Friday, December 31, 2010

Lucky - Alice Sebold

I had to read ONE MORE BOOK for the Twenty Ten Reading Challenge. One that had to have come from a charity shop. Frankly, I doubt if anyone really cares if I finish this challenge or not, but it is like a burr in my britches to leave one on the table that I could realistically cross off my list. So here you are, on New Year's Eve. Is that an echo I hear out on the blogs today? Is anyone out there?

If you have read either "The Lovely Bones" or "The Almost Moon", I suspect you finished them and asked yourself something like "What kind of person could possibly write such a thing? This author is coming from a dark, dark place." Alice Sebold's books are completely polarizing. Some loved them. Some were completely enraged. She has an edge that many authors can't come close to emulating - she takes what is acceptable in polite society and pushes the boundaries out a couple miles. One thing you can't take away from her though...she is a compelling writer. Whether you are cringing, or crying, or screaming in outrage, you can't put her books down. This book gives you a peek inside Alice Sebold's young life, offering a few explanations.

Synopsis: When Alice was 19 and a freshman at Syracuse, she was brutally raped and sodomized. She was a virgin at the time. This book tells the story of this attack. Every stomach-churning detail, from the way the attacker smelled, every degrading action and word, every punch, every repulsive invasion. Alice recalls her experience with her friends, who supported her and who avoided her, her time at the hospital, the police headquarters, the difficulty of calling her parents.

Then begins the journey to recovery, through a life that will never be the same. Alice returns home for the summer to recover. She fills us in on her family history. Her father's emotional distance. Her mother's nervous attacks that she calls "flaps". Her sister, the over-achiever. When Alice returns to school the following fall, life doesn't get any easier. She suffers self-loathing. She is paranoid. She attempts to get her life back together. She attempts to act strong to ease the discomfort for those around her. Drugs and alcohol cushion the way.

Then she sees her assailant on the street and all hell breaks loose. There is a trial, and she must face her biggest fear - to stare down the man that ruined her life and call him by his name. Then she must destroy him.

"I let it come now, the thing that had been burning at the corners of my temples the night before and boiled beneath the surface all that year: rage."

My thoughts: Everything that is addictive about Alice Sebold's fictional work has been put to good use in what I would call "a journal from a rape survivor". Sebold doesn't hold anything back. She is fearless with this memoir. I warn you that at times it isn't easy to read. Rape isn't pretty, and it affects the victim in more ways than physical. Family members and friends are also collateral damage. It destroys one's sense of safety, one's sense of control, and sense of self. I guess I've always known this, but never has it been more evident than in reading the words of a very eloquent survivor.

It is important to know that she is the furthest thing from pompous or self-satisfied about her survival. She admits her fears, her irrational behavior, her digression into drug abuse. But she also acknowledges her desire to not back down against the despicable man who did this to her. Girlfriend kicked ass.

Despite the fact that this is a very tough subject, Sebold comes out the other side with a self-realization of her own courage, strength, and the ability to use her words to help others. After all, anyone who would use the title "Lucky" for a book like this has something to offer the world.

"But it is later now, and I live in a world where the two truths coexist; where both hell and hope lie in the palm of my hand."

For anyone who has been a victim of rape, or knows someone who has, I'd say this book is required reading. Even those not directly affected by rape will take something from this memoir as well too. Post-traumatic stress finds its way into lives through many cracks and crevices.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sandy's Best of 2010: Literary Fiction

This is it, the final list. And I've saved the best for last. I enjoy most genres, but Literary Fiction is what makes my heart go pitter-patter, what makes me keep coming back for more. This was the only category where I really wanted to list more books, but I attempted to practice self-restraint. Here are the literary fiction (printed) books that stood out above the rest this year:

1. Room - Emma Donaghue

Now you there, stop rolling your eyes. I know this pick is predictable - the rave reviews were so thick you couldn't trudge your way through them - but I can't leave it off my list. This novel was sheer genius. For an author to put themselves in the mindset of a five year old who has never left his room of captivity, and narrate a book in this precocious child's voice (an extremely realistic one if I might add based on having raised two of them), you must have some special superpowers. I don't want to hear that you "can't handle" reading about the evils done to children, or you think you might get depressed, or that you are tired of hearing about the book, just read the damned thing. Step outside your comfort zone for oh, about a day or two, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

2. One Day - David Nicholls

The premise, visiting two friends on the same day every year for two decades, sounded clever. And it was. But what I was unprepared for was the feeling of warmth, familiarity and investment in this couple. I snorted and rolled my eyes at their ridiculous behaviour (but still loved them for it), I cried when they failed, laughed at their wit and mishaps, and wanted them desperately to realize they were meant for each other. Big chemistry here, guys. It felt like When Harry Met Sally, a movie I've watched no less than three dozen times. The ending knocked me off my axis for awhile, but that did not reduce the oozing, almost giddy, obnoxious love I had for this book. The added bonus is that it is coming out as a movie soon. I'll be first in line.

3. The Lotus Eaters - Tatjana Soli

In the homestretch of the year, I find this one. I had pushed it to the bottom of my stack for 10 months, probably because I couldn't believe a book with this kind of cover would tell me anything new. In fact it did. Please, allow yourself to fall into this story of a young woman in Vietnam, a photographer trying to prove herself in a man's world, only to discover her strength, her true love, and a unforgettable country she can't bear to leave. I loved this book so much, I convinced my book club to read it.

4. In the Woods - Tana French

People often say that literary thrillers are far and few between, and might even question if they exist. Those people have not read Tana French. I started out reading The Likeness first, which was a sequel (of sorts) to In the Woods. Shame on me. That did not lessen the tingly glee I experienced while reading this one, all the while my subconscious chanting "this rocks, this rocks, this so ROCKS!". There are murders most foul. There are suspicious characters. There are clues. But oh, the characterization. French draws her protagonists with such realism, with such flaws, with so much tangible chemistry, it is a thing of beauty. I also admire French for not taking predictable paths. Don't expect to find a red bow around this ending.

5. Fingersmith - Sarah Waters

I'm not sure what I would do if I ever came in contact with Sarah Waters. Faint? Giggle? Offer to have her children? Needless to say, with each book I read of hers, the closer I get to a state of irrational celebrity worship. And this is her best. Turn-of-the-century London, passion, treachery, plot twists by the dozens. If I were allowed to take one book with me a deserted island, this would be it. If you haven't read it yet, you must make a resolution to read it in 2011. It is the type of book you want to roll around in.

Other notable books that almost made the list:

* Affinity - Sarah Waters
* Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri
* The Human Bobby - Gabe Rotter
* 84 Charing Cross Road - Helene Hanff
* Stone's Fall - Iain Pears
* How Clarissa Burden Learned To Fly - Connie May Fowler

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sandy's Best of 2010: Audiobooks

Day 3 of the 2010 bests! Today, I'm revealing my five (six) favorite audiobooks, a particular passion of mine. Of the 140-ish books I read this year, 57 (or 40%) of them were audios. There are many people out there (I was one of them five years ago) that believe listening to an audiobook doesn't really count as reading. Maybe it isn't reading with your eyes, but your ears and brain certainly get a workout! For a person that may not sit down until 8:00 at night, this is a solution that changed my literary life. The ultimate multi-task! Not only that, but I often don't want to quit walking or weeding the yard. And I look forward to cleaning day!

I have even found that audio can provide the best possible media option. For example, I've read all of the Harry Potter books multiple times, and seen the movies multiple times, but it is the audiobooks that offers a far superior form of entertainment. No important scenes are cut or changed, and the narration of Jim Dale is much better than anything I could conjure in my mind. I would offer that same opinion about the Stieg Larsson haven't listen to audio until you have experienced Simon Vance.

I apologize for getting on this tangent, but it is one of my favorite topics.

I willingly acknowledge that an average book can be improved by a great narrator, and an excellent book can be ruined by a bad one. I suspect, however, that the books listed below would be memorable, no matter what.

1. Love Walked In/Belong To Me - Marisa De Los Santos

OK, OK, I am sort of cheating on this one. But I can't consider one book without the other (Love Walked In being the first of the two). What might be initially considered "women's fiction" really extends far beyond it, covering very serious issues with grace and more love than my heart could almost take. You will fall in love with the characters, and want them to be a part of your life. Narrator Julia Gibson embodies these likable people, and is always a pleasure to listen to.

2. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

Nothing prepared me for what I would consider the Great American novel that I found in Middlesex. When Jenners and I read this book and were discussing how to review such a gem, we likened it to a recipe involving many different ingredients. Greek immigrants. Incestuous relationships. Multi-generational legends. Coming of age from the perspective of a hermaphrodite. The drug culture. Detroit in the 60's. All written in a colorful, conversational voice. I believe the narrator, Kristoffer Tabori, might possibly be the only person who could have pulled this one off. It is masterful.

3. Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann

Upon finishing this one, I decided that this is what it is all about. Beautiful prose, heartbreaking humanity, interrelated stories all taking place while a tightrope walker negotiates between the Twin Towers. Each character in the book had their own narrator of the highest caliber, which always seems to accentuate the personalities and character development. The whole experience left me standing in the middle of my living room with my mouth hanging could have knocked me down with the flick of a finger. This is an absolute must read.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot

It doesn't get any more real than this - a poor black woman with terminal cervical cancer is biopsied, and her cells end up revolutionizing medicine as we know it today. Yet Henrietta's family couldn't afford to buy a headstone for her grave, or afford health insurance. Skloot, a scientific journalist, introduces us to the Lacks family, their life and struggles as a result of the HeLa cells, and at the same time educates us on the miracle that these cells brought to the world. This is sort of a mind-blowing experience that also teaches you a thing or two. The narrator, Cassandra Campbell, is another favorite of mine. I get excited when I see her name associated with any audiobook.

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston

Ever the spiritual storyteller and folklorist, Hurston incorporates the history of Florida and the establishment of African American communities there in the 1920's, with a lyrical coming- of-age tale about a young women. Hurston provides flavor through her rich, poetic, dialectic prose. It is an absolute thing of beauty, and as a Central Floridian, I'm proud that she called it home for many years and is widely celebrated here. Ruby Dee, who actually starred in the made-for-tv-movie based on the book, is the narrator. And she gets it. You may relax and enjoy this one in her capable hands.

Notable audios that didn't quite make the cut: So more cheating. While these weren't quite as exceptional as the five (six) mentioned above, they are worth recommending for their audio appeal:

The Millennium Trilogy - Stieg Larsson: While there might not be too many people out there that haven't read the series, the audios are sublime because of the narrator Simon Vance.

The Harry Potter Series - J.K. Rowling: We all love Harry, but Jim Dale brings this phenomenal series to a whole new level. Better than reading it, and way better than the movies.

Are you tired of my lists yet? One more! Tomorrow, I discuss my favorite literary fiction.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sandy's Best of 2010: Non-Fiction

In case you missed yesterday's post, I am spending some time this week on my "Best of" lists for the year. Today I'm focusing on my favorite non-fiction reads of 2010.

I always feel like non-fiction gets a bad rap, as many people automatically think of technical books, self-help, or boring history novels. Not so! There is nothing quite as gripping as a well-written account of true events, whether it involves crime, war, or a biography. Here are three that brought the past right to my front door.

1. The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

I know this one has been around for a long time, in fact it just celebrated its twentieth year of publication. That in no way lessens the Mack-truck impact of this collection of short stories, written by a man who has been there. You get the Vietnam war from the ground level - from his perspective - about the horror of Vietnam, the fear of young soldiers going to war, the difficulty of returning home, and the ghosts that haunt. Well-written, thoughtful, and even poetic, this one is a keeper.

2. Columbine - Dave Cullen

Even though I'd owned this book for a couple of years, it took me this long to come to terms with reading it. The tragedy of Columbine affected us all, and made us collectively ask "why". How can two boys from upper middle class families harbor so much hate, to the point of wanting to kill all of their teachers and classmates?

You won't necessarily get the answers, but what you will get is the whole story. Police blunders, the urban myths that were not true, the reactions of friends, family and the community, and documentation of two boys' descent into madness. This is true crime at its very best, but without any of the sensationalizing.

3. A Hundred Feet Over Hell - Jim Hooper

Yes, another Vietnam novel, brought to you by the Vietnam Reading Challenge. When it comes to war, any war, if you can find an author that can take you there, you will have a winning non-fiction read. It generally isn't always pleasant, but if you want to really open your mind and walk in another man's shoes, and maybe even experience a shot of adrenaline, you need to give it a try.

In this case, we live with a group of recon pilots, who flew through napalm, rainstorms of bullets, all from tiny little single engine tin cans. Written by a pilot's brother, missions are re-created by veterans that are still a tight-knit group today. When you finish this book, you will have a tiny clue of what it was like to live on the edge of hell.

Tomorrow, I will bring to you some of my favorite audiobooks (my passion!), which will include a variety of all genres. See you then!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Sandy's Best of 2010: Young Adult

It is that exciting time of year when everyone has to boil down 2010, separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys, the winners from the losers. I find it entertaining to look back at where I've been and relive some of the finer moments in my reading experiences over the last twelve months and approximately 140 books. I've decided to break down my lists in categories based on my reading preferences (Young Adult, Non-Fiction, Audiobooks, Literary Fiction) over the next four days. If I would have read perhaps a dozen more graphic novels, I would have added a category for that as well. Maybe next year!

A few disclaimers...I rarely read things the year they are published. It takes me ages to catch up with the hip and the happening, and self-consciously feel I am often the last to read a viral sensation. So what you will see this week are my favorite books that could have been published this year or a hundred years ago.

When I sifted through my books and ratings last year, I had a horrible time narrowing them down to ten. This year it was not too difficult. I do consider my reads to be of very high quality, so maybe I'm just getting pickier?

I don't consider myself to be an expert on Young Adult novels, however I did read enough of them this year to be able to legitimately discuss them. One of my biggest pet peeves are YA novels that talk down to the reader, and seem to assume this age group can't handle good literature and smart prose. I don't want it sugar-coated. I found three that stood out among the crowd:

1. Before I Fall - Lauren Oliver

A page-turning hybrid of Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, this book examines the consequences of bad teenage behavior. It is terrifying, thought-provoking, and provides very insightful lessons on friendship, bullying, underage drinking, and the price of belonging to the in crowd. I dare you to put it down once you start, and I dare you to try to stop thinking about it after you've finished.

The best part? It has been optioned for a movie.

2. If You Come Softly - Jacqueline Woodson

I could easily place every book I've ever read of Jacqueline Woodson's on a best list, because she is simply a phenomenal writer. But this particular novel is one that has been burned into my memory. It hits on all the relationships, gay/lesbian relationships, children coping with divorced parents, and more. But Woodson handles it so gently and deftly, it never feels contrived or preachy. Just one warning...bring your tissues.

3. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak

At the time I wrote this post, I still had not been able to translate my thoughts into the form of a review. I'm sure I will get to it before this publishes, but in my head right now, it almost defies description. To understand WWII through the eyes of a young girl, a girl who loves books and seeks refuge in them, is a precious premise. To see the devastation of the war on a group of quirky, lovable German villagers is heartbreaking but sadly realistic.

Can someone please tell me how on earth this is YA? It is a tough subject for teens (or anyone), but I would let my kids read it because it is handled tactfully. That is not my point. My point is that this book is perfect in every way a WWII novel should be. To have it stuck on a YA shelf does it an injustice.

Stay tuned tomorrow for my three best Non-Fiction reads of 2010!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Book Thief - Markus Zusak (Audio)

Some books are beyond description. I finished The Book Thief over a week ago, letting the plot, the words and the preciousness of the book sink in and plant seeds in my brain. I discussed it at our Heathrow Literary Society, thinking that might help solidify my thoughts. Nada. So I'm just jumping in and hoping that if you are one of the few that haven't read this masterpiece, I will convince you to read it before I'm through.

Synopsis: Liesel Meminger, a nine-year old girl in Nazi Germany, is in transit with her mother and brother to be dropped off with foster parents who can better care for her and her brother. Along the way, her brother dies, and at his gravesite, Liesel finds a book in the snow and takes it. Never mind that she cannot read. She innately understands the power of the written word, and thus begins her life as a book thief.

Liesel's story is narrated by Death. Death, while extremely busy at this time in history, has noticed Liesel to be a very special child. She goes to live with her new Mama, a loud belligerent frau, and Papa, a gentle man who teaches Liesel to read every night after Liesel awakes from nightmares. Liesel is embraced by the quirky, endearing villagers, each of them a character larger than life. But WWII isn't just a war that affects just Jews. It takes its toll on hard-working, God-fearing Germans like Liesel's new community. To combat the horrors of the war, Liesel continues to seek out "free" literature...from a pile of burning books, from the Mayor's library. Words, in the right hands, have tremendous power, and ultimately save her life.

Death also gives us a peek inside his daily routine, which isn't pleasant. Death is not the grim reaper, however, waiting anxiously to grab souls from dying bodies. He is distressed by all the carnage of the war, is over-worked and doesn't make the decisions, but a job is a job. The worst for Death is the children, but he assures us that he gently carries each child's soul in his arms with care.

My thoughts: Oofah. Where to begin? As most of you are aware, I have a "thing" for WWII novels. I've read many of them, from all perspectives, all nationalities, non-fiction and fiction. This particular portrayal, however, is perfect in every way, if you would forgive me for calling anything in this era "perfect". It is innocent, it is dear, it is humorous, it is heartbreaking.

The characterization is absolutely amazing. Everyone in the story, from Liesel and her foster parents, to the Mayor's shell-shocked wife who "allows" Liesel to steal her books, to Liesel's impish friend Rudy who dreams of stealing a kiss, to Max the Jew hidden in Liesel's basement, to the hoodlum fruit stealers...these are characters that are so real you can close your eyes and conjure them. In your heart, you know them and you love them. Halfway through the book, I said to myself "it is WWII, and I know someone is going to die, and I can't stand the thought of losing a single one of them". So I was falling apart (and laughing at all of their antics at the same time) for most of the story.

The prose is so very clever and beautifully simple. Using Death as a narrator is clever. Death is really a likable and conversational fellow, which keeps the tone from becoming too heavy most of the time. He leads into each section of the book with an outline of what is to come, which acts as a teaser. He offers side notes, definitions and commentary to certain events that occur. If his presence wasn't so ominous, you wouldn't mind having him around more often. In fact, it is easy to imagine that when your time comes, it wouldn't be so bad if he were there to help you on your way.

I think it is important to note that this book has been marketed as Young Adult book. I think it is fair to say that this book would be appropriate for teens, but is more beautifully written than most books for adults. It is proof positive that YA books can be exquisite and complex, and need not talk down to its audience.

A word about the audio production: I'd never listened to the narrator Allan Corduner before. He seems to be a reader of YA, notably Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke and Magyk by Angie Sage. But bravo on whoever found this man, because he was delightful to hear, and perfect for the role. Fans of the audiobook will be thrilled with the experience.

Thoughts from the Heathrow Literary Society: All of the members present, save one that didn't finish the book and seemed to have an issue with WWII in general, were deeply touched. They were charmed by Liesel, Mama and Papa, Rudy, and even Death. One of the members called it "a keeper". I sat back and watched my friends with earnest, animated faces talk about this amazing read. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Bottom line: One of my best books of 2010. Don't let the topic scare you. This is a must-read.
5 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Indiana #9

Sunrise over my parents' farm in Indiana. For more Wordless Wednesdays, click here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Affinity - Sarah Waters (Kindle)

Things I never want to end when I am in the middle of experiencing them:

1. A full body massage

2. Beach vacations

3. Fine dining with wine pairings

4. A good dream

5. Sarah Waters books

Can you relate? There are just certain things that you want to go on forever. This is how I've felt about every single Waters book I've read including my most recent, Affinity. I've been allotting myself one of her books no frequently than every six months, because there is a finite number of them and I'm scared of the day when I have none left! Sarah Waters! Write faster!

I found myself boarding a plane in California, headed back home to Florida (over a five hour flight) without a book in hand. So I loaded the Kindle app on my iPhone, uploaded this book from my Kindle at home, and away I went. And because it was on my phone, I found myself reading it everywhere. At stoplights. In the bathroom. In the car when someone else is driving. I couldn't stop.

Even though Fingersmith is the ultimate twisty Waters book, unrivaled in the category really, I still am faced with writing a review for a book that is best read cold. So I shall keep this brief and mysterious-ish.

Synopsis: It is 1874. Margaret Prior is recovering from an emotional breakdown that occurred as a result of the death of her father and a failed relationship. To aid in her recovery, it has been suggested that she visit the women incarcerated at London's Millbank Prison, to guide them towards an honest and spiritual life. Within the prison's walls, she meets the ethereal Selina Dawes, an enigmatic young medium. The two form a unique connection.

Our narrative swings back and forth in time, between Selina's story of how she came to be imprisoned, and the present day with Margaret.

This all feels stiff and bland, and I'm sorry for that, but its all I'm going to give you as far as plot.

My thoughts: OK, now here is where I allow emotion to enter the picture. Transport yourself to within the cold, wet, dingy walls of a London prison. Walls that contain a beautiful woman who almost emits a glow that lights up her cell. All around are smells of unwashed bodies, sounds of wailing and despair. Nobody does atmosphere like Waters. You want gothic? Sensuality? Darkness? Tension? Obsession? Manipulation of the mind? You got it baby. While Fingersmith had action in spades, this tale is one that is more internal and subtle, but it still did not lessen the ache in my stomach as the story marched towards its climax.

What about predictability? I thought I pretty much knew which direction this was all going, but all the while I was doubting myself. Waters is an absolute master at bobbing and weaving, at leaving little trails of crumbs that lead off into dark corners, at making you wonder whether goodness or evil will prevail. There were passages (that I will not quote lest I spoil something) that were some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful protestations of feelings I have ever read.

Amongst all of this mystique, of course, is the commentary on society in the late 1800's, which Waters is famous for. If a poor woman tries to commit suicide, she is imprisoned. If a rich one attempts the same feat, she is coddled and rehabilitated in the comfort of her home. The belief that a woman only comes into her own once she is married and has a child. The unacceptability of a woman to speak her mind.

If you are a fan of Waters, and you buy what she is selling, then this is a book you absolutely must read. But read it slowly. Make all that deliciousness last.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Lotus Eaters - Tatjana Soli

In Homer's Odyssey, there exists a country of Lotus Eaters. The inhabitants of this land live on the flowering lotus blossom, that tastes like honey and whose effects are so narcotic that all those ingesting the plant never want to leave and return home.

I can't think of a more perfect title for this intoxicating, powerful novel about a group of photographers in Vietnam. The lotus blossom in this case being the allure of war - the thrill of danger, the desire to make a difference, the urgency of love found there. It is an addiction that some will never break free.

Synopsis: The story starts off in total chaos, confusion, panic, gunfire - the fall of Saigon, 1975. Helen and Linh, two photographers for Time, are fighting to evacuate the city. Linh has been wounded and they must find medical help or he will die. Once Linh has been ushered to safety, Helen disappears back into the city. She must be the one to capture these historic events, no matter the risk. The narcotic is still in her blood.

Twelve years earlier, Helen arrived a naive young woman, determined to photograph a war that took her brother's life. Over the years, she transforms from a terrified, bumbling child to a hardened, celebrated war correspondent, earning awards and magazine covers for photos taken that could have cost her life. Her success has not been easy. Women were considered a burden by not only the troops she embedded, but other male photographers.

We come along for this nail-biting ride, where we experience the beauty of the Vietnam countryside, the senseless and violent death of the soldier that just shared his rations with you 10 minutes prior, the camaraderie and competition between the journalists, and the dichotomy of falling in love amongst the ruins of a war-torn country.

My thoughts: I thought I'd read it all when it came to this war. For the Vietnam reading challenge alone, I've witnessed the war from the ground, from the air, from the survivors who became foreigners in their own homeland. In fact, this book sat at my bedside for most of the year (I won it from Carrie), because I really didn't think it was going to show me anything new. I've been humbled. This book rendered me gobsmacked.

Without seeming crowded or forced, the story embraces the war in its totality. It isn't just about the brutality, the confusion of our mission, the addiction to adrenaline, the heat, the smells, the bugs, the drug culture, or the aftermath, individually. It's all in there, so expertly constructed that you truly feel that you are living it, hiding in bunkers, watching executions and eating canned peaches.

And speaking of expertly constructed, this may be Soli's debut novel, but she is one talented lady. Her prose is beautiful and rich, her characters complicated and fully-realized. You finish the book feeling full - satiated with words and images - and in awe of her skill.

The general focus of the novel, of course, is the role of the war journalist. If you've ever seen the movie "The Killing Fields", you just might experience moments of dejavu, in the best possible way. Is it immoral to chase after and record such tragedy?

The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic. "I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker." Afterward, film exposed, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from one another.

Beneath that exterior, however, is a love story. One that, because of the daily brushes with death, becomes vital, spiritual and hungry. For those of you who roll their eyes at anything involving affairs of the heart, please know that I am among the ranks of the jaded and skeptical. This was an entirely different ball game; more raw and physiological, like breathing, than mushy and predictable.

So here in the homestretch of 2010, I've discovered one of the year's best. This one is not to be missed. I'd like to thank TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of spreading the word.

Giveaway: The publisher has kindly offered a copy of this book to one lucky winner (US and Canada only). Simply leave an expression of interest in your comment with your e-mail before December 27th.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday Salon: Wrapping Up

Happy Sunday happy friends! How are we feeling these days? Personally, at this moment, the stress level is much lower than it has been the last few weeks. Since I talked to you last, I have survived what I think was the last round of manic Christmas outside Christmas pageant (at freezing temps!) and three Christmas parties. The kids are out of school now, and I can focus on my family and our upcoming Christmas feasts! I always make a traditional Polish meal on Christmas Eve (pierogies and kielbasa baby!), and have got plans for a filet roast and a spiral ham for Christmas day. Mmmmm....I'm hungry.

Yesterday was an exciting day for me, as the Best & Worst issue of Entertainment Weekly arrived in my mailbox! This is a big highlight in my year. It was satisfying to see that a few of my favorite books were a few of their favorites too (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, One Day and Room for example). I added a few more books to my "need list". Even more interesting, however, are their worst books of the year. The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert and Angelina by Andrew Morton? Won't be reading those books anytime soon, thanks.

Some exciting news on the book club front. I convinced the girls in the Books, Babes and Bordeaux group to read The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli, because I loved it so much (review coming tomorrow!). As it turns out, Ms. Soli is going to call into our book club meeting in January to discuss the book with us. How totally cool is that?

I experienced a strange amount of productivity this week with my books. Go figure. I finished The Island by Elin Hilderbrand on audio (eh) and started Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo (a murder mystery set in Amish country, author recommended by Caite). I'm pretty close to knocking that one out...a nice long walk would do it. Then, I'm back to Assassination Vacation, which I had intended to listen to before my iPod went crazy. Yee haw!

In my print world, I finished up Lucky by Alice Sebold then headed for some graphic novel fun. If you are in a reading funk, graphic novels are a great way to get you out of it. Quick reads, visually and intellectually stimulating, and you are back on track. I read all three installments of the Color Trilogy, written by Kim Dong Hwa, a Korean author...The Color of Earth, The Color of Water, and The Color of Heaven. Wonderful stuff. Then I read American Widow, a GN about a woman who lost her husband in 9/11. I also read a short story called The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that was recommended by the lovely Nymeth. Extremely creepy, deliciously fun with an unreliable narrator! Now I am reading Drew Brees' autobiography called Coming Back Stronger, and it is almost impossible to put down. God love than man. I got a signed copy of his book when I was in Indiana last summer, and I want to donate it to our Adult Literacy League auction this spring, but I had to read it first!

I wish you all a wonderful holiday with your families. Will any of you be taking part in the Day-After-Christmas chaos? My mom and I usually do. You just can't pass up half price wrapping paper and lights and bows and stuff. Hope Santa brings you everything you dreamed of (books, iPads, e-readers?). Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Nothing But Ghosts - Beth Kephart

Over the past year or so, I've been acquainting myself with the gentle, lyrical beauty of Beth Kephart's YA books. All the while, however, my blogging friends have been nudging me to read this novel, Nothing But Ghosts, claiming it to be their favorite. On a recent library free-for-all, I threw caution to the wind and impulsively grabbed it, mile-high TBR or not.

Synopsis: Sixteen year-old Katie has been aware of the presence of her mother's ghost ever since her tragic death six months ago. She recognizes her in a familiar scent, in the flowers in the garden, in a bird pecking at her window. But rambling around in her big old house with her father over the summer was not going to help her through the grieving process, so Katie gets a gardening job at a stately mansion in town. With the help of two handsome brothers and a beautiful and hip librarian, she becomes absorbed in solving the mystery of the mansion's owner who hasn't been seen in decades. In the process, she also finds love and a develops a closer relationship with her father.

My thoughts: I do believe my blogging friends were right. Even though I have thoroughly enjoyed my past Beth Kephart reads, this one was perfect. The characters are rich and colorful, from Katie's aching heart, to the librarian with secrets of her own, to the hyper little neighbor boy who just wants a friend. There is so much emotion roiling under the surface. So much growing up going on. And there is a mystery, one that helps Katie face a motherless life. All in a book that took a couple of hours to read.

Beth Kephart has such a magical touch with young women. She captures innocence perched at the edge of adulthood; there is a mature edge that can only come from a trauma experienced at a precarious age. But her work is never melodrama, no rude language, just subtle emotion that your mind will touch back on again and again, and a story that you can hand over to your tween or teenage daughter with confidence.

Mission: Read more Beth Kephart.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Thursday, December 16, 2010

French Milk - Lucy Knisley

Visiting Paris has been on my bucket list forever. Something about all that wonderful wine, pate and cheese just pushes my buttons. So take that fact, and add to it my new found love for graphic novels, throw in what seemed like two billion rave reviews for this book, and we have ourselves a must-read.

Synopsis: To celebrate Lucy's 22nd birthday and her mother's 50th, they rent a flat in Paris for nearly five weeks, and work their way through the city's museums, food and culture. Lucy, an aspiring artist, documents the experience through this visual travel journal, and makes friends with her mother and herself along the way.

My thoughts: Some graphic novels blow you away with jarring visuals or literary prose. This is not one of them. This novel is just simply charming. You are provided a glimpse of the curiosities of Paris through the eyes of a young woman, which is decidedly different (not necessarily in a bad way) from the perspective of someone who has been around the block. It is naive, sweet and a little shallow. It is the perspective of someone who misses her boyfriend back home, who is stressed about find a job and building a career, who slips into a malaise when her feet don't fit French shoes, and who is obsessive about art and French milk.

As a travel journal, it is not all-encompassing, but provides a fun overview of some landmarks and museums. And of course, there is the food!

Lucy also included a few photos that she took in Paris as well. Not all the pictures were value-added, but I enjoyed the ones of her and her mother. Hanging over the edge of the Eiffel Tower to take a good picture or kissing Oscar Wilde's grave just would not be the same if illustrated.

So if you are looking for a quick stroll through the streets of Paris with an engaging but slightly self-absorbed young artist, look no further. It is a nice, two or three hour escape!

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Indiana #8

Happiness is a snuggle buddy. For more Wordless Wednesdays, click here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cane River - Lalita Tademy (Audio)

Cane River was the December selection for Books, Babes and Bordeaux. One of our members really had her heart set on reading it (and it was an Oprah pick awhile back), but I had no idea what it was about. After some checking around, I was intrigued with the book solely based on the author's bio. Lalita Tademy progressed through her life as an extremely bright, gifted student and ultimately graduated from UCLA with an MBA. She worked her way through Silicon Valley, and came out at the top by securing a job as a VP for Sun Microsystems. Talk about shattering the glass ceiling! She left it all behind, however, in 1995 to pursue her need for information about her family history. The outcome was this book, which is based on her geneology, with a bit of poetic license to bring the characters to life. Isn't that compelling?

Synopsis: Starting in the early 1800's and ending with the early 1900's, Tademy takes us through four generations of women living in the Cane River area in Louisiana (ending with Tademy's great great-grandmother Emily). Epic in scope, we are companions to these women as they work as slaves to their French Creole masters, bearing their children and thus "bleaching" the bloodlines and skin color. The women lose husbands and children to illnesses, are sold off and separated to make ends meet, but they still remain steadfast in their commitment to family and to stay close, often walking for miles to attend Sunday dinner together. With each new generation, the women begin to work the system, gaining land from their wealthy masters in order to provide for their offspring.

Their journey is to take a stroll through the history books. Slavery, epidemics of yellow fever and cholera, the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the struggle for equality. Not only does it give the reader an excellent perspective of American history during this period - one that is not always told - but is obviously a labor of love for the author.

My thoughts: It is not hard to see why Oprah supported this book. It has all the ingredients she looks epic tale, a history lesson of blacks in America, and some really strong women. It isn't like this was all new to me - after all, I did read Roots! But a few things popped out at me and stuck in my craw.

I found it horrifying that consistently and repeatedly the white masters would fix their gaze upon a young slave girl (often under the age of 14) and force himself upon her. She never had a chance! She would have umpteen of his kids until he tired of her and moved on to someone new. It gave me pleasure to see Tademy's ancestors get some land and money for their efforts.

I also never considered the predicament of the light-skinned African-American. Not only were they banished from the white community, but from the black community as well. Two of Tademy's great great-grandmother Emily's daughters never married because they were acceptable to neither black or white suitors.

Tademy's character development of her ancestors was superb. These ladies
ranged from being sun-weathered and meek, to ballsy and strong-willed, to cultured and sharp. The author brought these women to life.

All this being said, while I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it didn't blow my mind. I can't really put my finger on what was missing. Perhaps the scope was too broad to be encapsulated into 12 discs? Was it the writing? Whatever it is, it is subtle. And I would still recommend this book as a worthwhile read.

A few words about the audio production: I'd never heard of the narrator, Robin Miles, but she is a master at accents. She tackled French, French Creole, Southern, and a few others with ease and flourish. It appears she has quite the resume, and I will make sure I look out for her in the future.

There is a sizable cast of characters in this book, and I thought it only fair to mention that in the audio format, it can be initially confusing to sort them all out. Because the characters are distinctive, you can figure it out pretty quickly, so if you decide to listen to the audio version of this book, a little patience will pay off.

Thoughts from Books, Babes and Bordeaux: We didn't have a strong turnout for this meeting...only four of us, and one did not read the book. (FYI, the non-reader had been rendered disgusted with all things literature after finishing Franzen's Freedom and hating it). Two of the four of us liked the book, and felt frustration with the plight of these amazing women, but didn't love the book. The fourth has read the book three times in the last month, and thought it was the best thing she'd read in a long time. After discussing the strength of the female characters, and their disadvantage against the predatory white men in their life, we really ran out of things to talk about. Perhaps this was the subtle ingredient missing from the novel.

4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Salon: Holiday Busyness

Good morning friends! I come to you from a unseasonably cold Florida, and it doesn't seem to be thinking about leaving any time soon. Although I'd like to complain, it is better than going into the holidays with 80 degree weather. I'll bundle up and like it!

This past week was beyond insane with busyness. Two book clubs, one to discuss "The Book Thief" and the other to discuss "Cane River". I snuck in a few mornings of walking and almost froze my nose off. I had my first meeting with the Adult Literacy League, planning for our big fund-raising event next spring. A thrilling meeting with my son's teachers to discuss how he can live up to his potential (!?). Our Barnes & Noble book fair, which KICKED ALL KINDS OF BUTT. Thanks to anyone who supported our effort! Visiting a friend in the hospital, and a nice variety of errands.

In the middle of all the running around like a nut, my iPod pooped out on me. I got a mysterious message when syncing (to pull in Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation!!) and everything on my iPod disappeared. Major freak out, day was ruined. I did finally get it back in working order, but in the meantime I had to borrow my mom's Walkman (yes they actually still do exist) to listen to the one audiobook I had on hand - "The Island" by Elin Hildenbrand.

Before the crisis, I did manage to finish the audio of "Ape House" by Sara Gruen, and I was really disappointed. I really don't know what she was thinking with that plot, but I just had to shake my head. If it hadn't been a book club read, I would have DNF'd it. I've also been working on Alice Sebold's "Lucky" in print to finish off a reading challenge. This is a biography of the author, and now I better understand how she could have written The Lovely Bones. That poor woman.

I am attempting to write my "Best Of" lists, to be published that last week of December. I am struggling to crank out all those posts, plus try to catch up on my reviews. And I'm also failing to keep up with all of the blogs. I really am sorry. I am trying but this time of year is getting the best of me. I've not abandoned you, I've just checked out for a little while, all alone in my little happy place!

So on Friday, in the mail, surprise surprise! I got a package from my secret santa in the Book Blogger Swap! I put it under the tree, but on Saturday morning I decided I couldn't wait and opened it. Here is what I received:

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls, Matched by Ally Condie, and a bag of Ghiradelli chocolate! Yay! All received from Michelle of See Michelle Read! I'd never visited Michelle's blog, but now I have. It is exciting to find a new friend. Thank you Michelle!

So more busyness next week. Doctor's appointments, hair appointments, Christmas pageant, Christmas party for my golfing group, BUT the last week of school for the kids before a two week vacation. Then maybe perhaps I can get my act together. Ha!

I hope you all have a relaxing cozy Sunday. What are you all up to? I am hoping to wrap up the rest of my Xmas shopping, and maybe sneak in a little time for reading!