BOOK REVIEW: American Gods – by Neil Gaiman

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Title: American Gods
(American Gods Series #1)
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction, Mythology, Science Fiction
First Published: June 19th 2001
Finished reading: May 26th 2014
Pages: 592
Rating 4,5

“There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.”

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I actually finished this book two days ago, but with the flue eating my brains during the last few days it’s hard to get any words on paper. But I’m going to give it a try… American Gods was recommended to me some time ago, and I’m always glad to find new authors and titles I haven’t heard of previously. And I must say I’m pleasantly surprised with the writing skills of Neil Gaiman. He’s able to both create a fantasy world you get sucked into and still giving us actual facts about different religions, cultures and myths without slowing down the story. Gaiman tries to explain that ‘nobody is really American, or at least not originally’, and that there is no limit to the amount of old and new Gods roaming the vast lands of America. Although he makes it clear through the words of the main character Shadow that it’s a ‘bad land for Gods‘… The story might get confusing sometimes, since it switches between the adventures of a man called Shadow and the stories of the different Gods and cultures that exist in America. But American Gods still is highly enjoyable.

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We start following Shadow when he is about to be released from prison. Instead of going back home to his wife Laura, he is told she died in a car crash together with his good friend (who she was having an affair with). A mysterious man called Wednesday then offers a job to him he cannot refuse, and soon he learns that Wednesday is a whole lot more than just mysterious. He is actually an ancient God called Odin the All-Father. He is on a mission to recrute old Gods for an epic battle between the old and new Gods of the internet and everything wired, and asks Shadow to help him.

They then start a road trip where they encounter all kinds of ancient cultures, myths and Gods from different places around the world people brought with them when they settled down in America. Shadow is forced to start believing, since a lot of strange things seem to happen as he is following Wednesday. His dead wife doesn’t cease to show up various times throughout the story for example, still quite dead and taking up the role as his protector various times. The new gods try to win Shadow to their side, sometimes with brute force. Shadow remains loyal to Wednesday though until the end. Even when he starts seeing the whole truth…

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I know it’s a kinda crappy summary of such a complicated book, but I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. There are a lot of events that change the story and will change the way you read the book, and I don’t want to spoil the fun. The best advice I can give is to just pick up your own copy of American Gods and start reading. If you ask me, it is definitely worth it. It’s an interesting story, well written and you can probably describe it both as a fantasy story and a informative way of learning about the different religions, cultures and myths that exist in throughout America. Definitely recommended!

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BOOK REVIEW: Water For Elephants – by Sara Gruen

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Title: Water For Elephants
Author: Sara Gruen
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
First published: May 26th 2006
Finished reading: May 17th 2014
Pages: 335
Rating 2,5

“There is no question that I am the only thing standing between these animals and the business practices of August and Uncle Al, and what my father would do–what my father would want me to do–is look after them, and I am filled with that absolute and unwavering conviction. No matter what I did last night, I cannot leave these animals. I am their shepherd, their protector.”

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I didn’t exactly know what to expect when I started reading Water For Elephants and I cannot say I liked the novel now that I’ve finished it. Sure, a story set in the 1930s and about the life in a circus sounds interesting enough. Sure, Sara Gruen clearly researched the theme very well and was able to incorporate various circus anecdotes in her story. But in my humble opinion she failed to make the characters, and especially the main characters Jacob and Marlena, believable. The way she describes both young and old Jacob feels forced and unnatural. She uses the various and in my opinion unnecessary sex scenes to try and make Jacob more manly. The problem is that it doesn’t work and the scenes just became plain annoying. The character of Marlena is described with cliches, and it didn’t make me care what happened to her at all (except for the part that included unnecessary violence maybe) In fact, I find most characters rather flat and boring. It’s all about Jacob (the good guy) trying to get the girl (Marlena), who is married to the bad guy (August). It can’t get more cliche than that.

The other fact that annoyed me was the excessive amount of animal cruelty and violence used to describe the situation in the circus. Although I understand the story is set in a different era and things were different back then, I cannot stop to believe that Sara Gruen used an excessive amount of violence. And especially when talking about the way August treats the circus animals….In my opinion the fact that August is cruel and clearly the bad guy becomes also clear without the continual mistreating of both animals and people alike. The overdose of violence just made me very annoyed and didn’t add anything to the story.

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 The story is told by the old Jacob, who is in his nineties and lives in a retirement home. His wife had died some time before and his family seems to have forgotten him… He tries to remember both his wife and his glory days with memories that surfaced after witnessing a circus tent installed close to the retirement home. He travels back to the 1930s, back when he was in his twenties and a time colored by the Depression and the prohibition… After his parents die, young Jacob loses everything and is forced to abandon home and study. (He was close to becoming a vet.) During the night he sees something that turns out to be a real circus train, and he decides to hop on board. It was not easy to get accepted, but an old working man named Camel helped him earn a spot with the circus crew. When they find out he’s almost an official vet, he gets hired to care for the animals. The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth circus owns odd bits and pieces of various circus shows gone broke, and its owner Uncle Al is always looking for something or someone new he can buy from the next circus that collapses. 

Things turn interesting when Uncle Al buys an elephant, Rosie. Seemingly dumb, they later discover that she only responds to Polish and she becomes the star of the show. Jacob in the meantime is deeply in love with Marlena, the showgirl that works with horses and the new elephant. But it’s an impossible love since she is married to the violent August, and to make things worse he is in charge with all the animals. So as a vet, Jacob is forced to work with him. Violence escalates, and one day a disaster happens…

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Like I said before, I had some mayor issues with Water For Elephants. Both the lack of dept and credibility of the characters and the excessive use of violence made me enjoy this novel way less than I thought I would when I started reading. I guess that if you are able to ignore those rather big problems I had, you might enjoy the novel anyway since the storyline itself is quite interesting. Approach with caution…

Reading Challenge 2014 & Past Achievements

When I was organizing my readinglist the other day, I realized it’s been already 16 months and 75 books with a grand total of 30315 pages since I first started this blog. When I started back in November 2012, I had no idea how long It’s All About Books would survive or how much time I would be able to spend reading and writing. Now, 16 months later, I’m still able to write my humble reviews of books I’ve read and without doubt I’m enjoying it. Back then I decided to start publishing mostly just to have a list and reminder for myself of which books I read and what my thoughts were after reading each one of them… But if my thoughts have inspired someone into reading a certain book on the way, I would certainly be a happy camper of course. My goal is to help making people see that books aren’t scary and/or boring, and that those printed words can open a whole new world for you if you let them. Nowadays with all the different social medias, books have fallen behind and aren’t exactly socially acceptable. People in general are reluctant to discuss books in public, which is a shame. Since with all the books available in the world, it’s impossible there won’t be at least one they would enjoy…

About the facts and numbers of this blog: after having read 40 books and a total of 16870 pages last year, I decided that in 2014 I would face a bigger challenge. Inspired by the Reading Challenge at Goodreads, I’m now reading my way to the goal of a total of 70 books in one year. So far, I’ve read 28 books and a total of 10397 pages. There’s a long way to go, but the year is still young and I have various books lined up and waiting for me. According to Goodreads I’m three books ahead on the challenge so I guess at least I’m following the schedule I set for myself. If I’m able to read at least 6 books a month, it would be enough to reach my goal and even have a few extra books to spare. So I guess it’s time to stop talking and pick up the book I’m currently reading… (Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen) But before I leave I would like to say that I’m always looking for new books to add to my to-read list, and I would love any recommendations you might think of. I’m trying to broaden my literary horizon, so I’m open to practically any literary genre…

BOOK REVIEW: Bay Of Secrets – by Rosanna Ley

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Title: Bay Of Secrets
Author: Rosanna Ley
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
First published: April 24th 2013
Finished reading: May 11th 2014
Pages: 519
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“He gripped her wrist and in that second she was so scared that she almost stopped breathing. But she did not back down. She would not back down. She stared right back at him. She knew now exactly what he was.”

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This novel can be found similar to novels of Victoria Hislop like The Return, but Bay Of Secrets still is quite refreshing. I’m not a fan of romance, but since I’m fascinated by recent history and especially by the Spanish Civil War, it was no problem finishing the novel anyway. The story about stolen children, niños robados, in General Franco’s Spain is both intriguing and sad at the same time. Bay Of Secrets has three different storylines, set in different countries and one partly taking place in the past. It makes for a multidimensional novel without complicating it too much to be able to enjoy it. Rosanna Ley is able to slowly connect various storylines, and I must say she was able to surprise me when the truth about one of the main characters Andres came out. It’s an interesting novel and a perfect summer read.

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Rosanna Ley first introduces us to Ruby, an independant journalist living in London who just found out her parents died in a crash. She goes back to her hometown in the countryside to organize her life, but instead she discovers the truth about her parents… She was adopted. Her birth mother Lauren was a free spirit and really young when Ruby was born. Lauren was living in Spain, travelling around in a VW van with her Spanish boyfriend, when her mother died back in England. She went back to England, bringing her baby Ruby with her, and not long after she left her baby with her mothers friend Vivien without explaining. Vivien wasn’t able to have a child herself, and after a while decided to adopt Ruby as her own to protect her. But now the truth finally has come out, and Ruby decides she wants to find her real mother.

We then travel to Barcelona, just after the Spanish Civil War, where we meet Sister Julia. She is a young girl who was forced to become a nun because her family didn’t have enough money to feed them all. She was born curious, and soon finds herself in a complicated situation… She is asked to work in a private clinic with Dr. Lopez, where pregnant and unmarried women get help. Sister Julia is suppost to give spiritual guidance, but soon suspects something illegal is going on… The future mothers are talked into giving up their children so they can be adopted and better cared for. Those who don’t, afterwards loose their baby anyway in mysterious childbirth deaths. Sister Julia suspects something isn’t right, and starts writing down names and dates of both the pregnant women and the adoptive parents. But she doesn’t know who to turn to with the information she uncovered.

The last stop of the journey is Fuerteventura, where we meet Andres. He is the son of a famous painter, but problems with his father take him away from his island and he moves to the countryside of England. He there starts a life for himself and is able to continue his passion for painting there. Andres then meets Ruby and they fall in love… But things become more complicated when their past intertwines, and Ruby’s real mother Lauren seemed to have lived on Fuerteventura AND knew his father. Andres first refuses to go back to his island and is afraid of ghosts of the past. But as Ruby goes anyway, and she meets Sister Julia, Andres finally decides to come back too. And then Fuerteventura has a surprise is waiting for him…

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 Bay Of Secrets is one of those books that combine the perfect summer read with historical facts and information about the Spanish Civil War. We travel to both Spain and Fuerteventura along with the main characters, and although I normally don’t like romance novels, I’m making an exception for this one.

BOOK REVIEW: The Road – by Cormac McCarthy

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Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Science Fiction, Post Apocalyptic, Dystopia
First published: September 26th 2006
Finished reading: May 9th 2014
Pages: 284
Rating 4,5

“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

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I actually confused this book with a different movie (which I detested and apparently don’t remember the name of), so I’m really glad I decided to pick up The Road anyway. Once I started reading, I quickly realized my mistake and recognized it as a whole different movie I saw only a part of and besides a long time ago. But I remember the images were strong and impressive. And so is this book. Although we never get to know where the story is set nor the names of the main characters, Cormac McCarthy is able to make us sympathize with them. The Road is a story about a father and a boy, making there way down south in a post apocalyptic world… A story about determination, survival and the love of a father for his son.

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We follow the father and son on a difficult journey south, where the cold weather, desperation, lack of food and the destruction seen in the post apocalyptic world make it difficult to go on. There is a sense of hopelessness in it all, but nevertheless the father never gives up, and tries to convince his son to do the same. They find all kind of obstacles on their way, and death is never far away… There is hardly any soul left, and most of them are the bad guys. The father wants them to reach the sea, and sees that location as their salvation. But when they finally arrive, he soon finds out he was wrong. That live in the post apocalyptic world is like a neverending circle full of hopelessness… And the only thing that keeps them alive is the bond they share.

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Although I don’t really enjoy the writing style of McCarthy, I cannot deny this is a strong book with a strong story. What made the story worthwhile is the bond between the father and son, and their way of dealing with the situation. Both were born in different worlds, and have accepted the new one in order to survive. An interesting book to read and I will be watching the movie again as well.

BOOK REVIEW: The Appeal – by John Grisham

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Title: The Appeal
Author: John Grisham
Genre: Mystery, Legal Thriller, Crime
First published: January 29th 2008
Finished reading: May 6th 2014
Pages: 484
Rating 2

“The Senator did not know who owned the jet, nor had he ever met Mr. Trudeau, which in most cultures would seem odd since Rudd had taken so much money from the man. But in Washington, money arrives through a myriad of strange and nebulous conduits. Often those taking it have only a vague idea of where it’s coming from; often they have no clue. In most democracies, the transference of so much cash would be considered outright corruption, but in Washington the corruption has been legalized. Senator Rudd didn’t know and didn’t care that he was owned by other people.”

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I usually enjoy books written by John Grisham. Why do I say usually? Because this one disappointed me. Big time. The end just made me want to throw my mobile (e-book) against the wall, which would have been painful (and expensive). I’m not sure what he was thinking, but it looked more like a political statement  than the typical legal thriller. And I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling this way. It’s really a shame since I’m used to Grisham writing solid stories, but now I’m not so certain anymore… I’ll pick up the next book with great caution for sure.

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The story is about a big company situated in Mississippi dumping toxic waste close to a small town’s water supply, and therefore after a few years turning it into a town suffering from cancer, death and undrinkable water. The company tries to hide the evidence and moves its business elsewhere, but they cannot escape justice… Or can they? There is a big line of people wanting to sue the company, the first in line being the poor Jeanette who lost her husband and little boy to cancer. A small law firm owned by the Paytons is taking the case, almost bankrupting them in the process. Surprisingly they win the case, but the enormous 41 million verdict is worth nothing as the company directly appeals.

The owner of the company feels the Mississippi Supreme Court isn’t friendly enough, and he decides to buy a seat in order to save his company. We then see a election race between the supposedly liberal acting Justice and a new conservative and unsuspecting candidate named Ron Fisk. Fisk is being modelled into the perfect candidate, supported by and supplied for by big business. You can say they almost brainwash him into thinking whatever they want, and Fisk doesn’t even suspect anything… After a lot of mud throwing he wins the race, and even a terrible accident insolving his son cannot change the way he feels he has to act… And he does the unthinkable.

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Like I said before, the ending completely ruined The Appeal for me. The story itself wasn’t that bad, although Grisham was too political for my taste in some of the opinions expressed in this novel. All in all this definitely belongs to his best work and I would recommend picking up a different title if you want to read his work; he has plenty of books to choose from.

BOOK REVIEW: A Necessary Evil – by Alex Kava

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Title: A Necessary Evil
(Maggie O’Dell Series #5)
Author: Alex Kava
Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Crime
First published: 2006
Finished reading: May 3rd 2014
Pages: 597
Rating 3,5

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I didn’t realize this was actually the fifth book of a series when I started reading it, but I must say it was ok to read without background information. The story is quite easy to read, with lots of short chapters and the end was a total surprise to me (although I already suspected someone from the ‘inside’). There are two different storylines in the book, but they are easy to follow as they are connected. But the amount of changes between the various characters appearing in different chapters was confusing sometimes, and made me wonder who was talking at some points. Still, A Necessary Evil was enjoyable, although themes like child abuse by priests and priest murders may set you off.

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It all starts when various decapitated heads of women start to show up, and Maggie O’Dell (FBI profiler) is asked to work on the case. While she is still working on that case, she is called to assist another one; various priests have been attacked and murdered, seemingly at random. She is asked to check if the cases of the dead priests are connected, but soon discovers a different connection… And a computer game thrown in the middle.

Maggie is also confronted with various ghosts from the past. First, the priest murders lead her to a reunion with her ex-boyfriend Nick, who is friends with one of the persons involved. But more importantly, Father Michael Keller shows up again. Maggie knows he is the killer of various boys a few years ago, but was never able to catch him and he fled to South America. Now he offers them information about the priest killings in exchange for immunity, and Maggie has to make a difficult decision… She wants to catch the priest killer, but is she willing to set free a monster for it?

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A Necessary Evil is one of those crime thrillers that delivers; easy to read, a high pace and entertaining in general. Maybe it is not that original, but if you like crime thrillers in general, you will probably enjoy reading this one by Alex Kava as well. I will probably check out more of her work in the future…