Olga J. (bolgai) - Reviews

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The Abhorsen Trilogy Box Set: Sabriel / Lirael / Abhorsen (Abhorsen, Bks 1-3)
Review Date: 12/20/2011


The last time I read epic fantasy was in college when I stumbled upon a copy of the Lord of the Rings and figured that I might as well give it a try because the calculus textbook wasnt ever going to become even remotely interesting. Tolkiens heavyweight was definitely better than calculus and helped pass the time but it didnt thrill me (yes, I know, blasphemy) so when I realized that the Abhorsen Chronicles is also considered epic fantasy I proceeded with caution. The box set was already there though and there were girls on the covers so seduced by the promise of girl power I read on.
This was a rather dark series set mainly in the first half of the 20th century on a continent reminiscent of Great Britain, which is split in two by a great ancient wall. On one side the world is modern with technology thriving and phenomena explained by science. On the other side the world is archaic because none of the new inventions will work there, magic is everywhere and even the calendar is different. I really enjoyed the parallels between the worlds in these books and the Europe of that time - it was an interesting take on the reasons behind the World Wars and the part the people who were at the helm played in the events. These parallels weren't immediately obvious but as the story progressed I felt they were undeniable.
The first book, Sabriel, sets the stage for the events that take place in the second and third volumes and prepares the reader for all the magic, action and a bit of drama that unfolds as the great battle that holds life and death in the balance approaches. The pacing lagged a bit in some instances when some of the main characters had to grow up a bit before they could continue on their quest but the general feel of the series is not slow by any means. There are several plot lines and mysteries that arise and develop throughout the books and Nix skillfully drives them either to a logical conclusion or untangles the secrets in a very satisfying way that isn't forced or contrived. When I turned the last page of the last book I felt that everything was as it should be, which can be challenging with as many character and story arcs as we have here.
Garth Nix does a great job of developing the characters in the trilogy. These books are as much about a quest and a battle as they are about growing up, learning about oneself, accepting who one is, owning it and becoming stronger for it. All the main characters start out in the story when they are teenagers and they all have challenges they must deal with, be that their past that haunts them, their perceived shortcomings or a destiny that feels completely wrong. I was very impressed with how their personal growth was woven into this mainly plot-driven story and how in the end every oddity became a perfect puzzle piece.
This series was on the Goodreads Best Fantasy list and I thank those who included it and voted for it to push it up higher in the rankings. These books are some of the best I've read this year and if you enjoy fantasy I recommend that you check them out.


All That Remains (Kay Scarpetta, Bk 3)
All That Remains (Kay Scarpetta, Bk 3)
Author: Patricia Cornwell
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 234
Review Date: 5/13/2012


Conditioned by my previous experiences with detective novels whenever I begin a Scarpetta book I expect a straightforward mystery, and every time Cornwell crafts a story that's everything but. Oh, there is a mystery alright, but there is also a very strong human element and the more I get to know Kay Scarpetta and her circle the more clearly I see it. It is possible of course that this human element is becoming more prominent, with every consecutive book being more about the people than the crime, the crime being a catalyst for this humanity to manifest itself and provide a macabre backdrop for it. And you know what? I like seeing something more layered than an cold investigation into disappearances and deaths, I like seeing characters stretch themselves, doubt themselves and their friends and colleagues, struggle through life's problems and emerge changed, even just a little bit. I like seeing relationship develop through the mundane things, and Cornwell delivers that every time. In case you're wondering what it is I'm talking about: here Kay doubts her friendship with Abby Turnbull, the reporter she first met in Postmortem, because Abby isn't being particularly straightforward about her involvement in Scarpetta's latest case. It is also in this book that she realizes that the more she works with Marino the more she likes him, despite his unkempt appearance and irritating behavior, and a true friendship begins to emerge. And last but not least there are the frustrations of finding herself in the middle of basically a face-off between the FBI, the DA's office and higher echelons of government. Cornwell uses these situations wonderfully to develop her characters and since they are so significant in the story they become the stage of power plays and the really dramatic scenes.
Politics is big in this book and Cornwell explores the effects of it on people's lives with her usual delicate but firm touch. The potential of a cover-up in her daughter's murder case pushes a prominent politician over the edge and the question of whether she ruined her own career or was helped along the way is a major point of contention in this book. There is also the matter of whether being a public figure at a time like what this politician's family is going through is a blessing or a curse and the reality that there is more than one answer to this question. The fact that Cornwell raises these issues and that everything filters through Kay, the protagonist, makes her a complex individual who navigates a personal and professional maze every day and knows that things are much less straightforward than she would like them to be, a person who regularly thinks about life and people, and not just on a simple day-to-day level.
My only concern with this novel is that if Cornwell continues along the path she is on the politics will grow to dominate the story and while it is a fertile field for character development I would hate to see it happen - politics tend to make things convoluted and much talk about views and positions on issues is not something I enjoy in my fiction. I think she struck a nice balance in this book and hope the next novels don't veer off into a lot of talk and little action.


All the Queen's Players
All the Queen's Players
Author: Jane Feather
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 20
Review Date: 12/20/2011


I must confess, when I read the many lukewarm reviews of this book I prepared myself for the worst. Fortunately I shouldn't have worried, I actually enjoyed this novel even despite the romance-y parts (all the between-the-sheets adventures are not my cup of tea).
One of my favorite things about this novel is that little about it was straightforward. There is a lot of intrigue, both political and personal. Everyone has something they want and the means they employ are hardly ever savory. I've always thought that "life at court", wherever and whenever the court exists, is a dark place and this novel only supports this belief of mine. What would anyone want to be there is beyond me. Excitement? Closeness to the ones with power? Are they really worth the need to constantly watch one's back, literally and figuratively? But I digress. Fortunately all the talk about the intrigues didn't swallow up too much page time and didn't slow down the story as it often does. Another element I enjoyed is tied into the intrigues and has to do with how quickly it all can suck one in. Rosamund, the protagonist, went from an innocent, sheltered girl to one of the key players in a conspiracy at the highest levels in the blink of an eye and with no way out, and she wasn't the only one trapped in the quicksand.
In a simple but effective device the author gave almost every character an antipode, which served to highlight their personalities. Elizabeth had Mary, Will had Arnauld, Mrs. Walsingham had Agathe and interestingly enough Tom had Kit. Kit was the most intriguing of them all, a man with seemingly no moral compass but showing more scrupples and higher standards than any of his associates and at the most unexpected of times. If nothing else he was more true to himself throughout the novel than any of the others, even Rosamund who even in the most dire of circumstances managed to go her own way.
The novel spans less than a year but Rosamund's growth in just several months is incredible. The girl who was most concerned with capturing the apple blossom just right on her parchment grew into a young woman familiar with the price of life and death and the pain of loss and deceipt. In short, she grew up and as traumatic as the journey was it was interesting to follow it.
The whole book is permeated with Rosamund's love for the theater, which in fact is the cause of all her troubles. It was interesting to look in on this world that wasn't considered suitable for the gentle-folk and women in particular, and the appeal it held for people of all layers of society. Nowadays theater isn't all that popular and reading about people being willing to risk their reputation and their future to attend a play is a bit surreal. I can't even imagine what would be comparable in today's world. Makes me glad to be living a simple life in this century and not at court in Elizabethan England - it would seem that even those not involved with the performing arts found themselves acting every day whether they liked it or not.
The parts I didn't enjoy had to do with the particularly descriptive intimate scenes that I felt were gratuitous most of the time and the fact that some ideas kept being repeated, as if the author either forgot that she's already had her characters say things exactly the same way before or wanted to reiterate them but didn't do it very well. In either case, the effect wasn't favorable. Another oddity that caught my eye is that the novel is set in England, the language appears to be true to the period with archaic turns of phrase and sentence structure but the spelling is infallibly American. I'm sure it isn't too much of a stretch to believe that the readers on this side of the Atlantic can figure out that "theatre" is the same as "theater" and "colour" is "color" and it would've kept the atmosphere consistent.
All in all this was an enjoyable read that satisfied my appreciation of historical fiction. And I found myself using words I've forgotten I knew, which hasn't happened in a while.


All You Need to Be Impossibly French: A Witty Investigation into the Lives, Lusts, and Little Secrets of French Women
Review Date: 3/12/2011
Helpful Score: 1


I really liked this little volume. It's written by an English lady who moves to France with her husband and children and sets out to find out what makes the French women so chic. She seeks opinions of men and women from both sides of the English Channel on the subjects of style, diet, fitness, lingerie, friends, plastic surgery, children, role models culture and even affairs and relays her finds in an amusing way that left me chuckling on a number of occasions.
This is a good read for those of us who are asking the same question the author did when she began her quest and who want to develop some of the same allure in ourselves. Some of the traits weren't all that flattering but just like Ms. Frith-Powell we don't have to adopt them all, just the ones we like.

Read my other reviews at bibliophilescorner.blogspot.com


Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris
Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris
Author: Sarah Turnbull
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 19
Review Date: 4/23/2012


My project of experiencing France vicariously through others continues with Ms. Turnbull's adventures as an Australian living in Paris, and I have to say, this account surprised me more than once. My previous experiences were through the frivolous and gossipy All You Need To Be Impossibly French by Helena Frith-Powell and the reserved but admiring Entre Nous by Debra Ollivier. These two ladies presented the French, Parisian women in particular, as confident, chic intellectuals who prefer to spend the afternoon reading a good book in solitude. Ms. Turnbull showed us a different picture. Her Parisians are lonely people riddled with insecurities, fatigued by the structure and rules of the city. Her Paris is a city of contrasts, with perfectly manicured gardens and parks, charming quartiers, beautiful architecture, and streets smelling like urine because while asking to use the bathroom of the people you're visiting may be considered a faux pas apparently urinating outside their building is perfectly acceptable.
Fortunately this is only one side of the story and Ms. Turnbull does a good job of finding and maintaining balance in her narrative. Perhaps it's a journalistic trait, to examine the subject from all sides and report on both the positive and the negative. Or may be it's that life's full of both. In a way Almost French is like a Cinderella story: an Australian girl risks it all by moving to France, has a terrible time of it at first, then finds her stride, learns the language and how to navigate the society, and settles in to a happy life in a city she loves with a man she adores.
The book is full of stories of how all that happened, from the desparation of not being able to find work and eating all the chocolate in the apartment, to the exhilaration of telling off a rude stranger without missing a beat, to the surprise of being overshadowed by her own dog, and they're all written in a fun, engaging way that's personal without becoming too sentimental or giving too much information. There are times when the author sounds a bit whiny, or somewhat pushy, but fortunately those times are fleeting.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it doesn't focus only on the usual subjects of fashion, food and seduction but ventures beyond to the issues of actually living in the city, meeting new people, growing to love the villages and towns beyond Paris, learning to appreciate all the different layers of society in one's quartier and getting things done despite the many rules and regulations that come with living in a coveted zip code. When I finished it I felt like I've actually seen some of the reality beyond what tourists usually see, or what the other two authors either didn't experience or didn't choose to share with their readers. It's a nice to have a differet view even though Ms. Turnbull writes about Paris and France in the 1990s and things may have changed, although I am confident that whatever changes took place they didn't radically alter Paris, France or the French.


Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon, Bk 1)
Angels & Demons (Robert Langdon, Bk 1)
Author: Dan Brown
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
 483
Review Date: 3/12/2011


Robert Langdon is a Harvard professor of symbology and a world-renowned expert on the subject. His quiet life is turned upside down when he receives a fax with the symbol of the Illuminati branded on a murdered man's chest and an insistent summons to help with the investigation.

I enjoyed this book tremendously for the adventure, the history, the quick pace and the light romance. I literally couldn't put it down and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning reading because I had to find out who Janus was, what it is he was after and where the secret Illuminati lair was.
It was interesting to see the conflict between good and evil in this story and Mr. Brown's interpretation of it. You can't get away from it - it's in the title itself. It was fascinating to see how the same things could be perceived to be on the opposite ends of the spectrum depending on the viewpoint of the examiner: are science, knowledge, education and progress good or are they to be shunned in favor of almost blind faith? Is murder justified if it's a means to a righteous end? Can goodness become evil if it goes untempered?
I couldn't help but grow fond of Robert, Vittoria and even the frosty Maximillian Kohler. They each have a story that makes them who they are and this humanity makes them all but walk off the page. For the same reason the villain is that much more chilling - I know there are people in this world who are at the same level of delusional conviction and will do anything to achieve their goals.
The academic explanations tended to slow down the pace but not enough to pull me out of the story. It was more like listening to a highly educated person carry on a conversation in which their field is involved - they just can't resist telling you all the different things they find fascinating and venture off into the realm of lecture before they catch themselves but when it's all said and done you still find that you're glad they told you all those things.
I would recommend this highly satisfying read to fans of edge-of-your-seat mystery with elements of history. Just be prepared to not sleep much until you turn that last page.

Read my other reviews at bibliophilescorner.blogspot.com


Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior
Review Date: 12/20/2011


When I first read about this book on another blogger's site I expected something along the lines of lighter Erma Bombeck with a canine in the lead, giving a family's day-to-day a new dimension and teaching them a thing or two about themselves in the process. I got something different - an incredibly sincere and intimate collection of essays about a life that is often unglamorous and riddled with insecurities but is held together by love, family and friends.
Considering the title I thought that Eli, the saucer-eyed pooch, would be more present in the book but besides the first chapter, which is dedicated to the story of how he came to live with the Coles, he only appears one more time and doesn't display any uproarious bad-dog behavior. I think he's more of a quiet presence, a comfort for Joni when she needs it. And with everything she has on her plate I'd say she needs and deserves quite a bit of it.
While reading this book I was repeatedly impressed with Joni's willingness to talk about things that a lot of us save for conversations with people we trust the most, such as the times we realize that our parents have grown old, our desire for our careers to be a bit more glamorous, the challenges or raising children and the days when we wish our friends weren't quite so perfect. This willingness to be vulnerable in public makes Joni more real to me than a lot of other writers, especially because she doesn't try to be "writerly", she just tells her story with wit, attention to her surroundings and skill that makes reading it very much like talking to a friend who has a particular talent with words.
I absolutely loved the last essay and thought it was a wonderful finale. It talks about the reasons the author is uncomfortable with being born in the Year of the Dog according to the Chinese calendar. Incidentally I was also born in the Year of the Dog and have always had mixed feeling regarding what it says about my personality. Joni got to the bottom of hers and helped me understand mine better and gave me some food for thought in the process (the alpha-dog idea is great). As you know I like books that make me think and so Another Bad-Dog Book gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.


The Art and Power of Being a Lady
The Art and Power of Being a Lady
Author: Noelle Cleary, Dini Von Mueffling
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.2/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 3/12/2011


This book is not your traditional guide on how to write thank you notes and arrange flowers and that alone makes it a pleasant surprise. This little volume is grounded in the modern day-to-day life and talks about how to not only be a gracious hostess but also a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman who knows how to change the spark-plugs on her car. I'll recommend this book to anyone who's interested in reading about what it takes to be a lady in today's world.

Read my other reviews at bibliophilescorner.blogspot.com


The Artist of Disappearance
The Artist of Disappearance
Author: Anita Desai
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 12/20/2011


In just a few days this book will hit the stores and I hope that many of you will go out and buy it because it is, in a word, wonderful. The rich and elegant writing transports you into the characters' worlds and makes you feel like you're right there with them, living their lives, feeling their pain, their joy, their turmoil and their bliss. It did that for me anyway. The relatively short novellas surprised me by how much substance there was in their pages, how I had to take a break between each one to reflect upon the characters, the time and place, the circumstances. This reflection wasn't a matter of choice, I really had to do it, let everything sink in, work its way through me, and that made the experience all the more fulfilling because it's not often that I find books that pack that kind of punch.
All three novellas are powerful in their own way but the third one, the one that lends its title to the collection, is my favorite because it is the most multi-faceted and most positive of the three. While Ravi is a textbook recluse his joy from creating and his lack of desire to have anyone else's approval were in such refreshing contrast to the mode of thinking which almost dictates that if one spends their time doing something the activity must be financially gainful or at least bring some sort of renown. My favorite thing about Ravi though wasn't that he was a person who created simply to create, but that he was a person who didn't become discouraged by setbacks, he just changed direction and proceeded on a different path. I think that's an excellent message since we all can become discouraged if things don't go exactly the way we plan.
There really wasn't anything that I didn't like about this book, it was deeply satisfying and made me curious to read Anita Desai's other works. I highly recommend it to anyone.


Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (The Art of the Novella series)
Review Date: 6/23/2013


I have heard about this book from a friend of mine, who's read it with her book club, so I generally knew what to expect in terms of plot developments. I was however pleasantly surprised by the characters in this novella. They were all remarkable in one way or another and since they were all very distinct their differences stood out all the more. It seems that authors in the middle of the 19th century weren't afraid to make their characters full of personality, take Dickens for example, and Melville definitely followed the same tradition. I particularly enjoyed the character of the proprietor, who is the narrator of this story. He tries so hard to be on good terms with all of his employees, regardless of the trouble they cause him, and makes up excuses to not take any action that would make him look good in his own eyes.
What I didn't expect is how plodding the pace is. Now that I've read Benito Cereno I think that's something that is common in Melville's work. The same type of scene seemed to repeat over and over without furthering the plot or developing the characters. The only thing this repetition seemed to accomplish was to convince me further of utter and complete spinelessness of the proprietor, but I already knew that so it wore on me. I did enjoy the ending though. It seemed somewhat abrupt because events moved along faster than the rest of the story but it was very satisfying. In a way it was the only appropriate ending, anything else wouldn't have worked quite as well. It also redeemed the proprietor in my eyes somewhat, he did have a good heart even if his will was lacking. Despite the extremely slow middle of the novella the ending saved it for me and for a few days after finishing it I kept thinking about the characters and the story. I can see why Melville is considered such an important figure in American literature and why this particular piece is still widely read. I would recommend Bartleby if you want to read a work that will inspire you to think about people, their motivations and how they relate to each other.


Bed: A Novel
Bed: A Novel
Author: David Whitehouse
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 2.8/5 Stars.
 7
Review Date: 12/20/2011


This was definitely a book unlike anything I've read before. I didn't particularly like it, but it made me think about things that don't usually occupy my mind and that gives it value outside of the realm of pure entertainment. Whitehouse has a gift of witty and to the point observations that make you understand exactly what was going on and how everybody involved felt, or mainly how Mal's brother felt. Sometimes after reading a paragraph I couldn't help but silently exclaim "Exactly! That's exactly how it is!" because his characters, who are definitely the highlight of the book, are very ordinary people with simple lives and what happens to them can and often has happened to any one of us at some point. His descriptions don't shy away from anything and his writing style is almost journal-like.
I keep referring to Mal's brother as "Mal's brother" because we never find out what his name is and that gave me some of that food for thought I was referring to earlier. On one hand how often do we talk about our own lives and address ourselves by our first name? On the other hand, why doesn't anyone else ever address him by his first name? Another thing I couldn't help but think about was whether Mal was selfish in making himself the focus of his family in such an unusual way or whether he was the glue that kept this family that would've fallen apart otherwise together. Did he destroy their lives or did he give their lives meaning, like he said he wanted to do in the beginning of the book.
The reason I didn't especially like this story lies in that as clever as Mr. Whitehouse is too often the book feels like a bunch of one-liners put together and called a novel. The "present" chapters felt tedious and with every meticulous description of Mal and his fat and how their mother cared for him I couldn't help but feel slightly nauseated, wanting to find out more about the past instead of focusing on the present that didn't seem to go anywhere. Another reason for my lukewarm opinion of this book is that I didn't really understand what happened to Mal in the end. The big climax was getting him out of the house and then he just... vanished from the story. Are we to understand that he died? But how? Did he pull the plug or simply didn't make it? I'm all for endings that aren't all cut and dried but there was just too much left unsaid in this book.
It all ends well for the main characters of this tragic story. They find love, they find themselves and things work out for them despite everything. I was glad that they were able to make a life for themselves in the end, although I wouldn't want to spend any more time with them than I did. They were all just too messed up. Then again, aren't we all messed up in our own ways?

Book received courtesy of Simon & Schuster


Before I Fall
Before I Fall
Author: Lauren Oliver
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 106
Review Date: 8/21/2011


Sam is a teenager who has it all - she's one of the most popular girls in school, has the most-drool worthy boyfriend and two awesome best friends and is invited to every cool party out there. And then she dies in a car accident. It's not the end of the story for her though because she gets a second chance, seven second chances to be exact, to figure out what's really important.

I should preface this review by saying that I'm not a fan of the "groundhog day" scenario and this spoiled the story for me in a way. It was very well done however and I think that this is an excellent read for those who are entering the "must be cool" stage, regardless of age.
From the very fist pages of the book I didn't like Sam and her friends. They were so jaded despite their youth, so shallow and mean, even to each other, not caring in the least about how their actions and words made the other kids feel. So by the end of the chapter where Sam realizes that she's dying I didn't have much sympathy for her. Had the writing not been great and voice very appropriate for the setting and the characters and had I not hoped that Sam wasn't really as rotten as she appeared (there was a glimmer of a real person in there, beneath all the glitter and lipgloss) I would've set the book aside and moved on to something else. I did keep reading though.
My favorite characters here were the outsiders constantly picked on by Sam's clique. They were kids with real interests, considerate of others, people worth knowing. Kent and Izzy stood out especially because they marched to their own drum and were just themselves, without trying to fit in with any particular group. I guess they had to be there to contrast with the mean girls and I was glad for their presence and for how genuine and accepting they were, despite Sam's ill treatment of them and others. I'm still not used to the customary practically absent parents in YA and can't wrap my mind around how it's possible for kids to live in a world where parents appear to have little to no importance. I wished that Sam's parents had more of a presence in the book but I guess that's just one of those things that come with the genre being YA.
Sam's evolution was a bit painful to watch, especially in the beginning - it was like watching a blind person stumbling in a maze, looking for the way out. Over the course of 7 days she made some choices I couldn't agree with but she had to make them and they really weren't so outlandish that I couldn't see her making them (props to Ms. Oliver for keeping things believable in the middle of a totally fantastical scenario). It was very satisfying to see her make the right choices, although I couldn't help but wonder what would happen with the story when Sam did everything right. By then I kind of didn't want it to end. And I really hoped that she would make one more choice that to me seemed to be made and was a bit disappointed that she didn't even seem to consider it. Won't tell you what it is though, you'll have to see for yourself.
I started this review thinking that I didn't particularly like this book. Now I think I liked it more than I realized. So if you haven't read it yet - there's no better time than now!


Beloved
Beloved
Author: Toni Morrison
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.4/5 Stars.
 164
Review Date: 8/18/2013


My first experience with Toni Morrison's writing was in college when the professor assigned The Bluest Eye. I don't remember much about the plot, but I do remember that it made me feel like I was in the presence of a literary great. The quality of writing was superb and even after reading a number of wonderful books that semester The Bluest Eye impressed me most. Fast forward to this year, when I first saw that Beloved was on the Fiction of Relationship reading list. I knew I was in for a treat yet at the same time was not sure that the book would live up to my inflated expectations.
When the time came to actually read the book I was relieved to see that Morrison is consistent in her ability to impress me. Her prose is beautiful in its simplicity, her characters full of life. She simply tells the story and you can't help but care about the people in it, can't help but wonder what will happen next. She doesn't try to make you like her characters, they are who they are with their complicated lives and choices, but you care about them nonetheless. The character who made the biggest impression on me was Denver because she not only had a unique way of dealing with the difficulties her life presented, but also was the one who stepped up to the challenge of Beloved's presence in the most impressive way. She started out a child younger than her 18 years, yet at the close of the novel she was transformed into a young woman more mature than her years.
The novel is set in the South before and after the Civil War and tells the stories of Sethe and other former Sweet Home slaves as they build lives for themselves on and off the farm. Their experiences, their desires and their despair are highlighted all the more by our present lives and the fact that many of the events Morrison describes are unthinkable to the present-day reader. They seem almost surreal at times, and I had to remind myself that things like what Morrison talks about did happen, and not that long ago.
I believe that a sign of a good book is that it makes you think. More often than not such books don't go down smoothly, but they sure stay with you. They make you want to ponder what's said on those pages, revisit ideas and impressions, look back at the beliefs you hold and see if they still hold up. Beloved does that, and no, it's not an easy read. Not only is it not easy, it also doesn't give up all its secrets, not even at the very end. You can turn the last page and believe what you choose about Beloved because her story doesn't really have an ending, which to me is incredibly intriguing. How do you write a story where the same events can be both supernatural and perfectly explainable? How do you create characters who are both? I don't know if Morrison's is the only way, but it sure is effective.
I've been thinking for a several days now whether I would recommend this book to a friend and I can't come up with a 'yes' or 'no' answer. On one hand it's not a straightforward book and I don't believe that someone who's looking for a straightforward story would appreciate it. On the other hand it is so well-written that I'm tempted to insist that my friends read it. So my answer would be like that flow-chart, Are you looking for a simple escapist story? Then no, you won't enjoy this novel. Are you looking for something to feed your brain and be beautiful at the same time? Then yes, this novel is for you.


The Birth of Venus
The Birth of Venus
Author: Sarah Dunant
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 752
Review Date: 8/26/2012


A colleague gave me this book saying that I was going to love it and she was right. Front the very first pages it was obvious that this was not your ordinary historical fiction, it really couldn't be with a nun having a tattoo of a serpent on her torso, and I looked forward to finding out how that came about.
Freedom, independent thought and pursuit of learning are prominent themes in this novel and it was interesting to see them explored in the context of Renaissance Florence. I'd always assumed that with Florence being the cradle of art and learning of that time it was a relatively progressive society where curiosity and education were encouraged for anybody who had the ability to pursue it, but this novel paints a picture of a society where women were not encouraged to pursue much beyond getting married and birthing children, and a passion for learning was considered a shameful shortcoming, one to be kept a secret, a sin even. That was very surprising to me, considering how different was the world of Milan in the same period as portrayed in Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex, with Isabella d'Este openly patronizing artists and collecting art. I could hardly believe both books were set in the same era and in what we know now as the same country.
The story was full of unexpected plot twists, from the problems with Alessandra's marriage to her relationship with the painter, whose name we never find out. They kept the story moving but for me they weren't the most interesting part. Instead I particularly enjoyed Alessandra's passion for art and literature, her willingness to take risks to pursue painting, and the effect that practicing her art has on her. I particularly enjoyed the section where she painted her way through the darkest depression saying that that was how she healed herself. Moreover, it was really fascinating to see such literary erudition in a person so young. I am twice Alessandra's age and I haven't read the Divine Comedy even once, let alone Aristotle or Socrates. Having read a number of novels set in centuries past I'm inclined to believe that this was not unusual for nobility of that time and every time I read about characters such as Alessandra I can't help but be impressed.
What I had trouble with was character development. Majority of secondary characters
were one-dimensional and sometimes even the key traits of main characters weren't all that prominent until they were stated. For example, there is much talk about Alessandra wanting to be free from the constant supervision she had in her parents' house, but I never got that vibe from her until it was expressed for the first time. It actually took me by surprise, I thought she seemed quite content, her antagonistic relationship with her brothers notwithstanding. My favorite characters in this book were Alessandra's mother, her slave Erila, and her husband Cristoforo. They had histories, secrets, and there was an energy about them that made me want to learn more about them. They were also the ones who allowed the humanity of Alessandra's character to be revealed to a greater extent, improving the novel in the process.
The story unfolds against the backdrop of a religious zealot taking hold of Florence with his teachings and the effects this has on the city. This situation and how it changes Alessandra's life and prospects is an interesting commentary on what can happen in a society if a charismatic leader wins over increasingly greater crowds and how the social landscape can change as a result.
This is an intriguing story driven by characters with plenty of secrets and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a twist.


The Boleyn Inheritance
The Boleyn Inheritance
Author: Philippa Gregory
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 617
Review Date: 6/28/2011


After the death of Jane Seymour the Tudor dynasty is once again in need of a queen to give the country an heir and Henry VIII decides to marry Anne of Cleves. Soon after her arrival however it becomes obvious that there would be no heir and that the king is infatuated with the young Katherine Howard, his "rose without a thorn". With Anne's future more uncertain than ever she almost believes that death would be better than going back to Cleves and hopes for a solution that would save her from both her brother and her husband.

This is a story about Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn, three women tangled up in the events of Henry VIII's fourth and fifth marriages, three women having to deal with the consequences of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn because it affected all their lives in one way or another. It is unusual in that these women take turns talking about the same events as history progresses and takes them from their ordinary lives and to the royal chambers. This was the first book I've read that was written in the first person but still had the effect of 3rd person omniscient perspective and I thought that having three separate narrators was a simple but ingenious solution. The only downside was that with the narrators changing every chapter and the chapters being rather short it took several cycles to get used to the switches but the voices are very distinctive once the switching wasn't confusing any more I enjoyed seeing what the different narrators thought about how their lives unfolded and I actually looked forward to Anne's chapters - she was the one I could relate to the most.
Creating surprising plot developments in a story where the outcome is as common knowledge as it is here is challenging and I didn't expect any. It was interesting however to discover how Phillippa Gregory envisioned the people who lived in those tragic times and who either shaped history or fell victim to those who did. I sympathized with Anne, felt sorry for Katherine and couldn't help but find Jane disturbing throughout the book. The men such as Henry and the Duke of Norfolk mainly left me feeling incredulous at how they manipulated or bullied those around them, how what they wanted mattered most regardless of how many lives were sacrificed for either their whim or power lust and how nobody could stop them because they were either too clever and careful or because there simply wasn't anyone to reign them in.
I've come to expect superb writing from Gregory and this book does not disappoint. I look forward to reading the other installments in her Tudor series, especially since historical fiction from authors who don't take excessive liberties with the facts is my favorite way to learn about history. If you enjoy historical fiction in general and tales of Henry and his six wives in particular I would recommend this book to you.

You can find more of my reviews at bibliophilescorner.blogspot.com


Bridget Jones's Diary
Bridget Jones's Diary
Author: Helen Fielding
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 711
Review Date: 3/12/2011


Bridget is a 30+ singleton living in London, employed in a dead-end job, drooling over her boss and unable to loose weight despite counting calories of every morsel she eats. The analyzes every move and every breath of her prospective love interests and dissects them over drinks with her three faithful friends. Will she see that Mr. Darcy, top notch barrister, is the man for her despite being too busy dwelling on his hideous Christmas sweater? To find out we'll have to read her diary.

This is an incredibly funny book, unabashedly chick-lit and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to relax, unwind and develop some laugh lines. One can't help but sympathize with and root for Bridget, who is so self-analytical that she can't see past her doubts and the pile of self-help books and is adorable despite all her little quirks. She's a total klutz and it's amazing how she's managing to live on her own and keep a job and if she succeeds it is inevitably by stumbling into it rather than working for it. Now if only she would remember that Mr. Darcy isn't a subject of one of her men-are-from-mars books but a real man, who actually loves her, just the way she is!

Read my other reviews at bibliophilescorner.blogspot.com


The Broker
The Broker
Author: John Grisham
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 995
Review Date: 10/7/2012


The last time I read a book by John Grisham was in high school after The Rainmaker with Matt Damon came out and I was on a Grisham kick for a while. I remember liking the pacing of his novels, the characters doing what is right despite the odds being stacked against them, and Grisham's easy writing style that provided enough detail to sympathize with the underdogs but never crossed into too much familiarity. So when I came across the paperback of The Broker memories did their thing and the book came home with me. It sat on the shelf through my well-intentioned "reading schedule" phase, got passed over a couple of times after that until finally I was in the mood for it.
Almost immediately I saw that either my memories were flawed or The Broker didn't fit in with the Grisham novels I read. In the beginning there was a lot of backstory setting the scene for Joel Backman's release from prison. It painted him as a ruthless, greedy man unfamiliar with the very concept of morality, and even as freedom was offered to him after years in solitary confinement in conditions that were clearly meant to break him he accepted it as if it was his due. And then Joel was moved to Italy and with the new clothes and a pair of Armani glasses he seemed to take on a new identity in more than just name - still demanding and knowing exactly what he wanted, he at the same time has acquired an appreciation for the simpler things in life, and seemed to have re-evaluated his past and was determined to live differently. Unfortunately this transformation got almost no page time, it was more or less just there, leaving the reader to arrive at their own conclusions as to how Joel got from point A to point B.
Pacing left much to be desired as well. Events rolled along leisurely for about three quarters of the book with Joel endlessly going from Italian lessons to meals and back, and things started to feel a bit like Groundhog Day, until in a blink of an eye our protagonist transformed from a frustrated tourist into a man of action masterminding his true freedom and once again manipulating some of the highest powers in Washington into doing his bidding. This transition, though not unexpected, was so sudden and swift that it almost gave me whiplash and once again left me with a sense of dissatisfaction.
My favorite scenes in the book were where Joel was shown adjusting to life in Italy. His first attempts to order food in a foreign language, his growing familiarity with Bologna, even his overwhelming drive to learn Italian made him into a sympathetic character despite his thoroughly unsympathetic past. I really could do with more of that because I think it would develop the characters and the book wouldn't feel so much like a chronology of events past and present.
All in all it was a decent read and I was glad for the way things turned out. I just wish it was more fleshed out in every aspect.


By Fire, By Water
By Fire, By Water
Author: Mitchell Kaplan
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 14
Review Date: 3/4/2012


I am absolutely delighted to tell you about this book because this is one of those rare reads where everything is just right. A while back the author contacted me asking for a review of his debut novel and having never read anything set in Spain of that era I decided to give it a try. Reading it last week I congratulated myself on this decision more than once. This is an intelligent, well-written novel that combines drama, history, politics and, to a lesser degree, romance.
I really enjoyed the characters of the honorable Luis de Santangel, the resilient Judith, and the supporting cast who all played a role in the events. Sometimes it would seem that a completely new character was introduced for no observable reason but then time would pass and this seemingly-insignificant character's contribution would become obvious, be it to further the plot, make the setting more vivid, or aid in the development of the main characters. No character arc was left incomplete and seeing them all develop was deeply satisfying.
This isn't really a straightforward set the goal - overcome difficulties - achieve the goal type of novel. Cristobal Colon's endeavor to obtain the monarchs' support in sailing to India is a secondary plot. It is the life of Luis de Santangel and his struggle with his heritage at a time when practicing anything other than Christianity was a sure way to the stake is at the foreground of this story. The life of Judith and her family provides an excellent contrast by giving us a glimpse of a life the Jewish community had in Muslim Granada.
Mr. Kaplan spent six years doing research for this book and the work he's done brings a lot of credibility to the novel. The details shine through on every page and fortunately he didn't let history and theological debate overpower the story, at the end of the day it was still about Luis, Judith and their loved ones.
Usually at this point I talk about things that didn't work for me. Today there isn't anything for me to say. Go get this book. Read it. Enjoy it. This is a quality novel that is worth reading regardless of whether you're a fan of historical fiction or not.


Catching Fire (Hunger Games, Bk 2)
Catching Fire (Hunger Games, Bk 2)
Author: Suzanne Collins
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.5/5 Stars.
 1623
Review Date: 9/16/2012


Catching Fire picks up a short while after the end of The Hunger Games with Katniss at odds with both Peeta and Gale and with President Snow working to contain the effects of Katniss's actions in the Games by threatening her into proving to the country that she is just a girl madly in love, who only wanted to not lose her sweetheart. She doesn't know it but unrest is growing in Panem, and she with her mockingjay is the symbol of the rebellion. This dynamic is the foundation of the story from here on out - people planning and plotting in the background while all Katniss really wants is to live in peace with her family and to spend her days hunting. She is the reluctant hero, with everybody but herself realizing her influence, and using her for their purposes.
The first part of the book is relatively slow, after all Katniss is at her best in a survival situation and whiling away her time at 12 isn't particularly action-packed, but when the rules of the Quarter Quell are announced and there isn't a shadow of a doubt that the Capitol is out for her blood action slams into high gear and doesn't let up will the very end in the best traditions of The Hunger Games.
My favorite part of this book was the introduction of new characters who enriched the world Suzanne Collins created, allowing us a peek at the past victors and their lives of annual coaching of tributes and the Capitol keeping them all on an unimaginably tight leash. Once again Katniss can't see beyond the immediate task at hand but she has a good heart and a mentor who is possibly the craftiest victor in the history of the Games. I have to say, the relationship between Katniss and Haymitch is possibly the most interesting one in the series. They don't particularly like each other but it's hard to doubt that they are as similar as any other two characters in this series and watching them interact and work together gave spice to the story.
Throughout the book I couldn't shake the feeling that while Katniss's affection for Peeta was real it somehow only bloomed under pressure from the Capitol. At home she was a teenager who did her best and was angry at him for not understanding the game she was made to play, yet as soon as the cameras were on them and no place was outside of the Capitol's earshot she began to need him, understand him and want to support him. It was like a circumstance-activated survival instinct that made her acknowledge Peeta as an ally only under certain conditions. I didn't get an impression that Katniss herself realized this, but as I said earlier, she is at her best when lives are on the line and it's time to act, not in analyzing and introspection.
Whereas The Hunger Games ended with things as buttoned up as they could be Catching Fire ended on a cliffhanger that left me staring at the page with my brain barely able to process what happened and doing the equivalent of the "Wait, what?!?!" stutter. I actually had to re-read the last few pages before things snapped into place in my mind. When they finally did I knew that Mockingjay was going to be good. Really good. Fortunately I already had the book.


The Cat's Table
The Cat's Table
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 18
Review Date: 5/12/2013


The most powerful feature of this book for me is how poetic the language is. The lyricism of it, the almost dreamy quality of the narrative make this novel an experience of poetry in prose and the character's voyages throughout the book only become richer for it.
The novel's protagonist, Michael, tells the reader about the trip that changed his life both literally and figuratively when he was only 11 years old, although I didn't get a feeling that it was a journey of self-discovery in any sense. The boy simply experiences the adventures of the voyage and the adult reminisces about them and the events that followed, in a way wrapping things up for the characters, telling the reader where they ended up and how. Curiously enough the adult Michael is a writer, and Ondaatje himself arrived in England from Colombo when he was 11 on a ship called the Oronsay, just like the boy in the novel does. There is some speculation about whether the novel is autobiographical in a lot of ways and although the author hasn't confirmed or denied this I am inclined to believe that it is indeed autobiographical, however fictionalized and dramatized, especially in terms of a child experiencing life without direct adult influence and an adult fully understanding the real impact and meaning of those childhood experiences.
Michael's story is intertwined with stories of other passengers, many of whom aren't who they seem to be at first and whose presence makes for a multi-layered narrative. This reminded me of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, who employs a similar story-within-a-story structure, and if you've been following the blog you'll remember that I enjoyed that book a lot. My favorite story-in-a-story was that of Miss Lasqueti, I found it even more touching and fascinating than that of the prisoner. Possibly that's because it is more subtle, there is no life or death drama and secrets in it, yet it got to me and made me think about the events of Miss Lasqueti's life and their undeniable effects.
There is quite a bit of jumping back and forth in time so if you usually have trouble with that - be prepared. It wasn't a problem for me at all, I actually enjoyed it because it gave the story a more mature feeling, clarified in a way why the 11-year-old protagonist didn't seem exactly pre-teen. After all it is an adult looking back through time at the child, reliving the experiences through the memories, offering insight that he wouldn't have had all those years ago.
This was one of the books I listened to as opposed to reading, and although having the author do the narration was very special because I knew that the intonations, pauses and pronunciations were done exactly as intended I think this is a book that should be read, be that on paper or eReader, especially if you are a person whose visual perception is better than audio perception. As I've mentioned before the writing is extremely beautiful and if you look up quotes from this book online you'll see exactly what I mean. I myself will be picking up this book again, this time soaking it all in from the page.


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