Monthly Archives: November 2010

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

2006.  Penguin.  Hardcover. 371 pages.

From: the library

Recommendation from: Ana from Things Mean A Lot

In a nutshell:

Annabel used to be friends with popular Sophie, but the beginning of a new school year finds Annabel a scorned outcast for reasons kept a mystery until later in the book.

It doesn’t help that Annabel’s family has had a rough couple of years with her mother’s depression, her sister Whitney’s depression, and Annabel’s increasing reluctance to continue her part-time modeling work.

A burgeoning friendship with fellow outcast and avid music lover Owen Armstrong promises to shake up Annabel’s outlook on her life, if only she will let herself open up to it.


Usually my forays into young adult literature stick to fantasy and dystopian novels.  However, bloggers have consistently praised Sarah Dessen’s books and a review from Ana at Things Mean A Lot finally pushed Just Listen onto my to-read list.

I actually checked out the audio-book format first.  The reader’s interpretation of Mallory, Owen’s fashion-crazy little sister, was hilarious but I disliked her voicing of Owen.  Also, the reader seemed to give unnecessarily poetic emphasis to solid, but workaday sentences and this seemed silly to my ears.  So, to save the book from unfair detriment, I put a hold on the ‘regular’ book version and finished out my reading in that format.  Much better!

Although I am in my late twenties, I definitely identified with one of the main themes of Just Listen.  Owen is committed to always telling the truth, and pushes Annabel to tell him what she really thinks.  Annabel has been used to holding back and telling people what she thinks they want to hear, as opposed to giving her honest opinion.  She says what is nice, but not what is true. I know that I fall into that trap myself, casting a bland pall over my conversations and missing opportunities for real interaction.

And bravo to Dessen for the fleshed-out characterizations in Just Listen!  I was particularly impressed with her handling of minor characters.  Sometimes novels are like the fake town Sea Haven in the movie The Truman Show.  The background actors wait until Truman (unaware that he is the star of a reality show) wanders into their part of the set and then they snap into motion.  Dessen’s minor and background character feel like they’ve been ‘in motion’ all along and we are just catching pieces of their trajectory as they cross Annabel’s story.  I could easily picture most of them as the protagonists of their own interesting story. [Edited to add: I learned from An Adventure in Reading’s review that two characters who briefly appear in Just Listen are in fact the protagonists of another Dessen book!]

I will likely seek out another Sarah Dessen book in the future.  If you’ve read any others of hers, feel free to recommend which one I should try next.

Other Reviews:

Presenting Lenore – “Owen is a marvelous creation – an atypical love interest for a YA novel – raw, honest and real.”

Things Mean A Lot – “Just Listen manages to do a rare thing, which is to be a book packed full of issues that absolutely does not read like an issue-book.”

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Stasiland by Anna Funder

Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall

2003. Granta. Paperback. 288 pages.

From: the public library (yay, interlibrary loan!)

Recommended by: Lizzy’s Literary Life

For the challenge: What’s In A Name (Place Name)

In a nutshell:

In the winter of 1996, Anna Funder left her native Australia to live in Berlin, working at a German television station.  When a viewer writes to complain about the lack of programming about the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), Anna is spurred to gather GDR stories on her own.

Anna places a newspaper ad to solicit interviews from people who used to work for the GDR’s State Security: the Stasi.  The Stasi was the secret police that monitored the GDR citizens for acts against the state, using all sorts of covert intelligence methods to do so.

Anna also records the stories from people she met whose lives were significantly impacted by Stasi intrusion in their lives.


It’s been since August since I’ve read and reviewed a non-fiction book for this blog (not counting the tree field guide).  I really love delving into non-fiction reads, so that’s weird.  Well, however that unplanned hiatus happened, Stasiland was a terrific choice for a comeback!  It’s one of those non-fiction books where I found myself stopping and reading aloud sections to my roommate.  Unsurprisingly then, my review is rather quote-licious.

I was in second grade when the Berlin wall fell, and we barely got past World War II in my high school history class.  Therefore my knowledge of the Iron Curtain, etc. was not strong going into Stasiland.  Fortunately Funder doesn’t assume too much background knowledge of the reader.  The book provides some “big picture” passages to describe Stasi methods and organization, as well as the rise and fall of the GDR.

That said, the word “stories” in the subtitle is absolutely accurate to the tone of this book.  Stasiland is not a systematic outlining of life under the GDR.  Rather, it has a very organic feel which I enjoyed.  Anna’s interviews are interspersed with her observations of Germany and German life in 1996.  The interviews are contextualized with information about how they were set up, where they took place, and other such details.

I thought this approach was especially fitting for her interviews of people who stood up in some small way to the Stasi.  These are just regular people telling their stories about life under scrutiny.  The separate stories of Julia and Miriam are perhaps the most engrossing stories of the book.  When Miriam was sixteen, she tried to cross over to West Berlin, and got surprisingly far before she was caught and subsequently jailed.

Julia was the woman from whom Anna sublet her apartment.  Julia was scrutinized by the Stasi when she started dating an Italian man.

The Behrends had no telephone, so Julia went to her grandmother’s for the weekly call from the Italian boyfriend.  His calls had to be booked through the authorities, and they both imagined it was possible they were being overheard.  ‘When I hung up I’d say goodnight to him, then I’d say, “Night all,” to the others listening in,’ she chuckles. ‘I meant it as a joke.  I didn’t let myself really think about whether there was another person on the line.”

p. 99

Anna Funder’s conversations with the former Stasi men (for there were few women who worked for the secret police) are usually tinged with the bizarre.  A number of them are unrepentant of their role in the former GDR.  At one point, Anna interviewed a man who was the face of GDR propaganda, Herr von Schnitzler.  Knowing that many East Germans were tuning into Western broadcasts, Herr von Schnitzler was chosen to broadcast a rebuttal tv program.  He would denigrate Western news broadcasts and expose their “lies.”  Here’s an excerpt from the interview with a very insightful observation from Anna at the end which I’ve underlined for emphasis:

[Anna:] ‘Your program was based on exposing the lies of the western media.  When you noticed the false success propaganda at home, didn’t you feel a responsibility to do the same?’

‘No.  I focused in my program quite deliberately and exclusively on anti-imperialism, not on GDR propaganda.’

‘But you understand my question, Herr von Schnitzler.  The success propaganda in the GDR media was also lies -‘

‘It did distance the people from us, because it was in such stark contrast to the reality.’  He can switch from one view to another frightening ease.  I think it is a sign of being accustomed to such power that the truth does not matter because you cannot be contradicted.

p. 136

One of the many books forbidden in the GDR was George Orwell’s 1984.  The situations described in Stasiland reminded me so much of that book.  In particular, the Party and the Stasi worked to perpetuate an image of paternal, benign regard for its citizens, and the “Big Brother” moniker came to mind.  Also stories like the following reminded me of 1984:

Julia went to the Employment Office, took a number and stood in an interminable line . . . She turned to the man behind her and asked, ‘So how long have you been unemployed?’

Before he could answer an official, a square-built woman in uniform, stepped out from behind a column.

‘Miss, you are not unemployed,’ she barked.

‘Of course I’m unemployed,’ Julia said.  ‘Why else would I be here?’

‘This is the Employment Office, not the Unemployment Office.  You are not unemployed; you are seeking work.’

Julia wasn’t daunted.  ‘I’m seeking work,’ she said, ‘because I am unemployed.’

The woman started to shout so loudly the people in the queue hunched their shoulders. ‘I said, you are not unemployed! You are seeking work!’ and then, almost hysterically, ‘There is no unemployment in the German Democratic Republic!’

p. 104

[Charlie] and Miriam had put in applications to leave the GDR.  Such applications were sometimes granted because the GDR, unlike any other eastern European country, could rid itself of malcontents by ditching them into West Germany, where they were automatically welcomed as citizens.  The Stasi put all applicants under extreme scrutiny.  People who applied to leave were, unsurprisingly, suspected of wanting to leave which was, other than by this long-winded and arbitrary process, a crime.  An ‘application to leave’ was legal, but the authorities might, if the fancy took them, choose to see it as a statement of why you didn’t like the GDR.  In that case it became a Hetzschrift (a smear) or a Schmahschrift (a libel) and therefore a criminal offence.  On 26 August 1980 Charlie Weber was arrested and held in a remand cell.

p. 36

(I noticed Lizzy’s Literary Life chose the second quote for her review as well.)

Though reading about the GDR can be a chilling experience, Stasiland is not a dark or difficult book.  Anna has a good sense of humor and employs it judiciously.  It’s also amazing to read about ordinary people asserting power, whether in Funder’s description of their peaceful but determined invasion of Stasi headquarters in 1989, or in her selected anecdotes, like this one:

I am reminded of the story of a factory worker who, after she was approached to inform, announced loudly the next day at the canteen table, ‘Guess what!  You wouldn’t credit it, but They think me so reliable that I’ve been asked to inform!’ Her cover blown, she was useless and she was left alone.

I could probably continue to talk and quote from this book, but I should probably leave some aspects of the book for readers to discover themselves!

I was hoping Anna Funder had written another book, but this is her only one.  I’ll keep an eye out in the future in case she turns up again.

Other Reviews:

A Fistful of Euros – “Don’t pick of a copy of Stasiland, by Anna Funder, if you have work to do.”

German Joys – “[The dissidents’] stories are frightening, moving, and told by Funder without sentimentality.”

Lizzy’s Literary Life – “What Funder brings out brilliantly is the dark comedy inherent in what the GDR created for its people . . .”


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Kim by Rudyard Kipling

1901. Puffin. Paperback. 380 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older Than Myself

In a nutshell:

Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, raised in India where his father had been stationed.  Incredibly street-wise and savvy, the boy encounters an elderly lama in his city, and ends up accompanying the lama on the old man’s spiritual quest.

Along the way, Kim delivers a message for Mahbub Ali, a horse dealer who has been a sort-of father figure to the boy.  Kim’s successful delivery and subsequent events in his travels with the lama put him on the path to be educated as a spy for the British.


The main appeal of Kim was watching its young protagonist cleverly suss out a situation, and use his intuition about human nature to turn that situation to his advantage.  I can see why author Laurie R. King used Kipling’s book as inspiration for one of her Mary Russell / Sherlock Holmes novels.  The fun of reading about Mary Russell was watching her use her powers of observation to investigate cases.  Mary and Kim are of similar stock.

One may think that a spy adventure tale from 1901 would be a mouldering, musty thing but that’s not true in this case.  It always pleases me how the classics can still maintain a fresh snap.  In particular, I liked Kipling’s descriptions of travel and the places Kim sees on his journey.  Here’s an excerpt of one such description, when Kim and the lama are settling down for a night on the road along with other travelers.

By this time the sun was driving broad golden spokes through the lower branches of the mango trees; the parakeets and doves were coming home in their hundreds . . . Swiftly the light gathered itself together, painted for an instant the faces and the cart-wheels and the bullocks’ horns as red as blood.  Then the night fell, changing the touch of the air, drawing a low, even haze, like a gossamer veil of blue, across the face of the country and bringing out, keen and distinct, the smell of wood-smoke and cattle and the good scent of wheaten cakes cooked on ashes.

p. 84

The book does show its age with its recurring references to Kim’s “blood” as directing him to react in certain ways – the Irish blood in him.  Of course, Kipling was the writer who wrote the infamous poem, “The White Man’s Burden.”  So that he would attribute traits to a character’s race is not surprising, but cringe-worthy all the same.  Fortunately, with Kim, Kipling seemed more intent on telling a good yarn than on pushing a particular agenda (though a post-colonial literary criticism of Kim would be interesting to read).  Kim himself seems indifferent about being white, a “sahib.”  When he is enrolled in an English school in India, he uses his vacation time to insinuate himself once again among the masses, where he is more at ease.  Kim’s nickname in the book is Friend of All the World.

The relationship between Kim and the lama forms the emotional ballast of the book.  Kim is fiercely loyal and protective of the lama.  Kim acquires a number of father-figures throughout the book and all except the lama are part of the Great Game, the British covert struggle against Russia for control in central Asia.  Except for the distant Col. Creighton, Kim’s handlers exhibit a genuine affection for the boy and I enjoyed seeing them all take their young protégé in hand.

I was sometimes confused by Kipling’s use of multiple names for the characters.  He would sometimes unexpectedly change tacks with the story as well, and it would take me a moment to figure out what was happening.  However, some of my confusion may be attributed to reading Kim as a lunch break book, reading about 30 pages at a time.

I liked Kim, though it’s not the type of story to have staying power with me and be a favorite.  I am curious though to re-read that Laurie R. King book, called The Game, now that I know the story of Kimball O’Hara.  That’s one of the perks of reading classics: you get to unlock the references made by later literature.  Just this weekend even, I ran across a Kipling reference in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End.

Other Reviews:

A Striped Armchair – “To be honest, the first forty pages were rough going.  I could tell that the bare bones of the story-an Irish orphan grows up with streets of India and is unusually clever-were good, but the writing style felt like I had wandered into an opium den.” [My note: Eva’s review gets more positive later, but I couldn’t resist quoting the opium den comparison.  From a review of both Kim and Laurie R. King’s The Game.]

Monniblog – “The descriptions of India and its people certainly shows Kipling’s love for his home as well as being very informative about India’s culture, history, and religions.”

Kim of Shelf Love [review of audio book] – “I found the interrelationships among the many different cultures of 19th century India to be fascinating. I could tell that this is a rich book, but I felt that I was just skimming over the surface with my listening.”

*Note of interest: I came across at least two blog posts where the readers abandoned Kim, so obviously it’s not for everyone!


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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

2008. Scholastic. Hardcover. 374 pages.

From: the library, after a summer-long wait. 🙂

Synopsis: For the few people who do not know the premise of the wildly popular Hunger Games, the story is set far into a dystopian future.  As punishment for a long ago rebellion, the twelve Districts of Panem must pay an annual tribute of two teenagers to fight in the Hunger Games.  In the Hunger Games, the teenagers fight to the death over a period of days, their battles broadcast to the nation who are mandated to watch the ‘show.’

Katniss is from District 12 (somewhere near what is Appalachia now) and supports her mother and younger sister through illegal hunting and herb-gathering.  She becomes her district’s tribute along with a boy named Peeta, who she hardly knows though he has long nursed a crush on her.

As Katniss prepares for the Games at the glittering and wealthy Capitol, she has a team to help her with pre-Game strategy.  Once in the Arena, she will have to use all her wits and strength to survive and – more than that – to survive with honor in a game designed to render its combatants soulless slaughterers.


I read very few reviews and none recently before reading this book, and I’m glad I was left unspoiled for many of the details in The Hunger Games.  The manner in which Katniss becomes the tribute, the rules of the games, the outcome – these all came fresh to me.

And wow, was this book ever intense!  There was something very cinematic about the writing in the Hunger Games.  The action was written very clearly, which is not always easy to do in novels.  There was one scene where Katniss hears her name called by someone in trouble and she races to the rescue with her bow and arrow.  I could just see her in my mind, this courageous and lethal girl.

I loved Katniss as a character;  I loved her most when she was in her protective older sister mode.  There were several moments when she is in that mode that definitely made me get teary, if not flat out cry.

The world-building was quite good.  I liked that Katniss had some allies on the outside: the prep team for District 12.  These adults, in their various ways, added to the tension by the knowledge that they shared with Katniss about the Games and the overarching politics.

I appreciated that Katniss never failed to notice and inwardly chronicle every meal she ate after arriving in the bounty of the Capitol (prior to fighting in the games.)  It shows that indelible mark of hunger which she grew up with in District 12.  After reading The Hunger Games, I myself felt a craving for goat cheese on bread, the simple repast enjoyed by Katniss and her friend Gale when they hunted together in District 12.

I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy, as they slowly trickle into my hands from the long public library waiting list!

Others’ reviews:

Fyrefly’s Book Blog – “This book’s got tension and suspense dripping off its pages, and there was just no way I was going to go to bed before finding out what happened to Katniss.”

Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? – “Every once in a while there’s a book that just WHAM! takes over your life until you’ve finished the book, and that means you snatch any second you have to read a chapter, a page, a sentence. THIS IS THAT BOOK.”

Presenting Lenore – “Katniss is a strong female character, a bit surly (not that you can blame her considering the circumstances), but clever and loyal. It’s natural that we root for her as the tributes enter the arena.”


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The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

1923.  (1999 release date for audiobook).  Blackstone Audiobooks. 6 discs.

Read by Frederick Davidson.

Jeeves has long been a familiar name without being a familiar personality; I often heard his name referenced in pop culture as the consummate butler.  Wanting to get acquainted with the ‘real’ Jeeves and desiring to experience Wodehouse for the first time, I picked this audio CD off the shelf in the library.

The book is told from the first-person perspective of Bertie Wooster, a young man who is a member of the “idle rich.”  He likes gambling, traveling, and occasionally wearing items of clothing so ridiculous that they offend Jeeves’ impeccable sensibilities.  Jeeves is Bertie’s valet and is responsible for coolly saving Bertie & his friends from many a scrape (though in a manner and timing all of Jeeves’ own choosing.)

Other characters include Bertie’s friend ‘Bingo’ who falls in love with every young woman he meets, Bertie’s Aunt Agatha who constantly seeks to ‘improve’ Bertie by marrying him off, and Bertie’s twin cousins, Claude and Eustace whose mischievous ways reminded me of the Weasley twins from Harry Potter.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ten interlinked stories in this collection (only the one set in New York City was slightly less than great).  My favorite story was perhaps the one where Bingo, Bertie, and various others are so desperate for gambling schemes in the country that they set odds on the winners of the village festival games.  They listen in to village gossip for inside information, cultivate a promising lad for the sprint, and pin hopes on a long-shot choice in the girls’ egg-and-spoon race.  (It rather reminded me of that one episode of the Office where the Dunder Mifflin employees start betting on everything.)

The humor of The Inimitable Jeeves is exactly the kind I like: dry and witty.  To try and convey a sense of the wit, I will include one of the lines I particularly enjoyed.  The context for the quote is that Bertie has been having lunch with his prospective father-in-law at his flat, when they both hear some yowling from Bertie’s bedroom (Bertie does not own a cat.)

It sounded as though all the cats in London, assisted by delegates from outlying suburbs, had got together to settle their differences once and for all.

I quite like the “delegates from outlying suburbs” applying to cats.

As an audio book experience, The Inimitable Jeeves may so far be my favorite.  Frederick Davidson was a dream of a reader.  I loved all his voices for the characters.  I will have to see if my library carries any more Jeeves audio CD’s with him as a reader (though Davidson – real name: David Case – sadly passed away in 2005).

Other Reviews:

Bookphilia – “The Inimitable Jeeves is, like the other Wodehouse books I’ve read, just a silly romp and good-natured poke at the idle rich.”

Let’s Eat, Grandpa . .. “I could tell this series of story was written earlier in Wodehouse’s very prolific writing career. It just wasn’t quite as tight as some of his other books.”

Stella Matutina – “Bertie’s voice is absolutely delightful! I love all the odd little expressions he throws out there, and I think Wodehouse has done an admirable job of painting him as well-meaning but inept.”


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Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore

1995. Recorded Books. 8 discs. 9.5 hours.

Read by: Susan Bennett

In a nutshell:

Jody Stroud, denizen of San Francisco, is heading home from her job at an insurance firm when she is attacked and then ‘turned’ by a vampire.  As she fumbles her way through nascent vampire-hood, she scoops up 19-year-old C. Thomas Flood, a wannabe writer fresh from the Midwest, as her day-minion.  Meanwhile, bodies keep showing in the city, victims of the vampire who turned Jody.  Jody and Tommy band together with some other unlikely accomplices to take down the vampire.


The beginning started off with promise.  I was pulled into Jody’s story as she figured out what had happened to her.  But then, C. Thomas Flood showed up.  I was tolerant at first of his immature and unfunny ways, but by the time the police are taking him into custody near the end of the book, I was inwardly cheering and hoping he’d be locked up for a while.  Part of it is certainly due to how the audio-book narrator handled his voice.  I know he’s supposed to sound young, but most of the time he sounded like a petulant twelve-year-old.

That said, I do not think I would have cared much for the book even in print form.  Bloodsucking Fiends is a dark comedy and its humor was hit-or-miss.  It was definitely . . . off-beat, or maybe random & bizarre would be better adjectives.  It was like this: not long ago, my friend and I watched The Pajama Game with Doris Day on Netflix Instant Watch and found it rather whacked-out.  After the first couple of musical numbers, we just threw up our hands because there was no predicting what the cast would sing about next, and which combination of characters would be singing it.  One moment the guy is having a duet with his dictaphone and the next the whole cast is giddily rolling down the hill like logs.

Listening to Bloodsucking Fiends was kind of like that.  One moment Tommy is buying Jody turtles from the Chinatown market as a gift and the next he’s putting her in the freezer.  This could be fun, but for me the unpredictability and wackiness felt thrown-together and, at times, forced.

There were also a couple of back-to-back disturbing scenes where Jody is threatened – for those of you who have read it, I mean the one that takes place in a morgue, and the other in a vehicle soon afterward.  To be clear, these scenes were not played for laughs, but I was just so filled with ‘ick’ while listening that it was hard for me to continue on.

I guess you could say that Bloodsucking Fiends pushes some boundaries.  I don’t mind being having my boundaries pushed, but I only appreciate it if I think the discomfort is worthwhile.  This wasn’t.  I did want to know how it ended, especially to see if a predicted plot point would come about (it did, albeit with a slight twist), but I was happy when the book ended.  I will obviously not be checking out the sequel, and it will take some persuading for me to try another Christopher Moore book.  I just don’t think his style works for me.

Other Reviews:

Joseph Mallozzi’s Blog: “The book upends the standard male vampire/lovesick female victim conceit with brilliant results . . . It makes for a terrific dynamic, partly because it’s an inspired tack on a weathered chestnut, but mostly because the characters are so damn endearing.”

Monniblog – “It was a bit of action, a bit mystery, a little love story (although far-fetched), and humourous. I didn’t laugh out loud, but there were a couple good smirks and a few bits I shared with others.”



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City of Trees by Melanie Choukas-Bradley

City of Trees: The Complete Field Guide to the Trees of Washington D.C.

By Melanie Choukas-Bradley. Illustrations by Polly Alexander.

3rd edition. 2008. University of Virginia Press. 438 pages.

For the challenge: 2010 Biodiversity Challenge (Backyard)

In both high school and college, I enjoyed studying field biology.  Forget Bunsen burners and lab goggles – get me out into the woods and fields where I can examine plants and identify bird calls.  Since college, however, I have not picked up a field guide on my excursions into nature.  Prompted by the Biodiversity Challenge to find a field guide for my locality, I picked up City of Trees from the public library.

Washington D.C.’s most famous trees are arguably the cherry trees that spectacularly blossom in the spring.  However, Choukas-Bradley’s introduction to City of Trees describes an arboreal legacy that goes beyond the cherry trees, a legacy that began with President Washington and continues to this day.  Many people throughout history have sought to improve the nation’s capital with the addition of trees.  I found the guide’s history of the White House landscaping and successive presidential involvement particularly interesting.  Today, Washington D.C. showcases a wide variety of trees, many of them cultivated trees from other parts of the world.

City of Trees is divided into two main parts.  The first part is the Site Guide to the City of Trees.  The Site Guide describes the types of trees one may view in at particular D.C. sites: places in and around the National Mall, such as the U.S. Capitol and places beyond the Mall, such as Rock Creek Park and Dumbarton Oaks.  The second part is the Botanical Guide to the City of Trees.  Each tree’s profile includes their range, identifying characteristics of leaves, flowers and so on, as well as the sites where they can be found in D.C.  Polly Alexander’s illustrations accompany the descriptions. City of Trees also includes a glossary, a bloom calendar, and an index.

I have used City of Trees only once and that was today.  I had the day off from work as it is Veterans’ Day.  Afflicted with a sore throat, I had been planning on staying in, but the day was so beautiful, I spontaneously decided to take the metro down to the city for the last couple of hours before sunset.

I got off the train at Foggy Bottom and walked to the Mall.  I stopped by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial first.  A ceremony was just concluding and “Taps” floated through the air as I made my way to the glossy wall, which was adorned with flowers and mementos.  Veterans in uniform or other identifying clothing were all around.

After walking through the memorial, I fished out City of Trees from my bag and set to work on the maple trees above my head.  Conclusion: sugar maples.  My field biology knowledge was rusty, else I would have been able to identify that one without help.  I identified a couple of other trees before heading to the Lincoln Memorial.

Climbing the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I sat on the top step and contemplated the reflecting pool.  The dying light was golden.  I wished I had thought to bring my camera.  City of Trees explained that the pool was lined primarily by elms.  Due to the ravages of Dutch Elm disease, efforts have been made to find and plant elms resistant to the disease.

I walked then toward the World War II Memorial, passing by Constitution Gardens and its pond full of ducks and a very still heron.  There were several beautiful weeping willows around and I also confirmed one tree’s star-like leaves as being that of a Japanese maple.  After visiting the lovely World War II Memorial, I set off for home.

Though I did not spend a lot of time with this guide, I was impressed by its organization.  I especially liked the site guides, so that I could know what kind of trees to expect around a given area.  Due to its coverage of cultivated trees often planted in urban settings, Choukas-Bradley pointed out that the guide has been useful in other cities, not just Washington D.C.  That said, I enjoyed City of Trees‘ specificity to this area, and I feel that I have gained a better appreciation for the city because of it.

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The Veil of Gold by Kim Wilkins

2005. Tor. Hardcover. 495 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: The Colorful Reading Challenge

In a nutshell:

When development sub-contractors accidentally tear down a wall in an old Russian bathhouse, they discover a small statue of a golden bear.  The niece of the developer, Rosa Kovalenka, can immediately tell – through her second sight – that there is some strange magic surrounding the bear.  To assist in identifying the bear’s origins and value, she contacts an old lover, Daniel St. Clare, who happens to be elsewhere in Russia as a history consultant on a documentary shoot.  Daniel catches a ride with a co-worker, Em Hayward, to get to St. Petersburg.  All three will become connected by the bear, as they decide that Daniel and Em will take the bear to a university for an appraisal.

While driving to the university, Daniel and Em get lost on a rural road and their car dies.  They are transported by the bear’s strong magic into Skazki, a world where the creatures, demons and spirits of Russian folklore live and have dominion.

Meanwhile, when Rosa realizes what has happened, she connects with a volkhv – a magician – and his family, so that she may learn to harness her own power and cross over into Skazki.  However, the family’s own troubles are soon to entangle Rosa as well.

Interspersed throughout the book, a mysterious narrator tells the story of the golden bear, and how its story is intertwined with Russian history, and Russian nobility.

Eventually all three story strands will come together in Skazki.


There are other unreviewed books that I read before this one, but I found that I did not want to wait any longer to share my thoughts on The Veil of Gold.  This dark fantasy novel was a splendid treat to devour!

I was fascinated by the frightening and desolate world of Skazki, which Wilkins populated with malevolent inhabitants: ghostly revenants bent on possession, wizards who skin humans alive, a headless demon covered in spines, and the terrifying Baba Yaga.  Daniel and Em suffer from hunger, cold, and fatigue as they journey to see the Snow Queen, who they hope will send them back to their own world in exchange for the golden bear.  Their only allies are mercenaries who they bribe with Em’s gold jewelry.  It’s a journey of misery for them, to be sure, and I was glued to the pages, wondering how and if they would survive.

Rosa’s part of the story was also intriguing – more of a domestic fairytale in contrast to the epic nature of Daniel and Em’s story.  She must use her cleverness to figure out who to trust as dysfunctional (and magical) family dynamics rage about her.  I loved her solution for crossing over into Skazki – I totally did not expect it.

Not everyone will like the main trio of characters, I suspect, but their flaws made me like them as characters all the more.  In particular Daniel is often paralyzed with fear and Em is strangely incapable of feeling strong emotions, like terror or love.  At one point, Daniel says, “We’re like two rejects from Oz, Em.  You don’t have a heart, and I have no courage.”

I loved Em’s story arc.  The book jacket made it seem like The Veil of Gold would be all about Rosa and Daniel, so it was with surprise that I realized that Em would be my favorite character.  I was fascinated by how she is completely aware of her inability to feel emotions as others do.  She has become accustomed to being different in this way.  I admired Em’s indomitable will to survive, although she tells Daniel early on that she fully expects to die in Skazki.  Most of all, though, I was – am still – haunted by aspects of her story arc.  I think of Em’s portentous encounter with Morozko, the father of frost, and also of the first time Em screams in pure terror (I’ll leave the reader to discover what causes that response.)

This is a book that has sticking power.  It is not perfectly written: I thought Wilkins was too explanatory and obvious when she wrote things like “And so [he] learned one of the most painful lessons in parenthood: to let her go.”  That said, the story and characters have left an indelible impression on me.  I don’t think this book is for everyone – I’ve seen a few mixed reviews on – but I hope my review will connect this book to someone who will find it a good fit.

Other reviews:

Fluidity of Time – “What I liked most about this book was the writing.   There were times when I would just savor a sentence, or re-read a paragraph, just because the writing and language were so beautiful.”

Olduvai Reads – “It takes a while to get into The Veil of Gold, but as the characters explore the world of story, it becomes a rather engaging read.”

Stefan (an LJ post) – “The characters are interesting (except Daniel, who I wanted to bop in the head most of the time) and the plot moves along at a crisp pace.  The novel has a charming, fairy tale-like quality to it, complete with the darkness that lurks around the edges of most fairy tales.”

VanderWorld (guest reviewer) – “It features strong female characters in Em and Rosa, who are confident and self-assured, yet all too human.”


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

2006. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover. 299 pages.

For the challenge: Thriller & Suspense Reading Challenge

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Yashim is a eunuch entrusted by the Sultan to investigate into a couple of cases: the surfacing of soldiers’ mutilated dead bodies around Istanbul and the murder of one of the harem girls.  Yashim’s investigation raises up the specter of the supposedly obliterated Janissaries.  The Janissaries used to be the great protecting force of the Ottoman Empire before their corruption and rebellion were violently suppressed by the Sultan’s new military guard.


I am intrigued by mysteries and thrillers that have unusual settings – having a protagonist that isn’t white, for example or set in a offbeat location like Minneapolis, or – as in the case here – set outside the U.S. in a historical period I know only a little about.

I’d read Peter Mansfield’s A History of the Middle East last year, which was useful, if a little dry.  As its coverage was so broad, Mansfield’s book left me wanting to read more focused accounts of the period of history that were mentioned, fiction or non-fiction.  That is how The Janissary Tree came to my attention.

Certainly The Janissary Tree contains some interesting nuggets about Istanbul in 1836.  However, while the historical research bits are not what travel writer Sara Wheeler called in her first book “undigested slabs”, they are not completely integrated with the rest of the story either.

I would describe the book’s primary point-of-view as third-person narrative, mostly from Yashim’s perspective but from others as well.  When historical notes were added into the narrative, it was sometimes hard to tell if this was knowledge that Yashim (or the other person) possessed, or if it was just an omniscient point-of-view popping in for a spell.  I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, so I’m not sure how common this is, but it lent an uneven air to the storytelling.

I was overall disappointed in the book.  The mystery was convoluted and lacking in adequate tension for my tastes.  Yashim was interesting as a type of person (not a lot of eunuch protagonists out there!) but past that, I fear he is not of enough interest for me to want to continue with the series.

That said, I noticed that Jason Goodwin has written some travel memoirs, such as On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul and those might be more to my taste.

Other Reviews:

Between the Covers – “The Istanbul of 1836 lives and breathes – and rattles and reeks – on the page.”

Blogging for a Good Book – “As in today’s Middle East, issues of modernization versus tradition, the importance of religious observance, and the rise of fundamentalism are a source of conflict in these tales, and that conflict affects all levels of society.”

Curious Book Fans – “I must conclude that I found Yashim very interesting but the author failed to develop the character and he seemed anchorless within the story whereas more minor characters seemed quite grounded.”

Grumpy Old Bookman – “. . . However, the author is inexperienced in the field of fiction, and it shows. And in my view the ending is too subtle for its own good.”


Filed under Mysteries & Thrillers

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2003. Recorded Books. 5 discs (6 hours and 15 minutes)

Read by Jeff Woodman.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

As a teenager with autism, Christopher does not see world the way that most others do.   His brain does not process and interpret other people’s expressions and tones, making communication with others fraught with anxiety.  Things like crowded, noisy places upset him greatly and he reacts strongly if touched.  He loves to work at math and to be alone, with his rat Toby as company.

When a neighbor’s dog is found dead with a garden fork stuck through it, however, Christopher gets out of his comfort zone to find out who killed the dog.  His investigation brings about unexpected revelations.


I felt mostly ambivalent about reading this bestselling book, but when I was quickly scanning the audiobook shelf at the library, the familiarity of the title jumped out at me.   I’m definitely glad I checked it out.

Christopher Boone is certainly an unusual protagonist, as he is so emotionally detached from others.  He can comes across as self-absorbed and selfish and it’s hard to get used to that.  Even as the story escalated, I still kept expecting Christopher to comprehend certain situations that he couldn’t, thinking why can’t he see what this person is really saying?  how can he not know that this is dangerous?  why doesn’t he just realize such and such?  and so on.

I had ingrained expectations for a certain kind of emotional resolution, but with this character that was impossible.  This is not to say I was disappointed:  one of the strengths of the book lies in the way it dodges the feel-good and expected routes.

As much as I appreciated these aspects of the book, what truly sucked me in was the relationship between Christopher and his father.  It is clear that his father loves Christopher, but Christopher does not seem to truly realize this, much less reciprocate in like degree.  Certainly Mr. Boone is flawed but this made his often-desperate attempts to reach Christopher even more heartbreaking.  This emotional intensity helped balance out some of the more unbelievable aspects, such as this one somewhat elaborate error for which Mr. Boone is responsible.   (Hopefully those who have read it know which mistake I’m referring to.)  The fallout of the error was gripping, even if the error and the motivation of it were harder to swallow.

Regarding the audio book experience, Jeff Woodman did an excellent job of capturing Christopher’s voice.  I can still remember his cadence and it’s been a few weeks since I completed it.  I knew the book had illustrations and I flipped through a print copy after finishing the audiobook, but I didn’t feel like I was missing out when I was listening to The Curious Incident.  So if you’re interested in reading the book, you would be safe with either the print version or the audio-book.

What Others have Said:

The Book Lady’s Blog – “In the way that Christopher takes everything literally and approaches life with a mindset that is both incredibly concrete and remarkably abstract, we are able to see the world and social conventions through the eyes of an outsider, and we are invited to think about them in a new way. This is a tricky feat to pull off, and Haddon makes it look easy.”

Maw Books – “To be taken into the mind of an autistic child was interesting and well worth the read to try to understand the world in which an autistic child lives. I enjoy books which leave me with empathy and understanding.”

Reading Matters – “The great beauty of this lovely book is not just the narrator’s unique voice, it is Haddon’s careful balance between bleak comedy and great sadness.”

Reading with Tequila – “With the story switching gears so unexpectedly, it felt as though the book was in fact two separate stories (featuring common characters) pasted together to create a book. It felt off, like something just wasn’t fitting properly.”


Filed under Book Review