Audiobook Review: Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith

This review originally ran in the Tuesday, June 26 of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

Seth Grahame-Smith has made a name for himself with delightful re-imaginings of well-known stories and histories, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Unholy Night continues this trend, tackling the story of Christmas and the three kings who journeyed to visit a small babe lying in a manger. Or, rather, of the three escaped criminals disguised as noblemen who try to hide out in a manger that also happens to house Mary, Joseph and the recently born baby Jesus.

Grahame-Smith approaches the story through the perspective of one of the three visiting kings, Balthazar--a professional thief famous across the Roman Empire for his masterful deceits. When Balthazar escapes execution, with two other criminals in tow, he finds himself on the journey of a lifetime, in the company of a carpenter, a woman and a babe--with the entire Roman army on his heels. His fight to protect his travelling band is complicated by his agnostic views, his lack of religion and his tortured past.

Peter Berkrot's (77 Shadow Street) narration brings Grahame-Smith's already rich characters to life, from the spunky, opinionated Mary to the spiteful, bitter Balthazar, and though the three "kings" do not, in fact, smoke a rubber cigar, they do have their fare share of humorous exchanges, adventures and full-out battles. Unholy Night is an entertaining retelling of one of the most familiar stories in Western civilization.


Thoughts from other bookworms:


Unholy Night | Seth Grahame-Smith, nar. Peter Berkrot | Hachette Audio | Unabridged Audio CD | April 2012 | Buy from an independent near you

Audiobook Review: The Likeness, by Tana French

When Detective Cassie Maddox is called to a murder scene--six months after she left The Murder Squad--she is shocked to find that the victim is her. Not only does the girl look like her, and have the same build, but she is carrying the identification Lexie Madison--of one of Cassie's old undercover aliases. Despite the dangers, she finds herself going back undercover--this time as herself, or as someone who was impersonating herself, or as someone who was impersonating her past impersonations. The undercover assignment gets at the very core of Cassie's identity, and she quickly finds herself captivated by Lexie's life as a student, her seemingly perfect friends, and her idyllic, isolated living situation. But she is, at heart, still a detective, and must root out Lexie's murderer, whatever the cost.

The Likeness is Tana French's second Cassie Maddox mystery, the sequel to her debut novel, In the Woods. But it is also more than a mystery novel at heart, proving to be poetic, reflective, and thoughtful in its considerations of the Irish landscape, culture, social atmosphere; the world of student life; the simple pleasures of loyal friends and good company; the joys of turning a house into a home. French's writing is captivating in its own right, simple and elegant, poised and exact, only further enhanced by Heather O'Neill's crisp, clear narration (with an Irish accent, to boot).Which is not to say that the plot is not engaging as well--it is, in its slow and steady pace. The combination of the two results in a stunning novel of psychological suspense, and I look forward to reading more from French.

Side note: Apparently I have a knack for accidentally reading sequels first, as I didn't realize this carried forth the same characters from In the Woods. I'll still go back and read In the Woods at some point, but there were some spoilers in The Likeness. So if you've read neither and are considering either, start at the beginning.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Bookworm Meets Bookworm 
Book Confessions
NYC Book Girl


You might also like:

In the Woods by Tana French
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
The Secret History by Donna Tartt


The Likeness | Tana French, nar. Heather O'Neill | Recorded Books | Audio CD | September 2008 | Buy from an independent near you

Elsewhere on the Interwebs: Scene of the Blog!

Today, I'm excited to be featured over on Cathy's "Scene of the Blog" post at Kittling: Books. This is a weekly feature that Cathy runs, with pictures of different book bloggers' reading and working spaces, along with a guest post. It's a great way to discover new book blogs and/or get to know more about the bloggers behind blogs you already follow. 

So thanks to Cathy for inviting me to participate this week, and head on over to Kittling: Books if you want to see more about my own scene of the blog. (Spoiler Alert: There are pictures of the puppy included)

Book Review: The Yard, by Alex Grecian

This review originally ran in the Tuesday, June 5 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

London changed after Jack the Ripper's murders; the unsolved killings left behind a city terrified of its own shadow and with little to no respect for the police force. The gruesome killings also fueled the creation of "The Murder Squad"--a team of 12 detectives at Scotland Yard assigned to investigate only homicides. But the stakes are raised when the victim in one of their cases turns out to be one of their own, and the freshman squad of detectives must reckon with a new kind of killer--one who acts not out of passion or motive, but out of a compulsive need to kill. Welcome to the age of the serial killer.

The Yard, Alex Grecian's debut novel, draws on true historical situations as the backdrop for the story of the murdered detective. The Murder Squad was a real entity, founded in 1889 to combat the rise of crime in London and to help redeem the police in the eyes of the public after the failure to identify Jack the Ripper. Into this world, Grecian introduces Inspector Walter Day, the newest member of the Murder Squad, assigned to the case of the murdered squad member. But The Yard doesn't stop there; Grecian weaves together multiple cases, reflecting with historical accuracy the overworked nature of the Murder Squad, the interrelated nature of their cases and the advent of forensic science in aiding investigations. Packed with period detail, The Yard is both a well-crafted mystery and careful study of an important era of criminology, making for one captivating read.


Thoughts from other bookworms:

The Yard | Alex Grecian | Putnam | Hardcover | May 2012 | Buy from an independent near you

Update on 26 by 26, or, I Flew and Airplane and Mailed Lots of Cards

Two more items crossed off my 26 by 26 list:

  • Fly an airplane.
  • Make a habit of sending cards.
I actually flew the airplane about a year ago, but completely spaced on crossing it off the list. Here's proof:

As for cards, well, it's hard to establish when one can cross "make a habit" of something off a list, isn't it? Perhaps I should keep that in mind for my next list and really focus on concrete actions. But I've mailed more cards this year than I did last, and more last than the year before (and that was the year I got married and mailed thank-you cards like it was my job), so I'm comfortable calling this one done and done. It's a habit I really like; there's something personal and exciting about sending a handwritten letter, sometimes with a picture or a newspaper clipping tucked inside, and thinking of it showing up on someone's doorstep in a mix of junk mail, catalogs, and bills.

Well, that and I really like shopping for stationery. 

Birth of a Book

I believe this made the rounds already, but it's too lovely not to share again. Happy Friday!

A short vignette of a book being created using traditional printing methods.

For the Daily Telegraph. Shot at Smith-Settle Printers, Leeds, England. The book being printed is Suzanne St Albans’ 'Mango and Mimosa' published as part of the Slightly Foxed series.

Audiobook Reviews: The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett, otherwise known as the most famous writer of the noir genre, I salute you. I admire your ability to create thoroughly believable, though utterly unlikeable characters, and make me care to my very core about their motives. I respect your convoluted storylines, the ones with plot twists that seem obvious to a modern reader (but of course there is a secret ancient statue worth thousands of dollars), but are actually quite groundbreaking when one considers that they were written before the scripts of all of the Indiana Jones movies. I even enjoy your twisted male characters and their completely period-appropriate, yet socially inappropriate, chauvinistic attitudes towards women of all stripes, whether they be secretaries or clients out to hire a PI or wives or criminals, even though I find them (and your overall depictions of women) generally offensive.

The Maltese Falcon is full of the kind of twisted, shady characters that I adore in a mystery novel--greedy businessmen Gutman; strange, snivelling gophers like Cairo; and staid, handsome detectives with dark pasts like Sam Spade (who will forever be played by Humphrey Bogart in my mind). This, perhaps the most famous of Hammett's novels, is a mystery packed with several layers, a pretty harsh romance (it's hard when the good guy falls for the bad girl, or vice versa, or both), and lines that read like cliches only because they have been imitated by so many writers in more recent years.

The Thin Man is, at first glance, nothing like The Maltese Falcon. Here, our protagonist is not a retired-cop-cum-PI (complete with shady background), but a pleasant, retired cop on holiday in New York with his snarky, adorably excitable wife. No one has hired either Nick or Nora (the retired cop and his playful wife) to investigate anything, and yet they find themselves investigating a murder, searching for a missing inventor (who may or may not be mad), and generally entangled in the dramatic lives of others.

Where Sam Spade is hard, unreachable, and distant, Nick is open, inviting, and head-over-heels in love with his wife. Where The Maltese Falcon is twisted and somewhat dark, The Thin Man is a jaunt through murder and madness. But the sparse, clippy narrative of both stories gives Hammett away, as does the darkly humorous undertones of the plots--no matter how different the stories may appear, they are clearly products of the same pen. Narrated by William Dufris in the perfect noir-like clip one would imagine for Hammett's writing, the audio versions of both novels (available as a combined set) prove an excellent way to re-experience noir, moving it from the realm of Hollywood adaptations and firmly back into the world of literature.


Thoughts from other bookworms:
Coffee and a Book Chick
The Novel Word


This satisfies the Classic Mystery requirement for the 2012 Back to the Classics Challenge.


The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon | Dashiell Hammett, nar. William Dufris | AudioGO | Oct 2011 (originally published in 1934 and 1941, respectively) | Buy from an independent near you

A Victorian Celebration!

I've made lots of reading commitments this year (though not nearly as many as some bloggers manage!). One of the most important to me was my pledge to myself to read more books I already own, which in turn led to my more recent pledge of reading only books I already own over the course of the summer.

But I also signed up for A Victorian Celebration, a Victorian-themed challenge hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey. I signed up to read a mere three Victorian books during the months of June and July, and I'm planning on sticking with that goal. Here's what's on my list of books to be considered (all of which, yes, I already own):

A Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Tess of D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens (from the Penguin Lives series) by Jane Smiley
Dickens: A Bicentenary by The Charles Dickens Museum
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Where should I start? What am I missing (with the caveat that of course there are dozens of other Victorian authors out there, but I am trying to stick with books I already own!)? What are your favorite Victorian titles?

Cookbook Review + Recipe: Home Made, by Yvette bon Boven

There are a few things that, without fail, can make a bad day just a little bit better. Fresh flowers (hint, hint). Elvis Presley. And, of course, baked goods.

So when last week proved to be anything but my week, I came home and baked. I didn't have a proper baking-only cookbook at the time (I've since acquired two), so I flipped through cookbooks I already owned to find something to satisfy my baking urge. I landed on Home Made, a cookbook I reviewed last fall for Shelf Awareness' cookbook issue.

The beauty of Home Made lies in its simplicity; these are not recipes that incorporate the latest food trends, or fancy cookware, or even multiple ingredients. This is simple, down-to-earth cooking of the home made variety. It's like eating Grandma's food, only with the pride of knowing you made it yourself.

The Rosemary Shortbreads contained herein are no exception. The recipe that follows is my own modified version (for Lemon Rosemary Shortbreads), based on the original recipe from Home Made. They're simple, low-effort, and crumbly delicious.

1.25 sticks of butter
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp honey
1.5 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 pinches of salt (I prefer Kosher)
2 tbsp finely chopped rosemary
1-2 tbsp lemon juice
Zest of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Grease a cake pan, pie pan, springform pan, or any other pan that has a large lip and is roughly 25 square inches. I used a 7x4 Pyrex dish and it worked wonderfully.

Beat the butter, sugar and honey together with a stand mixer, hand mixer, or (god forbid) a whisk. (Note: if you are using a whisk, that part where I said this is easy and low-effort was a lie.) Stir in (or beat at low speed) all other ingredients except the lemon juice and zest.

Taste. (Don't worry, there are no raw eggs, so it's perfectly safe to eat this batter raw.) Add lemon juice until the dough is a thick consistency (think of something that can be easily rolled into a ball). Don't overdo it - you don't want a sticky mess. Add lemon zest to taste.

Dump (not pour or glop -- the verb choice is intentional here to better illustrate what kind of dough you're looking for) the mixture into your greased pan, and press down into the corners to form an even layer across the bottom. Prick with a fork throughout. Cut into cookie-size pieces before baking.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, until edges are a light golden brown. Leave to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then re-cut along the lines you made in the raw dough. Remove cookies gently (I warned you they were crumbly), cool completely on a wire rack.



Home Made | Yvette van Boven | Stewart, Tabori and Chang | Hardcover | 432 pages | September 2011 | Buy from an independent near you

Half-Hearted, Unfinished Book Review: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

Last week, I posted about my troubles getting through Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart's most recent novel. This week, I decided to give up on it.

It's not that it was terrible. It wasn't. The premise was actually fascinating--in a very near future where privacy essentially does not exist, a middle-aged man falls hard--and fast--for a twenty-something girl with "a minor in Assertiveness." Both characters are well-developed: Lenny proves to be a somewhat stereotypical man on the brink of turning forty, pondering his limited lifespan and somewhat pathetic in his attempts to define himself, and Eunice is also a somewhat stereotypical woman in her early twenties, tremendously flip about everything, speaking in acronyms, and code, and LIKE-OMFG-LMFAO-type slang. Which, of course, Lenny does not always understand.

Even more than the characters, though, Shteyngart's imagined future is pitch-perfect, hitting chords left and right in our age of Twitter and Facebook and the constantly changing privacy policies of nearly all of the internet giants-that-be. What would it be like, it makes you wonder, to live in a world where everything was public information? And is that really such a far leap from where we are now?

The problem, I think, boiled down to the fact that despite the well-written characters, and the amazingly-crafted future, I just simply could not find it in me to care what happened. I didn't care about Lenny. I didn't care about Eunice. I didn't care about the fate of the crumbling America, or the philosophical ponderings I suppose I was meant to care about as I read the novel.

And so I stopped reading it. Perhaps I'm missing something in what I read that would have fit all the pieces together, or perhaps I'm missing out by not persevering. After all, Super Sad True Love Story did receive rave reviews from the likes of The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and The Guardian (though it also had a lot of lukewarm coverage from book bloggers by the looks of it--I've rarely seen so many reviews with so many question marks). The long and short of it is that I have enough to read as it is; I just couldn't find it in me to stick with it.

If you've read it, tell me -- what am I missing? What did you think? And another question - should I check out Shteyngart's previous novels (The Russian Debutante's Handbook and/or Absurdistan)?


Thoughts from other bookworms:
The New Dork Review of Books
The Reading Ape
A Librarian's Life in Books
The Broke and the Bookish


Super Sad True Love Story | Gary Shteyngart | Hardcover | July 2010 | Buy from an independent near you

Missing Out on BEA

Yesterday, I wrote a really sad and whiny post about how disappointed I was not to be able to attend BEA this year (for the second year in a row). How bummed I was to miss out on the very first Book Blogger UnCon. How real it was starting to feel that I no longer lived in New York, or worked in publishing.

Today, I deleted that post. It was far to sad and melodramatic and self-pitying for my actual tastes. Today, I woke up and heard Elvis Presley on the radio, and knew that it would be a good day. Today, I decided that even though I no longer have two feet firmly entrenched in the book world of New York publishing, I can still work to maintain my one little foot in the land of books with my one little corner of the internet.

Today, I decided to accept that I have made choices that have brought me to where I am, and that I am no more unhappy with each choice than I am with where they have brought me.

I just have to work harder to keep going in the right direction. Whatever that is.

Book Review: Tubes, by Andrew Blum

This review modified from an original review in the Tuesday, June 5 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

When Andrew Blum's Internet service stopped working a few years ago, he was told it could be the result of a squirrel chewing on the fiber lines running into his neighborhood. Though the connection eventually returned, Blum was left with nagging questions about the physicality of the Internet: How could something so ethereal, so intangible, be impacted by something so physical, so mundane? And so began Blum's journey to the center of the Internet, as detailed in Tubes--a book that took me weeks to read, as I had to stop every few pages to ponder the implications of it all. And to shout to my husband, "OHMYGOD DID YOU KNOW ABOUT THIS!?" To which he always responded, very calmly, "Of course I did. Stop shouting." (He won't admit it, but he didn't actually know about all of it.)

Blum, a correspondent for Wired, begins with the creation of the Internet, noting that despite the groundbreaking nature of the moment, it was actually a little-understood moment in technological history. Like oxygen, the Internet is not something we question, but something we take for granted. Tubes, with its detailed account of everything from the physical structures of the network to the practicalities of laying fiber underground, changes that, giving readers a newfound appreciation of the networks that have changed our way of life to the very core. Blum's uncovering of the physical nature of the Internet also gives readers new insight into how it came to be the way it is: why Google has buildings in certain locations, why collaboration is so critical to the Internet's continued success or how one woman with a shovel can accidentally knock the entire country of Armenia offline (that really happened, by the way).

Tubes is fascinating reading for anyone with even a passing interest in the Internet--and since you're here reading this on a blog (or in a reader, or on your phone, or whatever the case may be), that means you. Mind. Blown. 


Thoughts from other bookworms:


Tubes | Andrew Blum | Ecco Press | Hardcover | May 2012 | Buy from an independent near you

Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser, by Lois Leveen

This review originally ran in the June 1, 2012 edition of Shelf Awareness for Readers. If you don't already subscribe, sign up here to receive a bi-weekly dose of readerly goodness in your inbox.

When young Mary El and her mother are emancipated by their abolitionist owner in 1840s Richmond, they find themselves cast into a distrustful, uncertain state. They are free, but Virginia law requires them to relocate, and Mary El's father remains enslaved. Mary El's first taste of freedom, then, is bittersweet; though she goes on to Philadelphia for a proper education, she does so alone, her mother remaining behind with her father. The unfairness of this partial freedom infuriates Mary El and worsens as she faces the prejudices of the North and the increasing inaction of the abolitionists. As the country marches to war, Mary El soon finds herself heading back to Virginia to further the cause of the abolitionists from within the heart of the South.

The Secrets of Mary Bowser, Lois Leveen's debut novel, is based on the fascinating true story of a freed African American woman who voluntarily returned to Richmond during the Civil War to fight for emancipation. Through Mary El's complicated journey, Leveen gets to the core of the delicate issues surrounding slavery: the class system among the slaves, from "we in the house" to the cotton-pickers in the fields; racial prejudices; the emotional trials of those separated from their families; and the true definition of freedom. Leveen has clearly done her research: The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a rich, layered story of slavery, of the South and of what it means to fight for what we believe in, no matter the cost.


Thoughts from other bookworms:


The Secrets of Mary Bowser | Lois Leveen | Paperback | 496 pages | May 2012 | Buy from an independent bookstore near you