Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

 George R. R. Martin has been called "The American Tolkien," and with good reason. His sweeping epic, A Song of Ice and Fire rivals that of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, yet Martin's fantasy does not easily fall within the accepted norms of fantasy literature. The first book in this series, A Game of Thrones, reads more like historical fantastic fiction than a stereotypical fantasy novel. Gone are wizards, elves, and orcs, and in their place is a story of political intrigue that writhes in a mix of heartbreaking agony coupled with storytelling ecstasy.

What sets this story apart from many in its genre is the scent of realism that pervades every chapter. The noble House of Stark that is at the center of the tale is at once noble yet deeply flawed. The Lannister family that most strongly opposes them is wonderfully wicked, yet itself possesses its own nobility. The story is further populated by families and individuals each with their own agenda, and whose side each of these ends up on is mercurial and apt to change by the time the next page is turned.

This book is definitely not for younger readers. This dense and highly complex tale is rife with situations that place it well beyond what might be considered appropriate for the younger set, yet within the context of the story, none of the incidents are out of place. This chronicle has a gritty realism that helps it to resonate with a "historical accuracy" of sorts in regards to what would be considered "acceptable" for the medieval period, especially when it comes to the behaviors and attitudes of the men and their society towards women. The book has had various accusations of misogyny leveled at it and for good reason: many of the men within this story have a long way to go in regards to the respectful treatment of women within their society, yet two of the most noble and admirable characters in the book (if not the only truly noble and admirable characters in the story) are female.

This is the kind of story where the grit gets stuck in your teeth...and you like it. Corpses reek of death; prison cells stink of urine, sweat and more; the same man is capable of the noblest of heroic acts and the most craven and depraved of behaviors, and it is this struggle within themselves that defines who they are.

What appear to be rather disparate threads are woven together as the story progresses, yet Martin leaves enough loose threads to lead the reader towards the second installment, A Clash of Kings.  The suspense within the story seemingly resides on the struggle of various factions against one another, yet a threat  from beyond the man-made ice wall in the north looms in the background, silent and sure; meanwhile, an unexpected twist in the fortunes of the men and in what they know, or think they know, of their world, offers yet more moves in this chronicle that often feels like a chess game played by the gods in which all of the men are pawns.

From Bantam Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and makes a difference!)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Nerds' Big Day Out (aka Book-a-palooza)

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of shopping (and eating) from local, independent businesses as much as I can, with local restaurants, coffee shops, and independent bookstores being my favorite places to go. I'm fond of telling others that locally owned, independent businesses are like snowflakes: no two are ever really alike. To prove my point and just for the fun of it, I recently decided to embark on a summer "field trip" and explore the bookstores of Denver. I was quite surprised to find out how many there actually are in the Denver area, so decided to make a day of it with breakfast and lunch included.

A quick search online found 14 bookstores that met my criteria of being locally owned and operated in Denver. I was definitely going to need a whole day for this one.

On the appointed day, a friend of mine and I went to Snooze on Colorado Boulevard in Denver. I like Snooze for a lot of reasons, among them that they use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, which is really important to me, and their food is downright tasty. (Review to be posted on my food blog soon.)

Taking a look at our map showed us that our first stop, The Bookery Nook, was about 10 miles from where we were. Hm. That 20 mile drive would be pretty significant considering we would have 13 others to hit before 6:00 p.m. (when several of the stores closed). We decided to wait and see how we felt at the end of the day before heading over there. The fact that they serve locally made ice cream resulted in huge bonus points in their favor, and no, 10:30 in the morning is not too early for ice cream, thank you very much. (ha ha!)

Off to The Tattered Cover in Lower Denver (aka LoDo). Even though I had to pay for parking (a hangup of mine),  I sucked it up, paid my parking fee and in we went. The LoDo Tattered Cover is in a historic building, where it takes up two huge floors of both new and used books. Complete with a small cafe that serves excellent coffee, tasty pastries, sandwiches and salads, and other treats, The Tattered Cover in LoDo frequently plays host to booksignings by authors of all sorts. The store's creaking floorboards and warm wood interior add to the atmosphere of the place, which is filled with various nooks where you'll find bibliophiles of all sorts perusing the racks or sitting in one of the many comfortable chairs, reading some new or soon to be new acquisition.

Bookstore stop #2 was Fahrenheit's Books on South Broadway. This small but very well stocked used bookshop lacks the bells and whistles and coffee of Tattered Cover, but its inventory and very reasonable prices more than make up for it. This was my second trip to Fahrenheit's, and it was just as enjoyable and productive as the first. I spent a fair bit of time making some very difficult choices before finally deciding what to buy.

Broadway Book Mall was next on the list. This dog-friendly, funky shop is part of a co-op of several booksellers in one store. Selling both new and used books, Broadway Book Mall also is stocked with quite a large number of signed and first edition books. Broadway Book Mall plays host to a significant number of book signing events as well as hosting monthly meetings of the Denver Science Fiction Association.

As an added huge, HUGE and unexpected bonus, local author Mario Acevedo stopped into the store.  Once I got over my shock (in a good way), I told him that I had his first book at home, and as I pulled a copy of what would soon be my second copy of The Nymphos of Rocky Flats off the shelves, I asked him if he'd sign it if I bought it right there and then. He graciously said that he would, so that became one automatic purchase right there and then, as did my Spanish version of Jonathan Stroud's The Amulet of Samarkand. While I don't speak Spanish, I do want to become fluent and literate in it, and so I have begun tracking down the Spanish version of specific novels.

After a bit more time chatting with the owners, we made our purchases, and headed up Broadway to the Denver Book Fair. Denver Book Fair is deceptive in the appearance of its size. It's a store with an impressive depth of size, and it is separated into several rooms of varying size. If you are looking for paperbacks or vintage magazines, this is the place for you. Stacked floor to ceiling with books, it's incredibly easy to get lost in the maze of paperback books...and that's not a bad thing at all.

Mutiny Now (no website, so no link, sorry) was stop number five. I walked in to hear the strains of A-Ha's "Take On Me" playing and realized this was the first bookstore I'd been to that day that had music playing. Hits of the 80s entertained us while we browsed the shelves of this bookstore and art gallery.  The whole store has a very laid back vibe to it, and the owner was certainly part of that. This was also one of the most spacious stores so far with a fair bit of room and space that didn't make it feel quite so claustrophobic as some bookstores can do (note: I don't view being crowded in by books to be a bad thing at all, but neither is having a little space between shelves).

After leaving Mutiny Now, we walked back to the car, hopped in and headed south down Broadway to Gallagher Books. (I had at one point considered doing this by bicycle, but after realizing the mileage needed to cover all of the stores I wanted to go to combined with the heat of a Colorado summer day, decided it just wasn't practical...and probably would have been downright stupid.) Gallagher Books has the look and feel of an old style library (one of my favorite places since I was a child). Aptly located in Denver's Antique Row district, Gallagher Books specializes in antique and rare books.

Just a couple of doors down from Gallagher Books is the Printed Page Bookshop. This store, housed in, well...a house built in 1892...has its own in store mystery for customers to attempt to solve in hopes of winning a gift certificate from the store. Browsing the shelves of this antiquarian delight exposes the customer to a wide range of out-of-print and rare books, some of which were in glass cases (an extremely rare and out of print version of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 had me drooling, but the $500 price tag kept it well out of reach, at least for this lifetime). Similar to Gallagher Books, Printed Page offers slices of literary history for the serious collector.

Lunch was next on our agenda, and while on our way to our next bookstore, we found The Crushery, home of not only excellent panini and bagel sandwiches, but also of -321 Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream. Yes, you read that correctly: liquid nitrogen ice cream. Customers place their orders for custom, freshly made ice cream after choosing from a list of options, then watch as the wizards behind the counter work their frosty magic utilizing liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the ingredients into the smoothest, creamiest, tastiest ice cream I've ever had. Ever. I created a chocolate cinnamon with sea salt ice cream that I just about fell out of my chair after the first bite, it was that good. (A full review of The Crushery will appear on my food blog soon.)

The next bookstore stop on the list made me sad, and not because it was a bad bookstore; it was just the opposite as a matter of fact. Murder By The Book is a beautiful store and well stocked with mysteries from nearly every author you can think of, but unfortunately it is going out of business on July 29. It is precisely this issue that I hope to address next year with a project I'm working on (more on that much later), but it causes me almost physical pain when a bookstore closes, double that when it is a wonderful, quirky, locally owned, independent bookstore. The towns in which I spent my childhood are bereft of bookstores; the closest one is approximately 60 miles away; a bookstore is far too important and precious a resource for a community to lose even one, no matter how many exist in that area. The loss of Murder By The Book is truly a crime indeed (pun intended, but not really meant to be funny in this tragic situation). If nothing else, if you are in the Denver area, stop by and thank them for their efforts in combating illiteracy for as long as they did.

 The Bookies was our ninth (!) bookstore for the day. The Bookies specializes in children's literature (including juvenile and young adult literature) as well as resources for educators (which gives them some serious points from me personally right there...ha!). They do stock books for anyone and everyone, however, so there's no excuse for not visiting this store. The staff was friendly and eager to help, and I was led directly to both of the books I asked about without even a moment's hesitation. Rather appropriately, the store has a feel of a constant buzz of energy about it, much like a classroom where learning and education are valued and appreciated. Unfortunately, we weren't able to spend quite as long here as we would have liked since it was getting close to 5:00 p.m. at this point (breakfast was at 9:00 a.m., we headed to the stores around 10:00), and our next destination closed at 5:30. We had to hustle.

Shortly after 5:00, we arrived at The Hermitage, another store specializing in a variety of specialty books, including first and signed editions. Located in the Cherry Creek shopping district, this beautiful store is one of the most elegant stores I've been in. The owner, Robert Topp, captured a special place in this educator's heart when he told me about his other project, Read Me A Story, Ink: a collection of printable stories, lists of book recommendations and the like for teachers, parents, and students with the focus on reading these stories aloud to young people.

Shortly after leaving The Hermitage, we realized we weren't going to make it: we still had four stores on our list, and three of them closed at 6:00 (including The Bookery Nook, which we had planned on perhaps hitting at the end of our day). We also had all but reached our saturation point for the day, and so we decided to save The Bookery Nook, Capitol Hill Books, and Park Hill Community Bookstore (no website) for another day. Instead, our day would end as it began: with The Tattered Cover (though the one on Colfax, this time).

And so our 11th and final stop for the day was The Tattered Cover on Colfax. Even though it shares a name with the LoDo location on 16th Avenue and the store in Highlands Ranch, this store is as different from the others as if it were a completely distinct and separate store. This branch is located in a historic theater that was preserved, restored, and remodeled to house the bookstore. This store also houses a coffee shop, albeit a smaller version of the LoDo store. The other plus of this store vs. the 16th Street location is the free parking garage next door, so that makes me particularly happy. Also containing two stories (well, two and a half, depending on your point of view) of books, this branch of the Tattered Cover is able to please just as much as the first.

After making our final purchases for the day, we opted to go home and recover rather than stop anywhere. We were happy yet exhausted. We had visited 11 bookstores in one day, each one unique and possessing a completely different feel and personality of its own. And therein lies the strength of the locally owned, independent store. Each of these stores reflected not only who the owner is, but also who the neighborhood is and who the larger community is. The major chain bookstores lack this in abundance. A Barnes and Noble one place is a Barnes and Noble anywhere else. Amazon isn't anything but a website. While both of these can offer discounts on books and other merchandise, and McDonald's, Burger King, and the like can offer cheap food, there is something that none of these can offer: a glimpse into the soul of a city.  The restaurants and bookstores we visited gave us a glimpse into Denver like we'd never really seen before. Yes, you can and may pay more for a book or a meal or whatever by shopping locally and making purchases from smaller, independent places, but aside from the simple economic fact that more of your money stays in your community by shopping locally, there is nothing that can replace a conversation with someone who actually cares about their business because they own it and have a stake in not only their business, but in their community as well.

I've long believed in shopping locally and buying from independent businesses first whenever possible. This only confirmed it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Quite simply, this is one of the best books I've read this summer. No, let me amend that: this is one of the best books I've read, period. With The Map of Time, Felix J. Palma has created a world that allows the reader to wallow in its luxuriousness while simultaneously voraciously devouring this suspenseful story.

Palma's meta-fictional story places H.G. Wells at the center of a tale rife with twists and turns that occur at the exact time you think you have things figured out. Told in three interconnected parts, Wells finds himself a participant in a drama in which the very existence of several classic novels depends on his actions.

While this tome weighs in at a hefty 600+ pages, the story flows so well that it flies by and is over before you know it. Originally a Spanish novel, The Map of Time marks Palma's U.S. debut as a a master storyteller. The story itself moves effortlessly, and the first two parts come together seamlessly in part three. Palma blends fictional and non-fictional characters and events in a rich, multi-dimensional tapestry that will be continued with the much hoped for and eagerly awaited translations of his second and third novels in this trilogy.

Published in the United States by Atria Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and shop independent: it makes a difference!)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Review: The President's Vampire

Nathaniel Cade is back.

Let's face it, with Twilight and its related ilk, vampires were denigrated to brooding, emasculated visions of adolescent girls' dreams. In Blood Oath, Christopher Farnsworth reversed that trend; in The President's Vampire, he takes it a step further.

Cade and his human handler, Zach Barrows, come up against an evil that Cade first confronted in Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928 (yes, that Innsmouth, Massachusetts in 1928), only since that time, it has mutated into something he had never seen. The trust and betrayals are more intimate, more personal this time, as is the horror.

Farnsworth has definitely come into his stride with The President's Vampire. As with Blood Oath, many of the chapters begin with excerpts from various sources; some fictional, others real; that give you glimpses into Cade and who he is. Additionally, the use of flashback chapters provide a depth to both the character and the narrative without detracting from the story or its overall flow. The dynamic between Barrows and Cade is filled with tension and a growing respect as the two continue to work with and begin to trust one another.

Part suspense/spy novel, part horror, it is to Farnsworth's credit that he does not rely on violence, blood, and gore to tell the story or to shock the reader. Cade's vampirism definitely augments what he does, but in a very Miltonian twist, just as you grow comfortable with him as a character, and perhaps even begin to like and sympathize with him, Cade does or says something that reminds you exactly what he really is: a predator that only barely resembles a human being:

"And what would you do with them? Terrorists. Traitors. Murderers. How would you handle them?"
Cade showed his teeth.
"I would kill them all," Cade said, his voice flat. "I would burn their cities until the desert fused to glass. I would tear the wombs from their mothers. I would poison their babies and dismember their children. And then I would drown the men in the blood of their families."
Graves stared back at him for a moment.
"But then, I'm not human," Cade said. "I don't need an excuse to act like a monster." (p. 81)

The supporting cast of this series, notably Zach Barrows and a female vampire named Tania, are also developing into intriguing characters in their own right. Barrows is becoming more comfortable in his role and establishing a certain and definite confidence in his work and with his partner. Tania provides an interesting foil to Cade, even as both of them struggle with the remaining vestiges of their humanity.

The story itself is fast-paced and filled with enough tension to keep one reading late into the night, yet Farnsworth masterfully counterbalances it at just at the right moments as to not exhaust the reader. In addition, Farnsworth has capitalized on the technology available in the 21st century with a website that further enhances and deepens his fictional world. (As far as I've seen, only Frank Beddor, author of The Looking Glass Wars series has capitalized on this concept as well.)

As a general observation, this series started off well and continues to develop strongly. I'm looking forward to book #3.

From G.P. Putnam's Sons (a division of Penguin Group Publishing) and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and makes a difference!!)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Review: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

There seems to be a plethora of Holocaust stories out there: some fictional, some non-fictional; The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of the former, and it stands out and above most of them.

The story focuses on Bruno, a nine year old boy whose father is the commandant of a concentration camp in World War II Poland. Bruno has been uprooted from his rather posh Berlin home, and at first feels a grave injustice has been done to him as he adjusts to life in his new home. Resentment turns to boredom and then to curiosity as Bruno begins to explore the grounds around his house. While walking near the fence that separates the grounds of his home from the camp, he finds and befriends Shmuel, a young Jewish boy and prisoner in the camp.

Bruno is an intelligent, inquisitive boy though he has no understanding of what occurs on the other side of the fence. His relationship with Shmuel is genuine, touching, and honest; and even though Shmuel bears witness to the horrific events of the camp, his inability or unwillingness to share these terrors with Bruno help to maintain and develop an childlike innocence to their friendship.

The book is written with a simple, straightforward style as if it were a children's story, though the story itself wouldn't be appropriate for very young children. Bruno's voice rings true throughout the book and lends itself well to the poignancy of this story. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a powerful, haunting story of innocence, friendship, and horror. From Dave Fickling Books and available from your local, independent bookstore. (Shop local and makes a difference!)