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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Happy Halloween everybody!  I hope you are having a fun and safe holiday.  I am waiting for trick-or-treaters and trying to convince Reeses that Halloween costumes are not chew toys.

I really enjoyed The Woman in White!  It’s been a while since I read anything Victorian, plus it is really suspenseful, so it was perfect for Halloween reading.  The Woman in White is sometimes described as one of the first mystery novels.  Personally, it reminded me less of a traditional mystery and more of a Hitchcock movie.  Instead of trying to figure out “whodunnit,” the building tension and suspense of the story had me physically leaning towards the book, anxious to find out what would happen next.

Wilkie Collins

Wilkie Collins

There are quite a few characters in this book, all delightfully different.  The first narrator is Walter Hartright, a drawing teacher who meets a mysterious woman dressed in white late at night on the road to London.  His two pupils are half-sisters Marian Halcombe and Laura Fairlie, who happens to look almost exactly like the mysterious woman.  Together Miss Halcombe and Mr. Hartright discover that the mysterious woman is Anne Catherick, a woman whose past connects her both to the Fairlie family and Sir Percival Glyde, Laura Fairlie’s fiance.  In the second half of the book, we meet the Count and Countess Fosco.  Count Fosco is both melodramatic and menacing.  The variety of these characters makes the book a lot of fun.

If you’ve read a Victorian novel before, you might remember that they tend to be long.  Many of them were originally published chapter by chapter in magazines, and The Woman in White is no exception.  In my opinion, it’s one of the best examples of this genre I have read.  Sometimes these books can get a little repetitive, because the writer knew it had been awhile since the last chapter.  Because this novel is told from several viewpoints, it felt pretty fast paced to me.  I also was really impressed by the characters.  Although Count Fosco and Laura Fairlie in particular resemble familiar, melodramatic Victorian characters (think of Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities), they don’t take away from the drama of the story.  It is really very well-written.  I give this book four and a half stars, and I’ll be adding it to my list of great Halloween books!  ★★★★1/2

Little me and little Becca dressed up for Halloween

Little me and little Becca dressed up for Halloween

photo credit: Simon_K via photopin cc

National Book Festival 2014 (part 2)

Hello again! I got to see and do so much at the Library of Congress National Book Festival this year, that I couldn’t possibly fit it all in one post! Today I’ll write more about the authors I saw.

E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow

I started by going to see E. L. Doctorow, who won the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction for his latest novel, Andrew’s Brain.  Instead of speaking alone, he answered questions in more of an interview format.  I was interested to learn about his inspiration for his books, specifically that he often imagines an image to begin his writing process.  (Sorry for the poor picture quality, the lighting in the conference center was a challenge.)

After that, I went to see Kai Bird, whose latest book is a biography of the CIA operative Robert Ames.  He talked about how he researched the book, which I appreciated, since a lot of the nonfiction authors just summarize their books.  This way I stay interested in reading it.  Besides, writing a biography about a spy poses some research challenges, since a lot of the information might still be confidential.  It made for an interesting talk.

 

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe signing my copy of Sinking Suspicions

Sara Sue Hoklotubbe signing my copy of Sinking Suspicions

I headed back to the Fiction and Mystery room to see an author who was new to me, Sara Sue Hoklotubbe.  She writes a mystery series set in Cherokee country.  As soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to read it, so I bought her book and went to the signing.  (I might look for the other two books so I can read them in order though.)  Someone who got up to ask a question began with, “I haven’t read the series yet, but I like you, so I know I’m going to like your books,” and that’s exactly how I felt.  I think every year I found a great new book or series through hearing an author talk, and that’s probably one of my favorite things about going to the National Book Festival.

The last author talk I attended was by Lisa See.  I read one of her books, Peony in Love, in college.  Her new novel is set in California, and I enjoyed hearing about her family’s history and her research about the history of Chinese Americans in California.  I’d like to read one of her books set in my home state!

I started my Christmas shopping by going to two more book signings.  I got a book signed by Anne Hillerman, who is continuing her father’s mystery series.  (That was a nice surprise-we’ve got some big Tony Hillerman fans in the Of Print and Prose family.  I also went to Judith Viorst’s book signing and got two Alexander books signed, one for our nephew’s Christmas gift and an extra one to donate to our mom’s third grade class.  I was especially excited that the authors had time to personalize the books this year!  Although I didn’t see their talks, I plan on watching them on the Library of Congress website.  All the talks from the festival are posted here.

Judith Viorst signing a book for the third graders

Judith Viorst signing a book for the third graders

National Book Festival 2014 (part 1)

my program from the festival

my program from the festival

Hello everyone!  It’s Elizabeth with your annual update from the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival in Washington, DC!  If it seems a little early for that, it is!  That’s just one of the big changes at the book festival this year.  In addition to moving to Labor Day weekend, the festival also changed locations to the Washington Convention Center.  And the festival is back down to one day, instead of two, but they added some new evening programs.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about the changes.  The festival didn’t attract as many big name authors this year, and I suspect it’s because some of them didn’t want to give up their long weekend!  The Convention Center is huge, which allowed them to fit more people and have more programs happening at once, but it was hard to find my way around and took a lot longer to move between locations.  On the other hand, we didn’t have to worry about weather, which is definitely a plus.

Laura and Peter Zeranski, authors of Polish Classic Desserts

Laura and Peter Zeranski, authors of Polish Classic Desserts

There were some new categories added this year, and I got to check out two of them: Science and Culinary Arts.  I had mixed feelings about the Culinary Arts section, because I love cooking but don’t really read cookbooks.  However, all of the participants were really well-chosen.  They had a mix of author talks and demonstrations by chefs, and lots of different cuisines were represented.  I saw part of Laura and Peter Zeranski’s talk.  They write award-winning Polish cookbooks.  I’d love to try a few recipes, apparently they have a good collection of traditional holiday foods.

The science talk I saw was by Eric H. Cline, about his book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.  He started his talk by showing his book trailer, a great idea.  You can see the it here.  (More authors should make book trailers!)  Cline is a field archaeologist and a professor, and his book is about the end of the Bronze Age.

After complaining about the state of the book sales tent last year, I was happy to see that it is now being hosted by a local DC bookstore, Politics and Prose.  They also had a separate gift shop which sold t-shirts and other souvenirs.  I like this idea, but once again I was disappointed that only the author’s most recent book was for sale.  When I find a new author, especially one who has written a series, I want to start at the beginning!  I would be happy for more of my book money to go to a local bookstore or support the festival, but the poor selection means more than half of my booksale-related purchases will come from Amazon.

Overall, I had an excellent time at the book festival.  Although I missed being at the mall, it was great to have more space for this popular festival!  (Plus, I appreciated the air conditioning)  If you want to know more, check out Of Print and Prose’s Twitter page.  I tweeted live updates throughout the day.  I was able to see a lot of great authors this year!  I’ll write more about them tomorrow!

-Elizabeth

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Hello, everyone, and happy summer!  Although I have ambitious reading plans now that school is out, the first thing I wanted to do was read some mysteries!  (Not very surprising, I know.)  I started with the first book in Alexander McCall Smith’s series, which I have been meaning to read for years.

No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series

No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series

When Mma Ramotswe’s father, a successful cattle farmer, leaves her his cattle and suggests that she use her inheritance to start a business, she decides to open a detective agency.  She is the first woman in Botswana to become a private detective, so she names her business the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.  She initially encounters some skepticism from the men in her community, but she counters by referencing Agatha Christie to argue that women make good detectives because they are observant and have a good understanding of human nature.  (Not only did that endear her to this Christie fan, it was quite effective at convincing the characters in the story as well.)

Many of the mysteries I read are part of a series, and I’ve noticed that the first book is often quite different from those that follow.  The author has a lot of extra work to do, introducing the main characters who will recur throughout the series.  Perhaps because of this, the plot structure of this novel was a little different than most mysteries.  Mma Ramotswe opens her detective agency and solves several of her first cases over the course of the book.  I do not know if the rest of the books also contain several mysteries, or just focus on one, but I will be interested to find out.

I’ve heard it said that the best mysteries have a strong sense of place, and this series promises to be one of them.  Alexander McCall Smith’s descriptions of Botswana immediately captured my interest.  I was completely unfamiliar with Botswana before reading these books, but when I recently watched a tv special filmed there, I felt like I recognized the country instantly from his descriptions.

Acacia tree like Mma Ramotswe's

Acacia tree like Mma Ramotswe’s

The main character, Mma Ramotswe, is very likeable as well as being a talented detective.  She is strong, smart, and confident, which helps her to solve several cases despite having no experience in detective work.  She has a strong sense of right and wrong that makes her want to solve problems for her clients and neighbors.  She seems to have a pretty low opinion of men, which is not reciprocated-they seem to like her just fine.

I am giving this book four stars.  It was an enjoyable read, and I am definitely interested in continuing the series.  Give it a try if you’re looking for a nice summer mystery!  ★★★★

-Elizabeth

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleeker/218938868/”>Matt McGee</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

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Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

I’m a huge fan of the author J.K Rowling, so when I heard that she had written a mystery (a favorite genre) under a pseudonym, I was eager to get it.  When Rowling published her first non-Harry Potter book, The Casual Vacancy, a lot of people were disappointed for, I feel, unfair reasons.  It wasn’t set in the wizarding world, there was no magic, and absolutely no 11 year old witches and wizards with which to grow up with through attending midnight release parties at bookstores and then reading several hundred page books in a single sitting.  Like The Casual Vacancy, Cuckoo’s Calling has absolutely nothing to do with the world of Harry Potter.  But it’s an amazing book written by one of the most imaginative and talented writers around – so don’t let the lack of magic wants turn you away!

Cuckoo’s protaganist, Cormoran Strike, is the perfect anti-hero.  He’s an overweight, hairy, newly single private detective with a prosthetic leg and whole lot of debt.  At the beginning of his story, his relationship crumbles, and we later find out he’s the illegitimate child of a classic rocker and a rock-groupie mother.  And yet, within first few pages, you are rooting for him.  He takes on the case of the suspicious death of Lula Landry, a famous supermodel who falls (or is pushed?) from her high-end flat in London.  Lula’s rise to success meant being surrounded by paparazzi (a very real concern for many that Rowling artfully tackles in her writing – even making parallels to Princess Diana’s untimely death) and people she can’t entirely trust.  The police have ruled that it was a suicide – and she has a history of mental illness and a stint in rehab to support such a claim.  But her brother feels that something else must have happened, and so he hires, of all people, Cormoran Strike.

I love mysteries, but like most people, hate when they’re too predictable.  Often, you can guess who the guilty party is once you determine who the author is formulaic-ly trying to convince you, the reader, is the least likely suspect.  This was absolutely not the case with Cuckoo’s Calling, which is extra impressive considering it was the author’s first mystery.  Was it Lula’s drug-addicted boyfriend who she was seen fighting with hours before her death?  A fellow supermodel who was constantly overshadowed by Lula’s success?  Her downstairs neighbor, a successful film producer accustomed to getting what he wants and with a history of domestic violence?  Her friend from rehab, who was desperate for money?  Her uncle, who clearly seems to hate her?  Or any number of other suspects?  Rowling had me equally suspicious of many characters, and I have to say, as the true story of what happens became clear at the end, I was properly surprised.  For that alone, I LOVED this book.  The characters are well-written, the setting current, believable, and interesting, and the mystery was exactly that – a mystery to the very end!  I give this book 5 stars – I highly recommend you check it out while I eagerly await Rowling’s next sure-to-be-fabulous book!  ★★★★★

– Becca

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

Hello, everyone!  This spring, I continued my historical mystery reading spree with Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters.  This is the first book in a series set in Egypt during the Victorian era.  The main characters are English tourists and archaeologists.  The author has a Ph. D in Egyptology, and her love of the country and its history really come through in her descriptions of the sites the characters visit.

When Amelia Peabody inherits an unexpectedly large sum of money from her late father, she decides to travel to the sites of the ancient cultures she and her father studied.  She begins in Rome, where she meets Evelyn Barton-Forbes, a young noblewoman estranged from her family and currently living in poverty.  Amelia hires Evelyn to be her new companion and the two women continue on to Egypt, with plans to sail up the Nile and visit the usual Victorian Era tourist destinations.

Nile River

Nile River

Before leaving Cairo, they meet Walter and Emerson, two brothers conducting an archaeology dig.  Walter and Evelyn are immediately drawn to each other, while Amelia and Emerson’s strong personalities immediately clash.  The parties part ways, but soon meet again, when Walter interrupts the women’s progress towards Luxor, asking for help after a medical emergency at their archaeology dig.

Amelia Peabody is interested in medicine and believes she would have made a good doctor if she had been a man.  She happily agrees not only to provide medicine from her supplies, but also to help nurse Emerson back to health after his fever (despite his protests).  It soon becomes clear that there are other problems with the archaeology site.  The workers hired from a local village believe the site to be haunted, an idea which the English visitors initially dismiss, until they see the figure of a mummy walking near their campsite late one night.   The following morning, they discover that their excavation has been vandalized.  While they remain convinced that their problem is not supernatural, they need to discover who is pretending to haunt the site and why, before any more damage can be done.

This book was a wonderfully entertaining read.  The characters are well-drawn, and the way the four main personalities interact together is lots of fun!  Four strong-willed English visitors to Egypt make a very entertaining basis for a novel.  This book also reminded me that I have been meaning to read the travel memoir A Thousand Miles Up the Nile by Amelia B. Edwards, a real-life Victorian tourist to Egypt (and, I suspect, quite probably Amelia Peabody’s namesake)!  Consider it the first book on my summer reading list!

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a good mystery series.  If you are interested in Egypt, travelling in general, or the Victorian Era, then you really shouldn’t miss it!  Between the humor and the great characters, I give this book four and a half stars.  I can’t wait to read more of the series!  ★★★★1/2

-Elizabeth

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Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane

For my Spring Break this year, Elizabeth and I traveled to Boston, Massachusetts .  I’ve never been (though my family was there when my mom was pregnant with me, so it almost counts) and have been dying to see the city for a very long time.  The trip was everything I expected and more, and you can expect some Reading on the Road and reviews of local coffee shops coming at you soon.  To prepare for my trip, I wanted to read some Boston-based books.  I haven’t read a mystery in a while, so I decided to try Dennis Lehane’s Gone, Baby, Gone mostly because I remember all the buzz it got a few years ago when it was made into a movie.

Before I go into specifics, Dennis Lehane, a Boston-area author must be most screenwriters go-to when they want to make a movie that will get people talking.  As I explored various websites for Boston-set books, I found quite a few that had been made into incredible movies, and nearly all of them were by Dennis Lehane.  Gone, Baby, Gone, Shutter Island, and Mystic River… all by Lehane!  This is an author I think I’ll have to read more of.  The movies didn’t disappoint – and everyone knows the book is always better than the movie!

Gone, Baby, Gone follows 2 private detectives (it’s part of a series, so I should have started with the first book for the full experience, but I didn’t feel like that I couldn’t follow the plot starting with this one) as they try to solve the mystery of a missing girl, alongside various branches of the police force.  The story depicts an area of Boston most tourists don’t see – or want to – one that is seedy with drugs, alcoholism, and poverty.  At times, the story was gritty and I wouldn’t recommend it to overly sensitive people, especially if violence against children is something that is difficult for you to read about.  Nonetheless, I didn’t feel that anything was gratuitous.  In fact, in the real world, there is violence against children, and it IS gritty.  I appreciate Lehane’s method of including it in a story without glorifying or sugar-coating what is all too frequent of an occurrence.  Patrick and Angela (the detectives) follow many wrong turns along the way, and the story has a lot of twists, none of which I was able to predict.  The story was a whirlwind, and while I’m thankful I didn’t see the Boston Lehane depicts – I still highly recommend it to realistic mystery lovers.  In fact, I think I’ll check out a few more books from the series!

I give Gone, Baby, Gone 4 stars.  This is the first novel by Dennis Lehane that I’ve read, but I can assure you that it will not be my last! ★★★★

– Becca