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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Comfort (non)food

A while back Sapphire wrote about watching Disney movies when she felt sick or down. I’ve known for a while now that I turn to FRIENDS when I’m feeling down or in need of comfort. But for the past few weeks I’ve been craving Harry Potter too. This is new for me, but it got me thinking about what we crave when we are feeling blue.

What is it about FRIENDS and Harry Potter that draw me in and cheer me up? Is it the comfort in the story, since I already know what is going to happen? Is it because it’s fiction and things end up happy (for the most part)? Yeah, some of our favorite characters died and their families are definitely hurting, but Harry and Ron and Hermione and Hagrid are all OK and Voldemort is gone, so that’s positive. In the grand scheme of things, the story ended on a positive note.

With FRIENDS, I’m pretty sure I know the reason I turn to the series over and over again. It’s realistic–breakups, job losses, arguments, family issues etc–but in the end, again, it all turns out OK. Rachel and Ross decide to try to make it work (although I suppose it could be argued that they will crash and burn after the cameras stop rolling), Chandler and Monica become parents and Phoebe finds her match.

Sometimes I wish my life worked out that way. We all know in a sitcom that the ending will be happy, despite the hijinks that occur during the episode or season or entire series, but life is a big question mark. Will our decisions ultimately end in happiness? Or will we make major mistakes that will affect the rest of our lives, in a negative way? Someone I know always says “the ONLY thing standing between you and happiness is yourself,” and that’s an attitude I’m trying to adopt. But if my life were like FRIENDS I wouldn’t have to worry about that. But, I guess that’s the beauty of life–you never really know what is going to happen–although it’s also absolutely terrifying.

I’m sorry, I know this post is probably super confusing and poorly written, but I’m watching FRIENDS right now -my fish I got for our on year anniversary* last March died today and I already had a rough morning with this whole relationship/non-relationship thing. I suppose if my life were a book or movie there would be symbolism in that, so maybe I don’t want my life to be a work of fiction…

Which brings me to my second point, or question. Does my dependence on shows or books like FRIENDS and Harry Potter give me unrealistic expectations about love, life and happiness? What are your thoughts? Do you have any shows or books or movies that bring you comfort in times of trouble?

*corrected the date.

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This holiday season has been a bit “meh” for me. Perhaps it’s because we’re missing a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas and it all seems too rushed, perhaps it’s due to recent events in my personal life, perhaps it’s because earning only a living stipend makes buying Christmas gifts and goodies difficult, perhaps it’s due to the increased amount of driving I’ve done on icy and snowy roads with road ragey fellow drivers (true story, my car slipped on some ice right as a lady whipped around a corner. She yelled and flipped me off, looked like she was going to let me go since I was in the middle of the road due to the ice slip, then continued to pull forward; yell, curse and flip me off some more. I had my first big ugly cry in several weeks. Think snot, gasping tears and hiccups, which are not conducive to good driving so I got lost and then managed to make my GPS speak Dutch, which is ironic, because I know someone who can speak Dutch, but I can’t ask him to fix it for me*).

However, despite these not so cheery holiday feelings, I’ve spent a lot more time with my family, and I have thought a lot about the meaning of the holiday season. I will not restate the “true story of Christmas” because I think we are all familiar with the birth of Baby Jesus. I’m talking about enjoying the company of family and friends, being thankful for those who love and support us.

This holiday season actually reminds me a lot of one of my favorite books– Little WomenThe book opens with “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” That pretty much sums up my feelings on that aspect of Christmas. Just about everybody in my family (immediate and extended) is strapped for cash. There are about 5 of us participating in the annual Christmas draw (we all draw names and buy presents for the person whose name we drew) and I’m already worried about finding a good present for my aunt. I’d love to buy my friends and family a trinket or two, but as it is, I’m not sure that is possible. I’m also hosting a holiday party (not sure why I thought that was a good idea), so a lot of my funds are going towards food and drink for that extravaganza.

However, Beth, sweet and innocent Beth, reminds us of what is important. “‘We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other’, said Beth contentedly from her corner.” Of course, the March family patriarch is actually serving in the Civil War, so they don’t technically have him (which Jo is quick to point out). But despite their lack of money, their lack of a father and lack of general holiday spirit, the March girls pull themselves together and celebrate Christmas the right way. They pool their money to buy Marmee gifts, they donate much of the food they do have to the poor German family down the street and they put aside their differences and celebrate the holiday and enjoy each other’s company.

While I’ve spent far more time in my car, stuck in traffic, than I’d like, at least those car rides are taking me to family. This past weekend my mom and I were supposed to make cookies and then go see White Christmas at a refurbished 1920s theater. However, her oven chose this weekend to die. So I went off to volunteer with my University’s local alumni group and my mom went to her sister’s to bake. After realizing that I  a) had the wrong date or b) not enough people were interested in volunteering so it was cancelled, I joined my mom and my aunt. When I arrived two of my first cousin’s once removed were already there, helping my mom cut out cookies, i.e. sneaking lots of “little tastes.”  A few hours later, my cousin, her step daughter and her youngest son arrived. I enjoyed playing with the kids and visiting with my cousin before they left. A few hours after that, another cousin and his wife arrived with their two boys. We played, drank some wine and then went out for dinner.

Additionally, I shouldn’t be stressing about the money for my holiday party. I should just enjoy the fact that my friends are coming into town from far corners of the United States and want to gather together and celebrate the season.

We should take Beth’s message to heart, at least we have ______ (insert name of friend, family member, coworker, pet etc). We, or I suppose I should say I, need to take comfort in the small things. And for me, that is what this holiday season is about–appreciating what I have.

So, while my musical tastes now lean more towards Eminem (seriously his song with Rihanna is my jam right now) instead of Bing Crosby, I’m celebrating this holiday season right.

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* I managed to fix my GPS, thank goodness! It speaks English again now. Yay.

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Brown’s latest Book

Inferno by Dan Brown; page count 480

Dan Brown has produced another fast-paced book about conspiracies with trails of historical clues. I’m not going write too much about this book. If you like Brown’s work, you’ll pick this book up anyway. If you have already written him off as a no-talent hack, then you wouldn’t dream of reading this title anyway.

As for me, I appreciate that he writes history-riddled action books with intriguing ideas. I certainly think there are better writers in the world, but his books are usually fun reads. If it helps, this one was a lot better than his last offering, The Lost Symbol.

If I can make a suggestion, I recommend borrowing this from your public library. They are bound to have a copy or two. I read it in two days and I’m not even a very fast reader. I am unconvinced this is worth the cover price of $29.95.

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Archer Action

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell; page count 451

I just breezed through this book, but then it was exactly what I wanted to read, exactly when I wanted to read it. I had just seen Olivier’s Henry V on DVD (talk about melodramatic!) and I wanted to read an action-centered historical fiction. So this title really hit the mark. (hehehe! I just had to indulge in some archer humor somewhere in this post.)

The story follows a young man, Nicolas Hook, as he goes from beloved bastard to outlaw and then archer. He ends up taking part in one of the most famous battles in Britain’s history.

Even though I really liked this book, I’m not going to pretend it is spectacular literature or without flaws. Cornwell for no discernible reason has a pair of saints talk to and warn Hook away from danger sporadically  throughout his adventures. I found this to be unnecessary and distracting. He writes the final battle sequence from several characters’ viewpoints, but he has up until that point only really followed Hook. It would have been better if the other characters were followed prior to Agincourt.

Generally, I did enjoy the book. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wanted more action in historical fiction. Although, fair warning, some of the writing did get a bit bloody. I may even in future pick up another of Cornwell’s books.

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So-so Steampunk

A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz; page count 338

This is the first steampunk novel I’ve read. I read some short stories and seen a few movies, but this is my first actual novel. Admittedly, I am not entirely sure if a steampunk work fits within the scope of our usual historical fiction blog here. I take the chance because surely there will be some overlap of readers, and it is a new book released this March.

Schwarz ConspiracyThis is the first in a series, Chronicles of Light and Shadow, with two more guaranteed to follow and talks of more to come. The book follows the plight of dirigible pilot Eleanor “Elle” Chance. Chance is asked to hold and ship a box from Paris back to London. However, shortly after taking the box she is beset and dangerous, world-changing events are set in motion. Almost immediately we meet a fairy (whose narration is jarringly in first person unlike the rest of the book) and the love interest, handsome and mysterious Mr. Marsh.

The story moved at a good clip, and there was enough intrigue to keep me reading. However, I’m fairly certain this will be my only foray into the series. I found Eleanor Chance to be lacking as a heroine. She seems contrived. There are too many inconsistencies in her character that could have been easily hammered out. For example, she wears jodhpurs and flies to Paris by herself, but blushes at the slightest look from Marsh and was only brought to flying by a man, despite being surrounded by machines and brought up by her father. *SPOILER ALERT* I also am not fond of how Schwarz handles Chance’s powers. Surely, even an untrained oracle should have some premonitions or gut feelings that are accurate. *SPOILER OVER* Honestly, a couple of tweaks by a slightly better writer could have solved most of my issues with her character and the book in general

Even though Schwarz has not converted me to one of her followers, she did succeed in making me more curious about other steampunk writing. I generally like the steam aesthetic anyway, and now I may pick up another steampunk novel if I happen across one.

If you are a devoted steampunker (I’m sure there’s a word for that I am not aware of) then you should probably give this book a try. It’s certainly being pushed by the publisher, and may go a long way to convince The Man that steampunk is worth the investment. Otherwise, I’d be fairly hesitant to recommend this title.

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Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre; page count 360

This non-fiction work tells about a British espionage network, the Double Cross Team or XX or Twenty Team (the roman numerals for double Xs) during World War II. (I will never look at one of my favorite beers the same again.) This team worked on capturing Nazi spies in Britain and turning them to work for the Allies.

double cross macintyreIt follows five of the main spies who made the landing at Normandy not a total bloodbath and disaster. The first is Dusan Popov or Agent Tricycle, a playboy and entrepreneur with several contacts in Germany. Then there is Juan Pujol Garcia or Agent Garbo, a Spaniard with an excellent imagination who developed his own network consisting of dozens of fictitious sub-agents. There is also Lily Sergeyev or Agent Treasure, a White Russian former aristocrat and fanatical dog lover. Roman Czerniawski or Agent Brutus was a Polish freedom fighter then French resistance leader, who when arrested by Nazis in France convinced his captors he would become a spy only to turn against them for the Allies. And last but not least we have the gambling, bi-sexual socialite Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, Agent Bronx. You also learn a great deal about the British men and women (alright, just one woman) who run the agents, as well as some of the side agents and subplots.

I really liked this book. Granted it has everything I like in a book: daring deeds, espionage, far away destinations and life hanging in the balance. However, Macintyre’s writing style is particularly pleasing. He did not burned with footnotes (don’t worry they are at the end for the more studious readers.)He also has this brilliant English dry humor running throughout the book which makes the sometimes amusing scenarios very funny.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a lighter take on Word War II, or to anyone with an interest in true espionage stories. Honestly, I don’t think this book would disappoint anyone who happened to pick it up.

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Her Royal Spyness

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I have a new-found obsession with Audio Books. While baking Christmas cookies this past Christmas I had the overwhelming desire to listen to Lauren Willig’s The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I knew I couldn’t read and bake, but I so desperately wanted to delve into that fun, lighthearted story. So, I found myself on Amazon.com signing up for Audible.com and becoming a member. Fast forward a few months later, and I get an email from Audible telling me about a member sale. I had two unused credits, and I randomly selected two books to purchase with those two credits. One was Her Royal Spyness, the first in the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. I can now officially say I’m obsessed.

The story takes place in England in the 1930s and follows Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, 34th in line for the crown. However, Lady Victoria Georgina Charlotte Eugenie (better known as Georgie), is flat broke, despite her royal connections. Her father gambled away their family’s money before killing himself, and her brother Binky’s stingy wife has made it very clear that Georgie is not welcome in the family home in Scotland, so off to London she goes. In order to survive she starts a cleaning business of sorts, but then she finds a drowned man in her bathtub. When the police accuse Binky of murder, Georgie must do what she can to clear his name.

Along the way several recurring characters are introduced, a wonderful blend of real historical figures and fictional characters. Besides the royal family and “that horrible Simpson woman,” there is Georgie’s mother, an actress before her marriage to the Duke, and now a world-class flirt and bed hopper; Belinda Warburton-Stoke, Georgie’s best friend from school and destined to follow in Georgie’s mother’s footsteps; Grandad, Georgie’s cockney grandfather from her mother’s side; and my favorite, The Honorable Darcy O’Mara Irish Rogue and Georgie’s confused love interest.

Due to my obsessive need to keep myself in the story (Book 5 in about 2 weeks), I have listened to the books and read the print version. While both have their strong points (while reading it is much harder for my mind to wander, which it has a tendency to do while listening, but I cannot read while cataloging or running), I have to mention Katherine Kellgren’s narration. I absolutely love her characterizations, specifically the Cockney and Irish accents of Grandad and Darcy respectively. It also makes me wish I had the crisp, clear, upper-class British accent. It sounds so refined!

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meh* debut

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay; page count 336.

This debut novel by Kim Fay follows an Irene Blum as she goes from under-appreciated assistant to the museum curator to an adventuress. Set in the 1920s, Irene is passed up for the position of curator when her longtime boss steps down. She is handed a diary from her mentor and father figure which points the way to a discovery of the ages: the lost history of the Khmer people in Cambodia. Quickly, Irene sets off to retrieve the scrolls and bring them back to win herself a place as director of a museum.

map of lost memoriesThis was very impressive for a first novel. However, I’m still going to have to rate this “OK.” Like most first attempts, there seemed to be a lot of long-winded exposition and flowery descriptions, but despite  some of the more laborious passages, the writing was generally good. I enjoyed the female characters, but I was a bit disheartened that neither of them mentioned any historic significance of the plight of women in 1920s despite being surrounded by it and frequently reminded of it. There were also a lot of coincidences and ever-so-convenient occurrences in the novel. I mean, a lot.

I do have two major points of contention:

  1. The first 2/3 of the book is much better than the last third. I think because by the time you get to the last third you realize how this is all going to play out and it seems like it is just dragging to get to the inevitable conclusion.
  2. The romantic leads just sort of magically fell in together. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, more like comfort at first sight, and it was not very believable. The man is a widower, and I have a really hard time being convinced that a man who lost his first wife and presumably had several love affairs in between would just automatically fall for and do anything for a woman he has known a total of 3 hours give or take.

Basically, if you read the description and think you might like it, I say go for it, but maybe get it from the library or wait for paperback. It’s certainly not worth a venture into new territory. On the other hand, I’ve read much worse, and I did finish the book.


*”meh” as in that sound you make when something is only alright.

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Favorite Willig so far

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig; page count 385

I’ve been slowly (very slowly) reading my way through the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig. Generally, unless the series is uber-compelling I’ll let some time go by before reading the next book in a series. (To date there have only been two series which I read straight through: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Sorry, but my bar is pretty high.)

This fourth addition to the Napoleonic spy/romance series follows the cynical Lothario, Lord Sebastian Vaughn and the cynical temptress Mary Alsworthy as they trade barbs while attempting to track down a deadly French spy, the Black Tulip. There’s also several chapters devoted to a PhD history candidate Eloise, who is attempting a dissertation on the Pink Carnation as well as attempting to snag a particular man, Colin.

This is by far my favorite because of the two main characters. Miss Alsworthy and Lord Vaughn are fantastic together! These two do not mince words and spare no one’s feelings. I love Vaughn’s clever cuts and Alsworthy’s witty retorts. They do tend more toward the gooey side near the end of the book, but generally they stay true to their shrewd ways. It’s like reading a slightly more cut-throat Cary Grant zing and be zinged effortlessly by his main squeeze. (It’s reminiscent of this scene from His Girl Friday.)

Also, I figured out why I don’t like the modern part of the book: I don’t like Eloise. Don’t get me wrong, if she existed as a real live human being, we might be friends, but I don’t like being in her head. The Eloise parts are written in a stream-of-consciousness style. She’s meant to be an intelligent woman abroad, but she comes across much more ditzy than intelligent. Yes, I understand that intelligent women can have some seriously dingy moments. However, I do not particularly like reading a blow-by-blow of her inner-head ditziness. I find it difficult to believe that a woman who is working on a dissertation from an Ivy League school would mistake a marble statue of Hercules for a museum attendant. (Yeah. That happened.)

I would still recommend these books whole-heartedly to others despite my distaste for the Eloise bits. It’s a fluffy, no-brainer, rom-com of a book series, but that’s nice now and again, isn’t it?

My library has the audio of the next book, and after Indigo’s review, I might just give that a shot.

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To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl & Carol MacD. Wallace; page count 416

Bristol. Tyntesfield Manor

Tyntesfield Manor in Bristol, UK

Really? Do you want more of a review than the title of this post? Yes? Alright then.

This book gained fame by being the inspiration for Cora, Countess of Grantham from the hit TV series Downton Abbey. I am only surprised it was not more popular before the show. This book is awesome!

The book tells the various stories of wealthy American heiresses who traveled across the Atlantic in order to find a husband with a British title. The first women to cross the pond did so because they were not accepted by the stuck up and slightly puritanical dowagers of New York society. Soon, however, the sport of catching a “peer” became fashionable.

Besides being both humorous and fact-filled, this book dishes the dirt on the scintillating scandalous details of the mid- to late-nineteenth century upper crust. Plus, it’s fully illustrated! I just love that this book is page after page of lovely photos.

I gave a copy as a gift to our very own Sapphire, and much to my joy and surprise received a copy myself! (Don’t tell Sapphire, but I considered keeping her copy for myself since I wanted to read it.) I do highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy Downton Abbey or you like reading about historical socialites. If you are a celebrity magazine fan and normally do not read “heavy” books, this would be your best dip in the rewarding world of non-fiction.

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