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Showing posts from 2011

Year in Review: Top Six Reads of 2011

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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 Wh…

Review: Miss Peregine's Home for Peculiar Children

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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 Jac…

NaNoWriMo: How About You?

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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 w…

Review: The Infernals

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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 puddl…

Review: The Map of Time

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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 …

Review: Mr. Shivers

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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 time…

Review: The Gift of Fear

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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 thr…

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 And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson 
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age groupThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie 
Reasons: offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violenceBrave New World, by Aldous Huxley 
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, and sexually explicitCrank, by Ellen Hopkins 
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicitThe Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins 
Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violenceLush, by Natasha Friend 
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age groupWhat My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones 
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, and unsuited to a…

Banned Books Week: What's the Big Deal?

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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…

Fall for the Book: Conor Grennan

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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 ha…

National Punctuation Day: Name That Seat

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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.

Fall for the Book: Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

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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 ap…

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…

Review: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth

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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.

See???????

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 tha…

Review: The Happiness Project

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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 c…

Books Without Borders

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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 …

Review: The Breath of God

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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; …

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 Ha…

Review: Sarah's Key

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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…

Review: At Home

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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…

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 t…

Review: Stranger Things Happen

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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 "…

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:…