Monday, January 31, 2011

CR3 #10: A Living Nightmare (Cirque du Freak #1) by Darren Shan

I watched roughly half of the film Cirque Du Freak, and thought to myself , "This is vaguely entertaining. I wonder if there is a book?" And as it turned out, there was!

The first book in the series introduces us to main character Darren Shan, an average 15 year old British schoolboy. He lives with his parents and younger sister and is almost totally average. Then one day, he and his best friend Steve (who seems the very definition of a bad influence) get the opportunity to visit the Cirque Du Freak, a very mysterious freak show. After seeing the show, things begin to go awry for Darren. Steve has some dark secrets, and Darren's adventures with a poisonous spider bring things to a head. Pretty soon, he ends up becoming part of the Cirque Du Freak as a vampire's assistant.

This is not a bad book, particularly if you keep in mind that it's a YA novel. It is probably perfect for the 10 - 14ish range, though I will admit I mostly enjoyed it. The author does very well with using and defining vocabulary words without making it obvious or sounding like a douche (the main reason I couldn't handle reading any of the Series of Unfortunate Events books was the unbearably pompous narrator). This book suffers a bit from "first book in a series" issues, in that there is an awful lot of exposition. On the whole, though, it is a fun little book to breeze through in an afternoon.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

CR3 #9: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is the first book I've read by Neil Gaiman, and I must admit that I only tried it because I saw the film and kind of enjoyed it.

Stardust is the story of Tristran Thorn, a young man of mysterious origins who leaves his small, rural town and heads off into the land of Faerie on a quest to find a fallen star for the girl he loves. He finds the star, but it is not at all what he expected. Tristran also discovers that he is not the only one who has come looking for the star, and that others may have more nefarious uses for it.

This is basically a good old fashioned fairy-tale. With the exception of one or two swear words and a short sex scene, this would be a perfect tale for older children. I enjoyed it, and Gaiman definitely has a way with words and has created very relatable characters. The movie definitely filled out the plot quite a bit--frankly, I found the book ending somewhat dull in comparison--but on the whole it's a fun little book.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Things I Like

I do not normally endorse things (besides books and TV, I guess) but I have a couple things/services that I am really happy about at the moment, and I feel like sharing. I am not being paid or receiving any special favors in exchange for this post--in fact, I doubt any of these entities have any idea I am writing this. This is just me telling you stuff I think you should buy because it is awesome. Take it or leave it.

1. Cake Balls: A lovely woman on Etsy who has a store called The Fetching Hound makes a delicious treat she calls Bitty Bites. Everyone in my immediate circle calls them cake balls, and they are THE SHIT. They are basically balls of moist, wonderful cake dipped in either chocolate or some kind of frosting. She makes a bunch of flavors, though my personal favorite is the carrot cake. They are great to send someone for a gift (or great to order and simply stuff your face with -- I am not judging!)

2. Trader Joe's: I have become obsessed with Trader Joe's. I never thought I could fall in love with a grocery store, but here I am! For those of you who are unfamiliar, Trader Joe's is a store that keeps prices down by basically only selling their own brand of products. However, their products are great, so it's not like you're losing out on anything. The things I love specifically are:
  • Their produce is considerably nicer than that at the grocery store I used to go to. I no longer lose half of every potato to eyes or dark spots. Hell, I don't even really have to peel their potatoes.
  • The frozen foods are great. Specifically, the Mandarin Orange Chicken and Vegetable Fried rice are to die for. We eat them at least once a week, and would eat them more if given the chance. Nothing like reasonable, tasty weeknight meals that can be put together in less than half an hour. They've also got a frozen quinoa mix that is extremely tasty.
  • The Tea Tree Tingle Shampoo: My hair is finicky at best, and I have spent several years trying to find a shampoo that really works on a daily basis. There was a time in the recent past when I had EIGHT different shampoos in my shower. Now I have one, and it is glorious.
  • Everything Pretzel Slims: They are basically just the crispy outside of pretzels, covered with the stuff you'd find on an everything bagel. Wonderful for snacking or dipping.
3. The Body Shop's Body Butter: As well as picky hair, I have unbelievably difficult skin, particularly in the winter. This is the ONLY stuff that helps, and believe me I have tried it all. I don't know about any of the other scents, but I use the Satsuma, and it is not objectionable.

4. Bath & Body Works Spa Socks: I totally live in these when I'm not at work. They don't seem to make a masculine version (unless you are a gentleman who enjoys brightly colored stripes and/or dots...and I know there are some of you out there.) Most have the little rubber dots on the bottom to keep you from careening across any hardwood floor you may encounter, but a warning: they do generate a certain amount of static electricity.

5. The Knifty Knitter Circle Loom Set: I long to be crafty, but I have neither the patience nor the coordination to actually learn to knit. With this set, I managed to knock out a perfectly serviceable (and not unattractive) hat in just one afternoon. There are many other uses, including making mittens, scarves, and socks...though I don't have the book to learn those quite yet. Still, these are pretty sweet and made me feel like a true crafter.

If any of you have any recommended products, let me know. And if you only look into one thing on this list, check out the cake balls. You will NOT regret it (though your waistline might!)

CR3 #8: The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Strain is the first book in a trilogy. It begins with a giant jet airplane landing at JFK and then going inexplicably dark. When the authorities finally board it, they discover every single passenger is dead--or so it appears, anyway.

This is a book about vampires, although their vampires more closely resemble the Reapers of Blade II than they do the traditional Bram Stoker style living dead. They're fast, creepy, gross, and dangerously close to taking over New York City.

Up against these bloodsuckers is a small group of concerned citizens. First there is Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, an epidemiologist from the CDC. (Mostly unrelated note: from the moment I read the name, all I could think of was Dr. Stanley Goodspeed from The Rock. Therefore, I read Eph as Nicolas Cage.) He is accompanied by his on-again-off-again girlfriend/colleague Nora Martinez. There is also Abraham Setrakian, a Holocaust survivor and the group's Van Helsing, a man who has been preparing for this "incursion" since his youth at Treblinka. In other parts of the city, a young Mexican gang banger and an exterminator have their own parts to play. To complicate matters, there is Eph's ex-wife Kelly and their son Zach. All of these characters are watching the world fall apart and trying to figure out how to cope, let alone fight back.

I find that this book very closely resembles another old favorite, Salem's Lot by Stephen King. From the arrival of the master vampire to the small band of slayers trying not to be overwhelmed, there are some definite similarities. In fact, there is a very definite parallel between what happens to the female lead in Salem's Lot and what happens to Kelly here. To be honest, I found it almost distracting how alike the two stories are, though The Strain plays out on a larger stage, and being a trilogy will have more room to spread out.

I definitely enjoyed the book, and I also found it pretty spooky--walking home from work last night, I saw someone sort of staggering along from the opposite direction, backlit by the street light, and had a moment of panic. Although this is not a genre-changing novel, it's certainly a good read, and I intend to invest in the sequels.

Monday, January 24, 2011

CR3 #7: Poppy Done to Death by Charlaine Harris

Poppy Done to Death is the eighth (and probably last) book in Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden series. Aurora is a librarian in a small Southern town where everyone knows one another and where paths always seem to cross. She is very petite and considered a bit eccentric by the locals, and often given a wide berth due to her habit of being in the middle of murder mysteries.

She is recovering from the death of her husband Martin, and is beginning a relationship with an old friend. Things seem to be going well and then--as always seems to happen to Roe--tragedy strikes. Her sister-in-law Poppy (her mother's husband's son's wife) is brutally murdered, and Roe takes it upon herself to help investigate the crime. Poppy was somewhat wild, which makes the investigation more difficult, since it left her with more than the average number of enemies. To complicate things, Roe's younger half-brother arrives unexpectedly to thrown a cog into the whole process.

On the whole, it's an all right book. I enjoy the character of Roe, and was satisfied with the the way things ended for her. The mystery of the book is also adequate, though I felt the solution came out of left field a bit. I am certainly going to miss Roe, but it is not a bad way for the series to end.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

CR3 #6: Chicago Death Trap: The Iroquois Theatre Fire of 1903 by Nat Brandt

It seems that life in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was fraught with danger. At any moment truly horrible things could happen to you--you could drown in a flood, perish in a fire-tornado, be overcome by a torrent of molasses, freeze to death on the prairie*, or die of any number of diseases, including the flu*. God forbid you try and travel anywhere, by any method*--then again, you could also be blown to smithereens while in your own home. Life at that time was perilous at best, even for those who lived lives of relative quiet. It's amazing the country managed to grow and thrive when it seems at every turn there was a disaster like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire*, the horrible destruction of the General Slocum* fire and the sinking of the Eastland* (both of which killed hundreds of women and children), or winter storms that froze school children* to death on their buses. The Iroquois Theatre fire--though the worst lost of life on American soil due to accident until that time--almost becomes par for the course when added in to the context of so many disasters.

In 1903, the Iroquois Theatre in Chicago was a beautiful new building, completed at the end of November just in time for the holiday season. It was the height of modern design, ready to bring in the shoppers and tourists to the matinee. The shows that came through were touring companies, brought by syndicate on tours through the entire Midwest. Unfortunately, what no one realized was that the building was a death trap--a building designed to keep the large crowd in no matter what, fire codes barely complied with or ignored entirely, short cuts taken at every turn in order to open on time, and municipal corruption that caused the city to turn a blind eye to this time-bomb in its midst. The result--the death of more than six hundred people, mostly women and children--shook the city and the country to the foundations.

Nat Brandt leads the reader through all the circumstances that led to this tragedy, the disaster itself, and the reaction of the American people afterward. It's an excellent book, easy to understand, both well-researched and well-written. Although it's nothing particularly new to its genre, it's well worth reading.

*Refers to a book read but not blogged on.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

CR3 #5: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

This is the third in Larsson's The Girl Who trilogy, and I am going to be honest...I was a little disappointed. There was a lot going on, and a lot to like, but when I finished I was kind of let down.

The plot picks up where The Girl Who Played With Fire ended -- Lisbeth Salander fighting for her life in the hospital after being shot by her father, the dangerous Soviet spy who'd been in hiding in Sweden. The plot continues as Mikael Blomkvist and his allies join together to help Salander prove her innocence in several murders and assaults, as well as bring down the nefarious secret society within the Swedish version of the CIA.

Although I was still really into the characters of Salander and Blomkvist, there were just way too many peripheral characters. I know Larsson was trying to show the story from every angle, but it was just overload. I don't care about Blomkvist's lover Erika Berger's travails at her new job with a deranged stalker. I don't care about the internal workings at Blomkvist's magazine. And I REALLY don't need eight pages explaining how this secret internal group came about due to 1970s Swedish politics and HOW THEY GOT THEIR FUNDING. I found myself skimming the pages to try and get back to the heart of the mystery, or at least to a part with either Mikael or Lisbeth. The ending was marginally satisfying, and although I would have been happy to follow these characters more, I was fairly relieved to have the story neatly wrapped up.

This book absolutely cannot stand alone--the second and third book are really one large story--and I'd only recommend it to those who have a desire to finish out the series. It's okay, but nothing spectacular.

Monday, January 10, 2011

CR3 #4: The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

It took me a VERY long time to get into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Those first fifty or so pages describing the Swedish banking system very nearly lost me. However, I figured that since nearly every other person I saw on the train was reading the damn thing, it MUST get better. I was happy I persevered, since once the mystery got rolling, I couldn't put it down.

The Girl Who Played With Fire picks up about a year after the end of Dragon Tattoo. We start out immediately with Lisbeth Salander, who is involved in a near-murder and a hurricane right off the bat. I was psyched, because I though perhaps Larsson had managed to fix his pacing problems in this book. Unfortunately, immediately after that excitement, progress slowed to a crawl again. I didn't have as much difficulty sticking it out this time, since I knew that it would get better, but there was still some very dull spots.

The plot revolves around sex-trafficking, some brutal murders, and secrets from both Lisbeth and Sweden's pasts. Mikael Blomkvist is also back, using his investigative skills to try and solve the murder of two colleagues while doing his best to keep Lisbeth out of trouble. It's a pretty good mystery, with several enjoyable twists and turns.

I really love the characters of Salander and Blomkvist, and they are joined by some interesting new police detectives, including Sonja Modig and "The Bubble." Unfortunately, there are also about 25 other new characters who get to have passages from their points of view, and this can get confusing. Also (this is totally an American problem, and it really embarrasses me to admit I have it) I had some real trouble keeping the characters straight because several have very similar names.

I'd say I would say that despite those issues, I still enjoyed this book a lot. It's rare to find a mystery that I can't solve by the halfway point, and this novel kept me guessing. In addition, Lisbeth Salander is a great character; In my opinion, she's a heroine in the Buffy Summers vein--strong, smart, resourceful, and tough...though clearly deeply scarred by her past and flawed in her relationships with others. Blomkvist is also great, particularly in his stubborn determination to to befriend Lisbeth.

I am now reading the final in the trilogy, and will let you know how that is as soon as I finish.

Friday, January 7, 2011

CR3 #3: Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees

I've been interested in the literature of the Holocaust since I was young. I read everything I could get my hands on about it, trying to understand how such a massive travesty could occur, and how the people involved could possibly rationalize it to themselves, how anyone could have the ability to move on from such a horrific experience. It's been about fifteen years since I read my first book on the subject, and I am probably no closer to understanding than I was then.

Laurence Rees's book, Auschwitz, is focused on that particular camp. He begins by discussing the Nazis' original plans for the "Final Solution" (based on his research, Rees believes their original plan was much different than the one most of us were taught). He continues to explain how Auschwitz was planned, built, and operated, first as a concentration/work camp. He then shows how--due to changes in circumstances both political and logistical--Auschwitz was transformed into the notorious death camp we know it as today.

Rees has done a great deal of detailed research, utilizing old Nazi documents as well as the testimony of a variety of survivors. He has interviews from Jewish prisoners who were brought to the camp from all around Europe, political prisoners from Poland, POWs from the Soviet Union, as well as with camp guards and citizens who observed what happened. He includes excerpts from the memoirs of the man who ran the camp through most of its life, and notes from some of the most well-known Nazi war criminals. Rees tries to explain how average citizens could become part of the machinery of death that killed millions of innocent people without feeling the slightest twinge of conscience.

It's interesting to see how something as horrible as Auschwitz could rise out of political wrangling and bureaucratic complications. The Nazis are often thought of as being a well-oiled machine, stressing organization, planning, and conformity. In Rees's book, he shows how many of their decisions were merely reactions to previous poorly-thought out decisions. They were not so much well-organized as they were masters of bureaucracy...their decisions may have been haphazard, but they were always neatly documented. In the end, the death camps resulted less from an original plan to exterminate Europe's Jews and simply as a way to deal with a population that had been removed from their homes without any idea where they should go.

The book is obviously very dark, and also very dry--Rees does not hesitate to list any facts and figures he may find relevant. It's clearly not for the delicate, as there are descriptions of unimaginably horrible events. However, I'd recommend this book to anyone trying to understand how something of this magnitude could happen and perhaps ways to recognize the signs should it ever start to happen again.

Monday, January 3, 2011

CR3 #2: The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen

The Keepsake is the seventh of Tess Gerritsen's books in the "Rizzoli and Isles" series. I originally started reading these because I watched the show on TNT this summer and enjoyed it. For anyone else who might have the same thought, I'd like to point out the show is LOOSELY based on the books, and by loosely I mean "just barely".

Jane Rizzoli is still the tough-as-nails Boston detective, and Maura Isles is still the medical examiner. However, from there the characters in the books and those in the show differ almost entirely. Rizzoli is tough, but finds herself unattractive and feels she has to fight twice as hard for everything she gains. However, her husband and new baby daughter are mellowing her out a little bit. Dr. Isles is beautiful but lonely, taking refuge in her work and in a dangerous forbidden romance.

The plot in the book revolves around mummy found in the basement of a museum which turns out not to be what it seems. Rizzoli and Isles have to track down a mysterious woman's past while trying to evade a dangerous and highly intelligent serial killer.

This book is not going to make any "Best Of" lists or win any literary awards, but I though it was a fun, quick read. It only took me a couple hours to speed through it--I had trouble putting it down!--and it makes a good addition to the Rizzoli and Isles cannon. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys fluffy mysteries, though it would definitely be best to read the others in the series first, since the book may be able to stand alone, but probably wouldn't do so well.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

CRIII #1: House of God by Samuel Shem

Yay! It is once again time for Cannonball Read! And this year I am officially in! If you're interested in the specifics, check out the link here. Basically, the goal is to read and blog about 52 books in one year. For every one of the registered participants who completes the task, a donation is made to a scholarship fund which benefits the son of beloved Pajiba commenter AlabamaPink, who passed away last year. I managed to complete CRII with just over a month to spare, so I do not fear this challenge! Onward!

This year's first book is House of God by Samuel Shem. House of God is the well-known Jewish hospital in a large New England city (hint hint) where recent medical school graduate Roy Basch finds himself for his first year of medical internship. Over the course of the year, Basch rotates through the hospital, dealing with the gomers (Get Out of My Emergency Room!) who never get well and yet are too old and sick to die, the young people (who DO die), the patient families, residents, attendings, private physicians, administrators, nurses, housekeepers, and the other interns. He makes friends, including Chuck, a fellow intern from Memphis whose destiny has been decided entirely by mail-in cards, Gilheeny and Quick, two policeman who spend their time as "lay analysts," Potts, a gentle intern from the South, and the mysterious Fat Man--a resident who lays down the LAWS OF THE HOUSE and never seems to steer Roy wrong.

However, during the course of the year--in the shadow of the Watergate scandal and the nation's mass disillusionment--Roy finds himself hardening into a cynical, bitter man. He has to contend with a "ROR" (relationship on the rocks) and mounting stress that begins to turn him into a person he no longer recognizes. He has trouble playing hospital politics, particularly when he feels that they are detrimental to the patients. By the end of the book, Roy and the rest of the interns have to decide whether they want to continue on for a second year at the House of God or whether they would be better off somewhere else.

The author, real name Stephen Bergman, was actually a medical intern at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical center, which is just down the street from the illustrious institution in which I work. Although I don't have the same viewpoint as one of the interns or residents, since I am a mere phone-answering paper-monkey, I definitely recognize some of what was going on in this novel. The personality types represented (particularly those further up the departmental food chain) ring true, though certainly exaggerated for the sake of satire. I also recognize the behavior of patients. Medical technology has changed since the mid-seventies, but people never do.

It's an interesting piece of writing, and I would recommend it to anyone who works in or around the medical profession. Although it is raunchy and funny and over-the-top, it's--as John Updike notes in the preface--doing for the medical profession what Catch-22 did for the military. It holds up a fun house mirror and dares the reader to look in and see what he or she recognizes.

It may also make you think very seriously the next time you step into an emergency room...