"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Search by Nora Roberts

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: The only surviving victim of a now-jailed serial killer is haunted by a copycat while enjoying her new relationship with an artist.

When a formula works, many authors stick with it. Here's Nora Roberts' formula.  One sexy heroine, who is an expert in her field, -archeology, photography, gardening, glass-blowing, magic (yes, I know), baking, hostage negotiation (yeah, it sound silly)- meets a man and has instant heat with him. They spar verbally, and then have explosive sex. Then the woman analyzes the relationship out loud, usually while shoe shopping or having spa time with her close girlfriend(s) but accepts that if the man doesn't feel the same way, she's okay with that, because she's an independent woman with a career and good friends, and she's just enjoying the sex too much. Then some minor thing occurs - the woman fixes his coffee just right, or rescues a cat - and then the man realizes he's in love too. Oh, and don't forget the moisturizer! Roberts' heroines always use moisturizer, even if they don't always use condoms.

Roberts' books are simplistic, predictable, and usually very enjoyable (Try Vision in White.) But The Search is Nora Roberts' attempt to get her readers to accept the more violent side of her writing, which she had already done in her many futuristic Eve Dallas books, written by her pseudonym J.D. Robb.

Here, Roberts takes her basic formula and adds a copycat serial killer to the mix. Fiona is the only surviving victim of a now-jailed serial killer. Fiona lives on an island now and is a search-and-rescue team leader and dog trainer. She is now being stalked by an acolyte of the killer. She also is having lots of (dining room table) sex with an wood-working artist who is grumpy and untidy. Instead of being heart-poundingly scary, the book felt like too many elements (along with the typical ones) were crammed into one book. I get that people's lives are complicated, but Roberts' books work best when her readers can identify with the main characters, at least a little bit. I imagine that the pool of surviving victims of serial killers is relatively small, and that they may not want to read modern romance novels about themselves.  Disappointing read, compared with early Tami Hoag.

Friday, November 26, 2010

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Nurtureshock challenges many accepted modern parenting beliefs by sharing case studies and research.
"Nurtureshock," as the term is generally used, refers to the panic - common among new parents- that the mythical foundation of knowledge is not magically kicking in at all.
I was hoping this book would simply say: Calm down, parents, but instead it actually made me more nervous. (I think I'll have to reread Free-Range Kids, now.) Since Po Bronson is also the author of What Should I do with My Life?, I had hoped that Nurtureshock would end up being more like How Should I Parent My Kid? but it feels scold-y and superior.

Each chapter states a commonly held parenting belief - My kid doesn't lie; PBS television is better than regular TV; Gifted kids always stay gifted; Siblings make for better adults - and tears them down. It opens with the oft-repeated conventional wisdom, then uses a specific case study of one child to disprove that theory. Then comes a fairly obscure and limited research project that invalidates the original (wrong) belief.   The research answers are encouraging, but somehow they just don't make for sexy headlines.

If you're an insecure parent who relies on lots of statistics, this book will appeal to you. If you feel able to buck parenting trends and have one or two parenting books that make sense to you, you can skip this book without feeling like you're missing anything.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Insatiable by Meg Cabot

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Soap opera writer Meena Harper is sick of vampires, especially when they become an integral part of the plot of her series Insatiable. And when Meena meets a real life vampire who makes all her other dreams come true, Meena is torn. 

Author Meg Cabot, best known for her Princess Diaries, is an underrated writer.  Insatiable has humor, romance, danger and is bitingly appropriate. It's also thoroughly researched and well-written. But I absolutely hated the ending. It made me sick.

My Nook digital reader came with Bram Stoker's Dracula novel, which I immediately archived, since I have no interest in reading that. But Meg Cabot pays chick-lit homage to the novel, recognizing and altering the classic characters and with plot points "ripped from the headlines." It's enough to make me add Dracula back on so I can read it and compare.

Cabot's heroine Meena Harper is a tribute to Mina Harker, wife of Jonathan Harker, from the original Dracula novel. In Insatiable, Jon Harper is Meena's brother, although they do share the same apartment after Jon lost his job. Dracula's Jonathan and Mina Harker try to rescue Lucy, but in 2010 New York, Jon and Meena try to rescue Meena's best friend Leisha. There are other clever wordplays and references to Dracula and the story is linguistically accurate as well. The word Dracul translates to the word dragon.

Meena Harper is psychic. She can tell when someone is going to die. But after years of being ostracized for her gruesome talent, she's isolated herself, living a fulfilling but sometimes frustrating life as head writer for the popular soap opera Insatiable. (Think Liz Lemon writing drama.) Then orders come from on high, telling Meena to introduce vampires to the show or lose her job. Vampires it is.

While Meena is out walking her dog one night (goofily named Jack Bauer), she is attacked by bats and saved by a handsome man. Stunned and scared, Meena hurries back home. The next day at a dinner party, she meets her neighbor's cousin, a Romanian prince named Lucien. And the prince is none other than the man who rescued her the night before.

The romance between Meena and Lucien is hot (Meg Cabot writes sexy well) and both Lucien and Meena are excited beyond belief to find someone who accepts them for who they are. The night after their passion, Lucien even send Meena the Marc Jacobs dragon tote she's been eyeing for months. How did he understand her so completely? (I checked, there is no real dragon tote.) Until Meena discovers that Lucien is a vampire. Okay, not only is she surrounded by vampires (which deeply offends feminist Meena), but now her brother and some strange vampire hunter named Alaric are trying to break them up.

Danger and hilarity ensue.

And then we get to the end, which I will NOT reveal. I felt betrayed as a reader and disappointed in Meg Cabot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Secret of Joy by Melissa Senate

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Just before her father dies, Rebecca finds out he has fathered a child and abandoned her long ago. Rebecca finds her long-lost sister. 

About to marry her long-time boyfriend and boss, Rebecca is delighted and stunned to discover that she has a sister she's never met. Of course, her father's deathbed confession that he had an affair 26 years ago and fathered a child he's had no contact with since leaves Rebecca reeling, especially since she always thought her parents had the perfect marriage.

I loved this book. The complex and messy emotions contained in the book were perfectly described and understandable. The anger, joy, frustration, confusion and stubbornness of being an adult and recognizing your parents' flaws carry this above and beyond a typical chick-lit novel.

Bereft over the upcoming loss of her father, Rebecca is also angered and confused. How could her father, her loving and attentive father, have abandoned her sister? Was her entire relationship with her father a fantasy? And what was her parents' marriage really like? And why did he tell her now?
"If your dad felt that guilty, he would have tracked her down at some point over the past twenty-six years. It's a deathbed confession, Rebecca. It's to ease his heart. It's so he can die in peace." 
But when she is reprimanded professionally for getting too emotional at work after her father's death, Rebecca takes a leave of absence to track down her sister, Joy. Her boyfriend/boss Michael thinks tracking down her long-lost sister is a terrible idea, but something compels Rebecca north to Maine.
"WELCOME TO MAINE: THE WAY LIFE SHOULD BE. The sign seemed like her fortune, her horoscope, her Magic 8 Ball answer. Her life was not the way it should be, and she knew it, had known it for a while. She liked the idea that simply passing the sign meant she was working on that."
Joy lives in Maine and runs singles tours on the Love Bus. But Joy's own marriage is in trouble and she rejects all of Rebecca's attempts at friendship and connection. Joy was rejected her whole life by Rebecca's father and now, after his death, the only way she can express the pain of that rejection is by rejecting Rebecca. But Joy is the only family Rebecca has left and Rebecca needs something from Joy, just as she simply needs joy.

The characters are well-developed, with human flaws and needs. I cried with the characters and even though this book had an unexpected happy ending, I hope to read more about these people.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Silencing Sam by Julie Kramer

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A reporter under suspicion of murder must find the real killer to prove her innocence.

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher.

Don’t tell the mayor, but Minneapolis is ‘Murderoplis’ again. Julie Kramer’s newest thriller, Silencing Sam, brings murder to your front door with wit and a fresh take on current events Minnesotans will secretly relish.

Ambitious television reporter Riley Spartz is back in Julie Kramer’s third novel, having moved to Minneapolis after the recent attempts on her life in White Bear Lake. Yet Minneapolis doesn’t seem much safer, once a headless female corpse is found in Theo Wirth Park. Expecting to be assigned the story, Riley’s visible story is usurped by new colleague Clay Burrel, a transplant from Texas, who is almost as ambitious as Riley herself.

His arrogance and smug sexism infuriates Riley but there are bigger problems at work. Riley’s fictional Channel 3 is in trouble, and the ratings chase continues. Her boss advises her,
“I was thinking maybe you should take a look at airbrush make-up now that we’ve gone digital.” 
Ouch. When the station brings in a consultant -

“Your next job review will take into account how many Facebook friends you accumulate, especially in our viewing area.”

In addition to work tension, Riley is struggling on the personal front. Her burgeoning romance with former Minneapolis cop Nick Garnett is hampered by Nick’s assignment working for Homeland Security in D.C. Even worse, her private life has come under the malicious eye of newspaper gossip columnist Sam Pierce.
 “Because Minneapolis has fewer and lower-level celebrities than places like New York or Los Angeles, fairly minor indiscretions by fairly unimportant people that otherwise would be shrugged off get blown into headlines. 
Anybody who complained to Sam’s editors about the coverage went on his sh*t list and got bombed harder the next time. And there was always a next time.”
The day after Riley ignores Sam’s request for insider dirt on new coworker Clay, Sam takes his revenge in print. Sam Pierce insinuates that Riley had cheated on her dead husband with her current lover. Insulted, outraged and defensive, Riley dumps a glass of wine on him. Given the witnesses, and the victim, she is immediately charged with misdemeanor assault. Her charge should be dismissed, but the judge wants to set an example and convicts Riley.

When Sam is murdered a few days later, Riley is the most obvious and best-known suspect. Naturally, Channel 3 has an exclusive with Riley, billing her as the woman accused of murdering a local journalist. When the power of the press is used to investigate anything Riley’s working on, it’s the sword of justice. But when the media attention focuses on her alleged killing of Sam, she complains about accuracy and privacy rights. Annoying as that is, it feels very real.
“What really bothered me was that I was being portrayed as a sociopath…psychopath… even lunatic. Sam was being painted as a victim. And not just a murder victim, either. A First Amendment martyr.” 
In order to clear her name, keep her job, cover a popular story and avoid jail, Riley investigates who in Minneapolis would need to silence Sam once and for all.

The Minnesota references add a layer of delight for local readers. Riley mentions three other citizens who are also likely suspects in Sam’s murder -
“First, a repeat drunk driver who caused a child’s death; next, a Ponzi scheme engineer who cheated dozens; last, a crooked car dealer who’d been a household name.” 
That’s specific enough that Minnesotans know exactly who she’s talking about, but vague enough that readers in other states can enjoy this book without worrying about the details. One of Sam’s other victims is the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. What company? And who? What’s the secret worth hiding? The hunky Timberwolves player can’t actually be a Gopher baskeball player, but we know who he’s supposed be. Kramer never names the Star Tribune outright but always refers to it as “the Minneapolis paper”. Instead of making the gossip columnist look like a young, black woman (C.J.), it’s an old white man. Just enough difference so that Kramer is safe, even though C.J.’s the only Minneapolis gossip columnist I know of.

The mystery is bogged down by another story Riley must cover, the bombings of wind turbines in southern Minnesota. While Riley needs something to do when she’s not on camera, it muddled the fast-paced tone of Kramer’s other books. Stalking Susan is her strongest book, amazing for a debut novel. The back-and-forth affection between Riley and ex-cop Nick Garnett are funny and tender. I look forward to having Riley and Nick navigate their relationship and balance the demands of their jobs in future novels.

It’s a pleasure to read books that reflect life as we currently know it, even if it means more murders in Minneapolis this year. Social networking, local politics, white-collar crime and pop culture references make this a delicious summer read for local news fiends and mystery fans.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden by William Alexander

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: A father notes the process of building and growing his ideal garden.

The idea of how delicious a $64 tomato would taste makes me swoon a little in anticipation, so of course I had to read this book.

It’s quite funny. I found myself laughing in almost every chapter, as Alexander shares the joys, triumphs and frustrations of establishing a home garden.

Having grown up gardening and growing my own (award-winning) food as a child, I now find gardening books about as interesting as a book on dental work. Been there, done that and now will you please shut up about it since I had the sense to stop and you didn’t? I know how obsessive people get about their gardens, but hearing people talk about their gardens is, for me, like hearing old people talk about their ailments. They find it interesting but don’t know when to stop.
“People – all people, including me – have no objectivity when it comes to their driving, their cooking, or their gardens.”
Yet, despite their obliviousness, there is something special about a garden.

Alexander calls it correctly when he says,
“It seemed to say, “Come, bring me your seeds and water, and I will reward you.” And it would. And also humble me, and teach me, and become a place of solace, a battleground, a source of pride, a source of frustration, a time sink, a respite.”
Alexander chronicles his struggles with growing apples:
“Not only was I still trying to live up to the exemplar of my father’s organic apple orchard, but I am a natural-fibers, NPR-supporting, recycling, compost-making, left-of-center environmentalist, and I put my money where my mouth is, supporting local groups like Scenic Hudson to clean our rivers and curb development. Yet I was an environmentalist with a problem: I wanted to grow apples.
So when the serpent offered me the pesticide-sprayed apple,… I accepted it.”
Roses, herbs, his battles with a groundhog he calls Superchuck (think Caddyshack) and his beautiful $64 Brandywine tomatoes.

Way better than Coop but not as good as Animal Vegetable Miracle, this book is a nice companion for people who still wistfully look over the Burpee seed catalog, but sigh and instead head to the co-op or their CSA pick-up.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Small Change by Sheila Roberts

Please note: Links pointing to Amazon contain my affiliate ID. Sales resulting from clicks on those links will earn me a percentage of the purchase price. So buy and read now!

Summary: Three neighbors with financial difficulties decide to work together to solve their problems.

I was given a copy of this book by the publisher.

When you laugh by the second page, that’s a good sign that you’ll enjoy the book. But I was also wincing in sympathy by the end of the first chapter.  If you liked the Shopaholic series, then this is the updated realistic version: Frugalistas or Recessionistas.

Tiffany has been struggling with infertility and is a compulsive bargain hunter.
“As far as Tiffany was concerned, the three sexiest words in the English language were fifty percent off. She was a world-class bargain hunter (not surprising, since she’d sat at the feet of an expert- her mom), and she could smell a sale a mile away.
Good as she was at ferreting out a bargain, she wasn’t good with credit cards. It hadn’t taken Tiffany long to snarl her finances to the point where she and Brian had to sue their small, start-a-family savings and Brian’s car fund to bail her out.”
Jess and her husband chose to stay in Heart Lake after he lost his job and now Jess has to find a job at age 44 after being out of the work force for years. Her wardrobe is sparkly pink tank tops and flip-flops and her typing skills are abysmal.
“She thought of having to face that one-hour commute on a regular basis and shuddered. You don’t have to find full-time employment, she reminded herself, something part time will do. Nothing at all would do better. She really wasn’t cut out to be an office drone.”
And Rachel is a newly-divorced mother, scared to say no to her kids’ constant demand for stuff after the divorce.
“She needed another prince like she needed a third boob. She already had her hands full with Aaron, who was as lousy an ex as he once was a husband – always late with his child support payments, but still managing to come up with money for presents for the kids and frequent trips to Pizza Heaven to ensure his status as the favorite parents. She’d been coping with all of that, pretty much, but now she’d been set adrift in a leaky raft on a stormy financial sea. Was she a survivor?”
So these three neighbors, who are all struggling financially, change their Friday night craft nights into the Small Change club, determined to improve that small financial changes can make a big difference. Tiffany starts a small e-Bay business, with delightfully funny results, Rachel starts a popular blog with real recipes I plan to use, and Jess always reminds herself (and us) what is most important – a loving family, health and togetherness.

Easy to read, well-researched, and authentic, this book has something for everyone, even some solid financial advice. But you’ll have to read the book yourself to get those gems.

What I especially liked is that while this book had an essentially happy ending, it was not a typical story-book ending. The problems were solved in a realistic way that, while not ideal, certainly made sense. It’s not as fluffy as typical chick-lit, not as righteous as the Christian fiction I read but instead was a story of solid friendship in the middle of financial hardships.