Saturday, December 31, 2011

Year in Review: Top Six Reads of 2011

This has not been the most stellar year for reading. Much has happened in this booklover's life: two moves, two deaths, packing and unpacking — and the revelation of a grand library in a new home.

I pretty much stopped paying attention to what I was reading, and I apologize to myself and to you, my Faithful Reader. I hope to do better by you this year.

Despite my best efforts, I did encounter a few really good books this year.  Here are some, in no particular order:
  • The Gift of Fear — Just because we can't articulate that which makes us fearful doesn't mean we should ignore those signs. Intuition is more important than all of the "common sense" in the world (though the latter should not be ignored, either). Just ask Gavin de Becker.
  • Dracula — This classic stands the test of time. Everyone takes away something interesting from this timeless tale.  Mine was the understanding that much of modern vampire lore began with Bram Stoker's novel.
  • 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America — I never wrote a review because "OMG I LOVED THIS BOOK" doesn't quite articulate how this book eerily foresees a future being constructed in today's real world. Unsettling rather than hysterical, it still amused me. 
  • The Map of Time — I am a sucker for a good time-travel book, and this is one. It went places I didn't expect, and I loved every minute. You will, too.
  • Cutting for Stone — Gorgeous, sweeping, touching, stunning, moving... It's a must-read if you have eyeballs.
  • Little Princes — I can't remember the last time I really, really liked an author the way I liked Conor Grennan.  His authenticity and honesty was amazing, and I so enjoyed joining him on his "accidental" journey.

I didn't include Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children because I am not past the "I LOVELOVELOVED THIS BOOK" (note the annoying all-caps) and I want to wait until the sequel this year of A Discovery of Witches. (I know, what am I thinking?!)

So, what were some of your fave books this year?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review: Miss Peregine's Home for Peculiar Children

The cover captured my attention.

The title, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, intrigued me. Above the title was girl in a dress reminiscent of the 1920s, wearing a tiara, possibly hovering above the dirt and stones under her feet.  Hovering? Pecuilar, indeed.

On the back of the novel were more intriguing photos of children: painted like clowns, in a bunny suit, a girl with a reflection of two girls.  Ransom Riggs had some explaining to do.

So, apparently, did Abe, Jacob’s grandfather. Jacob adored his grandfather and believed the stories behind the photos Abe showed him: a skinny boy lifting a boulder above his head, a girl holding a ball of fire, a suit of clothes standing upright without a child in it.  Abe told his grandson all about these children, who were in an orphanage with him when he was a child. Jacob believed him — until he grew old enough to wonder, and doubt.

That all changed when Jacob received a panicked call from his grandfather — a call that divided Jacob’s life into Before and After. Suddenly, that which seemed unreal and fantastic no longer was totally out of the realm of possibility, and Jacob had to find out whether he was losing his mind, or finding his true self.

Riggs creates a taut, brilliant story fraught with peril, wonder, shock, fright and tales too real to be true.  His characters are rich and complex, and they carry the story forward effortlessly. Peppered throughout the book are snapshots that describe that which sometimes defies description.  The book is awash in mystery and amazement: not everything is explained because some things defy explanation. However, some explanations in the book make perfect sense, and readers may find themselves looking at the world differently.

I enjoy books that successfully join images and language, and I can’t believe I waited so many months — and actually returned my library copy — before opening the covers of this book. Shame on me! I understand therewill be a sequel, and I will be among the first at the bookstore the day it is released.  I can’t wait.

Monday, December 12, 2011

NaNoWriMo: How About You?

November was a crazy month that included a lingering sinus infection, a major multi-day holiday, a friend's wedding, weird weather and my attempt at writing a novel.

Guess which one I liked the most? (No, you wise acres, not the sinus infection!)

National Novel Writing Month was an experience that reinforced what most productive writers understand: don't wait for "inspiration" — create it.  Every day, as I sit at the computer for work, I dredge up material for the assorted projects. Not everything that comes out of my brain and fingers is award-winning.  Some days are better than others. Some days I'm on fire and others I just show up and type materials that are "good enough." Some days the words are stellar and others it's just enough to get the job done.

The difference between a good day and a bad day: on a bad day, I don't even show up.  And that, my friends, is the definition of failure.

I'm not saying every bit of junk we produce needs to see the light of day.  In fact, I don't intend to show my "novel" to more than one or two souls.  However, I followed the objectives of the project established by NaNoWriMo and managed to succeed. I created a document totaling 50, 202 words between November 1-30.


Well, why not?

On November 1, I scratched my head and wondered exactly what in the world I was going to write — until I remembered: The Foreigner!  Well, I didn't remember it by name, but I remembered the play description. The play is about a shy man who pretends to not know English on a cruise full of English-speaking people.  What other situations can create opportunities for people to share information, confess, reveal or otherwise communicate?

I came up with one. It involved The Cowboy.

Not every word was stellar.  In fact, much of it probably was contrived, and possibly impossible to read.  The chapters that feature The Cowboy, however, were ingenious, if I dare say so myself.  There may be a story in there somewhere, or bits of one, or even a short story that can be edited and re-purposed.  Maybe. I won't make any promises.  I wrote many, many pages of words, and some of those words (beyond articles and conjunctions) may be of use at some point in the future. But really, I don't care. What I do care is that I know I can do something like that, possibly even better, in the future. All it takes is the precious commodity of time — which, for the story burning in me is a small price to pay.

Thanks, NaNoWriMo.  If I can pull it off again next year, maybe I'll even come up with a story and outline in October.

And the rest of you: what are you waiting for? You can wait until next November — or you can start now to warm up for the next one. I think I'll choose the latter.  Let me know which you choose.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: The Infernals

Spoiler alert: this is a review to a sequel to the novel The Gates.  By its very nature, it will reveal much of what happens in the first novel.  

If you don't want to know what happens in the first novel, stop reading now.

If you continue, don't get mad at me: it's your own fault. I warned you.

Read on, McDuff.

Samuel Johnson and Boswell are back — and so is Hell — in The Infernals, John Connolly's follow-up to The Gates.

When we last left Biddlecombe, Nurd had foiled the Great Malevolence's takeover of Earth, sucking Mrs. Abernathy back into Hell.  The super collider was shut off, Samuel and Boswell survived, Samuel's father's beloved Astin Martin didn't and all was right (enough) with the world.

Alas, if only it could continue like that — only adolescence and scientists really mess things up.

When we meet the crew again, Samuel is a teen with a crush on the prettiest girl in town. The only thing more unsettling than his teen hormones is that local puddles and mirrors are showing Samuel something that should be impossible: the face of Mrs. Abernathy staring back at him with a seething hatred.

She is really, really angry — and she has eternity to seethe. The Great Malevolence is displeased, others are rising up to take her spot as the favorite in Hell, and she wants another chance at proving her worth.  Even if the seam in her legs (not stockings) isn't straight, and her face literally is on crooked, she won't be foiled.  The scientists at the super collider will make sure of that (as only scientists can).

Throw in some unpleasant dwarves, a couple of conscientious constables, Dan Dan the Ice Cream man and the wide vista of Hell, and you have a suitable sequel to one of the funniest and most touching young adult horror novels on the shelves.

Connolly out-does himself. His footnotes are as funny as the rest of the book, like softly spoken asides of someone offering the wittiest and most astute commentary on — well, everything.  The characters are weird, sensible, surprising and delightful: c'mon, a demon who continues to wear the human form of Mrs. Abernathy, no matter how disheveled it/she gets? How fun is that?

Even more pleasurable, however, is Connolly's depiction of Nurd, a friend lost without his best buddy. I've had friends like that, and Connolly made me love and honor them even more as I recognized their qualities in Nurd, a demon forever changed by the love of a friend.  The author's description of true friendship and what it costs us is worth the price of admission alone, and Nurd deserves a place alongside other hero-friends such as Ron Weasley and Samwise Gamgee.

The landscape of Hell presented through the eyes of Connolly and his characters is frightening and intriguing. Now I want to read a little Dante, a little Milton, a little Revelations. Very little: I know I'd prefer Connolly's Hell to any other.  After all, only Connolly could put ice cream and chocolate sprinkles in Hell and make it make sense.

I recommend this book, a delight that is as funny as it is thought-provoking — and it doesn't disappoint.  You might want to read them in order, if only to remember and enjoy The Gates all over again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Review: The Map of Time

When I read a short description of Félix J. Palma's The Map of Time, I thought it was right up my alley: time travel, H.G. Wells, Jack the Ripper and things going wrong.  Alrighty, then, where do I sign up?

It was nothing like I expected — and it was utterly delicious.

It begins with a young man who wishes to die because his love already is dead.  However, this man is given hope: time travel.  It is Victorian England, near the end of the 19th century, and technology is slowly becoming the new God in this Industrial Age.  In the shadow of the Crystal Palace, where technology showed the way to the future, one can guess how easily duped are the public who want to believe.

But what happens if it's the truth after all?

The novel manages to drop names and draw in the most unexpected characters, both actual and fictional.  The story jumps between love gone wrong to love gone wrong, to — well, it's not all "love gone wrong," but if Miracle Max will work to benefit true love, shouldn't H.G. Wells?  There is villainy and heroism, there are choices of which to be (and one never expects either the choices made or the consequences thereof) — there's plenty of murder, an introduction to the abject poverty of the 19th century, a look at the future, a person's conversation with himself, bicycles, plenty of thugs and a few unexpected friends, literary hooliganism and more.

There also is some fair discussion of time travel and related issues, thoughtful and thought-provoking.  In the end, of course, a reader hopes for as many questions as answers — because the more intriguing and stirring the story, the more a reader ponders and speculates.

If, during your reading, you hit a hairpin turn and wonder how you got there, and how in the world this has anything to do with the rest of the story, don't despair.  Follow Palma wherever he leads, and you will not be sorry.  When you read the final page, expect to be tempted to flip to the beginning of the novel just to start again.

If you begin with a library copy, be prepared to either renew often or to find your own, soon-to-be-worn copy of The Map of Time.  This will become a perennial favorite, picked up and devoured every once in a while because something else fantastic will be apparent on every re-read.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Review: Mr. Shivers

In this 2010 Shirley Jackson Award-winning novel, Robert Jackson Bennett takes readers into one of the saddest, grittiest times in modern American history: The Great Depression. People were uprooted from their homes and took flight to (literally) greener pastures. 

Except Connelly.  He just wants revenge.

This sad, broken man left his home and wife in the east to search the country for the man who killed his young daughter.  He saw the man, whose features were haunting and unique: tall, thin and scarred.  Connelly planned to dog this killer across the country, however long it might take, and do to him what he did to his daughter.

The thing is, he isn't the only one looking for Mr. Shivers, named by those whose lives he has ruined.  The scarred man has been all over the country and has touched the lives of many people. Connelly takes up with them to further his goal of revenge.

In his modern American Gothic novel, Bennett shares with readers the language and spirit of the times in which the characters live.  He begins each chapter with symbols used by the disenfranchised travelers, hobos, to identify a friendly estate or warn fellow hobos away from homes and train station that are at best unsympathetic and at worst cruel.  Even the landscape rises up to help tell the tale.

As Bennett wove his story, he kept a toehold in reality while all the time teetering dangerously close to the too-bizarre.  The tension built as clues began to add up and readers turns the page and sees the edges of the supernatural peeking out from the other side; not a full-blown introduction, but readers know it is there nonetheless.

After a while, however, the tale becomes a little too surreal.  The mooring to reality is lost in an instant, and the supernatural began to occupy too prominent and obvious a place in the story.  It was the factual foundation that gave the story its strength.   Additionally, as the novel reached its crescendo, the story went from whispered fear to shrieking sirens.

Finally, as a reader invested in the lives and actions of these characters, I did not approve of what happened to them.  I don't have to like it, but I do have to accept it — and the telling of this tale made it difficult to do so.

Please read this, if you're inclined to horror stories, and let me know if you agree with my conclusion — or if I just am out of step with good horror writing in the new millennium.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: The Gift of Fear

You know when your skin prickles and you just know something isn't right?  That is instinct, something most of us ignore if we think it will cause us embarrassment.

Gavin de Becker will convince you to react otherwise in his brilliant book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence.

For de Becker, instinct is the gathering of data we cannot articulate but simply understand.  If a voice comes from a location a person should not logically be traveling, if the gesture or tone of voice doesn't comfort us as it should, if the offer for help seems too forceful — our minds won't explain it to us, but upon reflection, it all makes sense.

Equally important is knowing the difference between what should cause fear and how we invoke it in ourselves.  Being petrified that you're in an empty parking lot is a waste of fear if there is no real threat.  Using your spidey-senses to listen for the unexpected footsteps, however, is a good way to determine a true threat and use your fear only if needed.

The author earned my trust early on in his book as he revealed his own background in security and safety.  Just because presidents, military, national security and celebrities trust him doesn't make him enough of a reliable resource.  What he says, how he says it and how he determines the danger of a situation seems sane, reasonable and thoughtful.

He takes a look at many different threats people could face: in the workplace, at home, from strangers and those familiar.  He offers indicators, tips on what to look for to help assess the real threat.  Someone writes a thousand fan letters: weird, but maybe not threatening.  I know, isn't "weird" already threatening?  Not necessarily.  If you feel threatened, always consult a professional — but let this professional help you determine if you need to consult a professional.

This is not a self-defense book, but a rational look at human behavior.  Based on his experiences, de Becker asks certain questions and analyzes behavior to help clients go beyond fear and into the situation itself.  Is the "stalker" really a threat, or a nuisance?  How can you best determine that and end the situation?  Will a restraining order do more harm than good to deter the abusive spouse?  Most importantly, should someone really be afraid in a situation?  Is what they perceive a threat really dangerous?

I strongly recommend this book.  I plan to get extra copies of this book and share it with pretty much everyone I know, men and women.  Anyone can find themselves threatened and in danger, and the more people who know what to look for and how to reasonably respond, the better.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week: Most Challenged Books 2010

Courtesy of the American Library Association, I offer for your reading pleasure:

Top ten most frequently challenged books of 2010

Out of 348 challenges as reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom
  1. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson 
    Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie 
    Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley 
    Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicit
  4. Crank, by Ellen Hopkins 
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit
  5. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins 
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence
  6. Lush, by Natasha Friend 
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  7. What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones 
    Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  8. Nickel and Dimed, by Barbara Ehrenreich 
    Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, and religious viewpoint
  9. Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie 
    Reasons:  homosexuality and sexually explicit
  10. Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer 
    Reasons: religious viewpoint and violence
How many have you read?  I have read four and a half.  (Guess which ones!)

Tell me which ones you have read.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Banned Books Week: What's the Big Deal?

Every year, the American Library Association reminds us that freedom is not free by holding Banned Books Week.  And every year, I get the same questions: What's the big deal?  Books aren't really banned, they're just challenged — and shouldn't I have the right to tell my kids what they can read?

Well, here's the thing: parents have the right to tell their own children what they can read.  However, they do not have the right to tell other people's children, including me and mine, what they can read.

I was among the more fortunate children: my parents didn't curtail my reading.  I showed my folks what I had checked out from the library; in the off-chance they weren't around or available when I got home, the books were stacked on my nightstand in my bedroom.  They were books, for heaven's sake, and everyone loves books, right?

That doesn't mean I didn't make my parents uncomfortable with what I read.  When I asked Dad about a phrase in Sonnets from the Portuguese that included the phrase "pregnant lips," he gravely suggested I was too young to read it — which translated to "Dad the engineer doesn't want to discuss poetical lips."  I was six, and I was learning to judge what was the best resources for research.

This understanding that some language was "hot" made the reading of Very Special People a little confusing a couple of years later.  One set of conjoined twins was described as having separate upper bodies but sharing a lower body.  I knew about lungs, intestines and anus, but penis?  Whether I had heard that word before (during Mom's "facts of life" discussions) was immaterial: I had never seen it written.  It seemed rather "lip"-y in nature, so I went straight to the dictionary.

Try reading the definition of any word when you haven't a clue as to what it is. 

That definition included another word I couldn't understand, whose definition was equally puzzling, which led to another definition... I surrendered, extrapolating from the sentence enough information I needed to move on.

However, I did encounter a book I didn't understand — and when Mom saw it on my stack of library books, she wondered aloud if it was a little "old" for me.  I told her I didn't know, and we left it at that.  I found the first few pages tedious and terribly boring, so I returned it rather quickly.  The title? Helter Skelter. I was eleven.

In short, I read anything I wanted.  I read all of the exciting, titillating books girls my age were read, swapping amongst each other.  My friend Carole remembers the same list, her copies fat and swollen from repeated droppings in the pool, where she and her friends shared and read them.

Whether I should have read Audrey RoseThe Reincarnation of Peter ProudSybilGo Ask AliceForever or Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret isn't the real question.  (If it was, the answer is unequivocally "yes.")  The question is: who should have decided what I should read?

I always respect a parent's wishes regarding their children's exposure to books, music and movies.  However, they're not my parents.  They're not my kids' parents.  They have no right to tell anyone but their own children what they may consume.

Library funds are so limited, the broad array of books once found in the library already is dwindling.  Don't use that to control your own children's — and, inevitably, everyone else's children's — reading material.  Go with your family to the library, help them choose, and steer them away from books like And Tango Makes ThreeThe Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things. That is your perogative.

Just don't decide for me what those things are, and I won't do that for you.

Happy Banned Books Week, people.  Choose your reading materials, and read something that might or might not be objectionable.  Be your own judge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall for the Book: Conor Grennan

When Conor Grennan tells his audience that his actions were not heroic, that anyone could and would have done them, he honestly believes that.  His explanation makes sense.

All it takes are baby steps.

All he planned to do was volunteer at a Nepalese orphanage: baby step.  After that, it was only one step to helping these children find a safe home.

When a parent came to claim her sons, it was a step to help her become reacquainted with them and help her find the resources to feed and clothe them in the city.

That led to the question: were they all really orphans?  Next step: find out whose parents are alive.

When children became "lost," it was only a step to try to find them. 

Just baby steps.  Putting one foot in front of the other.  In fact, he noted, "This book has one message: there is nothing extraordinary about the person I was going into this."

It's a truth I hold very dear: you don't have to be a hero to do heroic things.  You just have to do them.

Of course, had Conor told me clouds were gummi bears, I'd have believed him.  His self-deprecating approach to everything, his willingness to show his failures and foibles, made him someone I could trust.

I met him first on the pages of his memoir, Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.  He was funny, charming and utterly trustworthy.  Anyone who confesses to having been petrified of an orphanage full of children gets my vote. 

At the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, he was exactly the same.  He pointed to the title of his book, the cover of which reached 12 feet high on the screen behind him on stage, and confessed, "I wouldn't read this book."

(I concur: I began reading it only because it was Fairfax County Public Library's 2011 selection for the community reading program, "All Fairfax Reads" — and the author was going to be at the book festival.  I am so glad I did.)

He also confessed that he doesn't trust those darned Canadians after being told by some of those countrymen that he didn't really need to read the guide books (which wrote of Nepal as a pretty dangerous country in the midst of a civil war).

He confessed that he signed up to volunteer at the orphanage because it made him look less self-absorbed.  Plus, it was a great way to impress women, which was "a pretty low bar."

In other words, he wasn't special.  Quite the opposite.

And yet, this man helped save at least 50 trafficked children in Nepal from slavery, starvation, abandonment and almost certain death by creating a home for them.  He created a non-profit organization to fund his efforts.

And he trekked through the mountains of Nepal searching for the parents of the children in his care.

He's right: you don't have to be a hero to be heroic.  And he took lots and lots of baby steps.

Meet Conor on the pages of his memoir.  (A portion of the proceeds fund Next Generation Nepal, his organization.)  Then see if you can't take a baby step of your own for something that matters to you.  If a guy intent on impressing chicks can wind up helping save children on the other side of the world, just think what you can do in your own neighborhood.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

National Punctuation Day: Name That Seat

On National Punctuation Day, let's salute Portland, Oregon's sense of whimsy.

Scattered around TriMet's Yamhill platform are seats like this: question marks, exclamation points, semi-colons, commas — all properly used.

Look around you at all of the ways punctuation helps us understand what is being communicated.  And take a minute to appreciate art as Portland has used it — and think of how you can do the same in your world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall for the Book: Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

First of all, if you're in a book club, Abraham Verghese salutes you: it was you who made his debut novel a success.

"Book clubs made this book happen," he flatly stated during his appearance at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival.  It was the widespread reading by those very book clubs that propelled Cutting for Stone onto the New York Times bestseller list, he freely admitted.

Myself, I know it was more than that.  Cutting for Stone is a thoughtful, sensitive, thought-provoking book — which started out as a glimmer of a story to an exhausted, nearly burned-out physician treating HAV/AIDS patients in a small town in Tennessee. 

"All I knew is that there was a beautiful South Indian nun who gives birth to twins," he said.

He needed to take a break from his medical practice.  He had written two books already, both non-fiction, My Own Country and The Tennis Partner.  He had an idea for a story, and he wanted — no, needed to try his hand at fiction.

When his application to the Iowa Writers' Workshop was accepted, he found himself in the writing community he needed.  Once a week he spent time as a doctor with AIDS patients in a nearby hospital; the rest of the time, he was writing fiction, reading, recharging.

He admired Émile Zola, whose novels weren't "about" Paris, but "of Paris." He wanted to create "that atmosphere, that verisimilitude" in his novel.

His readers will agree: he succeeded.

The story spans the lives of two generations and takes place primarily in Addis Ababa.  First, there are the professionals who wind up at Missing hospital: doctors and nuns who administer more than just medicine and the people who help them provide this service. It's the shocking arrival of unexpected twins that sends everyone's lives into a direction other than they would have anticipated.

The characters in his novel are complex, interesting and surprisingly likeable.  Even the general whose actions affect Missing's obstetrician so profoundly is one to be respected.  When I asked Verghese if there were any characters he didn't like in his story, his response was immediate: "No.  If I hadn't liked them, I would have cut them."

His respect for fiction is unequivocal, so his foray into it makes sense.  "I have no patience for people who do not read fiction," he stated flatly.  "Uncle Tom's Cabin ended slavery."  Books speak to readers, he insisted.  "That's what is so magical about books: they speak to each of us differently."

Verghese's novel spoke to me of a rich life outside of the boundaries I know.  Cutting for Stone took an exotic "other" and turned it into a familiar location: of people, of situations, of life and love.

I am almost afraid to talk about it because I approached it without knowing anything about the story.  All I knew was that Verghese would be at the 2011 Fall for the Book Festival, and that my friend Pat found it one of the best books she had read in years.

What I will tell you instead is how books affected the author.  "I read Lolita when I was nine.  I read Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was ten.  When I came across a book titled Of Human Bondage when I was eleven," he paused as the audience laughed, "I discovered it was not at all what I anticipated."

And therein lies the magic.

I strongly recommend Cutting for Stone — and don't be surprised if you wind up purchasing multiple copies for friends and family.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fall for the Book Begins September 18: I'm Ready!

There are some great authors scheduled for this year's Fall for the Book in Fairfax (and beyond).

I have two words for you: Stephen King.

Two more: Amy Tan.

Actually, that's not even my immediate reading list.

Every year, the festival has many great authors, and I have to pick and choose which events I can attend.  For this year's festival, I plan to attend the events featuring Abraham Verghese (Cutting for Stone, the author's first novel) and Conor Grennan (Little Princes, a memoir). 

I already read Natasha Tretheway's 2007 Pultizer Prize-winning poetry collection, Native Guard, multiple times, and it is in my library collection.  (If I don't excavate my copy this weekend, I shall be purchasing another copy for her to autograph at her reading next week.)

Needless to say, I have read books by the "headliners."

My first exposure to 2011's Fairfax Award-winner Amy Tan was The Joy Luck Club, which was touching yet sweeping.  I followed up with every single one of her books, saving the latest (Saving Fish from Drowning) for when I settled into my new library.  (Had someone told me it would take nearly a year after packing away most of my books, I wouldn't have waited.)

Equally imprisoned in my storage unit was dozens of books by the festival's 2011 Mason Award-winner.  I won't list every Stephen King novel I have read, but let's just say I wore a cross for a year when I was in junior high because 'Salem's Lot scared me so much.  (We don't discuss the 1979 TV movie.)

Take a look at this year's event schedule and let me know what you think I should see — or what you'd like to see.  Am I missing your favorite author, or an undiscovered gem?  Tell me!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Review: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

I have become a fan of short-story collections.  I have enjoyed the works of John Connelly, not enjoyed the works of Kelly Link — then I encountered Tunneling to the Center of the Earth.  Please stop what you are doing (yes, reading this review) and go purchase a copy, read it and return to this review.


Holy cow.  This begs not only the question of who thinks of this kind of stuff, but how can someone make the telling of it so right?

Like with other collections, the first story had a wow-factor of 11.  The idea of a "professional" grandparent is intriguing, and a business that would be really pretty win-win for all parties involved.

If that's where Kevin Wilson left it, I'd be impressed.  No, it's where he goes with "Grand Stand-Ins" that haunts me now, weeks after my first encounter with it.

And "The Shooting Man" may not have been a total surprise, but — again — it's where the story travels after it leaves my imagination that rocks my world.

Not to brag, but I have a pretty twisted mind, having grown up on Stephen King and book after book of hauntings and spirits and the like.  I have scared myself awake from a dead sleep more times than my husband cares to count, and I have kept myself awake in total fear more than once.  And yet, Kevin Wilson surprises me in the best way possible.

Every single story is unique, every single story is different — and yet, every single story enchants, startles, frightens, unsettles... whatever path Wilson intends it to take, that's where it goes.

I, for one, will follow him wherever he leads, including his new novel, The Family Fang.

By the way, if you need just one more push: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth won a 2009 Shirley Jackson Award.

Alright, if you're still reading, I appreciate your dedication, but I release you from those bonds.  Go get this book.  However, you must tell me what you thought.  Okay?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: The Happiness Project

Do we need to be taught to be happy?  Children, usually not — but adults... We need some help in that area, Gretchen Rubin decided one day.  She saw a harried woman with a child, and no one looked happy.  She wanted to change that in her own life.

And, with the help of a publisher and marketing department, she turned it into a movement: The Happiness Project.  It comes to you with daily quotes, a book, a daily blog (maintained by the author herself!) and a whole lot of discussion.  Making a mint off the idea that she should be nicer to her family may not have been her original intention, but I am sure it made her happy.

From this writing, you may think me a skeptic — and you would be wrong.  I fell for this idea: hook, line and sinker.  I didn't think I needed to be happier for any particular reason, but the idea intrigued me.  Walking by the stack of books in the bookstore, I wondered to myself exactly what one does to make herself sing in the morning and clean her closets.  So I checked it out from the library.  (Some skeptical habits are hard to shake.)

It started out strong, and was interesting.  Everyone needs to get out her/his own mindset from time to time, reassess and become the person s/he wants to be.  Happiness is a mindset, and I have consciously re-set my happiness dial from time to time.  It can be done.  But a lifestyle re-set?  Rubin sets out to do that very thing for an entire year, breaking up her evolution into month-size bites.  The book was as much a how-to as a memoir of a year in the life.

I was with her, lock, stock and barrel — until April.  

You see, she launched her blog in March — and she used content from it rather liberally beginning in April.  Until then, what she wrote was personal, interesting, self-revealing.  Afterward, however, she turned to the studio audience for their reaction — too often for my taste.  If I wanted to know what random, unnamed strangers thought, I'd have found my own resources.  

My interest started to wane around summer, when she spent a month reading sad memoirs and biographies.  She explained how it wasn't to laud her great, easy life over another's short, sad one, but that's exactly how it felt.

Her repetition was tedious. She established in January that she had fabulous, involved in-laws who live around the corner (and who, as Jews, alleviated the pressure of "which family gets Christmas this year"); a patient, loving husband with Hepatitis C; supportive parents; and young, brilliant, beautiful daughters.  I got it early on.  

She liberally quoted famous and obscure authors, which made her sound just this side of know-it-all, at least in the beginning.  By July, I wondered if she had an original thought in her head.

By September, I was scanning chapters, skipping the blog excerpts, looking for "interesting parts."  

That might have been me reading too much too soon, not pacing myself properly for that type of book.  Fast-moving fiction can be swallowed nearly whole; instructional memoirs, maybe not so quickly.

Add with that the fact that her life already was completely off the charts: as a Yale alumna and successful lawyer who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who happens to be the wife of a successful laywer-cum-private equity investor, with a home on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  

Let's leave out the influential parents on both sides and apparent wealth for at least a couple of generations, because we know those things do not guarantee happiness.  It's the ability to do what we want that makes us swoon with envy.  (I wonder if the publishing house took that into consideration before publishing the irony of a happiness book by someone with that bio.)

In the end, I took away a couple of great ideas, such as, "If you aren't going to do something about what you're complaining about, STFU" (which wasn't even her idea) and starting a children's literature reading group. I might find my own Truths and Commandments, and hers (and her reading public) offer a good place to start.  I am continuing to make a conscious effort to be positive (which I started before reading Rubin's book).  I will try to get to sleep earlier.  I'll get rid of that which I don't need (which may be easy, what with all of my recent unpacking).  It's a worthwhile read.

If asked, I'd recommend reading the book, but read it critically.  Take what interests you with a liberal grain of salt and cheerfully discard that which doesn't apply to you.  It's what Gretchen would want you to do.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Books Without Borders

I have seen the future without Borders, and it is Target.

And it makes me wish to weep.

David and I stopped by Borders the other day to indulge yet again (and to say "hello" to our future shelves).  We had a stack of goods we literally could not carry without each others' help.  Between coffee table books on music and guitars, a Jackie Chan video, Game of Thrones, The Anubis Gates, another Flavia mystery novel and a few novels and DVDs that will be gifts, our arms were full.

While we were there, I could not find some of the more recently published books, but I suspect most of the newer items had been snatched up quickly.  There was a biography I had tried for the better part of a year to pick up at the bookstore, but was again unsuccessful.

Today I encountered a book trailer that made me want to race out and purchase said book (thanks to Harper Collins Canada).  I knew I wasn't going to risk another encounter at Borders so soon — it's too exhausting to see such a loved bookstore in such disarray and disrepair.  I was going to Target, anyway, so figured I'd try my luck there.

"No luck" doesn't quite describe it.

There was room for for 12 books in the young adult "section."  Three slots were taken up by the first Harry Potter novel.  The top row was all Rick Riordian novels.  The rest of the collection was composed of whatever teen vampire romances are hot to teens.

I wanted to cry.

I knew I'd miss Borders, but I didn't realize the vast wasteland that awaited me.

It is in part my own fault.  I have a thing about Barnes & Noble: I don't like paying for a "club" discount.  I'm not a member of those big box warehouse stores for that very reason (well, that, and  refusing to buy a vat of mayonnaise I'l never finish, if only because I can't reach the bottom of the 10-gallon barrel to finish it off).  Paying what is a comparatively paltry sum to receive reasonable discounts shouldn't rub me the wrong way, but it does.

I'll be a member of a free discount club to the end of time, and they are free to mine my purchasing history for their marketing programs; it's only fair to help them sell me what I may (or may not) need.  For that information alone I deserve a discount, and I'm glad to take it at what seems like no additional cost to me.  (I am not foolish enough to think anything is truly free.)  However, to pay for that same "privilege" offends me.  Both I and the company in question will benefit, them more so because they can use my data to further their sales, market to their customers and determine their inventory.  I just want to buy at the "member" discount without having to pay for it up front.

However, if Target makes me weep over books again, I might give up bookstores altogether.  Amazon serves me well, gives me recommendations, sells to me at a reasonable price and delivers it at lightning-quick speed — and I can shop in my underpants.  (Sorry for the visual — and no, pouring bleach in your eyes will not help.)  I love my library and have been voraciously consuming those books at an alarming rate.  I just want to hand a book I love to a friend, who then can love it, too — and the library frowns on that.

I cannot go cold turkey, so I'll still hit up my thrift stores and used bookstores, which are my true passion.  However, as it stands, sparkling new bookstores may be a thing of the past.

Hopefully Barnes & Noble will come around to my way of thinking, especially since the competition is shrinking (for the time being).  If not, I'll have to totally change my book buying habits which, while a benefit to my wallet, will take its toll on my bookish soul. 

Tell me: what are you doing for your books these days, now that the Age of Borders is waning?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: The Breath of God

Jeffrey Small's debut novel, The Breath of God, was heralded as a "novel of suspense" and likened to the work of popular novelist Dan Brown.  I was very excited and couldn't wait to crack the spine.  Once I got in, however, I found a far different book than I anticipated — and not as enjoyable.

Grant Matthews encounters a 2,000-year-old text that reveals what Jesus Christ did during his two decades of action accounted for in the Holy Bible.  Before he can unpack his bags, a Southern preacher with ambition decides to debunk Matthews' prematurely and unintentionally published revelations.  However, technology fails him and he must travel east again to find the original documents, following Kinley and the surreptitious clues he leaves with a few different people around the world.  Only he's not alone, and this self-proclaimed "servant of God" will stop at nothing to protect his religion — and his church.

Of course, Small threw in a brilliant teacher; a romance with an unbelievably smart, resourceful and supportive woman; and lots of long lectures on three major world religions to give readers a boring, tedious Dan Brown novel.

If Small's purpose was to provide us with a book on comparative religion, we would have been better served with a series of essays, rather than essays disguised as a novel.

The book starts out slow, methodical — in a word, tedious.  The "secret" is revealed in such a subtle way I had to re-read a revealing chapter just to find it, and the explanation as to why the secret is so white-hot is woven into multiple chapters, diluting the excitement of the discovery. All dialog is too pitch-perfect, too tautly woven to be conversation: there is no casual conversation if everything is wrought with Meaning. And that's just the construction of the novel.

Let's move onto characters, my personal litmus test.  Everyone is constructed of flimsy beige cardboard with no complexity or depth.  The bad guys are wicked beyond imagination, shallow and easily distracted by something shiny — and way, way too successful.  The good guys are practically wearing white and riding up on Shadowfax with a banner declaring their purity, blindly bungling along without a clue to their imminent danger.  Random facts are included in dialog and character development to offer: Grant's folly of youth is blown out of proportion, Kristin's youthful trauma was too tautly played, Kinley's omnipotence is heralded by too many people. Police experts are too stupid to find a single computer program their investigators should have found as easily as Grant accidenntally did (at a Pivotal Moment in the Story).  And the unbelievable relative ease Grant finds at the end of the story was insulting to every character that had gone before.

Finally, the action: it was too slow in the beginning, too cumbersome in the middle, too disjointed near the end — and the multiple surprise endings weren't just surprises, but totally unexpected in a bad way.  "I didn't see that coming" is good if the author didn't seem to hide it just so he could spring it on the reader at the Opportune Moment.  I wanted to pitch the book across the room.

I do not recommend this book.

However, if you read it and enjoyed it, then let me know what you liked about it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

All Hallow's Read: Are You In?

I really like Neil Gaiman.  Not only is he a great author (American GodsNeverwhereStardust, to mention a few),  he comes up with other good ideas, too — like All Hallow's Read.

Instead of giving out candy on Halloween, Gaiman suggested giving out scary books, and encouraging people to read.

How quickly can I say, "I'm in!"?

Now, to be fair, it's not going to be easy.  There are plenty of people who don't like Halloween, or who associate the wrong spirit with it.  Plus — perish the thought — some people don't like scary books or stories.  (I know, crazy, but they're out there.)

So, how will I encourage it in my new neighborhood?

First of all, I won't go cold turkey on the candy.  I'd hate to be known as "that house that doesn't give out candy."  I certainly don't want to get mixed up with the house that gives out toothbrushes, or political pamphlets.  (Darn the American election system for putting elections so close to Halloween — though, to be honest, it really is a similar activity: getting dressed up and pretending to be someone else...)

Maybe I'll just start with a poem, a single sheet of paper.  Maybe a limerick, or a sonnet?  There are plenty of good ones out there, or I could write my own.  Start a series of poems, collect the entire set... I could have some fun with this!

Halloween will bring out David's inner spook-tacular decorating, so the porch will be scary.  I'll hand out a poem with candy, which also can be scary.  Then we'll see if anyone else joins us next year.  (And if you don't like my ideas, check out Darla Moore's ideas in the Columbus Public Schools Examiner, to see if one of them tickles your fancy.)

So, who else is in?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Sarah's Key

The past is never far from the future, especially in Tatiana de Rosnay's haunting novel, Sarah's Key.  The lives of two strong, compelling characters weave together an unforgettable story of chance, courage, pain and French history.

But first, a public service announcement: marketers need to stop referring to books of this ilk, including The Kite Runner and other beautiful, poignant and disturbing books as "beloved" — or they should be fired on the spot.  Winnie-the-Pooh is beloved.  The Eyre Affair is beloved.  This novel is many things, but certainly not "beloved."  Readers will resent being played like that and will stop reading books plied in such a stunningly deceitful way.

Thank you.  We now return to our regular programming.

In the summer of 1942, the Vichy government cooperated with the Germans to deal with the "Jewish problem."  French police and French soldiers rounded up many of the Jews of Paris and corralled them in the Vélodrome d'Hiver.  Not all Jews were taken: a few were left behind, mostly teens, so it didn't appear to be a roundup.

Days later, those who survived the heat without shelter, food, water, medical attention and sanitation in Vel' d'Hiv were taken to a camp outside Orléans.  There the men were separated from the women and children, never to be seen again.  Days later, mothers were torn from their children by any means possible (buckets of water dousing the child, if the parties were lucky) and loaded into a train.  The children were left in the camp, alone, with only the police to keep an eye that they don't escape.  Those who survived those long, miserable days met the same fate as their parents: a train ride to Auschwitz and immediate execution.

In the novel, Sarah was one of those children rounded up that late summer night.  Before the police could find her 4-year-old brother, she hid him in the cupboard in their apartment, locking it soundly with a key so he would be safe until they returned later that evening, when this mess was over.  As Sarah was about to learn, this was a much bigger situation than she realized, and she clung to the key with her life.

On the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv, Julia Jarmond is writing an article for her English-language newspaper in Paris.  Her family has begun renovation on an apartment that once belonged to her husband's grandmother, who was recently placed in a nearby convalescent home.  She was sickened by what she read about Vel' d'Hiv, and she struggled to learn what she could.  It was as real as the man whose entire family was taken — except him, because the French left behind some teens.  It was as real as the fact that her husband's family moved into their apartment within weeks of the roundup.  It was as real as the tales told by the witnesses who couldn't believe their government would do the work of the Germans for them.

The stories of the two are told, for the most part, in alternating chapters that take a reader's breath away.  One wants to know what happened to Sarah as Julia investigates not only the story for the newspaper, but her own story, and the story of her husband's family — and asks if anyone can be held blameless in that chaotic time.  When the story resolves itself, one can only answer the question in her/his own heart of hearts.

This is a fabulously written story: a deft tale with plausible, sympathetic (but not cloyingly so) characters facing unfathomable obstacles with everything they are.  I read deep into the night and thought about the story even when the book was not in my hand.  It haunts me now, and I cradle Sarah's hope and pain in my own heart, living every excruciating moment with her in my mind, over and over.  My mouth was agape time and again as the story continued, unrelenting, through waves of horror and hope, sadness and redemption.

The language of Sarah's Key is smooth and lovely, not always the case for a book originally published in a different language than English.  This is not a translation, which gladdened my heart; translations often take the readers a step away from the story when the words become a story of their own.

I recommend this book only for the brave reader, or the foolish one — this book will not leave readers unchanged, and only those who wish to continue to live with Julia and Sarah in their minds and hearts should pick up the book.  If you are brave enough to do so, you will not regret it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Review: At Home

I would follow Bill Bryson anywhere. I have followed him on the Appalachian Trail, into the universe, across America, through England and all the way Down Under. He does not fail to delight readers — even when he stays home.

In At Home, the furthest he goes is to the roof.

Bryson literally strolls through his home in a quiet English hamlet, pondering who has come before (and literally how many there are still there, in body if not in spirit) and how they created the space around them.

Many students of history know the kitchen was often separate from the rest of the house, but how it evolved from a sure-fire death trap to today's modern amenities is worth the trip alone. In the kitchen, Bryson considers food and ponders why we eat what we eat — and who in their right mind would think [fill in the blank here] was a good idea for the plate? From wheat to corn, from meat to dairy, from spices to grain, Bryson ponders what we eat, and how it came to be on our plate, rather than in a bog, blowing in the breeze, or hoofing it in a wild pasture.

Another fascinating room is the, ahem, boudoir. It's not nearly as tantilizing as one would expect. It's more so. Honestly, from women's rights to privacy, from where people to slept to how they did (or didn't) sleep, and with whom — if you didn't think about it before, you can't help but ponder it now.

Nothing is too small: from salt to bedbugs, from lighting (inside and out) to laundry, from wheat to bread. In Bryson's hands, nothing can be small: why are salt and pepper the most popular condiments? Where and how did modern archaeology begin? Where did servants sleep? How could people navigate roads, or even the inside of their house, with a single tallow candle?

In contrast, nothing is too big: take the Crystal Palace Exposition, where glass is king and the toilets were nearly as popular as the rest of the expo. Even the entire English vicar situation is easily understood, and we walk away grateful for the Church of England, landowners and country parishes.

Bryson's deft touch makes every single chapter of this non-fiction tome delightful, educational, thoughtful, shocking, mournful, interesting, respectful, bawdy and just plain fun. Please, please read it — and let me know what you think.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

What I Didn't Read

Lately, I've been picking up books, just to put them back down. I blame part of that on The Discovery of Witches, which I enjoyed greatly (and will review in the near future).

The rest I blame on bad books.

To be fair, not all of them have been "bad" in the traditional "wish to rip out your eyeballs to save your soul" kind of way, but perhaps unsuitable for the time being:
  • I knew Game of Thrones was too heavy for my brain right now, and I will pick it up after the library is settled.
  • I already read Geek Love at a different time in my life, when I could handle the story of a family of people purposely bred to be born with bizarre, extreme birth defects.
  • I couldn't wait to read about the Unseen University in Unseen Academicals, but I put it away after a few pages. I blame that on a sinus headache.

Others, however, were. I must be the last person to read The Hunger Games — well, almost read it. After about 20 pages, I had to stop. The lead character was totally non-dynamic and simple. Plus, the "dystopian" story wasn't totally unique: when civilization ends, so does civility. This novel just throws young adults into the gory part of the story because it's young adult fiction — and apparently, that's the only way this author thinks youth will read her story. (As a former Nickelodeon staff writer, she might know of such things, so perhaps I am talking out of my hat.)

The Hunger Games might get better, but I didn't want to invest the time. There are too many good stories out there to waste time on something that doesn't intrigue me.

What should I pick up next? Let me know!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Review: Stranger Things Happen

I am all about weird. I seek out the weird. However, I think I hit my weird quota with the short story collection Stranger Things Happen.

Kelly Link's collection of short stories goes to New York and beyond. What she does well is spin the yarn: I wasn't sure where the story was going, but I was game to follow Link's lead.

At first.

Then things got weird.

When a story concluded, I honestly had no idea what it meant. I was lost. It had to mean more than just the words on the page, or it would have been a colossal waste of time.

I was transfixed by the first story, "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose," where a man with major memory issues is writing a letter to his wife. As the story unfolded, I was transfixed. Many other storytellers tried to imagine this lost-feeling destination with limited success — but Link had a handle on it. Well, until the end approached, and while I saw where it was going, I didn't like it.

She retold a couple of fairy tales in "Travels With the Snow Queen" and "Shoe and Marriage," and she threw in some folklore with "Flying Lessons." All interesting tales, all successful beginnings, all faltered near the end for me.

The two most successful stories — "The Specialist's Hat" and "Survivor's Ball, or The Donner Party" — were more direct, more specific, told the tale to the end instead of letting go and making the reader try to follow the balloon into the atmosphere.

Why did I finish it? Well, it's not a good reason, but it is an explanation: I read it to the end because NPR recommended it. However, they also publish Nancy Pearl's recommendations, and I have yet to find a gem for me among her suggestions.

In the end, I cannot recommend the book as a whole. One or two stories may strike you, but don't feel obligated to read them all. Let me know what you think, and which stories you liked.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Summer Reading: What's On Tap?

Summer is right around the corner — unless you're the kind of person who lives the season from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then you're already behind in your summer reading!

Honestly, I've been otherwise occupied to think much about a summer reading list. The whole "finally getting a new house, then having to set it up and move in" definitely puts a crimp in that reading schedule. After moving into Alicia's house in March, I was nearly too exhausted to read. Only a new Dan Simmons book pulled me out of my exhausted funk.

However, this move is different: it will reunite me with all of the books that have been, as my friend Judy put it, in "book purgatory." I tend to think of it as "storage hell," but either way, they're in a different spot than I am. Now, I don't want to be in either purgatory or hell, so I'm grateful for that small blessing, but separation, even under these circumstances, is trying.

Back to the matter at hand: summer reading.

Currently, I have a couple of books set aside for my reading enjoyment.

My most recent purchase is the newest tome by Geraldine Brooks, Caleb's Crossing. I can't wait to see how she brings history to life again. Go ahead, try to not care about the plague when reading Year of Wonders. Try to be nonchalant about, well, everything when reading People of the Book. Surrender to Geraldine Brooks, and you'll be a better person for it.

I have at least one Fluff 'n Trash™book in my lineup: Penny Vincenzi's An Outrageous Affair. There may be value to it, but I don't care. I am reading it for the sheer love of the bosom-heaving story. (They're British bosoms, so they sport a stiff upper lip. Or decorum, at the very least.)

Stephen King is in my future: most likely Full Dark, No Stars. I'm itching to read Under the Dome, too, but as both books are hefty tomes, I will be forced to choose one if I plan to read anything of his before he appears at Fall for the Book this autumn.

Jasper Fforde published a new Thursday Next novel this year I haven't even picked up yet. (Did I mention that Alicia will throw me out onto the mean streets of the city if I dare bring in another book?) (Okay, I mean besides the ones I've sneaked in already.) (Wait, I've said too much already!) There is a reason for the delay in reading this book, which I will reveal when I discuss this book with you, my Intrepid Reader.

I want to re-read a book, but I haven't decided which one yet. I nearly did that with Geek Love this week, but the opening sentences made me queasy. (I must have been a braver reader in my earlier years.) All of my books will have a new-to-me feeling, so I will approach my library cautiously.

I want to try to actually consume a Jonathan Franzen book, rather than just gaze at them longingly on the shelf.

After seeing a single, very titilating scene from the HBO series of the same name, I am intrigued to read George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones. I read the first two chapters the other day and enjoyed it, but the weight of the paperback is too hefty for me right now.

Lev Grossman's second novel in the Magicians series, The Magician King, is coming out in August. I wasn't keen on the gritty realism and killjoy spirit of the first novel, The Magicians, when I read it last year, but I might have to re-visit it. (Heck, I'm reading Awakening, the most recent S.J. Bolton novel in the library, so Grossman gets a second chance.)

So, what's on your reading list? What do you recommend I pick up this summer?