Friday, December 30, 2011

13 rue Therese - Elena Mauli Shapiro

I received this book at SIBA 2010, with the explanation that it was different and creative.  I'm always interested in anything with that description.  The the reviews started coming in...Booking Mama, Devourer of Books, Beth Fish Reads.  A year later (because that is just the kind of girl I am) I decide it might be the perfect thing to read for the readathon.

Now for the synopsis.  I almost copied and pasted the publisher's summary, but I'm going to tackle it.

Synopsis: In a Paris office, a young clerk named Josianne has in her possession a memory box full of things that represent the life of Louise Brunet, a spitfire of a woman who lived between WWI and WWII.  As she has done previous times, she places the box in a file cabinet, waiting to entrance the next young man with its secrets and charms.

That man would be the young and handsome historian, Trevor Stratton.  He finds the box, and becomes obsessed with this woman Louise, imagining her life from the treasures she has left behind.  The lines between fact and fantasy, and the past and present blur, and before long Trevor isn't sure what year it is, and whether he is in love with Louise, or young Josianne.

My thoughts:  When I started this book, I was totally charmed.  The pages have photos of the actual items in Louise's memory box (which actually DID come from a memory box obtained by the author from an upstairs neighbor who passed away).  I guess I've come to find that I like pictures.  They tell a story that goes beyond the word.

The character of Louise kept me on my toes, but I wasn't sure I liked her.  Having lost her true love, who died in the war, she is married to a kind man who is in business with her father.  Louise is bored though, and goes looking for action with a neighbor.  She is full of energy, and opinions, and seemed pretty selfish.

And I become confused.  Was this story about Louise just in Trevor's mind?  Did he time travel?  Is he insane?  By the end, I really had no idea what was going on.  It was wispy and magical, but if I had to explain it to someone, I couldn't.

There is also quite a bit of sex in the story.  Whether it was real or not, I gave up guessing.  But the descriptions are graphic.  Like Jackie Collins graphic.

I loved the imagery of Paris during Louise's life.  The grief and guilt that accompanies war, the joys found in music and friends, and the person one becomes when at war.  But the story itself went from something clever and charming to an ambiguous tale of (maybe) a lurid affair and a spoiled unmoored woman who is unhappy with her comfortable life in Paris.

I am definitely in the minority on this one, and if you want to hear from a few bloggers that loved the book, please take a look a those I've linked at the beginning of the review.  I'm going to hang on to the book and perhaps read it again, when I am less distracted.  My best advice, if you are interested in reading this, would be to familiarize yourself with the plot, and read it when you can offer your undivided attention.

3 out of 5 stars


Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus - Sonya Sones

Normally, I tend to avoid books that have hats and shoes and thong underwear on the cover.  Nothing screams vapid chick-lit like shoes and thongs.  So we tip our hat yet again to the power of the blogger recommendation, because if it weren't for the TOTALLY GLOWING reviews of Bermudaonion and At Home With Books, this book would not have graced my threshold.  That probably makes me sound snobbish.  This whole experience has made me rethink my attitude towards shoes and thongs.

Synopsis:  Holly is a writer of poetry.  She is turning 50 soon.  Her only child, Samantha, is preparing to leave for college in the near future.  Her mother, who lives on the other side of the US, is starting to fail.  She can't stand to look at herself in the dressing room mirrors.  She thinks her husband might be cheating on her with another mom, who happens to be buff.  She has writer's block and her publicist is nagging her.  The checkout boy at the supermarket just gave her a senior discount. 

In refreshing and creative free verse, we are privy to Holly's trials and tribulations as a woman in transition.  A woman of the sandwich generation.  A woman with hot flashes.  It is a diary with a cadence and flow, with a BFF's candor and humor that reassures us that we are not alone.

My thoughts:  Sometimes, you find a book that speaks to you.  Whether it is a book about grieving when you have lost someone special, a deliciously creepy tale on a rainy night, a book about the building of a medieval English cathedral when you are traveling in England, or a love story when you meet The One. 

Or when you read this book when you are feeling fat and unappreciated by your children.  It is synchronicity. 

And it is laugh-out-loud FUNNY.  Sonya has a way with words, verbalizing things that were just on the tip of your tongue.  And don't let the "free verse" thing freak you out.  What I am finding is that even though I am poetry-illiterate, I really love this style of writing.  I have to share a couple of passages with you, and you will see what I mean:
Shift Happens
On what day,

at what hour, 
at which tell-me-it-ain't-so moment

did you finally come

to the blow-to-the-solar-plexus realization
that your daughter had switched over

from being so proud of you
that she actually wanted to bring you in
for show-and-tell,

to being so humiliated
by everything you say or do
or even think about doing

that she is
no longer willing
to be seen in public with you?

of course,
you offer to take her shopping.)

All of us
were young once.

And for each of us
there was a certain afternoon

An afternoon when we were
as beautiful as we'd ever been,

as beautiful
as we'd ever get -

and not one of us
knew that it was happening.

All of us
are older now.

And for each of us
there will be a certain afternoon.

An afternoon
when we will pass by a mirror

and see that the last bit of youthful beauty
has fluttered from our faces.

And on that afternoon,

our hearts and our minds

will finally be old enough
and wise enough -

not to give
a flying f**k. 

OK, sorry that was long.  But how can you not love this woman?  Please get this, please read this, and be charmed off your feet by it.

5 out of 5 stars           

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Wroclaw #5

Photo credit: 

If my family were to rank the coolest thing we saw on this trip to Poland, it would be this - Kaplica Czaszek, or Chapel of the Skulls.  For all you plague lovers out there, this is going to blow your mind.

In honor of Cholera and other plague victims, as well as various skirmishes, a priest built this chapel out of their bones in 1776.  In the chapel itself, there are 3,000 souls represented.  In a crypt below the chapel (which we were able to peek into), another 21,000 skeletons reside.  It is truly a creepy creepy thing.  We were not able to take photos inside (I wanted to try surreptitiously with my iPhone, but a scary nun was eye-balling us) so I have used one I got from the Internet. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wonderstruck - Brian Selznick

I was first introduced to Brian Selznick's work when I read "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"...a part graphic novel, part written story about an orphan living in 1930's Paris, exploring the magic of old movies and an automaton.  Even though the book was written for 9 year olds, it captured my imagination and made me feel like a kid.  That is the beauty of Selznick...he brings a child-like delight to his work.

When I heard he had a new book coming out in the same type of format, I really didn't care what it was about.  I knew I had to have it.  Never mind that Scholastic protected copies of this book at SIBA like the freaking Crown Jewels.  I discovered a tiny little indie bookstore in the small town of Apalachicola, FL over Thanksgiving, and begged my husband to buy this book for me.  I read it that very night.

Synopsis:  Born deaf in one ear, Ben has always wondered about his father.  His mother won't talk about him, and becomes sad when Ben approaches the subject.  When Ben's mother dies, Ben finds a clue about his missing father, and is immediately struck deaf in his other ear by a lightning strike.  Despite his disability, he sets out for New York City to find him.

In a separate storyline 50 years earlier, we meet Rose, who is a deaf girl obsessed with scrapbooking pictures of a glamorous actress, and sets off into New York City to find her.

Across the decades, Ben and Rose are pulled together by their deafness, and the hidden treasures in the American Museum of Natural History.  As Ben and Rose navigate through a hearing world, they discover secrets about the museum, themselves, and each other.


My thoughts:  Selznick has done it once again.  With a childish wonder, he stumbles onto topics or places, in this case the Deaf and the American Museum of Natural History, and he weaves that into a magical story that will entrance people of all ages. 

I'm not an art critic, so it is hard for me to verbalize how his illustrations mesmerize.  I think it is the facial expressions that do it.  He captures the glint of an eye, the lift of an eyebrow, or the hint of a smile that tells a story all on its own. 

Like Hugo, when you see this book, you will probably gasp at its phone book-ish size.  Don't let that bother you...I read this book in three or four hours, all the while smiling at how it made me feel. 

I never thought Selznick would be able to match Hugo, but he has.  Just like its title, "Wonderstruck" is indeed a wonder.

5 out of 5 stars

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Holiday Break

 My cats and my family are stealing my internets for the next four days.  I shall be baking, reading, shopping, eating, watching movies, and generally spending time with my loved ones.   It's what the holidays are all about!

OK, I might find time to write a couple of reviews, but you shall not see my face online.  I also have a come up with some New Year's goals for reading, which I will share on my January 1st Sunday Salon.

I hope all of you, my friends, have a wonderful Christmas!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

It all happened over a game of Words With Friends at 6:00am on December 20th.  My friend Marianne and I were engaging in our daily routine of WWF when I sent her a message and said something like "I so want to see The Dragon Tattoo, but shoot, we have the kids' Christmas program tonight".  One thing led to another, and plans were hatched for the two of us and my mom to run over to see this long-awaited movie at 9:00pm, after our little angels had blessed us with their sweet holiday singing voices.

We were all excited, but a little fearful.  After all, the Hollywood version of this internationally best-selling book had huge shoes to fill.  While not widely screened, the three of us had all seen the Swedish version, and loved it.  It wasn't perfect...why do directors feel the need to MESS with the story details?  But the complicated, multi-threaded plot was easy enough to follow, and Noomi Repace was a stunning embodiment of Lisbeth.


As we were leaving the theater, the three of us all agreed that this version wasn't quite as good.  Here are a few of our takeaways:


The issue of casting rested solely on the shoulders of Rooney Mara.  I think David Fincher, the director, took a chance on her.  She was fairly unknown up to this point, and had never had a major role that pushed her acting limits.  And she took Lisbeth and ran with her.  I had no complaints.  She was quirky and angry and badass, but Fincher's Lisbeth had a few moments of softness to her, and I liked that.

As I said before, this movie has three or four complicated plot threads running through it, and it takes a deft hand at screenwriting to navigate "the unread" through the paces.  From the very beginning, this movie felt jerky and manic and extremely hard to understand.  I've read these books, and seen the Swedish movies, and I couldn't quite follow it.  Some of the dialogue was mumbled, and while I am all for the "show not tell" mantra, I think the average viewer required a little more explanation than we got.

And there is the messing with the facts again.  I really don't know why they must do this.  They didn't change the spirit of the movie, though, so I guess I need to get over the fact that they will always need to tweak and put their own mark on the thing.

One thing that I must mention, and it is the thing that still lingers in my mind hours after seeing the movie.  And that is the opening credits.  I've never seen anything quite like it.  Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Karen O (Yeah Yeah Yeah) have created a delightfully insane rendition of Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song", which alone is pretty mind-blowing.  But they married this music up with an artistic video sequence that, according to Fincher, is intended to depict "the primordial tar pit of (Lisbeth's) subconscious."  Yeah, so I dare you to watch this in Dolby Surround on the big screen and not sit there with your mouth hanging open, whispering to yourself, "What.  The.  Hell."

Pretty wicked, right?

I would encourage everyone to see this movie.  It is solid.  Just keep your expectations in check if you have seen the original.  And if you haven't read the book (really?), then bring along your patience and make peace with the fact that you may need to watch it twice to understand it.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Wroclaw #4

Funky artistic thingy on the side of a building in downtown Wroclaw.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Best of 2011 - Books

So!  Onto my favorite books this year where I actually had to use my eyes.

Keep in mind that the books I'm listing weren't necessarily published in 2011, I just stumbled upon them in 2011.

I find this list very interesting and fairly representative of the crazy array of genres I read this year.  I might also add this has something to do with the fact that I gave up nearly all ARCs and tours (a few squeaked through) and challenges.  I basically read whatever the hell I wanted.  And this is what I got...awesomeness.

Again, in no particular order:

1.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick.  This book may be for kids 9 and up, but it seems to collect fans of every age.  Part novel part storybook, this classic inspired my imagination by introducing both a famous maker of old black and white movies and the amazing invention of the automaton.  While it is as big as a doorstop, you will be able to read it in a few hours, and I might guess your jaw will be hanging open from cover to cover.

2.  Outlaw - Warren Kiefer.  I read this book for CB James' Western Month, but it was actually a re-read from my pre-blogging days.  And despite what you might think, this is not a book for men!  Our protagonist is a morally ambiguous but charismatic guy who escorts us through the Wild West at the turn of the century and beyond.  It is gripping and completely un-putdownable.

3.  Cutting For Stone - Abraham Verghese.  If I analyzed all the elements of a successful Sandy book, this one would not have qualified.  Orphans in Africa, raised by doctors, becoming doctors themselves, their destinies shaped by seemingly unimportant events.  The description didn't do anything for me, and I only read it because of book club.  But Verghese's writing pulled me in from the beginning, the characters capturing my heart. 

4.  The Doomsday Book - Connie Willis.  Time travel and The Plague!  Great characters!  A pace of plot that your little eyes can barely keep up with!  Read it so you can gush with the rest of us!

5.  The Fates Will Find Their Way - Hannah Pittard.  On the surface, this is a story about a girl who goes missing.  Beneath the surface, it is about a community (mostly the girl's male classmates) and how they deal with her loss, and how they deal with growing up.  It is unique for it's collective first person prose, and it won me over with all the familiar high school-isms that I completely related to.  People were hot and cold on this book, but I loved it.  

6.  What Alice Forgot - Liane Moriarty. When a middle-aged mother bonks her head and forgets the last ten years of her life, she is forced to examine how her life has deteriorated from her more earnest and innocent days of a decade prior.  This touching, extremely easy-to-read book gave me alot to think about. 

7.  This Is Where I Leave You - Jonathan Tropper.  There seems to have been a surge of books about men bumbling through a life crisis with humor and humility.  This one caused belly laughs and spitting of drinks and some touching reflections on family.  I'm anxious to see how this one turns out on film.

8.  Let the Right One In - John Ajvide Lindqvist.  I thought I was over vampires, but Lindqvist takes them to a whole new level, weaving in coming-of-age and bullying to make an unforgettable story.  And some really horrifying, toe-curling business with acid. 

9.  Exposed -  Kimberly Marcus.  This was my first experience with free verse, and no wonder I totally fell in love with this form of prose.  The story is a riveting one about one young high school girl and a tragedy that explodes around her.  Do yourself a huge favor, and set aside a couple of hours one day to appreciate this one.

10.  ALL THINGS NESBO!  I'm not going to list all my reviews here, but was the year of the Nesbo.  I read all of his translated books (except his latest "The Leopard") and became completely addicted to this drunken but dogged Norwegian police officer.  It was certainly the highlight of 2011!

There you have it, the fruits of my labor.  Have you read any of these, and what did you think?  My wish for 2012 is that I can continue to resist commitment and forge my own reading destiny!

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Best of 2011 - Audiobooks

I love all the year-end "Best of" lists, but boy are they hard to compile!  Especially when you've had a reading year like mine.  I was digging around in dark corners last year looking for forgotten gems.  This year it was a matter of paring them down.

Call it laziness, but I'm only going to have two "Best of" categories this year:  Audio and Print.  In the past, I have had categories of Non-Fiction, Young Adult, Fiction, and Audio (and probably could have even done a Graphic Novel category) but enough is enough. 

I'm not necessarily listing every one of my 5 star reads, but the best of the 5 star reads.  That is how my year went, amazingly. Also, to put this all into perspective, I listened to 63 audios this year.  I picked my top 9.  Why not 10?  I don't know.  This list felt right.

With audio, it bears mentioning that this is a package deal.  Would the book have been 5 star if I had read it in print?  Maybe, maybe not.  The combination of an amazing story and an amazing narrator is really what we are talking about here.  And all of these stopped me cold, brought me to my knees, made my heart soar, made me giggle out loud with delight, and every other emotion possible.  So without further ado, here they are, in no specific order:

1.  Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter - Tom Franklin (narrated by Kevin Kenerly).  A delicious, Southern gothic literary mystery that addresses family, prejudice, and friendship, sweetened by Kenerly's smooth easy drawl. 

2.  A Visit From the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan (narrated by Roxana Ortega).  Probably the most challenging audio this year, this non-linear puzzle of characters in the music business was creative enough to make my brain buzz.  And if you ever doubted that a chapter written in Power Point could be translated to audio, you need to give this baby a shot.  Just to hear it for yourself.

3.  Revolution - Jennifer Connelly (narrated by Emily Janice Card and Emma Bering).  This is a story that involves the French Revolution, time travel, and modern music, all mixed up in a way that made my heart swoon.  I don't know that reading it would have been quite the experience this was in the capable hands of Emily Janice Card, a new favorite narrator of mine.

4.  The House of Tomorrow - Peter Bognanni (narrated by Lloyd James).  More bizarre combinations.  A geodesic dome, an angry teen with a recent heart transplant, the love of music, and boys coming of age.  Sounds strange, but in the hands of Bognanni (and the pitch-perfect voice of Lloyd James) this was a masterpiece, and it charmed the hell out of me.  

5.  Bossypants - Tina Fey (narrated by Tina Fey). Not your typical celebrity memoir.  You would expect no less from Fey than to laugh until your stomach hurts, but what surprises is her candor and wisdom when it comes to working mothers in a man's world.

6.  Faith - Jennifer Haigh (narrated by Therese Plummer).  A Boston priest accused of molesting a child is not a new topic, but a very unpleasant one, which is why many might avoid this book.  It is intensely thought-provoking when you get all sides of the story though, and there is a blurred line between good and bad, right and wrong, innocent and guilty. This is one that is still on my mind five months later, not necessarily for the narrator (who was good) but for the moral questions and conflicting emotions it dug up in my soul. 

7.  The Time Traveler's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger (narrated by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow).  If asked my top 10 books EVER, this one would be on it.  It absolutely blew me away, both in its cleverness and it's level of emotion.  I can summon goosebumps and tears AT WILL just thinking about it.  (It doesn't count if you have seen the movie.) 

8.  Ready Player One - Ernest Cline (narrated by Wil Wheaton). For me, this audio was a crazy blast of geek euphoria, brought to life by the coolest dude EVAH.  Vintage video games? War Games, Monty Python and John Hughes movies?  Rush's 2112?  I had a huge, goofy grin on my face the entire time I was listening to Wheaton in my ear.  That is my language baby. 

9.  Unbroken - Laura Hildenbrand (narrated by Edward Herrman).  There are some amazing true stories out there, but I'm pretty sure none can top this one.  In a pure, unadulterated tale of the strength of the human spirit, Louis Zamperini goes from Olympic runner, to a bombadier lost at sea, to a POW camp prisoner, to a man who embraces life and forgiveness.  It isn't so much about the writing or the narration here, but the story of the man.

Tomorrow, I will bring forth my best print reading for 2011.  Until then...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Salon: Mer-men, Disney and Stephen King

Good morning my long lost friends!  I feel I have been neglecting you this past week.  I will make it up to you with a lot of blabbing.  If I look back at the last six days, I was literally out of the house for four of them...finishing holiday shopping, meeting friends, exchanging gifts, all that stuff.  I also had a Christmas party with my golf league that included a Yankee swap with ornaments (why do we always fight over the shirtless mer-man?). 

And the cherry on top of this whirlwind week was yesterday...taking my son and three of his friends to Disney for 12 hours to celebrate his belated birthday.  Actually, before you feel bad for me, it was a pretty pleasant day.  These were four really good kids.  I turned them loose on the long lines and sat in various shady spots and listened to my audio book.  At the end of the day, only my feet were complaining.  (Off the subject...I am completely offended that we wore shorts to the park A WEEK BEFORE CHRISTMAS!  If it weren't for all the gorgeous decorating and lights, I'd think it was April or May.)

I'm slowly getting caught up on my review-writing.  I've resolved to write at least one a day until I'm caught up.  Right now I only have three more to write.  That will be a little holiday gift to sure feels good when I'm not behind!

I've been fairly unproductive in the word-reading business this week.  No wonder!  I did finish "The Future of Us" by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, and found it sweet and comforting.  I then started a book I got in Chicago called "Dog On It" by Spencer Quinn, which is a cozy mystery narrated by a dog.  The dog doesn't die, I have been told, so it's OK.  I might be 50 pages into it.  I just need a chance to sit down and dig into it - it's cute.

On audio I finally finished "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson.  I just shake my head.  That review is going to be tough to write.  I had such high hopes.  Compliments of the long lines at Disney, I was also able to finish "Never Knowing" by Chevy Stevens for my Heathrow Literary Society next month.  Another tough one.  I will have to try to separate my feelings between the story and the narrator, but both were an issue.  I have just started a book written by Lisa Scottoline and her daughter Franscesca called "Best Friends, Occasional Enemies" as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program. 

The big news is that according to my library, the new Stephen King audio book is IN TRANSIT TO MY HOUSE!!!!  Bring it on baby.

Today, my daughter has horseback riding lessons, and I have pimped my husband out to set up risers at the school to earn us better seats for the Christmas program next Tuesday.  I'm hoping that maybe my husband and I will get a chance to go out bookshelf shopping later (!!!). 

I will be taking a little blogging break December 22nd through the 26th, because let's face it - who is going to be reading blogs?  Even now I am hearing crickets chirping.  I need the rest anyway.  Tomorrow and Tuesday I will be posting my best of lists...hope you aren't overloaded on them yet!  I wish you all a very restful Sunday!   


Friday, December 16, 2011

Monsters of Men - Patrick Ness (Audio)

...and on to the final installment of The Chaos Walking Trilogy.  If you dare start the series, you will have no other choice than to finish it.  With many other trilogies, the plot often fizzles out and loses steam and focus as it progresses.  This is not the case here.  In fact, the tension brews to the exploding point, almost to the extent that you can feel the damn book (or audio) vibrating in your hand.

Synopsis:  So war it is.  The situation in the New World has escalated to the point of no return, it seems.  Mayor Prentiss has proven himself a tyrant, willing to kill anyone that gets in the way of his desire to rule the world.  He does have a soft spot for Todd, though, in his yearning for a perfect son.  As in Book Two, it is in Todd's voice that we get a glimpse into Prentiss's murderous tendencies that are masked by his smooth talk and mastery of mind control.

Mistress Coyle and her revolutionaries continue to practice acts of terrorism to make her mark and prevent Prentiss from rising to power.  Viola, as well as a couple of newcomers from her homeland, are protected under her wing.  It is in Viola's voice we understand that an opposition to a tyrannical leader is not always the better option.

A third voice is introduced in this book...that of a survivor of the Spackle genocide, #1017.  The Spackle have their own grievances, including the treatment of their people and the invasion of their home.  They will not go down without a fight.

Some tough decisions need to be made, forcing Todd and Viola to grow up overnight and become leaders.  Who is the right person to follow - Prentiss or Coyle?  Is it even possible that either of them will be an advocate for peace?  Which side can really be trusted to keep their word?  Is it better to kill thousands to save the one you love? 

My thoughts:  This journey exhausted and thrilled me.  Because each book really just dangles at each conclusion, without a definitive break, it really is just one long story with never-ceasing action, maiming, murdering, double-crossing, and manipulation.  There are times when I rolled my eyes at the hyperactivity (a little worried we'd lose our YA audience if we took a breather?), but I still loved this series. 

Of all three books, this one was the heaviest in terms of moral issues and intensity.  I loved the introduction of the third narrator, and his character development.  I also enjoyed seeing both Todd and Viola mature in their leadership roles in the community.  Did I think perhaps they were a little too mature for their 13 or 14 years?  Realistically yes, but I was willing to suspend my belief because I liked them and believed in them. 

Mayor Prentiss is a guy you just love to hate.  (I can't wait to see who is cast as this character in the movie.)  He is a complete, fully-developed narcissist that wants the world to bow at his feet. For a brief moment, I felt a tiny bit of sympathy for him when he got all man-crushy on Todd, but that didn't last long.

I wouldn't be right with myself if I didn't make a comment about my emotions at the end.  First of all, I was ENRAGED (I sent Rhapsody Jill an e-mail with all kinds of bad words) at some really emotionally manipulative chain-yanking in a scene near the end.  It cheapened things for me, and I was not happy.  I was only sated by the fact that Ness did not take the easy road in his conclusion.  No happily-ever-after with white horses and rainbows, and I was OK with that.

A word about the audio production:  Brilliant.  Our voice for Todd, Nick Podehl, was back again with a performance that held onto Todd's innocence and backwoods charm but had grown stronger and more sure of himself.  Angela Dawe was the narrator for Viola, and I loved her work as well.  She has a great cadence to her voice that was youthful but assured and natural.  I've never listened to her before, but I noticed she narrated "Still Missing" by Chevy Stevens, so I'm going to try to get my hands on that.  Rounding out our narrators is MacLeod Andrews as #1017.  His voice was a bit stiff and robotic, but was a perfect depiction of a Spackle. This was most definitely a trifecta of narration.

4 out of 5 stars  
Series as a whole:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Ask and the Answer - Patrick Ness

Thirty seconds after I finished the first installment of The Chaos Walking Trilogy "The Knife of Never Letting Go", I zoomed over to my mobile Overdrive to download the audio version of "The Ask and Answer" (my library didn't have the disc version).  This was serious business now.  The first installment left you hanging in mid-breathe, and I was a crazed, addicted fiend that needed my next fix. 

But wait.  The library SAID they had it on Overdrive, but it wasn't there.  I made a call to the library.  Oops, they say, looks like they don't have it anymore.  Voice trembling, I ask if they can get the audio on loan from another library.  No, they say, after budget cuts, they no longer support inter-library loans.  OMG.  OMG.  OMG.  So in desperation I broke my rule of sticking with all audio for a series, and I downloaded the Overdrive e-book on my phone.  I read the whole thing on my phone.  In three days.  All 536 pages.

I will try to be as non-spoilery as possible here, but just the nature of talking about a sequel is a spoiler in itself.   

Synopsis:  Todd and Viola believe they are escaping to a safe town called Haven, only to find it overrun by none other than Mayor Prentiss.  He has appointed himself President, has imprisoned the townsfolk that make trouble for him, banished the women to the outskirts of town, and is holding the aboriginal alien species in work camps.  Todd and Viola are separated as a result, but determined to reunite.

Mayor Prentiss grows in power with the building of an army (called "the Ask") and development of his mind controls, and is all narrated by Todd.  A group of revolutionaries, mostly women (called "the Answer"), decide to rebel by committing terrorist acts.  The actions of this group are narrated by Viola, who has joined them out of necessity to survive.  Jumping into the fray as a third combative force are the Spackle, who can no longer stand back and watch their people die at the hands of humans.  Will there be anybody left when Viola's settlers arrive in the New World months from now?

My thoughts: There was much to love in this second installment.  As much as I enjoyed "The Knife of Never Letting Go", and as much as I believe that most series blow their wad in the first book, this one just got better. 

I loved the addition of Viola as a first person narrator (in the first book we only heard from Todd).  She has a compelling voice, one that is passionate, earnest and determined despite her terror.  The separation of her and Todd was palpable.  I could feel their frustration and angst and need to be near each other, and their belief that they would do anything to protect each other.  It was very sweet in a fierce kind of way.

I also got wrapped up in a number of emotional issues that were addressed in this novel.  Big Issues.  The struggle of the enslaved Spackle.  The desperate longing for Mayor Prentiss's son to live up to his father's expectations.  And the precious talking horse Angharrad.  These animals, I swear.

But the biggest smack in the face was the morality of war.  It is obvious from the beginning that Mayor Prentiss is evil - that is a no-brainer.  So initially, the reader will applaud the efforts of The Ask to resist him, and blow up a few of his soldiers.  But soon, you see that both sides are vicious and blood-thirsty.  The Spackle have been used and abused in their native land, so they have a right to be mad.  But then they come blasting with their fire sticks that burn everything in sight.  So who is the good guy here?  Who is right?  Are any of them good, or just variations of the same brand of greed and anger?  This is a book that makes you go "hmmm". 

I will admit that I came out of the last book with some baggage.  Ness left us with a cliff-hanger and he murders kind people - important people!  I did not trust him, and was scared to death of who was going to get the ax.  I have to admit that I'm in the camp that applauds an author that throws important characters under the bus, but with Ness it is extreme.  I did not cry in this book, but felt the shock waves when characters were being picked off.  (Truthfully, I was terrified for the end of the third book.  But I'll talk about that tomorrow.)

And yes, this book ends (again) with the story hanging off the edge of a chasm, perfectly constructed for maximum anguish for those who had to wait for the third book to be published.  You'll want to have the third and final novel "Monsters of Men" nearby.  Luckily, I already had it loaded on my iPod.  Stay tuned for that review tomorrow...

4.5 out of 5 stars         


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Wroclaw #3

This was another chamber within the Wroclaw University, which was used for lectures, speeches and various musical events.  Can you imagine attending a lecture in this room?  With all the distractions?  It was breath-taking.  It would be perfect for a wedding, but I'm not sure if that is allowed.  This room was located very close to the University Church and decorated in the same Baroque style.  I'm having a hard time finding information about this room, but I have to imagine it was built about the same time as the church (late 1600's). 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Stranger You Seek - Amanda Kyle Williams (Audio)

I'm always on the lookout for a great murder mystery series.  I love them...they are my brain candy.  But more often than not, I find a whole bunch of blood and guts, but nothing really distinctive to help make it memorable.  I have been reading books from this genre for 20 years, so it is really tough for authors to have a hook that works for me. 

But hark!  Two respected bloggers, Swapna and Caite, made a fuss over Amanda Kyle Williams and the first book in her new series, "The Stranger You Seek".  What is this?  New series?  Great protagonist?  They were effusive enough to inspire me to order it on audio from my library.

Synopsis:  Keye Street is a divorced Southern Belle, an adopted Chinese-American, a recovering alcoholic, and because of the drinking problem, an ex-FBI profiler.  She currently works as a private investigator and bond enforcer to make ends meet, loves shoes and Krispy Kremes, and is apt to grab her crotch and offer a rude sentiment (or offer tampons) to any man giving her shit.

Street has been called into help with a particularly disturbing serial murder case by her best friend and Atlanta Police Department lieutenant Aaron Rauser.  The killer is not only leaving horribly gruesome crime scenes, he or she is messing with the cops and the press by sending taunting letters and e-mails.  It also appears that based on the killer's modus operandi, a number of unsolved murders from years prior may be the same handiwork.  In the dense, oppressive Georgia heat, Street must unravel motivations and psychoses to help solve the crime without losing herself in the process.

My thoughts: Holy cow this was a fun ride.  This book had the perfect combination of elements to entertain even the most critical murder mystery lover. 

The mystery itself was not all that difficult to figure out, if you are adept at these things.  The first time I "met" the character that was to be the killer, and I heard the description of the person, I knew who it was.  But Williams kept it vague, making the reader even question whether the evil-doer was male or female.  It was good fun, and I had a ball following the plot all the way through to the end.  There are plenty of red herrings in there just to keep you guessing.

There was a love interest thread, and that was completely satisfying.  I know Williams doesn't want her street cred tarnished with me telling you she has a soft side, so I reassure you that it isn't overwhelming.  A romantic I am not.  But I completely bought into everything going on here in the love department. (And want more.  Now.)

Completing the whole multi-dimensional package, we also get to see Street chase down the occasional bail skip (a thinking woman's Stephanie Plum if you will), find a missing cow, and even get a glimpse of a few same sex relationships.

But really, details.  The main attraction here is Street.  She is so lovable, yet so flawed.  She sucks at managing her personal life but is so good at her profession.  She is a tiny little Southern Belle that can take down a 250 pound convict.  I couldn't get enough of her, and she is the reason that you will not be able to forget this book after you have finished it.

A few words about the audio production:  This audio is narrated by Anne Marie Lee, who has also narrated a number of Lisa Gardner and Lisa Unger novels (which I listened to frequently before blogging), as well as "Maine" by Courtney Sullivan.  Anne Marie has a very girlish lilt to her voice, and has an excellent southern accent.  She initially seemed perhaps a little too girlish for Keye, but she soon showed her mettle by blasting through the most hard core scenes, and she became the essence of Keye.  I hope she comes back for future installments!

4.5 out of 5 stars         


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Sunday Salon: Baby It's Cold Outside!

 And I'm not talking about is like a balmy spring day down there.  My husband and I took a quick trip with some work colleagues to Chicago.  Talk about a shock to the system!  We got a little dusting of snow when we arrived, and temps that maxed out in the 20's (and the teens at night).  While I was packing for the trip and worrying about how I was going to keep warm, I discovered my 25 year-old purple wool Limited coat I bought in 1988.  I cut out the football sized shoulder pads and away I went.  Who knows why I held onto this thing all these years, but it served me well in the tundra. 

The cold hasn't stopped our fun...we have shopped until we dropped.  I was thrilled to go by my beloved Sandmeyer's Bookstore, where I go every time I am in town.  The owner and I feel like fast friends and always have fun talking shop.  I love to let her walk me around and hand-sell me books, and this time I came away with "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach, "Headhunters" by Jo Nesbo, "Dog On It" by Spencer Quinn, and "The Outlaw Album" by Daniel Woodrell.  Good thing I have room in my luggage!  

Before we left home, though, I attended our December Heathrow Literary Society meeting, which included a discussion about "Room" and a holiday book swap.  In the swap, I ended up with "The Birth of Venus" by Sarah Dunant.  Has anyone read this?  Let me know what you thought!  As far as our discussion of "Room", 99% of the group loved it.  One woman thought it was just OK, and one gentleman flat out hated it (and got so passionate he had to interrupt my love fest).  But it takes all kinds of opinions to fuel a book club.

I had a meeting for our Adult Literacy League, preparing for our Reading Between the Wines event in March.   You will be hearing more and more about this event as the time draws near, but in the meantime, I really need to read some Lisa See to prepare for her visit.

I received my Secret Santa package from Erica at The Book Cellar, a YA blogger in Boston.  OMG, guys, she has RABBITS!  Can't let my daughter see that.  Erica sent me "Tipping the Velvet" by Sarah Waters, one of my favorite authors EVAH (and is the only book I haven't read by her).  And she also sent me the coolest book light, that opens up like a robotic arm.  Sorry I don't have pictures, but I zipped out of town before I took one.

In print this week, I finished "Joy For Beginners" by Erica Bauermeister, who is a joy herself.  She has such a way with expressing the senses.  I have so much serious love for this author.  I just started a book I got from SIBA, "The Future of Us" by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler.  The book is about a couple of kids who log into AOL in 1996, and stumble upon their older selves on Facebook 15 years later.  I'm intrigued!

On audio, I started "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson.  I am struggling desperately to get through this, which is distressing for me.  I loved "The Devil in the White City", in fact it would probably be one of my top reads ever.  In this book, though, there are many names and facts, and I just can't stay engaged.  I am just a little over halfway through, and I'm invested to finish, but in the end I'll probably decide this book isn't suited for audio.

Today we fly back home, and rescue my poor parents from kid duties. I can think of a dozen things that might transpire once we get, a movie, pedicure, homework, etc.  It probably isn't going to be relaxing, but I don't think that will happen until...January? 


Friday, December 9, 2011

Feed - M.T. Anderson (Audio)

I'd been hearing about the wonders of "Feed" by Mira Grant on audio forever.  (This is the book about zombies and bloggers and stuff.)  My library didn't have it, unfortunately.  But there is always confusion about which "Feed" someone is talking about.  There was some feedish discussion at a recent book club meeting, and Heather (Book Addiction) said "Oh, Sandy, you must listen to the M.T. Anderson  "Feed"!".  Bonus?  It was only five discs long. 

Synopsis:  We find ourselves in a dystopian society, where the earth has been rendered a wasteland without plants or trees, the moon has been developed as a vacation destination, and our primary purpose on earth is consumption.  Tiny computer chips have been implanted under the skin that allows controlled "feeds", or commercials to invade your every thought and affect your spending habits (which are analyzed and manipulated).  In addition, the chip can be used to have one-on-one or community chats, and Internet-like information can be accessed, all through your mind.  Fashion trends change from hour to hour, and self-inflicted weeping skin lesions become de rigueur.

Titus is your typical high school teenager...vapid, inarticulate, often bored, and self-absorbed.  On one mission with his friends in search of fun, in a dance club on the moon, he meets a beautiful girl, Violet, with whom he strikes up a conversation.  While at the club, though, a hacker taps into their feeds, and they must be hospitalized in order to reboot and remove all traces of the hacker's virus.  It is only later that Titus and Violet realize that the attack may have had a more pervasive effect on Violet's system, and the repercussions of their dependence on the feed hit home.

Part dystopian world-building, part teen love story, part cautionary tale, part satire, "Feed" has a virtual banquet of food-for-thought.  Is our reliance on media and the cyber world a step in this direction?

My thoughts:  Put bluntly, I thought it was brilliant.  No wonder this eerie little piece of fiction won too many awards to list.  (I've counted 14 but there may be more.) 

I was immediately mesmerized by the world that Anderson has built for us, but at the same time, I was repulsed by it.  The focus on immediate gratification.  The disfiguring one's own body because someone says it is the cool thing to do (sound familiar?).  Teenagers that have been completely dumbed down and turned into consumer-centric drones.  If I took the time to stop and ponder, I was repulsed because it isn't so far from reality.  Are we really that bad?   

But while Anderson is sending all kinds of messages, he doesn't take himself too seriously either.  When one teen girl convinces another teen girl that her latest lesion, a recent purchase to impress her boyfriend and which is huge and is leaking viscera, sets off her eyes, you have to laugh.   

I found myself extremely frustrated with Titus at times.  He could be such a freaking teenage boy!  He avoids the difficult scenarios and unpleasant conversations, and would prefer to get wasted than face reality.  Which I am sure was Anderson's point.  I'm wondering if the young adult readers, to whom this book is targeted, are getting it?

A word of warning.  There are numerous curse words (if you were thinking about handing this over to your kids) and there are also many many slang terms.  While slang can really get on my nerves, it didn't bother me so much here because it didn't seem forced, but a part of their vocabulary.  But it is something you must get used to.

A word about the audio production:  If you are on the fence in deciding whether or not to read this book, I would highly recommend you try the audio.  The narrator, David Aaron Baker (narrator of the Dean Koontz Odd Thomas books) is the perfect voice of a lazy male teenager.  What makes this audio production so unique, though, is that you get a taste of a real feed, aka commercials, with singing, lingos, music, the whole bit, that is rattling around in people's heads.  Also, when people are having a mental one-on-one chat, there is a slight echo, which is a great effect.  This creativity makes listening not just a passive activity, but an experience.

4.5 out of 5 stars                   

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Knife of Never Letting Go - Patrick Ness (Audio)

There are a number of bloggers who have forever claimed that The Chaos Walking Trilogy was better than its more publicized colleagues (The Hunger Games, for example).  Jill, Ana, Trisha, Raych...all friends whose opinions I trust.  They spoke of love, of obsession, of tears.  I was overwhelmed with it all and I ran away. 

But then I picked up this first installment at the 2010 SIBA convention.  So what was my problem?  The size of the books (this one is nearly 500 pages long)?  The three-book commitment?  Laziness?  Then I heard it was being made into a movie.  Then I found the first and third installment on audio at the library.  And I decided to go for it.  Praise the Lord, Patrick Ness and talking dogs.

Synopsis:  Prentisstown is a farming village occupied only by men, located in the New World. The women all died years ago, killed by a virus contracted from the native species that inhabited the planet before man colonized it.  Likewise, this same virus made all men's private thoughts available to each other (called Noise), and have enabled animals to talk.

Todd Hewitt lives in Prentisstown, and will be the last boy in town to turn 13 and officially become a man.  He is a simple sheltered boy, fairly uneducated because Mayor Prentiss burned all the books and declared schooling unnecessary.  Todd has lived his life believing a number of truths, including the cause of his parents' deaths when he was young, that the natives, called Spackle, were the enemy but are now all gone, and that Prentisstown is the only settlement in the New World.

Until one day, when he meets a human that omits no Noise.  Viola.  A girl.  He is suddenly urged by his adoptive father to run away from Prentisstown with Viola and his loyal dog Manchee, as fast as he can to a safe place, away from the villagers.  It is a matter of life and death.  And all the truths upon which Todd has always relied, are shattered.

My thoughts: I'm not sure where to begin with this one, except to tell you that all the hype for this book is very warranted.  Jesus wept, people, and so did I.

There are so many intricately developed issues buzzing around your head, they overwhelm your senses.  Invasion of a native population, hatred between species, communication (open, closed or managed for ill gain), death of all women, the hypocrisy of the religious, the kindness of strangers, the confusion of young love, and *gulp* the unconditional love of a dog.

But don't let all that scare you off.  In fact, the world that Ness has built for you will make your mind buzz with possibilities and potential.  And Todd and Viola and Manchee are precious and earnest and untainted, and you YEARN for their well-being. The plot is fast-paced and full of terror and anguish.  (Unless you are dead, the anguish will level you.  I'm telling you so you can plan ahead.) 

And right when you get to the precipice of Something Bigger...Ness ends the book.  A bit of a cheap trick if you ask me, and manipulative.  If I'd have read this when it first published, I would have been pretty upset.  I also was slightly irritated at a Michael Meyers-esque character that just WOULD NOT DIE.  It was almost laughable.  All lesser quibbles than the whole of the thing though. 

The good news is that if you are reading these books now, you can plow through them one after the other.  I'm warning you, for the sake of your sanity, have "The Ask and the Answer" at the ready, as soon as you finish this one.

A few words about the audio production: The narrator for this audio book (and for the entire series) is Nick Podehl, a new voice for me, but one that has made a positive first impression.  He was able to convey Todd's innocence, his frustration and fear, as well as speak for Viola, a few evil guys, and best of all, the animals, especially Manchee.  Not everyone can talk like a dog might sound if barking out words, but this guy does a superb Manchee and I love him for it.

4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Not So Wordless Wednesday: Wroclaw #2

This is a shot of a small prayer vestibule in the University Church in Wroclaw, Poland.  (More pictures of the church were featured last week.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Redeemer - Jo Nesbo

OK, I think we have established that Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole series is my new all-time favorite.  I'm even willing to FORGIVE the translators for doing their work out of order, thus particularly spoiling this book for me.  (The translation work is phenomenal.)  Even though I knew a couple people were going to die in this installment, I had to complete my task of reading all the episodes, which have accumulated as follows:

The Redbreast
The Devil's Star
The Redeemer
The Snowman
The Leopard

There are two novels prior to "The Redbreast", but they have not yet been translated (and may never be, so don't hold your breath or wait for this to happen).  Each book, in theory, is able to stand on its own, but I wouldn't recommend it.  There are consistent characters, there is a history of tragedies that make Harry the man he is.  So what is that dashing, damaged man up to this time?

Synopsis: Twelve years ago, in a Salvation Army summer camp in Norway, there was a brutal rape of a 14 year-old girl.  We don't know the victim, and we don't know the perpetrator.  We also learn about a young Croatian boy who commits acts of treachery and has earned the title "the little redeemer".  These two facts simmer over the years and bubble up to give us the latest Harry Hole investigation.

In the present, a Salvation Army soldier is executed in public at close range.  Soon after, an attempt is made on the victim's brother's life, closely followed by an increasing body count, all which seem to be related.  Harry is assigned to this investigation with his partner Halversen and forensics superstar Beate.  Their digging takes them to Croatia, through the upper administration of the Salvation Army, and to that night 12 years ago at the summer camp.  As Harry's retired boss advises, "follow the money".

My thoughts:  Like all Harry Hole mysteries, there is never one simple plot thread, but many.  In fact, if you aren't careful, you will find yourself completely lost in the woods, a mile from civilization, marveling at how Nesbo does this to you again and again.  I've probably said this before, but best not even try to figure it out.  You will just get confused.  Just go with it.   

Nesbo seems to enjoy picking inanimate objects and creating new phobias for them.  He has demonized elevators, water beds, and snowmen.  Now he has caused me to cringe at my vacuum cleaner (well, yeah, that goes without saying, but now even more than ever).  Is Nesbo married?  I'm thinking that his significant other must have had some input about creating a fear of a vacuum.

And even though in many ways, critical events were spoiled by reading the books out of order, I still very much enjoyed this journey with Harry.  He continues to become more and more untethered by his demons, and is an increasingly cocky smartass with authority, but he is also an admirable dog with a bone, and refuses to give up on the most cut and dried cases.  He is annoying and lovable and dear, and the perfect protagonist to carry the series.

So.  One more book to go, and I believe, for the first time ever, I am reading it in order.  I can't wait.

4.5 out of 5 stars      

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Descendants (2011)

 If you read my post yesterday, you will remember that I said I was going to stay home and do bookish things.  News flash...I did not.  Instead I did a little shopping, lunch and a movie with my parents.  I was all jacked up because I thought "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" was out, but unfortunately I am a week early.  The only other movie that I deemed worth our time and money was The Descendants.

The Descendants has gotten a serious amount of Oscar Buzz in just about every major category.  This is going to be THE movie to see over the next few months, with good reason.  Plus, let's face it.  What on earth could be bad when it involves Hawaii and George Clooney?

Matthew King (Clooney) is a dispirited, over-worked real estate attorney whose marriage was starting to fall apart when his wife was in a boating accident and rendered comatose.  They have two daughters, one 17 and one 10, both with various emotional issues due to their mother's illness.  King attempts to deal with his two children who, for all intents and purposes, are strangers to him, and in the process learns that his wife may have been unfaithful.  King takes his children (and a stoner boyfriend) to Kauai to track down the rat bastard that was sleeping with his wife, and in return gets a little more than he expects.

At the same time, King and his dozens of cousins, all descendants of royalty in Hawaii, must decide whether or not to sell 24,000 acres of prime island real estate that will make them all rich beyond their dreams.


If you think I have just gone and spoiled the whole movie for you, please know that there is so much more going on here than what I have described.  This movie is full of some really big issues, all so emotionally-wrought and heart-breakingly real that by the ending credits, my stomach hurt from the clenching.

So it isn't all shits and giggles here.  But it is some really fine acting, not only from Clooney, who may well nab a prize in the Best Actor category, but from Shailene Woodley in her first full-length movie role.  It may not be the best film to see if you are feeling particularly fragile (especially since they are showing the trailer to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close prior, Lord help me).  And there is a warm little surge of hope at the end. 

Which, to me, was so typical of Alexander Payne.  I absolutely loved his directorial work in Sideways.  And while there is a significant dose of anguish in that movie, you also laugh, and there is that last scene that I will never forget.  One that makes you nod your head and say "OK, the tormented guy now gets how to live.  There is peace".  Payne has brought those same emotions to this movie as well. 

Lastly, there is Hawaii.  Beautiful, exotic, lush Hawaii, with its haunting music and loud shirts.  It was a dichotomy...all this suffering with a backdrop of natural beauty. It went a little way to soothe my ragged soul. 

Well, a movie reviewer I am not, but I hope I adequately expressed what a gem of a movie this is.  Strengthen yourself, and go see it.  And prepared to be touched.      

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Salon: My Favorite Time of Year

Good morning my friends!  Many of you commented that I sounded very relaxed last weekend after my week in St. George.  I was!  For about 24 hours.  Then my husband left for business trips for the week, my kids had activities four out of the five days during the week, and I launched into holiday decorating and shopping.  Ack!

But it is my favorite time of the year.  Once the tree and the lights were finally up, I felt a small sense of zen. 

I supported the nation's economy on Cyber-Monday by doing every bit of ordering I could online.  Hey, if there is free shipping, I'm there.  I do not like getting into games of chicken for parking spots at the mall. 

I shipped off my box 'o goodies for the Book Blogger Holiday Swap.  Isn't it so much fun?  Then you get to see all the posts of what people received.  I get so excited over the whole thing.

Also next week, one of my book clubs not only is going to discuss "Room", but will also bring a wrapped book and do a pirate exchange, Yankee exchange, or whatever other term (they are usually non-PC terms) you want to call it.

For the first time in ages, I played some golf on Thursday, and had the best score I've had in probably a year.  Damn that felt good!

I suppose this weekend will go down as one of the busiest EVER.  Friday night, after my son's basketball tryouts, we went out with some friends for a special 4 course dinner thing we got at an auction.  So good!  Saturday my daughter had to take an entrance exam for the high school she is going to attend (!?), then both kids had an 8 hour final track meet for the season.  But of course my husband's Christmas party was last night too, so children had to be shuffled.  Today, my daughter has an all-day Confirmation retreat, and my husband and son are going to a Father/Son football game in Tampa to see the Bucs.  I have no idea what I'm going to do.  Something bookish I predict.  Something relaxing?  We'll see if my guilt will allow me.

I finished up a couple of books this week in print.  I wrapped up "My Soul To Take" by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, which was entertaining but had some issues.  Then from the library I received the graphic novel "The Green River Killer:  A True Detective Story" by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case, which was excellent.  A total geek fest for me, since I love both true crime and graphic novels.  Now I am working my way through "Joy for Beginners" by Erica Bauermeister (whom I fell in love with when I read "The School of Essential Ingredients").

On audio, I wrapped up Patrick Ness's "Monsters of Men", and am grieving now on how I'm going to write the reviews for this trilogy.  I am now very very close (less than a disc left) to finishing "Before I Go To Sleep" by S.J. Watson.  This is a selection for January for Books, Babes and Bordeaux.  Pretty creepy, pretty twisty.

Hope you all have a nice Sunday, whatever is on your agenda!      


Friday, December 2, 2011

Kitchen Express - Mark Bittman

I am a sucker for cookbooks, especially when they say on their cover "dishes you can make in 20 minutes or less".  Sold!  I used to be an intense cook who used many ingredients and put time into my meals.  In the last few years, since my kids have gotten busier, I am all about crock pots and simplicity.  When I saw this one reviewed by Julie at Booking Mama, I immediately ordered from the library.

This cookbook is just a tad different than what you may be used to, in a good way.  The recipes are separated by seasons, which is helpful when you are buying your fresh fruits and vegetables.  Beyond that, Bittman's approach to cooking is pretty loose.  He guides you in general directions, but does not provide measurements unless they are critical to the dish.  This allows you to experiment and replace ingredients for families with PICKY EATERS.  (I won't mention any names.)

But if you are the type of cook that likes to know how many teaspoons of parsley and tablespoons of olive oil?  This approach might be frustrating to you.  There are also NO PICTURES.  I love pictures.  But I was able to forgive that omission because instead we get 404 recipes that you can whip out on the busiest evenings.  I had my way with this cookbook.  Here are a few recipes we tried and loved:

Pan-Seared Fish with Spicy Lime Butter
Stir together about a half stick of softened butter, a finely chopped shallot, the zest of a lime and a good squeeze of the juice, a minced red chile, and a pinch or two of salt.  Pat any type of fish fillets dry, season with salt, and cook them quickly in a tablespoon each of olive oil and butter.  Turn the fish once and cook until golden and cook through, about five minutes.  Serve the fillets with a generous spoonful of the compound butter on top.

My comments:  I didn't have a chile, so I put in chile flakes.  I also dredged my fish in flour, just to give it some texture.  But that lime butter is to die for.  You could put it on almost anything and it would make the anything better.

Sesame-Glazed Grilled Chicken
Heat the grill or grill pan.  Pound chicken breasts to a quarter-inch thickness.  Mix together minced garlic, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, and cayenne to make a thin paste.  Brush on the chicken and grill or broil until cooked through, turning once, about five minutes.  Lightly toast sesame seeds in a dry pan until just starting to color.  Sprinkle the chicken with sesame seeds and garnish with chopped scallion.

My notes:  My marinade was definitely thinner than a paste, because I was just pouring stuff in the bowl.  Didn't matter.  I actually reserved some of the liquid and tossed it with angel hair pasta, and I heard no complaints.

Pasta Carbonara
Boil and salt water for pasta, and cook it.  Meanwhile, cut a quarter pound of pancetta into small pieces and fry in a bit of olive oil until golden.  In a bowl large enough to hold the pasta, beat together three eggs, a half cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and the meat.  Drain pasta, reserving some of the cooking water.  Toss the pasta quickly with the egg mixture to combine (the heat from the pasta will cook the eggs).  Add a few tablespoons of pasta water if needed to moisten.  Season with salt and pepper, garnish with chopped parsley and more Parmesan.

My notes:  One time I used prosciutto, and another time I used bacon, in place of the pancetta.  In any case, this dish was a huge hit in our house.  Decadent and delicious.

Do you see how simple these recipes are?  In just a few sentences and a few ingredients, you've got dinner.  While I hesitate to buy cookbooks because I don't have alot of room for them, this one may be a keeper.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wants and Needs (Bookmarks November/December)

I'm back again, with the latest installment of Bookmarks, which for me is like the arrival of that toy catalog right around Christmas-time when I was a kid.  I pore through each entry, make notations and scribbles, and try to figure out how in the heck I'm going to get them all read.

One thing I'd like to point out here.  Most of the books I am listing below I already knew about - many of them have been reviewed and scooped by my friends.  Bookmarks is just a reminder for me to get in the game and read them.  Or at the very least, just talk about them so I don't feel so bad about getting to them in a year or two.

So here are my NEEDS:

11/22/63 - Stephen King:  Uncle Stevie imagines what life would have been like had JFK not been assassinated.  In this little tale of alternate reality, a high school teacher travels back in time to try to alter historical events.  And without even looking I know this thing is probably a thousand pages, so I am going to try to get to it on audio. 

Steve Jobs - Walter Isaacson:  Predictable selection, I know, but why not?  I love biographies, and when one presents itself that claims to be an uninhibited exploration of everything that made this man tick?  I must know these things.  Again, I'm just guessing this is a chunkster (how could it not be?) so I'm targeting it for audio.

The Leopard - Jo Nesbo:  Our beloved and tormented Harry Hole finds himself in Hong Kong, having fallen to the lure of opium and gambling.  He is called back home, though, despite his past transgressions, to once again save the day.  And this is a little bit of a cheat, because I already do have this book on my nightstand.  I just can't help waving it around and letting everyone know that they need to get on this bandwagon quickly, because this is already the sixth translated installment. 

Wonderstruck - Brian Selznick: And we thought that "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" was the greatest thing since sliced bread?  Apparently this one rivals its mastery, because Bookmarks has given it 4.5 stars, which almost never happens.  We have a story of a deaf boy, a young girl from 50 years in the past, magically come together at the American Museum of Natural History.  Told in words and drawings, like Hugo, I must have this now.  Scholastic was kind enough to keep the damn thing taped up on the display at SIBA, so I couldn't even touch it.  I'm still a little sore about that.    

Here are some of my WANTS: 

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach:  Although I like baseball well enough, I'm told that this book is good even if you don't know what a seven inning stretch is.  Described as a novel that mixes Moby Dick with baseball, this book is more a study of three-dimensional characters that you won't forget in the near future.

Birds of Paradise - Diana Abu-Jaber:  This one is also another cheat, because I have this book.  I not only received it, signed, from SIBA, but I met the author at a luncheon where the authors took turns coming to your table to talk about their books.  Diana came with her own bottle of wine and shared (a girl after my own heart) and was funny and easy-going and made her novel, about a family left in ruins after their 13-year-old ran away, a must-read.  Bookmarks just reminded me that I need to delegate this one to the nightstand.

The Cider House Rules - John Irving:  Don't judge me.  I've only read one John Irving novel (Last Night in Twisted River) and I was underwhelmed.  I know that he has some amazing books though, and this one was featured in an article that highlights books about careers.  I'm thinking I need to make a project of Irving some day, starting with this book, and continuing with "The World According to Garp" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany".  

The Most Dangerous Thing - Laura Lippman:  I have resisted reading Lippman's Tess Monaghan series because there are so many books and I like to start at the beginning and read them all.  Intimidating.  But a stand alone?  I can do that.  This one has something to do with secrets, relationships from childhood to adulthood, destroyed innocence and such.  I know that I'm in good hands with whatever she writes. 

Any opinions on any of these?  I always need help with prioritization!