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    Book Club in a Bag

    Graphic Novel Roundup

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    I occasionally pick up a graphic novel, often memoirs or biographical fiction, and I am rarely disappointed! Here's a brief roundup of some newer releases that I've got my eye on, as well as a few older gems that you might enjoy.

    If you liked Persepolis:

    Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

    It didn't take more than looking at the cover to get this title on my reading list, but a few words from the catalogue's summary just make it sound that much more interesting:

    "A mesmerizing, heartbreaking graphic novel of immigrant life on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of twin sisters whose lives take radically and tragically different paths."

    A friend who's just read it raved about the novel, and the characters that were so real that she read up on the author and the novel to learn about their lives (only to confirm that it's fiction).

     

    Susceptible by Geneviève Castrée

    This latest release by a young Canadian graphic novelist reads like a memoir, intimate and thoughtful.  Read the summary (from our catalogue):

    "Geneviève Castrée has long been beloved for her mini-comics, comics, visual art, and music. There is a unique quality to all of her artistic endeavors: quiet, serene, depressing. Castree's keen eye for detail and her fearless ability to probe the depths of her troubled past make Susceptible a stirring portrait of an artist coming into her own.

    Susceptible is the story of Goglu, a daydreamer growing up in Quebec in the '80s and '90s with a single mother. From a skillful artist comes a moving, beautiful story about families, loss, and growing up. Whether she's discussing nature versus nurture or the story of her birth, Castree imbues her storytelling with a quiet power and a confidence in the strength of imagery."

     

    A slice of life:

    Building Stories by Chris Ware

    This wonderful assortment of pamphlets, mini-comics in paperback form, posters, hardcover graphic novels and other media comes in a big box. Among all the items included in the box, we learn the life stories, woes and preoccupations of the tenants in one apartment building. A truly unique format that enlivens the stories it contains!

     

    Aya: Love in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet

    I can't wait to read this next installment in the series about Aya. Set in Ivory Coast in the 1970s, the tone is light and easy, telling the stories of the daily lives of Aya and her circle of friends, neighbours and acquaintances. If you're new to this series, you should read them in order: start with Aya, then Aya of Yop City, then Aya: the secrets come out.

    From the catalogue summary:

    "Aya: Love in Yop City comprises the final three chapters of the Aya story, episodes never before seen in English. Aya is a lighthearted story about life in the Ivory Coast during the 1970s, a particularly thriving and wealthy time in the country's history. While the stories found in Aya: Love in Yop City maintain their familiar tone, quick pace, and joyfulness, we see Aya and her friends beginning to make serious decisions about their future.

    This second volume of the complete Aya includes unique appendices & recipes, guides to understanding Ivorian slang, street sketches, and concluding remarks from Marguerite Abouet explaining history and social milieu. Inspired by Abouet's childhood, the series has received praise for offering relief from the disaster-struck focus of most stories set in Africa."


    Fantastical fiction:

    Habibi by Craig Thompson

    This epic story reads like a timeless fairy tale, and the sumptuous visuals will mesmerize and enchant you! I've previously posted a review, here, but since I was so taken with the book, I couldn't resist adding it to this list. For me, this easily takes a place in my "must reads."

     

    Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan

    This author is one of my favourites, although my first encounter with his work was The Arrival, a gorgeous, wordless tale of moving to a new land. Tales from Outer Suburbia, on the other side of the "words-versus-pictures" graphic novel continuum, is more like a collection of quirky, illustrated short stories. The stories and illustrations are charming and eccentric, perfect for a rainy afternoon spent in a cozy spot.

    From our catalogue summary:

    "Breathtakingly illustrated and hauntingly written, Tales from Outer Suburbia is by turns hilarious and poignant, perceptive and goofy. Through a series of captivating and sophisticated illustrated stories, Tan explores the precious strangeness of our existence. He gives us a portrait of modern suburban existence filtered through a wickedly Monty Pythonesque lens. Whether it's discovering that the world really does stop at the end of the city's map book, or a family's lesson in tolerance through an alien cultural exchange student, Tan's deft, sweet social satire brings us face-to-face with the humor and absurdity of modern life."

    Royal Doom

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    What did Empress Wang, Anula and Brunhilda have in common?

    Never heard of them?

    Let’s try this: What did Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette and Jane Grey have in common?

    Aha, you got it…

    The first three queens were burned to death; the last three were beheaded. The common denominator for all six of them, and a few more dozens throughout history – their deaths were as premature as they were violent.

    In her book Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, from Cleopatra to Princess Di, Kris Waldherr presents about fifty too-brief lives of queens across the ages, from the ancient times of Athaliah, a biblical queen and the daughter of King Ahad and Queen Jesabel, and Olimpias, Alexander the Great’s mother, through the Dark and Middle ages and Tudor times, when the position of the queen to Henry WIII, as we know, carried a significant risk, to the French Revolution and its famous royal victims, to the doomed queens of our days…

    Some quotes attributed to the above mentioned beheaded queens:

    “A queen who is not regent ought, under these circumstances, to remain passive and prepare to die.” ~Marie Antoinette

    “The executioner shall not have much trouble, for I have a little neck.” ~Anne Boleyn

    “I assure you, the time hath been so odious to me that I long for nothing so much as death.” ~Jane Grey

    Staff Picks: Guilty Pleasures

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    We’ve featured ‘guilty pleasure’ reads before in the Readers’ Nook and with summer approaching, now is the perfect time for another installment! Don't be fooled by the nickname, there's nothing to feel guilty about if you like your fictional escapes light, steamy, and a little bit trashy. We’re so pleased to have another new contributor in the Readers’ Nook today, so read on and start planning your vacation (or staycation) reading list.

    The Power Trip by Jackie Collins

    The Power Trip was one of the best books I have read this year. I waited for its release since reading last year’s Goddess of Vengeance, which I liked but did not feel Ms. Collins was at the top of her game. This review is for all my trailer park friends who, like me, enjoy a bit of trash and a vacation while reading….

    Well, ladies and gents (both terms used loosely as always), it is finally here: the new Jackie Collins came out February 12th. I cannot seem to get one particular review out of my head or think of a better quick description:

    “Jackie Collins has created a quintessential page-turning adventure of sex, money, and murder that feels like taking a trip away from the winter climes and into the absolute glamour of summertime.” (Casee Marie, reviewer, Literary Inklings blog)

    Now really, who in this trailer park wouldn’t want to read it mid-February or anytime of the year, for that matter…

    This was a new setting for Ms. Collins. As always we had many glitzy locations but most of the story takes place on a luxurious yacht in the Sea of Cortez. This is new but most welcome. I discovered I, too, enjoy a wonderful yacht ride. This book does not disappoint with the glitz and Hollywood factor. We meet Interesting Hollywood types such as Cliff Baxter, a ringer for George Clooney, a Russian mobster, a model, a movie star, a footballer, a singer, writer, a senator and his perfect wife, and investigative reporters. If that isn’t quite enough for you, she throws in some Somalian pirates and a Mexican drug and arms dealer. As the glitzy and powerful unite for the maiden voyage, we are privy to the power plays aboard, and those coming to join them. Ending in a struggle: who will live? Who will become a hero? Who will end up with all the power? This is a wonderful mid-steamy read that takes you on a wild high sea adventure. This book does bring some heat but, as I said, mid; don’t worry--its fast-paced adventure keeps you flipping pages.

    Take the phone off the hook, put your feet up and make yourself a Kraft mac and cheese. Pour a large glass of Kool-aid. Plug in the fan and begin the adventure. You may want to lock the double wide’s door as you won’t want anyone popping in to stop your fun. Go ahead and soak those teeth; you won’t be needing them for a few hours….

    Thank you, Jackie, for bringing back the writer we all knew you were…..

    Happy Reading!

    -Kathy

    More guilty pleasures:

    The Explorer's Code by Kitty Pilgrim

    Crystal Gardens by Amanda Quick

    A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare

    Born to Darkness by Suzanne Brockmann

    Low Pressure by Sandra Brown

    Staff Picks: Literary

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    We’re again pleased to have new contributors in the Readers’ Nook to help you find a literary gem! Whether your book club meets throughout the year or takes a break until fall, it’s never the wrong time to find that next great literary read that will lead to interesting discussions in your book club. And if you need more suggestions, have a look at our Book Club Bag collection.

    419 by Will Ferguson

    In the novel 419 four storylines with four main characters make up the story.

    The first has its setting in Calgary when a retired teacher, Henry Curtis, drives his truck off an embankment and dies. It proves to be a suicide and upon further investigation it is learned that he has lost all his life savings to a scammer from Nigeria, thus the title: 419 refers to a section of the Nigerian criminal code that states that anyone who obtains goods or money through false pretenses with intent to defraud will be sentenced to a term of not less than 5 years.

    Laura, the daughter of the deceased, makes it her mission to trace the emails and meet the person she believes is responsible for her father’s death.

    Winston, the scammer, is an educated young Nigerian with few prospects for the future. He spends his time in internet cafes scanning the internet for possible e-mail recipients whom he never expects to meet.

    Amina is the younger wife of a northern cattle herder who escapes to the South to find a better life for herself and her unborn child.

    Nnamdi is the son of a fisherman who sees his village’s way of life being destroyed by oil companies. The water is polluted and the forests clear-cut. He works for a time for oil companies but when this employment ends he finds work in the black market.

    All the characters will come in contact in Lagos with many harsh and surprising consequences.

    This novel gives insight into the techniques of 419ers and why Nigeria is such a dangerous country.

    - Juanita

    The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

    It is never too late to right a wrong! That is what Harold Fry attempts to do when one morning he goes to post a letter and keeps on walking. He is going to walk from one part of England to the other in the hopes to heal a long lost friend who is dying from cancer. He has no equipment, not even proper shoes, and it is completely a spur of the moment decision. He feels that by walking to his friend’s beside, he is atoning for how he mistreated her in the past and for oh so many other regrets.

    Along the way the kindness of strangers impacts him and propels him on this journey. He meets a young woman who gives him hospitality and reveals that she is waiting for her lover to return—a year ago. And a young boy who probably has nowhere else to go, and travels with Harold for a while. Many characters latch on and are affected by Harold. He even becomes a little bit of a celebrity when the BBC gets a hold of his story and they follow him as he gets closer to the end.

    Meanwhile, Harold’s wife, who is wondering what happened to him, is befriended by the widower neighbour. Their 40-year long marriage had become a silent and distant relationship until Harold embarks on his pilgrimage. What is fascinating about this story is that Harold takes this journey to heal someone, to give someone who is dying some hope, and the journey really becomes an amazing healing in his own life.

    - Joanne

    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

    Cutting for Stone is an easy book to read, but not an easy book to describe. For example, how do you summarize a story about conjoined twins, born in Ethiopia, to a nun (who dies) and a British surgeon (who runs away)? The boys are raised by two Indian doctors and have a relatively peaceful childhood, but when political troubles with neighbouring Eritrea erupt, one twin is forced to escape to America.

    And that’s only the first half of the book!

    The story summary may be confusing. To begin with, the plot is set up around the main premise that life is a contradiction of terms. And so, Verghese presents a nun who gives birth, doctors who don’t have verifiable credentials, first-rate medical care in a third-world country. The contradictions are set inside the opening framework of the novel – the idea of conjoinment. The boys, Marion and Shiva, are born attached at the head. They are easily separated in a physical sense, but they stay conjoined emotionally throughout the story in many ways. As the tale progresses, we see all kinds of things (love, politics, medicine, family) that are united at first, but then break apart. If, and when, they come back together, there is always a significant difference.

    The novel’s characters are exceptionally well drawn and balance themselves out in terms of the many themes. Starting with the boys, Marion and Shiva are mirror images of the same person. One embodies emotion, the other, logic. One feels, the other computes. Yet they think of themselves as a single unit and call themselves “ShivaMarion.” This becomes true of the many other parallel ideas that Verghese puts on the page.

    - Alvina

    Staff Picks: Espionage

    by Sonya - 0 Comment(s)

    Welcome to another edition of Staff Picks—we’re excited to have some new contributers in the Readers’ Nook today! Staff picks are always popular; really, who doesn’t like getting a personal reading recommendation? Whether you like your spies fictional or true to life, you can be confident in trying any of these hand-picked books!

    Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre

    This book was recommended by Maylin Scott of Random House of Canada during the “Dewey Divas” presentation for Spring/Summer 2012. The book talk and review for Double Cross was so well done that I had to put my hands on it. An admirer of spy fiction of the likes of Ken Follet’s Eye of the Needle, Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Identity, and Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz, this time round, I chose to pick up this Non Fiction true spy story with permutations of war and the intricately interwoven network of World War II spies, who formed the Double Cross British espionage system.

    Double Cross was an enthralling read, a stunning display of military accomplishment and a masterpiece of trickery. The story is encountered and told from the perspective of the key individuals in the Double Cross System: its director (a brilliant, urbane intelligence officer), a colorful assortment of MI5 handlers (as well as their counterparts in Nazi intelligence), and the five spies who formed the Double Cross’s nucleus. The key to the plan is to deceive and to throw off the Germans and launch an assault at Normandy on June 6th 1944 by convincing them that the impending attack would come either at Pas de Calais or in Norway. The game plan was one of careful manipulation of information on the part of the five double agents, each feeding misinformation back to their German handlers.

    - Kadija

     

    Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

    This Young Adult novel is set during World War II and tells the story of two young women, ‘Verity’ and Maddie. The book begins in the words of 'Verity', a British spy who has been captured in Nazi-occupied France after the plane transporting her crashes. She has decided to give up the details of her mission in the hopes that her captors will grant her lighter torture and a delayed death sentence. As 'Verity' begins to reveal these details, she tells us her story and the story of her friend Maddie, the pilot of the plane that crashed. Her narrative reveals the remarkable friendship formed by two young women in one of the dark periods of the world’s history; it is also a narrative that isn’t always what it seems.

    What particularly struck me about this book were its historical setting—it’s great for anyone who likes historical fiction—its strong, smart writing, and its beautiful depiction of a friendship. It’s a book that would appeal to both teens and adults, but it’s not a book for someone looking for a quick, light read. It’s a book that will make you laugh, gasp, think, and cry.

    - Robyn

     

    More spy/World War II stories:

    The Spymasters by W. E. B. Griffin

    Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva

    The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak

    Off the Shelf: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    A few years ago I cruised along the Rhine-Danube waterway, visiting beautifully restored medieval towns. At the time I said they were probably made prettier for the tourist trade than they had ever been in reality. For a more realistic view, read The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch.

    The fictional town of Schongau smells of dung and slops. Our mild hero, Simon, hates to get his fashionable attire splashed by mud and by what people toss out their upstairs windows. His father became a doctor by roughly attending to wounded soldiers during the Thirty Years War and is proud of sending Simon to be educated as a doctor. Unhappily for Simon, his father distains new-fangled ideas. He particularly hates that Simon consults the Hangman, Jakob.

    Every medieval town needed a hangman, who was socially ostracized and had to live apart from others. (I saw such a home, it was situated outside the town walls, but was nice enough.) Jakob is well versed in both torturing and healing; he is surreptitiously consulted by townspeople and collects expensive, newly published medical books.

    Martha, the midwife, is also sought out for her stock of herbs and potions that treat more complaints than pregnancies. When her practice of giving shelter to orphans is tainted by malevolent shadows, an accusation of murder by witchcraft hurtles her into the town’s dank jail, where the Hangman is called to do his duty – gaining truth through torture.

    However, Jakob is a contrary sort of fellow, and he knows that Martha is wholly innocent. As does Simon. As does Magdalena, the Hangman’s daughter. In Simon’s eyes Magdalena is delectable, with both brains and beauty. Sometimes in concert, and sometimes in conflict, the three problem-solvers seek clues and hypotheses to explain the children's murder to save Martha. Spoiling all their good work is the Devil, a being with a bone hand!

    Judith Umbach

    Conspiracy or... what? (Part II)

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    They were famous, beautiful and they died young: Marilyn Monroe was an iconic actress and the ultimate female sex-symbol of her time, and JFK was a charismatic, handsome US president, known for his thing for beautiful women. They had been in a relationship, and they died within 18 months of each other. Officially, she took a lethal dose of sleeping pills, and he was assassinated by a single gunman, but...

    Head shot: the science behind the JFK assassination by Paul G. Chambers

    After more than four decades and scores of books, documentaries, and films on the subject, what more can be said about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? A great deal, according to physicist and ballistics expert Dr. G. Paul Chambers.

    In this provocative, rigorously researched book, Chambers presents evidence and compelling arguments that will make you rethink the entire sequence of terrible events on that traumatic day in Dallas.

    Drawing on his fifteen years of experience as an experimental physicist for the US Navy, Chambers demonstrates that the commonly accepted view of the assassination is fundamentally flawed from a scientific perspective. The physics behind lone-gunmen theories is not only wrong, says Chambers, but frankly impossible.

    -from NoveList

    11/22/63 by Stephen King

    Like the similarly sprawling Under the Dome (2009), this novel was abandoned by King decades ago before he took another shot, and perhaps that accounts for both novels’ intoxicating, early-King bouquet of ambition and swagger. In this distant cousin to The Dead Zone (1979), Jake Epping is living a normal schoolteacher’s life when a short-order cook named Al introduces him to a time warp hidden in a diner pantry—leading directly to 11:58 a.m., September 9, 1958. Al’s dying of cancer, which means he needs a successor to carry out his grand mission: kill Lee Harvey Oswald so that the 1963 JFK assassination never happens. Jake takes the plunge and finds two things he never expected: true love and the fact that “the obdurate past” doesn’t want to change. The roadblocks King throws into Jake’s path are fairly ingenious—some of them are outright gut-punches—while history buffs will dig the upside-down travelogue of Oswald’s life...

    -from NoveList

    The Third Bullet by Stephen Hunter

    Bob Lee Swagger (Dead Zero) was 17 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but now he has the opportunity to find out what really happened that terrible day in Dallas. Though he's become a cranky old man, he remains a cunning, lethal adversary. When a woman claims that her husband was killed because he was writing a book about JFK, Swagger doesn't believe her. But when someone tries to kill Swagger using the same MO, the chase is on. Swagger investigates and realizes there might have been a second shooter, but who was he and why did he do it? VERDICT A fresh take on JFK's assassination makes for the ultimate thriller, and Hunter writes with great skill. Although maybe a little too meticulous and technical for many, it is still highly recommended for JFK fans, conspiracy theorists, and anybody who likes good writing and an engaging thriller.

    -from NoveList

    Marilyn's last words: her secret tapes and mysterious death by Matthew Smith

    Many prominent figures who investigated Marilyn Monroe’s death believed she was killed, though few went on record. From the forensic evidence suggesting she was drugged, to the massive discrepancies in the official reports, Smith sifts through thousands of documents, interviews and never-before-revealed confidential tapes Monroe made days before her death. Two suspects emerge: Robert and John F. Kennedy, and the CIA. Monroe had affairs with RFK and JFK, and Smith believes those liaisons led to her death… Smith's research is intriguing, but his reasoning specious. If the CIA wanted to implicate the Kennedys in murder, why make it look like suicide?

    -from NoveList

    So, conspiracies or what? You decide...

    Conspiracy or... what?

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    Did Jesus survive crucifixion? What happened to the famous Templar treasure? Did Marilyn Monroe overdose or was she killed? Why did the assassination of JFK provoke such an unprecedented public response that has never stopped challenging the official version of his death expounded in the Report of the Warren Commission?

    As we know, there are some real conspiracies, although, once proven, they might not be called ‘conspiracies’ (e. g. Richard Nixon and the Watergate Scandal). Some others – well, they seem more like gossip on a grand scale.

    Conspiracy theories tend to appear to make sense of things that are otherwise confusing, in a simple, good-against-evil way and they are presented as secret knowledge. Whether you believe in them or not, no one denies they can be entertaining reads…

    Take The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982) for example, the mutual effort of a journalist, a novelist and a TV-writer to unveil one of the oldest (and still ongoing) conspiracies.

    Using their considerable media skills and talents, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln present us with an overwhelming amount of seemingly well-researched historical speculations, manipulating the evidence to fit their theories: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and fathered several children. After the staged crucifixion the young family fled Palestine, ending up near Marseilles. Jesus' descendants founded the Merovingian dynasty, helped to lead several heretic movements, were the gray eminency of a long succession of secret societies, including the Knights Templars, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, and, as Kirkus Reviews points out, "they are well and hard at work today in a shadowy French organization called the Prieuré de Sion--an offshoot of the Templars whose Grand Masters, believe it or not, included Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, and Jean Cocteau..."

    And that is only the beginning. It turns out King Arthur's knights and many others were chasing rainbows, for the holy grail isn't a grail at all, it’s the best kept secret - hence all these secret societies, established with the sole purpose of guarding Jesus’ descendents. According to Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln, the Holy Grail (Sangraal) is Jesus' royal blood (Sang Réal), brought to France in the person of his pregnant wife.

    And of course, the Vatican has known all about it, establishing its own secret orders and societies to keep out of public knowledge that Jesus was a man, a fact that can destroy the very foundations of the Church.

    Two decades later, Dan Brown will use the dubious facts of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail for his equally factually-unconvincing yet wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code.

    Naturally, as soon as The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was published, numerous scholars, Church experts and serious researchers set about pointing out false facts, half truths and convenient conclusions drawn from incorrect premises. The most interesting answer to this galimatias came in the form of a novel that has been, due to its complexity, read and appreciated only by a few: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), a masterful deconstruction of conspiracies, focusing not on the mystery itself but rather on its influence on the development of the protagonists. In a process of transformation from their skeptical to their diabolical selves, three editors, fascinated by an improbable conspiracy theory embracing all of European history, decide to investigate its possibilities, ultimately becoming the victims of their own creation.

    If conspiracies are your cup of tea, then we have a few more suggestions and plenty of books, both fiction and non-fiction, in our collection. You might want to try The Templar Legacy (2007) by Steve Berry (book 1 in the Cotton Malone series).

    The Knights Templar, a small monastic military order formed in the early 1100s to protect travelers to the Holy Land, eventually grew and became wealthy beyond imagination. In 1307, the French king, feeling jealous and greedy, killed off the Templars, and by 1311, the last master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake. The whereabouts of the Templars' treasure--and their secrets--have been the subject of legend ever since. Like Dan Brown, Berry draws on the seminal nonfiction work Holy Blood, Holy Grail for many of his themes….

    -from NoveList

    The Magdalene Legacy: the Jesus and Mary Bloodline Conspiracy (2005) by Laurence Gardner

    A proponent of alternative and controversial religious and historical views, British author/lecturer Gardner continues to espouse the theories he presented in his 1996 UK best seller, Bloodline of the Holy Grail. He joins the ranks of those claiming Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had children whose descendants are living today, including the Royal House of Stewart claimant Michael of Albany…

    -from NoveList

    Next time we'll present a few books related to some modern-day events that sent those prone to seeing conspiracies everywhere into overdrive...

    Fifty Shades of Grey, a bedtime story for adults

    by Jasna - 5 Comment(s)

    If you didn’t like E. L. James’ book, don’t worry, everything’s fine with you. You’re not alone; it happened to many of us…

    If you read it and happened to like it, that’s fine too. In this you are certainly not alone...

    After hearing so many controversial comments about the book that is selling millions of copies, I wanted to form my own opinion re: Fifty Shades.

    The book jacket says: “Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever."

    Hmm, I thought, using – coincidentally – the Fifty Shades heroine’s favourite expression for just about any situation (even when she means Mmmm, as in ‘tastes good’), I love books that are obsessive, possessive and especially those that decide to stay with me until death do us apart.

    So, a few days ago I went to Walmart, bought the whole trilogy, 30% off, sent my kids to bed early and curled into my bed with my newest ‘guilty pleasure’ acquisition, the book that’s not only on everybody’s lips, but on so many bestseller lists as well.

    I won’t say I fell asleep. After 115 pages, and few peeks toward the end of the novel, I put Fifty Shades down, went to my book shelves and pulled out the newest Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novel. Soon, I giggled and laughed, turning page after page of The Great Escape, following the adventures of Lucy Jorik, a smart, funny girl who might not know what she wants, but she surely knows what she doesn’t, especially in a man.

    What went so wrong within these first chapters of this most recent cultural phenomenon that made me abandon it so quickly?

    I randomly picked a few examples (feel free to disagree with me):

    Present tense narrative (historical present): On such short notice, I can recollect only two books where present tense narrative was masterfully used: The Notebook by Agota Kristof (which is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful novels of the twentieth century) and, more recently, April and Oliver, Tess Callahan’s debut novel (2009). Combined with the main character’s inner dialogue and first person narrative, historical present makes Fifty Shades a laborious read.

    The main character: Anastasia Steele is an English Literature student, a young girl described as happiest in her own company, curled up with the English classics, yet her vocabulary is on the level of a high school drop-out and her thoughts are monosyllabic. I personally didn’t bother, but somebody actually counted all those craps, holy craps, hmmms, oh mys, ohs and ahs Anastasia uses page after page, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence. She raises her eyebrows, frowns, grins wickedly, stops breathing, smirks, narrows her eyes and turns red, crimson, scarlet, and puce (!?), flushes and blushes so much that the book could have easily be called “Fifty Shades of Red”… Should I mention a ghost of a smile that doesn’t reach his lips used several times within first few chapters?

    Secondary characters, e. g. her BFF, Kate Kavanagh, who alternatively advises Anna she should keep seeing Christian (“He likes you, Anna!”) and should stop seeing him (“He’s a dangerous man, Anna!). The same pattern repeats several times. Ms. Kavanagh reasons? For you should – Christian is rich; for you shouldn’t – well, he’s a reserved and private person…

    Description of Anna and Christian’s physical appearance or, rather, the lack, of it. I simply can’t visualize them. I know she had problematic hair, blue eyes too big for her face, we know her age and height… I still can’t picture her with any more success than I can put a real, human face on a mannequin in a department store. Same goes for Christian. We have to take Ana’s word that he is oh so handsome. Well, he is, if your idea of masculinity is reduced to long, manicured fingers and grey eyes. I need more. I need Lord John Grey, for example. Those long fingers and smoky eyes do not sing the epitome of male beauty to me, and they’re not nearly enough to make Christian Grey possible and alive in my imagination.

    I doubt anybody had the similar problem picturing Grey’s literary predecessor, Edward Cullen, but throwing Twilight into this article would open another Pandora’s Box, so I’ll leave it for some other time.

    As I continued navigating through the book the next day, I easily recognized another Fifty Shades’ literary ancestor: a 1954 erotic novel Story of O, by French author Pauline Reage. O is a young photographer; Rene is a rich nobleman. He takes her to his castle, where she is, in the name of love, subjected to sexual submission.

    Fifty Shades of Grey is by no means a literary upgrade of its French prototype. Yet, Story of O has stayed where it belongs - in the shady zone of cheap erotica. Fifty Shades turned soft, unconvincing erotica into mainstream fiction.

    My question is: what is so terribly missing from our lives that make us women flock to online and traditional bookstores and Walmarts to buy millions of copies of this book? Reverse feminism? An overdose of gender equality that, aside from all its benefits, somehow took a part out of our femininity? Loneliness? A chance to take a bite of forbidden fruit without risks and guilt associated with unfiltered Internet search and back rooms of specialized magazine stores?

    Or is the Fifty Shades trilogy simply a colossal mix-up followed by a collective hallucination: E. L James actually wrote an erotic parody of Twilight, it somehow got misunderstood for real fiction, E. L. James said, okay, fine with me, and voila…

    The previous cultural phenomenon of this magnitude was Da Vinci Code. Stephpen King called it ‘intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese”, but it was relatively easy to identify some of the major reasons of Da Vinci Code’s global success in controversies surrounding the Catholic Church, and our undeniable attraction to conspiracy theories.

    Is it possible to explain popularity of E. L. James’ books with our dark curiosity when it comes to sexual taboos and pseudo-taboos?

    Being a linguist, a former literary fiction editor and an eclectic reader doesn’t qualify me to even guess the answers, although I would love to know them.

    Maybe Ana Steele will find them for me, before the end of her love affair with Christian Grey.

    In meantime, if you like erotic fiction, here are plenty of novels and authors in our collection you might enjoy reading (This time, I not even going to hit you with the classics such as Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov.)

    Luisa Burton and her Hidden Grotto novels (In the Garden of Sins; Bound in Moolight, Whispers of the Flesh and House of Dark Delights)

    Jaci Burton (Riding Temptation; The Perfect Play)

    Lora Leigh (pretty much everything she wrote; for extra-hot, try Dangerous Pleasure from her "Bound Hearts series)

    Robin Schone (Scandalous Lovers, Private Places, Cry for Passion).

    Back to the beginning of the article, if you want a book that will indeed stay with you forever, find Ana, Sorror, a novella about passionate love between brother and sister (erotica plus a taboo plus first-rate literature), or Memoirs of Hadrian, both by Marguerite Yourcenar.

    If you feel you need a quick antidote of pure art, read Shandor Marai’s Embers. This one is a good candidate to stay for you forever.

    J. F.

    P.S. I won’t say there's absolutely nothing I liked about Fifty Shades of Grey. I like the title and I think the cover's cool. There is also something touchingly honest and naïve in Fifty Shades that I have hard time to explain. I’m quite sure the author didn’t have profit in mind when she wrote it. It seems that she simply wanted to share her story with us, for better or worse.

    P.P. S. As I mention, this article is based on Volume One, and doesn’t talk about the rest of the trilogy. If I find reasons to change my opinion down the road, I’ll let you know.

    The Story of Jesus

    by Jasna - 0 Comment(s)

    In celebration of the Easter season, we've put together a list of timely fiction reads about biblical times and figures. A wealth of authors have used the bible as inspiration for works from various perspectives. Happy Easter, and happy reading!

    The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

    Acclaimed Irish novelist submits a novelization of the later years of a figure less historical than symbolic that is readable in one sitting, which brings its brilliance into even finer focus. Mary, the mother of Jesus, sits in uncooperative silence in the ancient biblical town of Ephesus as she is hounded by her son’s apostles, who are desperate for memories she can share with them to aid in their intention to write about Jesus’ life (in what will become the four Gospels of the New Testament). Mary insists that she remembers nothing. The truth is, she is flooded by memories, and with great articulation and introspection, she supplies us with a first-person narrative that will surprise and fascinate readers used to a more traditionally kind and gentle Virgin Mary.

    The Liar's Gospel by Naomi Alderman (Forthcoming)

    An award-winning author describes the life of Jesus Christ as told by the four people who were closest to him before his death: his mother, his friend Iehuda, the High Priest of the Temple and a rebel named Bar-Avo.

    The Secret Supper by Javier Sierra

    Set in Italy in 1497, the story is related by Father Agostino Leyre, an inquisitor for the Holy See. Anonymous messages arriving in Rome suggest that something suspicious is going on in Milan, where Leonard da Vinci is finishing The Last Supper. When Leyre arrives in Milan, he is shocked to find blasphemous messages embedded in the artwork: Simon Peter is holding a knife; there's no Eucharist; none of the apostles has a halo. Clearly, Leonardo is incorporating a message into his masterpiece, but what is it? Using various points of view, McCarry dispenses information slowly, and the excitement comes in fits and starts. The primary problems are the lengthy cast of characters and the extensive religious background--especially regarding the Cathar heresy--necessary to understand the story's subtleties. Still, the appetite for religious thrillers continues unabated, and this formidable offering will satisfy more-erudite readers not overly concerned with fast pacing.

    Ben Hur by Lew Wallace

    Judah Ben-Hur faces a life in the galleys after being falsely accused of trying to assassinate the governor of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

    John's Story: the last eyewitness by Tim LaHaye

    (Jesus Chronicles, book 1; see also: Mark's Story: the Gospel according to Peter, Luke's story and Matthew's Story: from sinner to saint)

    Ninety-year-old John, the last surviving apostle, remembers his broken life before befriending Jesus and is called upon to write a gospel that definitively establishes Jesus as the Son of God.

    Memoirs of Pontius Pilate by James R. Mills

    Ten years after the Crucifixion, history tells us, Pontius Pilate was accused of murder and found guilty by the emperor Caligula. What happened after that is less certain, but Mills has Pilate living out his final days in a relatively comfortable exile. Widowed and lonely, Pilate researches and writes The Memoirs of Pontius Pilate, quite effectively laying out the dilemmas of a Roman provincial ruler dealing with political strife and internecine battles among the Jews, but also offering an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Mills is rigorous about staying inside Pilate's head as he relates a feisty, entertaining fifth gospel that is a kind of commentary on the other four.

    Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George

    Born to a well-to-do, religiously strict Jewish family, Mary is a seeker of knowledge. At seven, she finds an idol, and by keeping it, she opens herself to demonic possession. By the time she is married and a mother, she is so tortured by her demons that she flees to the wilderness, where she finds Jesus, who cures her. Mary becomes his disciple, but a married women traveling in a company of men is so shocking that her husband abandons her and her daughter is lost to her for the rest of her life--the sacrifice she must make to be among the kingdom of believers.

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