Monday, March 31, 2008

ToB 2008 Winner

These are the finalists in the 2008 Tournament of Books. And the winner: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I haven't really looked at either of these books. I'll have to check them out next time I'm at the bookstore. Please comment if anyone has read them!


I went from not really being excited about any books I had in the house to having too many! I guess that's a good problem to have. A bunch of library requests came through at the same time so I have a few books from the library. I also received a free advance copy of a new book!

We'll start with that one: Off the Deep End by W. Hodding Carter. As a member of LibraryThing, you can choose to put your name in to receive advance copies of upcoming books, the only catch is that they ask you to review them. Well, to me, that's not much of a catch. I'd probably do that anyway. Usually there are 400-600 people for each book and maybe 15-50 copies of the book sent out. This was the first book I won. It's the story of Hodding, an over-40 man who used to be a competitive collegiate swimmer. He always dreamed of making it to the Olympics. He didn't have the chance when he was young and becomes obsessed with the idea as a middle-aged man. The book is his memoir of his journey.

It took me a while to get used to Carter's more conversational style of writing. It is very informal, and he tends to interject in the middle of his sentences. Anyone who was a competitive swimmer would probably really enjoy this book. I found it mildly interesting, but not incredibly fascinating. I had preconceived ideas that it might be more of an inspiring story, however, it is more about a man's mid-life crisis journey. Because its an advance copy, the end of the book is missing where you find out if he really did qualify for the Olympics this summer. Once it is published, I'll probably pick it up at the bookstore and just skim through the end.

In other book news, this week is Buy-a-Friend-a-Book Week. More info here. :-)

A while ago, I bought Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith as a bargain book. I've been reading very good things about Pratchett as a young adult author so I thought I would grab. I discovered this was part of a series of books in his Discworld. Discworld appears to be a large series with many tangents or several series within a larger umbrella series. Does that make any sense? At any rate, there were 2 books in this series before Wintersmith (The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky) so I picked up both of them from the library and plan on reading them before I get to Wintersmith. I'm sure I could have read Wintersmith out of order, but I'm kind of anal when it comes to that sort of thing and like to start with the first in a series.

I also have The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett sitting here. I went to the bookstore to look for Run. I just wanted to check it out. However, they were sold out. So I picked this one up instead and read the first few pages. I was really engaged so I requested it from the library. Of course, I received it at the same time as some other books. ;-)

And the last book I currently have sitting around here waiting to be read is Naptime is the New Happy Hour by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor. She also wrote Sippy Cups are NOT for Chardonnay, which was hysterical. I can't wait to read this this. Her first book was so funny and true about parenting. I can only imagine what she has to say about the toddler years. I have a feeling I can recommend this one to other mothers without even having read it yet!

Well, I think that's all for now. I've been sort of schizophrenic about deciding which one of these to delve into, they all seem good to me. I guess I'll just see what clicks with my mood today...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Run by Ann Patchett is everything you would expect from the author of Bel Canto. Patchett's prose is lyrical. Her writing is so beautiful. The similes she concocts are amazing. Her prose just flows through this sweet story of a Boston politician's adopted children and his expectations for their lives. Each character is so finely wrought. You feel like you could meet any one of them on the corner of your street. Patchett gives you a slice of life and her characters make the most of it. Enjoy!

Monday, March 24, 2008

ToB Reviews

I don't have any new books to post, but thought I would let you know that Girl Detective has created a reading challenge for herself. She is trying to get through some of the ToB books. So far she has reviewed the following:

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England

What the Dead Know
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name
On Chesil Beach

Just thought some of you might be interested. :-)
Happy Reading!

Possible ToB Winner Review

So, I read Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris, which is headed to the semifinals in the Tournament of Books. It was fantastic. Seriously, one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's extremely funny, with a unique voice (the corporate "we") that manages to explore group dynamics without losing the individuality of the group members. Who doesn't love a book with the awesome first line, "We were fractious and overpaid."? Excellent stuff. There is a lot of funny here as Ferris explores the contradictions, excess, and search for meaning in an ad agency just as the dot-com bubble bursts. The group dynamics shift and change as layoffs loom over the entire office and the employees wonder whether or not their boss has cancer. This would have been a fantastic bit of office humor, but Ferris goes deeper than Office Space for insights into finding meaning in one's life, how to face death, and how we break when pushed too hard. Brilliant, amazing, fantastic first novel, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Back To The Stack

You know, I waited so long to chat about some of my stack I can't even remember what I read. I've been a big fan of Nora Roberts for years. She does a variety of chick lit. There's always a romance somewhere in her books. Besides writing under her own name, she writes a romantic detective series set in New York City in 2058 under the pseudonym, J. D. Robb. Her latest on the best seller list is Strangers in Death. Her tough cookie, very smart female detective, Eve Dallas, solves murders while living life in the fast lane of future NYC. I love Robb's descriptions of the clothing, homes, electronics, cars, food, etc as she imagines them to be 50 years from now.In this book, Robb's murderer steals the plot from Hitchcock's movie, Strangers On A Train. Like the TV series, Law & Order, you know who the murderer is by mid book. The author leads you through the evidence bit by bit until she has her case built and her suspect firmly in her clutches. It's Eve's job to get her suspect to confess which of course, she does by book's end.

Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews is a book right out of the reality TV series TOP CHEF. I LOVE TOP CHEF where a bunch of up and coming chefs are challenged each week to create some appetizing dish and then judged on who did the best. Deep Dish pits two chefs, one a former beauty contest participant who cooks healthy and the other, a studly male whose motto is "kill it and grill it," against each other in a battle to become the next host of a network cooking show. They travel to a remote island off the Georgia coast to cook for a trio of stereotypical professional chef judges. Love blossoms in this light and tasty novel which includes recipes at the end!

Other books in my just finished stack include Killing Ground, the latest Jack Higgins Sean Dillon spy thriller, Heart Sick by Chelsea Cain, a serial killer suspense, and Damage Control by Robert Dugoni, another murder suspense novel. Loved them all for their solid intrigue and nice tidy endings.

My Stack

I used to have a large stack of books waiting to be read. Now, I have a large stack of books waiting for me to BLOG! So, here goes.

I'm a huge fan of thrillers of all sorts. I just finished two by Alex Berenson, The Faithful Spy and The Ghost War. They both are current event style thrillers concerning Iraq, al Qaeda and the mess we having going in the middle east.

In Faithful Spy, Berenson introduces his main character, John Wells, who is in the midst of a ten year long infiltration of al qaeda. He's had very little contact w/his CIA handlers during this time. Consequently, the powers that be in the CIA think he may have actually crossed over to the other side. Not true but only one CIA employee actually believes John still is a valuable and true source in the post 9/11 war on terror. The book is full of intrigue and drama as Wells tries to foil a terrorist plot to release a deadly plague causing bacteria in New York City. There's a lot of murder and mayhem very reminiscent of Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne spy series.

The Ghost War pretty much picks up where The Faithful Spy left off only John Wells is now back in the Satates and life is BORING. Of course, he volunteers to return to the Middle East to determine what world power is sponsoring a sudden surge in Taliban activity. What he uncovers is a plot that reaches into the highest levels of the CIA and he has to stop China and North Korea from going NUCLEAR!! Again, lots of spine tingling, last possible second only John Wells can save the world from destruction action. I really can't wait to see how John saves the US and world from the bumbling ineptitude of the CIA and other spy agencies in Berenson's next book.

Stephen King uses a little lighter hand w/the paranormal and supernatural in his newest best seller, Duma Key. It's still there along w/his scatological vulgar vocabulary which he also uses less of than usual. Duma is set in the Florida Keys where his characters are part of the wealthy Florida art scene. His "hero" is a Minnesota contractor who is involved in a terrible work site construction accident, loses his arm, chucks the building business and goes off to Florida to recoupe. There he discovers an extraordinary(of course, this is Stephen King) painting talent and meets a wealthy, ancient crone and her caretaker, a former high powered attorney, who is also escaping real life on Duma Key. As in all King's books, there's murder and weird events but what I really liked about this book was King's cast of Minnesota characters from real suburbs of the Twin Cities as well as his art related plot twists including Salvador Dali. He just spoke to native Minnesotan, Art History minoring me.

Easter Brunch is calling so more later. I've hardly gotten through half my book stack.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Man Walks Into A Room by Nicole Krauss

I really wanted this to be a five-star review, and if I had stopped around page 75, it would have been. Krauss is a fantastic writer, and there are passages of achingly beautiful prose that highlight the potential that is never realized in this, her first novel. But Man Walks Into A Room is too scattered and wanders off on too many tangents. The book begins with a memory seemingly unrelated to any of the characters we meet for those first 75 pages, and this was annoying, but I was sucked into the gentle exploration of Samson, who is found wandering in the desert, all memories since the age of 12 obliterated by a tumor. He does not recognize his wife, Anna, and Krauss explores her reaction to Samson's condition in a peripheral kind of way. The story up to this point is fascinating and beautifully written. Then Krauss veers off onto a science-fictiony tangent that the framework just can't support. I tolerated this for a while, but by 125 or so pages, I was irritated and cranky and wanting the story to be over, but the opening had been so promising that I felt compelled to keep reading to see if she redeemed herself. Nope. After the science fictiony bit is finally blissfully over, we go into this other part in which Samson connects with a teenager and then his senile uncle in sort of obvious, yet obscure, ways. And the ending just fizzled out. This could have been a really amazing book, but Krauss was too ambitious in her scope and the story suffered for it. Ultimately, I don't recommend this book, but I do want to read her second novel, The History of Love, in the hopes that she reaches her potential there.

Edited to add: I have current books from ToB to read, but I started this while waiting for them to arrive. I think I felt spurred to clear some of my literary backlog by the imminent arrival of new books :) I'm reading these interspersed with my Jane Jeffry mysteries.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Pact by Jodi Picoult

I finished The Pact over the weekend while I was laying around recuperating from this cold/flu bug that has been going around. Again, as with her other books, it was a very easy, quick read. However, this one was not quite up to my expectations. It wasn't bad. It just wasn't as good as Salem Falls or My Sister's Keeper. I think Plain Truth was a bit better as well.

The story is about a teenage couple, both age seventeen, who have known each other all their lives. They lived next door to each other. They had a very mature relationship for their age and were apparently in love. Then one night the boy shows up in the hospital with a head wound and the girl winds up dead from a gunshot wound. According to initial interviews with the boy, this was a suicide pact gone wrong. However, we find out that might not necessarily be the truth. Aside from the boy and girl having a relationship, both their families are the best of friends. The boy ends up being accused of murdering the girl and the trial tears the families apart. As with other Picoult books, the last third plays out in the courtroom.

I think one of the things that bothered me about the book is that I didn't find the topic as interesting as some of her other books. The front cover of my copy of the book had an icon claiming, "Soon to be a Lifetime Original Movie!". Now, nothing against the Lifetime channel or their movies. I can definitely see where this book would fit their usual type of storyline. But I found it a bit sappy for my tastes. I felt the book was pretty contrived and I guess the characters didn't grow on me the same as some of her other characters have. I didn't have much sympathy for Emily, the character who commits suicide. And there was an underlying storyline of sexual abuse that I felt Picoult could have made stronger which might have made Emily a little more sympathetic or perhaps the courtroom scene more dramatic. I think it would have been more interesting if the abuse had been revealed to the boyfriend or the parents by the end of the book.

Not to say this book is a waste of time, because it is not. I'm just being more critical in comparing it to some of Picoult's other books. I'm looking forward to reading some more of her books that I have on my bookshelf and I think her newest release Change of Heart sounds like an interesting story. I think I'm just not a big sucker for romance. :-) If you are, you might like this more than I did.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

And Now You Can Go by Vendela Vida

The new Tournament of Books list really shamed me into finally reading Vendela Vida's debut novel (her latest is on the list). I got it as a bargain book at some point a couple of years ago, and though it's a slender novel, I just haven't gotten to it yet. I busted through it yesterday and a little today. It's a quick read for capital-L Literature. The premise really grabbed me: Ellis, a 21-year old college student, is held at gunpoint. She escapes from the experience unharmed, but completely changed. The encounter occurs at the very beginning of the novel, so the story is really about how she responds--in unpredictable, conflicting ways. She does everything a victim is supposed to: she files a police report, collaborates on a sketch of the assailant, looks at mug shots, sees a therapist. But her world has been turned upside down, and she flounders, avoiding her boyfriend's calls, telling outrageous lies to strangers, and turning to a few solicitous men for answers. She flies home to see her parents and ends up in the Philippines on a medical mission with her mother (a nurse). This could have been a gloomy, depressing book, but Vida's sense of humor is finely tuned. Ellis's roommate (not a friend, Ellis tells us, just someone from whom she rents a room) leaves little poems accusing Ellis of shirking her chores, and these are hilarious. Rather than dismal, I found it a hopeful book, and a surprisingly light read for such heavy subject matter. Oh, and Ellis is an art history student, Holly, so though it's not a huge part of the book, there are references to art history throughout. I definitely recommend this book and will have to check out her second novel.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tournament of Books 2008

The Morning News has published their lists of books for the Tournament of Books 2008. And here they are:

Run by Ann Patchett
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Petropolis by Anya Ulinich
Ovenman by Jeff Parker
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
You Don't Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem
New England White by Stephen L. Carter
Remainder by Tom McCarthy
The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida
Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke

Some interesting ones on there. Anyone read any of them? Run by Ann Patchett pops up here again. And I might take a look at The Shadow Catcher, a fictional book that uses Edward Curtis, a photographer whose goal was to document Native American cultures as part of the background story. His photographs were somewhat controversial because he would dress his subjects up in traditional costumes with traditional props, even if the people were more assimilated into the "modern" world. I wrote a grad school paper on him so I think it would be interesting to see how this book portrays him, even if its fictionalized.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Relin

Wow. I just finished this book. I hardly know where to begin. What an amazingly interesting story. Greg Mortenson is a man who decided a little over a decade ago to single-handedly take on changing the Middle East. During a failed attempt to summit K2, Mortenson wandered lost into a small village in Northern Pakistan. After being entranced with these impoverished people, Mortenson promised to build their children a school. At the time, they would kneel in the dirt and practice their multiplication tables writing with sticks in the dirt. This one promise of a school turned into what is now the Central Asia Institute founded by Mortenson.

Three Cups of Tea details his tremendous journey from the side of a mountain to building many schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to secularly educate the children of the region. His belief is that if we help educate the children there, they will have options and will not have to be educated in schools run by religious extremists. Therefore, the ideals of the Taliban and other extremist groups of that region will simply die out with future educated generations. Mortenson's influence in the area has not only built schools, but women's vocational centers, and proper water supplies. He actively promoted education for girls and women so they would not have to live naively in their husband's shadow. They could become empowered and whatever they wanted to be.

The book was incredibly interesting and filled with details about the cultures Mortenson encounters regularly on his trips to the Middle East. I learned more about the Middle East from this one book than anything the American media has published since before 9/11. The story was moving and really makes you want to support Mortenson's cause. The old saying goes, "one person really can make a difference." Well, it is truly amazing what this one human being has accomplished and continues to accomplish. The book is pretty long and I felt like maybe there were a few details that could have been more glossed over or condensed. But because the overall effect of the book was so intriguing, it makes you keep reading on. Read this book. And then tell more people to read it.

I have long ignored nonfiction books as something to read in my spare time. I think often I look to books to escape stress from everyday life so I typically don't want to read things that I find difficult, sad, "boring" or disturbing. Yet, I've enjoyed the last several nonfiction books I've read and found them to be none of the above. Perhaps I need to rethink my preconceived notions about the nonfiction genre. :-)

Edited to add: I meant to mention that Mortenson spent much of his childhood growing up in Africa with his family. The whole section about his childhood reminded me of the book The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my all-time favorite books. I've also had the book Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi on my bookshelf for a couple years now. I may get around to reading it now. It is about a small group of women in Iran who gathered secretly to read forbidden Western classics.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Trying to get caught up...

Very recently, I had 12 books on my stack from the library. I'm down to 4 now because I've been very diligently reading. What else is there to do w/snow on the ground and frigid temps?

I've read a couple books that were on the best seller list. I read LOTS of best sellers. Sometimes I wonder how they got on the list. I think it's because some author's last book was a best seller so they get a free pass on to the list w/the next one.

Beverly Hills Dead by Stewart Woods is the latest in a LONG series of his best sellers. I liked this one because it gave some of the back story on a number of his characters that have appeared in his other books. I agree w/Allison when she says that the writing tends to get a little mediocre once an author has written several books in the same series. Woods is like that in this Vance Calder,(his character), Hollywood series about Hollywood, actors and their wealthy existences. There's ALWAYS a murder or two and always lots of comments on clothes, homes , cars, restuarants etc. of the rich and famous characters. Beverly Hills Dead is one of Woods' better efforts in his typical trash for the masses fashion.

The Senator's Wife has been on the best seller list recently as well. It was OK. Apparently, Sue Miller, the author, has written other best sellers. After reading the wife, I'm not eager to read her others. The Senator's Wife is all about how she copes w/her charming but philandering politician husband and builds her own life beyond all his affairs. The wife has a profound influence on a young newly married woman who moves next door who later has a profound influence on the Senator's wife! I imagine extra marital affairs can be life altering but the book was all a bit too dramatic.

On to the non best sellers. The very best book I've read recently is My Enemy's Cradle by Sara Young. Set in Nazi Occupied Holland, it's about a young girl who finds herself pregnant. She doesn't know where to turn and manages to get into the Nazi sponsored program for spreading the Aryan race called the Lebensporn(I think). The girl goes off to an unwed mother's home set up by the Nazis to take care of girls who are priviledged enough to be carrying their offspring. While at the home, she receives the best of care all while trying to figure out how to escape to save herself and baby before she gives birth. A really spellbinding read.

Robert Harris has written historically based novels like Fatherland and Enigma which were set in WWII. They were fascinating. His new book, The Ghost, is set in today's world of U.S./ British politics/Iraq. I hung in there through his rants concerning the CIA and waterboarding torture as well as others, hoping the book would become a wee bit more intriguing but he had more to say about the current state of our world than I really wanted to know. I read to escape not to have the current world political mess thrown in my face. I just wish someone else would read this book and let me know if it's Harris' thinly veiled view of Tony Blair/ George Bush and Halliburton's roles in our world.

I've read two books in the last week that had psychics as main characters. Apparently, in the psychic world there are "listeners", "healers", "finders" and others w/different psychic gifts. It was a happy coincidence that I read Pandora's Daughter by Iris Johansen and Blood Dreams by Kay Hooper right after one another because I could understand the psychic jargon used in both books. Johansen has written tons of murder thrillers in a long career and I've loved them all. Each book is stand alone w/new characters and new thrills. I always wonder how prolific authors come up w/all their ideas for vastly different books. I've just discovered Kay Hooper who has written a murder series about a special unit in the FBI that uses psychics to solve crimes. Blood Dreams is the first book I've read by Hooper. I had a hard time putting it down while reading about a nasty serial killer and the psychics' efforts to catch him. The ending was a real disappointment where she didn't even identify her killer and very blatantly set up her next book in the series. Too many loose ends and too commercial for me.

I think I need to request Hiaasen's Hoot and Flush from the library. I know I'll be entertained and have a few laughs. I just have to get through the last four books in my pile first....

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

More Mysteries

I re-read the first three Jane Jeffry mysteries by Jill Churchill--Grime and Punishment, A Farewell to Yarns, and A Quiche Before Dying. I read these ages ago, so I'd forgotten who the killers were. Anyway, I enjoyed reading them again. Jane is a widowed stay-at-home mom with three kids, and ends up involved in mysteries in her Chicago suburb. She and her friend Shelley poke around, digging up gossip and domestic facts that elude the police. In the first one, it winds up being important that most people vacuum with their back to the door (something that doesn't even occur to hottie detective Mel VanDyne). Grime and Punishment is about the murder of Shelley's cleaning lady, A Farewell to Yarns starts with a visit by Jane's friend, a master knitter (and Jane crochets an afghan throughout), and her horrid (uninvited) son. In A Quiche Before Dying, Jane and her visit mother (and Shelley as well) take a writing class that ends in murder by poisoned quiche (more common than you might think!). Lilah loves these books, too, incidentally, because they all have kitty cats on the covers. She'll carry one around, happily saying "Kitty cat, kitty cat, meow." So cute. She will also climb into her chair and "read" them.

Anyway, these were (I believe) some of the earliest cozy mysteries, first published in 1991 (I think--Lilah wandered off with the book and I'm not sure where she put it). Jane and Shelley are entertaining, and the housekeeping/childrearing content isn't the least bit boring (at least to me, since it's stuff I do, too). Jane's budding relationship with Mel VanDyne is handled well, I think, and her kids are great. The mysteries get less tight and the editing a little less stringent as this series goes on. I'm not sure I've found a series where this isn't true, though, and favorite series for me are often as much about visiting old "friends" as they are about reading a great mystery novel. Even less stellar entries in the series (I think she's on #16 or so, so it's a while before they lose a little something) are fun for me.

I'm now reading Death at Daisy's Folly by Robin Paige, the third Victorian Mystery. I love it. It takes place at a house party, which is so Gosford Park (one of my favorite films ever). Expect a review soon!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I'm Back!!

Boy, Howdy! It's only been at least a year since I've posted anything but guess I'm back in the mood. It isn't that I haven't read anything because that will never happen. Being very uncomputer savvy certainly has a lot to do w/it.

I just finished Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Read it in one day! It's a beautifully written, captivating story about a group of wealthy, mostly business people who attend a dinner party and are all kidnapped by a bunch of "socially responsible" terrorists. One of the dinner guests is an opera diva who pretty much rules the kidnapped roost. There's romance and intrigue in big doses w/an ending twist I never saw coming. If anyone else has read Bel Canto, I'd love to know what you thought of the ending. Ann Patchett has a new book out called Run which I'm eager to read. The only reason I read Bel Canto was because it was mentioned in the review for Run. If Run is as good, it'll be a real winner.

I also recently finished 6 Sacred Stones by Matthew Reilly. This is a sequel to his swashbuckling adventure 7 Deadly Wonders. Both books are david vs goliath stories where the underdogs perform death defying feats and manage to succeed. Well, mostly. The Deadly Wonders had one huge suspense filled adventure after another much like the Sinbad the Sailor movies I saw each Saturday afternoon when I was a child. 6 Sacred Stones picks up where 7 ended but the ending most definitely leaves you clamoring for more.

I read two of Carol's recommended Susan Kandel books featuring the LA ditzy biographer cum detective. Unlike Carol, I thought her clothes the best part of the books; they books really weren't my cup of tea but they passed a couple wintry afternoons.

Three Shirt Deal by Stephen Cannell, yes, of TV series scriptwriter fame, was a quick entertaining LA cop murder mystery. For a while, it was hard to tell the good guys from the bad but Shane Scully, the main cop character, sorts it all out even while dangling from a roller coaster by his belt!

One last comment for Allison. I LOVE any and all Carl Hiaasen books and look forward to reading both Hoot and Flush. Thanks for reminding me Hiaasen had written these young adult books.