Friday, December 27, 2013

Chunkster Challenge -- wrapping up . . .

Well, I admit it: I'm proud of myself.   Not only did I get back to blogging again, but I actually finished the one book challenge I signed up for.    The Chunkster Challenge (see my Challenged page) seemed like something I could handle, and as it turned out, I totally could.   I had signed up for the: Do These Books Make My Butt Look Big? level and was surprised by how many pages some of my choices actually had.

Looking back at what I read, I realized that some of these books were ones I picked up because of my book groups.  Catherine the Great was a re-read (and I liked it just as much the second time through) for a book group, and so was Reamde.   Out of all of the books, I think I enjoyed the ones by Stephen King and Joe Hill the most: NOS4A2 and Doctor Sleep.   And out of all of the big books, those are the two, along with Lonesome Dove, that I plan on re-reading in the future.

Now that I've finished the year, I think I'll probably take a pass on this challenge in 2014 (although if it turns out that I'm picking up big books, I might sign up after all.  I see there are no levels in 2014, which might make it easier for me).   But, it was a great challenge -- I did feel challenged to find some books, and it made me expand some of my reading boundaries.  Many thanks to the challenge hosts!  

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads):   A love story, an adventure, and an epic of the frontier, Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning classic Lonesome Dove, the third book in the Lonesome Dove tetralogy, is the grandest novel ever written about the last, defiant wilderness of America. Journey to the dusty little Texas town of Lonesome Dove and meet an unforgettable assortment of heroes and outlaws, whores and ladies, Indians and settlers. Richly authentic, beautifully written, and always dramatic, Lonesome Dove is a book to make us laugh, weep, dream, and remember.

And here's what I thought:  I love this book.  I've read it many times over the years, and my big paperback copy is now getting a little worn and yellowed.  But each time I read it, I enjoy it, even though I know what's going to happen in the story, because it's just such a great story.

For me, this book is the perfect example of how a wonderful storytelling sense can be combined with well-written, unforgettable characters, and merged with a steady pace.  From the beginning, we get a great sense of our main characters, and the life they're leading.  Even if you've never spent a lot of time out in the American West (or are that familiar with the history of the setting of the book), I think you get a good sense of what it was like.  McMurtry uses a lot of good imagery to paint a true sense of what life was like for the men and women who chose to live in places where things were dangerous a lot of the time.  And he doesn't shy away from details that are grim, which I like.  I don't want a sanitized version of things; I want something that makes me imagine what real life was like back then.

I admit, even though I know what's going to happen to the characters, I still get choked up at certain points.   Maybe it's because I get invested in these people each time I read the book --- because they're well-written.   Many of the characters are very compelling, not just the two main two (Call and McCrae).   And you don't just get one story here ---- there are a few running storylines that come together.  So, you get a sense of how intertwined people's lives could be, even if they intersect for only a short time.

The funny thing is, none of McMurtry's books have ever had the same kind of resonance with me.  I've tried a few, but I've never wanted to re-read them, and instead, just revisit this one book every so often.

There was a TV miniseries made of this book, which starred Tommy Lee Jones and Call, and Robert Duvall as Gus McCrae, and frankly, I think it's probably the best miniseries I've seen.  The casting felt spot-on, and now, that's who I imagine when I re-read the book.

You might think that westerns are your thing, and as a result, you might not pick up this book.  However, I'd encourage you to reconsider, especially if you like a page-turning adventure story, where the characters are compelling and sympathetic.   This is one heck of a book!

First lines:  When Augustus came out on the porch, the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake -- not a very big one.  It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs.  They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over.  The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

Chunkster Challenge info:  At 945 pages (paperback edition), this is the final book for my Chunkster Challenge.  Woohoo!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: Pantomime by Laura Lam

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  R. H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic is the greatest circus of Ellada. Nestled among the glowing blue Penglass—remnants of a mysterious civilisation long gone—are wonders beyond the wildest imagination. It’s a place where anything seems possible, where if you close your eyes you can believe that the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera is still there. It’s a place where anyone can hide.

Iphigenia Laurus, or Gene, the daughter of a noble family, is uncomfortable in corsets and crinoline, and prefers climbing trees to debutante balls. Micah Grey, a runaway living on the streets, joins the circus as an aerialist’s apprentice and soon becomes the circus’s rising star.

But Gene and Micah have balancing acts of their own to perform, and a secret in their blood that could unlock the mysteries of Ellada.

And here's what I thought:   This is one of those reviews where I have to figure out how I can write it without giving away any spoilers.  And believe me, it's tricky.

So let's see what I can do here.   As you can see from the summary, we have two characters, a boy and a girl, whose stories are entwined.   Actually, completely entwined.  Gene struggles against what her noble family expects of her, and the role that she feels she cannot completely play.   Micah joins the circus, unsure of what his place can turn out to be, and unsure of who he can trust.

The book has some twists to it that make it turn out to be something you might not expect.  For example, you might think there is some romance in this story... and there is, although it's not between Gene and Micah.  You might think there is a bit of fantasy here, and there is ... although it's not very well explained.  For example, there is mention of "the magic and knowledge of the vanished Chimaera" but not much else than the mention.   It's the kind of story that isn't set in a particular time period that you can establish, and the world-building isn't complete enough that I could really imagine the setting, other than the circus, too well.   But, if you think of the world of the book really being mostly the circus, itself, then I think it's a bit smoother.

The author has a descriptive writing style, and most of the time, I found I could imagine the various characters and settings.  I've read enough nonfiction books about circuses that I felt I could imagine the circus, itself, as well as the performers.

However .... this is the kind of story that left me feeling perplexed at times.   The flashbacks at times were confusing, because I felt they threw off the pace of the story.  The author sometimes hints at things that then don't really come too much to fruition.   I will say, the story did stick with me, mostly due to how the author handled Gene and Micah, and how unusual that pairing is.    And, ok, that's probably as far as I can go without giving away anything.

The Book Smugglers wrote a great review of this --- and a much better review than I could write on this book.

I thought this was an interesting story, although I didn't feel it was a "must suggest" to everyone else as a good read.   It kept me turning the pages, sometimes mostly out of curiosity, and I might just pick up the sequel when it eventually comes out.

First lines:  "Well, boy," the ringmaster said.  "What can you do?"
I swallowed.  The clown who had found me eavesdropping tightened his grip on my shirt.  "Pardon?" I asked.
He chuckled.  "Don't tell me you're simple.  What can you do?  Are you a fire-eater? An acrobat? A freak?"
I was a freak, but I could not tell him so.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Review: Heat Wave: The life and career of Ethel Waters by Donald Bogle

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):  Almost no other star of the twentieth century reimagined herself with such audacity and durable talent as did Ethel Waters. In this enlightening and engaging biography, Donald Bogle resurrects this astonishing woman from the annals of history, shedding new light on the tumultuous twists and turns of her seven-decade career, which began in Black vaudeville and reached new heights in the steamy nightclubs of 1920s Harlem.

Bogle traces Waters' life from her poverty-stricken childhood to her rise in show business; her career as one of the early blues and pop singers, with such hits as "Am I Blue?," "Stormy Weather," and "Heat Wave"; her success as an actress, appearing in such films and plays as The Member of the Wedding and Mamba's Daughters; and through her lonely, painful final years. He illuminates Waters' turbulent private life, including her complicated feelings toward her mother and various lovers; her heated and sometimes well-known feuds with such entertainers as Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne; and her tangled relationships with such legends as Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Count Basie, Darryl F. Zanuck, Vincente Minnelli, Fred Zinnemann, Moss Hart, and John Ford.

In addition, Bogle explores the ongoing racial battles, growing paranoia, and midlife religious conversion of this bold, brash, wildly talented woman while examining the significance of her highly publicized life to audiences unaccustomed to the travails of a larger-than-life African American woman.

Wonderfully atmospheric, richly detailed, and drawn from an array of candid interviews, Heat Wave vividly brings to life a major cultural figure of the twentieth century—a charismatic, complex, and compelling woman, both tragic and triumphant.

And here's what I thought:   I admit, part of why I picked this up is because I'm trying to finish up the book challenge I signed up for ....   but also because I happened across it on my library's shelves, and I was curious.  I was familiar with Ethel Waters, but mostly by name only.   After reading this book, I now feel like I know not only about Ms. Waters, but also about some of the history of Black performers in the United States.

The author has written other books, and it appeared that he did exhaustive research for this book.  He takes the reader from Ethel Waters' childhood all the way up to her death, and gives you so much detail that you feel like you're right there with her most of the time.   Ethel was an extremely talented performer, and it was interesting to read about not only how she started out in her early performances, but also how she continued to build upon her success .... and pick herself up when she wasn't as successful and find a way to keep going.   I like how Bogle would give additional information on other performers, and explain not only what the entertainment atmosphere was for Black performers, but also how Waters influenced other performers.  He writes not only about women like Ma Rainey, whose style impacted Waters, but also how Waters' own style was influential on other artists, as well.

As I mentioned, Mr. Bogle puts a lot of detail into this book.  I will admit that a few times, I skimmed ahead a bit, because I was bogged down a bit.  However, the book overall is very interesting, and a good read.   After reading this, I'm interested in finding more information on some of the other artists mentioned in the book, and I'd like to try to find some recordings to listen to, as well.  

First lines:  With only a few minutes to curtain time, Ethel Waters stood in the wings of Broadway's Empire Theatre, ready to take her place onstage on the evening of January 5, 1950, in the drama The Member of the Wedding.  Though nervous, she knew she could not let her nerves get the best of her.  After all, she had made countless entrances countless nights before in countless theaters and nightclubs around the country.

Chunkster Challenge info --- 624 pages.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs ---- trailer!

I don't think I've ever posted a book trailer on this blog before ....   but I'm really looking forward to this book, and the trailer is just too cool not to share:

Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: The Onion Girl by Charles DeLint

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):
In novel after novel, and story after story, Charles de Lint has brought an entire imaginary North American city to vivid life. Newford: where magic lights dark streets; where myths walk clothed in modern shapes; where a broad cast of extraordinary and affecting people work to keep the whole world turning. At the center of all the entwined lives in Newford stands a young artist named Jilly Coppercorn, with her tangled hair, her paint-splattered jeans, a smile perpetually on her lips--Jilly, whose paintings capture the hidden beings that dwell in the city's shadows. Now, at last, de Lint tells Jilly's own story...for behind the painter's fey charm lies a dark secret and a past she's labored to forget. And that past is coming to claim her now. "I'm the onion girl," Jilly Coppercorn says. "Pull back the layers of my life, and you won't find anything at the core. Just a broken child. A hollow girl." She's very, very good at running. But life has just forced Jilly to stop.

And here's what I thought:   Several years ago, I discovered this author in my library, and I read book after book, glutting myself on his stories.   And then, I felt a little too full (kind of like gorging on a delicious meal ... until suddenly you feel a bit stuffed and sick).    But, since then, I have come back again to some of his books, and re-read them over a few times.  

I have sometimes wondered just what it is about this book that has made me pull it from my shelf for an occasional re-read.  Maybe it's the author's blending of stories, where there are elements of Native American tales and mythology, with a contemporary setting and characters, and then adding in a dream world.   Maybe it's some of the characters, who I feel I'd like to know in real life.  I'm not sure, but either way, every time I read this book, I enjoy as much as I did the first time.

As you can see from the summary, this story focuses on Jilly, an artist who has just experienced a horrible accident.   While she has created a life and family of friends for herself in Newford, it seems like she can never quite escape her past.  

The story alternates between Jilly's waking time in Newford, recovering, but also her time spent in the dreamworld, where there are people who can walk between both worlds.   It's a beautiful, but dangerous place to be.   DeLint does a wonderful job of creating both places, I think.  Newford seems like a place I could actually see being possible (more or less), and in my mind, I imagine it being like a much smaller version of Chicago --- or perhaps a place like Louisville or Minneapolis.   The dreamworld he creates is wonderful and scary, and I like how it can be somewhat different for the people who can enter it, like Jilly and some of her friends.

And speaking of her friends, there are recurring characters in many of DeLint's stories, like Jilly, which I like.  I feel like when I encounter them, that I already know them, or know of them through another character.  He imbues a lot of them with some pretty interesting characteristics, which make them memorable.

I will say, though, that the one thing I can get a little frustrated with is that sometimes, it seems like the author is weaving in too many storylines.   They sometimes get a little tangled, and then it seems like they speed up to converge and get resolved at the end, which can feel a little rushed.  In this book, we have Jilly's story, as well as that of her long-lost sister, and those two storylines are enough.  However, there are some other threads running through the story that at times can become too convoluted.

But, overall, I do enjoy this book each time I read it.  If you're new to DeLint, I would recommend beginning with some of his short stories, to introduce yourself to Newford and some of the characters.   That way, you have some familiarity before venturing into a full-length novel.

First lines:  Once upon a time ...
I don't know what makes me turn.  Some sixth sense, prickling the hairs at the nape of my neck, I guess.  I see the headlights.  They fill my world and I feel like a deer, trapped in their glare.  I can't move.  The car starts to swerve away from me, but it's already too late.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Review: The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman

Summary (courtesy of Goodreads):   Her new novel, The Story Sisters, charts the lives of three sisters–Elv, Claire, and Meg. Each has a fate she must meet alone: one on a country road, one in the streets of Paris, and one in the corridors of her own imagination. Inhabiting their world are a charismatic man who cannot tell the truth, a neighbor who is not who he appears to be, a clumsy boy in Paris who falls in love and stays there, a detective who finds his heart’s desire, and a demon who will not let go. What does a mother do when one of her children goes astray? How does she save one daughter without sacrificing the others? How deep can love go, and how far can it take you? These are the questions this luminous novel asks. At once a coming-of-age tale, a family saga, and a love story of erotic longing, The Story Sisters sifts through the miraculous and the mundane as the girls become women and their choices haunt them, change them and, finally, redeem them. It confirms Alice Hoffman’s reputation as "a writer whose keen ear for the measure struck by the beat of the human heart is unparalleled" (The Chicago Tribune).

And here's what I thought:   Some of my favorite books are by Alice Hoffman.  While I don't always love every book, I do love some of them enough that I re-read them from time to time (like The Ice Queen and Blue Diary).   And this one?   Well, I think I'll be ready for a re-read at some point, too.

There are several things that I enjoy in this book, and in other books by Alice Hoffman.  I like that she will work in small elements of magic into the real world, sometimes just in a whisper-thin amount, so that it feels completely believable, even as it may be unrealistic.  You think to yourself that magic does surely exist in this world, even if you've never experienced it in such a degree as her characters.   And speaking of her characters, Alice Hoffman doesn't shy away from creating flawed characters -- and I like this, as well.

In this story, we have three sisters, although a lot of the focus is on Elv, the eldest sister who is flawed, but fascinating.  At times, it's very difficult to like her at all --- but I found it impossible to not keep turning the pages because I found her to be riveting.    Elv's influence and impact on her sisters and her mother and grandmother drive a lot of the story.   Claire and Meg are no less compelling, and when their lives diverge from Elv's, they are still quite connected.

One of the other things I enjoy about Hoffman's books is her writing style.  She doesn't just turn phrases in a way that make you clearly see a place, or a person, but she has the ability to evoke a lot of emotion (at least, for me).   Even if I don't necessarily feel a connection to a character, I can feel a connection to something they are feeling.   Here's an example, from page 110, where Elv is with a horse she is taking care of: "Jack banged his body against his stall and whinnied like crazy when Elv got there in the morning.  When she whistled, he came right over, like an enormous, well-trained dog.  Sometimes she sat in the straw in his stall and just talked to him.  He looked at her with his big dark eyes and she felt tears rising.  Not crocodile years, but real ones.  Maybe when she left she would steal him.  Or she would leave his stal door open and he could run away and be free.  The horses didn't judge Elv by the way she looked or discvern that she was marked and ruined.  They didn't care that something had happened to her and that one saw who she was."

Hoffman doesn't shy away from some of the ugly things in this world, and truly, what happens to the sisters in this story isn't always pleasant.  In fact, it is something that happens to Elv as a child that impacts everyone else, both shaping Elv and the people around her.  Even as there are slight magical elements, there is realism that grounds the characters and the story.

First lines:  Once a year there was a knock at the door.  Two times, then nothing.  No one else heard, only me.  Even when I was a baby in my cradle.  My mother didn't hear.  My father didn't hear.  My sisters continued sleeping.  But the cat looked up.
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