A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

To describe A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness in just two words seems a monumental task, but if I had to pick a pair to encompass this work it would be pleasantly surprising. I had high expectations for the book based on reviews and recommendations from friends, yet this captivating story surpassed them all.

The tale begins and is anchored by Oxford's Bodleian Library. I'm a sucker for books with an academic twist and Discovery of Witches had me hooked from the very start when young researcher Diana Bishop calls up a secret alchemical text from the stacks as part of her work. Diana is descended from the Bishops of Salem Witch Trial infamy, but despite her lineage she wants nothing to do with spells and sorcery. She is shocked and distraught to find that her summoning of the bewitched book has extreme supernatural consequences and sets her in the crossfire of the agendas of witches, demons, and vampires alike.

Diana finds an unlikely ally in scientist and centuries-old vampire Matthew Clairmont. More than just a supernatural protector, Matthew is a character drawn with a sophistication and intelligence congruent with his ancient birth yet still possessing the predatory instincts expected of his vampire status. With his lineage and history as intriguing and powerful as Diana's the two make a formidable team but their enemies are equally strong and undeniably ruthless.

The story that unfolds throughout the book is smart and unique. With settings that range from libraries and yoga studios to castles and genetics laboratories, I never knew quite what to expect next and the unpredictability was delightful. Blending in equal parts action, mystery, science, research, and romance, Harkness displays an exceptional gift for writing in her debut novel. Despite the book's length, I didn't want it to end, and, like many readers, I am eager to continue the story in this summer's sequel Shadow of Night.

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

Graceling by Kristin Cashore is one of those books that I felt like I was on the outside of for a long time.  It was the book that everyone I knew had read and raved about but I was still on the fringe of "I'll pick it up someday".  Someday came and went and I finally got around to reading this ambitious and intriguing young adult book.

In Cashore's world Graceling is the term given to individuals bearing mismatched eyes whose lives are marked by a unique gift or talent.  These extraordinary skills - known as graces - can be anything from singing or fast running to, in the case of the story's protagonist Katsa, a talent for how to kill.  Raised under the rule of her uncle, a rather nasty king, Katsa is used for her talent but longs to escape her bonds and find a better purpose for her grace and her life. 

Where this book excels is in its originality of characters.  Even among strong female protagonists in young adult books, Katsa stands out for her independence and resilience.  She is hard and determined but not without passion and emotion.  Cashore weaves a romantic storyline into the book, which is thankfully NOT a love triangle, and Po, the male lead, also avoids being a cliche character.  He is in no way Katsa's hero or savior and comes across as her equal.  The balance of the male and female leads - both strong, smart, and interesting - was a refreshing change of pace from many other books I've encountered in the young adult fantasy genre.

I did find the pacing of the story to be a bit slow.  As much as I enjoyed learning about the world Kristin Cashore created and the unveiling of Katsa's character and her bizarre grace, I had a hard time getting into this book at the start.  Once the main action hit, there was a steady roll to the climax and denouement, but for such a long book I would have preferred better pacing throughout.

All in all, though, I'm impressed with Graceling by Kristin Cashore.  Katsa is a heroine to take note of and the supporting characters around her shine with originality.  Cashore's world is primed for further adventures and I look forward to more works by her in the future. 
Are you one of the readers who has raved about this book to me for ages?  What impressed you most about it?  Or maybe you didn't care for it?  Was the pacing an issue for you?  If you're still on the outside of the Graceling bubble, what's kept you from picking it up so far?

Dancing with the... Authors? (Top Ten Tuesday)

Hello blogging world!  I'm back with a post for a super fun Top Ten Tuesday topic - well, okay, I have yet to participate in a Top Ten Tuesday topic that wasn't super fun but the folks over at The Broke and The Bookish definitely got my creative juices flowing with this week's prompt:

Top Ten Authors I'd like to See on a Reality TV Show

I should preface this by explaining that I really don't watch much unscripted television, but I am sadly all too familiar with the variety and scope of the amount of reality programs currently airing.

1. & 2. Suzanne Collins and Lauren Oliver on Survivor
I'm not sure what Jeff Probst would have to say about these two giants of young adult dystopia fighting for an immunity idol, but since they've both created pretty dire worlds for their heroines to live in (Collins in The Hunger Games; Oliver in Delirium and even more so Pandemonium), I'm curious how they would fare in a rustic setting comparable to their fictional worlds.   

3. Meg Donohue on Cupcake Wars
How to Eat a Cupcake by Meg Donohue might be one of the lesser known books I mention this week, but with its wonderfully delectable dessert descriptions, I can only imagine that Donohue's passion for pastries would translate into game show success on Cupcake Wars. 

4. Sarah Addison Allen on Top Chef
Similar to my last choice, I have noticed that Sarah Addison Allen (Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, and The Peach Keeper) writes with such vivid realism about food that I can imagine she would have a great talent for cooking.  And if she doesn't care much for the kitchen, I would at least love to see her as a judge on the show because she has a remarkable talent for describing food such that others get a crystal clear picture of how it tastes.

5. & 6. Christopher Moore and Jasper Fforde on Last Comic Standing
These two authors are two of my favorite funnymen and LCS is actually a reality show that I do enjoy watching.  Moore cracked me up with a host of books I've failed to review on this blog (Bloodsucking Fiends, Lamb, The Stupidest Angel, A Dirty Job, etc.) and Fforde would be a worthy challenger from across the pond with his Thursday Next books (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book) and the spinoff Nursery Crime series (The Big Over Easy, The Fourth Bear).  I don't know if either gentleman has experience with stand up comedy but I would predict that they would both be highly entertaining to watch!

7. Gail Carriger on Project Runway
Truthfully I would much rather send Carriger's character Miss Ivy Hisselpenny on the show, but since this is about authors I will settle for choosing the creator of a sidekick with a penchant for grotesquely tacky headwear!  Throughout the Parasol Protectorate books (Soulless, Changeless, Blameless) Carriger takes note of steampunk fashion and especially with Alexia's signature parasol accessories, I would love to see what type of collection Carriger could create for Fashion Week and if indeed she could "Make it Work."  (And here's where I add in another discalimer that though I don't really watch reality TV, I do have a soft spot for Project Runway!)

8. Lisa Genova on Jeopardy!
I'm not sure if it really counts as Reality TV, but since Lisa Genova is such an intelligent author, I would love to see her strut her smarts in front of Alex Trebek.  Though Still Alice is the only work of hers I've read (so far!) she really impressed me with her ability to weave neuroscience and medicine into an emotional and beautifully written novel.  Maybe she could even take on Watson?

9. & 10. George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson on The Amazing Race
I have no idea if these two epic fantasy writers have ever met or would get along with each other (Martin of course famous for the Song of Ice and Fire series, Sanderson for Mistborn, Warbreaker, and more) but since each one is incredibly skilled at world building  I'd love to see their skills at world traveling.  If nothing else, giving these guys the chance to explore some out of the way scenery could certainly provide even more inspiration for their future works.  Of course, I'm also one of many fans that doesn't want to pull Martin away from his desk too long so we'd have to make sure he could bring a laptop with him!

So there you have my list!  Which choices do you like?  Which would you change?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below or join in and link up with a Top Ten Tuesday post of your own!

And click here for previous Top Ten Tuesdays on Her Book Self!



Another Interlude

It seems my posts about not posting are becoming the norm, but I've had a bit of a rough week.  On Monday evening, my grandmother passed away.  I do believe that she is in a better place now, no longer suffering, and that at the end of my own life I will see her again, but there's still a lingering sadness - knowing I'll miss her, sad that my child will not know her here on earth.

But looking back, there are plenty of memories to take joy from.  Since this is a book blog, I have to mention my grandmother's love of reading.  The only things more prevalent in her home than books, were delicious food and lots of love.  Summers at her house were filled with novels, short stories, comics, magazines, crossword puzzles and other simple forms of entertainment.  As much as I am clinging to the advice and knowledge she passed on to me, some of my best memories of her are also sitting in silence, relaxing in the shade, and reading together. 

Among other things, Grandma taught me how to knit!

My grandma was also one of the best people at making me feel good about myself.  I don't mean she gave me some cheesy positive self esteem lessons, but rather, she was so loving and so accepting that no matter what type of awkward, frustrated, mad about myself, or disappointed with my life phase I could go through she made me feel that I was wonderful, that I was enough - a "just as I am" kind of love that I still cherish.

It's been a rough week and I know there is more grieving ahead.  It doesn't help that I'm five months pregnant and can cry at things as mundane as car commercials and greeting cards, but hopefully this explains yet another blog hiatus.  Here's hoping April and May will be much more even keel.

Love you, Grandma.  And I always will.

Happy Hunger Games Movie Weekend!

I'm pretty excited about going to the movies tonight...
Like many viewers, I'm pretty stoked about the film adaptation of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins!  I reviewed this book back in September of 2010 and even then I noted that it was surrounded by plenty of hype from passionate fans.  I know the movie has evoked a similar frenzy so I remain cautiously optimistic that it will live up to the standards I - and many others - hold up for it.
How about you, are you going to see the movie this weekend?  Which character are you most excited to see adapted to film?  If you've seen it already, what did you think?  Had you read the book first or is the movie your first taste of the action?  I'd love for you to share your (non-spoiler) thoughts in the comments!
Meanwhile, I thought I would provide a few flashback links:
Happy Hunger Games Weekend everyone!

Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher

Set a few years following the events of Furies of Calderon, Jim Butcher returns to the Calderon Valley with another grand adventure for his unlikely hero Tavi. In a world where most people have connections to one or more elemental spirits called Furies, Tavi is alone in his inability to furycraft, to control the magical elements, but his quick thinking and clever mind are often a more than suitable alternative for his lack of power.

In Academ's Fury Tavi has left his home in the Valley and is training at the Academy to become a Cursor. Though his lack of furycrafting singles him out as a target for bullies and ridicule, Tavi finds himself surrounded by a few supportive friends. Tavi's patronage from the First Lord of Calderon provides him with connections and contacts within the kingdom's politics but also places him at the center of webs of deceit and intrigue involving those who seek to overthrow the heir-less ruler of the realm.

Meanwhile, back in the Valley, Tavi's aunt Isana is the target of an assassination attempt. Her new status as a steadholder is a threat to many who do not want a woman to hold so much power, but the Valley faces an even more dire threat as hordes of a parasitic enemy called the Vord have been unleashed. This strange new foe also seems to have Tavi in its sights as the tracks of their destruction lead directly to him.

Once again Jim Butcher layers on action and suspense in his fantastical and unique environment. The dialog is peppered with humor and Tavi's cleverness and creative thinking constantly provide unexpected plot twists and dramatic escapes from peril. Many readers of the series have mentioned that they prefer this book to its predecessor, but I suppose if I had to choose, I may have liked Furies of Calderon a bit more. Both books have moments of a GRAND REVEAL and where I found the twist in the first to be shockingly perfect; in this book it was an element that I had already predicted after finishing the first novel. But that said, I fully enjoyed this adventure too and saying I slightly preferred the first is nothing against Academ's Fury as it was definitely an excellent entry in a very strong series.

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Okay. I read this book in the middle of January and I could have sworn I already wrote a review for it, but alas, I have not blogged about it, which is tragic since it's already one of my favorites of the year.

Miles Halter has led an uneventful and rather boring life hiding himself in books and a penchant for discovering and memorizing famous last words. An opportunity to attend Culver Creek Boarding School sends him eagerly off to a new world with hopes of discovering what poet Fran├žois Rabelais' called "the Great Perhaps". Culver Creek is in many ways the land of possibilities that Miles has always craved. He soon finds himself dubbed with the new name "Pudge" - for his overly skinny frame - and surrounded by new friends The Colonel, Takumi, and of course, Alaska.

Alaska Young is the charismatic, sexy, and destructive prankster living down the hall from Pudge and The Colonel. She represents a world of danger and risk that Pudge has always wanted and never known. She's the magnetic epicenter of their strange group of friends and Pudge soon finds himself hopelessly in love with her.

Looking for Alaska by John Green is a mix of humor, philosophy, tragedy, and the everyday teenage existence. John Green has an amazing talent for creating characters with the perfect balance of charm and quirkiness. Pudge, with his strange talent for quotation, is misguided but loveable. Even the less than likeable characters have a talent for fully captivating the reader and I am never less than fully drawn into Green's stories. Much like An Abundance of Katherines (the first John Green book I read), Looking for Alaska is a novel I find myself thinking about long past its finish date.

I know there are a lot of John Green fans in the blogging world, so I guess this is my next opportunity to ask for advice: having read Abundance of Katherines and Looking for Alaska, which novel of Green's should I check out next?

Interlude

When I started this blog, I liked the phrase "Book Self" (which many still mistakenly read as bookshelf) because I feel that the books a person reads can sometimes give a snapshot peek at revealing their personality or occasionally their life circumstances. Since I don't often post a lot of personal information about myself on this blog, I thought it might be fun to post about a few books I've been reading lately, which do reveal quite a bit about me.

The first is a book I received for Christmas.  It's not a cover-to-cover reading but rather a reference one that's better digested in portions according to applicable information in it.  This is the latest edition of it, but I know it's been around for a long time and came highly recommended.  

What to Expect When You're Expecting

The next was given to me by a coworker.  It had been sitting on her shelf and she figured it would come in handy more as a resource to me than collecting dust at her house.
The Pregnancy Book: Month-by-Month, Everything You Need to Know from America's Baby Experts

The third was a gift from a sweet friend in my Bible study group.  It's not as factually heavy as the other two and takes a lighthearted and Christian perspective with a great emphasis on both humor and prayer - two things I always try to incorporate plenty of in my life!
The Christian Mama's Guide to Having a Baby: Everything You Need to Know to Survive (and Love) Your Pregnancy

And finally, this one may be my favorite for it's sheer level of hilarity and absurdity and was also a gift from friends. My husband and I began reading the opening chapters together and our reading was often interrupted by laughter breaks. 
Let's Panic About Babies! How to Endure and Possibly Triumph over the Adorable Tyrant who Will Ruin Your Body, Destroy Your Life, Liquefy Your Brain, and Finally Turn You Into A Worthwhile Human Being

As with every BIG step in life - whether it's graduation, new job, new home, new relationship - it's great to have good books to with you.  I've been bouncing between these titles pretty often in the past few months (which explains some of my recent blog-neglect) so I don't have reviews of any of them yet, but I look forward to sharing my thoughts on them in the future.  If anyone has a great or not-so-great experience with any of these titles, I'd love to hear your opinions.  Or, if there's a book I haven't listed that you consider a MUST read on the subject, I'd love that advice as well!

And to answer the first two obvious questions: 
End of July; No, I'm not finding out!

Blameless by Gail Carriger

Vampires, werewolves, and steampunk scientists all return in Blameless, the third entry of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series (Soulless, Changeless).  After adventures in London and Scotland, book three finds heroine Alexia traveling to Italy in search of some answers to past and present mysteries - including why a group of vampires have targeted her for death.  Returning to her father's homeland brings up plenty of questions for the Tarabotti heiress but she also must face dangers and horrors - including the Italians' preference for coffee over tea!

Blameless features all the great characters that fans have come to love throughout the series and members of the supporting cast are even developed and built upon, making them all the more delightful to read about.  The plot picks up directly where Changeless left off and unfolds at a great pace.  Although each book in the series does contain its own adventure there is enough of a continuous plot thread that readers will want to start at the beginning of the series and work through the books sequentially.  Carriger does a great job of blending the Victorian romance with the steampunk and supernatural elements and her witty dialog adds hilarity to a climactic and suspenseful mystery.  This series is overall plenty of fun and I eagerly look forward to Alexia's next adventures.

Any Parasol Protectorate fans out there want to weigh in on this series?  Which book is your favorite?  Any supernatural or steampunk fans on the fence about checking out Carriger's work?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I know I don't normally post reviews on this blog of books I didn't care for, but many people have asked my opinion about the immensely popular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I thought I would do my best to explain my feelings about it.  Let me also encourage anyone who loved this book to openly disagree with me.  I would love to read comments about why others were enamored with the book and engage in some dialog about this one.  

It took me a while to get around to reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I really, really wanted to like this book. Multiple friends and positive reviews set me up with high expectations for it, but unfortunately it never lived up to those hopes for me - and even setting my preconceived notions aside, in many ways the book fell flat for me.

The story was decent following journalist Mikael Blomkvist whose career spirals downward after he is found guilty of libel. Promised a job and a hefty paycheck, Blomkvist follows the reclusive Henrik Vanger out to his island and accepts the task of searching out the truth behind the disappearance of Henrik's neice forty years earlier. Under the cover story of writing a biography of Henrik and his family, Blomkvist is introduced to the various eccentric characters that comprise the Vanger family. Accompanying him on his sleuthing expedition is a young hacker and talented research assistant named Lisbeth Salander. Lisbeth is the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and in many ways she steals the show from Blomkvist as the much more intriguing character of the two of them.

I'll admit that the mystery portion of the book was really well done - I liked the puzzles and codes and suspicious characters - but Stieg Larsson takes an exorbitantly long time to get there. The first third (or maybe even half) of the book is devoted to Blomkvist's back story of his libel suit and a very disturbing walk through Salander's past. Knowing that the two characters would eventually intersect was probably the only thing that kept me reading the first portion of the book which alternated between boring details of financial lawsuits and cringe-inducing scenes of sexual assault.

Salander's character is perhaps one of the aspects of this book that seems to garner the most praise, but ultimately she never won me over. Though I found myself feeling sympathy and sadness toward her, some of her actions and unrelenting distrust for authority just frustrated me. Also, I found her relationship with Blomkvist overly contrived and their attachment seemed borne more out of plot convenience than of any real connection in their characters.

Many people have told me that Larsson's Millenium Trilogy only improves as the books go on, but many of these same people raved to me how good Dragon Tattoo was. Filled with a bit too much depravity and with a lack of likeable characters for my taste, I'm not certain that I want to continue the series and overall I'm left a bit baffled at the overwhelming popularity of this book. 
So there you have it.  Not my cup of tea, and hopefully I did an adequate job explaining why.  Did I miss something?  Was this really an excellent book that I'm just gaining an extremely wrong impression of?  Is the second book really immensely better?  Please don't hesitate to share your thoughts!

"A little reading every day"

“Resolve to edge in a little reading every day, if it is but a single sentence. If you gain fifteen minutes a day, it will make itself felt at the end of the year.” ~ Horace Mann

I haven't shared a good quote in a while and this one sort of goes along with my snail's pace of reading this year.   In past winters, I've consumed books as quickly as I could carry them out of the library, but I've found myself taking things slower this year.  I'm purposely not signing up for any reading challenges as I don't want any pressure to compel myself to reach a certain number of books read.  But, despite numerous other things in life that pull me away from my passion for pages (and my enjoyment of blogging!), I like this quote because it fits my current reading goals of the year.  I'm not going to push myself to compete with past years when I finished 80, 90, or 100+ works in under twelve months, but I do want to focus on reading every day.

And I do think I will feel it at year's end.

Do you set reading goals for yourself each year?  What do you think about the goal of just a little bit of reading each day?

Books to Not Read on Valentine's Day (Top Ten Tuesday)

This year's Valentine's Day Top Ten Tuesday is a bit of a twist on the expected and rather than look at great love stories or great romances, today's list topic is Top Ten Books That Broke My Heart A Little.  Interestingly I can think of a lot of books that really made me cry for their shocking death scenes, tragic circumstances, or agonizing subjects but I thought I would challenge myself to keep this about love stories.  Today I am featuring books whose romantic resolutions made me cry, cringe, or complain (though in many cases I wouldn't write them any other way!) Underlined titles link to my reviews.

1. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
If you've read this book, I needn't say anymore.  I think I also listed this one on my list of top ten jaw dropping endings but despite wanting to throw the book across the room when I finished I wouldn't end this one differently even if I could.

2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Before there was Team Edward or Team Jacob I think there was definitely a Team Laurie and Team Professor (why can't I ever recall his name?) even if they were never officially labeled as such or gained a rabid teen following.  I admit that after reading the book (and not just watching the movies) I was slightly swayed out of my Team Laurie fervor, but this still remains a love story pairing with which I never quite agreed.

3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
I won't say that I specifically disliked the ending of this one, but there was certainly tearfulness in the way it played out.  Sometimes even though the couple I prefer ends up together, the surrounding circumstances leave even the correct match up bittersweet. 


4. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This entire book is difficult to read with dry eyes, but the relationship between Alice and her husband is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the work.


5. The Ghost King by R.A. Salvatore
I had to include a fantasy novel on here since it's a genre I'm passionate about and I also can't think of a more appropriate example of a novel that broke my heart than this one.  I won't say much since to do so would give spoilers, but I definitely finished this one in tears.  Lots of tears.

6. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
This one is an equal balance of love it and hate it of the love story within.  The relationship between Anne and Gilbert was so frustrating and though I appreciated the subtle nuances of how their feelings for each other were revealed to the reader, the situation that ultimately brought them out of animosity was a tearjerker.

7. Romancing Miss Bronte by Juliet Gael
There is plenty in this book to cause readers to reach for the tissues but the resolution of the primary love story really did break my heart.  I read this one not knowing a lot about the life of Charlotte Bronte so the end was a surprise to me which made it that much more devastating.


8. Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes
Part of my love for this book stems from spending a good two thirds of it as confused as the main character.  And I know that sounds crazy, but the impact of the story is amplified by the way Keyes unravels it.  Again, I won't say too much, but it more than earns its place on a list of heartbreaking books.

9. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Okay, it's the obvious choice and the love story is one between young kids so it's never overly serious, but it's still powerful enough to rip your heart to shreds.

I'm going to stop at 9 and let the tenth be filled in by suggestions from others.  What's the most heartbreaking book you've ever read?  I'd love to hear your suggestions - or any of my choices that you agree or disagree with - in the comments below! For those new to the feature, Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the lovely bloggers of The Broke and The Bookish.  Check out their site for upcoming topics and to link up your own list and click here for previous Top Ten Tuesdays on Her Book Self.


Lost in a Good Book

For those that enjoyed Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair (my review here), the sequel Lost in a Good Book delivers more of the same: more action, more quirky characters, more wordplay, and of course, more Thursday Next.

Though Fforde never quite crosses the line into somber, this entry in the series takes a slightly more dark and serious tone. Super criminal Acheron Hades is assumed to be out of the picture, but when Thursday is in the cross-hairs of death by coincidence a few too many times, she begins to suspect that only Hades could be behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the Goliath corporation is still after the Next family's book jumping technology, but Thursday soon learns of a whole world of literary travelers and takes on an apprenticeship to Miss Havisham in the world of Jurisfiction - the written word's version of her own job as a LiteraTec.

Crossing genres artfully as few other authors can, Fforde again dabbles with time travel, history, humor, and horror without hesitating to borrow heavily from the classic canon of Shakespeare, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and even Franz Kafka. With their unprecedented level of quirkiness, the Thursday Next series is not for every reader, but for those that are hooked, Lost in a Good Book provides another delightful adventure that is as enjoyable on a reread as it was the first time around.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses (Fairy Tale Fridays)

Welcome back to Fairy Tale Fridays!  Though I never quite completed my 2011 Fairy Tale Challenge, I wanted to return to this feature since it's been a while since I shared my thoughts about a short story.  Today's tale of choice is from the authors I seem to favorite: The Brothers Grimm! 

Image Credit
The Twelve Dancing Princesses is a story that I always thought should be more magical than it actually is.  The story begins with something of a mysterious and enchanting scenario:
There was a king who had twelve beautiful daughters. They slept in twelve beds all in one room and when they went to bed, the doors were shut and locked up. However, every morning their shoes were found to be quite worn through as if they had been danced in all night. Nobody could find out how it happened, or where the princesses had been. 
At this point I can imagine all sorts of mythical and frightening plots which cause the girls to be spirited away and hypnotized into an endless dusk to dawn dance.  The king is equally puzzled about the circumstances and places a challenge - anyone who can solve the mystery of where the princesses go will receive permission to marry one of them and become king.  However, anyone who accepts that challenge and does not succeed in three nights will be executed. 

Predictably, "a king's son" is the first to attempt the task and he fails.  "Several others" - whom the reader can assume are also noblemen of some type - follow suit with equally tragic outcomes.  Then comes a different sort of man to attempt the task.  He is described as an old soldier and on his trek into the kingdom and into the story his first encounter is with an old woman who asks his destination.  He replies,
'I hardly know where I am going, or what I had better do,' said the soldier; 'but I think I would like to find out where it is that the princesses dance, and then in time I might be a king.'
I like that the soldier is so unassuming and I think it's this rather ho-hum attitude that sets him up well as the hero of the tale.  Fortuitously, the old woman knows something of the antics of the princesses and warns the soldier not to drink any wine he is offered and gives him an invisibility cloak to help him on his quest.   As is typical with fairy godmother types, this encounter is the only appearance of the old woman in the story.  The reader is never told if she is a seer, fairy, or witch and the fact that she knows so much of what is going on remains unexplained. 

Image Credit
The soldier proceeds to the castle and undertakes the challenge of solving the dancing princess mystery.  Following the crone's advice he drinks no wine, pretends to be asleep, and then dons the invisibility cloak to follow the girls through a trap door in their room.  The princesses proceed down a stairway, into boats manned by twelve princes, to a secret ball where the dance the night away.  The soldier follows and partakes in their revelry with only the youngest princess suspicious of his presence.  The elder girls all tell the youngest that she is imagining things or explain away the sounds she hears.  Three nights proceed the same way with the soldier secretly following the girls and collecting evidence of their activities.

When the time comes for the report to the king, the soldier explains all that he has seen.  Oddly enough, there is little protest or argument from the girls.
The king called for the princesses, and asked them whether what the soldier said was true and when they saw that they were discovered, and that it was of no use to deny what had happened, they confessed it all. 
I half expect the youngest princess to blurt out some form of "I told you so" to her elder siblings.  Though she seemed the wisest and most astute of the lot, the soldier surprisingly chooses the eldest to be his bride.  The story explains that she is a better match age-wise, but I almost wonder if this is to be interpreted as some sort of punishment for the eldest. I found the ending of the story to be rather anticlimactic and combined with the lack of magic and mystery surrounding the princess's disappearance every night, it's not one of my favorite fairy tales.  I know there are several retellings and reinventions of this tale and I would be intrigued to search out and read some of them.  For myself, I would love a new version of the story (though not one starring Barbie) in which the princes that spirit the girls away are wizards or ghosts or possess some other enchantment over the princesses such that their evening dancing is more the result of fantasy than just rebellion.

What do you think of The Twelve Dancing Princesses?  Do you like the ending of the story or do you wish it had a bit more excitement?  Have you read or seen any other versions of this story?  

This post marks my first Fairy Tale Fridays entry of 2012.  To check out more FTF posts and my 2011 Fairy Tale Challenge click here!

How to Eat a Cupcake

I love cupcakes.  It's not that I'm overly trendy, I actually love just about any dessert, but there's something pretty and petite, simplistic and easy-to eat about cupcakes.  The picture at left is a Cookies and Cream Cupcake I made last year for some coworkers (using this recipe) and I figured talking a bit about my culinary passions would make a nice tie in to a book review of Meg Donohue's debut novel How to Eat a Cupcake
Annie and Julia were born into opposite stations in life - Annie to an Ecuadorian immigrant and Julia to a rich prep-school family - but as nanny to Julia, Annie's mother raised them both and as children they were practically sisters. High school antics drove them apart and after Annie's mother died, the two girls went their separate ways: Annie to pursue independent culinary dreams and Julia to business school.

As grown woman, the two cross paths again and though Annie is reluctant to place any trust in her old friend, Julia's wealth and business savvy hold the keys to making Annie's dream of owning her own cupcake shop a reality. Entering into a an uneasy partnership, the two find that their past of hurt, betrayals, and buried secrets soon surfaces. Annie and Julia must decide if they can overcome their differences amidst a new barrage of business challenges and threats to their shop and possibly even find their childhood friendship rekindled along the way.

Meg Donohue cooks up a winning recipe of friendship, and family, blended with puzzling mysteries in this heartwarming novel. The title How to Eat a Cupcake refers to the different styles each character has of consuming pastries perfectly and though Annie and Julia are as different as chocolate mocha and vanilla bean, each is a delightful heroine in the novel. Reminiscent of the works of Sarah Addison Allen, this was a book that brings descriptions to life in tastes and smells along with sights and sounds, and if there's anything bad I have to say about this novel it's that it will certainly leave readers hungry for a home-baked treat!
Are you a cupcake fan?  Is there a home-baked dessert you prefer?  (I'm thinking of trying out these tasty looking sweets for Valentine's Day!)  If you're not much of a culinary creator, do you like reading books about people who are?

An advance review copy of this book was provided by LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.  This review represents my honest and unbiased opinions about this work.  How To Eat a Cupcake by Meg Donohue will be released on March 13, 2012.

The Chalk Girl

There are two types of readers that will approach Carol O'Connell's newest book The Chalk Girl: those who know Kathy Mallory and those who are meeting her for the first time.

As a part of the former category, I was thrilled to discover novel number ten in O'Connell's Mallory series featuring the brilliant, beautiful, sociopath who is the law but doesn't quite object to bending it. The mystery presented in The Chalk Girl finds Mallory placed in desk duty after her unexplained absence but pulled into active service with a case of a serial killer stringing up victims from trees in Central Park. The only witness to the crimes is a young girl named Coco starving for human contact. Coco instantly latches on to the cold-hearted Mallory causing many - especially psychologist Charles Butler - to wonder if Mallory has a soft spot for a kindred spirit or if she's just using the girl's trusting nature as a means to solve her case.

Complexly layered with a storyline spanning past and present, O'Connell once again keeps the reader guessing throughout the entire story. Though I was a longtime Mallory fan when I picked this book up, the beauty of this series is that each entry can be enjoyed as a solid novel on its own. Granted, the back stories and character development of Mallory, her partner Riker, Charles Butler, and the rest of the well-drawn cast are painted over time throughout the series so that constant fans will have the benefit of closer ties to the key players, but that is not to say that newcomers to the books will enjoy this one any less.

Would you read them with a fox? (Top Ten Tuesday)

This week's edition of Top Ten Tuesday features a lovely topic of "Top Ten Books I Would Recommend to Readers That Don't Read (blank)".  The theme immediately brought to mind Green Eggs and Ham because I think many readers that typically don't read *insert your own blank here: audiobooks / young adult / fantasy* have the type of prejudice that Seuss's book related.  Just as Sam I Am's friend insisted on not liking Green Eggs and Ham until he tried them, I think many readers could be pleasantly surprised about enjoying a new genre or type of book that they just haven't tried.  (And while I'm on the topic, is the ham green too or is it normal colored ham just served with green eggs?  And if the ham is colored should the book really be called green eggs and green ham or would that just kill the whole rhyme scheme?)

As always, though, I digress. I debated for a while what I wanted my list to be about.  Should I extol the virtues of R.A. Salvatore and Jim Butcher to those who don't read fantasy?  Should I rave about my favorite female protagonists to those who generally avoid chick lit?  Or maybe I should explain why not all vampire books are written like Twilight?  All of those would have made intriguing posts, but I thought instead I would tackle a topic that has more readers opposed to it than any others I encounter: Indie Fiction.  I'm guessing at that very announcement, many people X'ed out of their browser. *sigh*  Independently published fiction has a crazy stigma attached to it that it's no good, and it's a prejudice that plenty of readers cling to which is why this list was so important to me.  As a book blogger, I take recommendations seriously.  There are plenty of books I read which I know are not for everyone.  And there are plenty of books I read (both by indie and traditionally published authors) that I feel could have used a bit more work before reaching press.  However, as I present this top ten list, these works all come with a Her Book Self seal of approval.  They're all stories I enjoyed and would happily read again and I hope some adventurous blog reader just might take a chance on one or more of them! (Titles below link to my reviews.)

Top Ten Works For Readers Who Don't Read
Independent Fiction

10. The Muse of Edouard Manet by M. Clifford
Read It If You Enjoy: Romance; Time travel; Books set in Chicago; Historical fiction; Famous artists
Popular Book I Would Compare It To: Outlander; Girl With the Pearl Earring
Why You Should Try It: It's a romantic story with a mix of time travel, adventure, and a really fascinating behind the scenes look at The Art Institute of Chicago

9. Revenge by Mark Young
Read It If You Enjoy: Crime novels, Action adventure; Police books; Books about Native American culture
Popular Book I Would Compare It To: One of the Jim Chee Mysteries by Tony Hillerman
Why You Should Try It: Revenge has an intricate plot with layers of suspense, great characters and highly detailed setting.

8. Progeny by R.T. Kaelin
Read It If You Enjoy: High fantasy; Detailed world building; Loveable characters
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Furies of Calderon; Warbreaker
Why You Should Try It: Epic in scope, Progeny is on par with many traditionally published high fantasy works.

7. Adelaide Einstein by April L. Hamilton
Read It If You Enjoy: Women's fiction; Humor; Encouraging stories about friendship and family
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Everyone is Beautiful; Fried Green Tomatoes
Why You Should Try It: This was one of the first works of independently published fiction I ever read and I know it predisposed me towards trying out more indie authors.

6. Foxy's Tale by Karen Fraunfelder Cantwell and L.B. Gschwandtner
Read It If You Enjoy: Young adult fiction; Mother/daughter stories; A touch of supernatural
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic books crossed with a PG version of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries
Why You Should Try It: The writing is smooth and witty and the story is clever and unique.

5. Color Me Grey by J.C. Phelps
Read It If You Enjoy: Action and suspense with a touch of romance; Kick-butt heroines
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination; James Bond meets Bridget Jones
Why You Should Try It: Phelps's protagonist Alex Stanton is a strong sassy female holding her own in a man's world and her adventures are a great example of fun, escapist fiction. 

4. Hungry For You by A.M. Harte
Read It If You Enjoy: Short stories; Zombies; Off-beat horror mixed with humor and romance
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Married with Zombies
Why You Should Try It: This is a great collection of pieces varying in length but they're as delightful and creative as they are gruesome and hilarious. 

3. The Legend of Lady MacLaoch by Becky Banks
Read It If You Enjoy: Romance; Magical realism; Books set in Scotland
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Outlander; Highland Fling
Why You Should Try It: This book is a beautifully woven story with a gorgeous setting and an intricate plot of age old curses and star-crossed lovers.

2. Take the Monkeys and Run by Karen Cantwell
Read It If You Enjoy: Mysteries with a female protagonist; Humor; Family stories
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Something by Donna Andrews or Heather Webber
Why You Should Try It: Cantwell is downright hilarious and her mystery manages to pack in a heap of suspense and intrigue while still being full of laughs. 

1. The Book by M. Clifford
Read It If You Enjoy: Thought-provoking fiction; Dystopia; Books set in Chicago
Popular Book I would Compare It To: Fahrenheit 451; 1984
Why You Should Try It: The Book is a novel for anyone who's ever contemplated the long term ramifications of our society's increasing dependence on technology and, specifically, what the move to eReaders could mean for our great literary heritage. 

So there you have my list.  Are there any that you have read?  Are there any that you may take a chance on after reading this post?  Do you hold to the stereotype that indie fiction is somehow not as good as traditionally published work or do you read work by indie authors?  (If the latter, I'd love to hear your own recommendations!)  For previous Top Ten Tuesdays on Her Book Self, click here

I'd also like to send a shout-out to those indie authors who I have featured on Her Book Self but whose works did not make this list.  I really wanted to stick to ten in the hopes that more readers will get through this whole post, so please do not be offended if your work did not make my Top Ten.  There are plenty more I could include but I did want to keep this at least slightly brief!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms follows the story of Yeine Darr, a girl from a rugged village summoned to the lush capital city of Sky by her grandfather. After her mother dies under somewhat mysterious circumstances, Yeine appears before her grandfather Dekarta, who is the ruler in Sky, and learns that she has been chosen along with two of her cousins as potential heirs.

Weaving her way through various political schemes to remove her as a successor and trying to determine what really happened to her mother are enough of a challenge for Yeine. Complicating matters even further are a host of enslaved Gods residing in Sky - including the endearing Child-God Sieh and the dangerously alluring Night Lord Nahadoth.

I downloaded this book for my Kindle after hearing some glowing reviews for it. It took me a while to really get pulled into the story, but I appreciated the unique voice and creative storytelling of author N.K. Jemisin combining fantasy, romance, and politics. Yeine was a very original heroine and in many ways she was my favorite part of the book. At times the pacing of the story was a bit slow, but once I reached the central action of the story I was hooked until the end. This was a promising debut work with great potential for future entries in the series.

The Wolves in the Walls

I've always known myself to be an eclectic reader, but one genre I love, which I don't spotlight very often on this blog, is books for young readers.  As the saying goes, "We all have to grow older, but we don't have to grow up," there are few things that make me feel more like a kid again than a really great picture book.  Knowing this, and knowing how much I enjoy the writing of Neil Gaiman, my husband gave me the book The Wolves in the Walls as a Christmas gift!

The story follows a young girl named Lucy who hears some strange sounds late at night and is convinced there are wolves in the walls of her house.  Her parents and brother wave away her worries with theories of mice or rats or bats and reiterate to her that, "If the wolves come out of the walls, it is all over."  Despite the unbelief of her family, Lucy is right about the wolves and they do make it out of the walls, displacing Lucy, her brother, and her parents from their home.  Though it does seem to be "all over", Lucy comes up with a plan to get their house back!

I really enjoyed the cute and funny but slightly scary story told in Neil Gaiman's signature fashion.  Equally enjoyable were the illustrations crafted by Dave McKean.  I was first exposed to McKean's work through the feature film MirrorMask and have been a fan of his unique style ever since.  Though the wolves may be a bit frightening for very young readers, I think this is an exceptionally charming tale for grade school audiences.  And of course, it can be equally appreciated by much older readers as well.
Are you an older reader that is still a fan of picture books?  Have any great titles to recommend?

Six Geese A-Slaying (Plus a bonus poem by lisa...)

Twas the week before Christmas and all through my blog
I gave up on posting to sleep like a log.
I fought seasonal colds and needed my rest
'Tween volunteer projects, nap-time seemed best.
Followers were quiet, comment fields lay bare,
And I hoped that a new review soon would be there.
With book piles aplenty, library holds galore,
I should have found many a book to adore.
But alas the days passed and I turned so few pages
To read through a novel was taking me ages!
"Come new year! Come Spring! Then I'll finish more books!"
Yet this bold declaration drew skeptical looks.
Without book consumption, of what would I post?
For what is a blog with a stricken mute host?
Her Book Self lay silent awaiting my time
And all I could manage was this silly rhyme
Explaining my absence with wishes for more
Posting and writing as in blog days of yore. 
Plus a bonus review of a holiday tale
I picked up for free at a library sale!
(For those who want Christmas over and done,
Pick this one up next year, it really was fun!)
Now on to reviewing a mystery delight,
Happy reading to all and to all a book light!

I know I'm overdue on posting this review, as the Christmas season is quickly fading to eggnog hangover memories and regretful bill paying of impulse induced gift purchases, but just before the holidays I finished a Christmas themed book that I really did enjoy.  Six Geese A-Slaying by Donna Andrews is the tenth in a series of (now fourteen) cozy mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Meg Langslow. This entry finds Meg reluctantly planning the town holiday parade - with a twelve days of Christmas theme - and amidst the chaos of drummers drumming, pipers piping, boy scouts camping, and reporters nagging, someone went and murdered Santa. 

I don't normally read series books out of order, but as I was in the mood for a cute and engaging book, I couldn't resist the holiday flair of this one.  I assume that the earlier books in the series provided more character development for Meg, her family, and the eccentric and varied cast of townspeople around her, but even without the background of their relationships, there was plenty of charm to entice me into loving the heroine and her team.  The mystery was well paced too with a good amount of red herrings and multiple motives to keep me guessing the murderer's identity throughout the story.  Six Geese A-Slaying was a really fun holiday mystery and I'm interested in checking out more from author Donna Andrews in the future. 

Wishing you all a slightly belated "Happy Holidays from Her Book Self" and here's to another fabulous year of great books and great blogs in 2012!

Farewell 2011, Welcome 2012

It's time for my yearly wrap up of books read in 2011!  Before I create my collage of covers, here are a few fun statistics:

Total Books: 74
Fiction/Nonfiction: 70 / 4
Re-reads: 4
Top Genres: Fantasy (26); Historical fiction (18); Mystery (8)