Sunday, August 31, 2014

Book Review: The City Of The Beast

 City Of The Beasts, by Isabel Allende

Synopsis: (From the book flap) Fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold has the chance to take the trip of a lifetime. Parting from his family and ill mother, Alexander joins his fearless grandmother, a magazine reporter for International Geographic, on an expedition to the dangerous, remote world of the Amazon. Their mission, along with others on their team—including a celebrated anthropologist, a local guide and his young daughter Nadia, and a doctor—is to document the legendary Yeti of the Amazon known as the Beast.
Under the dense canopy of the jungle, Alexander is amazed to discover much more than he could have imagined about the hidden worlds of the rain forest. Drawing on the strength of the jaguar, the totemic animal Alexander finds within himself, and the eagle, Nadia’s spirit guide, both young people are led by the invisible People of the Mist on a thrilling and unforgettable journey to the ultimate discovery….
In a stunning novel of high adventure, internationally celebrated novelist Isabel Allende leads readers through the intricacies of two personal quests, and on an epic voyage—teeming with magical realism—into the wonder-filled heart of the Amazon
In A Sentence: A very entertaining, thought-provoking children’s novel that you should absolutely read with your kids.
My Thoughts: This one took me about 5 hours collectively to finish. I say collectively because I kept dozing off while reading. I’m not sure if it was because of the writing, or if it was because of the sleep deprivation I’ve been experiencing, but I do confess to falling asleep while reading this book.
That being said, it was still a great book. The premise is an excellent, epic adventure, with a bit of magical realism added in to make it more exciting for the target audience. The characters were fun too. I loved Professor LeBlanc. He was the ultimate joke of an anthropologist, the perfect example of what you shouldn’t do when you’re studying new peoples.
Allende must have done some type of college-level anthropology research before writing this book, because a lot of the things she says, about encountering isolated tribes and how different people perceive each other, strongly remind me of what my professors kept telling me during my cultural anthropology classes: people with a different way of life perceive us the same way we perceive them. Our habits are frequently considered as bizarre, and sometimes as unnatural and dangerous, which is what we also think of their habits. The point is that we shouldn’t judge and condemn a culture because they are different from us; we should instead take the time to learn from them and try to understand them. Preserving an existing people takes a greater priority than trying to change/improve their way of life, because even the best intentions can ultimately destroy an entire culture. I was really impressed that Allende was able put that in a way that even children could understand, and it’s the main reason why I rated this book so highly.
I did have some minor problems with book, however. The writing style seemed a little flat and dry in its simplicity. It might be because of the translation, but nevertheless, it did detract from my full enjoyment of the story. The plot made up for it, however, so I can’t complain too much.
I would definitely recommend this book to kids ages 12-15, since this book has an excellent moral behind it, about being open-minded and feminist. I would also say that the parents should read it too, since they’ll probably enjoy just as much.

Book Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

Finally finished another book!  With work and blogging, I practically don't have time to read anymore!

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
★★★★★ and a ♥
Synopsis: (from the back cover) Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A high school math genius, he’s secretly fascinated with a series of children’s fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory, and real life is disappointing by comparison. When Quentin is unexpectedly admitted to an elite, secret college of magic, it looks like his wildest dreams may have come true. But his newfound powers lead him down a rabbit hole of hedonism and disillusionment, and ultimately to the dark secret behind the story of Fillory. The land of his childhood fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.
In A Sentence: A darkly comic, yet amazing fantasy book, with beautiful writing and a simple, yet intricate plot.
My Thoughts: What do I think of this novel? Hmmm. How shall I put what I’m thinking into words?
First, let me point out that I’ve read this book twice. The first time was to get dazzled by the amazing writing, the second time was to see if it keeps an excellent second impression. And, by the way, it does.
The primary thing that wowed me with this book was the writing style. Writing is part training and part talent. And Lev Grossman has both. Like J.R.R. Tolkien and the other greats, Grossman chooses his words carefully, making each and every one count. And he is very, very good at finding the right words. Nothing is wasted, nothing wanders off on its own tangent, and all is very meticulous and incredibly well done. I can tell you that both times that I read this book, I was struck by the quality of the writing from the very first two sentences: “Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.” Those two phrases set not only the scene, but the tone of the whole novel. What a brilliant beginning! I think it's just as good as “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
That’s another thing too. This book is clearly for fantasy lovers. Magical references and parallels to famous fantasy novels appear everywhere throughout the book, from little things like mentioning riding on thestrals, to big things, like how Brakebills resembles Hogwarts, and how Fillory resembles Narnia. Only readers who have a long-standing relationship with fantasy could really appreciate what this book has and does.
But the book isn’t some light-hearted children’s novel. Oh no, it is not. I once heard it mentioned that this story is like Harry Potter but for adults. I suppose that’s true, in a sense, but there’s more to it than that. The Magicians takes popular stories, such as Harry Potter and The Chronicles Of Narnia, and twists them into darker parodies. There are no heroes or archetypes, just flawed characters with neither good nor bad qualities. The magic isn’t as wondrous as you would think it to be; instead, it is incredibly complex and discouraging. And the schools and magical worlds aren’t as extraordinary as we would like them to be, they are simply places that are painfully much more realistic than what we daydream about.
Does that deter you? I know that it did for many others. But I think with this novel, Grossman simply introduces us to an alternative idea of what magic could be like, where nothing is easy, and where there are no clear and obvious solutions. But it is still something incredible to read about.
I’ve given you fair warning about what to expect in the plot, but I should also warn you about the pace of the plot itself. Like I said before, the writing in this novel is excellent. The plot is simple and also moves along at a reasonable pace, but somehow these two combined qualities have made for a rather dense read. And I’m not saying this in a bad way. It’s just that this book has a lot going on with each page, so you can’t simply breeze right through it like you would with some fantasies. Instead, you need to sit still and absorb it all. The first time I read this, it took me about two weeks to read and that was during Christmas vacation when I had a lot of time on my hands. The second time I read this, it took me an entire month. There’s just a lot of amazing writing and storyline to process. It isn’t mindless drivel where you say “oh, well, that was interesting.” No, this is a novel that puts your mind to work, and forces you to reconsider what magic could be all about.
I know a lot of people didn’t fully understand this novel, and still more just didn’t like it, but I would still recommend it. The writing alone is very good, and the plot and premise is even better. It's a book that makes you think and reconsider the fantasy stories you've read before. I am definitely among those people who would tell you that if you like fantasy, then you should read this. It’s dense and darkly comical, but it’s excellent. Happy reading!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Blog Hop Feature&Follow Friday!

It's F&F Friday everyone!

Feature and Follow Friday is hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read.  The goal is to increase blog followers and to find new blogs to follow!  I follow you, you follow me!
Still confused? click here for more details!

This weeks F&F question: Tell us about a book character you'd trade places with!

My answer: Ginny Weasley.  I know that it seems I'm really Harry Potter-obsessed (I kinda am) but Harry Potter's world is awesome!  And Ginny is pretty, smart, plays Quidditch, and kicks butt.  Who wouldn't want to be her?!

Thursday's Favorites Spotlight: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud

This was supposed to be posted yesterday, but I was so exhausted that I couldn't spend as much time on writing this as I would have liked.  Fortunately, I'm now on vacation, so I have more time to read and post!

So, it's time to talk about another favorite of mine.  Today I want to talk about The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud.

The Bartimaeus Series
By Jonathan Stroud

# Of Books: 4 (1 trilogy + 1 prequel)
Genre: Children/YA Fantasy
Words To Describe This Book: clever, funny, sardonic, action-packed
It's funny how our memory works.  You can remember why you picked up a book when you were a child, but as an adult, you can't recall for the life of you why you decided to read a certain book.  I can remember the first book I was ever able to read (Are You My Mother? by Dr. Seuss), but I have absolutely no clue why I decided to try out this series 3 years ago.  I know it has something to do with the fact that it was on audiobook, since back then I listened to a lot of my books while I was commuting to work. It also has something to do with the fact that this is a fantasy series.  But I have no clear memory of where I had first heard of these books.  Was I just perusing the shelves at the library, or did someone recommend this to me?  I have no idea.

What I do remember is that I loved this series from the moment I started it back in June of 2011.  

The first book, The Amulet Of Samarkand, was very entertaining.  Essentially, the premise is an alternate, fantastical reality, where magicians are the ruling class.  They are very corrupt, using their magic for political power and monetary gain.
In this world, magicians aren't capable of manipulating magic by themselves.  Instead, they get their power by summoning magical beings, and enslaving them to do their bidding.  These beings vary in rank and power, from low-level imps to mighty marids, and all are unique, both in personality and magical abilities.  

The story is partially told from the point of view of a 5,000-year-old, mid-level djinni named Bartimaeus.  He is clever, with a sardonic sense of humor.  He hates magicians and looks down on them with contempt.  But he also has a conscience.  In general, he is an extremely entertaining and loveable character.

The other point of view follows the young magician who summoned Bartimaeus, a boy whose chosen name is John Mandrake, but whose true name is Nathaniel.  He's bright, but young, and dead set on revenge against another magician for publicly humiliating him.  He, too, has a bit of a conscience, but he is also ambitious and susceptible to the attractions of power and prestige.

I can't go into more detail without revealing too much, but the rest of the book is action-packed and lots of fun.  There are no slow spots, you can be sure of that.

The writing style is also very well done. Jonathan Stroud has a talent for keeping things light and comic, and he does an excellent job of describing scenes without going overboard.  He's also great at building up a jobke and then delivering the punchline in a scenario, so much so that I kept laughing aloud as I listened-- the images he created were just too funny.
Want to understand what I'm talking about?  Here's an excerpt that provides a good example of Jonathan's style and the overall tone of the first novel.  It's told from the point of view of the djinni Bartimaeus, and in this part of the story, he's capturing a mail-carrying imp in order to gain more information:

When we were in a remote enough area, I made the change from pigeon to gargoyle; then I swooped down upon the unlucky imp, and bundled us to earth among some scrubby trees.  This done, I held him by a foot and gave him a decent shaking.
"Leggo!" he squealed, flailing back and forth with his four clawed paws. "I'll have you!  I'll cut you to ribbons, I will!"
"Will you, my lad?" I dragged him into a thicket and fixed him nicely under a small boulder.  Only his snout and paws protruded.
"Right," I said, sitting myself cross-legged on top of the stone and plucking the envelope from a paw.  "First I'm going to read these, then we can talk.  You can tell me what and all you know about Simon Lovelace."
Affecting not to notice the frankly shocking curses that sounded up from below, I considered the envelopes.  They were very different.  One was plain and completely blank: it bore no name or mark and had been sealed with a small blob of red wax.  The other was more showy, made of soft yellowish vellum, its seal had been pressed with the shape of the magician's monogram, SL.  It was addressed to someone named R. Devereaux, Esq.
"First question," I said. "Who's R. Devereaux?"
The imp's voice was muffled but insolent.  "You're kidding!  You don't know who Rupert Devereaux is?  You stupid or something?"
"A small piece of advice," I said.  "Generally speaking, it isn't wise to be rude to someone bigger than you, especially when they've just trapped you under a boulder."
"You can stick your advice up--"

************(These polite  asterisks replace a short, censored episode characterized by bad language and some sadly necessary violence.  When we pick up the story again, everything is as before, except that I am perspiring slightly and the contrite imp is the model of cooperation.)

"I'll ask again.  Who' Rupert Devereaux?"
"He's the British Prime Minister, O Most Bounteous And Merciful One."
Funny, right? The whole book is like this, with lots of action, and lots of humor in between.
Listening to this on audiobook was especially good.  Simon Jones is an excellent narrator, and he acted out Bartimaeus' sardonic voice perfectly.  He was even able to narrate the footnotes that are peppered throughout the printed version of book, without losing the overall flow of the story.

After I read the first one, I immediately sought out the next two installments in the trilogy, which get a little darker and more serious than the first, but still manage to keep the comedy. The plot continues to get better and better, and the overall trilogy concludes in a satisfactory way.  I really don't have anything bad to say about any of these books, although I will say that my favorite book is the first one by far, mainly because it's the most comedic of the three.

The trilogy isn't the only Bartimaeus book out there.  There's also a prequel,  which takes place hundreds of years before the events involving Nathaniel and Kitty, and in a different part of the world as well.  It was a fun book, and it was great to read about some of the adventures Bartimaeus mentioned in the other novels, but it didn't surpass the trilogy in terms of either humor or plot.  It was just another Bartimaeus adventure, really, but it was worth it. 

Overall, this series is fun, highly amusing, occasionally dark/serious, and very creative and well-written.  The pace is reasonably quick and action-packed, but it's not so fast that you miss important details.  And to top it off, there are characters you can love and sympathize with.  Basically these stories have everything you could possibly want in a good, entertaining book.  

While this trilogy is technically considered a children's book, I would say this is a highly enjoyable read for teens and adults alike.  I would recommend it to just about anyone who loves to read about magic.  I would also recommend listening to the audiobooks.  Like I said, Simon Jones did an excellent job narrating the story.

That's all I have to say about it for now!  Happy reading everyone!

-Lisa The Dancing Bookworm

For More Book Details, click on the links below:
Shelfari Book Details
Goodreads Book Details
Author's Website

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tuesday's Opinions: F2F vs. Online Book Groups

It's Tuesday!  And this week's topic: Book groups.

Two years ago, I began to crave the company of other book lovers.  None of my friends and family are avid readers; if they do read a book, it's not normally something I would read.  So I wanted to go join some book clubs, and have intelligent conversations with other like-minded individuals.
I'm sure fellow bibliophiles have felt the same way at some point in their lives.  We feel like we are surrounded by people who don't appreciate books nearly as much as we do, and we need to embark on a quest to find others with whom we can relate.

But the question is: should you look for online book groups, or physical groups?

When I first went in search of book clubs to join, the first thing I looked for were Face-to-face (F2F) book groups at nearby libraries.  Unfortunately, my job usually keeps me busy at night, which is when all the groups nearby seemed to take place.  But I kept looking, and I finally found a sci-fi/fantasy book club that would meet once a month.  I figured, well I like fantasy, so why not?  I dutifully read the book of the month (BOTM), and I attended the club meeting at a nearby Barnes&Noble.

As it turned out, it was definitely not the group for me.  I made two more attempts to like this group, but after the third meeting I attended, it was pretty clear that I had struck out.  There were a few warning flags from the very beginning that told me that this group wasn't the right fit.  For one thing, they all liked the book that was chosen; I was the only who hated it, so clearly there was a bit of a difference in preference.  For another, there wasn't much discussion on the book, beyond a simple "I liked it" or "I didn't like it".  I had been hoping for a more detailed discussion (the book had a lot of potential for a good critical debate), but it seemed like there was only one other person wanted to go more in depth with the conversation, and we couldn't get a good conversation going.  Everyone else was more interested in trying out this board game that the group leader brought in, which involved creating the most outrageous and inappropriate scenarios you could possibly make.  An entertaining game for a party with close friends, maybe, but kind of inappropriate for a group of adults in a public place.  I mean, I'm not a huge snob or anything, but this group felt a little crass to me.  Sure they were friendly, but they spoke a little too loudly for a bookstore cafe, and they swore without considering the families who were nearby.  At one point our group was requested to quiet down (I think they were actually threatening to kick us out), but that only made some of the members defensive, and unwilling to cooperate.  I mean, I was one of the youngest people in the gathering, but the majority of them acted like they were still freshmen in college.  Their behavior sort of rubbed me the wrong way; I don't want to get kicked out of Barnes &Noble, I just want to talk about books!

For my first ever F2F book club, this was a huge disappointment; it subsequently discouraged me from looking for other groups because I felt I wouldn't be able to fit in with the other members.  So I went searching for an online connection instead.
It didn't take long for me to discover Shelfari, a wonderful, amazing site where I could keep an online bookshelf, and join online book discussion groups.  And these groups actually discussed books!  There were monthly BOTMs with discussion questions, and reading challenges that were fun to participate in.  I was in love.  It was perfect.  It was exactly what I wanted.  I've been exclusively online ever since, eventually expanding my experience into Goodreads as well as Shelfari.

There's one little problem, though; I'm still sort of lonely.  I've never actually met my online friends.  Our conversations are through messages only, and while these dialogues are always fun, the online connection creates a huge distance between people, making online groups a fun, but still lonely experience.  Lately I've been craving a human connection in addition to the relationships I've made in cyberspace, so I've starting looking for F2F groups again.  And I've actually found a few library meetups that I can try without any interference from my irregular schedule. 

So, what's the answer to my question?  F2F or online?  My answer is: it's up to you.  Some people prefer the anonymity of online groups, while others prefer the human connections you make in an F2F group.  An online group can fit your needs easily, including a busy schedule, but you lack human contact, something we all need at a basic level.  A F2F group can provide that contact, but a good group is hard to find; you'll be lucky if you find one that not only fits your personality and preferences, but your schedule as well.
So really it all depends. 

For me, I want both.  I love my online groups, but I really want to be able to talk face-to-face with a fellow reader, so a physical group in addition to my online ones would be amazing.  I have no clue what to expect at the upcoming group meetings I plan to attend (there are 3 of them), but I sincerely hope that I may find what I am looking for.

What do you guys think?  Do you prefer F2F or online?

Saturday, August 23, 2014

This week in review

Where did August go?!!!  Summer seems to have flown right by.  Kids are grudgingly going back to school, the sun is setting sooner, and I have completely failed in my book goal of 15 books this month.  The month isn't over yet, but there's no way I'm going to be able to finish reading the other 11 books by the 31st.

This week, like all the others, I only finished one book: Children Of The Storm, by Elizabeth Peters.

For my book review, click here.
For book details, click here.

I'm now reading the next installment of the Amelia Peabody series, and I'm going to try and finish The Magicians tonight!  There are two other books I need to try and read as well: City Of The Beasts and Thunder Rides A Black Horse.

Books I'm Currently Reading:

For Book Details, Click Here.


For Book Details, Click Here.

Books I'm Going To Read Next:

This one is for a summer reading challenge that ends on the 31st.
For a link to the challenge, click here.

For Book Details, Click Here.

This is for the same summer challenge as above.  I need to read a book with photographs in it by the 25th, and this is the shortest one I have on hand.  I read this for an anthropology class back in college and really like it.
For Book Details, Click Here.

So why am I so slow on my reading?  Simple.  I was too busy with ballroom dancing.  I'm creating a new blog/website for ballroom dancers so they can have easier access to dance classes, workshops, and social events.  The problem is, there's a lot of information to process and post, so I'm constantly trying to organize and write stuff down.  The plan is to launch the site in September, so I'm hard at work!

Well, here's to hoping that I can finish at least 5 more books before August is out!
-Lisa The Dancing Bookworm

Friday, August 22, 2014

Feature & Follow Blog Hop, From Parajunkee

Feature & Follow Friday!  

It's Feature & Follow Friday!  Thanks to Vonnie, I found out about this weekly blog hop hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read.

For the original page, click here!

This weeks question is: What book/series do you think would make a better TV show than a movie?

My answer: Harry Potter.  I loved the movies, but I feel that they had to change and remove a lot to make the story fit.  So perhaps a TV series would be able to stick even more closely to the book.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: Children Of The Storm (Amelia Peabody #15), by Elizabeth Peters

It's getting hard to post everything at the end of the week, so I'll post reviews as I go along.

by Elizabeth Peters
★★★★ and a for the series as a whole.
Synopsis: At last the Great War is over. Amelia, her distinguished Egyptologist husband Emerson and their extended family are preparing for another season of excavation in Egypt. To everyone's great joy their son Ramses and his wife Nefret have become parents. Amelia, enjoying her role of fond (yet firm) grandmother, hopes that for once, this will be a quiet year with Ramses no longer undertaking perilous missions for British intelligence and no old enemies on their trail.
Amelia is sadly mistaken. Past dangers cast shadows across the seemingly peaceful present, and a new adversary - unlike any Amelia has ever encountered - will chart a course that puts her beloved family directly in the path of destruction.
In A Sentence: Yet another decent novel from one of my favorite series, but I’m looking forward to the end.
My Thoughts: I confess that while I really love this series, I’ve reached the point where I’m getting tired of the books.  The last 3 or 4 novels are really not Elizabeth Peter’s best works.  The story, while a little different from the first few, is a bit more tedious than the previous ones.  Either it’s because I’ve been reading the stories back-to-back, or it’s because the book isn’t as amazing as her earlier works.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this book.  Like all the other stories, this mystery had elements of excitement, humor, and intrigue.  There is a bit of a plot twist that I hadn’t anticipated when I first read this novel several years ago, and the action is fairly fast-paced, but after having read over a dozen books before this one, all with the action, humor, and mystery, I’m exhausted and I’m ready to move on.  But I’m determined to finish the series, and there are only 3 books left, one of which I haven’t read yet.  So moving on and moving forward!  On to the next Amelia Peabody adventure!

Favorite Spotlight- Part II

Time for Favorite Spotlight number two!  And this one is a fun one!

The Graceling Realm Trilogy
By Kristin Cashore

I first read this YA series a few years ago.  I can't remember why I picked it up (I think someone else on Shelfari liked it a lot), but I do remember getting hooked from the very beginning.

This is a YA fantasy series.  There are three books: Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue.  Each book in the series has a strong female protagonist, and all three are linked to each other in some way.  The premise involves two separate lands divided by a large, virtually impassable mountain range.  Each world has magical creatures, or humans with magical abilities.   In the world of the Seven Kingdoms (Books 1 and 3), there are some humans with special abilities or extreme skills, called Gracelings.  Each ability is unique to the individual, and a Graceling is recognized by the fact that their eyes are always two different colors.  When a child is discovered to be a Graceling, they are sent to the King of their respective kingdom as a servant, allowing the King to exploit their abilities for his own use.  In the world of the Dells (Book 2), there are creatures called Monsters, which look like normal animals except for their bright, vibrant coloring.  The larger, more dangerous monster animals crave human flesh, as well as the flesh of other monsters, and they use their beauty and mental control to prey on weak-minded humans.

So what is it about this series that makes it so much fun?  Well, let's see here.  A lot of YA novels that you read about nowadays promote individual strength, particularly in girls.  I am proud to say I am a feminist, and I'm strongly attracted to stories with strong female leads.  If you've read any of the stories I've identified in my favorites, you might have noticed that each of them have either strong women characters, or promote equality, or both.

This trilogy is no exception.  Every protagonist in this series possesses great inner strength, and is capable of standing alone if the need requires it.

In the first installment, Katsa is a Graceling with unmatched fighting abilities.  She is powerful, smart, and fiercely independent.  When the situation calls for it, she is perfectly capable of taking care of herself.

In the second installment (a prequel to Graceling), Fire is a monster human girl with fiery red hair, who has had to learn the hard way to disregard how people think of her, and rely on her own personal strength instead to get through difficult times and gain support from people who matter.

In final installment (takes place after Graceling), Bitterblue is a teenage girl without any special abilities, but she is still very independent, even rebellious.  She also has to work hard to help thousands of people heal from a terrible past.

These strong female characters are not the only attractive things about these books.  The plot and premise are extremely creative, and very well executed.  Cashore paid close attention to potential plot holes and the small details in order to make her world seem more real and attractive.  While her fantasy world doesn't necessarily get as specific as those created by master fantasy novelists such as Tolkien or Rothfuss, it is still detailed enough for me to consider it to be well done.

Overall this is a very creative fantasy trilogy.  I really enjoyed every aspect of it and I would strongly recommend it to readers who love YA fiction, particularly those who love stories about strong, independent girls and women. 

For more information on the series, click on the links below:
Details From Shelfari
Details From Goodreads

Enjoy everyone! Happy reading!
-Lisa The Dancing Bookworm

Favorite Spotlight- Part I

Hey y'all!  It's Thursday and time for my favorites spotlight!  Because I missed last week, I'm putting up two Favorites!

So here's Favorite numero uno:

The Madame Karitska Series
By Dorothy Gilman

# of Books: 2
Genre: Mystery, with a psychic twist
Words To Describe These Books: witty, fun, easy, optimistic, intriguing

Dorothy Gilman

There are only two books in this series: The Clairvoyant Countess and Kaleidoscope.  But that doesn't stop the books from being really good.

I first read The Clairvoyant Countess when I was a kid, back when I was on a mystery kick.  Dorothy Gilman is best known for her Mrs. Pollifax series, which I loved, but because my library didn't have all of the books in the series, so I started reading the other books Dorothy Gilman published, including The Clairvoyant Countess.
I loved this book right off the bat.  Let me set the scene for you: Madame Karitska is a psychic who specializes in psychometry (the ability to read a person's history and moods through the vibrations of a personal object).  She is eccentric, witty, and full of optimism.  She's the kind of no-nonsense heroine you want to get to know better.
The story begins with her settling in a new apartment and doing readings.  By doing so, however, she finds herself taking part in the investigation of a young murdered woman, and meets the skeptical Detective-Lieutenant Pruden.
Each chapter introduces a new and unusual mystery that Madame Karitska is asked by Lieutenant Pruden to help solve.  But the mysteries do not each stand completely alone; they are all linked together in some small way, either by a character, or by some small thing that was mentioned in a previous chapter.  But every mystery is solved thanks to the amazing Madame Karitska!
This book is an understated gem.  It is one of those light, quick reads that leave you feeling good in the end.  There is a tiny bit of a hippie vibe in the story (this book was published in 1975), but it somehow adds to the novel without being too out there.

The sequel Kaleidoscope was released 27 years later (talk about a late sequel!), and is supposed to take place a year after the first book, but the culture of the new millenium is very clear in this book, and clashes a little with the 70s attitude of the previous novel.  This doesn't mean that the sequel is a failure, however.  Kaleidoscope stays true to The Clairvoyant Countess' legacy, and maintains the mystery and fun of the previous story.
I love these books!  Every year or so I pick up the stories and reread them for the fun of it.  In fact, writing this review is making me want to read the books again!

These books have never received a whole lot of attention, especially now in this day and age, but I think they are worth a trip to the library to take a look.  If mystery or paranormal stories are your thing, or if you like something light and quick, or if you are a fan of the Mrs. Pollifax series, you would enjoy these two books.

For more information on The Clairvoyant Countess, click on the links below:
Book Details On Shelfari
Book Details On Goodreads

For more information on Kaleidoscope, click on the links below:
Book Details On Shelfari
Book Details On Goodreads

Happy reading everyone!
-Lisa The Dancing Bookworm

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tuesday's Opinion: The Benefits Of Dance Shoes and How To Buy Them

A dance-themed opinion today!  This week:

 Ballroom Dance Shoes

I often get these two questions when I teach new students:

1) What kind of shoes should I wear?


2) Should I get special dance shoes?

Dancing, like any other physical activity, requires certain equipment to keep you comfortable for extended periods of time.  With the clothing, there's nothing to worry about: you simply wear something practical that you easily move around in, be it casual or fancy.

But when it comes to shoes, that's a completely different story.

To beginner dancers, I tell them not to worry about buying new shoes; there's really no need for dance shoes when all you're doing are the basics.  Just wear something you already have at home. 
Sneakers and dress shoes work pretty well
The best non-dance shoes to wear is something light and comfortable that won't easily slip off the foot.  Ideally you'd want something with a smooth and slippery bottom.  Dress shoes work really well, and so do sneakers, although sneakers tend to grip the floor a little too much, which can making turning difficult.

Avoid clunky shoes and flip flops!
Avoid heavy boots or anything with a rubber sole that can leave black marks on the floor. And especially avoid flip flops or clunky shoes.  I cringe every time I see flip flops on the dance floor; they mean difficult and clumsy dancing ahead with that person.  I remember a dancer coming in to our intermediate class once a few years back, wearing wooden thong sandals, with a thick and heavy 2-inch heel.  Pretty sandals, but man!  We were dancing cha cha, which involves lots of steps, and you could hear those clunky sandals for the entire lesson.  CLUNK! CLUNK-CLUNK-CLUNK! CLUNK-CLUNK!  What was worse, the shoes were inhibiting her ability to dance, so the timing of her clunking was completely off, and her steps were clumsy and slow.  She might have done all right if she had taken those shoes off, but she ended up having an unnecessarily difficult time instead.  Let this story be a word of warning to all dancers: Wear... Appropriate....Shoes!

With that being said, what's the big deal about dance shoes?  Well!

Technique is crucial the more advanced you get
In the beginning dance shoes aren't necessary: you're too focused on learning the basic moves to concentrate on technique.  But the more advanced you get, the more important technique becomes.  And when I say technique, I mean that you must become more comfortable with keeping your weight forward on the ball of your feet.  You use the ball for turning and for balance; your steps will not feel good or even look good if you don't rely on that part of your foot.

You need to be able to point your toe
Good technique also involves the ability flex and point your toes, and maintaining
constant contact with the floor in some way shape or form, be it a slight brush with your toe, or a full step that takes your weight.

All this technique is virtually impossible to do in a regular shoe.  Regular shoes have thick, inflexible soles that are frequently meant to grip the floor.  They are made for walking, or for appearances, but certainly not for dancing.
Dance shoes are built specifically for dancing.  They are meant to endure constant, prolonged movement.  They are flexible, with thin suede soles that allow for ease of turns and the ability to feel contact with the floor.  By wearing dance shoes, you can not only apply good technique to your steps, but you also are more aware of how well you're applying your footwork, therefore allowing you to advance and improve your dancing.

Never had to resort to this!
Have I mentioned yet that dance shoes are comfortable?  They're built for endurance as well as flexibility, so you're able to dance the night away!  You can even last a while in 3-inch heels!  Because of their comfort, I've gotten into the habit of wearing dance shoes at weddings; as a result I am usually the last women still wearing her heels at the end of the night.

So, to answer the two questions I wrote at the beginning of this article, yes, you should get dance shoes, but only if you're starting to go beyond the basics and are interested in improving your dancing.  If you're only just starting you shouldn't worry about it, but instead wear comfortable shoes that aren't heavy, grippy, or clunky.

Now, once it's been decided that my students are going to get dance shoes, I frequently get this follow-up question: what kind of dance shoes should you get and where can you get them?  So here's a little extra info for you to help you find the right pair for you:

Kinds Of Shoes:
shoes that bend like this have no arch support
First off, make sure it's ballroom dance shoe.  There are some ballet and jazz shoes out
there that resemble ballroom shoes, but really aren't.  A ballroom dance shoe is generally made of leather, and contains a steel half-arch that allows you to point your toe without losing your arch support.  Ballet and jazz shoes are split-soled and can fold in half easily,  thus they have no arch support .  Avoid those.
Some people prefer to use dance sneakers for dancing and I admit I'm one of them; they're great for a long night of Swing dancing.  But I don't recommend using them all the time.  Dance sneakers either have too much flexibility (Jazz) or too little (general).  They also tend to be cumbersome for any dance other than swing.

Some people prefer dance sneakers

There are three types of ballroom shoes: Standard, Latin, and Practice. 
Men's standard

Standard is what the guys typically wear; they look like black dress shoes.  For the ladies, standard is a closed toe shoe with a heel that's meant for traveling backwards; they're ideal for the smooth dances, such waltz and foxtrot.

Ladie's Latin

Latin shoes for the ladies are open-toed sandals with a 1- to 3-inch heel.  They're perfect for Latin dances such as Rumba and Salsa, but they also work great for all the other dance styles.  If you're only getting one pair, I would recommend a Latin shoe.

Practice Shoes
For the guys, a Latin shoe means having what's called a Cuban Heel-- a 1.5-inch heel that's only really used in competitions.  I recommend just getting a Standard shoe instead.

Practice shoes don't look or feel any different for the guys, but for a ladies' shoe, it means something with a low heel that kind of resembles a man's standard shoe, but with a more flexible outside.  These shoes are practical and comfortable, and are great for Swing and general dancing.

Brands And What To Look For:
When you go shopping for dance shoes, you are mainly looking for comfort and ease of movement.  A ballroom shoe should feel snug, like a slipper.  The toes should be flush to the edge, and your foot shouldn't slide around inside.  A good rule to follow is to select a shoe that's at least half a shoe size smaller than what you would normally wear.

For a ladies' high-heeled shoe, there should be enough cushion in the front to keep you comfortable.  If you're trying on a shoe and it feels really hard right off the bat, don't get it.  A good high-heeled shoe shouldn't make you feel like you're wearing high heels; it should feel natural.

There are many different shoe brands out there, and you should pick the one you like best.  For myself, there are three brands I like:

1) Very Fine Dance Shoes: This is my go-to brand, and ideal for those who are buying shoes for the first time.  They're cheap for dance shoes ($60-$100), but they're easy to break in, and come in a wide range of options, including customizable options.  They don't last very long, however.  As a teacher I end up destroying them in a matter of months, but for the average dancer they might last for a good couple of years
2) Stephanie Dance Shoes: I've tried this brand about once or twice, and they're pretty decent.  Like Very Fine, they're a cheaper shoe, but they last a tiny bit longer than the other brand.  However, they are also a little more difficult to break in (my pair gave me blisters for a couple of weeks before it became comfortable enough).  But they are decent shoes that are affordable and stay comfortable for hours.
3) Supadance: This is a higher-end brand.  They're more expensive (the cheapest is easily over $100), but they can last for years, even decades.  These shoes were built for competitors, so they can withstand constant abuse.  They are also very comfortable.  My mother, a very experienced dancer, stands by this brand.

Buying A Shoe:
 go to a dance store first
There are two ways to buy a shoe: either online or at a dance supply store.  If it's your first time buying a pair, I would go to a physical store so you can try on different styles, sizes, and brands, with the help of a salesperson who understands what you need.  You will always find a wider range of choices online, however, and frequently at lower prices.  The only problem with purchasing a pair online is that it takes time for the company to deliver it, and you're ordering a shoe without trying it on first, which is always a bit of a gamble.  So when you're purchasing online, make sure you try the shoes on immediately upon delivery, and make sure you try them on soft carpet; carpeting won't scuff the shoes, so if they don't fit well, you can return them and get your money back.

So there you go!  This is quite a lot of information, so I hope it's useful.  If you need more information, or if you need places to purchase some shoes, here are some links:

Places Where I Like Buy Online:
My Favorite Dance Store In Connecticut:

Additional Helpful Websites: