Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Prisoner of Heaven Review


I completely forgot that I bought this book over the summer until I was looking through my kindle and found it. Oops. I seriously have NO memory whatsoever of actually purchasing the novel but I checked my orders and turns out I did. Weird.

Anyway, I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon several years ago on my dad's recommendation. There aren't too many books that we share but this was one we both loved. I only read it once so I'm a little fuzzy on the details but I remember the book involving a young man named Daniel Sempere whose father owns a bookstore in Barcelona in the 1950s. Barcelona has only recently emerged from the Spanish Civil War and Franco's dictatorship. Those details form the background of the plot, which more than anything concerns Daniel's obsession with the author Julian Carax. Daniel's father takes him to a secret library called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Those who visit the library (a select few) are allowed to take a book home which they must protect their whole lives. Daniel takes home The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. But when he can't find any other books by this author and learns that a man has been seeking out Carax's books for decades and burning them, he sets out to discover why. What he and his friend Fermin learn is a gothic love story about Julian and his doomed love for a wealthy woman named Penelope. Daniel grows up over the course of the novel and ends up married to a young woman named Bea with whom he has a son, named Julian.

A few years later, Zafon published The Angel's Game, a prequel of sorts. I remember not liking this novel as much. It was pretty convoluted but it was cool to see Isabella, who later is Daniel's mother, the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and Sempere and Sons Bookstore. This book followed a writer named David Martin who is approached by a mysterious publisher who offers a book deal that comes leads to further mysteries. There was some fascinating commentary about religion in this book but overall it didn't intrigue me as much.

So this brings me to The Prisoner of Heaven. Daniel is married to Bea and is the father of Julian. He still works at the book store with his father and his friend Fermin Romero de Torres. In The Shadow of the Wind, Fermin revealed his history at having been imprisoned by spying on the Anarchists during the way. As a former government intelligence agent, Fermin was able to help Daniel a lot in the original book but was chased by Inspector Fumero who had originally put him in prison. The Prisoner of Heaven is really Fermin's book. It's mostly about how - near his wedding day - he is panicking over having no legal identity. He tells Daniel his story over most of the book. Interestingly, he is a prisoner in this castle along with David Martin, the author from the second book. I'm sure there were other characters who were featured in the other books but I just can't remember. This book seemed a bit like filler since the epilogue, set in 1960, hints at a further adventure for Daniel Sempere. Fermin's story was a means of getting Daniel involved with a character who appeared to have something to do with his mother, Isabella's death. The book also reveals tensions between Daniel and Bea.

Frankly I wish I remembered more about Fermin from the original book. He appears to be a popular character from other reviews that I read but I just don't recall much (if anything) about him. It's been way too long (eight or so years I bet) since I read the first book. What I liked about The Prisoner of Heaven was that (despite filling like a filler novel) the descriptions were lovely and the story was much more straightforward than the maddeningly confusing Angel's Game whose narrator (David Martin) was possibly crazy and therefore unreliable. This novel was much less confusing and open to interpretation. I was also surprised by how short it was (under 300 pages) compared to the previous novels. So apparently by what I've just looked up online, there will be a fourth and final book in this series. I'm sure I'll read it. The translation of the book into English is really well done but sometimes the language feels grandiose or stilted. It's hard to explain what I mean. In the end, Zafon's three novels in this series are about books - how important they are to society. How beloved they become to readers. How comforting or frightening they can be. And really, that's what I had to take from this novel, despite the few issues I had with it. I'm hoping the fourth book will tie everything together rather than just the loose narrative links that exist between each novel now.

Sorry this review is a little disjointed. I wanted to get it down before I forgot but I'm also not quite pulling everything together well enough. How very Zafonian of me...

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Website

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Monday, November 12, 2012

The Twelve Clues of Christmas Review

(isn't this cover gorgeous?)

I've written about Rhys Bowen's Royal Spyness series before (my internet is being super slow so I can't go back and link to any previous reviews, although I'm pretty sure the last one came out last fall). Bowen currently has two series featuring heroines from different time period who solve mysteries. The Royal Spyness series features Lady Georgiana Rannoch, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and thirty-fifth in line for the British throne. She lives in the 1930s (so pre-Wallis Simpson and the crown prince's abdication), during the Great Depression and Hitler's rise to power. She is the daughter of a late Scottish duke. Her brother now holds the title but his miserable wife, Fig, is not very welcoming to Georgie. 

The Twelve Clues of Christmas is the sixth book in the series and it advances the overall plot of the novels well. Georgie still has no money. She still stumbles onto crime scenes easily, but she's more together than she was in the first book. Having already had her season and no suitors, at the start of the series, Georgie flees to her family's home in London where she scrapes by with very little. She always manages to land on her feet though, avoiding marriage to various European princes and jobs as a lady in waiting to an elderly great-aunt. She also often meets famous characters from her era, like Coco Chanel, Wallis Simpson and of course the king and queen of England.

At the start of this novel, Georgie is stuck in Scotland for Christmas with her insufferable sister-in-law (her brother is kind but can't protect her from his wife) whose family is about to descend with their ideas about austerity. When you live in a drafty Scottish castle, skimping on food and heat doesn't really make for a fun holiday. Georgie phones her mother, Claire Daniels, the famous actress and even more famous bolter but learns that she is heading to a tiny town in Devonshire called Tiddleton-under-Lovey with Noel Coward to work on a play and enjoy an old fashioned English Christmas. Georgie recommends that they hire Mrs. Huggins, her grandfather's neighbor, as a simple English cook and have her granddad, a former London cop join them as well. 

Georgie wishes for an invitation but as luck would have it, she sees an advertisement in the paper looking for a young woman to host a large Christmas houseparty in a small English town. The town is, of course, Tiddleton-under-Lovey. So Georgie and her awful maid, Queenie, head to Devonshire for the holiday. She learns that her hostessing job is at the manor house of the local nobility, who have also fallen on hard times and charged guests from places like America to enjoy a classic, old fashioned English Christmas, complete with all the trimmings. George is happy to help, and enjoy a warm house and delicious meals for the twelve days of her job. Having her mother and grandfather nearby is also a treat. And of course her love, Darcy, shows up conveniently (when I first read about this book, I found it ridiculous that everyone would end up together in one tiny town but it makes sense in the novel).

The first body has already turned up when Georgie arrives in the town and it's not long before other people start dropping like flies. Of course she uses her developing detecting skills to figure out what's going on in the tiny town, while hostessing the house party, where readers get to enjoy details about the food, games and events that go along with an old fashioned English Christmas. As usual, this book was a breeze - fun and adorable. Georgie has a good head on her shoulders and is a survivor despite her circumstances. The novel advances the plot of her romance with Darcy and sets her up for a potential job and home in the next book. It was also nice to see her relationship with her mother developing. 

Rhys Bowen does a great job at creating a fun mystery, interesting characters and at depicting the time period of the 1930s. This series is my favorite of the two out now (the other one focuses on Molly, an Irish immigrant living in NYC around the turn of the century, from what I remember) and I always look forward to the next one. While I had my suspicions as to who was behind the murders pretty early on, I wasn't 100% sure due to the red herrings Bowen threw in, which is all part of the fun. 

Anyway, I loved it and can't wait for book 7! 

Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble

The Last Dragonslayer Review

I first read a Jasper Fforde book, The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next novel, in 2003 on a European vacation with my family. I loved Fforde's silly Monty Python-esque writing style. Anger Management for the protagonists of Wuthering Heights? Brilliant! Granted the series got a bit ridiculous down the line and I stopped reading that series at one point. I've read a few of his other ones over the years and particularly enjoyed Shades of Grey (um no, not the mommy porn crap). Anyway, The Last Dragonslayer was published in the UK last year and I've been waiting and waiting for it to come out here. Finally, it was published last month.

The Last Dragonslayer is written in Fforde's signature style - funny, a bit silly at times and the plot is a whirlwind. Essentially, 15 year old Jennifer Strange is the assistant manager of a home for wizards, mages and magicians. The book takes place in an alternate London (but not the same alternate London where Thursday Next or the main character from Shades of Grey lived. In this world, magic used to be  the most powerful force in the world, but it has been slowly fading out of existence, its practitioners relegated to exterminating moles from gardens or fixing plumbing. They have some moments of brilliance though. One of the pre-cogs in her building has a premonition that the last dragon will die on Sunday at noon.

The only dragon left in the world (or at least in the Ununited Kingdoms) lives in protected territory: the Dragonlands, a remnant from a human/dragon truce. When news about the dragon's demise spreads around, everyone knows that the protective spells surrounding the Dragonland will fade and that land will be free for the taking. Thousands swarm outside the protective borders, while Jennifer's kingdom and the neighboring duchy gear up for war. Also there are big spurts of magic; suddenly the various wizards can do more than they had been able to in years.

In the midst of all of this, Jennifer learns that she is destined to be the Last Dragonslayer and whether or not she wants to, she has to kill the last dragon at noon on Sunday.

It took me a little bit to get back into the familiarly odd rhythms of a Jasper Fforde book but once I did, I really enjoyed this novel. The sequel is out already in England (but not due here until next fall) and the third book is coming out in the UK soon. I do wish Fforde would write the sequel to Shades of Grey, but in the meantime this series is fun and interesting and designed for some of his younger readers. I definitely will read the sequel!

The Last Dragonslayer website

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Saturday, November 3, 2012

666 Park Avenue

I love Terry O'Quinn and Vanessa Williams from their previous ABC shows, so I was excited to watch 666 Park Avenue. It's relatively entertaining and luckily for my nerves, not as scary as American Horror Show (although I'm apparently one of the few people to like the new season of that show). Anyway, I noticed somewhat recently that the series was based on a book. I thought it might be like Rosemary's Baby, which I love, so when I found it for sale on amazon for $1.99 (the price has since gone up), I bought it.

This was another one I read during the Hurricane Sandy induced black out of lower Manhattan, although it was more interesting. It's nothing like the show at all, which is about devilish things happening in a giant apartment building. The only similarity to the book is the name and occupation of the main character, Jane Boyle, who is an architect. In the novel, Jane is a 24 year old architect who lives in Paris. She is swept off her feet by the wealthy and handsome Malcolm Doran (also the last name of Terry O'Quinn's character in the show). After her grandmother dies, she goes back to NYC with Malcolm to meet his family, who live in a NYC mansion (I'm guessing a large brownstone?) on the Upper East Side.

Jane quickly figures out that she is a witch (before she leaves France) and learns that she is marrying into another family of witches, who seem to have a sinister plan for her, especially her mother-in-law, Lynne. Jane has to learn how to cope with her soon to be in-laws and her own developing magical abilities. It's a cute book, that I learned has one sequel out now and another on the way. I'm not a huge chick lit reader but I think I've mentioned before that sometimes I just want to read something light and breezy. This fit the bill and I'm sure I'll read the rest of the series eventually.

Online, someone described this as Gossip Girl with a darker edge. Sure, I'll buy that. Like Gossip Girl, it was entertaining and an easy read. Just don't expect it to be anything like the show!

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble

Who Could That Be at this Hour? (All the Wrong Questions) Review

I first discovered Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events in college and absolutely loved it. The 13 books covered the trials and tribulations of the Baudelaire siblings, Violet, Klaus and Sunny, as they tried to navigate a world fun of useless adults after their parents are killed in a fire. I didn't like the last book of the series, The End, but since it seemed to wrap up the Baudelaires' story, I figured that was the end of the books.

Then my mom told me that there was going to be a new Lemony Snicket series, this time featuring Lemony himself, as a young boy who just graduated from a mysterious organization (more likely than not VFD from the previous series) and is paired with a chaperone on his first mission. I was hoping this series would shed some light on what VFD actually does, but the organization that Snicket belongs to is never actually mentioned in the book.

I found this book a bit disappointing. Maybe Lemony isn't as interesting of a protagonist as the Baudelaire kids. The usual Snicket tropes are in place: idiotic adults who dismiss the intelligence of children, an emphasis on the importance of books and wordplay. There are a couple mysteries, one involving a statue, the finding of which was Snicket's first assignment. He also alludes to a mysterious personal errand. He actually chose to be partnered with the worst of all chaperones in order to have time to devote to his own errand - although this is thwarted early on. A new villain is introduced - Hangfire - and a girl who may or may not be good (but definitely has a specific agenda) who has question mark shaped eyebrows (what's up with eyebrows in these books?!).

I'll probably read the other three books in this series, but I didn't love this one. That might also have been due to my crankiness about the loss of power in lower Manhattan for four days. I wasn't in the best of moods when reading. I think that Maryrose Wood's Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series is actually outSnicketing Snicket these days in terms of interesting characters, a mystery, and humor that adults can appreciate even if the series is designed for kids.

Also, I really missed the Brett Helquist illustrations.

The book has gotten lots of positive reviews, like this one from LA Times.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble