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

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

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Summary: A nurse is determined to deliver the message of a man who died in her care.

Bess Crawford is my new favorite character. She's an army nurse for the British in WWI (long before we ever knew there would be a WWII) and she is a tough cookie, having been injured when a nursing boat is damaged and sunk after an encounter with a bomb. While she's recovering, she travels to the family of a man she nursed, one she had begun to care for deeply.

She is coldly received by the family and yet when she delivers the message, she becomes even more concerned. Was Arthur, her wounded soldier, covering up a crime? And is his family covering up a greater one? At every turn, Bess is reminded that she has a duty to the dead, but does Bess also have a duty to the living? This was a surprising mystery and one that perfectly captured the mood and time of the setting as well.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Whistlin' Dixie in a Nor'easter by Lisa Patton

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Summary: A Memphis belle helps her husband open a B&B in snowy Vermont.

I liked everything about this book. I wavered between giving it 4 or 5 stars, but decided on 5 because, even as much as I could predict what would (and did) happen, I kept coming back to it and stayed up to finish it.

Leelee Satterfield has the perfect life in Memphis: her handsome husband, whom she nabbed in college, after she got boobs; a gorgeous house, supportive friends, and happy children. And one night her husband tells her he's profoundly unhappy and the only thing that will ever make him happy is to be the owner of an inn in Vermont. Since Leelee has never said no to Baker -ever-, she sells her house and uses the money along with her father's inheritance to buy the Vermont Haus Inn.

Despite all the red flags, including a smelly house and a tiny bedroom, Leelee reluctantly settles in to life in Vermont, constantly surprised at al the things she never knew about before: black ice, flies that bite, rook rakes, sonic booms and nor'easters. But the biggest surprise of all is when her husband forgets their wedding anniversary and instead leaves her a note telling her he's fallen in love with an older woman and will be taking a job managing her ski resort instead.

The weakest part of the novel for me was how capable and collected Leelee seemed after the man she has adored forever left her high and dry with a cook who hates her and a falling-down building. The rest of the book travels upon predictable paths - her new cook is single and gorgeous, her girlfriends from Memphis come to the rescue, but it worked in sweet and tender ways. I'm ready for more Leelee.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Blind Fury by Lynda La Plante

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Summary: A British detective must enlist the help of a jailed serial rapist to catch another serial rapist.

Another book featuring Detective Anna Travis, my second favorite character after La Plante's Jane Tennyson. When the battered naked body of a woman is found alongside the M1 motorway, it is the 3rd body found as such. Detective Travis is assigned to the case and starts the laborious task of going back through very cold cases.

At times it seems as if they'll never catch a break, but good old fashioned police work, pouring through files, reviewing CCTV and re-interviewing witnesses many times, they finally have a lead. In teh way that Prime Suspect focuses on one man and just wear him down, the same situation happens here. But during one of the many trips to listen to jailed psychopath muse over case files and listen to his creepy insinuations, Anna strikes up a friendship with a young guard there, Ken.

Anna and Ken quickly develop a romance and while Anna still doggedly tries to solve the case, she starts to realize that there might be more to life than police work. Finding the soft center of this hardened police woman was delightful as a reader and the story was dramatic in only Lynda La Plante's way.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Forbidden Sea by Sheila Nielson

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Summary: A young girl must sacrifice herself to save her town from the wrath of a mermaid.

Adrianne is always rescuing people. She ran the house after her father died, because her mother couldn't make any decisions. Unfortunately, Adrianne led them into poverty. She rescued dogs, horses and homeless children, often giving them the food from her own table. And when her sister Cecily goes missing, Adrianne climbs out on the rocks to save Cecily from the storm. A hand grabs onto Adrianne's arm and pulls her into water.

A mermaid? Is the Windwaithe Mermaid trying to kill Adrianne or drag her down to the depths of the sea to marry a merman?  Adrianne resists the mermaid's call as long as she can, until finally she is dragged into the ocean.

Once she is under, Adrianne's panic resides a bit. She can breathe underwater and the mermaid, Jendayi, informs her that she is chosen to be the bride of the merpeople's prince. Where the story goes from here is surprising and I raced through the last chapters despite a slow middle section. Creative, unique and well-written. I enjoyed this more and would gladly welcome any sequel or spin-off.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Girl in the Steel Corset by Kady Cross

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Summary: A steampunk novel about a young Victorian girl with extraordinary powers.

Finley Jayne is working as a housemaid in a house in London when she is attacked by the son of the master of the house.  Instead of submitting, a voice inside Finley encourages her to fight back. This excites the young lord, but Finley soon realizes she is fighting for more than her virtue; she is fighting for her life. But that voice inside her takes over, helps Finley win the fight and ends with the lord crumpled and bleeding against a wall. Finley escapes into the night and runs straight into Lord Griffin King. Literally, she runs into his velocycle.

Since this is a steampunk novel, Griffin uses his wrist telegraph to communicate that he's bringing Finley home to his mansion. Finley joins Griff's motley crew of associates, Sam, who's part automaton; Emily, an Irish lass who's a mechanical genius, American cowboy Jasper Finn and Griffin himself, who can command the power of the Aether.

If this sounds a bit like that terrible Sean Connery movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you are not alone. In the  acknowledgments, the author thanks her editor for letting her write The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets X-men teens. This is absolutely accurate, but did not make for an original book, even though this book is often recommended as a classic YA steampunk fiction. It has a teen heroine torn between two men, one who admires her dark side, and one who makes her aspire to be more, even as she is conscious of the difference in their status. Lots of fighting, lots of new technology, but it just felt stale to me. I wish I could have recommended it more. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The GQ Candidate by Keli Goff

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Summary: A black and Jewish man runs for president.

Of course, he's handsome. Although the press calls Luke Cooper "The GQ Candidate," and it's the title of the book, it's not really about him. At first, I thought it would be about his wife Laura (yes, the cutesy-ness of 'Luke & Laura' does not escape the author), then it seemed to focus on how the friends of the candiadte would deal with his new campiagn for president.

Luke Cooper is black, but was adopted by a Jewish family long ago. So he is both black and Jewish. The Jewish part seemed thrown in by the author, since it's obvious that Luke is some sort of disengaged Christian, as he certainly didn't practice any Judaism in the book. I could tell the author hadn't really researched that plot device well. Luke's best friend is a preacher and the preacher's father also a preacher, who calls Luke "son."  Luke does far more Christian worshipping than any Jewish worshipping.

Despite Luke Cooper being both black and Jewish and a presidential candidate, there is no mention of any secret service detail or any death threats. Instead, the campaign scandals are a violent drunk friend who heckles the crowd, and former Muslim girlfriend with mild terrorist ties.

I felt that this book was good, but not great, needing more polish. There were grammatical errors early on, and many plot holes. Some characters come on strong and then fade out of memory, and there were many characters to keep in the story. It ended as you would expect, but with minimal closure for most of the characters. The concept was interesting but as a book, it wasn't strong.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Save Me by Lisa Scottoline

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Summary: During a school fire, a mom is torn between saving her daughter or the kids in her care, with deadly consequences.

I originally thought this was a book about bullying, but it was so much more. Rose volunteers as a lunch mom at her daughter Melly's school, hoping to intervene in the some of the constant bullying that Melly is a victim to. 

On Rose's very first day, she sees Melly run away in tears and hide in the bathroom. Rose goes over to confront the girl, and the entire lunchroom is rocked by a gas explosion. In a split second, Rose must decide: Does she go back in towards the fire in hopes of saving Melly, or does she get the girls she's talking to to safety?  Rose escorts the bullying girls to the door to outside and then runs back in, hoping to save Melly. Melly has locked the door and has passed out from smoke inhalation.

Rose does save Melly, but just barely. Unfortunately, the chief bully ran back inside for her ipod and lays in a coma. Rose goes from hero mom to social pariah in a day. Confession time here: I have never finished a Jodi Picoult book. I find her writing maudlin and cliched. The first part of this book seemed to be very much written in a Picoult-ish style (instead of Scottoline's style) and I almost didn't continue. In fact, it took me a long time to push through.

I'm glad I did persevere because the book became much of what I love about Lisa Scottoline's style: ordinary women doing sneaky adventurous things and escaping danger. The ending was a little too neat and tidy but certain scenes made my heart race. Not Scottoline's best, but decent.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

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Summary: The renovation of her grandmother's house changes Willa's life and the town of Walls of Water in unexpected ways. 

This book was a major disappointment to me, lacking the wonder and joy that Sarah Addison Allen's previous books have. In fact, If think her writing has actually gone downhill with each subsequent novel, though I still recommend Garden Spells to almost everyone.

The invitations go out to everyone, celebrating the renovation of the Blue Ridge Madam, the house that Willa's grandmother lived in many years ago, and the reinstatement of the Women's Club that was once such an integral part of this town. Of course, that old peach tree must come down. The grandmothers of the last two founding women, Paxton Osgood and Willa Jackson, are in the same nursing home in town. When Agatha Osgood troubles herself to visit Georgie Jackson all the way over on the other side of the nursing home, the two women, one blind and one catatonic, both know their terrible secret will be revealed. Can you guess?

By page 54, I could predict that they would find a long-buried body under the peach tree. Whose body could it be. And who murdered him? You can guess, and I foolishly read the 200 other pages of the book, just to have it confirmed that yes, Paxton's brother would end up getting together with Willa and that Paxton's friendship with Sebastian would turn into something more.

This book was predictable and cliched: a barista who can tell what people need by their drink, a magic wind that whispers, a slick con man who deserved to die. Read a different Sarah Addison Allen book or anything else.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

August Rejects

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I try to give each book at least 50 pages, but with so many great books out there (and two book clubs a month), I want to spend my time reading books I actually enjoy. I'd rather not spend time writing full reviews on books I Did Not Finish. This list includes the books I picked up and rejected in August:

Fourth Sunday: The Journey of a Book Club by B. W. Read Summary (from the back of the book):"Over two years, the women undergo a number of trials within their own lives as they confront divorce, illness, romantic highs and lows, sexual experimentation, and career challenges. Throughout the good times and bad times, their book club family provides support, encouragement, laughter, and love." I thought our book club was so unique and special when we each wrote one chapter from our memoirs and then compiled them in an anthology. We were too late in thinking we created another stunt genre because a book club based in D.C. wrote their own novel. Unfortunately, it's terrible. B.W. Read stands for Because We Read. The book was written in a James Patterson style: lots of short chapters, leading/hinting sentences and immediate back story.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life by Sandra Beasley

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Summary: A woman's recounting of life and food allergies.

Initial thoughts after reading this book: I'm so glad we're not Catholic. Also, could my prenatal vitamins have caused my daughter's wheat allergy?

Sandra Beasley is lucky to be alive. Given the types of food she's allergic to (egg, beef, shrimp, milk (even goat's milk), soy, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish and mustard) she takes many risks with her diet and constantly recounts her allergic attacks in this book. She doesn't ask what's in drinks, preferring instead to be a good sport, then vomits and spends the night huddled on the couch in a Benadryl-induced haze. Her reluctance to manage her significant food allergies annoyed me, as if she kept trying to prove how normal she was and how she's suffers, just by bravely going along.

But Beasley, along with many people with food allergies, doesn't use her epi-pen, because she doesn't want to be a freak. She also doesn't want to automatically go to the E.R. It also made me wonder if perhaps Beasley's symptoms are psychosomatic, that she enjoys drawing attention from whomever is the star of the day - a new bride, an engaged friend, a birthday girl. It's so unsympathetic, I know, but her reactions, combined with her food allergies and her reluctance to use effective medicine, makes me suspicious.

As Dr. Phil would ask, "How's that working for ya?" It works quite well, because Beasley simply does NOT take care of herself, instead preferring the coddling and special attention she gets.  My daughter does have allergies, and we are VERY careful to avoid exposure, bringing instead special cupcakes to birthday parties and always providing safe, fun snacks. But Beasley will take "one bite" pretending that she's being polite, but then undergoing a reaction.

I thought the book lacked structure, hopping from subject and time period, with little cohesiveness. We are introduced to her childhood allergies, then college, years, then her current boyfriend, then a previous boyfriend, with an unclear narrative direction. It surprised me to find out that Beasley was actually a writer, since this book was not an easy read. Perhaps her food reviews (yes, we all appreciate the irony of an allergic food writer) require only a few words, and not the smooth transitions required in a book.

I did like the part on wheat allergies and the Catholic Church's stand on the gluten in the communion wafer the best. Apparently, the body of Christ can only be found in wheat wafers, and the Catholic church suggests taking only part of the wafer as gluten-free wafer, are not acceptable according to the Catholic Church. This was the part that made me glad we're not Catholic.

The other fascinating part of the book, for me, focused on Beasley's visit to a food allergy conference. She encounters charts displays, diagrams and giveaways. I wanted more discussion about the link between the increase of prenatal folic acid and allergies, or the Hygiene Hypothesis or other suggested causes of food allergies. Case studies of adult she knows, and how they manage their  own food allergies with their children in the house did redeem the book slightly, but seemed thrown in at the end. I wish I could recommend this book, but the poor writing and the author's self-abuse by eating allergenic foods bothered me too much.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris

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Summary: Just after their marriage, Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth Darcy solve a mystery. 

You know by now how much I adore Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And I'm constantly reading books inspired by or involving the characters. This book, which takes place just after Darcy and Elizabeth get married, is really closest in tone (style, syntax) to P&P.

While there is quite a bit more informality between Darcy and Elizabeth, it gave me a small thrill to see them happily married. Soon after their marriage, Miss Caroline Bingley - yes, the same Caroline Bingley who practically destroyed Jane's chance at happiness in P&P - marries an American. That night, she is seen wandering the street, about to be attacked by footpads. Darcy rescues her, and Elizabbeth and Darcy take the new Mrs. Parrish home. After an incident during riding and a botched suicide attempt, Bingley and Jane and Mr. and Mrs. Hurst (Charles and Caroline's married sister) decide to host Mr. and Mrs. Parrish and a Professor of Religious Artifacts and Mr. Parrish's friend at Netherfield, in an attempt to heal Caroline. Darcy and Elizabeth are loyal, so they accompany everyone to Netherfield and stay with them. The book dragged in the middle, but jumps right into the problems.

Bingley and Caroline are involved in a potentially fatal carriage accident, there's a damaging housefire at Netherfield and a stabbing. Who is the intended victim here? Is it Bingley and his fortune? Caroline Parrish? Darcy? Together, and separately, Elizabeth and Darcy solve the mystery and save the day.

While the writing was not as good as Austen's, I look forward to many more novels featuring Mr. and Mrs. Darcy.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chasing Fire by Nora Roberts

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Summary: Montana firefighters find romance during the fire season.

Nora Roberts must be having a mid-life crisis or lots of senior sex. (She's 61.) In this book, the heroine's father finds romance as well, and even though I know that older people do have sex, the sex scenes seemed more intense than usual.
The king became a stallion, rearing over his mate.
When she cried out, fisting around him in climax, his blood beat in triumph. And letting himself go, he rode that triumph over the edge.

The romance of Rowan's father and a middle-aged divorced principal took on greater weight in the story, likely because Roberts herself is on her recent second marriage and won't have to worry about birth control any more. Nah! But she does have adult kids, who likely are struggling with her new romance, the Rowan struggled with her father's.

Lately, with the exception of the Bride quartet, her main female characters are adrenaline junkies, with men who are protective, yet like tough broads. In this one, Rowan Tripp is a "salsa-eating, tequila-downing, smoke-jumping stunner with brains and a wicked uppercut."

I figured out the villain pretty early on in the book, and kept wondering why such a smart woman was so stupid! But it also may be that I totally know Roberts' work and can guess the villains, too. The romance didn't have that many obstacles, and that was really nice. If you're a Nora Roberts fan, this review won't sway you either way. But if you're new to her (what, do you live under a rock?), this would not be the one I would recommend. That would be Angels Fall, which was also made into a Lifetime movie starring Heather Locklear.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time by Laurie David & Kirstin Uhrenholdt

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Summary: Advice and suggestions from celebrities, nutritionists, chefs and parents about how to connect with your children during the dinner hour. 

This book was like the September Issue of Vogue magazine, but for dinner. It's not quite a cohesive book, but a series of short articles, recipes, ideas and games to make eating dinner as a family a goal.

However, it's inspiring and thought-provoking. I loved it. Laurie David, wife of Larry David (Seinfeld co-creator) and environmentalist, hired a chef to cook for her when her work got too involved for her to cook for her kids and still eat together. Their cook Kirstin Uhrenholdt provides many of the recipes but celebrity chefs from Cat Cora to Mark Bittman (currently my new foodie crush) share recipes. Hiring a personal chef is ridiculous to me, but keep in mind they live in Hollywood, where there's often more money than sense. However, if I could afford a personal chef, I would in a heartbeat.

The book talks about meatless Mondays, alternative protein sources and ways to eat better without hurting the earth. There are also game a discussion ideas (my kids eagerly played long), gardening advice, storage advice - really, a little bit of everything; just like a magazine.

What I really wanted, and partially got, were guidelines for how we should act as a family together. Laurie's 10 steps are what I wanted even if Step Five: Everyone Tries Everything led to table pounding, slammed plates and one child in tears.There's also advice from Ellyn Sattler, one of the food experts and someone with whose philosophy I struggle.

I so want my husband to read this book, but he's too busy. (Yes, I do appreciate the irony.) But this advice only reinforces the ways I can practice my beliefs about good citizenship, parenting, and nutrition. My only disappointment was that there was only a casual mention of food allergies and sensitivities, but planning meals when two children have different food issues is difficult even for a nutritionist, and not just a busy mom who loves to read.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Spy in the House (The Agency 1) by Y.S. Lee

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Summary: A clandestine women's detective agency operates in Victorian London.

Mary Quinn is saved from the gallows at age twelve and is reared in a girls finishing school. When she grows bored with her safe life, she is invited by the headmistress there to train and becomes a spy for The Agency. Dun dun dun. What I hoped for would be details of the training, and quirky teachers, but instead her training was glossed over and we jump to Mary's first job.

She is expected to find details about English cargo ships that have been sunk, and whether or not the owner, Mr. Therold is committing fraud. There's also a main agent who's working on this case, but Mary serves in the Therold house as companion to Mr. Therold's spoiled heiress daughter Angelica. The case didn't seem that urgent or important and I also couldn't figure out what the urgency was, although Mary is under a two week time limit.

Despite a few plot holes and red herrings (I NEVER suspected the true villain), I enjoyed this story. It is chick lit? Hardly. Historical fiction? Yes, a bit. A romance? Barely. Although as a mystery, it felt very reminiscent of its time. Have you read any of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries? They are quite good and this book seemed to be similar in pacing and tone.

I am eager to discover who else works in The Agency. Having women who work in Victorian households in that sort of in-between status (governesses, companions, etc) and are also secret spies has been done before, multiple times in romance novels, but having an Agency place them? Well, that's a delightful twist. I wanted more of the Agency. Who founded it? Why? What's that story? How could other women in the agency identify each other? Is there anybody inside the royal household? I will be reading more of this series, but won't feel a need to rush through them.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Parentonomics: An Economist Dad Looks at Parenting by Joshua Gans

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Summary: A blog expanded into book form by an Australian economist professor, who tries to explain economic principles through parenting examples. 

This is an odd parenting memoir. It's not quite an economics books, but more or a parenting memoir. Joshua Gans refers to his children as Child No. 1, Child No. 2 and Child No. 3. I can't tell if his "children's mother" is his current wife, an ex-wife, an unmarried domestic partner or if this is some social experiment or Australian cultural norm. Names, even pseudonyms, would have humanized this book a little more. I was especially turned off when Gans explores the incentives to parents of letting a child "cry it out" and the economic principles that child is exploring by night waking.

Gans touches on toilet training, labor and delivery, breast-feeding, kids birthday parties, car seats and safety, and punishment. His unique take on each of the situations is sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing (Is it cultural or a different style of parenting? - I don't know) but always thought-provoking. Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read more by him? Doubtful. As a writer, his style may be better suited to his blog, as I found it a hard book to get through.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Heist Society by Ally Carter

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Summary: To save her father, teenage Kat must steal five priceless paintings back from the most secure and guarded museum, with the help of her teenage crew.

I was so disappointed in this book. The premise is cute. Kat is born into a family of con artists and thieves. But they steal and lie it more for the challenge of pulling it off. Sixteen year old Kat eventually tires of a life on the run and pulls one last great caper, conning her way into the exclusive Colgan school in order to live a normal teenage girl life.

She is framed for a prank and expelled from school, leaving her lost and floundering. Her best friend, the ultra-rich Hale, convinces her to pull off one last heist - stealing back a collection of priceless underground paintings that were stolen from the sinister Arturo Taccone. Kat's only reason for doing this is because Taccone believes only a thief of her father's skill could carry off and plans to torture and possibly kill her father unless the paintings are returned in two weeks.

Kat assembles her motley crew of teen helpers and somehow figures out that the paintings are hidden underneath other paintings in the Henley museum. So they have to break into the world's most secure museum and steal back the paintings.

As a caper book, it was not terribly original and having main characters bee teenagers seemed an afterthought. Kat is constantly flying back and forth from the U.S. and Paris, living in Hale's house but having no supervising adult,  has a strange relationship with her almost neglectful father and then when she tries to dress sexily, the male members of her crew are dumbstruck to discover that she has boobs. I expected better from the author of the Gallagher Girls Spy School series. That had humor and wit.  This was like Ocean's 12 only not as funny.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Feed by Mira Grant

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Summary: In a future under constant threat from zombies, a blogger journalist and her brother follow a presidential candidate.

I read MT Anderson's Feed instead when I skimmed over my online book's club selection. Oops! When I realized my mistake, I checked the information again. Is this a zombie book? Yes, it is a zombie book, but it's also so much more.

Set in the future (2039), this is ultimately a book about journalism, but with zombies. Georgia Mason and her brother Shaun are the lead bloggers of their site. Shaun is an Irwin, obviously named after Steve Irwin, who died on camera during an adventure. Shaun is reckless, charming and absolutely good at his job. Georgia is a Newsie, one who insists on the truth no matter how much it hurts. I know I'm a blogger myself (you're reading this, right?) but in light of the furor over the news that Aveda will no longer pay bloggers for reviews, I'm naturally skeptical of the journalistic integrity of bloggers. Georgia's fierceness about always telling the truth seems a way to redeem the current blogging environment, which is rife with rumors. Georgia's defensiveness is justified, given the blogosphere in 2011.

But in 2014, a cure for the common cold, when it meets the cure for cancer, turns people into zombies who feed on living flesh.
"No one gets cancer or colds anymore. The only issue is the walking dead."
The United States government has ceded control of Alaska to the walking dead and the book opens with Georgia and Shaun zombie hunting in Santa Cruz, California. The sly humor kept me reading, even though I'm not a horror fan.

Georgia, Shaun, and their partner Buffy are the only bloggers chosen to be part of the presidential press corps following Senator Ryman. He gives them almost complete access and their blog site is gaining popularity. Ratings soar when Georgia and Shaun fight off a zombie attack at one of the Seantor's campaign rallies. Buffy, their technical expert, actually uncovers information that suggests the zombie attack was actually an assassination attempt.

The conspiracy runs deeper and deeper, with tragedy striking in surprising ways. I was racing to finish this, wondering exactly who was behind it all. The book dragged in the middle and there were a few plots holes. But on the whole, I loved this book, despite the zombie theme. I almost wish I was more of a a zombie movie fan, because I'm sure there are references I missed. I'm definitely reading the next book in the series.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Sushi for One? by Camy Tang

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Summary: A Chinese/Japanese American-born woman is pressured by her family to get married.

You can't pin me down; I admit it. I like many varied kinds of books - memoirs, historical romances, teen vampire fiction, Christian romance (but never Amish-themed books), fantasy fiction, self-help books. You can't classify me as one reader or another.

And that was my problem with this book - it didn't have a clear cut identity.  I started reading a Camy Tang book because most of her characters feature Asian women. My middle daughter is adopted from China and I'd like her to identify with the characters she sees on my books, as much as my biological son looks for dragons and my biological daughter thinks she's Rapunzel. I didn't finish the first Camy Tang book I picked up because I found it rather implausible.  I thought I'd give Tang's best-known series a try - maybe she writes Christian romance better than Christian suspense.

Lex Sakai is a Chinese/Japanese American-born woman pressured by her grandmother to find a husband. Of her group of cousins, Lex will be the Oldest Single Female Cousin, once their cousin gets married in a few months. The pressure is on for Lex to marry. Grandma even goes to far as to threaten to withdraw her funding of Lex's beloved youth volleyball team if Lex doesn't bring a boyfriend (and not just a date) to the upcoming wedding. I do enjoy this particular plot device - marry or you'll lose your fortune.

If that's not enough, Lex's father sells the house they've been sharing and Lex must find her own place. When conditions at work become intolerable, Lex quits and regrets only the loss of the paycheck. Also complicating the boyfriend hunt is that Lex is still traumatized, almost 10 years later, by an unreported rape. The rapist was Caucasian, as well, so Lex will only consider Asian men as part of her dating pool. I say Asian, because Lex Sakai is a Japanese name, but she's also Chinese, yet doesn't speak Japanese or Chinese. And she's not Buddhist. And in Lex's Bible study group, she complies a list of her ideal husband's features from Ephesians. Lex will only date Christians. Lex makes a point of mentioning that her family is Buddhist, but doesn't really explore her conversion to Christianity, something that did interest me as a reader because fighting her family for her faith must have been difficult, not just annoying, although Lex seems annoyed by most of her family.

Lex's love of sports actually does translate into a job perfectly suited to her, an alumni liaison for college sports teams. Suddenly, men are falling over Lex, hoping that by dating her, they can see their favorite college games. Lex resists, mostly because the men still give her the creeps, but she really is trying to find someone. Lex also tries to raise the money on her own, but her grandmother has warned the entire Asian community not to give her funding.

When Lex gets an invite to try out for a prestigious competitive volleyball league, she uses the money she would have spent on a house payment as the entrance fee, and trains vigorously. She gets in, and then in an instant, suffers an injury that almost certainly spells the end of her volleyball career. Her physical trainer, Aiden, fits none of the requirements on her list - he's white, he's skeptical of Christians and Christianity; he seems poor and Lex is NOT attracted to him. But Lex does feel comfortable with him, enjoying their banter, allowing him to touch her body as part of the therapy. Aiden knows just how much to push her, reading her competitive spirit quite well. But Aiden's not a Christian, and not Asian, so he has to be out.

When Lex is on a date with another prospective husband, he turns overly aggressive, and Lex freaks out, flashing back to the rape. While running away, she injures her knee again, and Aiden rescues her. She discovers that Aiden has been going to church and what she thought was friendship was the beginning of something special. Things end well, and I worried throughout the book if Lex's prickly nature would alienate everyone who loves her.

Sushi is barely mentioned in the book. It's a cute title, and makes you think Japanese, but given Lex's love of volleyball, perhaps a better title would have been "Serving Up Love" or "Game, Set & Matched," something like that. I came up with that in thirty seconds, so a marketing team could do an even better job with all their time and creativity. Just like the title didn't quite fit, and made me a little fidgety, a few other notes just seemed wrong, so I was disappointed. One of Lex's cousins was overweight and lost a ton of weight through a stomach virus. Wha??? That rarely happens. Having Lex be Japanese wasn't crucial to the plot at all (neither was the sushi title), and with many black or Hispanic main characters their specific ethnicity does flavor the book in measurable ways; not so with this one. Despite all that, I will be reading the next book in the Sushi Series, featuring another of Lex's cousin. Perhaps it's because I didn't quite warm to Lex's fierce outlook on life, or her stubborn refusal of any help of therapy for her obvious PTSD.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Mistress's Revenge by Tamar Cohen

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Summary: A woman chronicles her affair, post-break-up, in a journal. 

Let's start with the fact that I think affairs are tacky and lacking in integrity. Why should the mistress get revenge? Why not the wife?

Granted, Clive is a slick, manipulative bastard, but Sally is a mental case. After their break-up, Sally is so distraught, not eating, not sleeping, and totally neglecting her kids that she see a therapist who thinks that journaling her feelings will be the best way to get over Clive.

The entire book is written in journal form, but like books written as letters, they are inherently fake to me, as no letter and journals ever provide so much back information in real life.
"Do you remember, that was the very first thing you said to me? We'll laugh about it one day, of course, but still it took me aback. I hadn't even properly sat down, was still fishing around in my bag so I could go and buy a drink."
Clive will never read this, but even if he does, there is no need to ask if he remembers. Her journal is her letter to Clive since he has cut off all contact. No e-mails, no texts, no phone calls.

Stylistically, this book's format drove me crazy. And that's before we even get to the story.

We're never quite sure why exactly Clive has ended their five year affair. Sally is not married but is partnered with Daniel and they have two children together. Clive is married to Susan and they have two older children as well.

And Clive breaks off the affair. This devastates Sally and Sally cannot get over it. She sends e-mails to Clive, sends him texts, "Friends" both Susan and Clive's daughter on Facebook and often eats at the restaurant where Clive's son works as a waiter. Sally crashes a vow renewal party that Clive and Susan hold, and Clive and Sally meet to discuss issues, and end up having sex. Sally is convinced that they are back together. When she realizes that their make-up sex was actually break-up sex, Sally gets worse.

Meanwhile, Sally's kids are struggling in school and hating her. Someone has hacked in Sally's email accounts and is sending messages from her, which is losing her all her freelance writing work. The bills are piling up unopened and the house is a pit.  Sally is losing weight, freaking out in grocery stores and is convinced that someone is trying to kill her. But actually, Sally is right about that, as she is harassed constantly. Her kids are frightened but Sally is so focused on Clive that she can't think of anything else.

I won't give away the very strange ending but there is some closure in the book. However, many things bothered me:
  • What is it that makes Clive so appealing? Sally mentions his bad back and his weight problem and he seems just creepy to me. If yes, he is as creepy as I think he is, how (and why) did Sally fall for that?
  • How did Sally and Clive not get caught in their affair by now? 
  • What was Daniel, Sally's partner, doing all day every day? He only comes home to scold Sally, it seems.
  • How could people NOT see that Sally is a mess? The house is filthy, the kids don't have meals, she's losing weight, she looks sick. How could people NOT realize something is going on here?
  • Why does Susan stay with Clive? This was an odd relationship, but granted we only have Sally's perspective, or how she interprets both Clive and Susan's remarks.
  • Do we always feel bad for the dumpee, even when the relationship is wrong?
  • Why did Clive decide to break up with Sally? Was it an ultimatum from Susan?
I can't say I enjoyed this book, though I did feel sorry for Sally, her partner Daniel, and their kids. We'll be discussing this in my book club, and I'm sure I'll have other questions.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Crazy Aunt Purl's Drunk, Divorced, and Covered in Cat Hair by Laurie Perry

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Summary: One woman's memoir of her divorce and eventual recovery.

Just the title alone is fun (and accurate), but the book was a feel-good read, despite being about divorce. Laurie comes home from work, expecting to share a silly story about how her underwear broke at work, and her husband announced he was leaving. Laurie is devastated and is left with an expensive house and her husband's four cats.

Laurie, with the long-distance help of her supportive parents, moves into a smaller house right before Christmas. She spends most of her time drinking wine while the cats circle around her. She goes through many of the stages of grief, anger, bargaining, drinking, isolation, and even tries to give herself bangs, which her hairdresser sternly forbids.

Laurie's patient and supportive friends stick with her through her depression, perhaps longer than I would have. One of them encourages her to try knitting and when Laurie finally leaves the house and ventures into a knitting store, it changes her life. She knits crazy creations for her cats, scarves (in LA!) and lots of sassy knit wear while being nurtured by her local Stitch-n-Bitch group.

Laurie Perry writes with Southern wit, much like Celia Rivenbark, whom I adore. Laurie's sadness and misery is written with such honesty and humor that I was identifying with the author and laughing at the same time. It's not a complex book, you won't get veiled metaphors or run on sentences that go for a page, but you will laugh and you will feel hope.

Not only are the discussion questions at the back of the book helpful and thought provoking, but Laurie provides knitting patterns and pictures of her creations. I've tried knitting and I understand how intense and excited the knitting community gets, but knitting's not for me. I'm also not divorced, and will never have cats.  Despite what we don't have in common, this book was worth breaking my "no divorce memoirs!" vow.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sloane Sisters by Anna Carey

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Summary: Cate and Andie Sloane's father is dating Stella and Lola Childs' model mother, Emma. New York Chic meets English reserve in a teen fashion novel.

The Brady Bunch meets the Clique series in this fun YA read. Still stunned from their parent's rapid divorce after their father cheated on their mother, Stella and Lola Childs should turn to each other to help navigate their new lives in New York. Their mum, Emma has become the new face of Ralph Lauren and so they have moved from London to New York City.

The girls are surprised when their mother tells them that instead of living in a hotel, they will be living with Emma's new boyfriend, Winston Sloane and his teen daughters Cate and Andie. In fact, their parents are engaged! Looks like they'll all be one big happy family, right?

Cate and Stella seem to get along well at first as they are both interested in fashion, style, trends, and share the same shoe size. But Stella chafes under Cate's bossiness and superiority and can't easily slip into the elite clique at their new school. Cate also won't let Stella into her clique without making Stella jump through extreme hoops and Stella feels lost and angry. She doesn't offer any help to her sister Lola, a band geek who has zero interest in fashion. But Andie desperately wants to be a model and uses her future step-mother's modeling connections as a way to get into the business, despite being very, very short. Lola doesn't realize she's being used until someone suggests that Lola would make a good model and Andie freaks out.

Tensions simmer in a house full of rich teens and pre-teens. Add name dropping,  sibling rivalry, divorce and high fashion and you have a fun YA read. The girl bullying and focus on fashion is reminiscent of the Clique series, but slightly less materialistic.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

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Summary: A woman goes undercover disguised as a man and does her best to infiltrate male society.

Well, of course, if you're gonna live like a man for over a year, totally immersing yourself in male culture, acting, working and dating like a man, it helps if you're a lesbian.

I just thought the concept was cool, but didn't think too hard about the details until the author dedicated the book to her wife, Lisa. Gulp! Oh, yeah, that makes more sense. I'm pretty straight, and might be hesitant about intercourse with a woman while having her believe I was a man.

I'm not sure exactly what inspired writer Norah Vincent to decide to live as Ned for a year, except for the fact that she thought it would make a great book. And it is a good book, just not a great one.

Ned joins a bowling team and explores the tentative rules of male friendship. Her friendship with Jim and the encouragement of Ned to succeed at bowling so the men have the pleasure of beating a skilled players was wonderful. The chapter on strip clubs disturbed me in a sad way and makes me uncomfortable. The dating part got a little icky, but seemed to prove Vincent's point that women are really looking for more of an emotional connection than "what goes where" sex games. I forced myself to continue this book when Ned joins a monastery and worked for Red Bull selling entertainment books.

The freedom that Norah has to speak her mind as a woman is not available to Ned. Ned is instead trapped under the burden and weight of the expectations of him. The most tender part of the book is when Ned attends a men's retreat. The men there draw pictures of their heroes and it's painful to read about everything that's expected of men. In nearly every chapter in the book, Norah feels bad for Ned because Ned didn't grow up knowing all the unspoken male rules of behavior and the restrictive guidelines of behavior. I was disappointed because I felt there was nothing new added to the ongoing conversation about how men and women are different or how to bridge those gaps.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Death of a Witch (Hamish Macbeth Mysteries) by M. C. Beaton

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Summary: Highland constable Hamish Macbeth solves the murder of a new woman to town, suspected of being a witch and seductress.

I like reading romance novels. But when someone in one of my groups asked for "clean" books with no sex, author M.C. Beaton kept coming up. I had read an Agatha Raisin book, but far, far prefer Hamish Macbeth.

One of the complaints about James Patterson's Alex Cross series is that he has a new relationship nearly every book. Well, the same applies to Hamish Macbeth. Nearly every single woman he encounters seems to want to marry him, and somehow both Hamish and the women cross signals and blow hot and cold alternately.

When a new woman comes to town, Hamish is suspicious. Why would an attractive single woman move to Lochdubh? The women in the village call her a witch and the men are not talking, or talking even less than taciturn Scots already do. Hamish rightly suspects that she's up to something, but is determined to find out exactly what after she is murdered. As Hamish is standing outside waiting for the police squad, the cottage holding the dead body of the suspected witch bursts into flame! Arson? And murder?

When a local woman is later stabbed to death, Hamish is concerned. Who in his small town could be a murderer? And with talk of a roving Highland brothel? The mystery just continues, even as Hamish juggles Priscilla (his wealthy on-and-off again love),  dogged reporter Elsbeth and bright coroner Lesley, all who seem to both be after Hamish and another goodlooking reporter assigned to the story.

The stories, despite always involving a murder, are cozy and fun with quirky characters and whenever I need a quick read, this is where I'll go.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Book of Shadows (Sweep, No. 1) by Cate Tiernan

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Summary: A teenage girl meets the new student in her high school and is drawn to him before she discovers he's a Wiccan. Her attraction to Cal grows, despite of, or perhaps because of witchcraft.

My book club was lucky enough to have Young Adult author Loretta Ellsworth come speak to our book club after we read her book In a Heartbeat. After we discussed her book, we talked about upcoming trends in YA fiction.

Loretta Ellsworth mentioned that vampires are a waning plot device, at least in the YA market. She mentioned that werewolves seem to be popular, and talked about Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver, which I hated. But I'm here to tell you that I can't get enough of the Sweep series by Cate Tiernan.

Morgan describes herself as plain and boring. And she seems like it. She's responsible, she helps fellow students with math problems and seems a little self-conscious when her best friend Bree tries to include her in Bree's clique of popular friends. Morgan's much more comfortable hanging back.

But Morgan is assigned to show new transfer student Cal around their school and can hardly function because Cal is so cute. I totally identified with Morgan, as whenever I encountered a gorgeous male, I can't stop giggling, even today. Cal is very laid back and at ease with all the different groups of people, the popular kids, the brains, the athletes, the stoners, the artists. When he invites all of them to a campfire in the woods, everyone is excited to attend a cool party. But Cal suggests that they hold hands in a circle and thank Mother Nature. Cal "comes out" as a witch (male Wiccans are still witches, apparently). Morgan is intrigued by the ceremony but her best friend Bree is more intrigued by Cal.

Bree starts exploring witchcraft as a way to get closer to Cal, and shares her books and enthusiasm with Morgan. Morgan starts exploring witchcraft on her own, but she also finds herself strangely drawn to Cal as well, but of course doesn't say anything to anyone since Bree is actively pursuing Cal. 

Morgan's mother finds her books and bans all witchcraft books and forbids Morgan to be involved in any of the Wiccan holidays and ceremonies. Morgan is torn between her typical reaction to obey her parents and her curiosity about a gentle philosophy that really seems to speak to her. Morgan starts "practicing" on her own, and creates a potion that clears up her friend's horrible acne. Morgan is astonished that her potion worked but gets scolded by Cal for practicing magick without the recipient's consent. Bree also thinks that Morgan is practicing magick to get closer to Cal and makes Morgan choose between their friendship and magick.

Morgan chooses magick, but recognizes that her pull toward magick will eventually cause problems in her whole life - with her family, her church and even her friendships. I am so hooked on this series. It has humor, teen angst, a cute guy and lots of potential problems. Delicious!

Friday, July 1, 2011

June Rejects

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I try to give each book at least 50 pages, but with so many great books out there (and two book clubs a month), I want to spend my time reading books I actually enjoy. I'd rather not spend time writing full reviews on books I Did Not Finish. This list includes the books I picked up and rejected in June:

Half Baked: The Story of My Nerves, My Newborn, and How We Both Learned to Breathe by Alexa Stevenson
Summary: A woman shares her struggles with infertility, her subsequent pregnancy with boy-and-girl twins, the death of the boy fetus at 20 weeks and the induced labor of the remaining child Simone at 25 weeks.  
This is a sad, tragic memoir, with notes of irreverence, random memories of her childhood and vague Minneapolis references. The book however seems to be just a way for the author to get more blog readers, since she's already written her whole story on her blog. You can read more about it here. http://flotsamblog.com/2008/01/15/ames-and-simone/  While I did cry in parts, I did so without wanting to finish more of the book. I gave up when it came due at the library.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less by Mary Carlomagno

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Summary: A woman gives up one vice or indulgence a month for one year in this memoir.

Mary Carlomagno is literally hit over the head by a box of  her expensive shoes. That's it, she's had enough. She decides to give up one thing she considers indispensable for one month at a time, challenging what she thinks she needs and what she actually needs.

In January, it's alcohol, and she discovers how many of her plans revolve around alcohol and drinking just because others are. She also talks about how uncomfortable it is to be the one person not drinking when everyone else is, and how frequently and quickly the conversation turns bitchy.

Yes, I fully recognize that most of the people who write wacky memoirs do not have kids (A.J. Jacobs may be the exception) so Mary's sacrifices didn't seem that difficult or impractical. Until she helps her boyfriend move in with her during the month when she's not allowed to use any cell phones. She's also able to work out more if she gains weight, or take a freelance job if she needs more money, options not available to a stay-at-home mom.

Her list of indispensable items are somewhat similar to mine (chocolate, coffee, shopping) but others are not. I could give up alcohol and taxis no problem. This was a quick read, and is one of my favorite memoirs. It's thought provoking, light, random and easy to pick up and put down. Read it today.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee

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Summary: A memoir of her childhood from comic Samantha Bee.

Canada is much wilder than I ever imagined. Samantha Bee's memoir as a child growing up in Canada is full of escapades that make me cringe, both as a mother, and as someone who thought Canada was normal but boring. Drug use, severely underage drinking, late night concerts. If it wasn't so funny, I would be horrified.

As a memoir, it felt more like I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloane Crosley - a collection of narratives, rather than a linear story of childhood. That's not to say it was bad, just that it was not quite a memoir.

Parts are very funny and certain chapters just didn't work for me at all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Recipe for Love by Shamara Ray

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Summary: A restaurant owner experiences career success but struggles with love.

My main problem with "black" novels is the language used by the characters. I think a story should just be a good story, regardless of the race of characters. There are certain authors who write such amazing stories that the race doesn't matter, you're just so enthralled by plot and characters. And then there are other authors who think that they have to sound "black"  to write their stories. Often, those are just poorly written. This book was a nice mix of both.

Jade is a (black, female) restauranteur living in New York, who is busy working on her business, a restaurant named Rituals. She's also just broken up with her long-time boyfriend Bryce, the twin brother of her business partner Bria. Bria and Jade used to be best friends, part of Jade's "Diva Squad" but their friendship has mostly become business and Bria seems to value her brother's relationship with Jade more than their friendship.

Things are cruising along for Jade when she starts to date Cane, the owner of a rival restaurant, at the encouragement of her friend Milan. Jade has trust issues, likely dating from her time with Bryce, and not her father. Jade's pride and ego get in the way of her love life, and she starts to recognize how quick she is to overreact with getting all the facts.

This was both chick-lit and a nice romance, but I had some trouble with some of the urban slang. I would definitely read more by this author, but thought the recipes included in the back were weak.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

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A third hand accounting of the history of Hawaii until its statehood, by a history buff. 

Fans of This American Life will know Sarah Vowell's squeaky voice and her quirky views, but her books are a different story, literally.

Take the Cannoli was the first book of hers that I read, but I had trouble finishing Assassination Vacation.

Sarah avoids commas as fervently as I love them, with a chatty conversational style. Her loneliness is palpable and I felt pity for the author that this was her life and focus. But who am I to talk? She's a published author and I'm not. If it weren't for my love of Hawaii, I might have given up on this book. Here's a classic example of Sarah Vowell's writing:
What happened was, one afternoon in 1806 Mills and his college buddies were out for a walk. Getting caught in a storm, they sought shelter under (or maybe next to)  a stack of hay. During this impromptu huddle they got to talking about what red-blooded American boys always discuss while shooting the breeze on a rainy day - how missionaries should be sent to Asia. This brainstorm inspired the formation of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the group that would eventually sponsor the missionaries to the Sandwich Islands. 

Sarah Vowell likes to take intense, deep looks into certain period of American history, finding any all all connections to the people and places. She traces the unification of the Hawaiian islands all the way up until statehood, focusing primarily on the missionaries and the whalers. Vowell gets sidetracked about very minor characters in history, and barely mentions Princess Kaiulani, who actually traveled to Washington D.C. to petition the government for sovereignty. In her description of the illegal annexation of Hawaii, she completely dismisses a key player. It's an interesting choice.

This book challenged some of the assumptions I had about Hawaiian history, having taken more than a few Hawaiian history classes growing up in school in Hawaii. My husband, who grew up in Iowa, never had to take Iowa history, but then again, nobody ever wanted to possess Iowa for its military significance or prime location.

I felt this was an incomplete book, but only because I was educated in the nuances and practical details of the repercussions of Hawaii's statehood. This book is a dense one; expect to need to take frequent breaks.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King

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Summary: A teenager is haunted by the ghost of her former best friend.

If you liked Laurie Halse Anderson's Wintergirls, you'll likely enjoy this book simply because the basic plotlines are so similar.

A teenage girl suffers the loss of her best friend, is haunted by the ghost of that best friend, and then starts spiraling into self-destruction. In this book, Vera and Charlie have been life-long friends. But Vera never mentions Charlie's obvious abusive home life ever to him, even though they are next door neighbors.  Vera has always had a crush on Charlie and fantasized about their life together but it's obvious to us readers that Charlie will be caught in the endless cycle of abuse and poverty.

The book opens the day of Charlie's funeral. Vera is the only one who can see the ghost of Charlie smirking at her. In fact, Charlie is the only one smiling during the funeral since everyone believes Charlie is responsible for setting the animal clinic on fire and then dying of alcohol poisoning afterwards. Charlie - or his ghost - makes Vera listen to the songs he likes on the radio, they appear in multitudes to Vera but don't say anything.

Despite the fact that Vera's dad Ken is an alcoholic and that Charlie died of an alcohol overdose, Vera starts drinking herself. The fact that Vera is a pizza delivery driver with a drinking problem seems to add to the shock we are supposed to feel. The title is basically Vera's tactic to get through high school - Please ignore Vera Dietz. If she can get through high school, she will be happy, she thinks. It's also Ken Dietz's philosophy - Ignore it and it will bother you less. This applies to everything in his life - from his wife and Vera's mother leaving them, to his neighbor beating his wife and Charlie almost every night, to Vera's blossoming womanhood and sexuality, to the hopelessness of his life.

Style-wise, I dreaded each chapter. There are multiple narrators, and each chapter might be a different time period narrated by a different character  - either Vera, Charlie or Vera's dad Ken. Oh and sometimes, the freaking pagoda that watches over the town might narrate a chapter. Wha?

We evetually find out why Vera and Charlie stopped being friends, and I came to realize that Vera had idolized Charlie far beyond what he deserved and for much longer. There's also unspoken sexual abuse that Charlie experiences, but somehow everything is neatly tied up in a bow, and gets solved and resolved because Vera is so self-possessed and mature for her age.

In addition to this being too tidy of a book, with the annoying choice of different narrators (really, the pagoda POV added nothing to the plot), it was just sad and miserable, with nothing uplifting or heartwarming or even funny. I like television shows with teen angst, and this book had it in spades, but I forced myself to finish it, and in the end, remained unsatisfied.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Unearthly by Cynthia Hand

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Summary: An angel-blood teenager fights her destiny and her attraction to a human.

What's your purpose in life? I'm 34 and I'm still figuring it out. But as an angel blood, sixteen-year-old Clara Gardner knows that she must fufill her purpose. It's why she exists. Talk about pressure.

And of top of that, you have high school, prom, college, and a mom who still expects you to get good grades.

Happy and talented California teen Clara is slowly coming into her powers as a Quartarius, a quarter-angel. Her half-angel single mother reluctantly shares details about being an angel, only emphasizing that Clara's purpose, whatever it is, is the most important event of her life (I thought college admission was crucial.).  Together, they identify details in Clara's frequent visions about her purpose. The clues include a forest fire, a license plate, and boy in a black fleece jacket. This leads the entire family (Mom, Clara and younger brother Jeffrey) to up and move to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (Before you say it, yes, it is reminiscent of Twilight in some spots.)
"Clara, listen to me." Mom leans forward and takes my hands in hers. "You aren't being sent on a mission that you don't have the power to accomplish. You have to find that power inside you somewhere and you have to refine it. ... There is a reason, for all of this."
On Clara's first day of school, she meets her destiny: a handsome football player named Christian, the boy of her dreams - literally. She also slowly befriends two other girls: easygoing, horse-obsessed Wendy, and intense loner Angela. Clara thinks she's finally on her way to her purpose when Christian asks her to prom, until he stands her up at prom to tend to his ex-girlfriend. It's a typical teen angst book for about halfway through.

The book didn't really get great until Clara and Wendy's twin brother, Tucker, start spending their summer after junior year together. With Wendy, Christian and Angela all away for the summer, the two start spending time together alone in the woods. They have a lot of fun together in a wholesome way with underlying sexual tension. The scenes are a thrill to read.
I don't know what to say. This summer hasn't turned out at all the way I planned. I'm not supposed to be standing in the middle of a barn with a blue-eyed cowboy who's looking at me like he's about to kiss me. I shouldn't be wanting him to kiss me.
The romance develops quickly but organically, until one day, Tucker and Clara kiss. This kiss is so magical and intense that Clara starts to glow, her glory showing through and freaking Tucker out a little.

The day of the fire, however, Clara is forced to decide who she must save - Christian; her whole purpose, or Tucker; her love.

This was an enjoyable teen fantasy fiction romance. My biggest complaint though is how the angel wings work with American clothes. Do they rip through the cloth? Do they go around the sleeves? This was never really explained and I wanted to know. The lack of detail was a niggling little worm that kept me from giving this book 5 stars.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Love Goddess' Cooking School by Melissa Senate

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Summary: A young woman inherits her grandmother's house, kitchen and business.

I absolutely loved Melissa Senate's previous book The Secret of Joy, and while this book was good, it wasn't great. It seemed a bit cliched and predictable and I much prefer Erica Bauermeister's The School of Essential Ingredients.

Holly moves back to Blue Crab Cove, Maine, after breaking up with yet another man who doesn't seem that interested in marrying or being with Holly. Holly has always been the chaser, not the pursued when it comes to love. Two weeks later, her grandmother dies, leaving Holly the house and the business. (Wills never go through probate in novel life apparently.) She's also focused on keeping her grandmother's cooking school running even though Holly is a timid chef. Most of her grandmother's recipe include some emotional ingredient - like a true wish or a sad thought.

Holly's first class consists of her old high school friend grieving the death of her daughter, a single woman looking for love, a divorced dad with a tween daughter, and  teenage girl hoping to become a better cook so her father won't have to remarry. Can you guess where this is going? Yes, you can.

The divorced dad and the single woman hook up, and pretty much get forgotten. The grieving mother won't or can't accept comfort from anybody, including her husband or Holly. And yes, Holly does have a massive crush on and eventually date the father of her teenaged student. Holly is also asked to prepare a tasting menu for a wedding that her grandmother was supposed to cater back when she was alive. The love story here felt so predictable that I was disappointed in the book, precisely because I knew exactly what was going to happen. Then the beautiful ex-wife shows up and wants to be a part of her ex-husband's and daughter's lives again.

Ultimately a forgettable book from an author I previously raved about. And when I found a glaring spelling error in the book, my heart sank a little.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

May Rejects

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I've been reading - and discarding - a bunch of books lately. I try to give each book at least 50 pages, but with so many great books out there (and two book clubs a month), I want to spend my time reading books I actually enjoy. I'd rather not spend time writing full reviews on books I Did Not Finish. This list includes the books I picked up and rejected in May:

Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) by Stephen R. Donaldson
Summary: A leper is the hero who travels to a new world and fights some bad guy there. 
The "hero" is a leper and a rapist. Ick! The bad guy is named Lord Foul, yawn. Couldn't understand why this is so popular and influential since I barely read a few pages.

A Billion Reasons Why by Kristin Billerbeck
Summary: Katie returns to New Orleans to sing at her ex's brother's wedding and to get her grandmother's ring so her soon-to-be- fiance can propose.
Implausible from the very beginning, Katie is asked to fly back from California to sing 1940s style torch songs at the wedding of her ex-boyfriend's brother in New Orleans. Katie has never gotten over proposing to Luke in front of hundreds of people and having him turn her down, so she decides to prove once and for all that she is over Luke, by teasing him, flirting with him and dancing with him. Yeah, like that's gonna succeed. She leaves behind a solid but boring boyfriend, who likes her but doesn't "get" her and goes home to New Orleans. Too many things didn't make sense. Did her father commit suicide or was he murdered? What? How has she never met her stepfather before? Throw in a few references to sustainable farming practices, the BP oil spill and references to God and you have a jumbled mess.

August Moon (Murder-by-Month Mysteries, No. 4) by Jess Lourey
Summary: A woman solves a murder in a sleepy Minnesota town.
I love my Minnesota mysteries. Hanna Swenson, Mars Bahr, The Monkeewrench crew, but this one just fell short. The writing was dull and the relationships implausible.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Timeless by Alexandra Monir

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Summary: After her mother's death, Michele is sent to live with her wealthy grandparents and can travel back in time through her family's antiques and memorabilia.

I wish I liked this book better. It wasn't bad, but I just couldn't find myself connecting to the characters or caring that much about the story.

Michele Windsor and her mother have lived in California her whole life, estranged from her mother's wealthy relatives. When Michele's mother is killed in a car accident, Michele is sent to live with her elderly and quite stuffy grandparents. The grandparents offered Michele's father a bribe to leave Michele's mother and while he didn't take it, he did disappear one day, just before Marian (Michele's mother) discovered she was pregnant with Michele.

So Michele has grown up poor and without knowing her Windsor relatives when she's transplanted to New York. She is still grieving her mother and having trouble fitting in at her exclusive private school in Manhattan. One day, she opens an old diary and is transported one hundred years exactly to the past. Only certain people are able to see Michele, while she is invisible to people around them. She visits her relative Clara, and meets Philip Walker, son of the rival Walker family, competitors with the Windsors both now and back then. She and Philip develop a romance, even though Michele keeps popping back and forth between 1910 and 2010 Manhattan. Perhaps my biggest complaint about the book is that the time travel seemed so random, so illogical. What exactly brings her back to the past and why does she have no control over when she returns to the future? How does time pass in the past and in the future?

Philip breaks off his engagement to Michele's ancestor Violet because of his great love for Michele. Philip is a composer while Michele is a songwriter, and together they create two songs that become signature songs of Michele's famous ancestor and great grandmother Lily Windsor. It's got the typical time travel dilemmas and young adult romance, but I just couldn't get into it.

The writing was okay for a debut novel, but I won't continue this series because the time travel seemed convenient for the plot, but not logical. It also begged credibility for Michele - a sixteen year old modern girl - to swear lifelong fidelity to Philip, but of course, I think this sentiment was meant to capitalize on those who swoon over the Twilight romance.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

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Summary: A woman juggles lovers and houses and her reputation. 

I hate stories written as letters (epistolary form) almost as much as I love Jane Austen. Lady Susan is her first novel and I am dying for other Austen lovers to read this so I can discuss it with people.

Is Lady Susan misunderstood? The victim of a vicious rumor mill and a simple misunderstanding based on the jealous actions of a jilted socialite? Or is she a scheming, manipulative gold-digger, breaking hearts just because she can? Yes, all of the above. And does she have a female lover or just a close friend who helps her?

Lady Susan visits her dead husband's relatives at Churchill, likely escaping after a scandal at Langford involving Mr Mainwaring. Depending on whose letter you're reading, Lady Susan had a flirtation, friendship or torrid affair with Mr. Mainwaring, which makes Mrs. Mainwaring unhappy, and flirted with Mr James Martin, who was previously courting Mr. Mainwaring's sister. I tend to believe that Lady Susan is up to no good, but she still remains a sympathetic character to me.  Jane Austen can write unpleasant characters quite well, in that no one in her books is all good or all bad. Emma is the perfect example of this, but so is Mr. Collins, from P&P.

Mr. Vernon is the younger brother of her recently deceased husband (four months!) and has never met his wife Catherine. Lady Susan also objected to the marriage of the younger Mr. Vernon to Catherine, but does her best to smooth things over once she is staying with them. They are eventually joined by Catherine's brother Reginald de Courcy, heir to the de Courcy fortune. Despite rumors and warnings about her, Reginald and Lady Susan start spending time together. When Lady Susan's daughter Frederica runs away from school in London, she joins Lady Susan and the Vernons at Churchill. Then things really get complicated.

I appreciate the writing - Jane Austen really is one of the best authors ever -  even as I didn't like Lady Susan as a person. Read it so you and I can discuss!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

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 memoir of a Chinese mother raising her decidedly American kids.

Read the whole book. Don't just read the excerpts you find online; read the whole book. I found this a funny, touching and encouraging memoir, not an insulting treatise on Western parenting.

Amy Chua is ambitious and driven. So naturally, that applies to her parenting as well. Her first daughter Sophia is a natural at the Suzuki piano lessons she takes and soon becomes a young gifted prodigy. Amy decides that it's not enough for both girls to be good at piano and chooses an instrument for her younger daughter Lulu - the violin.

It's not until she struggles with getting Lulu to practice that the disadvantages of the Tiger Mother or Chinese method of parenting become apparent. With Sophia, Amy could nag, browbeat, threaten and cajole. With Lulu, none of the threats worked. Amy finds herself more and more frustrated even as Lulu becomes an incredibly talented violinist accepted to study with world famous musicians and tutors. The insults fly and the ultimatums become greater and greater.

Amy's a tough cookie, but Lulu is even tougher. Amy rejects the poorly-drawn handwritten birthday cards scribbled for her at the last minute because she's seen their previous work and know that her kids can do much better. It doesn't show the love and respect that Amy deserves when she gets a scrap of paper with no thought put into it. So when Amy is explaining why she has rejected her kids' cards, you get it. She expects the best and knows what her kids are capable of. One day Lulu decides to cut her own hair, as an act of defiance against her mother. I wish that Amy would have let her daughter go around with a self-inflicted raggedy haircut, to let her live with the consequences, but since I couldn't even do that when my own daughter cut her hair, I immediately laughed and understood.

This is ultimately a memoir about love, as Amy's love for her children drive her to push them to be not just good but excellent. She believes in them so strongly that she pushes them until they do actually succeed. That's really what a Tiger Mother does - she believes her children are capable of great things and will help them reach goals that lesser parents would let their kids fall short of. I need to assume the best of my children and not coddle them, and this book brought me more into balance. Some mothers I know never allow their kids to suffer a moment of discomfort, pain or stress. Amy Chua is often the source of stress for her children, but they are leading far richer and deeper lives than my children ever will.

 Once a week, while my own kids were being taken care of by paid teachers, I'd sneak off to the bookstore and read this on my Nook in a Barnes & Noble and laugh out loud about Amy and her parenting tactics. I loved this book, and wish I were more of a Tiger Mother.