Monday, December 19, 2011

Riding in Cars

I love to drive, especially if I’m on a summer trip heading to some beautiful place in the Northwest.  Though I go with a group, I'm generally driving alone when I do these long trips so I like to set myself up in my own little comfy world.  I'll have a cooler for some water and sandwiches, tasty snacks and plenty of good music on my IPod.  Of course, once I discovered the joy of listening to audio books while driving, I quickly became addicted. 
There were, however, a few lessons learned along the way.

The first lesson came while I was driving home from Montana on a particularly fast curvy section of I-90, just before the Columbia River.  Near the end of the book I was listening to, the mother dies.  Most friends know that I cry easily at movies, so it should come as no surprise that tears were streaming down my face.  This made it somewhat difficult to see the road.  Not a good thing but I survived.  

At a rest stop, I put in the next book.  I was already eight and a half hours into the ten hour trip home and I was a bit tired.  How was I to know that shortly into the book, a couple would be having an intimate encounter for a chapter and a half?  Apparently I must have gotten a little into it because the next thing I knew I was doing 90 mph over a mountain pass.  Again, not a good thing.  At least I noticed before anyone else did.  Can you imagine trying to explain to a trooper that my excessive speed was the fault of my audio book’s intense sex scene?  Oh my!

My last lesson came one December when I listened to The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.   Dark is how I would describe that book.  Even the ending is strange and sinister.  I had enjoyed and even liked his other book, The Shadow of the Wind.  It was also somewhat dark but at least it ended with a bit of hope.  Winter here is dark enough.  Listening to this coming into the holidays was just way too bleak and gloomy for me. 

I was a little slow but I finally learned that I’m very affected by what I listen to when I drive.  I know not to choose books that are really dark, where the mother dies and where there are detailed sex scenes.  Or, if listening to the latter type, at least I know to watch my speed and close my windows if I'm stopped at a streetlight....

One "perfect for the car" book I’ve listened to is The Splendor of Silence by Indu Sundaresan.  The setting is early 1940’s India and, though the story is a bit of a stretch at times, it caught my imagination.  It is true that I have rightly been accused of being a hopeless romantic, but I couldn't help myself with this book.  It has intrigue, romance, adventure, social unrest and beautiful scenery.  The wintry Northwest sky outside my car may have been a mix of grayish blue and green, but all I saw were the rich gold and red tones of India.  One minute, I was flying across the desert on a horse; another I was trudging through a deep jungle.  I could smell the heady spices of the country and the food and I fell in love.  It was a magical world that enchanted me.  Interestingly, I did eat a fair amount of Indian food during that time too…

I feel like it's time to be enchanted again.  After all, December is the month for magic.  And perhaps, a little vegetable korma on my way home from the library wouldn’t be a bad idea either…


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Voulez Vous?

I do love to travel internationally, though these days, I generally do so mostly through books.  Paris is definitely a favorite.  I had a most memorable trip at age 16, when a good friend and I spent a month there on our own.  Between her language skills (mine were limited) and my sense of direction (she had none) we managed to make our way around Paris and had the time of our young lives.  Many evenings, we’d pick up a bottle of good inexpensive wine and somehow always managed to find a couple of cute guys to share it with us.  I must say we certainly did have a grand time “learning” French….

Chatting with that friend recently, I was reminded just how much fun we did have back then.  When I read a story set in Paris, I think of her and I can still hear her exasperated voice telling me in that dismissive tone just how French something was, whether it was a situation, place or person.  Given that she is half French and her ex is French, I figure that’s allowed since I know how much she really does love it.  She’s taught me well and because of her, I can generally tell if a book about Paris rings true.  One of my favorite French crime series by Fred Vargas does just that. 

A recent trip north up to Vancouver and the phone call with my old friend put me in an international state of mind.  I made a meal of pâté, some cheese and a baguette, added a nice glass of wine and then cracked open the latest crime novel about Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, An Uncertain Place.  

Now, if you’re looking for a traditional crime novel or the standard police procedural fare, a la CSI, well, this isn’t it.  Adamsberg is a most unusual detective, and while I’m sure his department’s style is not typical of the real Parisian police, many things about him and his team are so very French, as Monica would say.  He’s kind of spacey and distracted and he frequently goes off on odd intuitive tangents.  His disheveled and sleepy appearance is such that many around him forget he’s there.  This works to his advantage, because of course, he misses very little.  Though there are often many forces against him, he and his team of misfits manage to solve the most unusual crimes and they generally do so in a very unusual way.  Quirky is a good word to describe these novels. 

His eccentric band of officers includes Danglard, his right hand man who has a fondness for good wine but still manages to have an extraordinary encyclopedic knowledge.  Another is Betancourt, an Amazon of a woman who, while dismissed by some, has earned the respect of her boss with her extraordinary strength of mind and body.  There’s even a cat named Snowball who lives within their headquarters.  Don’t think he’s just there for a little ambiance; this cat’s paid his dues as well. 
Adamsberg is a creation of French writer Fred Vargas, the pseudonym of the French Medieval historian Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.  She uses much of that knowledge throughout to add a little more depth to our stories. The first in the series is The Chalk Circle Man, though not the first translated to English, it is now available.  My current book, An Uncertain Place, is the sixth of the series but there is another out for those who read French.  Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait for the translated version.    

In spite of my 5 years of French, about all I can remember are some words from a popular song, how to ask for the good wine, a few courtesy words and of course, how to find the bathroom.  That gets me through most situations and for any others, I can point! 

I’m off to discover how my French detective gets himself out of his latest jam.  As I sit back in my comfy chair, I'm thinking that perhaps another glass of that nice pinot noir would help me and Adamsberg along…Voulez Vous? 


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Time for a Dimestore Novel

There are times when we’re simply in the mood for easy.  Too much going on the week before, lots of stuff to get done and by last night, that was me.  I was tired and it was a challenge to even pick out the next book to read.   

I have so many books that occasionally my house resembles a messy library.  Books are everywhere and in almost every room, including bathrooms; and they seem to speak to me.  Have you ever seen that holiday commercial where the ornaments and party items speak to the customers?  That’s what my books were doing.  Each one saying “Me, me, pick me!”  

Yes, it is true that I have a very active imagination and there are some who’ve commented that I’ve probably lived alone way too long…

But when they all start to scream for attention, it can get a little loud.  In the running there was next month’s book club selection, a few non-fiction choices, some how-to's and one international detective novel that I’ll probably start this weekend.  

What did I actually pick?  Well, that would be what I call my commercial break book.  You know the kind I mean, those fun books which don’t require much brain use; definitely not the books you talk about at book club or even share with those outside of your immediate reading circle.  These are the guilty pleasures we love to delve into.  I crawled into bed with my choice, turned off my brain and relaxed into it with my very comfy cat snuggling close.  Bliss!

We all have our versions of what we read at those times.  Personally I love mysteries; whether it’s the old fashioned who-done-it or the paranormal kind.  Given the size of the mystery and paranormal sections at the book store, apparently I’m not alone.   

I include in this genre books like John Sanford’s Prey series or the various crime novels by either Ed McBain or Elmore Leonard.  More dated, but just as fun, is John MacDonald’s Travis McGee books.  On the paranormal side, there are the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris.  True Blood is based on that series but the books are a little less edgy and a bit more fun.  Carrie Vaughn is another author I like.  She writes about Kitty, a late night Denver DJ who just happens to be a werewolf; trouble just seems to find her where ever she goes. 

Carol O’Connell writes a mystery series about Kathy Mallory,  She's a young, smart and beautiful detective, who is also seriously emotionally scarred and somewhat of a sociopath.  Can one be only somewhat of a sociopath?  The series starts with Mallory’s Oracle and currently continues through nine books, ending with Find Me.  Along the way we learn how Mallory came to be and watch as she grows a soul.  Like other books of this type, she has her helpers; one very bright (and wealthy) Cyrano type, who is in love with her, and a couple of policemen who have watched over her since she was a child on the streets of NY.  Murder, mayhem, mystery, they have it all.  Too bad I’ve already read them all. 

So, what dime store novel did I choose last night?  Well, I went with Kitty Raises Hell by Carrie Vaughn, chosen by my cat Angel.  He liked the title.  Hmm, I wonder if I should be concerned about that since I'll be going out of town soon...


Sunday, November 20, 2011

I'll Take Manhattan

Tea at the Plaza, ice-skating in Central Park, the Met, having cocktails high in the sky; these are just a few of my favorite things about growing up in Manhattan.  Then there’s my fantasy version of New York from all the old 1930s movies where beautiful women in flowing silk gowns and handsome men attired in tuxedos led fabulous lives in Penthouse apartments overlooking the Park.  I sigh as they sashay from one glamorous place to another or, on a lark, find the local hidden bohemian jazz club where they dance and drink the night away.    

It does make me wonder if any of these people worked and, if they did, how they functioned on all that alcohol?  Look at how Nick Charles always solved the murder in "The Thin Man" series.  And did you notice how they all still looked fabulous after consuming so much?  Just wondering…

Still, I've always loved the Hollywood fantasy of the more whimsical aspects of Manhattan.  Since I no longer live there and am not required to deal with the more mundane aspects of the city, I’ll take the fantasy.  Maybe that’s why I was attracted to Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, a story of how the glittering life in 1938 New York changed the lives of a circle of friends. 

The tale is revealed by Katey Kontent.  She is a smart, sharp gal in her mid-twenties who lives in a women’s boarding house in lower Manhattan and rooms with the beautiful Eve, a well-off party girl from the Midwest.   It is New Year’s Eve, 1937, and the girls meet Tinker Grey, the good looking, well-to-do, well educated son of old money who works for a bank on Wall Street and three hit it off. 

Soon after, a car accident throws everyone into a spin and there begins the story of 1938.

A few other interesting characters enhance the story.  There’s Widow Anne Grandyn, an old friend of Tinker’s mother and a kind of godmother to him who Katey runs into at key moments throughout the year.  You just know there is more to her than meets the eye.  Then there is Wallace, a quiet, somewhat shy, wealthy man, who is Tinker’s old schoolmate.  He is a gentle sort who balances some of the brashness of the other characters.  

We romp through 1938 New York with Katey while she runs with both the high society crowd and the bohemians.  Somehow, Katey still pursues her career dreams.  Though she takes some big chances, she is able to use her quick wit to get ahead.  But not without learning some of life’s more challenging lessons.  

This story of character and class comes complete with hidden agendas and duplicity.  And then there's Tinker Grey.  Just how many playboys do you know who read Thoreau?

Still, I enjoyed it immensely.  New York sparkled and there was enough of the fairy tale for me to overlook the faded allure. 

So, I’ll take 1930’s Manhattan for $1000, Alex…


Monday, November 7, 2011

Bedtime Stories

Last week my book club met to discuss Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.  Since it was my suggestion, it was also my turn to facilitate.  As always, the ladies had strong opinions, some hating it, most just thinking it was a bit slow and boring.  We all agreed that it certainly wasn’t one of his best books; we thought Women in Love or Sons and Lovers were both much better.  Though it is better known for its notoriety, the story rambles on about the class system and the industrialization of Great Britain.  The characters were fairly weak and one-dimensional; we never got to know them well enough to like them. 

Most surprising was the controversy that surrounded this book and the worldwide obscenity trials it spurred in the late fifties/early sixties; frankly, the trials were way more interesting than the author’s idea of passionate sex.  The book club ladies didn’t think much of Lawrence’s version of what women think about or want in that area.  Certainly, at the time this was written, what was considered obscene is much different from what it is now.  Even so, others, like Henry Miller, were writing far more interesting sex scenes than what Lawrence put out.  Keeping in mind that my Dad occasionally reads this blog, all I can say is you got it wrong DH! 

Did I happen to mention that this book was recommended to me by a male friend; I guess I’ll have to cut him a break since he probably hasn’t read it in 40 years.  Besides, how would I know enough to have an opinion if I hadn’t read it? 
One does wonder what those same censors would think about some of the offerings around today.  The current popular fiction for women (aka soft porn) generally falls into two broad categories, hunky vampires and hunky eighteenth century Scottish warriors, with the occasional werewolf thrown into the mix.  

Hmm, that does make me wonder what that says about us.  

J.R. Ward writes the Black Dagger Brotherhood series which starts with Dark Lover.  Lots of large gorgeous vampires who find and fall in love with equally gorgeous mates; when not battling evil, they seem to be having lots of intense (and well written) sex.  For the Scots, we have Diana Gabaldon.  Her Outlander series focuses on Claire, a twentieth century doctor and her eighteenth century Highlander warrior, Jamie, during very turbulent times in history.  While the sex in the Outlander series is not quite as graphic as it is in the JR Ward’s series, Gabaldon still seems to get it right.   

Isn't it curious that both series were written by women and both get it better than DH Lawrence did?  I’d say something but then, as I mentioned, my Dad could be reading this. 

Though is a large hunky vampire god what women really want?  Somehow I doubt it.  I think most woman really just want a nice guy they enjoy spending time with, both in and out of bed; someone with a kind heart and a good sense of humor.  And, well, if he could communicate too, that would be cool.    

Still, the hunky warriors are a fun read, certainly more fun than Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  And isn't that what we all want in a good bedtime story?


Monday, October 31, 2011

Its Halloween and All Is Paranormal

It is a dark and stormy night…well, not really.  At the moment the sky is blue and it is a beautiful sunny day.  Though, this being the Northwest, that’s not for long as we quickly move into our gloomy season.  Perhaps that’s the reason so many paranormal novels are set here; lots of darkness this time of year.  But it does make one wonder what all those vampires do once we hit the late spring/early summer with our very abundant daylight? Just saying. 

However, it is the perfect time of year to talk about the Greywalker series by Kat Richardson.  Apparently there is a lot of shadowy paranormal stuff going on in the Emerald City.  The first book, Greywalker, is where we meet Harper Blaine, a private investigator who is brutally attacked in the opening pages.  While in the ER, she dies for a couple of minutes before being brought back to life.  As Harper recovers, she realizes that she’s seeing things that nobody else is seeing, like ghosts and other supernaturals walking around an old section of Seattle; unfortunately, they're seeing her as well.  What she comes to know is that she is seeing the Grey, the world between our world and the next and that she is now a Greywalker, one who can move between this world and the Grey. 

Once the supernatural world realizes she is aware of them, they look to her for help.  Harper has to quickly learn not only how to deal with this unasked for ability, she has to learn how to deal with clients who aren’t necessarily alive, like perhaps an angry ghost or a newly minted vampire, who was until recently, a student at the U.  Assisting are some pretty interesting characters which include, among others, a scary necromancer, a powerful witch and a few ambitious vampires.  Oh, and this being Seattle, there is also one very talented computer geek; he has a few secrets of his own.  

This series has a little more depth than some of the others in the same genre.  The author has done some extensive research.  Though Seattle is new compared to the East Coast, it still does have quite a bit of history with lots of fodder for a good storyteller.  Some of the details are a bit massaged or stretched to fit the story, but there’s enough that is true to make for an interesting history lesson.   

After reading the third book, Underground, I even felt inclined to learn a little more about the history of the Seattle underground as well as some other tidbits she mentions, like a particular unsavory character during Prohibition.  Plus, since this book was actually set locally in a recent year, it almost made the story feel a little more real because I remembered the extreme cold of that particular winter referenced.

Harper Blaine is a reluctant and sometimes flawed heroine, but she is a heroine all the same.  Her magic and that of her helpers is all that is between us and the monsters that go bump in the night.  So far she’s been successful in her battles.  Yet you wonder if she will continue to be, and if so, at what cost?

Tonight being Halloween makes for the perfect setting to start the sixth book in the series, Downpour.  Who knows who or what will show up at my door tonight…Then again, will my front door keep them out?


Monday, October 24, 2011

One For The Boys

Last spring, I visited an old friend and when I asked what to bring, he said he’d love a few good books.  We always had that in common so I thought it would be easy.  As I looked through what I had been reading recently, I realized that many of those books were geared towards women.  That’s not too surprising since I happen to be female.  Plus, many of my female friends tend to be the ones who recommend books.  So I had to search a bit to find a few that might appeal.  

I stumbled on an epic adventure series I had read.  The first book in this young adult series, Eragon, by Christopher Paolini, seemed a good candidate.  My friend, like a lot of men, is not a man of many words.  But given that this was the first book he picked up and was then so thoroughly engrossed in, I suspect I hit the mark.  Perhaps, even, a little too well.  Though I do have to admit that this is certainly a fun read.   

The story is about a young man, Eragon, who stumbles across a beautiful stone, which he soon realizes is no ordinary stone.  It is in fact, an egg, from which a dragon, named Saphira, is born.  Trying to hide a dragon is not an easy feat and it isn’t long before the evil empire notices the disturbance in the force…I wonder, can I use a Star Wars reference here or is that just like mixing metaphors?  In any case, the evil ones, the King and his attendants, the Ra’zac, are after the pair.  Eragon and Saphira must flee their home and take with them a mysterious old man from the village; which turns out to be a good thing.  Brom, who is much more than he seems, teaches Eragon the basics of being a dragon rider and about the others who may be able to help him in his quest to take down the evil King.  

Lots of mystical creatures abound.  There are the scary and brutal Kull, the large fighting creatures who help the bad guys, along with the even scarier Shades, who take evil to a new level.  On the good side, among others, there are elves and dwarves, but the different factions do seem have some trust issues.  There is Murtagh, the new friend who helps Eragon out of a jam, who also appears to have a secret or two.  Even the magicians come in both flavors, evil and not.  Mostly we learn that much is not what it seems. 

Personally, I loved the adventure of it all and cheered with Eragon when he triumphed and felt his pain when he did not.  This is one to share with the boys, even if those boys haven't seen their youth in a while.  It is also for anyone who loves a good epic fantasy, especially those, who like me, were weaned on Tolkien.  

Eragon is the first book in a series of four.  I’ve read the first three, but there are so many characters and story lines that I decided to re-read the books to have a fresh perspective.  So far, I’ve made it through the first two, Eragon and Eldest, and I’m about to begin the third book, Brisingr.  The fourth, Inheritance, will be released this November.  Unfortunately, I am currently number 427 on the 97 copies my library has ordered.  That's okay; given the length of the third book, I’m kind of glad I have a little time to read it before the next one comes in.

In the meantime, I’m off to fly with my dragons, both real and imagined.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Old Friends

Old friends and old times have been on my radar these last few days.  How does that saying go?  Something like it was the best of times; it was the worst of times, etc.  What it was, was college, which was a microcosm of society where random people are thrown together for a few years and for us, that time was the mid to late 70’s.  My class was part of the in-between group; not the rabble rousers a few years before us, or the more conservative crowd that followed us once the pendulum started to swing back.  What was most memorable about us is that we had fun.  Oh yea, and somehow we still managed to get a terrific education.  Now, from this slightly older angle, it has been quite fun to chat about our various least what we actually do remember! 

Speaking of old friends, I was happy to see that the latest book from one of my favorite series was available at the library this weekend; The Pirate King by Laurie R King.  An old friend indeed, given that this is the eleventh book I’ve read in the series.  In this latest book, the stars of the show include pirates, the film industry in its infancy, a few insane actors and directors in addition to what appears to be a Portuguese poet with multiple personalities.  Like reminiscing with my old college buddies, it has been great fun.  How it ends is anyone's guess!

It all began with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, set in 1915 with the character of Mary Russell as the young protagonist and continued through to the current one, set in 1924.  Just who is this beekeeper she is an apprentice to?  None other than Sherlock Holmes himself!  Though she is quite young in the first book, she is a quick study for the elder statesman of mystery.  Together, they get into all sorts of trouble while they solve the great crimes of the time. 

The novels do touch on some of the history of the time, like WWI, as well as some of the social issues, like women’s rights, but essentially they are mostly entertainment; a nice comfortable read.  Like those days when all the things you have to do are done, you’re sitting in your favorite reading chair with a nice cup of tea at hand, something warm and inviting is simmering on the stove and perhaps there’s even a little low key jazz playing in the background.  That’s what these books are to me; a lovely foray into the world of Holmes and Russell. 

There's a little fun, a little intrigue, a crime or two and of course, some Sherlock thrown in for good measure.  And I do love all things Sherlock!  I love the old traditional Sherlock, I love the modern day Sherlock, recently shown on PBS, complete with texting, and I even love the Robert Downey Jr. version that’s been out in the theaters. You know I had to stop by the Sherlock museum in London when I was there.  How could I not?  All this for a fictional character!

In this book series, though his presence is still felt, Sherlock is the secondary character.  Mary Russell is the main character and she's pretty complex and a good match for him.  I went to the author’s website to see what she had to say.  Her take is that Mary is who Holmes would be if he were young, female, and of the twentieth century.  Mary’s character is a resilient woman who doesn’t pay much attention when told what she can’t do.  She just forges ahead in her own way.  

The fact that she knows how to pick locks doesn’t hurt.