Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Review: Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D.

And they knew what to do and say to snag the interest of a fourteen-year-old half-Irish, half-Italian kid from Philly whose real dad was an addict, whose stepdad was an asshole, whose mom was indifferent, whose school was a war zone, and whose only real desire was never to feel like a fucking victim again: they gave a shit about me. [pg 52]


Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead:
The Frank Meeink Story as Told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D.
Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts, 2010
Nonfiction; 350 pgs


In June of 2001, I had the opportunity to join my mother and a contingent from her school on a tour of the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, California. Although I am not an educator, my mom thought I might be interested in going along (not to mention spending a little time with her since we live over 400 miles apart). The experience made a huge impression on me. The museum was so much more than I expected, covering a wide range of topics. It was an eye opener to say the least. Along with the usual museum displays and recorded presentations, there were also live presentations, one a Holocaust survivor whose story was heartbreaking and another was a former neo-Nazi, whose story was not only sad but very frightening. Especially frightening because of their growing numbers and with just how organized groups like the neo-Nazis had become. They are breeding grounds for home grown terrorists. A different variety than the fundamental islamists we hear about on the news today, but similar in their violent, passionate anger and self-righteousness.

This past year I read about a small protest in my own city, a gathering of neo-Nazis protesting illegal immigration. The anti-protesters far outnumbered the skinheads. There were many jokes made at the expense of the skinheads. I read a few of the comments on the newspaper's website and decided to do a little research. I visited a random white supremacist website. I confess I was embarrassed to be doing so. It felt wrong as it goes against just about everything I believe. I watched a recruitment video, which I found more humorous than factual--in an angry making sort of way. I read the tenets of the organization, and while most made me cringe, I also could see the draw. They spoke to a person's sense of self-worth, to the parent who is struggling to raise a child, to a person's need to feel secure and safe, and to building a cohesive community. There was also something about drug use, how it hurts a person and community more than it helps. That one really surprised me, I have to say, as I tend to associate drug abuse with groups like that. I can see why someone might be attracted to an organization like that even as I sat there feeling a little sick to my stomach. In fact, I think that's part of what made me feel sick--how easy it would be to sway someone to that way of thinking, depending on a person's state of mind and situation in life. Groups, gangs and organizations like this prey on people who feel disenfranchised and are not happy with society or their lives. Maybe that person is feeling all alone in the world, battered and bullied. Groups like this, at least on some level, offer young people a family of sorts and a sense of security. That's exactly what the neo-Nazi skinheads offered Frank Meeink and he his own recruits.

In the introduction, Elizabeth Wrutzel writes:
This is the truth: I read Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead with my mouth either actually or metaphorically agape, because I just could not believe anyone could be this much of an idiot and live to tell the story so clearly and cleanly. I don't know what the worst of it is: the racism, the anti-Semitism, the sexism, the alcoholism, the addiction, the depression, the abuse, the violence, the homicide, the suicide - or just the way all these maladies co-exist. Frank Meeink's story is upsetting and crazy, but it is above all a strangely absurdist drama that forces us to ask a troubling question about American life: Why, in a land with so much opportunity, is a critical mass of young people choosing hatred over possibility?
It was with that very question in mind that I decided to read this book, why I visited that website, and why that presentation years ago interested me so much. I do not think I will ever be able to truly understand the whys in answer to questions like this, but perhaps I can gain a little insight. I'm a true believer that armed with knowledge, we can work toward change--of course, it takes more than that, but it's a start.

This is not a pretty book to read. It is raw and straight forward. I could definitely hear Frank's voice, however, in the words I read on the page. Frank is very matter of fact about his experiences, and with good reason. His story is what it is. He did not sugarcoat anything or try to make himself look better. And that's what makes this such a difficult read. Yet, I couldn't stop reading once I started. I knew going in that this book would make me angry--and it did. It also provided me with a perspective into why a person would turn to the neo-Nazi skinhead movement. There were moments when I could not help but to feel for Frank and admire his strength and ability to overcome his anger and hate and turn his life around.

Frank is not so different from any one of us. My heart broke for that little boy who was severely beaten by his stepfather and repeatedly rejected by his mother. He was the son of drug addicts. He was lost and alone, searching anywhere and everywhere for approval and guidance. He got it where he could. Frank was fourteen when he was introduced to his first neo-Nazi skinheads, his cousin and his cousin's friends. They took him under their wing and made him feel a part of something. Frank would go on to start his own crew of skinheads back in South Philly, where he was from, and he earned a reputation for being one of the most brutal and violent skinheads out there. He was cruel and vicious in a fight, but on the inside, he was still that little boy craving approval and attention.

Frank, at age 17, landed in an adult prison after kidnapping and nearly murdering a young man. It was a wake up call for him and one that sparked the beginning of a change in his way of thinking. During his teen years, he turned much of his anger and frustration towards other races, gays, homeless people, and Jewish people. As an adult, however, as his hatred for these groups diminished, he became more involved with drugs and his alcoholism worsened. Frank made several attempts to clean up his life and remain sober, but it proved to be too daunting of a task. Time and time again, he failed. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that he had so much going for him, and yet he had yet to deal with the underlying causes that lead him addiction and, initially, the skinhead movement. Until he dealt with those issues, he wouldn't be able to get a better handle on his addiction, much less move on with his life.

Frank was fortunate to have family and friends who stood by him through all of his transgressions. Even when he was at his worst, they were in the background, helpless to help, but willing to catch him when he fell nonetheless. Strangers, those he once would have sooner kicked with his Doc Martens than turned to for help, reached out to offer him support. One of my favorite moments in the book is when Frank is invited to join a Bible study session in jail. He is the only white person there. Despite his reputation and swastika tattoo, the black inmates still made room for him.

This is not a book about white supremacy. Ultimately, Frank's story is a coming of age story, one about child abuse, gangs and drug dependency. It is a story of tragedy as well as one of hope. Frank's violence and hatred against others is in no way acceptable nor is this book meant to excuse anything he has done--it is simply a look into one man's life and how he ended up on the path that he did. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is an important book that is as relevant today as it would have been when Frank Meeink was growing up.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Source: Review book provided by the publisher, Hawthorne Books.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Page in the Life of Florinda of the 3 R's Blog

Just about everyone in my offline life knows Florinda. Or at least has heard her name when I can't avoid sharing some tidbit of wisdom or experience she has shared on her blog. I wouldn't be surprised if Florinda thought I was a stalker, as often as I visit her blog, The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness and tell her how wonderful she is. The truth is that she is wonderful. She is witty and thoughtful--and always honest. She is an inspiration to not only me, but other bloggers as well. I only wish some of her organization skills would rub off on me.

Please join me in welcoming Florinda to Musings of a Bookish Kitty!

Literary Feline: Let's go straight to the important question. How do you like to start off your morning?

Florinda: I usually get up early - 6:30 is sleeping in for me. I spend some time working out with the Wii Fit (I like the Rhythm Boxing, strength training and yoga), check my e-mail, eat breakfast (accompanied by the book I'm currently reading), and get ready for the day. If it's a weekday morning, I'll be up at 4:30, my workout will be shorter, and the order of things may change a little - I try to be on the road before 7 AM. My drive to work is around 40 miles one way into Los Angeles, and most days it takes a little over an hour - not usually much less, sometimes quite a bit more.

The activities on weekend mornings are pretty much the same, but I start later, I spend more time on the Wii Fit, and the rest of it goes at a slower pace. But I always get some reading in during breakfast.


Literary Feline: You fit quite a bit into your mornings. I'm lucky if I have time to eat breakfast before I run out the door. I hang onto that last vestige of sleep for as long as I can during the week. It's sad really. 5:30 a.m. is as early as I can manage on a work day.

I am always interested to know what motivates a person to start blogging. How did you get started blogging?

Florinda: Just last week, I marked my third year of blogging! I'd actually played around with it in the fall of 2006, but killed off that first blog because I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do with it. Around the same time, I began keeping a record of my reading for the first time ever, and after a few months it occurred to me that a blog might be a better place to do that. But I was already reading a few blogs on a range of topics, so I had a feeling that I wouldn't just blog about books, and it actually took me a few months before I started to find other book bloggers (there weren't nearly as many back then!).


Literary Feline: Happy anniversary to your blog! It's hard to believe we're old veterans in this game now. You have done an amazing job with your blog and in encouraging a community atmosphere.

You've carved out a niche for yourself, with your toes in quite a few different arenas. Quite a few bloggers out there juggle multiple blogs to represent different aspects of their lives. You've chosen to keep it all in one place. Did you ever consider having separate blogs or did you know from the start one was enough?

Florinda: Keeping up with one is quite enough, although every now and then I do kick around the idea of splitting things up and making each blog more focused. However, I do like posting nearly every day, and since I don't read fast enough to put up reviews three times a week, I'm probably going to stick with my mix.

In all seriousness, I don't see branching out unless I want to do more product reviewing, as my agreement with the BlogHer Publishing Network limits the dollar value of the items I can post about as long as I'm running their ads on my blog; higher-value items need to be discussed on a separate blog that doesn't have the ad code. Fortunately, most books are below that limit, and I'm not all that interested in reviewing anything else, so there's not a lot of incentive to change things.


Literary Feline: I admit I think of you as a book blogger even though clearly your blog is much broader in scope than that. I love that you tackle so many topics, and you clearly are active in the blogging community, participating in different forums and community building activities (Los Angeles Moms Blog, Weekly Geeks, Book Blogger Appreciation Week, hosting read-alongs, Blogging Authors Reading Project, Tuesday Tangents, and that's just for starters). What motivated you to join in on all these activities? How do you juggle all of that along with work and other of your life priorities? Do you have any advice for other bloggers looking to get more involved in the community?

Florinda: Yikes - I really AM that busy, aren't I?

Starting at the end of the list: thanks for the plug for Tuesday Tangents, Wendy - and for the fact that you participate every now and then! I'd like to see that catch on a little more, and I enjoy doing it; in a way it's filler, but it's fun, and it usually gets good comment participation unless I've talked about really lame stuff that week.

I've gotten involved in different activities for different reasons. I had the chance to sign on with the LA Moms Blog in its early soft-launch stage, and I looked at that as an opportunity to do more straight-out writing than I do here, with the possibility that it could attract notice and possibly lead to other things. So far that really hasn't happened, but I do like the outlet, and I've been introduced to some fine writers and terrific women through my participation there. I've gotten involved in other things partly to gain visibility for my blog, but never just for that reason; if the activity didn't genuinely interest me, I wouldn't volunteer or participate in it.

I'm so glad that you do think of me as a book blogger, though, because with my mix of topics, I'm not always sure I'm seen that way - but it's definitely the place in the blog world where I feel most at home, and that motivates a lot of the "extra-blogular" (did I just invent a new word?) things I do. For example, when Dewey passed away, I was part of the early conversation about continuing some of the great community-building activities she'd started in the book blogosphere. Weekly Geeks actually wasn't my first choice; I was originally interested in the Bookworms Carnival, as I'd really enjoyed hosting one of those, but the WG team had more room. I'm really glad to be part of it - it's a great group, and not a lot of work for me since I just do wrap-ups (coming up with themes is the hard part!).

As to how I juggle the blogging and related pursuits with family and work: honestly, sometimes I don't do it very well. I spend most of my lunch hours working on posts, and I'll slip in some blog reading when I need a break in between tasks at the office. I work with numbers, and sometimes the change in focus can be useful. Most evenings, I'll do blogging stuff on my laptop while watching TV with my husband (but not always - it depends on the show. I never do it during Lost). But it's really not that hard to manage, usually - as long as I stay off Twitter.

Speaking of Twitter: since you asked if I had any advice about community involvement, Twitter can be an excellent way to get more involved in the blogging community, which makes it hard for me to stay away for long. Follow other bloggers and feel free to jump into conversations - book bloggers really are pretty welcoming! Weekly memes like Booking Through Thursday, Mailbox Monday, Friday Finds and the rest - and Weekly Geeks, of course! - can be a good way for newer bloggers in particular to find other blogs and attract visitors, but I'd recommend choosing them carefully and not letting them take over your blog content, which I see happen all too often. I resisted reading challenges for the longest time, but now that I've tried a few (and am hosting my own, the Blogging Authors Reading Project), I appreciate them for both the focus they can give my reading and the connections they can build among participants. But my favorite ways to become active in the community are old standbys. I love putting together my link round-ups twice a week - being generous with the linky love is worth the time it takes. And a blogger can never go wrong by leaving comments on other blogs, and encouraging them to be left on yours!


Literary Feline: That is very good advice, Florinda. Getting involved in the blogging community through memes and commenting on other blogs definitely can help a new blogger develop a following as well as make friends. I still struggle with Twitter, but I know you and others have put it to good use in helping build on the book blogging community there.

Getting back to books, has blogging impacted your reading? If so, how?

Florinda: I used to have a fear of running out of books to read. Thanks to blogging, I've (mostly) gotten over it. My official "to read" collection includes only books I actually own, and according to LibraryThing - another thing I learned about through book blogging! - I currently have over 270 books with that status. Books I'd like to read but haven't bought yet (or been offered for review) get put on my wishlist.

But aside from the sheer number of books that blogging has exposed me to, it's also raised my awareness of books in genres I rarely read before and introduced me to new authors. Blogging has influenced me to read more thoughtfully and critically, and I'm pleased with that development. Blogging has also given me a place to talk about my reading, the tools to talk about it more articulately - and people to talk about it with.

The worst thing that blogging has done to my reading is take away from the time I spend doing it, or divert it from reading books to reading other blogs - it's The Great Book Blogger Conundrum, I believe.


Literary Feline: Oh, yes! I think many bloggers can relate to the struggle of finding a balance between blogging, reading and visiting other blogs, including me. And I do think writing reviews for a blog does make us more critical of what we are reading. Plus, book discussions are among my favorite aspects of blogging. I'm still working on the being more articulate part!

It can't all be about books though, can it? Besides reading and books, what are some of your other interests, hobbies or passions?

Florinda: I enjoy cooking and baking, but I like it more when I'm not rushed, like on weekends and for holidays - I really like making the special meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I like to experiment in the kitchen and I'm pretty comfortable tweaking recipes. I also enjoy eating my own cooking, which is both good and bad.

I love traveling, whether it's a road trip to another part of California or a cross-country flight. I really haven't been outside the US much, but there's so much to see and explore right here. My family is planning a two-week trip to the East Coast in June: a week in Washington DC and a week in New York City, and I'm really excited about it! I was born in NYC and grew up nearby, but I've never really been there as a tourist, and I've never visited our nation's capital (where my son lives now). My husband and I want to make a "Route 66" road trip one year, LA to Chicago - he likes exploring too.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but I'm pretty devoted to the shows I do watch. I will really miss Lost when it ends in May! Some of my other current favorites are Burn Notice, White Collar, The Amazing Race, 30 Rock, The Office, The Big Bang Theory, and Smallville; I'm also a "TV on DVD" collector. Maybe I watch more TV than I think I do!


Literary Feline: Your trip to the East Coast this summer sounds like it will be a lot of fun. Maybe I'll hide in your suitcase!

Lost is one of my favorites too. The Big Bang Theory has grown on me. I watch that on DVD and so am behind, however. I find I prefer to watch TV on DVD nowadays. It's so convenient. No commercials and you can watch whenever you want, as many episodes or as few as you want. It's also given me a chance to catch shows I might have wanted to see at one time but hadn't been able to.

You are even more of a movie and music lover than I am. Do you prefer to see the movie or read the book first? Or if you do one, you'd rather not do the other? And on the topic of music, do you listen to music while you read? Do you ever have soundtracks in your head to match the book you are reading or is that just me?

Florinda: I don't have a hard-and-fast rule about whether the book or the movie comes first, really. I've noticed that if I see a movie that's based on a book, I'll usually want to read the book afterwards, but sometimes reading the book first means I won't be as interested in the movie (or I'll be too apprehensive that the movie won't do the book justice).

I don't listen to music when I'm reading, oddly enough, but it's usually because I just don't think about turning it on - it's not that I find it distracting. (I play music in my office all the time.) I really don't have mental soundtracks to what I'm reading, though; I think I need more of a visual stimulus to do that kind of thing, so maybe it IS just you, Wendy :-).


Literary Feline: It wouldn't surprise me! I always seem to have a song in my head. I used to listen more to music (outside of my head) when I read, but in recent years, I prefer the quiet.

As for movies, I find I'm the opposite. If I read the book first, I almost always want to see the movie; while if I watch the movie first, I do not always want to read the book. Of course, it depends on the book.

On a similar topic, do you have any reading routines, rituals or habits?

Florinda: I read at breakfast and at bedtime, every day. Sadly, some days those are the only times I spend with a book, which is why I don't read or post reviews at the rate some bloggers do! (I blame reading other blogs and watching TV. Oh, and needing to go to work, and sleep.) On weekends, I like to take myself out to breakfast and spend an hour at Starbucks with a coffee and a book; that's become a reading ritual of sorts, and my favorite reading time of the week.


Literary Feline: Sleep and work are always getting in the way.

How do you pull yourself out of a reading or blogging slump or what steps do you take to avoid that from happening?

Florinda: I don't really get into slumps - I can't remember the last reading slump I was in, to be honest. Feeling indecisive about what to read next because you have too many great options isn't exactly the same thing as being in a reading slump, and I've experienced that much more lately! My blogging slumps tend to be pretty short - no more than a few days at a time, usually - because I start to miss it if I go a few days without writing, but sometimes I need a few days without it, especially if I've been on a tear and have several days' worth of posts prepared already. I really don't like writing and posting on the fly - I try to have a post ready at least a day before I want it to go up, most of the time.


Literary Feline: I envy you these traits. If I'm lucky, I may be able to plan a couple of days ahead, but most of the time I am posting on the fly. I find myself needing blogging breaks about every couple of months, which often helps me fend off a blogging slump.

Now to put you on the spot (you have 20 seconds to answer each of these questions--I've got my stop watch ready!):

Book you'd most like to be trapped with in a broken elevator for several hours: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, even though I've read it before - it's long enough that I won't finish it before I get out of the elevator, and it will definitely hold my interest!

It's storming outside, you're alone in the house, and the electricity has gone out; what book do you turn to pass the time? I'm probably not going to pick out a particular book for that occasion, to be honest - I'll just keep on with whatever book I'm reading at the time.

The storm has passed and it's a beautiful day outside. The temperature is just right. Will you read outside or inside? I'll stay inside because that's where the sofa is, but I'll open the windows and the screen doors.

You're picnicking by the lake and have an hour to yourself while the family is off exploring. What book did you bring with you to read? Same answer as the "storm" question, basically - either the book I'm currently reading, or whatever is next on the TBR stack! (Sorry, I'm boring like that.)

Name one book I absolutely must read at some point in my life: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott. It's like a great conversation with a smart, down-to-earth friend.


Literary Feline: Thank you, Florinda, for being my guest today! I hope all of you who are visiting will stop by The 3 R's Blog: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness and check out Florinda's blog.

Florinda: Thanks so much for inviting me to be part of your Page in the Life feature, Wendy, although this may be one of the longest Pages you've posted! I'm not known for keeping it short - except for my height. Thanks for indulging my rambling!


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Short Story Wednesday: Sexy by Jhumpa Lahari


"Sexy"
from Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books, 1999)

This particular short story is about a woman who has an affair with a married man. He picks Miranda up in a department store. To her, Dev is exotic and charming. He woos her while his wife is out of town, making her feel sexy and beautiful. When the wife returns, however, their situation changes. Their dalliances are confined to her home on Sunday afternoons.

A coworker whose cousin's husband left her for a woman he met on an airplane talks nonstop on the phone to her family about her cousin's situation and Miranda cannot help but overhear. When the cousin and her young son come for a visit, Miranda is enlisted to babysit. That one visit proves to be an eye opener for Miranda.

Jhumpa Lahiri captures the various emotions that Miranda goes through--the thrill of the relationship, the rationalization that it is okay, and then the reality of the situation. Miranda longs for someone to love her, but the question is, is she willing to settle? The author continues to demonstrate what a gifted story teller she is.
After lunch they made love, on sheets covered with crumbs, and then Dev took a nap for twelve minutes. Miranda had never known an adult who took naps, but Dev said I was something he'd grown up doing in India, where it was so hot that people didn't leave their homes until the sun went down. "Plus it allows us to sleep together," he murmured mischievously, curving his arm like a big bracelet around her body.

Only Miranda never slept. [ pg 94]

© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuesday Tangents & Random Thoughts

Tuesday Tangents is hosted by Florinda of The 3 R's Blog

Anya Update: Our weekly veterinarian visits have slowed down to one every three weeks, thank goodness. I'm relieved and I know Anya is too. We go back to the doctor on Friday for another red blood cell check. Her health has been improving steadily and the prognosis is good. She's become a good little pill taker, even if she sometimes tries to hide when she sees my husband coming with the pill.

Sometimes filling out those customer service feedback surveys on a restaurant's website proves to be beneficial. I only wish the restaurant hadn't given us a gift card with the word "complimentary" on it. It's like a neon sign saying that we are fussy diners.

You might be fussy too if you kept finding gum under the table.

My latest television obsession (next to the final season of Lost) is The Pacific. Two episodes have aired on HBO so far. and I am completely smitten. For those who liked The Band of Brothers, The Pacific is a must see.

I need to call my medical doctor and schedule an appointment, but I keep dragging my feet. I think it's a residual effect of my last dental visit. They took me to the back an hour late (because they forgot about me was what I was told--they weren't busy nor did they have any emergencies putting them behind) and proceeded to torture me for three hours as they tried to fit the permanent crown in every which way. Did it really need to take that long to realize it wouldn't fit? Let's not talk about the nine x-rays they had to take because they were having trouble getting the right angle and the three impressions they took because they couldn't even get that right (as the assistant is sliding the first one into my mouth, the dentist told him to prepare another one because she knew I was bleeding too much and the impression wouldn't be good). I go back this Friday to try again. I am seriously thinking of changing dentists after this. It's been one thing after another with that dental office.

I went in with no pain and came out with pain that still hasn't managed to go away. It's been over a week and a half.

I have to say though, my dentist is very nice otherwise.

My coworker loaned me her copy of the first volume of Twilight in graphic novel form. It's taunting me from its current location. I probably should get to it so I can return it.

My boss loaned me a copy of The Last Child by John Hart. She couldn't put it down. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?

My husband is reading Karen E. Olson's The Missing Ink and enjoying it. Whew!

What have you been up to? Any random thoughts you would like to share?


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review: 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton

I am excited to be a part of the first ever Spotlight Series tour, designed to draw attention to small press publishers and their authors who do not get much attention, and, as a result, quite a few quality books fall through the cracks. Unbridled Books is one such publisher. As the publisher's website says, Unbridled is committed to "publishing high-quality works that are moving, beautiful, and surprising. We chose the name to designate a publishing venture that is both energetic and independent." And so far my experience with the books published by Unbridled that I have had the chance to read has been just that.

For the tour, participants volunteered to read any book of their choice by the publisher. I chose 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton because the subject matter interested me. I bought the book through Powell's, an independent bookstore, breaking my buy-no-hardcover-at-full-price rule.



Breathe, she told herself. Rest, and soften the shoulders, and stop the mind's seesawing, at least until dawn. Yes, dawn. And then, young adult or not, she would track him down. She would touch his cheek and hug him tight - mother him until he shrugged her off - so the next time night fell, she could hold assurance close to her like a childhood blanket and rest with vigor of the innocent and the blessed. [pg 3]


31 Hours
by Masha Hamilton
Unbridled Books, 2009
Fiction; 240 pgs


In 2006, I read and reviewed The Attack by Yasmina Khadra, a book that came to mind after I finished reading Masha Hamilton's 31 Hours. That particular book is about the aftermath of a suicide bombing, a doctor discovering he had not known his troubled wife as well as he thought he had only after her death. He goes on a mission to find out why she became a suicide bomber. Masha Hamilton offers a similar perspective in 31 Hours, only she captures the hours when a young man, 21 year old Jonas, is contemplating his own act of violence, before his scheduled detonation.

The novel is told from several different perspectives, opening with a mother awakened in the wee hours of the morning with a feeling that something is terribly wrong. She has not heard from her son, Jonas, in several days and is worried about him. He has become more withdrawn with increased mood swings. Jonas, for his part, is consumed by his passion and anger over the immoralities of the world and is determined to make a statement. He believes that only a violent act will precipitate change for the better. Jonas is not a monster. He is a human being with fears and vulnerabilities like each of us. While he is opposed to the injustices in the world, he is so focused on the ideals he is supporting that I am not sure he really considered the people who might be hurt by his actions. He claims to have clarity, but in reality is confused, lost even, seeking something missing from his life but of which he isn't sure what it is.

The author also introduces readers to Jonas' friend, Vic, who has been so busy rehearsing for an upcoming state performance that she has not had much time for her friend or family. Her young sister, Mara, feels the weight of the family's burdens on her shoulder, caring for a grief stricken mother after Mara and Vic's father walked out. I couldn't help but think of Mara as a young Jonas, with their similar backgrounds at such a young age and with their strong desire to set things right, or, at least, what they perceive as right. Jonas himself identifies with Mara on some level.

The subway system in New York is its own character, the location of where the terrorist act is supposed to take place. As a result, the reader gets to know a few of the regulars who spend much of their time underground, in particular Sonny Hirt, a homeless man who makes his living pan handling. It is through him, that the subway itself feels alive, pulsing with people from all walks of life going or coming from somewhere. A myriad of emotion and experience fills the subway at any hour. It made the story all the more powerful, knowing the impact a terrorist attack on the subway would cause.

What was most powerful for me was seeing Jonas through his mother's eyes. Jonas is everything to Carol and her pain and concern is palpable. I ached for her and for Jonas' father. I also felt for Vic, who had just found love and so suddenly could lose it. It is through their eyes, their memories of him and their love for him, that I came to care for Jonas, as misguided as he was, and even in spite of not agreeing with his logic or choice of resolution.

31 Hours is an intense and beautifully written novel. The countdown continues with every new chapter. And with each narrative by the various characters, the tension grows. The fate of all the characters hangs in the balance as the author weaves their stories together. Masha Hamilton succeeds at putting the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters, making this all too frightening story all the more real.

Rating: * (Very Good)

To learn more about Masha Hamilton, 31 Hours and her other books, be sure and visit the author's website.

To see what other Unbridled books bloggers are reading for this Spotlight Series, check out the Spotlight Series blog.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli


Helen picked her way back home using the less traveled streets and alleys, avoiding the larger thoroughfares such as Nguyen Hue, where trouble was likely. When she first came to Saigon, full of the country's history from books, it had struck her out little any of the Americans knew or cared about the country, how they traveled the same streets day after day - Nguyen Huge, Hai Ba Trung, Le Loi - with no idea that these were the names of Vietnamese war heroes who rose up against foreign invaders. That was the experience of Vietnam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated
. [pg 7]



The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
St. Martin's Press, April 2010
Fiction; 400 pgs

I watched the film The Hurt Locker recently. I have had difficulty putting my thoughts onto paper about it and so you haven't seen a review. One thing in particular that stood out for me, however, was the scene where Staff Sergeant James is grocery shopping, followed by a scene of him trying to talk to his wife about his experiences in the Iraq War as she prepares a meal. These are very revealing scenes. The soldier goes from intense and life threatening situations in Iraq to the every day monotony of life back home. His wife is not able to understand what he has been through, everything he has seen.

The violence and shared horrors, the adrenalin rush, the camaraderie and strong bonds that form between the soldiers, and the sense of duty and honor . . . War can change a person. It can make adjusting to home life upon return difficult. It is not uncommon for soldiers to return to battle even when they don't have to. Some feel most comfortable there in a way many of us who haven't experienced it can't even begin to understand. I thought of this as I read The Lotus Eaters. A different war, a different time period. A novel about photojournalists rather than a movie about soldiers. The pull of war, of danger, seduces some almost like a drug. It makes the title of Tatjana Soli's novel all the more fitting.

I was drawn to Soli's The Lotus Eaters because of the setting. The novel is set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is the story of an American female photojournalist, Helen Adams, who is set on following in her father and brother's footsteps, wanting to know how her brother died and to experience some of what he must have as a soldier in the Vietnam War. It is also the story of Linh, a Vietnamese man who has lost everything and who is doing what he can to survive. And then there is Sam Darrow, an American photojournalist whose entire life is wrapped up in shooting wars.

The novel opens as Helen is making her way home to her apartment in Saigon where Linh, bedridden and in need of medical care, is waiting. The Americans are fleeing the city as the Communists take over, the final sign of a war lost. Helen struggles with whether to leave with Linh or stay to see the changeover first hand, capturing it on film. Her decision made, the novel, and her thoughts, shift to the past and the reader is taken to the moment she first arrived in Saigon and from there her story and that of Linh's and Darrow's unfold.

I fell in love with this novel from the very first word. My biggest regret is that I read the novel without my reading journal handy and so my notes are few, and I don't have a record of the many quotations that especially moved me. The author's writing is beautiful. There was a melancholy and underlying tension about it which helped to create the tone of the novel. None of the characters in the novel are perfect, each one flawed and multi-faceted. They are tormented but driven, eager but at times reluctant.

Helen changes quite a bit during her time in Vietnam. She arrives as a naive young woman, eager to make a name for herself and prove she can hold her own in a man's world. She has her work cut out for her and, even at her most fearful, she is courageous. As the novel progresses, Helen grows stronger and wiser but there is a recklessness there too, much like that of veteran photographer, Darrow, who finds comfort and meaning in war. He sees something in Helen, a hint himself in his younger years, but also someone who may finally be his match.

Linh's story intrigued me. He is Darrow's assistant and proves to be an invaluable companion. He is the biggest mystery of all throughout the novel, but as his personal story unfolds, I was even more drawn to him, and I couldn't help but wish I had known him in real life.

Through the author's words and the characters' eyes, I could understand their love/hate relationship with Vietnam. It is a beautiful country. The Vietnamese people were tenacious and adaptable. They had to be given the circumstances of the country's history. The author's knowledge and interest in Vietnam shined through on every page. She included a bibliography at the end of the book for those interested in reading more about the country. While her story is fiction, there is truth woven in. Soli did not take sides but presented a realistic and complicated picture of events in Vietnam at the time.

The Lotus Eaters is beautiful, dark, and thought provoking. War is cruel and Soli does not hold back from sharing the ugly side of it. Within it too, however, are sparks of humanity and compassion. The author does not leave that out either. In fact, it is often those moments, that help Helen through the darker moments. The Lotus Eaters is an amazing novel: a love story just as much as it is about the Vietnam War and the impact war can have on those touched by it. After having just finished it, I am still hesitant to pick up another book, still caught in its spell.

Rating: * (Outstanding)
Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: War Through the Generations: Vietnam War Challenge

You can learn more about Tatjana Soli and her book on the author's website. Be sure and check the TLC Book Tours website as well.



Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Book for review provided by the publisher.




Tatjana Soli's TLC Tour Stops:

Thursday, March 18th: Book Club Classics!

Monday, March 22nd: Feminist Review

Tuesday, March 23rd: Reading, Writing, and Retirement

Wednesday, March 24th: Caribousmom

Thursday, March 25th: Word Lily

Friday, March 26th: Bookfoolery and Babble

Monday, March 29th: My Friend Amy

Wednesday, March 31st: Books and Movies

Thursday, April 1st: Lit and Life

Friday, April 2nd: Luxury Reading

Monday, April 5th: Suko’s Notebook

Tuesday, April 6th: One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books

Wednesday, April 7th: Diary of an Eccentric

Thursday, April 8th: Happy Lotus

Friday, April 9th: At Home With Books

Monday, April 12th: Savvy Verse and Wit

Monday, April 13th: A High and Hidden Place


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

From the Archives: Mini Reviews from 2005

I began keeping a reading journal several years before I began blogging. The following are my thoughts on a few books I read in early 2005.

War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón
Harper Collins, 2005~ Fiction (Short Stories); 208 pgs

War by Candlelight is a compilation of nine short stories by Daniel Alarcón that touch upon such subjects as war, poverty, political strife, family, love, and death set in Peru and New York. The cultural aspect plays a powerful role in each story; the stories are haunting. There were several stories I wish would have gone on a little longer as I would have liked to know more about the characters and their lives. Rating: * (Good)


Sleeping Beauty by Phillip Margolin
Harper, 2004 ~ Crime Fiction; 329 pgs

A serial murderer attacked seventeen-year-old Ashley Spencer, her father and a close friend one night, brutally killing her father and the friend. In his true crime book, author and attorney Miles Van Meter outlines the crime and the subsequent events, including the attack on his twin sister, which left her in a coma; the murder of Ashley’s mother; and the trial to follow. Mr. Margolin takes readers through a series of twists and turns as his tale unfolds. Mr. Margolin begins his book while Mr. Van Meter is on a book tour, discussing the latest edition of his book, Sleeping Beauty. I liked the way Mr. Margolin interwove the present with the past throughout the book as the story progressed. It made for an interesting perspective into the lives of the characters involved. I found Sleeping Beauty difficult to put down and the novel kept me guessing until near the very end. Rating: * (Good)


State of Fear by Michael Crichton
Harper Collins, 2004 Crichton, Michael ~ Suspense/Thriller; 603 pgs

In Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, eco-terrorists are determined to make sure the threat of global warming is taken seriously. It is a race against time to uncover the diabolical schemes that will lead to the deaths of many people. Mr. Crichton touches upon the controversial issue of global warming as well as the dangers of politicized science. I enjoyed this novel on many levels, intellectually as well as for its entertainment value. It was a suspenseful roller coaster ride and thought provoking all in one. At times I felt it was a bit too preachy and his characters were lacking, but, even then, Mr. Crichton did a good job of interweaving the scientific explanations with the story to make it palatable for the layperson. Rating: * (Good)


More Than You Know by Beth Gutcheon
William Morrow, 2000 ~ Fiction; 269 pgs

Hannah Gray returns to her summer stomping grounds to remember the story of her first love and the ghost that would irrevocably change her life. One summer Hannah, her stepmother and half-brother rent a house, an old schoolhouse that had been moved from Beal Island to the mainland. Hannah would soon come to find out that a frightening woman whose story she wished to know haunted the house. A terrible murder had taken place many many years before and Hannah wondered if it could be related to the ghost. She sought to uncover the story behind the murder. Meanwhile, she met a wild sort of boy who swept her off her feet, her first love, a love she hoped would never end. Beth Gutcheon’s novel had sadness weaved deep within its prose. It is a beautifully written story about grief, love, expectations not met. I was especially drawn to the story of Claris and Daniel whose minds I would like to have had more of a glimpse into. I probably never would have thought to read this book had it not been selected as a group read for an online book group I belong to. It was definitely well worth my time! Rating: * (Good)


Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian
Shaye Areheart Books, 2004 ~ Fiction; 422 pgs

A family came together for summer fun in New Hampshire only to have it end in tragedy, when a gun accident leaves Spencer McCullough irreparably disabled and a family torn apart. Chris Bohjalian has written a powerful novel about how one family struggles through a terrible tragedy, pits family member against family member, and yet reminds us all of the value of family. The author also takes on controversial topics such as gun control, animal rights and hunting in such a way that leaves the reader to seriously ponder his or her own views on the subjects, while not coming across as being too preachy in favor or against a side in these causes. I was greatly moved by Mr. Bohjalian’s novel, which was extremely well written and at times captivating. I look forward to reading more by this author. Rating: * (Very Good)


Missing Monday by Matthew Costello
Berkley ,2004 ~ Horror; 345 pgs

In Pasadena, California, a scientist is brutally murdered for the secrets he holds. His wife, Caryn Stern, is on the run, knowing her very survival depends on not being caught. Janna Wade in New York wakes up Tuesday morning with absolutely no memory of having lived through Monday. According to her friends, nothing was amiss and Janna had lived her life normally. Frightened she is going crazy, Janna is desperate to learn what happened to her lost Monday. Congressman Frank Arcangelo has a little free time since Congress has recessed for the season. He is determined to look into how certain cases fall through the cracks, the cases that may not seem like cases or that are unusual and not easily seen for what they truly are.

Missing Monday is a fast paced thriller, which carried me off into the story immediately. Although there were many characters to follow, it was easy to keep them straight. This novel was suspenseful however not very horrifying, despite its being labeled as a horror novel. The description and summary of the novel suggest that Janna Wade would play a larger role in the book, and I was slightly disappointed that she was not more involved in the story. The author had me guessing the entire book, always keeping the secrets just out of reach, dangling in front of the reader like desperately desired chocolate. Rating: * (Good)


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

One Night Stand: Once Upon a Time

Fantasy is one of my favorite types of books. Unfortunately, I seem to read less and less of them these days, which is such a shame. I have gone back and forth about whether or not to actually join in this year's Once Upon a Time Challenge, and finally decided to stick to my original plan. So, while this challenge is relegated to the One Night Stand treatment, it is no less special to me.

Carl V's challenge has opened up a world of fantasy to readers, encouraging readers new to the genre to give it a try while challenging existing fantasy readers to explore the genre further. His love for all things fantastical shines through on his blog, Stainless Steel Droppings.


The Once Upon a Time Challenge IV runs from March 21st through June 20th, in concurrence with the spring season. It seems a perfect time to delve into fantasy.

Challenge Options:
(Note: There are four categories: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Folklore and Mythology
)
  • The Journey - Read at least one book within one of the four categories (fantasy, folklore, mythology, fairy tales).
  • Quest the First - Read 5 books that fit somewhere within the four categories (all five can be in one category, or spread out among them all--it's your choice!)
  • Quest the Second - Read at least one book for each category.
  • Quest the Third - Complete Quests the First and Second and follow it up by reading Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (or watching one of the movie versions).
  • Quest the Fourth - Read two nonfiction books or collection of essays that pertain to one or more of the categories.
  • Short Story Weekends - Read one or more short stories related to the genre categories during the weekend.
Readers may participate in as many or as few of the quests as they like. The goal is to have fun. Be sure and visit Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings for more information or check out the challenge blog.

I could join the Journey portion of the challenge and most likely could fit in one book, but after much thought and consideration of how much I already have on my plate and don't want to be hampered by yet another self-imposed deadline, a one night stand will have to do. This gives me the option to read one of the books from my list whenever I feel like it, regardless of the challenge's time frame. Can't beat that!

So, for the fun of it, I went through my TBR shelves looking for books that might fall into the Quest the Second, which is to read one book from each of the four genre categories: fantasy, fairy tales, folklore and mythology. Half the battle is putting the novels into the categories! I have shelves and shelves of novels that easily fall into the fantasy category. It was harder to separate out the rest.

Fantasy:
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison

Fairy Tale:
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr

Folklore:
Midnight Never Come by Marie Brennan
Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt

Mythology:
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
The Fall of Atlantis by Marion Zimmer Bradley

  • Have you read any of the books I've listed? Any I absolutely must read right now?
  • What books have you read or want to read that might fit into this challenge?

Note: Remember, I am not actually joining the challenge, just having a little One Night Stand.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: Pretty in Ink by Karen E. Olson

If your name is Britney Brassieres, being taken down by a tsunami of champagne might seem only fitting.

One minute she was belting out "Oops! . . . I Did It Again," the next she was on the floor, her arms flailing as the Moët - not the really expensive kind, but that White Star you can get at discount if you look hard enough - showered her. [pg 1]


Pretty in Ink by Karen E. Olson
Obsidian Mystery, 2010
Crime Fiction; 299 pgs


I did a little happy dance when I received Karen E. Olson's second book of the Tattoo Shop mystery series in the mail last month. I loved the first book in the series, The Missing Ink, and was excited to see what Brett and friends were up to now.

In this particular novel, readers step into the Las Vegas drag queen scene where one such drag queen, Britney Brassieres, is struck by a champagne cork--on purpose--at the premiere of the Nylons and Tattoos show. Brett Kavanaugh, owner and tattoo artist at the Painted Lady, and her staff had drawn the tattoos that the drag queens are sporting and were invited to the big event. Brett is the only one who sees the cork shooter, and, while she is unable to identify him by his face, she does get a good look at the tattoo on his arm. When the queen dies mysteriously a few days later, the situation grows all the more suspicious--and complicated. One of Brett's own employees is missing and seemingly in trouble. Brett is determined to do her own investigating both to help her friend and to solve a murder, placing herself in the path of danger.

I had a lot of fun reading Pretty in Ink. I fell into the rhythm of the novel almost immediately. The book is fast-paced both in tone and action. There were comic moments, as can be expected. I love Brett's dry sense of humor. And her friends are a real hoot. Joel is one of my favorite characters. He reminds me a lot of a former coworker who was large and imposing size-wise, but was really a big teddy bear, cuddly and kind-hearted. He also loved to eat. Jeff Coleman, owner and tattoo artist of a competing tattoo business, is ever present. I wasn't sure what to think of him in the first book of the series, but he's growing on me. There's certainly more to him than meets the eye. And that Bitsy is a spitfire. She may be small, but like many of us who are short know, you shouldn't be quick to underestimate us.

This series is fast becoming a comfort read for me. It is not a series that should be taken too seriously. It has just the right amount of suspense and comedy to keep me entertained while I am reading. I cannot really think of anything I did not like about the novel. Readers interested in getting to know Brett would probably be better off starting with the first book in the series as her character is more fully developed there, although the mystery in Pretty in Ink stands on its own.

Upon completion of the book, I actually read the excerpt for the upcoming book, Driven to Ink, something I never do. I read introductions, acknowledgments, glossaries, appendices, and the dedication, but never the excerpt to the next book. And yet I did with this one. I wasn't quite ready to let go of Brett just yet come the end of the book.

Rating: * (Very Good)

You can learn more about Karen E. Olson and her books on the author's website. You can also find Karen at the First Offenders blog.


Source: My copy of Pretty in Ink was provided by the author for review.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Friday, March 12, 2010

In Memory of Sammy, a Faithful and True Companion

A dog is the only thing on earth that will love you more than you love yourself. ~ Josh Billings

Sammy

I often referred to Sammy as my four-legged brother. That's exactly what he was for over a decade. My parents adopted Sammy from a shelter while I was in college, and, although I wasn't raised along side him, he was still very much a part of my family. My heart goes out to my mom and dad who had to say goodbye to Sammy today. I know this has been especially difficult for them. Sammy was the light of their lives. He will be missed.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review: A Deadly Paradise by Grace Brophy

Only one person was on the esplanade, a schoolgirl in uniform. She stood some twenty feet from him, in full view of his barge, sheltering from the rain beneath the archway that separates the Cannaregio canal from the Ghetto. She lighted a cigarette, and he watched with desire as wisps of smoke drifted out toward the canal and mingled with the mist. Perhaps he would ask her for a cigarette. Foreigners were more generous than Venetians, and he often bummed cigarettes from them. But this schoolgirl was no ordinary foreigner, and he decided against it. [pg xiv]


A Deadly Paradise by Grace Brophy
Soho Crime, 2008
Crime Fiction; 299 pgs

Questore Alessandro Cenni with the state police is assigned to investigate the murder of a German former diplomat who had been living in the village of Paradiso in Umbria. The body of Jarvinia Baudler was horrifically mutilated. The Germans seem more interested in obtaining World War II documents they believed Baudler had in her possession than they seem about catching her murderer. In fact, they want nothing more than for the crime to be wrapped up as quickly as possible. The victim herself was not well liked. The list of suspects who would benefit from her death is long. Cenni's investigation takes him back into the past at a time when Italy was occupied and allied with Germany as well as into the many relationships Baudler had, both with women and men.

While the novel takes place mostly in Umbria, the reader is taken across Italy to Rome and Venice, getting a small taste of the people and culture as well as the country's politics. Although set in the present day, the novel touches on events that took place in Venice during the Second World War. While Italy was an ally to Germany during the war, there were those who resisted. There were also those who sought to bring down the Allied Forces, particularly England. And what better way to strike than at the economy?

Despite pressure from the Germans and his superiors to make an arrest, Cenni is determined to get to the truth no matter the outcome. With help from his colleagues, his brother the bishop and good investigative skills, Cenni just might find what he's looking for.

There is an overreaching story arch in the series involving the kidnapping of a woman Alex Cenni loved twenty years before who had never been seen again. Cenni believes he spots her while in Venice and the main story line takes a slight detour as he attempts to track her down. I found this to be a bit off-putting. It does serve to offer another side to Cenni, however, so in that way worked more fully develop his character.

There are a number of characters, many of them quite eccentric, each with their own dark secrets to bear. The murder victim herself has quite a colorful past, and not one anyone would envy. She was a master at manipulation and uncovering secrets, then using those secrets for personal gain. She had made quite a few enemies over the years, including those in her inner circle.

Alex Cenni is cynical and a maverick. He does not always follow the rules but he just about always solves his cases, even if it means arresting someone of high profile and earning the ire of his superiors. Even as he gets closer to learning who killed Baudler, Cenni begins to question the reasons he went into law enforcement and wonders if it is time to move on. Assisting him on the case is Elena Ottaviani, a friend as well as a colleague. She is firm in her stance for equality between men and women and does not take kindly to stereotypes. She's very capable in her job and deserves a lot of credit for putting up with Alex Cenni's occasional mood swings. She also is not afraid to point out when she believes he is out of line.

Grace Brophy's crime novel, A Deadly Paradise, is the second in a series featuring Alessandro Cenni. It is full of complex and interesting characters. The novel is a carefully crafted mystery that had me guessing for a good portion of the novel. Now to track down the first book in the series and read it!

Rating: * (Good +)

You can learn more about Grace Brophy and her books on the author's website.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Niagara Falls (U.S. Side)

Niagara Falls (United States side of the Falls)


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Review: Grey Matters by Clea Simon

Professor Bullock's office was an academic's hideaway, a throwback to an earlier era. Bookshelves ran up every wall, which between the dim lighting and the constant fog of tobacco seemed to be even taller than they probably were, reaching to an unseen - doubtless smoke stained - ceiling. A series of lamps, some precariously perched on piles of books, shed strategic shafts of light on the professor's stained blotter and one shabby reading chair, its armrests pockmarked with small burns. No computers had infiltrated this bookish retreat, nor any other signs of the last century really. [pg 3]

Grey Matters
by Clea Simon
Severn House, 2010
Crime Fiction; 232 pgs

A mystery with Gothic undertones seems a fitting book to read on a rainy day; at least I think so. I enjoyed my introduction to author Clea Simon's latest series in Shades of Grey, and looked forward to revisiting Dulcie and friends in the second novel, Grey Matters. A murder, dark secrets, a ghostly cat, and a dash of romance make for an entertaining read.

Dulcie Schwartz hasn't had a particularly good week. Her roommate Suze is busy with her final year of law school and a new boyfriend. Dulcie's own boyfriend, Chris, seems distracted, always working with hardly any time for her these days. The new kitten in her life is no substitute for her beloved Mr. Grey, who seems to only appear to her in ghostly form when she needs a little nudge or to be comforted. Her thesis adviser isn't on the same page in terms of her research, and Dulcie feels at a loose ends as a result. After a meeting with her adviser, she nearly stumbles over the dead body of a fellow graduate student right outside her adviser's house. As she looks at those around her as possible clues as to why he was murdered, she discovers that quite a few people around her are holding secrets of their own. Dulcie does not like to think the worst of her friends and colleagues, but she cannot ignore that something is going on, and one of them just might be involved in the murder.

The kinship I felt with the main protagonist in the first book was renewed in the second as I stepped into Dulcie's life again. I cannot help but think just how much she and I are alike personality wise. We both have a penchant for letting our minds wander--and analyzing just about everything we hear and see. She is rather soft-spoken and kindhearted. Dulcie may not always say what is on her mind immediately, but she is not afraid to take risks or do what must be done. She is ever curious, a trait that occasionally puts her in the middle of danger, however unintentional.

Throughout the novel, Dulcie continues to struggle with her graduate thesis. Her recent research threatens to derail all the progress she has made. My own graduate school experience was quite different from Dulcie's, but then, so was my discipline. The self-doubt and challenges that come with research and juggling other academic responsibilities is something I remember all too well.

As a book lover, I really like the bookish side of Dulcie and her love for books. Her interest in 18th century Gothic literature seemed particularly intriguing to me this round, having just read a historical fiction book set in that time. A book had been alluded to in that particular novel that stirred my interest and I found myself researching novels written during that time. Even though I hadn't yet begun reading Grey Matters, I had, in fact, thought about Dulcie and Clea Simon, wondering if they had come across the same titles in their own research.

The cats are as delightful as ever, and not at all overbearing to the story. I couldn't help but see my Anya in the kitten Dulcie had taken in and Parker in Mr. Grey. While Mr. Grey occasionally offers Dulcie cryptic advice, his appearances are more often than not rather vague--did Dulcie really see a swish of a tail or feel a presence rub against her leg? While it's clear that Dulcie believes so, others around her aren't so sure.

All of this is wrapped around the murder mystery in such a way that made it all the more intriguing. I was never quite sure who to suspect of what, but I knew something was up just as Dulcie did. Although I have enjoyed each of the books author Clea Simon has written that I have read, both in her Theda Krakow series and in this one, I must say that Grey Matters is her best book yet.

Rating: * (Very Good)

You can learn more about Clea Simon and her books on the author's website and on her blog, Cats & Crime & Rock & Roll.

Source: My copy of Grey Matters was provided by the author for review.


© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Monday At the Movies: Doubt

(Disclosure: I rented the movie through Netflix.)


Doubt
(Drama, Mystery - 2008; rated: PG-13; directed & written by John Patrick Shanley)

Netflix Summary:
In this Oscar-nominated adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's Tony-winning play, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) begins to have doubts about doting priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who seems to have become overly involved in the life of a young African American pupil. But Flynn isn't the only one she doubts. Is she overreacting to the situation, or is there truth behind her convictions?
I'm afraid I am writing this review weeks after having seen the movie. So much of it has faded into the shadows of my memory. So forgive me for not going into it more deeply.

A priest befriends a black student, the only one in the school. Is the priest's attention an effort to ease the boy's transition into a somewhat hostile environment or is there something more there? Sister Aloysius believes there is. Her suspicions only grow the more she observes and learns about Father Flynn. Why did he leave his last perish? Why was he holding the boy's shirt and returning it to the boy's locker? And what about the other boy in the school, the one who flinches and acts out whenever Father Flynn is around?

Amy Adams' character, a young nun, is plagued by her own doubts. On the one hand, Sister Aloysius' makes a convincing argument. But then, so does Father Flynn. Is he being singled out by an overly paranoid nun?

Meryl Streep, Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman give amazing performances--emotional and thoughtful. Even so, I do wish the movie had gone a little farther, delved a little deeper. The movie itself is thought provoking, leaving in its wake many questions. I never doubted that Sister Aloysius believed Father Flynn was molesting the boy. And yet it was hard to believe that Father Flynn had done anything wrong. He was equally as convincing. The boy himself did not disclose any abuse. In actuality, Father Flynn was a much more likable character than his accuser, and I found myself wanting to believe his side over hers. And yet. There was always that doubt. Could I ever really be sure? There was that other boy to consider, the one no one really addressed . . . And sometimes the most charming and genuine-seeming people are the most dangerous. The evidence the sister was collecting against him, however, was really rather flimsy--and could have been completely innocent.

The title of the movie is quite fitting as not only are the characters full of doubt, of each other and even themselves, but it leaves the viewer just as much in doubt. At least it did this movie viewer.


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