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! 

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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. 

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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.