Sunday, January 31, 2010

Review: Reasons by Tracy Fabre

Delphi Brent has decided that she's going to spend the summer between one research job and another at the ranch where her family spent so many delightful summers when she was younger. Her parents are not pleased about this plan and finally admit to Delphi that the reason they don't think she should go, which they have kept from her for nine years is that the hit and run accident that almost killed her nine years ago was in fact caused by one of the sons of the wonderful family friends who own the ranch. This same accident ended up claiming the life of the youngest son and ever since then, the families have kept in minimal contact through the occasional Christmas card and the like. But Delphi is determined to go back and exorcise the demons this revelation brings, needing to know which of the sons it was who hit her and sped away. When she arrives back in Colorado, she again meets the warm and wonderful Laughlins. But living amongst them again, she sees the toll the past nine years has taken on them too as she wonders if she can bring up the accident and find out what she needs to know. And along the way, without intending to, she falls in love, making her question the importance of knowing the truth, especially as it could derail this fledgling love forever.

Delphi as a character is good fun. She is quick and witty and her sparring with both Tam Laughlin and Noreen, Bobby Laughlin's shrewish fiance, provides great entertainment. The Laughlin family seem warm and loving and their concern for each other is palpable through the story. I liked all of the characters and found the tension and circling between Delphi and Tam to be believable and reasonable. The romance was gentle and organic. This is really a sweet novel.

But there is one glaring plot point problem that I just can't get past. When the accident that almost killed Delphi occurred nine years prior, her whole family was staying with the Laughlins like they did every summer. So how on earth did they never know about the accident? She was badly enough injured that she had to be stabilized before being flown back to a hospital closer to her parents' home in Pennsylvania and their good friends never noticed? I know the idea was that the Laughlins were preoccupied with the coma that Artie was in but I can't imagine that they didn't notice the young daughter of their house guests was also in the hospital in terrible condition. The only way I can even begin to reconcile this is by telling myself that the Brents had already left the Laughlins to head home when the accident happened. But again, the accident happened in a small Colorado town close to their ranch (otherwise how would it involve their boys?) and no one ever mentioned it to them? No one ever said, "Hey, how was that girl who got hit? The one that stays with you every summer?" And I'm back at my original position, unable to suspend my disbelief for this one nagging part. The part upon which so much of the plot and tension relies. It was made worse when, in the present, a very tangential character needs emergency medical care and one of the EMTs who comes with the ambulance is his cousin, reinforcing the tightly knit, small town interconnectedness of the place. Knock me right up against that brick wall again.

I know other reviewers didn't suffer my own inability to get over this stumbling block so don't take my word for it. And really, maybe I've got it wrong and I missed a perfectly good explanation. Could happen. Readers who enjoy sweet, snappy romances will indeed like this one even if they've figured out the driver of the car long before Delphi.

Thanks to the author and Renee at Stimulating Conversation for sending me a review copy of this book.

Sunday Salon: Trapped without a book

Have you ever been trapped somewhere without a book? Ok, I haven't either. But just recently I was trapped somewhere with only a book I hadn't been enjoying. I was only reading it in protest against the elementary school's policy banning it. It was not well written or entertaining or even just plain escapist. It was cliched, whiny, ridiculous and I only stuck with it to prove my point, cantankerous curmudgeon that I am. I read it on the down times when I was in the school to work in the library so I only had to endure it every other week for less than an hour at a stretch. But then I took my oldest son to tennis lessons and wrongly assumed that I had another book in the car. I knew that this entirely unfulfilling book lived in the car, mind you, but I thought I had stashed another one in there as well. I hadn't. And let me tell you, that was brutal. Not only did I have to resort to finishing the book that makes me weep for the integrity of the publishing world* but I finished it in record time (did I mention it's written on a ridiculously low grade level given the target audience's age?) and found myself with simply nothing else to read. I had to resort to sorting through coupons and throwing out anything expired. I cleaned out my purse despite the fact that I am not one of those people who could host an archeological dig in her purse. I organized the glove compartment. And I sat fidgeting, grumpy I had done this to myself: wasted valuable reading time, first on an unworthy book and second by not having a spare with me. I am henceforth gathering a carload's worth of books to accompany me everywhere so I don't face this hideous squandering of book time ever again! What's your worst horror story about being bookless?

This week, my travels in books took me all over. I wept through the journey a mother made as she lost one premature baby and shepherded the other through the tangle of medical horrors that is so frequently the lot of babies born too soon. I chuckled through essays by an openly homosexual comedian, saddened that some of the issues he riffs on still exist so many years after he originally wrote this collection. I slipped into mulatto society through the short stories of a star author of the Harlem Renaissance. I escaped grave danger and rewarded obsessive love with the sparkly yet alabaster vampires. I watched as a man and woman married in haste and repented at leisure, weathering the requisite misunderstandings and threats to their newfound love. I struggled with a mother whose son was diagnosed with a catch-all disorder as she tried to pull him back from the edge of his own world and into what we so arrogantly declare normal. I started a few new books as well so next week promises to take me many, varied places as well.

*Maybe it's not as bad as all that. The book may not have been up my alley and it may have been a shining example of dreadful writing, but many people love it and so of course it should have been published. It is a definite phenomenon. And whether that is a bad sign or a good one depends on the reader. This reader thinks it kicks bunnies but hey, no one has crowned me Queen of the World yet, so...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Review: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Why on earth are Gerald Durrell's books not better known? Or perhaps they are and I just didn't know much about them? I've never heard another reader mention this as a must read delight and yet that is exactly what it is. The book is based on his family's five years living on Corfu. It's hilarious, entertaining and even educational.

It's 1935 and England is in the midst of a grey and dreary season. How does any good British family escape such? Why by picking up and moving to the sunny Greek isle of Corfu on the recommendation of the eldest son's friend, of course. And what a good British family it is. Mother is a widow, eccentric and a bit flighty in a charming way. Larry, the eldest, is a writer and a bit of a stuffed shirt know-it-all; yes, Larry is famed author Lawrence Durrell. Leslie is a stereotypical gun-mad hunter, frequently striding out of the copses and fields with dinner. Margot is the flirty sister, interested in the local and ex-pat men around. And our author Gerry? Well, he's significantly younger than his siblings (he's only ten at the start while they are all young adults) and he's obsessed with animals, adopting them and wreaking havoc in the house and grounds. He's also a gifted writer with the impeccable timing of a truly funny comic.

Originally intended to be an account of the flora and fauna of Corfu, this is that and so much more. The antics of the Durrells and their good-natured bickering and tolerance of each others' foibles make this literally a laugh out loud book. Imagine Leslie coming downstairs in a towel immediately prior to a huge party, shivering and stammering because young Gerald has put a harmless snake in the tub with cool water to revive it from its heat stroke. There are Larry's elaborate machinations to keep Gerry's wild magpies, raised by him from babyhood, from going into Larry's room and capering about. The different colored birdie footprints in ink all across his manuscript is an image I'll be chuckling about for quite some time. There's the turtle that begs like a dog. A shallow-bottomed, oddly round boat made by Leslie named the Bootle-Bumtrinket. Two dogs named Widdle and Puke. I could go on and on.

But not all of the animal observations come via mishaps in the family. Durrell recounts his delight at finding things in their natural habitat and the care he took in examining them there. His childish curiousity was fervent and infectious. He is completely enchanted by nature in all its forms and that enchantment oozes from the very pages of the book. When the reader isn't laughing, she is reading steadily and delighting in the atmosphere and the place that is Corfu between the wars. Gorgeously written, there is a bit of nostalgia in these pages, especially as the reader knows, from the outset, that at the end, the Durrells pack up their belongings and head back to the grey skies and drizzle of England. I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially for people who like animals but also for those who appreciate well written, pastoral sorts of books or those who cherish eccentric characters and the kind of childhood that seems to be long extinct.

There's even a Masterpiece Theater production of this book. Methinks I'll have to hunt it down and and gather my family and assorted animals around to watch it in hopes it captures the wonder and the delight and the eccentricities of the book. And I will also, very definitely, be tracking down more of Mr. Durrell's books in hopes of sinking into similar, charming entertainments.

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too. This week my list is appallingly long as I've been making my way through my backlogged and dorwning Google Reader.

The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry was mentioned at Necromancy Never Pays.

House of Cards by David Ellis Dickerson was mentioned at books, the universe, and everything.

Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson was mentioned at Book End Babes.

Dream Girl by Lauren Mechling was mentioned at Devourer of Books.

One Day by David Nicholls was mentioned at Lous_Pages.

The Pleasure Seekers by Tishani Doshi was mentioned at Lost in Books.

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes was mentioned at Five Borough Book Reviews.

A Sister's Gift by Giselle Green was mentioned at Julie Cohen.

Enthusiasm by Polly Shulman was mentioned at write meg.

Before I Forget by Melissa Hill was mentioned at S. Krishna's Books.

How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler was mentioned at The Book Case.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender was mentioned at The Book Case.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Review: Romeo Romeo by Robin Kaye

Rosalie has just escaped from the family dinner where her Italian mama has been haranguing her to get married and have babies when she has a flat tire. She also has no spare. Furiously cursing her luck and her brother (who was supposed to have gotten her a spare), she is kicking the car when a wrecker pulls over to help her. Nick is gorgeous and charming and despite herself, Rosalie finds her hormones at attention. They spar all the way to her house and somehow end up with a date scheduled. What Nick doesn't tell Rosalie though, is that he is really Dominick Romeo, wealthy car dealer, not just Nick the mechanic.

And after their first date, it seems impossible to tell her who he really is. Not only is it refreshing to him to be wanted for himself rather than his money, but as a kid he was friends with Rosalie's older brother and the two of them were arrested together. The good news is that both Rosalie and Nick are completely against marriage, for different reasons, and they agree to keep their relationship monogamous but not serious. When it is no longer fun for one or the other, they will walk away with no hurt feelings. Of course, neither of them realize that real true love is creeping up on them. And it is complicated by Nick's subterfuge about who he is (although Rosalie knows) as well as by the fact that he is the person who had been dropping rumors about the uncertain financial position of the dealership Roaslie has just been retained to turn around and make successful again (Rosalie doesn't know this bombshell).

This contemporary romance has some pretty steamy sex scenes in it. It also has some pretty entertaining scenes in the bosom of Roaslie's nutjob family. The secondary characters really help to move the plot along and inject some levity into the story. Rosalie's reason for not wanting love and marriage is understandable but Nick's is rather sillier, highlighting a blind spot in his character that wasn't necessary. Watching Nick be stymied by a woman who is everything he purports to want (independent, casual, natural, and uninterested in anything more emotionally binding than sex) is pretty entertaining. Their chemistry is believable and with the exception of one stereotypical and unneccessary plot twist at the end, the storyline cooks along of its own accord. This is a fun romp of a romance and fans of contemporaries will thoroughly enjoy it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

This is not a New Year's Resolution

It's way too far into January for even the most diligent of procrastinators (me) to claim it as one. It is, instead a declaration. A way to be held accountable (because heaven knows I need a whole stable of these sorts of things). I am publically affirming my need to change my life and my habits and get myself back on track, weight-wise and exercise-wise. I have let things slip the past year and a half and it's time to do something about that.

A little background. In 2007, I lost between 50 and 60 lbs. I did it on Weight Watchers. I hauled my butt out of bed on Saturday morning to go to an 8 o'clock meeting 15 minutes from my house. If that's not commitment, I don't know what is, especially when you consider the long and special love affair I have been conducting for most of my life with my bed and my pillow. No, I never practised kissing my pillow. I don't mean that kind of love affair! (Although I am getting the sudden urge to leave the computer and head upstairs to snuggle down in my covers.) I mean, I am the one who flat out told the swim coach in college that I wouldn't be coming to morning practice. No, I didn't ask. I told. And he never questioned me. Cursed me soundly probably, but... Anyway, so I lost this large amount of weight. And I started running and agreed to run a marathon and things were going really well. I could see my goal weight shimmering in the distance. I actually hit my college weight again. I looked pretty good, even if I still needed to lose a bit more.

And then we moved.

Yeah, I'll let that stand apart so it looks as stark as it felt. The move was a good one professionally for D. and I was on board. But moving does me in, each and every time. And we've done it enough for me to know this about myself. They say knowledge is half the battle, right? Yeah, um... not in this case. So even though I made new friends and continued training for my marathon, I gained weight. Yes, I actually gained weight training for a marathon. And not a pound or two of muscle. No, I actually packed on 20 pounds. This is not recommended. I am a professional stunt weight gainer on a closed track. Do not try this at home! Seriously, don't do this. It is very bad for you physically and emotionally. And you run a whole lot slower too. But moving does that to me.

So after the marathon was over, despite the fact that I loved the friends I met training for it (I trained through Team in Training and can't recommend them enough), I let my running taper off and finally stop altogether. After all, I no longer had any great need to give myself a pep talk and stumble out of bed to run at 6 or at 7am. And I had run a marathon. The whole thing. (Well, I walked *a little*.) So surely my fitness level wouldn't suffer if I took off a week, a month, 6 months, or more. Have I mentioned I'm very good at rationalizing things that are completely and totally delusional?

So that brings us to today. I sit here 20 pounds over the weight I was when I moved here, a couch potato of champion calibre. And I need to change this. It is a success that I only gained 20 of the 50+ pounds back. But that 20 pounds needs to go bye-bye now. And even before it goes, I need to redistribute the weight I do have so that it's not quite so Stay-Puft Marshmallow-y and the only way to do that is by exercising. So that's the deal. I will commit to more exercise and more mindful eating from now on into infinity.

And believe it or not, so I didn't have to feel like a total and complete loser when I wrote out how lazy and slack I've been, I actually did 10 slow sit-ups, 50 bicycle crunches, and held a plank for 1 minute. (More on this in a moment.) I also agreed to walk a half marathon this fall with a friend and to run a half with my little sister (she's gonna smoke my butt) in a year. I'm also about to agree to meet my running friends for a run Saturday morning. I may not go all 4 miles with them and I certainly won't be as fast as they are, but it will make me accountable and force me to pry myself out of the toasty warm coccoon of my bed, away from the soft heater pressed against my stomach that is the dog, and away from my loudly snoring husband. (Had to throw the last one in there so I didn't convince myself to just stay in bed.) And I might even go hog wild and enter a 5K in March so that I have something a little closer looming over my head with the spector of great humiliation behind it if I don't make and keep a real commitment.

So, do you believe the little bit of exercise so far this morning? I really did do it. Promise. I stopped at ten sit-ups because I do want to be able to get out of bed tomorrow morning without having to roll right over the edge. The bicycle crunches were a little gross as I got to watch my stomach accordian fold and pleat into itself over and over again. Makes me want to sew my mouth shut for the next eternity or so. As for the plank, I was pretty darn proud of myself that I actually held that sucker for a whole minute. My arms started shaking at 45 seconds and I actually started Lamaze breathing shortly thereafter. Didn't work to keep me from feeling the pain now either. But I did all this and might even do it again later tonight. Consider it my delayed bit of circuit training. ;-)

My ultimate goals? Get back into shape so that the only heavy breathing I'm doing is of the fun variety. Lose the 20 pounds I gained by the time I go on vacation this summer. That's four pounds a month. Seems reasonable enough. And once that 20 is gone, set a goal weight and really shoot for it. I know I can be singleminded (I can also be bloody minded but that's a whole different kettle of fish) and do this. Especially putting it out into blog land where everyone can see it.

So, if you know me in person, please don't put tasty looking hors d'ouvres down in front of me. I am an unconscious eater and will just clear the platter. Even worse, once I regain consciousness, I will look at the devastation I have wrought and think "Oh well. I'll just keep going then, shall I?" So put the good stuff quite a ways from me. The public humiliation of crawling over others to get to it should at least slow me down. You can, instead, put the veggie tray in front of me. I'm liable to clear it like a plague of locusts as well but I'm okay with that if you are. Also, don't be offended if I hie myself away from the interesting conversations in the kitchen. I am fairly simple and essentially lazy so if I am sitting away from the food and have to hoist myself out of the chair to actually walk over to the food, chances are inertia will win. See Mr. Hale? I *was* paying attention in physics all those years ago. Inertia is a very powerful force. And it should be used for good, not evil. ;-)

Well, I think that's more than enough for now. I thought about doing a daily update like in Bridget Jones' Diary but didn't want to bore you all stupid. I mean, my fragile ego can only take so many people unsubscribing from the blog. (And incidentally, someone did that just the other day, not that I am obsessing over it or anything, but why? Didn't you love me anymore? And yes, I know you won't even see this because, after all, you unsubscribed. But really, you couldn't even fake it and tell me that it was you not me? That I'm still great and all that jazz? **sob** No, don't worry, I'll eventually get over it.) So I think the daily update is out but feel free to nag the heck out of me if I haven't posted an update in whatever time frame you deem best for keeping me accountable. Tonight I crunch some more; tomorrow I run.

Review: My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel

Did you read this one when you were younger? I thought I had but the fact that I didn't remember it at all makes me think now that I didn't. Did I miss out on something special by not reading it then? I'll never know. But I sure didn't find that something special reading it now as an adult, which was a disappointment.

Maggie and Liz have been friends forever, despite the fact that Liz is pretty and popular and Maggie is fat and awkward and mostly just heor worships Liz. Liz insists on setting Maggie up for double dates when she and boyfriend Sean go out. Dennis, Sean's equivalent to a Maggie although he's gangling and nerdy rather than fat and awkward, is Maggie's date and neither one of them finds all that much appealing about the other but they continue to go out with Liz and Sean. Maggie and Sean, in the meantime, are in love and have to buck their parents to continue to see each other. Their ups and downs dictate in large part the ebb and flow of the fledgling, conflicted, but finally developing relationship between Maggie and Dennis.

Occasional notes passed between the friends or couples are interspersed between the chapters, allowing for Zindel to dispose of large chunks of time in the narration. This isn't entirely successful as it means that the disagreements and avoidances between the friends remains superficial. And there's very little narrative getting from Liz and Sean happy, albeit with Sean, the typical teenaged boy, pressuring Liz to have sex, to the rather predictable denouement of the ending. And while Maggie seems more the focus of the book than the other three characters, Liz and Sean provide the (obvious) object lesson here in a fairly heavy-handed manner. And frankly neither of them end up being terribly appealing characters. Liz is hard to like from the outset and while her unplanned pregnancy and subsequent rejection by Sean is supposed to inspire pity, it doesn't. Sean likewise doesn't grab the reader's empathy despite his frigid and emotionally barren upbringing so his ultimate buckling under to his father's advice leaves the reader feeling a rush of indigestion. And as it's completely in character, Sean comes off as just other unlikeable character in this book of many unlikeables.

The book is dated (published in the 60's) and honestly I can't see it having been terribly interesting to kids of my generation, much less the more sophisticated kids of today. And lest anyone say that society has changed for the worse, Zindel's portrait of society in the late 60's is pretty darn bleak too. Stereotypical characters, superficial plot, and an obvious, belaboured lesson. Do we not give our kids credit for being more intelligent than this? I really didn't enjoy this but I know it is a favorite of many so perhaps I missed something vital here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland

The Impressionists, Renoir, convivial gatherings along the Seine, various shades of love, the birth of a masterpiece, and visuals, visuals, visuals. What's not to love? I started this one last year and got sidetracked by other books that had firm deadlines but kept sneaking back to this whenever I had a spare moment to sink into it. And in all fairness, that is not the way to read this expansive and lush novel. The way to read it is what I did for the second half: luxuriate in it and it alone.

At the opening of the novel, Renoir is just about penniless and desperate to create a new painting that will answer the criticism that the Impressionists as a group are incapable of the kind of important, lasting work that they have striven for in their break with traditional French art. Renoir's vision is a statement definitively refuting this while getting his work hung in the prestigious Paris Salon. Choosing to paint the aftermath of a vibrant, genial luncheon composed of friends and models, the painting is larger in scope than anything the Impressionists have attempted before. The novel tells the tale of the conception and execution of the painting as well as the tales of the people involved, touching on the terrible recent history post Franco-Prussian War, the different sections of Paris, class distinction, and enduring love.

The different characters in the painting all revolve around the character of Renoir; he being, in many cases, their only tie to each other. But amazingly, considering the sheer number of models posing, Vreeland manages to make them distinct personalities with different back stories and all come off as sympathetic. She manages to tie in much history without the book coming off as textbookish. Her research both into the art, Renoir's life, and the local Paris times is obviously thorough and well done. The writing is lush and very visual and will make the reader wish to be at the idyllic Maison Fournaise on the Seine as well. There seems to be a sun-dappled wash over the whole of the book. The end of the book is never in any doubt (after all, the painting is on the cover of the book) and Renoir's life is fairly well documented. But the journey with these characters, the gentleness of the love stories and disappointments, and the insight into Renoir's artistic genius, makes this a welcome and appealing read. Fans of fictionalized art histories will love this one but even those with no interest in the Impressionists will find much to please them in these pages.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

I suspect that I am not alone when I admit that the sum total of my knowledge of Rwanda is of the genocide and the animosity between the Hutus and the Tutsis. So I wondered how a Rwandan-set book could possibly be described as hopeful and healing. But obviously I have no conception of the ways in which Rwanda is overcoming the horror and learning the art of reconciliation. And after all, 1994 is more than 15 years in the past.

Angel Tungaraza is a Tanzanian woman who bakes elaborate and beautiful cakes out of her home. She lives in Kigali in an international apartment comlpex with her husband, who is teaching temporarily at the university. Together they are raising their five orphaned grandchildren and looking for the positive in each day given to them. The chapters often feel like small vignettes as Angel's customers tell her their tales when they come to order the cakes for which she is rightly famous. And indeed, many of the tales are adapted from tales that Parkin herself heard when she worked in Rwanda.

The tales are everyday and extraordinary. The gentle, unthreatening manner of the telling doesn't sugar-coat the atrocities that the Rwandan people lived through but it also makes clear that people continue to live and make their way as best they can despite the horror in their pasts. Obviously the genocide makes its appearance in the stories told to Angel but so does the problem of AIDS and its plague-like proportions. And in fact, Angel knows that AIDS would have eventually claimed her son if robbers hadn't killed him first. But through all the heartache and the history, Angel is a happy soul, a celebratory person, and her wisdom and contentment, her very peaceful happiness is contagious.

Angel starts every cake ordering appointment with tea and conversation, often counseling her customers and helping them improve their lives. She manages to extract justice for the downtrodden and supply the wedding of a friend's dreams. She teaches others and inspires young girls. She gives relationships a little shove in the right direction. And she generally understands and appreciates the value of the people around her. In short, she's just a little bit magical in a very down to earth, pragmatic way.

The importance of education and pulling heads out of the sand to address the problem of AIDS is a huge theme throughout the book as is the idea of reconciliation and making things right. Angel was a delightful character and as the center of the book, made for a charming reading experience. The cake customers become an integral part of Angel's life and Parkin intertwines their stories well. The underlying issues that come up in the book are perhaps much deeper than one would expect but they give the story a depth and a seriousness that, interestingly, is not at odds at all with the light, uplifting tone of the narration. This is a beautifully done book and I would certainly read more about Angel given half a chance. A novel about Rwanda that is hopeful and healing? Absolutely.

The Book List Meme

Rebecca of Lost in Books has come up with a new meme that hits on one of my very favorite things in the whole world: lists. Here's what she says about it:

There is a different topic each week, which will be posted here.

You write a post on your own blog about the topic.

The post will be a list of 3 books pertaining to the topic. So, for example, if the topic were, say, 3 Books That Make You Want to Go Shopping, you would write a list of 3 books that when you read them made you want to max out your credit card. I have no idea what those books would be, but you get the picture.

You may include photos with your lists, especially if that helps illustrate your point.

You link back to the week's post here on Lost in Books in your post so if someone else wants to play, they can find their way here.

Then you come here and leave your link in the Mr. Linky so other people can find your post and your list!

This week the challenge is to list three fiction worlds you'd like to hang out in. In cruising my shelves, I found:

1. Thursday Next's world (in or out of the Well of Lost Plots) in the series by Jasper Fforde that starts with the Eyre Affair. Too darn cool for school.

2. The Canadian wilderness of Mrs. Mike by Benedict and Nancy Freedman is on the list because it so captured my childish imagination when I found it on my grandparents' shelves and read it obsessively over and over again, weeping heartily each time. (And no, I am too much of a wimp to really live in that world now but I was a hearty child.)

3. The imagined Barchester of Angela Thirkell's prolific series that starts with High Rising. How could you not want to spend time with the delightful characters Thirkell created, especially when they are snarky!

I had to try really hard not to use the wizarding world in Harry Potter or the Regency time of Pride and Prejudice although they would probably make a tops list if I was being honest.


Let me just say that one of the joys of having young almost teens is the frequency with which you get computer viruses. It wasn't enough for W. to be sick, no he had to infect the computer too. Let's just say that if the hole I was digging out back hadn't kept filling with water from all the recent rains, he might have been doing quality control at the bottom. And next time we're going to charge him for removing the virus. Dratted kids.

And now back to your regularly scheduled curmudgeonly book reviews.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's Monday! What Are You Reading This Week?

This meme is hosted by J. Kaye at J. Kaye's Book Blog. I started bouncing all over the place reading-wise so I didn't get much finished this week but I did at least manage to continue to write up reviews.

Books I completed this week are:

Romeo Romeo by Robin Kaye
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Reasons by Tracy Fabre
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Dog Years by Mark Doty

Reviews posted this week:

The Accidental Bestseller by Wendy Wax
The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Freeze Frame by Sue Macy
Nearer My Dog to Thee by Graham Mackintosh

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland
My Darling, My Hamburger by Paul Zindel
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Reasons by Tracy Fabre
Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

Giveaways on the blog

The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg

Monday Mailbox

The sick kid had a relapse but I was so stir crazy by then that I started haunting the mailbox and stalking the mail person looking for goodies. OK, I wasn't really stalking the mail truck (our mail person drives a Jeep anyway) but I was desperate for goodies to look forward to. And the USPS (and publishers and publicists) delivered. This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond came from the publisher for a book tour through TLC Book Tours.
A mother who lets her child follow her starstruck dreams to Hollywood, where neither of them are prepared for the life that that entails, this one sounds really delicious.

Love in Mid Air by Kim Wright came from Miriam at Hatchette Book Group for a book tour.
An account of marriage and friendship and the dragging sameness of daily life, I'm very curious to see the ways in which this book earned a glowing review from Publishers Weekly.

Not Quite Paradise by Adele Barker came from LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
An American in Sri Lanka for a year and a half in addition to information on the politics and the 2004 tsunami? Sounds like a fascinating and informative combination to me.

As always, if you'd like to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Marcia at The Printed Page and enjoy seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Salon: Restless

Do you ever find yourself restless? I don't mean unable to sleep. More in the sense of not being able to settle down to anything? Normally I am a list maker and I delight in crossing things off lists. But right now I seem to be existing in a state of mild irritation, unable to complete, heck unable to start, almost anything. This feeling is infecting my whole world. Have I made hotel reservations for dance Nationals in July? Nope, and if I don't do it soon, we'll be sleeping on the beach. Somehow I suspect that having sand in her costume would not improve R.'s performances. A bed would be a better option. Have I e-mailed the friend I promised to e-mail? Nope. And while she's so busy she probably won't notice my lapse, it still bothers me. There's more but I won't bore you with the litany. Suffice it to say that it also affects my reading and reviewing. I just can't seem to climb into my books and revel in them in the way that usually provides me with such pleasure. Maybe it's the books I'm currently reading. But more likely it's me.

So in an effort to combat the lethargy and anomie, I decided to try retail therapy. And of course, not being a true girl, my retail therapy consists almost entirely of shopping for books. So I dutifully tucked the Christmas gift cards into my pocket (and just having them unspent this long highlights the extent of the problem for me!) and headed out. And I found a wagonload of books to come home with but aside from the fact that many of them were from my wishlist, I can't seem to muster up the oomph to open any one of them and start reading them. I know, I know; this should be a sign to return them and not look back but that just ain't gonna happen, sistah friend. But I need a gentle push so I'm going to fall back on my old stand-by and make a list and you, gentle readers, are going to pick the book you most want to see me read and review. In short, you are going to give me purpose. So here are the options in no particular order:

King Lear by Shakespeare
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
This Charming Man by Marian Keyes
Raising Jake by Charlie Carillo
A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents by Liza Palmer
The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan
The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day
Tell Me Something True by Leila Cobo
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
Henry's Sisters by Cathy Lamb
A Stopover in Venice by Kathryn Walker
Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith (I actually bought The Unbearable Lightness of Scones but I am completely incapable of reading series out of order so I'm subbing the next one I need to read in the list instead)

Nothing terribly out of the ordinary and many of which have been reviewed on numerous other blogs in recent memory but c'est la vie. If you think I should read something else entirely from my tbr shelves instead (and feel free to check my LibraryThing page and then to spend hours sifting through my tbr books) let me know and that can be added into the mix. I don't know yet if I will pick the book with the most votes or with the most interesting reason I should read and review it or the recommendation from my most prolific commenter or the recommendation from an entirely new commenter I've never seen on my blog before. But reach me through the fog of ennui and give me that purpose I need. So get cracking and let me know what I should open next.

So far this week, I didn't move my bookmark in my visit to the British Raj in India, nor did I move my bookmark in Dicken's London. And the sparkly vampires did without my interest for another week. I added a new bookmark to a dog book but promptly abandoned it in the passenger seat of my car. I have slowly (much more slowly than anticipated) moved a bookmark into a reissue of an older book that isn't what I expected at all when I read of two young men who imagined an old woman into being and then must confront their creation, a twist on the Pygmalion myth. And bookmarks did go all the way through a funny romance complete with wing-nut Italian relatives, an account of five years on Corfu by a British family chock full of quite eccentric members, and the story of a young woman searching for answers about the car accident that almost killed her years ago and falling in love before she even has all the answers.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Recently overheard

You'd think I'd get to go to the bathroom alone by now but even with children long past toddler age, I don't. Usually this is annoying. Today it was hilarious as I overheard the following conversation:

R.: Why does daddy even have a comb? He doesn't need one.

W.: He bought it when he had hair.

R.: But he has it out on his sink like he actually uses it.

W.: He uses it to comb out the dead hair.

::snort:: ::choke:: ::giggle:: ::wiping tears from my eyes::

And if I recount this conversation to D. his standard question is going to be: "Why did we have children again?" LOL!

Saturday Shout-Out

On my travels through the blogging world, I find many books that pique my interest. I always add them to my wish list immediately but I tend to forget who deserves the blame credit for inspiring me to add them to my list (and to whom my husband would like to send the bill when I get around to actually buying them). So each Saturday I'm going to try and keep better track, link to my fellow book ferreter-outers (I know, not a word but useful nonetheless), and hopefully add to some of your wish lists too.

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple was mentioned at A Striped Armchair.

Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home by Maria Finn was mentioned at Algonquin Books Blog.

Bring on the Blessings by Beverly Jenkins was mentioned at Avon Romance Blog.

Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart by Beth Pattillo was mentioned at Austenprose.

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll was mentioned at Book Chatter.

The Season of Second Chances by Diane Meier was mentioned at Bookfan.

The Espressologist by Katrina Springer was mentioned at Cover to Cover.

Spin by Catherine McKenzie was mentioned at The Book Chick.

Dishwasher by Pete Jordan was mentioned at Books, Lists, Life.

What goodies have you added to your wish lists recently? Make your own list and leave a comment here so we can all see who has been a terrible influence inspiring you lately.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: Nearer My Dog to Thee by Graham Mackintosh

A delightful book about a man, his dog, a summer camping in the Sierra San Pedro Martir, nature, and the history of Baja California, this is hard to define because it is so comprehensive and wonderful. Mackintosh, who has written other travel narratives about walking around Baja California decided that he wanted to try something different. He wanted to spend a summer camping in the one of Mexico's most unspoiled and remote National Parks, examining the area minutely. His companion throughout this sojourn is not his wife but a medium-sized dog he adopts from just south of the US border and christens Pedro.

As the summer starts, he and Pedro learn each other and the gorgeous area in which they've set up camp. They go on hikes together, appreciating the natural beauty of the place. Mackintosh is a lovely nature writer, devoting chapters to fungus and trees and other wonders of this unique eco-system. But his narrative never gets weighted down by so many details that the non-expert would be bored. And he peppers his story with descriptions of the people and animals he meets around the park, from the rangers to hikers, from other pets to the cattle who calmly wander into his camp.

The book is crammed with general information on the nature of the area but also with good, detailed history of the discovery of the place and the missionaries who first explored it with the help of the native people. Mackintosh recounts his own experiences with gentle humor and a lovely perspective. He talks of his reluctance to eat some of the wild-foraged fungus his wife has collected, being overly cautious of poisonous mushrooms, despite her willingness to eat her finds. He pokes fun at himself for his fear of the thunderstorms that terrify him in his small canvas tent, all the while retaining a healthy respect for the overwhelming power of the storms. He writes lovingly of Pedro and Penny, another of his dogs who joins he and Pedro part way through his four months, of their companionship and the sheer joy of being with his four-footed friends.

He hikes, he explores, and he recounts it all for the armchair traveler in such a way that four months without a car on a remote mountaintop in Mexico sounds like bliss. His writing is accessible and charming. He urges the importance of conservation and of the plight of stray dogs without ever coming off as preachy. The final chapters of the book, where he hears about the attacks of September 11 over his small radio are as political as he gets and lead to a musing about mortality, something that threads through the whole of his narrative in smaller ways anyway. Something special anyway, I freely admit I was tickled to know that the book was written at a cabin not far from our cottage, a world away from Baja California. If you enjoy unique ecosystems, history, travelogues, and dog books, be sure to give this one a gander. It has a lot to offer.

Short takes

Can anyone explain to me why the child who is content to wear clothing until it is so dirty, smelly, and generally disgusting that it would be a scientist's dream insists on having clean, fresh jammies every night? Well, at least on the nights he's not trying to sleep in the aforementioned week old nasties. Is this a special rule made by the laundry gods that I have been unaware of until now? Never wear jammies more than one night before tossing them in the laundry? Could this be why my whites are never quite white enough? The gods are wreaking their revenge on me?

Staying home with sick kids is going to kill me. I feel trapped. I spent the week before this one stuck at home with a kid suffering from bronchitis. Getting out to get a haircut was a huge outing and made me feel like breaking out in song. (I'm tone deaf. You definitely don't want that.) So sending the sickie back to school this Tuesday was like rainbows and kittens day. Until yesterday when the school nurse called to say he had a fever of 101 and must. come. home. again. to. stay. Does it sound completely and totally unmaternal of me to admit I don't *want* him home again? I am so stinking tired of listening to the Disney channel or Nickelodeon or the like that I could spit. I enjoy my peacefully quiet house while the kids are at school. The fact that the boy nods off to sleep even with the obnoxious ear worms of childen's programming echoing through the room not only confirms that he is truly sick but makes me feel slightly guilty for not wanting him home. I hate feeling guilty.

We got the bill for R.'s dance the other day. This doesn't cover everything (the costume bill is still to come) but it was enough of a whopper to just about cause a coronary. I'm still thinking about which child we're going to sell to cover the cost. It would be R. but if we sell her, there's no point left in paying the bill and really the boys haven't earned an eBay listing. (Well, maybe I should sell W. to someone interested in running medical experiments since he's clearly going to malinger as long as he can until school's out for the summer, driving me nuts and making sure we get our money's worth out of the cable bill.)

I expect D. to come home any day now and tell me we are moving. The reason for this? After a year and a half of living here, I finally unpacked the last of the boxes. Yes, we are officially all moved in. Everyone should celebrate with me. Oh, and in case you don't realize that me being completely and totally unpacked means Hell has indeed frozen over, please note that in unpacking, I saved a set of shelves for D. to put his books on instead of just claiming all the shelves for myself. I know. I know. I'm so generous! A whole set of shelves out of the dozen or so that we have. I must be coming down with something. I probably caught it from W.

As if one sick kid isn't enough, T.'s ear is so full of fluid that he can't hear out of it. He can only hear his own pulse throbbing away in there. Makes conversations with him interesting. And made my night the other night terribly sleepless as he dozed on top of me while I rubbed his head and neck to try and calm his sobbing while we waited for the children's Tylenol to work. Didn't help that we only have the infant's version and he's almost 8. Not wanting to overdose him (see, I have a few maternal cells), I probably underdosed him. That resulted in a lower level of sniffling and whimpering but no added sleep for me. It also led to the realization that it's a bit of an embarrassment when the dog gets to sleep in the bed and the miserable kid camps out on the floor on the dog pillow. (Wouldn't want to have you think I have *too many* maternal instincts.)

I remain behind on my book reviews and e-mail and have no excuse other than I am climbing the walls with cabin fever. I'm starting to seriously consider slipping Lysol in everyone's food to disinfect them from the inside out. And if this weather doesn't go back to the delighful sun and spring-like temps of the past weekend, I might just curl up into a ball in the corner and start weeping uncontrollably. We live in the south for pity's sake. This near freezing thing is bad enough but combined with the grey skies and clouds, it's just plain mean. Either snow and be pretty (although preferably not on a school day because the last thing we need is a snow day with kids off of school) or warm up and be pretty. My poor daffodils, which braved the warmer weather a couple of days ago to send up leaves, are probably shriveling up and dying in their little hearts. And I'm such a crap gardener that daffodil blooming time is the only time my yard looks gorgeous.

I also took advantage of the warmer few days to trim those dratted "crap myrtles." I am pleased to say that it was a better experience than last year. For starters, I wasn't wearing pants that kept falling off my butt. The fact that I have gained enough weight to keep pants up would normally be a bad thing but not mooning the neighbors trumps moaning about unwanted weight. I've also gotten better at dodging the branches I've trimmed so I think I only beaned myself in the head with the branches a handful of times. And I drew no blood. The crepe myrtles still look like something only Charlie Brown would rescue since I'm still short and the ladder sank into the soft rain-soaked ground a fair ways when I climbed it but given that I am considering whacking the things off about three feet high with a chainsaw, they got off fairly easily this year. Not gonna win the neighborhood yard of the month this month. (No, we don't have this award--at least not that I'm aware of--but the neighborhood directly behind us does and the winner has a monstrously large sign out in front proclaiming their superiority. Kicked in the competitive urge a bit before I realized that, as mentioned above, I am a crap gardener. Oh, and I don't live in the neighborhood that gives awards. Details.)

Giveaway winners for The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

Sorry for the delay in picking the winners but I've been dealing with a relapsing kid and the blog was about the last thing on my mind. In any case, and I had a tete a tete this morning and it spit back the three winners for me: commenters #9, 14, and 3. That means that Beth (BBRB), Aths ,and claire are the winners. I will be e-mailing them shortly for their addresses.

For those who didn't win this one, you may want to toss your hat in the ring for my giveaway of The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg.

And thanks to everyone who entered!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review: Freeze Frame: A Photographic History of the Winter Olympics by Sue Macy

The last time I was in the school library, I heard all about their Book Buzz program where publishers send books for the schools to keep provided that someone writes up a short review which is then published and forwarded to all the librarians in the system. And being me, I immediately thought, I could do that for the school. So I popped back to the shelves dedicated to these books and happily collected a stack. But I have been completely remiss in reading them so when I saw that my children had pulled this one out of *my* shelves and read it themselves, as well as realized that this year's Winter Olympics is nigh upon us, I decided it was time to get cracking and read this one in time for it to be processed and hit the shelves in a timely manner.

And really, it's a wonderful book for middle schoolers. It has fewer pictures than I expected given the subtitle but it has thorough and interesting summaries about the origins of the Winter Games, big names from past Olympics, what sports are included, the challenges inherent in a large scale competition dependent in so many ways upon the weather, the controversies that have dogged the competitions, etc. The information is never overwhelming and is always clearly and evenly presented. The focus is certainly US-centric, especially when Macy starts discussing the most recent Games, but there are other countries' athletes included as well. The photography is vivid and sharp. The pictures from the early Games were most interesting for me since I knew so much less about the athletes and even the sports gear from then but all the pictures are good and contribute to make this a well-presented, knowledgeable look at a modern event. This is definitely a good one to read and enjoy in the run up to the opening ceremonies next month.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

I am probably going to be flayed alive by fans of this classic bit of kiddie lit, but I didn't love it. As a matter of fact, far from wondering what it would have been like to have grown up in their family, I was beyond grateful that I didn't. Usually I am all for daydreaming and inserting myself in the appealing, old-fashioned world but not in this instance. I do understand that writing this book was probably a labor of love on Gilbreth and Carey's parts. And I am quite certain that they would be horrified to know that I found their father, at least as depicted here, to be an unpleasant sort. The idea of running a family as a factory or business might seem quaint and entertaining from a distance but it struck me as distasteful. I was particularly interested in the assertion by the authors that he respected children and that's why so many children liked him. Then, completely without irony, they said that he would cut off their dinner conversation by declaring it "not of general interest" and go on to expound on whatever had fascinated or consumed him that day. Respectful? Wow. That's not my understanding of the word.

But the look at the times and the inner workings (even if unusual) of a large family was interesting. Mother Lil was really rather marginalized in this book but I suspect she takes center stage in the next book so perhaps the pair are intended to be seperate portraits of their parents in the milieu that the children knew them best: the family. It is also worth noting that there was only about one year in which all 12 children were at home since the age span between the first and the twelfth is great enough. And since Frank Sr. died when the youngest was merely two, his jovial response to people's wonder at so many children that they come cheaper by the dozen was really only true at the very tail end of his life. The book is almost episodic in nature, with the interesting bits recounted, leaving the narrative flow a bit choppy. And figuring out who all the children were? Don't count on it as they aren't described distinctly enough to differentiate amongst them. But this is a classic and people do love it so perhaps I was just in a terrible mood or completely missed the elusive something that draws readers to a book. The family antics were occasionally entertaining but I had a hard time getting past my dislike of the not quite so genial patriarch. Heresy, but I prefer the movie versions.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review: The Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton

When the novel opens, Nick and Susy are newlyweds enjoying a glimpse of the moon from the country home that they've borrowed from a friend for their honeymoon. Nick and Susy aren't typical newlyweds though. They have a deal and figure they'll be married to each other for about a year. At the end of that time (roughly determined as the amount of time in which they, the vastly entertaining but poor couple, can live off of their incredibly wealthy friends), they assume they will divorce and each remarry someone more suitable, by which they mean rich.

Although they've been living off the largess of their friends for so long, they have differing opinions about what is morally and ethically acceptable and so despite their growing care for each other, they come into conflict over the differences. Pulled apart by misunderstanding, each of them goes off with different friends and tries to slip back into the life led before their marriage. But the time together has changed them both, deepened them as people and made it possible for them to think of a life not led in the superficial, glancing world of the inordinately wealthy. It has allowed them to truly fall in love.

While the plot might sound like many a romance novel, Wharton spends much time on the shallow foibles of the moneyed set shifting around Europe in search of entertainment. Nick and Susy are a lens through which to see some of these excesses. The writing is fantastic, with accurate descriptions, backhanded wit, and astute insights. The tone here is casual and light although Wharton does get in the expected rapier thrusts about the ennui and the callousness so characteristic of the social class she's describing. And in the end, the story is not so much about Nick and Susy's sponging off of others or about the friends who collect and discard relationships like last year's hats, but it's about a pair who, despite the company they keep, grow and learn and understand the importance of love. I've been a fan of Wharton's for a long time and this novel just re-confirmed my feeling.

This review is a part of the Classics Circuit. Check the website for additional Edith Wharton tour stops and to browse through her other book offerings.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Giveaway: The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg

A couple of days ago, I reviewed The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg, a cute YA novel. Now here's your chance to win a copy of this fun book for your own. The folks at Big Honcho Media are allowing me to giveaway three copies of the book.

Book overview:

Penny is sick of boys and sick of dating, so she vows: No more. She’s had one too many bad dates, and has been hurt by one too many bad boys. It’s a personal choice…and soon everybody wants to know about it. It seems that Penny’s not the only girl who’s tired of the way girls change themselves (most of the time for the worse) in order to get their guys…or the way their guys don’t really care about them. Girls are soon thronging to The Lonely Hearts Club (named after Sgt. Pepper’s band), and Penny finds herself near legendary for her non-dating ways – which is too bad, since the leader of The Lonely Hearts Club has found a certain boy she can’t help but like…

You can read my review of the book here.

Watch the book trailer:

And visit Elizabeth Eulberg's website for more on the author and the book. (Doesn't she just look like a lot of fun in this picture?)

Now for the details on the giveaway. To enter:

Leave a comment below telling me why you want to read this one.
Make sure to leave an e-mail address so you can be contacted in case you win.
US residents only.
Contest will run from Jan. 18 until Feb. 1. Three lucky winners will be announced Feb. 2.

While you're at it reading about this delightful book, don't forget to check out the Twitter Party that wraps up Elizbeth's blog tour on Jan. 20. There will be lots of fun and giveaways there too.

Join Lonely Hearts Club author Elizabeth Eulberg and Amy of MyFriendAmy for a Twitter party Wednesday, January 20, between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. EST!

Be sure to follow Elizabeth @ElizEulberg and Amy @MyFriendAmy before the party!

Join the fun! No one expects you or your tweets to be perfect; we’re just happy you made it to the party!

Anyone who tweets during this hour using #LonelyHeartsClub is entered to win a limited edition Lonely Hearts Club t-shirt!

Watch for questions from @MyFriendAmy and win awesome prizes including an iPod shuffle, $50 iTunes gift card or $25 VISA gift card!

To join the party, you can use our official party tweetgrid or just search #LonelyHeartsClub on Twitter.

Ask Elizabeth questions or chat with other partygoers about how excited you are to read LHC—just use the tag #LonelyHeartsClub in all of your party tweets! (This is added automatically in TweetGrid.)

Please don’t post any spoilers and don’t forget to pay attention to the time zones, the party starts at 8:30pm EST.

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