Monday, July 21, 2014

The Ice Princess (2003)

From Scandinavian Crime Fiction: Writer Erika Falck returns to her hometown after the funeral of her parents. She finds no solace. Erika is instead met by the news that the body of her childhood friend Alex has been found frozen in an ice cold bath. Her wrists have been slashed, but did Alex really take her own life? In order to deal with the tragedies, and to overcome her writers block, Erika starts working on a memoir (about) her dead friend. The writing process turns into an obsessive interest in Alex and her fate, and soon Erika's research leads her to local detective Patrik Hedstrom. Only when they start working together are they able to find answers, and to unfold the small town's deeply disturbing past.

The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg first drew my attention on the Metro. I don't remember what the advertising poster said but I went so far as to seek the book out with no luck at my local library and bookstore. Time passed and I forgot about the novel until recently when Chuck, a fellow mystery reader, recommended I read it.

Now available via download, The Ice Princess is a good BBC-style mystery with a Swedish village as its backdrop. The mystery itself and the conclusion to the story are satisfying but I can't fully recommend the book without telling you about its multitude of faults, primarily its lack of organization and content editing.

Too many primary characters. 
The most confusing structural problem with The Ice Princess is its lack of a primary character. To whom do I owe my allegiance? Eilert Berg introduces the book as the man who finds the body. Erika Falck follows as the main character who cares about Alex's death. And then suddenly, halfway through the story, Patrik Hedstrom takes over as the detective who drives the story to its conclusion.

This problem with focus is further evidenced by the fact that Goodreads initially called the series the "Patrik Hedstrom books" and now has revised that title to read the "Fjallbacka series." I have read books where there are many people narrating the story but it didn't work easily in this case.

Too many minor characters. 
I know it's a literary device for writers of crime fiction to create an entire village of people so the killer is better hidden from the reader's suspicion but there were just too many minor characters. The inner life for each was well done and interesting to read but I began to feel as if the vignette was more important to the writer than the character was to the story.

Too much information when it comes to romance. 
The budding relationship between Erika and Patrik was central to the story but it was TOO detailed, particularly when it came to underwear choices and the avoidance of urinary tract infections. YUCK. What kind of book is this?

Too many pages in each chapter. 
Hundreds of pages, in fact, with no clear reason for the text division when it finally did occur. Where is this going? I like organization within a book that makes sense and I like a clear place to stop and take a break.

Too chatty.
Overall, the book was satisfying but a big red pencil would have helped it read better. Hopefully as the series continues, Lackberg will have learned how to remove the excess and focus on building her story and characters with more relevant information and less inconsequential detail.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2012)

I was pushed really really hard into reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Asia, my 11-year-old niece, wrote the title on all of my note lists. She asked me about it every time we saw each other. She told me it was the Best. Book. Ever. That I HAVE TO READ IT NOW!

So, with that pressure on my back, I finally took the time to download the book and started reading it. It's not often I come across a book I read non-stop until finished. It's not often I take a book (hidden on my iPad) to meetings and read a page or two under the table when the conversation becomes dull. It's not often the whole family reads a book and talks about it during long distance phone calls.

This book is considered children's literature. Really? It's about two kids, teenagers, both dying of cancer. They are smart, clever, deep, intellectual, and care about each other and the big questions. What happens when you die? Is it important (or even possible) to do something heroic that makes your life worthwhile or are we all destined to oblivion any way?

To give you more information about this "amazing book" Asia wants you to read (or else), I now turn my review over to a Q&A session with Asia "the great and powerful"...

Asia, The Fault in Our Stars is a love story. What do Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters mean when they tell each other every thing is okay? When Hazel and Augustus say everything is okay, they are referring to their friends, Isaac and Monica, who tell each other "always" so that they will "always" be there for each other. Hazel and Gus mix this statement around to create their own "always;" it is okay.

Which scene in the book do you remember and love the most? The scene from this book that I remember most is Augustus' pre-funeral. SPOILER ALERT!!! I loved this scene because the connection between Augustus and Hazel is emphasized in a way that you understand what they are going through.

Why do you think Augustus carries a cigarette in his mouth but never lights it? Augustus is a very metaphorical person. In the book, Augustus says that he is putting the killing thing in his mouth (the cigarette) but not giving it the power to kill (lighting it). It's a metaphor.

What do you think Hazel means when she says she is like a grenade? Hazel has cancer in her lungs. When she says she is like a grenade, she is stating that one day she is going to blow up and obliviate everything in her wake and she doesn't want to hurt anyone.

Are you glad you found out that Sisyphus the Hamster ended up okay? Yes, because at least when Hazel and Gus went to Amsterdam they weren't totally disappointed.

Even though the "world is not a wish-granting factory," if you had a Genie foundation wish, what would you ask for? I don't know what I would do with my wish. I have a good life so I would probably give my wish to someone who needs it more than me.

Do you think Augustus chose a visit to Amsterdam because he wanted to give Hazel her wish or do you think he chose Amsterdam because he wanted to make Hazel fall in love with him? Or both? I think both because Augustus is a very charismatic person and he wants Hazel to have a good life before she dies but Gus has very strong feelings for Hazel and the trip to Amsterdam shows his affection for her.

Why do you think we like to read sad stories that make us cry? Because it's real life. Real life is hard and it will make you cry. But it also makes you laugh and smile. That is what I love most about this book. You are crying because Hazel is sick or because Gus dies, but you are laughing at the jokes and you feel happy when you think about the love they share for each other!


Sunday, April 6, 2014

Love Story (1970)

Having recently read The Fault in Our Stars, I decided to revisit the love story that broke the young romantic hearts of my generation: Erich Segal's Love Story.

I will say up front and center: The Fault is better. The writing style is more sophisticated. The characters are more developed. The story deals with death more intimately and much more realistically. The connection between Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters is deeper and more heartfelt than the relationship between Oliver and Jenny, even though they are all supposed to be intellectuals of some sort.

Love Story is almost still an outline. The story was published too soon and still needs work. It isn't finished! Yes, it's a classic but it can never be called literature. The success of the story in 1970 must have been due to timing. Jenny was ethnic in an era when the blonde-haired blue-eyed standard of beauty was being challenged by the "other." It was what we wanted to read and see at the time.

Here's a brief summary of the story: Harvard jock meets Radcliffe music student. Oliver Barrett IV has generations of wealth and accomplishment behind him. Jenny Cavalleri is the daughter of an Italian baker, although her father is specifically not an immigrant and does not speak Italian. The social gap between the lovers is wide but the disparity of their class is part of what attracts them to each other. They date, marry while still in school against the wishes of Oliver's parents, and then struggle to make ends meet. Oliver achieves success with his wife's help and then - blam - she dies.

The heart of this story is about Oliver and his father, not about Oliver and Jenny. 

Oliver gets good grades, excels in sports, but is angry at his father because he gets no recognition for his accomplishments. Oliver is expected to do well because he's a Barrett and generations of Barretts have always done well. There's even an underlying suggestion that many of Oliver's accomplishments are due, not to his personal efforts, but instead due to his last name and the financial contributions made by his father.

Jenny is this perfect character with no apparent faults. Everyone in the neighborhood loves her. She sleeps with Oliver without expecting a relationship. She marries Oliver when he's broke and then helps her husband through law school. Jenny doesn't even suffer tremendously when she becomes ill and only asks to be held tightly right before she dies.

Jenny's illness and death scene is shorter and less detailed than Oliver's opening hockey games which play no significant part in the story. (And what's with the doctor telling Oliver that Jenny is sick and asking him to keep the information to himself? WTF? My God, times really have changed.)

Love Story is about how Oliver stands up to his father, makes his way in the world, graduates third in his class without his father's assistance, learns the value of money, and then acknowledges the unconditional love he feels for his father after he has matured and become a successful man in his own right. With a little more work, Love Story might have been a work of literature but probably not the great success it was in theaters.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Repair: Old Storage Box

We found this box on an abandoned ship. It's roughly built and was probably a first-year shop project given lovingly to a parent who left it behind thinking he'd return some day. Exposure to moisture over the years caused the wood to swell and the lid would no longer shut.

Found box.

I put the box out with the intention of working on it and while I was away Eric sanded the lid down so it will now shut. We then gave the box two coats of polyurethane and tightened the hinges. It's not a beautiful show piece by any stretch of the imagination but it serves me well hidden away on my bookshelf storing note cards and envelopes. Lucile's letters rest on top.

Repaired box.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Terracotta Palace (1970)

From the book cover: Where is Vanessa Malimbrosa? Juliet Holdroyd wants to know ... and nothing the very strange, very rich Malimbrosa family can do will keep her from the twisted truth hidden in a fabulous villa in Rome.

My last few reads have been on iBooks and I have to say there's real pleasure in reading an old out-of-print paperback. This book has a musty attic smell and I like the cover art.  Here's my evaluation based on a set of questions I have pulled together and will apply to all romantic-suspense novels I review on LiAM:


Does the story include the necessary romantic-suspense elements?

  • an old house with a long history and secret passageways? YES! The Terracotta Palace is an ancient mansion in Rome where the Malimbrosas live in beautiful suites with wonderful servants, manicured grounds, and dark cellars originally built to house prisoners.
  • a secretive husband whose trust is called into question? YES! Philip is Juliet's untrustworthy love interest. His potential deception is carried through to the very end quite effectively.
  • an alternative male who provides support and friendship? YES! Martin, who is frequently referred to as Juliet's "gay companion," is her confidant.
  • a sophisticated female who is in competition for the husband and has superior beauty and status? YES! Irena is described as being the most elegant woman in the room and it appears that she and Philip are involved.
  • a narrator who is ordinary and insignificant? YES! Juliet is strong, independent, and not easily swayed but she is "ordinary" in that she's not wealthy and "insignificant" because she's not immediately recognized as one of the clan.
  • a murder or an attempted murder? YES! Vanessa is missing and possibly dead; Pepi, the little boy, is being tortured by ghosts and Juliet is a target.

Is the conclusion of the novel satisfying?

Initially, YES, when I closed the book, The Terracotta Palace was an acceptable read. The characters were tolerable and sufficiently developed for light fiction, and the story wrapped up with the (obligatory) romance. BUT, when I started to think about my blog post, I realized that the story doesn't quite measure up and here's why:

The mystery is solved, but doesn't make sense.

Vanessa is alive and her family knows all about it. Allegra actually engineers her grand-daughter's "disappearance" as part of an excommunication from the family for having forged checks.

For having forged checks? Really? Money flows easily and generously in the Malimbrosa household. There's no reason (such as drugs or gambling) to explain why Vanessa would need more money than what she has. The conclusion that she can't be trusted and must be banished before she embarrasses the family just doesn't make sense to me.

Juliet is a Malimbrosa and that gives us a solid explanation (and an acceptable gothic motive) for why someone is trying to kill her. Vanessa wants her cousins Juliet and Pepi out of the way so she can find her way back into Allegra's heart.

There's no resolution. 

Vanessa is going to jail. Pepi is still weak and emotional. Juliet is going home. Even if Juliet and Philip marry, it's not likely they will both change their names to Malimbrosa. Irena isn't going to jeopardize her relationship with the sterile Leo by having a secret child outside of her marriage. Romola is too old to bear children and has no prospects. No one inherits? All of this drama for nothing?

And no one rescues the child.

I can't believe AM just dropped this part of the story. Will Juliet go back to London and write the kid long letters as some means of support (as she plans) or will she actually do something to improve Pepi's life? It would have been a much more satisfying ending to the story (and a logical one) if Juliet and Philip had taken a ride out to the country with the intention of saving the child (and the heir).

Does the novel include artistic color?

No, not really. It's something I have come to expect from AM novels. Juliet walks up and down the street looking for Vanessa and drinking coffee. She explores vacant buildings and burned out houses. Geraniums are always described as looking tired. Juliet is out of sorts. People stub out their cigarettes but never light them or smoke them. Two stars for books in general. Three stars for the genre.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Repair: Black Bedside Table

I bought this table at a neighborhood yard sale for $2.50. Eric (lovingly) gave it five coats of high-gloss black alkyd paint and I added a blue anthropologie knob.

Thank you, Eric!

and here's the before pic:

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Feed Better (and Share)

Christmas biscuits, shaped like hearts. These are not the pop-open-the-can kind of biscuits nor are they the completely made-from-scratch biscuits, but they did require adding buttermilk, rolling the mixture on flour, and wearing an apron.

I don't cook in the true sense of the word, but in the last six months, I have moved away from convenience foods and time-saving restaurants in favor of culinary education and expansion.

These biscuits are such a small step toward a more interesting food future. I am dreaming of homemade strawberry jam, a riot of herbs on my balcony, and local farmer markets in the spring.