The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

September 17, 2014

woman in white Plot summary (from the publisher): “There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road—there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven—stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.”

Thus young Walter Hartright first meets the mysterious woman in white in what soon became one of the most popular novels of the nineteenth century. Secrets, mistaken identities, surprise revelations, amnesia, locked rooms and locked asylums, and an unorthodox villain made this mystery thriller an instant success when it first appeared in 1860, and it has continued to enthrall readers ever since. From the hero’s foreboding before his arrival at Limmeridge House to the nefarious plot concerning the beautiful Laura, the breathtaking tension of Collins’s narrative created a new literary genre of suspense fiction, which profoundly shaped the course of English popular writing.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • As the description above states, this book launched a whole new genre of fiction. These days, we’re so used to mystery and suspense that The Woman in White comes off as a bit tame. But can you just imagine the popular reception it must have received in Collins’ day? (I’m aware that the critics hated it.) Amazing!
  • I like the technique of using different narrators to give firsthand accounts of important happenings in the novel. This is another Collins trademark that he used to similar effect in The Moonstone. Here, both Walter and Marian’s stories were riveting, while Fosco’s was a bit scary (just because it showed that he had got hold of Marian’s diary).
  • Marian Halcombe was a brilliant character. She was smart, capable, and competent in a time when women weren’t generally considered those things. All would have been lost for Laura without Marian’s counsel and action.
  • Walter and Laura got together in the end. I usually don’t go for the love story angle, but in this case the Walter-Laura romance was kept so far in the background that I didn’t mind rooting for them. I’m glad they got their happy ending, though I knew Collins would have to find some convenient way to get rid of Sir Percival before that could happen.

Disliked:

  • The end took far too long to play out. Once Sir Percival died in the vestry fire, I just wanted Walter and Marian to be able to prove Laura’s identity and wrap things up. But then that whole showdown with Count Fosco had to take place, with the secret society angle included. I admit that I started skimming by then.
  • Was Anne Catherick’s (the eponymous Woman in White) resemblance to Laura ever definitively explained? It was sort of hinted that they may have been half-sisters because of Laura’s father’s philandering ways, but I don’t think the author came right out and confirmed this. Would have been nice to know for sure.
  • Sir Percival was such an odious character that I had a hard time believing Laura would agree to marry him, the promise to her father notwithstanding. He was more than 20 years older than her and had no money or anything else that could possibly make him a good match (except, perhaps, that ill-gotten title). I know that was a completely different time and such odd matches were probably a lot more common then, but still. Laura was so sweet and innocent and the father wasn’t even around anymore! There’s no way Marian would have let her get married!

Rating:

This seems to be a year for me to revisit a bunch of old literary favorites. I first read The Woman in White in high school and remembered liking it a lot. I’m happy to report that the intervening decades have done little to diminish my enjoyment of the book. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

September 11, 2014

mere christianity Summary (from the publisher): In the classic Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, the most important writer of the 20th century, explores the common ground upon which all of those of Christian faith stand together. Bringing together Lewis’ legendary broadcast talks during World War Two from his three previous books The Case for Christianity, Christian Behavior, and Beyond Personality, Mere Christianity provides an unequaled opportunity for believers and nonbelievers alike to hear this powerful apologetic for the Christian faith.

Reaction

I came to this book not because I was interested in how Lewis found God or because I was interested in finding God myself; rather I picked it up because, for the longest time, I had been intrigued by the title. What did “Mere” Christianity mean? I suppose I could have simply found the answer on Google, but in the end, I’m glad I decided to read the whole book.

Lewis quickly establishes that his purpose is to present his idea of what it means to be a nondenominational Christian. This is the “mere” of the title: Christianity boiled down to its most basic tenets and fundamental principles. Thus, Lewis doesn’t give an opinion on the validity of the sacraments, the plausibility of transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, miracles, etc. Instead, he focuses on what he thinks it is to be a Christian. (I almost typed “good Christian” there, but caught myself just in time. Even Lewis himself acknowledged that he was in no position to judge who was a good Christian or a bad one.)

The content of this book was largely taken from a series of lectures given on BBC radio during World War II. Thus, it is very conversational and comprehensible, as opposed to overly erudite and scholarly. It really does feel as though Lewis is just talking to the reader, which is one of the reasons I believe the work is so popular and has held up so well.

Personally, I really enjoyed learning about Christianity through Lewis’s eyes. He made some excellent points (on the surface, at any rate) without being condescending or preachy. I particularly liked how he dealt with the issue of people that don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, yet accept that Christ was a good moral teacher/historical figure. Lewis correctly (in my mind) points out that it’s absurd to think Christ was a good moral teacher because, if he wasn’t actually the Son of God, as he proclaimed over and over again, he would instead be a complete liar or a lunatic — neither of which makes for a model of morality. (This is called Lewis’s trilemma, btw.)

Now I’m not saying that Lewis’s arguments or beliefs would stand up to any kind of strictly logical examination. In fact, I’m sure a number of counterarguments have been published in the last half century or so. All I’m saying is that Lewis speaks to me in a way that other religious writers can’t or don’t, and that I’m far more willing to listen to him on this subject than to almost anyone else.

Rating:

It’s extremely difficult to assign a fair rating to Mere Christianity, but I think it’s sfe to say that if you’re open to a belief in God, you’ll enjoy this book more likely than not. If, on the other hand, you read with the sole intent of trashing or disproving everything Lewis writes, then you’ll probably regard this work as unscholarly and unsound. I belong to the former camp, and therefore give this one 5 stars out of 5.

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Home Audio Systems

September 7, 2014

audio systems Musicians know all about audio systems, right? Well, that’s what I’ve always assumed, at any rate. So when a musician friend recommends a particular speaker system or brand (in this case, virtually anything from Cerwin-Vega) one should listen.

That’s what I keep trying to tell my cousin, but he insists on checking everything out for himself. I’m pretty sure he’ll come back around to Cerwin-Vega, especially after he starts to read full reviews of current products.

In the meantime, I guess I’ll do my part by sending him a book to help set up whatever system he buys.

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The Forgotten by David Baldacci

August 29, 2014

The Forgotten David Baldacci Plot summary (from the publisher): Army Special Agent John Puller is the best there is. A combat veteran, Puller is the man the U.S. Army relies on to investigate the toughest crimes facing the nation. Now he has a new case–but this time, the crime is personal: His aunt has been found dead in Paradise, Florida.

A picture-perfect town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradise thrives on the wealthy tourists and retirees drawn to its gorgeous weather and beaches. The local police have ruled his aunt’s death an unfortunate, tragic accident. But just before she died, she mailed a letter to Puller’s father, telling him that beneath its beautiful veneer, Paradise is not all it seems to be.

What Puller finds convinces him that his aunt’s death was no accident . . . and that the palm trees and sandy beaches of Paradise may hide a conspiracy so shocking that some will go to unthinkable lengths to make sure the truth is never revealed.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The pacing was pretty good in this one. Some Baldacci novels have a tendency to include boring, unnecessary scenes, but everything here served to move the plot along nicely.
  • I’m glad Julie Carson survived. I’m beginning to like her more than I like Puller, and hope she appears more frequently in subsequent installments.
  • I have to admit I didn’t see the twist about the female cop (I already forgot her name) being Lambert’s conspirator. I assumed (as I’m sure Baldacci intended) that it was the incompetent op or the police chief, so give the author points for that one.

Disliked:

  • I hated the whole trope about not using names for characters so that they come off as more “mysterious” or something. We didn’t learn Mecho’s name until near the end of the book, and instead had to read about him as “the man” or “the big man.” That is so dumb!
  • What is the deal with Baldacci’s physical descriptions?? For the men, they all consist of height and weight only! Sorry, that’s not enough to help me picture a character in my head. Would a little more effort here be too much to ask?
  • Ugh, more females throwing themselves at Puller. Is this going to happen in every single book of the series? Let’s just hope the Carson thing lasts a while so we don’t have to endure Baldacci’s attempts at writing “sexual tension.”
  • The action scenes at the end felt way over the top. They were long, drawn-out, and of course featured the good guys overcoming crazy odds. Puller, as usual, was a superman whose fighting and shooting performance didn’t suffer at all despite taking a bullet along the way. Instead, it was a woman (Julie) who ended up in the hospital at the end. Oh, please.
  • The author didn’t do much to put a human identity on the victims of the trafficking operation. That part of the story was very vague and had no sense of urgency about it. There was no ticking bomb here.

Rating:

Well, at first I was interested in this series because the lead character is an Army CID officer. But now it doesn’t even look like his investigations will involve the army, soldiers, or anything else related to the military, so what’s the point of bringing up Puller’s rank and credentials all the time? This book, while a quick read, wasn’t particularly entertaining, which is why I give it just 2 stars out of 5.

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Mr. Monk Gets on Board by Hy Conrad

August 17, 2014

monk gets on board Plot summary (from the publisher): Of all the things that make Adrian Monk uneasy, change ranks high on the list. So when Natalie completes her P.I. license—and technically becomes Monk’s boss—it’s not easy for him to accept. Nor can he accept Natalie attending a business seminar at sea without him, even if it means spending a week with her on a cruise ship.

Between choppy waters and obnoxious kids, Monk finds himself in a perfect storm of anxiety. Luckily, Mariah, the cruise director, is always able to smooth things over…until someone pulls the man overboard alarm, the ship drops anchor—and the crew fishes Mariah’s dead body out of the water.

Finding alcohol in Mariah’s system, the ship’s doctor declares her death an accident, but Monk isn’t convinced. He knows that Mariah and the captain were having an affair. Could someone have pushed her overboard?

When the captain hires Monk and Natalie to look into a mysterious rash of vandalism on board, Monk steers the investigation toward murder…

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I think out of all the books in the series (that I’ve read, I mean), this is the one that feels closest to the TV show in terms of characterization. Monk and Natalie in this book spoke and acted like the Monk and Natalie from the USA series, which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the story. I know the previous author of the book series was also involved with the TV show, but honestly, he wrote, what, like three or four episodes? No disrespect intended, but that just cannot compare to someone who was in the writers room for eight years!
  • The Natalie-as-alcoholic subplot was fantastic! I thought Monk and Natalie crashing the AA meeting the first time was hysterical, and I loved how Natalie kept getting disapproving looks from other attendees for the duration of the cruise. Ha! There’s always a danger that a running joke will wear out its welcome, but this one never did.
  • Can Ellen be gone for good? Pretty please?! I never liked that character and thought her poop store crossed the line into the absurd (yes, even for the “Monk” universe). I don’t object to Monk moving on from Trudy, but it should at least be with someone plausible — and sorry, but poop store proprietor just doesn’t fit that bill.
  • I liked how the author referred to several of Monk’s previous cases (from the TV show) in this book. It’s always fun for longtime fans to be able to recall random episodes like that and understand exactly what’s being alluded to.
  • The final scene with Monk and Natalie not being able to resist taking a new case was wonderful. It captured the essence of those characters so well and just felt right. Plus, it reminded me a little bit of the end of the 100th episode of the TV series, with the two of them huddled over a newspaper in Monk’s kitchen trying to find another case to solve.

Disliked:

  • When Natalie is reminiscing about her family reunions, she says something to the effect that they would have been better if she didn’t “run into a Teeger around every corner.” But of course the Teegers are Mitch’s family, not hers! Surely the author meant to write “Davenport” here.
  • Maybe this was spelled out in the last book, but why did Natalie keep saying she was Monk’s boss? I thought they were supposed to be equal partners now? Plus, their agency is called “Monk and Teeger,” which seems to imply that if anyone has senior status, it’s him. I know this is just a minor detail, but the boss thing was mentioned on several occasions and threw me for a loop each time.
  • I didn’t really care for the subplot involving the four professional women (including a lawyer and an ex-judge) trying to kill the plastic surgeon who was responsible for their friend’s death. Obviously they would have other means of legal recourse and wouldn’t have to stoop to attempted murder to mete out justice, right??

Rating:

Mr. Monk Gets on Board was a fun, quick read that allowed me to spend time with some familiar characters. The main mystery was interesting, there was plenty of humor along the way, and the Natalie-Monk interaction was spot-on. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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NY Times Bestsellers 080314

August 3, 2014

Here are the current New York Times bestsellers in a handful of the more popular categories:

Combined Print & E-Book Fiction:
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E. L. James
A PERFECT LIFE, by Danielle Steel
THE HEIST, by Daniel Silva
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
TOM CLANCY: SUPPORT AND DEFEND, by Mark Greaney

Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction:
UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand
AMERICA, by Dinesh D’Souza
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, by Piper Kerman

Hardcover Fiction:
THE HEIST, by Daniel Silva
THE BOOK OF LIFE, by Deborah Harkness
TOM CLANCY: SUPPORT AND DEFEND, by Mark Greaney
A PERFECT LIFE, by Danielle Steel
THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt

Hardcover Nonfiction:
AMERICA, by Dinesh D’Souza
UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand
BLOOD FEUD, by Edward Klein
ONE NATION, by Ben Carson with Candy Carson
HARD CHOICES, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Paperback Mass-Market Fiction:
ROSE HARBOR IN BLOOM, by Debbie Macomber
A GAME OF THRONES, by George R. R. Martin
TAKEDOWN TWENTY, by Janet Evanovich
INFERNO, by Dan Brown
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, by George R. R. Martin

Paperback Trade Fiction:
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E. L. James
ORPHAN TRAIN, by Christina Baker Kline
THE ALCHEMIST, by Paulo Coelho
THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, by Amy Tan

Paperback Nonfiction:
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, by Piper Kerman
OUTLIERS, by Malcolm Gladwell
THE GLASS CASTLE, by Jeannette Walls

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Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

July 24, 2014

Mr. Mercedes Plot summary (from the publisher): In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • All in all, this was a pretty gripping story. King is a master of the page-turner, and this skill translates well to the crime genre. Count me in among those fans that loved the departure from horror and the supernatural!
  • I enjoyed the little shoutouts to Christine and It. An author of King’s stature should be allowed to reference his past work, shouldn’t he?
  • Bill Hodges was a fairly likable character. Nothing in this first book (King has indicated that Mr. Mercedes is the first of a trilogy) irked me too much or put me off from ever wanting to read about him again. I especially appreciated that he wasn’t a supercop and that his being out-of-shape/retired hampered his investigation at a few points.
  • The disdain for boy bands was funny and well-placed.

Disliked:

  • There’s no way in hell some fat shlub like Bill would get a halfway decent looking woman, 20 years younger than him, into bed. I hate these ridiculous hookups in books!
  • Speaking of ridiculous hookups…Brady and his mother were…just…ewwww!!!! I will never be able to listen to a mother talking about taking care of a child’s headache in quite the same way again :(
  • What caused Brady to suddenly reach out to Bill? Usually there is some kind of triggering event, but here it just seemed like one day Brady decided he was tired of only peeping and wanted to get involved for real. I didn’t get it.
  • Another alcoholic character. Really? I know King is a friend of Bill W., but come on.

Rating:

Mr. Mercedes was an engrossing, straightforward crime novel that was a refreshing departure from typical Stephen King fare. Though some elements of the plot and actions of the characters bugged a bit, I found this to be a mostly enjoyable experience. I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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A Look at Kindle Unlimited

July 20, 2014

So Amazon has just announced their new Kindle Unlimited program. Descibed as a “Netflix for books,” Kindle Unlimited allows subscribers free access to a library of 600,000+ titles from Amazon.com. A fraction of the titles, maybe around 10% (that’s not a hard figure; just a guestimate using the “Whispersync” search limiter), are also available with audio tracks. The price of the service is $9.99/mo, with the first month free.

As someone who reads more than 150 books per year (on average), it seems that Kindle Unlimited would be perfect for me. And yes, I have already downloaded and/or queued up more than 10 books that I want to get through in the trial period. But honestly, after spending several hours browsing through the Unlimited catalog in the past couple of days, I don’t think the membership would end up being “worth it.” Most of the books I want to read are already available for free through my library or Project Gutenberg.

Then again, when you consider that many of the “popular” Kindle books range in price from $7.99 to $12.99, all it would take is two books per month to get my money’s worth from the Unlimited program. That would be easy enough to achieve, but the selection is what’s holding me back.

Some people might also balk at the fact that Kindle Unlimited books are merely borrowed and don’t remain in your library once you end your membership. This isn’t a big deal for me, though, because I’m not interested in amassing a massive collection of e-titles.

Anyway, I’ll get the most out of this month-long free trial. After that, I’ll probably cancel until the monthly price drops down to something more reasonable (<$6.99).

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The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

July 19, 2014

the painted girls Plot summary (from the publisher): 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The author did a wonderful job of setting the scene throughout the book. “Atmospheric” is the word that immediately springs to mind. I was instantly immersed in 19th-century Paris, and loved it.
  • I enjoyed the bits about Degas. I’m not a big art buff or anything and probably couldn’t identify a Degas with a roadmap, but found his appearances in this book oddly compelling. I want to learn more about his life, and will likely end up reading a biography soon.
  • The characters felt very real to me. Antoinette, at just 19, had already lost her innocence and naiveté about how the world works. Marie, at 14, was straddling the line between that childhood innocence and stark reality. And Charlotte was mostly just plodding along as the child she was, completely oblivious to the darker struggles of her sisters.
  • Even for someone not at all interested in art or dance, I found this book very engrossing. That’s not to say I’m now inspired to run out and find the best salsa classes Santa Monica has to offer; but I did enjoy most of it and found only a few spots to be a slog.

Disliked:

  • I didn’t care much for the shifting viewpoints. I liked Marie’s storyline (and character) far more than Antoinette, and became exasperated at times when the author broke away from Marie. This was especially true at the end, where the POV kept going back and forth after just a couple of paragraphs. Annoying!
  • Antoinette’s stubbornness regarding the boyfriend (I already forgot his name) was hard to endure. I didn’t really understand her “love” for him, and found her total devotion hard to believe. It got to the point where I was rolling my eyes and skimming whenever her dreams of New Caledonia came up.
  • I thought the character of the mother was woefully underdeveloped. I felt there was a lot more potential for conflict and interesting storylines in that direction, and was disappointed that she remained largely in the background.

Rating:

I was pleasantly surprised by The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. I’d never heard of this author before, and not being particularly interested in any of the over themes (Paris, ballet, art), I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this one. But the characters were great, their struggles were realistic, and the atmosphere was alluring. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham

July 16, 2014

liza of lambeth Plot summary (from the publisher): Maugham completed the writing of LIZA OF LAMBETH during his final year of medical school. The publication of this novel brought him enough money and notoriety that he decided to abandon thoughts of a career as a doctor (he qualified but never practiced) and instead make his way as a full-time writer. The novel itself is the story of a young girl, Liza, living in the Lambeth slums of London. The details of the novel are rich and evocative, much of the material inspired by the people and events Maugham encountered while he was a medical student practicing mid-wifery in the same area.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Well, it’s always interesting to me to read a well-regarded author’s earliest works to see if I can detect some of the greatness that lies ahead. (Note: I could not in this case.)
  • The descriptions of London’s slums and lower classes were certainly evocative. That aspect of the book reminded me of Dickens.

Disliked:

  • While I’m not ordinarily opposed to grim, depressing stories, Liza of Lambeth took this to a new level when Liza’s mother, instead of being torn up that Liza was dying, thought of the insurance money she would get. I know family members often have mercenary motives like this, but Liza and her mother weren’t even particularly adversarial up to that point, so the mother’s reaction was jarring.
  • The dialogue as written was very difficult to read. Obviously Maugham was striving for authenticity, but it became rather a trial having to decipher all the oddly contracted words.

Rating:

As W. Somerset Maugham’s very first published novel(la), Liza of Lambeth is worth reading because of the author’s pedigree. However, it’s not much as a standalone work and probably shouldn’t serve as any reader’s introduction to Maugham. I give this one 2 stars out of 5.

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