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

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.