The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

Before we get into this review, I must make a slightly rambling confession about how terrible I am at challenges this year. I quit two earlier this year for lack of caring, promising myself I would instead focus on the challenges I wanted to do. But somehow this Orbis Terrarum one just completely fell off my radar. It was looking like I would fail, but then I discovered that there were a few foreign books that I hadn’t counted, them being from places like Canada and England, but even then I still needed one more. So I grabbed this book in audio form, intending to listen to it on the trip to Cleveland, but then I didn’t, and then all of a sudden it was practically the end of November (the ending date for the challenge) and I was like, “Noooo I’m going to faaaaail,” but then I found the book in print form at the library and I was like, “Yaaaaaay I’m not going to faaaaail,” and then I read this in a few hours because it’s rather short and finished the challenge with probably two hours to spare.

Ahem. What you should take away from that story is that I did not spend as much time with this book as one really ought to. It is strange and slightly difficult to follow at times, and while I think I understand some of what the book was trying to say, I am positive that I don’t have it all. I think this is one of those books that you need to read several times before you can stop only pretending to know what it’s about.

After reading number one, though, I can safely say that a major theme here is that everyone has something they need to do, and not terribly many people ever do that. The story follows along with a Spanish shepherd as he has a strange dream, finds out that the dream means he should go to the pyramids in Egypt and find a treasure, and then sets off to do that. He gets stopped several times along the way and thinks, “Ah, perhaps this thing that is not finding treasure is what I am really meant to do, I should just chill here for the rest of ever,” but always something pushes him on to his goal, and he eventually makes it to the pyramids and also learns how to become the wind, which is a pretty cool trick, I’d say.

This theme is interesting, because at first when the concept of a Personal Legend (this thing you need to do) came up, I was thinking it was along the lines of following your bliss or doing what you want to do rather than what others want you to. But that’s not it at all — there are many times when the shepherd knows exactly what he wants to do, but if it’s not finding that treasure then something happens or someone talks to him to change his mind. So that’s rather disappointing, because I’m sitting here not even knowing what I want to do, let alone knowing what strange path has been carved out for me that I ought to go seek out to find true happiness and fulfillment. Scratch disappointing, that’s downright depressing!

But another interesting thing that Coelho touches on is that people get even more depressed if they figure out what it is that they ought to be doing but for whatever reason, actual or mental, are unable to do it. So I suppose I could be feeling worse right now!

This is definitely a book that I will read again sometime, and probably will tell other people to read so that they can talk about it with me.

Recommendation: For those with some time for deep thought and at least a passing interest in philosophy.

Rating: 8/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist

Dudes. This was a really good book. I love me a dystopian novel, and I thought this one was especially effective because I could really, definitely see it happening. The Hunger Games? Eh, maybe. Shades of Grey? Definitely not. The Handmaid’s Tale, which this reminded me strongly of? Not really. This? Oh, I could totally see this.

The “this” I’m talking about is a world where the people we love are no longer dying for stupid reasons like decades-long organ transplant waiting lists… because the older, procreatively-challenged members of society are ready and mostly willing to fork over a kidney, or a cornea, or an auditory bone, or a liver, or a heart whenever there isn’t anyone else around to do it.

See, over in that Scandinavia area (if not everywhere), the population is divided into “needed” people — parents, schoolteachers, nurses — and “dispensable” people, with no one to take care of. These dispensable people are taken away at a ripe old age (50 for ladies; 60 for gents, who can sow their seeds a bit longer) to live in one of the titular Units, where they live wonderful lives of comfort and ease, with no need to earn money or cook for themselves or do anything at all that they don’t want to, except, you know, participate in medical and psychological experiments and donate an organ here or there until it’s time to donate a major organ.

Our dispensable friend is Dorrit, who didn’t try terribly hard to become needed and is rather enjoying her time in the Unit. We follow along as she has a relatively easy time of things, makes friends, makes a “friend,” and then makes a baby, which sort of throws everything out of whack both in the Unit and in Dorrit’s life. And boy, do things get interesting from there.

It’s not ever terribly exciting… the story is fairly slow-paced and the focus is really on the emotions of the people within the Unit, which are quite up and down, as one might imagine. And Holmqvist does a great job of this. She also does an excellent job portraying the whole Unit system as a pretty good idea, really, if not a very easily sustainable one.

There is a whole boatload of intriguing in this novel, and I may have to read it again at some point to really appreciate what Holmqvist has done and to look again at the interactions between the characters in a new light.

Recommendation: Grab it if you like a good dystopian novel or a good psychology-driven narrative.

Rating: 9/10
(Orbis Terrarum: Sweden, A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
Reading matters
Jules’ Book Reviews
At Home With Books

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Black Minutes, by Martín Solares

I saw this book hanging out in the “new mysteries” section of my library, and I was completely drawn in by the cover. And then I skimmed through the jacket flap and discovered that the author is from Mexico and said, “Hey! Orbis Terrarum book! Excellent!” So I grabbed it.

What a tough book. It starts off with a three-page cast of characters, many of whom have not just a given name but also a nickname (or two). I was glad for these pages later in the novel when I was like, “Who are these people? Is this guy that guy from before? No? Who the heck is he?”

It’s also tough because the mystery at the beginning, which is all interesting and stuff, is actually a frame story for a mystery from twenty years earlier which takes up most of the book. So then when it’s time to get back to the present, you get a bit of whiplash. The novel is broken up into three “books” to delineate these times, but it’s still a little confusing.

And, for even more fun, the book switches from third person to first person (with different first people) on a regular basis, and there are a couple of weird dream-sequence-type things that I’m not sure about. I’m not up on the literature from Mexico, so maybe this is a thing? Or maybe it’s just Solares’ thing. I don’t know.

But, regardless, the story — especially the 20-years-ago mystery — was incredibly interesting and engaging. It reminded me of Tana French‘s novels in that the mystery is good, but the novel is about so much more than that. In Solares’ case, his novel is really about corruption in the Mexican government and police and everywhere, really, and how a man trying to stay uncorrupted can deal with all of that and even, later, how a corrupt man can deal with all of that. Solares does a great job of showing how rampant corruption is, and today, a few days after finishing the book, I’m still feeling a little paranoid. I think that’s a sign of an excellent storyteller.

Recommendation: Check this out if you like your mysteries with a little more literary slant, like Tana French’s, and have some time to spend reading this through slowly. This is not a novel you’ll get through in a day.

Rating: 8/10
(RIP Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Mexico, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
[your link here]

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas

I have… absolutely no idea where I heard about this book, but I heard about it somewhere and was like, “zomg I must read this!” So I put it on hold at the library, and many moons later it finally came in, and I read it. I know, you’re like, “No way.” Way.

Right. Back on topic. No idea why I read this book, and no real expectations going in, which was probably a good thing, as it is French and therefore super-weird. Just a couple pages in, there is the greatest dialogue of the whole book, which I cannot transcribe for you because I had to return the book to the library pretty much ten seconds after I finished reading it, but which involves Shakespeare-level puns on blindness. The dialogue goes downhill from there, but it is still amusing.

It is a mystery, and the mystery is that there is some guy drawing chalk circles around Paris. Terrifying, yes? He’s been drawing them around random bits of garbage, but a detective called Adamsberg who is sort of like Sherlock Holmes but French and a little daft thinks that soon enough there will be a dead body in one of them, so he has his officers go out and photograph garbage for a while. Then, of course, there is a dead body, and the hunt is on!

There are a lot of potential killers, and I thought Vargas did a really good job of leading me around — I thought I knew whodunnit, then I was like, crap, no I don’t, and then I was like NO WAY that is ridiculous and also awesome. There is really no character development to speak of, but I still enjoyed all of the characters that she created in their one-dimensional wonder. I guess this is part of a series of Adamsberg mysteries, so I might have to check the rest of them out someday.

Rating: 7/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge: France, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
Back to Books

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

This was a weird pick for my book club, largely because we all liked it. 🙂 When we hopped on Skype to chat about it, we were all like, “Um, it’s good… and stuff… can we read some more Dorothy Sayers now?” Which is interesting, because it’s not really a straight-forward mystery novel like others of Sayer’s, it’s more of a treatise on marriage with a mystery thrown in. You’d think that three marriage-age women (with me married!) could have come up with something to say about that!

Of course, I had only just finished the book before the club, so I hadn’t had too much time to think about what I might want to say about the institution of marriage (not that I’ve got any ideas now!). I was still all, “I can’t believe that that was the murderer! I’m so terrible at guessing these things!” The mystery part goes as follows: Harriet Vane goes to a reunion at her college, and while there picks up some not-very-nice notes. She ignores them and goes home, but soon gets a call from the Dean or the Warden or someone from the college asking if Harriet might oh-so-kindly stop by and help them with this mystery, since she did so well solving that other mystery and also in writing all those mystery novels. The mystery is, of course, that a bunch of other people at the college are also getting these terrible notes, and also some manuscripts are being defaced, and it would all be such a scandal if the real police found out about it.

Harriet takes her sweet time (500 pages!) to figure it out, because there’s also a bunch of stuff in there about Peter Wimsey, an amateur detective who has been attempting to woo Harriet for a very long time, and his relationship with Harriet, as well as many, many long, tedious discussions about whether women should marry and if they do should they have jobs because they’re just going to flake out on their jobs every time their kids hiccup and if you feel you really just must marry someone should you pick someone you actually like or someone who is convenient for you and oh my goodness.

Sayers seems to side with those who choose to marry, seeing as how the women who argue against marriage read as more uppity than those who are for it, but she does throw in a woman for nearly every stereotype — the married and happy, the married and unhappy, the unmarried and happy, the unmarried and unhappy, the completely apathetic — and they all felt pretty real to me.

And of course I can’t argue against marriage, being married myself, but I can certainly see the downside to a woman who gets a wonderful education and then abandons it to motherhood. Of course, I am also in awe of people who can spend all day with multiple children and not want to strangle them, so it’s not like motherhood is all bonbons and soaps, right? So really, I am very unopinionated about this topic! Or possibly my opinion is “do whatever makes you happy.” Yes, that’s it. I like it.

I also like the ending of this mystery, but it’s a hard slog to get there — take it on at your own risk!

Rating: 8/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge: England, Chunkster Challenge)

See also:
Of Books and Bicycles

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Death Note Vol. 1, by Tsugumi Ohba

My first manga! I’m growing up so fast!

So I had to read a manga for my YA class, and I was like… hmm. I know nothing about manga, except that sometimes it becomes movies or TV shows. Conveniently, my dear husband watches many of those movies and TV shows, and so when I showed him the list I had to choose from, he was like, “I’ve seen this… and this… and this… and this…” Delightful! And, being married to me, he sort of knows what I like, so he picked a couple and gave me a brief overview. A tough choice later, I ended up with Death Note.

At first, I was like, “Ohhhhhhhh goody.” I had forgotten what I’ve disliked about all of the anime I’ve watched — that everything is made REALLY OBVIOUS. I was quoting passages of tedious exposition to Scott and saying, “Would you say that in real life? No you would not.” He apologized for making me read a crappy book, but now I apologize to him, because I plowed through this book and pretty much immediately grabbed the next one from the library. It is so engrossing.

The premise is that there’s this death god dude who is really bored and so he drops his “death note” down to Earth. It lands in Japan, where a high-school kid, Light, picks it up and is like, “Suuuuuure, Death Note description. I totally believe that if I write someone’s name in here they’ll die, and that if I specify the manner of death it will happen. Uh-HUH.” Then we skip ahead a few days and find out that Light didn’t just try it out, but is now a prolific murderer of bad guys of all sorts. He thinks that this will be awesome, and that people will start being good for fear of being murdered, and that eventually he will be able to rule over a world of good people. The police and a shadowy figure called only L think that they should probably stop this crazy serial killer.

It’s good stuff. It’s fast-paced and engaging and I forgive the terrible bouts of exposition because they are balanced by a really neat ethical problem and a thrilling plot line. I’ve got a bunch more books to read for class in the near future, but you can bet you’ll be seeing Death Note Vol. 2 up here soon enough.

Rating: 9/10
(Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Japan, A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
Rhinoa’s Ramblings

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan

What a weird little book. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad… it just is. This was another pick for my YA class this summer, and one that I’d been meaning to read since I heard about it on NPR a while back. Not sure I’d have finished it except for my class, though.

The beginning is… awkward, is how I’d put it. As soon as I started reading, I was like, “Wait, this is a young adult book? Ooookay.” It starts with a, um, romp in the hay, as it were, between a young man and woman, and then gets into icky incest between a different young woman and her father, and abortions, and then has a, well, a gang rape. It is less than delightful. It is pretty awful, actually. Which is, I guess, appropriate. But anyway. Soon after these horrible things, the second young woman, Liga, comes across some fancy magic and gets transported into a lovely world where all of the bad people she used to know are gone and where she can raise her two daughters (yes, from the aforementioned bad things) in peace. But of course, it being magic and all, it’s not perfect, and soon outsiders who have no business being in Liga’s world are barging in all willy-nilly and upsetting the balance of Liga’s life.

I liked the middle part of this book very much, with the outsiders and the daughters dealing with them and their lives and Liga sort of seeing what kind of world she lived in. But the beginning part was squicky, and the ending part dragged on a little long and sort of danced around whatever points Lanagan was trying to make. However, I appreciated the point that I did catch on to, that perfect heaven worlds aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be, and I was interested in the descriptions of the real world Liga left behind. This is definitely a good book for thinking about, and would probably make a great book club read if you had the right people for it.

Rating: 7/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2008, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Australia, A to Z Challenge, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:
books i done read
A Striped Armchair
things mean a lot

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley

I read and enjoyed The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie way back in October, and I was delighted that there would be a sequel! I actually got my hands on a copy the day it was released, but various school- and work-related happenings meant I couldn’t read it until it was well overdue to the library. Ah, well. So it goes.

The plot is thus: a travelling puppet show breaks down in Flavia’s village and she makes friends with one of the pair, to whom the other of the pair is acting atrocious. The village’s vicar invites the puppeteer to put on a show in town to make some money for the repairs of his vehicle, and Flavia ends up helping to prepare the show while spending her spare time being incredibly snoopy into the pair’s affairs. Eventually a Terrible Thing happens and Flavia sets to solving the mystery.

It’s hard to summarize this second mystery novel, as it is kind of short on the mystery… I mean, there’s talk of what ends up being the mystery early on, but no one new dies until nearly halfway through the book, at which point I thought that the story would pick up but it didn’t, really. And when the mystery was all wrapped up I wasn’t sure that I, as the reader, had been shown enough clues to have figured out the mystery myself, which always makes me cranky. But for the most part, this book is less mystery and more “let’s put a bit more backstory into Bishop’s Lacey,” which is all well and good but I wish I had been warned.

However, the writing is still fun and Flavia is still delightfully focused on her chemistry, so it’s not all bad. I was thoroughly engrossed in reading the book once I had a chance to sit down and do so, and I am intrigued to see where Bradley goes in the next book, which he is apparently already writing. As long as he doesn’t rely too much on precociousness and science to woo me (which, well, it does), I think the series could do very well.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2010, Orbist Terrarum Cahllenge: Canada, Support Your Local Library Challenge)

See also:

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.

Orbis Terrarum Challenge

Orbis Terrarum! I did it last year with awesome results, so here I go again!

The rules, if you want to play along at home:
*For the challenge each reader is to choose 8 books (for the 8 months of the challenge).
*Each book must from a different country, I have decided to go by the country of origin of the author, or the country he/she lives in is fine as well-meaning NOT the country the book is set in!!
*You don’t have to have a list, that means you can change your mind at any time. As long as there are 8 books you have completed the challenge.

So between 1 April and 31 November, I will be reading delightful books from around the world! I think this is a good idea. I didn’t do too well with last year’s list, though I did read a lot of good non-list books, so I’m going to put the ones I missed back in the pot for this year:
Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones (New Zealand)
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia)
The Story of the Cannibal Woman, by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe)
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco (Italy)
One More Year, by Sana Krasikov (Ukraine)
Let Me In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Sweden)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (Czech Republic)
From Sleep Unbound, by Andree Chedid (Egypt)

If you’ve got any other recommendations, let me know!

The list, as I read them:
1. The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, by Alan Bradley (Canada) (Review)
2. Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan (Australia) (Review)
3. Death Note, Vol. 1, by Tsugumi Ohba (Japan) (Review)
4. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers (England) (Review)
5. The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas (France) (Review)
6. The Black Minutes, by Martín Solares (Mexico) (Review)
7. The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist (Sweden) (Review)
8. The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho (Brazil) (Review)

The Case of the Missing Books, by Ian Sansom (24 October)

I’m… not sure what to make of this one. I picked it up because, well, it’s a mystery with a librarian in it and those are two of my favorite things! But. Well. Let’s start with the synopsis and go from there.

Our protagonist is a late-20s librarian called Israel Armstrong who is a librarian because he likes books and couldn’t think of anything else to do with his less-than-perfect grades. Oh, jolly good. He can’t find a job in London so he ends up off to Tumdrum, County Antrim, Northern Ireland to be a public librarian… except that when he gets there his job is cancelled and they’d rather he be the driver of a mobile library (basically a van full of books that travels to out-of-the-way places to lend to patrons). He’s not excited about it, but he has no money and not much of a life (save for an indifferent girlfriend) so he stays. Somewhere in the middle of the book he finally goes to get the books out of the closed library and into his giant van, but they’ve all gone missing! Oh no! Israel hones up his amateur-sleuthing skills and sets off to solve the case.

Okay. Good ideas, in theory, but in practice? Not so good. First of all, everyone Israel meets in Tumdrum is FREAKING CRAZY. None of them are willing to listen to reason, none of them give Israel half a chance to speak reason, they’re all more interested in mocking Israel for not understanding “English” (read: the Northern Irish accent and slang). His boss even makes it out like 15,000 missing books are somehow his fault. And it’s supposed to be crazy, I guess, but I really very much wanted to punch every single character in the face at least once, especially Israel. I just couldn’t take it.

Secondly, and this will totally spoil the book for you so, you know, warning: Israel doesn’t even end up solving the mystery. No one solves it, because everyone in Tumdrum except for like three people were in on the whole thing. Ugggh. This was seriously one of the most anti-climactic endings I have ever read.

This leads to thirdly: the whole point of this book seems to be setting up the background for the rest of the series (which I will not be reading, no thank you). It’s like how in the first episode of Castle (shut up, I love Nathan Fillion!), there’s a serial killer doin’ his thing in the style of the murders in Richard Castle’s novels, so he goes to consult with the police because maybe he could help, and then at the end he decides to write a new series about the police detective he has the hots for and then that’s the rest of the series, Castle following around the detective on other more exciting cases. That first episode has to be there so that you understand why on earth the police department would let an author go out on murder investigations (and yes, it’s still pretty ridiculous but at least there’s a tenuous reason), but it really has no bearing on the rest of the series, as I think this book will have no bearing on any further mysteries Israel Armstrong and his mobile library encounter.

Oh, and lastly, Ian Sansom uses a butt-ton of run-on sentences. I mean, so do I, but I’m writing a blog, not a novel. Sansom’s sentences aren’t quite up to Henry James caliber, but they are close. Very close.

Um… things I did like? There’s a librarian. He solves mysteries while making delightful references to books. I can’t argue with that.

Rating: 5/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2006, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Northern Ireland)

See also:
an adventure in reading

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.