Friday, August 29, 2008

Yet another giveaway!

Kelly over at The Optimistic Bookfool is giving away a copy of Brad Metzer's Book of Lies. I've seen this book all over the blogosphere lately. It's gotten really good reviews and sounds interesting. Check it out!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Wife in the North by Judith O'Reilly

Judith O'Reilly is very funny and insightful, and I was very excited to read this book. The premise sounded fantastic (city woman moves to Northumberland to fulfill her husband's dream), and I think I laughed out loud half a dozen times in the first couple dozen pages. The very first paragraph holds such promise. Wondering whether she could kill her husband and plead insanity, she concludes, "In truth, the only abuse I have ever suffered is his music collection and the fact he can only cook two meals--fish pasta and bacon and leek pasta. I am not sure that would be considered adequate grounds for murder. Particularly if the jury insisted on sampling them because they are really rather nice." The book is written in short diary entries, beginning with the family's move to the middle of nowhere with a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and seven-months-pregnant Judith convinced to try out country living.

There were lovely, poignant passages and very funny passages, and Judith really nails the highs and lows of being a parent. But after about 100 pages, it started to be a hard slog to keep going. I realized it was the short entries, lack of cohesion, and my inability to connect with other characters. Basically, the problem is that, though this is categorized as a memoir, it is actually a collection of blog entries. "Memoir" implies reflecting on one's past in a meaningful way, while this is like reading someone's summarized daily thoughts, which is good in small doses, but, like life, is repetitive, disjointed, and lacking a central story to move things along. I hadn't realized this was a blog-to-book, or I doubt I would have picked it up. The really frustrating thing is that I would have loved to read a real memoir by Judith. She's an excellent writer, really witty and sharp, and her insights are funny and moving.

I had difficulty identifying with anyone but Judith because she's given them all cutesy blog names to shield their identities (Yorkshire Mother, Oyster Farmer's Wife, Best Friend From School--even the kids start out as the four-year-old and two-year-old, progressing as needed to five-year-old and three-year-old, etc. The baby stays the baby) and their characters are not really developed. Her husband is a mystery to me. He drags the whole family up there, but continues to work in London, leaving Judith alone with the kids for three weeks at a time? I could not understand his motivation, or her capitulation, in light of those circumstances, and this was a real problem. When he gives her an out partway through, I could not identify with her not taking it after reading about her misery up to that point. As expected with a blog, there is a fair amount of self-indulgence and whining (yes, you miss London--I get it), but the lack of cohesion is really the biggest problem with this book. Is this what publishers are doing these days? Finding someone with an entertaining blog and reprinting entries so people will pay for what they can read for free? Count me out.

Save a tree. Save $14.95. Go read her blog at

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Yet another giveaway!

The author Meg Waite Clayton (The Wednesday Sisters) hosts a blog dedicated to getting the word out about first time authors. Meg is currently hosting a giveaway for the book Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman. She's going to throw in a copy of her book The Wednesday Sisters.

The Chessman book describes Lydia's life as she models for her sister Mary Cassatt. At first I thought it sounded charming when I only read half of the book description. When I went back and finished reading the description, it said that Lydia was dying of Bright's disease. So it doesn't sound quite as charming as I thought, but still very interesting.

Another book giveaway!

Head on over to Bart's Bookshelf to enter a drawing for The End of Mr. Y or a pair of books by Michael Malloy (The Witch Trade and The Time Witches). Contest ends August 31.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Q & A With Daria Snadowsky

Daria Snadowsky, author of Anatomy of a Boyfriend, was kind enough to answer some pretty nosy questions by e-mail. We enjoyed the book, and so can you! See below for an opportunity to win a SIGNED copy.

Read Holly's review here.
Read Allison's review here.
Visit Daria Snadowsky's web page.

Allison: I have to ask, with all the comparisons between Anatomy of a Boyfriend and Judy Blume's Forever...Do you have any interest in writing a book for pre-teen girls? Even when I read Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, there were some outdated bits, and that was...ahem...a while ago.

Daria: Now that you mention it, I think tween books would be an interesting avenue for me to consider. Middle school was an endless gauntlet of adolescent "firsts" that still scar me to this day, so it might be cathartic to tackle those topics in a novel intended for younger readers.

Allison: Were there books that particularly spoke to you during your childhood and teen years?

Daria: I swore by Judy Blume, especially Forever. Blume has an unabashed, totally candid way of conveying her characters' emotions that always made me feel less alone. I read her books not for escapism or entertainment but rather empathy.

Allison: What was the most challenging part of Anatomy of a Boyfriend to write? The most fun? (I know, I sound like a college application essay question.)

Daria: The most fun part was writing about Dom's first kiss. I still remember mine more vividly than I do just about anything else that has happened to me before or since, so it was fun reliving that magical moment in my mind and then translating it to Dom's world.

The most challenging part were the love scenes. Walking that tightrope between graphic and pornographic, between sensual and sensationalized, between honest and gratuitous was a constant struggle. Judy Blume's Forever remained my guide throughout. That the character of Dom was an aspiring doctor who loved anatomy allowed me to get away with giving more clinical, detailed descriptions that I might have been able to otherwise.

Allison: Any memorable ex-boyfriend stories you'd like to share?

Daria: On Valentine's Day of my sophomore year at Emory, my then-bf and I went parking in his car on the top level of Peavine Parking deck. Seconds later campus security came by and found us. They made us stand outside while they lectured to us how stupid we were being and threatened to write us up. It was reeeally embarrassing, and they were right it was a pretty dumb thing for us to do, but it did inspire one of my favorite chapters in Anatomy of a Boyfriend.

Allison: You've written what seems destined to be a YA classic...what's next?

Daria: Thank you so much! I spent most of my time since Anatomy's release practicing law, but ideas are always going through my head for new projects. I can pretty much guarantee you that if I should write again, it won't involve anything with a fantasy/supernatural element. A lot of people have asked for a sequel to Anatomy of a Boyfriend, so that's always a possibility.

Thank you so much, Daria! Now for the contest! Enter to win a SIGNED, hardcover copy of Anatomy of a Boyfriend before it comes out in paperback September 23. Here's how to enter:

1. For one entry, leave a comment below, telling me your favorite book as a teenager. Don't forget to leave your e-mail address so I can contact the winner!
2. For a bonus entry, add an embarrassing story from your teen years.
3. For another entry, blog about this contest, linking to this post, and tell me you did in the comments.

ALL ENTRIES MUST BE RECEIVED BY 11:59 P.M. EDT ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 7! I will select a winner at random from all entries and contact the winner by e-mail. Good luck!

Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky

Holly's review here

Daria Snadowsky's dedication to Judy Blume is an apt one; she certainly owes a debt to Blume, whose honest books on the facts of life were so important to girls of my generation. This is not to say that Anatomy of a Boyfriend is just a rehashing of Forever and other works; rather, it's a needed update. Snadowsky uses clean, spare prose (with a hint of humor) to examine high school infatuation (and maybe love), teenage sex lives, growing up, and taking control of your body. The first part of the book introduces Dom, a 17-year-old virgin whose best friend, Amy, has an "anything but" policy in her frequent hookups with whatever guy she finds cute that week. Dom finds most boys unworthy of her time and attention, and she's consumed with college applications, Science Quiz, and keeping her grades up for a good pre-med program. Then she meets Wes, and they begin a classic adolescent infatuation/flirtation during which Dom's brain apparently falls out of her head so that she's unable to think of anything but Wes. And what to wear when she sees Wes. And why Wes hasn't kissed her yet. get the idea. I was getting a little annoyed when I realized--that's pretty much infatuation, isn't it? It bores/annoys everyone except those directly involved. It was hard to see Dom having trouble concentrating on her schoolwork when preparing for college had been her obsession before she met Wes, but it's accurate. And when Dom and Wes start fumbling around the edges of a sexual relationship, the intensity and awkwardness ring true. I obviously cared about the characters, because when Dom waffles on whether to go to her original second choice school, Tulane, (Stanford had rejected her) or Wes's NYU, I could have screamed at her not to be an idiot. Dom decides that she's ready to go all the way, and she and Wes make plans for prom night. Snadowsky doesn't shy away from the details, but the actual sex scenes are more tasteful than anything I've read in romance novels. The next part of the book deals with Dom starting college, meeting new people, trying to get good grades and figure out if she really wants to be pre-med, and, of course, missing Wes. Gradually, she begins to find an identity for herself independent from her great love, and I was pleased to see her make the transition toward growing up.

I have to say that overall this was an excellent novel for teen girls. As a parent (Holly and I are both parents, so you'll have to look elsewhere for the non-parent point-of-view) I think it would be a good starting point for parent-teen conversations about sex. I don't know that I would want this to be my daughter's only reference, but it isn't meant to be. Dom's parents really said very little about sex, except a couple of vague "be carefuls" and I wasn't thrilled that Dom was so non-judgmental about Amy's less-than-safe sex life (though there was finally a comment about it). On the other hand, I was pleased that Dom took charge of her health by providing condoms, and she's not one of those girls agreeing to sex so her boyfriend will like her. There's also a "Future Cosmo Woman" vibe (pun intended) as far as Dom being in control of her body that I thought was an empowering counterpoint to popular culture's emphasis on men's pleasure. I would recommend this to (mature) teen girls, and especially to parents of pre-teen or teen girls, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Anatomy of a Boyfriend sticking around for a whole new generation.

Stay tuned to On My Bookshelf--Daria Snadowsky has agreed to answer a few questions in our first-ever author interview, and we'll be giving away an autographed, hardcover copy of Anatomy of a Boyfriend (out in paperback September 23).

So cozy!

One Bad Apple by Sheila Connolly is the first in a new cozy mystery series starring Boston banker Meg Corey. After being dumped by boyfriend Chandler Hale and losing her job to downsizing, she jumps at the opportunity her mother presents: rehab the 250-year-old family property in tiny Granford. Meg's mother has rented it out since inheriting it, and the condition is much more dire than Meg expected, but everyone assures her it's a beautiful house, and the old apple orchard is charming (not to mention an important research tool for the college). Chandler shows up to ask Meg about selling off the orchard land to a development project he's working on. When the septic tank gives up the ghost, she meets Seth, the local plumber. Before the new trench is filled in, Chandler's body is found stuffed inside. Yuck. Local law enforcement suspects that Meg tried to rekindle her romance with Chandler and killed him when she was spurned. The other suspect is Seth, whose land is involved in the possible development deal. Meg pokes around to see if she can clear their names.

This was one of the most promising new series I've tried recently. Meg is likable, Granford is charming, and the mystery is interesting, with twists and turns. Many side characters had limited development, and I was wondering why Meg's voice wasn't in first person, but it's the first in a series, so I look forward to more character development in the next installment. There is information on apple orchards and recipes included at the end, but New England history, apple farming, and rehabbing are all featured in the main story. All in all, a pleasant, cozy read for anyone who enjoys small-town mysteries with lots of charm and not too much imminent danger.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Why Some Cats Are Rascals

There are three books in the series Why Some Cats Are Rascals, by Boszenna Nowiki, called Book 1, Book 2, and Book 3 in defiance of the author's creativity. I had a lot of fun zipping through all three, and I will enjoy reading them aloud to my cat-adoring daughter when she's a bit older. My main complaint about these books is not with the stories, but with production values. I looked up the publisher, Healthy Life Press (an odd-sounding choice for children's book publication), and I'm not really sure how these books came to be in their catalogue. They do offer Polish/English translation services on their website, so that may be the connection. At any rate, I thought the stories were darling, offering educational value and positive moral (but not religious) values in a very engaging, fun way. But I would have liked to have seen a better translation (there is no translator credited, so I'm not sure if the Healthy Life Press person is just not up to the task or if Ms. Nowiki chose to write in English or translate her own work), as there are many passages that just read...oddly. Weird word choices and strange syntax abound. The editing is also strange, with sentences that stop mid-line and re-start on the next line. And these stories are crying out for illustrations! There are only a couple in each book.

So far, I haven't really sold this book, so let me tell you why I care. In Book One, there are two parts. In the first, the cats are crazy for adventure and make a break for freedom (planning all along to return to the children of the house). They encounter obstacles they must overcome with teamwork, positive thinking, loyalty, and non-violent problem-solving, to make it back home. In the second part, they enter the Enchanted Forest and meet Prehistoric Cat. They help some downtrodden mice escape persecution from large, Prehistoric Mice (yeah, I know that sounds dumb, but it's a cute story). There are messages of hope, helping others, not being vengeful, and more problem-solving. Again, the cats solve the problem without resorting to violence. Throughout, we learn about different species of wild cats, among other things. In Book 2, the first (and longest) part takes place in ancient Egypt. The cats navigate ancient Egypt and overcome being trapped in a pyramid, then avoid being sacrificed. There is a lot of information on ancient Egypt and desert animals. Then a brief interlude takes the cats to Medieval Europe, where we learn about the witch hunts and the Black Plague. The last segment is really rather silly, a Home Alone story with the cats fending off robbers back at home, but I think kids would think it hilarious. In Book 3, the first part takes place in the Wildly Wild West, with an outlaw cat who has retired from a life of crime (or has he?), a Sheriff, and a rescue of cats imprisoned by rats. The second (and longest part) takes place on the Oregon Trail. And of course, the story ends at home.

I thought Ms. Nowiki did a fantastic job of weaving in information about animals, history, and anything else related to the adventures. Sometimes these passages did feel slightly textbooky, but mostly they were interesting asides during the story. I was also really excited about the moral aspect of the book. Most books that advertise a moral message are blatantly Christian, but these messages were just about being a good cat (or person)--loyalty, solving conflict without violence, cooperation, helping others, resisting the urge for revenge, persistence, and creative problem solving. I really liked the non-violent part--can you tell? Anyway, these were really cute books, and I wish a major publisher would reprint them with illustrations and a better translation. There was also a line at the end of Book 3: "Book 4 coming soon" but Book 3 was in 2006, so I'm not sure. I hope so!

The Empress of Weehawken by Irene Dische

The Empress of Weehawken is a faux memoir from the point-of-view of Elisabeth Rother, leading us through her amazing life and the lives of her daughter, Renate, and her granddaughter, Irene. Yes, Irene, as in Irene Dische, the author. But as Elisabeth would say, more on that later. At first glance, Elisabeth is an unrepentant snob, an anti-Semite who marries a Jew, a borderline abusive mother, and if I had put aside the book after fifty or so pages, I would have come away disliking Elisabeth despite her amusing turns of phrase. Dische has absolutely nailed Elisabeth's incisive, witty, condescending, observant voice, and though Elisabeth says she is anti-Semitic and disdainful of the lower classes, Dische allows her actions to tell a more nuanced story. By the end of the story, I adored Elisabeth, and though I'm not a big crier while reading, I wept at the end.

The story begins with Elisabeth telling of her difficulties conceiving with her husband Carl, and Elisabeth's disappointment that the eventual child (Renate) is a girl. It is the 1930s in Germany and Carl is a Jew, regardless his conversion to Elisabeth's Catholicism before their wedding. As life becomes more and more restrictive, Elisabeth bullies the Catholic church into helping relocate him to America. She sends Renate to a convent school as a "good Catholic girl." Elisabeth's strength of spirit becomes very clear as she protects her family, and even attempts to help Carl's family using her family connections (her brother Otto is in the SS). Though Elisabeth is the one with the "good breeding" and noble family, it is Carl who is most scathing in his judgments about Jews, and Carl who enforces class delineations (though Elisabeth pays lip service to the idea of keeping the servant class in their place, her relationship with Liesel belies that position). In Part II, Elisabeth and Renate join Carl in America, where they have nowhere to stay, as Carl's unbelievable behavior has put him on the outs with the Catholic church. Elisabeth takes the reins of the family and steers them toward assimilation and even prosperity. After the war, she deals with the bitter correspondence from family, friends, and even unknown Germans, who congratulate her on getting out of Germany and ask for handouts. Her response is inspiring. Dische weaves the lives of Renate and Irene through Elisabeth's narrative, and Elisabeth often invokes a subject, promising to return to it later. Elisabeth is very, very funny on a variety of subjects. On old age: "After forty, if you wake up without feeling any pain, then you're probably dead." On Heinz kosher baked beans: "They came in glass jars, and the inside of the cap, if you put your nose right up to it, smelled like pork. It was some kind of trick. I believe this was used by the Jewish manufacturer to attract his own pork-starved people, and that trick is as much proof as one needs about the ingenuity of the race."

Irene Dische has placed this disclaimer before Chapter One: "Certain events and characters in this novel were inspired by real people and events. But the actual events, characters, and dialogue depicted are all fictional." If anything, the knowledge of the author's own connection to the story, was a minor drawback to me. On occasion, I was pulled out of the story wondering if the events were actually true (not just true to the story); the incidences of child abuse (did the maid/nanny actually lock the real Irene in a closet for punishment, leaving the house when the screaming got on her nerves? and, oh, the pants-wetting thing!) and Irene's wild adventures abroad (did some intervention actually abort the near-rape experiences of Irene, or is she rewriting her history our of wishful thinking? or did those scenes never happen at all?) I know that "real life" is very popular right now. Memoirs pop up right and left, and don't get me started on reality television. And if Irene hadn't been a character in her own book, I would have had no issues at all with the "inspired by real people and events"--in fact, I would have thought it an ingenious idea to write a biography of one's grandmother from the grandmother's point of view. Wondering about the truth of Irene's story was only a minor nuisance, but it did, at times, distract me from the story. Nevertheless, this is an engaging, moving story about an extraordinary woman, and I certainly recommend it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Anatomy of a Boyfriend by Daria Snadowsky

Allison and I were contacted by the author of Anatomy of a Boyfriend to see if we'd like to receive a copy of her book to review on the blog. We were very excited and of course said yes! I received the book in the mail last week and dived in yesterday.

It is a very candid account of a high school girl's first real relationship with a boy and the highs and lows of dealing with that. The main character, Dominique (Dom) is seventeen and very focused on her college applications, planning to be premed, and hanging out with her best friend, Amy.While hanging out with Amy at a football game, Dom meets Wes and almost immediately becomes completely preoccupied with him. The relationship moves along quickly. Dom and Wes become consumed with each other spending the last spring of high school together and the summer before college. Then off they go to separate colleges and their perfect relationship takes an inevitable turn.

I received a bookmark along with the book, which says, "An unflinching account of teen love, sex and heartbreak". I think the sex part should be first there. The first half of the novel was filled with a lot of description about Dom and Wes's sexual relationship. Actually, the experiences leading up to the eventual "deed", on prom night no less. As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself, "Is this what the whole book is going to be like?" It was very honest and Snadowsky did not hold back with the details. I was actually a little disappointed in the first half of the book because I was looking for more story and it seemed to me I was just reading about the characters going at it. However, around page 137 or so the story turns when Dom receives her college acceptance letters. The second half of the book is much more story driven and details the feelings of going off to college and leaving your best friend and boyfriend and trying to maintain long distance relationships.

I thought Snadowsky's book was quite accurate to many people's experiences senior year of high school and going off to college. She captures the first semester of college quite well from the shock of a bad test grade, to trying to have a relationship with a guy who is hundreds of miles away, while meeting new people who seem interesting. I also thought Snadowsky portrayed parents in the book well from a teenager's point of view. They seemed kind of lame but caring. They tried to be understanding and there for Dom if she needed them.

The bookmark I mentioned above also says "For ages 14 and up". I think I would put this at more like age 16 and up. Not that I'm naive, I know there are kids younger out there having sex. But I felt like this was almost a "how-to" book and I'm not sure I would want my daughters reading this at age 14. I'm hoping they have no clue about this stuff at age 14. :-) On another parental sidenote (sorry, I am a parent, it's hard to separate from that): I did like how Dom was portrayed in the sexual relationship. She took responsibility for herself about being safe so they would not be unprepared for the moment. I also thought it was interesting that Snadowsky portrayed Wes as the one who was holding back in the beginning. It's not often you think about the boy being nervous and holding back. The author also portrays the best friend as being sexual, but in an "anything BUT" kind of way. Amy has a goal of waiting until college. I think it was great to portray her with a goal and sticking to it. Overall, Snadowsky treats the topic of sex very responsibly in the book.

If you're looking for an honest account of an adolescent relationship, this is the book for you. Published in hardcover in 2007, you can find Anatomy of a Boyfriend in paperback in a few weeks! You can learn more about Daria Snadowsky here.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Blogger Appreciation Week

In case you haven't heard about Book Blogger's Appreciation Week, it's being held September 15-19! Click here for the full story, at My Friend Amy. It sounds like a lot of fun. I've really enjoyed blogging here, and a week of celebration sounds great.

Can you tell I want to read this book?

Another contest to win a copy of The Questory of Root Karbunkulus by Kamilla Reid is being held here, at Mama Bear Reads. Enter by August 27 by posting a comment with your favorite childhood book, subscribing to this fun book blog, and/or posting a link to the contest, like I'm doing right here!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lookin' Back, Texas by Leanna Ellis

I need to preface this review by saying that I am not a reader of Christian fiction. When I requested this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program, I did so on the basis of the publisher-provided summary, which gave a delightful premise and no indication of the real genre. I failed to click on the publisher's website, and the main page of Leanna Ellis's website referred to Lookin' Back, Texas as "women's fiction." That said, I found a lot to like in this novel, but I will have to review it as general fiction, since I have no basis for comparison to other Christian fiction.

Suzanne hasn't been back to her hometown of Luckenbach, Texas (say it out loud to get the title, which also refers to numerous characters) in years. She has a comfortable life with her husband and teenaged son in California. When a phone call from her father is cut off, and Linda Lou, Luckenbach's biggest gossip calls and mentions that Suzanne's father is dead, Suzanne packs up for a trip to Texas. She finds her mother acting the regal widow, planning the most elaborate funeral Luckenbach has ever seen. But her father isn't dead. Suzanne decides she'll have to be the one to reconcile her meek father with her controlling mother, and her husband (Mike) and son (Oliver) soon join her in this crazy town. Her own past sins haunt her as she's confronted with ex-boyfriend Drew (now the town sheriff) and her husband-stealing friend Josie is seen at a motel with Mike. Meanwhile, the town is splitting open quite literally--either by earthquake or drought as her parents push further apart, causing Suzanne to worry about the foundation of her own marriage.

I enjoyed Betty Lynne's over-the-top behavior. Always the perfect wife and mother, concerned to the utmost with image, she has decided that she would rather be a widow than a divorcee. Her glee in describing her husband's grisly death is hilarious. Ellis doesn't oversimplify the situation--she shows the toll the "death" takes on Suzanne's father's best friend, and she shows the outpourings of flowers and food from friends and neighbors. I enjoyed the metaphor of faulty foundation for both Suzanne's marriage and the parched earth, and found it to be well executed. Ellis has a wicked sense of humor, especially as she describes Betty Lynne: "It occurs to me that this whole scenario of a make-believe funeral is exactly like something the heroine of Gone With The Wind would do. The first time I saw the movie, I cried when Bonnie Blue Butler died after falling off the horse. I thought it was cruel of Margaret Mitchell to kill off an innocent child. Now I realize it was probably a good decision. I know what it's like to grow up with a mother like Scarlett" (p. 128). And when rumors about Mike and Josie start swirling, "Mother leans forward, resting her elbow on the table and whispers in a conspiratorial tone, 'Wanna have a double funeral?'"

That said, this was really a 300-page novel masquerading as a 400-page novel, so it dragged in places, and there was some repetition I could have done without. Had I been the editor, I would have immediately cut the chapters told from Drew's point of view, which really didn't add anything. I know that Ellis used to write romance novels, and convention in that genre usually dictates writing from both the hero's and the heroine's point of view, but it's out of place here. And at any rate, Drew isn't even a major character. Every twenty or thirty pages, Suzanne agonizes over her big secret, and while I understand that it's always on her mind, especially back in her hometown, the fretting about keeping the secret without any progress toward deciding to tell or deciding not to tell was tedious. As far as the Christian element goes, it wasn't pushed enough to make me dislike the book, but there were passages that were over-the-top for general or women's fiction, and I mostly rolled my eyes and skimmed past. There are several mentions of faith, being faithful, and being committed to marriage, and these were fine and flowed well with the narrative. It was only when they were intrusive on the story, trite ("No relationship is perfect. It's a dance."--Bleh.), unbelievable (her conversation with her son in the grocery store about Jesus just didn't ring true), or contradictory (Suzanne goes on about how she and her husband had to work at their marriage, then later says "My marriage survived, not because of me or Mike but because of God") that I was reminded that I was reading Christian fiction with a capital C. I think Ellis could certainly do well writing general or women's fiction, but I think the born-again element is a bit overdone for a general audience. Her snappy sense humor and apt characterization make me interested in checking out her first (non-romance) novel, Elvis Takes a Back Seat. I keep vacillating between a three-star review (based on the above criticisms and four stars (based on my enjoyment), so I think I'll split the difference.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Matchmaker of Périgord by Julia Stuart

The Matchmaker of Périgord caught my eye as an early reviewer selection on LibraryThing. When I was selected for a different book, I immediately pre-ordered it and stalked the post office, waiting for the box to appear. Such great expectations often lead to disappointment; fortunately, Julia Stuart has crafted an utterly charming, farcical comedy of rural France that could not fail to delight.

Guillaume Ladoucette (whose mother's feud with Madame Moreau involves assault-by-eel and overripe tomatoes) is the barber for the village of Amour-sur-Belle, a tiny hamlet of 33 aging residents, each with his or her own quirks and past secrets (many of which were revealed during the mini-tornado of 1999, when they all thought they'd die). When his client list dries up (due to a combination of balding customers and his refusal to attempt cutting-edge hairstyles like The Pinecone), he decides to set out his shingle as a matchmaker. He's an unlikely choice, having been secretly in love with Émilie Fraisse for twenty-six years, but he approaches his new calling with enthusiasm, if not immediate success. He continues to push pairs of villagers together, insisting that love is like a cassoulet--you must take the good with the bad. As Guillaume undertakes the massive task of bringing love to the villagers, drought has brought a communal shower to Amour-sur-Belle, and villagers must walk to the square in their dressing gowns to queue up for their daily shower.

Though the book is clearly contemporary, with references to a mini-tornado in 1999 and prices in euros, Stuart has given the village and its residents timeless appeal. Every person is referred to in every instance by both first and last names, and many physical descriptions and important events are described using the exact same phrasing, and these echo comfortably throughout the book, like an epic told from memory by a master storyteller. The repetition is both lyrical and practical--it helps the reader keep the numerous characters, their pasts, and their relationships with each other straight. Stuart also retells the same stories from different points of view at different times in the action, creating a rich, layered confection worthy of Stéphane Jollis, the baker. The stories themselves are inventive, just barely believable, but with a sense of farce, in the manner of Émilie Fraisse giving tours of the castle and creating wild stories about the furnishings.

This book has been compared to Chocolat. I must confess that, though I love the film, I've avoided the book, but to the film at least the sense of timelessness, the charm of rural France, and the entwined lives of the villagers have similarities. If a charming tale of deceptively simple village life sounds like your cup of tea (or truffled foie gras, as it were), I highly recommend this for a fun read.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ah, Jane!

Jane and the Barque of Frailty by Stephanie Barron: This is the most recent Jane Austen mystery (the first is Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor), and it seems open for Barron to write a few more. I had been hoarding this a bit, afraid it was definitely the last (Barron has written a non-Jane book, A Flaw in the Blood, and I thought she was moving on). In this one, a Russian princess is found with her throat cut, on the doorstep of a prominent figure in London. The later books get more poignant if you know Jane Austen's biography at all (and I suspect most people reading these are Austen fans). I enjoyed this entry, though there was the minor annoyance of Barron cramming in as much Regency slang as she could. I'm not sure what sent her on that kick, as I don't remember it being intrusive in previous books. But that's a small issue, and does not overshadow the strong writing, intricate mystery, well-drawn characters, and period feel.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Sundays at Tiffany's by James Patterson/Gabrielle Charbonnet

This was our book club book for August. I have to say, I'm glad it was a quick read. I read it in a day. And I would have been upset to spend more time on it than that.

The basic premise of the book: little girl has imaginary friend named Michael until age 9, when, by the rules governing imaginary friends, he has to say good-bye and move on. Also per the rules, she is to forget about him. Well, she doesn't forget about him and spends the next 23 years feeling lonely and not very happy. Until one day, Michael runs into her when he is between "assignments". Yada, yada, yada. They fall in love and he goes from being imaginary to becoming human.

Okay, I didn't hate this book. But I do give it about 2.5 to 3 stars out of 5. It would only get 3 because its a very fast read and therefore doesn't waste too much of your time. This just really was not the book for me. I'm not into romance/sappy books too much to begin with and I'm a bit of a practical person. So the premise was just a bit too far-fetched to me to be even remotely believable. The "magic" that was supposed to be there just wasn't for me. I'm not totally against this sort of thing. Have you seen the movie The Lake House with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock? A "magical" mailbox that helps them communicate even though they are years apart in time. I did like that one. The premise seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but it worked in that movie. Maybe I would like this better as a movie, instead of a book. But even then, I don't know.

Also, one other giant annoyance. The woman on the cover of the book, who presumably is Jane the main character, has dark hair. In the book, the character has blonde hair. So they couldn't even get the cover right? Did the marketing people just miss that? I think the blonde hair is mentioned multiple times. Okay, enough time wasted on this one.

See also: Julie's review at Girls Just Reading

Again With The Joan Hess...

I went on a Joan Hess bender and read 5 more of the Claire Malloy mysteries. Fun!

A Diet To Die For by Joan Hess (Claire Malloy, #5): In this entry, Claire's daughter is determined to slim down, and she drags her friend Inez along as she tries several diets (none of which lasts more than a few hours). Coincidentally, Claire's neighbor persuades Claire to help depressed Maribeth shed a few pounds and gain some confidence by joining a new health club. When Maribeth dies, Claire is convinced it was murder and sets out to investigate. Caron and Inez's dieting is hilarious, and if the solution was a smidge telegraphed, it was still enjoyable. I did wish that Maribeth's jerk of a husband had died instead of Maribeth, but the mystery was interesting.

Roll Over and Play Dead by Joan Hess (Claire Malloy, #6): Claire, not exactly an animal lover, is talked into dog-sitting for Nick and Nora. When the dogs disappear (along with neighbors' pets), Claire investigates. Instead of the missing animals, she finds the dead body of Newton Churls, her prime suspect. When the good-ol'-boy sheriff seems uninterested in solving the case of the missing animals, Claire (and her daughter) sets out to find them. The treatment of animals by the bad guys in this book is upsetting, but the mystery is satisfying, and the neighbors are very entertaining.

Death by the Light of the Moon by Joan Hess (Claire Malloy, #7): Claire and her daughter are summoned to the Malloy family home in the Louisiana bayous by Miss Justicia, Caron's grandmother. Claire's husband had avoided his family, and it's obvious why. Miss Justicia has summoned everyone so that she may change her will in as dramatic a way as possible. When Miss Justicia dies, apparently in an accident, Claire insists on looking into the death further. This was one of the best in the series so far. I love the eccentric old relative changing her will angle, and the relatives assembled are a crackup. The mystery is fun and involved, and Caron's reaction to her gene pool is excellent. I've read some reviews that complain about Caron's "annoying teenager" behavior as a major part of the books, but I really enjoy her. You can see from her speech patterns and reactions to events that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, and she's really funny in her teenaged drama.

Poisoned Pins by Joan Hess (Claire Malloy, #8): This wasn't my favorite in the series, but it was still enjoyable. Caron decides to earn money by become a "Your Beautiful Self" consultant (read: Mary Kay spoof), a suggestion made by one of the sorority girls in the house next door. This is actually really, really funny, though I had to overlook the fact that in the previous 7 books, it's never been mentioned once that there's a sorority house next door. One of the sorority girls dies in a hit-and-run and Claire investigates, finding that the sorority isn't as squeaky clean as it appears. The plot was kind of convoluted--Hess's plots are always tangled and complicated, but in a good way--this way maybe a bit much, but it was fun nonetheless. Like Claire, I never had the urge to rush a sorority, so I enjoyed her spoofing, and Caron was a hoot as always.

Tickled To Death by Joan Hess (Claire Malloy, #9): Claire's good friend Luanne (the one who roped her into running a pageant in #4) demands Claire's help clearing her new boyfriend of his second wife's murder. The sheriff is harassing Dick, determined to prove that he killed one or both of his wives. I guessed a key part of the solution, but it didn't diminish the fun. Caron and Claire head to Turnstone Lake, Claire to investigate and Caron to work as a guide to birders visiting the area (anyone familiar with the books will crack up at the thought of Caron being a guide in the woods). Caron is predictably (but hilariously) dramatic about the torture she endures (getting up early, eating mush for breakfast, tromping through the woods), and Claire reluctantly gets closer to the truth of Dick's wives' deaths. A murder complicates her investigation. The plotting in this one was really strong, and it was really an enjoyable mystery.

My review of Strangled Prose (Claire Malloy, #1)
My reviews of #2 (The Murder at the Murder at the Mimosa Inn) and #3 (Dear Miss Demeanor)
My review of A Really Cute Corpse (Claire Malloy, #4)

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Kelly over at The Optimistic Bookfool is hosting a giveaway for Lisa Gardner's Say Goodbye. This was an Early Reviewer book for LibraryThing and sounded good to me. Check our her blog to learn more about the book and read her great review!

Hold Tight by Harlan Coben

I just finished the latest book from Harlan Coben. The title "Hold Tight" refers to a parents grip on their kids and the struggle to let them go and at the same time protect them. This book is obviously a commentary on today's society where we tend to be overprotective of our children.

The book starts with several different storylines that Coben weaves together connecting them all at the end. Each storyline looks at familial situations where someone is trying to protect their family and what the lengths they will go to protect them. Mike Baye (pronounced "bye") and his family live in the suburbs with their son (age 16) and their daughter (age 11). Mike is a doctor, his wife, Tia is a lawyer who stayed home with the kids for many years and has just gone back to work. They are struggling with their son, Adam because he seems to have withdrawn even more than usual after the suicide of his best friend. They are so worried about him and his behavior that they install spyware on his computer to see what he is up to. They rationalize this invasion of his privacy by saying they don't want him to end up like his friend and they are just trying to help him. All of this leads to a crazy several days in the course of the book where Adam disappears, Mike gets beat up, the daughter Jill discovers her best friend has Columbine-type thoughts about shooting a teacher who said something completely inappropriate to her and ruined her young life. There are two smaller story lines about a guy killing a couple women because he is looking for a "tape" and a neighbor of the Baye's whose son has cancer and needs to find a donor. Aside from doing anything to protect your family storylines, Coben also delves into the issue of privacy and how much do other people really know or should know about other people.

Because I tend to only read a little at a time with books, all the different story lines annoyed me a little until they started coming together. I was having to keep track of all the characters and where they were in the story while trying to figure out where it was all going. Coben did bring all the tangents together nicely toward the end and I was very satisfied with how he closed everything up. I definitely think the second half of the book was better and more interesting than the first half. It did make me think about children's privacy a bit. The book makes a strong point about the difference between parenting children today and a generation ago. When I was a kid, children ran around their backyards and the neighborhood for hours on end. Parents just trusted that they would stay in the area and didn't know what was going on every second of their kids' lives.

It just seems the carefree days of childhood are gone. And I find myself falling prey to this mentality. I'm constantly wondering where my 5 year old is in the house and what she is up to. I try to give her space and trust her with little things. But its difficult. There are also so many more things for children to see on television and predators on the internet as well as the information available on the internet that children can gain access to. We can check up on our children at any given time just by giving them a cell phone or sending them email or text messages. So now, coming back to the book, even though it is fiction, I think Coben raises interesting questions here. How much do we interfere and try to protect our children? How far is too far? What's being too lenient?

Coben seems to ask all these questions in his book and in the end, one of the characters wonders what course the story would have taken if they had just left things alone to see where they went. The "problem" in the story may have just cleared up on its own. Who knows?

Sorry to ramble on in this review. I just think its an interesting topic to try and find that balance as a parent where you are keeping your children safe, but also letting them learn and find their own way and learn from their mistakes. Obviously, this one had quite a bit of food for thought for me. :-) I have not been disappointed in Coben yet and look forward to the next one I read.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Same book, different contest

The Questory of Root Karbunkulus by Kamilla Reid sounds so good, I'm posting another link to a contest to win a copy! Enter here by leaving a comment!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Retreating back to the familiar...

Well, I should know better than to trust amazon reviews. May Day by Jess Lourey has a nearly five-star rating on amazon, and I neglected to check LibraryThing's reviews before getting a copy. My only consolation is that I didn't pay full trade-paperback price--I found a used copy (along with two other new mysteries) with reasonable shipping. After I finished May Day, I picked up one of the other two books I'd gotten at the same time--same publisher. Both of those have good LibraryThing reviews, though I decided to go back to my Joan Hess rather than another new mystery right away.

I almost didn't finish May Day. By 50 pages in, I had about had it, but I couldn't believe it would stay that bad. Ha! I wish I'd tossed it aside and picked up something else. Where to start? First, there's the format--5 pages about Mira finding the body, followed by a 45-page flashback to tell us in excruciating detail how Mira ended up in Battle Lake, Minnesota (I could summarize it in two sentences--it's just not that interesting). There's no real explanation for why Mira decides to investigate, except she's assigned an article (she writes part-time for the newspaper) partway through her investigation. She's not likable, or very interesting, and neither are the cardboard characters surrounding her. The crazy guy with the scary house part reminded me of Ace Ventura's "Laces OUT!" except Ace Ventura was funny. The Minnesota girl with the Southern accent was annoying, the plotline with the old people bizarre and unbelievable, and the most interesting part (the Indian sacred site) was shunted to the side. I figured out who killed the guy pretty quickly due to some obvious foreshadowing.

Some things, like a paragraph-long description of the police chief applying Carmex to his lips, were overblown and silly. So many pages I marked as having ridiculous prose: (after Mira walks into a bar) "The smell of GPC cigarettes, aged beer, and something that would make good mushroom fodder crept under my pants and stroked my thighs." What in the world is that supposed to mean? Who has a smell stroke their thighs? Bizarre. About her boss: "He was a tall thick man with eyes green and busy like bottle flies on the dark meat of his face." Yuck! Is his face rotting? Upon entering a creepy house: "I felt narrow sheets of ice slip between my skin and muscles"--again, what??? I could keep doing this all day, but I won't spend any more time on this book. Off to the yard sale box it goes, maybe with a warning label.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I wanted to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows as soon as I read the description in LibraryThing's Early Reviewer list for June. I was selected for a different book, so I pre-ordered this one. It was everything I had hoped for, a perfect read--or near enough perfect to suit me. The novel is written in letters, most of either to or from Juliet, a writer who gained a following as a columnist using humor to cover World War II. In 1946, when the novel begins, Juliet is casting about for her an idea for a new novel when she receives a letter by chance--a man named Dawsey, who lives on Guernsey, happened to buy a book formerly owned by Juliet, and he is writing to find out if there are other books by the same author (Charles Lamb). He mentions that Guernsey had been cut off from the rest of the world during the German occupation and alludes to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, of which he was a part. Intrigued, Juliet writes back, asking for an explanation of the Society and more information on the Occupation. He replies that the group was formed as a spontaneous defense for breaking curfew, and they decided they'd better keep meeting or risk being found out. Throughout the five years of occupation, an unlikely group, many of whom had never before read anything but farming publications, read a book to present to the group. The Society's members begin to correspond with Juliet, widening her circle and drawing her into their lives. The letters not only detail the history of the Guernsey occupation; they reveal what reading means to the human spirit and how chance encounters can change a life. This slender volume (only 274 pages) is brilliantly and sensitively written, with anecdotes that expose what happens to people under extreme conditions; the Guernsey citizens and German forces are illustrated with acts of inhuman cruelty and desperation, but also with instances of courage, empathy, and humanity. When I read a book like this, I wonder how I would respond to the conditions endured. Would I be the person ratting out my neighbors to secure extra rations? I hope not. How would I choose whether to keep my child with me in unknown conditions or to send her to live with strangers for an indeterminate time? Would I risk my own freedom (and even life) to save another?

This novel was absolutely beautiful, heartbreaking and uplifting, not to mention with a wicked sense of humor. Juliet is a likable protagonist and I adored the Guernsey folk. If Juliet's relationship with Mark was sometimes a bit clunky (why couldn't she tell he was a wanker?), I quickly forgave the intrusion because the novel as a whole was such a wonderful reading experience. I recommend this book to absolutely everyone.

Mary Ann Shaffer asked her niece, Annie Barrows, to help her finish writing the book (her first) when Ms. Schaffer's failing health prevented her from doing so herself. Unfortunately, Ms. Shaffer has since passed away. I hope that Ms. Barrows considers penning a sequel.