Monthly Archives: September 2010

Library Loot: September 29

It has been a long time since I’ve participated in Library Loot!  Though I am a frequent library user, I typically wait to participate until I have a nice big haul.

Library Loot is co-hosted by Marg and Claire.  Claire has it this week.

Last Wednesday night, I picked up three interlibrary loan books that had come in.

As you may be able to tell by the creepy covers, Sophie Hannah’s Little Face and Sarah Rayne’s A Dark Dividing are for the RIP Challenge.  I’m halfway through Little Face right now and am in complete suspense.  I’ll likely be diving right back into it as soon as I finish this post.

Rene Gutteridge’s Boo is Halloween-appropriate in that it involves a reclusive writer of horror novels who gives up writing in the genre to the immense chagrin of his hometown, Skary, Ill. which has made a cottage industry out of his residence.  It sounds like it might be charming and I think the cover is cute.

The rest of these books I picked up this week.

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin – it’s a mystery set in the Ottoman Empire, in 1836.  I love mysteries set in exotic settings and after reading a book about the Middle East last year, I searched out books set in the Ottoman Empire and this was one of them.

Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins – A quest story with a setting steeped in Russian fairytales.

River Secrets by Shannon Hale – Book #3 of the enjoyable Books of Bayern series.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling – I’ve heard and read references to this book, but I really have little concept of the story itself.

Also, I picked up two audio books today: Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding and A Curious Incident of the Dog of the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.  I had earlier checked out Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees on audio book but found it to be very irritating.


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Teaser Tuesday: Little Face

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

My teaser this week is from Sophie Hannah’s psychological suspense novel, Little Face.

Not many children are as territorial as Vivienne was.  She even objected to sharing her parents’ attention with the family dog, who had to be given away when she was three.

p. 56


Filed under Teaser Tuesday

10th National Book Festival, Washington D.C.

Another audience member holds the Festival brochure

On Saturday, I attended the wonderful National Book Festival, held on the National Mall in D.C.  It was the 10th year for the Book Festival and the 6th time I have attended.  My college friend K. has attended it with me every time, so it’s a tradition with us.  Sometimes we are joined by other college friends.  This year and last year, my friend and roommate D. came with us.

Usually I try to read books from participating authors in the weeks prior to the event.  K. always does that, but I decided not to this year, in favor of books I planned to read for blog challenges.  I look at the Festival as not only an opportunity for seeing authors whose books I’ve read, but also as an opportunity for discovering new authors and – especially in the case of non-fiction authors – hearing about interesting and diverse subjects.

As K. had read quite a few books from the participating authors, she had some authors of definite interest and I went along with her.  My event round-up is below.  I will refer sometimes to the tent names, so let me explain that briefly: the tents were loosely named after the genres of the participating authors, e.g. Fiction & Mystery, History & Biography.

My National Book Festival Author Slideshow

We arrived at the Mall at 10:30, the Festival having begun a half-hour before.  D. has studied abroad in Chile, so she camped out at the Isabel Allende talk right away.  The one book I’ve read by Allende – Daughter of Fortune – I didn’t like.  The tent (Fiction & Mystery) was crowded, barely enough room even for standing audience members and K. and I went off to find seats in the Contemporary Life tent.  Ree Drummond was the speaker there.  I am aware of her blog, The Pioneer Woman, and have read the beginning of her series of posts about first meeting Marlboro Man (her husband.)  She fielded questions about blogging from the audience, which I thought was a cool start to my day, considering I am now a blogger.

We rejoined D. and the three of us returned to the Fiction & Mystery tent to see Elizabeth Kostova.  I really enjoyed Kostova’s vampire tale chunkster, The Historian, especially her descriptions of places and eras.  Kostova preferred to direct her talk based on questions from the audience, rather than wait until the last five to ten minutes as most authors did.  Asked about the upcoming film adaptation of The Historian, Kostova expressed confidence in the studio (Sony’s Red Wagon Productions), citing their stated vision for the film: “terrifying and beautiful.”  Another audience member asked her about the nested journal structure of The Historian and Kostova credited Victorian novels as her inspiration.

Kostova talked some about the writing process of both her books.  Years ago, she asked a friend what chapter she was on in writing her book and the friend replied unconcerned, “I don’t know.”  Kostova said, to the amusement of the audience, that she didn’t know you could write that way!  She had written The Historian from beginning to end, pretty much the order in which it was published.  So with The Swan Thieves, her second book, her day’s writing was determined by whatever voice felt the strongest.  Kostova joked that one nice thing about writing The Swan Thieves was that no one asks her if she believes Impressionists are real.

Kostova spoke of a childhood steeped in books and story.  Her grandmother read aloud all of Austen’s novels to Kostova before she was 16.  Her father told her Dracula stories based on the vampire movies he’d seen as a kid.  Kostova raises her own children on story.   At bedtime they excitedly say to each other “Get your pajamas on, it’s time for Greek myths!”

Asked about her favorite place to travel, Kostova said that Bulgaria was a close to her heart.  She went on to describe her foundation to support Bulgarian writers.

One of the last questions was a request for Kostova’s opinion on the current vampire craze.  She said that it was nothing new: “vampires live up to their reputation of never dying.”  She said that there was a surge of vampire stories in the 1950’s.  Kostova remarked that it speaks to the power of myth and elaborated that the not-quite-human nature of the vampire is intriguing to us, more interesting to us than say, the blob, as far as monsters go.

After listening to Kostova’s talk, the three of us took a break from the Festival to get lunch and wander around in the National Gallery of Art.

Back at Fiction & Mystery, after the Ken Follett crowd had departed, we settled in some chairs to listen to Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov (which K. had read) and The Line.  Grushin always knew she wanted to write books, but would never have predicted that she would write them in English.  As a child, she would write stories which her father would type up and bind into books.  These books would be presented to her mother as gifts.  Grushin came to the United States to study at Emory University.  To learn English well enough to write books, Grushin briefly tried Nabokov’s method of reading the dictionary straight through.  In the middle of the C’s, she gave up.  She joked that if any scholars were to analyze her writing, they might notice a concentration of obscure English words in the A’s and B’s.  Grushin explained how she tries to fuse Russian intonations and thought processes with the English language in her books.

Anchee Min is the author of Red Azalea, The Last Empress, and Pearl of China, among others.  I haven’t read her books yet but have been interested in them for a while.  Min was breathless as she started to talk, her excitement to be there clearly evident.  She talked at some length about her arrival to the United States and the parade of jobs she had before she became a published author.  Min and her college-aged daughter read aloud dialogue from Empress Orchid and her daughter also read aloud from Min’s most recent book, Pearl of China, about the author Pearl Buck.

When Min was a child, she was instructed to denounce Pearl Buck, though she had never read any of Pearl Buck’s books.  While on tour for one of her first books, a reader presented Anchee Min with The Good Earth as a gift.  Min completed it on the flight home and broke down because she felt that finally someone had written about China’s peasants with admiration and humanity.

At the end of her talk, Anchee Min and her daughter performed a brief peasant opera, an opera that Pearl Buck had enjoyed.

James McGrath Morris writes books about American journalism history.  Intrigued by his author description in the program, we slipped into the History & Biography tent to listen to him speak.  Morris’ most recent book is Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power about Joseph Pulitzer.  Knowing very little about Pulitzer, I learned quite a bit just from the author’s talk.  In a neat figure of speech, Morris compared Pulitzer’s sense of future trends to the way a surfer detects an oncoming wave.  Morris talked about how Pulitzer’s reputation was irreversibly stained by his participation in ‘yellow journalism’ but then also described some of Pulitzer’s more laudable qualities.  When Pulitzer came to New York, he turned his paper’s focus to denizens of the Lower East Side, giving a dignity to their stories but putting them to print.

K. had told us about Henry Petroski when we were reviewing the Festival schedule the night before, and how he had written a book about toothpicks.  For the rest of the day, when we talked about what was next, we repeatedly referred to him as the Toothpick Guy.  Petroski did not talk about toothpicks, but expounded on his most recent book theme: the relationship between science and engineering.  The talk was mainly a defense of engineering, which he argues is not given enough attention in policy-making and research & development.  This is not a topic I have given thought to, and while I found it a bit dry, it was still something new to me, and thus of value.  Petroski definitely knows his field as was demonstrated by his able response to the audience questions, including a question about the collapse of the World Trade Center towers that smacked of conspiracy theory.

Another friend, C. had texted me before Petroski’s talk, letting us know she was at the Fiction & Mystery tent.  We joined her there, catching the last half of Peter Straub‘s talk.  Straub writes horror books, and has collaborated with Stephen King on a couple of books.  An audience member said in her question that she could not tell which parts Straub had written and which parts were written by King.  Straub said that King and he had tried to write like the other: King used references to Straub’s beloved jazz artists and Straub made rock and roll references, and so on.  Peter Straub said that so far only Neil Gaiman has proven success in telling their passages apart.


As in the past, I left the festival with greater appreciation for authors whose work I had read, and a desire to track down the works of authors whose talks had entertained and intrigued me.  Certainly, I want to read Anchee Min, whose enthusiasm marked her talk as one of my favorites of the day.  And I may be able to squeeze in one of Peter Straub’s books for the RIP Challenge.

If you live in the D.C. Metro area, I highly recommend attending the National Book Festival if you can.

We took the Metro back, stopping at the U Street exit to pick up a cake at CakeLove.  K. and I had heard about CakeLove from its founder, Warren Brown, when he spoke at the National Book Festival several years ago.  (He has published a couple of cookbooks.)  Here is the cake after we had eaten some slices.  K. aptly observed it looked like Pac-Man.


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DNF: The Crazy School and Hearts and Bones

Alas, I have recently had a couple of did-not-finish (DNF) books.  Let me preface my thoughts on them by saying that I am not the type of reader who feels compelled to finish books.  This means that I do not feel guilty about ditching what may be perfectly decent reads for others.  If it’s not a good fit, it’s not a good fit.

Okay, with that caveat out of the way, I will proceed:

The Crazy School by Cornelia Read was a book I had picked up from the library for the Readers in Peril (RIP) Challenge.  It is a sequel to Read’s first novel, Field of Darkness.  I remember having mixed feelings about Field of Darkness when I read it years ago, particularly regarding my feelings about the aloof protagonist, Madeline Dare.  And yet, when I read the premise of The Crazy School, where Madeline Dare is a teacher at a school for troubled kids in the Berkshires, I felt that I should give the author and the character another go.  Unfortunately, when I picked up The Crazy School, Madeline still felt distant from me as a reader – almost inaccessible.  I had also hoped for more atmosphere with the school, but that didn’t quite materialize.  About 70 pages or so into the book, I decided to call it quits.  That said, I do appreciate that Madeline is married.  Married protagonists seem rare in mystery/suspense series.

Hearts and Bones by Margaret Lawrence is a library book I just abandoned today.  It is the first of a mystery series featuring a midwife in post-Revolutionary War Maine.  (1786 is the year at the start of the story.)  I’m originally from Maine and I like mystery series that have unusual settings, so I had hopes for this series.

The book is not shy of gritty details and it is clear that Lawrence did research about how people lived back then.  But then she committed one of my pet peeves in historical fiction: she made Hannah Trevor, the midwife protagonist, into one of those unimpeachable ahead-of-her-time characters.  The other characters in the book may see Hannah as unusual, but I just found her stereotypical of the historical fiction genre: Hannah of course wears practical clothes even if thought immodest or unladylike and does not care what society thinks of her.  Hannah has an illegitimate child and . . . does not care what society thinks of that.  Hannah practices good medicinal habits, contrary to most other medical professionals of the time.  Hannah is not racist.  Hannah is not particularly religious.  Hannah speaks her mind to all, no matter their sex or station.  And on and on – it didn’t take me long to find that Hannah was insufferable as a character.

It reminded me of how in the show “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”, Dr. Quinn was always the uber-tolerant, forward thinking one, while the townspeople had to stolidly take their roles as backward-thinking foils episode after episode.

I got about 65 pages into Hearts and Bones.  I think that there are readers who will like this book for the details of its historical setting.  A number of mysteries are presented: a central complex and grotesque murder mystery, and then the narrative also alludes to secrets from characters’ pasts.  And there are no doubt readers who will either not mind or even like Hannah.  However, for readers who desire historical protagonists that are more tainted by their times, Hearts and Bones may be one to skip.

**Edited to add links to others’ reviews of these two books**

Other Reviews of The Crazy School:

A Gaggle of Book Reviews – “There are twists and turns in this novel that left me completely surprised”

All about {n} – “Ms. Read gives her characters this funny, ironic, and even cynical humor that I just can’t help but to love.”

The Book Zombie – “Maddie makes my list of top ten characters”

In Search of Giants – “Cornelia Read, who was herself a New England debutante, precisely encapsulates the ethos of the late 1980s. ”

My Random Acts of Reading – “The action begins early and continues non-stop to the conclusion.”

Reading Rants – “This bitterly funny mystery by Edgar Award-nominated author Cornelia Read has a great cast of teen characters, but the best voice is that of jaded, wickedly witty slacker sleuth Madeline Dare herself.”

Semi-Colon – “References to the first book in the series abound in this the second, but they’re unexplained.”

Reviews of Hearts and Bones

Shalee’s Diner – “It is a bleak, realistic look at a woman’s life in the late 1800’s surrounded by gossip, anger and despair.”  [Note: I liked this quote from the review, but the book is actually set in the late 1700’s.]

And apparently, the character of Hannah is not the only anachronistic element of the book:

You’re History! – “Much is made of protagonist Hannah, as well as some of the other women characters, as being patchwork quilters. The problem is . . . most textile authorities agree that patchwork as a quilting form did not begin in this country until around 1820, when printed fabrics were becoming available and affordable to the masses due to industrialization. Ordinarily, I’d regard this as a small flaw, but in this book, it’s a pretty important theme.”


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Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten

2009. Bloomsbury. Paperback. 259 pages.

From: Goodreads First Reads program

In a nutshell:

Sixty-something Valeria is the best gardener and the least liked denizen of her small Hungarian prairie town.  An act from her youth set the foundation of Valeria’s outcast status, and she cements her status thanks to her judgmental attitude and mean disposition.  One day she unexpectedly falls in love with the village potter, a widower of about her age.  He already has a some-time lover in Ibolya, the aging bartender of the slovenly village tavern.  The resulting rivalry between the women sets off a comic course of events that will pull in nearly everyone in the village.


I entered to win a giveaway copy of Valeria’s Last Stand based primarily on the book’s setting in post-Communist Hungary.  The premise I read (which was more general than the one I gave above) promised a book fresh and different from other new books out there.

Certainly, the book is a departure from my usual fare as I do not frequently read comic novels. Valeria’s Last Stand is also slightly unusual in its focus: it’s all about the older characters who are rediscovering lust and love and carrying on with bawdy affairs.  There is a love story involving a young couple, but it’s a subplot.

The first chapter placed the story in the larger context of Hungarian history;  I loved that the villagers were still miffed that all of the invading World War II armies completely ignored their hamlet.  There is some satire on the effects of capitalism on the traditional village, as the mayor brings in foreign company representatives and the market starts selling produce from around the globe.  I had to laugh at Valeria’s reaction to these new market additions:

Valeria wasn’t interested in foreign fruits and vegetables, mostly because she could not grow them, but also because of their blatant sensuality.  Tropical fruits were swollen with flesh and juice.  They were sticky.  They were uninhibited.  The first time she held a banana, Valeria was offended.

p. 10

One thing I liked about Valeria’s Last Stand is that I had no idea where it was going to go with the story.  Valeria falls in love with the potter in the first few pages at the market, and the story rocketed from there.  Unfortunately, I do not think the book fulfills the promise of its strong beginning.  The chimney sweep was a nasty character who I couldn’t find funny at all.  Also, the climactic drunken violence – darkly comic as it was in tone – was an unwelcome turn in the story.

Valeria’s Last Stand does have room for some reflective moments, especially as the older characters cast a critical eye on the life they’ve led up to now.  They fear loneliness and obsolescence.  I wouldn’t say that I was ‘moved’ by these moments personally, but I certainly appreciated the way they grounded the story.

After I finished the book, I looked up information about the author out of curiosity.  Marc Fitten’s parents came to the United States from Panama.  He grew up in the Bronx and in Atlanta, Georgia.  Later in life, he spent some years in Hungary where he met his wife and got the idea for this book.  To read more about Fitten, here is link to the Paste article that I found about him:

I was glad to try something a little different.  However, I would characterize my overall feelings on the book as lukewarm: I don’t actively dislike it, but I wouldn’t rate it as a must-read either.   I think that other readers may find it more to their taste though.  Check out the reviews below for other opinions!

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “My problem with Valeria’s Last Stand is that characters are too etched to be read as a fable and fairy tale, yet they are not convincing enough to be taken seriously. It’s not believable.”

Booknotes by Lisa – “It reminds me a little of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in that it is funny while also dealing with serious issues.”

The Boston Bibliophile – “I enjoyed the blend of simple narration, iconic characters and an ending in which the good guys get to be happy and the bad guys get their comeuppance.”

Ramya’s Bookshelf – “A light and mildly entertaining read”

S. Krishna’s Books – “In a lot of ways, Valeria is the best part of this book because she is so complicated, yet so well-written.”


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Middlemarch Review #2: A Parade of Characters

As promised, I return again to George Eliot’s Middlemarch.  The following post will be full of **SPOILERS**, so stay clear unless you are a Middlemarch initiate or, I suppose, someone who relishes being spoiled on major plot points and character arcs.

In my previous posts on Middlemarch, I have talked about overarching stuff, like themes and the writing style and in general, what I thought of the book.  Now it is time for me to get specific, and to get detailed about what I thought about the parade of characters in Middlemarch.

This list is somewhat in order of appearance:

Dorothea Brooke

– At first, I thought she was too severe.  It took her post-marriage disappointment to make her a more accessible character to me, and eventually I found myself empathizing and also admiring her.  I also love stoicism in a heroine – that ability to take life’s knocks with a steady air.  It doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t allowed of course.  There is that great climactic scene where Dorothea says out loud to herself, “Oh, I did love him!” and then sobs and sobs until she falls asleep on the floor.  Then she gets up the next day, not ashamed of her emotion, but determined still in her desire to do right.  And the thing is, while there is this saintly martyr aura about Dorothea, it somehow doesn’t make her insufferable as a heroine, as fictional saintly martyrs can often be, if not handled right.

Celia Brooke

I really liked Celia at the start, for being clear-eyed and seeing how Mr. Casaubon would be an ill match for her sister.  But alas, good judgment from the start does not equal good judgment always.  George Eliot turns Celia into a silly creature by the end, insipidly obsessed with her infant son.  It’s funny, I think because I liked Celia at first, I felt strangely defensive of Celia when the author would make Celia do or say something foolish or ignorant.  I had this irrational feeling that Celia’s character traits were something unfairly foisted on her by the author.

Mr. Brooke

He was a well-drawn character, but his political ambitions were not one of the more interesting plotlines, at least not this go-around.

Sir James Chettam

I liked the guy.  He might have been misguided at times, but I liked how he sought to be a good manager of his estates and land and again, though he was misguided, his righteous indignation on behalf of Dorothea was rather touching.  Also, random side note: did anyone else notice that the tiny dog Sir James has and that Dorothea is contemptuous of in Chapter 3 shows up in chapter 55, referenced as Celia’s Maltese?  I loved that little detail.

Mr. Casaubon

Erg.  George Eliot did make me feel bad for him when she describes his fear that his work will come to nothing.  But my goodwill was eroded by his automatic irritation whenever Dorothea ‘dared’ to put a question to him or his actions.  And then my goodwill was erased by his wish to control her after his death.  Pitiful man, really.

Will Ladislaw

Ah, the bohemian, passionate Will Ladislaw, fond of lying on rugs while visiting with his friends the Lydgates, nice to ragamuffin children and little old ladies.  Oh and completely devoted to Dorothea Casaubon, his relative’s wife, though he knows it is without hope. I haven’t seen the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch yet, but I know one of my favorite actors – Rufus Sewell – plays Ladislaw and that seems to me an ideal casting.

Dorothea and Will’s conversations and interactions were definitely my favorite parts of the book.  I love the following passage about Dorothea and Will particularly:

But her soul thirsted to see him.  How could it be otherwise?  If a princess in the days of enchantment had seen a four-footed creature from among those which live in herds come to her once and again with a human gaze which rested upon her with choice and beseeching, what would she think of in her journeying, what would she look for when the herds passed her?  Surely for the gaze which had found her, and which she would know again.

p. 490 (emphasis mine)

That passage makes me think of Jane Eyre somehow, in that it is a relationship where the love is propelled by two people feeling truly discovered and recognized by another person.

Tertius Lydgate

Yes, he brought his downfall upon himself, though with the tremendous aid of Rosamond who I will talk about shortly.  But I was definitely engaged in his story arc and the way his dreams get whittled away.  Those chapters toward the end of the book where he is in a battle of wills with his wife were fascinating to me.

Rosamond Vincy

Out of all the ‘bad’ characters in the novel, she was the most infuriating.  Of course, there were characters who did worse (I’m looking at you Mr. Bulstrode), but her passive-aggressive attitude made me want to throw things at her.  Did this mean I didn’t like reading about her?  By no means!  There was a shuddering familiarity about Rosamond that had me riveted by her failure to grasp reality.

Fred Vincy

Like his sister, Fred also fails to grasp reality.  Unlike Rosamond, when he hits bottom, he takes it as a wake-up call and starts changing his ways, with the help and generosity of others.  I loved that part where he saves Lydgate from completely making a fool of himself at the gambling hall.  I especially loved it as we had hardly seen the two characters interact before: it was unexpected and a gallant save by Fred.

Mr. Featherstone

What a pathetic, terrible old man.  Enough said.

Mary Garth

Just as there are an abundance of foolish people in Middlemarch, the book certainly has its fair share of splendidly honorable people and Mary Garth is one of them.

If you made her smile she would show you perfect little teeth; if you made her angry, she would not raise her voice, but would probably say one of the bitterest things you have ever tasted the flavour of; if you did her a kindness, she would never forget it.

p. 371

I was a bit surprised that she ended up with Fred.  I thought Mr. Farebrother had her for sure, but the plot does a little tuck and twist at the end, and Fred and Mary get a homey and rather modest denouement for their story.

The Garth family

The Garth family is made of awesomeness.  There is a naturalness to their interaction that is heart-warming without being saccharine.  Caleb Garth is one of the best fictional fathers.

Mr. Farebrother and family

Mr. Farebrother is also ‘good people’.  Mr. Farebrother’s female relatives seemed like they had been transplanted from Cranford.

Mr. Bulstrode

There didn’t seem to be a wrong thing that this man couldn’t justify to himself eventually.  That said, the scene where Mr. Bulstrode weeps after Will rejects his offer was one of the most poignant in the book.  There’s something about characters who are distraught and lonely over feelings of shame or regret that makes my heart go out to them.  I think of Emma (“Badly done, Emma”) and Briony from Atonement.  Unlike with Emma and Briony, however, I never liked Mr. Bulstrode, even if I momentarily felt sorry for him.

Other assorted shady characters:

Joshua Riggs – man, though he is not in the book long, he definitely made an impression.  That part when he puts his stepfather Raffles in his place is pitch-perfect.

Raffles – totally scuzzy guy, but I like the small detail of him suffering from a painful dream.  It makes even him seem more human.

Assorted townspeople

I can’t say I always enjoyed the chapters devoted to town gossip and discussion, but without it, the main characters may have seemed like they existed in a landscape populated with silent extras.

So there you have it!  If you’ve read Middlemarch, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts on particular characters.


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BBAW: Unexpected and Forgotten Treasures

Book Blogger Appreciation Week, founded by Amy of My Friend Amy, has been running all this week.  Every day has a themed topic and today’s theme is:

Today’s Topic: Sure we’ve all read about Freedom and Mockingjay but we likely have a book we wish would get more attention by book bloggers, whether it’s a forgotten classic or under marketed contemporary fiction. This is your chance to tell the community why they should consider reading this book!

The book that immediately came to mind for this topic is Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying.  Clocking in at only 195 pages, it’s not a long read, but it’s an intense one – and not for the faint of heart.  This is what I wrote about the book for

“Written in the disconcerting second-person voice, the book finds its spiritually-conflicted preacher/sheriff/mortician facing the apocalypse of his world. Weaving together scraps of the protagonist’s Civil War memories with his current situation of disease and raging fire, the book grabs the reader for a terrifying ride and does not let go, not even after the story has ended.”

The first time I read A Prayer for the Dying was when I was a senior in high school.   It was fall of 1999 – it was displayed in the new additions section of the public library.  My reading tastes have altered in the decade since, but I still hold this book as high regard just as I did the first time I read it.  I’ve now read this book at least three times total and the atmosphere of the book envelops me every time.

I’ve read several other books by Stewart O’Nan, like Snow Angels, which was adapted into a relatively recent film with Kate Beckinsdale, and The Circus Fire, a non-fiction book about the deadly 1944 Hartford circus fire.  (Did you know that they waterproofed circus tents with paraffin(!!) in those days?)  I have also read his short story collection, In the Walled City: Stories.  These were all decent books, but paled in comparison to A Prayer for the Dying.

From the first page:

You like it like this, the bright, languid days.  It could stand to rain, everyone says, the sawdust piles at the mill dry as powder, the great heaps of slash in the woods dangerous, baked to tinder, but there’s something to the heat, the way it draws waves from tarpaper, stifles sound, closes town in.

Yesterday, the themed topic for BBAW was: Book bloggers can be some of the most influential people around!  Today we invite you to share with us a book or genre you tried due to the influence of another blogger.  What made you cave in to try something new and what was the experience like?

Reading book blogs has made my to-read list expand exponentially!  I keep track of recommendations with my goodreads account and write a note when it was a recommendation of a specific book blogger or non-blogger friend.   That way, when I review the book, I can credit that blogger/friend.

So there are just so many books that I wouldn’t have heard of or tried without these recommendations.  I do want to give a shout-out to the bloggers who administrate Spotlight Series, which every few months spotlights an independent publishing press.  Those bloggers are: A Novel Source, BookLust, book-a-rama, and My Friend Amy.   Before participating in the Spotlight Series, I had never checked out a book specifically because of who publishes it.  I read Tove Jansson’s fantastic The Summer Book as a result of one of the Spotlight Series tours.


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Teaser Tuesday: Valeria’s Last Stand

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

My teaser this week is from Marc Fitten’s Valeria’s Last Stand, which I just started:

Valeria felt her head spin.  “There are no flowers in my garden,” she snapped.  “It’s a vegetable garden.”  Then she added, “You didn’t really care enough to pay attention.  You’re trying to flatter me.”

p. 24


Filed under Teaser Tuesday

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

Hey, it’s Book Blogger Appreciation Week!  I unfortunately do not have time to write a long post today, but today’s invited topic is:

For those of you who participated in BBAW last year, what’s a great new book blog you’ve discovered since last year’s BBAW?
For those you new to BBAW, what was the first book blog you discovered?

As I started blogging in November 2009, I am new to BBAW.  I actually started reading book blogs regularly as a result of the BBAW 2009 awards, which had been spotlighted in an American Library Association newsletter.  I started subscribing to some of the award nominees and winners, including A Striped Armchair, books i done read, Sophisticated Dorkiness, among others.  I see other winners/nominees from last year whose blogs I currently subscribe to, but I’m not 100% sure I subscribed to them right after reading about the award winners.

Probably Eva’s blog, A Striped Armchair, did the most to compel me to start blogging myself.  I love her Library Loot vlogs!  Additionally, the blogrolls of various bloggers led me on a merry blogroll click-fest throughout the book blogosphere to find other new blogs.  The sense of community was strong and that was the main reason I decided to start blogging myself.


Filed under Uncategorized

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

1959. Viking. Hardcover. 246 pages.

For the challenge:

RIP Challenge: Peril the Second

Recommendation found at:

books i done read

From: the library

In a nutshell:

A professor researching the paranormal invites several guests to participate in the study of a purportedly haunted house, Hill House.  The group consists of the professor, two women with some past paranormal experiences, and a young man related to the house’s owners.  It doesn’t take too long for eerie things to start happening in Hill House and to start affecting the dynamic of this group of strangers.


I loved that the library copy of this book was old, worn and a bit stained.  It helped with the atmosphere of this unsettling tale.

Although the story is told in the third-person, the reader’s point of view is mostly limited to that of Eleanor, a lonely woman who has just spent the last decade of her life tending to her ailing mother.  The book introduces her memorably:

Eleanor Vance was thirty-two years old when she came to Hill House.  The only person in the world she genuinely hated, now that her mother was dead, was her sister.  She disliked her brother-in-law and her five-year-old niece, and she had no friends.

As the reader, one spends quite a bit of time in Eleanor’s head.  Out of all the main characters, she is the one most vulnerable, the weakest, and also perhaps the oddest.  It was often awkward if not uneasy to be in her mind.  I sympathized with Eleanor and even identified with her at moments, but then she would think or say something just a bit off.  This perspective lends a certain unsteadiness to the narrative.  Thus things are already off kilter even before Hill House starts terrorizing its inhabitants.

Jackson takes it slow with the creepiness at first.  The characters exchange wit and get friendly and familiar with each other.  I love that the wit persists throughout the novel, as it throws the creepy bits into even starker relief.   At first it is simple things like: doors never stay open in Hill House.  The house is designed to disorient its guests and keep them in darkness.

The guests’ exploration of the disused nursery is when the house starts to appear truly sinister.  And then that night, the two women wake to find that something is seeking them out.  I won’t go into details, but even though I was sitting in a sunlit room, I felt shivery.

The professor tells the history of the house near the beginning of their stay, and though there is no neat parallel between the house’s past and the present-day characters, there is some delicious suggestion of connection and parallels.  Are the characters behaving like the estranged sisters of Hill House’s past, who grew up “like mushrooms in the dark”?  Or maybe someone is like that old woman’s companion, convinced of a nightly thief and intruder, herself accused of a grasping nature?

I like that the book is more suggestive than explanatory.  Creepiness is intensified when not everything is answered in the end.  Was it really a dog that Luke and the professor chased out of the house?  What followed Theo and Eleanor into that clearing?

I was slightly disappointed in the ending, feeling that the final climactic event was not quite the payoff I wanted after all the effective eerie atmosphere.  The very last phrase however, a repetition from the novel’s beginning passage, has acquired an extra meaning it didn’t have before and I liked that.

So far, a great start to the RIP Challenge.

More reviews:

A Striped Armchair

books i done read

The Book Stacks

Chaotic Compendiums

Fizzy Thoughts

The Indextrious Reader

Jenny’s Books

Reading Matters

So Many Books

things mean a lot

Well-Mannered Frivolity


Filed under Book Review