Friday, August 31, 2012

Prisoner of Heaven and The Truth of All Things

First, feast your eyes on some lovely clips from the 3rd season of Downton Abbey, the show that has captured the imagination of nearly everyone that I know:

A pair of brief new clips from the third season of Downton Abbey
have been released. Indiewire noted that the potential to watch Shirley
MacLaine, as the mother of Elizabeth McGovern's Countess of Grantham,
"trade barbs with Maggie Smith is certainly enough to have us setting
the DVR for new episodes." The first clip "sets the scene for MacLaine's
arrival, and the second sees her doing the impossible, leaving Smith's
Dowager Countess speechless."

Second, I wish I had read this before I made my annual Powell's pilgrimage a month or two ago!

The Portland Mercury reminds us all that there are other bookstores in
Portland, Ore., besides Powell's Books
"While that local juggernaut might be the automatic go-to for locals and
tourists, visiting--and supporting--Portland's other bookstores is a
fantastic way to spend a few hours. Or a day. Or a week." The Mercury
highlights 20 stores in and around Portland, including Annie Bloom's
Books, Broadway Books, A Children's Place, Monograph Bookwerks and
Murder by the Book.

"The Prisoner of Heaven" is the third book by Carlos Ruiz Zafon that has to do with Daniel Sempere, his family and the wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books. I loved his first novel, "The Shadow of the Wind" so much that it is on my list of all-time favorite novels, which is no mean feat.  Then I read "The Angel's Game" when it came out, and I was disappointed because all the charm and light and joy had gone out of his characters and his prose...the book seemed very murky and obsessive and filled with pain. So I approached "Prisoner of Heaven" with some trepidation...would it fall flat or be as powerful as the first novel?
The answer is that it is better than Angel's Game, but not as wonderful as Shadow of the Wind, unfortunately. Still, I did enjoy getting to know Ferme and Daniel and some of the other characters better, but I didn't get my Cemetery of Forgotten Books fix until the final chapter, which left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. Readers also spend a lot of time in a prison that seems similar to the one in "The Count of Monte Cristo" except there were more tortuous and painful things to ascribe to it. Ferme escapes the same way that the Count of Monte Cristo does, except he has to scramble out of a lime pit full of dead bodies and make his way into town. Not being a fan of horror fiction, books about war or books about the dark underbelly of Spanish politics,  I found a lot of the chapters almost too grotesque to read, full of pointless butchery and cruelty. But Zafon's prose is still beautifully translated, and he never fails to leave the reader without a solid ending. All in all, I would recommend this to those who loved Shadow of the Wind, with the caveat that it really should be read by adults only.
The Truth of All Things by Kieran Shields was a bit of a conundrum, because it was hailed as being "steampunkish" while also providing a protagonist who was like Sherlock Holmes as a Native American. Somehow the mystery was all linked to the Salem Witch Trials of the 17th century, while the story takes place 200 years later. Also, a lady historian and a deputy marshal named "Archie Lean" were to be the protagonist's assistants in solving the crime. At the outset, a bit of a head-scratcher, with all those genres and classic mystery characters combined in one novel.
Turns out that Shields was able to pull off quiet a magic act in mixing and matching the characters, the mileau of 1892 and a fiendish plot to bring back a 'black magician' who was hanged at the Salem trials 200 years before. A book of black magic and spells is also involved in the case, and Shields keeps the reader guessing right down to the final chapter, with it's terrifying showdown. The fact that this all takes place in or around Portland, Maine, makes it all the more interesting. I could tell that Shields had done his homework, researching the Salem Witch trials and the testimony of the girls who accused so many people and doomed them to hanging or worse. There was also plenty of Native American lore, and information on what happened to the Abenaki Indians of the area when white settlers ran them out of town after several massacres of earlier settlers. Out of all the characters, I must say Perceval Grey remained something of a cipher, and I think the author intended that to be the case. I also enjoyed Helen Prescott, until she became rather hysterical toward the end. Still, I think there is room for romance between the two characters, and I hope that Shields explores that in further mystery novels about the cool, logical and unrufflable Mr Grey. I would recommend this book to those who like American history, Native American history, are interested in the Salem Witch Trials and anyone who enjoys a mystery that has tinges of Jack the Ripper. Fascinating stuff that will keep you wondering until the final page.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Wanted Man by Lee Child

Disclosure note: I was provided with an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of "A Wanted Man" by Lee Child by the wonderful folks at Shelf Awareness.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I am not a huge fan of the suspense/thriller genre. Those who write this genre seem to have a penchant for hard-bitten men who are violent, ruthless, sexist and always on the edge of becoming an "anti-hero."
However, there have been a few suspense/thriller novels that I have read and enjoyed, such as "Loser's Town" by Daniel Depp that surprised me with a nuanced protagonist who wasn't such an outright jerk that he made me want to throw the book against the wall in protest.

So I picked up the 18th book in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series with some trepidation this morning at 9:30 am.
I finally looked up at the clock at 3:40 pm and discovered I was on page 320, only 100 pages from the end of the novel. I finished an hour later, breathless from the breakneck speed of the plot and reeling from the intensity of the story, told in prose that reads like a movie script.
Never having read a Lee Child book, I must say I think that there needs to be a warning on the cover: "Be aware that this book will grab your attention from page one and not let it go until page 416; go to the bathroom and eat something before you begin!"
Child's protagonist Jack Reacher is a tall, big man, former military police and a history buff with a vast knowledge of American historical trivia locked inside his head. He has just enough charm and intelligence to talk his way into and out of most trouble, which is a good thing, as he starts the novel with a nose that has been smashed into his face with the butt of a rifle. He has tried to set the broken bones with duct tape, but realizes as he's hitchhiking through Nebraska to get to Virginia that the duct tape makes him look sinister. So he rips it off and waits through a number of squeamish drivers before he is picked up in a car with three people, two men and a woman who are dressed alike and claim to be on a kind of corporate retreat.
Meanwhile, a man is found murdered in a pump room and an eyewitness claims to have seem three men go into the pump room and only two come out. What might seem to be a simple homicide is  found to be a matter of international terrorism and soon Reacher is embroiled in a search for the murderers that takes him through most of the Midwestern states, (including Iowa, hurrah!) with two FBI agents and nothing but the clothes on his back and his military training to get everyone out of trouble.
Each chapter escalates the tension and provides twists to the characters and plot that you don't see coming until they're staring up at you from the page.  Though there is a bit of sexism to Reacher (he's very judgmental of the women who appear in the book, and the author makes it clear that the more sympathetic woman character has been working undercover as a stripper. I find it bizarre that so many male authors seem to find strippers, prostitutes and 'fallen' women so enticing and so representative of the flower of true womanhood, as if sleaze is the only path to sainthood or desirability), he's not without a conscience, and when one of the female FBI agents is killed, he says, after being offered the opportunity to retreat to safety: "If I come back with you, I am guaranteed to die of shame."
So Reacher goes all GI Joe on the terrorists, killing with precision and utter calm. The descriptions of gore and how people die when shot in various places were not really as nauseating as I expected them to be, but that said, I can only assume the machinery/gun/gore narration in the novel will be appreciated by a more masculine audience, or by women in the military for whom battle descriptions are thrilling reading. Despite that, I would say that I enjoyed about 75-80 percent of "A Wanted Man" and if, as it says in the back blurb, the Jack Reacher novels have been optioned for movies by Hollywood, I imagine I could be persuaded by my husband and son to go see the movie version of handy Jack. Meanwhile, if you'd like to read this novel, here's the link to amazon to pre-order it before it comes out on 9/11.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bookstore Magic and a Great Movie

 Book Shop Magic!

"When I say, 'local bookstore,' odds are good the first thing that comes
to mind is not a book you've bought, but a person, a sense of place,
even just a vague cozy feeling," wrote Wendy Welch in a Huffington Post
piece headlined "The Importance of Local Bookstores"

Welch, whose book The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of
Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book will be
published by St. Martin's in October, is co-owner of Tales of the
Lonesome Pine Used Books, Big Stone Gap, Va.

"When people come into our 39,000-volume-strong shop, their breathing
changes," she observed. "Their expressions soften, steps slow, eyes stop
darting. Hands unclench from cell phones as they mutter, 'Call you
later.' And then they just stand there, letting their eyes drift over
the shelves while that indefinable bookshop magic does its work....
[I]ndependent bookstores help us find the others like us. Booksellers
hear customers' voices in the shop, and hook them up with the voices
they will value on the printed page. It's so much more than a sale. It's
an affirmation."

This is probably the only reason I'd go to Paris, France:

Paris is your best bet
if you're an international traveler looking for a library or bookshop,
according to the World Cities Culture Report 2012. The "importance of
public libraries is explored with Paris coming way out top in numerical
terms. It has 830 public libraries compared to Shanghai's 477, London's
383, Tokyo's 377, Johannesburg's 234, New York's 220, Sydney's 154 and
Berlin's 88. Paris also has more bookshops--1,025 to London's 802,
although Tokyo has the most (1,675); Shanghai has 1,322 and Johannesburg
has 1,020," the Guardian reported.

Last night I watched a wonderful movie that has earned a place on my "Favorite Movies of All Time" list, called "Letters To Juliet."
Though the only real "star" in the movie is the still-lovely Vanessa Redgrave, the movie has wonderful actors who do a fine job in their roles. The story is basically that a young woman who is on the cusp of her nuptuals to a young Italian man goes with him on a buying trip to Italy and discovers that there is a wall in Verona where young women paste letters of grief about love next to a statue of Juliet from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. A group of 5 Italian women calling themselves the Juliet Society takes down the letters every afternoon and writes letters back to these young women, giving them advice on their love lives, ostensibly from "Juliet." The young woman inadvertantly discovers an old letter, written 50 years ago by an American woman named Claire, who failed to show up for a rendezvous with her Italian amour, and our heroine decides to join the Juliet Society and write back to Clarie. A week later, Claire's snotty British grandson shows up at the society and chews the heroine out because his grandmother traveled back to Italy with him to find her one true love from 50 years ago. Thus begins a trip of laughter, tears and falling in love for the three as they traverse Italy in search of Claire's lost love. Of course, the beautiful scenery of Italy charms the eye as the characters win our hearts and there's a lovely HEA ending. I highly recommend this movie to anyone who adores Italy, romantic movies and a good story, well told.