Reflecting on 2010: Bloggers

I've posted on my favorite posts from 2010, and my favorite books from the year as well, but we all know that book blogs never stand alone. In fact, most bloggers I've spoken to say that what they love most about the world of book blogging is not the review copies, or even the chance to air our opinions - it is the sense of community, the support from one blogger to another, etc.

With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite bloggers, both newly discovered and old favorites, of 2010:

Raych at books i done read: At times absurd, at times quite serious, Raych is a funny, witty, and entertaining blogger with a very unique writing style. Always good to spice it up a bit and keep things interesting, which she most certainly does. That, and she reviews an excellent assortment of titles that are almost unanimously added to my non-existent TBR list.

Allie at A Literary Odyssey: Finding herself unemployed and struggling to figure out what she wanted to do with herself, Allie is doing what most every book nerd would dream of: reading 250 of the classics. And writing about them. You can read about her mission and how she determined her list, and then follow her adventures in Classicsland. If I can read a fraction of the 250 classics in 2011, I'll be a happy little bookworm.

Bella Steph at Bella's Bookshelves: Do you ever stumble across someone else' writing only to find your thoughts reflected back at you from the page? That was how I felt when I read my first post by Bella, on redeeming our reading selves. I immediately became an avid follower. Looking forward to more from her.

Rebecca at The Book Lady's Blog
: Rebecca, I've decided, is sort of like every book-blogger's idol. Correct if I'm wrong, but she has a strong following; interesting; engaging comments; a wonderful assortment of bookish posts, book reviews, and discussions of interesting or controversial topics; a literary community; authorish and booksellerish and reviewer and publisher friends. Not to mention the fact that she helped pioneer the Get in Bed with a Book Blogger campaign to pair up independent bookstores with local bloggers, and works with SocialMediU to help education people in using social media. Ok, enough goggling. Interesting posts, smart lady, avid reader and booklover. Jealousy aside, an all-around amazing blogger.

Greg at The New Dork Review of Books: I've posted about Greg's blog oh, I don't know, a dozen times in as many months, so he probably thinks I have a thing for him. It's nothing like that, but (like Rebecca) I greatly admire the consistently engaging and thoughtful content he posts, and (like Raych) I find myself constantly expanding my TBR pile because of him. Which should make me resent him (No room for more books! No time!), but it doesn't.

Thomas at My Porch: Thomas' reading choices are so vastly different than mine that I find myself constantly learning about new authors and titles from him. Even series and publishers. Always worth visiting when you're itching for something to read but aren't sure what it might be.

There are oh-so-many more blogs and bloggers I love to read, but I simply cannot list them all. Who am I missing here? I'm always looking for recommendations, and love to hear what everyone else is reading.

And, of course, looking forward to more great blogging - and finding new blogs - in 2011.

Reflecting on 2010: Reading

Yesterday, I took a look back at what I deemed some of my personal blogging highlights in 2010. Posts that made me think, and sparked commentary, and were a pleasure to look back on.

Today I turn my attention to my reading highlights of the year - the best and the worst, and even the middling. I'm following Greg Zimmerman of The New Dork Review of Books in lumping these into lists of two, because I must be cynical like him and assume we all have the attention span of a gnat. That and we're all sick of "Best of 2010" lists (personally, I stopped reading any but other blogger's lists, because they do get old). Greg's list, by the way, is probably more worth checking out than what's below.



New Literary Fiction

Day for Night
: Clever, unique, thought-provoking, stimulating, rich, deep, thoughtful. 'Nough said.

Letter to My Daughter: One of the first books I read this year, and still with me today. Short but poignant, George Bishop perfectly captures the turmoil-ed relationship between mother and teenage daughter.

(If I allowed myself three in a category, I'd have to put One Day by David Nicholls here, too).

Backlist Fiction (aka did I really wait until now to read this book?)

Shadow of the Wind
: This might be the ultimate thriller/mystery/literary novel for booklover's: one part ode to the power of books, one part powerful romance, one part twisting mystery.

Ragtime: E.L. Doctorow is a true master of words. But then, we all knew that already.



Memoir

Traveling with Pomegranates: I found this book so enjoyable - and so timely in my own life - that I couldn't even review it. I was far too biased to give it any kind of accurate assessment. The memoir, written by Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, explores the relationship between a just-turned-50-year-old mother and her 20-something-just-engaged daughter. Timely, indeed. Worth the read for any mother or daughter. What's more, it sheds a lot of light on Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, which I also enjoyed thoroughly this year.

The Happiness Project
: Gretchen Rubin's memoir of her year of happiness resolutions avoids the common trap of self-help books in that it is never prescriptive or preachy. Gretchen's Happiness Project blog is also worth checking out.


Horror/Sci-Fi

Neverland
: I don't read a lot of horror, and this is why: a well-executed horror book makes you want to sleep with the lights on, never stay home alone, and bury your head under your pillow all at once. Poorly executed horror is just painful. Douglass Clegg stands firmly in the first camp. (Reviewed on Bookgasm).

The Passage
: Justin Cronin hit the nail on the head with this one, combining post-apocalyptic America with government conspiracy, a creepy, prescient little girl, vampires, a spreading virus, and a battle for survival. I absolutely cannot wait for the sequel to The Passage.

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Overall, I think I read about 60 books this year, and reviewed 36. Of these, a mere four were non-fiction. Two - two! - were classics (Alice in Wonderland and Dickens' Christmas stories), though I did listen to Pride and Prejudice, as well. I have a decent balance of male and female authors, but predominantly white (if not all?). Three were re-reads (two from the Wheel of Time series). Of the non-classics and non-audio, maybe 10 were backlist titles.

Based on this, my goals for 2011 include more:
  • Non-fiction
  • Classics
  • Non-white authors (recommendations, anyone?)
  • Re-reads of my favorite authors
  • Backlist selections from my bookshelves
  • Backlist selections from favorite authors
  • Books lent or recommended by friends and family - remember, books are social currency, and as much as I enjoy pushing my own recommendations on willing or unwilling listeners, I have to start to take more advice as well.
Not very specific goals, I know, but I don't do well with strict to-read lists. Consider these more like guidelines to influence my next book of choice.

What were your favorites of 2010? What did you learn about yourself as a reader by your selections this year? What are your goals for 2011?

Reflecting on 2010: Blogging

2010 was not my first year of blogging (my archives go all the way back to August 2008, though I didn't really get into the swing of things until summer of 2009), but it was the first year I really threw myself into it with a gusto. I researched, I read, I revamped - some changes for the better, some for the worse: added tracking analytics, with which I am unhealthily obsessed; bought a URL to remove the ".blogspot.com" from my address; started tweeting and created a Facebook page for the bookworm.*

But more than any of this, I hunkered down - to the best of my ability - with both my reading and blogging time. There are some posts I'm not so proud of, of course, a few pathetic attempts just to post something, the "must-keep-initiative" posts of desperation. But there were also a few that I am proud to stand behind - those that generated discussion, thought, and reflection. In case you missed them, here's a few I deem worth revisiting (with the caveat, of course, that I am more than a bit biased):

Goodbye (!) Exclamation (!) Points (!): After reading a piece in the Barnes & Noble Book Reviews by the always-hilarious Polly Frost about the incessant use of exclamation points, the grammarphile in me went a little beserk and seconded her message. Please limit these annoying punctuation marks, people! Unless you are saying "Congratulations!" or "Thank You!," they really aren't often necessary! Really! (See how annoying that was?)

To-Read Lists, and Why I Can't Stand Them: Because my book selections are very dependent on my current mood and situation (see How Book Selections Reflect Our Current State of Mind), I absolutely detest to-read lists, ordered lists, required reading lists, etc. My "lists" are organic, ever-changing, and rarely written down. How do you organize your lists of what to read next?

Why Read? An Impassioned and Somewhat Confused Argument: I have always taken issue with people who insist that avid readers are by default an isolated, lonely group (see also: An Engaged and Approachable Bookworm), but even more so with those who feel that better education lies outside the pages of a book - especially a fiction title. Books, I argue, are social currency.

And, most recently, This is the Reader's Life: I might not have read 100+ books this year, and I might have even gone days - weeks! - without picking up a book. But a reader's life is not spent 24 hours a day with nose in spine. Interruptions are natural, and here I try to tell others - as well as myself - that this makes me no less a "reader" than those who devour a book a day.

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* I also left NYC and moved to Maryland, job hunted (in a new industry), got married, and cut my hair short like Carey Mulligan. It's been a wonderful, hectic, crazy, busy, lovely year.

Merry Christmas! (and a quote from A Christmas Carol)

"But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" - A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

Merry Christmas, folks. I'll be gone until next Tuesday, visiting the precious niece for her very first Christmas, eating far too much, drinking even more than that, and generally overdoing it for the holiday. Here's to lots of time for reading and sleeping and whatever else you try to do in your time off!

A Christmas Carol Collection of Facts

And you thought we were done with posts about A Christmas Carol? Dream on, friends. No, instead I have now read the book - and Dickens' other Christmas novellas - and set myself to a mission of learning more about them.

Dickens, as any of use that read Great Expectations in middle school were told, wrote most frequently in serial publications, for which he was paid by the word. Thus, he used a lot of words. And chapter breaks, frustratingly, often end in mini-cliffhangers, to keep readers coming back.

A Christmas Carol was no such work. Instead, Dickens found himself broke and bordering on desperate in the fall of 1843. To combat the problem, he decided to write a Christmas novella - not serialized, and not paid for by the word. He completed the book in a mere six weeks, which is even more impressive when you remember than all manuscripts were handwritten with ink pen in the 19th century. Christmas was a suitable subject, too, for Victorian England, with Prince Albert introducing the Christmas tree in 1841, the first Christmas Card rumored to have been sent in 1843, and a rise in caroling traditions.*

After a dispute with his publisher, Dickens published the novel himself - before self-publishing took on the stigma that it seems to have now. The first edition was printed with "lavish binding, gilt edging, hand-colored illustrations - and a modest price."** The edition sold 6,000 copies in the first few days following publication.

Dickens was in no way the first to write a Christmas story, but nonetheless, he is credited with rekindling the Christmas spirit in Victorian England, which then seeped its way into a war-ridden 1860s America.

From 6,000 copies, the story only grew. Now, it has been adapted into plays, ballets, musicals, and even opera, not to mention the 23+ movie renditions.** Scrooge is rumored to have been Dr. Seuss' inspiration for the Grinch, and elements of Dickens' story present themselves in It's a Wonderful Life.

I'm itching to get my hands on a copy of The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Has anyone read it?

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* Factoids courtesy of Wikipedia.

** From the introduction to the Dalmatian Press edition of Dickens' three Christmas novellas.

*** My personal favorite, as I mentioned in my previous post on the experience of reading the book, is the 1980s made-for-TV version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge, though I also love the Muppet version. Yours?

This is the Reader's Life

As I watch these "Books I Completed in 2010" posts trickle through my Google Reader, I find myself questioning my dedication to reading. Some have neared 300 books in just 12 short months. Me? I haven't counted for the year, but besides A Christmas Carol, which I talked about in my post yesterday (and promise to talk about more in the near future), I haven't finished a reading a book since I got back from my honeymoon and insisted on completing Moonlight Mile to the exclusion of all else. I have completed a few audiobooks, which I've taken to listening to on my nearly 1-hr commute to and from work each day, but as much as I enjoy them, it is not the same as curling up with a good, old-fashioned book. I'd make the same argument against e-books, for the record.

I have no intentions of turning this homage to a reader's life into a rant against books in alternate formats. I'm all for choice and fitting in your reading with your lifestyle - which is actually exactly to my point. Because I find myself earning for a lifestyle that would allow for solid blocks of reading time, the ability to complete a chapter in one sitting, the focus to read a book cover-to-cover in one weekend - or better yet, one day.

Such a lifestyle eludes me. I work 40+ hours a week, commute for 10+ hours a week, have a husband, a cat, a house that need my attention, a family with whom I enjoy spending time, and a host of thank-you notes to write (still) and Christmas cards to send (ok, I finished those), and laundry to fold (always), etc. I try to cook from time to time, and occasionally I'll even work out (if WiiFit counts?). And let's not forget that I have blogs to read and blogs to write.

This is not a complaint, however, because in spite of all the things that tear me away from my precious home library, I still identify myself as a "reader." Ask me what I do and I will tell you I work in advertising. Ask me what I like to do and I will tell you I like to read. I like to think about reading, talk about reading, and tell others about what I am reading (in case you didn't guess from the mere existence of this blog). When I'm not reading, for whatever reason, I am doing my best to plan my next few pages. Because even if that's all I can fit into a given day, or week, or even month, that is where I find myself happiest, alone, and connected.

And so, despite my pitiful list of books completed since early November, and my incredible stunted list of books read in 2010 as compared to those behemoth lists of other bloggers', and regardless of the fact that I have resigned myself to never completing the 1001 books to read before you die, I am still a reader. This is the reader's life.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, or, On Re-reading a Book I've Never Read

Ok, the title of this post is perhaps a bit too long, but I tend to be indecisive in my titling trends. I sat down to attempt to "review" A Christmas Carol*, but really, is that possible? What can little me add to the canon of critiques of Dickens' works? And so, instead of an actual book review, I found myself reflecting on the experience of reading this novella - for the first time, might I add - and wondering at its familiarity.

Not unlike several other bloggers out there, I have been making an attempt to turn my attention away from some of the glitzy galleys that arrive in the mail and back towards the classics that line my shelves in all shapes and sizes. A Christmas Carol marked the first completed book in this personal challenge - and as I started it, I found myself distracted by my constant thoughts of, "How have I made it this far into life without actually reading the book?"

More than that, however, I was struck by how familiar the pages were. Not just the story line, mind you, but the words themselves. This is, of course, because I broke my cardinal rule of bookish movies, and watched the movie (or rather, several renditions of it**) before ever reading the book.

But that familiarity, the nostalgia associated with what have always been my favorite parts, the knowing what words, phrases, and sentences were to come next, were paired with an equal amazement at the new-ness of it all. Take, for example, the fact that the original ghost of Christmas past is a man. Or that the novella itself is actually quite humorous (which Red of What Red Read also noted in her recent post on A Christmas Carol)? And, more than anything else, the fact that Scrooge, though certainly crotchety in the opening pages, actually begins his transformation into a new man much earlier in the ghosts' visits on than any of the movies represent.

Altogether, reading Dickens' actual words*** provided a new glimpse into a story I thought I already knew, and proved to be a unique experience that mimicked re-reading, yet of a book I had never read. I'm not sure that I could do this with many other titles - Dracula and The Princess Bride come to mind, but nothing more. You? Any books you could "re-read" for the first time? Or have you done so already?

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* Favorite being the 1980s made-for-tv version starring George C. Scott as Scrooge.

** I read the novella (and Dickens' other two Christmas novellas) in a beautiful, red leather-bound edition from Dalmatian press, which appears to be out of print. Which is really too bad, because I was going to recommend primarily because the paper they used is so velvety soft that it was a joy to hold and read.

**I actually read Dickens' handwritten words last year at the Morgan Library, where they display the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol every year. It. Was. Awesome.

On Those Who Love the Smell of Books

Months ago, I posted about my love for the smell of books. I even got the coveted room spray from the CB I Hate Perfume "In the Library" collection as a wedding present from a lovely, wonderful friend of mine. My facebook profile boasts, "If they made old book as a perfume, I would wear it. And new book for going out."

I've always known that I was not alone in this - at the very least, my dad is known to open a book to the spine and stick his nose in it, taking deep breaths. But now The New Yorker is featuring the existence of a woman who smells books as one of the top reasons we (well, New Yorkers, and that's not me anymore) love the city. The woman is artist Rachael Morrison, who joked after starting work at the MoMA library that she was "smelling books" all day at work; now, she's making it her mission to actually smell - and catalog - the scent of every book in the MoMA stacks. She's 150 into the 300,000 books that live there.

Seriously, I want that job.

(Original link via Shelf Awareness, December 13th. Photo by Michael Schmelling, from the original New Yorker article).

Dear Santa: All I Want For Christmas is a New, Orange Car

Were you really, really, really good this year? Or are you itching to spend $30k on a gently used car? Does knowing the proceeds go to the New York Public Library help? What if I told you the car came loaded with 75 Penguin titles for your reading enjoyment (though not for your reading-while-driving enjoyment, of course)?

Penguin is selling off the bright orange, Penguin-logoed Mini Cooper used in the celebratory tour for their 75th anniversary. For a mere $30,000, you - or the bookloving driver on your Christmas list - can own this gently used (15,000 miles) vehicle, signed by 18 Penguin authors. The car is available via Autotrader.com, and as mentioned above.

$30k is steep for a used Mini, but it does go to a good cause, and it comes with about $1000 worth of new books. Think it's worth it? Would you even want to drive a bright orange car emblazoned with the Penguin logo?

Book Review: The Mullah's Storm by Thomas W. Young

The Mullah's Storm, Thomas W. Young's debut novel, takes readers into the depths of the war in Afghanistan, pitting struggling American forces and their captive mullah against Afghan forces desperate to recover their spiritual leader in the midst of a fierce blizzard. Major Michael Parson and female interpreter Major Sergeant Gold fight the snow, their hunters, the cold, their captors, fatigue and hunger, and their hunters again in a riveting novel that captures the very human elements of war.

And the novel's success in doing so is not surprising; author Thomas Young is himself a former flight engineer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Air National Guard. In interviews, he has explained that his characters are composites of those with whom he fought, and the concept of captor and capture after a plane is downed is the imagining of a very real and very pertinent fear from his own experiences.

Young's experience shows itself in his narrative. The beauty of the Afghanistan landscape, marred by war and yet perfectly blanketed by feet of pure white snow is a recurring theme. Young's incorporation of common military technologies is detailed, accurate, and intriguing to one who has only a passing knowledge of the guns and tools used to fight our battles. Young's characters capture the struggle of warfighters to choose between sight and conserving the battery life of a pair of night-vision goggles; the cruel forms of torture used to harass prisoners by both sides of the fight; the strange-to-us mentality surrounding the militant Afghan forces; the internal divide between those Afghans fighting with the Allied forces and those fighting against them.

Unfortunately, Young's writing is tinged by the occasional choppy transition and uncomfortable attempt to work in details and plot backgrounds seemingly unnecessary to the development of the plot. Major Parson reflects back on hunting expeditions with his father, but the reflection reads as a forced one, out of place in the otherwise smooth narration of a gripping story.

Bottom line: Despite the minor plot inconsistencies and slightly uncomfortable passages, Young's first novel is a heroic effort, and, for fans of war novels and thrillers alike, will certainly not disappoint in the realms of riveting action and accurate historic detail. And for those of us struggling to wrap our minds around the actual experiences of the wars in which we find our country currently embroiled, The Mullah's Storm is a digestible and easily understood insight into the world of the warfighter. Just be prepared for a few gruesome scenes, and don't expect all the good guys to be the default winners.

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Thanks to Lydia Hirt at Putnam/Riverhead for an advance copy of this title.

Harlan Kane's Next Bestseller: The Abacus Conundrum

Thanks to Trisha at The Book Case for the video, which she posted last week. I hate to repeat posts, but it was just too funny not to share. I never watch SNL, so I was really grateful to have another blogger point out this clip on the bestseller phenomenon:

Created in Solitude (Quote of the Day)

"Books connect us with others, but that connection is created in solitude, one reader in one chair hearing one writer, what John Irving refers to as one genius speaking to another." -Lewis Buzbee, bookseller, publishing rep, and author of A Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, A History.

Great Photo Friday: Books as Centerpieces

Planning a dinner party? Don't want to shell out on massive flower arrangements? Consider using books as a colorful way to brighten a white tablecloth - and raise small flower arrangements to a more suitable height for a large table. All photos courtesy of Don Bryant Photography.









What Are Your Top 10 Favorite Penguin Classics?

Last year, Penguin compiled a list of the top ten Penguin classics of all time, surely not expecting the massive backlash they received when they published it. These were meant to be the essential Penguin classics - but they forgot to ask the most important ingredient in a publisher's recipe: the readers. "Where is Picture of Dorian Gray!?" we cried (well, not I, as I haven't read it). What about Tolstoy??

Deep breaths, classics-readers. Now's your chance to chime in. Penguin opened the debate to readers, narrowing a list of 100 titles to a longlist of 25. Now, it's time to whittle it down to the top 10 most essential classics in the 10 Essential Classics Redux. Hop on over and cast your vote. The final list (take two, anyway) will be released in January.

Oprah's Next Book Club Pick: Charles Dickens Makes an Appearance

Oprah announced her latest book club pick today: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. You read that right - it's not one, or the other, but both. Which explains the hullabaloo when previous announcements stated that the pick weighed 1.9 lbs.

I'm on a mission to read more of the classics, and as a general rule, I think the reading entire population should read more classics. And I think Dickens is absolutely a good place to start. So I suppose I should be on board with the pick, but it still gives my snobbish bookish self a bit of a bother when Oprah gets all professor-y on us and goes classic. Don't worry, though - I'm not so much of a snob as to be unable to recognize the significance of a celebrity throwing her influence behind a book worthy of mass attention, and I'm thankful for it. After all, who am I to question Oprah's motives? And who am I to question readers' motivations for selecting a book? If Oprah gets people reading, more power to her.

What about you? Do you like when Oprah picks classics, as it gets more people reading them? Or do you think classics should be left on dusty library shelves in aging university stacks?

Have you read the books? I read Great Expectations in middle school, and - pure coincidence, I swear - started A Tale of Two Cities for the first time a few days ago. Will you read the books? Will you buy the Oprah edition from Penguin (which, might I add, has a beautiful cover), or will you opt for one of the editions below (the traditional, the funky, and more)?






And other Dickens books I'm itching to get my hands on:

Etsy Gifts for Bookworms (and all under $20!)

I've already featured some gift recommendations for the bookworm on all your lists, but I can't resist a good stroll through Etsy for some adorably nerdy and bookish gifts this holiday season. After all, who doesn't love a gift that's both book-related and handmade (and affordable, at that)??

Metal bookmarks are thin enough to lay flat in a magazine or book but sturdy enough to stand the test of time. Get a set of six bookmarks impressed with cities of the world for just $15 from Sierra Metal Design, or go personalized with a monogrammed metal bookmark for around $20 from Pearlie Girl (available in silver or bronze). Metal too industrial for you? Try personalized leather bookmarks for $12.50 from Jeeta, available in a variety of colors with different patterned paper backs.



For wearable book art, consider book jewelry. Elloh offers an "i heart the library" pendant ($18), as well as a collection of wooden book charms for necklaces and the like - check out Gulliver's Travels (complete with library check-out card in the back) for only $17. Or go the dictionary route with a customized word pendant ($18) from Papers and Prose.


On the stationery side, try personalized Learned Crow book plates ($6.50 for 6) from Little Chickadee. Or go for personalized notecards with a book stamp ($18 for a set of 12) for all their note-writing needs from Naomi Lynn. (And you can write your own Christmas notes on Christmas library notecards ($5 for a set of 4) from City Light.)



And just for some laughs, check out these quirky gifts:

Literary Lites from Dippy Lulu ($6 for three boxes of matches) - in the style of a Penguin classic, these fun little matchboxes poke fun at the great literary classics of our time. Complete with summary on the back.

A book-themed business card holder ($18) from Anomaly Design lets you hand out your digits in true nerd style.

And frame all the books they already own with some Novel Bookends ($19.99) - pun intended - from Knob Creek Metal Arts.




Stay tuned for book gifts for the non-booklovers on your list.

Still don't have enough ideas? Check out Let the Holidays Begin!: Gift Ideas for Booklovers & Bookworms for more gift ideas this year.


Great Photo Friday: Book of Desks


A desk, made entirely of books? Yep. Via Out of Print blog and my friend Lawrence.

Audiobook Review: The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, is the kind of book that makes you pause, taking a moment to think and to wonder when you might otherwise have sped on through your daily activities. I first read it when it was originally published in 2003, after my mother pressed it onto me. I had mistakenly classified it as sappy chick lit, and have never been more grateful to have been proved wrong. Though it absolutely slants towards a female audience, this is in no way sappy or vapid or any of the other negative words a literary snob such as myself might associate with the standard chick lit offerings.

I recently revisited book in audio format, and it proved just as enjoyable and refreshing the second time around as it had the first.

The Secret Life of Bees follows the story of Lily Owens, daughter of T. Ray Owens, a hard and sometimes cruel father. Her life consists of avoiding T. Ray's anger and daydreaming of her mother, who died when Lily was young - at least until she gets fed up with all of it and runs away to Tiburon, South Carolina, a town scratched on the back of a photo she found in her mother's belongings. What she finds there is a house full of black women, where she makes a kind of home for herself with the Beauright sisters - a shocking development in the life of a skinny little white girls in 1960s South Carolina.

Worshipping a statue of a black Madonna, harvesting honey from bee hives across the town, and watching race contests play out across the state, Lily struggles to come to peace with the loss of her mother and her self-determined status of unloved child. Ultimately, Kidd's novel is a coming-of-age tale, in which Lily - and the reader - learn to look for love in the most unlikely of spots.

According to her memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, Sue Monk Kidd set herself to writing this novel while traveling through Greece with her daughter. She made her prayer and promise to both herself and to a black Madonna; the reader does not have to look far to find the seeds for The Secret Life of Bees in these journeys. The black Madonna, the bees, the honey - every symbol here is carefully and meaningfully researched, layered upon each other and upon the story, peeling back one bit at a time until the very last page.

Kidd's writing itself is also layered and beautiful, capturing the spirit and often distorted logic of a young, confused girl trying to make her way in an unloving world:

"Next to Shakespeare I love Thoreau best. Mrs. Henry made us read portions of Walden Pond, and afterward I'd had fantasies of going to a private garden where T. Ray would never find me. I started appreciating Mother Nature, what she'd done with the world. In my mind she looked like Eleanor Roosevelt."

Remember those times, when you match strange faces with faceless things? The times when you are discovering new kinds of literature for the first time, and they open your eyes to a new world around you?

But beyond this somewhat hopeful child's voice, the voice of a child who wants to love the world she's in, Lily's world, twisted and turned like a prism reflecting the sunlight by Kidd's prose, is one of hurt, of confusion, of misunderstanding.
"Probably one or two moments in your whole life you will hear a dark whispering spirit, a voice coming from the center of things. It will have blades for lips and will not stop until it speaks the one secret thing at the heart of it all. Kneeling on the floor, unable to stop shuddering, I heard it plainly. It said, You are unlovable, Lily Owens. Unlovable. Who could love you? Who in this world could ever love you?"

"My chest hurt from feeling things. I wondering if T. Ray was pacing the floors feeling as injured as I hoped he did. Maybe he was telling himself what a rotten excuse for a father he was for not treating me better, but I doubted it. Thinking up ways to kill me was more like it."
In the end, the unraveling of this distorted worldview is what comprises Sue Monk Kidd's debut novel - it is a story of religion, of peace, of nature, of life, of death, of love, of mothers.

Bottom Line: Both Traveling with Pomegranates and The Secret Life of Bees reflect Sue Monk Kidd's emphasis on mothering and motherhood as a main aspect of our lives. In The Secret Life of Bees, this story is told from the point-of-view of a motherless daughter, struggling to define love for herself. With a dynamic, colorful (literally) and often hilarious cast of characters, Lily's world is revealed to us one step at a time, her secrets peeled back and new lights cast upon her. Silly hats, honey jars, black Madonnas, and a purse-clutching sisterhood stand beside a cruel father, race riots, angry teenagers and spiteful politicians to keep readers engaged and captivated by both Lily's story and the world she lives in.

A Note On the Audio: The version I listened to (from the public library) was the Books on Tape version (though it was CDs), narrated by Karen White. The version that appears to be readily available on CD through both Amazon and Indiebound is different, narrated by Jenna Lamia - I've listened to a quick excerpt, and must say it would be worth the digging to find the Karen White version instead. Her voice is crisp and clear, easy to understand, never irritating or monotone. She captures the difference between Lily's own narration and her recounting of other's speech subtly, without imitating voices for each character, but it is enough to mark a difference between the two. Overall, an excellent recording - one I'm sad to see is not easier to find on the great wide interwebs.

Let the Holidays Begin!: Gift Ideas for Booklovers & Bookworms

Really, friends, where did the fall go? I mean, I know I was off getting married and all, but I feel like it has absolutely disappeared, and now it is the week after Thanksgiving and officially time to turn our attention to the holidays. Christmas just so happens to be my favorite holiday of the year, and cheesy as it might be, I absolutely love the gift-giving part. Everyone likes the receiving bit, I know, but I enjoy that hunt for the perfect item...

So, with that in mind, I'm launching into some bookish gift recommendations for the booklovers and bookworms on your list. A future post will contain recommendations for the not-yet booklovers and bookworms we all know and hope to convert.

The Great Penguin Bookchase - I have yet to find this one in American dollars, but it is available for shipping to the US for a approximately $25, give or take a few bucks based on fluctuating exchange rates. Still, what better than a Penguin-themed board game for those of us who hoard books with coordinating spines? I mean... we all do that, right?




Or how about some book-themed scents? Paddywax's Library Collection boasts a series of perfumes, candles, and sprays inspired by our favorite authors. The presentation is topped off with a noteable quote, although the images are too small to see what these might be. I'm itching to smell the Poe scents, myself. Hint, hint.

CB I Hate Perfume also features an In the Library collection, available as perfume or room spray. One very clever and wonderful friend gave us the room spray as a wedding gift, and I have delighted in spraying it all over the house this past month. It really does smell like old book stacks. Delightful.

And a re-use from one of my Great Friday posts, books made into purses are the perfect way to carry your hobby around with you for all the world to see - literally. While a little part of me cringes at the idea of removing the pages of a book - essentially destroying it - I do love these little bags, available from Rebound Designs or through the Rebound Designs Etsy shop. Sadly, I won't add one to my own collection for the simple fact that I carry entirely too many things with me to fit them inside one book. Even the Complete Shakespeare Collection.

Still looking for more ideas? Check out my recommendations for fun bookends. We all need something to keep those teetering shelves in order, after all:

Great Bookends Friday (part 1)
Great Bookends Friday (part 2)

Great Photo Friday: Loneliness

This one comes from an awesome tumblr site I just stumbled into: Booklover, dedicated to "sharing and spreading book love with delicate pictures, amazing shelves, memorable libraries and intense quotes."

Happy Thanksgiving!

Just wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving and a delicious turkey. Hopefully you all have a good book in hand to provide the oft-needed distractions from family gatherings.

I'll be gone the rest of the week to devour my own delicious turkey, lots of cranberry sauce, an unhealthy portion of Boston Cream Pie, and a decent chunk of Black Friday shopping. Back on Monday in full-on holiday mode, and probably 5 pounds heavier.

someecards.com - Let Thanksgiving be a reminder to start your holiday season bender

The Saga of the Sony Pocket Reader

Dear readers, I have neglected to inform you of a very important development in my reading life - the acquisition of a Sony Pocket Reader. Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have seen my initial disappointments with the thing (the screen broke after only a few weeks of use), but my blog-only followers most likely know nothing of this saga. [Note: Sony replaced the Reader and even let me keep the extra charger. No hard feelings, although the process wasn't quite painless.]

I've let the issue lie for several months so I could give the thing accurate feedback. So far, I must admit, I am less than impressed. The device itself functions well (although I wish it was Wifi-compatible), and the screen is easy to read, etc, etc. In fact, much to my surprise, I have no actual complaints with the device or the technology itself.

Instead, though, I find I have criticisms of my own reading habits when reading digitally. Case in point: I have yet to actually complete a book on the Reader. I've started several - some for work, some e-galleys from NetGalley, a few downloads from Gutenberg (notice I have yet to actually purchase a book, which is enough matter for a separate post) - but have not yet read a "The End" page in e-ink. I've enjoyed those books I started - including Our Tragic Universe, which I had been itching to read for some time, and the first half of Road to Bedlam, which I ultimately completed in paperback and reviewed a few weeks after starting it on the Sony Reader.

No, when I read on the e-ink screen, I for one feel a distinct lack of connection with the words in front of me. Maybe I'm biased - I'm certainly pre-disposed to love the look, feel and smell of printed book - or maybe it's just my own personal reading style, but screen-reading has yet to catch on for me. I gave it a six-month shot, and remain unimpressed.

Am I just using the wrong device? Am I reading the wrong books? Am I going about this in entirely the wrong way? Does anyone else feel this disconnect? For those that do enjoy their e-readers, any advice? It would carve a significant amount of added space into my house if I could start collecting digital files instead of dusty old hardbacks and ARCs I have yet to read...

So Cheap As Reading (Quote of the Day)

“No entertainment is so cheap as reading, nor any pleasure so lasting." - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Book Review: The Reapers Are the Angels, by Alden Bell

I find it suiting that I am writing this review as my husband unlocks the zombie level of the new Call of Duty: Black Ops. As zombies overrun the White House and threaten JFK, I contemplate debut author Allen Bell's thoughts on human nature in the face of a zombie plague. And so, with gun shots and zombie groans rambling through my ears...

The Reapers Are the Angels is a well-crafted and unique first novel, detailing the life of Temple, a girl who finds herself alone in a world plagued by zombies. From a young age, she has fended for herself, learning the swift one-two knife stroke required to kill and keep dead a zombie before she even learns to read. She repeatedly rejects the company of other survivors in favor of solitude, in part because of her personality, and in part, we learn, because she is punishing herself for the evil she believes lives inside of her.

As she grapples with questions that no teenager should have to face, let alone face alone, she longs for the days of sunny outdoor cafes, and holds a trip to Niagara Falls as her ultimate goal in life. She moves from a lonely island to a colony of hundreds of survivors to a camp of hunters to a train full of fugitives, but despite her efforts at loneliness, she is pursued by another survivor, aiming to settle a debt. In the end, the definition of friend and enemy is blurred, leaving Temple to determine what is good and what is not in a very grey-toned world.

The Reapers Are the Angels offers a fresh voice in the zombie genre. The book, relatively light on plot but heavy on thought, stands out among a myriad of middling zombie currently books flooding the shelves of our bookstores. Though not at all lacking in the blood, guts and gore that are the standard of this genre, Bell takes a more philosophical - almost religious - look at human nature in the face of a zombie plague. How does a person react to a world turned upside down? Some surrender, some fight, some hide, some turn the other cheek, some pretend that all is perfectly normal. Some, like Temple, see the evil of the world reflected inside themselves.

Despite the demons she carries around in her heart, Temple moves into the mind of the reader and makes herself a little home there. She is misguided, misunderstood, and miserable; though she doesn't seem to understand, the reader is privy to the fact that she is, in fact, a person with a good heart. Her story is powerful, despite the slow pace of the plot, as we see the world through her eyes and define it through her perspective.

Above all else, Temple's story resonates with the nature of the world around her. Though cities - and civilization - have crumbled and fallen to dust, the beauty of the ocean, the sky, the forest, the trees, the world still remain, and that beauty, in a way, is Temple's beauty.

Bottom Line: Bell's smooth writing, a narrative that reflects the inner voice of a troubled and determined young girl facing a world of zombies. Although it ranks one among many zombie novels released in recent years, The Reapers Are the Angels is unique. The philosophical considerations of a zombie-infested world, the reflections on nature's persistent beauty in spite of the evil that strides across it, and the struggles of Temple as she looks for her place are not the standard markings of a zombie novel; paired with the guts and gore that one expects when killing the un-dead, this is sure to be enjoyed by zombie lovers and by those a bit skeptical of the genre to begin with.

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Note: I received a copy of this title for review from the publisher, Henry Holt.

Book Review: Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

What you are about to read below is probably less review than it is pure gushing, because (I believe) when any reader encounters the kind of book that is in itself a book that will change the way that reader thinks, it's hard to provide any kind of unbiased analysis of it. Read on at your own peril. For the most part, I'll try to let the book speak for itself.
"This is a world of shadows...and magic is a rare asset. That book taught me that by reading, I could live more intensely." (27)
Have you ever come across a book that calls to you from the shelves for no apparent reason? The kind of book that you read once, and know it will change your thinking, your perspective, your reading habits? And then you read again and again and again, revisiting its pages, its characters, stories, triumphs, failures, details, beauty, words?

The Shadow of the Wind is a book about just such a book. It is also such a book in its own right. Perhaps that was Zafon's intention - after all, every author must strive to make his work powerful, haunting, influential, important, beautiful - but the success here is even more striking because of the subject of the story.

Set in Barcelona in 1945, The Shadow of the Wind tells the story of a city pulling itself back up from the horrors of both a civil war and a world war. In this strange and unsettling atmosphere, Daniel Sempere makes his first visit to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. There, he selects the one book he allowed to take with him - The Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. The book leads him to his first love, a broken heart, an unlikely friendship with a homeless man, flights from death threats, the arms of a new love, the mysteries of Carax' past, and a secret history of murder, politics and book burning.

In short, the novel and its history become both an escape from and a replacement for Daniel's own life:
"I told her how until that moment I had not understood that this was a story about a lonely people about absence and loss, and that that was why I had taken refuge in it until it became confused with my own life, like someone who has escaped into the pages of a novel because those whom he needs to love seem nothing more than ghosts inhabiting the mind of a stranger." (179)
The book is at once haunting, suspenseful, erotic, romantic, eerie, poignant, and moving. It is (clearly) the kind of books that lends itself to long strings of adjectives and descriptors, itself a moving object incapable of being held by any one set of words. Zafon's writing, translated from the original Spanish by Lucia Graves, is compelling and clear, suspenseful but willing to pause for delicate descriptions of place or a moment or a pause - whatever warrants attention.

More than anything else, though, the book is itself a love letter to books, the power they hold over our thoughts and imaginations, the special place they hold in our hearts and our histories. Just as we booklovers now fear the loss of the book in the face of computers, ereaders, the internet, and 140-character stories, so too did they fear the death of the book, that all-powerful force, in the face of television and color cable:
"... the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind and great readers are becoming more scare by the day." (484)
Bottom Line: Whether you devour a book a week or read only a select few in a lifetime, I cannot stress enough that this book should be one of them. For those seeking poetry and prose, finely crafted writing and careful observations, Zafon's admiration of the beauties of the world around him are reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other great masters of detail. For those looking for an engaging plot, eager to place the pieces of the puzzle, The Shadow of the Wind is suspenseful, fast-paced and captivating. For anyone who has been touched by a book, this title is the manifestation of everything we hold dear about our precious tomes.

All I can really say, in the end, is that you'll have to read it for yourself. And I certainly hope I haven't set your expectations too high.

The Neglected Books Page, Or, Death to Productivity

You know what I needed? An entire website dedicated to books I probably haven't heard of yet. Because my non-existent list of books I'd like to read one day wasn't already daunting enough.

But, alas, now I have (yet another) outlet in which to lose myself, while away the hours, and with which I will, naturally, continue to expand the list of books I strive to read in one short lifetime. It even has a great name: The Neglected Books Page.*

I'd consider renaming this page "Death to Productivity," as the title suggests, as between perusing the page itself and finding time to read all of the hidden treasures listed here, I'm not sure I can continue to keep a full-time job or clean the house or feed myself. But that's what Mondays are for, after all - questioning our jobs and pretending to be productive. So enjoy it!

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*The concept of the page actually reminds me a bit of the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind. Any thoughts?

The Art of Reading (Quote of the Day)

"... the art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind and great readers are becoming more scare by the day." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, from Shadow of the Wind
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(Review of the book to follow this week.)

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

This one's for all my book-blogging readers. Have you heard about this? Some lovely and clever people have devised a Book Blogger Holiday Swap. It's like a Secret Santa - for booklovers, by booklovers. I just signed up - I love me a good gift exchange.

Registration closes (firmly) on November 14th, so sign up now (before you forget, like I did for a few days before I luckily remembered again).

Not sure if it's for you? Check out the thorough FAQ page.

Book Review: Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon

The Road to Bedlam marks the second book in Shevdon's Courts of the Feyre series. Hot on the heels of Sixty-One Nails, the first in the series, The Road to Bedlam is guaranteed not to disappoint those readers who found themselves sucked into the magic and intrigue of Shevdon's modern world of magic.

Note: I'll do my best not to include spoilers for Sixty-One Nails here.

The series continues to follow Niall Peterson, originally an average British citizen, now a part of the Fey lineage within the human race. The Road to Bedlam, however, turns its attentions to Niall's continued training as part of the Fey, and his daughter's development of her own magical powers. When she comes into her powers much earlier - and much more strongly - than anyone expected, she becomes a target. But whose target? As Niall struggles with his oaths and his duty over his love for his family, ancient Court secrets are revealed and the vast underbelly of London's magic history is slowly uncovered.

Note: This is really hard to summarize without spoiling the first in the series, so my apologies if a) I did spoil it and b) that was a really vague, market-y bit of summary. I'll spare you any more and move onto analysis below.

As with Sixty-One Nails, the world creation here is imaginative, and, for the most part, pretty solid. There are a few blips in consistency, but nothing so major as to come to mind as I review, and most explained in some roundabout way before the story ends. As a fantasy reader, after all, I'm willing to forgive slight inconsistencies or confusing bits in light of an original and clever idea, and as Shevdon's premise absolutely qualifies for both descriptors, this remains a minor complaint.

And to this complaint, the Road to Bedlam does continue to expand and explain Shevdon's creative parallel world, existing alongside modern England. The Courts of the Feyre become more complicated, yet in the process, more understandable, as do their traditions and those who are involved with them.

Perhaps more enjoyable to modern readers, Shevdon continues his tradition of drawing on English history and heritage, though this time less so with London landmarks and more so with institutional and cultural histories. A fictional fishing village draws on the rich folklore that surrounds many similar villages, and (according to Shevdon's postscript) is based on a conglomerate of actual fishing towns throughout Yorkshire.

Bottom line: The Road to Bedlam is a near-perfect sequel to Sixty-One Nails, tying together those loose ends that linger from the first in the series, yet leaving enough doors open to continue the storyline smoothly. This novel focuses on Niall's daughter, while Blackbird (from the first novel) takes a much smaller role; if Shevdon continues to follow this pattern, readers can expect to see a world develop through the storylines of multiple characters, of varying ages, Feyre lineage and history. And if Shevdon merges the characters back into a more even role in each novel, I believe readers can expect a smoothly meshed and interesting plot.

Either way, I look forward to more in the series, and more from Shevdon. This series, thus far, is a breath of fresh air in a genre otherwise nearing the played-out and overdone - but then, that's Angry Robot's mission, isn't it?

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Note: I received a copy of this title from the publisher.

Second Note: I used to work for The Osprey Group, who owns Angry Robot.

Third Note: Neither of the first two notes in any way influenced my opinion of this book.