Friday, March 28, 2008

Review: Remember Me?

Remember Me? by Sophie Kinsella
4 stars

Reason for reading: it's Sophie Kinsella!

First line: "Of all the crap, crap, crappy nights I've ever had the whole of my crap life."

Book description: "When twenty-eight-year-old Lexi Smart wakes up in a London hospital, she’s in for a big surprise. Her teeth are perfect. Her body is toned. Her handbag is Vuitton. Having survived a car accident—in a Mercedes no less—Lexi has lost a big chunk of her memory, three years to be exact, and she’s about to find out just how much things have changed. Somehow Lexi went from a twenty-five-year-old working girl to a corporate big shot with a sleek new loft, a personal assistant, a carb-free diet, and a set of glamorous new friends. And who is this gorgeous husband—who also happens to be a multimillionaire? With her mind still stuck three years in reverse, Lexi greets this brave new world determined to be the person she…well, seems to be. That is, until an adorably disheveled architect drops the biggest bombshell of all. Suddenly Lexi is scrambling to catch her balance. Her new life, it turns out, comes complete with secrets, schemes, and intrigue. How on earth did all this happen? Will she ever remember? And what will happen when she does? "

My thoughts: Another winner from Sophie Kinsella. As much as I enjoyed the Shopaholic books, I think I like her standalone titles even better - Becky Bloomwood, while very endearing, can be a bit much to take in large doses.

I don't really need to say much, I'm sure that every Kinsella fan has either read this already or will soon. There are no really big surprises, but some secrets are revealed and there's lots of humour as Lexi stumbles around in her new seemingly perfect but ice-queeny life. I found Lexi really easy to root for and when things come together for her at the end (c'mon, you knew they would) I was cheering for her.

I found the whole concept of the book really interesting - that you could become (at least to the outside observer and you can even fool yourself somewhat) a completely different person in just a few years. I was trying to think how different I am from three years ago. Not very much at all - I don't know if that's good or bad! :-)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Review: Uncommon Grounds

Uncommon Grounds by Sandra Balzo
3 stars

Reasons for reading: I came across it when looking up a nonfiction book about coffee with the same title for my husband and thought it sounded fun; Every Month is a Holiday Challenge - Caffeine Awareness Month and Mystery list for the Triple 8 Challenge

First line: "I was late the Monday we were scheduled to open Uncommon Grounds."

Book description: "Patricia Harper has been killed by an espresso machine hot-wired to electrocute its owner - and in Uncommon Grounds, her very own gourmet coffee store, on opening day. Maggy Thorsen, displaced PR executive turned coffee maven, wants to know who killed her partner and put the future of Uncommon Grounds in jeopardy. Maggy desperately needs the store to succeed, so she joins forces with Sarah Kingstown, Patricia's closest friend, to investigate her killing. "

My thoughts: I always say I'm not a mystery reader, yet I end up with all these mysteries! Maybe I'm in denial. But I enjoyed this one.

Even though I often find the whole ordinary person solving mysteries thing a bit hard to believe (which is a genre thing, not the fault of this book), I liked Maggy and admired her sharp eyes and ability to make connections. I also liked that she wasn't always right on the first try, but she kept going. The tension in her relationship with sexy detective Pavlik was crackling and there was humour, too. For example, the scene where Maggy decides to go on a stakeout but forgets to bring the red and blue ski mask that she'd planned to disguise herself with.

The settings were also well done. Brookhills, despite sounding rather Stepford-esque in its concern over appearances, is a nice small town. I liked Maggy's little house ("shack") with her enormous sheepdog Frank and the blue stucco living room. Uncommon Grounds sounds like a lovely coffee shop and I also wanted to eat butter burgers over at the lunch counter at Goddard's pharmacy. There's even a library, complete with a nosy, tax-preparing librarian!

As for the mystery, I never guessed whodunit and there were lots of red herrings and surprising twists along the way.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Review: Gastroanomalies

Gastroanomalies: questionable culinary creations from the Golden Age of American Cookery by James Lileks
4.5 stars

Reason for reading: James Lileks is one of the funniest people on the planet, hands down; part of my Nonfiction list for the Triple 8 Challenge

Book description: In an era where cooks wanted to put their best foot forward, there was no end to the creative, cost-efficient, and cream-based dishes that disgraced the family dinner table, the cocktail party, or the neighborhood BBQ. Recipes involving ingredients like ground meat, bananas, and cottage cheese sound innocent enough—unless you mix them all together in a strange attempt to cover every food group at once. In Gastroanomalies, James Lileks gathers another remarkable assortment of dishes that once inspired cooks to brave new heights but now inspire sour stomachs and thoughts of “how did I survive?”

My thoughts: Another winner from the founder/writer of the Gallery of Regrettable Food. It loses 1/2 a star only because he recycled a couple of the gags/photos from the original Gallery.

Husband and I have spent many happy, hilarious hours reading his website and his books together (we even hosted a regrettable food housewarming party) and this time was no different. I don't want to spoil the delights in store for you, but one of the ones that made us laugh the most was a photo of gingerbread people on sticks, stuck into candy cane-decorated apples, presumably meant to be a festive treat. The caption? "When Count Chocula took over Candyland, he had all his opponents impaled and displayed outside the castle. It had the effect of discouraging dissent, as he knew it would."

You need funny in your life. You need James Lileks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Review: Gods Behaving Badly

Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips

4 stars

Reasons for reading: mentioned on Shelf Awareness; I was intrigued by the concept

First line: "One morning, when Artemis was out walking the dogs, she saw a tree where no tree should be."

Book description: Being a Greek god is not all it once was. Yes, the twelve gods of Olympus are alive and well in the twenty-first century, but they are crammed together in a London townhouse - and none too happy about it. And they've had to get day jobs: Artemis as a dog-walker, Apollo as a TV psychic, Aphrodite as a phone sex operator, Dionysus as a DJ. Even more disturbingly, their powers are waning . . . Soon, what begins as a minor squabble between Aphrodite and Apollo escalates into an epic battle of wills. Two perplexed humans, Alice and Neil, who are caught in the crossfire, must fear not only for their own lives, but for the survival of humankind. Nothing less than a true act of heroism is needed - but can these two decidedly ordinary people replicate the feats of the mythical heroes and save the world?

My thoughts: This was a really fun book. I've read a couple of books in the past where the gods are still with us, and I like the idea a lot. Phillips didn't disappoint - she brought the Olympians to life as very flawed gods and was true to their natures - Ares still starts all the wars, they're just in places like former Soviet republics now; Apollo still causes the sun to rise; although he might sometimes be a bit hungover or shagged out to do it right on time; Athena is so incredibly erudite that no-one can understand a word she says.

I enjoyed her choice of modern jobs for them - Aphrodite's moans into her Bluetooth phone at inopportune moments are a hoot. My copy has neat classical art-looking pictures of the dog walking and cell phoning on the covers and endpapers.

Phillips' portrait of the Underworld is very creative - Charon now ferries passengers on a secret London Underground train and you can get a job and a house in the afterlife, if you like. It's also quite a chilling picture - I was really saddened by the thought of all those billions of souls, especially the babies. I had to put the book away for a day or two.

In the end, it's a romantic comedy and you never doubt the outcome, but that's okay. The fast-paced story is liberally sprinkled with great witty lines and moments of absurdity.

Other reviews of this book:

Friday, March 14, 2008

Review: Magyk

Magyk (Septimus Heap, book 1) by Angie Sage
3 stars

Reasons for reading: it's popular with kids at the library; I have to do a booktalk on it

Book description: Septimus Heap, the seventh son of a seventh son, disappears the night he is born, pronounced dead by the midwife. That same night, the baby's father, Silas Heap, comes across an abandoned child in the snow - a newborn girl with violet eyes. The Heaps take her into their home, name her Jenna, and raise her as their own. But who is this mysterious baby girl and what really happened to their beloved son Septimus?

My thoughts: I'm not much of a fantasy girl, but this one was pretty entertaining. One cool thing was that, despite being the title character, Septimus' identity isn't revealed until the end of the book. His identity is pretty obvious (at least it was to grown-up me), but I thought it added some interest. But there's lots of adventure, magic, and humour. I enjoyed the fun details, like Bert the cat who's been transformed into a duck (so she meows instead of quacks) and the Sheild Bugs - magically transformed insects who pop out of their jars armed with tiny swords and fight to the death. It's a pretty hefty book and there are a lot of characters in the book, which dawned on me when I read the "What happened to?" section at the end and couldn't remember who half of them were.

One irksome thing - putting any word that had anything to do with Magyk in bold italics.

I don't think I'll be reading the rest of the series, but I'd definitely recommend it to kids.

Review: Mermaids in the Basement

Mermaids in the Basement by Michael Lee West
4 stars

Reasons for reading: Review in People; the word "mermaids" in the title

First line: "If I had not read the cover story in the March 2, 2000, National Enquirer, it's doubtful that I would have gone to Alabama and ruined my daddy's engagement party, much less sent the bride-to-be into a coma."

Book description: "Reeling from the loss of her mother, plagued with a bad case of writer's block . . . Renata DeChavannes feels as though everything is just plain wrong. And that was before the tabloids caught her sweetheart, filmmaker Ferg Lauderdale, sharing an intimate squeeze with Hollywood's hottest young tamale. But the granddaughter of the formidable Honora DeChavannes possesses more hell than belle in her backbone—and she's about to reclaim it. Heading south to Honora's home on the Gulf Coast, Renata is determined to stop feeling like a wilted gardenia and emerge as the unstoppable kudzu her beloved grandmother proudly proclaimed she would be . . . But for that to happen Renata's got to face some not-so-genteel ghosts from her past, discover the truth about the mother she desperately misses, and make peace with the first man who abandoned her and broke her heart—her handsome and distant father."

My thoughts: I really enjoyed this book. The writing is excellent and each of the characters has their own distinct voice, which is important, as the story is told from many viewpoints and many points in history. I also liked the mermaid imagery sprinkled liberally throughout.

There are so many threads in this story and so many people play a part. Renata's past basically unravels and is put back together in a completely different way. Everything she thought she knew about her mother and father gets turned on its head. And she comes to terms with what she's always felt was her father's abandonment of her and is able to move forward with her life.

There's lots of humour, too - from Renata requiring an emergency hair chop after getting stuck on an earring to Honora's friend Isabella's (a long-ago Hollywood starlet) habit of sneaking pharmecuticals into food at parties.

The only little thing that bugged me was Renata's handling of the Ferg situation - it's so obvious that he's not cheating on her that it was frustrating that she refused to talk to him. But that was a necessary annoyance for the sake of the story.

Favorite character: Honora. She's a wonderful steel magnolia of a grandmother. I'd love to spend a week at Chateau DeChavennes talking to her and the family's former nanny, Gladys and being fed amazing food and looked after. I love Honora's stream-of-consciousness brain. Renata describes her speech as "swaying sentences" that used to make her seasick but now she finds soothing. Example (after fiddling with the car radio, on the way home after picking Renata up at the airport):

When Julie London started singing "Cry Me a River," my grandmother sighed, "Oh, I do miss the fifties, even though we didn't have good antibiotics back then. Now, we have better drugs and desserts. That reminds me, there's a new bakery in Fairhope that makes key lime pies with a nut-and-candy crust. . . We'll go there tomorrow or the next day. I thought about having the bakery cater your daddy's party, but I'd already hired the Grand Hotel.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Review: Real Vampires Have Curves

Real Vampires Have Curves by Gerry Bartlett
2.5 stars

Reasons for reading:
thought it would be fun to mix chick lit with vampire lit; Triple 8 Challenge

Book description:
What—did you think all vamps were pale, thin and brooding?
Don’t I wish.
Me, I just happened to be bloating when a sexy Scotsman sank his teeth into me, so here I am, eternally “full-figured.” On the plus side, Glory St. Claire can rock a corset like nobody’s business. Oh, and as for Angus Jeremiah Campbell III, aka Jeremy Blade? We’ve been on and off again for centuries, currently off. After a couple hundred years we sure know how to press each other’s hot buttons—in good ways and bad.
The whole never-aging thing means that a girl’s gotta keep moving, and I’m headed for Austin and a new business venture: Vintage Vamp’s Emporium. After all, I love cute clothes, and I am an antique. Only problem is, there’s a billionaire techno-freak vampire hunter on the loose. Blade’s in total he-vampire mode, and orders me to move in so he can “protect” me. But I’m sick of the not-so-little woman thing. It’s time for this vamp to explore her own powers . . .

My thoughts: I really wanted to like this one more than I did - look how cute the cover is! But it was, as Randy Jackson would say to an American Idol hopeful, just a'ight for me.

My main problem was the large amount of repetition. Worse, everything being repeated was really irksome. Every chapter Glory had to remind the reader that:

1) She really wants to be independent, you know. She doesn't need Blade to protect her. Yeah, she knows she has his magical guard dog and that he's always rushing to her rescue, but she doesn't
need him or anything.

2) She and Blade have been having really hot sex for centuries.
And it's still hot.

3) Vamps have a lot of really cool powers that she never bothered to learn, like shape-shifting. And she hates it when other vamps read her mind, but she can't be bothered to learn how to block them. And when she finally does decide to learn them (because her "life" is at stake - pardon the pun) she has to remind the reader that she's working on learning what she didn't learn centuries ago.

4) She's fat.

Hello, I have been reading the book. I managed to grasp all these facts the first time they were mentioned. If you thought maybe it was beyond me, a second time would've been okay. But not over and over and over.

Glory came off as pretty pathetic, combining the worst traits of the worst characters in bad chick lit. Two hot vampire guys are lusting after her and all she can think about is her jiggly butt. She could do all kinds of amazing, powerful things, but she just never bothered to learn. She wants to be independent but rather than having managed to make or save any money over the centuries, she has to live hand to mouth until she finally opens the shop. Now, I did admire her for wanting to make her dream come true and I thought the shop was cool, but hearing her tell everyone how independent she is while sexy uber-vamp Damian finds her the location of her shop/apartment, his sister Florence moves in with her, and Blade soon moves to Austin to look after her, it starts to ring a bit false. I'd have had a much easier time of it if she admitted she loved Blade and, while not wanting to live in his castle and play the meek Scottish lass, she still enjoyed that he looked after her. She does redeem herself a bit in the end by finally using her powers, so I suppose she's grown, but it wasn't quite enough to make up for the litany of lameness.

And I guess I wasn't expecting it to be so Harlequin romancey - the vampire sex, complete with biting and mind-reading, kinda creeped me out.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Na na na NA NA NA NAH....

Which Beatles song are you?
Your Result: Hey Jude

If you were an animal, you would be a basset hound. You seem overwhelmed from time to time, but positive encouragement and realistic advice can help you pull yourself back up. Learning to accept people is a life-long lesson, but you can always make things better.

Eleanor Rigby
The Space Between
All You Need is Love
Here Comes the Sun
Yellow Submarine
Twist and Shout
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
Which Beatles song are you?
Quizzes for MySpace

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Review: The Sweet Potato Queens'...

The Sweet Potato Queens' First Big-Ass Novel by Jill Conner Browne with Karin Gillespie
3.5 stars

First line: "Is a queen created or is she born that way, making her entrance into the world with her hand curled into a fist as if grasping a teeny-tiny scepter?"

Reasons for reading:
I love Southern lit; liked the title

Summary (from Booklist):
Browne's Sweet Potato Queen advice books on love, divorce, and cooking have found a wide audience in readers who appreciate the Queens' sassy southern charm. With coauthor Gillespie, Browne turns to fiction for the first time to share lives and loves of the Queens. Jill, Mary Bennett, Patsy, and Gerald are united by their outsider status in high school. When Tammy, a beautiful but insecure redhead, moves into town and is humiliated by the in-crowd, Jill and company form the Tammy Club to bolster her spirits. The five enter the homecoming parade in wild dresses and red wigs, but a misprint on their sign (it reads Yammy instead of Tammy) leads to the five rechristening themselves the Sweet Potato Queens. The groups' friendships last for decades, despite distance and differences of opinion. Mary Bennett pursues fame on the coasts, Gerald comes to terms with his sexuality, and Tammy marries. But not everything is rosy. Mary Bennett finds success as a soap actress at the expense of the love of her life, Jill finds a man who proves too good to be true, and Tammy's insecurities lead to infidelities.

My thoughts:
I had no idea the Sweet Potato Queens were such a phenomenon! When the book was written the flap mentioned 4100 chapters of the group and now there are 5495, according to the website. And there's even SPQ music, including a song called "I Wanna Be a Sweet Potato Queen". I think I wanna, too, they're a hoot! I'd love to see their float in the Mal's St. Paddy’s Parade in Jackson (which I guess is coming up).

I loved the Southern-ness of it, with all the "hunnys" and "y'alls." Having my Minnesota connection, I particularly enjoyed Mary Bennett's attempts to get Minnesota-born Patsy (whom she calls Swiss Miss) to speak with a drawl while constantly mixing up every M-state in the union ("What in the hell is going on up there in Montana?").

I did get rather frustrated with just about all of the characters along the way - Tammy's cheating, Gerald's sulking and terrorist-like activism and Jill's inability to have a romantic relationship, but I liked the way the Queens stayed together over the years, even though there were a lot of rough spots.

The costumes, the parade, the adventures, the idea for a restaurant that serves "funeral food"- this book is jam-packed with fun, friendship, and laughs!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Review: The Luxe

The Luxe by Anna Godbersen
4 stars

Reasons for reading: It's a hot YA book right now; sounded fun; the gorgeous cover!

First line: "In life, Elizabeth Adora Holland was known not only for her loveliness but also for her moral character, so it was fair to assume that in the afterlife she would occupy a lofty seat with an especially good view."

Summary (from Kirkus Reviews): A big, sumptuous tale of catty girls, dark secrets and windswept romance unfurls in this compulsively readable novel of late-19th-century New York City socialites. Godbersen weaves a tenuous web of deceit, backstabbing and pretense that follows four teens: Elizabeth Holland, a prim and proper lady of old-money society, is betrothed to one man, though furtively loves another; Henry Schoonmaker, a debauched playboy who must marry Elizabeth or be disinherited; Diana Holland, Elizabeth’s younger sister who is in love with her fiancĂ©; and Penelope Hayes, a member of the nouveau riche who will stop at nothing to win Henry’s affections. As Elizabeth and Henry’s wedding approaches, the spectacle unfolds in a wondrously grandiose scene, making for a fun, though not entirely unexpected dĂ©nouement.

My thoughts: I'm serious about the cover - I want to go back in time for one night to wear that dress at a ball!! This book has been touted all over the place as Gossip Girl in the 19th century and that's what it is. As Kirkus says, the ending isn't a surprise at all, but getting there is still fun. I loved the sumptuous descriptions of the clothes and the historical details, though I think there were a few slips - I'm not 100% sure I believe that Penelope would have a gay best friend in 1899, for example.

While it's definitely not perfect, I'm giving it four stars for the fun factor. This book has been touted all over the place as Gossip Girl in the 19th century and that's what it is and I think it's pretty cool. The more things change, the more they stay the same - whether it's the 19th or the 21st century, the elite kids are all about flirting, champagne, clothes and parties. It also made me want to learn more about that period in New York's history and maybe even read an Edith Wharton novel (it opens with a quote from The Age of Innocence).