My Favorite Reads – The Mists of Avalon

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

From Amazon: Even readers who don’t normally enjoy Arthurian legends will love this version, a retelling from the point of view of the women behind the throne. Morgaine (more commonly known as Morgan Le Fay) and Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh spelling of Guinevere) struggle for power, using Arthur as a way to score points and promote their respective worldviews. The Mists of Avalon’s Camelot politics and intrigue take place at a time when Christianity is taking over the island-nation of Britain; Christianity vs. Faery, and God vs. Goddess are dominant themes.

From Wikipedia, if you want a bit more plot info: Mists of Avalon is a generations-spanning retelling of the Arthurian legend, but bringing it back to its Brythonic roots. Its protagonist is Morgaine, who witnesses the rise of Uther Pendragon to the throne of Camelot. As a child, she is taken to Avalon by High Priestess Viviane, her maternal aunt, to become a priestess of the Mother Goddess and witnesses the rising tension between the old pagan and the new Christian religions. At one point, she is given in a fertility ritual to a young man she will later learn is Arthur, her half-brother. She conceives a child, Gwydion, or “bright one,” later called Mordred, or “evil counsel” in the Saxon tongue.

After Uther dies, his son Arthur claims the throne. Morgaine and Viviane give him the magic sword Excalibur, and with the combined force of Avalon and Camelot, Arthur drives the invasion of the Saxons away. But when his wife Gwenhwyfar fails to produce a child, she is convinced that it is a punishment of God: firstly for the presence of pagan elements, and secondly, for her forbidden love for Arthur’s finest knight Lancelet (Lancelot). She increasingly becomes a religious fanatic, and relationships between Avalon and Camelot (i.e. Morgaine and herself) become hostile.

When the knights of the Round Table of Camelot leave to search for the Holy Grail, a young man seeks to usurp the throne: Mordred, bastard son of Arthur and Morgaine. In a climactic battle, Arthur’s and Mordred’s armies square off, and in the end Avalon and Arthur are magically removed from the circles of the world. It is Morgaine alone who lives to tell the tale of Camelot.

My thoughts: I read this book many years ago but I remember it so vividly. The character of Morgaine is wonderfully strong and fanatical at the same time but still likable. In many of the stories she’s a cruel shrew bent on revenge, in this book she has her moments, but she’s doesn’t go for the deep end. And I love that this Arthurian story is told from the perspective of the women. Women play a major role in Arthurian legend and sometimes are not given proper credit for the strength they bring to the story.

This book is actually a series — Book One: Mistress of Magic, Book Two: The High Queen, Book Three: The King Stag, and Book Four: The Prisoner in the Oak. The version I own contains all four and is a behemoth of a book at 876 pages. I also own a few other Bradley books in the Avalon series but this is by far my favorite.

This book was made into a TNT movie but I read the book before the TV miniseries but did watch it, and if I remember correctly, it didn’t disappoint. Of course, I’m one of those odd people that doesn’t mind movie and TV adaptions even if they are different from the book so don’t count that for much.

This is a fantasy novel, and yes, there are faeries and magic and Merlin and Lancelot but it’s also contains an interesting take on religion and the pull between keeping old customs and beliefs alive while others makes moves to take over the old with the new. It’s Paganism and Christianity and the fight between old worlds and new views. It’s also a violent story at times but I tend to think of that as normal when a story is based in this time period, about 5 A.D., so don’t let that be a turn off.

While I know that fantasy can be an acquired taste, I think this is one book that can make you a fan.

My Favorite Reads – The Hound of the Baskervilles

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

From the back cover: The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of master mystery writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most accomplished stories. Sherlock Holmes and his companion Dr. Watson confront one of their most difficult cases ever: is there truly a curse on the old Baskerville estate? Is there truly a ghostly beast lurking on the dark, eerie moors? A masterful concoction of plot and mood, this story is guaranteed to give you the shivers.

Since that doesn’t give you much, and in case you want more, this wikipedia page should give you what you need.

My thoughts: I don’t read many mysteries, so I wonder sometimes why I like books and short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes so much. A few years ago, I remember going on a binge and reading pretty much everything I had in the house that the Holmes characters was even vaguely mentioned in. In the last few months, I’ve gone out of my way to read several mysteries hoping to find something I like. I can’t say that I’ve found anything yet but I’m hopeful.

The reason I like this book so much — there’s more than a mystery here. It’s the suspense, the mood, the darkness, the setting on the moors, murder, a ghostly pack of hounds hunting individuals at night, and the possibility of death while investigating. Other mysteries have these things but somehow the parts don’t add up the same. There’s something about the way all the elements come together here that make this a perfect read. Out of all the Sherlock Holmes books on my shelf, this one always sticks out in my mind as a wonderfully chilly read that makes you want to turn on the lights while sleeping.

My Favorite Reads – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.

The inside cover: Harry Potter has never been the star of the Quidditch team, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility.

All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son, Dudley — a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years.

But all of that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives by owl messenger: a letter with an invitation to an incredible place that Harry — and anyone who reads about him — will find unforgettable.

For it’s there that he finds not only friends, aerial sports, and magic in everything from classes to meals, but a great destiny that’s been waiting for him…if Harry can only survive the encounter.

My thoughts: Oh, Harry, how I do love your world. I’ve marveled at your wonder, laughed at your funny moments, and felt sad at your misfortune.

Harry, it’s been a while since we started at the beginning and I think the time has come to start again.

By the time I got around to reading the Harry Potter books, the fourth book was about to be released. This was way back when I was working for the publishing industry defending the books against first amendment challenges. One day, while browsing a bookstore for a few books to read on a plane trip, I decided that it was time I read them to see what all the fuss was about. As luck would have it, books one, two, and three were all half off since book four was about to be released. I bought all of them, packed them in my bag, and finished them before I knew what I even read. It was instant love and my affair with the Potter boy began in earnest.

I confessed my love to a friend who told me of her own Harry love affair and outed a third friend of her quiet endearing love as well. We made a pact, and with each successive book, dutifully stood in line for our books at midnight, returning home with our precious cargo to crack the covers and see what mischief and heartache lay ahead. We would re-group a few days later and re-live the whole story.

I’ve re-read every one of the books in the series at least, well, let’s go with several times. The most recent releases have been read more often because of the movies. I thought it would be nice to go back to the beginning and start the journey again. With this post, I’m starting my summer of Harry Potter Re-Read. I know there is a Harry Potter Challenge going on out there but I think it’s coming to an end (I’ve also seen a lot of others re-reading which made me want to get out my books too.) so I’m doing my own thing and relishing the story and wonderful world all over again.

My Favorite Reads – The Fate of the Elephant

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

The Fate of the Elephant by Douglas H. Chadwick.

From Amazon.com: On assignment for National Geographic magazine, Chadwick spent most of two years observing elephants in American zoos and throughout Africa, India and southeast Asia. He also followed the ivory trade, visiting carvers and shops in Tokyo, Delhi, Hong Kong and Bangkok. His marvelous account depicts elephants at work and at play, profiles the people who work with them and sadly notes that their habitat is in decline. Chadwick’s description of his African adventures covers much of the same ground as Ian and Oria Douglas Hamilton’s Battle for the Elephants; his report on the Asian elephants is especially welcome, since their story has been generally neglected. Chadwick visits an elephant reserve and a training camp in India; an expert on white elephants takes him to see the King’s herd in Bangkok; in Malaysia, he watches a rescue team capture and relocate a wild elephant. In addition to telling many fascinating stories, Chadwick reminds us that the elephant’s future is bleak: too many people, too little land and unstable goverments all threaten the animal’s survival.

My thoughts: I have always had a thing for elephants. There is something so regal, commanding, and majestic about them. Each time I go to the zoo, I stand captivated by their size and, frankly, odd shape. When I finally stop being mesmerized, and finish memorizing the elephant facts board, I become sad. There are many programs going on to save the habitats of elephants. They are a vital part of the eco-system and a species that needs to find balance with its human neighbors. I know that I may only ever see an elephant in a zoo and that is especially disheartening. I would love to one day see an elephant in person in Africa but I know that may not happen, so while the zoo does not suffice, it is a place I can admire them and be awed.

ANYWAY, back to this amazing book. The way Chadwick depicted these animals you would have easily thought them human — the way they play, love, and socialize are just amazing. This book was published in 1993 and many of the facts are out of date but I think it is still a good read. It’s important to be reminded of the world we share.

My Favorite Reads – In the Heart of the Sea

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick.

From the inside cover: The ordeal of the whaleship Essex was an event as mythic in the nineteenth century as the Titanic disaster was in the twentieth. Nathaniel Philbrick now restores this epic story — which inspired the climactic scene in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick — to the rightful place in American history.

In 1819, the 238-ton Essex set sail from Nantucket on a routine voyage for whales. Fifteen months later, the unthinkable happened: in the farthest reaches of the South Pacific, the Essex was rammed and sunk by an enraged sperm whale. Its twenty-man crew, fearing cannibals on the islands to the west, decided instead to sail their three tiny boats for the distant South American coast. They would eventually travel over 4,500 miles. The next three months tested just how far humans could go in their battle against the sea as, one by one, they succumbed to hunger, thirst, disease, and fear.

Nathaniel Philbrick brings as incredible story to life, from the intricacies of Nantucket’s whaling economy and the mechanics of sailing a square-rigger to the often mysterious behavior of whales. But it is his portrayal of the crew of the Essex that makes this a heart-rending book. These were not romantic adventurers, but young working men, some teenagers, just trying to earn a living in the only way they knew how. They were a varied lot: the ambitious first mate Owen Chase, whose impulsive nature failed at a critical moment, then drew him to a more dangerous course; the cabin boy, Thomas Nickerson, whose long-lost account of the ordeal, written at age seventy-one, provides new insights into the story; and Captain George Pollard, who was forced to take the most horrifying step if any of the men were to survive.

This is a timeless account of the human spirit under extreme duress, but it is also a story about community, and about the kind of men and women who lived in a foreboding, remote island like Nantucket — a pioneer story that explores how we became who we are, and our peculiar blend of spiritualism and violence. Its richness of detail, its eloquence, and its command of history make In the Heart of the Sea a vital book about America.

My thoughts: It’s been a very long time since I read this book but each time I see it on the shelf I remember how captivated I was by this story. It wasn’t just the survival aspect but also the lifestyle that the men who worked on whaleships lived. I don’t need to tell you just how difficult, dangerous, and disgusting the work is. They chase down a monstrous beast in tiny boats and then haul the slaughtered whale aside to dismantle it. The actual work is worse than I could have imagined.

There are some amazing personalities in this book as well that deserve mention. The accounts of their survival and the lengths they went to to survive are terrifying and horrifying. I was reviled by their actions yet couldn’t stop reading because I wanted to know what would be next. I won’t tell you more but if you think about several men living on a tiny boat floating in the Pacific with no food or water, I think you know where the story goes.

In the Heart of the Sea is not a book for the easily queasy. There are things in this book I wish I hadn’t read but, that aside, it was also one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. The information about whales, whaling, the community of Nantucket, and the economics of whaling and the impact on the community were facts not be forgotten.

My Favorite Reads – Good Omens

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

Good Omens

From the back cover: According to The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (the world’s only completely accurate book of prophecies, written in 1655, before she exploded), the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just before dinner. So the armies of Good and Evil are amassing. Atlantis in rising, frogs are falling, tempers are flaring. Everything appears to be going according to Divine plan. Except a somewhat fussy angel and a fast-living demon — both of whom have lived among Earth’s mortals since The Beginning and have grown rather fond of the lifestyle — are not actually looking forward to the coming Rapture. And someone seems to have misplaced the Antichrist…

This was one of the funniest books I’ve read. Not a chuckle here and there, I mean laugh out loud while reading kind of book. My husband read it after I did just to see what I found so funny. He found it funny too even though I don’t remember him laughing out loud as much as I did but I like silly jokes better than he does. I don’t want to give the impression that the book is filled with silly one-off jokes. It’s not. It’s the situations and the characters that make this one so much fun. Without giving too much away because I will if I keep writing, I’ll say this — one day if you’re looking for something amusing, something that will be a great read, and something that you’ll remember, pick this one up.

I’ve read and have several Neil Gaiman books on my shelf that are keepers but this was the first I’ve read of Terry Pratchett. I think it might be time to pick up a book or two of his.

My Favorite Reads – The Sex Lives of Cannibals

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift on the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals

From the back cover: At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost – who has been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs – decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better. The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious tale of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish – all in a country where the only music to be head for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend, Sylvia, spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity for food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

I haven’t read many travelogue type books but, of all the ones I have read, this one was probably the funniest. Troost takes situations that would make most people what to run (and possibly cry) and turns them into very funny stories. I remember laughing out loud while reading this book. Now, if you’re looking for something that’s going to give you a history of the island, it’s natives, etc. this probably isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a funny book that recounts a new living experience on the part of the author, this one’s a good read. When I finished, I can’t say that I added Kiribati to my list of places I would like to visit in this world, but it did make me want to travel.

My Favorite Reads – Gone With the Wind

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

Gone With the Wind

The summary from Wikipedia: Gone With the Wind, first published in May 1936, is a romantic novel and the only novel written by Margaret Mitchell. The story is set in Clayton County, Georgia and Atlanta, Georgia during the American Civil War and Reconstruction and depicts the experiences of Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled daughter of a well-to-do plantation owner. The novel is the source of the extremely popular 1939 film of the same name.

I read Gone With the Wind for the first time last year. The book came to live with me via my sister. Back in college, my sister had an elderly neighbor she used to help out with groceries and other things. One day, the woman was cleaning out some bookshelves and asked my sister if she would like any of the books. My sister spied the copy of Gone With the Wind and asked if she could have that one knowing how I loved old books. It turned out to be a first edition book club release from 1936 with the original book cover. It’s in pristine condition. I think I put off reading it for so long for that reason — I was afraid of ruining the book.

While perusing the shelves one day for my next read I came across it again and decided that if I was very careful, reading it would not ruin it and, really, it was just begging to be read. It was easily one of the best books, and probably close to one of the longest, I think I’ve read. (My version is over 800 pages long and each page is a double column layout.) I stayed up late every night to read and even though my eyelids were falling, I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, stop reading. Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most wonderful, annoying, and clever characters ever to grace a page. It can also be infuriating to read as attitudes of characters can sound very barbaric.  That aside, it’s certainly a great book and one that should be read by everyone, at the very least as a character study, as Mitchell truly has a way of creating unforgettable sketches and a plot worthy of her heroine.