Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: The Gates by John Connolly

The Gates (Samuel Johnson, #1)The Gates by John Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Samuel Johnson is a curious kid, in more than one sense of the word. Curious as in inquisitive, and curious as in just a little bit odd. This year he decided to get a jump on Halloween by trick-or-treating a few days early, to beat the rush and maybe get the best candy. Unfortunately, the adults in his neighborhood didn’t find his initiative as charming as this reader did, especially the Abernathys. Mr. Abernathy shooed Samuel off the front stoop as quickly as he could; and then returned to the spell-casting in which he and Mrs. Abernathy and another couple were engaged in the basement. When their spell is an unexpected success and they accidentally open a portal into Hell (simultaneously causing an issue with the Large Hadron Collider), Samuel, still lurking about outside the house, noticed. And the demons who jumped through the portal noticed Samuel noticing.

And then all Hell proceeded to break loose.

Written in a light quirky child-like voice, this is a quick, fun read filled with humor and memorable characters. First in a series, aimed at a YA audience, but entertaining enough for adults.

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Double book review: The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse; Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse  (Flavia de Luce, #6.5)The Curious Case of the Copper Corpse by Alan Bradley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Flavia de Luce is as charming as ever in this short story.

Young Flavia is hired – hired! – by a student to solve the mystery of the death of a teacher, discovered in a bathtub by that same student, who had recently expressed a desire to see said teacher dead. In fear that he would be accused of murder, he reaches out to the resident underage sleuth in an effort to clear his name before adults and other responsible members of society learn of the recently departed. Flavia sets to her task with her usual gusto, intelligence, and forthrightness.

If you’ve never read any of Flavia’s adventures, this is a good stand-alone place to start. For those of us who’ve been with her since the beginning, it’s lagniappe, a little something extra to tide us over between novels.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd (Flavia de Luce, #8)Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having been, um, invited to disenroll from the exclusive young ladies’ academy in Canada to which she had been sent, Flavia de Luce arrives home in England only to discover her father is gravely ill. Thwarted at every turn in her attempts to visit him in hospital, our intrepid young sleuth runs an errand for the Buckshaw household and, amazingly enough, stumbles over the body of yet another individual who appears to have met a suspicious end. Solving this mystery serves to occupy Flavia’s mind and time while she waits for her opportunity to see her father and reassure him and herself that all is well.

She solves the mystery, of course, but trouble still awaits.

As with all Flavia novels, we are treated to the delightful inner workings of the young lady’s precocious and highly intelligent mind, as well as her perambulations about the countryside on her faithful Gladys, and her frequent (and unaccompanied!) trips to London on the train. (Flavia has bottomless pocket money, it seems, or the family has a running account with the railway.) I suppose that’s my only quibble with this series — Flavia has a massive amount of unsupervised time for a girl of 12. But I also have to remember that this is set in the late 1940s/early 1950s (years actually not closely specified), and children were left to their own devices much more then than they are today. Still, quibble aside, another enjoyable installment in the series.

But Alan Bradley is on my naughty list for the last two pages.

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Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Double book review: In Memoriam; The Borrower

In MemoriamIn Memoriam by Nathan Burgoine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s nearly impossible to review this novella without spoilers, so let me just say this: James Daniels found a unique way to deal with the memory loss that accompanies his brain cancer, and said method is lovely and satisfying and heartwarming and sweet.

A beautiful piece of writing.

The BorrowerThe Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy Hull has a favorite library patron, young Ian Drake. Unfortunately, Ian’s mother doesn’t approve of Ian’s reading tastes, nor of Ian himself, apparently. Early one morning, Lucy opens the library to find Ian camped out in the stacks, having run away from home. He convinces Lucy to take him somewhere else, and she obliges.

What follows is a haphazard road trip from somewhere in Missouri to Chicago and Pittsburgh and points northeastward, all directed more or less by the boy in the passenger seat, with Lucy’s passive acquiescence masking her inner turmoil at being led around by the nose by a 10-year-old. But this journey isn’t about Ian, really; it’s about Lucy coming to terms with her passive acquiescence of everything except her family legacy; and how family shapes who we are whether we like it or not; and how blood will out, regardless.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The short chapters written in the style of various children’s books were amusing and poignant and sharply aimed.

Highly recommended.

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Posted in Knitting, Work in progress

Look, actual knitting content!

Recent blog entries have been so focused on my participation in reading challenges that you may be forgiven if you forgot this was also a yarn crafting blog. Yes, I have been knitting as well as reading over the last couple of months.  I finished a cowl of my own design a few weeks ago, but (as usual) have yet to write up the pattern and photograph the finished item.  Someday soon.  Pinky swear.

After finishing the cowl, I started working on a Christmas stocking for a friend’s baby.  Here’s the progress so far.

davi-christmas-stocking-1

Yes, you’re right. That is indeed a crappy cell phone photo. I texted my friend with it to show her the progress, and then decided a blog entry was in order as well. And there you have it. Actual knitting content.

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Book review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Sharp Objects is my third Gillian Flynn novel, it’s Ms. Flynn’s first, for which she won a well-deserved Edgar. It’s beautifully written, deeply disturbing, and knock-your-socks-off holy-cow-what-the-hell-just-happened good.

Camille Preaker is sent by the editor of the tiny Chicago daily where she works back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, which is little more than a wide spot in the road, to cover the story of two murdered girls and the potential story of a serial killer. Camille left Wind Gap years ago to escape her toxic family and save her own life. She’s not sure she’s managed to do either; in Chicago, while she may have been suicidal, at least she wasn’t carving words into her own skin. Still, Camille is severely damaged. When we meet her mother and stepfather, we begin to understand why.

Because her newspaper doesn’t have the budget to put her up in a motel while on assignment, Camille must stay in her family home while she is in town. Her mother Adora, with an eye to “what would the neighbors think?”, grudgingly grants Camille shelter but insists she keep “all that unpleasantness” out of her house. All that unpleasantness encompasses not only the murders of the two girls, but anything unpleasant that has ever happened, up to and including the death of Camille’s younger half-sister Marian when Camille was 13. Camille has another much younger half-sister, Amma, whom she barely knows, who at times seems just as sickly as Marian was, but at others is robust enough to excel in her “Mean Girl” “Queen Bee” role at the local middle school. Throw in Alan, Camille’s ineffective and virtually silent stepfather, and this dysfunctional family is complete.

We see all this through Camille’s eyes; we are privy to her inner dialogue with all its twists and turns and justifications and attempts to make sense of how she ended up back in the same hellhole she tried to escape. As she reacquaints herself with Wind Gap, she recalls incidents from her past associated with each place. In the park where one girl, Natalie, was last seen alive:

The dirt from the baseball field hovered a few feet above the ground. I could taste it the back of my throat like tea left brewing too long…Garrett Park was the place everyone met on weekends to drink beer or smoke pot or get jerked off three feet into the woods. It was where I was first kissed, at age thirteen, by a football player with a pack of chaw tucked down in his gums.

And getting ready for Natalie’s funeral:

My mother was wearing blue to the funeral…She also wore blue to Marian’s funeral, and so did Marian. She was astonished I didn’t remember this. I remembered Marian being buried in a pale pink dress. This was no surprise. My mother and I generally differ on all things concerning my dead sister.

Camille is more resilient than she knows, but not quite as strong as she needs to be. She drinks too much and too often. She writes the names of the murdered girls and other words on her skin, using ballpoint pen and lipstick instead of a knife. She has questionable judgment in sex partners. And investigating these murders eventually leads her deep into her own history with devastating consequences.

In Camille, Gillian Flynn has created a deeply flawed protagonist who makes bad decisions out of weakness, out of trauma, out of a desire to flee from raw emotion, and she makes us cheer for her even while we shake our heads in dismay at her poor choices. And in the end, I loved Camille and wished her the very best future she can possibly make for herself.

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Book review: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the RainThe Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Enzo the large breed mutt tells us the story of Denny Smith, a mechanic with a passion and talent for high-performance racing: his life as a single man, his courtship of and marriage to Eve, the birth of their daughter Zoe, the death of Eve from cancer, and the fallout from that untimely passing.

The life of one family as seen through the eyes of their dog is not the type of novel I would normally choose. But The Art of Racing in The Rain was a book group selection; so, like a good little group member, I bought it. Then I moved and left that book group behind. Thus, Garth Stein’s book sat on the To Be Read shelf for many many months.

After I finally decided to read it, I nearly put it down when the first chapter made me cry. Wiping my tears, I persevered. About halfway through the book, I got so angry at the direction of the storyline, I nearly put it down. But I cheated and turned to the last few pages of the book to find out the resolution to that particular turn of events. What I saw convinced me to go ahead and finish the story. Grudgingly.

In other words, I did not enjoy the time spent reading this book. That one star rating has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, which is excellent; or the development of the characters, who are fully-fleshed for the most part; or the voice of the narrator, which is surprisingly enchanting.

It’s just that books with animal narrators almost never end well, and that tends to make me rather angry. I generally don’t enjoy fiction that makes me angry.

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Book review: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death, #1)Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town’s Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews — or anyone, really — but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, Henry calls on his cousin the King of Sicily — whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe — and asks for his finest “master of the art of death,” an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia — the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death.

Adelia and her companions — Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor — travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king’s tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia’s investigation takes her into Cambridge’s shadowy river paths and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again… (publisher’s blurb)

Medieval Europe — especially medieval England — fascinates me. It’s almost a given I’ll like any novel set in that milieu. That being said, this is an exceptional story with an exceptional heroine.

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the adopted daughter of a prominent Jew in Salerno. Having decided at an early age she was not meant for marriage, and so indulged by her family, she devoted herself to the medical arts, specifically the art of forensic autopsy. Upon being sent to England at the request of her King, she and her companions join a train of other travelers on their way to Cambridge — a train which contains an ailing Prior Geoffrey, who subsequently reaps the benefits of Adelia’s medical knowledge, albeit in such an embarrassing fashion he goes along with the conceit that her Moorish companion Mansur is the doctor who treated him. This aid to Prior Geoffrey, however, provides a small measure of protection and oversight to the foreign trio upon arrival in Cambridge, as they step on toes and break class boundaries in their quest to uncover the truth of the children’s ghastly deaths.

And ghastly they are. The clues on the bodies and the manner of their deaths lead Adelia and her companions to a specific local geographical feature, but it’s a dead end. Thus frustrated in their efforts, Adelia and Mansur more or less set up shop as a physician and his assistant while Simon — who, although Jewish, has an easier time asking questions and acquiring information — mingles with the community and pursues the investigation. Then Simon turns up dead. And Adelia and Mansur are no longer even relatively safe.

Franklin has created some lovely memorable characters in Adelia and her companions, as well as in the townsfolk: Ulf, the young boy who steals his way into Adelia’s affections; Gyltha, his grandmother, hired to cook and care for the trio in their rented accommodation; Prior Geoffrey, alternately bemused and bewildered by Adelia’s uncommon and forthright manner; Rowley Picot, tax collector, king’s man, suspect, and thorn in Adelia’s side. Lots of period detail, an amazing depth of research, and stellar writing make for a wonderful medieval whodunnit.

I already have the second book in this series, and intend to purchase volumes three and four. I had hoped it would continue for many many years, like Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, but sadly Ms. Franklin passed away in January 2011.

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Book review: Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez

Salvation CitySalvation City by Sigrid Nunez
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before we get started, let me clarify the two-star rating….Salvation City is not poorly written, has believable characters in believable situations, and is an interesting way to spend several hours. But ultimately — and given the way Goodreads’ ratings criteria are defined — two stars and “it was okay” is all the enthusiasm I can muster. I’d read a three-star “I liked it” book again. I have no desire to read this one again.

In the near future, 12-year-old Cole Vining has been orphaned by a flu pandemic more devastating than the 1918 outbreak. After a stint in the hellhole of a public orphanage, he is taken in by Pastor Wyatt and his wife Tracy and brought back to Salvation City, Kentucky, the small evangelical Christian enclave where they live. The overt religiosity of his new surroundings is completely foreign to Cole: his father was an atheist and his mother was a non-practicing Jew; as a result, Cole has had no religious training whatsoever. Emotionally fragile after his own illness and loss, in this new atmosphere, Cole questions everything his parents had ever taught him about the world.

Cole suffered memory loss as a result of his illness and, as his memories gradually return, he wrestles with a multitude of overwhelming emotions: loss, anger, bewilderment, confusion…but chiefly guilt. He feels guilty he survived, guilty he can’t return the obvious love Pastor Wyatt and Tracy express for him, guilty and disloyal at feeling any kind of affection for them, guilty for wondering if his parents went to Hell as his new knowledge of religion teaches. On top of all this, he has entered puberty with its attendant urges and feelings, and he develops an unrequited crush on his erstwhile cousin Starlyn. Cole’s journey through this morass of guilt and emotion to arrive at a peaceful self-understanding and sense of place is well-drawn and satisfying.

Again, this is not a bad book, and not a waste of time. The pacing is leisurely, almost majestic. It’s beautifully written, with a spare elegance and delicate touch. Nunez portrays the fundamentalist Christian community with grace and compassion, seeing it almost entirely through Cole’s adolescent eyes. I enjoyed reading it, but not enough to keep it around for a re-read.

Many thanks to Goodreads Giveaway Program for the opportunity to read this book.

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