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. - 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.


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!


*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

(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?


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.

And She Returns... as a Mrs.

Sorry to have disappeared this past week or so. I had every intention of posting an "I'm-Going-Away" post, but completely forgot. So consider this the "I-Got-Married-And-Now-I'm-Back-Post."

My fiancé and I made it official on October 30th in beautiful downtown Annapolis. The ceremony took place at St. Anne's, right on Church Circle, and then we walked over to the Governor Calvert House for our reception. Many thanks to our amazing photographer, Don Thompson* (and his wife, Jill) for the excellent work and providing a sneak peek of some of our photos:

And then we went to Mexico, where I proceeded to sleep 12 hours a day, drink too many piña coladas, and read 5 books: The Great House, Road to Bedlam, Shadow of the Wind, The Reapers Are the Angels, and Warbreaker. Reviews of all 5 to follow, plus a few more of books I'm finally finishing.

For now, I'll leave you with the lovely beaches of Mexico to mull over. You know you want to go on vacation. Go for it!

*In all honesty, if you or anyone you know are getting married in Maryland, I cannot recommend Don and Jill enough. They were wonderful to work with, accomodating, quick! (we had our pictures done post-ceremony in under an hour) and surprisingly creative with the failing light post-ceremony. At least check out the work -

Mr. Toppit On Sale Today!

I don't generally run this kind of post, but then, I also don't generally run reviews 6 months before a book's publication date... so I'm making an exception here. Back in June, I reviewed Charles Elton's debut novel, Mr. Toppit, which goes on sale today.

If you missed the original review, you can check it out here.

If you'd like to order, you can find the book at a local indie near you here.