27 October 2012

As the hurricane bears down on the East Coast, here in Virginia Beach the rain and wind have considerably picked up. This, of course, meant grilled cheese and tomato soup, along with a few scary movies, so after my husband and I listened to The Exorcist audiobook when we were in Boston two weeks ago, we decided to watch the 1973 film which resulted in me being scared and jittery for the rest of the night.

Here's my thing: I've had a lot of business travel lately, and while it hasn't diminished my reading time, I'm much more interested to settle down with a show downloaded on my iPad. This week, I was in Pittsburgh and Atlanta from Wednesday through Friday for meetings, and when I had down time and wasn't catching up on emails, I just wanted to watch television. I finally had a chance to watch BBC's Sherlock, which was fantastic.

Side question: Why are British series so short?! I love Downton Abbey, but it's only ten episodes! Sherlock is only three. I want more!

So help me, wonderful readers! What should I download next?

Here's an overview of what I enjoy:
  • Period dramas. Everything from Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and anything on the BBC. Ah, thank you BBC. You've given me Whitechapel, and most recently Sherlock. (Whitechapel and Sherlock aren't period dramas, but it obviously feels like it based on the subject matter.) I want more from you. I heard Copper was pretty good? Maybe Doctor Who, which would fall in the next category.
  • Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Dystopia. Oh, yes, I do love this. I'm a fan of The Game of Thrones series on HBO, and Warehouse 13 and Haven, both on the SyFy network. Many of you may know that Haven is based on Stephen King's novella, The Colorado Kid. Oh! And The Walking Dead, Vampire Diaries, etc. Maybe I should download Fringe?
  • Current. Necessary Roughness and Suits on the USA network. Wonder if I should watch Burn Notice?
You tell me. What movie or TV series would you recommend?


25 October 2012

The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty (Audio Review)

This post will be a ramble, so apologies in advance. I'll start off by saying: Yes, this story will scare the hell out of you. Read what you can, but read the author's bio, at least.

Side note: The author discusses in this Huffington Post article why he redid the story for the anniversary. When he narrated the audio the first time years ago, he was appalled with certain sections. Reading it out loud gave him a fresh perspective on how dialogue should be written and what the story was originally missing.

When people think of the title, they only remember the film, and the possessed young girl. Maybe pea soup. Right? One tends to forget the story is called The Exorcist, so it's actually the tale of one man fighting the evil demon who picks a young girl to reside in.

Is it any indication of my confidence level that I waited until my husband was around before I even pressed the button to download the audio of The Exorcist, the 40th Anniversary Edition read by the author William Peter Blatty? Of course it is. I love scary, but I am no fool when it comes to certain stories, and this one absolutely terrifies me.

A couple weeks ago, my husband and I drove from Virginia Beach to Boston to visit his family. That's eleven hours of driving, my friends, so I knew it was time for a good selection. With Halloween around the corner and a trip up the East Coast shoreline, it seemed just right to have a fright-fest audio that would satisfy my need for all things scary and would also keep my husband's attention. When the music from the movie started up, we were driving along a stretch of Route 13 that cuts through the Virginia peninsula into Maryland and it.was.dark. I left it all up to my husband to drive since I honestly don't think I could have listened and driven a car at the same time.

Without question, this audiobook is EXCELLENT. The story is incredible, the writing engaging, and the narration is perfect. Rarely can an author execute their own work effectively so it was a pleasant (and frightening) surprise when William Peter Blatty began the story and I immediately felt the hairs on the back of my next stand up.

The author's gravelly voice eerily narrated the events we all know: Chris MacNeil, American actress and single mother to twelve-year-old Regan, live in a rented house in Georgetown. Shortly after moving in, Regan begins to exhibit behavior and is medically diagnosed from everything from puberty to potential brain tumors. As events progress quickly, and although Chris is an atheist, she comes to the conclusion that Regan really may be possessed. Searching for help, she meets with Father Karras, a Jesuit priest at Georgetown University. Struggling with his own faith after his mother passes away, he takes on the responsibility of investigating whether or not Regan truly is possessed. Valid proof is required for the Catholic Church to approve an exorcism.

The infamous steps...
Putting aside the obvious fear-inducing anticipation that comes with forty years of urban legend, history, and stories about the movie, The Exorcist is much more than just horror. Yes, there are incredibly shocking scenes that are so disturbing, I'm fairly confident in proclaiming that no Hollywood production company will ever dare to remake this film. After all, Linda Blair was only fourteen-years-old when she played the role of twelve-year-old Regan, and there is no way that this role will ever be played again by a young child. It won't be allowed, and I think I'm just fine with that.

Many may think that a story like this wasn't written well, but that it gained notoriety because of the horror and the subject matter. But anyone who has spent the time to read the book or listen to the audio can attest otherwise. This touches on all things that may strike fear in our hearts, but it is also purely representative of an honest story of one child and her single mother who is trying to pay the bills. Surrounded by good friends, Chris MacNeil becomes the central figure of the initial story, and Father Karras is key to the second half. His foundation of faith is spoiled by his mother's passing, which is a gritty, yet tender approach to the sadness he feels on losing her. Working with Chris' family to understand Regan and the possession is a frightening battle of good and evil and when Father Merrin arrives, the experienced exorcist, the battle truly begins.

Without question, this story will scare the heck out of you. The scenes are sometimes so shocking that my husband and I were stunned, but the writing is impeccable and clearly relayed the events of terror that the young family experiences. While horror is the eventual result, the story is also meant to educate on what might happen if faith is tested. Whether or not you believe in God, this story will certainly give you pause. William Peter Blatty has documented (names changed to protect the innocent) the frightening story of one Jesuit priest battling evil to the point of ultimate sacrifice.

I would not recommend listening to this book by yourself. Ever.

Passage of Note (p.1)

Audio Notes
William Peter Blatty is the only person who can narrate this book. Now in his early eighties, I can only describe his voice as "dusty" or "gritty." The terrifying moments in which he narrates the demon's voice coming from Regan's body are believable and horrifying. My husband and I could not shut this audio off, and even spent one day driving lazily around town so we could listen to more. Click here to listen to the Audible.com sample. If you can do it, you will absolutely be "entertained" by this. I'm not sure if that's the best word...

Parental Note
It's just like the movie. So remember this contains incredibly graphic and disturbing s3xual scenes.

Others said:
If I've missed your review, let me know and I will link to it here.

Publisher: Harper Audio
Release Date: 9/22/11
Audio Time: 12 hours, 51 minutes
Narrator: William Peter Blatty

FTC Disclosure: I downloaded this audio from Audible.com

About the Author
William Peter Blatty was born in New York in 1928 and is an American writer and filmmaker, most known for The Exorcist, in which he wrote the book and the screenplay for the film, winning an Academy Award. I don't usually point people to a Wikipedia page, but really, the nuggets of information of this man's life are incredible. His mother sold quince jelly on the streets of New York and even offered it to FDR when he was in town? He went to a Jesuit school in Brooklyn when Joe Paterno was the quarterback of the football team? He joined the Air Force after graduate school and (after a series of random blue-collar jobs) became the head of the Policy Branch of the USAF Psychological Warfare Division? And then, after a series of books, he writes The Exorcist, that Blatty claims was initially a failure. Apparently, bookstores were shipping them back to the publisher, until "an extraordinary intervention of fate" occurred that he will not describe.

This is another selection for Carl's RIP celebration. For other participants' reviews, please click here.


22 October 2012

Europa Challenge Holiday Swap

Who doesn't love getting a gift, especially a bookish one?

As soon as I read on Marie's blog (The Boston Bibliophile) that she was creating and hosting this holiday swap, I knew I had to participate. I've only read one Europa Editions book and I've always wanted to read more from this eclectic independent publisher.

The swap is quite simple and I can't wait to meet other new-to-me bloggers and participate in growing my reading experience even more. Why not join along?

The Details
  1. Email europachallenge@gmail.com on or before November 5th with your name and address and a list of Europa titles you'd like and if you are willing to ship your gift internationally.
  2. Names will randomly be drawn the week of November 5th and everyone will be notified who they are playing "Santa" to.
  3. Pick one of the titles the recipient has provided.
  4. And then we can either buy the book online, gift wrap and ship it, or we can purchase at an indie bookstore and then add a gift along with the package. We should include in that package who we are!
  5. Send your package by the first week of December to prepare for the holiday season.
  6. Please shop at an independent bookstore. You can also shop independent by going online at Powells.com and IndieBound.org will help find an indie near you.
  7. December 17th - post to your blog what you've received and what you've sent!
  8. Spread the word via Twitter, your blog, Facebook, etc.
Why not join along? This should be a lot of fun to grow our reading lists and get to know other bloggers, along with just having a great time!


19 October 2012

The White Forest, by Adam McOmber

Oh, this held so much promise. I wanted to swoon, wanted to love this Gothic fantasy, a dark, and supernatural tale set in the 1800s. After all, this is the type of book I like to read during the cooler months, especially for Carl's RIP celebration. Unfortunately, this just didn't work for me, but McOmber's writing is so beautiful, I do plan to pick up his next book.

Set in the 1800s in England, Jane Silverlake's friend, Nathan, has disappeared under questionable circumstances, last seen with a cult led by a local mystic named Ariston Day. Jane's never had friends, and when she was young, she was fairly sequestered with an absent father and cold servants, destined to walk the heath and the grounds, until she met a spirited and independent young woman named Madeleine. Maddy and Jane became fast friends with Nathan, and their bond strengthened as they grew older, and soon Jane is comfortable to share her gift, one she always felt was a curse. Jane has the ability to feel, see, and hear the souls of objects that are man-made, which can be overwhelming in certain urban situations, but is hushed by nature. This gift simultaneously intrigues Nathan and horrifies Maddy, and Nathan's urge to learn more sets him on a path to potential destruction when he gets involved with Ariston Day's cult, resulting in his startling disappearance. Jane and Maddy begin their own investigation for Nathan, desperate to find him before he is hurt or worse, but the time to locate Nathan and save Jane from Ariston Day's threats becomes a rush of secret meetings, hidden journals, broken hearts, and supernatural elements.

The time period is represented incredibly well and, at times, it read as though it was written during the 1800s, which was refreshing. The White Forest contains such a delightfully eerie atmosphere and unique premise and setting, evocative descriptions and moments, that I was immediately pulled in. Sadly, several elements felt out of place for me, more so towards the latter half of the book, and I ended up quickly rushing through the last sixty pages. McOmber also inserts multiple flashbacks into the "current" narrative and within the same paragraph, which, without some break, became confusing. I wish a line break had been included to delineate easily for the eyes that the event occurred in the past. I wound up spending a good bit of time during all of the flashbacks reminding myself that it happened before Nathan's disappearance.

I also don't need to like a main character, or any character (i.e. Gone Girl) for me to love a book. Jane especially disappointed me and her excuse for why she treated her servants horribly seemed more of a hasty afterthought. Let me clarify: Her servants were so afraid of her, that as a child, Jane was kept locked in a room for hours at a time. It wouldn't bother me one bit if Jane treated them badly, but the explanation of the locked room seemed a last-minute insertion. The one remaining servant was absolutely terrified of Jane, so the biting comments came across as Jane being privileged and snooty, which was how she seemed most of the time. I can't share detailed thoughts on Nathan or Maddy since it might give events away, so suffice it to say it was frustrating Jane liked them at all. This book started off so wonderfully, but tapered off into a disjointed and distant story. The annoyance for the characters, jarring flashbacks and a bizarre ending, left me off kilter. My usual willing suspension of disbelief just didn't take over this time.

Just remember this...
I am only one reader in the vast sea of reading enthusiasts. If this book sounds interesting to you, I would encourage you to pick it up. No two readers are alike. The premise is unique, the writing beautiful, and if you want to see positive reviews, check out Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, and LibraryThing; there are more than enough examples of reviews by other readers who love this eloquent tale.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, because McOmber's writing is so especially beautiful, I will definitely pick up his next book. Check out the passage below.

Passage of Note
I can see the two of us on the day we journeyed toward Mother Damnable's cottage. We were like figures in an oil painting, nearly devoured by the blackish greens and golds of the Heath. The rolling landscape fell away toward the south where a smoky brown fog hung over London. I held my wrap against the chill breeze, following Nathan's sharp and sturdy figure along the sandy path through the fallow. The Heath was rife with brake ferns, furze, and ugly dwarf trees. Neither Hampstead Town nor St. Pancras was visible, and I felt adrift in the silence of nature. There were no objects - no clamor. Such absence should have provided solace, but instead I found it disturbing. (p.150)
Others said:
If I've missed your review, let me know and I will link to it here.

Publisher: Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster
Release Date: 9/11/12
Pages: 303

FTC Disclosure: I checked this book out of my local Virginia Beach public library.

About the Author
Adam McOmber teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and is the associate editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika. Stories from his collection This New & Poisonous Air have been nominated for two 2012 Pushcart Prizes.

Visit the author:

This is another selection for Carl's RIP VII celebration. For other participants' reviews, please click here.


17 October 2012

Do yourself a favor. Download this audiobook and enjoy a double dose of Gothic atmosphere, delivered by the winning combination of the eerie writing by phenomenal author Daphne du Maurier, and narrated by the accomplished actor Jonathan Pryce. You won't regret it. Click here to listen to the audio sample.

Philip Ashley, a young man just around the corner from turning twenty-five, has lost the one person in his life who was his only family. Ambrose, his older cousin and guardian, passed away while in Italy and Philip is now grief-stricken and confused. After all, how could Ambrose, a man who professed to be more suited to a life of solitude, fallen in love and gotten married? Who is the woman? With jealousy and fear, combined with paranoia, this Gothic novel satisfied every need for an unsettling tale as the air continues to get much cooler this autumn.

Rachel, a cousin of Philip's from a distant line, was Ambrose's wife and the subject of many a letter from Ambrose to Philip during the time he spent away from the estate in England. While the letters initially express love, later letters describe something quite different about Rachel, ominous, deceptive, and perhaps even dangerous. Should Philip trust Ambrose's letters, which may have been written at the height of his illness, or should Philip instead believe that Rachel is a good and decent woman, who was very much in love with Philip's uncle?

I read Rebecca by Du Maurier last year for the first time and promised myself I would read more of her work. Suspenseful and haunting, Du Maurier's work continues at a slow, yet consistent pace, building to those peak moments that reveal startling sadness and events that require you to read slowly, to appreciate, or rather to savor, each word. With Jonathan Pryce's rich and warm voice expertly narrating events, I was easily hooked to this Gothic tale of love, deception, and misunderstandings, all set on a sprawling estate that will immediately pass to Philip once he reaches his twenty-fifth birthday.

Remember this about Du Maurier: She is not a romance author. I was ignorant for years about this, and shunned reading her work. However, I instead found she is quite the master of suspense and storytelling, and while she dapples in love, it's nothing like what people thinks she writes. (I blame it on that ghastly, albeit memorable, red cover.)

Du Maurier always maintains the unreliable narrator, the main character frustratingly naive. In My Cousin Rachel, Philip is so annoyingly innocent about women that I wanted to slap him. How could he be so blind? How could he so stupidly trust the wrong people? But, Du Maurier trips you again, because even as I wanted to yell at Philip, I started to feel unsettled, questioning whether or not he was right, and I, the all-knowing reader, was somehow wrong...  Philip certainly has led his life similarly to Ambrose's, sequestered and unsociable, his friends limited to the few who are the children of those who have provided a service to the Ashley estate, so there shouldn't be a surprise to how he reacts when he first meets Rachel, and subsequently gets to know her better. The confusion he feels, the emotions he falls victim to! Argh! You might utter proclamations of annoyance, you might throw your hands up in the air! You might. I did. But, as I do with most Gothic installments in my reading background, I enjoyed every moment.

This journey the reader experiences is key to My Cousin Rachel and to Du Maurier's signature style, so mind your patience, as the story is a good one and worth it to experience.

At the risk of sounding abject, I would also suggest this could be the "prequel" to Rebecca, granted with a few characters moved around. With a little research, I found I'm not the only one who compares both of these books as they have extremely similar images and settings, and it is of course, acutely atmospheric. Du Maurier tends to love her wealthy and affluent main characters, recluses living by the cold and rainy coastline who don't have much experience in the ways of love or business. And I enjoy it every single time. The Gothic nature of this story satisfied me to no end. Jonathan Pryce is superb and will not disappoint; I certainly will continue to eagerly download his work in the future.

Audio Notes: This was my first time listening to Jonathan Pryce, and as I've already mentioned, he is undeniably a master of delivering this story. With a voice quiet and haunting, Pryce narrates Philip's innocence and frustration, his helplessness and desire for more, so well that I found I made yet another excuse for more and more errands to do, places to go, just so I could continue to listen to the story. Pryce successfully captured each character distinctly, without confusion, and I'm happy to listen to him again.

Publisher: AudioGO Ltd.
Audio Time: 11 hours, 55 minutes
Release Date: 10/1/07
Narrator: Jonathan Pryce

Others said:
Avid Reader's Musings
Book Chatter
JoV's Book Pyramid
Just Book Reading
Savidge Reads
She Reads Novels

FTC Disclosure: I purchased this audiobook from Audible.com

About the Author
Daphne du Maurier was a British author and playwright, known for Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Frenchman's Creek, and hundreds of short stories including the collection Daphne du Maurier's Classics of the Macabre, which feature The Birds, The Blue Lenses, and Don't Look Now. She was born in 1907 and passed in 1989. Her stories have been adapted for films, most memorably by Alfred Hitchcock for both The Birds and Don't Look Now.

For a full bio of this incredible author, please click here.

About the Narrator
Jonathan Pryce is an accomplished Welsh actor of both the film and stage, with a career spanning forty years. Most known for several outstanding acting pursuits in both England and the United States, including his Academy-award winning portrayal of The Engineer in Miss Saigon, Jonathan Pryce is also a popular audiobook narrator. Click here to review available selections on Audible.com.

This is another selection for Carl's RIP event. For other participants' reviews, please click here.


14 October 2012

For my intro post, click here, and for my midway post, click here. To read all participants' thoughts of the Italong, click here.

It's all finished. Done. Over. And I'm bummed out.

I'm sad, for many reasons, but mostly because I had the most fun tweeting away, commiserating, complaining, laughing, and more with the other participants. Thank you to our fabulous hosts, Jill and Christina, for leading the charge, giving out prizes and holding clown-nose picture-fests...you both were fantastic and I can't wait to join another weird read- or listen-along with you again!

I felt like I gave birth during this process. I listened to the audiobook and lemme tell ya, it's forty-four hours LONG. That's right, 44. I am extremely proud of myself, though. If you recall, I mentioned a while ago that I wanted to listen to a long audio at some point, but tended to shy away from it because of fearful time commitments. But when Audible held a sale for $4.95 for It, holy goodness, how could I pass that up? I couldn't. And folks, Steven Weber as the narrator was UNBELIEVABLE. He made this book, in my eyes, even better. His performance was standing-ovation-worthy, and yes, I would be there throwing roses onto the stage cheering his name hoarsely. He was THE BEST audiobook narrator I have ever listened to, and I am so thankful I chose to experience the entire story in this way. It's due to the super-duo team of King and Weber that I ran 6.2 miles for the first time ever a couple of weeks ago because I couldn't, or I didn't want to, stop the audio.

My Happy Thoughts (Spoiler free, read away, my friends)
  • It's not about the clown. I mean, it is. But it's really not. It's more about the fear that we have when we were children. When the bump in the night really could be much more than what the parents explain it away to be.
  • Did I forget to mention you should LISTEN and not read this one? I am not kidding when I tell you that Steven Weber was a master of this tale, equal in delivery to the creation of it from King's mind. Weber acted the moments out, the dialogue becoming much more intense, hilarious, or downright heart-wrenching. That scene with the refrigerator and Bill screaming "Help me!" to everyone, and then everyone hugging him? I bawled. Thank you, Mr. Weber, you delivered that magnificently. (Not to mention that Richie and Bill were much more delightful in audio. I can't imagine reading their dialogue. It just became so much more vivid, more genuine, in Mr. Weber's control.)
  • The Losers' Club from It or the Free Zone from The Stand? All day long, I'd choose to be a part of this group of seven children in The Losers' Club as they lead the charge to rid Derry, Maine of that...thing. I'd rather hang out with them than with anyone from the Free Zone. While I loved the story of The Stand, I hated most of the characters, with the exception of a few (Nick, Stu, and Tom Cullen, laws yes).
  • My Favorite Character from It. Richie. Wait, wait. Trust me on this. In audio, Steven Weber makes him absolutely hilarious and those much-needed moments of humor breaking the tension? Richie was wonderfully welcome in those moments. I loved him. He (Richie and Weber) made me laugh out loud on several occasions.
  • Don't be a hoity-toity snob. Stephen King once again proves he is a master at spinning a tale to keep you up at night. And I don't mean because it's scary, I mean because his writing is masterful, epic, literary... That's right, folks. This man can tell a story like no one else. Sure, it may not be "high-brow" literature, but I can assure you that any lover of a classic should experience one of King's novels at some point in their reading lives. I believe there is a likelier chance that they will close the book and feel stunned that they just read King, and that they...loved it.
  • The Black Spot and The Shining. For those who are planning to participate in the readalong/listenalong to The Shining in preparation for next year's release of the sequel, Dr. Sleep, don't forget about a small character from It, a Mr. Dick Halloran, who has a pivotal part of The Black Spot segments. Dick Halloran is the cook from the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, and he is awesome. It's another example of King weaving characters from old novels into new ones and making you feel like you're part of some inside story, or joke, or moment.
  • Speaking of The Shining. I'm sure the printed version is incredible, but I can absolutely attest to the mastery delivered by Campbell Scott in the audiobook version. It will not disappoint. Also, it's much shorter than The Stand or It.
  • I liked this better than The Stand. I think a lot of that is because I hated Frannie from The Stand. I mean, HATED her. She was so annoying. It really didn't have any annoying characters, and if there were, I didn't notice it because Steven Weber made them interesting in some way through his audio narration.
My Unhappy Thoughts (with spoilers)
  • Derry, Maine History...yawn. Yeah, I am of the same feeling with most of the #Italong participants that this part was just slightly one step above boring. I love when King meanders in his storytelling, but this part was just...not engaging. I also couldn't figure out what Mike's role in everything was when he was first introduced as an adult.
  • The angriest moment I've ever had with King. The thing at the end in the sewers that Bev does to "bring everyone together?" That was terrible. I hated it. It is the only event in any of King's writing that made me upset, made me angry. I was extremely disappointed and thought it was a miserable attempt at showing the bond between the group, and it was ridiculously upsetting. I am already working on trying to forget that part of the story. I never want to remember that ever again. EVER.
  • Who cares about the Turtle? Seriously, that was a let-down. I so wanted it to be representative of wisdom, and to some extent it was, but I felt a little of the air let out of the sails on that one.
Final Thoughts
It becomes yet another example of Stephen King's ability to master the epic tale, to deliver suspense, and edge-of-your-seat thrilling scenes, combined with the softer and emotional side of childhood. It becomes so much more than a story about a scary clown in a sewer and instead becomes a journey of seven children from the late 1950s to the mid 1980s as they grow into adults who have a job left unfinished. And please, please, take a chance and download the audiobook. You will not be disappointed.

This is another selection for Carl's RIP event. To read other RIP participants' reviews, click here. Additionally, it satisfies the project I co-host at The Stephen King Project.


05 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy, by JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy is very much for an adults-only crowd, and is quite a departure from everything else Rowling has written. While the pages are peppered with drug use, strong sexual scenes, bullying, and so much more, it is surprisingly honest int its approach to reveal the ridiculous expectations of social norms and hypocrisy. At its core is a novel with a biting cut into contradictions at all levels, and while it may be lewd in some sections, it is exact in its perspective of how people really can be. Although there are an overwhelming number of characters to the point of initial confusion, each serve their purpose to tell the story, and the story is a daggone good one to read.

A few things to note (my own disclaimer):
  • Did I read this because I like the "other" books? Yes. I wanted to see how the first novel for adults would be like.
  • Am I an avid JK Rowling fan? Not really. I mean, I love the Harry Potter world, and have one book in the series on my shelf, but I never camped out to get the next installment of Harry Potter. I don't think I've visited Pottermore online, unfortunately, and I even lived two hours away from the Harry Potter theme park in Florida and, while I always wanted to go, I never did in the two years I lived there before we moved back to Virginia Beach. I was sad when the last book and movie in the series was released, however. It's an incredible achievement and part of pop culture, whether or not you like the writing.
  • Give Rowling a chance. She's created an incredible world before and assuming that The Casual Vacancy won't be any good just because you feel Harry Potter is theonlycharacterthatmatters is like relegating child actors with the same punishment simply because we can't see them as capable of anything else.
  • Get through the first fifty to sixty pages. There are A LOT of characters and initially, it's hard to keep track of everyone. However, if you can get through that first section, it will not be tough to remember who is who as they are all memorable (and nasty). Then, you can settle down and enjoy the story. ( I would recommend that when the paperback is released, the publisher may want to add a "cast of characters" page as a reference.
  • Yes, the synopsis sounds boring. I totally agree. It never grabbed my interest and maybe that's why it wasn't written under a pseudonym? Writing it under Rowling's name would guarantee purchases, whereas I don't think that writing it under a pen name would have made anyone care about the book, just based on the synopsis alone.
  • So, forget about the synopsis.
  • And, forget about the "other" books.
My Synopsis
Barry Fairbrother is the quintessential good guy. Although raised in the "Fields," the spot of town where the "riff-raff" live, he's been able to grow into more than his birthplace ever would suggest him to become and now lives in Pagford. With a wife and children, his place in the community as a family man who gives back is further extended with his seat on the Pagford Parish Council. His presence raises the hackles of others on the council, simply because Fairbrother, as his name would suggest, prefers to deal with the "Fields" and the town of Yarvil, fairly. Decades before, the boundary lines between Yarvil and Pagford overlapped by an accidental sale of property, and consequently, certain areas remain in Yarvil but are the financial responsibility of Pagford, namely the Bellchapel Clinic, which doles out needed methadone to recovering addicts in the immediate area. When the lease on the clinic comes up, a battle begins to take shape between Pagford and Yarvil, opening up the decades-old wound and no one is exempt from the fray. When Barry dies unexpectedly, his seat on the town council becomes a crucial spot that could swing the final decision of Yarvil and Pagford lines, and for Bellchapel staying open. It's now come to the final showdown, and with battles between parents and children, neighbors, friends, and spouses, everyone is fair game to suffer gossip and rumor.

I tried to fluff up the synopsis a bit more to be somewhat more engaging and I'm not sure I did it any justice. I assure you that while no matter how challenging it may be to come up with a satisfying and intriguing overview of the book, it's really not possible. It just sounds so boring. But, my friends, I can also assure that this book ultimately is anything but boring. Just get through those first fifty or so pages!

My Thoughts
I read quickly and did not want to put it down. It's the sort of book to read while on a rainy day, and the weather complied the entire weekend in Virginia Beach so it fit perfectly for my mood. While the characters in the book are not the sort you'd ever want as your friend, social standards and hypocrisy are cut open and each protagonist is simultaneously a hideous antagonist. It is a reminder to turn the mirror on yourself initially before passing judgement on others and each character in this story is a contradiction through and through. 

With insincere people mangling the system we are expected to place faith in, Rowling's book comes out at a timely enough moment in American politics with the election right around the corner in November. The public battle the two towns wage is remarkably genuine to what you might expect to hear, both on a local and national scale, and I was truly transfixed. And although there were several well-intentioned characters (Kay, the social worker who cares about Krystal; Andrew, a young teenager who makes ill choices but ultimately wants to be better; Parminder, a doctor who cares about the Fields; her daughter, Sukhvinder who struggles with her own sad demons), each make their own ugly choices at some point that contribute to a breakdown in their families or either town, ultimately causing more havoc. Their thoughts about themselves and others can sometimes be horrifyingly unjust, yet how they carry themselves can seem quite the opposite.

And although some want to help, the story thoughtfully trudges through the harsh reality that sometimes, a local system of government, social work, medical care, and more, can accidentally do more harm than good as well-intentioned people are held hostage by excessive rules. In the end, when it most matters to get involved in one of the most heartbreaking moments, it's tough to find anyone to step in. Instead, all who could have helped expected "someone else" to get involved, and that can be the most horrendous danger of all. Apathy may not be a crime, but disregard in the most obvious moment when it really matters, can be terrifying.

I wish the illustration of the town on the back was used for the cover
My Final Takeaway
Will you love this? Will you even like this? I can tell you that I did and quite a bit. I will advise you that preconceived ideas should completely be thrown out the window. JK Rowling has delved into the darker parts of humanity and she's done it extremely well, crafting a story with substance and surprise, one that kept me thinking even after I read the final heart-wrenching scenes. While there are a lot of characters, she ties it all up nicely with each characters' story concluding without confusion. I was surprised, comforted, shocked and ultimately content with The Casual Vacancy and I urge you all to give this book a chance. Forget the "other" books, forget the other big newspaper book reviews that were not glowing, and instead recognize that she, as an artist, surely can create more than one universe for us to enjoy. With that knowledge, I comfortably await her next book; it's certain to be another novel firmly entrenching us in another world of her creation yet again.

Check back next week to read my thoughts which will include a few chatty spoilers!

Passage of Note:
It was curious how often everything was back to front, the inverse of what they told you; Fats was starting to think that if you flipped every bit of received wisdom on its head you would have the truth. He wanted to journey through dark labyrinths and wrestle with the strangeness that lurked within; he wanted to crack open piety and expose hypocrisy; he wanted to break taboos and squeeze wisdom from their bloody hearts; he wanted to achieve a state of amoral grace, and be baptized backwards into ignorance and simplicity. (p.76)
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Release Date: 9/27/12
Pages: 503

FTC Disclosure: I purchased the first edition hardcover on release day. It will stay on my shelves, thankyouverymuch.

About the Author
Image source
What can be written that you don't already know? Rowling is the creator and author of the Harry Potter empire, resulting in publications of the series in 73 languages and 450 million copies sold. The Casual Vacancy is her first novel for adults.

Visit the author:

I am participating in The Casual Vacancy readalong, hosted by Literary Musings and Bookworm Meets Bookworm. I'm ecstatic that they created this since it jumpstarted me to read the book before the hype really got rolling! Thank you to you both!


04 October 2012

Called the "Watergate of the high school level" by the National Council of Teachers of English in 1975 when The Chocolate War was first published, it's amazing to see how thirty-seven years has not changed much when it comes to the banning of books. It is startling at times when you consider how books are a target, and that seemingly thoughtful individuals can be pulled into the fray of banding together to support censorship. Surprising and disconcerting, to say the least, but I like to use the word frightening.

About twenty years ago, browsing the library in a small town in Maryland, I came across The Chocolate War. Intrigued, I checked it out and read it in one night, paging as fast as I could to find out what was to happen in this bully-filled boys' school in Massachusetts. It kept me up half the night, reading in my room by the hallway light. I was struck by this seemingly simple story of a school tasked to sell thousands of boxes of chocolates in order to satisfy the administrators, but I soon realized it was much more. Diving into issues that are still relevant today such as bullying and peer pressure, The Chocolate War is a reminder that not wanting to get involved can sometimes be much much worse.

I read this for Banned Book Week, hosted by Sheila at Book Journey, and I'm so glad I did. This is the 30th anniversary of Celebrating the Freedom to Read, and if you'd like to get a little more information from the American Library Association, click here or here. Reading The Chocolate War gave me a chance to walk down my bookish memory lane and to celebrate creativity, the honesty that writing can bring to the forefront things no one wants to talk about. The Chocolate War is a brilliant and insightful cut into high school life and it is timeless.

Jerry Renault is a freshman in high school, trying to secure a spot on the football team. After moving into an apartment with his father following his mother's painful battle against cancer, Jerry's sad memories are put to the side in order to concentrate on school. When the Vigils, a group of boys notorious for their "assignments" to students that result in outrageous pranks, assigns Jerry the task to not sell chocolates, Jerry takes it further by going longer than assigned, ultimately defying both the school's corruption and the Vigils. It is a story that reminds one to, no matter how difficult, not always follow peer pressure and to remember that one individual can, in fact, really change things. It may be dangerous, as in Jerry's case, but it may be the right thing to do.

And speaking of the right thing to do, let's talk about corruption. It surprises me that this book would ever be banned because Jerry's silent defiance against the corrupt school administrator, Brother Leon and Andrew of the Vigils, might be an uplifting story teenagers should read. It's an opportunity to stretch their minds, to really think about what is right and wrong, to openly discuss how people can be led astray so easily because "everyone else" feels a certain way. It might be tough to go against the grain, and sometimes it might be tough to even shift your thinking from what everyone else thinks you should be doing, to what you know to be right. The level of control exerted by varying age groups in this book is astounding, but it is not far at all from reality. To ban a book like this, or any book that makes one think, is book-blasphemous. Is there language in the book? Yes. Are there sexual images portrayed? Yep. Do teenagers talk and do the things that are in this book? Sure do. But do we really want to hide our heads in the sand and think that the book is the sole reason that puts ideas into kids' heads? Come on now. The Chocolate War is a gritty expose of high school corruption, of bullying,  ego, control, our primitive lust for barbaric events, and what happens when people abuse authority.

For those out there who are considering removing a book, please think hard. Re-examine what makes your opinion the right one over someone else's. What authority might you have to determine society's moral compass?

Passages of Note:
"Simple, Carter, simple." Archie reveled in the moment, basking in Carter's admiration, Carter who had humiliated him at The Vigils meeting. Someday he'd get even with Carter but at the moment it was satisfying enough to have Carter regarding him with awe and envy. "You see, Carter, people are two things: greedy and cruel. So we have a perfect set-up here. The greed part - a kid pays a buck for a chance to win a hundred. Plus fifty boxes of chocolates. The cruel part - watching two guys hitting each other, maybe hurting each other, while they're safe in the bleachers. That's why it works, Carter, because we're all bastards." (p.231)
Carter disguised his disgust. Archie repelled him in many ways but most of all by the way he made everybody feel dirty, contaminated, polluted. As if there was no goodness at all in the world. And yet Carter had to admit that he was looking forward to the fight, that he himself had bought not one but two tickets. Did that make him like everybody else - greedy and cruel, as Archie said? The question surprised him. Hell, he'd always thought of himself as one of the good guys. He often used his position as president of The Vigils to keep control of Archie, to prevent him from going overboard on assignments. But did that make him one of the good guys? The question bothered Carter. That's what he hated about Archie. He made you feel guilty all the time. Christ, the world couldn't be as bad as Archie said it was. But hearing the shouts of the kids in the bleachers, impatient for the fight to get underway, Carter wondered. (p.232)
FTC Disclosure: I checked this book out from my local Virginia Beach library.

Giveaway (ending October 7th) - One copy of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War.
(For US residents only due to shipping costs.)
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02 October 2012

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

Although The Secret History isn't set in a boarding school, the college setting in a small town in Vermont does just the trick to get the autumn reading season off with a murderous start. This is my first selection for Carl's RIP event and I'm thrilled I started with this one.

Richard tells his story from many years before, of one year in the exclusive and small Hampden College in Vermont. Although it immediately opens up with a murder of one of their own and who does it, it is the subsequent deterioration of each of the characters dealing with this horrible event, their social isolation, and the subsequent end to their actions that is thrilling, haunting, and Gothic. It's a book that makes me stamp my foot and wonder where the heck I was when this was first published in 1992.

Recently accepted as a college transfer to Hampden College, Richard has left his life in California without regrets. While a dramatic change in environment and surroundings, compared to his home life led by an overbearing and verbally abusive father, it is the right choice to leave. With a background in Greek, Richard becomes intrigued by the local Classics teacher, Julian, and the five students who exclusively study with him. Obsessed, yet initially denied acceptance,  Richard is then invited to join after helping them with a challenging Greek translation. Soon, he is caught up in the lives of the group, and is stunned by their combined family wealth, which causes Richard to feel more secure in lying about his family and his past, glossing over his public school attendance and opting for wealthy boarding schools as his source of education. He never expects that he would soon find himself embroiled within the murder of Edmund "Bunny" Corcoran, a fellow classmate. No mystery here; we are told immediately who is killed and by whom. It's the subsequent breakdown, the psychological decay each of the characters experience following the murder that is the source of suspense.

In the group are twins Charles and Camilla (this was written in 1992, well before current British royalty) who are orphaned at a young age; Francis, whose aunt's country home is the scene of many of their parties; Henry, the linguistics genius who seems to have a tender hold as leader of the small group; and Bunny, while outgoing, is also extremely bigoted and ignorant. It is surprising that Bunny would ever be accepted into this elite grouping, especially since he really isn't one who excels in academics, and his spelling is horrendous. Could it be because Bunny's father is the President of a bank that helped garner acceptance to this select group? Is it Julian's interest in posh and fortune that overlooks Bunny's constant lack of money (his father never gives him a dime) simply because his father carries rank? With the other classmates also coming from a high pedigree, Richard decides to keep his chain-link, fenced-in, working class house in California a secret. When a hideous secret threatens the group, there is fear that Bunny might reveal it, and his lack of tact and control becomes a ticking time bomb that the group fearfully monitors. While the first half of the book is waiting for Bunny to reveal their secret, the latter half dives into the aftermath of his murder. The group fiercely does everything they can to maintain the perfect surface of their Classics group. Ultimately, it could be this quest of perfection that degrades friendships and shreds morality.  It certainly is fitting that the small class studies Greek culture and language since all I could think as I read this was: Greek tragedy, anyone?

I've read several books this year that will make it on my Best Books Read in 2012 list, but I am fairly confident that, barring any other sleeper hits between now and the end of the year, this will make the top spot. The Secret History was first published in 1992 - again I ask, where was I when this came out? How did I miss it? I would have read this in college, the perfect time! It has all of the elements I love in a book: the compellingly haunting feel to its story, the quiet mystery and ultimate thriller that has been melded into the elusive and obscure literary class. How did I never come across this book that has been reprinted twelve times in the past twenty years?

In several scenes, I was reminded of Lilly Bart in The House of Mirth and her friends, cavorting around in plush, sprawling mansions getting drunk. Only in The Secret History, the characters are in college but similarly thrive off of others' wealth and trust funds, namely their parents. The Secret History feels extremely removed from time and place, yet hinting more towards the turn of the century, and then would shock with contemporary (1980s) references. I admit that while the book meandered much more than necessary, and while at one point, I was so annoyed by the fact that every other page one of the characters is either drunk, on pills, or has just done a line, I was still pulled into this dark psychological thriller in which the after-effects of a murder are even more threatening than the initial act itself. There is no question I initially was shocked by the book's opening pages revealing Bunny's murder so quickly, but by the time it actually does happen, I almost became tense for the other characters, hoping that they would be undiscovered. Bizarre, really, that it made me feel that way. I was crossing my fingers in hopes that killers wouldn't be caught? What is that? But the story's twisted anti-heroes certainly do make it a bit blurry on who the actual victims are, to a certain extent. At one point, I was so annoyed with Bunny and fearful for Richard, Henry, Francis, Charles and Camilla, that I was not unhappy in the least that he was offed.

The book certainly dives into extremely sensitive issues. There is rampant drug use and alcoholism, incest, and complete debauchery. It is forgiving of these several times over, but there is a quieter discussion of ego, power, and control. And we are really not reading about the most ethical of characters. I wouldn't even say that any of them are likable, save for maybe Francis? I'm not sure. But it is beautifully written, and so haunting that I couldn't put it down. I cannot wait to read her other book, The Little Friend.

Passages of Note (there were so many to choose from):
Henry, of course, had done marvelously. He didn't say so, but then he didn't have to. He, in some senses, was the author of this drama and he had waited in the wings a long while for this moment, when he could step onto the stage and assume the role he'd written for himself: cool, but friendly; hesitant; reticent with details; bright, but not as bright as he really was. (p.331)
No one had known him all that well but it was a strange feature of his personality that the less one actually knew about him, the more one felt one did. Viewed from a distance, his character projected an impression of solidity and wholeness which was in fact as insubstantial as a hologram; up close he was all motes and light, you could pass your hand right through him. If you stepped back far enough, however, the illusion would click in again and there he would be, bigger than life, squinting at you from behind his little glasses and raking back a dank lock of hair with one hand. (p.357)
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.
Release Date: 10/16/1992
Pages: 524

Others said:
The Awl
Book Snob
Jenny's Books
The Literary Amnesiac
The Literary Bunny
Maggie Stiefvater
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Things Mean A Lot

FTC Disclosure: I first checked this book out of my local Virginia Beach Public Library and then purchased the book to keep on my personal bookshelf.

About the Author
Donna Tartt is the author of two novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, both of which have received high praise and multiple reprints. Born in Mississippi, Tartt attended Bennington College and became a part of the "Literary Brat Pack" in the late 1980s that comprised of young East Coast writers including Breat Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho. Tartt is the winner of the 2003 WH Smith Literary Award for her second book The Little Friend.

The author does not have a website or Twitter account that I could find. If you know of it, please shoot me a note so I can link to it here.

This is my first selection for Carl's RIP event. Read other participants' reviews here.


01 October 2012

Author Guest Post and Giveaway - Fingerprints of You

Well, when Judy Blume recommends a book, you know what you're supposed to do, right?

A month ago, I had a chance to read the quietly emotional and beautiful Fingerprints of You, by debut author Kristen-Paige Madonia. After meeting her at the Virginia Festival of the Book earlier this year, I'm so thankful I had a chance to interact with this gifted author who has so much to give for readers. I was touched by the story of a pregnant teenager who takes the journey to San Francisco to meet her absent father, and I look forward to her next book. Here, she shares insights on finding her own approval to cherish this time with her first book. Scroll below to see this week's upcoming events of where she'll be and then all the way at the bottom is the giveaway!

Notes from the Road: Permission Not to Write

Last spring, shortly before my debut novel FINGERPRINTS OF YOU was released, I was fortunate enough to meet with the brilliant Ben Percy for brunch in Washington, DC. Ben is notorious for his booming voice and his down-to-earth no-nonsense attitude, both characteristics that come in handy for an author who works as a professor and often books high-profile appearances at conferences and literary events.

I don't know Ben well, but a mutual friend introduced us and we’ve crossed paths a handful of times, so I was looking forward to spending the afternoon with such a talented and established author. I was six months short of my pub date for FINGERPRINTS OF YOU, and I wanted advice. I was hungry for suggestions on how to launch my career in the best way possible, but more importantly, if truth be told, I wanted to talk craft. I was working through the last hundred pages of the first draft of a new novel, and while I was glad for any insight into the business-side of writing that he could provide, I was mostly excited to talk to him about my new book. I've never had the opportunity to study with Ben, but I've read and loved everything he's written, and I wanted guidance. I wanted to ask about his writing habits, wanted to vent my concerns about my new novel, and wanted to hear about the speed-bumps and triumphs he’d been through during his process of writing and editing all those wonderful books and stories.

Over coffee and scrambled eggs I talked nervously about the central characters in my new novel. I told him about the plot, the problems it still had and the vision I'd conceived for the book. I voiced my concerns and confessed that I believed that, eventually, just maybe, this new project had the potential to be my finest work.

And finally, loudly, in that voice he’s so well known for, Ben interrupted: "You do know you need to stop writing this book soon,” he said.

I know a lot of writers, have wined and dined with the best of them at writing conferences and residences all over the United States, and no one, not one, has ever told me to stop writing. Stop writing?

But he went on. And reluctantly I listened… 

I spent four years working on FINGERPRINTS OF YOU and had tirelessly contacted bookstores and universities to arrange readings and school visits. I’d applied and been accepted to numerous conferences and festivals for the fall and had arranged a slew of events and road trips to help promote the book. It was what I wanted and planned for, and rightfully so I had decided not to teach or work my “day job” for the first six months after the book was released. With the help of my publisher, I created a whirlwind book tour (http://kristenpaigemadonia.com/events-readings/) that I was truly looking forward to. A book tour that included long train and plane trips, nights at hotels alone, and days in cities where I didn’t know many people: Free time, I thought, I could spend working on my new novel. But I was completely wrong.

FINGERPRINTS OF YOU has now been available for a little over 8 weeks, though it’s been almost four months since I’ve worked on that new book. Thanks to my amazing friends, I’ve had three launch parties since the book came out, and thanks to all that planning I did, I’ve participated in events in fifteen different cities so far. I’ve written interview answers and guest blogs and website content for a wide variety of venues, but Ben was right, in the end I had to stop writing the new novel about a month before my pub date. I quickly learned that talking about one book to students and readers while writing a different book just doesn’t work. It’s like cheating on a boyfriend. Or checking email when talking the phone to a family member. Or on-line shopping on your laptop when attending a lecture. It’s not fair or respectful to that first book or the characters and the world inside those pages. It’s also not fair to yourself, to work so hard and so long and then enter a book tour with half of your heart inside another book.

So I’ve got my new novel “in the drawer,” as they say. The manuscript exists but sits quietly while I’m out on the road. It’s a rough draft, a messy collection of chapters and characters that need to be rewritten, reeled in, and fine-tuned. But I know that now is not the time to try and fix it. And when people ask, as they always do during Q&A, “What are you working on now?” I keep it short and simple: “I’m working on enjoying this,” I say, clutching my copy of FINGERPIRINTS OF YOU. I’m working on giving myself permission not to write that other book. I’m allowing myself to slow down and to take all of it in, this business of being a writer, and I’m gladly having one final fling with FINGERPRINTS OF YOU: our book-tour. 

Thank you, Kristen-Paige, for stopping by! I eagerly await your next novel. Until then, my reading and blogging friends, please check out this week's events in California:
  • Wednesday, October 3rd: Chapman University in Orange, California
  • Thursday, October 4th: CSULB in Long Beach, California
  • For future events, click here.

GIVEAWAY! (For US residents only, due to shipping costs.)

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