This Girl's Bookshelf: June 2009 - Book reviews and bookish thoughts

Book length poll

I will be running regular polls regarding your preferences about the books you read, or the books I should review. You can see the current poll in the sidebar to your left. They will close when they reach a certain number of answers; then I will release the results and put up a new poll.

The first poll question is How long do you prefer books to be? Do you like little books you can read in a day or do you prefer long, massive, multi-volume epics? Or perhaps somewhere in between?

Leave your comments on this post after voting, and tell me what you think!


Review: Chocolat, Joanne Harris

Chocolat Chocolate Joanne Harris novel roman cover Johnny Depp film France

Chocolat is one of the rare cases where I watched the movie before getting a chance to read the book. Normally I prefer to read a novel prior to watching the film adaptation, because the book, 9 times out of 10, contains more detail and if just better overall. I watched the film Chocolat before I even knew there was a novel it was based on.

Chocolat is, in a nutshell, about a clever, emancipated, and somewhat magical chocolatier.

Vianne Rocher (sometimes Jeanne, sometimes Anne, sometimes Sylviane) travels across the world with her daughter, Anouk, in the tradition set by her mother. The mother and daughter settle in the quiet town of Lansquenet (for how long, she does not know), opening a chocolate shop and ruffling more than a few feathers. Vianne does not attend church. She asks too many questions. She opens her shop on the first day of Lent, and does not close on Sundays.

The basic plotline has been done before; it's nothing special. The new girl in town shakes up the stuffy townspeople, changing their outlook and breaking through their prejudices! But the relationships in Chocolat are what really shine - and I'm not merely speaking about romantic ones. In fact, the romance which is so prominent on the film's poster - and, consequentially, the cover of my movie edition of the book - barely takes up a chapter in the novel. Instead, the personal platonic relationships between Vianne and the townspeople of Lansquenet make up the majority of the text and are very rewarding. Vianne is clever and calm, always seeming to know the correct path in everyone's life but her own.

The book is set in France, but not to worry - it includes no more than a few words of Kindergarten French (Do you understand the title? Chocolat? You'll do fine.) The only significant piece of French in the book is the following bit of song:

V'là l'bon vent, v'là l'joli vent,
V'là l'bon vent, ma mie m'appelle
V'là l'bon vent, v'là l'joli vent,
V'là l'bon vent, ma mie m'attend.

Which is a Quebecois folk song that translates to:
Here's the good wind, here's the pretty wind,
Here's the good wind, my friend calls me.
Here's the good wind, here's the pretty wind,
Here's the good wind, my friend awaits me.

And here's how it sounds.

Vianne is something of a witch - not in a powerful, magic wands, Harry Potter sort of way, more that she possesses a whole slew of superstitions inherited from her mother. She takes her tarot cards, healing herbs, and magical gestures and puts her own spin on them - such as scrying in melted chocolate. The "magic" in Chocolat is firmly on the sidelines - It's like magical realism, or a fairy tale where a tiny bit of magic exists: wishing on stars, or dreams brought to life, or friendly helping spirits. No one event in the book can be firmly attributed to the supernatural - maybe it's real, maybe not. But if not, how could...?

Chocolat is like a fairy tale in more ways than one - the story is quite timeless. While the film is quite clearly set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, the novel makes precious few references to the period in which it is set. With the exception of a passing mention here or there, of television, or automobiles, it could have been set as easily in the 1800s as the '80s. This is in line with the theme of the Old Ways throughout the book - Vianne coming into town and shaking up the Old Way of Life, Vianne struggling herself to break out of her mother's identity, the Old pagan beliefs against the Church... Vianne's beliefs are both old and new, predating Christianity and being revived in a town that has forgotten any other way of life than their current one. Anouk is the only child in school who does not attend church, asking dangerous questions of the priest who comes in to explain the story of Easter to them.

The tale is not told merely from Vianne's eyes - the chapters are split 50/50, or maybe 66/33, between Vianne and the Curé Reynaud. Interestingly, it is implied that Reynaud's chapters are actually overheard by Vianne, through her chocolate-scrying. The difference in writing is not the only thing differentiating the two speakers: Their chapters are set in two different fonts. Reynaud's text is narrow and bold, with heading in thick script. Vianne's is elegant, thin, and flowery. It is an interesting design choice that helps further separate the voices of the two narrators.

I have enjoyed Chocolat, both the book and the movie. Would my opinion of the film have changed if I had read the book before seeing it? Perhaps. I am going to have to give the film a second viewing now that I've read the book. Currently, I enjoyed both and would recommend either one. Johnny Depp as an Irish Gypsy? Yes please. Even if in the novel Roux is a redhead from Marseille...

"Before Christ - before Adonis was born in Bethlehem or Osiris sacrificed at Easter - the cocoa bean was revered. Magical properties were attributed to it. Its brew was sipped on the steps of sacrificial temples; its ecstasies were fierce and terrible."

Length: 4/10 It's a slim book, and can be read through in less than a week. My copy is 306 pages, but it felt shorter than that.
Grade: 76% Intriguing, with wonderful characters, if a mite too short. The plot is a bit stale and it's nothing truly exceptional, but still very enjoyable.

Help Save Ohio Libraries - Columbus and beyond

Ohio libraries are in trouble. In the next two years, the Columbus Metropolitan Library system will have their funding cut by 50%, according to a proposal by the governor. These funding cuts will result in the closing of branches and ending of programs, not even to mention the ordering of new books.

The library is very important to me and it is likely important for you too. The books, computers, and activities provided by the library are an important part of the community.

See the CML website for more information, including a form to email your legislators and senators to shoot this proposal down.
Save Ohio Libraries

There are six days left: Don't delay!

Books for your Dad

So maybe you've been putting it off. You still haven't gotten your dad something for Father's Day. It's on Sunday! What are you going to do?! Books are one of my favorite things to give as gifts, because they spark conversations and they show that you know what interests the gift recipient.

Think about your dad, and think about what kind of books he would like for Father's Day.

-Science Fiction Is he stressed out? Give the gift of a little fun escapism.

-Sports You can't watch ballgames 24/7. Reading a good sports book is the next best thing.

-History. Is Dad a history buff? Give him some of the greatest stories of the past to relive.

-Thriller. Everyone likes a good page-turner.

-Graphic novels. If your dad's a baby boomer, he probably grew up on superhero comic books. Let him relive some of that nostalgia with some more grownup comics.

-Audiobooks. Audiobooks are great if your dad is a busy person who travels a lot. Long commute? You can listen in the car! Perfect for multitasking.

Good luck with your shopping!


Review: A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby

A Long Way Down British humour novel by Nick Hornby comedy suicide black gallows humor

I love Nick Hornby. I read High Fidelity and About a Boy, and saw the films for each (starring John Cusack and Hugh Grant, respectively), and loved them both. A Long Way Down is one of Hornby's more recent novels, released in 2005.

A Long Way Down is, in a nutshell, about suicide. Or a lack thereof. The story is told from the points of view of four different characters, each of whom seeks to end their life at the beginning of the book. Of course, they don't, or else it would be a rather short book indeed.

The book is long on Hornby's characteristic sharp wit and English phraseology. He tells the events from each character's eyes distinctively, from the demure, homely churchgoing Maureen to the American guitarist-cum-pizzaboy JJ. Not only do the voices of the characters show through in their respective chapters, but subtle changes in the writing itself show how each of the characters acts: for instance, troubled teen Jess never cared to learn how quotations marks are used, so she doesn't use them.

Each character has their own voice that rings true. You could almost believe that Hornby really was an 18-year-old-girl, or a scandalous TV talk show host like Martin Sharp (whose name draws many puns in tabloid headlines). The characters are multidimensional and interesting, and it's intriguing to read on as more and more secrets are revealed about their lives and their pasts.

Unfortunately, the best part of the book is the first scene. The characters meet, a friendship is formed, and then... and then what? The book is divided into three parts, and each part is weaker than the preceding one. And in the end, well, perhaps it is symbolic of life in general, but there is no real satisfactory conclusion to the book. It ends, and perhaps the characters are a little better off than they started, but nothing is really solved. They just live to fight another day.

"Everything has to be wrapped up, with a smile and a tear and a wave. Everyone has learned, found love, seen the error of their ways, discovered the joys of monogamy, or fatherhood, or filial duty, or life itself. In my day, people got shot at the end of films, after learning that life is hollow, dismal, brutish, and short."

Length: 3/10 (1 is Goodnight Moon, 10 is The Lord of the Rings) This took me 4 or 5 days to read through, pulling me in with the rapt attention that Hornby's novels always provoke in me. It's not a very thick book, and you can get through it pretty quickly.
Grade: 84% A Long Way Down starts out fabulous with a great concept and living, breathing characters, but starts losing steam as the story progresses without a satisfying conclusion.


Open to Suggestions, and about my reviews

I have a very large pile of books waiting to be read, but I'm always open to suggestions of books you'd like me to review. Just leave me a comment or drop me an email, and I will add it to my list. If it's already on my list, I'll bump it up a few places. I give the people what they want!

I hope this blog will serve some use to people. I always like to check what other people think before I read a book, to know whether it's worth my time or not. When I find someone with interests and sensibilities similar to mine, I pay attention to what they think because if that person likes a book, chances are that I will too. So if you're like me, and you'll probably find out whether you are or not after reading a few of my reviews, my book reviews will be useful.

Each review post will contain a few common elements:

  • A nutshell summary, a word or a sentence that will explain the bare bones of the story. If you're skimming, skim here first.
  • A basic rundown of the plot and characters.
  • My thoughts on the book, naturally. It's a review, so I'm telling you what I think of it, the good points and the bad.
  • The length: I don't mean just numbers of pages, I mean whether it's a quick weekend read or a month-long drudge. Does it move at a quick pace? Is it a real page-turner? Or is it one of those things that you'll return to every few weeks when you have nothing else to do?
  • And finally, a grade, out of 100.

Some of my interests include linguistics, science, travel, and history. I like literary novels and classics but don't shy away from genre fiction either. I love comics but not superheroes. I'm a stereotypical nerd except that I'm a girl, and I don't really play video games. And I'm terrible at math. And I knit. Well, maybe I'm not that stereotypical. But I'm me, anyway. Enjoy my blog.


Welcome to my bookshelf

Welcome to This Girl's Bookshelf, my reading blog. This blog is all about the books I am reading - primarily summer reading. I am a college student, and I get most of my leisure reading done in the summertime months. I try to devour as many books as I can in the summer, because I have precious little time to do so otherwise.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for book reviews, recommendations, and other literary miscellanea. Thanks for stopping by!