Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Airborn

Airborn
By Kenneth Oppel
Eos, 2004. 355 pgs. Young Adult

Matt Cruse, a cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora, proves to the captain that he is ready to advance to sail maker, but his job is given to the company owner’s son instead. Disgruntled at first, Matt’s day is brightened when Kate, an adventurous young passenger, boards the airship, determined to search for a mysterious flying creature her grandfather encountered just before dying. As Matt joins Kate in her search for answers, they must also tackle storms, pirates, and nagging passengers.

This is a great adventure story that teens and adults will enjoy. Spunky, strong-willed Kate and cool-headed Matt make a terrific team. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

KK

Cards on the Table

Cards on the Table
By Agatha Christie
Berkley Books, 1984. 226 pgs. Mystery

Hercule Poirot is invited to attend a dinner party at the eccentric Mr. Shaitana’s house along with seven other guests, three of whom are also detectives. After dinner, their bridge game turns deadly when Mr. Shaitana is found dead and all the detectives take it upon themselves to be the first to solve the murder.

Usually I find Poirot’s mannerisms a bit annoying, but since the focus was divided among the other investigators as well, I found the story enjoyable. This is a quick, clean, cozy read.

KK

Monday, March 29, 2010

A Lesson before Dying

A Lesson before Dying
By Ernest J. Gaines
A.A. Knopf, 1993. 256 pgs. Fiction

When Miss Emma's godson Jefferson is on trial and sentenced to die in the electric chair, one moment stands out to her: the defense attorney's weak defense that Jefferson can't be accountable because he's not a man, just a mindless hog. Indignant at the comparison, Miss Emma implores Grant, the local schoolteacher, to visit Jefferson regularly in prison and get him to die as a man, not a hog. Grant, wrapped in cynicism and the frustration of being a black man in rural Louisiana, thinks nothing will come of his visits. While he doesn't believe he can help Jefferson, he does visit, and attempts to give Jefferson a lesson--but finds himself learning one as well.

This novel portrays the plight of the African American community in the deep South prior to the Civil Rights movement. While it has somewhat of a slow pace, little action, and Grant isn't the most engaging character, the story weaves together to demonstrate the strength of the human soul.

**This book is available as a book club set at the library. It's not squeaky clean, but there are wonderful themes to discuss.**

AE

Jane's Fame

Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World
By Claire Harman
Henry Holt & Co., 2010. Biography

Jane Austen. Her name is familiar to almost everyone, but she still remains a figure we know little about. Most of her personal correspondence was destroyed within years of her death and what little remains provides a patchy portrait at best. This new biography covers more than just her life but the decades of fame she has enjoyed since her death. The author presents the popularity and almost universal enjoyment of her six novels as an unprecedented phenomenon. Austen’s books have provided material for plays, movies, prequels, and sequels and has inspired works on etiquette, dating, fashion, and more. Harman presents a host of interesting insights into Austen’s contributions to our literary heritage and popular culture over the past 150 years.

This is a must read for all Janeites. (Which is pretty much everyone, right?) Harman is an obvious fan herself and quickly draws the readers into the subject matter with warmth and humor. She includes quotes and characters from Austen’s books that enrich her narrative and make the reader feel a part of the “in” group, even including a section on Colin Firth’s wet shirt. Entirely entertaining and enlightening. After putting this book down, you will either want to pick up your worn copy of Pride and Prejudice or maybe just pop in the DVD.

CZ

Mrs. Mike

Mrs. Mike: The Story of Katherine Mary Flannigan
By Benedict and Nancy Freedman
Coward-McCann,1947. 312 pgs. Fiction

Katherine Mary is sent from a sheltered life in Boston to live with her uncle in Canada where, her mother hopes, she will enjoy better health thanks to the cleaner air. Soon after her arrival she meets and promptly falls in love with handsome Sergeant Mike Flannigan of the Canadian Mounted Police. Days after their marriage, she is off to the far North where the newlyweds set up a life for themselves in that great white wilderness at the turn of the century.

Though not written in a journal format, this book is similar to Nancy Turner’s These Is My Words. Katherine Mary is not the spitfire Sarah Agnes was, but she is still a strong woman enduring a life filled with danger and sorrow, yet finding joy, love and friendship. Minus a little mild language this is an enjoyable book for almost any reader looking for a gentle and uplifting read.

CZ

Art of Choosing

The Art of Choosing
By Sheena Iyengar
Twelve, 2010. 329 pgs. Nonfiction

Why would a person choose to eat more chili flavored yogurt if it had been picked for him than if he had selected the flavor himself from an array of equally disgusting options? Why do children do better at math puzzles they choose themselves than they do at puzzles selected for them by their parents? Through questions like these, this book discusses the amazing power choice wields in our lives. Author Iyengar presents a fascinating series of studies centered on our ability to choose, from the big decisions, like marriage and career, to the little decisions, like what to wear and what color of polish we want on our toes.

The subject matter presented here is completely fascinating and the author is able to present it in an entertaining and vibrant voice. Many of the studies offered were conducted by Iyengar herself and she adds a personal note to conclusions made and how one set of results led to more inquiries and further studies. While not as readily accessible as some of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, this is still quality science writing.

CZ

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves
Elizabeth Kostova
Little, Brown and Co., 2010. 564 p. Fiction

The reverence of art is a tranquil occupation in D.C.’s National Gallery, until a man tears out a pocket knife and lunges at a painting with ferocious malevolence. When the criminal is found to be Robert Oliver, a famous artist himself, the police are bewildered but unable to elicit more than a sentence from him, after which he refuses to speak--to anyone. Eventually Oliver finds himself in a psychiatric facility under the care of Marlow, a 50’s something psychiatrist whose artistic background renders him sympathetic to his patient. Marlow slowly finds himself more and more intrigued by the mystery behind Oliver’s bizarre attack--which has something to do with the painting Oliver attacks, an impressionist rendering of "Leda and the Swan Thieves", and the beautiful woman he never ceases to paint. However, his silence is broken only by his cryptic burst, “I did it for her.”

The Swan Thieves is an artistic, multi-layered achievement comprised of mystery, love story, art history and the ever ambiguous hint of madness. Each chapter offers one more piece to the intricate puzzle, which only serves to keep the reader captivated and begging for the next. Unfolding slowly, the tension builds with beautiful ease until the reader is nearly frantic to discover the truth. As the author of major bestseller, The Historian, Kostova knows how to create an atmosphere and it wafts from between the covers like a lingering fog, not disappearing even after the book is shut--which won’t happen much as it’s difficult to put down. You won’t find it as fearsome as The Historian, but the slight air of eroticism will waylay a few readers and the final resolution doesn’t have quite the panache as the rest of the book. However, Kostova fans and art lovers should approve.

DAP

Friday, March 26, 2010

Gateway

Gateway
By Sharon Shinn
Viking, 2009. 280 p. Young Adult

Transported to another world through the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Daiyu meets a kind, and handsome, stranger who takes her to the people who brought her there. Daiyu learns from Aurora and Ombri that there are multiple worlds and a few people are able to travel between them. Daiyu has been brought to this new world to stop an interloper from a third world who is masquerading as a politician and doing evil things. Daiyu integrates herself into this new society with the help of her new companions and sets out to stop the politician. While I didn’t find this as compelling as some of Shinn’s other young adult titles, her fans will want to seek this one out.

MN

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dress Rehearsal

Dress Rehearsal
By Jennifer O'Connell
Signet, 2007. 304 p. Fiction

Lauren Gallagher, the owner of an upscale cake boutique has a theory about couples. Lauren decides that she can predict the probability of the success of a marriage based on how a couple acts when they are picking out their wedding cake. She applies this theory to her own situation - torn between a past lover, and current lover - as well as her friends. This is a funny, romantic romp reminiscent of Sex in the City.

DEF

Bite of the Mango

Bite of the Mango
By Mariatu Kamara
Annika Press, 2008. 216 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Mariatu recounts her life in Sierra Leone, where she became a victim of the civil war when rebel soldiers amputated her hands and told her to go show them to the president. Twelve-year-old Mariatu, who had lived in a small village all her life was left to wonder "What is a president?" Mariatu made her way to Freetown where she was treated in a hospital and found that besides missing her hands, she was pregnant, having been raped by a man in her village. From the hospital, she moved to a refugee camp with hundreds of other people who had been maimed by rebel soldiers, begging on the streets for survival until she was given the chance to move to Canada, learn English, attend school and make something more of her life.

When a teacher suggested to Mariatu that she write a book, the teenager wondered who would want to read a book about her. Luckily for readers, she decided to go ahead and write one, and the result is phenomenal. This book does many things, including inform readers about the atrocities of the war in Sierra Leone, but it's most importantly a message of hope--a message of a girl who suffered horribly but was able to overcome her past to see herself "not as a victim but as someone who could still do great things in this world." An inspiring tale of a young woman's journey, both physical and emotional, this is one I highly recommend to any and all readers.

AE

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making Toast: a family story

Making Toast: a family story
By Roger Rosenblatt
Ecco, c2010. 166 p. Nonfiction

When Roger Rosenblatt’s daughter died, he and his wife immediately left to be with their son-in-law and grandchildren. The next morning, one of the children asked how long they would be staying. Rosenblatt replied, “Forever.”

Making Toast is the very intimate story of how grief changes the dimensions of our lives and how families re-arrange and realign in order to survive. Rosenblatt shares minute details that allow the reader to appreciate how even the mundane ritual of making toast can be an act of love.

The famous essayist tells the family's story as a composition of short vignettes that examine the sweetness and sorrow that accompany the loss of a daughter--who is also a wife, a sister and a mother. It is a tribute to Rosenblatt’s daughter, Amy and a beautiful reflection on the poignancy of death. Each family member is rendered in cherished, personal tones and because the essayist shares his own experience the community is at once both richer and stronger. The author has an effortless, quiet touch that somehow makes the book even more powerful. Making Toast is recommended for anyone who has lost a child and everyone who loves a beautiful book.

DAP

Numbers

Numbers
By Rachel Ward
Chicken House, 2010. 325 pgs. Young Adult

Fifteen-year-old Jem has the unlucky ability to look at people and see their death dates. Haunted by these numbers, Jem tries to avoid personal relationships, but Spider is another outsider who weasels his way into a friendship with Jem. Jem thinks this is risky enough, since she knows Spider only has a short time to live, but before long, things become more complicated than she could have imagined as they find themselves wanted for terrorist activity and are forced to run away together to avoid facing the police.

This book began with an interesting premise; however, I don't feel like it achieved its potential. While I find Jem's reluctance to involve herself with people realistic, I also found she isn't a stellar main character. There was nothing to draw me to her, to make me really care if she was caught or what happened to her. And while Spider's fate has the potential to be a moving and interesting aspect of the story, the book wraps up too abruptly for it to make the impact that it could.

AE

Monday, March 22, 2010

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice

Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
By Phillip Hoose
Melanie Kroupa Books, 2009. 133 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

In this highly acclaimed book (Newbery Honor Book, National Book Award winner), Hoose combines first-person accounts from Claudette Colvin with third-person narrative to tell Claudette's story. Raised in Alabama, Claudette was subject to the Jim Crow laws of the south, including segregated buses. However, one day, months before Rosa Parks, fifteen-year-old Claudette refused to give up her seat on the bus. While it was after Parks' arrest that the Montgomery bus boycott was organized, Claudette's arrest was the one that got people talking. Additionally, Claudette was an essential part of the lawsuit in which she and three other black women sued the city of Montgomery, arguing that segregated buses were illegal, thereby forcing the end of segregated buses.

With all the recognition this book has received, I was expecting great things--and I wasn't disappointed. This is a fascinating account of a forgotten but important figure in the civil rights movement. Besides just being a lesson in history, though, it helped round out Claudette and other people involved in the movement as real people; Claudette's feelings and glimpses of other people (such as Parks) through her eyes really add depth to both Claudette's story and the segregation and subsequent civil rights movement in Montgomery. Excellent book for teens and adults alike.

AE

The Vinyl Princess

The Vinyl Princess
By Yvonne Prinz
HarperTeen, 2010. 313 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Allie is the Vinyl Princess, a 16-year-old dedicated to the LP and real music, not the tinny kind that you download. Allie works at Bob and Bob’s, an independent music store, and secretly publishes her blog and fanzine at night. This book details one summer as she works and meets two very different boys and begins her foray into the blogging world.

Although I didn’t recognize half of the bands and songs Allie talks about, I appreciated Allie’s passion and her desire to educate the masses. Her tale, while not extraordinary, was a fun read for the weekend.

MN

The Recipe Club

The Recipe Club
By Andrea Israel & Nancy Garfinkel
Polhemus Press, 2009. 360 pgs. Fiction

Lilly and Val, friends from childhood, reveal their feelings, secrets, and recipes through a series of letters, until a misunderstanding separates them for years and a death forces them to decide if they want to reconcile.

Even though this book is over 300 pages, it reads very quickly since it is written in letters and emails. I really enjoyed how the book incorporated over 80 recipes throughout the book. The story itself I enjoyed parts of, but over all for me it was just so-so. Anyone looking for a book on women’s relationships and some great recipes will want to take a look at The Recipe Club.

AMM

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hush, Hush

Hush, Hush
By Becca Fitzpatrick
Simon & Schuster, 2010. 391 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Nora Grey’s father is unexpectedly mugged and killed leaving Nora feeling jumpy, lonely and vulnerable. Her mother is forced to take a new job which requires her to be away from their isolated country home for days at a time. Adding to her problems, Nora feels like she is being watched and followed. These impressions prove true when an unknown assailant begins to harass and threaten her. At the same time, in Nora’s sophomore science class she is strangely paired with a senior student, Patch Cipriano. Nora is intrigued by Patch’s dark good looks and bad boy persona but instinctively feels something is “off” with him. Nora’s best friend, fun loving Vee, develops a friendship with private school transfer student, Elliot. Despite Vee’s protests, Nora doesn’t trust Elliot either. Soon quiet Nora finds things are not as they seem, and her intuition about immediate danger is right.

Becca Fitzpatrick’s first work combines horror and romance in a novel that is sometimes gripping but often implausible. As a romantic foil, Patch should be intriguing enough to feel like otherwise sensible Norah could fall for him, but he’s not. In addition, the pacing of the novel is off. The forthcoming sequel could help explain events that were wrapped up too quickly and succinctly.

ALC

Beguiled

Beguiled
By Deeanne Gist and J. Mark Bertrand
Bethany House, 2010. 329 pages. Romance

As a child Rylee Monroe lived in the rich, historic district of downtown Charleston. Now, after a family tragedy, she only works there as a dog walker for the local elite. While in a client’s mansion, Rylee encounters the “Robin Hood” thief, so nicknamed because he is stealing artifacts from the rich and donating them to charity. Newspaper reporter Logan Woods is covering the story. Logan and Rylee meet cute and begin to try and solve the crime together. Logan feels a strong attraction for Rylee and wants a relationship but Rylee has trust issues. To further complicate matters the local police detective suspects Rylee is involved with the break-ins. Logan must decide whether to pursue the story or the girl.

Deeanne Gist is an inspirational romance author. Her talent at describing a Christian courtship is accentuated by crime writer Mark Bertrand’s contributions. The whodunit element adds interesting characters and suspense. Fans of Charleston will enjoy detailed descriptions of the area. I wouldn’t name this novel among Gist’s best, but readers who want a predictable, nice mystery along with some gentle romance will take pleasure in this one.

ALC

Ice

Ice
By Sarah Beth Durst
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2009. 308 pp. Young adult fiction.

In this story where modern and ancient collide, Cassandra Dasent is raised in a remote Arctic research station with her father. Although her grandmother has told and retold the fairy tale that Cassie's mother, daughter of the North Wind, was whisked away by trolls, Cassie's pragmatism and scientific upbringing keep her from regarding it as anything more than a euphemism for her mother's death. When Cassie's path brings a strange, magical polar bear into her life, he describes her mother's imprisonment, agreeing to rescue her if Cassie will become his wife. Thus begins what first seems like an endless imprisonment but evolves into a loving, loyal partnership. However, when Cassandra unwittingly destroys their life together, she must make an impossible journey east of the sun and west of the moon to save her beloved Bear.

Beautifully woven, this fairy tale retold has been done splendidly. Although this is the third chapter book retelling of this particular tale that I've read, I was impressed that it was not only a great read but also very different from the other two, being Pattou's East and George's Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow, both also being well-told. Durst's gorgeous descriptions in this story weave a beautiful, magical fantasy world that is so neatly juxtaposed with the stark reality of Cassie's scientific modern life. Excellently done!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Can You Keep a Secret?

Can You Keep a Secret?
By Sophie Kinsella
Dial Press, 2004. 357 pgs. Fiction.

Emma Corrigan is young, sweet, and has a long list of secrets - the kind of innocent secrets everyone has - one of which is that she is afraid of flying. Coming back from a thoroughly ruinous business trip to Glasgow, she is seized by mortal fear when the plane encounters some turbulence. Out of nervous terror she starts talking to the handsome American sitting next to her, and she can't stop - even when it comes to her very personal secrets. He gets to hear that she sleeps beneath a Barbie bedspread, that she fibbed to get her current job, and that she lied to her boyfriend about her weight and consequently is wearing underwear two sizes too small. Rather than disappearing into anonymity, the American turns up in her life again. He's the CEO of her company, and remembers her quite well...

This was a really fun story to read, I liked the main character and I enjoyed watching the story unfold.

BHG

Mega Traumarama!

Mega Traumarama!
Hearst Books, 2009. 256 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

This collection of embarrassing moments is an easy, breezy read. Broken down into different categories, such as fashion and school, it has some embarrassing moments that are funny and some that are truly cringe-worthy. This is a fun book to flip through and to find an embarrassing moment to share with others.

AE

How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew

How to Sew a Button: And Other Nifty Things Your Grandmother Knew
By Erin Bried
Ballantine Books. 2009. 278 pgs. Nonfiction

These days, dry cleaners press shirts, delivery guys bring pizza, gardeners tend flowers, and, yes, tailors sew on those pesky buttons. But life can be much simpler, sweeter, and richer-- and a lot more fun, too. And, as your grandmother knows, it actually pays to learn how to do things yourself.

A collection of treasured wisdom from grandmothers across the country, this practical guide offers more than one hundred step-by-step essential tips for cooking, cleaning, gardening, and entertaining.

This book has so many interesting tips and tricks that I didn’t know about. In the age of going green and needing to save your pennies, this book will take you back to a simpler time. Although not all of the tips are earth-shattering, I found this book to be an enlightening read.

AMM

Thursday, March 18, 2010

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain

K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain
By Ed Viesturs with David Roberts
Broadway Books, 2009. 325 pp. Nonfiction

Ed Viesturs is the premier living American mountain climber. David Roberts is arguably the premier American climbing writer. Together they have assembled a somewhat lumpy but mostly fascinating history of climbing on K2, the second highest mountain in the world but much more difficult to climb than the taller Everest. Viesturs begins with his own attempts on K2--one successful, one not--then moves into the climbing history of the mountain. Attempts on K2 began in 1902 but no one reached the top until an Italian team succeeded in 1954. But what is more interesting is not who made it and who didn't, but the individual experiences and personalities of each team. The courage and compassion of the 1953 American teams has made their achievement legendary in climbing circles, even though they didn't summit, where the victorious Italian team's horrific treatment of each other has long tainted the climb itself. For every four climbers who have summited on K2, one has died, and while Everest has become practically a tourist destination, "wired" to the top, K2 remains "the Holy Grail of Mountaineering." Viesturs' book captures the essence of K2's mystique, if not some of the particulars. Fine reading for mountaineers and armchair adventurers alike.

Buried Book

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
By David Damrosch
Holt, 2007. 315 pgs. Nonfiction

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered to be the first masterpiece of world literature. However, the only intact record of this epic poem lay buried and forgotten for over 2,000 years following the sack of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Several copies, written on stone tablets in cuneiform writing, were uncovered by archeologists and reintroduced to the world in the late 1800’s. Buried Book tells the story of key individuals whose lives were wrapped up in the fate of Gilgamesh’s tale.

Buried Book lacks a coherent narrative. Damrosch spends over half the book discussing the lives of George Smith, whose work was key in piecing together and translating the clay tablets containing the tale of Gilgamesh, and Hormuzd Rassam who worked for years to secure the artifacts from Nineveh for the British Museum. While these men, along with other minor players introduced, were fascinating and did much to bring us the epic poem, the amount of time spent telling of their lives and unrelated details makes the text seem tedious. Finally, towards the end of the book, Damrosch speaks of Ashurbanipal and his great library of cuneiform tables along with a summary of the actual legend of Gilgamesh and his role in history. Oddly, the most fascinating portion of the book was the epilogue which discussed the effect this ancient piece of literature had on Saddam Hussein and a number of modern writers. This book introduces a fascinating topic, but presents an uneven and unfocused exploration of it.

CZ

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Alchemist

THE ALCHEMIST
By Paulo Coeoho
HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. 177 p. Fiction

I do not know why I waited so long to read this book. It is a delightful fable about Santago, an Andulusian shepherd boy, who leaves the comfortable security of his job in Spain to travel in pursuit of his "personal legend". His quest takes him to far off Morocco and Egypt. Spiritual enlightenment, self understanding, overcoming depression and believing in your own dreams are just a few of the valuable life lessons Santago learns from those he encounters along his way. This is an engaging short easy read recommended to both teens and adults. Just remember, this is a fable and fables usually deal with a moral lesson plus personification is allowed for animals, power of nature and inanimate objects. I listened to the unabridged 4 cd Recorded Books version. Jeremy Irons does an admirable job as narrator.

mpb

Inside Alzheimer's: how to hear and honor connections with a person who has dementia

INSIDE ALZHEIMER'S
By Nancy Pearce
First Forrason Press, 2007. 300 p. Nonfiction

When the time comes in your life to know/care for someone who has dementia/Alzheimer, pick up the book "Inside Alzheimer's" by Nancy Pearce. The subtitle, "How to Hear and Honor Connections with a Person who has Dementia" is exactly what the book is about. While the first 60 pages deal a bit too much about "personal gremlins" for my liking, the premise of the book in its entirety is wonderful. Pearce refers often to her six principles to help you make a connection with an Alzheimer patient: 1) Intend to make a connection 2) Free yourself of judgment (gremlins) 3) Love 4) Be open to being loved 5) Silence 6) Thankfulness

Each chapter is filled with Pearce's personal heart warming and heart wrenching experiences dealing with dementia/Alzheimer's patients. I actually had the opportunity to attempt to use some of her wisdom when I visited my own mother-in-law. I was amazed at the results I got. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone who are friends or family members of a loved one with dementia/Alzheimer's.

mpb

In Her Shoes

IN HER SHOES
By Jennifer Weiner
Washington Square Press, 2003. 424 p. Fiction

Rose and Maggie are two sisters opposite in everything from physical appearance to accepting responsibility and yet as fate would have it, they are bound together by sisterhood and the same shoe size. Maggie messes things up i.e. her jobs, other peoples lives, her life. Rose bails Maggie out, the result of a promise made to her mother who died 20 years ago. Then one day Maggie's behavior crosses the line that even sisterhood cannot forgive.

Since the day of their mother's funeral the two sisters have had no contact with their maternal grandmother, Ella, in fact they were not sure if she was still alive. Can Ella be the key that brings these sister's back together, re-instilling the importance of family?

I listened to the Recorded Books 15.75 hours version of this novel with a very adept narrator, Barbara McCulloh. The blurbs I'd read made this sound like a fun read so I really wanted to enjoy it, but sorry to say I did not and I would have a difficult time recommending it to anyone. The graphic sex scenes and abundance of hard core language did nothing to enhance the story. I really thought I could ignore all of it and just enjoy, but I was wrong.

mpb

Letter to My Daughter

Letter to My Daughter
By George Bishop
Ballantine Books, 2010. 148 pgs. Fiction

When her 15-year-old daughter runs away from their Baton Rouge home, a guilt-ridden mother writes a healing letter about her own adolescence, marked by a strict Catholic boarding school, a forbidden romance and the origins of an enigmatic tattoo.

I picked this book up and couldn’t put it down. Reading about Laura’s adolescence and her desire to have a better relationship with her own teenage daughter was intriguing. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a quick, but meaningful read.

AMM

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife
By Robert Goolrick
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010. 305 pgs. Fiction

Ralph Truitt has spent the last twenty years in self inflicted solitude. He continues to grow his unfathomable fortune and employ almost his entire town in Northern Wisconsin; but, he does not interact with anyone beyond what is necessary, not since he lost his wife and children. But now, he wants a “reliable wife” and has ordered a bride from Chicago to share his life. Catherine Land is not the woman Ralph Truitt is expecting when she steps off the train. She is much more attractive than her letters led him to believe and Truitt is sure she is hiding a lifetime of secrets. Their unlikely marriage is filled with deception and tragedy but may lead to love and devotion if only they can learn to trust one another.

This book should not be read in January, February, or March. Its description of the long, dark, bitterly cold Wisconsin winter is likely to give readers diagnosable SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). If the synopsis didn’t give it away, this book could easily be classified a romance. This is a quick, though not light (or clean), read for someone wanting a lot of drama and only a little plausibility.

CZ

The Orange Houses

The Orange Houses
By Paul Griffin
Dial Books, 2009. 147 pgs. Fiction.

Fifteen-year-old Tamika is hearing-impaired and likes to turn off her hearing aids to block out the world around her. Eighteen-year-old Jimmi is back from a brief stint in Iraq and mentally unstable as a result. Sixteen-year-old Famita is an illegal immigrant, fresh off the boat and trying to forge a better life for herself than the violence she witnessed in her native Africa. As these three struggle with the challenges in their lives, they find a connection to one another that teaches them about life.

This book presents a bleak picture of inner-city life, complete with poverty, gang violence and lynchings. The characters remain somewhat undeveloped, and it took me a little while to get into the language of the book. Many elements of the story are sad, but the hopefulness that rises up as well makes the book worth reading.

AE

The Brightest Star in the Sky

The Brightest Star in the Sky
By Marian Keyes
Viking, 2010. 468 pgs. Fiction

At the center of this book is a Dublin townhome inhabited by an eclectic set of residents. Katie, a successful PR rep, occupies the top floor and is recovering from her fortieth birthday and her growing doubts concerning her relationship with her handsome but distant boyfriend. One floor down is young cabdriver Lydia who works as much as possible, partially to avoid her two Polish roommates and partially to escape her worries about her ailing mother. Next is the apartment of Jemima, an aging Christian “do-gooder”, and her cantankerous dog Grudge. Finally, on the ground floor, are Matt and Maeve who have been married for three years and seem to have settled into a dangerously ‘safe’ routine. And now, there is a spirit presence in the building, patiently waiting for a coming change that will alter the lives of each of these individuals.

This is an excellent piece of Women’s Literature. It is filled with current issues occurring to relatable, and likeable, characters. The women represented here span ages and life situations giving readers a glimpse into a wide range of experiences and personalities. Keyes’ story flows steadily and she is able to unfold her characters and their stories in an intriguing way. Because of some harsh language and violence, I would not recommend this book to everyone. But it is an enjoyable read if you can look past these aspects of the story.

CZ

Incarceron

Incarceron
by Catherine Fisher
Dial, 2010. 442 pgs. Young Adult

Incarceron is a prison built centuries ago to contain troublesome people, but nevertheless to hold them in a perfectly nurturing environment where their society could grow to perfection into a sort of circumscribed paradise. But from the beginning pages of this rich and complex narrative, it is clear that things have gone horribly wrong. The Civicry and the Scum do endless, violent battle, as do various other tribes and societies. Deceit, greed, and betrayal are the common coin of the realm and only one man has ever been known to escape, though he never returned to tell how. Finn, 17 years old, has no memory of life before Incarceron and is thought to be cell-born, a native. When he and his fellow Scum ambush a party of Civicry, he comes into possession of a key that allows him to communicate with someone from the Outside, Claudia, the Warden's daughter, and gives him hope for escape. The problem is that Incarceron is not just a structure, but an organism, alive with malice towards and control over its indwellers. And Claudia herself is imprisoned in her father's cold calculations for an arranged marriage that take from her everything that she truly loves. Rich in character, setting, language, and action, Fisher's book is several cuts above much recent fantasy writing (winner of the London Times' Children's Book of the Year) and well-suited for older children, teens, and grownups.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

After

After
By Amy Efaw
Viking, 2009. 350 pgs. Fiction

Fifteen-year-old Devon is a straight A student, star soccer player, and super responsible. So how is it that she hid a pregnancy for nine months and then, after giving birth all alone in her bathroom, throws the baby out with the trash? After being arrested and put in a juvenile detention center, Devon has to come to terms with what she did and why.

Amy Efaw has tackled an extremely difficult topic in this very well written book. Devon is an intriguing main character--although you know from the start that she's done something horrific, the opportunity to get inside her head shows that she's more than just a baby killer; she's a person, with hopes, dreams, and fears just like anyone else. There's so much to ponder here--and a lot to discuss with others who may read the book. As I said, it's a difficult topic but it's a wonderful book--one that made me wish there was another hundred pages to dig deeper into the topic.

AE

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada
By Lauren Weisberger
Doubleday, 2003. 360 p. Fiction

The Devil Wears Prada is an outrageous and humorous look at the life of an aspiring writer who lands an unexpected job as the assistant to the editor of an influential fashion magazine. The job is all about satisfying a self-centered boss and surviving in a world where everything is a luxury brand. Heroine Andrea Sachs has more to learn than just the ropes of her over-the-top, demanding job. How will being part of such an appearance oriented world affect her health, her love life, her family and friends? Does her future really hinge on satisfying her tyrannical boss?

If you’ve seen the movie, you may not need to read the book. But if you haven’t, read the book first. It’s a quick trip through a world few of us will ever see (thankfully). Andrea extricates herself from many preposterous situations, and in true chick lit fashion, finally has the strength to extricate herself from the most preposterous situation of all.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Compound

The Compound
By S. A. Bodeen
Square Fish, 2009. 248 pgs. Young Adult

Eli’s father always warned the family about nuclear attacks and then one happened. Eli’s father got the family into the compound he had built for just this occasion, but Eli’s twin Eddy and his Gram didn’t make it in before the door shut. Six years later Eli is tired of being stuck in the compound and tired of his father’s controlling ways. Eli isn’t alone in that regard and as his younger sister vents, he realizes that perhaps all is not as it seems in the compound. The suspense and questions build chapter by chapter in this chilling book. Not since reading Unwind by Neal Shusterman have I felt horrified by the lengths people go to for control.

MN

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Mountain of Crumbs: a Memoir

A Mountain of Crumbs
by Elena Gorokhova
New York, 2010. 305 pgs. Biography

Elena Gorkhova's mother was born in Central Russa, a provincial who came to Leningrad with her third husband and, in spite of her medical degree, was always a peasant at heart. Elena wishes for a better life away from the "games" of the Brezhnev-era Communist state, where everyone pretends to do what they are supposed to do while their "watchers" are pretending they don't know that everyone is pretending. Once a year her school class is herded onto a streetcar for a trip to Dental Clinic #34 where state-sponsored dentistry is wrought on their teeth. Elena works hard and does well in school, unlike that dvoika Dimka who is always asking uncomfortable questions and swanning around on the linoleum like he is skating. As Elena works her way through school she falls in love with the English language and has a tutor to help her get into an English-language school. Neither she nor the tutor can understand the English word "privacy." For all its dreariness and hypocrisy, Mother Russia still weaves her spell, from the gray and silver waters of the Gulf of Finland where Elena's father goes fishing, to the deep woods where she hunts mushrooms, to the golden spires of the Peter and Paul fortress. Elena manages against all odds to come to America where she sometimes wishes her daughter were more like her--one who memorized Pushkin in school, read Turgenev, could picture the perfect rows of strawberries at the dacha. But she is an American child and her mother, though a Russian soul, writes like an angel in her second tongue. Highly recommended.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Food Rules

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Books, 2009. 140 pgs. Nonfiction

This is a simple book with good ideas about eating. In the introduction the author boils down the question of how and what we should eat to "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Food rules consists of 64 rules all fit within the framework of eating food, not too much, and mostly plants. Most rules are accompanied by a paragraph of explanation. One of the first rules is "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." This rules out quite a few of the items sitting on grocery store shelves. I think my favorite is "It's not food if it arrived through the window of your car."

This little book is packed with many simple rules to guide us in food decisions. No weighing, no measuring, no calorie counting--just implementing a handful of these rules will undoubtedly improve one's health.

SML

Lady Vernon and her Daughter

Lady Vernon and her Daugher: a novel of Jane Austen's Lady Susan
Jane Rubino w/ Caitlin Rubino-Bradway
Crown Publishers, 2009. 382 p. Fiction

Adorn yourself in your most fetching Regency gown, set the table for afternoon tea and open the pages of Lady Vernon and her Daughter for a delicious respite that Austen herself would approve.

Authors Jane Rubino and Caitlin Rubino-Bradway have taken Lady Susan (a lesser known work of Jane Austen's written entirely in letter format and never published in her day) and then recreated a new story within the original. They've provided the back story, fleshing out the letters while effectively turned them inside out. What they've accomplished provides an entirely different picture of Lady Vernon's character -- and her daughter's for that matter. It's really quite a remarkable feat as they've turned a rather calculating and heartless creature into one of great sympathy. As with us all, the surface of our words and actions are never the whole story and the letters read completely different after the engaging tale the Rubinos have woven. It's a pleasure to see such clever re-structuring.

Appropriately Austen, the authors explore the fallacies of human nature and the book is an examination of the malicious effects of rumor, gossip, misinformation and half-truths -- how the evil slips and drips from one slimy tongue into the willing ear of another with acidic results. Never fear, with Austen-like fortuity, the good and the true will overcome these slanderous obstacles to gain love and fortune while the gossipmongers ultimately end up with the detritus blackening their own characters. Amid the mundane knock-offs that engulf the genre, this one is a sure hit.

DAP

Yours, Jack

Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis
Harper One, c2008. 391 p. Biography

How would you like to receive a personal letter from an intellectual and theological giant...C. S. Lewis, anyone? Well, now you can. At a young age Lewis insisted on being called Jack (and wouldn't you with a name like Clive?) and the nickname stuck, thus the title. In addition to his teaching and writing career, Lewis was a prodigious letter writer and corresponded with a staggering number of people, from the likes of Tolkien to the humblest child. They came to him with requests for prayers, praise for his books but also an earnest searching for answers to their trickiest spiritual questions. And he wrote back, faithfully.

Lewis fans will love the latest collection of his letters -- one of the best, most condensed versions available. He performed his unsolicited role of oracle and counselor with an honesty and frankness and little bits of homey comfort that warm the soul. His advice deals with myriad spiritual topics: temptation, love, prayer, etc. His answer to one query in particular reveals his mischievous, unassuming side. When a woman wrote and asked if he were handsome he replied, "Not that I know of: but I'm the last person who would know."

You'll come to know more of Lewis's personality and his personal Christian philosophy. It's an intriguing, inspirational read and perhaps you'll find an answer to one of your own spiritual musings. And I promise, you'll come away feeling you've just received a personal letter from Jack.

DAP

Cutting for Stone

Cutting for Stone
By Abraham Verghese
Knopf, 2009. 541 pgs. Fiction

A number of miracles occurred on the day that twins Marion and Shiva were born, none of which saved the life of their mother, Sister Mary Joseph Praise. She was a nun working as a surgical nurse in an Ethiopian mission hospital and had somehow kept everyone unaware of her state until she was found nearly unconscious, in labor, and bleeding terribly. From that fateful day, the boys grew and flourished under the care of the close knit hospital staff and their families. But tragedy, lies, and betrayal will tear the twins apart, as well as their surrogate family, in this dramatic tale of unending love, unbearable loss, and ultimate sacrifice.

Cutting for Stone is a story of the ties that bind us to each other, told before the backdrop of a country devastated by civil war and political upheaval. Along the lines of Poisonwood Bible, I can easily see this as something Oprah would embrace and recommend. Readers should be warned that the text is extremely graphic, though not with gratuitous sex or bloody violence. Instead, this is a book filled with surgical details beyond anything I have ever encountered in a work of fiction. At times I felt the novel could double as a surgical textbook as it described procedures and conditions that could make squeamish individuals lose their appetite for the story.

CZ

Passing Strange

Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
By Martha A. Sandweiss
Penguin Press, 2009. 370 pgs. Biography

This is the fascinating story of Clarence King, a white man born to wealth and privilege, who made a name for himself as the father of American geology…except when he was a black man known as James Todd who worked as a railroad porter to support his black wife and their five children. Yes, the two men were one and the same and Sandweiss dedicates this new biography of King to exploring the duplicity of his life and the consequences others paid for his deceptions.

There is no doubt that the story of Clarence King deserves to be told. The fact that a man could live two completely separate lives without anyone ever discovering the truth is the stuff of legend. However, so few records actually remain to illuminate how and why King managed such a feat that readers may find themselves unsatisfied with the incomplete portrait presented. What Sandweiss does present is an excellent view of race relations in the United States through the turn of the century and beyond. Not quite the revelations that were expected, but an illuminating narrative all the same.

CZ

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Reconstructing Natalie

Reconstructing Natalie
By Laura Jensen Walker
Westbow Press, 2006. 310 pgs. Fiction

Natalie is a young woman of 27 when she is diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought this would be a very serious story--and it is--yet it is replete with humor. When she shares her cancer with others there are a variety of reactions. Some friends are very supportive--others are distant. Her boyfriend is more than distant--he disappears. Natalie joins a support group, opts for a double mastectomy, undergoes weeks of chemotherapy and comes through with reconstructive surgery, a new career, new friends, and a new love interest. There's pain, embarrassment, heartache, and nausea, offset with encouragement, support, humor, and love.

SML

Nephi in the Promised Land

Nephi in the Promised Land: More Evidences That the Book of Mormon is a True History
By George D. Potter
CFI, 2009. 252 pgs. Nonfiction

Most books attempting to determine the geography of the Book of Mormon have located it in Meso-America. Now for something completely different: “Nephi in the Promised Land: More Evidences That the Book of Mormon is a True History" sets the Book of Mormon in Peru.

Potter has assembled a variety of parallels and similarities between the geography and culture depicted in the Book of Mormon and that of the Native American culture of ancient Peru. Historical accounts, mythology, geography, archaeological evidence, and linguistics are all brought to bear in Potter’s argument. There are many very interesting facts presented throughout this book. Yet despite the study that has clearly gone into this book, the resulting text is less than convincing.

Although generally attractive in its design and illustrated with many photographs and maps, I found that the horizontal oblong format was awkward to hold and read and the maps are often grainy and of poor quality. While the endnotes and handsome bibliography are useful, one wonders at the complete omission of an index. Unfortunately, this is really more of a "coffee table" book than anything else. Despite the research and documentation, the numerous parallels presented here smack more of a Sunday evening fireside than a serious academic study.

SML

Friday, March 5, 2010

Getting to Third Date

Getting to Third Date
By Kelly McClymer
Simon Pulse, 2006. 291 pgs. Young Adult

College freshman Katelyn Spears may have bitten off more than she can chew. Tyler, the school newspaper editor, convinced her to accept a position writing the dating advice column under the pseudonym Mother Hubbard. Katelyn's old-fashioned dating advice causes uproar across the campus, and Tyler challenges Katelyn to break her own dating rules--which are that (almost) every guy deserves a second date, but only someone with serious potential gets a third date. So Katelyn has to give guys she's written off a third chance and report on it as Mother Hubbard. However, this is all complicated by the fact that Katelyn has a crush on Tyler, who in turn likes Katelyn's roommate, Sophia. With the whole campus chiming on what Mother Hubbard needs to do with her love life, it remains to be seen if Katelyn can finally find the relationship she wants.

This quick-read, chick-lit-ish type book is fun and lighthearted, but at the same time, I have doubts about the appeal of the romantic male lead, so the book was somewhat unsatisfactory for me. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, either.

AE

Sweet, hereafter

Sweet, hereafter
By Angela Johnson
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010. 118 pgs. Young Adult

In the final installment on the Heaven trilogy, Shoogy has left home, not feeling like she has ever truly fit in there. While she does have friends who care for her, her biggest connection is with Curtis, even though there's a lot she doesn't know about him. Having fought in Iraq, Curtis has a lot that he won't talk about, and Shoogy never pushes him for more information, but she does witness the emotional impact war has left on him.

This book was a little hard for me to follow; it jumps back and forth between the present and the past, and I didn't feel like I knew what was going on until the last page--and while I don't want the book to give away the ending, in this case, I felt the effect was dizzying. This book is pretty short and doesn't really have the character development that I like, but it certainly gives the reader food for thought.

AE

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fat Cat

Fat Cat
By Robin Brande
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. 330 pgs. Young Adult

Cat is determined to win the science fair over Matt McKinney, her former best friend and current arch-nemesis. So when she draws a picture of naked Neanderthals as the inspiration for her project, she is stumped, until inspiration hits at the last second. Cat sees the female Homo erectus looking fit and determined and knows what she will do. Cat decides that she will experiment upon herself; she will go for seven months without modern technology or products and will eat only non-processed foods to see if she can become physically fit once again. Fat Cat will become thin, fit Cat. As the project moves forward, Cat tweaks it to examine how her new shape affects her relationships with boys, most notably her nemesis Matt.

I really enjoyed Brande’s Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature and am happy to see that her second book matches it. Cat is an engaging character who really progresses, not just physically, throughout the book, and her best friend, Amanda, is a hoot. A great, fun and easy read.

MN

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Lost to the West

Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization
By Lars Brownworth
Crown Publishers, 2009, 329 pages, Nonfiction

Why is it that Western Civilization has been largely chronicled without mentioning the powerful and influential Byzantine Empire that ruled most of the old Roman Empire for over a millennia? In this immensely readable Nonfiction work, the author brings to life some of the most fascinating and little known individuals from throughout the Byzantine era. Brownworth details the influence Byzantium had on Western Europe and proves that without the Byzatine Empire to keep the Turks at bay, Europe would have been overrun.

After visiting Istanbul, I was very interested to learn more about its storied past. This book was very easy to understand and I definitely learned a few things I’d never known before.

AJ

The Story Sisters

The Story Sisters
Alice Hoffman

Shaye Areheart Books, 2009. 325 pgs. Fiction

The Story sisters are three in number, which is fortunate as three is a number of auspicious significance. Elv, Meg and Claire all look alike with their pale skin and dark hair. They are close in age and closer in sympathy. But it is Elv who is perhaps the most beautiful, and with a gift for story-telling she inherits from her mother Elv creates a separate faerie world for she and her sisters, with a secret language and bonding rituals that completely envelop them. But, good fortune turns on the girls the summer before their parents’ divorce and into their secret world creep demons and dark shadows and evil things that can’t be spoken.

Hoffman explores the relationship between the three girls and their mother—the intimacy that exists and the perils that befall them. It is a story of lost innocence and lost dreams but, is also a story of survival and acceptance. There is a bit of beauty in Hoffman’s style, but it’s equally disturbing and I'm still reeling. The author weaves a tale of darkness and loss, so painful that not one woman remains intact from the hurt that bruises and then breaks them. The novel is raw and intense, but utterly mesmerizing. Hoffman’s depiction of some harsh realities won’t appeal to everyone, but for those in search of a literary take on the chick-lit genre this might be one to tackle.

DAP

Brava, Valentine

Brava, Valentine
By Adriana Trigiani
Harper Collins, 2010, 332 pages, Fiction.

In this sequel to Very Valentine, Valentine Roncalli has now taken over the family shoe company where they make custom wedding shoes. Valentine has big plans to turn the company into a designer shoe store, but when her grandmother forces a partnership between Valentine and her judgmental brother, Alfred, she fears their animosity toward one another will hinder any progress the company might make.

Valentine also has romantic troubles. Gianluca, the sexy older Italian man she first met in Very Valentine is pursuing her. He seems like the perfect man, but she doesn’t have time to focus on a relationship (especially a long distance one) when she is trying to save Angelini Shoes. And of course her crazy Italian-American family is always in the mix.

I have enjoyed reading this series. Trigiani always has excellent characters dealing with real issues set in beautifully descriptive worlds.

AJ

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Quilter's Apprentice

The Quilter's Apprentice
By Jennifer Chiaverini
Simon & Schuster, 1999, 271 pgs. Fiction

Sarah is struggling to find a new job, new friends and a purpose in life after she moves to Waterford, PA with her husband. While she is looking for an accounting job, she takes a temporary job for the cantankerous Sylvia Compson to clean out her family estate so that it can be sold. Sylvia is a master quilter, and the two women become good friends as she teaches Sarah how to quilt. During these lessons, pieces of Sylvia's family life are revealed as well as the history of Elm Creek Manor.

I am not a quilter so I wasn't sure about reading a book that dealt mostly with quilting. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Sarah and Sylvia are just two of the many wonderful characters found in this book. It was a quick, easy, clean read.

AL