Monday, February 28, 2011

book review: Someone Else's Garden by Dipika Rai

Someone Else's Garden. by Dipika RaiThe basics: "The eldest of seven children, born low-caste and female in rural India, Mamta is abused and rejected by a father who can see no reason to 'water someone else's garden' until a husband can be found for her. Seeking escape in matrimony, Mamta begins her wedded life with hope--but is soon forced to flee her village and the horrors of her arranged marriage to the bustle of a small city." -- from the back of the book

My thoughts: Someone Else's Garden, Dipikia Rai's debut novel, is quite beautifully written. As I read the book's first sentences, I knew I had to pay attention. The reader jumps right into the story and several character names. Soon, however, the novel began to drag before me. I still enjoyed Rai's writing and gift for description, but it wasn't enough to keep the magic alive. I never found myself scrambling to write down certain passages, but I did find myself re-reading passages to myself.

The book was a lovely insight into Indian culture, but its honest approach was necessarily depressing at times. It's not without hope, however. I found much of it to be slow, but there were parts I thoroughly enjoyed. It has many strengths, including a powerful last line that will stay with me for some time, but I wish the narrative would have been tighter.

The verdict: The strong writing, vividly realized setting and intriguing characters didn't keep this novel from a slow read. Dipika Rai is a talented writer, and both the premise and ending are strong. I hope her next book packs more literary and plot punches from beginning to end.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 374 pages
Publication date: February 1, 2011 (paperback original release)
Source: publisher via TLC Book Tours; the full tour schedule is here (and many enjoyed this novel more than I did)

Learn more about Dipika Rai on her website or on Facebook. Order Someone Else's Garden from Amazon, the Book Depository, or an independent bookstore.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sunday Salon: Oscar Night!

Happy Sunday, everyone! It's Oscar night, a night I've been looking forward to for months. This year's crop of nominated films is pretty fantastic. I rated four of the ten Best Picture nominees five stars, and my favorite film of 2010, Blue Valentine, was sadly left out of the Best Picture race. The red carpet coverage starts at 2, but I plan to start watching a few hours later on DVR. I added an Oscars tab to track all my reviews for nominated films, and I've included my picks and predictions there. I'll update it with the winners and tabulate my score tonight or tomorrow. Mostly, I hope my predictions are wrong. I'm looking forward to not being in a pool and thus not having bragging rights at stake. I simply want the performances and films I enjoyed most to win. No one but Michelle Williams herself will be happier than I will be if she wins Best Actress tonight. I'll be sipping sparkling wine and cheering her on.

I'll also have my nose deep in Dipika Rai's debut novel Someone Else's Garden today, which has been an enjoyable but somewhat uneven read. I'll be reviewing it tomorrow. Also coming up on the blog this week:

I'll also have a movie review for you on Friday (probably either Biutiful or The Illusionist) and another book review on Saturday.

There are quite a few things I want to get read before the Orange Prize longlist is announced in two weeks, and once I finish Someone Else's Garden today, I'm letting myself have two weeks of free reading. I'll pick up whatever strikes my fancy before taking on all twenty titles on this year's longlist. The Sunday after next, I'll bring you my predictions for what will be on this year's longlist.

Now tell me, will you be watching the Oscars tonight? Who are you rooting for?

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

book review: Messenger of Truth

The backstory: Messenger of Truth is the fourth historical mystery in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series. I'm reading the entire series as part of Book Club Girl's Maisie Dobbs read-along. (Links to my reviews of Maisie Dobbs, Birds of  Feather, and Pardonable Lies.)

The basics: Georgina Bassington-Hope, who attended Girton at a different time than Maisie, hires Maisie to look into the death of her artist brother, Nick, which was deemed accidental.

My thoughts: After the third Maisie Dobbs mystery being my least favorite, I hoped the series would rebound a bit for me. In the opening pages I discovered a delicious trifecta  of a suspicious death, art and a client with a hyphenated last name (I have a fondness for hyphenated names that has only increased since Mr. Nomadreader and I hyphenated our names.) Yes, these point of intrigue may be rather nomadreader-specific, but you must admit, art and murder are steeped with intrigue.

This novel (and case) felt more structured to me:
"Wasn't this whole case like creating one of those murals, building a picture across uneven terrain, telling a story by adding detail to give life and momentum to the masterwork?"
Overall, there was a nice mix of personal and professional, and it felt authentic. For the first time in the series I recall, the reader gets someone else's interior monologue: a glimpse into Dene's thoughts. It was fascinating to see Maisie through the eyes of someone else, as she often shields the reader from all of her emotions.

There is still a fair share of life lessons and wisdom:
"I don't particularly like the man. However, I do respect him. I suspect his feelings toward me are the same. I've come to the conclusion that liking a person we are required to have dealings with is not of paramount importance, Maisie. But respect is crucial, on both sides, as is tolerance, and a depth of understanding of those influences that sculpt a character."
Although I figured out the mystery before it was revealed, I still found the mystery to be quite compelling. Perhaps because of my fascination with the art world I was even more intrigued. There is immense appeal for me of a family with hyphenated names comprised of artists. The Bassington-Hopes were fascinating, and Winspear did a nice job fleshing out so many characters we may not see again.

It was also nice to see Maisie reading for pleasure again. One of my favorite parts of Maisie Dobbs was seeing Maisie enjoy books, and I hope this trend continues in the future books.

Favorite passage: "Her independence was gained early, more by default than by design, and as time went on, like many women of her generation, her expectation of a certain freedom became more deeply ingrained."

The verdict: I adored the art-themed mystery as well as the personal aspects of the story for Maisie and the Beales. After being somewhat disappointed with the last Maisie Dobbs novel, The Messenger of Truth is a return to excellence. I'm perhaps most impressed with the titles of these novels. Their meaning is often obtuse until the mystery is solved, but I find myself easily recalling the events of the book and being wowed by the layered meanings of the titles.

Rating: 4.25 stars (out of 5)
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: August 22, 2006 (it's in paperback now)
Source: I bought the Kindle edition

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Friday, February 25, 2011

movie review: Barney's Version

Barney's Version (Movie Tie-in Edition)The backstory: Paul Giamatti won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy for his role in Barney's Version, a film based on the novel by Mordecai Richler.

The basics: The film begins in Montreal in modern time with Barney (Paul Giamatti) appearing as a rather miserable alcoholic. It then jumps back to 1974 in Rome, Italy, where Barney is getting ready to get married because he's gotten Clara (Rachelle Lefevre) pregnant. When she delivers the still-born child, it's clear the baby isn't his. Quickly, wife #2 (Minnie Driver) enters. At their wedding reception, Barney meets Miriam (the divine Rosumind Pike) and falls in love.

My thoughts: The film jumps around in time over thirty-five years (it's also nominated for the Oscar for Best Makeup; it won't win because it's so subtly done, but it was genius). For the most part, it works, but there were times the narrative force wasn't strong enough to handle the audience already knowing the ending. There were a few mini-mysteries scattered throughout the supporting cast, such as the cop who believed Barney got away with murder (whom did he kill?) and Barney's daughter (with which wife?)

There's a sadness to the humor in Barney's Version. Yes, the three wives are a joke, but the acting is so good it's never forgotten that these are real people, which makes the events more tragic than comic. It's not a love story you can root for, so even the happy times are tinted with sadness because the film tells us the end before it begins.

I haven't read the novel, but it was clear the film is based on a novel. There were times I guessed things were left out because everything was significant, but not in the brilliant, visual way Sofia Coppola managed in Somewhere (my review). The foreshadowing was too over the top, which threw off the face of the film and made the sincere and touching ending seem surprising and out of place. Barney's Version seems like the classic example of the book is better than the film, and the film did make me want to read the book. There's a richness and rawness to these characters and their lives, and I wanted to enjoy it more than I did.

The verdict: Despite inspired performances from the cast (Giamatti deserved the Golden Globe), the film fell short as a whole. An emotional finish was not enough to save it from its uneven beginning and middle, but the performances do make it worth renting.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Length: 129 minutes
Release date: It's playing in these theaters now and you can pre-order the dvd from Amazon
Source: I paid to see it the Spectrum Theatres

Fun trivia: Atom Egoyan playing the director of Barney's soap opera

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

book review: The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan

The Lover's Dictionary: A NovelThe basics: The Lover's Dictionary is a love story told through alphabetical dictionary entires.

My thoughts: There is something about David Levithan's writing that is both earnest and cool. As I was reading this short, little novel, I was reminded of Stephen Chbosky's brilliant novel, Perks of Being a Wallflower. Levithan and Chbosky both get it. They can be smart, funny, self-deprecating, and honest. Levithan inspired this female reader to see myself both in the male protagonist and in the woman he loves.

Levithan's humor provides a beautiful balance to the sweeter entries:
avant-garde, adj.
This was after Alisa's show, the reverse-blackface rendition of Gone with the Wind, including songs from the Empire Records soundtrack and an interval of nineteenth-century German poetry, recited with a lisp.
 "What does avant-garde mean, anyway?" I asked.
"I believe it translates as favor to your friends," you replied. 
One of the most impressing aspects of this novel is the amount of characterization Levithan managed to convey. It's a testament to non-linear storytelling with amazing character development. There is a universality to love and its correlating emotions (and vocabulary) that makes this novel excel. Yes, there are the details of the two individuals, but there are also intentionally vague aspects that encourage the reader to place him or herself in the position of either (or both) character(s).

At times, I felt I was reading a teen novel because so many of these emotional memories are tied to the teen years, but this novel is very much an adult love story (and not just because of the sex.) There's an awareness and maturity to many of the definitions.

While jokes referencing Empire Records may be especially poignant to those who are my age and a little older (Levithan was born in 1972), this novel will appeal to those younger and even a little older. Coming of age tales never quite go out of style, and neither do love stories. Levithan infuses both with grace and humor.

Favorite passages: "There is no word for the recipient of the love. There is only a word for the giver. There is the assumption that lovers come in pairs." (from lover, n.)

The verdict: The Lover's Dictionary is a delightful, engaging, and endearing tale of love. It made my toes curl with its romance and it made me cry with its honesty.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 224 pages
Publication date: January 4, 2011
Source: my local public library

Treat yourself! Buy The Lover's Dictionary from Amazon (in hardback or Kindle version) or from The Book Depository.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Waiting on Wednesday: State of Wonder

Waiting on Wednesday is hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine to highlight an upcoming release you can't wait to read. 

State of WonderMy pick this week is State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Here's the publisher's description:
"Marina Singh, who's given up her medical practice for the relative quiet of pharmaceutical research, finds her world upturned when she's suddenly sent to the Amazon. A field team there, working on a new drug, has been unresponsive for two years, and Marina's colleague Anders, who has gone to investigate, is reported dead. State of Wonder is an adventurous story of science and responsibility."
Booklist says, "Patchett captures not only the sights and sounds of the chaotic jungle environment but also the struggle and sacrifice of dedicated scientists."

State of Wonder will be released June 7, 2011, but you can pre-order it from Amazon in hardcover or for the Kindle.

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

book review: The Night Season by Chelsea Cain

The Night Season (Archie and Gretchen)The backstory: The Night Season is the fourth book in Chelsea Cain's Gretchen Lowell and Archie Sheridan series. (My reviews of Heartsick, Sweetheart, and Evil at Heart.)

My thoughts: After enjoying Evil at Heart the most of the three books, I was eager to see how Chelsea Cain continued the series. This book begins differently than the other three by opening with a the story of a crippling flood in Portland in the 1940's. When the story shifts to the present day, flooding is rampant in Portland again. We don't get to see a glimpse of a returning character until the second chapter, and the action picks up from Susan's point of view as a reporter. This novel really is about Susan and Archie, and I enjoyed Susan propelling the story personally and professionally.

This novel is a real departure for the series. It doesn't focus on Gretchen, but past events are indeed referred to. Archie is finding a sense of peace in his life. I have thoroughly enjoyed Susan's character in past books, and it was interesting to see her as the female lead in this mystery.

The verdict: Although a departure from the series, this novel does see Susan and Archie solve an interesting mystery that touches on Portland's rich history. In many ways, this novel is a more conventional series mystery, but Susan's spunk and Chelsea Cain's gore still set it apart from other series.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: March 1, 2011
Source: I received this book from the publisher for review via Crazy Book Tours.

Pre-order The Night Season from Amazon (Kindle version).
Pre-order The Night Season from an independent bookstore.
Shop Indie Bookstores

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Oscar shorts: Animation

Day & Night (6 minutes)
Pixar's shorts are always delightful, and this one is no exception. Day meets Night and they are frightened by each other. Then they engage in an amusing game of one-upping each other with their wonders. It was a fast-pasted, funny, creative and touching short. It's a story I can't imagine being told without animation. Although the idea is solid, a book form of the tale wouldn't have the same emotional impact.
Rating: 4.5 stars
The Gruffalo (27 minutes)
Even if you haven't read the children's book this short is based on, the story will be familiar. It's not really treading new ground, and while the animation was beautiful, it's really a short geared to small children. It does feature some famous voices, such as Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Wilkinson and John Hurt. Children will likely love it, but adults may find it goes on too long.
Rating: 4 stars
Let's Pollute (6 minutes)
Done in the style of a science movie from the 1970's, Let's Pollute will delight adults and children. It's a hilarious satire that knows when to stop. It's mostly the same joke over and over, but it reaches its own absurdity as it ends. The message: buy more, use once, and throw it away. The animation style is classic and nostalgic.
Rating: 4 stars

The Lost Thing (15 minutes)
It pains me to this: Shaun Tan's short was my least favorite. (It's based on the book of the same name.) I've enjoyed the other Shaun Tan books I've read, especially The Arrival, but The Lost Thing was neither emotionally relatable or visually interesting. It felt forced, as though Tan was trying too hard to be unusual and forgot about the importance of heart to a story.
Rating: 3 stars

Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage (11 minutes)
A still photography simply cannot do this short film justice. It's animation and visual aesthetic are absolutely mesmerizing and utterly unique (at least they were to me.) It felt like a gorgeous picture book came to life. I was so enchanted I felt like a child again. It's rare to find such a wonder. Take the time to watch a clip of the film at the Oscar shorts website.
Rating: 5 stars

As with the live action shorts, I have a clear preference: Madagascar, Carnet de Voyage. It's superior to the other films in originality and animation style. I hope it wins on Sunday.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading Habits

When I finished graduate school in December and started a full-time librarian job, I knew my reading habits would change. It was important to me to find a rhythm for my reading, but even I am surprised at how my reading habits have changed. The biggest change: I wake up early to read for an hour before getting ready. I've always been a sleeper, and I still am. I've never been a morning person, but I'm becoming one. Waking up to read is such a wonderful way to start my day. I look forward to the quiet time in the morning when I'm the only one awake. I sip my coffee and enter the world of the book I'm reading.

Amidst the busyness of working two jobs (my librarian job is only for this semester, so I kept my part-time serving job and wait tables Friday and Saturday night), some days the only time I read is during my morning hour. Most days, however, I can squeeze in about half an hour of reading on the bus and while riding the bus. On nights Mr. Nomadreader works, I usually opt to spend a few hours reading too.

Overall, starting my day reading brings a consistency to my reading I never had in graduate school, when each day brought a different schedule of balancing work, classes, and internships. With only a week left in February, I've already read 18 books this year. In 2010, I only managed to read 83. I don't like paying too much attention to the number of books I read, as quantity matters so much more to me, but I do still appreciate the feeling of accomplishment that comes with keeping track.

This week brought one freakishly warm (for February) day when we actually opened the windows for a few hours in the afternoon. It was just enough of a hint for me to start to yearn for spring, which means lots of time  lounging on the couch on our screened-in porch with a book. I find I always read more in the spring, and I'm curious to see if that trend continues as winter fades away.

What reading habits do you have? Do they change with the seasons too?

Coming up on the blog this week:

  • my (delayed) reviews of the Oscar-nominated animation shorts
  • my review of Night Season, the latest Archie Sheridan mystery by Chelsea Cain
  • my review of The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan
  • my review of Messenger of Truth, the fourth book in Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series
  • my picks and predictions for the Oscars next Sunday

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Oscar shorts: Live Action

The Confession (26 minutes)
Basics: Two British boys prepare for their first confession. Sam frets because he doesn't think he has anything to confess, so he and his best friend Jacob set out to steal this scarecrow.
My thoughts: It started funny with brochures featuring suggestions of things 9-year-olds might need to confess, but it quickly turned dark. The film didn't shy away from extremes, but none of the events were particularly shocking. The performance of Lewis Howlett at Sam kept this film from veering into the ridiculous. It's not the most unique film or script, but it was quite visually interesting and well acted.
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Wish 143 (24 minutes)
Basics: The film centers on the story of David, a teenager dying of cancer. When presented with the option of a wish (a la Make-a-Wish), he wishes to have sex.
My thoughts: Wish 143 does a wonderful job dealing with serious subjects (cancer and death) and infusing them with humor. There's a surprising depth to both characters and setting. The filmmaker plays with fruit visually and linguistically. On the cancer ward, fruit is used to describe the size of tumors, but there are also frequent posters in the background advertising fruit and encouraging people to eat it. Ultimately, Wish 143 is successful because it doesn't try to do too much. It's honest, funny and touching.
Rating: 4 stars

The Crush (15 minutes)
The basics: An eight-year-old has a crush on his teacher and doesn't understand that she won't marry him. When he runs into her with her fiance, he is crushed and challenges him to a duel.
My thoughts: The first few minutes of The Crush are delightful and funny. Soon, however, the film careens into misogyny and becomes a (presumably) unintentional farce. The film takes itself far too seriously and tries to do too much. It does very little successfully. The foreshadowing is over the top. The suspense is far too ramped up and induces eye rolling rather than fear. The filmmaker's take on love, women and marriage is as evolved as its eight-year-old star's.
Rating: 2 stars

Na Wewe (19 minutes)
The basics: Set in Burundi in 1994, this film starts well. After car trouble, a film crew is welcomed into the van of a group of people of varying ages. They travel on and find themselves facing soldiers and an inquisition to determine if they are Hutu or Tutsi.
My thoughts: As much as I enjoyed most of this film, it's ending ties up the strings far too effectively and sells short its overall message. A serious film throughout quickly warps into an odd happiness because of a linguistically weak pun. It's failure for me lay in its ability to bee both a comic film and a serious take on racial divides. Mr. Nomadreader wisely said the ending reminded him of a Coca-Cola ad when everyone joins hands and inexplicably sings.
Rating: 3.5 stars

God of Love (18 minutes)
Basics: The lead singer of a lounge band (whose dart precision is choreographed into the group's songs) receives a box of love darts as an answer to his prayers.
My thoughts: God of Love is refreshing, hilarious, earnest and utterly delightful. It doesn't take itself too seriously or pride itself on a deeper message. Instead, it entertains and offers a unique perspective on the classic unrequited love triangle. Mark my words: Luke Matheny (the writer, director and star) is a talent, and he's going places. If he were ten years younger, I'd be upset Judd Apatow didn't somehow cast him in Freaks and Geeks.
Rating: 5 stars

The verdict: It's pretty obvious I'm rooting for God of Love to win the Oscar. Mr. Nomadreader liked it best too! Clips of all the films are available on the Oscar shorts site. The shorts are also playing in theaters across the country.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

book review: Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli

Radio Shangri-La: What I Learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on EarthThe basics: The sub-title of Radio Shangri-La could easily be 'What I Learned About Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.' Lisa Napoli's fascinating memoir takes her from a chance encounter at a Manhattan dinner party to Bhutan, where she uses her career in radio to assist Bhutan's new (and only) radio station.

My thoughts: I confess, before I read Radio Shangri-La, I could find Bhutan on a map, but I knew next to nothing about its people, history, and customs. Ultimately, I would call it a travel memoir, and I learned as much about Bhutan as I did about Lisa. Lisa is quite candid about her own happiness, both personally and professionally. Originally from New York, she's in her early 40's and working for public radio in Los Angeles. Lisa's fascination with Bhutan is partly universal but partly intensely personal. Internet and television are recent additions to Bhutan, and Lisa appreciated a certain simplicity of life.

The changes in Bhutan are a topic of much consideration in this memoir. Bhutan is becoming more westernized (or modernized). I was fascinated by this shift in Bhutanese thinking and culture. Lisa Napoli provided a wonderful window into Bhutan and achieved a lovely balance of personal narrative and Bhutanese narrative. I got the sense the people she encountered and befriended in Bhutan would be as welcoming to you or me (if we could ever secure the elusive tourist visas and manage to pay the $200/day tourist tax to visit Bhutan ourselves.)

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Lisa's personal journey as well as experiencing my own personal journey learning about Bhutan.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Length: 304 pages
Publication date: February 8, 2011
Source: Publisher via TLC Book Tours (the entire tour schedule is here)

Want to learn more about Lisa? Check out her website, follow her on Twitter, visit Radio Shangri-La's Facebook page, and her blog about Bhutan. Lisa is also happy to Skype with book clubs (or visit you in person if you're in Los Angeles!)

As an Amazon affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you!