Little Bee

Monday, May 30, 2011

Little Bee
by Chris Cleave

A young Nigerian woman, who calls herself Little Bee, tells the story of her journey from her country to the UK. After spending two years in a detention camp she finally heads to London to find an English man, Andrew, who she met briefly in Nigeria.

Andrew’s wife, Sarah, narrates the other half of the novel. She’s a mother and editor of a magazine. She’s attempting to balance her work, raising a child and struggling marriage, all while coming to terms with a recent trauma in her life.

To me, the most fascinating part of this book was the dueling narration. Having two very distinct voices in a book often doesn’t work. The story can get muddled, the point of view becomes confusing, but in this book it was absolutely necessary and I was never unsure of who was speaking. It made the story richer to hear it from two incredibly different people.

Although I enjoyed it, I did have a few problems with the book. Everything leads up to one critical element of the story, but after that point (about midway through) things seem to just putter along. I enjoyed the story and distinct voices, but it would have benefitted from some different pacing. I also thought there were some unbelievable elements in the story, which made it hard to stay in the grip of what was happening. Whenever I read something that was too far fetched to be believable, it halted the flow of the story.

I’d say it’s worth reading, but don’t go into it with expectations set too high.

“We must see all scars as beauty. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

“Isn’t it sad, growing up? You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little bit older, and you realize that some of the world’s badness is inside you, that maybe you’re a part of it. And then you get a little bit older still, and a bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you’ve seen in yourself is really all that bad at all.”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Friday, May 27, 2011

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
by J.K. Rowling

**If you haven’t read this book, just skip this review. I tried to avoid spoilers, but there is just too much to talk about.**

The fifth installment of the Harry Potter series gets a lot of flack. Harry whines too much, it’s too long, too much Quidditch, Hagrid and Dumbledore are almost completely absent from the first 2/3 of the book, etc. I don’t disagree with these assessments and it’s always been one of my least favorite books of the series, (my least favorite HP novel is still one of my favorite books).

However, while re-reading it this month I’ve developed a real appreciation for Rowling’s portrayal of women. Clover’s post at Fluttering Butterflies had me thinking about the great female characters in Harry Potter and I feel like the Order of the Phoenix is the pinnacle example of this.

Not only do we have favorite characters like the brilliant Hermione, who’s wonderful in every book, but we meet many of the best women for the first time. Both Luna Lovegood, so wonderfully comfortable in her own skin, and Tonks, a young auror, equal parts friendly and clumsy, are newcomers in this novel. We also get to know Mrs. Weasley better. We learn how much she both cares for and fears for her family. She is fiercely protective of her loved ones.

Professor McGonagall is also an under-appreciated character. She has a steely reserve, and although she sometimes seems cold, she really loves the school and her students. Her undying loyalty to Dumbledore, in the harshest of circumstances, is inspiring. I loved how she stood up to Umbridge and told Harry she would help him become an auror if that’s what he wanted. She’s just wonderful.

We get to know Ginny better in this book as well. Instead of simply being the youngest Weasley and Ron’s little sister, she’s part of the story. She trains in Dumbledore’s Army and goes with the group to the Ministry of Magic in the end. She’s also protective of her friends, defending both Neville and Luna during this book.

Then there are the deliciously dark villains. We meet Bellatrix LeStrange, Voldemort’s devoted follower and Professor Umbridge, a sickly sweet atrocity, who believes the ends will always justify the means.

One thing I hadn’t thought about last time I read the series is Lupin’s loses. His three closet friends are all taken from him, first James, then Peter (so he thinks), and finally Sirius is taken to prison. Then he realizes Sirius is innocent and he gets him back, only to lose him again. Lupin is already a social outcast because he’s a werewolf. He finds three people who accept him for who he is, but ends up alone anyway. His life is one of the most tragic in the series and I’ve always had a soft spot for him.

A few things I'd forgotten about the fifth book: 

1) Mrs. Weasley’s greatest fear, when she’s trying to get rid of a boggart, is seeing her family members die. It’s heartbreaking to read that section and know who lives and dies in the final book.

2) We meet Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth for the first time. We don’t know who he is yet, but he’s mentioned as the barman at the Hog’s Head, “He was tall and thin and looked vaguely familiar.”

3) When a boy tries to go up the stairs to the girl’s dormitory they turn into a slide.

4) Dobby is the one who warns Harry that Umbridge is about to break into the D.A. meeting, proving once again what a loyal friend he is.

One hilarious line… "Enough – effing – owls –” Uncle Vernon.

Read for the Harry Potter Challenge hosted here.

The Blind Assassin

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood

This was the first Atwood I ever attempted (a few years back) and I just wasn’t ready for it. I got about 50 pages in and put it down and that’s always bothered me. Now that I have a few other Atwood’s under my belt, I felt compelled to try it again and I’m glad I did. It’s not a book to be rushed through, the story is too rich. You need to be able to settle in and just wander through it.

First we meet Iris Chase, an elderly woman reminiscing about her sister, Laura, who killed herself at the end of WWII. Iris is bitter and harsh and at first we don’t know why. Slowly she tells us the story of her wealthy family, her unhappy marriage, her troubled sister and more. As her tale unfolds we are given bits and pieces of a fictional novel written by Laura and published posthumously. That sci-fi book, titled The Blind Assassin, reveals even larger insights into the Chase family and their complicated lives.

For me, this Atwood falls somewhere in the middle of the books I’ve read of her’s. It’s not as brilliant as The Haidmaid’s Tale, but I liked it more than Oryx and Crake. She has a wonderful way with words and she breathes such beauty into all of her novels. She also gives the reader a lot to process. The “big reveal” of this book was no surprise (to me at least), but instead, Atwood carefully gives you more and more pieces to the puzzle and allows you to form your own conclusions as the picture begins to take shape. It’s a good read and one that has cemented my appreciation for the depth of Atwood’s work.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read, not by anyone other person and not even by yourself at some later date.”

“Romance is looking in at yourself, through a window clouded with dew. Romance means leaving things out: where life grunts and snuffles, romance only sighs.”

Wordless Wednesday: Venice Gondolas

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gondolas in Venice

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Howl's Moving Castle

Monday, May 23, 2011

Howl’s Moving Castle
by Diana Wynne Jones

This book has been on my TBR list for quite awhile and Jones’ recent passing made it especially timely for the Dewey read-a-thon last month. Now that I’ve read it, I know I’ll be checking out more of her work.

The eldest of three daughters, 17-year-old Sophie is transformed into an old woman after accidently offending a witch. After that she heads off to find the infamous wizard Howl, who despite his dangerous reputation, may be able to help her.

I love that Sophie never whines and feels sorry for herself; instead she just starts working toward a solution. She’s clever and determined and not easily swayed by a pretty face. I loved her antagonistic relationship with Howl. He needed someone in his life that didn’t blinded follow his orders and Sophie could hold her own against him. My favorite character is the cranky fire demon, Calcifer. His acidic comments were wonderful.

The writing reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s style, which is a great thing. It has that wonderful blend of fairy tale and dark sense of humor. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite as much if it had ended differently, but I really loved how the story was resolved. Jones could have offered a very simple conclusion, but she found one that gave additional depth to her characters and deepened the reader’s love of them.

Tackling my Kindle / Before I Fall

Friday, May 20, 2011

Before I Fall
by Lauren Oliver

Everyone has reviewed this book, so I’m going to skip the big review and talk more about the fact that this was my very first Kindle read. I got a Kindle for Christmas but have been resisting the whole e-book thing for so long that I couldn’t just switch over immediately. I’ve read e-books before, but it was on my iPhone or through e-mail using That’s different in my mind, because it’s a way to read when I have no other option. A Kindle is something I could read at home on the couch, and I would rather just pick up a “real” book.

I wanted to dive in though and to do that I needed to find the right gateway book. People kept telling me to pick a fast read for my first Kindle book. I also wanted a book that I didn’t think I would want to keep to re-read. After reading hundreds of reviews about various books, I finally chose Before I Fall and it was perfect. I started it and couldn’t put it down, which was exactly what I wanted. It made me think of it as picking up my book, not picking up my e-reader.

The book itself is great. It opens with Sam, a popular high school senior, dying in a car wreck. The rest of the book is Sam repeating that same day over and over. It really is Mean Girls meets Groundhog’s Day, as so many have described it. The characters are addictive and the plot never pauses. I was worried that the repetitive premise would get old fast, but it never did.

I would recommend both the book and finding a fast read if you’re struggling to pick up your e-reader. I think a good mystery would work well too. I’m never going to stop reading regular books, but not I’m more comfortable picking up my Kindle.

**SIDENOTE: I am struggling with the price of e-books. Unless it’s a book I know I’ll love or a special edition (hello Penguin hardcovers), I almost never spend $10 to $15 on a single book. I read way too much to be able to afford that. I use PaperBackSwap, used bookstores and library book sales and average about $2 per book.

I’ve checked out eBookFling, but so far I’m not impressed. It seems like the vast majority of books I want to read either aren’t available for lending at all or there just aren’t any available at the moment. Until library books become available on Kindles (which I hear will happen by the end of the year), I won’t be reading too many books on my e-reader.

Do you guys have any Kindle tips?


Thursday, May 19, 2011

It’s my 27th birthday today! Woo hoo. Birthdays are big for me, probably because my sister’s is the day before mine and my Dad’s is the same day as mine. So I “shared” my birthday growing up, which isn’t a bad thing, but it does make you want to carve out some space for your own little b-day.

My poor husband knows that I get a birthday “week,” (which I would highly recommend by the way). Instead of just celebrating for one day, I get to do fun stuff for a whole week (my sister does this too)! It’s not about presents (though yay for presents), it’s about spending time with the people you love and celebrating your life in different ways. One night I’ll have dinner with a good friend or something like that, then the next I’ll watch my favorite movies at home with the Huz, but the best part is saying, “but it’s my birthday (week)” everyday. Want to have your favorite thing for dinner or get control of the TV remote… it’s your birthday!

Anyway, to celebrate I decided to make a list of 27 of my favorite books. It sounds incredibly easy, 27, there should be plenty of room on that list for everyone, right? Apparently not, I traded a few on and off and found in the end I still didn’t have anything by Neil Gaiman or P.G. Wodehouse or Roald Dahl on the list. My list is also sorely lacking all my favorite books I read as a kid/teen and some great dystopian novels, etc.

That’s ok, here’s the best I could do with fitting them all on there…

27 of my Favorite Books

1) The Book Thief
2) Jane Eyre
3) The Shadow of the Wind
4) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
5) Persuasion
6) Ender’s Game
7) A Moveable Feast
8) Hamlet
9) The Harry Potter series (yes, I’m including all 7 books in one slot)
10) Me Talk Pretty One Day
11) The History of Love
12) Catch-22
13) Maus
14) Nine Stories
15) I Capture the Castle
16) Empire Falls
17) Travels With Charley
18) The Importance of Being Ernest
19) The Time Traveler's Wife
20) Great Expectations
21) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (all 5 books)
22) To Kill a Mockingbird
23) Howards End
24) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
25) Tuck Everlasting
26) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
27) And Then There Were None

What are some of your favorites?

p.s. The photo is of the giveaway books I won from the wonderful Ruby at BookQuoter. I got the box on the first day of birthday week (yes people, it’s a real thing), and it felt like a birthday present! I’m so excited to read them all, especially The Weird Sisters.

p.p.s. I got a haircut! Haircuts are not news, but I felt like sharing anyway... and it's birthday week so I can (see how that works). I've had short hair for years. Then I grew it out in'09. I always think I'll love long hair, but it inevitably ends up looking like it does in the first picture. And why go to all the trouble of keeping you hair long if it's always up? So it went from the length in the second picture to the third picture. I'm happy and love it.

Photos by moi.

Wordless Wednesday: South Dakota

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Camping in South Dakota

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Persepolis: Part 1 and 2

Monday, May 16, 2011

Persepolis 1: The Story of a Childhood
by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return
by Marjane Satrapi

This graphic novel has been on my TBR list for far too long. I finally had a chance to read it and I was not disappointed. The first book covers the author’s childhood in war-torn Iran, while the second deals with her teenage and adult years.

It’s disturbing, but incredibly important, to be reminded of the freedoms we take for granted. Perhaps the scariest part of the book is realizing that they had those freedoms and they were revoked. I can’t fathom someone telling me I had to wear a veil all of a sudden when I’ve spent my life without one.

Everything from rock n’ roll posters to Michael Jackson CDs became illegal. The most controversial item of all was the any thinking that contradicted the regime’s belief system.

Satrapi’s spunk and defiance make her an irresistible child. We see the oppression creep into her life and understand it better than she can at first. Her wonderful parents teach her to stand up for her beliefs and she is surrounded by strong family members who do just that.

**Spoilers of the first book, but not the second**

At the end of the first book, Satrapi is sent to live in Austria without her parents. Thus begins her assimilation to western culture. When she eventually returns to Iran, this creates a dichotomy in her personality. She never felt truly at home in Austria, but when she’s back in Iran, she realizes she doesn’t quite belong there either.

The second book loses a bit of the magic of the first, just as growing up in the real world always does. Instead of an innocent child’s view of a violence and oppression, we have a young woman trying to figure out who she is all while being influenced by both western and eastern cultures. It’s more a coming of age tale than the first book.

“When we're afraid, we lose all sense of analysis and reflection. Our fear paralyzes us.”

Friday Favorites: The Sparrow

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Sparrow
by Mary Doria Russell

I resisted this book for a long, long time. I actually checked it out of the library more than once and returned it unread, which rarely happens. The cover looked boring and the summary sounded too preachy. A Jesuit priest travels into space, blah, blah, blah. Man was I wrong.

The premise actually sounds more complicated than it is. There's a group of friends on earth. One of them discovers that there is life out in the universe and they end up travelling to that planet, Rakhat, to find it. We know all of this from the beginning because the story is told using two timelines. The first is in the future when the Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, returns to earth physically and mentally destroyed. He is the only member of the original crew to return. The second timeline explains everything that happened to lead up to that point.

Now strip all of that away and get rid of any preconceived notions. This is a story of loss, friendship, love, heartbreak and everything else that’s intrinsically human. It’s devastatingly beautiful, but it’s also funny and sweet. It captures the pain and loveliness of humanity in an incredible way. The characters are flawed, but loveable. You feel so close to them as the story progresses, which is crucial for its success.

The book is plotted perfectly in my opinion. There’s a large chunk explained at the beginning which leaves you anticipating the explanation throughout the book. After that things are slowly revealed, but you’re left with some questions right up until the end.

Please don’t let the silly title, cover and publisher summary keep you from this book. I let them deter me for far too long and they are in no way a representation of the real story held within the binding.

“You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting you’re in love? You’re just naked. You’ve put yourself in harm’s way and you’ve just laid down all your defenses; no clothes, no weapons, no where to hide, completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”

A few other great reviews... books i done read, let's eat grandpa, My Friend Amy.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
by Frederick Douglass

This is Douglass’ actual account of his time as a slave and his escape. It’s heartbreaking to think of all he went through and then to remember that this happened to thousands of slaves. I was amazed by his strong will and determination; it never faltered. No matter what happened to him, he failed to break. His “masters” are the ones who gave up in the end. He was such a brave individual, they didn’t want to cross him and lose face in front of their other slaves.

One of the most astounding things in the book is that Douglass gives no details of his actual escape. He says he can’t explain how he did it because he might be giving away an escape route another slave is about to take. This really drove home the point that he wrote this when slavery was still very active. What an incredibly courageous man.

Even though he was born into slavery, at no point did he say, well this is just my life. He looked at his impossible situation and thought, how can I change this? It was inspiring! If he can change his life, in that time period, what excuse do we have?

Wordless Wednesday: Tomb in Baltimore

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tomb in the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

75 Signs You’re a Bibliophile

Monday, May 9, 2011

Have you guys seen this awesome list of 75 Signs You’re a Bibliophile? Some of them are so true!

Here are a few of my favorite...

20. You find Belle the least offensive of the Disney princesses.

29. You really, really relate to that one Twilight Zone episode with Burgess Meredith.

41. The word “abridged” gives you a migraine.

51. You usually carry around 2 books at a time.

56. You know that the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42.

71. You own multiple editions of the same book.

Photo from here.

Happy Mother's Day

Friday, May 6, 2011

(My Mom getting ready for the wedding with her sister Nanette)

My parents' 1981 wedding is being featured on a site I love. It's especially fitting, to me, that it was run just before mother's day. I always find myself thinking so much about my Mom around this time. Happy Mother's Day (on Sunday) to all you moms out there. If you have a mom you can talk to this weekend, give her some extra love and hugs.

If you're interested, here it is at A Practical Wedding.

Photo property of Melissa Hall (me)

El Ateneo Bookstore

Thursday, May 5, 2011

This old theatre in Argentina was turned into a bookstore.
It's called El Ateneo and is located in downtown Buenos Aires.

Can you imagine getting to shop here? Heaven.

Photos and more info found here.

Wordless Wednesday: Frankfurt

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Frankfurt, Germany

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne

A French marine biologist named Aronnax narrates his journey to capture a mythical sea creature called a narwhal. What he and his shipmates discover is that the creature doesn’t exist. Instead they find a submarine call the Nautilus, which has been created secretly and travels around the world beneath the surface of the water. The sub’s Captain, a man who calls himself Nemo, tells his new captives that they must remain on the Nautilus so they won’t have a chance to revel his secret to the world.

I love the premise, but the execution didn’t work for me. There are so many details that’s the plot gets lost in the minutia. Verne was certainly a visionary, but he must have been on some oceanic kick while writing this one. The descriptions of each individual sea creature go on for pages and it was incredibly hard to stay interested.

The amazing thing about the book is that it was published in 1870, long before submarines of the Nautilus’ stature were invented. I also thought it was interesting that the 20,000 leagues in the title refer to how far they travel in the sub. I always thought it was talking about how deep they went. Sadly these tidbits weren’t enough to really make the book work for me. I don’t regret reading it, because sometimes I’m just curious about classics, but I wouldn’t read it again.

The Lost Continent

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Lost Continent
by Bill Bryson

Shortly after the death of his father, Bryson embarks on a cross-country road trip, visiting small towns throughout America. He’s an Iowa native, but after living in England for decades he wanted to reacquaint himself with the USA.

I’ve enjoyed most of Bryson’s other books more than this one. It still retains his acidic sense of humor and conversational writing style, but it’s much more cynical. With some of his other work he is simply observing a place, whether it’s the Appalachian Trail or a foreign country, for the first time. In this one, he’s re-visiting places he vacationed as a child. I think it’s unlikely any place could live up to his sepia-toned memories and he’s incredibly disappointed by how boring or dirty the cities have become.

Barring a few exceptions (like the universally revered Grand Canyon); he is completely disenchanted with America. It didn’t take long to tire of his routine in each new town: see touristy museum or park, check into cheap hotel, get dinner at cheap local diner, drink beers in hotel room while watching Mr. Ed, and repeat the following day. I wanted him to talk to people or at least make an effort to see more than one cheesy tourist trap. Don’t get me wrong, there are some funny bits, but it’s no where near his normal level of hilarity.

I will definitely keep reading Bryson’s books in the future, because he normally cracks me up. I’ll chalk this one up to an off-day for the writer and instead I’d recommend you read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley for a similar premise with a much better result.

“That is the great, seductive thing about America – the people always get what they want, right now, whether it is good for them or not. There is something deeply worrying, and awesomely irresponsible, about this endless self-gratification.”

“America has never quite grasped that you can live in a place without making it ugly, that beauty doesn’t have to be confined behind fences, as if a national park were a sort of zoo for nature.”