Friday, January 29, 2010

49. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

A couple of people recommended this book to me after learning that I read and enjoyed Pride and Prejudice. My sister Mollie and her fiance Kevin gave Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to Colin for Christmas, and he graciously allowed me to read his copy before he did. Warning, love: There are minor spoilers below.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.

So begins Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an expanded edition of the beloved Jane Austen novel featuring all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton -- and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers -- and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield. Can Elizabeth vanquish the spawn of Satan? And overcome the social prejudices of the class-conscious landed gentry? Complete with romance, heartbreak, swordfights, cannibalism, and thousands of rotting corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies transforms a masterpiece of world literature into something you'd actually want to read. 

Plot summary courtesy of the paperback back cover. (And in regard to the last sentence, may I say, "Oh snap!")

My first reaction while reading was that the book wasn't quite as fun or funny as I was expecting. I was expecting more laugh-loud-loud humor, but the writing is witty and the humor more subtle. I did have some laugh-out-loud moments starting with Elizabeth's visit to Collins and Charlotte, but that's more than 100 pages in. Also, I thought this would be a more fast-paced read, but it's very faithful to the pacing of the original. It took longer for me to read -- and become invested in the story -- than I thought it would. 

That being said, I still enjoyed the book tremendously once I adjusted my expectations. I think Grahame-Smith's approach was wildly clever, especially in the plot points he took more liberties with. I especially liked Charlotte's storyline and Elizabeth's bewilderment at no one's noticing Charlotte's deterioration. This is the point at which I really became invested and had fun reading. I didn't really think it was necessary to include Collins' intentions to hang himself after Charlotte's beheading, but apparently Grahame-Smith felt Collins deserved to be killed off. I loved the comeuppance that Wickham received at Darcy's hand; I thought it very fitting. And as surprised as I was when Elizabeth and Lady Catherine began their duel, it worked very well in this alternate universe. The tailoring of the world of the original Pride and Prejudice to Grahame-Smith's zombie-ravaged version was thorough and creative, although I think he could have taken a few more chances with the source material.  

Side note: I particularly enjoyed the repeated mentions of the Bennet sisters' training in kung fu at the Shaolin temple in China. I was pleasantly reminded of American Shaolin, and felt clued-in to how difficult said training would have been. I appreciated Grahame-Smith's changing Lady Catherine's questioning Elizabeth about not having a tutor to questioning her about why the sisters trained in China instead of Japan, the lady's preferred choice. I just thought that was hilarious.

I would absolutely recommend this book, but expect the pace to be very consistent with the original and that the humor is more quiet and subtle. I think you will probably enjoy Pride and Prejudice and Zombies more if you have already read Pride and Prejudice, but you can still enjoy it on its own. Oh, and I checked and as I expected, there's a movie version already in the works. Natalie Portman has been cast as Elizabeth. What do you think? I think it will probably rock it out.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

48. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

When I asked for book recommendations for this project, my sister Annie sent me an e-mail with a lot of suggestions. Many of them were science fiction and fantasy books, since those are genres that she knows better than I do. A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, was near the top of her list. I checked Amazon's Kindle store and saw that I could buy A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series, for the price of one. I figured there was a decent chance that I would become invested in the story, so I went for it and bought both. So far, I have only read the first book. Warning: there are a few spoilers below.

Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades, and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean beauty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens.

Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; and a determined woman undertakes the most treacherous of journeys. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Plot summary courtesy of

The first thing you need to know about A Game of Thrones is that it's long. (Very long.) I don't know the page count, but it's up there. I wanted avoid another An American Tragedy situation (wherein I get caught up in one book for a length of time and fall behind in my pace), so I decided to read other books at the same time. It took about a month to read, and I think I got through eight other books in that time. I told my dad about this strategy, and he sent me a quote from Ambrose Bierce that he thought I would enjoy:

"The covers of this book are too far apart."

Well said, Mr. Bierce.

The next thing you need to know about this book is that it's complicated. I looked up the Song of Fire and Ice series on Wikipedia before I started reading, so I could see what I was getting into. There was a summary of events that took place before the action in A Game of Thrones, and it seemed like a tangled web to me, even after I started reading. There were times when it seemed like the cast numbered in the thousands, and many of them had long, interwoven histories with other characters.

So you see, the book requires a commitment. And while that may sound like a bad thing, it's not. If you dedicate the time and attention to A Game of Thrones, you will be rewarded with a genuinely enjoyable and fulfilling reading experience. Martin has created an entire world filled with unique customs, history, settings, and characters. It's so well-developed and thought-out; I can't imagine being able to do that. I think I may have to read it again at some point; there are so many details that I'm sure I wasn't taking them all in. Oh, and I should mention something that Annie included in her e-mail: You need to give this book a good hundred pages before it really starts to get awesome. Agreed! But it's definitely worth it once you get past that initial hump.

If you've read my previous reviews, you're aware that I can't keep track of action sequences very well. That's true for me in this book as well. There are grand-scale scenes of battle as well as smaller-scale scenes of swordplay between children that I struggled a little with. What really interested me were the motivations of the characters and the wealth of intrigue included in the plot. It's hard to give examples without getting into the whole plot, but suffice it to say that the struggle for power brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. How they interact and plot against each other is fascinating to me. I love the idea of these power plays being a "game of thrones." I think that's very apt, and I liked when characters referred to that:

At one point, a character who yearns for the power his family previously had told someone that the people were secretly waiting for him to seize control of the kingdoms. The other character responded that the people didn't care who won the game of thrones, they wanted to stay out of it and be left to their day-to-day lives. That resonated with me, and I wondered how true that might be for modern-day conflicts.

At another point, the queen remarks, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." If you didn't already have a firm grasp of her character, that statement would probably give you a good idea.

And finally, one character asked, "...why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?" Again, this resonated and made me think about modern-day conflicts and who truly pays the consequences.

I really liked the way that Martin alternated between different characters' points of view in each chapter. It was very effective, and rounded out the story. He is an incredibly skilled writer to be able to tell his story from multiple well-developed characters' perspectives. It was a great way to subtly drop clues and hints to the reader that not all of the characters were privy to. Although I don't mind saying, there were a few surprises that I didn't see coming at all -- for those of you who read the book, my jaw dropped when Eddard figured out why Jon Arryn was killed. And the scene leading up to Eddard's execution had my heart pounding! Not all writers can achieve that level of suspense. I did become really invested in the story after all; the instances of unfairness (when Robert ruled that the direwolves had to be put down, for example) made me so mad that I was shaking my head and muttering, much to Colin's delight.

Annie told me that the Song of Fire and Ice series are the best fiction books -- of any genre -- that she's ever read. I'm on my way to agreeing with her, and I highly recommend you check out A Game of Thrones.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

47. A Cup of Christmas Tea by Tom Hegg

This book was a Christmas gift from my aunt, Marj. She left a sweet note inside the pages, explaining that this is one of her favorite Christmas stories and she hoped that I would enjoy it. I was touched and happy to receive such a thoughtful gift, and decided that I wanted to include it in my Magnolia Reads project.

A Cup of Christmas Tea is the story of a young adult invited to tea by an aging aunt at the holidays. After dreading it, he goes to visit his aunt and is surprised by what a great time he has visiting with her and seeing her house filled with decorations. He is amazed at how alive her Christmas spirit is even though her body is worn and aged.

As a young adult who has witnessed the deteriorating health of aging grandparents, I really appreciated the message in this book. We all need a reminder to value those people in our lives, and seek out their time instead of neglecting them. As simple as it sounds, that can be hard to remember.

I really enjoyed the writing style; it was lyrical, almost like a poem or a song. And it was clever and witty, which for some reason I wasn't expecting. Here is one of my favorite passages:

The cards were in the mail,
all the gifts beneath the tree,
and 30 days reprieve
'til VISA could catch up with me.

While this is a nice story for Christmas for all ages, I think it's aimed a bit more at adults. It is definitely a great addition to my collection of books, and I highly recommend that you add it to yours.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

46. Heat Wave by Richard Castle

I really like the show Castle. Colin and I watch and enjoy it every week. Nathan Fillion is at his charming and ruggedly handsome best, and the supporting cast has had a great rhythm down from the first episode. It resists traditional labels; it's a procedural, but infused with wit, romance, friendships, and family. A smart and funny show with an incredibly likable cast? Count me in. In case you're not watching, the basic premise is this: Richard Castle is a best-selling mystery writer. Feeling somewhat uninspired and having killed off his most popular character, he's looking for something new and exciting to write about. He meets Detective Kate Beckett when she's investigating a series of murders that are eerily similar to those in one of Castle's books. He acts as a consultant on the case and decides to write a series of books about female detective based on Beckett. After pulling some strings, he arranges to shadow her on the job as research. Heat Wave is the first book penned by Castle about Detective Nikki Heat, aka Kate Beckett.

A New York real estate tycoon plunges to his death on a Manhattan sidewalk. A trophy wife with a past survives a narrow escape from a brazen attack. Mobsters and moguls with no shortage of reasons to kill trot out their alibis. And then, in the suffocating grip of a record heat wave, comes another shocking murder and a sharp turn in a tense journey into the dirty little secrets of the wealthy. Secrets that prove to be fatal. Secrets that lay hidden in the dark until one NYPD detective shines a light.

Mystery sensation Richard Castle, blockbuster author of the wildly best-selling Derek Storm novels, introduces his newest character, NYPD Homicide Detective Nikki Heat. Tough, sexy, professional, Nikki Heat carries a passion for justice as she leads one of New York City's top homicide squads. She's hit with an unexpected challenge when the commissioner assigns superstar magazine journalist Jameson Rook to ride along with her to research an article on New York's finest. Pulitzer Prize-winning Rook is as much a handful as he is handsome. His wise-cracking and meddling aren't her only problems. As she works to unravel the secrets of the murdered real estate tycoon, she must also confront the spark between them. The one called heat.

Plot summary courtesy of the book jacket.

This book is a great complement to the show, but I don't think it could stand on its own independently of it. Maybe it could, but I think the fun is in knowing that "Castle" wrote it. There's no mention anywhere in the book or on the book jacket of another author, even the acknowledgments are written in his voice (the cast members do get a shout-out there, Castle thanks a list of friends whose first names match up with the main cast members' first names). I liked the way the story was adapted from the real life portrayed in the show to characters and events in the book -- the changes, including Castle's profession and the facts of Kate's mother's murder, work well and are entirely believable as how Castle would change events as he writes. I didn't realize there would be an actual heat wave going on, I thought that was just a play on Nikki Heat's last name.

I only have a couple of complaints. Nikki is attacked in her home late one night by a suspect, who had already made threatening comments of a sexual nature toward her earlier in the day. She had just finished a bath and hadn't dressed yet when she discovered that he was in the apartment, and had to fight him off while naked and hearing more sexual taunts. Castle airs on ABC and is a fairly family-friendly show, so this felt like too drastic a shift in tone to me. As a woman, I found it to be way too creepy, especially because I wasn't expecting it. Also, I lost track of the mystery a tiny bit toward the end. This happens to me sometimes, especially when the mystery revolves around art theft, so I don't think it was necessarily the fault of the author but it still made me feel a bit dumb.

Aside from those complaints, I thought it was a good, fun read for fans of the show. Not an essential read, but a good, fun one. I want to close with a couple of quotes from the book which may explain in part why I liked it:

The neighborhood lunch rush was over, and tourists were either across the street cooling in the American Museum of Natural History or seeking refuge in Starbucks over iced coffees ending in vowels. Her disdain for the coffee drinkers dissolved into a mental note to get one herself on the way back to the precinct.

Rook brought a Dean & DeLuca cup to Heat's desk. "Here, I got you your usual. A nonfat, no-foam, double-pump vanilla latte."
"You know how I feel about frou-frou coffee drinks."
"And yet you have one every morning. Such a complex woman."
She took it from him and sipped. "Thanks. Very thoughtful." Her phone rang. "And next time remember the chocolate shavings."

I love that! See, the humor from the show is intact in the book and they poke fun at fancy coffee drinks. It's like they're writing this for me, you know?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

45. Columbine: A True Crime Story by Jeff Kass

A few months ago, I read and reviewed Columbine by Dave Cullen. As you may or may not remember, the review was fairly glowing. I rarely get comments on my blog posts (I find that people usually prefer to discuss books with me in person) so I was surprised and happy to get the e-mail notification that someone commented on the Columbine post. The anonymous commenter copied and pasted quotes from two positive reviews of another book about Columbine without stating who they were, why they were commenting, or adding any thoughts of their own about either book. It was weird and creepy. I placed a request at my library for the other book, Columbine: A True Crime Story by Jeff Kass, and considered it a recommendation. The book finally came in and I read it over a weekend. I started to get really curious about the anonymous commenter, mainly because I thought that Cullen's book was vastly superior to Kass's. I did a lot of searching online, and found eight other blog posts about Columbine by Dave Cullen that received the exact same comment that I did, sometimes signed with initials and sometimes not. Eventually I found one that also had a comment from Dave Cullen, explaining that the anonymous comment was from the founder of the publishing house that put out the Kass book -- it seems the guy has a Google Alert for Cullen's name and has been leaving similar comments for months. I cannot tell you how much this pissed me off. If someone had commented that they knew of another book about the subject and thought it was better researched or more comprehensive or whatever, I still would have been interested. Why go for creepy and weird -- and anonymous? I don't get it and I don't appreciate it.

I'll be honest, I was not excited to read this book when I picked it up. I hate the cover, especially because I thought the cover of Columbine was flawless. I was interested to find out what the sub-sub-title meant -- the title in full is Columbine: A True Crime Story: a victim, the killers and the nation's search for answers. Why "a" victim? As I read, I grew more confused about this. Once I had finished, the only conclusion I came to was that Kass was referring to the family of Isaiah Shoels, who he profiles in detail. But I'm not even sure that I'm correct; maybe I'm just missing something. And while we're on the topic of the Shoels family, I'm not sure why he chose them to represent the victims' families. Because they're the most controversial? Because they believe the tragedy was part of a larger conspiracy? Maybe Kass felt the Shoels' story had not been told properly -- but I'm sure families of the other victims have stories that are just as compelling. Why not tell them?

The book opens with a foreword by Douglas Brinkley (something touted on the front cover). This foreword is also included verbatim on Kass's website. Um, just one thing: Who is Douglas Brinkley? There's no explanation as to who he is or why he's qualified to the write the foreword anywhere in the book or on that page of Kass's website. According to Wikipedia, he's a noted historian and professor. I felt really stupid for having had to look the guy up on Wikipedia, and I resented it. Seriously, is this guy so well-known that it's not necessary to identify him in any way? Is it just me being ignorant? In his foreword, Brinkley writes, "Like any journalist worth his salt, Kass provides lots of minute detail which adds immeasurably to the saga..." Sounds promising, yes? Kass begins the book with a cursory overview of the events of April 20, 1999. Throughout, he adds some humanizing information about each victim -- that minute detail we were promised, I presume. Here's one example: "He wears glasses, and loves homemade tortillas and cats." Um... really? That's the most ridiculous sentence that I've ever read. It's not quite as humanizing as one might think.

When I described Kass's overview of the events of the day as cursory, I really meant it. This was a very brief rundown of the action, so to speak. For example, Kass states at one point, "When did teacher Dave Sanders die? Police interviews of the two students who tended to Sanders -- whose death remains among the most controversial -- are among the briefest." Rather than going into actual detail concerning Sanders' ordeal or explaining exactly why it was controversial, Kass tells us what his outfit looked like. The story of Patrick Ireland's escape from the school library is given a short paragraph. There is no mention of the widespread myth that Cassie Bernall said yes when asked if she still believed in God. After reading this chapter, I found myself wondering when Kass would revisit the events and fill in the gaps. He never did, in my opinion. When compared with Cullen's Columbine, there is very little information provided on what exactly happened in the school; the stories of Dave Sanders, Patrick Ireland and Cassie Bernall are told with much more background information and detail by Cullen. The conclusion that I came to is that Kass must have felt it would be redundant or exploitative to write about the events of the day in detail. He may have thought it unnecessary considering the ten years' worth of reporting the events that has taken place. I can't say that motivation isn't valid. But when reading something billed as "A True Crime Story" I would have preferred more information about the actual crime.

Kass and Cullen appear to agree on one thing: Bullying was not the one motivation behind the killers' actions. Both explore the mental history of the two boys, but Kass also presents another theory. He begins his first chapter after the overview of April 20th with background information on the attitudes toward honor and violence in the American West and South. He makes an argument that you can attribute school shootings, at least in part, to these traditional attitudes. I don't think he sells this theory effectively. In my opinion, that would have been a great premise for a book on its own. But the theory isn't given enough attention for me to have been convinced. Kass also provides more background information on the two boys' families -- going back to one's great-grandfather. I didn't find this to be very effective either. I didn't think it added anything to the book, although I'm sure many people will be interested in the mental health history of one of the boy's mothers.

"If a thermometer could measure their psyches, Eric would shoot the mercury up. He had a hot anger. Dylan's sadness would drop the mercury to negative. But they were joined at zero -- touching each other in their disillusionment, and their social standing."

This is one example of Kass's writing that I shook my head at. (It's a bit of a reach, isn't it?) I don't think the book is particularly well-written. Kass obviously has passion for his subject, but that doesn't necessarily translate into good writing. I was also very put off when he criticized both the police department and social workers for their bad spelling and grammar. Normally, this would not be off-putting for a professional proofreader and copy editor. Normally, I might even applaud. But Kass himself could have benefitted from better proofreading and copy editing. For example, on page 41 Kass writes, "...his smile appears contended..." Although that would pass a spell-check, Kass clearly means "contented." I also noted inconsistent use of both "Web site" and "website" as well as usage of "victims families" and "victim's families" when "victims' families" is the intended meaning (don't worry, he used that one a few times too). I made note of other examples, but I won't bother listing them all here. For someone who calls into question the intelligence of social workers (stating "Their written notes that have been publicly released are full of misspellings and might show them to not be too bright."), Kass's own work should have been above reproach. Sadly, it is not. Also, his use of [sic] seems fairly arbitrary (which I found odd), to say the least. I noticed typos in quoted materials that went without the [sic] and yet when quoting one report, he inserted it after "self motivated" -- I don't find the lack of a hyphen to be so incorrect or unusual, but that's just me. And from a typesetting point of view, this book is sorely lacking. The length of em dashes and the spacing around them are totally inconsistent, there are random extra spaces throughout, and at least two paragraphs with line breaks that I can only describe as seriously wonky.

As you can probably tell, I had a very strong reaction to this book. I'll try to wrap this up soon, so I can close the book on this one (so to speak).

I don't think that book contains any significant information overlooked by Cullen. I think that Kass had more of an ax to grind, and was less objective. I don't think this book is well-written. I don't think Kass has a clear enough focus in this book; I don't have a good sense of what his objective is in writing it. In my opinion, it's not worth the time it takes to read. But I have to say, I don't get any enjoyment out of writing such a negative review. I have no desire to trash someone's life work, and it's not as though I consider myself a Columbine expert. It is simply my opinion that your time is better spent reading Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is elegantly written and certainly at least as well-researched as Kass's book.

Friday, January 8, 2010

44. Holly's Inbox by Holly Denham

I think I read about this book in an issue of People magazine. Apparently someone ran a website as if it were a receptionist named Holly's e-mail inbox, and it was hugely popular. I'm not sure if this book is mainly a compilation of entries posted there or original writing. I tried going to (as I was directed by a note from "Holly" in the book) but the link doesn't appear to be active anymore.

Holly's Inbox starts on Holly's first day as a receptionist at a major bank in London. It's readily apparent that she's total crap at the job, and struggling to keep her head above water. Holly's story unfolds through her To: and From: e-mails over the next four months, as she improves at work, begins a new relationship, deals with an impossible washing machine repair company, and keeps tabs on her friends and family.

(I think I'm going to leave the plot summary at that, as it would be really easy to include major spoilers.)

I read this book on New Year's Day while Colin watched three (four?) college bowl games. (He really loves college football.) The e-mail format was easy to fall into, I think because the e-mails are pretty short and the story is fairly fast-paced. Definitely a page-turner, which is good considering it's 600+ pages long! The stories are really entertaining, and Holly is a sympathetic main character. Her supporting characters fulfill the usual cliches (gay best friend, meddling mom, scoundrel boyfriend) but still feel fresh and original as you're reading. You're not privy to all of Holly's past from the beginning, and the author (whoever it actually is) does a great job of gradually giving the reader bits of information to piece together. I have a feeling that a sequel is on the way; there was at least one plot point left unresolved.

If you're looking for a good chick lit book, you should give this one a try! It's entertaining and at times silly, but weighty enough that you won't feel silly for having invested time in it.

43. The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

Once again, I have no recollection of who recommended this book to me (I have to start keeping track better!). I was excited to hear about it because I used to watch that show Cold Case, and thought it was really interesting. Although, ultimately it was too effing sad. It's like the producers wanted to give viewers a reason to slit their wrists or something. Seriously, have you seen it? So sad, every week. But again, the idea of a cold case squad and how it works is really interesting to me, so I was happy to get the recommendation (from whoever it was!).

Stacy Horn first heard New York City's Cold Case Squad when she met a detective who worked in it and who briefly described the purpose to her. She was so intrigued, she arranged a meeting with members of the squad to see if writing a book would be feasible. I'm not sure how long she spent writing and researching The Restless Sleep, but it must have been at least a couple of years. The history of the formation of the squad and information about its protocol is extensive, as is the research included on homicide statistics in New York City this century. This information is interspersed with accounts of five different cases worked by the squad. The book is broken down into three parts, and each includes one chapter about each of those five cases. The first part is called Catching the Case and explains the various ways that cases are assigned to the squad and the beginning stages of investigations. The second part is called Banging on Doors and covers the middle of the investigations, comprised mainly of tracking down witnesses and suspects and visiting them over and over. The third part is called The Blue Five and centers around closing the case -- or having worked the case until all leads have been investigated and there's nothing left to do. ("The Blue Five" refers to the final piece of documentation in the police file that signals the end of the investigation.)

I can't tell you how much I liked this book. It's not always easy to find a non-fiction book that classifies as a page-turner, and this one definitely was for me. The writing was only very rarely dry, which I thought was understandable considering how much information was relayed. I thought the format was very effective, and I really liked how Horn used real-life detectives and their cases to demonstrate how the procedures and protocol are used in practice. I think anyone who is interested in police work or enjoys watching procedural TV shows would enjoy reading about the inner workings of this squad. One caution: If you mind occasional bad language or crude colloquial phrases, be forewarned that both are included in this book. I didn't see it as vulgar, though; I thought Horn was writing in tune with how the detectives spoke with each other. At least, that's my take on it and I thought it really worked in context.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

42. Invisible Sisters: A Memoir by Jessica Handler

I saw Invisible Sisters on the new non-fiction shelf at my library, read the book jacket, and decided to check it out. As it turns out, I misread the book jacket. I thought this was a memoir about two sisters, one of whom was sick and one of whom was not. It's actually about three sisters, two of whom are sick and one who is not. Being the youngest of three sisters, I felt nervous about reading this book once I read the book jacket properly. I didn't want to start imagining scenarios in which my sisters became sick and were taken away from me. So it was with slight dread that I started reading.

Jessica Handler recounts growing up with her mother, father and two younger sisters, Susie and Sarah, in Invisible Sisters. Susie is diagnosed with leukemia at age eight. Sarah suffers from symptoms of Kostmann's syndrome from birth. At one point, Jessica found herself clarifying her status to a nurse, "I'm the well sister." Jessica's family soon becomes accustomed to illness; their family is doctor is also a close family friend, calls and visits to the hospital are routine. Sarah has to learn to swallow pills as a toddler, and all of the sisters practice with candy. Things begin to fall apart when Susie passes away after two years of treatment. The remaining family members don't quite know how to deal with their grief individually or as a group. Jessica's father begins a slow decline into addiction and estrangement from the family, and Jessica herself experiments with alcohol and drugs as a teen. Sarah lives until the age of 27, at which point she succumbs to her illness. Jessica is left the sole surviving sister, haunted by her "invisible sisters" and fantasies of memories they could have made together with their children, had Susie and Sarah lived. Jessica eventually reconciles with her father, forgiving him for past mistakes, and marries in her hometown of Atlanta.

I'm going to start my response to this book with a quote from the About Me section of my sister Mollie's blog:

"The oldest of three sisters, I am somehow always aware of how similar and different we are from each other, and that no one can really know me without knowing them."

I really couldn't have put it better myself. From the day I was born, I was part of a set. The three of us are still known as The Sullivan Girls in some circles. Although Jessica writes eloquently about her experiences, I still can't quite imagine my life if Mollie or Annie had become sick or passed away. I don't want to think about. We still have our whole lives ahead of us, Mollie is getting married this year and none of us are mothers yet. And we're each older than Sarah Handler was when she died. I left the book feeling shaken and sad, but above all incredibly, effing lucky.

This memoir is very well-written and incredibly moving. Even though I was scared to read it and I still don't want to put myself in Handler's shoes, I read the book in one sitting and then felt very appreciative of all that I have. I would definitely recommend it anyone.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

41. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

I know that I read about this book somewhere and noted the title, but I can't for the life of me remember where. It took awhile to get to the top of the requests list at library, which I think is a good sign. I have found that if a book is in demand at my library, there's a chance that it'll be pretty good. This one was no exception.

The titular character of The Uncommon Reader is Queen Elizabeth II, who stumbles upon a mobile library van outside the palace while in pursuit of her runaway corgis. Trying to be polite, she checks out a book and, with a weighty sense of duty to follow through on her folly, reads it from start to finish. In her continuing attempts to be polite, she checks out another book and another. She takes a liking to Norman, a kitchen worker who also frequents the mobile library, and promotes him to be one of her assistants. The Queen and Norman begin a "to be read" list and set out on a journey of discovery. This ruffles the feathers of many higher-ups at the palace and in government, who are confounded by the Queen's new passion and suspect senility.

This is a very clever novella that I got quite the kick out of. Bennett pokes fun at the proper behavior and protocol at the palace, and the results are subversively funny. But I sense a fondness for the Queen in his writing, and it stops short of being unkind. I think I would have appreciated some of the humor more if I had read more of the books that the Queen was reading, but that didn't take away from my enjoyment. The message that reading opens one up to new worlds in a delightful way is expressed loudly and clearly, but Bennett wasn't superior or pedantic about it. I highly recommend this one; it's short, clever and fun, even if you're already aware of the many benefits of reading for pleasure.

40. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I went to the library one day with a list of books to get, having checked online to see if they were available in the library. Maybe I was distracted when I was checking, but one had been checked out when I got there and another was at the other library location in my town. Sheesh! One of the books I was looking for was by Jonathan Safran Foer. Colin suggested that I get Everything is Illuminated because he loves the movie, and would watch it with me when I finished the book. So I shook off the disappointment of my less-than-stellar fact-checking and took his suggestion.

Everything is Illuminated is comprised of two stories. The first is about a young American, named Jonathan Safran Foer, and his journey to the Ukraine to find the woman, Augustine, who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is accompanied by Alex, a young Ukrainian translator; Alex's grandfather, also named Alex, their driver; and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr., Alex's grandfather's seeing eye dog (for Alex's grandfather, depressed since the death of his wife, insists he is blind). The second is the history of Jonathan's grandfather's shtetl in the Ukraine and his ancestors who lived there.

I loved this book. I had so much fun reading it, which is a little surprising considering that some parts are quite dark. I thought the format was very clever. The book is written after the majority of the action takes place -- Jonathan is writing a book about the experience, and Alex sends him chapters from his point of view as well as letters in response to Jonathan's feedback (which we are not privy to). The history of the shtetl is written by Jonathan, and chapters of it are interspersed with Alex's writing. Alex's English is quite broken, and I thought it was insanely annoying for the first two pages -- but once I got into the rhythm of it, I really enjoyed it. The subtle humor in the mistakes and literal translations had me laughing out loud. I thought the history of Jonathan's ancestors was going to be really boring, but it was entertaining for the most part and only dry occasionally. There was some emphasis on the idea that the choices and decisions people make affect the lives of their descendants for years to come, which reminded me of Ursula, Under. While the book was funny and entertaining, there were serious undertones throughout and it left me thinking about the characters and their choices.

I enjoyed Everything is Illuminated the movie, too. I thought it was probably the best adaptation that could be made. I knew the film makers would have to cut the back story on Jonathan's ancestors, and they did (it would have been too complicated to cut back and forth to, in my opinion). I'm trying to avoid spoilers for anyone who hasn't read the book, but I will say that I didn't really think they needed to change the grandfather's story but I did like the closure on Augustine in the movie. All of that being said, having read the book before seeing the movie made the movie seem incomplete. As is often the case, the book being adapted was so rich with details and humor and well-developed characters that the movie paled a bit in comparison.

Monday, January 4, 2010

39. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

At some point, my father-in-law gave Colin his collection of James Bond paperbacks. (Or Colin "borrowed" them, I'm not sure.) They've been sitting on our bookshelf for awhile now, and I don't think Colin has made a point to read any of them yet. We were talking about the Bond movies one day, and Colin mentioned that when they rebooted the franchise with Daniel Craig, they used Casino Royale as the basis for the story because that was the first book published. For some reason, that intrigued me. I thought it was a pretty cool move on the film makers' part. I asked him if we had a copy of Casino Royale and we found it sitting on the bookshelf with the others.

In Casino Royale, James Bond has what seems like an unusual assignment. MI6 has learned that a criminal named Le Chiffre is running a baccarat game at Casino Royale, in an effort to recover money he lost in a failed chain of brothels. Bond, the agency's best player, is sent to prevent Le Chiffre from winning, in hopes that Le Chiffre's gambling debts will provoke a Soviet spy agency to kill him. All goes to plan until Le Chiffre kidnaps Bond and his beautiful assistant, Vesper Lynd. The money is safely hidden while Le Chiffre tortures Bond for it, only to be assassinated by a Soviet spy. The spy spares Bond's life, and it takes weeks for him to recover. Bond and Vesper are vacationing afterward and Bond notices that Vesper is acting strangely. He begins to suspect her, and wakes one day to find that she has killed herself. In her suicide note, she explains the circumstances that led her to be a double agent. Bond, who had fallen in love with Vesper and hoped to retire and marry her, is devastated. Betrayed and hurt, he reports to MI6 that "The bitch is dead now."

I really enjoyed this book, more than I expected to. I've never been a big fan of the movies, and probably would never have seen Casino Royale or Quantum of Solace if Colin hadn't been so excited about them. For the most part, the stories and action were very interesting and I had a hard time putting the book down. I especially liked the background information provided on Le Chiffre, in the form of a file provided to Bond. I was not as into the card playing, at least not at first. Some scenes of the card playing were a bit dry and I got bored easily. But when it came down to the end of the game and Bond battling it out with Le Chiffre, it was very suspenseful (a pleasant surprise). Although this was the first book in the series, it didn't seem like it. The exposition seemed like that which would be included in any of the books, to help the reader keep up. It just doesn't seem like a beginner's effort, with its tightly woven plot and well-developed characters. Fleming tied everything together incredibly well at the end.

One last thing in response to the book: I was surprised at how blatantly sexist Bond was. I've always heard that criticism leveled toward these stories, but somehow I didn't expect it to be so outrageous. I'm used to living in a time when people trip over themselves trying to be as PC as possible, so it was quite a shock to read some of Bond's thoughts on women. Mind you, it's not as though this is a main emphasis in the book but it still took me by surprise.

We watched Casino Royale the movie after I finished the book, and it stacks up very well. They added minor plot lines and background info, including a couple of insane action sequences, but for the most part the plot of the movie hews closely to the plot of the book. The information on Le Chiffre that I liked so much in the book? Gone in the movie, but somehow it worked. It made him scarier in that format, which was effective. The torture scene? Basically line for line the same as the book. Colin thought I wouldn't be able to handle this scene as he obviously has a better appreciation for how painful that particular torture method would be. Apparently I have a harder heart than he thinks I do, because it didn't really bother me in either format -- it was appropriate to the story. Although I have to say, I really don't care for the actress that played Vesper. At least they didn't cast Scarlett Johansson.

In conclusion, I recommend both -- very highly!

38. L.A. Candy by Lauren Conrad

I've been on Team Lauren since the first season of the now-defunct Laguna Beach (which I loved). Lauren Conrad seems like the kind of girl you want as a best friend -- she comes across as loyal and kind, fun and fashionable. (And yes, I realize that writing those two sentences makes me a complete dork. I've accepted it.) So when I heard that she was writing a trilogy of YA novels about a girl who moves to L.A. and gets a reality show, I was pretty excited -- and skeptical. Every famous-for-doing-nothing celebutante thinks she can write, but that doesn't mean that she can. I checked my library's website and they didn't have a copy, so I kept checking back periodically for the next few months. (I may be a dork, but I'm a cheap dork. No way was I buying it without having read it first.) It finally came in, and then I had to wait for the six people who managed to request it before me to finish. At this point, I really don't even remember when the book came out.

The heroine of L.A. Candy is Jane Roberts, a 19-year old who moves to Los Angeles with her BFF Scarlett. Jane has scored an internship with event planner to the stars Fiona Chen while Scarlett enrolls at USC. The girls are approached by a reality TV producer one night at a club and (once that they've determined that he's legit) they decide to interview for his next project, a Sex and the City-type show about young women in L.A. They get the show, and their world is turned upside down. The show moves them into a new apartment; Fiona promotes Jane -- on-camera, of course; and it readily becomes apparent that this is going to be a lot more work than either of them expected.

All in all, this was a pretty good book. (Yay!) The fact that Lauren Conrad wrote it isn't distracting at all. And while the events are more "inspired by" her experiences than a behind-the-scenes tell-all, you still get tons of insidery details on the production of this kind of show. Jane's producer sent her text messages while filming with prompts to speak up or be nicer to her date. I wonder what kind of texts Lauren received from her producers... I was definitely trying to read between the lines for veiled references to actual people, but I don't think any of the characters are carbon copies of her former cast mates (although the repeated references to one of the characters' stupidity makes me wonder how close Lauren and Audrina Patridge really are). The writing stands up to scrutiny, although it's not so good that you wonder if she had a ghostwriter. I think that Lauren showed a lot of self-awareness and an awareness of how people see her when she created Jane. And the use of other characters' first-person points of view was very effective. As this was the first book in a series of (at least) three, it ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger. I will definitely have to keep a better eye on my library so I don't have to wait as long to read the second one!