Friday, October 28, 2016

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles
First published in 2016
462 pages
My rating: 5 out of 5

The Short Of It:
This book was a joy to read and it's one of my favorites this year!

The Long Of It:
Every once in a while I happen upon a book that is just a pure delight to read, and "A Gentleman in Moscow," with it's charming protagonist, unique setting, beautiful writing, positive outlook and spot-on observations about life, was one of those gems.

Count Alexander Rostov is our esteemed main character, and at just 30 he's convicted of being an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to live out his days in Moscow's Hotel Metropol; if he steps outside, he'll be shot. It's 1922, and the Bolshevik Revolution is in full swing.

Luckily, Alexander possesses a unique zest for life, an infectious good humor and a very pragmatic outlook on his situation. It doesn't hurt that the Hotel Metropol -- the preeminent hotel in Moscow and perhaps all of Russia -- is basically a small village unto itself. And so begins the second chapter of Alexander's life, in which he lives in a tiny room in the Metropol's attic with an infinitesimal fraction of his previous belongings, and in which he views events large -- the rise of communism, World War II -- and small -- geese set loose in the hotel, a famous actress in residence -- from his now-permanent home.

And though Alexander can't place a toe outside the hotel, his days are far from stagnant. A vibrant cast of characters comes into his life over the years, from the moody chef of the hotel's famous restaurant who becomes one of Alexander's very best friends to a government official who secretly loves Humphrey Bogart to an adorably precocious little girl who will change his life in unimaginable ways.

In addition to the colorful characters and our charismatic protagonist, I loved the setting and the historical fiction aspect of the story. Despite Alexander spending almost the entirety of the book within the Hotel Metropol, Towles is able to vividly portray early- to mid-century Russia, with its secret police, its Siberian labor camps, its cheerful church domes, its inhospitable weather and its hearty cuisine. I haven't read many books that take place in Russia so I thoroughly enjoyed the rich details and I learned plenty of new-to-me Russian history. (It was especially interesting since I recently watched the "War & Peace" BBC miniseries, and Tolstoy's novel and the Napoleonic Wars are mentioned several times in Towles' book.)

On top of all that, I found Towles' writing to be absolutely gorgeous -- conversational, warm, funny and beautifully descriptive -- exactly as if Count Rostov were a beloved old friend chatting over tea. I can't remember the last time a book made me smile and chuckle so often. I most appreciated when Towles employed his lovely prose to impart bits of life lesson and observation from Alexander's point of view. A few examples:

"Either way, a cup of coffee would hit the spot. For what is more versatile? As at home in tin as it is in Limoges, coffee can energize the industrious at dawn, calm the reflective at noon, or raise the spirits of the beleaguered in the middle of the night."

"Surely the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again? So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding."

"When all is said and done, the endeavors that most modern men saw as urgent (such as appointments with bankers and the catching of trains), probably could have waited, while those they deemed frivolous (such as cups of tea and friendly chats) had deserved their immediate attention."

I can see how "A Gentleman in Moscow" might not be everyone's favorite. It's definitely a character-driven story -- which I don't always enjoy myself -- and overall it was a bit of a quiet tale, but it was so very well done. Despite the lack of edge-of-my-seat action, I absolutely couldn't put this book down. I loved the protagonist and the minor characters, I loved the setting -- both Russia and the Hotel Metropol, I loved the atmosphere of the time period, and most of all I loved Towles' expert writing. If his first novel, "The Rules of Civility," is as good as his second, he will most definitely be among my list of most favorite authors!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

"Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier
First published in 1938
376 pages
My rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Short Of It:

Atmospheric and a bit creepy, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations for "a tale of suspense."

The Long Of It:
I'd been meaning to read "Rebecca," Daphne du Maurier's famous gothic novel, for ages, and I had always intended to curl up with it on a blustery October day under a blanket, mug of coca in my hand. I ended up reading it with my toes in the sand in Hawaii -- which was actually ok, because the book wasn't as eerie or as suspenseful as I had imagined, and it made for fine beach reading.

Maybe I've been spoiled for classic thrillers by edge-of-my-seat, gasp-inducing "Gone Girl" and the like, and it's quite probable that "Rebecca" was very shocking and suspenseful when it was published in the 1930s. But I had higher expectations after seeing how well-loved and highly recommended it is. I do have to say that it was surprisingly readable for a book written nearly 80 years ago and I did enjoy the prose, as well as the vivid descriptions of the setting.

The story begins when our narrator is working as a companion to a wealthy old woman; she's accompanied her employer on holiday to Monte Carlo when she meets Maxim de Winter, partakes in whirlwind romance and ends up wed to the handsome, rich widower nearly old enough to be her father. The two return to Manderley, the de Winter estate in Cornwall, but wedded bliss does not ensue.

Rather, Maxim's deceased wife Rebecca and the memory of her lauded life and tragic death cast a pall over everything at Manderley -- and most especially on the narrator herself. She's incessantly informed that Rebecca was stunningly gorgeous, brilliant, kind and beloved by all, and the shy and youthfully naive Mrs. de Winter #2 feels that she cannot possibly compete for her husband's affections when held up against the bright flame of Rebecca. This notion is only encouraged by Manderley's housekeeper, who is utterly -- excessively -- devoted to her former mistress, such that she has faithfully preserved Rebecca's bedroom exactly as it was on her last day, down to the last hair in her brush.

Strange and disturbing happenings ensue. Our narrator has an increasingly rough time of it. Manderley's beautiful gardens and stunning architecture take on a sinister cast. And all is not as it seems. I won't say more at risk of spoiling the plot, which is indeed enigmatic if not entirely thrilling -- it took quite a while for me to figure out whether I was reading a ghost story, a mystery or something else entirely.

The plot didn't quite have me on the edge of my seat, I found the story a bit slow at times, and our daydream-y narrator (whose first name we never learn -- ergh!) was a bit irritating in the first half of the novel -- but I'm still glad I read it, and I wouldn't discourage any potential readers. It was a wonderfully atmospheric tale with a creative plot, and I still can't get over the fact that this suspense novel was written by a woman in 1938 -- that alone makes it worth a read!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

10 Good BOOks for Halloween Reading

Happy Halloween! In honor of the spookiest day of the year, this week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is about Halloween books. What exactly makes a book suited for Halloween reading? I narrowed down three different attributes: supernatural characters, a dark-and-stormy-night or magical atmosphere, and a downright creepy plot.
1. Written in Red by Anne Bishop
(my review -- 4.5 stars)
This book has it all -- vampires, shapeshifters and more, plus a wonderfully cozy atmosphere and great characters.

2. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
(my review -- 5 stars)
Part of this book even takes place on Halloween! It's got witches, vampires, daemons, and the cozy and esteemed Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

3. Wicked Appetite by Janet Evanovich
(my review of book 2 in the series, but with a summary of this book -- 4 stars)
Even if you gave up on Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum books, I suggest giving the Wicked books a try when you need some fluffy, fun reading. This series has a delightful tinge of the supernatural.

4. The Passage by Justin Cronin
(my review -- 5 stars)
"The Passage," book one in a trilogy, was one of the best books I read in 2013. It's a post-apocalyptic epic that features monsters that are like a cross between vampires and zombies.

5. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
(my review -- 5 stars)
This is the ultimate book to curl up with on a cold, rainy night.

6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
(my review -- 3.75 stars)
This paragraph from my review sums it right up: "The venue is the Night Circus, a fantastical and mysterious traveling circus of dreams, open only at night with a magical black-and-white color scheme. There are the usual acts -- a contortionist, an illusionist, acrobats, a maze, mirrored rooms, a fortune teller -- but they're all elevated, different, special, unique... magical. Because they all involve the very real magic of Marco and Celia as they play out the game, the stakes of which they have no idea."

7. The Moor by Laurie R. King
(4 stars)
Scenes of the dreary, spooky English moor are contrasted with lovely images like this one: "I pulled one of the armchairs up to the fire, threw some logs onto the red coals, kicked off my shoes, and drew my feet up under me in the chair. It was very pleasant, sitting in the solid, patient old house, in the wood-panelled room with the threadbare, sprung-bottomed furniture. The fire crackled to itself, the cat slept on the bench, the fox and hounds ran across the carved fireplace surround, and occasional voices came from the other end of the house. Sighing, deeply content, I began to read." This is the fourth book in King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mystery series, but I think it could be enjoyed without having read the previous installments.

8. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
(3.5 stars -- but still worth a read)
"Rebecca" -- "the classic tale of romantic suspense" -- takes place at Manderley, a rambling old estate near the Cornwall coast, and du Maurier's writing can make even the loveliest of azalea gardens seem sinister.

9. You by Caroline Kepnes
(my review -- 4 stars)
This book is about a scarily skilled stalker -- a very charismatic sociopath, a brilliant and manipulative guy who knows every which way to dig into a woman's life -- and her mind. It'll have you wanting to check your social media privacy settings posthaste!

10. Horns by Joe Hill
(my review -- 4 stars)
This was my very first Joe Hill book, and it's probably the most suited for Halloween but any of his novels would fit the bill. The narrator wakes up after a very rough night to find he has sprouted horns on his head -- horns that look to be of the devilish variety -- and he suddenly has, among other talents, the ability to encourage people to act on their most sinful and hidden desires. There are also creepy references to an old foundry, fire, snakes and the like. But there's way more to the story than horror -- it's also a murder mystery.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Monday Musings

Gorgeous double rainbow on Friday afternoon. I chose the right time to walk up and get the mail!

My week: My mom flew back to Colorado on Monday night. I miss her already, but I'm so glad she was able to come visit. And we had a great time on Kauai! This weekend we went to the pick-your-own-pumpkin patch and relaxed at home.

Reading: In my last Monday Musings post I said I was planning to start Kate Morton's "The Forgotten Garden" after I finished up "Rebecca," but then it occurred to me that I better start on the library books I know I won't be able to renew.

First I read "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles, an author I had never even heard of until the hype for this, his second novel, started up. But he definitely has the potential to become a favorite -- I absolutely loved this delightful novel about a count who gets sentenced to live out his days in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow after being convicted of being an unrepentant aristocrat during the Bolshevik Revolution. The writing was gorgeous, the main character was utterly charming, and the story was delightful!

Then I started another newish historical fiction novel, "The Last Days of Night" by Graham Moore (screenwriter of "The Imitation Game"), which is about the rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse, the battle between A/C and D/C current, and the dispute over the creation of the light bulb. I'm not very far in yet, but I have noticed the writing is just slightly less stellar than I imagined (though still perfectly adequate), which is extra apparent after just finishing the amazingly written "A Gentleman in Moscow." I'm still enjoying it, though! The subject matter and time period are certainly interesting.

Knitting: I didn't knit a single stitch this week, but I did splurge and buy the pattern and yarn kit for the "Gilmore Girls" mystery knit-along. It's a cowl (design unknown -- that's the mystery) to be worked on while watching "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life." I can hardly believe I spent that much money on yarn for a cowl (which I won't even get to wear for the next three years) but I just could not resist those colors, especially the aspen bark one. I'm so excited!

Watching: We went to see Ben Affleck's new movie, "The Accountant," about an accountant/assassin whose autism enhances his particular skill set but makes it nearly impossible for him to form relationships. The movie was pretty good, and I liked the twist given to the typical action/guns/revenge plot by the main character's autism and the (hard to watch, at times) flashbacks to his difficult upbringing.

We also started watching the British crime drama "Broadchurch." It's a modern-day detective story set in the quiet seaside community of Broadchurch in Dorset, centered on the suspicious death of an 11-year-old boy. The investigation uncovers many dark secrets in the small community. We watched the first three episodes and I'm definitely intrigued!

Eating: I made from-scratch chicken noodle soup for the first time ever! I used this recipe from Tyler Florence (with a few tweaks) and was proud of myself for making my own stock. (Though I didn't have a turnip like the recipe calls for -- I accidentally bought a beet! Luckily I realized that before I put it in the pot.)


Looking forward to: My birthday is this week! I've spent my last two birthdays in the Smoky Mountains surrounded by stunning fall foliage, so this year's is a little anticlimactic, but I'm thinking I might go get my free birthday drink from Starbucks and have a mini Harry Potter marathon.

I'm linking up with Kathryn of Book Date for It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Friday, October 21, 2016

I Judge Books By Their Covers: "The Last Days of Night"


I just started reading Graham Moore's "The Last Days of Night" yesterday so I can't tell you much about it yet, other than that it involves the rivalry between Edison and Westinghouse, electricity and the light bulb. The little I've read seems completely promising, and I'm expecting to love it! When I was on Goodreads yesterday marking it as my current read, I couldn't help but notice how completely different the U.K. cover is, and I couldn't resist a cover comparison!

U.S. hardcover // U.K. hardcover

Let me start by saying that there's nothing at all I dislike about the U.K. cover -- the color, the font, the illustration and the Gillian Flynn quote are all perfectly pleasing and if I saw this book sitting on a shelf at the store, I'd definitely pick it up to read the blurb.

But there's just something so inviting about the U.S. cover. With that warm glow, the 19th century flair and the gold embossing, this book is just asking to be read under a blanket with a warm beverage in hand. It sets the stage perfectly for a historical fiction novel centered around the creation of electric light.

Which cover do you like best?

My winner: U.S. hardcover

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

2015 Travel Recap: Niagara Falls

Well, I'm ashamed to say that 2016 has somehow surpassed me dawdling along with my travel recaps from last year and our trip to Cleveland and Niagara Falls actually happened over a year ago, at the beginning of October 2015. Goodness, it's hard to believe it's been that long -- and what a year it's been!

If you're interested, you can see posts about the rest of our fun year of travels here:
New York City
Bristol Race, the Biltmore and the Smokies
Colorado Part 1: Lost Lake and Pikes Peak
Colorado Part 2: Rocky Mountain National Park
Cleveland: Cuyahoga National Park and "Christmas Story" House
Next up: back to the Smoky Mountains in October 2015


At the beginning of October last year, we took a long weekend getaway to Cleveland and Niagara Falls, with a stop in Buffalo on the way home to sample the fare at the restaurant that claims to have created buffalo chicken wings. Cleveland was already on the to-do list since it was our last year in Ohio and we hadn't been yet, and I figured we might as well jaunt over to the Falls because who knows when we'll be in that part of the country again. I'm so glad we did... I had never given Niagara Falls all that much consideration before, but I was pleasantly surprised -- the falls were so very stunning in person!

American Falls with Bridal Veil Falls off to the far right of the photo. Bridal Veil Falls is the waterfall you walk next to on the famous Cave of the Winds excursion (which we did, and which was very wet, and which you'll see below).

Another view of American Falls during the day. I was shocked by the sheer volume and power of the water.

There's a light show at night!

On our second day, we headed over the bridge to Canada (I was vaguely disappointed not to have my passport stamped). It's true what everyone says -- the Canadian side is nicer in every way. The Canadian part of the waterfall (Horseshoe Falls) is even more impressive, and the area is much cleaner and more nicely maintained.

That mist is no joke!

Jarrod looks like the Marshmallow Man with this windblown poncho!

And here we are getting drenched, and then drenched some more. The top two photos with the blue ponchos are from the Maid of the Mist boat tour, which takes visitors right up to both the American and Canadian falls for an up-close-and-personal encounter with an insane amount of gushing water and resulting mist.

The yellow ponchos are from Cave of the Winds, where we donned special rubber sandals and walked up a maze of wooden stairs and platforms alongside Bridal Veil Falls. It's smaller, but let me tell you, it's formidable. Every part of me that wasn't completely and totally covered with my poncho (which billowed out constantly from the wind created by the falls) and most of me that was covered was absolutely soaked with ice-cold water. It was an entirely miserable/amazing experience.

You can't quite tell in the photo, but this was basically like standing in a downpour. I would definitely recommend Cave of the Winds, but be prepared to be wet and cold!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

16 Pet Names Inspired By Novels


This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic is about names -- baby, pet, car, etc. -- derived from books, and I decided to go the animal route. I've already named one pet after a book character: our kitty, Lily, is named after the main character of "The Secret Life of Bees," which I was reading when we adopted her. And I named the pair of mongooses who frequent our backyard Neville and Luna. Below are a bunch more names that I'd love to use for a furry family member:

Two awesome characters named Sirius + a star that's part of a dog-shaped constellation = great dog name!

(Fitz for short.) Fitz is a pretty cute name for a dog, and it's nice and short. It'd be "Fitzwilliam Darcy, you naughty boy!" when he was getting in trouble.

"The Mixed-Up Files," in which two kids run away and live in the Met, is one of my favorite childhood books. I think Basil would be a fabulous dog, cat or rabbit name.

Beatrix is a gorgeous name for a human or any kind of pet, but -- perhaps not particularly creatively -- I see it especially for a bunny.

What an awesome character -- a spunky parallel-world-traveling pirate -- and a pretty name!

Felix would be short for felix felicis, the liquid luck potion. It's kind of like a much cleverer way of naming a pet Lucky! (And it has the added bonus of being the name of one of my fave TV characters, Felix from "Orphan Black.")

(Finn for short.) Oh, Finnick. Swoon! And Finn is a nice, short dog or cat name.

I love both the name of the illustrator and the main character. I see Alana as more of a cat name, but Fiona would be an all-around lovely name.

This is kind of a mouthful for a pet, so if it was for a cat or a dog I'd probably go with Izzy or Iz for short. When I was reading the trilogy, I kept thinking what a gorgeous name this is. (Ysabeau is a vampire, by the way.)

These names are a little out there for a dog, but I could see a cat named Darrow. The pair of names would be good for two rodents or reptiles.

Glory has a lot of meanings, but the first thing it makes me think of is morning glories, and then Old Glory. It'd be a beautiful name for any kind of animal from horse to hamster.

Tanzie is an adorable kid in this fun, light-hearted read. I see it as a name for a cheerful, energetic dog.

This one's a slight cheat because I've only seen the TV show ("Grantchester") and not read the book series that inspired it, but I do so love Sidney Chambers, amateur detective and unconventional vicar.

I don't remember much of anything about the book character, but I loooove this name.

Like Tanzie in "One Plus One," Bee is a precocious young girl with spunk, brains and heart, though Bee is a little more of an all-purpose name.

Yes, yes, I know it's not cool to like "Twilight." But I do, and one of my favorite characters is Jasper. (How cute would it be to name two cats Jasper and Ysabeau?! Double vampires!)
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