"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?