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So, I just noticed the Goodreads “blog this review” feature, and thought I’d try it out. Well, that’s not quite true – I noticed the feature a long time ago, but never stopped to try it. I’ve continued my whirlwind of mystery reading – if I finish listening to Maisie Dobbs today, I’ll have read eight mysteries this month. Which is a lot more than my usual none to one.
I started fall quarter over the weekend – I had to travel north for the class that met in person, and then the rest is online, and the other class is entirely online. There’s some overlap between the two, it looks like, since one covers children’s materials and the other covers children’s services. In other words, I’ve got a great excuse to read a TON of children’s books.
I took the train instead of driving up, and I really enjoyed it – especially the ride home on a gorgeous fall day, on a fairly empty train. I got lots of reading in, and enjoyed the scenery, and thought about all the reasons I love this time of year. It’s the part of fall when it’s not drippy and miserable yet, you’re still getting some sunshine, but you can cozy up with a cup of tea and not feel like you’re boiling alive. Riding the train also allowed ample opportunity for nostalgia – both for all those old movies where they ride trains, and for my own train riding past, all across the UK and Italy. Nothing like a train ride to give you a travel bug. Right before my trip I watched The Lady Vanishes – an old Hitchcock I hadn’t seen before – which had a classic combo of great laughs and paranoia. Definitely recommended to train-movie fans and old movie fans in general.
I got to thinking about genres – and how a mystery like Sister Pelagia and the Vicky Bliss books are technically in the same genre, but really couldn’t be further apart. While each could be read purely for the ‘solving a mystery’ aspect of the story, the tone and treatment of characters are so different. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the crime-fighting monastic.
rating: 4 of 5 stars
A mystery for people who like classic Russian lit, or who just like the novelty of having an Orthodox nun and bishop solve crimes. Sister Pelagia is a great character – people don’t give her a second glance in her habit, but she’s got sharp wits and a good sense of self-preservation, wielding off would-be attackers with her knitting needles. But she’s no Miss Marple in a habit – she’s also young and impulsive. The plot starts slowly, with plenty of time spent setting the scene of the country province, the local government and society, issues of corruption and church politics. I got distracted by trying to keep all the characters straight – the Russian naming system makes it twice as hard, to me. The plot thickens about halfway through, and the end features more action and a dramatic courtroom accusation. Things are just wrapping up when a monk makes a dramatic entrance – not to further thicken the plot of this story, but to provide a hook for the next volume in the series. Which I just might have to read.
Amen to that. From xkcd, of course.
I’ve decided, a little belatedly, that September is Mystery Month. Yeah, yeah, it’s almost over – but it turns out I’m reading a lot of mysteries this fall. I got on a kick with the Vicky Bliss series, and then I started listening to Maisie Dobbs – she makes excellent company while baking a pan of brownies – and then I dove into Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog, on Julia’s recommendation. All in all, a lot more mysteries than I usually digest in one month, and with two Vicky Bliss and a handful of Maisie and Sister Pelagia left, October might be Mystery Month, Part 2 – unless, of course I get sick of them.
If I do get sick of them, I have a nice list of YA titles to keep me busy – I just signed up for a Mock Printz. It’s not until January, but it’s never too early to start reading. I’ve already read (and pugned, as Frankie would say) 3 of the 11 titles. Here’s the list for 2009, with links to my thoughts on the ones I’ve already read:
- Cory Doctorow, Little Brother.
- John Green, Paper Towns
- Michael Harmon, The Last Exit to Normal
- Steve Kluger, My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins, and Fenway Park
- E. Lockhart, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
- Norma Fox Mazer, The Missing Girl
- Christina Meldrum, Madapple
- Walter Dean Myers, Sunrise Over Fallujah
- Mary Pearson, The Adoration of Jenna Fox
- Julie Schumacher, Black Box
- Mariko Tamaki, Skim
Some of these I’ve heard good things about and I had in the back of my mind to read, and some I’d never heard of. So at the very least it will broaden my reading for the year. Last year’s Mock Printz was remarkably unsuccessful in choosing the winner or any honor books – we read only one of the five honorees (Your Own Sylvia). So far this year, I think my favorite is Jenna Fox. I ordered a copy of Paper Towns with an Amazon gift card, so I’m waiting for that to show up. But where is Octavian Nothing, Volume 2? From all accounts it’s a worthy sequel, and we had The Pox Party on the mock list 2 years ago. I was looking forward to a few rousing arguments about it.
Good grief, it’s almost 4 months until we meet and I’m already spending too much time thinking about it. Maybe I can distract myself with a nice warm cup of coffee and a mystery.
Oh, and talk about a first day of autumn – I’m bundled up, my toes are cold even in socks, I’m craving hot beverages, the air is crisp and fally, it’s cloudy one minute and sunny the next, and – good grief – there are a few leaves on the lawn. The weather’s sure not wasting any time.
Last night I was reading Marie Rutkoski’s so-far fabulous The Cabinet of Wonders and I ran across a reference to Archimedes continuing to draw in the dirt as he’s attacked by a Roman soldier (and then a little while later a character started to talk about the concept of zero, which Petra, our heroine, had never heard of before) But the smartness of the book isn’t my point. My point is that I’d never heard that story about Archimedes until a few hours earlier – when I was at work listening to that shining star in the firmament of historical fiction, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party. At least, I’m pretty that’s where I heard it, because it’s the most logical place for anyone to be talking about Archimedes. But since I was listening to it, that makes it trickier to flip back and double check.
Petra was disturbed by it – she sees it in a frieze above the castle’s library doors, and she wonders whether he’s meant as a warning or a role model. I might have to grab a copy of Octavian Nothing if it’s in at the library, just to double check, because now I’m curious about Octavian’s comments on the story. What’s funny is that now this is really the only thing I know about ol’ Archimedes…
For about the millionth time since I packed up my books and put them in storage, I’ve wanted to check or reread something I own. This is driving me crazy. I have a lovely copy of Octavian, in a box. I’ve also wanted my copies of a few of the Vicky Bliss books, Ballet Shoes, some assorted Newbery medalists, my L.M. Montgomery paperbacks, and probably a few other things. Not like I can’t get them out of the library easily, but there’s a reason I have my own copy of things. And it’s been less than 2 months. Of course, if they weren’t in boxes, I’d probably have no interest in rereading them.
Just when you start to think that September will never stop being warm and sunny, you get a cool, cloudy morning that reminds you to appreciate that sunshine while it lasts, for crying out loud, and don’t start wishing you could wear that new sweater just yet. Because it’s Oregon, and your wish will come true before you’re really ready.
I finished watching the second season of Dexter – I know, I know, it doesn’t sound like my kind of thing at ALL, but I have a soft spot for it. Except I prefer the regular ol’ episodes to the Big Dramatic Season Finales. Anyway, having gotten my fill of serial killers, I moved on to watching movies. And I remembered why TV shows on DVD are really best for my schedule – when you don’t get home until after 10 pm, by the time you take a shower and fix some dinner and sit down, you don’t really have time for a 2 hour production. Not that this ever stopped me from watching 2 episodes of any TV show in an evening, but I could still get to bed at a decent hour if I wanted. With a movie, you’re stuck staying up late. Oh well.
The other night I watched Atonement. I loved the book – the only Ian McEwan that I was really enthusiastic about – and I felt a little trepidation about seeing it brought to life, as one often is with a well-liked book. I really enjoyed the first section of the movie – the house, and all the clashing patterns in the upholstery, and the costumes – I love that kind of stuff. It did a remarkable job, too, of portraying the inner lives of the characters through sheer visuals – remarkable because the book is so, well, word-based. And focused on the thoughts and feelings of characters, rather than words and actions. But it really translated well onto the screen. But then it moved to the WWII storyline, and I got a trifle bored. It lost the same sense of suspense – the “how will things go wrong?” tension that drove the first part of the story. I don’t remember if the same was true of the book – maybe I didn’t feel the tension because I knew what would happen. But I felt tense during the first part even though I knew how that would end. On a completely different note, I couldn’t decide if I loved the typewriter-sounding score or not.
Last night I watched I’m Not There – the one that’s kind of about Bob Dylan. The one that features Cate Blanchett looking eerily like Bob Dylan. It was bizarre and oddly fascinating, but it turns out that it takes a bit more plot to keep my interest through to the end. That said, I think it’s a love it or hate it kind of movie, and I’d have to fall more on the love side than the hate side. If you’re someone who’s watched Don’t Look Back more than once, I’m Not There is worth watching just for laughs.
On a completely different note, I really enjoyed Ellen Emerson White’s The President’s Daughter, which was just republished. The new covers for the whole series are pretty smashing – not just updates of dated late 80’s/early 90’s covers, but spins on classic paintings that really match the mood of the series. I read the 3rd and 4th books a while ago – Long Live the Queen and Long May She Reign – while I waited for the first two to go back in print. Now I’m eagerly awaiting #2, White House Autumn. They don’t sound at all like my kind of thing – politics, sports, kidnapping, PTSD, etc. But they’re so gripping – once I start one, I can barely put it down. Not necessarily because of the plot, but because the characters feel so real – especially the family dynamics. Meg is perfectly snarky – a kindred spirit with completely different interests. This is definitely a series that I’ll reread – and I kind of want to own copies so I can have those nice shiny covers on my bookshelf all the time. Also, I’m thinking about voting for Meg’s mom come November.
As much as I’m enjoying life at home (and really, I’m not being sarcastic), I miss my old neighborhood. I had breakfast with Bronwen yesterday at the bakery that used to be just around the corner – and I had to drive to get there! Okay, I realized afterwards that I could have biked, but still – it’s not around the corner anymore. Then we went for a little stroll and ran into my boss and Kate’s flower girl’s mom and little sister. It’s just that kind of neighborhood.
I resisted the urge to walk past my tomato plants and see how they were doing. I feel like in some alternate universe, we are still living in that apartment and I would hate to invade my other self’s turf by poking around the garden. I would wonder what on earth I was doing. But I like that other-self put up red curtains – to replace the red couch – and that other-self, naturally, approved of our paint colors.
I can’t seem to keep up with my goodreads reviews – maybe because I finished 11 books in the past 15 days. That might be part of my problem, now that I come to think about it. I keep stopping by and writing and quick review or two, and then adding more titles. I’ve been gobbling things up lately. Here’s what I’m really reading right now:
- The Astonishing LIfe of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party on audio – it’s more accessible than I would have thought on audio, and very interesting to see how the story unfolds on a reread. I’m not too far into it – Octavian knows who he is, but they haven’t even gotten to the pox party yet. I’m getting giddy just thinking about getting to the letters between Private Evidence and Fruition. I’m rereading in preparation for Volume 2, The Kingdom on the Waves. Kitri and I are planning our own “release party” – which basically involves the two of us going to a bookstore together and geeking out. I can’t wait.
- The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski. I can’t remember who recommended this, but so far it’s delightful. Yet another historical fiction/fantasy, but it’s fresh and imaginative. It features the most endearing tin spider I’ve ever met in fiction (not that I’ve met many in real life).
- The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon – I keep putting it down to read shinier things, but I’m planning to go back to it when the mood strikes.
I actually went on a little grown-up book kick for a while, but I think I’m back off it – I blame The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted. I tend to have a love-hate relationship with grown-up books. Sometimes I want something with real substance and oomph, and children’s books don’t feel like they have enough substance. Black Swan Green, So Brave, Young and Handsome, and City of Thieves suited me well in that mood.
Actually, never mind – I’m not off the kick. I just switched to fluffy grown-up books, with a smattering of children’s lit. I started rereading Elizabeth Peters’ Vicky Bliss books – art history mysteries which require very little thought for the amount of entertainment provided. They’re over-the-top and and make fun of themselves, and never ever claim to be anything other than quick, comfortable reads. I ate them up with a spoon in high school, and I’m getting a kick out of rereading the older ones while I wait for the brand-new installment to come in on hold. Right now I’m listening to #2, Street of the Five Moons, on my ipod. It’s a perfect distraction from work. What’s amazing is how much of detail I remember, despite not having picked them up in at least 10 years. I suppose they could be considered a guilty pleasure, but I refuse to feel guilty – they’re great for summer vacation. (And yes, I insist on calling it summer vacation until September 27, when I have to show up for class.)
I’ve a got a few more substantial grown-up books waiting for me – The Lazarus Project, which hasn’t quite hooked me yet, although I like it whenever I pick it up, and The Reserve, which sounds interesting. I’ve also got a bunch more on hold – things I’ve heard good things about here and there – but for the moment I’m happy to stay in fluff mode.
Enough chattering about books – I think it’s time to go bake something (and keep listening to Street of the Five Moons.
I can’t remember, out of the five million kidlit blogs I read, which one gushed about Elizabeth E. Wein’s books and got me to pick up The Winter Prince a few months ago. But, someone gushed. And once I sorted out the order of the books and got started, I was hooked. So I’m hear to pass along the recommendation. I haven’t read the most recent installment yet, but I have no doubt that it will be at least as good as all the rest. I should probably wait until I read it to do a thorough round-up of the series, but hey, why not today?
Start with The Winter Prince. This is the only one set in Britain, and many of the characters never appear again in other books, but it’s fascinating and tense and atmospheric, and if you read this one, you’ll have a great sense of some of the adult characters in the rest of the series. This one focuses on Medraut (Mordred), Arthur’s illegitimate son, and his relationship with Arthur’s (Artos’) two legitimate children.
Here’s what I said on Goodreads: This was a small book, but pleasantly dense, with characters who straddled that fine line between likable and unlikable in a realistic way. The story uses Arthurian legend, but minus any trappings of chivalry or fantasy or the Romantic period – the world felt more like something out of Rosemary Sutcliff, with the types of political and family tensions that fans of Megan Whalen Turner would relish. Not for reluctant readers, but the characters and story definitely reward a patient, thoughtful read.
The second installment, A Coalition of Lions, follows Medraut’s half-sister, Goewin, as she flees Britain to find her father’s ambassador in Aksum, or ancient Ethiopia. Again, there’s a sense of gritty reality but not a slavish attention to historical accuracy. Goewin is dealing with the death of most of her family, trying to negotiate with the man she was meant to marry, finding her place at court, and meeting family she didn’t know she had.
From Goodreads: Although the setting and some characters have changed since the first in the series, the tensions of that book definitely inform this one. It could stand alone but wouldn’t feel as rich. Like in The Winter Prince, the feel of the relationships and political scheming reminds me of Megan Whalen Turner’s books in the best way possible, and I gulped this one down.
In The Sunbird the focus shifts again to Telemakos, Medraut’s young son. Although our protagonist is a bit younger than in the first two, the book still straddles that fine line between children’s a YA – some of the content is violent, but never gratuitous, and the characters endure plenty of physical and mental hardship. For the size of the books, the stories are surprisingly complex. Goewin and Telemakos are acting as spies for the king, as plague threatens the region, and Goewin takes a great risk in sending Telemakos off on his own.
From Goodreads: This is the third in a loose series, and each one resolves but leaves you hanging a bit, and each one is unique in plot and mood. These are no cookie-cutter series titles, but filled with well-developed characters, intrigue, and fascinating settings. By this book, the story has moved fairly far from the Arthurian legend roots of The Winter Prince, but a few of those elements are still there even in the African setting. As with the previous two, I felt a similar love and addiction as I feel when reading Megan Whalen Turner. Telemakos is Eugenides’ long-lost brother, particularly when he hides around the palace or goes on insane spy missions, but also deeper in his personality, where his pain and delight in things live side by side.
Telemakos is just beginning to recover from his adventures in the salt mines when The Lion Hunter begins. The kingdom is still under quarantine from the plague, but Telemakos’ family is focused on other things – the birth of a new baby and an accident that befalls our protagonist, which are horribly linked. The household has also starting receiving threatening messages, which puts in jeopardy Telemakos’ role as a spy, and he is sent off to apprentice in a neighboring kingdom – a kingdom that may or may not prove friendly to Aksum.
Telemakos is one tough kid – and The Lion Hunter leaves him in a cliff-hanger ending. All along I’ve thought that this series would appeal to fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s books (one of my favorite series), and with the introduction of Telemakos, the resemblance is heightened. Telemakos is Eugenides’ long-lost cousin or his child self. Not only are they alike in personality – their tenacity, the scrapes they get into, their complex relationships with others (I’m just waiting for Telemakos to fall in love, but he’s only 12 so I may have to wait a while) – and their skills with spying and political maneuvering – but they also share another fate, which I won’t spoil. It took me a minute to make the connection – I was caught up in the story and didn’t stop to think – and then I had to laugh and something that nobody should ever laugh at. It was just too much of a coincidence for me; they ARE the same person, just in different ancient worlds.
I think these books could be appreciated by a really sharp middle-schooler – they’re not for the struggling or reluctant reader – or by anyone older who doesn’t think it’s babyish to read an excellent book with an 11-year old protagonist (the earlier books have young adult protagonists, so you could hook a high schooler and then they wouldn’t care). Strongly recommended to anyone who enjoys non-fluffy historical fiction (with plenty of creative license), fascinating characters, and complex plots and motivations that might require a careful read. They’re not necessarily page turners (although I couldn’t put any of them down once I started) but each one is a satisfying read. Taken as a whole, it’s a marvelous series.
Now, I’ve got to track down a copy of the latest installment, The Empty Kingdom.