Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Saying Goodbye to 2008

In between my little cooking frenzy today to prepare for a New Year's get-together with friends, cleaning the house, reading books and helping the kids with their holiday homework projects, I've been musing over the year 2008. The year has had its challenges, joys and disappointments. Overall, however, I am blessed with a loving family, healthy kids, a supportive husband, good friends and good times. It was hard for me to even find things to put on my Christmas list this year, because I feel that I have everything I need. (Well, I am still suffering from dog sadness, so I could use a doggie around the house...)
When it comes to my computer, I had a really fun and productive year. I continued to sell off everything not nailed down in my house on Ebay. I jumped on the Facebook wagon, and reconnected with some long lost friends from high school and early adulthood. But here is the kicker. If someone would have told me a year ago that I would be reviewing books on my own book blog, I would have said "no way in hell", and maybe some other expletives. I had admired my sister's blog, and when she suggested I give it a try - what did I have to lose - I was instantly filled with an inspiration that would have to be described as something close to religious fervor. I jumped in with both feet, but I had no earthly clue what I was doing technically. I just knew that I read alot of books and I like to write, so I just started pushing buttons and hoped for the best. I've had alot of firsts. First guest post, first meme (thanks C.B. James for those, and for putting up with my inane questions) and I have signed up for my first two reading challenges. I look forward to many more firsts in 2009.
Even though I have read probably over a hundred books this year, I did not keep track of them until I started this blog in late October. I've decided not to publish a summary of my literary year because it would be incomplete, and the obsessive compulsive in me would not allow that. I'll be all over it for New Year's 2009!
Thanks to all of you that have supported me. I will do my best to entertain you in the year to come. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Tell No One" by Harlan Coban (audio)

Last week, in a moment of panic when I ran out of audio books on my iPod, I did an emergency run to the local library to find something entertaining. Now, this method of book selection is usually haphazard at best, but these were desperate times. I found "Pride and Prejudice" (an exciting morsel) and this book, Tell No One. I'm not sure I've read Harlan Coban before, but the title tickled a memory. TBR list? No, I later discovered that the movie came out recently and was very well is on my Netflix Q. The movie was actually directed by a French fellow, Guillaume Cadet, and takes place in France, but otherwise seems to have retained the general storyline. I remembered that several studios started bidding on the rights to the book before it was even finished, so I was extremely encouraged to read the book.

The premise may sound slightly familiar to you. A doctor's wife mysteriously disappears and is found several days later, murdered and branded, an M.O. connected with a serial killer. Eight years later, two bodies are found that seem to be related with this murder. The case is reopened and new evidence points to the doctor (Alex Beck) as the murderer of his wife. At the same time, the doctor receives haunting e-mails with hidden messages that only his wife would know about, with a plea to "tell no one". Is she alive, or is it a set up? Is he grasping at the few threads of hope still alive in his heart? Authorities launch a city-wide manhunt of Beck, and Beck attempts to chase down evidence to prove his innocence using any means possible. The deceptions and betrayals run up and down the ladder, and chasing the twists and turns leave you breathless and guessing right up to the very end.

So is it me, or does this have strains of The Fugitive in it? That's OK, though. I loved the Fugitive, and this story very quickly distinguishes itself from other familiar plotlines. It is INSANELY fast-paced with unpredictable twists - you won't be able to put this book down so don't start it before you go to bed. At the same time, however, it is a gentle, bittersweet story of a man losing his soul mate, and not getting over it. Even the subplots are satisfying with great character development and easy, flowing prose. I detected not an ounce of anything corny or cliche. And it posed to me some questions to ponder. How far would you go to save the ones you love? If you saw the line between good and evil, would you recognize it? Would you cross that line for the greater good?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Top Books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly

I know this is a little bit of a cheat post, since I am simply repeating what I have read in EW, but I think it bears mentioning. I have found their reviews to be pretty spot on, and I use them to form my unachievable TBR list. I am embarrassed at how many of these I haven't read, but some of them did make my list. Since I have read very few, I will paraphrase EW's descriptions the best I can.


#1. Say You're One of Them - Uwem Akpan. I have this on my list, but the wait for it at the library was quite long. This is a story collection by first-time Nigerian author, all revolving around unforgettable tales of suffering, bravery, the effect of urban poverty on the human soul. Although the stories are grim, they are also full of intelligence, wit and vibrancy, making it impossible not to empathize, and equally impossible to despair. Sounds like a downer, but I will trust them on this one!

#2. The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert
. Spoiled LA slacker with a doting father and self-absorbed mother lays around smoking pot and eating Cheerios and waits for her life to begin. She contracts terminal cancer, and what starts out as a novel with dark humor turns into a unlike any you've read before.

#3. Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout
. Linked stories that capture the ebb and flow of life in a small coastal Maine town. At the center of the stories is a retired schoolteacher who has taught her students life lessons that they carry with them forever, but at the same time she is frank, childish and resentful to her family members. This stout, impossible, wonderful woman is the year's most riveting fictional character. Not to be confused with Kit Kitteridge of American Girl, which is what I thought it was at first.

#4. Lush Life - Richard Price
. I did read this one via audio book, and I finished it within two days. This is a colorful, gritty, dense crime novel that takes us into the boiling melting pot of downtown New York. This is not a whodunit - we know the answer to that one. It is more of a street-level view of wannabe artists in a cafe society along with African-American kids coming of age in the housing projects next door.

#5. Bottomless Belly Button - Dash Shaw
. Cartoonist Shaw sketches the Looney family, whose parents are divorcing after decades of marriage. Shaw unspools the entertwined sagas - romance, neurosis, sexual awakening, and deadpan comedy that build to a bleak, haunting finale.

#6. The House on Fortune Street - Margot Livesey
. The lives of four men and women who come and go from a London flat are explored in Livesey's sixth novel. The common literary motif of families that are strangers to one another is affectingly dramatized in this extraordinary book.

#7. Disquiet - Julia Leigh
. A creepy, potent, moody novella whose characters are totally askew...a woman turns up at her estranged family's estate covered in bruises, her elderly mother lives in a bedroom strewn with raw chicken wings for her cats, a sister-in-law arrives with the corpse of a stillborn baby who is put to bed each night in the freezer. Huh?

#8. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - David Wroblewski
. One of the best books I have read this year. Loosely modeled on the plot of Hamlet, a mute Edgar Sawtelle assists his parents in raising and training a special breed of dog. Everything is turned upside down when his mysterious uncle arrives, his father dies suddenly, and Edgar begins harboring suspicions and seeing ghosts. This novel haunted me long after I finished it.

#9. American Wife - Curtis Sittenfeld
. About the inner life of a First Lady, who has a secret abortion, a lesbian grandmother, and doubt about her husband's ability to do his job. We are also treated with lively sex scenes and wicked caricatures of a political dynasty. I wonder who this could be a parody of?

#10. What Happened to Anna K. - Irina Reyn
. Reyn uses her talent and cojones to re-write Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into something more modern. Hmmm...


#1. Beautiful Boy - David Sheff
. Written by the father of a boy addicted to crystal meth, and is a statement about parental love and its limitations.

#2. Nixonland - Rick Peristein
. This book was on Stephen King's list as well. It is deemed an amusing analysis of Richard Nixon's pivotal role in contemporary American politics.

#3. The Forever War - Dexter Filkins
. War correspondent Filkins provides a harrowing backstory to his front-page reportage on Afghanistan and Iraq.

#4. Pictures at a Revolution - Mark Harris
. In this engrossing history, Harris uses stories of how five films nominated for 1967 Best Picture were made to chronicle changes in Hollywood and culture.

#5. The Bin Ladens - Steve Coll
. Coll approaches the catastrophe of 9/11 as one more crisis within a big, dysfunctional family.

Friday, December 26, 2008

"Quicksand" by Iris Johansen (audio)

I made a vow awhile back that I was going to take a break from "trashy thrillers", which is what this is. But for some reason (I can't remember now) I had this book on my TBR list. It was a quick read, but fairly forgettable. This is the seventh of the Eve Duncan series...Eve Duncan is a forensic sculptor with a live-in boyfriend, Joe, who is a cop, an adult adopted daughter, Jane, as well as some other casts of characters that come and go through the series. I have read some of the books of this series before, so when I started this one, I thought "ahhh, yes I remember now". However I haven't been compelled to pursue each installment, as I do others, so that should tell you something.

In Quicksand, Eve is STILL trying to find the killer of her daughter Bonnie and to find her daughter's body. This has been going on awhile. Like for the entire series. Joe has tracked down a particularly evil gentleman by the name of Kistle, who is a child predator, torturer and killer, and who he suspects may have killed Bonnie. Nasty fellow. Joe is growing as weary of the Bonnie drama as us readers I think, and feels that until the mystery is solved, his relationship with Eve will never be complete. There is a pursuit, a little cat and mouse action, Kistle knocking off people along the way and fixating on Eve as his motivation for his actions. Also back from a couple books ago is a General Montalvo, a smooth Colombian with underworld connections who Eve bonded with on a job a few books back. Montalvo wants to help catch Kistle to impress Eve and steal her away from Joe. During the pursuit, the services of a legitimate but tortured psychic is called upon for assistance as well. It doesn't take a psychic, however, to presume we will see this character again.

Quicksand is a past-paced read and has enough action to keep you entertained. But I found myself getting annoyed with the characters and the dialogue. Joe felt very neanderthal-like with his "I'm going go to bed with you Eve, and I may be rough, but its not my fault because I'm angry" was almost laughable. I kept hearing the same expressions "My God" and "that bastard" over and over again. And I don't remember disliking Eve before, but in this segment she seemed incredibly whiny (could be the narrator, I don't know). I don't mean to sound cold...I completely respect the storyline of this woman finding closure...but frankly I think it has been milked dry. We are all ready for poor Eve to find her peace, but it appears we have to wait a little longer...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

"Breaking Dawn" by Stephenie Meyer

Sigh. Merry Christmas to me. I finally finished the fourth and final book of the Twilight Series, all 754 pages of it. Now I can move on with my life! And I decided I'm not necessarily going to provide a full synopsis because I just couldn't do it justice. I loved the first book, Twilight, but was getting pretty annoyed, and even bored, with the next two. This final installment brought back the delight that I felt when I picked up the first book. No, the writing really didn't reach a higher literary level, and yes the story line was insane. But it worked, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
I must add a few words for the parents (and I don't think I'm spoiling too much here, unless you live in a cave). Bella and Edward get married and have a baby. There is some sex in this book, with shredded feather pillows, damaged beds and all that comes with it. No, Meyer does not describe the physical, nitty-gritty detail of the acts themselves, but the average 11 year old will know what is going on. It is your choice as to whether you want your kids taking notes.
Now I am off to prepare for our Christmas Eve celebration, our American/Polish wigilia. Peace on earth to all men, vampires and werewolves.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2009 Outlander Reading Challenge

Being a relatively new blogger, this is another first for me...a reading challenge! I know they are going on everywhere, but have restrained myself simply because of the volume of books on my shelf that I want to read. However, I stumbled across this one and the premise of the book series intrigued me. The rules of the challenge (see them here) allow audio tape, so that gives me a half a chance to accomplish my goal!

The challenge revolves around the Outlander Series, written by Diana Gabaldon. The specific books are:
  • Outlander
  • Dragonfly in Amber
  • Voyager
  • Drums of Autumn
  • The Fiery Cross
  • A Breath of Snow and Ashes

There is a seventh book in the series coming out in the fall of 2009, which prompted the challenge to re-read and prepare for its launch. Based on what I have read, the premise of the books is this: A WWII combat nurse vacations in Scotland with her husband and accidently launches herself back to the 1700's. Circumstances throw her in the path of a gallant young soldier, Jamie (quite the dude I'm told), and their love affair becomes the centerpiece of the series, which delves into Scottish history (where my ancestors are from). I expect I will learn something, as one does from historical novels. I also expect to be entertained by love, tragedy, scandal and the fantasy of time travel.

However, here is the kicker, friends. I checked my library to see if they carry the series on audio tape, and they do. I also did a little math, and in sum, there are 228 discs in the series. Gulp. And I was intimidated by "World Without End" that had 36 discs? Holy moly. Good thing I have six or seven months to accomplish this one...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Testimony" by Anita Shreve (audio)

I have just finished the audio tape version of this book, and I am sitting here with a sick, empty and frightened feeling in the pit of my stomach. At the same time, I am also filled with a sense of awe for this author that has managed to take a fairly oft-publicized (the use of the word "common" feels wrong) tragedy and rip it wide open for all to see.

This novel documents, in a very unique way, the events that led up to, occured during, and followed in the aftermath of a very dark Saturday evening at an exclusive private boarding school in the northeast. We have heard these types of stories on the news, so this is not new territory. Several very drunk boys (all 18 and over), a very drunk, young promiscuous girl, and someone holding a camera. Why did this happen? How could this happen? Two of the three boys are good students with promises of Ivy League colleges and scholarships, coming from good families, one with a serious girlfriend. Well, I'm not sure we get a real good answer, because in reality, they just aren't there. But we hear from everyone involved...from the parents, from the "participants", the friends, the girlfriend, the headmaster of the school, even the school cafeteria lady. It is all presented to us as a combination of diary-type musings, statements of fact, or as if these individuals are being interviewed. It is uncanny. You get raw emotions, gut-reactions, all with individual, unique voices. You slip inside the minds of different mothers that feel she has contributed somehow to the downfall of her son. You hear the thoughts of fathers that are in total denial or cannot be in the same room with his son. You hear from the "victim" who attempts to reinvent herself in a different part of the country and blithely justifies her actions on the night in question. Yet, you hear a different perspective of this girl's actions from her roommate.

The effects of the incident in question are catastrophic. Lives are blown apart, some destroyed forever. One thing that I found most interesting as I was listening...with the exception of the girl, who I found to be very self-absorbed and annoying, there are no villains or heroes. When you hear of these stories on the news, it is easy to take a side and say "the boys took advantage of a young girl", or adversely, "the girl asked for it". In this story, when you are allowed to reside in the mind of each character in the story, it just isn't that black and white. Your heart breaks for each and every one of them. Personally, being the parent of a pre-pubescent son and a pubescent daughter, I am terrified at the thought of how bad judgement can implode everything you hold dear.

I'd also like to make a special note about experiencing this novel on audio tape. I've listened to many audio tapes. Up to this point, all of them but one have been a single reader that assumes different accents and tones to portray different characters. In "Testimony" there are a cast of readers, each with their own character. The effect is amazing. If you enjoy a book in this medium now and again, or have never tried it but think you might, this would be the one to pick up.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Burglar in the Rye" by Lawrence Block (audio)

Referring back a few posts, there are a number of book series that I read, no matter what. The "Burglar" series, featuring the bookstore-owner-by-day-and-cat-burlgar-by-night Bernie Rohdenbarr, is a great one. Slightly less goofy than Stephanie Plum, but whimsical and lovable nevertheless, these books are a great pick-me-up when things are getting too serious. Amazingly, Lawrence Block not only writes this successful series, but two others as well, each with a different feel, but equally as good. I have not read all of the Burglar installments yet, but saving them like yummy little nuggets of indulgence when I need them.

In this book, the ninth of the series, a beautiful woman, Alice Cottrell, wanders into Bernie's bookstore with an intriguing story. When she was 14 (I kid you not), she had an affair with the famous reclusive writer Gulliver Fairborn, whose face and wherabouts are a mystery to all. The only proof of the author's existence are the letters of correspondence to his agent, and a published book now and again. Alice is distressed because his agent has been threatening to sell the letters to the highest bidder, and wants Bernie's help to "retrieve" them for her erstwhile but still beloved boyfriend. This is all Bernie needs to set him off on a mission, as this is truly what Bernie is famous for...burgling from those who deserve to be burgled.

Anyway, I won't go into too many more details, but suffice it to say that, as usual, it becomes complicated. There are murders, rubies stolen twice over, obsessive collectors, a policeman on the take, an author in disguise, a jilted and homicidal lesbian, Paddington bears, persuasive sex, and a bookstore cat that uses the toilet. And then, towards the end, we have the classic Bernie move. Let's call it a "come to Jesus" meeting with everyone that has a finger in the pie. These scenes are great, and are my favorite part of the books. Cards are thrown on the table and usually all kinds of hell breaks loose. The worst offenders are usually cuffed and carted out. The lesser offenders usually subtly receive their cosmic due from Bernie. In the end he always tries to do the right thing, for a burglar at least.

"The Memorist" by M.J. Rose

I want you to all know that I have given myself an attitude adjustment since The Reincarnationist. (I still stand by my review of the book, but I didn't want it to mar my outlook on The Memorist.) I nearly returned this book to the library after the first hundred pages, but steeled my resolve, and I am glad I did. First, a little synopsis:
The Memorist is really a continuation of The Reincarnationist. A few characters carry over, but the primary protagonists are different. A young woman (Meer) has been plagued by flashbacks of a previous life since she was a child...visions of a beautiful piece of furniture and of a haunting melody. She doesn't believe it is the echo of a past life, but her father does and remains dedicated to solving the mystery for her. He finds the piece of furniture in question in Vienna, a gaming box owned by Beethoven. It yields clues left by the musical genius, that lead to a "memory flute", which is very old and is made of bone. When a specific melody is played on the flute, it can unlock memories of past lives to those who hear it. So off they go, hunting down clues to find said flute, that can free Meer from her troubling regressions. Murder and mayhem ensues. There are other plots at work as well. A high profile international meeting is being held in Vienna that ends with a one-of-a kind symphonic concert, and proves to be a security nightmare. A respected journalist decides to avenge his family that was killed by terrorists by blowing up the concert hall where the symphony will take place. At the same time, an American FBI agent has come to Vienna to pound the last nail in the coffin of a character that was involved in the theft of the memory stones in the last book.
A few things still disturbed me in this book, similar to the last one. This business of following the clues was little more than a Scooby-Doo for adults, and required even less plotting and brainpower than the Da Vinci Code. Also, like the Reincarnationist, about fifty pages into it, you have already figured out who the bad guys are, and it just shouldn't be that easy. The appearance of a memory flute, similar to the memory stones in the last book, just about put me over the edge. In my mind, I was screaming "give me a break!!!". Also, it seems like everybody in the story knew each other in previous lives, which is just way too pat and coincidental. HOWEVER...I really do love Beethoven, and his personality and essence is nicely woven into the story. There is more plot development in this story as well, and is a little more satisfying...something I could sink my teeth into. Rose is not afraid to knock off important characters in the story, and will allow the worst-case scenario to happen, and I like that. I do not like stories where everyone lives happily ever after, because it just doesn't happen that way. Reincarnation is a fascinating topic, and in this story we actually have a DOUBLE regression, so in a flashback, you not only go back one life, but you go back two. Very cool. I also like Rose's technique of very short, edgy chapters that encourage you to read "just one more". Overall, this book worked for me despite a few frustrations. I can recommend it with a clear conscience!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bad Cat

I know this is supposed to be a blog about books I read, but we had an incident in the Nawrot house this morning that I had to share with you. To the left is one of our four cats, Annie. She is my daughter's cat, and overall is an OK cat, except that she is a wire-chewer. I can't stress to you how much money we have spent replacing or fixing various wires that were the object of this cat's aggression/obsession/affection.
This morning I was on the computer (big shock) and I heard a commotion in the living room, under the Christmas tree. (You see what is coming, right?) I saw fur thrashing about and thought perhaps the cats were fighting for the napping spot under the tree. But about a second later, my blood ran cold because I saw Annie was under there by herself, and she was rolling and twitching, ornaments and wrapping paper were flying everywhere, tree shaking, cat pee spraying in every direction. Our dear kitty had decided to knaw a wire to the lights, and had promptly electrified herself. I am laughing now because she walked away, fairly indignant at having lost her faculties. However, I have to admit it freaked me out a bit.
As an aside, this is the same cat that fell into the pool this past summer. Luckily, my husband was grilling at the time and heard the splash and was able to coax her to swim to the steps. I'd say she is a couple lives short of a full set at this point.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"The White Tiger" by Aravind Adiga (audio)

The White Tiger was this year's recipient of the Man Booker Award for fiction. There has been some buzz among the literary critics that the quality of novels nominated for this award has steadily decreased, and complete disbelief that this particular book won. On the other hand, among the blogging community, it has been positively embraced, and I wanted to give it a chance.

The book is written as a first-person narrative by a successful, self-proclaimed Indian entrepreneur, who is telling his life story to a Chinese premier about to visit India for the first time. The voice of the narrator is cynical, callous and crude, yet has a hilarious, dry sense of humor. He describes his life as a poor son of a rickshaw driver, who was never given a name by his parents but was dubbed "The White Tiger" by his teacher because of his unique intellect and potential in a village of the downtrodden. The government later names him "Balram", and provides him a birthdate so that he can vote for the local, corrupt landlord. Balram goes on to paint a vivid picture of life in of light and darkness, rich and poor, corrupt and virtuous, materialistic and loyal. Balram learns how to drive and becomes a driver for a family of corrupt landlords, and learns much, despite very little schooling, from his habit of eavesdropping. He yearns to break free of his servitude and become "a big-bellied man". As his master becomes more and more debased, so does Balram. Once loyal and law-abiding to a fault, Balram now becomes angry, begins to use the master and he has been used, hire prostitutes, drink, and ultimately, plan to rob and kill the master. Balram's life originates in poverty and "darkness", but in his quest to live in the India of Light, perhaps finds himself in the darkest place of all. At the end of the book, however, we find our narrator has clawed his way back to moral ground and is at peace with the circumstances by which he made his break for freedom.

Adiga provides rich prose in describing the un-navigatable chasm between the haves and the have-nots. One of most entertaining analogies used was the "rooster coop", which, as the narrator described, is what India is known for:

"Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly coloured roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages...They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country."

This may not have made my TBR list had it not been for its recent popularity, and I am glad it was brought to my attention. I'm not sure where the critics are coming from, but I believe the award was well-deserved.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Bookshelf Meme

I am so very excited, friends. I have been tagged with my first meme by C.B. James. Maybe now I am a veteran! Here are the musings for this meme:

1. What is the book that has been on my shelf the longest? I am going to be brutally honest on this one, even though it is a little embarassing. It is "Are You There God, Its Me Margaret" by Judy Blume. I've had this book since I was about twelve...the back cover is ripped off, the pages are yellow with dogears where Margaret and her friends do that famous exercise to make them more endowed. This is the timeless coming-of-age story for girls, that touches on everything from bras, boys, body odor, and making your own independent decisions. I've been hanging onto it to give to my daughter, someday. I just can't introduce her to the "two minutes in the closet" game yet.

2. What is a book that reminds me of something specific in my life? Pillars of the Earth was my first experience in Historical Fiction. I picked the book up in London while I was over there for a couple of months on an assignment for work, about 15 years ago. On the weekends, a colleague of mine and I traveled by train, bus and bicycle through the countryside of England, taking in the rolling hills, little bed and breakfasts, the friendly locals, and of course, the magnificent cathedrals that take away your breath and make you cry. It was surreal to be reading this book, which accounts the building of a cathedral, the development of Gothic architecture, the political power of the priory, the ambitions of the townsfolk involved in the construction, all taking place in the 12th century and interwoven with factual historical events. It was such an experience of immersion, and I will never forget it.

3. What is a book I acquired in an interesting way? This was a tough one. Most of my books have been acquired the normal, purchases, etc. Even buying a book on Ebay really isn't that interesting. After standing and staring at my bookshelf for awhile, I decided it must be "Night Over Water" by Ken Follett. This was a book I purchased for my bibliophile grandfather, in large print. Not long after he received the gift and read it, he passed away, and I got the book back. I put a rose from his funeral in the book and, to this day, still have not read it.

4. What is the book that has been with me the most places? As some of you may or may not know, my husband was born and raised in Poland. We travel there every other summer to see his family. Last year, I decided I needed to re-read all of the Harry Potter books in preparation for the release of the Deathly Hallows, which was coming out the evening we arrived back from our Polish trip. So, much to the dismay of my husband, and the dudes that weigh the luggage at the airport, I brought all six hardcover books with me. The books had a layover in Washington and Munich, spent some time in Wroclaw, went to the Baltic Sea and back home again.

5. What is a bonus book that I just want to talk about? I've given this one quite a bit of thought. Even though I reviewed this book fairly early in establishing this blog, many of you may not have seen it. So at the risk of being obnoxious, I'm going to mention it again. It is "Into That Darkness" by Gitta Sereny. I won't repeat my review, which you can read here, but it is one of those books you can't shake out of your head, in fact it haunts you. It is not lighthearted, and it is not easy to read, but can change the way you look at life. I would recommend it to everyone.
OK, now I think I have to tag a few other people with this meme:
My second tag will be

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"The Reincarnationist" by M.J. Rose

This book has been all the rage lately on the blogs, and while I had never heard of it before nor read anything by this author, I impulsively ordered it from the library (as well as The Memorist, which I will read next). The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, so what I am about to say may not be popular...
First, a synopsis. After a near-death experience with a terrorist bombing, our protagonist, Josh, has flashback-type experiences indicating he has had at least two former lives. These lives have been filled with treachery and heartbreak, and they haunt him. The first life is one from 386 A.D., where he is a priest and has had an affair with a "Vestal Virgin". Vestal Virgins are like a nun of sorts, who are sacred and have taken an oath of celibacy. If they don't keep their pants on, they are sentenced to death by being buried alive. This particular virgin ends up pregnant, and the gig is up. She is ultimately buried with some precious stones (known as Memory Stones) that are said to have the power to unlock past lives of the owner. The tomb is discovered in the modern day, Josh is drawn to it, the Memory Stones are stolen, and death/kidnapping/mystery/chasing clues ensue. Josh hooks up with the lady archaeologist in charge of the dig to assist in chasing the missing stones. Josh also comes in contact with another lady who they discover to be his sister in his other previous life from the 1800's, and is connected with the Memory Stones as well. Its all a bit complicated!
I must say this story has all the ear-marks of Da Vinci Code - fast-paced cloak and dagger stuff, ancient mysteries, a dynamic male/female duo, etc. It is fairly easy to read, but the prose is pedestrian and character development is fairly non-existant. The subject matter of reincarnation, on the other hand, is very unique. I don't think I have ever read a book that revolved around this topic, and is intriguing to me. To me it was just a shame that with the potential of a topic such as this, that it wasn't executed as well as I would have liked. The ending was quite unsatisfying. Don't get me wrong! I don't need everythng to have a happy ending - my friends find my glee at dark unresolved endings a bit disturbing. But it almost seemed like the author ran out of steam or ideas and just ended it the quickest way possible. Maybe its just me - was I a cranky book critic in a former life?

Monday, December 8, 2008

"Gorky Park" by Martin Cruz Smith (audio)

I recognize I am about twenty-five years late reading this novel that put Martin Cruz Smith on the map. A couple of years ago, I read "Wolves Eat Dogs", another installment in the Arkady Renko series, and loved it. I never thought to pursue the entire series until recently, when in attendance at a dinner party, a fellow book lover and fan of Smith recommended that I do. Better late than never, I always say!
This novel I believe is the first to kick off a series about a Russian police investigator, Arkady Renko. He is a smart but flawed, melancholy personality, struggling with his personal ethics that are constantly matched up against the political mess that exists in Russian and the KGB. In this installment, he is assigned to investigate the discovery of three faceless, fingerless bodies found in Gorky Park, an amusement attraction in the center of Moscow. He soon finds that there is a bigger, more malevolent force behind these deaths...criss-crossed threads and connections that seems impossible to untangle. He crosses paths with and ultimately falls for a beautiful girl right in the thick of things. Murder, deception, greed and conspiracy resides in nearly everyone surrounding Arkady, but still doesn't dismantle his glimmer of hope for a simpler, happier life.
This is a classic, gritty thriller with the special gift of "aboutness". I recently discovered this term when I was researching Smith (can't find the blog again to save my soul), but basically means it provides the reader everything they need to know about the environment where the story takes place. You learn as you read, and take something away with you at the end. From this novel, you truly feel immersed in what it might have been like to live in Russia in the '80's. The characters' personalities are rich, colorful and blemished in all the ways we humans are. You believe you know these people. I had some difficulty, probably because it was audio, with keeping the Russian names straight in my mind. But I was drawn in, nevertheless. I felt something close to heartbreak at the end with Arkady's desperate need for love competing with his drive to do the right thing. I will be reading about the rest of Arkady's adventures now, and will add this series to the ever expanding list of crime series that haunt me!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Stephen King's Best Books of 2008

At the end of every year, Stephen King lists his "best of" in his columns in Entertainment Weekly, which I always eagerly await. One week he will do best movies, another will be best music, and my favorite, of course, are the books. For those who don't read EW, I wanted to share the joy! Let the record show...I love this guy. I received "The Stand" from a boyfriend in junior high (what a cool gift, huh?) and never looked back. I've always felt that Uncle Stevie must have had access to some serious drugs while writing his books, but you just can't take anything away from his creative genius. With that said, you can imagine that his recommendations aren't always mainstream, and might actually be a bit twisted, but I'm OK with that. He has never let me down. I have not read anything on this list for 2008, but I plan to, adding yet more books to my TBR list. My request goes out to all of you (I know you are out there, even though many of you aren't commenting!!!) to let me know if you have read any of these books. If not, look for my reviews through 2009! Here they are, with a short description from Stevie.
10. The Good Guy - Dean Koontz While not his best, this book is supposed to be very "Hitchcocky".
9. Old Flames - Jack Ketchum Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, raised to the 10th power.
8. The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo - Stieg Larsson Cold case involving a missing girl, plus a whole lot more.
7. Hollywood Crows - Joseph Wambaugh Sequel to Hollywood Station, a funky read with a believable murder plot.
6. Heartsick/Sweetheart - Chelsea Cain Hannibal Lechter-ish with good writing and a ferocious sense of humor.
5. Nixonland - Rick Peristein Sweeping non-fiction epic about the 60's.
4. The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney A search for a missing boy, a love story and historical mystery. Compared to Life of Pi or The Secret Life of Bees.
3. When Will There Be Good News - Kate Atkinson The third novel featuring P.I. Jackson Brodie with an undescribable plot. Lots of tangled threads and narrative wizardry.
2. The Garden of Last Days - Adre Dubus III Terrifying, unputdownable, and best novel so far about 9/11.
1. Novels of Robert Goddard British mystery/suspense novelist who provides missing heirs, stolen fortunes, mistaken identities, raffish con men, hot sex and cold-blooded murder over 15 novels.

Monday, December 1, 2008

"The Broken Window" by Jeffrey Deaver (audio)

In my list of crime novel series, I had forgotten the Lincoln Rhyme books. I guess this series has never made a huge impact on me, and is probably why I forgot to include it in my list. I'm not sure why this is...the stories aren't all that bad. Should I blame it on the movie "The Bone Collector" that cast Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie as Rhyme and his love interest Amelia Sachs (to this day I think the casting director was smoking something)? Maybe. I do have these hangups between books and movies. That being said, this book was well-reviewed and I uploaded it to my iPod for my vacation.

In the Lincoln Rhyme novels, you almost always learn something. In this one, the premise is built around data-mining, and what happens when the miner in question is a psychopath. The bad guy has access to the files of a large data mining company, and uses the information to learn everything about his victims...their hobbies, daily routines, favorite foods, clothing size, their sex gain their trust then knock them off. At the same time, he uses data and its manipulation to pin the crime on someone else. He just happens to pin one of his crimes on Rhymes' cousin, which unleashes the wrath of curmudgeon-ish criminalist quadriplegic.

Now, I don't know how much of the "facts" of data mining in this novel are true, but I have to be honest that the possibilities are terrifying. I can completely buy the idea that everything we do is tracked somehow and sits in some company's archives. We live under the watch of Big Brother because of our toll transponders, our credit cards, our internet activity, our preferred shopper cards to Borders, Mobil, GolfSmith, etc. This novel takes it to the nightmare level. Despite any hangups I may have, I was highly intrigued with this story simply because of the subject matter, and would recommend it.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Larousse Gastronomique" by Prosper Montagne

When fellow blogger C.B. James (who has an amazing book blog that features his book-eating dog Dakota) asked me to review Larousse Gastronomique as one of his Wednesday Wonders, I instantly got sweaty palms. You see, reviewing my favorite culinary tome of all times could be likened to reviewing the Bible, or War and Peace. How to do it justice? But with a glass of Bordeaux in hand, I pledge to try.

In the spirit of the holidays and gift-giving, this is perfect timing. If you know someone that has a passion for cooking, and equally a passion for literature, look no further for the ultimate gift. Originally written in 1938 in the French language, with 8,500 recipes and over a thousand pages, Larousse is THE world authority on anything remotely related to the culinary arts. It is almost beyond comprehension that this much information could be contained in one book. In 1961, it was translated to English for the first time, which is the edition that I own, and is the picture shown at the left. I found this edition on EBay for less than $20, but trust me that it would be one of the first things I grabbed if my house caught on fire. I received the book with yellowed pages and large splatters on it (wine? sauce? blood?) which even made it more precious to me. Today, Larousse can be found in any superior restaurant and owned by any culinary expert worth his salt.

Larousse would officially be named an encyclopedia/cookbook. To describe it this way, however, is sacriledge. What subject of cooking do you dream of knowing more about? How about agaric fungi, its number of species, where to find them, which are edible, and how to prepare and with which sauce best complements its flavor? Maybe you need to know about alcoholism and all its forms, just to make sure you're OK. A bit of poetry, perhaps, by the French poet Berchoux who prefers to write about gastronomy. And what kind of French reference guide would it be without all things vino? You can take a trip through any of France's divisions and regions, Guyenne, Champagne, Provence, Marche, etc., learn about the culinary specialties of each, as well its wine production. Like eggs? Larousse has over 400 ways to prepare them. You want to butcher your own cow, pig or lamb, or at the very least understand all the cuts? Look no further. If you have any leftover parts, like a pig leg, you will have wonderful advice on how to make good use. Maybe you are a history buff, and would like to better appreciate the evolution of cooking over the ages, from prehistoric times through the present day. Nothing is missed in this little treasure.

One downside of Larousse, if I were pushed to come up with one, would be that it assumes the reader knows something about cooking. Recipes are not laid out in step-by-step detail like you might find in a common cookbook. I also feel that later editions (which you can find anywhere from Barnes and Noble to Williams Sonoma), each one just a little more modern and pristine, loses a little of that shameless passion that you see in the 1961 edition. And to me, that is what cooking is all about.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Julie and Julia" by Julie Powell

First of all, sorry about the formatting on that previous post. You can tell I just push buttons and hope it all works out! Now, I found this book on the $4.99 shelf at Borders and almost squealed out loud. I had been trying to request it from my library for ages, and either it was a user problem or they indeed did not carry it. Let me just start out by saying that I just love Julia Child, in every way. I've read books about her (I loved "My Life in France") and it will forever boggle my mind that until she moved to France at the age of 37, she didn't even know what a shallot was. And, at the stage in life when some people write off dreams and passions because it is too much trouble, Julia found hers and grabbed it with both hands. AND became the best in the business. Wow. Julia Child rocks.

I had heard about Julie Powell and her project to cook all of Julia's recipes in the "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" cookbook. But when I started reading the book, my first thought was "Huh! This could have been me! Why didn't I think of it? Why can't I have a book and a movie?" Indeed, a handful of years back, my husband complained about the lack of variety in my cooking. At first I got real pissed, then I decided to show him. For about a year, I never cooked the same dish twice (unless he asked nicely for a repeat). And while my goals were not as lofty has hers, I could really empathize with the turmoil that Julie experienced in completing her project...failed sauces, flour everywhere, dismembering bodies of animals that you would eventually eat, cussing, drinking, searching all over town for some elusive ingredient, you name it. This is a reality show on paper, and I had a ball reading it. I loved the vulgar language, the fits she threw, her eccentric friends, and her drive to see her project through to the last recipe. It seemed pretty real to me. At the end of the book, however, upon J.C.'s death, the tone of the books loses it manic humor and becomes reflective on why Julie took on such a wacky project and the impact that Julia Child had on her life. It was a nice way to wrap up the story.
The reviews on this book were extreme. Some loved the book and some thought it was full of narcissism and disrespect to one of the world's greatest chefs. I belong to former contingent. I am glad I was able to read the book before the movie comes out. (I have a hangup about seeing the movie first. It usually ruins it for me.) But with Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia, it has promise.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Until next year!

Normally, on a vacation, the first few days creep by, then about mid-way through, time goes into warp speed. Not on this trip, darnit. It may have been a bit chillier than last year, but stayed in the 60's during the day, and on Thanksgiving it was over 70. Warm enough to stumble out onto the beach after eating way too much, and passing out like waylaid whales. I didn't get to read near as much as I had hoped, but I should have seen that coming. Some highlights from this year were:

1. Lighthouse hunting. There are four of them within a twenty mile drive from us (one is right next door!). This is a relative new hobby for us, but we are into it.

2. The day after Thanksgiving celebration in Apalachicola. This is an annual event for us, but it is always a favorite. We see Santa arrive in a shrimp boat to crazed, wild-eyed, screaming little kids, all the stores decorate and stay open late and serve wine and cider.

3. Feeding the kittens that live behind the St. George Inn. We couldn't help it. They seemed a little skinny, and they were very friendly. We wished we could take them all home.

4. The island bookstore (a highlight for me at least). The owner is retiring, so all new books were half off, and the used ones were a quarter. Bibliophiles, you can imagine how cool this was for me. The inventory was pretty picked over, but I came out with Wuthering Heights, Cold Mountain, and a Barbara Kingsolver novel.

5. Sometimes It's Hotter. This was a new find for us on the island. It is a little shop that sells their own spice blends, hot sauces, exotic cheeses and wine. Oh, and the best part...they make homemade french bread every day, but you have to get there early and buy enough, because they will sell out. We were invited to their day-after-Thanksgiving party, and they didn't have to ask us twice! Check them out here.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Eclipse" by Stephenie Meyer

Yes, I know its Thanksgiving and I should be slaving over the stove (never fear, the bird is in the oven). However, I just finished Eclipse this morning and wanted to share my thoughts.
I can sum up the third book in the Twilight series in a nice short paragraph. I hope I don't give away too much, but I do like to give a head's up to the parents out there that have pre-pubescents wanting to read the book. Edward and Bella still sustain their pledge of undying love for each other. Edward wants to marry Bella, but Bella has baggage from her parents' broken marriage. Bella wants desperately to become one of the undead, but wants to lose her virginity prior to the transition. There's lot of negotiation back and forth regarding these three points. Virtues are ultimately intact at the end of the book, but it's a close call with partial disrobing and entwined limbs. Rogue vampires still want to kill Bella, and a significant portion of the book is dedicated to fearing, avoiding, luring, trapping and killing them. Things heat up a bit with the love triangle between Edward, Bella and Jacob, just to make things a little interesting.
I am committed to finishing the series at this is the obsessive/compulsive in me. I have to finish what I start. However, it all is starting to get on my nerves a bit. My expectations are really not all that high, but the plot development is really ridiculous. (I know...what do I want from a teenage book about vampires and werewolves?) On a positive note, Edward is still quite the dude. I'm not tired of him yet. Now, I need to take a break from Ms. Meyer for a book or two. A nice little book about Julia Childs perhaps...

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends! I wanted to take this opportunity to give thanks to everyone that has supported me in my new venture in the last month and a half. I have had alot of fun sharing my passion for reading with you, and have many many more on the way! May God bless you, your families and friends on this day!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan

I have been slogging through this book now for about a week, which is an eternity for me, especially for only a 290 page book. It was the many rave reviews and recommendations of this book that kept me going, honestly. I finally finished it on our five hour drive up to St. George Island, where I will be for the next week. I have visions of getting alot of reading done here, but we shall see!
Ian McEwan is probably best known for his novel "Atonement", is recognized as one of today's great masters of literature, setting the standards against which all others are compared. In "Saturday", we follow a middle-aged neurosurgeon, Harry Perowne, for one day in his life. Harry wakes up prematurely on this day, with a feeling of contentment and euphoria. If you are familiar with McEwan's work, you know this isn't going to last. Harry proceeds to move through his day, some of it routine and some not (won't give anything away). About two-thirds through the book, around Harry's dinnertime, an earlier situation comes back to haunt him, and blows his life wide open. Instead of letting it defeat him, Harry embraces the opportunity to make things right, and ends his day in a way very similar to the way he started it, coming full circle. Through the book, Harry struggles with or is confronted with issues that are all on our top ten...our aging aching bones, fear of terrorism, the war in Iraq, our children growing up and having their own lives, our aging and infirm parents, keeping peace and harmony in our family. He covers it all over a span of a day.
Like I said, I REALLY had a hard time getting into this book...most of Harry's life is quite the same as ours (playing squash, visiting his mother, shopping at the fishmonger) and lacked action. I had to self-reflect. Am I so superficial that I need constant action in a book? I am reading too much murder and crime novels and need pillaging and mayhem to be entertained? Jeez I hope not. I need to work on this. At the same time, it is wondrous to read McEwan's prose. It is rich, complex and really brings a character's inner soul to life. About two-thirds through the book, it really picked up and I was able to finish it easily. And in hindsight, I did enjoy it. I'm not sure I would recommend it as an easy read, but it definitely is worth the effort.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Escape from the Deep" by Alex Kershaw (audio)

I have to admit, I am not a big fan of war novels. I get lost in the technical details, the strategy...I have to drag my way through them and often are abandoned midway. This book had some interesting reviews, though, and thought it had some potential. The USS Tang was said to be the deadliest submarine in WWII history, led by its bold, renegade captain Richard O'Kane. On its last mission alone, it sank 13 Japanese ships. But the last torpedo fired from the sub malfunctioned, killing half its crew, and the Tang sank to the depths of 180 feet. A few crew members were thrown from the craft, including O'Kane, but most of them were trapped below. A handful were able to manage their way out, risking sharks, drowning or death from the change in pressure. In total, nine men made it to the surface...the first time anyone ever survived a sinking of a submarine. They went on to be captured by the Japanese, thrown in POW camps, starved and tortured for nearly a year. All accounts of this amazing piece of history were retrieved through interviews with the survivors or their family members.
This is not a long novel, but did seem to drag at first, with the background of all the men on board, and the battle history of the submarine. Once the craft sinks, however, I was really drawn into this almost unbelievable tale of bravery, tenacity and odds against the survival of these men. I feel that the prose was pretty dry and factual, but despite this, it is still a gripping read...just as good as anything fiction out there. I always feel that if I learn something while I am being entertained, and I certainly did with this book, that is an added bonus.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Crime Series Novel...why I can't get through my "to read" lists

My list of "books to read before I die" is quite long, and grows daily. There is a reason why. It is because I am stalked, haunted, HOUNDED by a massive number of authors that write crime series novels, often at a clip of at least one or more a year. How can I get anything done? I am compelled to read them all, no matter their quality. Here is a list of those that immediately come to mind, if you are looking for that sort of lifelong commitment. Please let me know if I have missed anything obvious! Best ones first:

Lee Child - Jack Reacher series: This is one of my favorites, even though it packs alot of testosterone. Ex-military dude, hard-bodied, attracts women like flies but is a commitment-phobe, only carries a toothbrush with him and has no address. Wanders all over the country sleeping with women and kicking the ass of anybody making bad choices. Love it, love it, love it. Stephen King calls this "manfiction".

Janet Evanovich - Stephanie Plum series: OK, so sue me. It's bubblegum and cotton candy reading, very little substance, but reading it is like catching up with an old college friend in your old sweats with a glass of wine. Perky, goofy, clumsy girl is a bond enforcer who is in love with both an Italian cop and a mysterious half-Cuban hard-bodied fellow bond enforcer named Ranger (yeah baby). She frequently chases trouble with her sidekick, ex-ho Lula. Good for a belly laugh when you are feeling down.

Sue Grafton - Kinsey Millhone (alphabet) series: I am afraid Ms. Grafton is going to die before she gets to Z (I think she is on T right now). About a single, middle-aged private investigator, a commitment-phobe, best friend is her landlord that is in his 80's. Half humorous, half serious, always a good read.

Lawrence Block - Matthew Scudder series and Bernie Rhodenbarr series: I haven't even scratched the surface of these series. I started with Matthew Scudder, who is damaged ex-cop, and the books are dark. Loved the few I read. Ambled into the Bernie "Burglar" series, and love it even more. These are very light (ala Stephanie Plum) about a bookstore owner by day, burglar by night. Oh by the way, he only burgles people who deserve it.

Kathy Reichs - Tempe Brennan series: Ms. Reichs also writes for the TV show Bones, which is loosely based on the Tempe Brennan novels. Tempe is a forensic anthropologist (bone chic), is a recovering alcoholic, and has an on again, off again relationship with a homicide detective Andrew Ryan. You learn something in each of these novels. I like that.

Barry Eisler - John Rain series: Badass assassin that wants out of the business to nurture his relationship with fellow female assassin, but keeps getting pulled back in. Lots of butt kicking if you're in the mood. More manfiction.

James Lee Burke - Dave Robicheaux series: New Orleans cop and his friend Cletus chase down bad guys. Both men are quite damaged but have good hearts. Very gritty novels.

John Sandford - Lucas Davenport (prey) series: Independantly wealthy due to starting his own online gaming company, he is a homicide cop that breaks a few rules, has a temper and kicks butt. Was a habitual lady-killer, but finally settled down with his doctor wife and had kids. Didn't settle him down too much, which is good. I think Lucas and Jack Reacher would find alot in common, or maybe they would beat each other to a pulp.

Stuart Woods - Stone Barrington series: Stone is a lawyer in private practice that hands the cases his buddies don't want. This man is the king of all sleezebags when it comes to women. A number of these novels will give you your dose of steamy sex.

Perri O'Shaunessy - Nina Reilly series: Author is actually two sisters collaberating. About a single mom attorney in private practice that always ends up in the thick of things. She has an ex-husband, a fiance that was killed by a bad guy in one of the books, and an on again, off again relationship with her investigator. Lately I've had a hard time getting into these novels...don't know what is happening.

Michael Connelly - Harry Bosch series: A private investigator that has personal demons. Usually very excited and gritty. Never lets me down.

Robert Crais - Elvis Cole/Joe Pike series: Elvis and Joe are investigators, and the series focuses on one or the other, but they are both in each other's adventures. Elvis is a nice guy, Joe is a stone-faced badass that doesn't say much. I like him best.

Jonathan Kellerman - Alex Delaware series: Alex is a child psychiatrist that always gets in harms way. He gets help from his best friend Milo, who is a gay policeman. I am always entertained by these books, but about halfway through the series I started accurately predicting who the bad guy was, when there would be a discovery of a dead body, etc. I don't like to be able to figure this stuff out so easy!

Patricia Cornwell - Kay Scarpetta: I considered not mentioning this series because I am so disenchanted with it. She hooked me in early, and I loved every book, but lately I feel has gone to hell in a handbasket. Kay is a forensic pathologist that chases murderers, has a neice in Quantico, and a long-term affair with an FBI dude.