Thursday, August 27, 2009

Book 68: American Widow

TITLE: American Widow
AUTHOR: Alissa Torres
STARTED: August 25, 2009
FINISHED: August 25, 2009
PAGES: 224
GENRE: Graphic Novel

FIRST SENTENCE: The World Trade Center was just hit by a plane!

SUMMARY: [From] On September 10, 2001, Eddie Torres started his dream job at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The next morning, he said goodbye to his 7½-months-pregnant wife, Alissa, and headed out the door.

In an instant, Alissa’s world was thrown into chaos. Forced to deal with unimaginable challenges, Alissa suddenly found herself cast into the role of “9/11 widow,” tossed into a storm of bureaucracy, politics, patriotism, mourning, consolation, and, soon enough, motherhood.

Beautifully and thoughtfully illustrated, American Widow is the affecting account of one woman’s journey through shock, pain, birth, and rebirth in the aftermath of a great tragedy. It is also the story of a young couple’s love affair: how a Colombian immigrant and a strong-minded New Yorker met, fell in love, and struggled to fulfill their dreams. Above all, American Widow is a tribute to the resilience of the human heart and the very personal story of how one woman endured a very public tragedy.

THOUGHTS: I did not expect to cry while reading this book. I knew it was about a widow - a woman who was 7 months pregnant when she lost her husband at the World Trade Center. I knew that and, yet, I was still convinced that I would not cry. I cried. At some points during the story, I held myself back from sobbing. This book is raw - completely and utterly. The stark illustrations only enhance the emotions of this graphic novel. American Widow is a heartbreaking story that is nothing but emotion.

I don't particularly like Alissa Torres - which is weird to say because she is a real person. Still, I don't particularly like her, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying her story. The text seems like a first draft, but in a good way. The lack of editing makes it all the more real. The part of the story where I lost it was while Alissa was giving birth to their son. That page is mostly text and it just grabbed me and would not let go. While that moment stands out, the whole book is just one ball of emotion and it makes you feel.

American Widow does not seem to be a graphic novel with a purpose. It just is. And I think that is what makes it so endearing.

RATING: 8/10 [Terrific]

Book 67: A Great and Terrible Beauty

TITLE: A Great and Terrible Beauty
AUTHOR: Libba Bray
STARTED: August 21, 2009
FINISHED: August 25, 2009
PAGES: 403
GENRE: Juvenile / Fantasy

FIRST SENTENCE: "Please tell me that's not going to be part of my birthday dinner this evening."

SUMMARY: [From] It’s 1895, and after the suicide of her mother, 16-year-old Gemma Doyle is shipped off from the life she knows in India to Spence, a proper boarding school in England. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma’s reception there is a chilly one. To make things worse, she’s been followed by a mysterious young Indian man, a man sent to watch her. But why? What is her destiny? And what will her entanglement with Spence’s most powerful girls—and their foray into the spiritual world—lead to?

THOUGHTS: I read this book again for my next book club. I was going to link to my previous review and leave it at that... but apparently I read this book before I started Recreational Reading. Who knew!

I recall this book being different. Not different as in my enjoyment, but different in plot. Apparently I'm mixing all three of the books in the trilogy together. Oh well. I enjoyed re-reading A Great and Terrible Beauty, but it felt like cheating. I know how it all ends, so this time around the story was not nearly as exciting.

The lack of plot revelations allowed me to focus on the nuances of the emotions that Bray puts into the story. She gets teen girls. Which could be expected. What I was surprised by was how real the historical emotions felt. I believed every sentence. The tag line for this book is all about repressed sexuality. Its there, omnipresent but not oppressive. The varying levels of "sex" are throughout the book and it comes out in so many ways that I can't believed I missed it the first time around.

I'm really looking forward to discussing this book with the girls to see what they all thought about it. Book Club = Awesome.

RATING: 7/10 [Very Good]

Friday, August 21, 2009

Book 66: The Arrival

TITLE: The Arrival
AUTHOR: Shaun Tan
STARTED: August 20, 2009
FINISHED: August 20, 2009
PAGES: 128
GENRE: Graphic Novel

SUMMARY: [From] Shaun Tan's stunning The Arrival chronicles -- in a wordless, wondrous pictorial narrative -- an immigrant's parting from his family and journey toward the future in a new land that is simultaneously ominous and hopeful. Told in drawings of varying sizes -- sometimes there are 12 panels to a page, sometimes 4; there are many full-page images -- Tan's tale juxtaposes the realistic with the phantasmagoric, giving shape to both the mundane material needs and the psychologically charged emotions of immigrant experience. Isolation, fear, want, sympathy, amity, joy: all are rendered palpable by the author's fecund visual invention. He has composed an imaginative landscape in which the uncertain bravery of an immigrant's journey is seen in its true grandeur; best of all, Tan has created a mesmerizing and mysterious "bookscape" in which readers young and old can wander again and again, poring over details, elaborating events, fashioning narrative destinies, discovering new worlds.

THOUGHTS: Tan has created a beautiful immigrant story that anyone can understand. The world he creates is foreign, whimsical, and easily understandable by all... even those who have never found themselves in an unknown environment.

The drawings are absolutely beautiful, full of emotion and creativity. What's even better, Tan crafts a moral message (acceptance, patience, and understanding) that does not whomp the reader over the head. He simply suggests it in his drawings.

RATING: 8/10 [Terrific]

Book 65: 1602

TITLE: 1602
AUTHOR: Neil Gaiman
STARTED: August 19, 2009
FINISHED: August 19, 2009
PAGES: 248
GENRE: Graphic Novel

FIRST SENTENCE: For a whole week the skies over London had been blood red at noon.

SUMMARY: [From] All's not well in the Marvel Universe in the year 1602 as strange storms are brewing and strange new powers are emerging! Spider-Man, the X-Men, Nick Fury, Dr. Strange, Daredevil, Dr. Doom, Black Widow, Captain America, and more appear in the waning days of the reign of Queen Elizabeth. As the world begins to change and enter into a new age, Gaiman weaves a thrilling mystery. How and why are these Marvel stars appearing nearly 400 years before they're supposed to?

THOUGHTS: I think I need to read more classic comics. Gaiman is awesome... but I think most of the nuances of this graphic novel went over my head because I do not have a compendium of classic comic book knowledge on which to draw. I enjoyed the story, but not much beyond that.

The art, on the other hand, I enjoyed quite a bit. Somehow the artist managed to make his drawings look theatrical. There was a feeling of movement and emotion throughout the whole book.

RATING: 5/10 [Meh.]

Book 64: Seven Ages of Paris

TITLE: Seven Ages of Paris
AUTHOR: Alistair Horne
STARTED: August 6, 2009
FINISHED: August 19, 2009
PAGES: 458
GENRE: Non-Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: [From the preface] Whereas London, through the ages, has always betrayed clearly male orientations, and New York has a certain ambivalence, has any sensible person doubted that Paris is fundamentally a woman?

SUMMARY: [From] When Paris was a small island in the middle of the Seine, its gentle climate, natural vineyards and overhanging fig trees made it the favorite retreat of Roman emperors and de facto capital of western Europe. Over two millennia the muddy Lutetia, as the Romans called Paris, pushed its borders far beyond the Right and Left Banks and continued to stretch into the imagination and affection of visitors and locals. Now the spirit of Paris is captured by the celebrated historian Alistair Horne, who has devoted twenty-five years to a labor of love.

THOUGHTS: Wow. There was a lot going on in this book. While it did feel more like I was reading a homework assignment, this book was not boring. There were stretches where my mind wandered, but I never wanted to walk away from Horne's text.

Horne's text is so expansive that there is no way I will be able to recall everything I learned. And, boy, did I learn a lot. Horne covers all aspects of Paris from architecture to leaders to life and art. In some ways, I did find myself wishing he had just focused on one of those topics. (I am now craving a book simply on this history of architecture and expansion in Paris.) Horne wanders in and out of all these subjects and, in many ways, it feels like you're walking through Paris itself. There are themes and storylines but I don't think there was a coherent "plot line." I would not call that a detriment to the book but, rather, an asset. Somehow, Horne managed to "get" the essence of Paris' ambiance (something everyone should experience at least once) into the book. If this structure had been in another book (or maybe in another's hands), I don't think I would have enjoyed the book as much as I did.

If I find fault in this book, it's because I think Horne took on too much. This would have been better as a 7 volume series rather than a compact history. Too many times I wanted Horne to explore a particular subject, person, etc. more than he did.

Then again, this book was incredibly ambitious and Horne was pretty successful.

RATING: 7/10 [Very Good]

Second Edition?

The Boyfriend and I were around Dupont Circle not to long ago, so we decided to venture into one of my favorite used bookstores. Second Story had character. Second Story had spirit. Second Story had delicious piles of books that spilled out onto every horizontal surface. There were shelves and stacks and glorious mountains of reading everywhere.

Second Story had been remodeled!

The piles of books everywhere. Gone. The ephemera and other book related papers, pictures, and doodads adorning the walls. Gone. The addictive smell of used books. Nothing but paint fumes.

I was forlorn and sad and confused and all manner of feelings that I spilled out to The Boyfriend who seemed most amused at my pain. "Put it back!" I wanted to scream. Second Story had been sanitized. It looked like it was catering to those plebes who are afraid to enter a used bookstore with its own system of organization and decoration. Read: My Heaven.

Harumph. Give me my piles, dammit!

I did espy a glimmer. In an unpainted spot of wall was tacked a note, "Place paint here."

Friday, August 07, 2009

Book 63: Nectar

TITLE: Nectar: A Novel of Temptation
AUTHOR: Lily Prior
STARTED: August 3, 2009
FINISHED: August 5, 2009
PAGES: 250
GENRE: Fiction

FIRST SENTENCE: At dawn, before the town of Aversa awoke from its slumbers, a sugar-pink woman with white hair was observed by the gargoyles sneaking toward the portal of the convent of Santa Maria della Pieta.

SUMMARY: [From] Ramona Drottoveo, an albino, is a chambermaid at a lush Italian estate. Distinguished by the intoxicating scent she exudes, Ramona is despised by all women and adored by all men, whose inexhaustible lust she eagerly satisfies. Life changes when her husband dies after discovering his bride with another man on their wedding night. Blamed for his death, Ramona and her lover are exiled to the neighboring city of Naples. There, Ramona's life is transformed once again by the birth of a daughter, Blandina, who "steals" her mother's scent. No longer able to seduce men into blind submission, Ramona humbly returns to the estate to an unexpected welcome — and revenge.

A hilarious and naughty celebration of the senses and the strange places they can lead us, Nectar explores the mystery of sexual attraction and the frivolous nature of divine justice.

THOUGHTS: As if you needed a reason to wear deodorant on the metro...

Lily Prior is slowly becoming one of my favorite authors. I say slowly because this is only the second book of hers that I have read. But it doesn't take a plethora of novels for me to see that I am going to enjoy anything she pens. Nectar was a fast read for me simply because I didn't want to put it down.

While La Cucina was a more well rounded book, I have to give Prior a hand for creating a main character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever... but is still enjoyable to read. Ramona is selfish, proud, arrogant, and a complete dolt and I still liked her. She spends the entire book wanting her personal needs and desires met. When they are not, she whines, complains, and simply leaves those who do not do her bidding behind. Upon the birth of her daughter, her scent disappears and men no longer come to her beck and call. Instead of changing her personality, she remains arrogant. Ramona's actions and attitude are both shockingly rude and repulsive, but I still liked her. I almost admire her for having such gall.

Once again, Prior's writing isenchanting. She brings Italy in all its flavors, aromas, and sights to life. I swear, if she ever wrote about food and nothing else, I would read it... and then gorge myself at a local restaurant. Prior's vocabulary is vivid, her sentences lyrical. In Nectar, Prior also employs black comedy with skill. It's hard not to laugh at the cast of characters that traipse after Ramona. Speaking of that cast of characters, there are many of them. Many, many. Although most characters only warrant a sentence or paragraph each, they feel like real people as opposed to set pieces. While the amount of characters makes the story confusing at times, I was never lost along the way.

This book is humorous, witty, and utterly engrossing.

RATING: 8/10 [Terrific]

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Variations on a Theme: Cupcakes

My previous post spurred a blog idea: Variations on a Theme. I will take one subject and list some books about, on, related to, or in some way connected to said subject.

(Let's see if I actually keep up with this.)

The inaugural topic: Cupcakes!

Martha Stewart's Cupcakes: 175 Inspired Ideas For Everyone's Favorite Treat
Martha Stewart Living Magazine

-- While some of the decorating schemes in this book are kinda hokey, you can't deny that Martha has mad skillz when it comes to baked goods. This book covers all the classics (vanilla, chocolate, red velvet) as well as numerous other frosting, fillings, and flavor combinations.

Hello, Cupcake! Irresistibly Playful Creations Anyone Can Make
Karen Tack and Alan Richardson

-- This book is more art than eats. Sure there are recipes and such, but it's decoration that is the name of the game. Some of the ideas are friggin brilliant (I've seen the sunflower cupcakes used at a wedding) while others are rather questionable (the party princess looks more like a bloated, Pepto Bismal colored nun). I commend the authors for making use of mini-cupcakes and gallons of frosting. (I am a frosting nut.)

Elinor Klivans

-- I actually own this book and have tried a few of the icing recipes (I'm a frosting nut if you recall). It's a pretty basic cupcake cookbook, but it is a nice one to have around when you feel the need to bake. Cupcakes! also contains some interesting cupcake ideas - that could boarder on muffins - for those who are looking for something a little different (cinnamon sugar puff and lemon angel are just two).

If You Give a Cat a Cupcake
Laura Numeroff

-- I have not read this book, but I sure as heck want to. Working of the fame of previous children's book, Numeroff demonstrates why felines and frosting are not the best combination (the paw prints alone would be a pain to clean up.) As with the other books in this series, the story is silly but fun and the illustrations are fantastic.

500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You'll Ever Need
Fergal Connolly

-- This book is thick and chock full of fantastic information. If you only want to own one cupcake cookbook (but why would you?) this book is it. There are enough recipes for cake and frosting in here to allow for endless mixing and matching. As a bonus, Connolly throws in decorating as well as packing tips, tricks, and hints. The downside to this book, it's so thick it may be hard to use while baking as it does not lie flat.

Penguin and the Cupcake
Ashley Spires

-- Must. Get. Hands. On. This. Book. I love cupcakes and I have a thing for penguins, so clearly this book was written just for me. Most penguins are happy with eating a diet of fish and more fish. This little guy wants something fluff, light, and sweet. My kinda guy.

Other Cupcake Related Titles:

101 Gourmet Cupcakes in 10 Minutes - Wendy Paul (Cookbook)
125 Best Cupcake Recipes - Julie Hasson (Cookbook)
Bones and the Cupcake Mystery - David A. Adler (Juvenile Literature)
Crazy About Cupcakes - Krystina Castella (Cookbook)
Crushed Cupcakes - Peter E. Lee (Fiction)
Cupcake - Rachael Cohen (Juvenile Literature)
Cupcakes from the Cake Mix Doctor - Anne Byrn (Cookbook)
Cupcakes of Doom: A Collection of YARG Piratey Comics - Ray Friesan (Juvenile Literature)
Fudge Cupcake Murder - Joanna Fluke (Mystery - #5 in Hannah Swensen Series)
Indulgence Cupcakes - Christabel Martin (Cookbook)
Little Cakes from the Whimsical Bakehouse: Cupcakes, Small Cakes, Muffins, and Other Mini Treats - Kaye Hansen and Liv Hansen (Cookbook)

Digression from the Usual: A Syllogism

I love cupcakes.
I *heart* NCIS.

Ergo: This clip from YouTube is Teh Awesome.

We now return to our regularly scheduled content.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Reading to Write

Confession Time: I never learned grammar. You might have noticed.

I moved quite a few times when I was a kid and, it just so happens, missed grammar lessons. Apparently it's taught in different grades in different states. Sure I learned the basics (noun, adjective, what the heck a period does, etc.) but my ability to write in a passable manner came from my father and reading.

Grammar and writing are no longer taught in school. Indeed, there are "lessons" but none of those would resemble what my great grandmother encountered. She would cringe at the the state of today's English classes... and what appears in this blog. She is not alone: I once had an English teacher whimper over her inability to teach diagramming sentences.

State education lesson plans are not likely to change anytime soon. In fact, I would bet that they get worse. We can't hire enough ruler-wielding nuns to smack the knuckles of those who would deign to splice a comma. (Damn you commas! *shakes fist* They are my arch nemesis.) So what are we to do?


The only way to become a better writer is to become a better reader. Learn by example. When you see how beautiful words and sentences are in the hands of a master, you'll never want to abbr n txt spk agn.

It also doesn't hurt to have a few reference books on hand. Here are some of my ready references:

The Elements of Style (William Strunk and E.B. White)
The Only Grammar Book You'll Ever Need (Susan Thurman and Larry Shea)
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
Roget's II The New Thesaurus
A Writer's Reference
(Diana Hacker)

Other writing resources I've enjoyed are:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Lynn Truss)
Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing Podcast (Now in book form... but I have not read it... yet.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Book 62: Ella Enchanted

TITLE: Ella Enchanted
AUTHOR: Gail Carson Levine
STARTED: July 31, 2009
FINISHED: August 2, 2009
PAGES: 238
GENRE: Juvenile

FIRST SENTENCE: That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me.

SUMMARY: [From] In this incredible debut novel comes the richly entertaining story of Ella of Frell, who at birth was given the gift of obedience by a fairy. Ella soon realizes that this gift is little better than a curse, for how can she truly be herself if at anytime anyone can order her to hop on one foot, or cut off her hand, or betray her kingdom and she'll have to obey? Against a bold tapestry of princes, ogres, giants, wicked stepsisters, and fairy godmothers, Ella's quest to break the curse once and for all and discover who she really is is as sharply funny as Catherine, Called Birdy and as richly poignant as Beauty, and has all the marks of a classic in the making.

THOUGHTS: It took me longer than I care to admit to realize this was a retelling of Cinderella. I figured it out... but it took more than half of the book. D'oh!

I cannot wait to talk about this book with my book club next week. There's just something about reading juvenile literature (with female heroines!) that brings out the best of our group. Moving on!

I really enjoyed Carson's take on this classic story. The magic and surreal parts of the story blended well with the human actions and emotions. Any little girl reading this could find a character or part of a character to relate to. Ella comes across as thirteen going on thirty, but it works. She is neither too childlike nor too mature. I appreciate how, even though she must be obedient, her need to be self-assertive is ever present. Carson makes Ella an incredibly strong character which is a feature seriously lacking in literature (juvenile or otherwise). I particularly enjoyed how Ella is given no easy outs. She gets herself into trouble and she has to find her way out again. She has help along the way, but Ella is shown time and again to be a resourceful character.

Another feature of this book I enjoyed was how even the antagonistic characters had redeeming qualities. Ella's main antagonizer , Hattie (her step-sister), suffers mainly from vanity and lack of self-esteem rather than pure badness. Sure you dislike the baddies, but the reader also feels pity for them.

Ella Enchanted is rounded out with a fantastic mix of secondary characters with doses of whimsy, wit, and humor mixed in.

RATING: 8/10 [Terrific]

Book 61: The Perils of Pursuing a Prince

TITLE: The Perils of Pursuing a Prince
AUTHOR: Julia London
STARTED: July 28, 2009
FINISHED: July 30, 2009
PAGES: 370
GENRE: Romance

FIRST SENTENCE: For some inexplicable reason, the first thing that occurred to Greer Fairchild when three men - robbers, for all she knew - stopped the coach in which she and Mr. Percy were traveling was that the death of Mrs. Smithington, to whom Greer was a traveling companion, was not only tragic, but extremely inconvenient.

SUMMARY: [From] Lady Greer Fairchild's only hope of avoiding marriage to the first bidder lies in journeying into the untamed Welsh countryside in search of an inheritance she's not sure even exists -- one reportedly controlled by Rhodrick Glendower, Earl of Radnor, also known as the Prince of Powys. Rumor has it that the prince is rough, ruthless -- even a murderer. But Greer never imagined that the brute would refuse to let her leave his remote castle until she has proven her identity. Or that she would find herself powerfully attracted to this passionately virile man whose gruff demeanor belies a proud and sensual nature. The further Greer falls under his spell, the more determined she becomes to unravel the secrets of her Welsh heritage and the mystery surrounding the dark prince who dares her to become his wife and princess.

THOUGHTS: This was the best romance novel I've read in my mini-marathon. That said, the heroine was still TSTL at times. And by "at times" I mean "more often than should ever occur in a book." If Greer had simply been headstrong, willful, or brazen I could have liked her better. As it was, she feel into situations of her own making that made me want to throttle her and then throw her in romancelandia timeout.

Seriously, Greer was a pea-brained ninny who acted like a lost puppy for most of the book. She came across as incredibly gullible, stubborn, and idiotic. London has written much better heroines in other books making Greer's flaws all the more annoying.

Thank goodness there was believable chemistry between the lead characters in this book. If that felt forced I think I may have had to swear off romance novels for quite some time.

RATING: 5/10 [Meh.]