"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, August 30, 2015

In Progress: Thunderstruck (Continued)

Broadway Books
I'm still working on Thunderstruck.  I find myself enjoying Erik Larson's writing, but I can't seem to pursue more than a few pages at a time.  Thunderstruck is great to read.  I mean, it has all the qualities that I like in a book - informative, intriguing, suspenseful, entertaining - but, more and more, I'm putting it aside and letting myself forget about it.

(My own fault, I think.  I have too many books at once:  Marley & Me by John Grogan, A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan, The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, and Austenland by Shannon Hale, among the 50 or more books I still have sitting at my bedside.)

However, I have managed to hit two points of interest in Erik Larson's book:  Marconi has managed to send the first wireless telegraph across the Atlantic, and Dr. Crippen has made a seemingly innocuous purchase of poison.  I'm under the impression that things are about to get very messy, very quickly.

Confidentially, I'm a little excited.

Oh, and I did pull a passage from Thunderstruck which I really enjoyed, which really tickled my fancy as a lover and student of history:
"There was wide agreement that some kind of war in Europe was inevitable, although no one could say when or between which nations; but there also was agreement that advances in science and in the power of weapons and ships would make the war mercifully short.  The carnage would be too great, too vast, too sudden for the warring parties to endure.  One voice dissented.  In 1900 Ivan S. Bloch wrote, 'At first there will be increased slaughter - increased slaughter on so terrible a scale as to render it impossible to get troops to push the battle to a decisive issue.  [...]  The war, instead of being a hand-to-hand contest in which the combatants measure their physical and moral superiority, will become a kind of stalemate, in which neither army being able to get at the other, both armies will be maintained in opposition to each other, threatening each other, but never able to deliver a final and decisive attack. 
"They would dig in and hold their ground.  'It will be a great war of entrenchments.  The spade will be as indispensable to a soldier as his rifle.'"
This quote is what has impressed me most about Larson's work:  depth and detail - and, on occasions, a startling connection between points in history.  I liked that Larson decided to include this quote from Bloch.  As a reader looking back on history, it's interesting to see the foresight that one individual had in looking at the tumultuous future of Europe (and, effectively, the rest of the world).  More importantly, it seems to drive home the idea that Europe was a continent in turmoil even before World War I came along nearly a decade later, giving you a better idea of what Dr. Crippen - and, more notably, Marconi faced.

And then there was this amusing anecdote about Queen Victoria on her death in January of 1901:  when asked whether his mother (Queen Victoria) would be happy in heaven, Edward, heir to the throne and the entire British Empire, replied, "I don't know.  She will have to walk behind the angels - and she won't like that."

I love these observations.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Language of Flowers

Ballantine Books
The Language of Flowers
Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Summary
"The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions:  honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love.  But for Victoria Jones, it's been more useful in communicating mistrust and solitude.  After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.  Now eighteen and emancipated from the system with nowhere to go, Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them.  But an unexpected encounter with a mysterious stranger has her questioning what's been missing in her life.  And when she's forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it's worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness."

The Good
I liked that Vanessa Diffenbaugh combined esoteric knowledge of flowers, the literal language of flowers, with the modern plight of a young girl trapped in the foster-care system.  I found it intriguing to see the world from Victoria's perspective, her struggle to find normalcy and stability in a system that's anything but.

I loved learning the meanings of flowers and plants:  moss for motherhood, ferns for secrecy, daisies for innocence, honeysuckle for devotion, turnips for charity, sage for good health.  I was surprised to learn that sunflowers mean "false riches," and yellow roses represent "infidelity."  It was interesting to see the combinations of flowers which Victoria used to communicate.

Likewise, I was intrigued by the glimpses Diffenbaugh gave into Victoria's life - into the life of a foster child, into the life of a young homeless woman struggling to make her own way in the world - and I was sometimes shocked by what I found.  As the parent of a foster child, Diffenbaugh has had an inside view on the types of struggles that foster and adoptive children endure as they transition to a new home - or fall back into the system.

She knows and understands the difficulties these children face; moreover, I think she does fairly well at illuminating these issues in Victoria's character.

The Bad
I didn't feel like I could relate to Victoria.  Something about the way she's characterized, or the way she tells her story, makes it difficult for me to really become attached to her as a narrator, to really sink into her story.  I was eager for her to reach some kind of happy ending, but I wasn't nearly as invested as I could have been.

However, I think I would have better understood Victoria if I had read this passage from the reader's guide:
"The hardest part of writing [The Language of Flowers] was finding the right balance in Victoria's character.  I wanted her to be tough, distrustful, and full of anger:  all characteristics that would be true to her history of being abandoned at birth and never knowing love.  But I also wanted the reader to root for her - to understand her capacity to be gentle and loving, even before Victoria understands it herself.  So in the first fifty pages of the novel she spends much of her time nurturing plants:  smoothing petals,  checking moisture, and cradling shocked roots.  This felt like the perfect way to show both sides of her character, long before it would have been possible for me to describe her displaying affection or kindness toward another human being."
I think I would have better understood the emotional spirals - doubt, fear, distrust, anger and hatred - better had I read the author's interpretation of Victoria.  (For that reason, The Language of Flowers may be worth a second attempt.)

The Ugly
Orphaned from an early age, Victoria bounced between foster homes and half-way houses for her entire life.  She chronicles abuse and emotional distress, which is truly heartbreaking to envision.  Her inability to accept love, to offer it in return is heart-wrenching - and it's even harder to watch her spiral into a familiar passage of doubt, self-recrimination, anger, resentment, depression, and neglect.

Honestly, it will break your heart.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

In Progress: Thunderstruck

Broadway Books
Thunderstruck by Erik Larson is a random book I picked up from a local used books store.  I was familiar with The Devil in the White City (which I have yet read, but about which I've heard some really great things) and Dead Wake, but I hadn't had the chance to read any of Larson's books and, given my great love for history, I'm kind of surprised I haven't stumbled across his work sooner.

Although I'm only about a third of the way through Thunderstruck, I've had the realization that Erik Larson is a fantastic writer.  Not only does he combine accuracy and thoughtful, intricate prose, he has a genuinely interesting subject - or, maybe more accurately, he has a way of making his subject genuinely interesting.

So far, I've only made it through the set-up:  Guglielmo Marconi has begun his large scale experiments to attempt a transatlantic signal with his wireless telegraphy, and Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen has settled into London with a new job and his delightful wife, Belle.  And I can honestly say I have no idea where the story is going.

I mean, I know that Marconi must succeed (it's hinted at in the very first passages of the book that his transatlantic telegraphy works); likewise, I know that some tragedy must strike Dr. Crippen's life, that he must commit some heinous crime (little allusions populate the book, pointing to some criminal misdeed).  But I don't know the exact details:  I don't know how Marconi manages the first wireless transatlantic telegraph message (or how his race against Nikola Tesla goes), or what Dr. Crippen does to gain his criminal status.

And I'm dying to know.

Thunderstruck has been slow reading (which is my own fault, I get distracted easily), but it's been an incredibly enjoyable journey.  I love the detail and the intricacy of the story, as Larson pulls from personal correspondences, interviews, newspapers, and more.  Additionally, he has true talent for combining facts with storytelling elements, making his writing accessible and entertaining, like a narrative, but informative and thought-provoking.

Larson manages to combine the best of both worlds.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bonus: Austenland

Shannon Hale

The Summary
"Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man - perhaps because her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.  But when a wealthy relative bequeaths to her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she could ever have imagined.  Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?"

The Good
I like that the novel begins, like all novels involving Jane Austen and her famed Pride and Prejudice, with a familiar (if altered) refrain:
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her.  There was no husband, but those weren't necessary anymore.  There were boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of mutual dissatisfaction - well, that was the way of things, wasn't it?"
I also like that Jane - of course her name is Jane - is an average, relatable heroine.  She's smart, she's charming and quirky, she's dynamic, and she's self-sufficient, and she has a secret:  she loves Pride and Prejudice.  (She's also a ninja, but that's neither here nor there.)

Austenland is a fun novel, and Jane is an endearing heroine.  The characters are enjoyable, worth loving or hating alternately, and the story is captivating.  It's easy to become embroiled in Jane's story, wondering whether she's going to find the man of her dreams or discover something worth knowing about herself.

Oh, and then there's the dedication.  I laughed more than I probably should have.

The Bad
I hate to say it, but I actually enjoyed the movie better than the book.  (I know, I know - how dare you, blasphemer!)  I really liked the book, and I really like Shannon Hale as an author, but I just didn't enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed the movie.  The book has its own merits and the book is pretty great, and I would definitely recommend reading it; however, I cannot deny that I really, really enjoyed the movie.

The Ugly
Romance can be tricky - and, sometimes, it can get ugly.

Especially betrayals.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

How to be a Heroine: Or, What I Learned from Reading Too Much

Vintage Books
How to be a Heroine:  Or, What I Learned from Reading Too Much
Samantha Ellis

The Summary
"While debating literature's greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation - her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

"With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies - the characters and the writers - whom she has loved since childhood.  From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today.  And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London

"Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives."

The Good
As an English major and lover of literature, I thoroughly enjoyed Samantha Ellis' memoir.  Clever, clear, and comical, How to be a Heroine is an absolute gem if you love reading - or, basically, if you just love the idea of a strong, female protagonists who can hold their own in a story.

I especially loved the insights that Ellis had to offer on her favorite heroines, her hopes and fears in taking to heart the lessons of these amazing ladies of literature.  She's candid about her reservations, insightful in her exploration of literature, and just plain fun.  She's a wonderful writer, an excellent storyteller, and a fantastic scholar.

I mean, even if you aren't a fan of literature, Ellis makes her book - and, subsequently, the books she reads - accessible to a larger audience.  She succeeds in making literature, even the dry and boring parts, truly fun.  (Of course, I may be biased.  I was an English major in college and this book is kind of perfect for me.)

The Bad
Honestly, I have no complaints.  Ellis is an excellent writer:  candid, vivid, descriptive, and otherwise fun and intriguing.  I might not have always had a background in the books she read, such as Wuthering Heights, which makes her writing a little less accessible.  But I believe that's mostly my fault as opposed to an actual problem with the book.

The Ugly

If you don't want to spoil the ending of classic novels for yourself, don't read this book.  Ellis takes a long hard look at some of the most important and dynamic pieces of literature and, in her exploration, she examines everything from characters, plot, writing devices, and more.  Which means she will tell you how a story ends - which means if you were hoping to be kept in suspense a little longer, there's a very good chance you will find the ending spoiled.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Bonus: Country Heaven

Ava Miles, Inc.
Country Heaven
Ava Miles

The Summary
"When famous - and infamous - country singer Rye Crenshaw saunters into the diner where she cooks, Tory Simmons is certain she's got him pegged.  He's a bad boy who indulges himself in all things, women included.  But while she couldn't care less about country music or arrogant men, Rye makes her an offer she can't refuse when he asks her to be his private chef on his multi-city concert tour.  This job is the answer to all her prayers:  it will clear out her debt and finance the fresh start she desperately needs.

"Rye is certain his sassy new cook is the last woman who'd ever tempt him, but spending time with the wholesome girl next door will do wonders for his damaged public image, whether she likes being forced into the spotlight or not.  Her food also happens to be the best he's ever eaten, both comforting and seductive.  But spending time with Tory on the road shows him a new side to her - one that's as impossible to resist as her food.  And when an emergency in his family whisks him home, he does the one thing he's never risked:  he lets a woman into his heart...

"Soon, the emotions Rye faked for the tabloids become all too real, but will the country heaven he's found in Tory's arms survive in the real world?"

The Good
I didn't go into this novel with very high expectations; however, I was pleasantly surprised by Ava Mile's Country Heaven.  Not only does it have a story that hooked me, I fell in love with the characters too.  I mean, it follows the natural path of most romance novels (which I've complained about in a previous post, I'm sure), but it deals with emotions and conflicts realistically.

Rye and Tory are fleshed out:  they have characteristics that make them unique, and they're given real and genuine doubts, emotions, thoughts, et cetera.  I especially liked that Tory was such a grounded character.  She was level-headed in her decisions and, more importantly, thought realistically about her relationship with Rye.  She was thoughtful and smart, which I like in my characters.

And, as much of a wreck as Rye's life is in, I couldn't help but like him too.  He was endearing and sweet (when he wanted to be); however, he was also trying to put his life back together.  I can admire characters who try to fix their own problems and, most importantly, who don't balk at every problem - and who are willing to take on responsibilities.

I can't help it.  I like my romantic characters to be reliable and smart, not confused and crazy.

The Bad
Granted, I didn't like everything about Country Heaven.  I didn't like the continuation of conflict - that is, conflict that happened again and again - and I didn't always admire the characters (they're human and they're flawed, I get that).  But, overall, I enjoyed Miles' novel.

The Ugly
Family disputes can get ugly.

Very, very ugly.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Anthony Horowitz

The Summary
"[Moriarty]...plunges us back into the dark and complex world of Detective Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty - dubbed "the Napoleon of crime" - in the aftermath of their fateful struggle at the Reichenbach Falls.

"Days after Holmes and Moriarty disappear into the waterfall's churning depths, Frederick Chase, a senior investigator at New York's infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, arrives in Switzerland.  Chase brings with him a dire warning:  Moriarty's death has left a convenient vacancy in London's criminal underworld.  There is no shortage of candidates to take his place - including one particularly fiendish criminal mastermind.

"Chase is assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones, a Scotland Yard detective and devoted student of Holmes methods of deduction, whom Conan Doyle introduced in The Sign of Four.  The two men join forces and fight their way through the sinuous streets of Victorian London - from the elegant squares of Mayfair to the shadowy wharfs and alleyways of the Docks - in pursuit of a sinister figure, a man much feared by seldom seen, who is determined to stake his claim as Moriarty's successor."

The Good
Moriarty opens at the close of Sherlock Holmes' last case, "The Final Problem" at Reichenbach Falls.  Horowitz basically picks up where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left off; however, he takes a surprising turn by adding new characters (i.e. Frederick Chase) - and, more importantly, a new villain, a man who rivals James Moriarty in his duplicity and his invisibility.

Naturally, I was intrigued by the premise and, when I discovered that Horowitz had recycled characters from Conan Doyle's original mysteries (such as Athelney Jones and Inspector Lestrade), I was justifiably excited.  Jones, in particular, appears to take the place of our beloved Sherlock.  As an ardent student of Holmes' methods, Jones takes center stage, pinpointing unexpected clues, making great leaps in logic with inexplicable ease, and cornering criminals.

Jones makes an intriguing character and, possibly, a fine detective (or, at the very least, he does his very best).

Frederick Chase also makes a fine narrator.  Like Dr. John Watson, he documents events surrounding the case, providing a candid account ad detailed insight for his reader.  I find I liked Detective Chase for his candor and his ability to pen a pretty riveting story; however, I found I was a little alarmed by his allusions to the future - and for very good reasons.

Overall, Moriarty is a decent novel.  I liked it well enough to muddle through and, honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the ending.  Devastated, admittedly, but pleasantly surprised by the novels real villain.

The Bad
My one complaint about Horowitz's novel is pace.

Although Chase and Inspector Jones consistently find themselves wedged in a spot of trouble, stumbling into dangerous situations and bizarre adventures that should surely keep a reader intrigued, I would sometimes lose interest in the development of the story.  With so many unanswered questions, so many plot twists that seem to develop into nothing (that is, before you reach the end of the story), I was not the most dedicated reader and I frequently took breaks between chapters.

The final two chapters are great - they are, without a doubt, the most exciting chapters in the entire novel - but the others were much less so.

The Ugly
The final two chapters of Moriarty see the entire plot unraveling, reaching a climax that I certainly didn't expect.  I mean, the conclusion of Horowitz's novel was like a punch in the stomach.  Although the narrator alludes to future events, to the potential for tragedy, I didn't expect events to unfold as they did.  In concluding his novel as he did, Horowitz creates a truly brilliant - and truly terrifying - villain.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Avengers (Volume 1)

Guardians of the Galaxy:  Cosmic Avengers (Volume 1)
Brian Michael Bendis
Steve McNiven
Sara Pichelli

The Summary
"There's a new rule in the galaxy:  No one touches Earth!  No one!  But why has Earth suddenly become the most important planet in the galaxy?  That's what the Guardians of the Galaxy are going to find out!  Join Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, Groot and - wait for it - the Invincible Iron Man, as they embark upon one of the most explosive and eye-opening chapters of Marvel NOW!  These galactic Avengers are going to discover secrets that will rattle Marvel readers for years to come!  But while London deals with a brutal invasion by the Badoon, the fate of the Guardians may have already been decided millions of miles away!"

The Good
I loved the artistry put into it.  Even if my primary difficulty was with the flow of panels (you know, those large two page panels generally mix up reading direction), I enjoyed the way it progressed, how the illustrators are able to make your eyes follow the conscious stream of action.

Admittedly, I also liked the characters involved.  Although we primarily see the origins and development of Peter Quill (Star-Lord), separate stories are included for the other characters - interludes between adventures that are present at the very end of the volume - that show their activities before their fateful encounter with the Badoon and J-Son, Peter's father.

Character dialogues and interactions were a plus.  The characters - Groot, Drax, Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, and even Tony Stark - share a familiarity and easiness that's refreshing to find in a team.  They interact easily and there's a level of respect and camaraderie that that makes their missions undeniably exciting and reassuringly optimistic.  They fight against the odds, but there is a feeling of triumph regardless.

In short, I really enjoyed reading the first installment of Guardians of the Galaxy.

The Bad
I have only one minor complaint:  panel layout.  The story flowed easily, but some of the double-paged layouts were problematic.  Although not a problem on an e-reader, as you could see the entire two pages, it was a minor complaint I had with the physical version.  It was pretty easy to overlook and I enjoyed the comic regardless.

The Ugly
Well, Peter Quill is orphaned at a young age.  (You'll find out why very early on.)  Gamora is the daughter of Thanos, known otherwise as the "mad titan" (and he's a seriously terrible and terrifying creature).  Rocket is the only one of his kind, and he feels his solitude acutely.  Drax the Destroyer is angry and unfulfilled by his existence.  And Groot - well, I don't know much about Groot, but I'm going under the basic assumption that his story is equally tragic, that he's equally damaged.