The Girl Below…add it to your summer reading list

Title: The Girl Below
Author: Bianca Zander
Published: Early Reviewer Copy provided by William Morrow Paperbacks, 2012
Genre: Literature/Mystery
Length: 352 pages
Rating: 7/10

I was excited to receive a copy of The Girl Below through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. I easily read it in a weekend–partially because it was fairly fast-paced and easy to read and partially because I enjoyed it so much. It’s the perfect mix of mystery and fiction–just enough mystery to be intriguing and keep you wondering, but light enough to allow you to focus on the characters and their story as well.

The Girl Below centers around Suki Piper, who’s in her late 20’s and has returned to London, where she was born and raised, after spending over 10 years in New Zealand. Suki’s mother passed away just before she fled to New Zealand, where she unsuccessfully tries to reconnect with her father, who left the family’s home to go on a business trip many years ago, but never returned.

Upon deciding to leave New Zealand and return “home,” Suki’s struggling in every sense of the word–to make ends meet, to find a job, to keep a roof over her head and to come to terms with her past. She temporarily crashes on a friend’s couch while job searching, and one day decides to visit her childhood flat. She hopes to reconnect with her old neighbors, Pippa, who babysat her as a child, and Pippa’s mom Peggy. But Suki finds that Peggy’s ailing and Pippa, along with her husband and teenage son, own their own home nearby. Her visit also stirs up a haunting childhood memory of a crazy party her parents hosted and a WWII bunker in their backyard. She then starts to piece together memories from her childhood, in order to find out what really happened that night.

The book’s chapters alternate between memories from Suki’s childhood and her current day life, which I think contributed to the book’s success. I liked reading about parts of her childhood through the eyes of a child, in an effort to put together pieces of the puzzle from that mysterious evening and the aftermath. And I was just as absorbed in her current day life, as she gets pulled into Pippa and Peggy’s lives when she agrees to first be a caretaker for Peggy while her nurse is away, and then a babysitter of sorts for Pippa’s angst-ridden teenage son, and then finally, as a caretaker again in Greece when Peggy falls ill during the family’s vacation.

The only aspect of the novel that gave me pause was the bit of surrealism or magic that Suki encounters as she comes to terms with the past. This magical element helps Suki bridge the past and present in order to resolve the mystery and comes to terms with her past and her family, and I think it worked here–but I don’t think resorting to the supernatural is something that most novels can or should do.

The Girl Below is Bianca Zander’s first novel. Zander, similar to Suki, was born in Britain and lives in New Zealand. Zander’s writing was smart and surprising. To be honest, I wished the book was longer. I really liked Suki’s character, partially because of her plentiful flaws (perhaps almost too plentiful), which made her seem real. I liked the dynamic between the characters and how the story wasn’t at all predictable. Overall, I think The Girl Below is a great light read–perfect for your summer reading list!

Amazonia…too hokey, even by adventure/sci-fi novel standards

Title: Amazonia
Author: James Rollins
Published: Harper
Genre: Thriller
Length: 525 pages
Rating: 3/10

This was my first James Rollins read, at the suggestion of my friend Kandravy, who also recommended I read the amazing A Game of Thrones and The Name of the WindAmazonia is clearly not on the same level as these books–but I’m a fan of adventure/sci-fi novels. Growing up I read every Michael Critchon book I could get my hands on. I was also drawn in by the book jacket’s hook about a man who goes into the jungle with one arm missing and stumbles out of the jungle years later with both arms in tact–how could you not want to start reading!? But unfortunatelymy excitement for Amazonia was short-lived.

The book centers around father and son, Carl and Nathan Rand. Years ago, Carl, Nathan’s father, led a scientific expedition into the Amazon, never to be seen again. Though recently, a well-known member of the expedition, Gerald Wallace Clark, stumbles out of the jungle with his previously missing arm in tact. He passes away shortly after escaping the jungle, but the company that had invested in Carl Rand’s exhibition, Tellux Pharmaceuticals, alongside the CIA’s Environmental Center and Special Forces Command, decide to follow Clark’s trail back into the jungle to try to find clues about the missing expedition. Nathan Rand is asked to be a member of the new expedition and he can’t turn down an opportunity to learn more about what happened to his father.

A large team, including Tellux’s Dr. Richard Zane, army rangers, scientists, a professor who speaks over 150 indigenous tribe dialects, an anthropologist, a pet jaguar, etc, begin the deadly trek into the Amazon. And it doesn’t take long for members of the exhibition to start dying off. The team encounters what seem to be supernaturally enhanced killer piranhas, ants, jaguars, locusts and more, as they follow Clark’s path and start piecing together the mystery of the missing exhibition.

Meanwhile, as Clark’s body is shipped back to the U.S. for testing, something he had or was in contact with causes a plague to spread, threatening to kill thousands of Americans, unless the exhibition can possibly find the anectdote hidden in the jungle.

I just couldn’t shake how unreal the book became the further I read on. At first, it was a bit far fetched, but what book in this genre isn’t? But it got more and more “out there,” with all the supernatural animals and wildlife, the people in the jungle who can’t be trusted, and other scenarios the team encounters that I can’t mention or I’d give away the whole story. I could barely will myself to finish the book. Kandravy’s response to me was, “Far fetched like dinosaurs eating tourists?” I had to laugh, because I did love Jurassic Park. But yes, this was more far-fetched, to the point where I couldn’t believe an ounce of what was going on and I started to dislike the characters because of it. I think you can only take hokey sci-fi so far before you lose the reader completely and Rollins lost me.

Based on Amazonia alone, I’m not sure that I’d read more of Rollins. Can anyone persuade me otherwise? I’m also considering re-reading Congo, to see if  I enjoy it as much now that I’m older?

Before I Go to Sleep…original, but too predictable for me

Title: Before I Go to Sleep
Author: S. J. Watson
Published: Harper
Genre: Thriller
Length: 358 pages
Rating: 3.5/10

I had such high hopes for Before I Go to SleepS. J. Watson’s debut novel. It seemed to have a lot of good press on, in blogs and I’d seen it in featured in a number of bookstores. So I bought it from Penguin Bookshop in Sewickley a few weeks ago. Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I was disappointed by it.

Before I Go to Sleep is a psychological thriller, where the main character Christine wakes up every morning with no recollection of who she is, who the man she’s sleeping next to is, where she is or even hold old she is. She has some memories from when she was in her 20’s that come to mind most mornings, but when she looks in the mirror, she realizes that her hair is graying and she’s 47-years-old. She “meets” her husband Ben all over again every morning and he patiently explains to her that she had an accident many years ago that gave her a rare short-term memory loss/amnesia every time she goes to sleep. He shows her pictures of the two of them together in the past 20+ years to prove to her that he’s not a stranger and they’re happily married.

After Ben goes to work for the day, Christine often gets a phone call from Dr. Nash, a doctor who has been meeting with her in order to try to help her improve her memory. Dr. Nash tells her to check in her closet for a journal that she uses to detail each day of her life and recount the occasional recent memory she does have, before she goes to sleep and forgets everything the next morning. The journal helps Christine realize that she trusts Dr. Nash and that he’s been helping her make real progress with her memory. Though on the first page of the journal she’s discovers that she’s written, “Don’t trust Ben,” and Dr. Nash informs her that she keeps both Dr. Nash and the journal a secret from Ben.

Early in the novel, Christine goes through this routine a number of times. She wonders why she can’t trust Ben and comes across a few memories or parts of their past that he doesn’t readily tell her in the morning but if pressed, he’ll admit to after she’s read her journal and questions him when he gets home from work. Is he lying to protect her from being hurt by the past or is there another reason he’s hiding the truth from her? And why is Dr. Nash so anxious to meet with her and help her, when her own husband doesn’t even know about him?

I definitely thought this was an intriguing, unique premise for a thriller. But I got a bit tired of reading about Christine’s routine–it took a while for it to be established, before getting to the meat of the story. Then once the story got going, it didn’t take me long to figure out the twist, so I read the rest of the book waiting for it to be unveiled and it was hard for me to enjoy the story. Just too predictable. The characters were also a bit annoying–while I appreciate how hard it would be to have memory loss and be in Christine’s position, she still seemed a bit too helpless and daft, while Ben seemed way too patient and quick to go to work and not check in on her again all day long. Also, while Christine is only 47, she was really described like a woman who was much older, so it was also a little creepy to read about Christine wondering about her sexuality and her sexual relationship with her husband, who often still felt like a stranger to her. While Watson may have been trying to make the book and scenario authentic, it creeped me out and felt like an unnecessary addition to the plot.

While I was clearly distracted negatively by different aspects of the book, I do think Watson is a good writer. It was easy to read, the characters really came to life and I thought it was original. And like I said, the book seemed to get a lot of good press. Maybe I’m off here–does anyone disagree with me? Any thumbs up?

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2)…phenomenal & worth the time it takes to read it

Title: A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire Book 2)
Author: George R. R. Martin
Published: Bantam Books/Reprint 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 1009 pages
Rating: 10/10

It’s so hard to sum up the long-winded books in the A Song of Fire and Ice series in a few paragraphs, especially knowing that most of you haven’t read them (yet!). Just know that they’re phenomenal and worth all the time it takes to read them. Book 1, A Game of Thrones, ended with a lot of momentum and I immediately started reading A Clash of Kings. It started off a bit slow (even though the prologue was awesome) and it’s even longer than Book 1, so I didn’t get very far very fast. But like A Game of Thrones, it gained momentum and I flew through the second half of the book. (Don’t read on if you haven’t finished either book!)

In accordance with the title, there are several kings fighting for the thrones of the Seven Kingdoms, most importantly the Iron Throne, now that King Robert is dead. Currently, young (and loathsome) Joffrey Baratheon sits on the Iron Throne, though, he was born out of Queen Cersei’s incestuous relationship with her twin brother Jamie, so he’s not the true-born son of the deceased King Robert and therefore not the rightful king. Robb Stark, the new King of the North and the dead King Robert’s brothers Stannis and Renley Baratheon, all want to claim the throne for themselves, and have engaged in a war to do so.

Like in Book 1, the Stark family is at the heart of the story, though the family members are spread across the Seven Kingdoms. Their story lines (all 6 of them) had me the most on the edge of my seat, wondering if/when any of the them will reunite…right now only Bran and Ricken, the youngest boys, are together. Tyrion Lannister is one of the other main characters and continues to be one of my favorites. He has the potential to be good, but is slyly battling the rest of the evil Lannister family for power. Another story line involves the members of the Night’s Watch, including the Stark bastard John Snow, who are hunting the wildlings, a people living off on their own north of the Wall. I think we’ll see more of them in future books. On the other hand, I thought Daenery the Dragon Queen’s story line was the dullest in this book, even though I was captivated by her in Book 1.

There are two new character perspectives in A Clash of Kings, Theon Greyjoy, who grew up as a ward of the Stark family and friend of Robb’s and returned home in hopes of taking over his father’s throne, and Ser Davos Seaworth, who is now a knight to King Stannis. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when Theon meets a woman he wants to go to bed with and takes her back to the castle after groping her, boasting about his intent to rule the kingdom and bad-talking his family to her, only to find out she’s his sister, who he hasn’t seen since they were children. We get to know Theon and Davos as well as the characters that surround them, almost as an introduction to story lines that will continue to grow as we read further into the series.

I love how A Clash of Kings ends. Martin isn’t always clear about whether or not characters live through battles or are killed by another characters at the end of their chapters. For a while, he makes you think that Bran and Ricken may have been killed by Theon, Tyrion died in battle and John Snow’s direwolf Ghost died…and I’m still not sure if Catelyn killed or at least hurt Jamie (though I doubt it) or if Lord Stannis lived through the battle for King’s Landing. You can’t help getting really wrapped up the story lines and once again, I’m excited to start the next book, A Storm of Swords.

My friend Kandravy and I were talking about the books (though he’s a few ahead of me and keeps almost giving things away from the “future”) and he reminded me of the symbolism (something you won’t find me talking about much) at the beginning of A Game of Thrones when the Starks find the direwolf puppies with their dead mother, killed with a deer’s antler. The Stark family’s banner features a direwolf and the Baratheon’s features a stag—foreshadowing anyone? My co-worker Andrew just started A Storm of Swords as well, so I’m excited to have impromptu book club chats with him at work as we read on–if he can keep up.

Good thing Martin is so long-winded or I’d already be impatiently waiting for him to complete the series!

A Game of Thrones…so good it gave me goosebumps

Title: A Game of Thrones
Author: George R. R. Martin
Published: Bantam Books/Reprint 2011
Genre: Fantasy
Length: 807 pages
Rating: 10/10

I’m excited to finally be reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series. My friend Kandravy, who recommended The Name of the Wind (now one of my favorite books and also a fantasy novel), told me I had to read this series next and so far, I’m a huge fan.

There are currently five books released in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, starting with A Game of Thrones, but there will be seven total eventually. I won’t lie, it’s an intimidating series to begin reading considering each book is at least 800 pages long. But based on how good book one was, I’m ready to keep reading. And I had no idea that A Games of Thrones was originally published in 1996–so it’s already taken Martin 15 years to write the series!

Reading A Game of Thrones is like reading a book about medieval times, with a touch of fantasy. It’s set in the Seven Kingdoms, where there are kings and queens, castles and knights, princesses and bastards, wars and battles for the thrones. There are also summers that last for years, ghosts and wolf-dogs called direwolves. And hundreds of years ago, dragons existed. It really isn’t at alltoo fantasy” in my opinion.

This first book focuses mainly on the Stark, Baratheon and Lannister families, Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark, his wife Catelyn Tully and their children, and King Robert Baratheon of the Iron Throne, his wife Queen Cersei Lannister, and their children. Daenerys (Dany) Targaryen is also a key character in the book–she and her brother Viserys are the last members of the ancient Targaryen Dynasty, who once ruled the Iron Throne. Most characters are from a longstanding “House,” such as the House of Stark or the House of Targaryen, and Wikipedia is honestly best way to keep track of who is who. Though I didn’t have to reference it much as I read. And don’t read too much about each character or else you’ll know what’s going to happen before reading the books!

A Game of Thrones is told through the point of view of eight of the main characters of the novel, through chapters written in first-person. I liked how each character had their own subplot and/or is off in a different part of the Seven Kingdoms telling their own story. At the beginning of the book, it’s hard to establish who is who, the significance of each character and where the alliances are–it takes a while to set up the story, put everyone in place, and put the real plot into motion. But by then the characters and story feel so real, it’s hard to turn away. The characters grow with the story too–you’ll find your opinions of them changing as you read on. My favorite characters were Ned, his bastard son Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf. And be prepared–Martin isn’t afraid of killing main characters!

While it’s obvious as you read that the plot will entail people vying for the throne(s), it’s not stated specifically until page 488, when Queen Cersei says to Ned, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Even 488 pages into the book, the story gains momentum. I don’t want to give away much of the plot–but as you can imagine, the story revolves around the struggles between different families and Houses, the bonds and power struggles within family’s, as well as deceit, love, trust, etc.

I haven’t seen the series on HBO, but I’m tempted to at this point. I’ve heard from friends that it’s really good and I love the actor Sean Bean, who plays the main character Ned. My friend Mary and I were talking last night (she watched the show but hasn’t read the books) and it seems like the first season follows the book and they ended with the same final scene–it’ll give you goosebumps! Now, on to A Clash of Kings!

Versatile Blogger Award

I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award by Malvika of Wanton Ruminating! Thanks so much Malvika! She and I have similar taste in books and we’re both under 5 ft tall…we also just so happen to live 8,500 miles apart!

When you’re nominated for a VBA, you’re asked to talk about a few blogs you love to follow:

1. I love hearing about books/movies/music from the staff at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, in the blog Eleventh Stack. The library is just a few blocks away from my office too! I love that the blogs often have themes, like movies that scared the pants off you as a kidcookbooks that are great if you’re going to a potluck (my office loves a good potluck!) or historical true crime novels.

2. I love my friend and colleague Krista’s blog, Shutters + Champagne. We have a lot in common, like reading, cooking (and eating!), fashion and living in the ‘Burgh. Our husbands coach lacrosse together too. Though she’s not blogged lately, she’s been too busy getting married and buying a house!

3. Book Lover’s Blog and I have similar taste in books. This is a blog from the staff of Greensboro Public Library, in Greensboro, NC. Sometimes I hear about new books here, and sometimes I find out what they think about a book I’ve already read.

4. I also follow my friend Kathryn’s blog, Kathrynspeaks. She worked with me at Carnegie Mellon for five years, and now she’s working on her PhD full-time as well as some local higher ed efforts. She’s probably one of the smartest people I know and we had a great time eating and shopping our way through NYC for work over the years! She blogs about diversity, her faith, higher ed, etc.

And lastly, I’m supposed to tell my readers a few things about myself:

1. My name is Leigh, which Malvika pointed out that she didn’t even know. I’ve never actually used my first name in my blog.

2. No Country for Old Men is one of my favorite books and movies.

3. I love to run in North Park, a park that’s just a few minutes away from my house. I prefer running in colder weather, which is probably a little unusual!

4. I’m going to be an aunt in a matter of days! My husband’s brother and his wife are having a baby…their due date is Monday. We’re super excited!

Those Across the River…the perfect scary read for a winter night, just make sure you have lots of lights on

Title: Those Across the River
Author: Christopher Buehlman
Published: Ace Hardcover/2011
Genre: Horror
Length: 368 pages
Rating: 5.5/10

I found Those Across the River in my recommendations, probably because of the John Ajvide Lindqvist books I’ve read lately. I read it in a weekend after borrowing it from the CLP on my Kindle–it’s a perfect scary read for a winter night, just make sure you have lots of lights on!

I saw it described online as Southern gothic, which is the perfect description. The story is set in 1935, centering around Frank Nichols and his soon to be wife Eudora. They move from the city of Chicago to the small, small Georgia town of Whitbrow, where Frank’s aunt has left him a beautiful old home. Though in her will, his aunt warned him to sell the house and NOT move in. Of course, he ignores her advice. His plan is to write a book about his grandfather, an evil war general who was killed by his own slaves and owned a plantation across the river from Frank’s aunt.

When Frank and Eudora arrive in Whitbrow, they meet the locals–farmers, a preacher, butcher, general store owner, etc. Eudora starts teaching at the high school and Frank starts writing his book. Eudora charms all the locals–she’s basically described as a sexy young thing that all the men notice. She’s totally sexually driven and I thought the newlywed-ness in their marriage got old fast. But you’ll find out that it’s kind of key to the story later.

Then the spooky factor starts when Frank takes a long walk across the river, in an attempt to find his grandfather’s plantation. He has trouble keeping to the path and encounters a young boy who isn’t wearing any pants. At first the boy just follows him, without speaking, and when Frank yells at him, the boy starts throwing stones at him. It’s at this point that Frank notices his teeth are filed to points. The weekend I was reading it I was at the 60% point on my Kindle when I went to bed, and was actually kind of spooked, and I can’t remember the last time a book spooked me.

As the story went on, it read a little bit like a typical horror movie–I kept yelling at Frank and Eudora, “why don’t you just leave, leave now!” It could have been shorter if the main characters had left town earlier. But when do characters in horror movies/novels do the smart thing? Considering this is Buehlman’s first novel, I was pretty impressed. The town of Whitbrow felt real and the writing was smart and suspenseful.

In terms of scariness, I’d rate it at a 7 or 8. But as an overall read, I gave it a 5.5.  It was a little slow moving at first, as the story was being set up, and then it got a little long towards the end. But it was pretty creative as far as scary stories go. Just a little too unbelievable considering it was set up to be believable, if that makes sense.


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