Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What's in a Name Challenge II

I'm a bit late, but I didn't discover this challenge was going again until this week. I had fun with it last year and now there are new categories!

Annie is hosting it again, sign-up and full details are here.

It runs from January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009

The Challenge: Choose one book from each of the following categories.
1. A book with a "profession" in its title.
2. A book with a "time of day" in its title.
3. A book with a "relative" in its title.
4. A book with a "body part" in its title.
5. A book with a "building" in its title.
6. A book with a "medical condition" in its title.

You may overlap books with other challenges, but please don't use the same book for more than one category.

I may change my list, but at the moment here's what I'm planning:

Profession - The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas
Time of Day - Last Night at the Lobster by Stuart O'Nan
Relative - The Almost Archer Sisters by Lisa Gabrielle
Body Part - City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
Medical condition - Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin
Building - The Beach House by Jane Green

Review: Certain Girls

Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner
4 stars

Reasons for reading: I like Jennifer Weiner's books and I chose to celebrate her March 28, 1970 birthday for the Celebrate the Author Challenge

Description: "Readers fell in love with Cannie Shapiro, the smart, sharp-tongued, bighearted heroine of Good in Bed who found her happy ending after her mother came out of the closet, her father fell out of her life, and her ex-boyfriend started chronicling their ex-sex life in the pages of a national magazine. Now Cannie's back. After her debut novel -- a fictionalized (and highly sexualized) version of her life -- became an overnight bestseller, she dropped out of the public eye and turned to writing science fiction under a pseudonym. She's happily married to the tall, charming diet doctor Peter Krushelevansky and has settled into a life that she finds wonderfully predictable -- knitting in the front row of her daughter Joy's drama rehearsals, volunteering at the library, and taking over-forty yoga classes with her best friend Samantha. As preparations for Joy's bat mitzvah begin, everything seems right in Cannie's world. Then Joy discovers the novel Cannie wrote years before and suddenly finds herself faced with what she thinks is the truth about her own conception -- the story her mother hid from her all her life. When Peter surprises his wife by saying he wants to have a baby, the family is forced to reconsider its history, its future, and what it means to be truly happy."

First line: "When I was a kid, our small-town paper published wedding announcements, with descriptions of the ceremonies and dresses and pictures of the brides."

My thoughts: Unfortunately, I couldn't remember much about Good in Bed, though I know I enjoyed it and related to the fat-girl aspects. I think 7 years is a wee bit long to expect people to remember enough to read a sequel. Although Weiner did a pretty good job of reminding/introducing elements from the first book, there were a few moments (like her mom coming out as a lesbian) where I said to myself. "I don't remember that!"

At the beginning of the book, Joy's truculent tween-ness really made me hope I don't end up having girl children! At least I won't have to bar or bar mitzvah anyone - it seems like those events are getting up there with weddings when it comes to over-the-top productions. But she grew on me a bit - as everyone kept saying to Cannie, she is (almost) a teenager and that's what they do. I also hope I don't become an intensely-overinvolved mom like Cannie! (Although her reasons for this behaviour are eventually explained.)

Joy getting hold of Cannie's book and trying to make sense of it was what really made the book interesting for me - 10 years ago Cannie never imagined that her toddler daughter would grow up to read the about the (fictionalized) promiscuity of "Allie" and her (true but short-lived) horror at discovering she was pregnant. When Joy does read the book, she's understandably shocked and ashamed and tries to get answers out of anyone but her mother, who she was already treating with adolescent hatred even before she read it.

There's a lot going on in the novel - Joy and Cannie's relationship, Joy's growing up, Cannie and Peter's relationship and his desire for a baby... Lots of family dynamics, self-examination, memories, sorrow, pain and, of course, joy.

The verdict: While I didn't like waiting so long, this sequel has Weiner's signature humour mixed with her true-to-life examinations of issues facing women, from marriage to career to motherhood.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Herding Cats Challenge II

I didn't do this one last year because I had sooo many books going on with the Triple 8 Challenge - but I saw lots of other bloggers were doing it and it looked like fun, so I'm glad I can participate this year!

Renay at Let's Get Literate is hosting it. Full details can be found here.

Here are the rules, briefly:

1. Make a list of five books you love.
Five. I'm as serious as a beached whale.
- All titles must be books you've read in 2007, 2008 or 2009.
- Please don't list a series; just the first book. If you really want to list a book in the middle of a series, you can, but it has to be that specific book.
- Feel free to share why you're putting the book on your list, because I am nosy.

2. Post your list:

3. Browse the new booklist.

4. If you review your books, you can share your review.

It's SO hard to pick just 5 books, rather like Sophie's choice. But here are some that I love and I hope some of them are a bit (pardon the pun) novel.

The View From Mount Joy by Lorna Landvik - I really enjoy her books and I love that they take place in my second-home-by-marriage, Minnesota. This book really is about joy, particularly finding it in the people and places you love even when life throws you some bad situations.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck - This is one of my husband's favourite books and when I read it last year I couldn't believe that one book could just have so much to it. It's quite amazing.

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann B. Ross - This series just makes me happy. It's light, funny, Southern and Miss Julia is a great character - an old-fashioned lady but when she does speak her mind, look out!

Candy Girl: a year in the life of an unlikely stripper by Diablo Cody - This one has stuck with me since I read it in 2007 - it's a hoot, a bit shocking and a bit bizarre. It also has the bonus of being written by Juno It-girl Diablo Cody before she was famous (also takes place in Minneapolis, woo!).

The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square by Rosina Lippi - I know some bloggers didn't care for this one, but I just loved it. Partly because of my love affair with South Carolina last year but also because it's funny, romantic and a bit quirky and a bit sad. Also, I loved the idea of a shop full of women who go to work in beautiful pajamas!

Review: Queen of the Road

Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I read some good reviews of it and it sounded fun; travel-themed book for the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge (and, as Doreen pointed out in the comments on my WSR post, it's also a cookbook - each chapter starts out with a drink recipe!)

Description: "A pampered Long Island princess hits the road in a converted bus with her wilderness-loving husband, travels the country for one year, and brings it all hilariously to life in this offbeat and romantic memoir.Doreen and Tim are married psychiatrists with a twist: She’s a self-proclaimed Long Island princess, grouchy couch potato, and shoe addict. He's an affable, though driven, outdoorsman. When Tim suggests “chucking it all” to travel cross-country in a converted bus, Doreen asks, “Why can’t you be like a normal husband in a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” But she soon shocks them both, agreeing to set forth with their sixty-pound dog, two querulous cats—and no agenda—in a 340-square-foot bus.Queen of the Road is Doreen’s offbeat and romantic tale about refusing to settle; about choosing the unconventional road with all the misadventures it brings (fire, flood, armed robbery, and finding themselves in a nudist RV park, to name just a few). The marvelous places they visit and delightful people they encounter have a life-changing effect on all the travelers, as Doreen grows to appreciate the simple life, Tim mellows, and even the pets pull together. Best of all, readers get to go along for the ride through forty-seven states in this often hilarious and always entertaining memoir, in which a boisterous marriage of polar opposites becomes stronger than ever."

Favourite passage: Doreen wonders to her husband if they should join the ranks of RV-ers who have a sign that says their names, hometown, and has a little logo showing their hobbies - like a bowling pin or fishing rod. "But Tim said no, since depicting my favourite pastimes would entail a logo of a bed and a credit card and result in our imminent arrest for solicitation."

My thoughts:
I couldn't decide how many stars to give this book. I was thinking 4, maybe 4 1/4, but the longer it took me to write the review, the more I realized that I've been telling my husband bits from it many times over the 2 or so weeks its been since I finished it, which I think is a really good sign - I obviously remembered stuff and I thought it was good enough to share. I might even have him read it - we're planning a (much shorter!) road trip in the summer and it really got me in the travellin' mood.

Like Doreen, I couldn't fathom the idea of living on a bus for a year when I started the book but, I have to say, after reading it, it sounds like wonderful journeys are possible if you take time off to just explore with the person you love most. I still don't know if I'd manage - I'm really not a camping/RV-ing person, but Doreen's descriptions of how she came to realize that she didn't need all kinds of stuff, that the outdoors could actually be fun, and that it's having experiences and connecting with people that's really important in life certainly made me think about it. I wonder what I'd learn about myself on such a trip?

And the travelogue part is so great - I now want to visit Wall Drug in South Dakota and find some of the great restaurants they ate at. And Key West sounds like a delightfully bizarre place, from her descriptions. I had no idea that there's basically a huge thrift store where they sell the unclaimed luggage from American airports. And, like Doreen, I too think of the Mall of America as Mecca. :-) I liked that she included some references (mostly web sites) at the end to help the reader find some of the highlights of their trip.

The verdict: A fun, funny, interesting book that may make you think about your own priorities in life. And I think Doreen and Tim would be great fun to have dinner with! :-)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Review: Betrayed

Betrayed: a House of Night Novel by PC Cast and Kristin Cast
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I enjoyed Marked, the first book in the series last year and so decided to use this one for the Seconds Challenge

Description: "Fledgling vampyre Zoey Redbird has managed to settle in at the House of Night.She's come to terms with the vast powers the vampyre goddess, Nyx, has given her, and is getting a handle on being the new Leader of the Dark Daughters. Best of all, Zoey finally feels like she belongs--like she really fits in. She actually has a boyfriend...or two. Then the unthinkable happens: Human teenagers are being killed, and all the evidence points to the House of Night. While danger stalks the humans from Zoey's old life, she begins to realize that the very powers that make her so unique might also threaten those she loves. Then, when she needs her new friends the most, death strikes the House of Night, and Zoey must find the courage to face a betrayal that could break her heart, her soul, and jeopardize the very fabric of her world. "

First line: "New kid. Check it out," Shaunee said as she slid into the big boothlike bench we always claim as ours for every school meal served in the dining hall (translation: high-class school cafeteria)."

My thoughts: I enjoyed the second installment in this series. Sadly, Zoey doesn't seem to say "hee hee" any more, which is a pity because I do that, too. :) But overall I still really like what I liked about her character in the first book -she's smart, strong and loyal. I think we'll be seeing a fair bit of "with great power comes great responsibility" stuff, as her powers keep growing at an unheard-of rate for a new fledgling. And I like that she has really good friends - with so much frenemy crap going on today, it's nice to see loyal, true friendship portrayed in a YA novel.

I heard this series described at "Twilight crossed with Gossip Girl" the other day, but it's not quite that. There still is some of the mean girl element with Zoey's nemesis, Aphrodite, but it seems to be turning more towards Zoey fighting evil forces and away from the cliquey boarding school stuff of the first book, so that's a good sign. It's definitely a series for older readers, though, so that may be where the GG comparison comes in - while nobody has had actual sex yet, there's a lot of discussion about oral sex, sluts, and some rather heated scenes, especially those involving blood-drinking. It is getting a bit exasperating that Zoey now has three men who are totally enchanted by her. I hope there's some resolution of that in the next book because, to use Zoey's own phrase, she's acting a tiny bit like a ho-bag.

The verdict: I look forward to seeing how Zoey and her friends face the challenge of a powerful dark force (don't want to give too much away) in the next book.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Review: Mystic River

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
4.5 stars

Reasons for reading: Nick Hornby speaks highly of it in The Polysyllabic Spree; Anthony Award-winner for the Book Awards Challenge

Description: "When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car drove up their street. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened -- something that ended their friendship and changed all three boys forever. Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective. Jimmy is an ex-con. And Dave is trying to hold his marriage together and keep his demons at bay-demons that urge him to do horrific things. When Jimmy's daughter is found murdered, Sean is assigned to the case. His investigation brings him into serious conflict with Jimmy. And then there is Dave, who came home covered in someone else's blood the night Jimmy's daughter died. While Sean attempts to use the law to return peace and order to the neighborhood, Jimmy finds his need for vengeance pushing him ever closer to a moral abyss from which he won't be able to return."

First line: "When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them."

My thoughts: There is real craft to this novel. You think that Lehane has told you what happened right at the beginning, but he hasn't. Everything is revealed slowly through Dave, Sean and Jimmy's thoughts and actions and it's definitely not what was expected.

It took me a long time to get through Mystic River - not because I wasn't drawn into it, but because there are some creepy scenes - awful things happen. I normally read before bed but found I had weird dreams after reading this one, so I had to stop. It's a very intense book.

The Flats neighbourhood of Boston is as much of a character as the three men - it's working-class, it's not always pretty, but the people who live there consider themselves natives of the place, it's very much their home. Part of Dave's struggle is that he was taken away from the neighbourhood in that car and the boy who returned no longer fit in. Jimmy's criminal nickname was Jimmy Flats - he's a fixture in the neighbourhood and he loves it. Sean is also an outsider, although a fairly well-tolerated one. He grew up in the slightly wealthier Point neighbourhood and as a college-educated state trooper, he's still "above" the Flats, though he's cautiously tolerated, it seems.

All of the characters are complex, especially Jimmy - a brilliant ex-con who seems to have become a devoted father and husband and a quiet shop owner. Dave tries hard to keep his demons at bay, but he's not always successful. And Sean has a derailed marriage, largely due to his "cop's ego" which seems to have been in place somewhat since childhood.

The verdict: A grisly, powerful novel about more than a brutal crime. It's also about family, love, community, and the effects of the past on the present.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
4 stars

Reasons for reading: read several good reviews of it; second Sisters-themed book for the Themed Reading Challenge

Description: "In the middle of tending to the everyday business at her vintage-clothing shop and sidestepping her married boyfriend’s attempts at commitment, Iris Lockhart receives a stunning phone call: Her great-aunt Esme, whom she never knew existed, is being released from Cauldstone Hospital—where she has been locked away for more than sixty-one years. Iris’s grandmother Kitty always claimed to be an only child. But Esme’s papers prove she is Kitty’s sister, and Iris can see the shadow of her dead father in Esme’s face. Esme has been labeled harmless—sane enough to coexist with the rest of the world. But she's still basically a stranger, a family member never mentioned by the family, and one who is sure to bring life-altering secrets with her when she leaves the ward. If Iris takes her in, what dangerous truths might she inherit? "

First line: "Let us begin with two girls at a dance."

My thoughts: This is a really well-written book, told from three very different points of view. Iris is a typical modern girl who receives some astonishing news. Esme seems fairly sane, but she's been locked up for 6 decades - her mind slips into the past frequently, but she seems to have a grip on the present. And Kitty is mired in dementia - her thoughts flit between events that happened 60 years ago and how she's feeling about biscuits at this very second.

The premise of Iris discovering she has a relative she never knew existed is enough of a story, but between Esme and Kitty, we learn about 60 years of lies that have brought us to this point - Iris living in an apartment that used to be the Lennox family home in Edinburgh, Kitty in a nursing home, and Esme in the asylum.

I love Scotland and really enjoyed the Edinburgh setting - I could picture quite a lot of the scenery. It was interesting to see it from Esme's point of view after 60 years - she recognized a lot of the buildings, for example, but the road network was very different.

I shared Iris' fascination with the fact that in Esme's day, a woman could basically be committed if her father or other man in her life wished it. This theme reminded me of another book I really enjoyed, An Inconvenient Wife by Megan Chance, which took place about 50 years earlier, but was largely about women being called mad by men because they were embarrassing. Esme definitely was unconventional, but it overall it was hard to tell if she was actually mad.

The verdict: A haunting tale of how lies and betrayal can turn loving sisters into enemies, as well as the story of how a family changes over time, but genetics are always there to bind them together.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Review: Belong to Me

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
5 stars

Reasons for reading: I loved Loved Walked In; Seconds Challenge

Description: "Cornelia Brown surprised herself when she was gripped by the sudden, inescapable desire to move to the suburbs with her husband. Her mettle is quickly tested by her impeccably dressed, overly judgmental neighbor Piper Truitt—the embodiment of everything Cornelia feared she'd find in suburbia. With Lake, another recent arrival, Cornelia shares a love of literature and old movies—as she forms an instant bond with this warm yet elusive woman and her perceptive, brilliant young son Dev."

First line: "My fall from suburban grace, or, more accurately, my failure to achieve the merest molehill of suburban grace from which to fall, began with a dinner party and a perfectly innocent, modestly clever, and only faintly quirky remark about Armand Assante."

My thoughts: It's rare that I like a sequel as much as the first book, but it's happened here. In fact, I enjoyed this book more than Love Walked In. An added bonus was that it caused me to have "You Belong to Me," a song I love, running through my head all week!

I didn't actually realize it was a sequel until I started reading, I thought it was just the de los Santos' second book. I think I enjoyed this one more because Love Walked In had a fair bit of movie-ness about it (not that that was bad and it was rather appropriate given Cornelia's love of old movies) and it ended like a movie, with Teo and Cornelia falling in love. This book shows what happens after the happy ending - they're still happy, but life has thrown them some curveballs, both good and bad. And while the book definitely has some situations that wouldn't be out of place in a soap opera, it didn't feel soapy.

I really liked that the characters grew and changed, particularly Piper. I really enjoyed reading things from Cornelia's point of view again - she's so linguistically and just generally quirky. She's caring and smart, but far from perfect. And I like that she's really short, like me! Teo is dreamy, Dev is a teen boy you'd like to get to know, and Clare has grown up well - her precociousness suits her better as a teen than it did at 11.

De los Santos does an excellent job of portraying emotions - the book is loaded with joy, sorrow, anger, pain, and lots of love - love for children, friends, family, spouses and a sweet dose of first love. Two of the scenes that stuck with me are a lovely moment between a father and his newborn baby and the epilogue, where family and friends gather to celebrate a child's christening. I hope that's something I'll experience one day - everyone who belongs to me coming together to experience such happiness. I loved how she expressed the concept of belonging to someone - not in a chattel sort of way and not just one's husband or children, but anyone we're lucky enough to have in our orbit who is truly special to us.

The verdict: This is a beautiful book.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: By Bread Alone

By Bread Alone by Sarah-Kate Lynch
3.5 stars

Reasons for reading: I loved, loved her first book; got it for Christmas a few years ago and still hadn't read it; book with food in the title for the Well-Seasoned Reader Challenge

Summary: "For Esme MacDougall Stack, it began in a old boulangerie in southwest France, where artisan-baker Louis Lapoine first introduced the innocent 19-year-old to the arts of making bread and making love. And then he broke her heart. Fifteen years later, Esme is living by the English seaside with her family, still baking bread, but no longer the idealistic girl she once was. Then an unexpected encounter in a London restaurant sends her quiet life careening wildly off its axis forcing her to come to terms with the past and a tragedy that robbed her family of the joy and completeness they once knew."

First line: "The moment Esme's espadrilles hit the smooth stone floor deep down in the heart of the tiny boulangerie, she knew that up until then she herself had only been half-baked."

My thoughts: A few years ago I just loved Lynch's first novel, Blessed Are The Cheesemakers - a quirky, foodie romance with a hint of magic (we'd just discovered a dairy farm that sold great cheese curds and gouda, so it was one of those serendipitous reads). So I was eager to read her next book. I didn't enjoy it as much - the magical element in this one was less charming - Esme sees and talks to her dead grandmother (though Granny Mac is a wonderful old Scottish spitfire).

It's clear from the beginning that two years ago Esme and her family experienced a tragedy so terrible that it caused them to uproot their yuppie London life and move to The House in the Clouds, a 7-floor converted dovecote in a town by the sea. While we don't know what exactly it is for about half the book, it's clear that Esme isn't handling it well - her cheerful exterior is hiding deep sorrow and the visible evidence of it is that she stops her daily ritual of making sourdough bread. Rather than baking the bread, she finds herself thinking about the man who taught her to bake it in France, years ago, wondering if he was her true shot at happiness.

The tragedy and its aftermath is eventually revealed, when she pours out her heart to Louis after an encounter with him in London. The return of Louis nearly ruins everything, but thankfully Esme comes to her senses in time and her husband, Pog, is the sweetest, most loving of spouses. After this catharsis, Esme and her family (which include crotchety father-in-law Henry and seemingly difficult 4-year-old Rory) are able to heal and move on.

The situation that brings everything to a head is a bit far-fetched and things get maybe a tiny bit movie-of-the-week at the end. But the book is balanced by ridiculous moments at the sky-high house (several involving animal urination) and Esme is fun and eccentric, though I found that her grief-driven behaviour made her sometimes unlikeable until everything is revealed. Pog is a treasure, mainly because he views Esme as his treasure - it's a great portrayal of true love.

The verdict: The book is definitely an ode to bread, so don't read it if you're on the Atkins Diet! If you only have time for one foodie read, go for Blessed Are The Cheesemakers, but this one is worth a read, especially if you're a baker and/or a bread-lover.

Picture Book Friday: Whose Chick Are You?

Whose Chick Are You? by Nancy Tafuri

I love Nancy Tafuri's picture books - they're always simple and sweet and her illustrations are fabulous. I have a soft spot for swans (identifying as I do with the Ugly Duckling), so this one hit that spot. An egg hatches and the chick doesn't know who he belongs to. Neither do Goose, Duck, Hen, or Bird. But the Swans are not far away and soon the family is reunited because of course they know that he belongs to them. I love animal-sound books and this one has plenty of clucks, quacks, honks, and chirps. A lovely, reassuring story.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Review: Death by Bikini

Death by Bikini by Linda Gerber

3 stars

Reasons for reading: looked cool; Young Adult Challenge

Description: "Aphra Behn Connolly has the type of life most teenage girls envy. She lives on a remote tropical island and spends most of her time eavesdropping on the rich and famous. The problem is that her family's resort allows few opportunities for her to make friends - much less to meet cute boys. So when a smoldering Seth Mulo arrives with his parents, she's immediately drawn to him. Sure, he's a little bit guarded, and sure his parents are rather cold, and okay he won't say a word about his past, but their chemistry is undeniable. Then a famous rock star's girlfriend turns up dead on the beach - strangled by her own bikini top - and alarm bells sound. Is it too great a coincidence that Seth's family turned up just one day before a murder? As the plot thickens, Aphra finds that danger lurks behind even the most unexpected of faces..."

First line: "Until last week, my most pressing concern had been getting ready to visit my friend Cami back home in South Carolina."

My thoughts: This was a good little mystery. The tropical island setting is irresistable, although you eventually realize that living there full time isn't all it's cracked up to be, especially for a teenage girl - Aphra hasn't seen anyone but her father, resort staff, and privacy-seeking guests for 4 years, let alone been to a movie or on a date.

There's lots of heart-pounding action in the lush jungle as well as waves and waterfalls galore. Seth's family turns out to be connected to Aphra in a way she never expected, which lays the groundwork for future books in the series, which is currently at three volumes. I guessed the whodunnit, but that was okay, there was still quite a lot that needed unfolding.

The verdict: A quick read sure to appeal to teen girl mystery fans.