Monday, January 31, 2011

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Steig Larsson

I rarely read the biggies, at least, not while they're still popular. I wasn't very rebellious as a child, and I think this is my way of doing it now - refusing to read what everyone else is reading. I don't do a lot of the "popular" fiction authors (Grisham, Patterson, Cornwell, Roberts, etc). I've never picked up any of the Harry Potter books. I did finally give in and watch "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, totally prepared to hate it; yeah, Peter Jackson is a genius! I debated about this book for two reasons: I wanted to read it when it first came out, long before the American hoopla, and I had actually heard good things from fellow readers that I trust. But there was always the super-long reserve list at work, and I didn't want the pressure of trying to get through it in the 7 days that we allow for new/high-demand works. Forward to last month, just before the holidays, and the reserve list has finally dwindled to just a few names. Knowing I'd have quite a bit of time off due to the way the festivities fell, I threw caution to the wind and signed up.

Let me be the first to say that sometimes the hoopla is well-deserved. Larsson has written one hell of a book, one that has a little something for everyone. Usually that sort of writing is all over the place and doesn't work worth a darn. Larsson keeps his stories juggling until the very end, and you can almost see the story bubbles getting closer and closer to each other, until they start intersecting and becoming one big bubble. I'm just amazed at the talent here.

Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist; along with two friends, he's responsible for a fairly new and controversial magazine, Millenium. His troubles start when a friend invites him for a drink on his boat; the friend tells him a story about one of the biggest financiers in Sweden, one who has been suspected of being shady for quite a while. Millenium does some digging and fact checking, then runs the story. Unfortunately, things are not as they seem, and Blomkvist is convicted of libel and sentenced to three months in jail. Deciding that he needs to lay low for a while, he accepts a very-timely offer from Henrik Vanger; the now 80-something industrialist wants Mikael to investigate a cold case, one very near and dear to the old man's heart. His niece Harriet disappeared from a family gathering back in the 60s, and the old man wants to know the truth before he dies. He suspects that Harriet was killed by a family member, and he wants Mikael to bring that person to justice. Blomkvist is hesitant at first to get involved, but it would be good for him to get away from the libel debacle. Then there's the money that Vanger is offering him; it's basically an offer he can't refuse. Blomkvist gathers his belongings and moves to the island where the Vanger clan all seem to live.

Meanwhile, we've already met Lisabeth Salander, the tiny, almost fragile, Goth girl that is referenced in the book's title. She works for a security company, digging up dirt and doing extensive background checks on people. How she gets her info is pretty obvious, but it comes out later in the book. She's also considered not quite all there by the State, so she has an "advocate" assigned to her, a person that will make sure she's taking care of herself, help her with her finances, etc. The gentleman who has been her assigned to her case for several years has a stroke, and she's assigned a new advocate, one that has much different ideas about how "capable" Lisabeth is. This is where we first see her true grit, and it's not pretty.

Eventually the story lines intersect, and Lisabeth and Mikael meet and start working together. I think that's when things really take off. It's a very good book, but hard to describe: there is literally so much going on here. There are relationships, both sexual/romantic and familial, being explored in depth. There's also the weather, something that really plays a big part in the book. It was very interesting to see how Mikael coped with the sub-zero temps. And for those who enjoy true crime books, I'd put this right up against any of the big titles in that genre. (The original title of Larsson's book was "Men Who Hate Women", which probably would have been a much more appropriate title).

I'm anxious to read the second book in the trilogy, "The Girl Who Played with Fire", and eventually the final installment, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest." Sadly, that will be it for Mikael and Lisabeth; Larsson died in 2004, not too long after submitting his work to his publisher. I guess this will make him a bit like others who have died too soon; a brilliant mind snuffed out before its time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Beautiful You" by Rosie Molinary

"Drawing on self-awareness, creativity, and mind-body connections, Beautiful You incorporates practical techniques into a 365-day action plan that empowers women to regain a healthy self-image, shore up self-confidence, reframe and break undermining habits of self-criticism, and champion their own emotional and physical well-being. Beautiful You is a practical, candid, and accessible handbook that will strike a chord with every woman who has ever faltered in her self-confidence or lost sight of her personal brilliance."

I really admire Molinary for putting this book together because I heartily agree with her main point: women are much too hard on themselves when it comes to physical appearance. As women, we are never satisfied with our bodies, and sadly, we seem to equate our self-worth with those same imperfect physical shapes. And it seems that the self-hatred starts earlier and earlier, with girls as young as 5 and 6 going on "diets" because they believe they're "too fat".

I won't go into great detail about the what's in the book; it's pretty much what you would expect from the description on the back of the book. What I can tell you is that I would actually purchase this if I was going to really use it. The format is done very much as a workbook, with one challenge/lesson for each day of the 365-day calendar year. The author is very big on journaling, so most of the lessons involve writing down your feelings, beliefs, etc, in your "beautiful you" journal. And no, you don't have to go out and buy a special journal; that was the first thing I checked when I saw the phrase "beautiful you journal". The author states it can be any old journal, including a cyber-one on your computer/laptop.

Some of the lessons were very creative, some were obvious, and some.... well, I can't honestly see me doing some of them ("join a team sport". Uh, no. I'm a complete idiot when it comes to anything resembling sports, and trust me, no team would have me). I think taking a year to work through these lessons would do a world of good for a lot of women, and men, truth be told. Thanks to the unrealistic images fed to us by Hollywood, most Americans have no idea what a "real" body looks like.

In closing, I'll challenge everyone to one of the lessons provided by Molinary. The next time one of your friends starts to talk about what she/he hates about her/his body, rather than chime in with your own flaws, pick one thing about your friend that you admire and tell her/him about it. The only way to change our self-destructive ways is to start focusing on what we love about ourselves. Don't be part of the problem - be part of the solution!

Monday, January 24, 2011

"Side Jobs" by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden, the only publicly practicing wizard in Chicago, has a lot of history behind him. Most of it shows up in each installment of the series The Dresden Files (now 12 entries strong, and I'm sure Butcher is working on the 13th). But lucky for us, Butcher has been asked several times to contribute short stories to various anthologies, and pretty much each time, he's chosen to write about Harry.

If you're a die-hard Dresden fan, then most of these will be familiar territory. I realized I'd read at least half of them in their original appearances. But there are one or two that I missed, including the first story, "A Restoration of Faith". Butcher writes a nice little intro to each offering, letting the reader know where the story falls chronologically in the The Files, and also how it came to be written. "Faith" is one of the first times Butcher wrote about Harry, and it actually comes before any of the books. He admits it's rough writing, not the polished stuff he puts out now, but I still enjoyed it. And it was very interesting (and wonderful) to read it since a very important character in The Files is also first introduced to the reader: Karin Murphy. Much as I love Harry, it's the interaction between him and Murphy that tends to really pull me into the stories.

This also includes the novelette put out about 2 years back called "Backup"; it was Butcher's first attempt at telling a story from Thomas' view. Yep, Thomas, Harry's vampire half-brother. I'd read it when it first came out, and my opinion is still the same: not bad, but not my favorite.

The only story I skipped here was the last one, and I know that sounds strange, but there's a very good reason. The action in "Aftermath" takes place directly after the last Dresden novel, "Changes" - and I have yet to read that book. I read about two lines of "Aftermath" and realized I might ruin the whole book "Changes" for myself, and so I stopped. Gotta go pick up that last installment first, get it read, then I can go back to "Side Jobs" and truly finish the book.

If you've never read anything by Butcher, this would be a fairly decent thing to pick up. However, I'm not entirely sure that a newbie would really understand a lot of the finer nuances going on in each story. If you've read most of the Dresden Files but never had the chance (or maybe the desire) to read any of the accompanying stories, well, now's your chance.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" by Robert Lewis Stevenson

This year is beginning much like last year; I've promised myself to read some of the classics that I've somehow missed, depsite being a total book nut and a bona fide English Lit major. Yep, I have the B.A. from Indiana University to prove it! Anyway, I only made it through a few titles last year, then my summer sort of took over my life (more on that later), and I was lucky to read much at all.

I'm going back to the plan of last January, and thus, a review of the tormented doctor. There's not much to tell here, really; if you've seen one version of the movie, pretty much any version, you know the basic story. That's the first surprise - this is really a short story, perhaps a novella, at best. The version I picked up was published by Amereon House, and the story runs only 117 pages, followed by some a short biography of the author, some historical background of the time, and some critical responses to the work when it came out.

The tale is told in the third person but mostly from the point of view of one Mr. Utterson, lawyer to Henry Jekyll, professor and chemist. There's an initial meeting with a fellow friend of Utterson's, a Mr. Enfield, where they encounter a small door in a thoroughfare, and Enfield tells Utterson of his first run-in with Hyde; the "brute" physically ran over a small girl, then disappeared through said door. Slowly but surely it's revealed that the door is connected to the laboratory found on the grounds of Jekyll's estate, and indeed, Utterson receives a will written by the good doctor leaving the bulk of his fortunes to one Edward Hyde. The lawyer is dismayed at the contents of the document, but says nothing.

A year later, the evil Mr. Hyde is seen slaying Sir Danvers Carew, and the chase is on to find and bring the murderer to justice. Except Hyde seems to have fallen off the face of the Earth; at the same time, the reclusive Henry Jekyll starts reappearing in high society, having dinner parties, etc. Then after two months or so, he completely disappears again. There's the death of a mutual friend of Utterson's and Jekyll's, one Dr. Lanyon, that really spurs Utterson to wonder at the true nature of the mystery of Mr. Hyde. Eventually, Utterson is summoned to the Jekyll estate, where he helps the butler, Mr. Poole, break down the door of the lab.... only to find Mr. Hyde dead on the floor. There is no sign of Henry Jekyll, and the two men fear the worst: that Hyde has killed Jekyll and buried the body somewhere nearby. Of course, a series of letters will reveal all, and the tale is now told.

As I said at the start of this review, if you're even somewhat familiar with Stevenson's tale, you know the story I read here. There really weren't any surprises, other than perhaps the description of Hyde. Rather than the hulking brute that I've seen portrayed in more than one movie, he's actually smaller of stature than Jekyll, slighter of build, and lighter of foot. When Utterson reads Jekyll's final letter, it's revealed by the good doctor that he believes his alter ego is thus formed because it hasn't been "exercised" as much as his "good" self. In fact, after Hyde has taken over for a while, Jekyll writes that he believes the brute is growing in size.

The other thing I found interesting from a modern reader's perspective is Jekyll's description of his "transformation": The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. As someone who loves to read supernatural novels, I read that line and immediately thought of the many and various descriptions I've read of humans changing into werewolves. Granted, Jekyll isn't turning into a lupine beast, but he is physically changing into something else, or someone else, as the case may be, leaving me to wonder if this is perhaps one of the first descriptive narratives of shape-shifting in literature. Probably not, but damn - it comes so close to the modern versions that I've read in the last few years! It would be interesting to know if any of my authors have read this and been struck by that passage as well.

Overall, I would recommend reading this classic. It's a fairly good story, well written, and best of all, short. Shouldn't take you more than a few hours to read, and it's never a bad idea to examine our dual nature as humans.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"To All a (Very Sexy) Good Night" by K. A. Mitchell and Josh Lanyon

Every year around Christmas I give myself a present: books by Josh Lanyon. I first found him when looking for something new to read a few years ago, when Amazon suggested one of his Adrien English gay mysteries. Not usually my sort of thing, but I was in a reading funk, so I decided to take a chance and try it. Needless to say, Adrien (and Josh) won me over, and I've been reading Lanyon's work ever since. Unfortunately for this reader, most of his work is only available in e-book form, so I'm usually behind when it comes to his titles; I'm strange in that I really like the "physical" book in my hand.

This year was no different as far as giving myself my present; I ordered three books, all of which has short stories/novellas by Lanyon. I picked up this work first, thinking it would be a good choice for the holidays. And I wasn't disappointed - by Lanyon. The other story? Well, let's look at that one first, shall we?

In "An Improper Holiday" by K. A. Mitchell, "Ian Stanton is the earl's dutiful second son, always doing the proper thing. One exquisite exception: Nicholas Chatham. Except the consummation of their two-year relationship left Ian convinced that their desires were never meant to be indulged. Five years later, Ian is home from was, wounded in body and spirit. Nicky never believed what they felt for each other was wrong, and he has plans to make things right. Now he has only twelve nights to convince Ian that happiness is not the price of honor and duty, but its reward." So what's not to love, right? Hmm... that's what still has me wondering. The writing is good, I'll give the author that. But the feel of the story isn't to my liking. Ian is a classic case of the conflicted gay man, wanting what his heart and body tell him he wants, but knowing that society and religion tell him it's wrong. Nicky seems to be completely oblivious to those same social and religious mores, and I think that's part of the problem. He's a little too flamboyant for a gay man of those times (or that's how it felt to me). Another problem is the "love" story between the two men; I wasn't feeling that until almost the very end of the book. Rather the previous relationship gave the author reason to write sex scene after sex scene. Finally, there are other characters in the story as well that turn out to be gay - a lot of them, and some very central characters. While I agree that there are probably more gay people out there than some would think, this seemed to be taking a few liberties. Again, it just didn't feel right. And it gave the author a very convenient way to end the story, which didn't exactly sit right with me either. Overall, I'm not likely to pick up another work by Ms. Mitchell.

Let's move on to Josh's story, "The Dickens With Love". "Three years ago, antiquarian James Winter lost everything: his job, his lover and his self-respect. Now a rich collector wants him to do whatever it takes to buy a newly discovered Christmas story by Charles Dickens from the nutty professor who owns it. The catch: the buyer must remain anonymous. Sedgwick Crisparkle turns out to be totally gorgeous - and on the prowl. Faster than you can say "Old St. Nick", they're mixing business with pleasure. But once Sedgwick discovers James has been a very bad boy, their chance for happiness is disappearing quicker than Santa's sleigh."

Talk about a Christmas treat! Lanyon hits it out of the park again with this wonderful story about a man trying to redeem himself. Winter's buyer is appropriately sleazy, and you just know that he won't appreciate the newly found Dickens's story as he should. I liked the touch of Sedgwick's name, too; James doesn't believe it's his real name since it would mean that his parents named him after a character in another Dickens's novel. I think what makes this story (and most of Lanyon's, if I'm honest), is his attention to the details. Yes, he's writing man-on-man romance, but he always gives a good description of the physical setting, this time the Hotel Del Monte in California. I feel as if I'd know the place if I traveled there, that's how good he is with setting the scene! And he nails the character development, too, giving the reader a chance to know the characters. In fact, I always finish his stories wanting him to go back to said characters so we can catch up. I thought James was just perfect, a professional who has been burnt in his profession, doing what he has to do to survive, but desperately wanting to get back to what he used to be. He has a conscience, and that definitely plays into the story. Sedgwick is wonderful, too, giving us a taste of a man away from home, wanting to be who he really is, but not wanting to hurt his family. When the two come together to discuss the book, the sparks just fly - and you know what's just around the page.

Perhaps the best part of the story is James reading the newly found Dickens's story. After all, no book dealer worth his salt would sign off on the authenticity of such a work without thoroughly examining it. I felt James' excitement as he got farther and farther into the story, and also his extreme disappointment when it looks as if his world is crashing down again; he's upset over Sedgwick, but also devastated that he won't get to finish the story. That's exactly how real bibliophiles react! And that's the sort of detail that makes Lanyon's work such a pleasure to read. Yes, the male romance (and sex) angle isn't going to be for everyone, but trust me - his stories are good. And when the storyline can stand on its own, then the romance just adds to overall effect. I highly recommend you check out his work, regardless of your "usual" reading fare; you won't be disappointed.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Oh No She Didn't" by Clinton Kelly

The subtitle of this very small book is "The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them". Much as I love Clinton and his co-hort from "What Not to Wear", I have to take this book to task a bit. First, it's incredibly thin - literally. At just barely 200 pages, the retail price is still $25.99, and we all know how I feel about finding bargains when it comes to books. Second, the content is a bit on the thin side as well, meaning that the author and/or the publishers have relied on a full page of pictures for each of the 100 "fashion sins" that we're guilty of. Really? Pictures on every other page? Back in my school days we'd call that padding the paper!

Having told you what's wrong with the basics of the book, let me tell you what's right - Clinton's wonderfully snarky tone. I will admit that I laughed out loud quite a bit while reading this, and it's all due to Clinton's wit. He seems like the kind of person I'd like to hang out with, albeit he'd have to dress me first so that I wouldn't offend him. Yes, yours truly is guilty of some of this fashion faux pas. Not that I really care, though, as I've never tried to be a fashion plate in the first place. Not to mention that I don't have the money to be one, either.

Some of the mistakes are so obvious you wonder why anyone needs to point them out to us again (and again and again, as Clinton claims), things like muffin tops (sooooooo tired of seeing them!), "low boobies", tramp stamps at work (or anywhere but a club, IMHO), "camel toe", etc. One of the mistakes that I used to be guilty of was the "double bubble", a phenomenon that occurs when one with ample cleavage wears a bra with a too-small cup. I've seen this a lot, and I totally agree with the author on this one point: GET A PROFESSIONAL FIT. Wearing the right size makes a huge difference when it comes to the girls; I looked like I lost 5 pounds just by getting a good bra in the right size. And now I realize that the band should be good and snug (not to the point of pinching or causing bleeding or anything), as the band is what does the majority of the support work - not the straps.

But I beg to differ with him on other points, such as cross-trainers (which I can't readily identify when I see someone walking up to me), hoodies, and other "comfortable" clothing. According to our fashionista, we should only wear such things if working out or hiding out at home; they should never be seen in public. Well, sorry, but I have worn hoodies/sweatshirts, tennies of all kinds, and even velour yoga pants out into the world. Look, I get that he wants us to look our best, and that often these may not do the trick. But he's not me, and he's not doing the job I do, and he's not going to tell me how to live my fashion life. I appreciate the advice and will pay attention to some of it, but I'm not going to take it all to heart, running out to replace most of my wardrobe. The biggest thing Clinton advocates over and over again is the help of a good tailor, and I'll agree: clothing looks better when it fits your body. A tailor can take things in where needed, hem pants, etc - but who can afford one these days, a "good" one? And if you live in a small town (or smaller, I should say), good luck finding one. This is why I look for petite pants and am even preparing to order more expensive pairs from Land's End; they'll hem them at exactly the length I need (don't know if I've mentioned it here before, but I am a shortie, barely standing 5 feet!)

My opinion is this: find this book at your local library and check it out. It won't take you more than an hour or so to read it, so I think spending full retail for it is crazy. But don't beat yourself up if you realize you're "guilty" of some of these fashion violations; wear what you feel you look good in. And do take a trusted friend shopping with you, one that will either confirm or gently debunk your opinions.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year! Welcome 2011

Happy New Year to all my readers! I hope that everyone had a wonderful New Year's Eve - and a safe one. I don't know about you, but I was totally ready to put 2010 to bed. It was a very long, very stressful year for yours truly. Dearest hubby was very, very sick right at the beginning of the summer and spent pretty much the whole thing in hospitals. Which, of course, meant I did, too. Luckily, he's made a full recovery and is doing great; even better, he's learned from this horrible experience and now knows that he really does need to pay attention to his health. And he also changed his attitude to a much friendly, more positive one - which is great for me!

On the reading front, I read just as many books in 2010 as I did in 2009. I really wanted to read more, but again, all that traveling back and forth to the hospital wasn't overly conducive to my favorite hobby. Yes, I know - there are audio books for that! I've tried those before and for some reason, I just don't care for them. If I'm driving, I want my tunes playing, not someone reading to me. I did read some good titles, some so-so stuff, and some that honestly are best forgotten. I'm hoping to go for a bit more quality this year than quantity, although I'm aiming for an even 100 titles this year.

As far as resolutions, well, I don't make them. My baby sis blogged about her goals over on LiveJournal; check it out at I'm proud of her for setting them, and I certainly hope she attains them. Me? I suppose I could do the same, but honestly, I learned things about myself last year that I didn't know, and I feel like I've pretty much met my goals. When hubby got so sick, it scared the you-know-what out of me, all of it - the trip to the hospital in the ambulance (and realizing that something was wrong enough to need that trip), the doctors delivering more and more dire news, the surgery that was needed to pretty much save his life, the doctors not being sure if he'd make it thru said surgery, and then the very, very long road to recovery. And I had to make all the decisions because hubby was actually unable to do so due to his condition, not a position I ever thought I'd be in. Thank goodness we'd just done living wills a few years ago; it made some of the choices a little easier, knowing that if it got that bad, I knew what he wanted. But it didn't make it any easier.

What I learned through the long summer of 2010 is that I have reserves of inner strength that I didn't even know I had. When the going got tough, I stuck the landing and then some. I remained as calm as possible, kept my head up, and thought things through rationally. I learned as much I as could from the doctors, then hit some good websites to find out more information. And I managed to do all this while still keeping it together where work was concerned, no easy task. Thank goodness I work with two of the best co-workers ever!

My advice to everyone for this year is this: take the time to take care of yourself. No one else can really do it but you; by the time others are involved, it's a much more complicated process. Eat as healthy as you can, get off the couch/computer chair and get some exercise, and make sure you have a good network of friends/family to talk to/turn to about your problems. Finally, tell the ones you love exactly that: "I love you" shouldn't be a foreign phrase in your vocabulary! You never know what tomorrow will bring, so stop looking forward and live for today. Carpe diem is going to be my motto for 2011.