Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lately with philately

When was the last time you paid any attention to stamps? With our increasing reliance on email, I doubt if anyone still collects or studies stamps anymore. The soon-to-be-lost study of stamps, called philately, is one of the themes of Alan Bradley's wonderful debut novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, a tightly written and hugely enjoyable mystery.

TSBP is set in 1950s England and centers on precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce. Flavia appears to be the black sheep in the family. Her father is a recluse who still mourns the loss of his wife several years ago; her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, make it a point to torment Flavia's existence at every chance they get. Ophelia and Daphne couldn't be blamed though, for Flavia oftentimes steal their belongings and frequently concocts mild poisons to put in their lipstick. All four of them live in an English country house who has seen better days with their cook and their father's assistant, Dogger.

One day, the de Luce's idyllic existence is thrown into chaos when Flavia discovers a murdered man in their garden. Flavia then takes it upon herself to determine all the details about the murder, one that would involve his father and unearthing dark family secrets involving stolen stamps, prestidigitation, and birds in a pie. The result is one murder mystery that is very, very satisfying.

Bradley's writing is sparse yet full of details. His characterization of Flavia, one with both the brilliance and naïveté of childhood, is flawless. With Flavia, Bradley has come up with a character that you love more and more as you progress through the novel. You'll overlook her faults, cheer her on when she's in a bind, and celebrate her triumphs and discoveries. We will all see a facet of our childhood in Flavia.

TBSB has all the elements that recall classic English mysteries -- a poisoned body, family secrets waiting to be exposed, a decaying English country house, and dysfunctional family members. In the hands of less capable novelists, these elements would translate to rip-offs of the novels of Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, Dorothy Sayers, and P.D. James. The way Bradley weaves these elements together, however, is refreshing and uncontrived; TBSP is one of the most ingenious novels I've read this year. I think TBSP would even appeal to fans of the Nancy Drew series and even of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

TBSP is the first Flavia de Luce mystery and it has recently been released to a wider audience only this year. I'll surely be on the hunt for the next Flavia de Luce mystery since I think that, for lack of a better expression, Flavia rocks.

Read this book if:
  1. You love precocious children.
  2. You were always curious about why people collect stamps.
  3. You love death by poison.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Bookshelf Project #18

This week's pictures of bookshelves are from Paul, a doctor from Suffolk UK. Here are two pictures, shot at different angles, of his gorgeous bookshelf.

I'm getting a very classic and homey vibe Paul's bookshelves. And that table with the chairs is just the perfect spot to have your coffee in the morning, don't you think?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A pleasant surprise

I've been having an attack of the reader's block again this weekend, so I decided to arrange the books that I have on my TBR pile. I've noticed that my TBR pile hasn't grown as much during the last few days. I checked my calendar for any books that I have bought recently (I'm OC that way) and, much to my surprise, I realized that I haven't bought any new ones in the last two months! Woohoo!

I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this at all, especially with my new job that requires me to work some very unusual hours. And I've now come to the conclusion that work does indeed get in the way of reading. Wouldn't it be great to get a job that lets you read the books all the books that you like and pay good money for reading them? Isn't that a book lover's wet dream?

Anyway, I haven't always been comfortable with the idea of being in a self-imposed no-book-buying rule, although I did attempt these in the past with some success. This is the first time, however, that I unconsciously went through several weeks without buying any new books. The feeling is very gratifying, especially after counting all the money I've virtually saved.

Diane at her blog challenges book bloggers to read books that are already in their shelves. I'm not big on reading challenges, but I think I'll check this one out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Bookshelf Project #17

This week's pictures of bookshelves are from Thomas, a fellow who writes one of the most insightful book reviews. Check out his blog here.

I love his collection, especially his classics! I'm particularly envious of his Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time books. And I could see that he'll be needing more bookshelves soon!

What do you think of his bookshelves, dear reader?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Good news, good news

People who are into intelligent and racy reading may actually live longer. At least that is what's implied here. This is exactly what I need to hear, especially after knowing that the word "unfriend" is probably here to stay. Since I plan to read all of Collins's novels and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, I figured I need to live until I'm 80, at least.

I wonder what constitutes "intelligent and racy" reading though. I bet Hawking's A Brief History of Time (which I haven't read) counts for intelligent reading. Are the Gossip Girl novels considered racy? And, can we actually have a book that's both intelligent AND racy. Hmmmm... Offhand, I think I've read lots of racy novels: Judith Krantz, Jackie Collins, and Harold Robbins.

Any suggestions on intelligent and racy reads, dear reader?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


The New Oxford American Dictionary has picked its word of the year, and that word is "unfriend." When asked as to the criteria for choosing that ghastly word, it cited that "unfriend" is very current and has the potential for longevity. I just cringe reading about this piece of news.

I'm not a language purist and I love how dynamic English is, but celebrating a grammatically incorrect usage of a particular word does not bode well for the next generation. I'm not comfortable with using the word "friend" as a verb, much less its negative. Surely we can think of other quirky words that appear frequently this year which are used correctly.

How long before "unfriend" finds its way into fiction and (gasp!) our textbooks? Would our children and children's children ever learn that the true context of the word does not necessarily involve social networking sites? Argh...

How about you, dear reader? Are you peeved about this word? Or is some other word bugging you? Let me know. Perhaps we can "friend" each other in Facebook.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Novellas by Collins (part one)

I can't get enough of Collins's works lately, and what better way to get my Collins fix than by reading his shorter works. Collins's novellas still have his trademark narrative -- the pervasive atmosphere of dread and malice and a touch of elegant mystery elements. If you haven't read Collins yet, dear reader, then I suggest you check out these three novellas.

Oxford World's Classics collected three of Collins's most famous novellas -- Miss or Mrs?, The Haunted Hotel, and Guilty River. Miss or Mrs? and Guilty River can be read in one sitting, as each averages 100 pages long. The longest, The Haunted Hotel, runs for 160.

Miss or Mrs? is a fast-paced novella. It puts all our contemporary thrillers to shame. Collins combines the elements of fraud, murder, secret marriage, and blackmail to create 80 pages of one wonderful narrative. Marriage is a major theme especially in Collins's later works, and in Miss or Mrs?, marriage again plays a prominent role. In England during the mid-1800s, marriage was one way of obtaining a respectable income and we see how the novella's villain, Richard Turlington, hopes to pay off his business debts by marrying into a well-to-do family.

The Haunted Hotel is a very atmospheric read. It seems like a ghost story at first, but the reader is really in for a surprise. If you've read The Moonstone, which many people consider as the first detective novel, you know what I mean. The novella is very eerie and it's episodes of hauntings in the Venetian hotel are indeed hair-raising. Again, murder figures prominently in this work, with the scene of the murder (a room in the hotel) serving as the setting for all those mysterious ghostly apparitions.

I still haven't finished Guilty River though. But I just wanted to immediately share how I had a fantastic time (again) reading Collins. Now I know why he was the most popular novelist during his time. At one point, he even surpassed his good friend Charles Dickens in book sales.

Read these novellas if:
  1. You want to sample Collins's wonderful works.
  2. You're craving for well-written thrillers.
  3. You can't get enough of sensational fiction.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Another list

Image from The New Yorker

Telegraph just came up with a list of 100 books that defined the 2000s. Check it here. This decade, the noughties, hasn't been a very good reading year for me, as I used to read at least 250 books every year during the 90s. Now I just average around 50 in a year. (Oh, how work gets in the way of reading.) Still, I was surprised that I've read 56 of them!

I'm not really a big fan of lists as they seem to be very subjective. And I think I'm not sure yet as to how a book can define a decade. Should it rank in a bestseller list? (Probably, since The Da Vinci Code is #2, Twilight is #32, Jamie Oliver's The Return of the Naked Chef is #46.) Should it be political? (Yes, as apparently, Obama's Dreams from My Father is #2.)

The list, however, did get me to think of the best books that I've read in this decade, which is quite challenging. Telegraph did include three of my favorite books so far -- Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White (#91), Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (#87), and Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (#4).

How about you, dear reader? Are there books you've read in the 2000s that particularly stand out? I'd like to know about them.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Bookshelf Project #16

This week's pictures of bookshelves are from Alexander. For his collection, Alex mentions that:
  • The bigger books in the centre from left to right are design/architecture/world history/aviation/miltary/transport/star wars (I am secretly a big fan) and sheet music books (next to the piano!).
  • Third from bottom row: art/more smaller architecture books/more world history (I love history on ancient civilizations and cultures) and under the sheet music section I have school yearbooks and souvenir brochures that I have amassed.
  • The bottom two rows on the left and centre sections are photograph albums (another meticulous hobby of mine - on the spines I have the flags of the countries visited displayed in that album.) The right section has dictionaries and some more miscellaneous reference books.

Such a diverse collection, don't you think? And I love that the bookshelves cover the entire wall! What do you think, dear reader?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I will conquer my fear

I will conquer my fear and finally read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I won't cringe at all those instances of British politeness. I will read passages of old 19th century English as if they were the latest bestselling thriller. I will not be bothered by all those gossipy characters. I will not be put off by uptight British gentlemen who seem to be above everybody else. I will read Pride and Prejudice if it's the last thing I do.

I've no cboice in the matter really. The book club that I'm a part of is discussing P&P on November 21, and I've already confirmed my attendance. That was the easy part. Now all I have to do is read that bloody novel. And while I think that the movie with Keira Knightley was wonderful, I doubt if just seeing the adaptation would be good enough for the book club members.

I've been very vocal about my aversion to Austen, despite some of my friends mentioning how good her novels are. I guess we all have our literary pet peeves, right? I'd like to know yours, dear reader.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A favorite from the past

Whoever said that history is boring was probably correct. Or, he or she hasn't read Hendrik Willem Van Loon's wonderful non-fiction book for young adults, The Story of Mankind. First published in 1921, the book has undergone several revisions and editions but is still very much relevant for today's readers. The Story of Mankind is also the first recipient of the Newbery Medal, a testament to its literary value.

Unlike other history books, The Story of Mankind reads like fiction for readers of all ages. Van Loon, by reading at his style, is a storyteller. Each chapter of the book feels like an adventure, with the historical characters serving as players of the narrative. The book is just a joy to read. The rise and fall of Rome, the concept of feudalism, the Reformation, and the Persian wars have never seemed so exciting.

History is the mighty tower of experience, which time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages. It is no easy task to reach the top of this ancient structure and get the benefit of the full view. There is no elevator, but young feet are strong and it can be done. -from the Foreword
The latest version of The Story of Mankind has 5 new chapters on technology and the concept of the Earth as a global village. While these certainly make the book updated, they aren't necessary. What Van Loon wrote in the original book is what you keep coming back to. Van Loon doesn't talk down to children condescendingly, which is often the case from writers who simplify their difficult subject areas for their readers. Van Loon understands children and what interests them. The Story of Mankind is something that you'll want to read and reread and read to your children.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

I'm back

I'm finally back! Well, I wasn't technically away nor I have gone on vacation. It's just that I had a very busy week, especially since I've started work with a new company. Anyway, my apologies if you've dropped by during the past week and haven't found anything new. Don't worry, I'll be resuming regular posts in the coming days.

Also, I'm still looking for more pictures of bookshelves. If you want to share how your bookshelves look, why not take a picture and email them to me!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Not one bit scary

I really had high expectations when I started this anthology of horror stories, as it was edited by Peter Straub, one of my all-time favorite horror writers. I can still recall the satisfying creepiness of Ghost Story and the dark wonders of Shadowland every time I come across Straub. There was a certain old world, Gothic feel to his stories, which I assumed would be somewhat felt in this collection.

Poe's Children: The New Horror tries to veer away from the standard formula of horror stories. There are no black-and-white monsters, all-out gore fests, and dreadful ghosts and demons in these stories. What readers are exposed to are the psychological and disturbing elements of the genre. In that aspect, the anthology succeeds as it presents what the misunderstood genre of horror and dark fantasy can transcend. But in terms of that horrifying, scared-out-of-your-wits factor, the collection fails. None of these stories can make you curl up in your bed and make you sleep with the lights on. None of them have bite.

This collection features the supposed "New Wave" of horror fiction. The 20 or so stories have been written by big names such as Stephen King, Don Chaon, Ramsey Campbell, Joe Hill, Graham Joyce, and Neil Gaiman, just to name a few. Perhaps, their aim of writing a horror story that would appear "literary" is the culprit. What is "literary" horror by the way? Wouldn't it hurt to come up with a well-written story that is also very terrifying?

A friend bought me this book just before Halloween, and I figured that it would be the perfect read for the season. I guess I should've reread Dracula or sampled H.P. Lovecraft's works which I've always found weird. Come to think of it, I haven't read a really good scary book lately. The last really good novel that creeped me out was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which I've read more than 4 years ago.

Read this book if:
  1. You're curious about "literary" and New Wave horror fiction.
  2. You're a big fan of Peter Straub.
  3. You like weird short stories.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sometimes, I wish that...

  1. Girls would keep reading books after they've finished Twilight. There are other great stuff to read out there.
  2. Novelists would learn that a trilogy comprises three books only. Why ruin a perfectly good series with a prequel, a follow-up, or a spin-off.
  3. Typefaces in mass market paperbacks are much bigger.
  4. The ink in books doesn't rub off on one's fingers.
  5. Each book comes with its own bookmark.
  6. The glue in books is less addicting.
  7. I can actually eat books.

How about you, dear reader? I'd love to hear your wishes that have to do with books.