March 18, 2019

Book Review: Embroideries by Marjane Sartrapi

From the best–selling author of Persepolis comes this gloriously entertaining and enlightening look into the sex lives of Iranian women. Embroideries gathers together Marjane’s tough–talking grandmother, stoic mother, glamorous and eccentric aunt and their friends and neighbors for an afternoon of tea drinking and talking. Naturally, the subject turns to love, sex and the vagaries of men.

As the afternoon progresses, these vibrant women share their secrets, their regrets and their often outrageous stories about, among other things, how to fake one’s virginity, how to escape an arranged marriage, how to enjoy the miracles of plastic surgery and how to delight in being a mistress. By turns revealing and hilarious, these are stories about the lengths to which some women will go to find a man, keep a man or, most important, keep up appearances.

Full of surprises, this introduction to the private lives of some fascinating women, whose life stories and lovers will strike us as at once deeply familiar and profoundly different from our own, is sure to bring smiles of recognition to the faces of women everywhere—and to teach us all a thing or two.

I loved Persepolis but just recently came across Embroideries.  Raunchy, funny, and eye-opening, it details a gathering of Marjane Satrapi’s female relatives wherein they gossip and divulge scandalous secrets, calling them “embroideries.”  Centering around unhappy marriages, duplicitous spouses and, of course, sex, I laughed out loud multiple times while reading this.  It reminded me of getting together with my sister and aunties and having similar (but not quite as detailed) blush-inducing conversations about family secrets. 

March 12, 2019

A Guide to Bangkok's Chinatown

One of the most colorful and chaotic places in Bangkok is Chinatown.  If you are seeking the heart of Bangkok’s street food scene – this is the place you need to be. 

But it’s not for the faint of heart.  It is noisy.  It is very crowded.  

And it’s also where you can find the best food anywhere in Bangkok at awesome budget prices.  

If you’re debating between going to Chatachuk Market or Chinatown, Chinatown is the clear winner for me.  In addition to all the food you could ever want or need, Chinatown also sells a lot of the same STUFF that Chatachuk Market carries.  

The easiest way to get to Chinatown is to take the Chao Praya Express Boat to pier number five or Ratchawong.  For tips on how to use the Bangkok ferry system, see my blog post.  As you exit the pier onto Ratchawong Road, turn right and walk until you reach Yaowarat Road.  Turn right again to enter the heart of Chinatown.  

Try not to go on a Monday.  Mondays are street cleaning days in Bangkok.  Less than half of street vendors will be operating. 

Set aside a couple hours to explore to your heart’s – and your stomach’s -content.  Bring your appetite, good walking shoes, cleansing wipes for eating on the go – and for those with less-than-ironclad stomachs, a preventative dose of an anti-diarrheal medication.

There are places to sit down and order but I found I gravitated towards the street carts, some of which were stationary, others which were just passing through, as its vendors were constantly on the move.  I tried everything I could – dishes I didn’t even know the name of.  I advise you to do the same.  If something interests you, try it before the cart passes you by.  You might not see it again.  

The sights, the smells, the bounty and variety of deliciousness.  Everything was a delightful surprise.  

Chinatown made the down and dirty foodie in me extremely happy – this is what I imagined when I thought about Bangkok’s food scene. 

How to Use the Bangkok Metro for Sightseeing

Bangkok’s super efficient, fast and affordable metro system is the tourist's best friend.

I only had a taste of Bangkok’s traffic congestion before I made a vow to use every means at my disposal to avoid sitting in traffic.  One of those means is Bangkok’s metro, which is comprised of three separate systems. One of them is called the BTS, which is Bangkok skytrain, a metro system that has routes above the city. The other is the MRT. And the third one is the ARL, which is the airport link, used primarily To travel to and from the airport.

During my three days in Bangkok I used the metro system, sometimes in conjunction with the public ferry system, every single day, even for my day trip to Ayutthaya.  

The metro system is only useful if your hotel is in the following areas: Silom, Sukhumvit, Siam.  I chose my hotel in the Sukhumvit  area partially because their website stated that it was 5 to 10 minutes walk from a BTS sky train stop.  This was incredibly useful to me. I was able to go to all of Bangkok’s  top sites, as well as to the Hua Lampang train station for my day trip to Ayutthaya, in addition to going to the airport for my flight to Hat Yai.

If this is your first time in Bangkok, you’ll likely be going to the following sites: Wat Arun, grand Palace, what pho and Chinatown.  The fastest way to get to these sites will involve using the public ferry system, in addition to the metro. Please see my blog post about how to use the Bangkok ferry system.

The metro stations are modern, sleek and on par with subway systems in New York and Paris and London. Although the metro system doesn’t cover the entirety of Bangkok, it is still a fast and inexpensive way to get from point to point.  

The subway cars are clean and air conditioned.  All signage is in English and Thai, ideal for tourists. I never got lost. All announcements for upcoming stops are also in English and in Thai.  As with other metro systems, to figure out which train to take, first determine the direction you are going. That means the last station on that line signifies which direction you want.

If you’re going to be in Bangkok for at least a couple of days I suggest buying a rabbit card you have to purchase it from a station office it is 100 baht to buy the card and with a minimum hundred baht worth of rides so the minimum that you can purchase is 200 baht total. You can always add more rides as you go along. For three days in Bangkok, including a day trip to Ayutthaya and a one-way trip to the airport, I used almost 400 baht worth of trips .  

To use the rabbit card, just tap it on the turnstile to enter the station and it will briefly flash how much money you have left on your card on the screen and then it will let uou in.  You again have to top your rabbit card on the turnstile to exit the station. At that time it will tell you the screen how much money you have left in your card.

You can also buy individual tickets for each trip.  But I found that having a rabbit card was the fastest way.

The rabbit card only works for at the Skytrain. Although the sky train has an app for your phone, you can only purchase or put money on the card by going up to the window available at any and every station.

If you want to go to an area that’s only accessible by the MRT, or if you want to reach the Hua Lamphong train station, you’re going to have to use the MRT.  The MRT does not use the rabbit card.  To transfer from Skytrain to the MRT you were going to have to go to a window at the MRT station and purchase a token just tell the teller at the window the MRT station you want to go to and they will calculate your fair and program the token to contain that fair. You tap the token on the turnstile as you enter the station and then as you leave the station you insert the token and the turnstile will swallow it before letting you out.

If you plan on taking the metro system to the airport, you will probably use a combination of the Skytrain the MRT and the ARL so you will use the rabbit card for the BTS SkyTrain, Purchase a token to use the MRT, and then purchase another token to use the ARL which is the airport link.  

When I first got into Bangkok I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to use the public transportation and so I hailed a taxi to take me from the airport to my hotel in Sukhumvit.  It took two very frustrating hours.  Three days later, to go from my hotel to the airport I decided to brave the public transportation and it was pretty easy. From my hotel to the airport it took about an hour. I would advise using public transportation to go to the airport only if you have light or carry-on luggage. You will likely have to take your luggage up and or down stairs. There are elevators at the stations, however, they seem to be only Available for the infirm or people in wheelchairs. There are escalators but they are not available at every station.

Furthermore if you are traveling during weekday commute hours in the morning or in the afternoon the metro will be very crowded and trains will be over full.

However I found that the ride from my hotel to the airport was much easier and much more stress-free than the ride from the airport to my hotel in the beginning of my trip. It was well worth it. And cost me a little over five United States dollars.

If you take a taxi either to or from the airport keep in mind that not only will you have to pay the metered fair even if you’re sitting on traffic but you also have to pay the highway tolls and there will be several of them.   A taxi to or from the airport could cost upwards of 500 baht. Not to mention hours of your time.

There are a couple of apps that you can use to help you navigate the Bangkok Metro system.  There’s the BTS metro and the BTS Skytrain apps. I found, however, that all I really needed was a download of the metro system map and knowledge of the nearest station to my destinations.  I never waited more than 10 minutes for a train.The metro system is pretty regular and reliable.

How to Sightsee in Bangkok on the Ferry

One of my surprising discoveries from my recent trip to Thailand was how much I enjoyed riding the ferry boats down the Chao Praya River in Bangkok.  Perhaps it had to do with the fact that it took me TWO HOURS to get from the airport to my hotel via taxi. Maybe the taxi driver was metaphorically taking me for a ride or maybe the traffic really is that bad (or a combination of both) but it just sucked what little energy I had after almost 20 hours of traveling.  I was so disgusted with the whole experience that I would have done anything to avoid sitting in Bangkok traffic ever again.  And in fact for my 3 days there, I never did again - turning to nonvehicular modes of transportation.

 If this is your first time to Bangkok, as it was mine, chances are you’re going to be going to the following sites: Wat Arun, Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and Chinatown.  The good news is, these are all reachable by Bangkok’s public ferry system which traverses the Chao Praya river.  Even better news is that each ride should cost you no more than 20 baht, or less than one US dollar.  Best news of all, it is a lot faster than taking a taxi, about 15 minutes tops from the central pier.  As a bonus, the ferry is a refreshing way to see Bangkok, especially on a really hot day.

First, take Bangkok’s Skytrain to the Saphan Taksin stop.  For a more detailed video on Bangkok’s metro system, see my blog post on the subject.  Follow the signs to the #1 or # 2 exit which lead towards the dock, which is below the station.  Sathorn Taksin is the central pier for the ferries and boats.  Every other pier has a number.

You may be confused about where to buy your ticket. Follow the sign to the Chao Praya Express Boat.  There will be touts who will lead you to an official looking window.  This is not where you want to go – it is 300 plus baht for a ticket and it is for the hop on, hop off boat.  

You want to go to a desk on the side.  Each ticket should be about 20 baht one way.  Confirm that you are on the right boat for your stop. I usually just asked, “Grand Palace?” or “Chinatown?” or on the way back “Sathorn Taksin?” and they should nod or say yes to confirm that you are going the right way.

Numerous boats and ferries stop at Sathorn Taksin. In general, to go to any of the major tourist sites - Wat Arun, Wat Pho, Grand Palace and Chinatown – you want to take boats with orange, green or gold flags or no flags at all.  Because I was unused to where I was going, I always confirmed with ferry personnel that I could reach my particular destination by standing in the right line.

For Wat Arun, you want to get off at pier number eight.  For Grand Palace and Wat Pho, you want to get off at pier number 9.  For Chinatown, you want to get off at pier number five, Ratchawong .  I will be making a more detailed video about Chinatown, so see the link in my description if you want more information.

For my first full day of sightseeing, I saw Wat Arun first, then caught another ferry at the same dock, which took me to Grand Palace and Wat Pho, then caught the ferry back to Saphon Taksin.  You can also take the ferry first to Grand Palace and Wat Pho and then catch a ferry to Wat Arun from a different pier for 4 baht. 

In addition to knowing the number pier you for your destination, the personnel on the ferry also yell out the landmarks that are coming up to alert you in case you want to disembark.  

The ferry boats going to tourist spots can fill up and you might have to stand.  

In general, however, I would take cruising down the Chao Praya river anytime over having to sit in Bangkok traffic.

March 11, 2019

Book Review: Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

A short, powerful, illustrated book written by beloved novelist Khaled Hosseini in response to the current refugee crisis, Sea Prayer is composed in the form of a letter, from a father to his son, on the eve of their journey. Watching over his sleeping son, the father reflects on the dangerous sea-crossing that lies before them. It is also a vivid portrait of their life in Homs, Syria, before the war, and of that city’s swift transformation from a home into a deadly war zone. 

Impelled to write this story by the haunting image of young Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed upon the beach in Turkey in September 2015, Hosseini hopes to pay tribute to the millions of families, like Kurdi’s, who have been splintered and forced from home by war and persecution, and he will donate author proceeds from this book to the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation to help fund lifesaving relief efforts to help refugees around the globe. 
Sea Prayer is heartbreakingly beautiful. Hosseini paints simple and indelible images with his words, accompanied by Dan Williams watercolor illustrations.  Told from the point of view of a Syrian refugee father, who recounts his family’s idyllic life before the bombs fell, the decimation, and the terrible aftermath. His fears and hopes for his son, against terrible odds, are universal.  Read it as a gift to yourself then gift it to someone else.  All proceeds go to help refugees.  
“I look at your profile
in the glow of this three-quarter moon
my boy, your eyelashes like calligraphy,
closed in guileless sleep.
 I said to you
‘Hold my hand.
Nothing bad will happen.’”

March 4, 2019

Book Review: Little Darlings by Melanie Golding

Publication Date: April 30, 2019

Source: Vine

A new mother becomes convinced that her children are not her own…

Lauren, a new mother, is exhausted by the demands of her twin boys. Since coming home from the hospital, she rarely leaves the house. But it isn't only new motherhood keeping her there. Lauren knows someone is watching them and someone wants her babies. It started with an incident at the hospital and an emergency call in the middle of the night. No one believes her -- not her husband, not the police -- until one day in the park when everything changes. Is Lauren mad or does she know something no one else does?

The most affecting passages in Little Darlings come early on - when Lauren is struggling as a brand new mom, bone-tired, sleep-deprived, and getting little help from her husband.  I just wanted to somehow enter the story and relieve her for a few hours so that she could sleep and regain some of her energy. Every mother will see themselves in Lauren, not only in the first few months after giving birth but in the sheer horror and panic surrounding every mother's worst fear - what if someone took my baby when I wasn't looking?

"Come away, O human child/To the waters and the wild" - The Stolen Child by W.B. Yeats

Little Darlings is taut with suspense, as the novel expertly straddles the line between post-partum depression and folktales about changelings - fairy creatures who take the place of stolen human babies.  In one chapter, I am sure that the fairies stole Morgan and Riley but in the next I am equally convinced that physically and emotionally strung Lauren is in the middle of a psychotic episode.  In which camp does the ending finally fall? - I'll leave it to you to find out.  

"...Morgan didn't look like Morgan, not exactly. Riley didn't either, something about the way his lip curled.

"And then she knew, with a terrible certainty. It wasn't Morgan and Riley, not anymore. Something else was looking at her, out of the eyes of her babies. 


"She stared at the babies, and as she did, a smell of rotting river-weed filled her nostrils.  The twins had been changed."

February 25, 2019

Book Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:
Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!
Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.
I thought I was getting a light-hearted, pretty confection of a graphic novel about a Cinderella-ish fairy tale, but The Prince and the Dressmaker quickly became much, much more than that.  Yes, it has beautiful dresses and picture panels that remind me of Disney picture books I used to read as a little girl.  But it also has surprises and fantastic themes of acceptance, tolerance and thriving on nonconformity.   Loved it!

February 18, 2019

Book Review: Graphic Novels by Audrey Niffenegger

Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger, Illustrator Eddie Campbell

Internationally bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, and graphic artist Eddie Campbell, of such seminal works as From Hell by Alan Moore, collaborate on a wonderfully bizarre collection that celebrates and satirizes love of all kinds. With 16 different stories told through illustrated prose or comic panels, the couple explores the idiosyncratic nature of relationships in a variety of genres from fractured fairy tales to historical fiction to paper dolls. With Niffenegger’s sharp, imaginative prose and Campbell’s diverse comic styles, Bizarre Romance is the debut collection by two of the most important storytellers of our time.

Judging by the cover, I thought I would be reading stories about oddly-matched couples, such as a cat with a bird for example. With the first story, “Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m., I thought it was heading in that direction but it quite deftly surprised me. Anything by Audrey Niffenegger will have a strange whimsical aspect to it. Eddie Campbell’s illustrations differ rom illustrated story to story; some don’t have accompanying graphic images at all.  Romance, friendships, filial obligations – the stories run the gamut. All are thought-provoking. 

The Night Book Mobile by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger, the New York Times bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, has crafted her first graphic novel after the success of her two critically acclaimed “novels-in-pictures.” First serialized as a weekly column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, The Night Bookmobile tells the story of a wistful woman who one night encounters a mysterious disappearing library on wheels that contains every book she has ever read. Seeing her history and most intimate self in this library, she embarks on a search for the bookmobile. But her search turns into an obsession, as she longs to be reunited with her own collection and memories.

The Night Bookmobile is a haunting tale of both transcendence and the passion for books, and features the evocative full-color pen-and-ink work of one of the world’s most beloved storytellers.

The Night Book Mobile looks at first like a picture book for adults, with an intriguing premise.  A traveling library containing every book, ephemera you’ve ever read. This is not like a physical Goodreads shelf because its curated by an omnipotent librarian.  For bookworms, like me, this would be a portrait of my own soul – and would be as alluring to me as it is for Alexandra, the protagonist in this book. Although it keeps eluding her, Alexandra searches for this bookmobile all her life.  And once she finally finds it again… well, the outcome is unexpected and unforgettable.

February 11, 2019

Book Review: The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

Publication Date: February 26, 2019

Source: Vine

London, 1765

Lady Isabella Gerard, a respectable member of Georgian society, orders her maid to take her new golden gown and destroy it, its shimmering beauty tainted by the actions of her brutal husband the night before.

Three months later, Lord Gerard stands at the shoreline of the lake, looking down at a woman wearing the golden gown. As the body slowly rolls over to reveal her face, it’s clear this was not his intended victim…

250 Years Later

When a gown she stole from a historic home as a child is mysteriously returned to Fenella Brightwell, it begins to possess her in exactly the same way that it did as a girl. Soon the fragile new life Fen has created for herself away from her abusive ex-husband is threatened at its foundations by the gown’s power over her until she can't tell what is real and what is imaginary.

As Fen uncovers more about the gown and Isabella’s story, she begins to see the parallels with her own life. When each piece of history is revealed, the gown—and its past—seems to possess her more and more, culminating in a dramatic revelation set to destroy her sanity.

First, the description for this book touts it for fans of Kate Morton.  I respectfully disagree.  While it has some elements similar to Morton's novels - alternating timelines, a mystery in the past, and complex characters, The Woman in the Lake can't compare to Morton's novels.  The comparison to Susannah Kearsley is a bit more on the nose, as there are supernatural elements woven into the narrative which are never explained to my satisfaction. 

"Her fingers brushed against something soft and smooth, silk, aged and pale yet still retaining the shimmer of gold.

"A sensation shot through her, recognition and dread and a strange sort of excitement.

"The golden gown came free of its wrappings with a whisper of sound that was like the past stirring.  It felt as though it sighed, shivering in Fen's hands. Unconsciously, she held it close to her heart in exactly the same way she had done in her bedroom fourteen years before.


"This is yours. Do with it what you think best but be aware of the danger.'"

The novel is written from three different points of view: Fenella in the modern day, Lady Isabella and her lady's maid, Cordelia, in the 1700s.  In both storylines, the female characters are in jeopardy from a lover or ex-lover and must go from a place of helplessness to one of strength.  Ultimately, this is what I liked about The Woman in the Lake - its theme of female empowerment. The last chapters moved fast towards a triumphant conclusion for both storylines. But my interest was piqued by the Author's Note which revealed that Lady Isabella was based on a real-life aristocrat, Lady Diana Spencer (not that one, but an ancestor of hers).  I would wait to research the author's inspiration as doing so might spoil some narrative turns. 

February 4, 2019

Book Review: The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick

Publication Date: March 26, 2019

Source: Vine

Librarian Martha Storm has always found it easier to connect with books than people—though not for lack of trying. She keeps careful lists of how to help others in her superhero-themed notebook. And yet, sometimes it feels like she’s invisible.

All of that changes when a book of fairy tales arrives on her doorstep. Inside, Martha finds a dedication written to her by her best friend—her grandmother Zelda—who died under mysterious circumstances years earlier. When Martha discovers a clue within the book that her grandmother may still be alive, she becomes determined to discover the truth. As she delves deeper into Zelda’s past, she unwittingly reveals a family secret that will change her life forever.

At first I had a hard time connecting with Martha Storm, who, despite her last name, is a timid doormat. She lets everyone, including her sister and library patrons, step all over her. She mends people's clothes, vases, does their laundry, keep their goldfish alive. She has no life of her own, too busy trying to please everyone.  I felt extremely frustrated with her.  But then I came upon this passage early on and realized she's good people:

"When Martha stepped inside the library, she closed her eyes and inhaled the earthy, almond scent of books. if she could bottle the aroma, she'd wear it as a perfume. L'eau de la Bibliotheque.

"She took the small battered book from her bag and gave that a sniff too.  It smelled musty and sweet with a hint of something else she couldn't place, maybe amber or cinnamon."

There's more to Martha than the long-suffering librarian.  All the vibrant parts of her personality somehow got suppressed over the years. But when she finds an unusual book that should not exist, all the uncomfortable secrets surrounding her childhood, domineering father, and dead grandmother come to light.  

The Library of Lost and Found went to unusual places and surprised me with the twists and turns of the story. It is heartwarming in the end, but some aspects made me angry and sad, such as Martha's childhood, a study in how to crush a bright and beautiful spirit.  Throughout the book, short, original fairy tales are sprinkled here and there to illuminate or enrich what was happening with scenes in the past.  These were my favorite parts -as the stories were whimsical but multi-layered.  

"The library had been her Narnia, and it still was."

I know the reader was supposed to find Zelda charming and eccentric but her stubborness about explaining everything drove me up the wall. 

January 28, 2019

Book Review: Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Publication Date: February 19, 2019

Source: Vine

Alison has it all. A doting husband, adorable daughter, and a career on the rise--she's just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems...

Just one more night. Then I'll end it.
Alison drinks too much. She's neglecting her family. And she's having an affair with a colleague whose taste for pushing boundaries may be more than she can handle.

I did it. I killed him. I should be locked up.
Alison's client doesn't deny that she stabbed her husband - she wants to plead guilty. And yet something about her story is deeply amiss. Saving this woman may be the first step to Alison saving herself.

I'm watching you. I know what you're doing.
But someone knows Alison's secrets. Someone who wants to make her pay for what she's done, and who won't stop until she's lost everything....

When I picked up this book, I was in a reading binge of psychological suspense and domestic thrillers. I craved nothing else. So I was predisposed to like this novel. However, the protagonist rubbed me the wrong way. I like reading about flawed characters but in a cast of unsavory people and dark and uneasy situations, I like connecting with a somewhat sympathetic heroine. Not in this case - I ended up disliking Alison early on and wanted to shake her at times for the terrible choices she made. I wanted to DNF this book multiple times but I talked myself out of it out of mere curiosity. My genuine need to know the truth overcame my dislike of not just Alison but pretty much every character here. There were twists I did not see coming and I was rewarded eventually for persevering. Secrets abound and the ending is a satisfying one.

January 21, 2019

Book Review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko

Our life is brief ..

Sasha Samokhina has been accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies.  Or, more precisely, she’s been chosen.

Situated in a tiny village, she finds the students are bizarre, and the curriculum even more so. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, it is their families that pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.

I don't know how I came to be aware of Vita Nostra but it is in serious contention for one of the best, if not the best book I read in 2018.  It's written by a husband-and-wife team from the Ukraine. She is a former actress, he a former psychiatrist. According to the book jacket, the translator, Julia Hersey, started translating their novel from its original Russian because she wanted to share it with her family.  

The deeper I got into the novel, the more eager I became to turn the pages, unable to figure out where it was going even until the startling conclusion.  I read a review of Vita Nostra which mentioned its "Russian sensibility."  Although I can't properly explain what that means, I suppose it has to do with the fact that there is very little that is warm and fuzzy in this fantasy novel.  

Although it is about a young adult who is accepted into a school of magic, it is as far from Harry Potter as you can get.  Sasha is intimidated and threatened into going to the Institute of Special Technologies - either she attends (thereby surrendering her dream of going to an ordinary university) or... Nothing is explicitly stated, but it is clear that her beloved mother's life would be in danger otherwise.  

Kindly Dumbledore, her professors are not.  They are exacting, harsh, and relentless. Lessons are expected to be learned, without any explanation of what they are leading towards. The Institute is old and well, institutional, rather than a wondrous Hogwarts.  It is a cold and almost friendless life. Even the textbooks are frustrating to read because they are written in gibberish. Magic, when it arrives in the story, is subtle and without the glamor of the typical fantasy.  

“Every day she had to read sections, memorize, cram, and grind at snippets of nonsensical, unpleasant text. Sasha herself did not understand why this gobbledygook caused more and more revulsion with each passing day. Reading the barbaric combinations of half-familiar and alien words, she felt something brewing inside her: within her head, a wasp nest was waking up, and it droned and hummed in distress, searching in vain for an exit.”

Somehow, through sheer will and perseverance, Sasha begins to understand her lessons and takes to them beyond anyone's expectations.  And this is where things get really strange and metaphysical.  The ending left me puzzling; I had to read it a couple of times and even then I could only guess at what happened.  I could compare it to the ending of a couple of movies in recent years but that would spoil it for you.  Just suffice to say that it was unexpected.  

“’What am I being trained to become?’ The words escaped, surprising her.

“’Too early, my girl. It’s too soon for you to know.  Right now, you are still a slave of a framework, a plaster mold with a hint of imagination. With memory, with a personality… You will be changing not only from the inside but… you will undergo all sorts of changes…’”

Apparently Vita Nostra is the first of the Metomorphosis series.  The sequels will deal with the same theme, but with different characters.

TIP:  The Kindle version of The Burned Tower, a fantasy novella by the Dyanchekos, is free on Amazon!  

January 14, 2019

Book Review: Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Publication Date: January 15, 2019

Source: Vine

In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.

A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.

I thoroughly enjoyed this reimagining of Pride and Prejudice in modern-day Pakistan. P&P retellings are a dime a dozen and the storyline is so well-known that there are no narrative surprises – one already knows the outcome. So the journey towards that outcome must indeed be extraordinary to be enjoyed.  

First - the setting in circa-2000, marriage-obsessed Pakistan, which mirrors Regency Era England of the original.  I loved all the colorful and lively details of the culture, including the mouthwatering descriptions of food, customs and lavish wedding celebrations (only one wedding but like Indian weddings, the festivities can last an entire week!)  I was also tickled by this version's Mrs. Bennett, Pinkie Binat, whose single-minded, old-fashioned views and laughable mispronunciations kept me laughing.

Second, I was delighted by the passages detailing Alys's deep knowledge and love of literature.  As an English lit teacher in an all-girls school, the book opens with Alys tasking her students with rewriting the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice, with very revealing results.  All very meta, but Kamal also occasionally comments on the original, such as when she allows her version of Charlotte Lucas, Sherry, to explain convincingly why she chose her Mr. Collins, and then provides her with not only a comfortable arrangement, but a very happy marriage.  

Alys and Darsee work in this version of P&P because they both have a love of literature in common and, when not disagreeing about most things, have enviably rich conversations about the books they've read.  

January 7, 2019

Book Review: What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami

While training for the New York City Marathon, Haruki Murakami decided to keep a journal of his progress. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid recollections and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer. By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, here is a rich and revelatory work that elevates the human need for motion to an art form.

Here is a sentence, I never thought I would write:  I have lately taken up running. Up until three months ago, I would have more likely said that I hate to run and that I was just not made for running.  In high school, I dreaded the annual physical tests, where I lagged in every single area, including running/limping/trying not to crawl the mile.  I was always dead last, wheezing and clutching my chest as I barely crossed the finish line. 

And if you had told my 16-year-old self that I had just finished a 10K race – willingly – she would have probably fainted from shock. So what changed?  I feel as if I walked through a passageway and entered a place I had only heard about.  And of course, I wanted to read up on this new place – not so much a how-to, but to describe its inner life. 

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is that book.

According to Murakami, the most important aspect of marathon running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”  I feel that this is a truth for plain old running, at least for me. Yes, I will struggle for a mile or two until I get going and afterwards, my knees might hurt but whether I keep going or not is up to me. Somehow, I need to transcend what is happening to my body to keep going. Mind over matter.

Most of what he writes about resonates.  For instance, I would have thought that as he ran (6 miles a day!) he had deep, meaningful discourses with his inner self, or worked out a complicated plot to one of his fantastical novels.  But no, he mostly thinks about nothing, or about running itself.  I find myself nodding yes to this.  I also think about nothing - the weather, the road conditions, the sheer pleasure of running on soft dirt as opposed to hard pavement. What I also found gratifying was that he has days where getting up to go running is a joyless chore.  Many a dark, cold early morning I have battled with myself. It is a comfort - and a dread - that despite his many years of running, Murakami still has these difficult days. 

Of course, there is only so many similarities I can draw between me and this Nobel prize contender.  He wrote his first novel almost on a whim, just deciding one day to sit down and write one, which in turn won a prize.  He runs a marathon once a year.  And in fact, the narrative arc of this book seems to build up to the New York marathon as the climax. However before that, Murakami sneaks in the one time he ran an ultramarathon- 62 miles. His description of how he physically and mentally battled his way to the finish was so painful, I felt drained just reading it.  This was the true climax of the book, and the New York marathon, oddly enough, is never described.  

Juicy tidbit: He likes to listen to Lovin' Spoonful during his daily runs.

January 1, 2019

2018: My Year in Books


1. Bellamy and the Brute by Alicia Michaels *
2. The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (V)
3. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn *(L) (1/24/18)
4. Everless by Sara Holland (L) (1/28/18)


5. The English Wife by Lauren Willig (L) (2/1/18)
6. How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry (L)* (2/23/18)


7. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn (L) (3/24/18)


8. Half Bad by Veronica Henry (L)* (5/3/18)
9. Matchmaking for Beginners by Maggie Dawson *
10. Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica * (5/21/18)
11. Venice as I Love It by France Thierard (5/22/18)


12. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (L)
13. The Wife between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (L) (6/9/18)
14. The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (L) (6/9/18) 
15. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton (L) (6/12/18)
16. The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll (L) * (6/14/18)
17. The Girlfriend by Michelle Frances (L) * (6/15/18)
18. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (L)* (6/16/18)
19. Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney (L) (6/19/18)
20. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (L) (6/21/18)
21. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (L) (6/23/18)
22. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (6/25/18) (reread)
23. Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (L) (6/25/18)
24. The Broken Ones by Sarah A. Denzil * (6/26/18)


25. A Paris All Your Own edited by Eleanor Brown (7/1/18)
26. Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl (L) (7/12/18)
27. A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell (L) (7/21/18)
28. Nightmare House by Douglas Clegg * (7/24/18)
29. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig (L) (7/27/18)
30. Believe Me by J.P. Delaney (V) (7/28/18)


31. Grim Lovelies by Megan Shepherd (NG) * (8/2/18)
32. Paris Times Eight by Deirdre Kelly (L) (8/4/16)
33. Paris Ever After by K.S.R Burns * (8/5/18)
34. I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis (L) (8/9/18)
35. Our House by Louise Candlish (L) (8/14/18)


36. Calypso by David Sedaris (L) (9/8/18)
37. The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland (L) (9/13/18)
38. Ghosted by Rosie Walsh (L) (9/14/18)


39. Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling (L)* (10/1/18)
40. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (L)* (10/4/18)


41. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (11/23/18)
42. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami (11/25/18)


43. You Think It I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (L) (12/1/18)
44. The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (V) (12/1/18)
45. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko (L) (12/15/18)
46. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (L) (12/21/18)
47. French Milk by Lucy Knisley (L) (12/22/18)
48. The Burned Tower by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko * (12/26/18)
49. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (L) (12/28/18)
50. Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (L) (12/30/18)
51. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (L) (12/30/18)
52. The Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie (L) * (12/30/18)
53. Little Darlings by Melanie Golding (V) (12/31/18)

Sometime in November, I felt sure I was not going to make my goal of 52 books this year, but lo and behold, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko broke my mini reading slump. As was the situation last year, graphic novels helped pushed me to the finish line and a thoroughly mesmerizing ARC, Little Darlings (review to come), led me to exceed my goal.

My one big reading obsession this year was the domestic thriller - you have only to peruse June's mammoth list, which includes 12 entries in that genre to see that.  Once I had my fill, I next indulged in a small binge of humorous memoirs. Some historical fiction, some nonfiction, some fantasy round out 2018. What reading pleasures will 2019 bring me?