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Author Archive for Candice Smith

It is written in the stars

by Candice Smith on May 3rd, 2013
It is written in the stars Cover Image

I’ve often thought that, if there was an area of knowledge that I could suddenly gain understanding and excel in, it would be physics and astronomy.

This goes back a bit, to the days when I was fascinated with the planets. When I was 8 or so, I received a book about the beings that inhabit different planets. As it turns out, this book was fiction. I didn’t realize that, and was amazed and delighted that the book gave me numerical call signs to actually make contact with the planets–yes, really!! I spent many hours in my room, on the floor facing the window, with my walkie-talkie in hand, patiently tapping out (in Morse code, of course) these call signs. Hours. To no avail. No matter, though, I moved on…I had a period of fascination with Mars, and ordered as many books from the Weekly Reader as I could get my hands on. Then movies about space and aliens and time travel and the future. Books about string theory (started, rarely finished) and the cosmos. Pictures from the Hubble.

As it currently stands, I have a really hard time grasping some (most) of the basic principles, but I am still fascinated by it all. Is the universe expanding? What happened before the Big Bang? What is at the bottom/on the other side of a black hole (a thing we know exists not because we see it, but by the disappearance of everything else around it, that is crazy!)? Do all points in time really exist at the same time, all the time, and if so, can I somehow go back to the 23-year-old me and say ‘hey, maybe don’t take in 8 cats’? And most importantly, the question that comes to my mind whenever I read something about some distant star, why are we just now seeing the light from something that happened millions of years ago, and does the thing even exist anymore?? I don’t understand Einstein’s theories, I can’t really visualize multiple dimensions, and light years are mind-boggling. I just can’t.

Imagine my pleasure upon discovering The Universe: an illustrated history of astronomy. Pictures! Concise explanations! A fold-out timeline! 100 brief and interesting tidbits about astronomy explained for someone like me. If you’re like me, and you desperately want to ponder the mysterious stars and expanse of space and matter, but just can’t quite manage it on your own, you’ll want this book. Or, if you’re a little more advanced than I, but want something beautiful and very interesting to read, you just might want it as well.

The Books That Mattered

by Candice Smith on April 24th, 2013
The Books That Mattered Cover Image

One could argue, in a very wide sense, that all books matter. Or rather, the idea of books and what they are, what they mean, makes them all matter. You know? In a real sense, though, not all of them matter as much as others, both objectively and subjectively. I won’t go into details about that, though (no need to thank me, fans of  Nicholas Sparks).

Frye Gaillard has written a lovely book titled The Books That Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir. He speaks of books that have had a profound effect on him and his life, for reasons too numerous and important to go into here; his explanations are wonderful little stories in themselves, and convey the meanings and relations of these books to him in a way I cannot. Sometimes the book itself, and the story it contains, is the essence; other times, it’s a moment or part of his life that has some connection to a book that makes it indelible in his memory. Each chapter tells you something about Mr. Gaillard, something about the books he’s read, and something about the importance of books in general, and in the lives of the people who read them.

One wonderful thing about a book like this is it prompts me to recall the books in my own reading history that have mattered most; I imagine that many of us would do the same. I could never be as eloquent in my explanation of why those books matter, but here are a few titles that come immediately to my mind:

The Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, because it was the first book I can recall reading that had a main character who dies, and I distinctly remember crying when I got to that part…I was shocked and saddened, and surprised (disappointed? hurt?)  to read a book that seemed very, very real.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, because it was so cool, so unlike my own life, and it was even better than the movie that I loved so much. I wrote several book reports on this book, re-reading it every year, and I’d be a little mortified to go back and read them. Also–this book encouraged me to read Robert Frost, and I’d like to think that Ms. Hinton is responsible for others doing the same thing.

Atonement by Ian McEwan…I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I have had more than one major argument over this book, and it is simply–in my opinion–one of the best reminders of the power of the written word.

So, dear reader(s), please chime in with some of the books that have mattered most to you…

Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

by Candice Smith on February 8th, 2013
Blood Gospel by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell Cover Image

I’m not your most high-minded of readers, but I do occasionally make the effort to take in something that offers just a little bit more; a book that elucidates some part of history I know little about, a book that helps me learn and improve something about myself, a book that provides reflection on the beauty of this world.

This is not that book. I’m totally okay with that. I’d read a review of it a while back that included the words far-fetched, religious, Vatican and pet cemetery, and it likened St. Peter to an action hero; I put a hold on that book before you could say sounds kinda like Dan Brown. There are times where I am really in the mood for something akin to his works, a book that has some basis in a wildly interesting past, and then just loads on the speculation and conspiracy and silly, too simplistic dialogue spoken by characters who, let’s admit it, totally under-react to the insane situations they find themselves in. This book does not disappoint!

In fact, it excels to some degree by really layering on the improbable elements. It’s not enough that an archaeologist (super pretty and hyper-intelligent, of course) is on the verge of finding something huge and heretofore undiscovered about King Herod; in the real world, that would be news enough. No, there also has to be an earthquake at Masada that destroys the ancient fortress and requires her attention, and there has to be a US military attache (super handsome and good-at-heart, of course) sent their to make sure the area is secure and the bodies removed, and they meet up. And there has to be a mysterious Roman Catholic priest. And a boy with cancer who might be healed by the noxious fumes escaping the ruins (they killed everyone else, of course). And a gospel written in blood by Jesus. Then it throws in some vampires, both good and bad. The lucky ones survive by drinking consecrated wine, which as those of you in-the-know of the wily ways of the Church will recall, means that it’s been turned into the blood of Christ though a miraculous process called ‘transubstantiation.’ This is a topic that monks and priests have pondered for centuries, religions have cleaved over it, lives have been lost by those who refused to believe in it…and what I love about this book is that it takes just about three paragraphs to introduce the concept, have people say ‘no way!’ and then say ‘well, I never would have guessed.’

And it’s great. If you’re in the mood for a wild story and a little bit of contentious history, this might be the book for you.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

by Candice Smith on January 11th, 2013
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory Cover Image

Finally, the culmination of a saga that many have paid attention to for years. Paradise Lost 3 is the final part of a trilogy that documents the trials of three young men accused of the gruesome murders, in 1993, of three young boys in West Memphis, AR. I’m sure that most people are aware of the story and the personalities involved, at least to some degree, as there was a lot of publicity surrounding the case from the get-go. Without giving too much away, though, a brief summary: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were all convicted in court of killing three eight-year-old boys and leaving their bodies in a wooded area in West Memphis. Early in the trial, a link was made between Echols’ preference for wearing all black and listening to a lot of heavy metal music, the nature of the victim’s bodies (they are often described as being ‘sacrifices’) and the notion of an uptick in cult activity among young people. Before you could even say ‘but not all occultists listen to heavy metal’ the three suspects were labeled Satanists, the case blew up in the media, and they were convicted based on a confession made under severe duress, no real physical evidence, a lot of sketchy testimony, and seemingly slick work by the police and prosecutors. Two of them were sentenced to life in prison, Echols was sentenced to death.

Fast forward a couple years, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky make their first documentary about the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. The film focuses on the trials, as well as the community during that time, and brings to light a lot of issues with both. In 2000, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations is released, and introduces some of the new evidence that is being gathered in the appeals process, as well as the growing opinion among people (including some in the community) that the three young men are innocent.

In between then and the events of Paradise Lost 3, that consensus grows, the case gets support from many different groups, and more importantly for them, that support gives them the means to re-test DNA and hire experts. At some point the new evidence and the public support, along with some changes in law that affect the case, build a momentum that is palpable–watching the documentary, you can feel how close those involved are to having a positive outcome, but also how it all seems to hinge on which way the legal wind blows. Other sentiments that come across loud and clear are disbelief and frustration–three young men imprisoned for nearly half their lives, evidence uncovered that all but exonerates them and indicates other suspects, and a judicial system that won’t budge lest it have to admit its wrongdoing.

Watch this–watch all three if you haven’t yet–and let yourself be a little amazed at all of it: the horrific murders, the trials, the sensationalistic nature of it, the total wrongness of it all. And finally, be amazed at the three young men who remain at the center of it, and how they not only cope, but persevere.

New voices in poetry

by Candice Smith on November 6th, 2012
New voices in poetry Cover Image

First off: I am not an expert in poetry. I don’t consider myself, by any means, to be especially well-read in poetry. I often don’t understand it. Many of my favorite poets and poems are probably considered to be classic or popular, or–dare I say it–easy. I like Robert Frost. I like Shakespeare’s sonnets. I can fully throw my support behind a good limerick just as easily as a multiple-page epic or short, profound haiku.

That being said, I do actually enjoy poetry. More than that, I appreciate it: I like the succinctness of it, the necessity of well-chosen words, the play of sound and meter, and how a poem can show the power and connection of the word and imagination in ways that other written forms often don’t. Such is the case with a new book of poems I’ve recently come across, which has quickly become the shining star in my poetry world.

Behold, I Could Pee On This: and other poems by cats.

I don’t really want to spend too much time giving you my impression of these works, because I feel that can often ruin a good poem for other readers–so much of the impact of a poem is in the individual reading of it, of letting the words call out something of yourself. I’ll just say that these poems are really, really, REALLY about cats. Because they’re written by cats. Or, if you can’t suspend your disbelief, they could be written by cats. All the emotions and experiences that say ‘cat’ are there–curiosity, energy, sleep, ruined furniture, demands, disdain, pride, loyalty, mistrust…even a little love. And so much more. If you’re a cat lover, pick up this small tome and gain a little insight into your beloved feline companion.

Available Dark

by Candice Smith on August 31st, 2012
Available Dark Cover Image

I hesitated to read Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand when the review I saw started out by comparing the main character to Lisbeth Salander. I like Lisbeth just fine, and I’ve read other books that had similar reviews, but how many renditions of a character does one really want to read? However, I am so glad I followed through with this book.

Cassandra Neary might have a passing resemblance to that tattooed anti-heroine, but to me she’s kind of like the more authentic, slightly more grounded aunt. Cass is messed up — no doubt at all about that — but it’s not entirely her defining quality. Whereas Lisbeth seemed almost incapable of leading any “normal” life — social, physical, personal — due to her traumatic past and consequent defenses, Cass is just sort of a wreck that still manages to have some acquaintances, keep in touch with family, do some work, have talent and passions. So, yeah, she lives on alcohol and a wide array of pills, but it’s just sort of who she is. She doesn’t feel absolutely out of control because of it, she’s not overwhelmingly anti-social (although she can be selfish and behave badly), she’s managed to not destroy herself entirely…she’s just been down and out for a really long time, and she gets by that way. Lisbeth was alien (and at times, alienating) to me as a reader, but Cass feels real and familiar, like a ne’er-do-well relative, or that aged hipster downtown who used to do something cool but seems to have lost their way. I like her. I want her to do well.

Cass is a one-hit photographer, known for a years-old book called ‘Dead Girls.’ She lives in a squalid little dump in NYC, drinking and drugging to maintain, dulling her senses, catching a little work here and there. She gets a call from an art collector who wants her to authenticate some photographs that are definitely not for public consumption, and off she goes to Finland to make some fast money. Of course, things go wrong, very wrong. To say that people get killed is an understatement, and there’s no real hero in this story that saves the day. But — Cass perseveres out of some sense self-preservation and of finishing what she set out to do, and along the way finds that some part of her isn’t as dead as she thought it was.

Three other cool things about this book, besides Cass? Iceland. Norse mythology. Black metal. I know, those are all pretty particular niche subjects, and they’re all a bit dark, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading this book (I’m not exactly a metal fan either, you know). It’s subject is a little esoteric by nature, but that really makes it all the more interesting–at least for me. If you’re intrigued by foreign locales, old beliefs and outsider culture, this book has a lot to keep you reading.

Dead Scared

by Candice Smith on June 30th, 2012
Dead Scared Cover Image

If you’ve read any of S.J. Bolton’s books, then you know when you start one that you’re in for something good — an unusual mystery, a bit of darkness and a somewhat gothic tone, well-developed characters and plot. Serious mystery for serious readers. Her newest, Dead Scared, is no exception. The book takes place in the storied city and schools of Cambridge, where an unusually high number of students have taken their lives; as if that’s not enough, the suicides have strange similarities among them and a school psychologist has taken notice and gotten the police involved. The plan is to send one of their own in, posing as a less-than confident student, to suss out what’s behind it all. Things go very awry, though, when the officer and the psychologist become possible next victims.

One thing I really like about Bolton’s books is that each one is very unlike the others she’s written. I certainly like to read mysteries that are part of a series, but sometimes they just seem to fall into a rut–the stories are often unique only in the details, while the story development and characters’ actions all follow a too-similar path. This book actually has characters from two of Bolton’s other titles, so I guess it’s sort of a series, but really it feels like more of a coincidental meet-up: Dr. Evi Oliver from Blood Harvest, and detectives Lacey Flint and Mark Joesbury from Now You See Me all cross paths in Cambridge. While I know them from the other books, there was nothing predictable about them or the story, and that alone can be a very refreshing element in a mystery novel.

Dead Scared has a nice, slow pace — there are a lot of nice details about the setting, as well, for those of you who like mysteries that take place in other locales — and throughout it all Bolton never gives too much away. I watch and read a lot of mysteries, and it’s gotten to be that I’m constantly changing my assessment of ‘who done it,’ always second-guessing the characters and their motives as well as the author’s intent to keep it all, well, a mystery (everyone is a suspect, at some point!). Bolton does a fine job of keeping it all hidden without relying on trickery or unmentioned details that pop up in the end, and all is revealed in good time.

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

by Candice Smith on June 7th, 2012
Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton Cover Image

I’m not proud to admit it, but there are a couple books that I’ve read in recent years that have made me cry*…one is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (scene of tears: Starbucks), and the other is Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton (scene of tears: pedestrian mall park bench). Afterwards tells the story of a mother and daughter who are both seriously injured in a fire–both are in a state of coma, the mother with brain injury, the daughter with burns and organ damage. It’s from this in-between world of awake/asleep, alive/not quite alive that the book is narrated, by the mother, and she and the daughter are both active in that world–they can hear and see, move about, they speak to one another. They listen in on the conversations of visitors and doctors in order to get information and to keep tabs on what’s going on. On the face of it, the story is about them trying to find out what happened on the day of the fire, what is happening to their bodies (and lives), and how to get back to the real world.

At its core, though, this book is about many things–strength, truth and honesty, memory, knowing ones’ self, making decisions. Common themes, yes, but Lupton explores them in ways that are unique, beautiful and heart-wrenching all at the same time. This book is also about love–so much love, so many kinds of it, having it, wanting it, losing it. Many of the best parts in Afterwards are related to the narrator’s descriptions of those she loves, primarily her husband and children. Part of the emotional resonance comes from what’s being described, of course–meeting her husband, taking her baby daughter home for the first time, watching her son learn to swim–these things that many of us can relate to, and sympathize with. The resonance also comes from the language, though. Now, I’m a sucker for nice vocabulary, but Lupton goes beyond; lovely word choices, yes, but also fine sentence structure that lends a poetic quality to her writing. Beautiful sentences describing meaningful moments are powerful, and this book is full of them. I don’t have children, but I felt this mother’s yearning to protect her child. My husband is safe and sound, and I’ve read plenty of books that describe broken relationships, but I burst into tears when the narrator describes the love that comes from twenty years of knowing someone, and contemplates a life without it.

For sure, this isn’t your typical mystery or romance novel at all, and it might be a bit heavy for ‘summer reading’, but I recommend it wholeheartedly. While the premise is completely imagined (who knows what coma is like??), and it has a bit of the heart-rending tone, it’s very real and ultimately affirming. Besides, it’s good to be reminded of just how powerful someone’s words can be. So go check it out, take it to a picnic or the beach, and enjoy…just remember a handkerchief.

*In the interest of full disclosure, any Nicholas Sparks book has the capacity to make me cry, but for entirely different reasons.

A Trio of Books

by Candice Smith on April 20th, 2012
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I’ve got three books that I recently finished (ish), and if you know me at all, none of them will come as much of a surprise.

The first is Taylor Steven’s The Informationist, which I read in ebook format, but we also have several print copies. This is the first book that features the character Vanessa Michael Munroe, the ‘informationist.’ What’s that? Well, in this book, it’s someone who has an uncanny ability to go to places and find whatever information someone needs. Usually that means creating some sort of socio-political/financial dossier on a locale for someone who wants to do business there; this time, though, she’s sent to South Africa to find a girl who went missing four years previous. Just so happens that Munroe is from South Africa, and has a suitably dark and violent past there.

There are some similarities between Munroe and Lisbeth Salander–both are willfully independent, tough as nails, hyper-intelligent and emotionally stunted. Munroe, though, is a lot more social, and perhaps not quite as inherently damaged as Salander, so her persona is a bit more believable and has more life to it. I liker her character, I liked the settings, and while the story played out like I thought it would, it had enough energy to keep me reading.

Second up…the delicious Chococo Chocolate Cookbook. I had a major sweets craving recently (okay, I always have one), and decided to make a dessert instead of buying one. This book was on the New shelf, and I opened it right to the recipe that I ended up making–marbled ginger bars. Super easy no-bake, very chocolatey, and the ginger was a fresh and unique flavor. I put some Almond Dream ice cream and strawberries on them, and it was a great dessert–vegan, too, although the entire cookbook is not. Chococo is a British chocolatier, and their cafe is called Cocoa Central; the recipes in the book are for the luscious things you would find there.

Finally, I began the latest installment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder at the Lanterne Rouge. I did not finish it. Aimee, you sound like a broken record! I swear, every time someone behaves oddly or gives a strange look, they’re either cheating on someone or on the scam. In this case, Rene, her business partner, has a girlfriend who seems to have something to do with a murder victim; Aimee takes pages to get past the idea that it all stems from the woman wanting to pull a fast one on Rene. It was too much. I don’t mind an investigator going through the what-ifs while they try and figure things out, but she needs some new what-ifs, toute de suite! The most exciting thing in this book, at least in the chapters that I got through, was that it appears that Aimee has dyed her hair blonde.

Two good books out of three isn’t so bad, though. Right?

On the Passing of Creatures Great and Not-So-Great

by Candice Smith on February 13th, 2012
On the Passing of Creatures Great and Not-So-Great Cover Image

And by not-so-great, I mean those that are prone to misbehave, to chew on furniture/pee on expensive handbags/eat food off the counter that’s still in a plastic bag, etc. If you’re lucky, you’ll have known one or more of these creatures. Very recently, my good friend found himself saying goodbye to one, the noble cat Arthur, aged 21…that’s a really long time to live with a companion, and suddenly have them be gone. If you’ve spent any amount of time with an animal that you’ve loved, you know how overwhelming it can be when they leave us — not at the door when you come home, not on your pillow at night, not rattling around quietly in their habitat, in the background, always there.

I recently read Jon Katz‘s new book Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. I’ve had quite a few animal companions: several dogs, a hamster, hermit crabs, mice, numerous fish, eight cats, and a backyard snake that I named Brownspots and believed that he was my snake, and that he smiled at me every day. Right now, I have six cats that range from 9 to 16 years old–some in the glory years of their plush, kibble-filled lives, others in their dotage. I know what’s coming, and I’ve been through it before, but sometimes I feel like I need some help getting ready for it, being prepared. I picked up Katz’s book not knowing if I would like it, but thinking that it might offer me something without being dismissive, treacly or new-age. It ended up being incredibly helpful for me. Among many things, it helped me to understand that my emotions and worries about my pet’s dying are mine, not those of my pet — they live life in the moment, right up to the end, and that is where my focus should be. It also reminded me to remember all the years that came before the end, to not let the (sometimes scary/stressful/painful) last moments overshadow everything else.

There’s a lot more to be found in this slender book, and I recommend it to anyone who’s loved an animal. The author is the owner of Bedlam Farm, and his books are full of interesting and honest insight about animals and humans, life on a farm, and life in general.