Friday, July 30, 2010

What Would You Recommend? - Roman Era Historical Fiction

This is a question I get asked all the time working in the bookstore: "What would you recommend for somebody who loved "_________"? (fill in the blank)" Usually I can come up with something, but that something can be a bit of a wild guess if it's not a book or genre I normally read. This is where you helpful people come in. If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it.

This week I'm asking about an area in which I've rather fallen behind lately: Historical fiction set in the Roman era. Recently I've been seeing quite a few new-to-me titles and authors. I've read and enjoyed Taylor Caldwell's A Pillar of Iron about the life of Cicero, some of Colleen McCulloch's books, namely The First Man In Rome and all of the Skystone series by Jack Whyte.

But, I know there are a lot of others out there as well: Conn Iggulden has a series of books set in Rome as well as his Mongolian books. Simon Scarrow has a couple as well, and I've seen others on the shelf too:  Ben Kane and some other authors whose names have slipped my mind for the moment, though I could probably walk right up to the shelves at work and find them that way.

Are there any I've missed here, and which are your favorites? Suggestions are always welcome, both for me to pass on to customers, and for my own reading enjoyment.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chronicle Of The Abbey Of Bury St. Edmunds - Jocelin of Brakelond

Chronicle Of The Abbey Of Bury St. Edmunds
Jocelin Of Brakelond
Trans. Diana Greenway & Jane Sayers
Oxford University Press
Copyright: 1989

The product description:
This narrative of events between the years 1173 and 1202--as recorded by Jocelin of Brakelond, a monk who lived in the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, in the region of West Suffolk--affords many unique insights into the life of a medieval religious community. It depicts the daily worship in the abbey church and the beliefs and values shared by the monks, as well as the whispered conversations, rumors, and disagreements within the cloister--and the bustling life of the market-town of Bury, just outside the abbey walls. This edition offers the first modern translation from the Latin to appear since 1949.
 The Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds is not a long document, coming in at a hundred and fifty-two pages including the endnotes, but it makes for interesting reading. The book covers daily life in the abbey - gossip, political maneuvering, discipline, dispute and more between the years of 1173 and 1202. There are minor disasters described: Fires and debt are recurring problems - debt especially, and also triumphs.

I'd never thought that religious life could be that politicized, nor really realized just how much secular power the abbeys held in that period: More a feudal lord than anything. Knights, taxes, courts, the abbey at Bury St. Edmunds held all of these, and the Abbot held direct converse with the King more than once.

This translation reads quite easily, being rather relaxed and informal in the language. I quite liked it. Not boring in the least.

I read the Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds for my own interest, but also for the Pre-Printing Press Challenge and the Tournament of Reading.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collins
Copyright: 2009

The product description:
Against all odds, Katniss Everdeen has won the annual Hunger Games with fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark. But it was a victory won by defiance of the Capitol and their harsh rules. Katniss and Peeta should be happy. After all, they have just won for themselves and their families a life of safety and plenty. But there are rumors of rebellion among the subjects, and Katniss and Peeta, to their horror, are the faces of that rebellion. The Capitol is angry. The Capitol wants revenge.
Catching Fire is the sequel to The Hunger Games, which I read last week. To be honest, although the second half of the book was incredible (I missed the bus twice, because I couldn't put it down), the first half didn't catch me the same way The Hunger Games did. It seems, I guess, to be more of a "middle book" than the first book did. The ending isn't good or bad. In fact, it doesn't seem to resolve anything at all. Of course, that's because there's Mockingjay coming out next month. Catching Fire has left plenty of story for the third book in the series.

This book (and The Hunger Games, for that matter) is not for younger teens. The violence of the story is not sugar-coated in any way. It's not sexual activity that's the problem in this book, like it is in some others, it's the violence - all of which is absolutely integral to the story. Panem is not a nice world. Which is something anyone who's read The Hunger Games already would know. Starvation, fear and violence are commonplace things in this world. And yet, it's a captivating world to read about.

I can't wait for the third book to come out next month, and I can really understand why this series is such a hit with readers.

Bold Visions: A Digital Painting Bible - Gary Tonge

Bold Visions: A Digital Painting Bible
Gary Tonge
Copyright: 2008

The product description:
This comprehensive and up-to-date guide to the rapidly expanding area of digital painting features beautifully displayed finished works of art alongside practical demonstrations. Artists will learn to create a wide range of subject matter from futuristic spacescapes and revolutionary vehicles to medieval landscapes and beautiful maidens. An in-depth materials section introduces all the equipment you are likely to need, from computer hardware and software to more traditional art media. A detailed basic techniques section caters to both newcomers to the digital medium and those who wish to brush up on their skills.
I bought this book at some point last year, after sneaking peeks at it in the store for a week or so. Back then, it was inspiring, and intimidating to read. Reading it again this past week changed it to just inspiring. The art in here is geared more towards fantasy and science fiction images than reality, but there's plenty of information that would be useful to any and all digital media artists.

I think what changed my feelings on the book is that I subscribed to the Digital Artist magazine in January, when it first came out. Now, I have a better idea of what the author of Bold Visions is going for in his tutorials. Gary Tonge uses the same style for the tutorials of step by step. Now, I'm just more used to it.

He goes over things like perspective, detailing, lighting and color, all in marvelously illustrated tutorials. I have to admit, it was the art that drew me to this book in the first place, and that was just as impressive on this read as well.

The software this book is geared towards is mostly Photoshop, but also Corel Painter can be used, not to mention some form of 3D software. The author mentions Maya, but I know there are others out there too.

I mentioned the Digital Artist magazine earlier, and that was because I think this book is almost made to go with that magazine, despite the fact that the one is about two years older than the other. The two just interlink so well.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mailbox Monday - July 26th

Mailbox Monday is hosted each week over at The Printed Page. Marcia, the owner of The Printed Page warns that: "Mailbox Monday can lead to envy, toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists." She's right, too.

Anyway, this past week I bought:
Wolf of the Plains
Conn Iggulden

The product description:
From the co-author of The Dangerous Book for Boys, comes the first in the widely anticipated Conqueror series featuring Genghis Khan and his descendants. A remarkable story of heroism and adventure, of a boy who had to become a man too soon, of a family and a tribe who had to learn to win to survive. A man without a tribe was at great risk, so the young boy abandoned with his siblings on the harsh Mongolian plains had to struggle to avoid death. He survived both starvation and hostile attacks by learning remarkable leadership skills and gathering a group of outsiders like himself. Hunted and alone, he dreamed of uniting the tribes into one house, one nation. He became a great warrior. He would become father to his people. He would be Genghis Khan.

Lords of the Bow
Conn Iggulden

The product description:
The gathering of the tribes of the Mongols has been a long time in coming but finally, triumphantly, Temujin of the Wolves, Genghis Khan, is given the full accolade of the overall leader and their oaths. Now he can begin to meld all the previously warring people into one army, one nation. But the task Genghis has set himself and them is formidable. He is determined to travel to the land of the long-time enemy, the Chin and attack them there. The distances and terrain-the wide deserts, the impenetrable mountains-make it a difficult venture even for the legendary Mongolian speed of movement, but the greatest problem is that of the complex fortifications, a way of fighting wars of a settled urban population which the nomadic Mongolians had never come across. Finding ways to tackle that and keeping his tribes together in a strange environment presents another new and exciting challenge for Genghis Khan.

Not only must Genghis succeed in this incredible campaign, but he must also reconcile the restless factions among his own generals, mediate between his ambitious brothers and cope with his own reactions to his growing sons. The young warrior has become a notable and victorious military commander of thousands: he must now learn to become a great leader of peoples of many different races and religions.

Lords of the Bow is a deeply satisfying novel. It is epic in scope, convincing, and fascinating in the narration of an extraordinary story. Above all Genghis Khan continues to dominate the scene as he matures from the young boy of Wolf of the Plains to the great Conqueror.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Shadow Grail #1: Legacies - Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill

The Shadow Grail #1: Legacies
Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill
Tor Books
Copyright Date: July 6, 2010

The product description:
Who—or what—is stalking the students at Oakhurst Academy?
In the wake of the accident that killed her family, Spirit White is spirited away to Oakhurst Academy, a combination school and orphanage in the middle of Montana. There she learns she is a legacy—not only to the school, which her parents also attended, but to magic.
All the students at Oakhurst have magical powers, and although Spirit’s hasn’t manifested itself yet, the administrators insist she has one. Spirit isn’t sure she cares. Devastated by the loss of her family, she finds comfort with a group of friends: Burke Hallows, Lachlann Spears, Muirin Shae, and Adelaide Lake.
But something strange is going on at Oakhurst. Students start disappearing under mysterious circumstances, and the school seems to be trying to cover it up. Spirit and her friends must find out what’s happening—before one of them becomes the next victim…
Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill have teamed up before to write some very good books in the same world as the SERRAted Edge series, so I knew this was likely to be a good story. It was, although a rather short one, I found. I bought the book yesterday afternoon and finished it last night.

It's an interesting story, but the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable the school at Oakhurst makes me in terms of the amount of control the school has over its students. And, it seems to me that the students probably aren't going to be that well prepared for life in the regular world. Still, it's a good story, and a promising start to a new series. I'm not sure where the series title, The Shadow Grail, comes from yet, but perhaps we'll find out in the next book when it comes out. According to the excerpt in the back of this one, it seems to pick up right where Legacies leaves off.

Legacies is definitely a teen oriented book, and would probably appeal to fans of the P.C. Cast House of Night series and similar books. Older readers will probably still like it too - I did, even though I don't generally like books set in high school - even fantasy high schools.

I'm definitely looking forward to the next book in this series, whatever it is going to be called, and whenever it's due out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Read 100 Books in a Year Challenge

At the beginning of the year I signed up for the Read 100+ Books in a year challenge. My list for keeping track is here. I just counted everything up out of curiosity and WOW! I've already read a hundred books this year! And, I've reviewed most of them too. Last year in the whole year I only managed something like a hundred and twenty books. Maybe I'll get to two hundred by the end of December.

Anyway, it's a bit of a milestone I think.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? - July 19

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted each week over at One Person's Journey Through A World Of Books. I find that the meme really helps me keep track of my reading each week, and set some goals too.

Last week I read:
Hand of Isis by Jo Graham: Historical fantasy about Cleopatra and one of my favorite books.

Think of a Number by John Verdon: Mystery/thriller novel.

The Key of the Keplian by Andre Norton: fantasy. The first Witch World novel I read years ago.

The First Amendement by Ashley McConnell. Stargate SG1 novel.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: YA fiction.

I'm reading:
Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I have no idea what I want to read this week after that.

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press
Copyright: 2008

The product description:
Katniss is a 16-year-old girl living with her mother and younger sister in the poorest district of Panem, the remains of what used be the United States. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, "The Hunger Games." The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed. When Kat's sister is chosen by lottery, Kat steps up to go in her place.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a book that got a lot of press when it first came out. Even Time Magazine had an article about both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the sequel At the time, I wasn't interested in reading it, but now the release of the third book, Mockingjay is getting closer, I thought I should give it a try.

I'm glad I did. The book almost defies words. It's dark, violent and nasty, but the characters are what really makes the story fly. Katniss' motivations make sense to me as a reader all the way through the story. But one of the things I really liked about the story was that it didn't have an overall message or moral like some of the other teen/kids books I've read lately.

The story just caught me up within the first pages. I started reading The Hunger Games while I was at work, and finished the book the same night. I just couldn't put the book down until it was done. It's not a long read, I'll admit, but everything the story really needed was there. I think it would have been nice to have some more background on what caused the world to become the one we see in the story, but that might have slowed the pace of the book down too much. Things are pretty clear as they are.

And it's not a world I'd want to live in! Rampant starvation, governmental controls, and then the Hunger Games themselves. It actually reminds me of the short story The Lottery that I had to read for English class years ago.

I'm now on to Catching Fire, and waiting for the third book.

Mailbox Monday - July 19

Mailbox Monday is a weekly meme hosted over at The Printed Page. Although it's said to lead to envy and toppling book piles, you won't find much of that here this week.

I only got two books this week, both to help me with my other blog: Kitchen Misadventures.

The Wordpress Bible by Aaron Brazell and Smashing Wordpress: Beyond the Blog.

Hand of Isis - Jo Graham

Hand of Isis
Jo Graham
Copyright Date: 2009

The jacket blurb:
Set in ancient Egypt, Hand of Isis is the story of Charmian, a handmaiden, and her two sisters. It is a novel of lovers who transcend death, of gods who meddle in mortal affairs, and of women who guide empires.
I read and reviewed this book last year and absolutely loved it then. My opinion hasn't changed any since. Charmian's story is also Cleopatra's story, and Jo Graham has written it in such a way that even though we all know how it ends, we wish it could be otherwise. Hand of Isis is not exactly a happy story, given that fact, and there is a sense of inevitability about the events as they happen, but at the same time, it's such a beautiful and evocative one.

The last time I read this book, I hadn't read either of the others: The Black Ships and Stealing Fire. Both of those are set before the events in Hand of Isis, and due to the theme of reincarnation, Hand of Isis does make a number of references to the events in the previous two books: Stealing Fire, especially. Regardless, this book can be read on its own and make full sense. But, I've found this time that the knowledge of the events of Stealing Fire just makes Hand of Isis even better.

I know I've commented on this before, but I really love the cover for the trade paperback edition (shown at the top of this post) as compared to the new mass market edition to the left. I'm honestly not sure if I would have picked the book up with this cover, given that it was an impulse buy that made its way into my hands on the strength of the cover. This cover just makes me think of the "vintage" sf/fantasy covers of the 1970's and 1980's. The trade paperback cover has an air of mystery and sadness to it, not to mention the resonances of artists such as Turner who've done some classic maritime paintings.

Regardless of the cover though, I can't recommend Hand of Isis enough. If you liked Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, give this book a try. If you like historical fantasy, give this book a try. If you like stories of ancient Egypt, give this book a try. Just, give Hand of Isis a try. I can't say enough good things about the story.

Think Of A Number - John Verdon

Think Of A Number
John Verdon
Crown Publishing
Copyright: July 2010

The product description:
An extraordinary fiction debut, Think of a Number is an exquisitely plotted novel of suspense that grows relentlessly darker and more frightening as its pace accelerates, forcing its deeply troubled characters to moments of startling self-revelation.

Arriving in the mail over a period of weeks are taunting letters that end with a simple declaration, “Think of any number…picture it…now see how well I know your secrets.”  Amazingly, those who comply find that the letter writer has predicted their random choice exactly.  For Dave Gurney, just retired as the NYPD’s top homicide investigator and forging a new life with his wife, Madeleine, in upstate New York, the letters are oddities that begin as a diverting puzzle but quickly ignite a massive serial murder investigation.

What police are confronted with is a completely baffling killer, one who is fond of rhymes filled with threats and warnings, whose attention to detail is unprecedented, and who has an uncanny knack for disappearing into thin air.  Even more disturbing, the scale of his ambition seems to widen as events unfold.

Brought in as an investigative consultant, Dave Gurney soon accomplishes deductive breakthroughs that leave local police in awe.  Yet, even as he matches wits with his seemingly clairvoyant opponent, Gurney’s tragedy-marred past rises up to haunt him, his marriage approaches a dangerous precipice, and finally, a dark, cold fear builds that he’s met an adversary who can’t be stopped.

In the end, fighting to keep his bearings amid a whirlwind of menace and destruction, Gurney sees the truth of what he’s become – what we all become when guilty memories fester – and how his wife Madeleine’s clear-eyed advice may be the only answer that makes sense.

A work that defies easy labels -- at once a propulsive masterpiece of suspense and an absorbing immersion in the lives of characters so real we seem to hear their heartbeats – Think of a Number is a novel you’ll not soon forget. 
To be honest, Think of a Number is not my usual reading material, being a mystery/thriller type of novel, where I usually read history, historical fiction, and science fiction/fantasy. I was asked to read the book by one of the managers at work. Surprisingly, I'm glad he did ask, as I quite enjoyed the read - and I wouldn't have read it otherwise, I suspect.

There are some things about the book that I think were a bit over the top (such as the cluelessness of some of the detectives: I still can't believe that someone doesn't know the saying "like a bull in a china shop" (not quite a direct quote)).

Regardless of all that, the book was one I found hard to put down until it was finished - full of surprising twists and a rather creepy bad guy - who's not who you might think it is. The story is as much in the motivations of the characters, both Dave Gurney and the murder as it is in the solving of the crimes. It's very dramatically written too.

I suspect that the book will end up as a movie, and think it would do very well as one too - though I have not even the slightest guess to casting. I also wonder if there's going to be any more books, making Think Of A Number into a series.

John Verdon has done a very good job with this, his first novel, and I wish him luck with any future enterprises as well. Think Of A Number is a book for any mystery/thriller lover.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The First Amendment - Ashley McConnell

Stargate SG1 the First Amendment
Ashley McConnell
Copyright Date: 2000
The jacket description:
The right to know...

From the very beginning, the success of the Stargate project hinged on one vital factor - absolute secrecy. The world remains ignorant of the Goa'uld and the war being waged in space, and that's just the way the Stargate command wants it. But their secret may not stay that way for long...

A young reporter has been smuggled into the most restricted area of the Cheyenne Mountain base. He's witnessed the Stargate in action, and wants answers. But he'll get much more than a headline when Colonel Jack O'Neill and his team decide to show him exactly how dangerous the universe can be...
I read this book for the first time last month just after I got hooked on the Stargate SG1 T.V. series and my original review is here. I'm now into watching the second season (finished watching Message in a Bottle this morning), and everything I said about the book last time still holds true.

The book is lots of fun and seems to remain true to the characters as I see them on the show. I rather suspect it's set early in the series too, but I'm not quite sure of when. Either way, I definitely enjoyed reading it, and the story was just as good the second time. I've gone and ordered McConnell's other Stargate novels as well. Here's hoping they're just as good as this one. I'm going to have to double-check and see if I have her Highlander one already too.

Short, I know, but so's the book, and I don't want to give anything away.

The Fairy Godmother - Mercedes Lackey

The Fairy Godmother
Mercedes Lackey
Luna Books
Copyright: 2004

The product description:
From the bestselling author of the Heralds of Valdemar series comes an enchanting new novel.
In the land of Five Hundred Kingdoms, if you can't carry out your legendary role, life is no fairy tale . . .
Elena Klovis was supposed to be her kingdom's Cinderella -- until an accident of fate left her with a completely inappropriate prince! Determined not to remain with her stepfamily, Elena set out to get a new job -- and ended up becoming the Fairy Godmother for the land.
But "Breaking with Tradition" was no easy matter. True, she didn't have to sleep in the chimney, but she had to deal with arrogant, stuffed-shirt princes who kept trying to rise above their place in the tale. In fact, one of them was so ornery that Elena could do nothing but change him into a donkey.
Still, her practical nature couldn't let him roam the country, so she brought the donkey -- er, the prince! -- home to her cottage to teach him some lessons. All the while keeping in mind that breaking with tradition can land everyone into a kettle of fish -- sometimes literally!
And so begins a whole new tale . . .
The Fairy Godmother is the first book in the world of the Five Hundred Kingdoms - a world where fairy tales really do happen and everything is done according to Tradition. Other books in the series include The Snow Queen and The Sleeping Beauty.

Because this is the first book in the series, more time is put into explaining the concepts of the Tradition, Fairy Godmothers and the like than is in the other books. It's a good thing though, and all part of the fun of the read. I'm almost inclined to consider The Fairy Godmother to be the best book in the series to date, although I think they're all good.

Mercedes Lackey has a knack for these retellings of fairytales which makes them lots of fun to read - whether or not you know the fairytale she's playing with. In The Fairy Godmother and most of the other stories in this series, she's chosen to use a very different perspective on the story: that of the fairy godmother - that figure who is always there with a piece of advice or whatnot, but never actually plays an active role in the story. Not in these stories! Here, they're the key movers of the story, as well as viewpoint characters. Not only that, but they can come up with some very interesting twists to add to the story too. All in the name of a happy ending of course.

I've read The Fairy Godmother before a couple of times and enjoyed the book a lot every time. If you're looking for a piece of light, good fun, with a happy ending, this might just be the book for you.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Snow Queen - Mercedes Lackey

The Snow Queen
Mercedes Lackey
Luna Books
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 9780373802654

The product description:
Aleksia, Queen of the Northern Lights, is mysterious, beautiful and widely known to have a heart of ice. But when she's falsely accused of unleashing evil on nearby villages, she realizes there's an impostor out there far more heartless than she could ever be.

And when a young warrior disappears, Aleksia's powers are needed as never before.

Now, on a journey through a realm of perpetual winter, it will take all her skills, a mother's faith and a little magic to face down an enemy more formidable than any she has ever known…. 
I originally read The Snow Queen way back in 2008 when it first came out in hardcover, and the review to prove it is here. As part of the Five Hundred Kindoms series, this book is something a bit closer to romance than fantasy, at least in that the main characters are all guaranteed to "live happily ever after". And yes, that Traditional ending is perfectly apropriate here. All of the books in this series are based on fairy tales, both European and otherwise.

Based on, but not always the same. Not to mention that Mercedes Lackey has been quite free at mixing up the fairy tales she uses. This one's based around the tales of the Snow Queen, which I have to admit are ones I'm not overly familiar with, but at the same time, the author seems to have mixed in the legends of what appear to be the lapplanders, if my guess is correct. You don't have to know every one of the tales used to enjoy the story though. I don't, although it can be fun to identify where the elements of the story may have originated.

The Snow Queen is several books into the series, and it's somewhat assumed that you'll get some of the subtleties by now, although the basis of The Tradition is explained. Some of the references though are actually to previous books in the series. Not that you'll need to have read all of them, but it helps to have read one or two, especially the first book: The Fairy Godmother.

I've always found Mercedes Lackey's books to be good, fun, light reads. The Snow Queen is no exception to this.

Lady Knight - Tamora Pierce

Lady Knight
Tamora Pierce
Random House
Copyright: 2004

The product description:
Kel has finally achieved her lifelong dream of being a knight. But it’s not turning out as she imagined at all. She is torn between a duty she has sworn to uphold and a quest that she feels could turn the tide of war. . . .
This is a surprise! I was sure I'd reviewed Lady Knight before at least once, but it doesn't look like it. All of the other books in this series have at least one prior review on All Booked Up, but not Lady Knight. And it's not that I haven't read the book before, either. Guess it was one that just got left out thanks to a backlog of books to be reviewed.

Anyway, Lady Knight is the fourth book in the Protector Of The Small Quartet, following The First Test, Page, and Squire. The books are geared towards girls between the ages of nine and early teens in my opinion, although in my local bookstores they're found in the Teen section.

In this book, Kel has made it to her goal: she's successfully made it through training as both a page and a squire, and also survived the Ordeal. Now, her first command is to be in charge of a refugee camp, rather than on the front lines of the war. Is she being "protected" once again by people who don't thing women can be knights?

Add to that the way she feels as though she's under two conflicting sets of orders, both of which she has to obey: to stay and protect the camp and the people of it, and at the same time, to find the creator of the horrible weapons being sent against Tortall and stop him. How can she do both?

Honestly, I think this is the best of the four books in the series. It's certainly the most exciting, and at the same time, in spite of  the tension and drama, there are the moments of lightness and fun. These books may be written for the teen audience, but Tamora Pierce writes books that an audience of any age can enjoy.

Geisha: The Secret History Of A Vanishing World - Lesley Downer

Geisha: The Secret History Of A Vanishing World
Lesley Downer
Headline Books
Copyright: 2001

The product description:
Ever since Westerners arrived in Japan, we have been intrigued by geisha. This fascination has spawned a wealth of fictional creations from Madame Butterfly to Arthur Golden's "Memoirs of a Geisha". The reality of the geisha's existence has rarely been described. Contrary to popular opinion, geisha are not prostitutes but literally "arts people". Their accomplishments might include singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument but, above all, they are masters of the art of conversation, soothing worries of highly paid businessmen who can afford their attentions. The real secret history of the geisha is explored here.
 Bought and read as part of my latest enthusiasm of reading about the Orient. An enthusiasm I'll admit I've had at a lower level for a while - thus the reviews of Memoirs of a Geisha and Geisha: A Life last year.

Lesley Downer has a very easy style of writing: she captured my interest right away and kept me reading late into the night when I first got the book a couple of weeks ago, and then again when I picked it up once more last week. She's mixed in accounts of her own experiences in the pleasure quarters as she tried to learn about the Geisha and their lives. This is all blended in with the history she discovered, descriptions of their lives today, brief histories of various famous Geisha throughout Japanese history and guesses about the future of their traditions.

Definitely an eye-opening book that is also a faster read than it appears to be at first glance. If you liked Arthur Golden's novel, I'd bet you'd find Geisha: The Secret History Of A Vanishing World to be an interesting read as well.

Lesley Downer has also written fiction set in Japan as well, most notably (and recently) The Last Concubine, which I'd also like to read.

What Would You Recommend? - Think Of A Number

This is a question I get asked all the time working in the bookstore: "What would you recommend for somebody who loved "_________"? (fill in the blank)" Usually I can come up with something, but that something can be a bit of a wild guess if it's not a book or genre I normally read. This is where you helpful people come in. If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it.

Think of a Number is just flying off the shelves these days. In my mind it's a combination of mystery and thriller, but I don't normally read either. To be honest, I was asked to read Think of a Number at work last week, and I'm still working my way through the book. I am quite enjoying it though.

What I need to know now though, is what people who liked this book might like now. I'm already getting quite a few people saying they've already read Think of a Number and they really liked it, when I recommend it. I'm guessing that there might be some suggestions out in the blogsphere given the comments on my last It's Monday! What Are You Reading? post. Apparently, the book has been doing the rounds of the blogs in recent weeks.

Given that this is John Verdon's first book, I can't exactly recommend any of his other books yet :), so what would you recommend in this case?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Squire - Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce
Laurel Leaf Publishing
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 9780679889199

The product description:
At the age of 14 and standing five foot ten, Keladry of Mindelan is a squire. A squire serves and learns from a seasoned knight for four years, then faces a final test. That final test is the Ordeal, which takes place in a magical room called the Chamber. There, a squire encounters the parts of him- or herself that the Chamber deems the most difficult to face–be they fears, failings, or unrepented wicked deeds. Does Kel have what it takes to survive the Ordeal?

Squire is the third book in the Protector of the Small Quartet, and the sequel to Page. As with the previous books in the series, the book follows Kel through her training on her way to becoming a Knight. Now, she's made it to being a squire, but will she be chosen to serve a Knight?

It's somewhat amusing, the trend in this series: each of the books gets longer, which I think is a good thing. Of course, as Kel gets older, she's out doing more, so there's more to tell, resulting in a story that should be attractive to girls from about the age of nine through their early teens. On the other hand, I still am not overly enamored of the way the books are shaped around the message of "Girls can do anything just as well as boys". Not that it's not a message that needs to be heard, it's just that I feel like it overwhelms the story in this particular series. That might be as much because I'm outside of the target audience by a large amoun though.

This series is geared towards girls ages about ten and up, although the books are found in the Teen section of my local bookstore. Still, it's also a story that anyone can enjoy be they children or adults. I have to admit, the animals make the story as much as the people do. If that confuses you, you need to read the Immortals Quartet about Daine, which is set between the Lioness books and the Protector of the Small Quartet. Still, Jump is hillarious, the sparrows need to be seen to be believed, and Peachblossom, Kel's horse fits right in with the rest of her crazy group.

You wouldn't think that the animals are believable, but within the context of the story, they work. All of it works and fits, be it the foreign cultures overlayed on the world or the magic. It all works within rules that make it real and working within the world Tamora Pierce has created.

Monday, July 12, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? - July 12

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted each week over at One Person's Journey Through A World Of Books. This is the meme to keep yourself on track with your reading, if that's something you're interested in.

This week was a good one in terms of getting a lot of reading (or perhaps, I should say re-reading) done. Unfortunately, it was less so for getting the reviews written up on the books I read. I think I'm currently at about six books waiting for reviews.

Last week I read:
The First Test by Tamora Pierce: YA fantasy fiction.

Page by Tamora Pierce: YA fantasy fiction, the sequel to The First Test.

Squire by Tamora Pierce. The third book in the Protector of the Small Quartet, and the sequel to Page.

Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce. The sequel to Squire.

Geisha by Lesley Downer. Non fiction on the history of the Geisha. A very interesting read as it covers the last thousand years (give or take a century or two) right up to modern day.

The Snow Queen by Mercedes Lackey. Fantasy, part of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series.

The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey. The first book in the Five Hundred Kingdoms series.

What I'm reading right now:

Think of a Number by John Verdon. Mystery or Thriller, I'm not exactly sure what specifically. This isn't my normal reading material, but I'm enjoying it somewhat. I think this was on last week's list too.

Hand of Isis by Jo Graham. Historical fantasy about Cleopatra.

The World Cheese Book from DK Publishing. In the last couple of weeks I've gotten interested in trying various cheeses, so I thought this would be interesting. Bits of history, flavor notes etc. So far, it is. This book is a bit more geared to my other blog Kitchen Misadventures though, to be honest.

What I plan to read:
The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester. Non Fiction.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Page - Tamora Pierce

Tamora Pierce
Laurel Leaf Publishing
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 9780679889182

The product description:
Kel fights to maintain the rigorous regimen of a page while confronting the prejudices that come with being a female in a man’s world and coping with a crush on her closest friend, Neal.
“Pierce makes Kel sweat for her success through perseverance, hard work,
and skill. Readers will appreciate this true example of grrrl power.”
—School Library Journal 
Page is the second book in the Protector of the Small Quartet, following on The First Test, which I reviewed the other day. I've read and reviewed the book before, and that review is here.

Kel made it through her probationary year as a page in the first book and in this book, we follow her through the rest of her term as a page, right up to her final exams. We follow her through her training in both the arts of combat and of ettiquete, but also in her interactions with the other pages and squires - some of whom don't thing that girls can be pages, squires or knights.

An exciting read for any girl who likes fantasy novels from age nine through early teens. This book, along with the other books in the series are all to be found in the teen section of the bookstore, but these four in particular seem to be written more for the nine to twelve year olds. As such, I found it to be a rather short read, being able to finish the book along with The First Test in the same evening after work.

I do like this series, more or less, but as the School Library Journal points out in the product description: "Readers will appreciate this true example of grrrl power." That's exactly what I find to be written in too obviously. For me at least, the whole "Girls can do anything" message is laid on too heavily on the story. Still, it's a good read and one I'm probably going to end up reading again in the future.

Friday, July 9, 2010

What Would You Recommend? - A Good Summer Read?

This is a question I get asked all the time working in the bookstore: "What would you recommend for somebody who loved "_________"? (fill in the blank)" Usually I can come up with something, but that something can be a bit of a wild guess if it's not a book or genre I normally read. This is where you helpful people come in. If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it.

I know, it's a general question, but I'm getting a lot of people in the store looking for what they're calling "beach reads". It's also a good question for the beginning of summer, which is finally here, hot sun and all. Generally, as far as I've seen, the people looking for this sort of book are also interested in it's portability, so mass market or trade paperbacks are their preferences, rather than harcovers.

Now, here's where the searches start to differ. Some people are looking for the longer books they've been meaning to read - now they'll have time for them. Others are looking for simple, mindless enjoyment. I'm still seeing a lot of the Girl With A Dragon Tattoo and is sequels in peoples hands. I can't help but wonder if it fits the first category more, or the second.

This time, the question I'm asking is really two questions. There's the "what books would you recommend?" which is what I'm asking every week, but there's also "what was your favorite summer read?".

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The First Test - Tamora Pierce

The First Test
Tamora Pierce
Laurel Leaf Publishing
Copyright: 1999
ISBN: 9780679889175

The product description:
Keladry (known as Kel) is the first girl to take advantage of the decree that permits girls to train for the knighthood. The only thing that can stop her is Lord Wyldon, the training master of pages and squires. He does not think girls should be knights and puts her on probation for one year. It is a trial period that no male page has to endure and one that separates the friendly Kel even more from her fellow trainees. But Kel is not someone to underestimate. . . .

I wouldn't mind knowing how come I end up with a backlog of books to review every single time I read my way through The Protector Of The Small Quartet. In other words, this is definitely a reread and my original review is here.

The First Test is a very quick read, maybe a couple of hours at most, and in my opinion, even though it, along with the other books in the series can be found in the "teen" section of the bookstore, the story is geared more to the nine to twelve year old set.

This time as I was reading it, I was much more aware of the overlays of other cultures, particularly the Yammani, that Kel was familar with. Perhaps that's because I've been doing a bit more reading on Japan lately and that appears to be the culture that Tamora Pierce was modeling it off of. It's an interesting little thing that adds more depth to the books though, at least in my opinion.

One thing I don't care for in this series, and I know I've commented on it before with Tamora Pierce's other Tortall books is the "Girls can do anything" message. I know it's true, I know it's important for girls to know that, but I just feel that these books push it too hard, that the story is there to push the moral. Of course, a lot of that may be that I'm distinctly older than the target audience, who might not notice it as much. I just find it a bit "in your face", even though I still really like the books.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? - July 5

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted each Monday over at One Person's Journey Through A World Of Books. One of my favorite memes each week to be honest. I had to give it a miss last week for lack of internet access, so this week's post will cover both weeks.

The last couple of weeks has been fairly quiet for reading:
The Sleeping Beauty by Mercedes Lackey: the latest of the 500 Kingdoms series.

Snow Flower And The Secret Fan by Lisa See: an incredible story set in nineteenth century China.

Pride And Predjudice And Zombies: The Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. Fiction set in the early years of the nineteenth century in Japan.

What I'm reading right now:
Think of a Number by John Verdon. Murder mystery. Not my normal reading fare, but I was asked to read it. So far, I'm enjoying the book.

What I'd like to read:
Squire by Tamora Pierce

Lady Knight by Tamora Pierce

Hand of Isis by Jo Graham.

Pride And Predjudice And Zombies: The Dawn Of The Dreadfuls - Steve Hockensmith

Pride And Predjudice And Zombies: The Dawn Of The Dreadfuls
Steve Hockensmith
Quirk Books
Copyright: 2010

The product description:
Journey Back to Regency England—Land of the Undead!

Readers will witness the birth of a heroine in Dawn of the Dreadfuls a thrilling prequel set four years before the horrific events of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As our story opens, the Bennet sisters are enjoying a peaceful life in the English country side. They idle away the days reading, gardening, and daydreaming about future husbands until a funeral at the local parish goes strangely and horribly awry.

Suddenly corpses are springing from the soft earth and only one family can stop them. As the bodies pile up, we watch Elizabeth Bennet evolve from a naive young teenager into a savage slayer of the undead. Along the way, two men vie for her affections: Master Hawksworth is a powerful warrior who trains her to kill, while thoughtful Dr. Keckilpenny seeks to conquer the walking dead using science instead of strength. Will either man win the prize of Elizabeth's heart? Or will their hearts be feasted upon by hordes of marauding zombies? Complete with romance, action, comedy, and an army of shambling corpses, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls will have Jane Austen rolling in her grave and just might inspire her to crawl out of it! 
I never really expected to find myself really enjoying Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and I still don't fully understand the draw this whole type of book has these days. I know I posted on the topic once before last year: Zombies Vampires and Classics.

Anyway, I got a copy of this book at a book-fair opportunity I got through a work opportunity. So, I figured I'd give it a try. Pride And Predjudice And Zombies: The Dawn of the Dreadfuls was actually a pretty funny read. My copy was an ARC, so not all of the illustrations were there - in fact, they were represented by place-holders of the first image.

Yes, it's classed as horror, but the book wasn't too gruesome at all. As I said, I found it more funny than anything else. On the other hand, I've never read the original Pride and Predjudice by Jane Austen, so I can't say anything about some of the reviews I've seen on how these books have destroyed the characters. On the other hand, I went in with no preconceptions or expectations and as a result, I found myself pleasantly surprised.

The book is called "Dawn of the Dreadfuls" suggesting it might explain where the zombies might have come from, but it didn't do that at all. Instead, it sets up a resurgence of the zombie menace, hinting that there might be something even earlier that could be told.

A funny read that might even lead to my reading the mayhem that started the whole thing off in the future. Maybe. Still, this was a book I enjoyed reading.

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet - David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet
David Mitchell
Random House
Copyright: 2010

The product description:
In 2007, Time magazine named him one of the most influential novelists in the world. He has twice been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The New York Times Book Review called him simply “a genius.” Now David Mitchell lends fresh credence to The Guardian’s claim that “each of his books seems entirely different from that which preceded it.” The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a stunning departure for this brilliant, restless, and wildly ambitious author, a giant leap forward by even his own high standards. A bold and epic novel of a rarely visited point in history, it is a work as exquisitely rendered as it is irresistibly readable.

The year is 1799, the place Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor, the “high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island” that is the Japanese Empire’s single port and sole window onto the world, designed to keep the West at bay; the farthest outpost of the war-ravaged Dutch East Indies Company; and a de facto prison for the dozen foreigners permitted to live and work there. To this place of devious merchants, deceitful interpreters, costly courtesans, earthquakes, and typhoons comes Jacob de Zoet, a devout and resourceful young clerk who has five years in the East to earn a fortune of sufficient size to win the hand of his wealthy fiancĂ©e back in Holland.

But Jacob’s original intentions are eclipsed after a chance encounter with Orito Aibagawa, the disfigured daughter of a samurai doctor and midwife to the city’s powerful magistrate. The borders between propriety, profit, and pleasure blur until Jacob finds his vision clouded, one rash promise made and then fatefully broken. The consequences will extend beyond Jacob’s worst imaginings.  As one cynical colleague asks, “Who ain’t a gambler in the glorious Orient, with his very life?”

A magnificent mix of luminous writing, prodigious research, and heedless imagination, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is the most impressive achievement of its eminent author. 
I got sent an ARC copy of this book from Random House through work a few days before it hit the bookshelves, but I only just finished reading it yesterday. The timing was rather amusing, as I've been on a bit of a Japan and the Orient kick in my reading lately, so this was a book I was glad to start reading right away. It was also the first book by David Mitchell that I've read.

The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet is one of those books where you're best off if you have long periods of time to read it and a chance to really focus on the characters and story. Otherwise, I found at least in my case that I was trying to figure out what was going on and what relation it had to the events of the story.

I found the story to be quite interesting, if unpredictable and the characters to be well developed and 'real'. I'm saying "unpredictable" for the story because every time I thought I could predict what kind of a story this was, I found that I was quite wrong. It's been over a day now, and I'm still trying to figure out if the ending of the book is a "happy ending" or not. In some ways it reads more like a memoir than a novel, but it's also the different threads of the story.

There's the main character, Jacob, but there are also a number of other viewpoint characters as well, such as Miss Abigawa and a lot of the other minor characters of the story. There were a few times when a new character was introduced abruptly that left me wondering who they were and why they were so important to the story, at least at that point.

I would like to say that David Mitchell has written a very well researched story in The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet, at least it feels right, but I know very little about this time-period, culture and region. However, it does match up with what I've read in the other books so far. There's certainly a wealth of little details, but they don't bog the story down any.

Overall, I have to say that this was a really good book, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to any lover of historical fiction.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Kings of the North Release Date

For those of us who love the world Elizabeth Moon has created in The Deed of Paksenarrion, and have been waiting for the sequel to Oath of Fealty, we now know exactly how much longer the wait is going to be. According to, Kings of the North is slated for release on March 22, 2011. I know I'm going to be waiting eagerly for it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

What Would You Recommend? - Tudor Era Fiction

This is a question I get asked all the time working in the bookstore: "What would you recommend for somebody who loved "_________"? (fill in the blank)" Usually I can come up with something, but that something can be a bit of a wild guess if it's not a book or genre I normally read. This is where you helpful people come in. If you have a suggestion, I'd love to hear it.

I'm asking about a big subject this week: historical fiction surrounding the Tudors. There's the numerous books by Phillipa Gregory of course, but there are so many others as well: Alison Weir, who's noted for her non-fiction biographies has two books out with a third coming later this year. There's Barbara Kyle, who has several novels as well, and there are so many others that I can't remember them all, much less make a real start on reading them.

Phillipa Gregory has a mixed reputation, I've heard: some people really like her books, but I've heard others who don't. Ditto for Alison Weir, although I figure that she at least would have her facts correct. I haven't heard anything about any of the others though.

So, what have you heard about the various novels on the Tudors, and which ones would you recommend, not limited to the ones mentioned here?


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