Sometimes I feel rather stupid when it comes to scence so this week I wish I could get "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson.
Cover of A Short History of Nearly Everything
From Publishers Weekly:
"As the title suggests, bestselling author Bryson (In a Sunburned Country) sets out to put his irrepressible stamp on all things under the sun. As he states at the outset, this is a book about life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens. "This is a book about how it happened," the author writes. "In particular how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since." What follows is a brick of a volume summarizing moments both great and curious in the history of science, covering already well-trod territory in the fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on. Bryson relies on some of the best material in the history of science to have come out in recent years. This is great for Bryson fans, who can encounter this material in its barest essence with the bonus of having it served up in Bryson's distinctive voice. But readers in the field will already have studied this information more in-depth in the originals and may find themselves questioning the point of a breakneck tour of the sciences that contributes nothing novel. Nevertheless, to read Bryson is to travel with a memoirist gifted with wry observation and keen insight that shed new light on things we mistake for commonplace. To accompany the author as he travels with the likes of Charles Darwin on the Beagle, Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton is a trip worth taking for most readers."
In the 7th installment of the Chicago's PI V. I. Warshawski’s novels, Vic becomes involved more with her Racine street neighborhood. The area undergoes gentrification of a kind and some unpleasant yuppies have moved in. New neighbours not only renovate their houses and trim their lawns, they are also complaining about the old residents and positively harassing an elderly lady, a Mrs. Frizell, who owns more dogs than she could take care of. When she falls in her bathroom and is taken to the hospital in a very bad state the friendly Mr. and Mrs. Pichea obtain the guardianship over her in record time and put down all her dogs immediately afterwards. Why were they in such a hurry? What do they want to find in her dilapidated, filthy house? As Vic’s and Mr Contreras’s dog, Peppy, got pregnant by one of Mrs. Frizell’s dogs, Vic decides she is responsible for Mrs. Frizell's fate and tries to get a closer look at these suspicious activities.
In the meantime an old friend and colleague of Mr. Contreras, Mitch Kruger, is in trouble and then missing. Before the disappearance he often boasted about becoming rich any time soon. When his body turns up in the morgue Mr. Contreras is devastated. Allegedly his friend was found on the bank of a sanitation canal flowing through his old workplace, Diamond Head. The police are sure it was simply a result of an ill-fated accident – Mr. Kruger liked drinking a bit too much. They fail to persuade Mr. Contreras, though, who wants Vic to investigate - he doesn’t believe his old buddy was stupid enough to stroll drunken along the well-known, dangerous waterfront, fall into water and drown. What was he doing on the premises anyway? Getting any info in this case will prove to be extremely difficult as people in high places are involved and they don’t want anything to leak out - an action indicating that there's plenty of illicit money involved.
What I liked:
Like any Warshawski story, this one is a page-turner. I had a lot of fun stepping back to the times before omnipresent cell-phones, when computers had a blinking cursor or a menu - no Windows - and the main lead can still use her Olivetti (if you don’t recognize the brand name it was a typewriter, very popular and rather sturdy) The disgust at corporate shenanigans and rip-offs can resonate today and, I suppose, any time. I also enjoyed finding out more about Vic’s ex-husband and how they had split up. Peppy the golden retriever had puppies btw!
What I didn’t like:
I admit - the plot was a bit different and less schematic here; still, Vic, as usual, supports an underdog’s case, endangers her life for a pittance and whines a lot because life is not exactly fair and she can’t buy a pair of new running shoes. At least in this installment she didn’t forget about her paying clients and we could even glimpse her elegantly dressed in the company of upscale people for a change. More such fragments and I would like the novel better.
Well, perhaps it is true that most detective stories, if boiled down to the bone, are very schematic tales of crimes and each and every one of them is alike. Good writers, though, know how to stretch a simple story into a few hundred pages without losing readers' patience. Agatha Christie is, in my humble opinion, the master of the art. Most of her stories are simple crimes committed by ordinary people. However, the way she unfolds the plots and develops the characters differs and it is so captivating that I turn page after page with great anticipation of the final conclusion and I eagerly read one book after another, although of course I know well what roughly it will be about. I am sorry but I can’t tell the same about Ms. Paretsky’s books.
The final verdict:
The book wasn’t bad but also nothing outstanding – still too formulaic to keep me truly riveted although I did enjoy some parts of it very much.
The post is following the creative exercise, started and hosted by Brooke Bluestocking Guide. The first part you can find clicking here. Feel free to comment and join in, writing a short story which begins like this:
That’s what happens when you follow your heart...
At that time I studied at a uni and so my income was erratic to say the least of it. I survived mainly on allowances from my parents and a performance grant. Let me explain it a bit - in order to qualify for a performance grant you had to get high scores in all your exams and you was reassessed after every semester. The higher you scored the more money you got – it was thought to be a kind of incentive to study hard and be diligent. My parents encouraged me to try to score as high as possible; after all the money I could get were almost equal to an average salary of a young person working full time. It did make sense; I went to university to study not to work so if I could additionally get paid for it, there it was, a win-win situation, the best that can be.
Only it wasn’t the best for me any longer. I wanted badly my luxury shoes which came with a luxury price tag and I didn’t even qualify for a loan. Who could guarantee whether or not I will be awarded the grant in the next semester? Perhaps a psychic. The shop manager didn’t believe in psychic powers, though; he pondered over my problem for a while and decided that I wasn’t trustworthy and solvent enough. He could only promise that my pair of shoes would be waiting for me two months at the back of the shop: either I manage to earn/steal/beg/wheedle/whatever the necessary sum of money or not. The choice was mine. It was kind of him but not too kind. Apparently I weren’t able to charm him sufficiently well. I must admit charming middle-aged men in shops had never been my strong suit. I wasn’t attractive, I wasn’t pretty, I wasn’t cheeky or funny or dashing. As you see I did need those shoes.
I returned to my hall of residence with a bad financial headache. I had some money put aside but not nearly enough to cover one third of the grand total. I could go and ask my parents but it was a loathsome option. I didn’t want them to know about my strange desire which, let’s be honest, bordered with a folly and was hardly sensible. Like most parents, my mom and dad would instantly draw some far-fetched conclusions like: somebody evil (no doubt a boyfriend or even worse, a foreign boyfriend) is touching her for money or she is pregnant and wants to abort or she’s found a foreign boyfriend (the second one) and wants to go with him clandestinely to some barbarian Arabic country (and yes, she will be forced to convert and marry him and she will be abused, beaten and kept imprisoned forever and she will never be allowed to contact us again…you know the drift). The longer I thought about it the less I liked the implications. No parents involved, full stop.
What about friends? I did know one rich student who owed me some favours and would be able to lend me the sum I wanted but still she would also grill me what I needed it for. I didn’t want to tell her about my shoes. She might have played me a dirty trick, buying them and preening herself on wearing them. Oh well, trying didn’t hurt and I didn’t need to be totally honest with her either. It was enough to think up a good cover story.
Finally of course I could look for a part-time job or any odd jobs available around but I was adamant about one thing - my marks and grades at the Uni couldn't suffer as a result. Losing my grant would be very painful indeed so I wasn't prepared to take too great risks.
V.I. Warshawski, the female private investigator created by Sara Paretsky, is back, every bit as tough-talking, and justice-seeking as ever. In the book published after a four-year hiatus, Vic is also noticeably older, a tad more jaded and once again unavoidably broke.
Multimedia conglomerate, Global Entertainment, has purchased the Chicago Herald-Star, and nobody knows who will stay employed and how long. Reporter Murray Ryerson, V.I.Warshawski's longtime friend, manages to reinvent himself as the host of a television show on Global's network, featuring Lacey Dowell, the local Chicago girl of Hispanic origin ho has risen to Hollywood stardom. However, driving home from a party thrown for the occasion V.I. almost runs over a badly battered woman lying in the street in a Lacey Dowell t-shirt. Vic brakes hard and tries to help her, ruining her car in the process. The medics take the unconscious woman, called Nicola Aguinaldo, to a nearby hospital but she dies during the night.
The Good Samaritan act will drop V.I. squarely in the middle of a boiling intrigue. Next day some policemen visit her and try to blame her for the accident in a very persistent manner. Acting in self-defense, Warshawski has to dig hard into Nicola's past. She discovers that the victim was a prison escapee from a private prison facility run by B.B. Balladine, the owner of Carnifice, the world's largest providers of private security and prison services. Why did she wear a hugely popular t-shirt then? The case becomes even more interesting because Nicola, although an illegal alien, had been formerly employed as a nanny to Balladine's children, and was in prison for stealing a necklace from his wife. Why did she make such a desperate move? Soon enough V.I. finds out that there is a connection between Balladine and Lacey Dowell's employer, Global Studios mogul Ted Trent. In this case V.I. will be ahead of the game if only she gets out alive. It is a big “if”. After all the entertainment industry is a formidable enemy – even the closest friends might balk at supporting her in such a crusade.
What I liked:
I admit the book is a good read in the best Paretsky/V.I. tradition: the plot is fast and absorbing, including some unexpected twists and turns. The author apparently hasn’t lost her touch - the lead characters come across as very real especially because, contrary to many other mystery series, they age and must face that challenge. I also appreciate the fact that Paretsky doesn’t forget background characters from other parts. The prison scenes, although quite disturbing, are vivid and well drawn in my opinion.
What I didn’t like:
Although Paretsky has allowed V.I. to age, she definitely hasn't allowed her to mature. V.I still acts as if she had nothing to lose and then, facing the consequences, she becomes rather whinny. A little bit responsibility and listening to advice of Lotty, her mother substitute and a long-time friend, would do her some good. After all, like in the previous novels, nobody wanted her to do that job and nobody asked her to stay involved.
I hate to say it but I noticed that most of the Vic series books revolve around an ossified formula. The heroine remains relatively poor as she can’t keep enough of well-paying clients, yet she perseveres and in the end, like in some cheesy B class movies, everything turns out just fine – all of a sudden she ends up with a fat check from a grateful rich person, who is only peripherally involved in the story. Strange thing is the money vanish quickly in the next book, as if only a poor investigator would make a good investigator, leaving V.I. penniless again. Maybe it’s time for a change?
Finally, too many of the characters in this book seemed to be two-dimensional: either all good or all bad. They are also easy to distinguish. A tip: baddies can’t pronounce V.I.’s Polish surname. A bit spurious, taking into account the fact that Chicago is one of the biggest centers of Polish immigration in the USA.
The final verdict:
I still liked the story but, unless the formula changes, I might think twice before reading the next installment.
This week I owe my wish Tracy and Deepali who both got me interested in "Good Omens" by Terry Pratchet and Neil Gaiman.
Cover via Amazon
The description of the product from the Amazon site: Pratchett (of Discworld fame) and Gaiman (of Sandman fame) may seem an unlikely combination, but the topic (Armageddon) of this fast-paced novel is old hat to both. Pratchett's wackiness collaborates with Gaiman's morbid humor; the result is a humanist delight to be savored and reread again and again. You see, there was a bit of a mixup when the Antichrist was born, due in part to the machinations of Crowley, who did not so much fall as saunter downwards, and in part to the mysterious ways as manifested in the form of a part-time rare book dealer, an angel named Aziraphale. Like top agents everywhere, they've long had more in common with each other than the sides they represent, or the conflict they are nominally engaged in. The only person who knows how it will all end is Agnes Nutter, a witch whose prophecies all come true, if one can only manage to decipher them. The minor characters along the way (Famine makes an appearance as diet crazes, no-calorie food and anorexia epidemics) are as much fun as the story as a whole, which adds up to one of those rare books which is enormous fun to read the first time, and the second time, and the third time...
This week feel free to explore the futuristic Atlanta full of supernatural and paranormal beings. The horrors are awaiting you in "Magic Bites" by Ilona Andrews - here is one fragment to tease you mercilessly ;):
"What kind of woman greets the Beast Lord with 'here kitty,kitty'?" he asked. "One of a kind." I murmured the obvious reply. Eventually I had to look him in the eye.
Our main heroine is a young lady, Miss Deborah Grantham, who, being an orphaned child without her own personal fortune, happens to help her aunt run a gambling house. As you might guess it is an occupation that is not looked on with approval but at least you don't lead a boring, lone life. In fact pretty and viviacious Deborah drinks champagne every evening and has plenty of admirers. Young Lord Marblethorpe, is one of the most ardent ones and, to the utter distress of his aristocratic mother, plans to marry the girl as soon as he turns 21. Deborah, hardly pleased, tries to talk some reason into his young head although the marriage would solve most of her and her aunt’s problems – the truth is that deep down the girl remains a very decent person. She is forced by circumstances to be in company with rogues and gamblers but she is not enjoying their wickedness. However, who would believe her?
Lady Marblethorpe, considering the situation as serious, calls upon her nephew for help and thus we meet Max Ravenscar, a 35-year-old, extremely rich bachelor of " lean, harsh-featured countenance with an uncompromising mouth and extremely hard grey eyes". Definitely not a man to be trifled with. He likes boxing and horses; he is also known as quite tight-fisted. After a short conversation with the distressed aunt he becomes absolutely confident that a monetary offer will be sufficient to free poor young Lord Marblethorpe from bad company and send a harpy like Miss Grantham on her way. He soon discovers, though, that Deborah is not an ordinary miss but a feisty Amazonian with plenty of backbone. The stage is set for a very funny battle of wits between two strong-minded and determined people. Small wonder it will end with two marriages.
What I liked:
The story is full of action and moves along at a cracking pace - there are mishaps and miscommunications, elopements, kidnappings, and, at only 285 pages, it makes for a quick and entertaining read. Ms Heyer was a meticulous researcher and each of her books will reveal its own snippets of historical and cultural knowledge and a little something that makes it unique. I do appreciate all these efforts but still, plot-wise, all Heyer novels do seem very similar. Sometimes it is a good thing though – you know what to expect.
What I didn’t like:
The repetitiveness of the plot. In Ms Heyer’s world if a young, well-bred, beautiful lady is in dire financial straits she must and will meet a rich bachelor and fall in love with him. There’s always a happy marriage at the end. If only real life was as simple as that…and where are stacked up all the hordes of ugly girls without money btw?
Apart from that I don’t particularly like the cover of my edition (posted above). Obviously the dress of the lady is totally wrong but even worse , why is this young woman playing a harp? Shouldn’t she be playing cards or a roulette instead? No character in the book played a harp EVER.
The final verdict:
This is my second regency romance by Georgette Heyer and I must admit that, unless you are an absolute and devoted fan, you have to be in the mood for the period and for comfortable “happy endings” to read books of Ms. Heyer. I don’t want to imply that personally I am never or hardly ever in such a mood but sometimes her romantic novels do seem just too maudlin for a modern woman. This one wasn’t bad but I did feel I have read something like that not so long ago…in short no surprise whatsoever. Still, plenty of fun.
Magic Bites is the debut novel of a husband-and-wife writing team Ilona and Gordon Andrews, known as Ilona Andrews. Written in the popular dark urban fantasy genre it is set in a futuristic Atlanta and features a strong female protagonist named Kate Daniels- a very talented maverick and a loner who despises discipline. So far, four books have been written, all of them with “magic” in titles.
Synopsis:(from the back cover)
Atlanta would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the magic…. When the magic is up, rogue mages cast their spells and monsters appear, while guns refuse to fire and cars fail to start. But then technology returns, and the magic recedes as unpredictably as it arose, leaving all kinds of paranormal problems in its wake.
Kate Daniels is a down-on-her-luck mercenary who makes her living cleaning up these magical problems. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, her quest for justice draws her into a power struggle between two strong factions within Atlanta’s magic circles.
The Masters of the Dead, necromancers who can control vampires, and the Pack, a paramilitary clan of shapechangers, blame each other for the bizarre killings – and the death of Kate’s guardian may be part of the same mystery. Pressured by both sides to find the killer, Kate realizes she’s way out of her league – but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
What I liked:
I liked an original spin on mythologies from all the corners of the world and the new approach to fairly well-known creatures like shape-shifters, wereanimals, vampires, upirs and so on. These creatures, some of them evil, some rational, really differ from other conceptions; especially vampires are definitely quite another kettle of fish than e.g. these perfect, beautiful monsters known from S.Meyer books. I fancy Ms Andrews’s take on them better I admit. Also the female lead catches your imagination – nerdy but not overly so, funny and surprisingly fresh. A snappy, fast-paced mystery plotline will keep you glued to the book from the beginning to the end. I didn't guess the identity of the worst baddie being distracted by mythological bits. They did their homework no problem!
What I didn’t like:
The book momentarily reminded me of Quentin Tarantino movies and I am not a fan of them – I don’t enjoy seeing too much blood, violence, the trivialization of death, senseless killings and cheesy martial arts scenes. Similarly, in this novel the whole struggle against evil boiled down to just trite bloodbath including the main heroine which, of course, is left pretty much uscathed. Right. It might perhaps excite frenzied teens high on hormones but not a more mature reader. I am not sure if the Adnrews team would like their own daughters to read such a book by the way. I hope other installments will be based more on thinking and psychology, less on action. We’ll see.
The final verdic:
I’ve never been into urban fantasy but now I feel tempted to check out other books from this series; the first one, despite its weak points, really wasn't that bad as recreational reading.
This week my wish is pretty simple - as it's been raining too long I wish I had the Parasol Protectorate trilogy (at least so far a trilogy) by Gail Carriger. In fact I've already ordered ithearing that a new book has been launched not so long ago. Simple wish, isn't it?
This week feel the atmosphere dominating the criminal underworld of Chicago - a fragment from "Hard Time" by Sara Paretsky.
"While the officer undid the lock, she whispered that her mother was an upholsterer, that she'd bring her over in the morning and get her to repair my couch, no charge. I was too tired and too angry to do anything but nod my sore neck."
The post is following the creative exercise, started and hosted by Brooke Bluestocking Guide. Feel free to comment and join in, writing a short story which begins like this:
That’s what happens when you follow your heart...
That’s what happens when you follow your heart: you end up standing in front of a shop window, drooling over the nicest pair of red stilettos you could imagine and knowing fully well you can't afford them. They were cherry-red beauties, made of calf leather in Italy (where else?), and very, very high - about 5 inches or 12 cm if you live across the pond.
The price tag was taken straight from my worst nightmares, though; a four-digit monster starting with 3...let me only tell you that I could have bought 10 (say:ten) pairs of decent, sensible, genuine-leather shoes for such an amount of money. Why love at first sight can't be cheap? I fell head over heels with these ones nonetheless. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I felt I would be a better, happier person having them on. Without them, my life seemed to be utterly miserable. I had no choice.
I spotted them on a Saturday. Two days later I dressed up for the occasion, put on a bit of make-up and returned to the shop to talk with the assistant and try on the sweethearts. My first date with a pair of shoes. Fortunately you don't have to pay for trying them on. The stilettos were comfortable but painfully high- definitely too high to walk around town or dance or just stand and be bored at functions and such. Not that I go out a lot anyway. Usually I wouldn't even bother looking at them too long - what's the point, after all? You can't wear them - you don't buy'em, as simple as that. Love makes you foolishly blind though, and I was blind enough to ask about any possibility of purchasing one pair on the installment plan. After all for such a sum of money I would be able to get a new laptop or an old car. The assistant was understanding about my inquiry but she had to talk to the shop manager first. I promised to return soon and asked to put aside one pair of the right size. I was sure they might disappear overnight despite the outlandish price - who wouldn't want a pair of such beauties!
Review: Steve Hely „How I Became a Famous Novelist”
Cover of How I Became a Famous Novelist
Steve Hely's novel masquerades as the tell-all memoir of a contemporary “famous author” who reminisces about his way to fame - a bit artificial fame but still.
We meet Pete Tarslaw, the main hero, as a recent college graduate in his thirties who writes essays for college entrants – a rather dubious job to say the least of it. The guy seems to be on the slippery slope to homelessness and unemployment - his hobby appears to be napping and drinking, his hygiene and motivation have degraded to such a level that he's accumulating beer bottles next to his bed as convenient substitutes for the toilet One day, however, his ex-girlfriend sends him an e-mail with an invitation to her wedding which will take place in one year’s time. Outraged Pete becomes desperate to impress her (and everybody else too ) and decides to change his life. He wants to find a vocation that meets preferably all of the following 4 objectives - (1) fame (enough to open up new sexual opportunities and have a personal assistant), (2) financial comfort (without having to have a job again, retire to boating and skeet shooting), (3) a big home on the ocean (with library, bay windows, wet bar etc) and (4) humiliate Polly, his aforementioned ex-girlfriend who dared to find somebody better (an Australian to boot!).
Being a literate and even college-educated person (at least technically) Pete focuses on becoming a writer. He realizes that most best selling authors seem to follow a sort of formula and writing a novel is, in fact, nothing bur a clever con-job. He creates and analyses the formula with the goal of writing a best seller. After a writing course he starts working on his first book, entitled The Tornado Ashes Club. Although Pete manages to get published, the book is initially just another damp squib; only after an accidental quarrel between a critic and a book blogger it starts selling better but then the things are hardly moving in the direction our hero wanted them to go. Be careful what you wish for…
What I liked:
A great idea for a novel - about becoming a novelist! The book is well-written, I liked the excellent, tight humour of the first part – the struggle of the main lead to change his rather miserable life was really funny, not to mention descriptions of the whole publishing business. The novel does call into question the current state of reading and writing books in our very electronically-addicted society and it does it in a very palatable manner. Anyone who has ever had an urge to write a book will likely enjoy it.
What I didn’t like
In short and in my very humble opinion the book would have been a better novella than novel. Apart from that I felt a bit weird reading it as there was not one point in the entire book in which I really rooted for the main guy. He was funny but he hardly inspired sympathy. Apart from that the quotes from "other" books (mostly invented) started to be too similar after a while. The worst thing for me was the fact that laughs really become sparse in second half which reads a bit like any writer’s worst nightmare.
The final verdict:
Good entertainment, not enough food for thought. Pity but I would recommend reading this book even if you don't want to become a writer yourself.
I know I am a bit late but after reading several reviews I wish I could find and read "Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins or, indeed, all the books from " The Hunger Games" series. I've heard plenty of good things about this series and I wouldn't want to miss it.If you have already read it please tell me what your impressions have been.