#93 A Review of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Water for ElephantsHave you ever read a book that made you question your memories?  Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen did just that for me in opening my eyes to the dark side of circus life.  What I remembered as a bright, engaging performance as a kid could be the tough life that is illustrated in this book.  Although today our society and protection laws today are much different than they were during the Great Depression, it is still scary that these conditions did exist back then.

This story is told via the memories of Jake Jankowski, a nursing home resident that is in his early 90’s, who although old and cantankerous, has a perfectly clear memory of the younger years of his life, most of which occurred during the Great Depression.  He begins his tale as a 23-year-old, studying at Cornell University to become a veterinarian, when he learns that both of his parents were killed in a car accident.  Furthermore, his father saved what little money he had and mortgaged his home to send Jake to school, making the loss even more devastating and causing Jake to sink into a depression.  He runs away, and climbs aboard a train, which happens to be a circus train belonging to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  Eventually hired to take care of the circus animals due to his veterinary training, Jake begins to work for the circus, developing a tentative relationship with August, the head trainer, and his wife Marlena.  August is known as a brutal and abusive husband and he often abuses the animals, especially Rosie the elephant.  Jake eventually falls in love with Marlena against his better judgement, and sleeps with her once she runs away from August.  Uncle Al, the owner of the circus, discovers this and issues Jake an ultimatum: get August and Marlena back together, or else many of Jake’s friends in the circus will be thrown off the moving circus train (this is known as “red-lighting”).  Will Jake give in to this demand, knowing that sending Marlena back to August will certainly put her in harms way?  Will he be able to survive now that Uncle Al and August know of his transgression?

It is absolutely no wonder how this book made it on to the New York Times bestseller list.  Vivacious characters, rich settings, and one hell of a tumultuous love affair, and you have the perfect makings for a thrilling read.  Gruen is a gifted story-teller; the ability to turn detailed research into a breathtaking reading experience is not often found, but Gruen was able to do this extremely well.  In real life, the circus is a wondrous, larger than life experience, and it’s no small feat that Gruen is able to translate those whimsical feelings to the page.  Not only do you get to see the “fun” side of the circus, but you’re given a front row seat to the grueling behind-the-scenes lives of the workers and performers.  It’s amazing how horrible the conditions were, and how cruel some owners were not only to those in the show, but to the animals! As an animal lover there were parts of this book that absolutely killed me to read.  I had to put it down, walk away, and take a breather at certain parts.  (I find that I lose my patience with animal abuses, and need to step back and regroup before continuing).

Overall, Gruen’s story was gripping and unique.  Her intense research, combined with an interesting topic and compelling story made this book a delight to read and an easy adaptation to a feature film (which was also excellently done!)  If you’re looking for something that will really pull you in and take you to a different time, Water for Elephants is your best bet.

5 out of 5 Stars

This is my twenty-second completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
Algonquin Books (2007)
Paperback  350 pages
ISBN: 9781565125605

#91 A Review of The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium Trilogy Series #3)Kim and Todd here, back with another joint review for the third and final installment of The Millennium Trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson.  Once again we were able to listen to this work in audiobook format, with the impeccable Simon Vance as narrator.  As good as the last two books were, both of us were eager to jump in and see how this epic storyline played out, especially since the US film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is due out in theaters tomorrow!

Opening on the heels of the second book in the trilogy, we follow Lisbeth as she is airlifted to the hospital after surviving a brutal attack at the hands of her father and half-brother that left her buried alive with a gunshot wound.  Ironically, her father is two rooms away from her own hospital room, recovering from an axe wound inflicted by Salander.  What follows is a tale of murder, attempted cover ups, and the quest to tell the truth, no matter the cost.  Salander and Blomkvist again find themselves facing the threat of death as they attempt to clear their names once and for all.

Todd:  As the axiom goes, save the best for last.  I definitely think that Larsson did this for the trilogy, as he ties multiple story lines together that have arced over the entire thing and brought them to a more than satisfactory conclusion.  I can’t think of a better or more shocking literary ending than the courtroom finale that Giannini presents to the judge in Salander’s hearing.  I think this made the book for me.  I truly felt that Salander had never deserved any of the mistreatment in her life, and to see her vindicated at the end was awesome and fantastic.

Kim:  I definitely agree that the court hearing is what does it for this novel.  Listening to the audio had me literally on the edge of my seat, as I couldn’t skip forward and cheat to see a few pages ahead!  I had to stay listening in real-time, which killed me.  I will say that the very ending of the novel was slightly dissatisfactory, but upon doing more research I found that when Larsson died, he left behind a fourth manuscript.  This lead me to believe that this novel was actually just setting up another novel.

Todd:  It’s too bad that Larsson didn’t live to see the completion of that fourth novel, or for that matter the widespread success of his work as a whole.  Part of me thinks that he really wouldn’t have been affected by it, as evidenced in his attitude in his novels: he seemed to always want to look out for those who can’t help themselves, and wasn’t much for any kind of self-serving recognition.  This is what I think makes this novel in particular shine.  I can just tell that he wanted to make Salander’s justice a warning to all individuals who harm women; that what they’re doing won’t go unnoticed, and that every one who participates in these sadistic acts will eventually receive their just punishment.

Kim:  Another thing that I think makes these novels so awesome is how un-extraordinary the hero and heroine are.  Blomkvist is just an ordinary guy that uses the skills he has to do good in the world.  He’s a reporter that has a knack for finding out the truth, and wants to see those who benefit from doing the wrong things tried and arrested for their crimes.  Salander, on the other hand, is a woman who has just been beat down her whole life, and has continually found a way, using her own intelligence and quick thinking, to punish them.  She reminds me of a computer hacking vigilante.  She uses technology as far as she can, and then by blunt force makes sure her message is understood.  As an aside Simon Vance is the best audio narrator ever!  I want to listen to everything he’s ever narrated!

Todd:  I definitely agree with you on Mr. Vance there, I would totally want him to be the voice on my answering machine, how cool would that be?  Anyway, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is a fantastic ending to an indescribable series.  If you haven’t already, pick this one up to close out what you already know to be a fantastic storyline that keeps getting better with every read.

Kim: 5 out of 5 Stars

Todd: 5 out of 5 Stars

This is my twenty-first completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

Random House Audio Publishing (2010)
CD: 20hrs 30min
ISBN:  9780739384190

#80 A Review of One Day by David Nicholls

One DayEvery once in a while a truly great book comes across your path that gets inside your heart and head rendering you speechless upon completion.  One Day by David Nicholls did exactly that for me.  Upon completion I just sat on my couch staring into space.  My husband Todd said, “Well? How was it?”  I turned to face him, with tears streaming down my face, responding with, “I have no words.”  It’s taken my almost a month after finishing this novel to try to put together some coherent thoughts on why this book was one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching books I’ve ever read.

The day is July 15th, 1988.  Dexter (Dex) Mayhew and Emma (Em) Morley are both at a crossroads in their lives.  They meet each other for the first time as they are both graduating from university (or college, as we in the states put it).  With their lives spread wide before them, they are eager to leave school and tackle the world.  However, they can’t seem to get each other out of their minds.  What began as a day of graduation and ended with a night of something very different (i.e. sex).  Em and Dex’s paths are thrown together for one day, only to diverge again over the coming years.  We follow them in a unique way: only viewing their lives on this one day, July 15th, as their lives progress through the years.  These quick snapshots of their lives give us just enough information to piece together how their lives are taking shape, and subtle clues in each chapter (i.e. July 15th in a different year) guide us as we move to create an overall picture of what their lives have become.  Their journey through the years is erratic and twisting, and the ending is the biggest shock of them all.

When I first understood the concept of the book (the story being told as snapshots, the same day every year) I thought it would be difficult to follow.  How are you supposed to know what went on during the other 364 days of the year?!?!  My concerns were completely unnecessary, as Nicholls weaves Dex and Emma’s stories seamlessly.  I really enjoyed how a piece of information that gets dropped in one year (chapter) might mean nothing, yet it turns into something huge a few years (chapters) later.  The order and way things are told makes you feel like you’re piecing together a huge puzzle, unsure of what it’ll look like in the end.

I’m not even sure what to say about the main characters.  Dex and Em are both incredibly complex characters, filled with lots of self-doubt about certain parts of their personalities that only the other can soothe and calm.  Dex and Em are so REAL.  They are dealing with the same emotional problems that people all over the world can understand: unrequited love, drug problems, self-doubt about being a parent, self-doubt about one’s career choice, etc.  They’re entirely relatable, making the events of the story that much more gripping.

One of the other things I really enjoyed was how even the minor characters played small but interesting roles in the book.  For example, Dex leaves a book with a letter to Emma in it at  a nightclub.  A woman finds the book, hoping to find it’s owner, but never does.  Nicholls gives us a little narrative about the woman and how the book is still sitting on a bookshelf in her home, and that she hopes this Dex found his Emma.  It’s wonderful little touches like this all throughout the book that make the story that much more special.

This book was honestly one of the best I’ve read in a LONG time.  I love when you find a book that literally just gets inside your heart and head and forces you to become invested in the story as if it were your own.  One Day did that with me.  It’s not often a book comes along that does that to me but when it does, boy do I react.  I was SOBBING for the last 100 pages.  NO JOKE.  This book hit a cord within me and I was literally just overcome with the entire thing.  Is this book sad?  Yes.  Is this book heartbreaking? Yes.  Is it worth every tear, laughter, smile, and frown? 100% yes.

7 out of 5 Stars

This is my twentieth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

One Day by David Nicholls
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2010)
Paperback 437 pages

#72 A Review of V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

V for Vendetta

“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot”

So begins the rhyme commemorating Guy Fawkes Day, when in 1606 Guy Fawkes planned to blow up the House of Parliament with multiple kegs of gunpowder.  He was subsequently caught, tortured, and killed, and to this day Britons remember this act by burning bonfires and effigies of Fawkes on the 5th.  Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate to review an amazing graphic novel that deals with Fawkes.

Taking place in a post-nuclear war London of the 1990’s, Moore and Lloyd’s V for Vendetta follows the tale of a mysterious cloaked figure with a Guy Fawkes mask named V.  He comes to the aid of an Evey Hammond, who is surrounded by members of the totalitarian government’s police force, known as the Fingermen, who intend to rape and kill her.  After dispatching the officers, V takes Evey under his wing, telling her of his plot to overthrow the Fascist regime and create a government ruled by the people.  He takes her to a rooftop and displays a magnificent bombing of the House of Parliament, which he planted previously.  An inspector Finch of the local police force is assigned to investigate the bombing, and it is through his investigation that we see the aftermath of the death of multiple heads of government offices at the hands of V.  After a brief falling-out between Evey and V, she is captured and subjected to bouts of depression and torture, eventually breaking down and finding inner courage and strength that she did not know existed.  After this, she discovers that V engineered the entire event, to put her through a similar situation he endured in a concentration camp known as Larkhill.  Together, they plan to mount one final assault on the government and incite an uprising.  Will they succeed?  What will become of Evey?

The best way to describe this novel is that it’s one huge middle finger to political apathy.  V speaks to the people and holds them accountable for what they’ve allowed to happen; not only to their political system, but more importantly to their country.  He makes them realize what being apathetic has cost them: art, music, love, and most of all – freedom.  At times, he tells them they deserved their losses due to their stupidity.  They should be held accountable and made to WANT to make decisions. 

I already expected great things of Moore’s writing due to how much I liked The Watchmen, yet I was amazed at how he was able to fit so much political commentary into the series.  His between the lines commentary on Fascism and Anarchism is excellent, and it’s almost as if we’re reading two sets of stories: one about V and another about political uprisings that define a population that could have taken place in any country in the world.  It’s this dualism which makes the story great.

The graphics are outstanding.  Lloyd is a talented artist, conveying every emotion possible through his artwork.  When Evey is depressed and losing hope in her cell, you feel it.  When you see the people starting small uprisings and igniting hope, you feel it.  His art conveys the proper moods, setting the stage with dark colors and shadowed landscapes.  This allows the scenes in The Shadow Gallery (V’s home) to really stand out and make a statement.

The novel is pure genius, and in the political world we are living in today, one everyone should read.  If this book can force someone to take a stand against apathy, then it’s done it’s job.  Currently, with the “Occupy” protests taking root all over the world, this book is more relevent than ever, and we can all learn from the power of the collective masses.  We don’t have to stand by and take what is doled out to us by the 1%, we can choose to exert our collective power and be heard.

5 out of 5 Stars

This is my nineteenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

V For Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
DC Comics (2009)
Paperback 296 pages

#64 A Review of The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

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Todd and I are back to review Stieg Larsson’s second novel in his critically acclaimed series, The Millennium Trilogy: The Girl Who Played With Fire.  We decided that to continue with the tradition started with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (check out the review here), we should listen to this novel as an audiobook.  Again we had the pleasure of listening to Simon Vance’s melodic voice as he impersonated all the characters and make us feel more involved with the storyline.  As expected, Larsson’s work definitely did not disappoint, as this novel was more harrowing and nail-biting as the first.

Mikael Blomkvist, now restored to his rightful position as editor of the magazine Millennium, is excited to publish an expose on sex trafficking by a young journalist named Dag Svensson.  Mia, Svensson’s girlfriend, recently finished writing a thesis for her doctoral program much along the lines of Dag’s work, as she outlines the plight of prostitution and the exploitation of women in Sweden for sexual purposes.  Together, they provide enough information for Millennium to publish a bombshell of an article, yet just a few weeks before going to press Mikael finds them dead in their apartment, shot by an unknown assassin.  Later, Mikael finds out that Lisbeth Salander, his love interest and partner from the first book, has been named the main suspect in the murders, as well as the murder of her state-appointed guardian.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, as Mikael must work tirelessly to prove his innocence in the affair as well as Lisbeth’s.  He must also undercover the real source of the killing, and work to stop this force from acting again before it’s too late.  Can he accomplish this in time?  What will become of Lisbeth?

Kim: I have to start out by saying that Larsson is a genius when it comes to weaving story-lines.  In both Tattoo and Fire he has a wide array of characters that ultimately all play an important role in the story.  Whether they’re there to help move another characters development along or play a role in the “crime plot” of the novel, he gives them each a time to share their story and for the reader to get to know them.  There aren’t many authors (at least in my opinion) that can do this well and keep the reader from being confused.  It’s even more difficult to achieve all of the above and STILL accomplish a shock ending.

Todd:  I definitely agree.  It was a bit overwhelming at first to be introduced to so many characters in this story.  It was almost as if you had to keep a family tree in your head to keep all their different relations to each other straight, but once this was accomplished, the multitude of background characters only added to the complexity and texture of Larsson’s work.  I know when most people think of this series they immediately think of Mikael and Lisbeth, especially since the commercials for the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have exploded onto the scene recently, but really this series highlights how others perceive them, and how they must work to change preconceived notions of themselves in order to find the real killer.

Kim: Good point, Todd, about the preconceived notions.  In relation to this I enjoyed how Larsson essentially mocked the media and how ridiculous and false the stories in it can be.  When it’s found out that Lisbeth is the main suspect in the case, the media starts digging into her past and trying to find out as much as they can about her.  Suddenly her face is on every newspaper with headlines that she’s a lesbian and part of a Satanist cult, all because she is friends with an all girl rock group with a questionable name.  I like how Larsson uses things like this to make statements about the social and political climate of Sweden.  It’s the little details like this that give Larsson’s work texture and deeper meaning.

Todd: That’s true.  Larsson’s work existed to be more than just a story, he wanted it to be part of a greater commentary on the plight of women and the political obstacles that they and other working class people had to overcome to achieve any change in Sweden.  It’s no wonder than Larsson himself was a journalist, and worked as an editor of a magazine called Expo, which shares some similarities with Millennium.  I give Larsson a ton of credit for tackling these difficult issues and standing up against the status quo.  I can see a lot of him in Lisbeth, as she does whatever it takes to achieve her goals, and doesn’t let anything get in her way to stop her.  We could all use a little Lisbeth in our own lives!

Kim: Very true Todd.  Lisbeth is one of the most kick-ass lead characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.  She tells it like she sees it, sticks up for herself and the ones she cares for, and makes sure that those who do wrong get their fair comeuppance.

Kim: 5 out of 5 Stars

Todd: 5 out of 5 Stars

This is my eighteenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge
This is my eighth completed review for the Chunkster Challenge
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2009)
Paperback 752 pages
ISBN:  9780307476159

#59 A Review of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot)There is a reason why Agatha Christie is the best-selling novelist in the world.  Her mysteries and characters draw you in to realistic worlds.  Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are two of the most beloved character sleuths to ever be written.  Perhaps the most famous of Christie’s work is Murder on the Orient Express, with its tale of perplexing murder on a dark snowy night in a train.  The fantastic storyline draws the reader in, and makes him/her feel like he/she is solving the mystery along with Monsieur Poirot.

Christie’s work begins by introducing us to the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, who has boarded the Orient Express in order to return from a crime scene in Syria.  His friend, Monsieur Bouc, helps him find a compartment that the two share for the first evening.  On the second night, Poirot finds a second compartment for himself, but he is suddenly awakened by a loud noise from the compartment next to him.  The compartment is occupied by a Mr. Ratchett.  Later on, Poirot is awakened again by one of his cabin neighbors ringing the bell for the conductor.  He discovers that this woman, Mrs. Hubbard, exclaims that someone was in her compartment.  Poirot dismisses this, but is woken a third time when he hears a loud thump on his door.  He rushes to look into the hallway, and catches a glimpse of a woman in a kimono running down the passage in the distance.  Even more disturbing, Poirot discovers the next morning that Mr. Ratchett has been murdered.  There are 12 separate stab wounds on his body, yet the evidence points to conflicting suspects, as the wounds are completely different in intensity and point of entry.  Bouc suggests that Poirot takes on the case, and he is faced with the fact that the killer is most likely still on the train, as the Express is stuck motionless in a snowstorm.  Will Poirot be able to solve the mystery before the killer strikes again?

Poirot is a fascinating sleuth, the way he deduces “whodunit” is extremely clever.  Christie writes the novel so that the reader is in a “Hercule bubble”.  What I mean by that is you follow Hercule around and that’s it.  You aren’t given insights into the other characters thoughts or movements, effectively giving you the same facts that Hercule has to solve the mystery.  Mysteries told in this manner are my favorite!  I like trying to solve the mystery for myself, it makes me feel smart.  Some would say that leaving the insights of the other characters out takes away from the “fleshing out” of a novel, but I think in this case it only adds to the suspense and mystique!  In doing this, Christie makes the ending even more shocking, as the reader has little to no inclination of who the suspect is due to the limited point of view.  When the ending did come around, I was completely shocked!

Another awesome aspect of Christie’s writing is her ability to unfold everything in perfect time.  She evenly distributes the evidence surrounding the crime throughout the novel, piecing things together slowly until the final moment before the big reveal.  The events unfold methodically, although not enough to be boring.  The mystery proceeds at this pace to highlight the eccentricities of the characters.  They are what makes the novel.  The multitude of characters that Christie creates are the color to her story.  While the murder is the substance running behind the scenes, the characters give it life. 

4 out of 5 Stars

This is my seventeenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Penguin Group (2000)
Paperback 256 pages

#58 A Review of The Walking Dead (Hardcovers Book 3) by Robert Kirkman

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Todd and Kim here, back for the next installment of our joint Walking Dead reviews! (If you missed our past reviews here are the links: Book One & Book Two)  This time we follow Rick and his fellow survivors as they continue to hunker down in a prison and avoid the zombie horde.  We begin following the characters as they are enjoying a relative lull in the problems that they encountered en masse in the second book.  It has been several weeks without a major incident, and the survivors begin to relax somewhat.  They begin to clear out A Block, one of the last unexplored and most secure areas of the prison.  They find a large generator and plenty of riot gear, both of which they think will prove useful.  One day they see a helicopter as it crashes in the woods nearby.  Rick, Michonne, and Glenn travel to check it out, and encounter another group of survivors that have created a safe zone nearby.  However, not is all as it seems.  Their de facto leader, a man known as “The Governor”, takes them to the safe zone and takes them hostage.  This is only the beginning of the horrors they will face, as he shows his truly sick nature over the course of their imprisonment.  Will Rick and his friends survive?  What will happen to the rest of the survivors?

Todd:  My first impression of this book was that it was even darker than the previous book.  That is saying quite a lot, because the second book definitely delved into much of the darker themes of human nature.  Parts of this book were definitely hard to get through, although I’m quite sure that if pushed to the limits that humanity has been during this series, people like “The Governor” would definitely exist, and it would be the responsibility of all of us to make sure that these people never get the power given to this man in this particular situation.

Kim:  I definitely agree that this is the darkest one yet, showcasing themes of betrayal and revenge.  Michonne’s storyline is a great example of what happens when you push someone too far in a lawless society.  I really enjoyed the deeper questions that began to be asked here.  Number one, how do we begin reestablishing society, both in social aspects (marriages, births, deaths) as well as setting up the foundations of society (law, punishment, and bare necessities)?  Secondly, are we bad people if we have different beliefs in this new world than we had in the old world?  Rick is  a perfect example of this paradoxical question.  In the old world, Rick was a police officer who lived his life by the law and would never dream of breaking it.  Now in this new world, we’ve seen him steal, physically assault others, and even commit murder.  In book three you begin to get a sense of this inner conflict that Rick undergoes, and how it’s affected him morally and emotionally.  It’s things like this that make this series interesting to me.  It goes above and beyond zombie fights, it deals with the inner conflicts that people have in the face of tragedy, and it makes you as a reader question what kind of person you would turn into if placed in this situation, pushed to your limits.

Todd:  That’s a great point.  Kirkman makes it clear that he’s writing more about the relationships between people during this crisis than the crisis itself.  I found it interesting that this book mainly focuses on Rick, Michonne, and Glenn.  I know the focus on Rick is obvious, but I think Kirkman’s inclusion of Michonne and Glenn is interesting and I was surprised to see some of the character traits that came out of them.  Michonne was somewhat of an enigma throughout her time with the survivors, but we’re beginning to see what kind of a person she truly is.  Glenn is slowly finding himself as a man and realizing his position in this new world thrust upon him.  I found Rick’s transformation to be the most interesting.  Throughout this series I’ve been rooting for him as the main character and rock upon which a lot of the other characters build their trust on.  Others may see his transformation in this book as too harsh, but I think he’s doing exactly what he needs to do to survive and protect those whom he loves.  I think he’s emerged more as a leader now than ever before.  All in all, Kirkman is writing a hell of a series.

Kim:  I definitely agree that Kirkman’s writing is outstanding.  He truly is a leader in this genre, and I’m all set to go out and buy book four tomorrow.

Todd:  You think this is hyperbole, but she’s actually going to do this tomorrow.

Kim:  And who are you kidding?  You know you’ll read it too!  But I digress, back to the review.  The last question that stood out to me for book three was how far is too far when dealing with revenge?  There’s a very deep storyline here, one that is graphic and intense.  Without the bounds of normal society, the characters’ boundaries become blurred and their actions can become extreme without them even noticing it.  They must rely on the feedback of others to tell them how they are behaving.  However, in this particular case, all these checks went out the window, and there was pure hatred and rage in the driver’s seat.  How the reader interprets these actions is up to him/her, and Kirkman raises a very interesting point by leaving this interpretation open-ended.

 So that’s it for our review!  We hope you enjoyed reading about this series, and let us know in the comments section if you’ve read any of these graphic novels yet.  You won’t be disappointed!

Todd’s Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Kim’s Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

This is my sixteenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

Image Comics (2007)
Hardcover 304 pages

#56 A Review of Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

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Recently I had the pleasure of watching the amazing miniseries Mildred Pierce on HBO starring Kate Winslet.  I had previously seen the 1945 film adapted version of Cain’s book starring Joan Crawford.  However, the miniseries had quite a different tone and feel to it, piquing my interest in the story and prompting me to seek out Cain’s work.  I am extremely glad that I did, as his story shows us human compassion that goes to such extremes and asks for nothing in return.  It is an amazing story that will change the way you view a mother’s love for her daughter.

Mildred Pierce begins with a typical nuclear family in Great Depression-era Glendale, California.  Mildred Pierce discovers that her husband, Bert, has been unfaithful to her and she promptly kicks him out.  Accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle, Mildred is suddenly forced to accept that she must work to support herself and her daughters, Moire and Veda.  After a long struggle, Mildred finds a job as a waitress at a local diner and works tirelessly keep the family afloat.  Moire (known as “Ray”), the younger of the two daughters, is sympathetic to her mother’s plight and works to cheer the family up.  Veda, however, sees her mother as more of an embarrassment and shrugs her attentions off, even as Mildred brings in money that Veda spends thoughtlessly.  Sadly, Ray becomes seriously ill as Mildred is away on a spur of the moment trip with a new love interest named Monty.  As soon as Mildred returns upon hearing of Ray’s illness, Ray dies.  Vera blames Mildred squarely for Ray’s death, and begins to flirt with Monty blatantly in front of Mildred.  As Mildred becomes increasingly successful by opening a line of restaurants, Veda’s hatred of Mildred increases and her outlandish actions become too much for Mildred to handle.  Will Veda ever reconcile with Mildred?  Will something more develop between Veda and Monty?

Cain’s novel is a striking example of the hard-boiled American novel.  For those unfamiliar with the term “hard-boiled”, it’s representative of a writing style made popular in the 1930’s that depicts sex and violence in an unsympathetic and cold manner.  Veda is a prime example of this cold, unfeeling, spoiled, and heartless character type.  She has sex without feeling, using  it as a catalyst in her quest to be somebody worth something.  Because of Veda’s “high standards”, Mildred has an incessant need to impress her, and therefore becomes hard-boiled herself.  She has a sexual relationship with a man that she eventually marries (Monty), not because of love, but convenience.  She needs him for his social status, and he needs her for financial support.  There is nothing that’s really appealing about any of these characters, yet the way Cain describes them and writes them is completely gripping.  You become invested in this story with characters you can’t help but have strong feelings for, and find yourself mesmerized by their plights.

The novel is a great view into the lengths of what a person would do to impress someone they love.  It’s also a great discussion piece, one I highly recommend for any of you involved in book clubs.  You really have to tear apart the characters and their actions and delve into the deeper meaning of this work.  There is much more at stake here than a flawed mother-daughter relationship; it’s a microscopic view of human nature at its greediest.

5 out of 5 Stars

This is my fifteenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2011)
Paperback, 304 pages

#45 The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

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Kim and Todd here for a joint review of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo!  After hearing a lot of buzz about the novel, we decided to give it a try.  Seemingly everywhere we went, on a train, plane, or any form of public transportation, someone was reading this book.  Of course, after we started listening/reading it we couldn’t put it down either.  Yup, you read that right – listening and reading.  We were taking a road trip one day and, wanting to try something new, picked up the audio version of the novel.  We both got hooked and couldn’t wait for the other to be in the car to continue along with the story.  With that being said we both began swapping CD’s and the book back and forth to continue the story as fast as possible.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo begins with a lawsuit, specifically a libel suit against Mikael Blomkvist, writer and member of the board of directors of Milennium Magazine.  The magazine specializes in writing exposés of famous individuals, bringing their misdeeds to public attention.  Blomkvist loses the suit, which was brought on by an article he wrote alleging billionaire industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström of corruption and money laundering.  He is sentenced to a serve time in a minimum security facility for several months.  Before his scheduled jail time, he is contacted by a man named Henrik Vanger, who offers him a freelance assignment with the promise of a more than generous salary and information that he can use to build a stronger case against Wennerström.  Blomkvist accepts and moves to a small island where most of the Vanger family lives, working under the cover of writing the Vanger family history, but in reality is trying to solve the disappearance of Vanger’s niece Harriet roughly 40 years earlier.  Little does he know, Vanger already throughly inspected his background and personal life using the services of Lisbeth Salander, a computer and investigative expert.  Blomkvist eventually catches Salander hacking into his personal computer and decides to ask her to help him with his investigation.  Meanwhile, Salander’s difficult past is explained, culminating in a brutal scene of sexual assault against her by her legal guardian.  Will Lisbeth be able to overcome the horrors of her personal life so that she can help Blomkvist?  Will they be able to solve the kidnapping that happened almost half a century ago?  Will Blomkvist be able to escape the odd sense that Vanger is not all that he seems?

Kim: The first thing I have to say about this novel is that the writing and language used is just exquisite.  The fluidity of the prose is just perfection, which is surprising, considering that the book was translated from Swedish.  Honestly the only way I can describe the writing is like melted butter on hot lobster. (HAHA – for you lobster lovers out there, my metaphor makes perfect sense)  The imagery conveyed with this prose is at times very helpful in learing what the characters looked like and acted like, but at other times it was too graphic and disturbing.  The subject matter at times got very rough, and I must forewarn readers about a difficult rape scene to get through.  I find myself able to read/watch most anything, I’ve just become desensitized to things over the years, but this proved rough for even me.

 Todd: I think that Larsson crafted an amazing story, and it was so complex that it seemed at times that he had tons of information to get out in a short amount of time.  I think that the writing was on the shorter side sentence-wise, which makes sense due to the translation.  However, this didn’t detract from the overall feel at all.  I think if anything it helped during the scenes of intense action and mystery.  Larsson is great at building suspense, and made me nervous that something big was about to happen throughout the novel.  The addition of Salander is a great plot point in the book, as she adds a sense of vigilante-ism that is missing in Blomkvist.  She takes matters into her own hands, and extracts a certain vengeance that makes her character all the more badass.

Kim: Another point about this book that I really liked, was that it was an intelligent mystery.  It really required you to pay attention to what you were reading to pick up on the subtleties of the clues.  Blomkvist is definitely one of my favorite protagonist having read this now.  The way he goes about trying to solve this 40+ year mystery is astounding.  I wish my brain functioned like his does!

Todd: I definitely agree with Kim’s point about this being an intelligent mystery.  Not only do you get sporadic clues and delve deeper into the circumstances surrounding Harriet’s disappearance, but you also have to deal with increasing attacks on Blomkvist and Salander’s own well-being.  Someone very badly wants to keep Harriet’s disappearance a mystery, and when that plot point is finally revealed I almost fell out of my chair.  Larsson takes the typical mystery/suspense setup and really turns it on its head.  It is an amazing and complex read.

Kim: I felt smarter after reading it!  The weaving of Salander and Blomkvist’s stories together into one meshes really well. I do also have to say that Todd and I watched the Swedish version of the film and I’d highly recommend that also.  The film sticks close to the book, dropping some of the subplot out for time purposes, but the main bulk of the plot is intact.  I can’t recommend this book enough for those of you wanting to push your brain to a new limit.  Larsson’s writing will have you without a doubt transcending to a new literary level.

Kim: 5 out of 5 Stars

Todd: 5 out of 5 Stars

This is my fourteenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge
This is my sixth completed review for the Chunkster Challenge
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2009)
Paperback 672 pages
ISBN:  9780307473479

Harry Potter Blogsplosion Day 12: #41 A Review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling + GIVEAWAY

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Welcome to the 12th day of the Harry Potter blogsplosion!  Today I’m reviewing the sixth installment of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  This time, we follow Harry in his sixth year at Hogwarts as his nemesis Voldemort grows ever stronger. Harry decides that if he is supposed to battle the Dark Lord, he needs to know more about his past in order to survive.  In order to do so, he works with Dumbledore on their most dangerous and far-reaching journey together yet in the series.

The Half-Blood Prince begins slightly differently than the other Potter books, as Harry is picked up from number four, Privet Drive, by Dumbledore himself.  On the way back to Hogwarts, they stop to persuade Horace Slughorn, former teacher of potions at Hogwarts, to return to his post as potions professor.  (Severus Snape is appointed to the role of Defense Against the Dark Arts professor)  Harry attends classes as usual, and receives a used and marked-up version of the potions textbook, previously owned by a student named the “Half-Blood Prince”.  The annotations written in the book allow Harry to excel in potions, causing him to wonder about who this mysterious student was.  Meanwhile, Dumbledore begins asking Harry to join him for special lessons that will supposedly give Harry an edge over his foe when they inevitably battle.  These lessons turn out to be trips into the pensieve to look back on memories that might hold clues to what Voldemort’s weakness is.  It is through these memories that we learn about horcruxes, objects that hold a piece of one’s soul.  Voldemort it seems has made seven horcruxes, and it’s up to Voldemort and Harry to find them.  Can they do it?  Do they have enough information to start their search?

Half-Blood Prince in my opinion is the second darkest book in the entire series.  (I think there is definitely more darkness in Deathly Hallows, but that’s another review).  This book was the only one I’ve read where I didn’t feel some bit of hope at its end.  For those who have not read the book yet, all I will say is that one of the main characters is murdered towards the end.  It’s shocking, heartbreaking, depressing, and terrifying.  Terrifying because for a fleeting second you can finally recognize the strength that Voldemort and his followers have.  In that fleeting second you see no way of beating him and no way of living in a world filled with goodness and love. 

Everyone always thinks of magic as this amazing talent/gift that they wish they possessed themselves.  It’s really interesting to see the darker side of it, however.  This book is filled with people being cursed at with death spells, spells that inflict mortal harm, destruction, and finally, death.  The fight between light and dark and good and evil is very pronounced in this novel, and Rowling really brings the world of magic to a whole new level.  She definitely makes the story more realistic by doing this, as she reminds us that there are these forces of evil at work in the world, and we must work tirelessly to make sure that they don’t overcome the light of the world.

Half-Blood Prince is definitely worth the depression you feel upon completion of the novel.  Yes, a main character dies, but it brings the reality of the war that the magical world is facing to the front lines of the plot.  I do hope that you read up to this book in the series, and continue on along to the last book.  Half Blood Prince does an excellent job prepping you for the greatest battle the wizarding world has ever seen.   It’s definitely one you don’t want to miss.

4 out of 5 Stars

This is my thirteenth completed review for the Page to Screen Challenge
This is my fifth completed review for the Chunkster Challenge
Scholastic (2005)
Hardcover 652 pages
One lucky winner will have the opportunity to win a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Paperback) by J.K. Rowling.  For your chance to win simply leave a comment in the thread below.  Comments will be accepted through midnight of Saturday July 30, 2011.  Winner will be picked at random and announced on Sunday July 31, 2011.  Giveaway open to US & Canadian residents only. Good luck!!