A. Reader

Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Catered Christmas by Isis Crawford

A pretty lightweight culinary mystery featuring two New York sisters in the catering business. They are roped into a televised holiday cook-off event with a Martha-esque hostess. Of course, many of us have entertained thoughts of Martha-cide and, quelle surprise, it happens. The only big mystery here is why a fairly yummy sounding menu appears in the front of the book, but only one of the recipes in the back matches--and it is one you can get from almost any holiday cookbook. This is only for people who like dull mysteries with characters who obsess about their weight, looks, and cooking skills.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 24 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen by Julie Powell

Well, this book was certainly not what I expected. I was going to recommend it to my daughter who is a big Julia Child fan, but nope! If you like learning more of a person's pretty uneventful sex life, hearing about family and friends disfunction, reading semi-faked diary accounts by Paul Child, or counting the number of times certain swear words can be inserted into comments about anything, then you might like this book by Powell. The premise is that she is going to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year's time and keep a blog going about it, sort of as a sop to being unable to bear a child. Ugh. Don't read it, Carma, you'll be sorry.

Metallic Love by Tanith Lee

Back in the early 80s I discovered Lee's The Silver Metal Lover and thought it was terrific. Now she returns to the story of Jane and Silver-- sort of. The story takes place twelve years later when Jane and Silver's story has become legend. Orphaned Loren has taken the story as recounted in Jane's Book to heart. The robots have been reconstructed, but "better" and Silver has become Verlis, sort of. This is almost like Silver Metal Lover through the looking glass. There is some talk of sex, but it is not as erotic as some of Lee's work. Instead, this tale of love between mortal and robot seems very unemotional. The ending seemed almost a cop-out. Even so, Tanith Lee is a writer worth reading.

Against the Tide by John Ringo

The United Free States are battling New Destiny with both sides having enhanced fighters (dragons, merpeople, and other "people"). I found this book too confusing, possibly because I missed the first two in the series. I couldn't keep track of who was on which side, let alone who were the guys to root for. I normally like John Ringo's books, but don't bother with this one unless you really liked the first two books in this series, There Will be Dragons and Emerald Sea.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Woman Who Loved Reindeer by Meredith Ann Pierce

Not sure what I was expecting from this YA read. In a country of wild reindeer and caribou, a preteen named Caribou is given responsiblity to raise her sister-in-law's child. She names the child Reindeer. As the child grows, it comes to pass that he is not just a boy, but is a trangl one who can take the form of deer or mortal. The girl becomes a wise woman of her Icelandic-like village and when the land turns on itself, she must lead the villagers, with Reindeer's help, to the safety of where the wild reindeer roam every year. Not a bad read, but I was struck by the reverse Oedipus issue going on. Granted the boy isn't actually her son, but she falls in love with him. Also a TAD awkward having the main two characters the named for the herd animals in the story. Not one of my favorite books for YA or fantasy.

Monday, September 26, 2005

The Way to Glory by David Drake

This is the fourth RCN book with Daniel Leary fighting space wars. Not being a military expert, I can't vouch for authenticity but I like the combination of human interest and battle scenes.
I really like Signals Officer Adele Mundy in this series--she's a librarian who is super good at retrieving information. I just wish Lt Daniel Leary would realize that she's got a thing for her. I know this is not a romance but a war story, but still, for a man reputed to be such a ladies man he's pretty dense. A fun book anyway.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

For those of you who read Gaiman's YA novel Coraline this book continues, not the story, but the creepy mood. Richard Mayhew arrives in London as an ordinary kind-hearted young man who gets involved with a rather selfish young woman. When he defies her to help an injured young woman, his life starts to fall apart. London becomes much more complex and darker than he ever expected, especially as he spends more time underneath it and beyond it. I never read horror novels, so this must not be a horror novel, but it's enough of a one for me.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

THE LOST MOTHER by Mary McGarry Morris (2005)

We've all heard the Depression stories told by our parents and grandparents. The details we're accustomed to--privation, guilt, loss--are beautifully rehearsed here. But the author also demonstrates that calculated greed, self-interest, and lack of advocacy for the young and the underprivileged contributed as much to the overall tragedy as any combination of economic factors. The tale of 11-year-old Thomas and six-year-old Margaret reads like a melodrama: runaway mother, father unable to find work, desperate trip to find mother, consignment to the orphanage, and on and on. But the author's unrelenting logic shows how each episode would have naturally come about, given the circumstances and human nature. While we might wish to think that shared misery inspires nobility, Morris insists that the baser elements must be acknowledged, as well.

USER I.D. by Jenefer Shute (2005)

The ripped-from-today's-headlines topic of identity theft makes for compelling reading in itself, but the author also delivers two absorbing character studies--one on each side of the crime. When upstanding community-college instructor Vera's identity is "borrowed" by hapless cosmetics salesgirl Charlene, their identities begin to intertwine in both expected and startling ways. Both the differences (e.g., education ) and similarities (e.g., records of underachievement) in the women's pasts invite speculation about the ultimate effects of identity loss. It's not every day that one can read a book that is equally plot- and character-driven, with success on both fronts. Since the author invested considerable research into the mechanics of identify theft, you'll be treated to some jaw-dropping revelations about how it's accomplished. After you read this (in one sitting, probably), be prepared to feel creepy each time you log onto your computer or sign a receipt.

Friday, September 23, 2005

All I Did Was Ask by Terry Gross

If you listen to NPR's Fresh Air you know who Terry Gross is. And if you are interested in books and the arts you will know who her interviewees are. They range from Nicolas Cage to Maurice Sendak to Conan O'Brien to Chris Rock. Her questions are not the "tell me about your next picture/book/CD" variety, so it is as fun to read years later, as it was to listen to at the time.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

First impression can and should count--usually. There are lots of ideas in here that can be applied to every day life, such as the way something as simple as a smile affects your attitude. This is either the best book written for the general public about this, or it's way oversimplified. I enjoyed it, even if I'll never remember the names of all those face muscles.

Lipstick Jungle by Candace Bushnell

This best seller tells the story of three successful business friends--Nico, Wendy, and Victory--in New York City. They struggle for position, power, and prestige at work, while they fret about love after hours (okay, sometimes within hours). This is a not-so-thinly veiled peek into the bedrooms of three tarts with tons of brandname dropping. From the author of Sex and the City (and what did I really expect).

Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte

In the years following the defeat of the Great Armada life in Spain was still supposedly in its Golden Age. Life for the lowly swordsman-for-hire Diego Altriste is not always so golden however. Then he picks up a job to attack two strangers--only to find that they are not who they seem to be. In many ways this reminds me of Don Quixote and/or Zorro. It is full of swash and buckle and a little more too.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Love in the Driest Season by Neely Tucker

In 1997 NeelyTucker and his wife Vita arrived in Zimbabwe amidst turmoil, famine, and a raging AIDS crisis. Even as the government denied that there was a problem with AIDS, the Tuckers visited many understaffed, underfunded orphanages filled with dying children. Neely and Vita found Chipo barely clinging to life. They applied as foster parents and then as adoptive parents to the girl, wading through rivers of red tape. Zimbabwe officials were against foreign adoptions, especially when the parents were mixed race as are the Tuckers. This is truly a love story of the best sort.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Messenger by Lois Lowry

This is the third book in Lowry's series which begins with The Giver and Gathering Blue. While not a sequel as such, the story uses characters from the other two books and tells the story of a young man named Matty. Matty lives in Village where everyone is accepted and valued despite their disabilities or differences, but strange things are starting to happen in Village. A group of villagers has petitioned to have the once welcoming village closed to newcomers. When the village closes, Matty must deliver the message which means traveling through the dangerous Forest armed only with a new power Matty has yet to understand. I liked how the characters I knew from the other books were used to tell a new story. Lowry has a nack for description and storytelling that makes you say "Hmmmm. . . . . . ."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Knight Fantastic edited by Martin Harry Greenberg & John Helfters (Fantasy)

Fourteen short stories of knights of lore, or something along those lines. Not all the stories are Knights of the Round table. They range from "winning a fair lady's heart" to avenging a murdered parent. My favorite does happen to be a story from Tanya Huff of Nights of the Round Table. A cleaning woman's view of the knights while she and her granddaughter try to clean the room and the table.
The editors have a good collection of very dark, deep stories as well as light and humorous. They also have other "Fantastic" collections.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Yeah, I know "reading lite". Usually, I like the Chicken Soup series for a quick read before bed or in the "reading room". However, I checked this book of stories from the events of September 11, 2001 out of the library right before the Gulf Coast was devastated by Katrina.
All other comments about views on this book that I would normally make are purely political and not really based on the book. So to keep a nasty debate at bay, I will just say that if you like the Chicken Soup series, this is pretty much in line with the others in the series.

The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas

A madam, a bank robber, a mail-order bride and a former slave. No not a weird bar joke. These are the main characters from Sandra Dallas' fifth book. Written in three sections with point of view varying between the four main characters. I read the Persian Pickle Club last summer and was hoping for that same light read. This had a darker subplot in the second "act". The back of my paperback copy had reading club questions that made me glad I didn't have to do a book report on it. Especially the question of who was the true villian of the book. Overall, a bit uneven with more twists than an episode of Law & Order, but an okay read.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples.YA fiction

Thirteen-year-old Shabanu and her family live in the desert of Pakistan. They are preparing for her sister's upcoming arranged marriage. Shabanu is supposed to marry the following year, but when tragedy strikes, plans are changed. Shabanu is a strong-willed girl who must reconcile her loving family's plan for her future with her own desire to decide her fate.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin. Nonfiction

This is the story of the blizzard of 1888 which hit the great plains just when school was letting out. Many children perished. Laskin chronicles the development of the storm, the state of weather forecasting at the time and the impact of the storm on the newly-arrived immigrants.
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Saturday, September 10, 2005

They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan by Adelphonsion Deng, Benson Deng and Benjamin Ajak

This is the story of brothers Adelpho and Benson and their cousin Benjamin who fled their southern Sudan village after its attack by government-backed soldiers. At the ages of five and seven they left their families behind to begin an unthinkable 1,000 mile journey across desert and jungle. They endured unimaginable hardships: days without food or water, untreated diseases and injuries, wild animals, dangerous armed soldiers, bombs, mines, forced labor, separation from loved ones, brutality of every kind. This is an amazing story of three children surviving horrific circumstances, and there are thousands of other "lost boys" just like them. This book really put a personal face on the tragic situation in Sudan.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank (2005)

If you've already read Bank's debut novel (The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing), you'll be expecting more disarmingly honest views of contemporary relationships and more of the author's dead-on descriptions of some of life's most telling moments. You won't be disappointed. This series of episodes covering about 25 years of Sophie Applebaum's life--beginning around age 12--includes various romantic ventures; family dynamics with parents, grandparents, and siblings; career successes and mishaps; and ponderings about life in general. Sophie's approaches to life will frustrate you at times, but you'll never be tempted to do anything other than completely emphathize with her intentions. Sophie is one of the most fully realized protagonists I've read in recent months, and Bank's amazingly apt portrayals of small gestures and impressions are almost poetic.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Undead and Unappreciated by Mary Janice Davidson

This is sort of Vampire Chick Lit. Betsy is the Vampire Queen, with a wicked stepmother and a previously unknown stepsister who is the Devil's Daughter. She also has an uneasy relationship with the exceedingly attractive Eric, the King of the Vampires and labor problems at her nightclub Scratch. The rules of vampiric living seem to change at the whim of the author--anything to help her plot limp along. This is only for desperate non-serious readers readers of vampire literature.

Glad News of the Natural World by T. R. Pearson

Louis Benfield (from A Short History of a Small Place) has grown and moved to New York City from his home in Neely, North Carolina. His father has arranged a job with his own insurance company, but Louis doesn't not have the numbers knack of his father. Instead, he takes on a series of jobs as a handyman, repairing appliances for people--including several members of the mob. This book reminded me a lot of the NPR commentaries by various people. Be warned that Louis is a young man interested in sex--not graphic, but very present.

Dining in America, 1850-1900, edited by Kathryn Grover

This is a series of symposium papers about the history of dining in Victorian America. Some of them are more interesting than others, but for those of us are history buffs, there are little gems of information here. I especially enjoyed the chapters on manners and cookbooks. This is probably not going to be the kind of book you just sit down and read like a novel.

Dead Man's Bones by Susan Wittig Albert

Dead Man's Bones brings us again to Texas and the herbal lore of ex-lawyer China Bayles. China, now married and with a teenaged stepson, is involved in getting the new community theater ready for opening night. The theater is a gift--with heavy strings--from the elderly Obermann sisters. The book opens with the discovery of a skeleton in an unexplored cave and moves from there to body to body. It's not too hard to figure who dun it--the pleasure is in the interaction of Bayles and her friends.

Italy Out of Hand by Barbara Hodgson

This is a travel book unlike most you'll see. Arranged by cities, Hodgson doesn't mess around with where to stay or even (mostly) where to eat. Instead, she delivers gossipy stories about who did what when and where. She doesn't confine herself to native Italians--some of the best stories are about the tourists from bygone days, Lord Byron and Goethe. This is a great supplement to those fat travel guides that tell you when the museum is open and how much it costs.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

SOLO by Emily Barr (2005)

This title opens with an engaging premise: Evie, a British "classical-lite" cellist in her prime of looks and popularity in her early thirties, confides a great deal about her close-to-fantasy existence. And, as the best of first-person narrators do, she also reveals some less than noble truths--in this case, about lifestyles of the overvalued. Evie's candid assessment of the reasons for her success (OK cello playing coupled with skimpy album cover outfits) and her frank recounting of the path to stardom are really entertaining. The story is still on firm footing as Evie calculates the best time/way to ditch her husband, anticipates traveling to America to film a commercial, and describes a still-painful adolescent betrayal (and the surprising episide behind it). A few too many other cross-plots, developments, and unlikely coincidences create some muddy action in the latter part of the book, but Barr offers a definite Bridget Jones-ish appeal.

DOG by Michelle Herman (2005)

Poet/college professor Jill (she prefers to be called J.T.) Rosen has tenure, a perfectly decorated home, and an elegant shoe collection. True, her third volume of poetry--years in the making--is not finished YET, and she has begun to realize just how long it's been since her last romantic attachment. Still, she prides herself on her elegant bearing and meticulous taste. Thus, no one is more astonished than J.T. when she experiences love at the first sight of a photo of a stray puppy and rushes out to adopt him the next day. Dog lovers will delight in J.T.'s transformation from self-involved academic to infatuated pet owner. Of course, J.T.'s care and concern for Phil (the puppy) translates into a corresponding openness to the possibilities before her. Both J.T. and the puppy are endearingly portrayed; the cover photo alone sold me on this title.

The Writing on the Wall: A Novel

Lynne Sharon Schwartz chose a librarian as the protagonist for this 2005 novel set against the backdrop of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Renata, a valued specialist in the New York Public Library, has the amazing gift of being able to discern patterns in obscure languages and translate otherwise undecipherable texts. This esoteric, solitary pursuit is exactly suited to her preference for keeping interpersonal involvements at a minimum and her troubled past at a safe mental distance. However, both the tragedy and a deepening commitment force Renata to sift through long-ago events and finally arrive at some necessary conclusions. Renata is an intriguing character, and the author is skilled in conveying both her subtle mentality and the very physical realities of the attacks on New York City. However, Renata was so convincingly drawn as a self-contained intellectual that I found it difficult to relate to her or to emphathize to an appropriate degree.

Julie and Romeo Get Lucky by Jeanne Ray

The first couple of chapters of Ray's 2005 follow-up to Julie and Romeo were so annoying that I nearly decided that the author had hit a slump after two other modest hits (Step-Ball-Change and Eat Cake). However, it improved upon acquaintance and produced another serving of warmhearted, frothy domestic humor. I'd recommend reading Julie and Romeo first; this story unfolds three years after the heads of two feuding clans (both proprietors of florist establishments) fall in love, with ensuing intergenerational complications. This time, Romeo injures his back and is forced to take up residence at Julie's place, which is already full up with her two children and their families. The endeavors that Ray's characters pursue--floral art, tap dancing, or baking--convey such a sense of fulfillment for their practitioners that I am at least temporarily inspired to try them myself after reading one of her books. Although this isn't deathless prose, it offers gently uplifting portrayals of people who are conflicted by their responses to family responsbility and life in general--without being sappy.