Friday, March 30, 2012

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers by Sarah-Kate Lynch

Abby has been estranged from the family farm since her rebellious mother ran off with her when she was a small child. Kit is a burned out New York stockbroker who's down on his luck. But that's all about to change, now that he and Abby have converged on the farm just in time to help Corrie and Fee, two old cheesemakers in a time of need.

Full of delightful and quirky characters-from dairy cows who only give their best product to pregnant, vegetarian teens to an odd collection of whiskey-soaked men and broken-hearted women who find refuge under Corrie and Fee's roof-this is an irresistible tale about taking life's spilled milk and turning it into the best cheese in the world.

My take: 4 looks
I was surprised at how much I liked this book! It was cute, fun, magical and had a nice, if predictable, ending. There were turns and twists that I didn't see coming, as well as giving the always-satisfying tying up of all loose ends. I will rush to get more by this author!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Eva Rice, daughter of the famed lyricist Tim Rice, has written a captivating and wonderfully stylized novel about a group of friends in postwar London’s glamorous and daring young society. With mannered prose dripping in the charm of 1950s London, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets centers around Penelope, the wide-eyed daughter of a legendary beauty, Talitha, who is unable to move beyond the loss of her charmed husband to the war. Penelope, with her mother and brother, struggles to maintain their vast and crumbling ancestral home — and the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed — while postwar London spins toward the next decade’s cultural revolution. Penelope wants nothing more than to fall in love. When her new best friend, Charlotte, a free spirit in the young society set, drags Penelope into vibrant young London with all of its grand parties, she sets in motion great change for them all. Charlotte’s mysterious and attractive brother Harry plots to use Penelope to make his American ex-girlfriend jealous, with unforeseen consequences, until a dashing, wealthy American movie producer arrives with what might be the key to Penelope’s — and her family’s — future happiness. Vibrant, witty and filled with vivid historical detail, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is an utterly unique debut novel about a time and place just slipping into history.

My take: 3 looks
This was an easy book to read, but it gets three looks from me because it would have also been as easy book to put down. Of its 352 pages, I was not hooked until after page 200. Several reviewers compare this book to I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. While I have never read this book, it does appear that the similarities are numerous, with Smith's work being superlative in the minds of most of these reviewers. I was also a little turned off by the seemingly constant mention that the author is the daughter of a famous composer, which also does her an injustice.

Rice's writing is fluid, clever and easy to read, but by no means ground-breaking or otherwise soul-searching-and-revealing. The characters are well-drawn, but did not garner much empathy from me. I can imagine that this is exactly what it was like in post-war, post-aristocrat England in the 1950s. This is a nice beach or rainy day read. Most of all, though, it encouraged me to add I Capture the Castle to my reading list.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Sima’s Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross

A heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship amid love, loss, and lingerie In the Basement of her Brooklyn apartment, Sima Goldner welcomes women of all shapes and sizes with warmth, acceptance-and a bra that gives them the support and lift they need.

But Sima, regretfully childless at sixty, and harboring a secret that has embittered her marriage, can't seem to do the same for herself. Then Timna, a young Israeli with enviable cleavage, arrives in search of a demi-cup and stays on to become the shop's seamstress.

As they laugh, gossip, and sell lingerie, Sima finds herself awakening to hope and the possibility of happiness in this beguiling story of New York's underground sisterhood, and one woman's second chance.

My take: 4 looks
I have a bit of a love/like with this book. At first, this is what I said on about the book:
I feel like a mid-Victorian prude! I started reading Sima's Undergarments for Women and found the relationship between the two women more than a little creepy. It's not quite mother/daughter, not out-and-out lesbianism, but something a little more covert. I had to put it down and post the question: Should I read this? Have any of you read it, and can you shed any light?

A friend of mine read the book and told me that I was all wrong on it, and that I should get past this odd beginning (she agreed that it was written with a creepy vibe at first) and get to the nitty gritty of the relationship between the older and younger women.

I read on, and she was correct. Once I got past the initial reaction, I saw a terribly lonely, guilty and overbearing woman. I was so sorry for the way she handled her inability to have children, how it affected her marriage and her relationship with the younger Timna. She eventually pushed them away despite the fact that she needed them both. And the relationship that Timna and Lev forged with one another on the shared foundation of Sima was interesting. I also loved the Jewish element to the story. While I am not Jewish, I can imagine that this is exactly what many families of the faith are like.

I found this to be a very real, heart-wrenching story of loss, regret, and almost-too-late second chances. The characters are real, the friendships are real and the neighborhood is real. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Hugo is an orphan who lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where survival depends on secrets and anonoymity. But when his world interlocks with a bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy shop, things start to change. A treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man which all hints to a hidden messege from Hugo's dead father.

My take: 5 looks

I love the use of pictures and text to tell this story. There are almost 300 pages of pictures. Some are standalone. Some have the feel of a flipbook. Some are closeups and almost abstract. All support the story and add to the action and suspense, moving the reader forward.

I love the history and research of the story. The author did extensive research on the French cinema, watched many early movies, incorporating them into his tale, and remained true to the pioneers who forged and developed technologies that make movies what they are today.

I love that I can go online and see the automaton that inspired Selznick to write the book. I love that Georges Melies is a real person, with a real history and legacy. I can watch the same movies that Selznick talks about in the book.

I love that there is a website for the book, telling about the book, the author, the Caldecott Medal, which it won in 2008, the making of the movie, and links galore to propel the interested reader further and further down the same path that Hugo travele. And finally, I can't wait to see the movie, for which I have very high hopes.

This is a new favorite.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

Begun in 1959 by a then-twenty-two-year-old Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary is a brilliantly tangled love story of jealousy, treachery and violent alcoholic lust in the Caribbean boomtown that was San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the late 1950s. Exuberant and mad, youthful and energetic, The Rum Diary is an outrageous, drunken romp in the spirit of Thompson's bestselling Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell's Angels.

My take: 2 looks
Now a major motion picture starring Johnny Depp. Well, "major" may be a bit overreaching, since it stayed in the theaters maybe two weeks.

This book is exactly what it says it is" day in and day out of a man who moves to Puerto Rico in the 1950s and lives the hedonistic life. No cares, no ties, no responsibilities. Just booze, sex, a job when he feels like it, and life on the cheap. However, mixing with the locals prove to be a bit of a challenge, but not as much as the other ex-pats in the area.

It was entertaining, but any longer than 204 pages would have been too much. The fact that he is supposed to have influenced a number of contemporary writers, but I can't really see anything extraordinary about his characters (really, just caricatures of personality traits in the typical man: violent, unstable, drunk, sex-crazed, a little psychotic) or his prose (first person told in straight chronology) or the setting (typical 1950s Puerto Rico). One review I read called it "rambling source material" for a movie. I thought this to be quite perfect.

I probably won't read more by this author.

Not recommended.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Zoli by Colum McCann

A unique love story, a tale of loss, a parable of Europe, this haunting novel is an examination of intimacy and betrayal in a community rarely captured so vibrantly in contemporary literature.

Zoli Novotna, a young woman raised in the traveling Gypsy tradition, is a poet by accident as much as desire. As 1930s fascism spreads over Czechoslovakia, Zoli and her grandfather flee to join a clan of fellow Romani harpists. Sharpened by the world of books, which is often frowned upon in the Romani tradition, Zoli becomes the poster girl for a brave new world. As she shapes the ancient songs to her times, she finds her gift embraced by the Gypsy people and savored by a young English expatriate, Stephen Swann.

But Zoli soon finds that when she falls she cannot fall halfway–neither in love nor in politics. While Zoli’s fame and poetic skills deepen, the ruling Communists begin to use her for their own favor. Cast out from her family, Zoli abandons her past to journey to the West, in a novel that spans the 20th century and travels the breadth of Europe.

Colum McCann, acclaimed author of Dancer and This Side of Brightness , has created a sensuous novel about exile, belonging and survival, based loosely on the true story of the Romani poet Papsuza. It spans the twentieth century and travels the breadth of Europe. In the tradition of Steinbeck, Coetzee, and Ondaatje, McCann finds the art inherent in social and political history, while vividly depicting how far one gifted woman must journey to find where she belongs.

My take: 4 looks
I was surprised at how easy to read this book was. It dealt with an interesting topic, at an interesting time, but the epic nature of the novel and the potential to be dry was a red flag for me.

Not to worry. The writing was excellent, with full-bodied characters. I have heard of Gypsies all my life, but have never been introduced to their lifestyle, culture, traditions and past like McCann has done in this book. Zoli was a complex character, torn between two very different worlds. I felt her pain and struggle as she moved through the years. The book divisions were welcome and at appropriate times. Emotions were almost at a crescendo as one section stopped and another one started. While the action and chronology were fluid, each section allowed for a breath and a new start as I turned the page.

I highly recommend this book, and look forward to reading more works by Colum McCann.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Excellent Advice!

From Lifehacker website: Reading for the Rushed

People sometimes ask me how I'm able to read 70+ books every year despite my extra-curricular, professional, and authoring activities. The truth is that although my reading count the past few years has remained fairly consistent, it's far less than my historical count (by half) and pathetically less than truly prolific readers. Alas, people ask and so I'll try to answer the best that I can. Below you'll find a short list of principles that help me to maximize my reading time and motivation.

Read only what you find interesting
This seems self-evident, but many people: 1) have no idea what they find interesting, or 2) feel that what they find interesting is childish or lowbrow. That may be the case, but who cares? The point of reading is to enjoy reading. No one can tell you what you should enjoy reading, so read what you enjoy. I believe that as time passes your interests will expand into other kinds of writing, but even if that never happens it's not terribly important.

If the book you're reading is too embarrassing to carry onto the subway then find something else to do on the subway, or buy a Kindle. All books look the same in the Kindle.

Be willing to abandon bad books
Like many people I feel physical pain when reading a bad book. Likewise, there is a relative "point of no return" for each reader where, when reading a bad book, they will feel that the time and pain spent is too costly to abandon the effort. Fight that urge because there is nothing less conducive to prolific reading than trying to slog through a bad book.
Read in context
I tend to read 3-4 books at a time. It was once difficult to keep the "story lines" straight in my head when
switching from one book to another, but I found that context helps solve that problem. For example, I read a certain book before bed while I read a different book in the morning and yet a different book for study. I hope you get the point. The goal is to contextualize certain books (or even genres) so that my mind is ready for certain content at certain times. However, do not stick to this partitioning too strictly as truly great books smash through the contexts and I find myself unable to put them down. Roll with this. There are few things more joyful then finding a truly great book.

The more you read the faster you'll read
It's true. Reading is practice for your reading speed and vocabulary. The more you read the faster the words will flow past your eyes and the less time you'll need to spend in the dictionary. I still religiously check the dictionary for words that I'm unfamiliar with and are important to understanding the narrative. However, for words that are interesting but inessential (it's hard to know which words fall into this category, but you'll learn to identify them over time) I write them down and look them up at my leisure.

Take notes
This is related to the point above. That is, by keeping notes you can go back later and explore certain aspects closer and more deeply. This will help you by simply learning more and this fact will help you pre-load information for future books that might require certain knowledge that you might not otherwise have  
had. As a nice side-effect, taking notes always helps me to recall the book later on, even if I never look at the notes afterwards. The very act of taking notes seems to help me to crystallize ideas.

Keep a reading log
Since I was a kid I've kept a list of the books that I've read and the dates that I started reading and the date that I completed reading. This may seem a bit gratuitous, but there is a good reason for doing this. That is, by keeping a record you'll start to recognize patterns. For example, you might notice that you happen to dislike certain sub-genres of sci-fi and will learn to avoid them. There are many patterns to find in your reading habits and the avoidance of genres is just one.

And that's it. Those are effectively my reading tricks. I have no idea if these are generally applicable, but if you think so then I'm happy to have helped.
Great article! While I very rarely read more than one book at a time, I employ almost all of the other tips. Believe me, it works!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why the interest? OpEd on 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Straight from
50 Shades of Grey is the first title in a trilogy by British author E. L. James. This morning, the NYT reports (in what is currently the most-emailed article on the site) that the book has “electrified women across the country, who have spread the word like gospel on Facebook pages, at school functions and in spin classes…conversation about the book online has fed many of the sales.” Over 250,000 copies have been sold.

Though the NYT mentions the “word-of-mouth excitement” the trilogy has generated and says James “began the trilogy by posting fan fiction online,” the article doesn’t explain its origins in detail. Well-known romance blogs like “Dear Author” and “Smart Bitches, Trashy Books” have been covering 50 Shades of Grey since last year. 50 Shades of Grey is hugely popular on social reading site GoodReads, where it was a finalist for “Best Romance” in the 2011 GoodReads Choice Awards. There, it has been rated 6,821 times (with an average star rating of 4.34) and reviewed 1,347 times.

That snippet is just to give you a bit of background on my opinion. First of all, the strict genre of this book is Erotica. So, don't let the press or buzz fool you into thinking it's anything like Twilight, and frankly, my head spins at the number of times I saw these two compared.

That, my dear reader, is the falsest of advertising and the meanest of bait/switch. Twilight is, at its heart, an incredible love story. Romeo and Juliet. Never to be together and yet impossible to remain apart. 50 Shades of Grey is rampant with violent sex, in the form of rape fantasy (Do women fantasize about being raped? Get to therapy, ladies!), domination and sadomasochism. Unless I missed an entire undercurrent in the Twilight saga, these two are night and day.

About a man who is wildly successful in business, handsome, blah, blah, blah and the woman he pulls into his dangerous and illicit woman-hating fantasies. That is the summary in a nutshell. My question is: Why on earth is this book flying off the shelves?

What in us wants to read about violent sex? What on earth is wrong with society when a book publisher will pay seven figures for a series published over a year ago, which was (for the most part) available free online until recently?

There is no shortage of books! There are tons and tons of wonderful books out there to read that will not damage precious brain cells with images that you'll never be able to release. Choose one of these! Please, I am begging you. Do Not Buy This Book. It's poison. I am no fan of book censorship, and I strongly endorse the availability of this book on the shelves. However, I also fully support dust collecting on every one of them, as a sure and solid voice that we don't want to read books that glorify and romanticize violence of any kind against women, least of all sexual in nature.

Did you know that March 8th was World Women's Day? Do you know why we have to have a day like World Women's Day? Because of books like 50 Shades of Grey, which trivializes (at the least) violence against women and romanticizes it (at the worst).

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

And Then There Were Two by Gilbert Morris

"J.T. Denver is finding out in more ways than one that money doesn't do you a whole lot of good if you're dead."

Dani Ross gets an unbelievable assignment for her detective agency--protect the wealthy J.T. Denver while finding his potential assassin. Not an easy task when so many want him dead. A ruthless businessman, J.T. has made more than a few bitter enemies in his lifetime--including his own family. And though he recently made a life-changing spiritual decision, letting his old nature die is as difficult for him as finding the potential assassin is for Dani. J.T.'s attempt to set things right brings the only woman he ever loved back into his life--but she has some surprising secrets of her own that will make the tangled web around J.T. even harder to unravel.

My take: 3 looks
This was a good sequel to "One by One". I thoroughly enjoyed the first book because it was so reminiscent of Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None".

This one, a bit different in that no one actually dies (spoiler?), was interesting and engaging. The premise is that everyone is a suspect in the attempted murder of a very wealthy businessman. Everyone includes his three ex-wives and their extended families. There are more than a few red herrings, which I guess is common with any mystery. Drug use, dangerous tempers, overt threats...all leading to nothing.

As in the last book, Dani and Ben Savage engage in a bit of sexual tension, with it being played out a little more in this book in a kiss or two. It is obvious that there is chemistry between them, but I find the jealousy on Dani's part to be a bit petty and sophomoric. Also, I almost put this one down when Dani, in the first chapter, put herself in danger purely because of her stubborn streak. This is not the mark of a mature Christian woman, and I felt it was overdone, unnecessary and irritating. However, the rest of the story flowed for me.

While I would recommend this one, I probably won't read any more in the series.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Blue Bottle Club by Penelope J. Stokes

In the wake of the depression of 1929, four friends gather in a cold, dusty attic on Christmas day to make a solemn pact. Our dreams for the future, they whisper, as they place tiny pieces of paper holding their life wishes into the blue, cabin-shaped bottle. Letitia dreams of marriage and children; Mary hopes to be a painter; Eleanor aspires to help those in need as a social worker; Adora longs to be a Broadway actress. Four girls, four dreams, and four futures sealed in a cobalt blue bottle.

Sixty-five years later, local news reporter Brendan Delaney stumbles upon the bottle, discovering the most meaningful story of her career and possibly the meaning missing from her own life.

My take: 3 looks
I happened upon this book at the public library, and remembered that a friend had recommended it. I liked the premise of the story very much: four young friends write their dreams for the future and put them all in a bottle which is then nestled in the rafters of an attic. 65 years later, the bottle is discovered by a reporter and she takes it as her personal journey to find out what became of each woman.

The reporter, Brendan, fell completely flat for me. I had no sympathy for her and related to her just on a very surface-level. Her angst seemed to be self-fulfilling and that always brings a lack of compassion from me.

The four friends, however, saved the rating for me. I loved how their stories were interwoven and took turns that were completely unexpected. I felt as if I was getting to know them as I read, and wanted to know more as the story wore on. I would have liked to be in the company of these friends.

While the book earns only 3 stars from me this time, it reads a bit like a first or second novel, and I will definitely read more by this author, hoping her style matures a bit.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Piece de Resistance by Sandra Byrd

Having earned her chef’s hat, Lexi Stuart bids au revoir to her glamorous and deliciously satisfying pastry mentorship outside of Paris and returns to her hometown of Seattle, Washington. There, she finds life unexpectedly complicated. She’s put in charge of a high-end catering bakery called Bijoux, which should be her dream job, but there’s a catch: She has to make this lavish bakery into a successful business in just a few, short months, which will require more than her ability to make an amazing wedding cake. In over her head and at a loss for creative marketing ideas, Lexi isn’t sure what the recipe for success needs to be. Stir in a complicated relationship with her French beau Philippe and his daughter, Celine, then add a dash of romance with down-to-earth lawyer Dan, and life suddenly contains more ooh la la than Lexi can handle. With the fate of her career and her love life hanging by a thread, the phrase “piece of cake” has never been more daunting. Lexi learns that she must trust the dreams in her heart and the God who put them there.

My take: 3 looks
The last book in the French Twist series was another delight to read. The author matured in her writing throughout the series, which was obvious from book-to-book. The story was nicely told, the Christian element was not overwhelming (as is often the case with Christian fiction), the characters elicited invested interest from me, and I am glad I read the entire series.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Life's Golden Ticket by Brendon Burchard

"Find my coat," she whispered weakly. "There's an envelope in the pocket. Don't open it. Take it to the park. You remember the rumors." In what is sure to become a classic, Brendon Burchard has crafted a triumphant tale of personal growth and change that will inspire any reader who has ever wished for a second chance.

Life's Golden Ticket tells the story of a man who is so trapped in the prisons of his past that he cannot see the possibilities, the choices, and the gifts that are right in front of him.

At the behest of his fiancée, Mary, who is clinging to life in a hospital bed, he takes a mysterious envelope from her and makes his way to an abandoned amusement park to appease her delirious pleadings. When he steps through the rusted entrance gates, the deserted park magically comes to life. He soon meets an old, wise groundskeeper and together they set out to uncover what happened to Mary.

Along the way, he encounters a number of caring yet confrontational park employees--a hypnotist, a fortune-teller, a lion tamer, high-wire performers--and they teach him more about his fiancée and himself than he bargained for. What follows is an unforgettable journey of personal transformation as he overcomes his past, uncovers what happened to Mary, and, finally, discovers what is inside her mysterious envelope.

The author is donating a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book to Kiwanis International, Junior Achievement, and the YMCA.

My take: 2 looks
This is a good premise for a book. You go to a place, a carnival, to experience your past and glimpse your future, enabling you to change while there is still time. However, I felt no connection with the characters at all. There was no empathy, and I found myself getting a bit irritated at the protagonists' resistance to going through this journey ("What happened to Mary? What happened to Mary? What happened to Mary?" really got old).

Repeatedly, I was reminded of Mitch Albom's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven", which was much better written, more compelling and moved me to tears. As a matter of fact, the best thing "Ticket" did for me is to encourage me to read "Heaven" again.

Not recommended.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bon Appetit by Sandra Byrd

Pastries, Paris and romance–Lexi’s adventure has just begun! Lexi Stuart is risking it all. Saying au revoir to the security of home, her job, and could-be boyfriend Dan, Lexi embarks on a culinary adventure in France to fulfill her life dream of becoming a pastry chef. As she settles into her new home in the village of Presque le Chateau to study and work in a local bakery, her twenty-something optimism meets resistance in the seemingly crusty nature of the people and culture around her. Determined to gain her footing, she finds a church, meets a new friend, and makes the acquaintance of a child named Celine–as well as Celine’s attractive, widowed father, Philippe. Even Patricia, the gruff pastry cook, shows a softer side as she mentors Lexi in the art of baking.

As Lexi lives her dream, the only thing she has to do is choose from the array in life’s patisserie display window: her familiar home, friends, and family in Seattle or her new life in France. Lexi discovers that as she leans more on God the choices become a little clearer– and making them, well, c’est la vie!

My take: 3.5 looks
I know, I have never given 1/2 look before, but I had to in this case. This book is so much better than the first in this series, but not quite good enough for 4 looks. I will definitely read the next one (and my thanks to Byrd for keeping this series short) to find out what happens, but it didn't have the substance, panache and soulfulness that a 4-look-book has. I suppose, simply said, it's just because it's a light beach read that is keeping me from giving it more. Unfair? Nah!

I recommend.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

666 Park Avenue by Gabrielle Pierce

What if your mother-in-law turned out to be an evil, cold-blooded witch . . . literally?

Ever since fabulously wealthy Malcolm Doran walked into her life and swept her off her feet, fledgling architect Jane Boyle has been living a fairy tale. When he proposes with a stunning diamond to seal the deal, Jane can't believe her incredible luck and decides to leave her Paris-based job to make a new start with Malcolm in New York.

But when Malcolm introduces Jane to the esteemed Doran clan, one of Manhattan's most feared and revered families, Jane's fairy tale takes a darker turn. Soon everything she thought she knew about the world—and herself—is upended. Now Jane must struggle with new found magical abilities and the threat of those who will stop at nothing to get them.

My take: 3 looks
I have really been looking forward to reading this book. The summary was intriguing and it was a nice change from the vampires that are so popular right now. In the end, it didn't disappoint. No big life lessons here, but straight fantasy/escape. It was easy to read, light in subject and ended nicely, while paving the way for the next book in the series. The story was a little rushed at times, and many things were a bit beyond belief (and I'm talking the level of the friendships here and not the witchcraft), but any more detail on these extraneous items may have proven to be verbose. I thought it was a tidy, fun read. A little sex, but not overdone.