"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Cloud of Sparrows by Takashi Matsuoka

"Cloud of Sparrows" is Takashi Matsuoka's first novel, an ambitious tale set in Japan in the 1860's, as the country is being forcibly opened by "outsiders" and the era of the Shogun and samurai moves toward an end.

The plot involves a trio of American missionaries who go to Japan to set up their church, and the fate of the Tokumichi samurai clan from Akaoka.

The central character is Lord Genji, a minor lord and somewhat of a dilletante of a samurai, more concerned with poetry and lovemaking than swordsmanship. He also happens to have the family curse of seeing visions of the future.

The story of full of plots within plots, characters who are more than they appear to be, and plenty of action. There is subterfuge, counter-plotting, revenge and romance.

In addition to Genji, the other primary characters are Heiko, the most lovely geisha in all Japan, Emily, a beautiful young American perceived as ugly in Japan, and Matthew Stark, a gunfighter seeking revenge on a man who has fled to Japan and become a Buddhist monk. Important sub-characters include Genji's uncle Shigeru, who has horrific visions of a WWII era and overpopulated future Japan. There are also a trio of Genji's captains, Saiki, Kudo and Sohaku, who may or may not be plotting against their lord. Throw in the treacherous Kawakami, the Shogun's chief of secret police, as well as Kuma the Bear, the deadliest ninja in Japan, and Genji has plenty of antagonists.

The story was intriguing, and the plot moved along quickly, with rarely a dull moment. It's a page-turning read. I enjoyed the comparison/contrast of Japan and outside cultures, and Matsuoka went to considerable detail on clothing. Genji is a likable protaganist, who faces a number of challenges, and exhibits some character arc by the end of the story. He makes some unexpected decisions. Emily also grows in the story, and has to make some difficult choices as well.

Finally, the novel is very graphically violent. Especially involving children. So if you are sensitive to that type of thing, beware.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Dracula by Bram Stoker

I am so glad I have at last read Dracula. I liked it much more than I thought I would. I especially liked how Stoker tells the story through a fascinating mix of letters, diary entries, ship logs and occasional newspaper clippings. Of course I have seen several version of the Dracula story on old movies on TV. The book has a lot of Gothic Horror cliches but that is just because the book created the cliches in the first place.

Once I began to read the book it was as though I was meeting old friends. There is the good Professor Abraham Van Helsing learned in vampire lore who is at first reluctant to voice his thoughts for fear he will seem deranged. There is the beautiful young virginal Lucy with the mysterious bites who has fallen into a mysterious coma like state. We meet the disgusting insect eating Renfield who I for sure recall from the movies. We meet the required attorney who travels to Transylvania to visit Count Dracula at his sinister castle deep in the Carpathian mountains. At first the attorney is intimidated by the seemingly great wealth and culture of the Count, but he quickly realizes something is badly wrong. Why does the wealthy Count Dracula have no servants? Who are the three very evil looking women he encounters in the castle? Where does Dracula disappear to during the day time and in a great scene he wonders how he can seemingly climb the interior walls of the castle. I cannot see Dracula as any body but Bella Lugosi.

Even though I pretty much knew what was going to happen Stoker does such a great job with the narration that I was kept very interested throughout. Stoker does a wonderful job in creating the atmosphere. The sea voyages to and from England to continental Europe are really wonderful. You can feel the terror on the ships.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Sunday Wife by Cassandra King

Willowdean "Dean" Lynch is the wife of a Methodist minister, who happens to be an ambitious and self-serving rising star in the church. Dean had a difficult childhood and ended up in foster care. She carries a number of scars from her childhood, the number one being low self-esteem. But one thing that enriches her life is her musical heritage and her musical talent.

She falls for a young, handsome preacher, Ben Lynch, and somehow "wins" this lucky prize. But what Dean quickly discovers is that it is not easy being the wife of a minister. Not only does she live in a fishbowl, but everyone (including Dean) is expected to orbit around her husband. She is expected to suppress all personal desires including the desire for a musical career and a family.

The bulk of the story begins as Ben takes a job with a prestigious parish in the Florida panhandle. The adjustment isn't easy for Dean. But she becomes friends with the "rebel" Augusta, who slowly gets Dean to open her eyes to the fact that she is not living life on her own terms, and that she is certainly not meeting her potential. When a crisis occurs, Dean is finally faced with making difficult decisions about her life and her future.

The Sunday Wife appealed to me as the cast of characters found in this fictional parish can be found in almost any church. There were women that were jealous of Dean, women that were overly critical of her, and those who continuously and unashamedly flirted with her husband. There were control freaks, divas, gossips and those who feigned friendship for the wrong reasons. Many of them were superficial, holier-than-thou hypocrites. But there were one or two who truly cared about Dean and opened their hearts to her.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch

Wow, what an incredibly moving and emotional story! What really struck me as I read this book was just how brave and " full of life" Pausch remained even toward the end of his battle with terminal cancer. He just had a good attitude until the end, and wanted to focus not on himself, but on how his situation could help and inspire others.

Your heart literally breaks as you realize that he will be leaving behind his beloved wife, and his three young children. Now that he has been gone several years, I find myself incredibly curious as to whether his wife remarried and how his kids are doing! I plan on trying to find their website after posting this :).

Even though Pausch died at a relatively young age, he had an amazing opportunity that few of us will ever have...the chance to write a book and leave a legacy that has ended up inspiring thousands, if not millions.

What I liked least: You will go through at least an entire box of Kleenex while you read this!

What I liked most: I love that his "last lecture" didn't focus on dying, but instead he talked about achieving your childhood dreams and remembering the person that you used to be. I love this angle that he took...wouldn't life be a little bit better if we all just focused on being happy and a good person rather than focusing on death and the future so much? Lots of food for thought in this book!

Finally, I also liked reading about the days he spent realizing HIS childhood dream of being a Disney Imagineer...how cool is that?!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Purity in Death by J.D. Robb

What if a computer virus from our-email can infiltrate the computer and infect its operator with a cranial expansion that culminates in destruction? In the 15th installment of the Death series, J.D Robb crafts a chilling techno-dystopia in 2059 where paedophiles and drug-traffickers are mysteriously victimized by a vigilantte operation to uphold justice. Their self-righteous mantra proclaims - absolute purity achieved.

It is up to edgy NYPSD Lieut. Eve Dallas to root out the perpetrators - as the virus exterminates their target but harms innocent by-standers including inflicting a near-fatal paralysis on e-cop McNab and took the life of an innocent sixteen-year old who is slashed by an infected pimp.

Eve relies on Roarke, her bad boy turned good hubby who exudes condidence and power as easily as most people breathe.

Just the right amount of techno mumbo jumbo to be realistic, combined with the perfect touches of humor, sex, romance, politics and fun to make the perfect read!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Trouble by Jesse Kellerman

If are looking for a fast paced psychological thriller, Jesse Kellerman has written one that will likely make your blood go cold and to make sure all the doors and windows are locked.

Trouble is an intense and suspenseful novel that had me quickly turning the pages to find out what happens next. Living and working in New York City, third year medical student, Jonah Stem, is hoping to survive the year. The hours are long and the duties are arduous. One night after an exceedingly long shift at the hospital, Jonah goes in search of new shoes only to come across an injured woman begging for help. Without much thought, Jonah steps in, killing the attacker. Suddenly Jonah finds he is a hero, nicknamed “Superdoc,” and while the police and District Attorney’s office consider whether to press charges against him, Jonah becomes the defendant in a civil lawsuit brought on by the family of the dead man.

The woman, Eve Gones, whose life Jonah saved seeks him out to thank him and the two soon become embroiled in a heated affair. They make an instant connection and their passion burns fiercely. Eve is beautiful and intelligent, however, there is something not quite right about her and her story as Jonah soon discovers. Suddenly Jonah must look over his shoulder at every turn as his fear mounts for his life and that of his friends and family. Can he maintain his own sanity.

Jonah’s character was softened by his care and attention to his former girlfriend Hannah, who suffered from mental illness to help and relieve Hannah’s father. Author Jesse Kellerman captured the strain and stress of the events in the novel on Jonah in his treatment of both Hannah’s father, George, and his own family.

Lance DePauw, Jonah’s roommate, provided comic relief throughout the novel. He had an enthusiasm for new projects that eventually would be left incomplete and a penchant for using hidden cameras.

Jesse Kellerman, son of Jonathan & Faye Kellerman, shows promise as a writer. He pulls the reader into the story immediately with his edgy, bordering on humorous writing style. The medical slang and nuances of being a medical student were well positioned throughout. The first part of the book moves at a rapid pace, setting up the story and taking readers on an intense ride. The second portion of the book, however, slowed down a bit as if the author was dragging out the inevitable climax, which had yet to come. The novel came to an end suddenly without warning and seemed anticlimactic. Despite that, Trouble has all the makings of an entertaining psychological thriller. It certainly offers a new twist to the idea of being a Good Samaritan for better or worse.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner

I am, for the most part, a person that looks on the bright side of things, and on a happiness scale of one to ten, a strong 8.5, maybe more. But why? How? And what is it about where I am that makes it so?

Eric Weiner attempts to answer all these questions in his book, The Geography of Bliss, a year of exploration to ten of the happiest places in the world.

He begins in Rotterdam’s World Database of Happiness. He discovers that the study of happiness, like any other scientific field of study, is not particularly warm and fuzzy, that happiness is subjective, and that some things, like happiness, are beyond measuring.

Still, from the Netherlands, a country of tolerance and freedom, Weiner visits the clean and punctual streets of Switzerland. He finds a connection between boredom and patience, patience and happiness. And that perhaps, a combination of three makes it easier ” to just be.”? He then goes to Bhutan, a real life Shangri-La, a place where other expats warn, ” If you stay here long enough, you lose touch with reality.”? But maybe warning is not the right word to describe it, for the simplicity of life in Bhutan brings him peace, as he falls deeper into the trance of a country that prioritizes Gross National Happiness. From there Weiner spends time in Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India, and wraps it all up in his home country of the United States.

In the end, he concludes that, ” Money matters, but less than we think and not in the way that we think. Family is important. So are friends. Envy is toxic. So is excessive thinking. Beaches are optional. Trust is not. Neither is gratitude.”? A conclusion and yet there is not even an inkling of a definitive answer.

In the comforting words of one of the leading happiness researchers, Jon Helliwell, "It’s simple. There’s more than one path to happiness.”?

Where will it lead you?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman

After her father's death, Arlyn Singer follows what she believes to be her destiny and weds John Moody. Completely mismatched, they wade through marriage and early parenthood, sometimes just barely keeping it together.
A devastating disease tears the family apart, leaving John to parent his troubled son and baby girl in a literal house of glass. Life moves on with a new wife and the help of a nanny. Yes, life moves on. But it isn't easy, as three generations of this family discover.

Hoffman's generational tale follows the paths taken by Arlyn's family. Each member faces what it means to live in the "Glass Slipper" house and beyond. It follows the family's potential devolution as Sam's brilliance is sucked away through drugs and alcohol, and Blanca is driven away by forces she hardly understands. As heartbreaking as it is hopeful, many layers of depth can be found buried in these pages.

Numerous point-of-view shifts make some scenes hard to follow, but this is otherwise a very readable novel. Skylight Confessions will speak to anyone fascinated by family structure and the human spirit.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mind Catcher by John Darnton

This is the first John Darnton book I have read but, unfortunately, I am not motivated to try his others after stumbling through this slow-moving and less than original novel. I found the book somewhat boring up until when, and I do not think I am giving anything away here, the computer sends its first message (those who have read it will understand).

The plot is quite simple: an evil doctor believes he can capture the "soul" of a person and keep it alive even if the body dies. Not overly original but if told right, it could be a really fun read. Yet the avenue to get to the substance of the story is somewhat winding and the book feels almost padded for length. I thought it could have been about 100 pages shorter.

The biggest thing that irks me is how this book seems to flip between genres. One minute it's a ghost story, then a medical thriller, then a science fiction novel, and closes out with a climax right out of the movie "Flatliners." What kept me reading was the father-son story but otherwise I barely made it through the novel. I was also disappointed the ending did not fully resolve the elongated story that preceded it.

I guess there are two types of books for someone like me who reads at night; those that keep you up at night and those that help you fall asleep. I would put "Mind Catcher" in the latter group.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This classic book is a ghost story of sorts. It is not the traditional kind, with chains and things, but it is more of a psychological suspence story. A young governess goes to take care of two children- Flora, age 8, and Miles, age 10. She soon learns that their old governess and her lover both mysteriously died. As the story goes on she begins to see apparitions of the two dead people, and she is convinced that the children have something to with it. During the whole story she works to save them from the ghosts. However, you are left to decide the whole time whether what she is seeing is real or if the kids are really guilty or if she is psycho or what.

I liked the way the plot went because I was left to figure out and interpret things for myself the whole way along. James did not just come out and say things but left them to be interpreted by many different ways. This may be frustrating for readers who like the story to be spelt out to them, but if you like suspense and trying to see a story from many different viewpoints, you will like the story too.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

The Lock Artist is unique for only ONE reason: the locks, lock picking, and safe cracking. That's about it. The whole time I kept thinking I've seen this whole framework before.

Here's the breakdown:

Young boy has a tragedy, It scars him, causes him to never speak again and shapes his boyhood. Boy falls for girl. Girl in danger so boy must "protect" her by doing something he doesn't want to do. Boy goes on journey, always thinking back to girl, Boy eventually reaches end of the line, Rescued just in time, Boy finds himself, faces his demons, and owns up for his mistakes.

Done. Sadly that's about it. The best parts of the book were the discussions on lock picking and safe cracking. Steve Hamilton gets it right and makes it interesting. Unfortunately the long time line of the book, coupled with jumps back and forth, numerous characters and situations, end up being too much to keep up with. By the end of the book, which ends in a rather let down to the reader I thought, you're left with a dozen questions. Where happened to this person, that person, why did that happen, etc. Too many loose strings.

Nice attempt but needs a lot of work.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Terror by Dan Simmons

An intriguing mash-up of a horror novel and historical fiction. Simmons starts with a real-life 19th century nautical expedition that disappeared in the arctic while searching for a northwest passage, and whose members must have perished from the elements, disease, and starvation, and adds a monster. Simmons is a master of detail and atmosphere: his writing captures the many particular realities of life on an 1840s British naval vessel, the grueling, claustrophobic experience of being stranded in arctic cold and darkness, and the gradual disintegration of human order as circumstances grow more desperate.

In a way, the monster plot is superfluous to the story, which is intense enough without it. As it is, the deliciously grim descriptions of hauling a sledge across a frozen waste or trying to sleep in fifty below zero weather while sick with scurvy, running out of food, and hundreds of miles from anywhere will make you feel grateful for being at home in a warm bed. But Simmons uses his creature as an effective background presence in the story, symbolic, in the way fictional monsters usually are, of the folly and weakness of man in the face of the wild.

The book moves at a slow pace, which had me occasionally skimming pages to the more exciting parts. And some character vantage points seemed to be there just for a sense of atmosphere, which made me wonder if I would have missed that much had I gone with the abridged audio version instead of the printed edition. Still, the oppressive grip of the story pulled me through to the end.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Social Crimes by Jane Stanton Hitchcock

Social Crimes is about a wealthy, spoiled and completely naive woman name Jo Slater. Jo marries a wealthy older man that promises nothing other than financial security. Despite the parties mingled with the elite of New York, Jo claims to be so much more grounded and humble. She is not. When her gluttonous wealth is stripped away, Jo's life becomes one pathetic attempt after another to regain the life she once possessed.

Now broke, overweight and gasp.....middle class, Jo finds herself so consumed with bitterness and anger that she begins obsessing how she can both regain her wealth and social status and quench her thirst for revenge against the woman who stole it all out from under her, the Countess. Her arch nemesis, The Countess Camille De Passy, has basically stepped into Jo's role as New York's social lioness.

This is a story that plays as the ultimate revenge, but instead it becomes so much more....or less depending on how you look at it. The story moves at a quick and interesting pace. I was never bored but I was never amused either. Even though Jo Slater is supposed to be the heroine of the story, I found her to be pathetic, naive, shallow and utterly shameful in her attempts to regain her wealth. She never aspires to be anything more, just a rich woman with a lavish lifestyle. I don't think anyone is supposed to actually feel sorry for her or like her. Good. I don't. The antagonist, Camille, becomes the more interesting and diabolical character. I like her. She may be a cold blooded creature but at least she has a plan that works...for the moment anyway.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Gone for Good by Harlan Coben

"Three days before her death, my mother told me-these weren't her last words, but they were pretty close-that my brother was still alive..." So begins Harlan Coben's powerful and harrowing page-turner, Gone For Good.

Narrated by Will Klein, the youngest son of a middle class New Jersey family, now working as the Director of Covenant House for runaway teens, he recounts the story of his popular and charismatic brother Ken, who eleven years ago vanished after being charged with the rape and murder of a neighborhood college girl. The Kleins always believed in his innocence, and after so much time passed without a word or clue, had come to the conclusion that Ken must be dead.

This all changes when his mother's declaration sends Will on a search of the house where he finds a current picture of his brother hidden in his mother's bedroom. Now with the help of his girlfriend, Sheila, the love of his life, he's determined to find Ken, bring him back home, and clear his name. But his plan soon begins to unravel when Sheila disappears, and her fingerprints are found at a grisly murder scene two thousand miles away in New Mexico.

With the help of Covenant House street friends, Will begins to connect the ghosts of the past with the puzzling events of the present, and uncovers secrets, lies, and betrayals that shake the very foundation of his family, and what they thought to be the truth.....

Harlan Coben has written a suspenseful and compelling thriller that grabs you from page one and never lets go. This is a novel that has it all...an intricate story line full of twists, turns, and more than a few unexpected surprises; smart, clever, and eloquent writing with a real ear for dialogue; and intense, riveting, vivid scenes that set you on the edge of your seat and keep you there.

But it's Mr Coben's original and marvelously well drawn cast of characters that makes this novel sparkle, and he is able to breathe life into even the most minor figures, and bring them to life on the page. With a stunning climax and very satisfying ending that ties up all the loose ends, Gone For Good is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that doesn't disappoint, and should definitely find its place at the top of mystery/thriller lovers "must read" lists.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Girls' Guide To Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank

This is a thin little book comprising of seven short stories. They are all, with the exception of one, written in the first person by Jane Rosenal, a female New Yorker in and out of psychoanalysis. They take place during various periods of her life; the first one when she is fourteen and the last apparently when she is in her mid-thirties.

Her stories consist of observing the human beings in her life, and the events which occur to them and her, and making sarcastic comments about them. She doesn't really like anybody except for her father, who appears only intermittently, then dies. She has a boyfriend who is 28 years older than her but she doesn't like him either. She doesn't like her boss. She doesn't like her first boyfriend's ex-girlfriend, who was kind enough to invite them to her Caribbean estate. She doesn't even like her first boyfriend. The reason I know she doesn't like these people is that she remains aloof and distant from them, and makes cynical and bitter remarks both to them and about them.

In the middle of the book there is a story written in the first person by Nina, who is a downstairs neighbor of Janie. She contributes nothing to the Janie mystique, and all she does is recount an unusual dinner party. Why this story is contained here, I do not know.

In the last story, which shares the title of the book, I finally get a glimpse of what this collection could have been. It is about Janie's efforts to attract and finally hang onto a man by a using a self-help guide which encourages her to play coy. Ironically, by using these techniques, she almost loses the man of her dreams. It is only by reverting to her own personality that she is able to keep him. This story is unique in that it is the only one where she allows herself to come out of her shell. For once, I see her vulnerabilities, and she becomes human to me. I begin to empathize with her; and her jokes, instead of being brittle and prickly, become funny, and touching. The story is symbolic of the book as a whole: like Janie, when the author finally opens up to us, I respond.

But unfortunately, it is much too little, and much too late. Despite its being well-written and occasionally clever, there is no depth here, and, except for the last story, no warmth.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Set in the 17th century, the story opens with Artemisia having been raped by her father's assistant, Agostino Tassi. Her father has accused him of this rape and sets into motion a trial that will continue to haunt Artemisia for the rest of her days. The rapist is released and Artemisia, her reputation ruined, is forced into an arranged marriage.

She begins to paint her collection, most notably her "Judith" collection. Her art becomes famous with the most renowned people of her day. She portrays the women in her paintings as strong and independent, retribution being the key. I found Vreeland's account of how the paintings came about and why to be extremely interesting. Artemisia soon becomes the first woman to be accepted into the Academy of Sciences in Florence and this causes a rift in her marriage.

The people along the way are also wonderful characters brought to life, especially Graziela who is wise beyond her years and helps to put things into perspective for Artemisia. Her passion for painting brought her the utmost joy and pain. A lesson not lost on Artemisia.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter & Sweet by Jamie Ford

The book tells the modern day story of Henry Lee and his relationship with his progressive son Marty. Their awkward bond magnified by the death of their wife and mother. Henry is struggling to find his way as a widower; his loneliness pulls him out of his home, out to walk in Seattle.

One day, Henry walks past the old Panama Hotel. The Seattle hotel has been boarded up since Japanese families were sent to internment camps in WW II. As Henry stops to watch, the new owner of the Panama discovers the treasures and belongings of the Japanese families; and specifically a parasol, which jolts Henry's memory back to Seattle in the 40's.

Henry is the only son Chinese parents who have instructed him to speak only "American" at home. That neither of them understands the language only serves to isolate the young boy. He is sent to an all white "scholarship" school where he is taunted for being Japanese (even though Henry dutifully wears the "I am Chinese" button his father gave him.). His life is miserable; everyday he gives his lunch to a street musician on the way to school to avoid being accosted by the school bully. The musician and he develop a sweet friendship, which lasts throughout the book.

Eventually a new student joins the school, a Japanese-American girl named Keiko Okabe. Keiko is proud to be American born. Happy to have found each other, struggling with the ways they are treated as second-class citizens, Keiko and Henry develop a friendship.

In the 1940's Henry's father is a Nationalist who remembers the history of the Japanese and the Chinese. He is unforgiving of a relationship between Henry and Keiko. On the other hand, Keiko's family welcomes and respects Henry in their lives. Eventually Keiko and her family are sent away to an internment camp, but Henry is determined and visits them. The two are eventually separated, but not before promising friendship without end.

The story follows the misery of prejudice and hate of the war. It keeps the theme of friendship alive with three very different relationships Henry forges. I liked this book. Well written and tied up nicely at the end.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Fourth Perimeter by Tim Green

I've read a lot of suspense novels over the years. They tend to fall into three categories for me. On the one hand, you have those books you can't put down, well-written, entertaining, and intelligent. Second, you have those that are for one reason or another forgettable: ham-handed politics, poor plotting, lousy writing, etc. Then there are the ones in the middle: not particularly bad, but on the other hand nothing really to recommend them either. The Fourth Perimeter definitely fits into that category.

Kurt Ford is a former Secret Service agent. He left the agency, and founded a hi-tech security firm, and has made a few billion dollars running it. Now his son, following in his footsteps, has become a Secret Service agent too, and as the book opens the author shows you how a woman and her accomplices fake the suicide of Kurt's son, murdering him. You're unsure why.

Kurt, of course, is certain that his son didn't commit suicide, the way many parents are: he had no reason, he was cheerful, etc. He goes on a quest, first to figure out why someone would want his son dead, and then for vengeance once he begins to figure things out. It's a bit more complicated than this, but once you get started with the book it will all be fairly obvious.

I didn't hate this book. I also didn't like it much. There's a dead spot in the middle where Kurt "works" in his office all day, and yells at his fiance if she interrupts him. Neither the plot or the dialog is particularly interesting or intelligent. It's an alright book, but there have been many better.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

My humble opinion: This book was sweet, fluffy, airy, and simple. It was lighthearted and warm and reminded me of drinking a vanilla latte hold the espresso and triple the vanilla syrup.

The story: Cecelia Honeycutt loses her mother to an accident/mental illness and goes to live with her great Aunt in Savannah. No longer a lonely outcast she grows to love the many charming women who become her family.

Bad: Overuse of the word dappled- everything was dappled! Sun dappled, shade dappled, dappled dappled dappled. Her mother's mental illness was not believable- not at all, just wasn't. I would have done further research on what psychotic people actually act like. Since that part wasn't believable I didn't hurt with CeeCee the way I should have.

Good: The book was so predictable that it was comforting. The characters were cheerful and aside from some overused words the setting was described richly and realistically.

Bottom line: This will appeal to readers of Jan Karon, but those who are comparing this to Gone With the Wind and To Kill A Mockingbird have had too much Southern heat.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Jazz Bird by Craig Holden

The Jazz Bird takes place in the 1920's in the midst of the prohibition. The story starts of with the murder of Imogene Remus, the wife of a convicted bootlegger. Her husband, George Remus, confesses as the killer but he seems like an unlikely suspect as he's always been deeply in love with his wife...

During the trial their story unfolds a twisted and complex tale of betrayal and manipulation...until the end when you find out the truth about what happened to their relationship and the day of Imogene's murder.

The characters are colorful enough to keep you reading but the ending goes no where. Entertaining but not dazzling.

A tragic love story and a fascinating insight into bootlegging. I gave it 3 stars because it was worth listening to (I did the audio tape version).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Brother Odd by Dean Koontz

I had never read a Dean Koontz novel but the attractive cover of this one got a hold of me and I checked it out. Yes, the monk in the brown robe proved to be irresistible to me. The contents didn't disappoint me.

Brother Odd is one in the "Odd Thomas" novel series, featuring a young man who has suffered untold loss and who is a sage at the tender age of 21, Odd Thomas. In this installment of the series, Thomas' paranormal abilities - he can see dead people as well as a kind of "demon" that congregates in places that are about to witness death in a massive scale, not exactly a happy ability - take him to a Catholic monastery that is also home to an eccentric, world-famous physicist. This physicist, also a monk, has discovered a way to create things and even living beings out of nothing, utilizing a machine that amplifies his thoughts. But, in a plot element reminiscent of the 50's cult-classic SciFi movie, Forbidden Planet, the scientist wasn't counting on "the monsters of the id". Havoc ensues.

This is a breezy, easy read. The characters are simple and uncomplicated, but not shallow. You can read this in a rainy weekend. I do find Odd Thomas, however, a little "odd" in terms of his character and maturity, but maybe that's why he's named "Odd". The monastic life is presented in very general terms as a background for Odd's sleuthing and the scientist's deconstruction. The setup for the monastic characters is positive and respectful, but mostly impressionistic.

Oh, and there's also a "holy dog". I truly like how he paints dogs and captures their different moods and reactions.

Elvis and Frank Sinatra also appear - literally. The paranormal appears in right quantities without becoming occultic, or just for effect. In fact, I wonder if this kind of perceptions really exist and if actual people are endowed with them.

Odd Thomas is not religious, but he's somehow "spiritual". Catholicism is in the background but you don't get a real sense that Odd Thomas is Catholic.

I recommend the book. Great read, instructive, exciting, and peaceful.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

This is the story of Deo, a survivor of the Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Burundi and Rwanda and how he fared after escaping to America. Even though he was a medical student in Burundi, he started life in America as a homeless person living in New York's Central Park, who made a subsistence living delivering groceries. Through a series of almost miraculous encounters, he was able to lift himself up, graduate from Columbia University, and build a medical clinic in his native Burundi. Deo's is a life still in progress, and although his clinic is a triumph, we know he still has great things ahead of him.

Kidder's writing is very vivid and immediate, and is told from Deo's point of view, so you feel as if you are traveling and experiencing all this with Deo. In particular you feel that he's not much better off as a homeless person in America than he was on the run in Africa, except that in America no one is trying to kill him.

On the other hand, because events are presented out of sequence, the vivid writing does not build much tension--the narrative starts in 2006 with Deo's return to Burundi, so we know that he has survived all the events that are detailed later and has prospered in his new country.

Unfortunately about 2/3 through the book something happened. The author changed his writing style from third-person (from Deo's perspective) to first-person, and in my opinion, the story lost its fizzle.

That being said, I would recommend the book simply for the first 2/3 - I enjoyed it that much. Just be warned that you may leave the book feeling... fragmented.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Summerland by Michael Chabon

I found this book to be mediocre. The writing itself was beautiful at times. Chabon's knowledge of various folklore and legend was impressive, although I found his mix of them sometimes confusing. The four worlds was an interesting element, particularly given how Chabon used them to explain phenomena in our own. And of course, Chabon's love of baseball shone through brightly. Not being a baseball fan myself, I didn't find those parts particularly compelling, but the passion in them was undeniable.

The story, however, is why I hesitate rating this book higher. Many of the characters were fun and memorable - Ethan, Jennifer T., Cutbelly - but the "bad guys" were rather one-dimensional. Many of his minions, too, were much too black-and-white for my taste. The progression of the story chiefly annoyed me. The characters often seemed to advance more thanks to a series of fortunate circumstances than through any action of their own (Thor just happens to be a shadowtail, Pettipaw conveniently shows up at the right moment, the stick Ethan finds happens to be magical). It seemed heavy-handed.

All in all, I'd say that this book is probably pure magic to a baseball fan, but in terms of fantasy, it's nothing to write home about.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Book Review: The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory

This is a must for lovers of reading anything and everything Tudor. A fascinating look at two of Henry's little known queens, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. This book might be difficult to get into at first if you have no prior knowledge of Henry VIII and his wives, but it's worth sticking with it.

I loved the way the author told the story from the viewpoint of Anne, Katherine and Jane Boleyn (who was married to George Boleyn, the first Anne's brother). The characters were brilliantly portrayed and came alive before my eyes. Anne, just trying to stay alive in a court riddled with intrigue, Jane scheming with her uncle to put another Howard on the throne, and Katherine (LOL) the not too bright but very beautiful 15 year old who just wanted to look pretty and have pretty things and be admired by handsome men. There were times I was laughing out loud at Kitty's comments, and the chapters that repeatedly started with another accounting of "what do I have now?", as she counted her jewels and clothes.

Through these three women we see Anne and Kitty caught up in something they are helpless to stop, Henry's lusting after young Kitty and his determination to put Anne aside at any cost to have Kitty. Most fascinating of all is the way Henry is portrayed through all three women, and he is terrifying indeed. An absolute ruler, with complete power over all around him and mad as a hatter. And wonderful to see that of all of them, Anne was able to come through the terror unscathed and a free, independent woman.