothly and Ms. Mantel managed to finally engage my emotional side in this novel. I was honestly surprised how quickly I read it and how deeply I sympathized with Cromwell. Although, not so much with Anne Boleyn. But I did have strong feelings towards her and her behavior nonetheless, which is also a testimony to how much improved Bring Up the Bodies is over Wolf Hall.

Another aspect that I liked is that Mantel doesn't seem to subscribe to any one particular school of thought on Henry VIII or the Boleyns, especially Anne. I felt that the characters were presented to me with as much accuracy as possible and I had the freedom to make out of them what I willed. For example, even though there's mention of witchcraft, no credence is given to it. I still dislike Anne (probably always will) but it is after reading Bring Up the Bodies that I felt compelled to truly reexamine the person behind the name of Thomas Cromwell.

Aaaah, Thomas Cromwell. If you think you know all there is to know about him, I encourage you to read Bring Up the Bodies. I realize that facts speak for themselves but Ms. Mantel managed to open my eyes to possibilities. Before I started reading the Wolf Hall trilogy, I had regarded Cromwell as one of the villains of history. When reading Wolf Hall I began thinking that maybe he wasn't all that bad. Bring Up the Bodies has me question why I disliked Cromwell so strongly to begin with. What can I tell you...Hilary Mantel is a persuasive writer in the study of character. He was a 'nobody' in the eyes of his contemporaries. He had nothing working for him, no dues owed him, no loyalties to fall back on. He truly was a man alone. And he knew it. And as much as he conspired against and/or lied to others, he never hid the truth from himself. You will get no excuses, denials or justifications for Cromwell's deeds. But neither will you get an apology. And maybe that is the singular decision of Mantel's that speaks of her skills most strongly, to offer us no apologies for Cromwell (because maybe she liked him and wanted us to like him too) or condemnation of him and his deeds (because maybe she despised him and wanted us to despise him as well).

The quote below represents to me the true depth of Cromwell's inner pain over losing what he loved and somehow shows the man he was (not to mention, it's also one of the most beautiful to me):

"He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone." *

People do not know what the future holds. When the judges awarded Mantel the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, they couldn't have known that what followed would be a lot more deserving of that honor Wolf Hall is a brilliant novel but Bring Up the Bodies has that intangible 'something' that allowed me to make the emotional connection I wasn't able to make reading its predecessor. My only suggestion is to read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in succession, without a long lapse of time. I read Bring Up the Bodies right after I finished Wolf Hall, and because I was already acquainted with the somewhat unusual narration, I could just relax and let the story take me where it wanted.


FTC: I've received a galley of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co.

*The quote is from an uncorrected proof, please check against a final copy for any inaccuracies.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Soulless by Gail Carriger, narrated by Emily Gray


* * *

The book's description from the publisher's website:

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire -- and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.
This book was fun. Pure entertainment to while away boring and/or dull hours we all have here and there.

I'll admit I have some mixed reactions to it and I was having a hard time deciding how to rate this novel. Some things just don't make sense. For example, Alexia's soullessness. It does give her that one supernatural (or rather, preternatural) power of taking away other supernaturals' powers by a single touch (sadly, no shape shifting or immortality involved) which is an interesting introduction to the paranormal genre. However, character-wise, Alexia couldn't be farther away from my idea of a soulless person (a psychopath comes to mind). I understand that to match the light and amusing tone of Soulless, Ms. Carriger couldn't make Alexia a completely evil woman, with no moral compass. But not a single, teeny tiny sinister trait? That's a little bit of a letdown. Sure, Ms. Tarabotti is stubborn, with an independent and untamed spirit, and with an alpha (of course, duh!!!) personality, but it is kind of mundane, if you ask me. For that alone, I wanted to give Soulless two stars.

On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the light tone of the whole story. I liked the humor, I liked Alexia's and Lord Maccon's 'dance' around admitting their feelings and desire for each other (don't worry, I'm not really spoiling anything, as it's obvious from the beginning where their relationship is going). I also had fun with other characters, especially with Ms. Tarabotti's mother and half-sisters. You put them all in one room and you truly have a comedy of manners. Consequently, I did chuckle a few times and smiled almost all the time, while listening to Soulless. And the writing itself wasn't half bad either. It had a kind of a spring-in-its-step quality. For these reasons, I was ready to bump the rating up to four.

In the end, after hoping that Alexia would suddenly do something deliciously evil and not getting it, I got stuck in the middle. I did like it enough to not consider it a waste of time but not enough, I'm afraid, to read the rest of Parasol Protectorate books (well, maybe if I find them during one of my frequent library sales excursions).


The label attached to this book the most is 'steampunk'. Personally, I didn't notice many steampunk elements in Soulless. There was maybe one appearance of a dirigible delivering the queen of vampires' drone to Alexia. Not much that I can think of besides. Maybe because it's set in an alternate Victorian England? Definitely more fantasy than science-fiction, with werewolves and vampires taking the center stage.


I chose the audible version of Soulless and I'm glad of it. The narrator, Emily Gray, does a fantastic job conveying the sarcastic spark in Alexia and an overall humor of the story. She switches between characters and accents seamlessly. I never was confused as to which character was talking. Above all, Ms. Gray has a pleasant voice, breathes life into the novel and makes the listening experience worthwhile.

FTC: I bought a copy of Soulless by Gail Carriger.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


* * * *
The book's description from the publisher's website:

In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power 

England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
I'm starting this review off with my interpretation of the title. I've seen it mentioned that the title had nothing to do with the content of the novel or that it's only connected in relation to the residence of the Seymour's household by the name of Wolf Hall. It may be that I am over-analyzing, but I think that the title has a significant meaning. Cromwell has his sights set on Jane Seymour, the lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn. Even though she is a young girl, I believe that Jane mights have been the proverbial wolf in sheep's clothing (she is even referred to as a sheep by Mary Boleyn in a conversation with Cromwell). The way I see it, Thomas Cromwell being the forever scheming, forever thinking ahead man, somehow suspected that Anne Boleyn might not have been the last serious target of Henry VIII's attentions. I don't think it was ever Cromwell's intent to marry Jane himself. He loved his deceased wife too much, thinking of her almost constantly throughout the whole novel. Think what you may, but why else would Hilary Mantel, who is obviously an intelligent writer, who knows what she's doing, titled her major piece of work in such a seemingly careless way?

On to my personal impression of Wolf Hall. This is not a 'fast and furious' type of read, so if you're looking for a lot of nail baiting action and quick pace, Wolf Hall will not meet your expectations. Ms. Mantel wrote a 'slow and steady wins the race' kind of book. And to me, it was a rewarding read. Especially in a sense that, for once, I got to use my mental capacities while reading, give my full attention to the book and oil those rusty brain cells of mine. I'm glad to know that books requiring readers to think a little deeper, and making us want to analyze and interpret what's written, are still being not only written, but internationally recognized.

Hilary Mantel has a rare style of narration. Third person, present tense is not commonly employed by authors, mostly, I imagine, due to its trickiness. It is very easy to make a story unbearable with this kind of narration. The first couple of pages of Wolf Hall may be teetering on the verge of confusion. The author's usage of third person pronouns, especially 'he', is one thing that readers complain about most often. I'm not sure that there is, first: an easy way around it, narration being in present tense, third person; second: all that much confusion there. I honestly wasn't confused and if you notice, all the other times when the narrator refers to characters other than Cromwell, 'he' is followed by the last name of the person mentioned. Does it require more effort on the reader's part? Yes, it does. But this narration gives us a better insight into who Thomas Cromwell was, what he felt, what really motivated him and a reason why Cromwell really was only a man, a human being, although a  very unique, very smart, very observant and perceptive human being. Also, as I mentioned above, Wolf Hall is on the whole such a novel that will spur your brain cells into action. I'm happy about it and recognize the value of this book because I'm of the belief that literature is not to be written or read for entertainment only. If you prefer books that are entertaining only (not that there is anything wrong with it, we all have our tastes and opinions), you will not enjoy this novel.

The only complaint of mine and the reason for four stars, instead of five, is that I was emotionally distanced. Not completely detached, mind you. In a way, I felt for Cromwell, for his losses in personal life (his wife and his two daughters) and especially for his strong love for Liz, his late wife and his eldest daughter, Anna. In the end however, I noticed the lack of strong bond between me and the characters. And, if there is one thing that will always decide between my extreme like and utmost love for a novel, it's how emotionally vested I am in it.

Wolf Hall is book one in the Wolf Hall trilogy.

Book two, Bring Up the Bodies (which deals with the fall of Anne Boleyn), is coming out from Henry Holt & Co. tomorrow, May 8, 2012.


FTC: I bought my copy of Wolf Hall.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Falls the Shadow by Sharon Kay Penman


* * * * *

The book's description from the author's website:

A sweeping novel of thirteenth-century England, Falls the Shadow is the story of a weak and willful king and a brilliant but uncompromising baron: once they had been friends, yoked by ties of marriage and by mutual if irksome need; ultimately they became implacable enemies enmeshed in a brutal war from which only one would emerge alive.  
Falls the Shadow is the story of Henry III, cursed with the Plantagenet temper but lacking the Plantagenet will: faithful son of the Church, faithless liege lord; father of England's most famous warrior-king, wretched ruler of a rebellious realm. But for an accident of birth, he might have been a visionary architect, content in the role of paterfamilias. Instead, he inherited a crown -- and with it, all the problems left unresolved by the untimely death of his father, King John. Unable either to rule or to subdue, he would retreat into querulous impotence. And Falls the Shadow, finally, is the story of Simon de Montfort, youngest son of an influential French family, entitled to inherit neither land nor titles -- who talked his way into an earldom and marriage with the King's sister. Theirs would be a singular union: founded on a lie, defended by intense carnality, yet preserved by a fidelity unimaginable in an age of shifting allegiances based on self-interest alone.
Uncommonly able and dangerously outspoken, a fierce battle commander and a ruthless ally willing to risk all in defense of honor, Simon de Montfort embodied the chivalric code, stirring passions -- for good and for ill -- in all he brushed. It was inevitable that he would clash with Henry

 Oh what a book! And what a writer! I can count on the fingers of my one hand the contemporary authors of historical fiction whose skills parallel those of Sharon Kay Penman (and no, Philippa Gregory is not on that list). You read Penman's books and you can hope that maybe not all is yet lost in this 'limping' literary world of ours. We're lucky to have Sharon (and very few others) still write for us.

I'm sure you've heard it said (written) about good or great historical fiction authors (including Penman, no doubt) that they bring history to your doorstep. Well, let me tell you what Sharon does: she takes you and brings you to history's doorstep. What I mean by that is when you read Falls the Shadow, you read history in its purest, most entrancing form. The author doesn't modernize it, make it fluffy and simplistic enough to be easily processed and assimilated by our contemporary minds. As soon as you open this book (just as any other by SKP) and start reading, you will be whisked away, dropped off at 'the doorsteps' and will be given an enormous opportunity to walk through the history's wide open door.

And it's not only thanks to the author's impeccable research but also because of her great writing. Penman's gift to make all the characters be alive again just for us, readers is truly something to be treasured. And no, she doesn't make those people, who once lived and made history, just like us. No, she writes them just as they may have been during the reign of Henry III. They're their own persons and when you read about Simon de Montfort, about Nell, Countess of Pembroke, about King Henry III, his wife and about every other character thrown into this creature called History, you'll know there's no need to have them emulate our feeling, behaviors and personalities. I rather had a desire to be like them instead.

I've seen it written that Falls the Shadow wasn't up to a readers standards because they disliked Simon or Nell, or any other character because of the things they did. The problem with this is that Falls the Shadow might be fiction but the people in it, just like things they'd done were very much real. Ms. Penman couldn't have very well made Simon different from what he was. This book wouldn't then be claimed to be very well grounded in fact, would it?

Two more words of advice. Falls The Shadow is part two of The Welsh Trilogy (Here Be Dragons coming before and The Reckoning after). It's better to read them in order. Besides, Here be Dragons, which I reviewed previously, is just as fantastic. Another caution, make sure you have a box of tissues handy for the last 100 pages, because you will cry. I thought my heart was being ripped open, I swear.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hogarth - the publishing imprint from Random House to be excited about

Not that long ago, approximately three months, I swore off any and all debut authors. I did that because I had been disappointed by debut performances so many, many times in the past years that I finally decided to put a stop to the waste of time. I own more than enough books that actually deserve my time and effort, and my life expectancy doesn't get any longer, despite my best efforts at denial.

But then, along came Hogarth. And my oath to not read another debut book in my life flew out the window on the wings of a butterfly. Or should I say, the wings of an eagle, since the window was shut tight against influences and a butterfly would surely become a smudge. An eagle however, just flew through with a crash and a lot of broken pieces of silly resolution scattered at my feet. What?! That was a digression, if ever I saw one.

Leaving the unnecessary previous paragraph behind, it seems my mental complaints have been addressed and my dreams may just come true, because what Hogarth is offering the reading crowds, is also what the intelligent, reading crowds are looking for.

"Contemporary, voice-driven, character-rich books that entertain, inform and move readers."

This is a necessary detox for brains which inadvertently got addled by the pop-drivel that the said brains' owners decided, for some ungodly reason, to read.

Anyway, enough with the over-the-top, self-indulgent 'witticisms'. All I'm trying to say, I'm happy Random House decided to create Hogarth, which I think will indeed fill in the gap in today's world of books.

What you read above, is what I already love about this imprint and what makes me truly hope that there is still future for intelligent reading and that paranormal YA/ pop-culture fiction, with no originality and with disregard for the rules of written language, is not all that adults are left with.

There are already four titles in the works, all of which look promising, and all of which I will be reading and reviewing, if you care to find out if the books live up to the standards set by their publisher.


by Anouk Markovits

by Stephanie Reents

by  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya

by Jay Caspian Kang

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen


* * *
The book's description for the publisher's website:

In Grace McCleen's harrowing, powerful debut, she introduces an unforgettable heroine in ten-year-old Judith McPherson, a young believer who sees the world with the clear Eyes of Faith. Persecuted at school for her beliefs and struggling with her distant, devout father at home, young Judith finds solace and connection in a model in miniature of the Promised Land that she has constructed in her room from collected discarded scraps—the Land of Decoration. Where others might see rubbish, Judith sees possibility and divinity in even the strangest traces left behind. As ominous forces disrupt the peace in her and Father's modest lives—a strike threatens her father's factory job, and the taunting at school slips into dangerous territory—Judith makes a miracle in the Land of Decoration that solidifies her blossoming convictions. She is God's chosen instrument. But the heady consequences of her newfound power are difficult to control and may threaten the very foundations of her world.
With its intensely taut storytelling and crystalline prose, The Land of Decoration is a gripping, psychologically complex story of good and evil, belonging and isolation, which casts new and startling light on how far we'll go to protect the things we love most.
OK, I'm officially flummoxed by The Land of Decoration  and by what others saw in there that I didn't and vice versa. I suppose I now know what it feels like for a reviewer who doesn't love the book that is loved by everyone else.

Not to be alarmed, though. I agree with the majority that Grace McCleen shows a natural talent for writing. It transported me into Judith's world in no time, demanded my attention and held it until the story was finished. It's great to find new voices in literature today who are, like the author of The Land of Decoration, devoted to their writing and their passion, and whose effort and skill shine through in their novels.

It was, therefore, with pleasure that I read Ms. McCleen's book. Judith is a very likable little girl, capable of evoking sympathy from others for her difficult predicament. What I had trouble with was the very mature voice for a ten-year-old, despite of how her upbringing might have made her grow up faster than other children. To me, it read more like an adult Judith telling the story of her own childhood. Another thing that caused me some amount of consternation was that I seemed to be the only reader thinking Judith suffered from the early onset of schizophrenia, rather than merely creating her own reality where she had more control over her life and that of people around her. Hearing voices that tell Judith what to do and having Judith actually follow up on 'the advice', believing that the voices in her head aren't made up but as real as that of her father, her teachers or her school bullies, and finally

attempting suicide, because the voice of God told her that it would fix all the troubles and unhappiness that Judith herself caused;

to me, all this spells schizophrenia, not magic realism, as a lot of readers and reviewers seem to think.

But this doesn't really take anything away from the quality of writing in The Land of Decoration. If anything it adds some points because through it, Grace McCleen gave her readers an opportunity and freedom to draw their own conclusions.

What does diminish this book slightly in my eyes, is the mentioned lack of authentic voice of a ten-year-old narrator plus my emotional disconnect from almost all characters, including Judith. I saw her torment, I could understand how people would empathetic to her despair but I felt like a detached observer. The only person I could truly feel for was her father, whose emotions and feeling, although not as evident as Judith's, had a lot more power and impact, and his enormous love for Judith was what saved her in the end. What saved them both.

When I finished the novel, I wished I had felt more strongly for poor little Judith, believing that it would make The Land of Decoration a five-star affair. But I couldn't and I didn't. I still recommend it for others to read, for people who are looking for a pleasant, satisfied feeling of investing their time wisely, which only comes from smart, quality writing that shows a lot of promise for its author.

FTC: I received The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen from the publisher, Henry Holt and Co. for review.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly


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The book's description from the author's website:

East London, 1888 - a city apart. A place of shadow and light where thieves, whores and dreamers mingle, where children play in the cobbled streets by day and a killer stalks at night. Where shining hopes meet the darkest truths.

Here, by the whispering waters of the Thames, a bright, defiant young woman dares to dream of a life beyond tumbledown wharves, gaslit alleys, and the grim and crumbling dwellings of the poor.

Fiona Finnegan, a worker in a tea factory, hopes to own a shop one day, together with her lifelong love, Joe Bristow, a costermonger's son. With nothing but their faith in each other to spur them on, Fiona and Joe struggle, save and sacrifice to achieve their dreams.

But Fiona's plans are shattered when the actions of a dark and brutal man force her to flee London for New York. There, her indomitable spirit – and the ghosts of her past – propel her rise from a modest West Side shop front to the top of Manhattan's tea trade.

Fiona's old ghosts do not rest quietly, however, and to silence them, she must venture back to the London of her childhood, where a deadly confrontation with her past becomes the key to her future.
This was such a great book! I was entranced by Fiona's story, her sheer will to survive despite everything bad that happened, and a lot happened, and especially by her and Joe's love for each other, the strength of their bond that just couldn't be broken. I was very happy that Ms. Donnelly didn't make a Mary Sue out of Fiona. Despite her great qualities, the fact that she managed to charm almost everyone who came in contact with her, Fiona had a little bit of a mean streak in her, which made her all the more realistic, considering that she grew up in a poor neighborhood, had to fend and fight tooth and nail for herself and her family. I would like to make a small reference here to Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo. Even though I'm by no means comparing one to the other, Fiona was the Countess of Whitechapel, with her determination to get the revenge on people who ruined her life and the very soul of hers. 'There will be blood' is pretty much what kept popping up in my mind throughout the story. And I was cheering Fiona on all the way through. Out with 'turning the other cheek' and in with sharpening the claws and going for the jugular. We don't have enough of these kinds of characters, if you ask me.

There really isn't anything criticism that I can offer here. I simply loved every page of The Tea Rose. I loved the good people, even the ones who strayed and made mistakes, whom I thought I would hate; I hated the bad ones and wanted to see them punished almost as much as Fiona did. I'll tell you one thing, there were no 'in-betweeners'. It doesn't mean the characters were either black or white, most of them were gray like the November sky at one point or another, especially the decent ones. But in the end, what mattered was in their hearts, in their very nature and it was truly either good or bad to the bone.

I've seen it mentioned in a few other reviews that Ms. Donnelly wrote a soap opera. It was mostly meant as a criticism, but I'm on the side of readers like Misfit *nod*, who say that yes, The Tea Rose does read like a soap opera, but it's one of the best quality. Because there really isn't anything wrong with soap operas of the yesteryear that made this whole 'genre' of TV programs wildly successful, is there? Millions of people watch them to this day, whereas other shows come and go. Yes, some events in Fiona's life may seem far fetched but they're really not all that impossible. She had the guts, the determination and the brains. Most importantly, she had a dream that she would not let go of. I know there are and always have been women like her all over the world and throughout the history. I must also say, it's refreshing to read about a female character that makes me proud and glad we belong to the same species, in lieu of recent 'wimpy' and submissive girls who only live for a man (the one-hundred-times regurgitated Twilight and infamous Bella plus stacks and stacks of YA drivel with doe-eyed-i-can't-live-without-him silly little girls) or live for a man only and for his abusive ways and whose main goal in life is to be objectified by the very man they love (here's to you! Fifty Shades of Grey and your author counting her pounds and laughing).

Anyway, I might have gone on a little rant there but The Tea Rose really was refreshing to me and despite the tears I've shed (there will be many moments when your heart just breaks), I finished this book and closed it with a smile on my face and a contented sigh that not all is lost in the reading world yet.
FTC: I bought The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly.