Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday Intro: Carlos Ruiz Zafón's THE PRISONER OF HEAVEN

Here is the opening paragraph from Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Prisoner of Heaven,the third of his Cemetery of Forgotten Books novels. The first two, The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game, were worldwide bestsellers, and have been translated from the original Spanish into at least eight languages. The series is fascinating in that it is not meant to be experienced chronologically – you can read the books in any order.

I love Ruiz Zafón’s atmospheric writing, and the way he makes Barcelona, a city I love, a character in his novels. I will be coming back to this one for a complete review in a few weeks, but I can already tell you it is one of my favorite books of 2012!

Barcelona, December 1957

That year at Christmas time, every morning dawned laced with frost under leaden skies. A bluish hue tinged the city and people walked by, wrapped up to their ears and drawing lines of vapour with their breath in the cold air. Very few stopped to gaze at the shop window of Sempere & Sons; fewer still ventured inside to ask for that lost book that had been waiting for them all their lives and whose sale, poetic fantasies aside, would have contributed to shoring up the bookshop’s ailing finances.

What do you think? Would you jump into the series here?

And if you’re looking for inspiration, why not head over to Bibliophile by the Sea and check out other First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday Intro ideas! Thanks, Diane, for hosting!

I am reading this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. You can check out other opinions here.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Super Simple White Sangria

It's hard to believe we got home from China less than 48 hours before our daughter graduated from high school--and we threw a party for 40 people! Obviously, anything we did had to be easy -- so I whipped up a few batches of this sangria for the thirsty grown-ups who came to celebrate with us. It's always a huge hit, so I thought I'd share for those with summertime parties coming up!

Mango White Wine Sangria

2 liters Chardonnay wine (we just bought one of the huge Yellowtail bottles – it was fine)

2 cups Triple Sec

1 liter Goya Mango Nectar

1/4 cup lime juice

Frozen peaches, strawberries and mangoes for floating in the jug

Blackberries, strawberries, apples and limes for garnish

Have all ingredients cold, including Triple sec. Mix all ingredients aside from garnishes in a large drink dispenser (preferably one with a spout on the bottom) 3-4 hours before serving, so the flavors can come together. Serve garnishes in bowls on the side, so everyone can make the drinks "their way." (You can also make up pitchers, as you see in the picture.)

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Audiobook Review: COLOUR SCHEME by Ngaio Marsh

I fell in love with Ngaio Marsh last year when I read Vintage Murder for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. How can you not love a writer who devises a death-by-champagne-bottle plot? So when I put together this year’s list for the Vintage Mystery Challenge 2012, I created a “Vicious Vacations” theme (murders that take place in a location I’d kill to visit!), and knew I had to put another of Marsh’s New Zealand-based books on the list. The only one I was able to find on audible was Colour Scheme, so I downloaded it. And it finally came up on my gym cue last week. The fact that I logged an extra hour and a half on the treadmill indicates that my second Marsh title didn’t disappoint.

Maurice Questing is an insufferable, conniving, lascivious man. A long-term resident of Wai Atta Tapu*, a small thermal spring resort, it’s clear from the beginning that Questing has some kind of hold over Colonel and Mrs. Claire, the stuffy but good hearted expats who own the spa. The book takes place during World War II, and the daily blackouts and shipping reports that were part of the daily life of New Zealanders at the time feature prominently in the book. The setting allows Marsh to put together a fascinating group of characters and possible motives for Questing’s inevitable – and quite gruesome – murder.

In addition to the Claires and Questing, other expats include the Claire’s adult children, ugly duckling Barbara and son Simon, who is working to perfect his Morse code in advance of being called up to the air force. There’s also the famous (and high-maintenance) Shakespearean actor who is taking a cure of lumbago in the mud baths, Geoffrey Gaunt, along with his entourage: personal secretary named Dikon Bell, a New Zealander, and his British dresser and man-Friday, Calley. Another guest at the hot springs, Septimus Falls, is totally agreeable, but evasive about his background. Spa handyman Smith is known to hate Questing openly, even accusing him of attempted homicide.

One of the things that made this book particularly interesting was the inclusion of Maori characters, including a retired Member of Parliament, Rua. Marsh treated the Maori characters and their traditions with dignity, while still illustrating the tensions between the three cultures: Brits, “colonials,” and native New Zealanders. One of the possible premises for Questing’s murder stems directly from the Maori element in the novel, since he is accused of stealing Maori artifacts for illicit sale to collectors. The second premise is indirectly related to the Maori, as there appears to be a fifth column spy signaling from the Maori reserve lands where Questing is known to wander in the evenings.

I never figured out the murderer, in part because I didn’t pay as much attention to the title as I should have. There are a couple of interesting twists toward the end, and more than a few red herrings, but I love it when I think back and the solution to a mystery was difficult but fair, which has been the case in both of the Marsh titles I have read. I’d call it good fun.

I am finally on the board for another challenge, Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2012, hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block! I have some catching up to do, but that’s what summer is for, isn’t it?

*An apology – since I listened to the audiobook, and couldn’t find a complete list of characters online, I have likely spelled some names wrong. I have gone with the most common spellings.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Book Review: THE MOON AND SIXPENCE by W. Somerset Maugham

If Paul Gauguin was an Englishman who callously threw a respectable British life away to go to Paris (and later Tahiti) and paint, and an acquaintance from his first, respectable life chose to write a biography of him, the end product might well have been a fascinating essay of the kind you read in The New Yorker. But since that isn’t the case, we have instead W. Somerset Maugham’s fascinating novel The Moon and Sixpence, a portrait of a man literally consumed by his passion to create art, which reads exactly as if it were that piece of feature journalism.

At the beginning of the novel, Charles Strickland appears to be a comfortable if not rich British stockbroker, more annoyed than enthused about the “artsy” types his wife brings to the house for her famous salons. The first-person narrator of the novel, himself a writer who has been “collected” by Strickland’s wife (and who never shares his name in the novel) meets Strickland at one of these salons, and finds him absolutely unremarkable. Until, that is, one day he is called upon to intervene after Strickland quits his job, abandons his wife and children without a farthing, and runs off to Paris to paint – despite having shown no interest in painting his entire life.

What follows is a novel examining the value of passion in art. Strickland is absolutely brutal – to himself, to anyone who tries to help him, and especially anyone who loves him. All that matters to him is creating art, to the point that he nearly kills himself by spending the little money he has on supplies, rather than food. From the narrator’s perspective, the only thing that saves Strickland from being a completely abhorrent character is his single-mindedness in his devotion to art. But the question that remains is whether or not the emotional and social cost is truly “worth” the price of creating beauty.

The difficult relationship between art and beauty is articulated in the novel by Dirk Stroeve, a very successful but conventional painter who recognizes Strickland’s genius and, consequently, his own mediocrity:
”Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge, and sesnitiveness and imagination.” p. 56, Kindle edition
Maugham’s writing manages to be both powerful and austere. Not a word is wasted. I was completely mesmerized by this novel, particularly in the first-person narrative voice, which mixed such admiration with disdain. For me, it struck a masterful balance.

It only took six months, but I’m finally on the board in this year’s What’s in a Name 5 Challenge. This title fit in two slots (something in the sky and something in a pocket, purse or handbag), but I’m linking it to the purse category, and assuming it’s a very old, beat-up British purse – after all, the charge is to be creative! This title also counts as my 20th Century classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much. Progress at last!