Thursday, December 30, 2010

Play Their Hearts Out - George Dohrmann

I love most everything about basketball. I love playing; I love watching; I just love the game. But what this book made me realize is that what I really love are the memories I have of amazingly supportive coaches, fabulous teammates, and everything I learned about being a team player, working hard, and who I wanted to be as a person. Dohrmann's book focuses on the grassroot AAU leagues that feature the allegedly most talented young players in the country. In particular, Dohrmann follows one coach (and opportunist), Joe Keller, as he scouts out talented 10 and 11 years old before focusing on one boy to coach onto greatness. But, instead of truly looking out for the boy's well-being and coaching him to became a better player and teammate, Keller seems to know absolutely nothing about basketball strategy or kids. Instead, he's all about marketing hype, getting Nike and Adidas sponsorships, and using young boys to pay his mortgage. What this book also demonstrates is that raw talent will only take a player so far - without discipline, hard-work, and dedication to the game, even the fastest strongest players will flame out in the face of true competition and adversity. The saddest part of this book was seeing how Keller could lure so many kids (mostly from poor backgrounds) to his team, and how quickly he could destroy their self-confidence and their potential. Dohrmann's book highlights the disservice so many coaches are doing to these children that they view solely as their own mealtickets. It's not a symbiotic relationship in which a coach provides potential NBA exposure to a player in exchange for some financial rewards. Instead, it's the financial rewards in exchange for false praise and ultimately no growth in skills. I liked Dohrmann's in-depth analysis (he's not a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist for nothing) and his focus on the various kids in the story. It reminded me a lot of Warren St. John's Outcasts United in this respect. But ultimately, it was disappointing to think that an experience that should be filled with so many positives - particularly for these ultra-talented kids - could result in so much corruption and betrayal. An amazing book for opening your eyes to the shady underworld of AAU basketball, but not one filled with much hope or inspiration.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Lust To Go - Nancy Pearl

Nancy Pearl, a librarian in Seattle, has two prior books in this "series" - Book Lust and More Book Lust. All three are filled with her recommendations of books to read in various categories. Book Lust To Go focuses on travel - with Pearl breaking up the book into sections based on countries, cities, or type of travel (long train rides, for example). Pearl acknowledges in her introduction that she is not much of an actual traveler, but that she enjoys seeing new places through the pages of books in the comfort of her own home. And so she put togehter these lists filled with non-fiction, travel narratives, and fiction - all of which give the reader a real sense of the flavor of a given destination. Given that I predict limited ability to travel in the upcoming year - I was thinking of doing some armchair traveling of my own in 2011 - picking a country or region a month and focusing my reading on that area. Pearl has provided a lot of inspiration and suggestion for this project of mine. My only hesitation is that I want to be sure I'm reading books that are really true to a given place, and by Pearl's own admission, she hasn't herself been to many of these place. Though, it does sound like she sought out recommendations from people who had been...so I take some of her suggestions with a grain of salt. But, as with her prior two books, her lists have given me a wonderful jumping off point, and I look forward to traveling around the world with her help for the next 12 months!

Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer - John Grisham

When I was about 8 years old, one of my favorite characters was Encyclopedia Brown. He was a kid detective who charged a nominal fee to help out those in his neighborhood with various conundrums - small and large. Theodore Boone is a bit more sophisticated, but reminded me of a modern day version of Encyclopedia. Theodore is the 13-year old son of a family law attorney and a real estate attorney. He is a legal junkie, fascinated by the courtroom, and forever dispensing advice to his peers. While I fear he will shortly be prosecuted for practicing law without a license, I found his enthusiasm for the law and his interest in justice both absurd and endearing. I anticipate that Grisham will turn this into a series for young readers - which I think will be great. This one focused on the murder trial of a man accused of killing his own wife. Due to the skillful lawyering of the town's aggressive defense attorney, the defendant appears to be looking at an acquittal. Theodore then discovers a secret witness who could call into question everything the defense has put forward. Theodore has to deal with the ethical dilemma of revealing the confidential source of his information or potentially allowing a guilty man to walk free. Throughout the book, I thought Grisham did a great job of explaning the legal system in a way that would make sense and appeal to young readers - many of whom might be unfamiliar with many of the concepts. In addition to the murder trial, he threw in smaller cases - such as Theo's appearance in animal court to rescue the impounded dog of a girl he has a crush on at school and he difficulties endured by a close friend who had to testify at her own custody proceedings. In one short book, Grisham managed to showcase a wide array of legal issues and scenarios. I wasn't always on board with the direction the story took (I prefer presumed guilty man found to be actually innocent), but for my tastes, Theodore Boone is a wonderful, if not sometimes pretentious, protagonist, and I look forward to his future cases and adventures.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bangkok Haunts - John Burdett (Sonchai Jipplecheep Series #3)

I downloaded this book to my kindle while I was on vacation in Bali...and read all the way up to the last chapter. Then when I returned home, I also returned to my paper books. The other day, I decided I needed to finish this up, so I could move on to Book 4 in the series...and alas, I discovered the biggest drawback for me and the kindle: I simply could not remember where I'd put the charger and the thing was out of battery life! Eventually, after tearing apart my bedroom and office, I finally remembered that I'd left it in the suitcase I'd taken with me to Asia. Happy to return to Detective Sonchai and the streets of Bangkok - and lesson learned to keep better track of my electronics. In this third installment, Sonchai finds himself even more enmeshed than usual in the superstitions of his Buddhist breatheren. A popular prostitute (and one of Sonchai's own personal obsessions) is found murdered in her apartment - and a snuff film is sent to Sonchai, making him face the fact that not only has he lost someone important to him, but the murder was somehow personal. He finds himself haunted by the spirit of the young woman, as well as haunted by his inability to find her killer. As with all the books in this series, Bangkok Haunts is filled with police corruption, sex, and humor. Sonchai is a complicated man, but despite his many vices, his pure heart always leads to a most satisfying outcome.

The Cookbook Collector - Allegra Goodman

This book has so many of the elements that I love in a good story - it's about family - in particular two very different sisters, Emily and Jess. It's set locally - in the Silicon Valley and in Berkeley. It features books prominently - Jess works in a used bookstore owned by a wealthy eccentric named George. And, it's just about their lives together and interacting with the people around them. Despite this, there were times when I felt like the book was trying to do too much. Emily works for a start-up during the dot.com to dot-bust era - and her long-distance boyfriend does the same. There are chapters devoted to the development of their technologies and the questionable sharing of proprietary information within the confines of their relationship. With a Jewish mother who passed away when the girls were quite young, Jess flirts with the idea of returning to temple and has various odds-and-ends encounters with rabbis near and far. Then there is how the girls deal with the absence of their mother, how the interact with their father and his new family, their various relationships with men, life in a post-9/11 world, etc. I often read books and love the characters so much that I wish the author could just write about their day-to-day lives. Well, in some way I got what I asked for in this book (though I can't say I loved any of these characters- though I would have liked to know more about George) - Goodman follows the day-to-day lives of these women - no matter where it takes us, even if completely random, off topic, and seemingly irrelevant. And my reaction was not positive. So, I suppose, be careful what you wish for. This is a good way to pass an afternoon or evening, but nothing I would go out of my way to recommend.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In a Strange Room - Damon Galgut

Because of the unique writing style. I think this is one of those books people will either love or hate. I definitely fall into the "hated it" category. Plot-wise, it's pretty interesting - a young man travels around Africa, Europe, and India meeting various other travelers he shares experiences with in varying types of relationships. The book is divided into three parts - the first two with the narrator switching from first-person to third-person and written in a disjointed hodge-podge of thoughts and ideas. This is definitely one of those books that I wanted to read slowly - to appreciate the writing, but found myself skimming through because I just wanted it to be over or to get to something good. The third section is a bit more concrete, and involves the narrator's trip through India with the suicidal girlfriend of his best friend. While tragic, it was a bit easier to follow and for me to care about. I keep coming back to these Man Booker winners and finalists because I know the writing will always be different and inspiring, but for those of us who generally like good stories that are easy to follow, they don't always make for the easiest reading experience (and once in awhile, that's probably a good thing).

Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne

I admit I am kind of annoyed when a given individual has more than one talent. I don't really have any, so it just seems incredibly unfair. Nevermind that maybe they've worked hard to cultivate their talent or particular interest...so, I don't usually like to read books by people who are already famous musicians or artists, yet have something even more interesting that they want to write about. But, I couldn't resist David Byrne's book about life on his bike in various cities around the world. While the underlying premise of the book is Byrne's bike - this isn't really a book about biking. Byrne simply uses his bike to get around - from his art showings to his interesting friends to his inspiration for architectual designs. In other words - as a vehicle for exploration of his millions of talents. For someone who is an avid biker and wants to read a book about biking, this might not quite be the right one. But, for anyone who likes a good travel narrative, Byrne definitely has a unique perspective on life - and lots of crazy and wonderful ideas and stories to share.

Farm City - Novella Carpenter

Over the past couple years, there has been an obsession in the Bay Area (and perhaps all over the country) with locally grown food, farmer's market, and eating responsbily. Michael Pollen and Barbara Kingsolver have definitely contributed to this movement and encouraged a lot of people to think differently about where their food comes from. As part of this, I feel like not only do I know a lot of people who only buy organic and local, but I also know more people who have taken to growing and raising their own produce and poultry. I attribute some of this also to people wanting to feel more connected to work - and feeling like what they do has tangible consequences - something that doesn't exist for many people these days (as opposed to in the days of farmers). Farm City is the non-fiction account of a woman in Oakland who has taken to heart the desire to be closer to her food - not only does she start her own vegetable garden in the heart of Oakland's toughest neighborhood, but she raises turkeys for Thanksgiving, and a pig that brings her into contact with one of Oakland's most famous chefs - and her future teacher of how to make her own salumi. Carpenter's experimenting is interesting to me - mostly because I live in Oakland, and cannot imagine attempting to create such a rural environment in such an urban setting. She didn't make me want to go out and buy my own chicks to raise, or to commit to growing my dinner - mostly because everything she did seemed so hard! But, she did engender an appreciation in me for the work that farmers and ranchers are engaged in - and it's always good to remember to be a bit more mindful of what we put in our bodies, and what we often sacrifice in the name of convenience.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Dead Hand - Paul Theroux

I enjoy Paul Theroux's non-fiction travel books, and I have a tendency to like everything about India for reasons I cannot explain. Recently, I've been on a mystery kick. So, when I saw this book - a fictional murder mystery set in Calcutta by Theroux, I had to check it out. This is a strange little story about a writer, suffering from writer's block (a dead hand), who receives a letter from a philanthropist asking for his help solving a possible crime. Unable to resist, the writer follows up and finds himself obsessed with the woman who sent him the note - a pretentious and bossy woman, who runs a foundation in Calcutta and is a master in all things tantric. Eager to please her, the writer begins to investigate the strange crime, but can make little headway and finds himself more deeply confused and disoriented the harder he tries. Theroux himself makes an appearance in the book, and a witty yet seemingly irrelevant dialogue between the two writers takes place. Ultimately, there isn't much mystery here in terms of a typical murder detective story - and that's kind of what I was looking for. But, the writing is good - and given the India setting, Theroux was able to show off his travel writing expertise.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Methland - Nick Reding

Given the time of year, I feel like I should be reading books that will get me into the holiday spirit. This is not that book. Methland is a non-fiction account of the growing epidemic of methamphetamine use in the United States, in particular in small town America. Reding focuses primarily on the town of Oelwein, Iowa, population 6,000. Over roughly four years, Reding gets to know several residents of the town, including drug traffickers and addicts, local law enforcement, and politicians. Through these various individuals, Reding tells the story of a destitute town caught up in the horrors of meth, and what their residents have done and continue to fight to do to clean up their community. Reding is a great story-teller and his accounts of the various lives of every day people were particularly compelling - but he is also a journalist, and backed up his anecdotes with statistics and facts that paint a stark picture of reality, and our nation's losing battle - often because of ignorance or simple ignoring of the issues - with this incredible drug.

A Body in the Library - Agatha Christie

I enjoy finding an author I like who has written a ton of books. This way whenever I'm in the mood for something familiar, there will always be a new book to turn to. Agatha Christie has written over 30 novels featuring her beloved sleuth Hercule Poirot - and these are the ones I first started reading. This time, however, I turned to Miss Marple - featured in 12 of Christie's novels and a few short story collections. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster with no apparent criminal or detective background. Yet, using logic and a folksy reading of people's behavior, she is able to outsmart the local police to solve local homicides. Very reminiscient of Angela Landsbury's character in "Murder, She Wrote." In this one - Christie's second novel featuring Marple, a young woman is found strangled in the home of an elderly sophisticated couple. Suspicion immediately turns to the man of the house, suggesting that she is one of his mistresses. Miss Marple is called in by the distraught wife, and along with the police and a young boy connected to a family of potential suspects, the investigation proceeds to a nearby dance club, and a wealthy invalid who had taken the murdered girl under is wing. Though the book is short (less than 200 pages), there are more twists and turns than a Law & Order episode - some of them predictable, and others coming out of left field. A suspenseful mystery, best enjoyed on a rainy night by the fire with a hot cup of tea.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Digging to America - Anne Tyler

I often think of Anne Tyler as mindless entertainment - she's an author I turn to when I want a good story, but don't necessarily want to think too hard when I'm reading it. To some extent, Digging to America fit the bill. This is the story of two families- The Dickinson-Donaldsons who are white American through and through, and the Yazdans, Iranian-Americans who while fairly assimilated still hang on to traditions from their old country. The families find themselves intertwined when their adopted daughters from Korea arrive in the United States on the same day. Initially, this is a story about how different families create homes for their new children. But, it is also the story of Maryam, the Iranian born grandmother of one of the girls, and Dave, the grandfather of the other. It is about how they find their places in their grandchildrens' lives, how they navigate getting older, and how they find ways to fit in while still retaining their individuality. In this way, I felt that Digging to America had so much more going on than just a "good story." Part-way through the book, Tyler's shifted from a focus on the little girls to the grandparents - and I wished there was a way to follow both stories throughout. She also changes the first-person narrative, and has a chapter or two from the perspective of one of the girls. At times it felt like she was trying to do too much - in others, I wish she had written an extra 200 pages so she could have accomplished it all in a more thorough fashion. But, as is, this book is a great entertaining story, as well as one that, I believe, would start a rich discussion in book clubs across the country.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Inside Out - Barry Eisler (Ben Treven Series #2)

I didn't think Barry Eisler could top John Rain as the leading former-CIA special ops turned private assassin. But, Ben Treven might just be moving into my top spot. Eisler first introduced Treven in Fault Line, a thriller set in the Silicon Valley. This time around, Treven finds himself in a Manila prison, sprung by his former commander on the condition that he hunt down a rogue operator who has stolen over 90 torture tapes from the CIA and is threatening to release them all unless his outrageous conditions are met. Treven unwillingly teams up with an FBI agent to track down Daniel Larison, a man who faked his own death and may be one of the most lethal men on the planet (next to Rain and Dox, of course!!). There's lots of travel and backstabbing and political intrigue and blood and guts and death in this one. I loved it. And it looks like Eisler may have future plans to unite Rain and Treven in one book (just as exciting as Michael Connelly finally bringing Harry Bosch and Micky Haller together!!) I simply cannot wait.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Supreme Courtship - Christopher Buckley

In life in general, I'm not a huge fan of politics or politicians, so I always think that I won't like Buckley's novels which focus so heavily on those subjects. But, each time I've picked one up, I've found myself chuckling quietly to myself and eager to read more. And of course this makes sense. Buckley's stories poke fun at all the things I find so irritating about the democratic process. In Supreme Courtship, a President with a plummeting approval rating finds himself in the position of appointing a new Supreme Court justice. After his first two overly qualified nominations are jettisoned by his opponents in the Republican party for trivial reasons, he decides to nominate the publicly-popular television judge, Pepper Cartwright.
The novel follows Cartwright's confirmation hearings and her eventual elevation to the highest Court in the land. Bordering on the ridiculous at times, I just found this book incredibly fun and entertaining. I'll be adding more of Buckley's novels to my library queue shortly.

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

This book was chosen as one of Oprah's Book Club picks. I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be funny - since Franzen created all that controversy when she picked his first novel The Corrections so many years ago. But, while I hated The Corrections and found the characters' self-obsessionn and clueless suburban angst quite trying, I decided to give Franzen's new one a shot because I have recently thoroughly enjoyed his fiction. Other than the fact that Freedom is about 200 pages too long, it definitely had its moments. It's difficult to describe exactly what this book is about - though there is definitely a lot more suburban angst going on. The book basically centers around a middle-aged couple in Minnesota named Patty and Walter Berglund. Patty, a former college basketball star turned stay-at-home mom, is an annoyingly smug know-it-all. Her husband, who seems to genuinely love her for reasons I can't quite discern, is consumed with his college best friend/famous musician. Later in the book Walter also becomes obsessed with preventing overpopulation and his young Southeast Asian assistant. Amidst all this chaos, the Berglunds kids also have problems of their own. There are times when I read books with characters I love so much that I wish the author would just delve into their every day mundane lives and I could just follow them for pages - as if they were in their own television series for year after year. Franzen has kind of done this with his characters - just given us their lives, reaching back to their experiences growing so the reader can better understand their motivations and actions, and then presenting their present day story. Yet, none of his character evoked any sympathy in me and I just found them all to be hopelessly flawed bad people. Certainly, they had their moments - and reasons for their negative actions, but mostly I just hoped they'd all get their just deserts in the end. All that being said about the characters themselves, this is a really well written book and given the length, Franzen does manage to make it all basically relevant and necesary to the overall message and purpose of the book (or what I took away as the overall message!)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Red Queen - Philippa Gregory (Cousins' War #2)

I've been trying to read Gregory's historical novels in chronological order (not necessarily publication order), but when I saw her latest on the new release shelf at the library, I couldn't help myself. The Red Queen is the story of Margaret Beaufort, a descendant of Edward III, and in line for the throne. She is born in the 1400s, in the midst of the War of the Roses, which pit the Lancasters against the Yorks. Since she was a young child, Margaret considered herself extremely devout, and idolized Joan of Arc. She longs to be a nun, but is instead married off to better the family. From her first vows, she focuses her energy on proving her superiority to others, and ensuring that she has a son and protects him until he becomes the King of England. Like many of Gregory's novels, this one is filled with treasonous plots, and calculating strategy to figure out who will win which battles and which side to align with to avoid the Tower and eventual execution. Margaret's character is absolutely infuriating. She is incredibly self-absorbed and selfish and sees things in black-and-white, with no understanding of politics - except those that seem to benefit her. I felt this novel was more simply written than some of the others I've read by Gregory - as if she's sucuumbed to her popularity and is now just pumping out books as quickly as possible without as much attention to their literary quality.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Confession - John Grisham

I reaped the ultimate benefit of the kindle when I was able to download the latest Grisham novel the day it came out - from my lounge chair beside a pool in Bali. Fans of Grisham know that he is no supporter of capital punishment. In 2006, he published his first non-fiction book, The Innocent Man, the story of two men wrongly convicted of murder. They both sat on Oklahoma's death row for 11 years before they were exonerated by DNA evidence and released in 1999. The Confession is fiction, but deals with many of the same issues. Donte Drumm, a local black high school football celebrity, is tried for raping and murdering a white cheerleader. He is convicted and sent to Texas's death row, despite the fact that no body was ever found. Days before his scheduled execution, Travis Boyette confesses to the crime. Drumm's lawyers race to the courthouse, to the governor, and to the media, with last minute pleas for Drumm's life. Throughout the story, Grisham explores the various ways in which an innocent man could possibly be convicted of such a heinous crime. There is an eyewitness who seeks to recant his testimony, there is racial tension, there is prosecutorial misconduct in the form of a relationship with the trial judge, and of course, there is a coerced confession. As Grisham lays out the erroneous evidence piece by piece, his explanations almost seem as if he is writing a treatise against the death penalty. There were more than a few occasions where I felt like he had used this fictionalized account as a platform for lambasting the entire capital system - and he did so with a lot of telling, and not always a lot of showing. That being said, Grisham's portrayal of the deterioration, mentally and physically, of Drumm is chilling in its realism, and the reaction of the public and the courts to the 11th hour appeals is all too real. There were times when Grisham's anger with the process hit a little too close to home and I found it difficult to continue reading. The fear, of course, is that people unfamiliar with the system will read this novel and assume that Grisham has exaggerated and created a lovely story that is divorced from reality. But, to the extent people actually realize that these improprieties are occuring, not just once in awhile, but on a regular basis in police interrogation rooms and courtrooms across the nation, I applaud Grisham for his courage in sounding the alarm.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jewel - Bret Lott

When you pick up a typical Oprah Book Club pick (and by "typical" I mean not when she's trying to get people to buy the classics), you know you're in for an emotionally heart-wrenching ride. You also know that just when you think things can't get any worse for the downtrodden main character, it definitely will. While Jewel is not filled with the physical and sexual abuse common in many of Oprah's picks, it is the story of an abandoned and unloved woman trying to find meaning in her life. Jewel, already a mother of five, finds herself pregnant again in her late 30s. Thrilled at the prospect of yet another baby, she finds that this time around, she will be challenged more than at any other time in her life. Her new baby requires all her time and attention - and she does everything she can for the child - to the detriment, it seems, of her marriage and her other children. Throughout the book, she expects everyone else to put their lives on hold for her daughter, and becomes resentful when this doesn't happen. I wasn't exactly sure what message the author was trying to send, as Jewel never seems to come to any realization as to what she has lost in her blind sacrifice for her youngest child. While I didn't expect much more from this book than a good, easy to read story (which I basically got), I did find myself consistently annoyed by Jewel's selfishness in her selflessness. I expected more from the ending, and felt unfulfilled when I finally got there. Good for a rainy afternoon by the fire, but not much more.

The Geographer's Library - Jon Fasman

There are still seven good reading weeks left before the end of the year, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say this is my favorite read of 2010. This book has been sitting on my shelf since my brother bought it for me for Christmas at least two years ago - and it just kills me that such a gem could be waiting around right in front of my face and I had no idea. But, I am so happy to have found it. This is a strange mystery about a collection of objects all pertaining to alchemy, and collected hundreds of years ago, only to be stolen, sold-off, or otherwise lost to history. Fasman gives some historical background of the objects and then intersperses tales throughout the book of each individual piece, it's use, value, and known whereabouts. The rest of the book takes place in present day where a reclusive college professor has just died, seemingly under mysterious circumstances. Paul Tomm, a young cub reporter for a small Connecticut newspaper is assigned to write an obituary. But, instead of the usual straightforward story, he finds himself on a wild goose-chase to figure out who this professor really was and why anyone would want him dead. Given the alchemy angle, there's definitely a little mumbo-jumbo thrown into the mix, but mostly it was just good old-fashioned suspense. Paul does find himself in a little romance that is incredibly suspicious, and he behaves a bit too naively at times. But, all in all, I thought this was an incredibly well-written and fun mystery. One of those books that got me excited about reading all over again.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The World According to Bertie - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street #4)

This is my favorite Alexander McCall Smith's series. As I've mentioned before, my favorite character from 44 Scotland Street is 6-year old Bertie who just wants to be a normal little boy, while his mother Irene is convinced that he must be cultivated through classes in music, yoga, and Italian. As Smith explains in his preface, I am apparently not the only one enamored with Bertie, and this installment focuses even more on him. He also points out that while the other characters grow and move from relationship to relationship, visit foreign countries, have babies (in the case of Bertie's mother), and generally grow old, Bertie has stayed the same age. It is, after all, the biggest part of his charm. In addition to Bertie, this book focuses on Matthew's never-ending quest for love in his strawberry crushed denim, and Angus Lordie's attempt to vindicate Cyril who has been taken away by the authorities after being accused of biting someone. As usual, light and entertaining, and leaving me excited for the next one.

The Passage - Justin Cronin

This is one of those books that seems to be published to a bunch of advanced hype - the library queue must have been up to 150 people before the library even had one copy of it on the shelves. Even after reading the description of the book, I had no idea what it was about. But while on vacation, I was despite to download more books to my kindle, and my friend Courtney - an avid reader - suggested it. So, I took a leap. A couple chapters in, all I could think was, "What the heck is this book about?" There was a story about a 6-year old girl abandoned at a convent by her prostitute mother. Another story about an explorer or researcher of some sort who lost his team to an unknown disease in some faraway jungle. And then there is definitely some kind of unauthorized military experiment being done on death row inmates. What follows is some sort of crazy cross between Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and a zombie-vampire thriller. But, despite my inability to explain what it's all about, the story holds together failry well and includes some very likeable characters, including Amy, a strange little girl with inexplicable powers (some of which I don't think were ever fully explained). It's an end-of-days horror story with personality. Definitely worthy of the hype.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games Series #3)

Collins's first two books in this series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, are two of my all-time favorite childrens' literature books. So, needless to say, I was eagerly anticipating this one. Katniss Everdeen had just been rescued from the Quarter Quell games and whisked away to District 13 where a rebellion against the Capitol is underway and Katniss is slated to lead it. Gale is back fighting by her side, while Peeta remains under the influence of Snow and all things evil. Many character favorites have fallen in the fighting, though a few of the Hunger Games champions remain, such as (my favorite) Haymitch and Finnick. Katniss remained throughout the novel, an unwilling heroine - quick to complain about her lot in the situation and to lament her losses, while refusing to focus on what everyone else around her was also giving up. She seemed continually saved by those around her, despite her ungrateful attitude. Though she knows that others view her as selfish and opportunistic, I felt she did little to dispel these assumptions about her character. Overall, I was incredibly disappointed in how Collins chose to portray her in this important final installment. While there is, as one would anticipate, a final battle for control of the Capitol, this book lacked the suspense I felt in the previous two. I didn't care about the characters as much - and while there is the never-ending Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle to wonder about, I almost hoped both boys would escape her clutches and neither would "win" out. Plot-wise, I suppose I'm happy to know how this one panned out, but sadly my high hopes have been dashed.

The Partner - John Grisham

When traveling, John Grisham never fails me. Sure, his books are formulaic and even when you haven't read one before, while you're reading it, it still makes you feel like maybe you have read it before...nonetheless, I always find his books suspenseful and entertaining. In The Partner, Patrick Lanigan is living life on the run in Brazil after faking his own death and embezzling $90 million from his former law firm. With so many people looking for him, it's not long before he's captured and returned to his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi to face the music. Charged with capital murder, he has also left behind a not-so-grieving widow and a 6-year old daughter. But, Patrick has numerous tricks up his sleeve and he sets out methodically to settle and debunk all the claims against him. As usual, Grisham attempts to portray his theiving protagonist as an unlikely hero - the client and former law partners he stole the $90 million from are no doubtedly crooks themselves. His wife is a wholly unlikeable philanderer, and there will most certainly be an explanation to soften the blow of the child he abandoned. For the most part, I think, Grisham suceeds. I did want Patrick to untangle himself from all his problems, but the way he went about it was so self-righteous - as if he was unwilling to take any responsibility for the crimes he committed. In the end, I was waiting for Patrick to his just desserts...but along the way, it was most certainly an entertaining ride.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Faithful Place - Tana French

This is French's third novel in her trilogy about detectives from the Dublin undercover squad. While my memory is not always the best, it seems to me that each of the novels in the series (which also includes In the Woods and The Likeness) stands alone, and this third one doesn't even seem to have any of the same characters as the first two. What it does have is some pretty good twists and turns. Frank Mackey is dealing with an ex-wife he's still in love with, and a daughter coming into her own, when he discovers that the first love he thought abandoned him at age 19 was actually murdered. The murder forces Frank to return to his estranged family and deal with his abusive alcoholic father, and his simply horrible mother. As Frank works behind the scenes to find out the truth, he learns that his family is inextricably linked to his former lover's fate. The plot is a bit overly dramatic at times, but I liked the portrayal of Frank's big Irish family and the complicated relationships among siblings and family. I will note, once again, that I was highly irritated with the portrayal of the young girl in the book - the way her dialogue was written reminded me of Meg from A Wrinkle in Time. I mean, really, are 8-12 year old girls really that whiny and obnoxious? Maybe I don't want to know.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle

I figure the only way I'm going to hit my goal of 150 books this year is to start reading a ton of children's literature! So, while perusing my mom's shelves this past weekend, I decided I'd go back and reread this classic from my childhood. The last time I read this book, I was about nine years old. I don't remember a single thing about it, except that I really enjoyed it. This is actually the first in a series of four books about the Murray family (she then went on to do write another series about the second-generation O'Keefes). Meg Murray, the primary protagonist of the story, is a high-school teenager who doesn't quite in with her peers, and is seen as a troublemaker by her teachers. Her parents are both physicists, and her father mysteriously disappeared years earlier while experimenting with time travel. With the help of some strange little women, Meg, her younger brother Charles Wallace, and their neighborhood friend Calvin travel throughout the universe on a quest to rescue Meg's father. While I appreciate any book that features a young female character, I found Meg incredibly whiny. I don't recall having a negative reaction to her as a kid reading this book though, so perhaps L'Engle actually portrays her in quite a realistic light from the perspecive of a child reader (I was reminded of watching "Star Wars" years after it came out and being surprised to find that I could not stand Luke Skywalker's whining). I did, however, love five-year old Charles Wallace - seen as slow by folks who don't understand, but possessing a unique intelligence and ability to empathize and understand others. While this book is filled with strange planets and seemingly tricky physics concepts, the plot itself is actually quite simple - and predictable. I was a little taken aback at the overt Biblical references and quotations throughout the novel - and read up to find out that this is one of the most frequently challenged books by conservative Christians because of its apparent "liberal" Christian viewpoint, and its inclusion of characters resembling witches and the use of a crystal ball. I think I was surprised that a book with any type of religious theme would be so common place in public schools. Given the popularity of the series, however, and the fond (if not specific) memories I have of it as a child, I plan to read all the books in the series - but as an adult, I'm not quite sure I understand what the hype is all about.

Incarceron - Catherine Fisher

I found this book listed on a top books for kids list - another science-fiction book to fill the void left by Harry Potter. Incarceron is a futuristic prison filled with violence and confusion. The people locked up inside don't ever remember a world outside - and some of them (for reasons I could never quite figure out) were actually created inside the prison. One young prisoner, Finn, is haunted by epilleptic fits - seen as visions by some, and evidence by him that he used to be on the outside. While he attempts to escape in order to find out where he came from, the Warden's own daughter, Claudia, is trying her best to get inside. Betrothed to a man she cannot stand, Claudia is certain that a boy she loved as a child, and who met an untimely end, is not actually dead, but locked inside the prison. Finn and Claudia stumble upon a key that allows them to talk to each other, and they hatch a plan to help Finn escape. There was a lot going on in this book. I particularly liked the relationship that was set up between Claudia and her tutor. And, I liked the idea of a prison that no one on the outside really knows about - and people trying to escape - and of course children as main characters. But, all in all, I just couldn't get too excited about this one.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Afterbirth - Dani Klein Modisett

This is a collection of mostly humorous, but sometimes painfully heartbreaking, essays by Hollywood writer and actor types, about the joys of parenting. With that loose theme to bring all the stories together, the essays themselves actually cover an incredibly wide array of subjects - from infertility to adoption to accidental pregnancies to parenting like our parents to parenting nothing like our parents to huge mistakes to regrets to unimaginable happiness. This book will make you never want children while simultaneously making you smile at the wonder that children bring into this world and all our lives - even if they aren't our own children. I particularly enjoyed one essay about a woman who adopted a one-year old daughter from China - and the difficulties she encountered with attachments disorder. There were also a couple essays that dealt with the conflict between Ferberizing (allowing your baby to "cry it out") vs. sleeping indefinitely in an enormous family bed. In this day and age where there is a book about everything, and people are so quick to hand out definitive and judgmental advice about child-rearing and who should and shouldn't be having babies, this was a refreshing collection of evidence that there is no one way to do it right - and while there are many ways that seem wrong - in the end, we're all just experimenting and hoping to do our best.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer.

I absolutely hated Foer's novel Everything is Illuminated - I found the writing style so obnoxious, I don't even think I finished the book. But, then I picked up his non-fiction book Eating Animals and was very impressed by his ideas. So, after much prompting by other reader friends who just love this man, I decided to pick this one up. And, I'm glad that I did. EL&IC is "simply delightful" - to use a phrase that I normally hate. Part of my affinity for this novel certainly stems from the fact that it utlizes a child narrator - when done correctly, one of my favorite ways for telling a story. Nine-year-old Oskar has recently lost his father in the World Trade Center 9/11 attack. After finding a hidden key in his father's closet, he is determined to follow the clues he is certain were left by his departer dad to discover the lock into which the key fits. Oskar's journey takes him all over the five burroughs of New York, introducing him to interesting people along the way. Interspersed with Oskar's story, is the story of his grandparents, and how they met and fell in love. While interesting, I didn't appreciate this part of the book as much I did the parts where Oskar took over and shared his precocious yet still childlike observations about relationships and parenting and the strange and ever-changing world around us.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Personal Injuries - Scott Turow

After enjoying Presumed Innocent and Innocent, I thought I'd go back and read some of Turow's earlier works. Personal Injuries starts with a lawyer caught in the midst of a judicial bribery scheme. Caught in the cross-hairs of the justice department, Robbie Feaver, agrees to wear a wire and participate in an undercover scheme to bring down the corrupt judges. While I don't like these lawyer mysteries that take place entirely in the courtroom - I do like a little legal drama - which this book did not have at all. I found the entire covert operation a bit repetitive at times - and the main character was supposed to be some sort of ladies man, but came across on the paper as kind of a pathetic loser. Several of the other characters were also one dimensional, despite Turow's blantant attempts to make them different or interesting. I'm glad this wasn't my first experience with Turow, or I'd probably stop reading him, but given that I know I've enjoyed a couple of his other novels, as well as his non-fiction, I am going to chalk this one up as a bad apple, and keep plowing through the rest.

From Dead to Worse - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse Series #8)

Not much to add here from my review of the first seven in this series, but I do continue to enjoy it. In this installment, Sookie meets her great-grandfather and finds herself in the middle of waring packs of werewolves. At the same time, not to be outdone, the vampires themselves are in a bit of a predicament with the King of Nevada attempting to wrestle control of Arkansas and Louisiana from Sophie-Anne. Typical supernatural craziness.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

American Rust - Phillipp Meyer

Recommended by my friend Rob, American Rust is one of the better books I've read this year, and one I probably never would have known about but for Rob pointing me in the right direction. Likened to The Grapes of Wrath because it deals with restless life in small-town America, American Rust is principally the story of two friends. One, Isaac, is a rare intellect in the midst of average Joes. He has been itching to get away from his nowhere Pennsylvania town, and the ailing father he has taken care of since his mother died and his sister left to better herself at an Ivy League university. The other, Billy, a washed-up high school football player with a quick temper, is destined for a life of trailers and pick-up trucks. When Isaac's plan to escape goes horribly wrong, the two find themselves lost and alone, and struggling to make sense of the life around them. Told from the perspective of these two, along with Billy's mother and the town sheriff, I found the pace of this book and its exploration of the characters just what I needed - wonderfully written and a fulfilling interesting story. Thanks Rob!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Firegirl - Tony Abbot

This book is about seventh graders, but I would probably put the appropriate grade level for an actual reader a couple grades lower. The subject matter had the potential to be a bit more sophisticated, but the manner in which it was dealt with was pretty superficial. Firegirl takes place in a private school on the east coast, where a new student has arrived. The new student was the victim of a horrible fire, and as a result, the majority of her body (including her face) suffered third-degree burns. The student's "otherness" is immediately apparent, with the other students not wanting to hold her hand in a sharing circle, and starting vicious rumors about what "really" happened and her role in the fire itself. The main character of the book, Tom, is fascinated by her, and when a teacher asks him to bring her schoolwork over to her house one day, he has the opportunity to get to actually talk to her. At the same time, Tom is experiencing some growing pains in his relationship with his best friend, whose parents are going through a divorce, as well as developing a crush on the school's best looking and most popular girl. There's a lot going on, and the book is only 149 pages, so as you can imagine, all the themes get short shrift. The main, lesson, of course, is that one should not judge a book by its cover, that a person's appearance does not dictate their worth, and that everyone is worth getting to know. Certainly an important lesson, but I'm not sure the way in which this particular story was told worked for me. I would be interested to hear kids' opinions on this one.

The Lonely Polygamist - Brady Udall

I admit a fascination with the concept of polygamy. I don't like the obvious sexist elements, or the idea of having so many children that no one seems to be able to keep track of them all. But, I do like the idea of communal living, and support for mothers by other women (and ideally, their husband(s)). So, I have been a fan of the HBO series "Big Love," as well as David Ebershoff's novel, The 19th Wife. And, since I did enjoy Brady Udall's earlier novel, The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, I thought this one looked promising. The Lonely Polygamist is the story of Golden Richards - husband to four women and father to over 20. He is a developer, hiding the fact that his latest project consists of building a whorehouse. Given Golden's overwhelming brood and the constant pressures put on his to spend time with each of his children, as well as his wives, he finds himself without an outlet for his frustrations and loneliness. So, of course, he turns his attention to another woman - and the fantasty of running away and starting all over, just with her. And while he's off not paying attention to his family, one of his wives is becoming increasingly unhappy with her 4th wife position, another wife is experiencing extreme mental instability, and the strangest of his many weird children is having a crisis of faith, self-esteem, and overall existence. All together, it makes for interesting characters who lives you do want to know more about. But, frankly I found the actual stories told a little tedious and frustrating - perhaps a bit like Golden feels about his own life. A lot of interesting area to cover here, but unfortunately, it didn't carry through for me, and the secrets of the polygamist lifestyle remain hidden.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Little Bee - Chris Cleave

With overwhelming amounts of work lately, I have fallen grossly behind on updating the blog.
Luckily, however, I have been able to continue to read - though not at the pace I need to in order to meet my 2010 reading goal of 150 books...but I soldier on. Little Bee is one of those books I see all over the store and public transportation, so I was eager to see what the hype was all about. The book starts out in a British detention center which houses immigrants. Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria, has fled the violence of her home country, and goes in search of a couple she met on their ill-fated African beach vacation. As is probably obvious even from this brief description, this is a pretty bleak and depressing book. It deals powerfully with the idea of how we all create our own realities (or escapes from reality) when live becomes a little too horrific to handle.

Monday, September 6, 2010

So You Want to be a Wizard - Diane Duane (Young Wizard Series #1)

My brother-in-law Mark recommended this to me as good young adult science-fiction. The protagonist is 13-year old Nita, an avid reader, and somewhat of a social outcast. One day, while hiding in the library from her tormentors, she stumbles across a book entitled, So You Want to be a Wizard - a how-to manual on becoming a wizard. At first, Nita thinks it's nothing more than a joke, but of course, she takes the book home and learns it's so much more. When completing her first spell, she meets up with fellow outcast/wizard Kit, and together they set out in Manhattan to track down a lost spell book. This book has the usual good kid messages - even once you obtain the power to destroy your enemies, it's always better to exercise a little mercy. It was a little heavy on the science and detailed explanations of physics and black holes and the like - which I think a super-science-y kid would really love. I also appreciated that there was one main female character, and one main male character - someone for everyone to identify with. There are nine books in this series - enough to keep a bookworm kid busy all summer - or an adult like me who likes kids' books busy through the school year.

Innocent - Scott Turow

The long-awaited sequel to Presumed Innocent, Innocent takes place 20 years later. Rusty Sabich has since overcome the stigma of being accused of murdering his mistress, and has risen to the appellate court bench. His nemesis Tommy Molto is now the head of the DA's office, and has seemingly moved on from his failed prosecution. Sabich's son is a timid recent law school grad, madly in love with his father's former law clerk and sometimes lover. When Rusty's wife, Barbara, is found dead in bed from an apparent heart condition, it doesn't take long before the coroner alleges foul play and Rusty finds himself on the losing end of yet another murder rap. For those who have read and remember Presumed Innocent, I think it'll be difficult not to think you know who the real murderer is right away - and the fun is then trying to figure out how the murder went about commiting the crime and framing Rusty for it. There are a few twists and turns, and a little more about Rusty's personal life, with the involvement of his son in the story. I found the relationship between Rusty's former girlfriend and his son, a little too creepy/unnecessary, but it does add a layer of question about who could possibly have done it. A decent page-turner that held my attention well into the night.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Imperfect Birds - Anne Lamott

Set in Marin County, Imperfect Birds, is the story of a mother blinded to her high school honor-roll daughters spiral into drug addiction. Last year, I read the memoir Beautiful Boy, written by a father about his son's drug addicition - and his powerlessness to help. This is the female fictionalized version of that story- only, perhaps, with a little more enabling. Elizabeth is left the single mother of Rosie, after the death of her husband. She remarries, and her new husband and Rosie seem to have a somewhat amicable relationship - though throughout her troubles, he remains distant and critical of Elizabeth, often seeming to want her to choose between her daughter and her husband, rather than truly parenting in a partnership. Elizabeth, whether because of guilt, or perhaps her own relationship with her parents, seems to think it more important that her daughter like her and want to be her friend, rather than respecting her. As Rosie blantantly lies to her face about the drugs Elizabeth finds in her jean pockets, or the alcohol Elizabeth smells on her breath - the depths of denial and a parents desire to believe only the best about their child becomes increasingly difficult to read. At the same time, it is difficult to read this book and wonder what a parent really should do - and how much control one can have over a teenager, or how much "good parenting" can really prevent a kid's desire to experiment or have fun. All of this led to an incredibly frustrating and depressing read - similar to Beautiful Boy, just in the seeming helplessness of it all.

Cherry - Mary Karr

Cherry is the follow-on memoir to Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, and covers her late adolescence through early adulthood. Once again, I found myself wondering - who is this person, and why is her life so compelling that it's worth not just one memoir, but several? The answer for me is that her life isn't that compelling - or, rather, it's full of heartache and turmoil, but it's not particularly engaging. This is her sexual coming-of-age story - and there's not doubt it's a rocky one. She has a suicidal mother at home who is inacapable of providing her any guidance, and she has a naturally curious personality - which leads her into all sorts of trouble involving drugs and boys. Without the guidance she needs, so many of her experiences leave her layered in confusion upon confusion. Like The Liar's Club, Karr tells her often difficult story with honesty, and a bit of humor. But, for me, there is something dry about her writing that feels almost detached and impersonal which prevents me from really connecting - but perhaps that is the only way one can tell such a difficult story.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Bags Full - Leonie Swann

I enjoy receiving book recommendations, and often I'm so eager to get them that I forget the source. There is a guy that works at my local independent bookstore who is very eager to offer suggestions everytime I go in there. He is part of the reason I can't go in very often, and why I rarely leave there with less than five new books. But, in tine, I have come to realize that I do not share the same taste in books as this guy. He picks good writers, and good stories, but something about all the books I've read that he's recommended - they just don't keep my attention, and I find my mind wandering for pages, until I realize I have to go back and re-read everything because I have no idea what's going on. This book was no different - I should have realized it from the basic description - A murder mystery (so far so good) - about a shepherd who is killed out in his fields. He's found by his sheep - and they set out to solve the mystery. Personified animals are not really my thing to begin with, but wooly ones imitating Sherlock Holmes is even worse. Overall, I think the book is supposed to be humorous, with the sheep poking fun at the humans in their village through their unique observations. But, I think it mostly passed me by. I need to avoid the guy who recommended this one on future visits to the bookstore.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Can't Get There from Here - Todd Strasser

When it comes to books about heart-wrenching subjects such as drug abuse, poverty, homelessness, and mental illness, I'm always worry that in the quest to be shocking, that it may be too easy for readers to discount the realities presented by the stories. Strasser's Young Adult novel, Can't Get There from Here tells the story of a gang of young street kids doing what they can to survive in New York City. They each have their own story of families that couldn't take care of them, didn't want them, or otherwise mistreated them. Their home lives are so terrible, that digging through garbage cans for food and risking sexual and physical assault looking for a place to sleep, is safer than going back to their parents. This short book is filled with so much tragic sadness, it's hard to believe that there are children out there actually living these lives. And that's my only problem with this book - that when one bad thing after another happens, it becomes too easy to say, "well, it's just fiction." But, to the extent this novel opens the eyes of young adults and shows them that there are people their own age living out there on the streets, and more importantly, that there are organizations that hopefully can actually help, I think it's definitely a good thing.


All Together Dead - Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse Series #7)

Following the untimely and gruesome death of the King of Arkansas, Sookie travels to the vampire summit in Lake Michigan to protect the Queen of Louisiana against an unfair murder charge. Sookie reunites with and relishes in the company of her fellow telepath, Barry, as she divides her romantic loyalties between Quinn and Eric. With only a couple books left in the series before I actually catch up with Harris, I'm finding myself eager to read them as fast as I can, but a little sad to see it come to an end (for now, I assume she's still writing...). I know that Harris has written a couple other series, but haven't decided yet whether I was able to get past her terrible dialogue poor storytelling because she has created such wonderful characters, or because I came to know the characters first through the television show...it's probably worth checking out just to answer that question.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It - Maile Meloy

Each year, the New York Times publishes its lists of the Best Books of the Year - which always includes five fiction selections and five non-fiction selections. If I haven't already (which I usually haven't), I try to read through the fiction picks, and if the non-fiction ones are on topics I find remotely interesting, I'll read those too. This collection of short stories made the list for 2009, along with Lethem's Chronic City, Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, Walls's Half-Broke Horses, and Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women (the only selection I could not get through). I have a fascination with short stories - on the one hand, I find them frustrating because I often wish they were turned into full length novels so I could learn more about the characters, on the other hand, I find an author's ability to say so much in such a short space incredibly inspiring. Most of the time, however, given the short space, I find that authors try too hard to be shocking, or to imitate the O.Henry twist, or to do something other than simply tell me a story. Meloy has avoided all these pitfalls, and created an entire book filled with characters I wanted to know more about. I particularly enjoyed a story about a young man in Montana who develops a crush over dinner at a diner with a commuting teacher, and another involving a married man's conflict over whether to leave his wife for his children's former swim instructor. Many of the stories are about love and loss, typical themes in stories that I enjoy, but Meloy manages to create realistic dialogue, actions and reactions. Definitely a collection that kept me reading "just one more."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Horizontal Life - Chelsea Handler

I think I've now come to the end of my Chelsea Handler reading list. I think it's a function of her humor slowly growing on me, but I found this collection of vignettes from her single life the funniest one so far. Published back in 2005, Chelsea focuses her attention in this one on her one-night stands and questionable "relationships." Not one to look for anything long-term, and upfront about her shallow criteria for taking a guy home, Chelsea often comes across as a stereotypical male. I definitely appreciated this given my hatred of gender stereotypes and assumptions about what ALL women want. While many would chastise her for her seemingly loose morals, I applaud her honesty - though hope she is taking the necessary health precautions. Once again, not a warm and fuzzy memoir, but a pretty hilarious account of one woman's unapologetic quest to have fun.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake - Aimee Bender

Laura Esquivel's novel Like Water for Chocolate was my introduction to magical realism and holds an incredibly special place in my heart. The book features Tita, an amazing cook with the ability to infuse her food with emotion. So, for example, when her sister marries Tita's life-long love and Tita cooks the wedding banquet, all the guests find themselves overwhelmed with the sadness in Tita's heart. The idea of food capturing the emotions of the chef has always stayed with me, and I think of it in particular when I remember my grandmother's baking and the love I felt everytime I bit into one of her delicious desserts. And so when I started reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, all I could think was, "this is just a bad rip-off of Like Water for Chocolate." But in reverse. Sort-of. In this book, nine-year old Rose discovers that when she eats, she can discern the emotions of the person who prepared her food. And so when eating her birthday cake, she is overwhelmed by the sadness her mother carries around, despite all appearances to the contrary. She can taste a local cook's anger, or another one's anxiety. The emotions become so distracting, and almost sickening, that Rose finds she can only take comfort in overly processed vending machine food that isn't put together by actual humans. While maneuvering her way around her strange eating discovery, she is also trying to figure out her brother who disappears at every turn (the mystery of which I just couldn't wrap my head around), a father who doesn't do much communicating, and a mother who eventually has to find her happiness outside her own family. In some ways, this was an interesting twist on the usual coming of age story. But, for the most part, I felt that Rose's "super power" was irrelevant to the rest of the story being told, and simply a gimmicky way to pull the readers in. But, lately, I've been feeling that way about a lot of books - that the little thing that makes the story semi-original doesn't really do much for the story overall. And because this little gimmick was just a Like Water for Chocolate rip-off, I think I was mostly disappointed.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress - Rhoda Janzen

Two of my good friends with wonderful senses of humor were reading this book at the same time- and both thought it was hilarious. So, I figured it was worth a shot. Unfortunately, I always have trouble reading anything that comes with such high expectations. A memoir, Rhoda Janzen returns to her Mennonite family after her bi-polar husband leaves her for his gay lover and she suffers a debilitating car accident. I thought the premise left a lot of room for exploration - Janzen's Mennonite values and background clearly shaped so much of who she is, yet she left her faith and puruse higher education. Janzen comments frequently throughout the book about the "strangeness" of Mennonite culture, but doesn't fully explore why she ended up so different from her siblings. She also delves into the painful truth of her marriage to an abusive mentally ill man - and acknowledges that love blinded her to his treatment - but she doesn't fully seem to have learned any lessons from the relationship that would help her in the future. Despite my belief that this book could have served a much greater purpose given Janzen's tremendous experiences, it seems the book she wanted to write was one that poked fun at her tragic life. I did really enjoy her exchanges with her mother - a woman who seems to accept everyone for who they are without judgment, and has a great sense of humor herself, even when it seems to be at her own expense. I loved Janzen's interactions with her, and the model of patience and unconditional love she provided. Janzen is definitely funny, but like Augusten Burroughs I think there is so much sadness in the life she mocks that I often had a hard time finding the humor.

Imperial Bedrooms - Brett Easton Ellis

Twenty-five years ago, Ellis published his debut novel, Less Than Zero, featuring a cast of young beautiful former prep school kids in Los Angeles who seemed to do nothing but go to parties, get high, and have sex. Of course, there was more going on in terms of their relationships, which seem to be a portrayal of the depths of narcissism and nihilism, but with all Ellis's novels, I mostly finish reading them thinking, "this guy is messed up. I'm scared to know how he comes up with this stuff." And yet, I keep reading, because to me Ellis is one of the most innovative, creative, and talented writers of our time - even if subject matter-wise, he is often difficult to stomach. Imperial Bedrooms is the sequel to Less Than Zero, and shows us the characters of the first novel 25 years later, and not that much more grown up. Clay, the main character, is back in LA after a stint in NYC, trying to cast his latest film. In the midst of doing so, he meets and becomes obsessed with a wanna-be actress who has strange and not always straight-forward connections to his friends from his previous life. The violence, narcissism, and hedonistic indulgence from Less Than Zero is back in full force - with the story told in such a creepy straight-forward manner, it left me wondering if any of the characters had a conscience or true feelings about the lives they moved through so mechanically. Ellis plays a lot with technology in the novel, with the characters communicating almost exclusively via cell phone and text messaging, and there is extensive discussion of internet videos - again, this all contributed to my feeling that the novel was so much about lack of emotion and feeling, and the price we pay for growing into such an impersonal society. I would not say that I found this book enjoyable - and I was glad that it was a short quick read because I probably could not have spent much more than a day with it. That being said, it is pretty standard Ellis, for better or for worse, and for thoes who follow his work, certainly worth checking out.

Love Over Scotland - Alexander McCall Smith (44 Scotland Street Series #3)

The deeper I get into this series, the more enamored I become with the characters. Bertie, the precocious six year old whose mother forces him to take yoga and Italian lessons is still my favorite. In this one, his overbearing pregnant mother cajoles him into auditioning for a teen orchestra (nevermind that he plays the saxophone, and there is no place for such an instrument - or a six-year old - in a teen orchestra) in the hopes that she'll be able to accompany him on their annual trip to Paris. Pat, always unlucky in love, begins her studies in Edinburgh after moving out of 44 Scotland Street and into a new apartment with another strange roommate. Dominca makes her way to the Malacca Straits to do anthropological field work, leaving poor Angus Lordies back at home pining away for her. And so the adventures continue with misunderstandings, snafus, and fortuitous coincidences along the way. As always, I'm glad that Smith seems to be able to write faster than I can read, and more installments always lie ahead. Can't wait.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blue Shoes and Happiness - Alexander McCall Smith (No. 1 Ladies Detective Series #7)

Precious Ramotswe and her trusty assistant Grace Makutsi are back at it again...this time questioning a local advice columnist, investigating a doctor prescribing strange amounts of blood pressure medication, and trying to keep cobras out of their detective agency. The usual endearing characters make their appearances from Mma Ramotswe's mechanic husband and his rascally apprentices to the head of the orphanage, and the latest addition to the detective agency, Mr. Polopetsi. Mma Makutsi also encounters a little difficulty with her fiance when she reveals that she is most definitely a feminist. While the mysteries in these books are never complex, they are always fun, and getting to know the characters better with each installment brings as much comfort as a hot cup of bush tea.

Presumed Innocent - Scott Turow

Scott Turow's most recent novel is a sequel to this 1989 legal thriller. I generally like Turow, and he's done some amazing work in the anti-death penalty community, so I'd like to support his writing. I'm a long queue at the library for the new novel, so I figured I better read the first one - which has been sitting on my shelves courtesy of my mother for years. I remember seeing this movie a long time ago, but couldn't remember anything about it except one scene at the end that presumably revealed the "real killer." The book takes place in the midwest, in the middle of a big District Attorney election. Rusty Sabich is the number two man in the DA office, backing the incumbent, when one of his colleagues and former lovers is murdered. He is chosen to head the investigation, and of course fails to disclose his prior relationship. When his mentor loses the race to a man Sabich once fired from the office, things go south quickly, and Sabich finds himself on trial for the murder. The book tracks both the investigation and the day-to-day courtroom drama, building the suspense and making you root for Sabich, even if he isn't the most sympathetic character. About half-way through reading the book, I remembered the significance of the last scene in the movie, but it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the book at all. Definitely looking forward to the sequel coming in.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Olive Kitteridge - Elizabeth Strout

Sometimes I think my mind must be turning to mush. I am thoroughly engaged in vampire stories and formulaic legal thrillers, but then I pick up something ostensibly of true literary value - a Pulitzer winner no less - and I just find it incredibly tedious. I'm trying to tell myself that it's the difference between a good story and good writing. Certainly, I can acknowledge that Olive Kitteridge, a collection of 13 stories about a retired schoolteacher in small-town Maine, is certainly well-written, but I just found it boring. The title character, Olive, is thoroughly unlikeable. Everything about her is negative - and while everyone around her (particularly her son) seems hell-bent on getting as far from her as possible (except her saintly husband who stays in love with her for reasons unfathomable), Olive just seems to live in her own world where nothing but her own opinions and needs matter. While not every story has Olive as the focus - sometimes she just appears as a passing character - I just couldn't find anything about the world Strout created that I wanted to keep reading about. Usually, I feel this way about the Man Booker prize winners, but alas the Pulitzer has become too intellectual for me. I'll keep looking to their winners for book suggestions, but as I get older and more feeble-minded, I may be sticking to the New York Times bestsellers.