Winter Sea

I’m going through a strange reading phase at the moment. I never used to read more than one book at a time, but lately I just keep starting more and more. I think my “currently reading” shelf on Goodreads has about eight books on it. It’s a little ridiculous. On the pro side, I never get bored with what I’m reading because I can just switch to something else. Reading on my nook encourages book polygamy. I can’t help myself. Ah well. The downside is that I feel like I never finish anything. There has to be some middle ground somewhere…

The Winter Sea

I did recently finish Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, because it was so good I ignored everything else in my reading pile until I finished it. Kearsley interweaves two story lines, one contemporary and one historical in a way that tempts the line between fiction and fantasy. The main character Carrie is a historical fiction novelist. While visiting her editor in Scotland, she stumbles upon the ruins of Slains castle. Her current work is set during the Jacobite Uprising of 1708, and she finds that her characters have chosen their own location. She hears them whispering their story and immediately rents a cottage in the area. The more research she conducts, the more she realizes that the details of her fictional story fall a little too close to historical records. Identical, in fact. Her protagonist Sophia, named after one of her own forebears who lived at the time as a tribute to her genealogically obsessed father, turns out to be eerily similar to the character she has created in her imagination, who lived for a time at  Slains castle. Carrie eventually starts to wonder whether her story is indeed fiction or fact drawn from sort of ancestral memory. Kearsley weaves the stories of Carrie and Sophia seamlessly. I enjoyed it immensely. Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will definitely love this book.

Inheritance: Long awaited. Dragons. Magic. Love it.

I pre-ordered my copy of Inheritance by Christopher Paolini months ago. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about the fact that it wouldn’t ship until release date and ended having to wait a few days for it. Stupid really, since I work in a bookstore. Live and learn. I probably would have waited to read it anyway. I’ve waited so long for this book  that I had to be able to just sit and read it. And do nothing else.

Inheritance is the fourth and final book of the Inheritance Cycle. I loved the first three books in the series and was not disappointed with the conclusion. The epic journey of Eragon from country farmer to dragon rider is a coming-of-age story at heart. Of course there is the magic and the dragons and the evil king…but essentially it’s about a boy finding who he is.

The books are all bricks, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Don’t be daunted by the size; however, they are adventure tales and read quickly. Paolini is a masterful storyteller. His characters are flawed, heroic, lovable, and strange. The world he creates is rich in setting and history. While Alagaesia is full of classic Tolkien-esque archetypes of high fantasy, Paolini adds unique touches that make the story interesting and unique–namely, the dragons and riders.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It is a fitting conclusion to an epic journey that leaves just a few mysteries unsolved, as it should be in a book of this magnitude. Nothing major, mind, the book is just working on so many levels that Paolini designed it to end this way. I have to admit, I am sad that the tale is over. Not as devastating sad as when Harry Potter ended, at which point I knew my childhood was officially over–thankfully, the movies stretched this date quite a bit. But still. I will miss Eragon, Saphira, and Arya. The books were released far enough apart, and I enjoyed them so much, that I have re-read/listened to them several times. Sir Christopher Wren once said: “Choose an author as you would choose a friend.” And, indeed, I do.

I have heard Paolini say he may return to the world of Alagaesia at some point. If he does, I just hope he does it right.

There aren’t too many details about the plot in this post, because if you haven’t read any of these books I don’t this to include spoilers. The whole Inheritance Cycle is amazing. Read it.

Reading Slumps and Recollections of a Mystery with a Fantastical Twist

Have you ever experienced a reading slump? Lately I’ve been creeping through three different books, unable to actually commit to anything because NOTHING has felt right. Everything I’ve picked up has failed to really grasp my imagination-with the one recent exception of Inheritance, which finally drew me out of my funk, thank goodness. (Post on that coming soon!) I don’t think I’ve ever abandoned so many books in such a short period. Usually I push through and eventually get into the story. I feel a little lost without a good book. I don’t know what to do with my free time and I end up wasting it watching tv.

I suppose there could be a variety of causes. The chief cause is that my work schedule is cutting into my reading time. I have awkward periods in which to read that don’t allow enough time for proper immersion. I suppose I’ll just have to accept that I no longer have time to read a book in a single sitting. Ah, the cost of growing up. Maybe I should consider a short story collection. At least I would be able to finish something on a more regular basis.

Thus, my absence from the blogosphere lately.

I forgot that I had started a post on The City & The City before the onset of my literary ditch, so here are some thoughts on that:

The City & The City was CityCitymy first China Mieville novel. I don’t read a lot of detective or crime fiction, so I wasn’t sure about it. However, I’ve heard been hearing a lot about Mieville lately and decided to see what all the buzz is about.

I was pleasantly surprised. I appreciated the way he mixed genres in The City & The City. It is a detective novel, but what makes it interesting is the setting. In the world Mieville creates, two cities lay on top of each other, inhabiting the same geographic space. This makes the detective’s investigation extremely complicated, as the murder he is investigating takes place in a “crosshatching.” The cities that lie on top of each other are actually in two different countries, and diplomatic relations are shaky.

It is a bit confusing at first to grasp the situation of the cities, as Mieville is so subtle with his world-building. The rules of society are strange. One must “unsee” members of the other city or risk “breach,” which breaks international law. To breach (fail to unsee) is a serious offense. Offenders of this law are taken by the organization Breach, which no one seems to know the exact function of–nor what happens to those who breach.  I was more interested in the world itself than the detective story. Still, it is well-worth taking a look at China Mieville. I’m certainly going to check out some of his other works.

Cleopatra: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction; I never have. Recently, I’ve been dabbling a bit–trying to broaden my reading range.  I’ve heard great things about Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I just finished and I loved it!Cleopatra

Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra is crazy good. Cleopatra’s full, publicly extravagant life is a biographer’s dream– so full of riches and scandal. Schiff handles the complexity and historical ambiguity of Cleopatra’s life expertly. She descibes her as “a stubborn, supreme exception to every rule” (p. 302). She makes no apologies for Cleopatra. She relates how she schemed desperately to win the favor of Caesar, murdered her family members, ruled with superior intelligence, and changed the face of female rulers forever. Schiff tells us what historians have said about her, and puts contemporary opinions (particularly Cicero’s) in proper perspective. She states the possibilities but doesn’t use absolutes. I particularly appreciated her approach to Cleopatra’s relationships. We all know about Caesar and Mark Antony, but what is the real story? Using historical evidence, Schiff tells of how they met, interacted, and what that the evidence suggests about their personal relationship. To her credit, she doesn’t allow Cleopatra to be cast as the demon seductress that history has painted her, but neither does she romanticize Cleopatra’s shrewd nature. She emphasizes her powerful presence and allure, but admits that she wasn’t that attractive. Schiff addresses the role that history and legend have cast her in, the snake-carrying seductress, but argues with convincing evidence that there is more to the story: “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank” (301).

And what a story it is! The realistic portrait of Cleopatra in Stacy Schiff’s biography is even more extraordinary than the legend. As she puts it:  “There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it” (p. 302). Cleopatra was ridiculously rich and Alexandria’s extravagance is legendary. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are the descriptions of her lavish parties–or rather just her lavish style of existence.  In a description of the dinner that Cleopatra threw for Antony when they met, Schiff makes it clear that the truth-in this case-is indeed stranger than fiction: “It was a scene so stunning that Shakespeare deferred to Plutarch, who had already pulled out all the adjectival stops for him. Surely something curious is afoot when the greatest Elizabethan poet cribs from a straight-backed biographer” (p. 161).

There are so many reasons why Schiff deserves all the praise and acclaim she has received for this book. To name a few more:

Her prose is striking. Her descriptions manage to convey the sight, smell, taste, and luxury of Cleopatra’s Alexandria in a way one would think impossible, given that we are talking about the ancient world:

“During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses’ hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. Until well into the evening, when the vermilion sun plunged precipitously into the harbor, Alexandria remained a swirl of reds andyellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world.” (p. 68)

–Talk about place writing. A job seriously well done.

The reader also finds tons of historical ‘trivia’ throughout the book. I really enjoyed this. Most of it is the sort of thing that nobody knows except the odd history professor and a Jeopardy fanatic, but it’s a delightful surprise when something pops out at you. I had a ton of, “I never knew that!,” moments with this book. I suppose that’s what nonfiction is all about. Maybe I should read some more often…

More importantly, you should read Cleopatra: A life. Whether or not you like nonfiction, you will appreciate this book…and you might possibly learn the answer to a jeopardy question and win thousands of dollars someday, thanks to me (and Stacy Schiff). You’re welcome.

Enchanted by The Night Circus

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is possibly the best book I’ve read all year. I love the way it crosses genres. The story follows the life of a very special circus; it appears without warning, and delights through the night. Morgenstern’s  characters and readers are constantly amazed by the wonders of the many and changing exhibitions of the circus. There are tents with acrobats, a magical labyrinth, a contortionist, and of course, an illusionist. The catch is that the illusionist’s tricks only appear to be illusions; in fact, they are real magic. It is this magic that “powers” the circus. The tents appear to be feats of illusion and mechanics, but are really exhibitions of magic by two competing magicians. The thing is: no one knows. Not even the other performers.

The reader learns that the circus is merely the stage of an elaborate game that began in their childhood. The illusionist is one player, but she does not know who the other player might be. Celia’s father and his rival, the mysterious Mr. A. H—, have been training their respective students all their lives. By no choice of their own, their lives revolve around this game. Only later do they find out that one of their lives must also end with it. The trouble is, the players are not playing by “the rules” of the game that supposedly has no rules. They collaborate. Worse, they fall in love.

This book is magical (literally and figuratively), romantic, and beautifully literary. She intersperses her chapters with small vignettes that give a glimpse of different aspects of the circus. She layers the magic, mystery, and wonder of the night circus throughout the novel. The Night Circus is a masterpiece in ideas alone, from clocks that unfold to create life-like, moving scenes to a train that does not require any tracks and leaves no trace, merely folds itself out into the tents of the circus and back into a train again. But the way she describes it is just as magnificent. She slips these creations into the narrative with such subtlety that her descriptions are elegant, rather than showy.

Morgenstern also does an amazing job developing real, fascinating, and truly unique characters. I love that you get to know Celia and Marco before they fall in love, as separate entities. It makes you party to the secret that they have essentially by writing love letters their whole lives, in the form of their magical moves–creations of staggering beauty including a glistening ice garden complete with the scents of each flower and a burning wishing tree that draws power from past wishes.

I also appreciated that Morgenstern develops all her characters. She emphasizes the fact that the magical competition has very real, sometimes catastrophic effects on the non-magical characters of the novel. Putting magic into context can be difficult, and authors of magical realism often miss the mark.

Erin Morgenstern does everything beautifully. This book is as magical of the night circus itself. I guarantee it will enchant you.

The Help

Cover of "The Help"
Cover of The Help

I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I get turned off by too much hype. I listen to book podcasts, follow bestseller lists, and read book blogs. If too many people tell me about a book, I get to feeling like I’ve already read it.

That’s why I put off reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I’ve sold more copies of this book at Barnes and Noble than any other since I started working as a bookseller. Everyone I know has raved about the movie. I was determined to read the book first, but was in no hurry to do so–after all, I had heard all about it. The great secret of the “terrible-awful” thing that Minnie did had been revealed (shame on you, anonymous blogger). So I just figured I’d get to it at some point.

But, then I started listening to it on audio. I was hooked immediately. I started listening to it on the way to Rochester and seriously considered reading it behind the cash register at work (we have copies on display). Obviously, this sort of behavior is frowned upon–even at a book store. But I still might have done it, had I not been enjoying the audio version so much. Three narrators read the three perspectives of Skeeter, Aibileen, and Minnie. There is something so transporting about listening to a book with well-read dialect, especially one as well-written as The Help. Kathryn Stockett describes the way I felt about the voices of Minnie and Aibileen (on audio) beautifully in the book, when Skeeter is describing the voice of her maid:

“If chocolate was a sound, it would have been Constantine’s voice singing. If singing was a color, it would’ve been the color of that chocolate.”

The Help is full of descriptions that will make you smile, because you know just what she means. Like when she says the room where the group of young Southern belles play bridge “smells like diamonds.”  Well, that and hairspray, but that’s just implied. 🙂

It is funny, emotional, and will break your heart with its insight into Mississippi in the 1960s, the most violent state of the civil rights movement. Black women raise white babies, who grow up to learn that their beloved maid is colored. Then, they hire colored women to raise their babies, and make the same woman who changed their diapers use the “colored” bathroom outside–because they hear black people carry different, dangerous diseases.

The Help is engaging and absolutely deserves the hype. Read it!

P.S. And I don’t just mean watch the movie, although by all means do so if you are one of the minority of American women/majority of American men who haven’t seen it yet. The movie adaptation was fantastic.  But the book is BETTER!

The Name of the Wind

I just finished listening to The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, read by Nick Podehl. It was GREAT! Epic fantasy gets overlooked a lot–mostly because it’s nerdy, but partly because people think that Tolkien was a genius and everyone after him is a copycat. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tolkien as much (probably more) than the average reader. I would even agree with that statement, to a certain degree–generally speaking. But that’s what makes me so excited about The Name of the Wind! It’s an epic in its own right and if you love fantasy, Tolkien, magic, myth, adventure, or storytelling . . . READ IT!!

Many fantasy novels spend an exorbitant amount of time on exposition. The author begins with a lot of description, then introduces some old, wise wizard/man to explain the powers that be to an ignorant hero-to-be, and said hero then sets off to save the world. Breaking format (in a good way), Rothfuss just throws you into the world and lets you figure it out. He doesn’t even start at the beginning of the story.  Kvothe, kingkiller and hero of legend, relates his own story to Chronicler, who discovers him pretending to be a normal innkeeper named Kote. I am so glad that I listened to this book on audio, because it fits Rothfuss’ method of storytelling so well. Kvothe’s tale is exciting, magical, and incredibly clever. Another reason I loved listening to this book is the clever dialogue. I read so fast that I would have undoubtedly missed the subtle humor and wit throughout the narrative, but Podehl’s voice conveys both excellently.

The story also has multiple layers, as Kvothe is telling his tale in real time and is occasionally interrupted by something happening in the ‘real’ world. The characters in Rothfuss’ novel are multifaceted, mysterious, and real. One of the things I enjoyed most about this story is that Kvothe is frank about what is true and what is legendary about his story. He even admits to cultivating certain rumors and myths about himself for his own purposes. Customers at Kvothe’s inn frequently recount their versions of his adventures without ever realizing that the innkeeper, Kote, is actually the hero of their story–which is very funny.

The book is the first in a trilogy and I am so excited to read what comes next: The Wise Man’s Fear. Lucky for me, it’s already been released!

Ready Player One…Get Ready

I recently finished Ready Player One by Ernest Cline after hearing a rave review on one of my favorite book podcasts:

Ready Player One is set in a bleak future. The plot is centered inside the alternate reality OASIS, a sensory-oriented, 3D video game that most of the world chooses to inhabit. When creator James Halliday dies, he announces a quest that will determine who inherits OASIS, along with his vast fortune. It’s a sort of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scenario; if you find his secretly embedded clues and pass the tests, you are worthy of the inheritance.

This is an adventure quest on and about video games. Note: I am not a gamer. I attempted to play a video game once. I have no idea which game it was because I had no idea what was going on. By attempted to play, I mean I tried to move my avatar and got stuck in the corner of a tiny digital room while hearing echoes of other, non-stuck players fighting. I think I was supposed to be shooting something, but I just started muttering about how silly this was and how in the world was I supposed to go anywhere if I couldn’t get out of this stupid corner? My friends thought it was hilarious, but I found the experience extremely frustrating. That being said…

I started reading Ready Player One and couldn’t put it down. It’s a love story; it’s a science-fiction novel; there’s a lot of nerdy ’80s trivia, and some spectacularly creative world-building.

Ready. Set. Read it.

Hello world!

I am a lover of literature. From the time I could sit up in my crib, my favorite thing to do has been to turn the pages of a book. Literally. Retention has increased dramatically over the years, but there is no doubt that turning the pages of a book is still my favorite past-time.

I just started working as a bookseller, which only gives me more opportunities to peruse and explore increasingly varied literary creations. I love it. The only difficulty for me is not spending my entire paycheck before leaving the store. I also frequent the local library, which apparently is a controversial issue in my line of work. I never realized this before, but most booksellers regard it as cheating. On my first day of work I pulled out a library book on my break and there was a general outcry. I quote: “Sacrilege!!!” I suppose it makes sense. But let’s be real here. How else am I going to afford my rapid reading rate? And besides, I used to work at a library, so my loyalty is divided. I’ll read whatever I can from wherever I can get it.

As far as what I read: mostly fiction, but I’m challenging myself to stretch my limits and start reading a more varied selection. Hopefully blogging about what I’m reading will give me some incentive to keep this going.

To give you an idea of my taste, here are some of my recent reads:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin
  • The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin
  • The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens (audio by Jim Dale)
  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I’ve been listening to book podcasts, reading book blogs, and making recommendations to friends and family for years. I finally took initiative and decided to do it on a regular (and hopefully more widespread) basis. So here’s to a new venue for me to talk about books…my second favorite past-time! Stay tuned!