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

Monday, February 28, 2011

Cream Puff Murder by Joanne Fluke

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: Hannah solves the murder of the town flirt and aerobics instructor, while trying to lose weight.

When I first moved to Minnesota, I asked the librarian to suggest some Minnesota-based mysteries for me. (When I lived in Portland, OR, I adored the Samantha Kincaid series based in Portland.) Along with books by KJ Erickson, P.J. Tracy and David Housewright, he gave me a novel by Joanne Fluke, who writes the Hannah Swenson murder mysteries.

Hannah Swenson lives in Lake Eden, a town that seems to fluctuate from 45 minutes to over two hours away from the Twin Cities. The distance seems to vary with each book. Lake Eden seems like it could be Aitkin or Brainerd or even Moose Lake, some town small enough where everyone knows the town business, but large enough to have a police force and a mayor. There's also  tourist activity in the summer, like many northern Minnesota small towns near a lake.

Hannah runs The Cookie Jar, her business in town. Her business partner Lisa handles the administrative side, keeping the books and expanding their business. Lisa starts the series as a young part-time employee, and ends up a young bride and Hannah's full partner. Lisa remains one of my favorite characters across the series.

Hannah is torn between two men in town. Norman is the town dentist, mild-mannered and helpful, with a sense of humor. Their mothers are best friends and run an antique shop together. He loves to take Hannah out to eat, and help her with the housekeeping details of Hannah's life. He seems to know exactly what Hannah needs, often before she needs it. Early in the series, Fluke introduced Mike, the hunky sheriff, who also has an interest in Hannah. Both men have proposed to Hannah and she has demurred multiple times.

As owner and Chief Creative Officer of a cookie shop, Hannah has been struggling with her weight often. In Cream Puff Murder, Hannah is suddenly too large for the specially-designed dress she will be wearing to serve cream puffs at the party for her mother's book launch in two weeks. With no time to order a new dress, Hannah has to lose weight. Hannah's beautiful younger sister Andrea creates an exercise program for Hannah and the two sisters work out every morning at Heavenly Bodies, the health club in town. They also take a class from vicious-but-extremely-fit Ronni Ward, a one-time girlfriend of Mike's. Hannah is a reluctant exerciser, but is determined not to ruin her mother's big event.

One morning, Hannah discovers a dead body floating in the gym's Jacuzzi surrounded by the cream puffs Hannah gave Mike last night. Mike is definitely off the case, because he had a relationship with the victim, none other than the beautiful and bitchy Ronni Ward. Town sheriff Bill, Andrea's husband, and Lonnie, a town deputy and Hannah's sister Michelle's boyfriend, are also off the case.

So they all insist Hannah use her detective skills to clear them in the case, and insist on Hannah investigating their way, instead of Hannah's way. Mike jokes that Hannah has slay-dar - one of the worst puns I've read in this goofy, wordy series.

Mike's micromanaging of Hannah should have put the nail in the coffin of their relationship. Apparently Hannah's wishy-washiness concerned other readers, because Hannah acknowledges that her unwillingness to commit isn't fair to the men, but that they don't seem to mind. All along, Mike has dated a number of women, likely also when he was "dating" Hannah. I put "dating" in quotes not because I mean it as a euphamism for sex, as Hannah has made it very clear she's a virgin, but Hannah's dating seems to be kissing for a minute and then going out to eat. Dating for Mike does mean sex.  Mike also takes advantage of Hannah's cooking skills, expecting Hannah to serve as the little woman to his brawny cop mentality. Mike thinks nothing of knocking on Hannah's door late at night, expecting a fresh cup of coffee and a baked good, along with updates on the case. This disrespect of Hannah, and the fact that she can dismiss his chauvinistic treatment of her simply when he kisses her, made me long for Norman and Hannah to be a couple, soon.

Hannah's life would only improve if she married Norman, and likely go downhill, but be infinitely more exciting, married to Mike. But Mike's fidelity would also be in questions, as is the reason why he likes Hannah. From the descriptions, Mike likes skinny busty women, and Hannah doesn't fit that description.

In addition to me taking an active dislike to a primary character (Mike) in this series, the alliteration was painful.  In a painful scene, Hannah throws her chicken foot from her Chinese meal to her cat, Moishe. He chases after the "avian appendage" and returns with the "flying foot." Groan.

The final insult was that the recipes were disappointing. If Hannah is supposed to be losing weight, none of the recipes were at all mindful of calories. In this book, almost half were not dessert-based. Norman's egg salad (not a diet food normally) includes cream cheese. And Hannah eats it! Many of Fluke's readers write in and suggest recipes and the pool of delicious easy and available recipes might have been thin (no pun intended) for this book. All the recipes were disappointing and I didn't want to make a single one. For this book, a low-fat cookie or healthy dessert recipe would have especially made sense.

Of course I will still follow the Hannah Swenson series, but feel free to skip this particular book. My favorite is Blueberry Muffin Murder, with a decadent blueberry muffin recipe. I do love my mystery-with-recipes style books. The Goldy Bear series of Diane Mott Davidson have great sweet and savory recipes that call for expensive ingredients and specialty tools, but with weak writing. Livia Washburn's series is a little dull and only feature about four recipes a book. And I tried a Tamar Myer book and didn't like the main character. I look forward to to Norman and Hannah getting married, and some healthier cookie recipes. I hope that happens.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids by Tom Hodgkinson

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 best way to be a parent is to relax and do as little as possible.

I tend to be an uptight parent, worrying that my kids will act as brats in public, which will lead to vandalism, promiscuity, drug use and anarchy.

This book didn't quite inspire me to embrace every concept the author espouses, but the overall message that kids learn by doing and are more competent than we give them credit for was quite a healthy one.
Paradoxically, the idle parent is a responsible parent because at the heart of idle parenting is the respect for the child, trust in another human being.
This is a lovely sentiment, and one that seems directly to contrast with the new book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. The author quotes heavily from A. S. Neill, the founder of the Summerhill School. I often felt like I should be reading A.S. Neill's book, instead of this one. He also darws from Rouseau and Locke and even D.H. Lawrence.

Banish the TV, sleep in, give the kids peas to eat, music to play (ukuleles are great) and let them have pets. All very sensible, normal advice that seems radical once he delves deeper into his reasoning. It turned me off a little when Wilkinson said,
My idea of child care is a large field. At one side of the field is a marquee with a bar serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other side of the field, somewhere in the distance, the children play. I don't bother them, and they don't bother me. Give them as much freedom as possible. 
I am always stunned when people who have more than one child seem to resent being parents. How can the work and joy of one child be forgotten when you decide to have a second? If you see kids as a bother, then yes, be an idle parent. You'll likely be happier.

Part of the freedom that Wilkinson praises is the freedom to let them play with their arseholes in public. Whoa, kinda lost me there, buddy.

Even a broken watch is right twice a day, so I can't totally dismiss this book as the writings of a neglectful crackpot, nor can I recommend this book to American parents who are searching for guidelines on how to raise happy kids.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

This Is Not The Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness by Laura Munson

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: When Laura Munson's husband asks for a divorce, she refuses.

This was a terrible book. Why did I finish it? The same reason why people rubberneck at gruesome accidents on the side of the road.

I requested this book from the library after the husband of a friend of mine told her he wanted to move out. Was there any way she could avoid a divorce? This woman did. Maybe her ideas would work for my friend.

Aspiring author Laura Munson and her husband live in the wilds of Montana struggling with money, raising two tweens and relying on their elderly parents for money, vacations and trips to find themselves. Then one day:
“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”
His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t.
He drew back in surprise. Apparently he’d expected me to burst into tears, to rage at him, to threaten him with a custody battle. Or beg him to change his mind….I really wanted to fight. To rage. To cry. But I didn’t.
Instead, a shroud of calm enveloped me, and I repeated those words: “I don’t buy it.”
You see, I’d recently committed to a non-negotiable understanding with myself. I’d committed to “The End of Suffering.” I’d…decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. And I mean all of it.
From the way she describes their marriage and early courtship, Laura Munson was obviously the pursuer and a spoiled little rich kid accustomed to getting whatever she wanted. Then her husband tells her they're moving to Montana. She goes along with it, because she doesn't want to upset him.

Yet when her husband says he wants a divorce, she refuses and doesn't engage him in his temper tantrum, as she equates it, insisting that she knows what he needs better than he does. Instead of allowing him to leave their marriage, she gets him helicopter lessons and suggests that he go on an Australian walkabout.  She seemed so smug and condescending, staying at home and keeping the home fires burning while her husband goes out drinking and comes home late, if he even comes back at all.
I think I'm a friggin' rock. I want to be married to me. 
My biggest complaint about this book is that she is living a lie, daily, but instead calls it being reasonable. While she's thinking,
"Grow the fuck up. These are problems of privilege. You're lucky you even have a family to play around with. A house to want to leave. A wife not to love. Skiing, my ass. Fuck off. This is a time to practice gratitude. Not to stay out all night, partying your ass off like a twenty-year-old. Grow up!" But instead I say, "Take a vacation. Go somewhere. Take care of yourself."
The dichotomy between how she says she feels and what she actually says seem like the worst kind of self-delusion, not happiness. I feel so bad for her kids, who watch their mother lie to herself and to them and their father abandon her and them.
I am not in denial if I keep my mouth shut, as long as I sweep those thoughts off the front porch of my mind.
She says she loves her husband, but I honestly didn't understand why. He seems like a lazy, neglectful asshole with a Peter Pan complex. Even her therapist asks for clarity. Her husband is NEVER mentioned by name, he's only referred to as "he" or "my husband."

I accept that most memoir authors take a certain amount of liberty with their truth, seeing their world and retelling it through their eyes, but I found actual contradictions within the same chapter. On fourth of July, her family's biggest holiday, she calls her husband at three o'clock to plan buying fireworks together. She tries for the next fifteen minutes with no answer and so they all go home.
We spend the next few hours playing a dice game called Farkle on the screen porch. ... At four o'clock, on our way out the door, my husband calls.
There simply cannot be several hours and 45 minutes in the same time period. And this is her strongest memory, the example she uses to prove how patient she is and understanding. In the end, her husband decides to stay in the marriage, and tells her by getting satellite cable installed. No big declaration like, "I've been a jerk and I'm sorry." No, he gets satellite cable.

Laura Munson had 14 unpublished novels before she published this one. I've read other published novels by worse writers, and other memoirs by much better ones. I appreciate her need to be published, but the tale of a doormat who stays married to a jerk is not worth my time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Reckoning (Darkest Powers, Book 3) by Kelley Armstrong

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: Specially gifted magical teens finally escape from the lab who genetically modified their powers. 

The Reckoning is the final book in the series that should have a Twilight-like following. Teens with special powers on the run? Hot teen werewolf? Sign me up! Much better written than the Twilight series, too.

I thought I was picking up the first book in this series, but actually I got the third book and jumped right into supernatural action and romance. Chloe is a necromancer with power to not only raise but also summon, and banish, the dead. Her powers have been altered by the Edison Group, a supernatural evil think tank and laboratory that has been harvesting and modifying children of sorcerers (magical males) and witches (magical females).

Chloe and her friends - Derek, a werewolf; Simon, a sorcerer and Derek's foster brother; and Tori, a powerful adept witch - are hiding in the safe house of Andrew, a former member of the Edison Group, who is now working against the unchecked powers of the Edison Group. Chloe and Simon have always been considered a couple, but Chloe is uncannily aware of Derek, even though he scolds her for risking herself. The sexual tension between Derek and Chloe is perfectly balanced, and they do make a good couple, once Simon gracefully bows out of the picture. Once safe, Andrew brings in a few talented adults to help train the teens in their magical skills area.

Chloe is so powerful that she can raise the dead just by thinking about it. Tori only needs to hear a spell and she knows it. Derek has finally made the transition to full werewolf and only Simon's powers are weak. Once the adults who are supposed to be helping them hide from the Edison Group fully comprehend their powers, they change their minds and agree that the teens should be killed, because that much power, uncontrolled, is dangerous.

The teens are dragged back to the Edison Group, where Tori confronts her witch of a mother and Chloe and Simon are about to be sent to a group home for more training and indoctrination. Chloe uses her power to raise the dead and summons a half-demon who helps her destroy the building. In the ensuing final (?) escape from the Edison Group, Tori's mother and the evil Dr. Davidoff are killed. Chloe and her Aunt Lauren, Simon, Simon's father, Derek and Tori escape and regroup to fight.

This was a well-written, fast-paced supernatural young adult novel. It doesn't hurt that Kelley Armstrong is one of my favorite authors as well.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Last Ember by Daniel Levin

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: An antiquities professor uncovers a mystery, a historical cover up, and a relic of history that governments and fanatics would kill for.

My hormones are responsible for me picking up this book. I admit, the author photo of Daniel Levin sucked me in. Isn't he a hunk?

Unfortunately, this novel frustrated and bored me with all the complicated characters and angles. It's an ambitious novel, an attempt to combine the best of Indiana Jones (archeology made sexy) and a Jewish version of The Da Vinci Code (revisionist religious history) but based in Rome. Evil American lawyers, devoted religious fanatics and experts, Italian scholars and researchers, earnest antiquities police and a lost love from the past.

I couldn't finish this book, but here's a summary from the author's webpage:
Jonathan Marcus, a young American lawyer and a former doctoral student in classics, has become a sought-after commodity among less-scrupulous antiquities dealers. But when he is summoned to Rome to examine a client’s fragment of an ancient stone map, he stumbles across a startling secret. The discovery reveals not only an ancient intelligence operation to protect an artifact hidden for 2000 years, but also a ruthless modern plot to destroy all trace of it by a mysterious radical bent on erasing all remnants of Jewish and Christian presence from the Temple Mount.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott

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: By mirroring your child's frustration back to him or her, you express empathy and understanding.

This parenting book opened with a charming example of how to parent your child:
What do we say to a guest who forgets her umbrella? Do we run after her and say, "What is the matter with you? Every time you come to visit you forget something. If it's not one thing, it's another. Why can't you be like your younger sister? When she comes to visit, she knows how to behave. You're forty-four years old! Will you never learn? I'm not a slave to pick up after you! I bet you'd forget your head if it weren't attached to your shoulders!" That's not what we say to a guest. We say, "Here's your umbrella, Alice," without adding, "scatterbrain."
Parents need to learn to respond to their children as they do to guests. 
How loving and what an inspiration to parents. But the rest of the book seemed incomplete to me. Perhaps it's because my children are too young to respond or perhaps the advice does not offer enough follow through.

The principle piece of advice in this book is that you mirror back your child's frustration, often putting words or ideas in their heads. "You seem disappointed. " or "That must have made you so mad!"  But what I felt was lacking was any form of trying to help the child figure out a solution for next time. Just expressing sympathy doesn't seem like enough of a response to me. The next step was missing. I tried this with my son and he whined even longer and harder. "You really want a gum ball and you're sad that you can't have one." Any parenting advice that extends the tantrum won't work for us. This also seemed to focus on children who are in school full-time, a situation not yet appropriate to us.

Another valuable piece of advice was to avoid blank statements like "That was bad." or "Good job." What would be more helpful would be to express characteristics you would like your child to embody. "You shared your toy with your sister. How kind." or "Look at you, you did it!"  This is advice often found in other parenting books I've read, including Easy To Love, Difficult to Discipline.

One skill I'm still working on:
When children interrupt adult conversations, adults usually react angrily: "Don't be rude. It is impolite to interrupt." However, interrupting the interrupter is also impolite. Parents should not be rude in the process of enforcing child politeness. Perhaps it would be better to state, "I would like to finish telling my story."
Originally published in 1965, this book did seem out of date, with just the basics mentioned in more recent parenting books. It's not that the advice wasn't good, it just wasn't complete enough or relevant enough for my life. I considered three stars, since this book is not bad, but found that if I were to recommend any parenting book, this one wouldn't even make the list.

Friday, February 4, 2011

In the Woods by Tana French

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: An Irish detective is assigned to investigate the murder of a young girl, right in the same neighborhood where his friends disappeared 20 years ago.

I went to bed with this book and got kicked out of bed for keeping the light on too long! I couldn't stop reading once Detectives Ryan and Maddox hone in on the killer.

In August of 1984, in a suburb of Dublin, three kids run off to play in the woods surrounding their neighborhood.  When the kids don't return, the entire neighborhood searches for the missing kids, turning up only one of the three kids. The other two kids are still missing today. Their bodies were never found, nor was any crime scene, yet the one child found had blood-soaked feet.

The found boy, Rob Ryan, moved away and became a detective in Dublin's Murder Squad. He's inclined to be a loner, but his partner Cassie Maddox is his best friend.

Twenty years later, a young girl's body is found at the edge of the woods where Rob's friends disappeared. Like the now murdered Katy, his missing friend Jamie was also about to be sent away to school. Both Jamie and Katy were twelve years old. Is this new murder connected to his friends' old unsolved disappearance?
The wood was gay and sparkly in the sunlight, all birdsong and flirting leaves; I could feel the rows upon rows of identical, trim, innocuous houses ranged behind me. This fucking place, I almost said, but I didn't. 
A team of investigators turns up no sexual predators, either from then or now, no viable suspects, but plenty of concern about young Katy's life. Katy was raped, but with an object. Her family seems distant and distracted, and there's political corruption, pressure to solve the case and no leads.

Rob starts to go a little crazy (staying up too late and drinking too much) about this case, bringing him nightmares about the unsolved mystery of his life, but Cassie covers for him extremely well. There are no progress made in this case, and Rob has already resigned himself to be haunted by another case involving the woods. Is there a wild animal? Is there a neighborhood murderer, who killed as a teen and is now a father? Two separate mysteries?

Frustrated beyond measure, and feeling like he's messing up his life every day, Rob decides to spend the night in the wood.
Knocknaree wood was the real thing, and it was more intricate and more secretive than I had remembered. It had its own order, its own fierce battles and alliances. 
His night in the woods actually creates a break in the case, as it clears his mind completely. This clue starts an amazing path of discovery and I stayed awake once they had a suspect in custody. I never suspected! The Irish criminal and legal system is different from America's too, which enhanced the story for me too. A lushly, descriptively-written novel, I was sucked in by the first chapter and can't wait to read more by this author. The pacing was just perfect, with hints of dread and mystery being revealed along the way. It's up there with my first John Lescroast novel, Guilt.