The Final Countdown (Top Ten Tuesday)

Rather than apologize profusely for my absence from the blogging world, I'm actually going to give myself permission to take the rest of the year off from my blog.  It's not for lack of love of this blog or any of my fab readers and it's certainly not for lack of great books to write about.  Rather, this has been one of those months where life has thrown me for some loop-de-loops and in an effort to simplify, I'm allowing myself to take a breather.  That's not to say that this will be my last blog of the year and that's not a promise that come January things will return to normal, but it's just an announcement that if I'm not here with my typical frequency, keep heart - I will be back.

With that said, I really can't resist jumping in on today's Top Ten Tuesday topic: Favorite Books Read in 2011.  As usual, I can't actually limit this to ten, but with 70+ books finished this year, this list does still represent the cream of the crop!

Favorite YA Fiction:

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien
Tyger, Tyger by Kersten Hamilton
Matched by Ally Condie

Favorite Adult Fiction - Fantasy:

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Favorite Adult Fiction - Mystery:

Take the Monkeys and Run by Karen Cantwell
The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell (review to come)
Six Geese A-Slaying by Donna Andrews (review to come)

Favorite Adult Fiction - General Fiction:

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Favorite Classics:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

This really is just a sampling of many wonderful books I encountered for the first time this year!  Are there any that I've mentioned that you loved as well?  How about titles I loved that you didn't particularly care for?  Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  Feel free to join the fun with a post of your own and link up at their site!


First comes the apology for my unexpected blogging hiatus.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I was a bit under the weather last week.  Once I was feeling more human, I was busy playing catch-up at work and trying to get ready for the holidays (service projects, card writing, shopping, party planning).  But as a very special return post, I'm happy to share a review of a book that impressed my socks off - happy Christmas socks, that is, featuring little puppies and kitties in Santa hats... the socks, not the book.

Ambitious in scope and epic in execution, Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides is an amazing story not just for its sweeping family saga but for its remarkable narrator. Calliope "Cal" Stephanides is a hermaphrodite - genetically male but raised as a female - and the genetic mutation that led to his condition is rooted in the history of his family. Though Cal is introduced immediately, the majority of the story is told in the past - from Cal's grandparents, Greek immigrants Lefty and Desdemona; to his parents Milton and Tessie.

The unique relationships between the two couples is almost as captivating as their surroundings. Settling in Detroit, Michigan, Lefty and Desdemona's tale corresponds to the city's glory days of Ford. As the next generation takes the focus of the narration, the landscape shifts as well and Cal's parents witness the race riots of the sixties and follow the white exodus to suburban Grosse Pointe, where Cal and his brother are raised.

Eugenides succeeds not only in revealing the complex history of Detroit, but in telling the book with an amazing flair for detail. Some of the characters are painted so richly with personalities that jump off the page while others are classified precisely by their lack thereof. Cal's parents were complete with their own back-stories, hobbies, quirks, and talents; meanwhile Cal's brother is only ever referred to cleverly as "Chapter Eleven". Everything about the story feels real and more than once I found myself running an internet search on a business, neighborhood, or event to distinguish facts from Eugenides's fiction.
I must admit that I had this book on my "To Read" list for a long time and was unfairly prejudiced against the story - which I assumed would revolve primarily around gender identity issues. What I found was a book that did deal with gender and sexuality, but through the eyes of a witty and unique narrator that I came to love, because I was first introduced to his captivating family saga. I was swept up by the Stephanides's history and as Cal interspersed his own struggles into the tale - complete with a decent dose of science and genetics - I felt like a member of the family. I'm also not normally swayed by awards and accolades on book covers, but Middlesex deserves all the praise and attention it has received. I was thoroughly amazed by this book and can easily say it's one of the best I have read this year.

"Curling up with a good book when there's a repair job to be done"

"There's nothing to match curling up with a good book when there's a repair job to be done around the house." ~Joe Ryan
I've been home sick the past few days and I always have a hard time making myself rest when I'm sick versus getting things done around the house. The cold bug I caught this year however really wiped me out. I'll sleep nine or more hours a night and still wake up feeling really tired. So the quote above seemed rather appropriate for me this week as it has been rather nice to kick my feet up and cuddle with a cup of tea, a cozy blanket, and a good book with hopes of feeling better soon!

Tales of an African Vet

Tales of an African Vet is a fascinating series of vignettes from the life of author Roy Aronson. The stories follow his real life experiences as a veterinarian in South Africa and his patients range from elephants and lions in the wild, to snakes and squirrel monkeys brought into a clinic for treatment.

Dr. Aronson shows a depth of passion for his work and for all the animals he treats that reveals a sense of compassion as great as his intelligence. The book is amazing for its details of science and medicine - and the logistics behind treating incredibly large and dangerous wild animals - as well as the knowledge and interesting facts about the variety of animals encountered (from rhinos to alligators to hedgehogs to koi).

The book was well written and the format of stories rather than a single narrative provides a sweeping coverage of the grand scale of Dr. Aronson's work. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in African animals, exotic veterinary medicine, or just a great biography of a man with an extraordinary job.

Rumpelstiltskin (Fairy Tale Fridays)

In lamenting a particularly frustrating portion of my work as a research scientist, I once described a group of my assignments as "The Rumpelstiltskin Effect".  I felt as though in moving my project forward I was being asked to spin straw into gold - a task that was in every way something that nobody could do, but still I was pursuing it.  Needless to say, that project did not pan out as well as some of my others.

Reflecting on that portion of my work, I also realized that I've never reviewed and analyzed the popular Brothers Grimm story Rumpelstiltskin.  As many know the story begins with the Sisyphean task for the miller's daughter all because of something her father says:
"Once there was a miller who was poor, but who had a beautiful daughter. Now it happened that he had to go and speak to the king, and in order to make himself appear important he said to him, 'I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold.'" 
Notice that the problems all begin because the man was trying to "appear important".  The adage of pride before the fall comes to mind here as the story is set in motion.  The greedy king locks the girl up with a room full of straw and a spinning wheel and threatens to kill her if she cannot perform the feat by morning.  Partly I wonder if this was the king simply trying to call the man's bluff.  I have to wonder if the king would really go through with executing a subject - and a beautiful one at that - for what seems to be an obvious exaggeration.  So the miller's daughter is more than a little bit stuck.  The story tells us:
"She had no idea how straw could be spun into gold, and she grew more and more frightened, until at last she began to weep.  But all at once the door opened, and in came a little man..."
I'll try not to roll my eyes at why the miller's daughter didn't at least start trying to spin her straw, plead hay fever and demand release, or fess up to her father's lies; but as in many fairy tales, we have a male who comes to her rescue.  The stranger creates the gold in exchange for a necklace and when the king's greed causes a repeat of events the miller's daughter turns over a gold ring.  (Does anyone ever stop to wonder why, if the miller was so poor, does his daughter have a necklace and a ring that become some pretty hefty bargaining chips?  Or why, if Rumpelstiltskin can spin stray into gold, does he have need of the girl's trinkets?  Sorry, moving on.)  On the third night, the girl is once more thrust into a room of straw and told by the king, "You must spin this, too, in the course of this night, but if you succeed, you shall be my wife."

Rumpelstiltskin appears to save her once more but she is left without anything to offer him in trade for his service - and yet he offers her a deal:
"'Then promise me, if you should become queen, to give me your first child.'"
Who knows whether that will ever happen, thought the miller's daughter, and, not knowing how else to help herself in this strait, she promised the manikin what he wanted, and for that he once more spun the straw into gold."
I know fairy tale heroines are not known for their brains but since the king promised to marry her for one more night of spinning and if Rumpelstiltskin had already delivered a straw to gold transmogrification twice, why didn't she think she would be queen?  So the story proceeds with the girl marrying the king, and eventually having a child that Rumpelstiltskin comes to claim.  She pleads with him not to take the baby and he offers her a reprieve if she can guess his name.  (I have to wonder, how did he help her out three nights in a row and she never asked who he was?)  Of course the big "R" is not a name on anyone's lips so the new queen's situation is rather dire.  She sends out messengers to seek new names from all the kingdoms and eventually one returns with the following tale of what he observed:
"Round about the fire quite a ridiculous little man was jumping, he hopped upon one leg, and shouted -
     'To-day I bake, to-morrow brew,
     the next I'll have the young queen's child.
     Ha, glad am I that no one knew
     that Rumpelstiltskin I am styled.'" 
The queen reveals the answer to the guessing game and the peeved little man suffers a rather disastrous fate:
" his anger he plunged his right foot so deep into the earth that his whole leg went in, and then in rage he pulled at his left leg so hard with both hands that he tore himself in two."
Typically Grimm, that line is the morbid end to the story.  At first, my reaction to this story is one of disdain.  None of the characters are exceptionally virtuous, but on second look there are some actual morals to be found.  The first may be that honesty is the best policy and that one should not tell lies to make themselves seem more important, but I think the larger lesson revealed is to guard one's words.

There are multiple Biblical proverbs about this topic, and regardless of your thoughts on the divinity of scripture, the advice is exceptionally wise.  One example is Proverbs 13:3 "He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin." (18:21 says, "The tongue has the power of life and death" and 21:23 states, "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.")  Knowing that the Grimms were in the practice of moralizing, I think it can be rather obvious how these verses tie into the tale.

Firstly, the father's boastfulness is what begins the whole fiasco.  The king's harsh threats cause the miller's daughter her panic, which in turn leads to her making an unwise promise to Rumpelstiltskin.  All through the story we see the characters causing their own trouble because of what they say and ultimately, it is the little man's words when he thinks no one can hear him that leads the queen to have his name. 

What are your thoughts on the morals and lessons of Rumpelstiltskin?  Is discretionary speech a good theme to pull out of this tale or do you interpret it differently?  Do you feel bad that things ended so poorly for the titular character or do you think he got what he deserved? 

This post marks another entry in my 2011 Fairy Tale Challenge (10 out of 12) hosted by Tif of Tif Talks Books.  I'd love for you to share your thoughts on this post or any of my previous Fairy Tale Fridays selections and wish me luck in finding two more tales to post about before year's end!

"The Ideal life"

"Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
~ Mark Twain

Happy 176th Birthday to Samuel Langhorne Clemens!  I know most of us are used to seeing pictures of a white-haired Twain, but I wanted to choose a younger photo, especially after coming across this quote: "Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen."  Odd that a man who dreamt of a backwards life is immortalized as an octogenarian!  

I was first introduced to Twain's writing when I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in sixth grade and I really fell in love with his work after reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was a junior in high school (okay, I admit, the musical Big River plays a large part in my obsession with that novel).

Do you have a favorite Mark Twain book or quote?

Dracula in Love

I give in to peer pressure.  No, I wouldn't jump off a bridge just because my friends did, but I would certainly read a book that other bloggers raved about.  Such was the case with a recent read that came highly recommended by Stephanie D. over at Misfit Salon!

The idea that a well known story is not the way things really happened is not a new concept for a book, but in Dracula in Love Karen Essex manages to present the idea as fresh and creative. Retelling Bram Stoker's classic from Mina Murray Harker's perspective, Essex reveals a Count Dracula who is perhaps more akin to Shakespeare's Puck than Bela Lugosi's movie monster stereotype.

Mina herself is entirely reinvented from the original book. She is not the helpless victim of a terrifying fiend but rather a strong willed woman with unexplained and somewhat mystical secrets from her childhood. Dracula is not out to destroy her but rather to awaken her own supernatural side. He is her soul mate, who has sought her through multiple lifetimes, rather than a predator intent on her demise. All of the details of Stoker's work fit within the context of Dracula in Love but the expansion and explanations of these details - especially Lucy Westenra's tragic role in the story - provide a thoroughly engaging new perspective on the well known events.

It always seems cliche to me to call a book a "page-turner", but this was definitely a work I could not put down.  Equal parts chilling and romantic, this is definitely a book for fans of the original, and especially for fans of the original who thought Stoker's female characters needed a bit more moxie!
I won a copy of this book through Stephanie's blog and I owe her a huge thanks for the giveaway which rocketed it to the top of my TBR list when it arrived in the mail.  (And if you have not already checked out Misfit Salon, hop over there and start following!  Seriously awesome content and overall a beautifully awesome book blog!)

The Eyre Affair

Sometimes it's the books I love the most that I have the hardest time writing reviews for.  There are certain titles that I just feel rather defensive or possessive about - the books which when others admit to not liking them, I almost feel a bit offended.  Does anyone else have works that they get this emotional about?  For me, one such book is The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde.

The bare bones of the plot is a mystery centered around a detective named Thursday Next who lives in an alternate version of England in the 1980's in which the Crimean War is still raging, time travel and dodo cloning are routine occurrences and literature is taken exceptionally seriously. In fact Thursday is no ordinary detective as she works for a low-in-the-pecking-order division of Special Ops - Literary Detection.  When the original manuscript of Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen all of England is on alert.  And when the super villain targets not just the pages but the characters of Jane Eyre, Thursday must step in - into the story itself - to save Bronte's beloved classic. 

Now the story alone is enough reason for me to enjoy this one, but Fforde's writing is also peppered with wordplay, literary gags, and all sorts of humor for bibliophiles.  Yet, even saying that I know there are still plenty of readers that just never warmed to this book.  And I think I understand why.  The Eyre Affair is the ultimate example of a cross-genre book.  It's satire, mystery, science fiction, and humor.  Numerous classics are referenced, at least one chapter reads like a horror novel; there's a large plot involving time travel that might make your brain hurt if you over analyze it; not to mention a love story; and a good deal of political commentary criticizing war, corporations, and their all too intertwined relationship.  Many negative reviews I've read for the novel point out this mish-mash of details as distracting or unfocused, but to me it just demonstrates Fforde's suave pen at juggling so many seemingly disconnected genres and entwining them all into a clever and cohesive book. 

I first read this book after picking it up at a used bookstore in 2003 or 2004, but I recently reread it and enjoyed it just as much the second time around.  I look to Fforde's novels when I need a happy read, a book I can rely on to make me smile.  Along with picking up more of the jokes and classic references that I had forgotten or missed the first time, I liked this book even more now that I'm closer in age to the protagonist.  It was a fun book when I was ten years Thursday's junior but now that there's only a handful of years between us I can relate to her even more. 

What are your thoughts on The Eyre Affair?  Are you a fan or are you one of the people that failed to be impressed by it?  (You can be honest, I can take it!)  Do you ever have books that you're overly fond of or defensive about people liking?

Turkey, Stuffing, and Literary Greats (Top Ten Tuesday)

I almost skipped this week's Top Ten Tuesday, but the more I pondered the topic, the more I really wanted to post about it!
Today's topic is Top Ten Authors I Want At My Thanksgiving Feast.  
Because this is a glorious flight of imagination many of my choices are deceased and those that aren't likely have families of their own and wouldn't join mine anyway, but I really enjoyed dreaming up this literary dinner table!

10. 9. & 8. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte
Thanksgiving for me is always about family so there would be something really intriguing for me to sit down with the Bronte sisters as well as my own sisters.  I would be very curious how their family dynamic compared to ours, although to be fair I would have to read something by Anne if she were in attendance!

7. Edgar Allan Poe
I have a feeling that if EAP ever got a taste of my mom's fabulous cooking or any of our many traditional desserts he would have a much sunnier outlook to his writing. Plus, I think Thanksgiving should be about including those that are needy and since Poe never really made it in his own time, I would be glad to save a place at our table for him.

6. Mark Twain
Every conversation - especially among an eclectic group of strangers - is more enjoyable with a storyteller and I can think of none better than Mark Twain to fill the role.  I would love to hear him read some of his own work or regale us with stories from his childhood.

5. Dr. Seuss
I would invite Seuss to entertain all my nieces and nephews while the dinner is cooking.  I feel like he would be a fun guest and in my imagination all the kids would enjoy gathering around him for story time. 

4. Rachael Ray
I adore my mom's cooking, but I'm also a huge fan of RR's 30 minute meals cookbooks.  I wouldn't trade my mom's turkey and stuffing for anything, but if Rachael could come and help us throw all the side dishes together in a jiffy, I would love to let my mom relax and know that it was all taken care of!

3. Lee Strobel
Thanksgiving is also a God-centered holiday in my family so I would love to have Lee Strobel join us to say grace for our dinner.  I've always admired Strobel's writing and his faith journey so I think he would be a great guest to remind us to be thankful to God for all the blessings in our lives.

2. & 1. Christopher Moore and Jasper Fforde
I mentioned Family, Food and Faith and the other "f" that's sure to be found at our Thanksgiving feast is always Fun.  Many a dinner with my parents and siblings has erupted into extensive gales of laughter so I would invite Moore and Fforde to our table since they are two writers that always make me laugh. 

I'm sure if I keep thinking about this topic I'll change my mind a hundred times, but I think I've got a pretty interesting crowd selected.  How about you?  Who of my choices would you like to be seated near?  Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  Check out their blog for future topics and to link up with your own TTT post!  (My previous Top Ten Tuesday posts can be found here.)

Foxy's Tale

I was already a fan of Karen Cantwell when I downloaded Foxy's Tale for my Kindle so I was eager to discover the first in The Reluctant Vampire Series co-written with L.B. Gschwandtner. I expected more of a paranormal story but what I found was a delightfully charming family story with plenty of wit - and just a touch of vampires.
Foxy Anders is a former beauty queen, former wife to a football player, and former all around success. Down on her luck she ventures to Washington D.C. to open an antique store, run a boarding house and try to bridge the ever widening gap between her and her teenage goth daughter Amanda. Though the book bears the title Foxy's Tale I felt that Amanda definitely stole the show! It is through her eyes (and her sardonic blog "Amanda's Life in Hell") that Foxy's selfish tendencies are unveiled, and through Amanda's perspective that the reader becomes better acquainted with Foxy's eccentric boarders: shoe addict and amateur chef Knot Knudsen (pronounce the K's) and the elderly foreigner Myron Standlish who might just be stocking his refrigerator with blood.

As Foxy struggles to get her business off the ground she's saved by Knot's eye for antiques but she's also tempted to rationalize blowing her profits on "business" vacations and a new wardrobe. Meanwhile, Amanda gets sidetracked out of her disdain for Foxy by the entrance of Nick - a boy at school who's harboring some nasty secrets. Mother and daughter have never seen eye to eye but when the supernatural enters the picture, they just may find a way to pull together against a much scarier common foe.

I really enjoyed this novel and loved that it contained the same elements of quirky characters, funny plot, and engaging dialog that I saw in Cantwell's other work Take the Monkeys and Run. Though I would have preferred a more solid ending, I liked the story arc and I'm excited to see where Cantwell and Gschwandtner take the series in future entries.

It's been a while since I called a featured title a KinDEAL and since I love the portmanteau (Kindle + Deal = KinDEAL), I'm definitely giving that label to Foxy's Tale as the Amazon eBook is just $0.99  At that price I can only hope that more readers will take advantage of trying out this super cute series!

Gobbling Up Good Books?

I know there are a ton of books out there about Christmas, but does anyone know of any really great books about Thanksgiving?

I was having a conversation about this earlier today, and aside from some children's picture books, I couldn't think of any titles for adults or young adults that really dealt with - or had important scenes - set around Turkey Day!  Anyone have any suggestions?

(And yes this has been a "busy life - slow blog" week for me.  Reviews of Dracula in Love, Middlesex, The Eyre Affair, and Foxy's Tale will hopefully be along shortly!)

For Rent: Space on my TBR shelf (Top Ten Tuesday)

I know I used to always refer to my To Be Read list as the ginormous entity called Mount TBR, but lately I'm trying to think of it more like an apartment building.  Each book has a room to rent (or a flat, if you prefer the UK term), and they all stay there for varying degrees of time.  Some are more or less permanent residents, where as some move in and then jump ship to the finished shelf almost immediately.  For this week's edition of Top Ten Tuesday I'd like to take you all on a tour of the TBR Apartments and introduce you to a bunch of the tenants (aka heap of books I own) that I have not yet read!

And of course I can't narrow this down to 10 so I came up with categories - or "floors" - since there seem to be different reasons why these are all lingering in TBR land.

Unread Books Residing on Lisa's Shelves

First Floor: 
Books I've Started but Just Never Finished

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Dreamsongs Vol. 1 by George R.R. Martin
The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide by Douglas Adams

Second Floor: 
Books I Bought Because I Went to an Author Signing

The Ambition by Lee Strobel
Reckless by Cornelia Funke

Third Floor: 
Books I Bought Because Everyone Said They Are Awesome

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Looking For Alaska by John Green

Fourth Floor: 
Books I Bought Because I Love Their Authors

The Outside of a Horse by Ginny Rorby
Heroes of the Valley by Jonathan Stroud
Trouble in Spades by Heather Webber

Fifth Floor: 
Books I Bought Because I Should Read More Classics

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Sixth Floor: 
Books I Bought But Haven't Read Because They Begin a New Series

The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Everlost by Neal Shusterman

Seventh Floor: 
Books I Bought Because They're Next in a Series (YA)

Garden of the Purple Dragon by Carole Wilkinson
Skybreaker by Kenneth Oppel
Eldest by Christopher Paolini

Eighth Floor: 
Books I Bought Because They're Next in a Series (Adult)

Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher
Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Ninth Floor: 
Books I Bought on Impulse

Tunnels by Roderick Gordon
Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer by Laini Taylor
Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Tenth Floor Penthouse: 
Books I Bought Because I'm Kinda Obsessed with R.A. Salvatore

The Crimson Shadow by R.A. Salvatore
The Highwayman by R.A. Salvatore
Neverwinter Wood by R.A. Salvatore

The crazy thing is - these aren't even ALL the books on my TBR shelves right now! But I hope you've all enjoyed this tour of the - hopefully - temporary housing for many of my owned but unread books!  Are there any that I've listed that you feel I should bump to the top of my reading queue?  Any that you also have sitting in a to-read pile?  

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by the lovely bloggers of The Broke and The Bookish.  Check out their blog to link up your own list this week or to see the schedule of future Top Ten Tuesday themes!  (My previous Top Tens can be found here.)