Monday, January 31, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist / Brady Udall 602 pp.

I would never have picked this up had I not read Linda's favorable review, and I'm so very glad I did. Brady Udall has written what should be a classic of Western Gothic fiction. (Does that exist?) His protagonist, Golden Richards, has 4 wives, 28 children, and a failing contracting business. To make ends meet, he has taken a job building a brothel in Nevada but tells his wives that it's a senior center. And naturally, because his life isn't complicated enough, he falls in love with a woman while working the brothel job.

So much for the plot. The real point here is that this is a man that I, as a reader, should hate. He has 4 wives, and he's having trouble remaining faithful even to them. Sometimes he forgets his children's names. And yet I don't hate him - in fact, I was rooting for him through all 600+ pages. Following Golden's story of hilarious situations and excruciating losses was a great experience.

Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks / Rebecca Skloot 369 p.

So much has already been said about this truly unusual and important book that I don't have much to add. What I will remember the longest is Deborah, Henrietta's daughter. Her intense longing for the mother she never knew and the damage that longing caused were genuinely haunting.

The Knot Guide for The Mother of the Bride by Carley Roney 106 pages.

There are lots of guides written for the blushing bride, not so many for the mother of the bride. This book is a bit intimidating -- much of the advice requires lots of $$$$ and I am new to this journey. So, I took a few notes to help with the process. What an adventure!!

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff by 344

In this dark debut novel, 16 year old Mackie has a good reason to feel like an alienated outcast at school and in town. Mackie is a changeling who was swapped for the real son when he was a baby. In Gentry, there is an unspoken agreement that a child is stolen every seven years in exchange for the town's prosperity. Mackie's struggles to exist under the radar is difficult because of his his severe allergies to metal and blood, and his inability to set foot on consecrated ground. When Tate's baby sister is abducted and a Replacement left in her place, Mackie reluctantly agrees to try to save her from certain death. Mackie is fortunate to have the support of his minister father, devoted big sister, and stalwart friends. He succumbs to an attraction to unconventional Tate. The depiction of rival underworld clans is deliciously macabre. This should appeal to teens looking for a new horror and grim fantasy read.

Hero by Mike Lulpica 289 pages

Popular YA sports fiction author steps away from the sports arena for a high energy action fantasy. When his father dies mysteriously, 14-year-old Billy Harriman strives to find out who killed him, and why. He is amazed to find out not only that his father had superpowers, but that he has inherited them. There is a strong cast of interesting characters: a strange older man, Mr. Herbert, his wise and sassy girlfriend Kate, his politically savvy mom and his father's close friend "Uncle" John. Billy uses his new powers to help prevent the assassination of the presidential candidate that his mother is working for. This reads quickly and frankly I did not miss the usual background sports patter. I bet a sequel will be appearing soon.

Tick Tock by James Patterson & Michael Ludwig 387 pages

"Tick Tock" is the latest in the Michael Bennett series by James Patterson and Michael Ludwig. Detective Mike Bennett and his large family of adopted children are on a well earned vacation in Breezy Point, New York "almost on the beach". At the beginning of their second week of vacation Mike is called back to the city by his boss, the head of the Major Case Squad of the NYPD. A bomb had been found in a reading room of the New York Public Library causing the creation of a cross-jurisdiction task force to be led by Mike Bennett. The developing story is fast paced. There is no identifiable motive so no easily identifiable perpetrator. The next crime is the stabbing of a teen age girl. Then, next bombs go off at the outside venue of the morning talks shows for the three major affiliates. The crimes are linked by the criminal/criminals as he/they leaves notes for the police and even for Mike himself once he is seen on TV being interviewed by news reporters. Mike is also dealing with racism on Breezy Point as he drives to and from the City and his vacationing children. He is more attracted to Mary Catherine (his nanny) but FBI Agent Emily Parker becomes involved the the case and maybe Mike, too, on a more intimate basis. The action gets more exciting as Mike and the Task Force gather more evidence and start linking victims to possible criminals. One of the criminals is caught but the other escapes to carry out the final murder. In true James Patterson style there are many twists and turns in this story. The characters flow through the story and none are left behind.

Batman: Dark Victory/Jeph Loeb


Batman: Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb (story) and Tim Sale (art); graphic novel; 392 pages

I love almost everything I've read by Loeb, so I was really excited to stumble across a Batman story by him that I hadn't read. Unfortunately, this was so close to one of this other works, that I may as well have.

This is the sequel to Loeb's fantastic The Long Halloween, which follows a series of killings through a year in Gotham (the killer only strikes on holidays). The story is set early in Batman's career--only a year or two after Frank Miller's Year One storyline, so it contains some milestones, like the creation of Two-Face. In what I'm coming to see as his trademark, Loeb tries to cram as many of Batman's villains into Halloween as possible, with appearances from the less well-known foes only after the famous ones have had their walk-on. Dark Victory is meant to be the following year, when Batman is a little more experienced, but it wound up feeling like a rewrite of the Halloween storyline. Once again, a killer is striking on holidays, and Batman takes most of a year to track him down. Again, all the major players are here, and I found myself wondering how, exactly, this was different than the first story. I'm glad I read this--it was entertaining, and was an interesting take on Robin's origin story--but it felt more like a reread than fresh material. I do recommend reading the spin-off Catwoman: When in Rome between this volume and The Long Halloween, as it ties the two arcs together quite nicely.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

How I killed Pluto

How I killed Pluto and why it had it coming by Mike Brown 267 pg.

I checked this book out based on Cindy's review and can heartily agree that this is a charming book. Mike Brown tells his story in a wonderful way and I particularly love his humility and him admitting "I had no idea what I was doing" at one point. He also describes one important week wherein he gets a "yes" to his marriage proposal, finds what he suspects is the 10th planet and gets tenure at Cal Tech. He ranks these events in order of importance the same way I list them. The astronomy stuff is well done and easy to understand and who knew there was so much drama involved with people stealing planets right out from under you and scientists losing their heads (and logical thoughts) when it comes to kicking Pluto off the list of planets. Overall a wonderful read. - Christa

Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life/ Bryan Lee O'Malley

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, 168 pages, graphic novel, action, humor

My mom always tells me that an important rule to live by is that anything I wouldn't do when I'm sober, I should probably steer clear of when I've been drinking as well. Well mom, if you're reading this, I am pleased to tell you that you're wrong. After playing a drinking game to Edgar Wright's brilliant film adaptation of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel franchise (you drink every time someone references the numbers 1-7, anytime someone says "ex" or "exes", and every time there's a video game reference), I had an argument with my friends about reading the books. Being the pretentious book-snob that I am (I believe it comes with being an English major), I have always firmly believed that graphic novels weren't books at all. I believed that adult nerds wanted an excuse to be able to read comic books without being socially rebuked and thus the graphic novel was born. I expressed this opinion and was met with painfully cliche "don't knock it 'til you've tried it" opposition. Suddenly this argument changed from an attack on Scott Pilgrim and the graphic novel to an attack on me. If I was this fancy-schmansy student of the written word, why hadn't I ever bothered to pick up a graphic novel before? Not wanting to have my literary cajones demeaned any further and being 12 beers to the wind, I decided to do what many would do in a similar situation and ran to the nearest computer to request the first Scott Pilgrim volume online.

One hangover and a greasy breakfast later, I was beginning my Sunday shift at the circ desk when I noticed that the book had already been put on hold for me (kudos to the Sunday shelving staff...now that's what I call swift service). I debated putting the book back on the shelf. My friends weren't around to judge me and I could pretty well count on the convenient memory-distorting qualities of alcohol to ensure that my dignity could remain intact if I didn't want to read the book. Instead, something inside me decided to give it a shot. Now, a mere 2 hours after my shift ended today, I have finished the first volume and I am HOOKED.

O'Malley's drawing style may seem simple and almost childish at first. This was the first characteristic of the book I noticed, because I always assumed that graphic novels were just a series of incredibly detailed and elaborate frames loosely clinging together with a weak story. O'Malley's simple style acts merely as the medium for telling the hilariously gripping tale of Scott Pilgrim, an ordinary 23-year old Canadian bassist whose life is turned upside down when he falls for the mysterious Ramona Flowers. Enamored with Flowers, Scott must endure the Herculean trial of defeating Ramona's Seven Evil Ex-Boyfriends in order to win her affection. While this may seem lame on its own, throw in plenty of pop-culture and nerd-culture references and some kick ass comic book violence and you've got one heck of a read. Hopefully by the time someone's read this, I will be nose-deep in volume two. If you haven't read them, take my advice and don't be a snob like me...while Scott Pilgrim certainly won't become a literary heavyweight like Crime and Punishment, it is certainly a crime not to at least give this series a try, and the punishment is that you're missing out on a truly awe-inspiring story.

The Nine

The Nine: inside the secret world of the supreme court by Jeffrey Toobin 369 pg.

This book has been on my list for awhile and I'm glad I got to it. I had a professor in college once who said he would not bother to cross a street to have a personal audience with the president but would run 50 city blocks just to see a supreme court justice in a parade. The idea that our highest court is/should be filled with some of the smartest people in the land always stuck with me. This book gives an interesting perspective on the court. It mostly focuses on the Rehnquist court...the longest serving group of nine in the history of the country but also talks about the Robert's court and W's other nominee, Samuel Alito. More than anything, Toobin gives a great overview of the influence of Sandra Day O'Connor and her massive influence on the opinions and outcomes in her years on the court. Nominated by Ronald Reagan, she forged a moderate path between the liberal and conservative extremes and ended up being the "swing vote" for many years thus giving her more influence then the other justices. I enjoyed learning a bit more of the personalities of the justices and have a better understanding of the makeup of the court and how it functions. - Christa

Bet Me / Jennifer Crusie 337 p.

Another fun romance by Jennifer Crusie featuring 2 successful 30-somethings in an unnamed city which I suspect is Cincinnati. (In addition to mentions of Pete Rose, our heroine Min's apartment can only be reached by climbing a zillion steps: a dead giveaway.) The crux of the plot is that Min and Cal's first date is a result of a bet pal makes with a business associate. Min overhears the bet, Cal doesn't know it, and numerous misunderstandings ensue. Plenty of humor, food and strong female friendship round out the plot. In spite of (or perhaps because of?) the lack of violence here, I still preferred Agnes and the Hitman.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Night Bookmobile / Audrey Niffenegger 40 p.

A sweet, slightly dark fantasy about the secret, interior lives of readers. I enjoyed this, especially the setting in a Chicago neighborhood where I used to live.

Cake Pops by Bakerella / Angie Dudley 159 p.

A how-to guide for making little cake desserts on sticks that are so adorable you want to squeal as you page through the book. The trick, apparently, is to bake a box cake, crumble it into very fine crumbs, and mix it with a precise amount of canned frosting. When chilled, the resulting delectable glop can be easily molded into hearts or ghosts or Easter chicks and dipped into a glaze coating and decorated. The problem is, I don't know whether this happens easily or not because I was too cowardly to try. I have a feeling that my kids and I would have gotten as far as mixing in the icing, then we would have broken out the spoons and finished it off before we ever got around to decorating. I actually read most of this and will take credit for 100 pages.

Library Wars: Love and War, v.3/Kiiro Yumi

Library Wars: Love and War, volume 3, by Kiiro Yumi and Hiro Arikawa; manga, romance; 200 pages

I wasn't that impressed with the last volume of this series, but I gave this another shot, mostly because I'm still enjoying the library love. This is the story of Iku, a member of the Library Defense Force--a paramilitary organization that fights for protect libraries from the strict censorship of the government. This volume takes a more serious turn than the others, and ends on a dark, "to be continued" note, which caught me off guard. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story opens with our heroine, Iku, being her normal, klutzy self, and her supervisor on the Library Defense Force berating her. The first few chapters here are the same light, breezy fare as the previous volumes: lots of romantic tension between Iku and Dojo, some more background on the characters, and some humorous mix-ups. The story turns about halfway through, when the troops are called out to defend a museum's manuscript collection from being confiscated by the government. The second half of the book is more of a war novel, and as I said, the ending is wide open. If this is setting the tone for the next volume, I guess we can expect something darker.

Barefoot Contessa, how easy is that? / Ina Garten 256 p.

I read most of this, but not each word of each recipe - so I'll take credit for 150 pages. My first exposure to the Barefoot Contessa, this was a well-written and designed cookbook, I thought. The recipes were slanted toward French cuisine, of a manageable (if not low-calorie) variety. I made the roasted artichoke hearts from frozen artichokes as instructed, and they were yummy. Quite a few product placements, some for products which I don't love.

Mixt salads: a chef's bold creations / Andrew Swallow 154 p.(credit me 20!

Lesson learned in 2011: when you go 5 weeks between blog postings, start back with a cookbook. One that you didn't read much of. It's less daunting!

This had beautiful photos, and I'm sure the recipes would result in delicious (and impressive) salads, but if I have to use a dictionary to read a cookbook I figure I'm not going to find the ingredients in Schnuck's.

Empty Nesting

My Nest Isn't Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space by Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Scottoline Serritella   245 pp.

This is the second volume of collected "Chick Wit" articles from The Philadelphia Inquirer written by thriller author, Scottoline. Included in this are a few articles by her daughter, who is a budding author. Scottoline once again tackles everyday subjects like home repair, auto purchasing, mothers' worries, her increasingly large collection of animals, her never ending crush on George Clooney, and more with humor and insight. The tales that include Scottoline's "Mother Mary", an 80+ stereotypical Italian mother are funny and touching. Daughter Francesca's take on her grandmother demonstrates her love for the quirky older woman. Other pieces by Francesca cover her own mother's paranoia over a daughter living in the big city (New York) and her own mixed feelings about taking on 'real' adult life now that she is out of college. Ultimately the articles are about strong women who are independent and co-dependent at the same time.

Revenge of the Witch

Revenge of the Witch by Joseph Delaney  358 pp.

This book is the next one up for discussion in the "Treehouse Book Club" for 4th-6th graders. It is book one in "The Last Apprentice" series. Twelve year old Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son. He is set to become the apprentice of Old Gregory who is called "The Spook." It is the job of a Spook to deal with ghosts, boggarts, witches, and other spirits that are causing problems. Thomas is the thirtieth apprentice to attempt the job of ultimately taking Gregory's place. Nine of the previous apprentices died while trying. Thomas must prove his worth as an apprentice by dealing the evil, blood-sucking witch, Mother Malkin who was freed by his own mistake. When the witch threatens his own family Thomas must succeed or lose everyone who is dear to him. The scratchboard illustrations add to the dark and creepy atmosphere.

This series was originally published in England and called "The Wardstone Chronicles" with this book titled The Spook's Apprentice. Personally, I like the original titles better. There is also talk of a movie with Alex Pettyfer in the starring role.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Bad Astronomy / Philip Plait

Bad Astronomy: misconceptions and misuses revealed, from astrology to the moon landing "hoax" by Philip Plait. 277 p.

Philip Plait has an ongoing blog called Bad Astronomy (blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/) that I'm going to have to check out. He's quite good at explaining, say, the phases of the moon, or why the sky is blue. The examples he uses are easy to picture and understand. He's not quite as easy to follow when he's debunking young earth creationism, but I think that has a lot to do with the size and complexity of that particular topic. I was glad to see the chapter on the Apollo moon "hoax"--I've always wondered what the motive of this alleged hoax was supposed to be. Plait does a good job of spelling it out, along with discussing why the hoaxers' "evidence" doesn't prove what they say it proves.

Dogs and Goddesses by Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart & Lani Diane Rich - 388 pages

I found this book because I usually enjoy the humor Jennifer Crusie brings to her writing. This collaboration left a lot to be desired. The story of 3 women who are strangers in a small college town in Ohio begins in confusion and marches through the book at a disjointed pace. The women discover that they are goddesses descending from Goddesses known in Mesopotamia over four thousand years ago. They are brought together by Kammani (the "head" goddess) in order to bring back her powers so that she may rule the world. Unfortunately, for Kammini, people have evolved beyond blind obedience and the Three with their newly discovered powers have moved beyond her powers and refuse to be taken over. There are the obligatory love interests for the Three and their more mortal entanglements. The best part of the story emerged when it was discovered that the Three were able to communicate with their own dogs and every dog they encounted. Who wouldn't wnat to know what their dog is thinking?

Firelight/Sophie Jordan


Firelight by Sophie Jordan; young adult, fantasy, romance; 336 pages

I'm not sure where I got the idea that this was a readalike for Graceling (by Kristin Cashore). It's not. It's still a great book, but comparing it to Graceling would be comparing apples and oranges, so I'll leave Cashore's books out of this review.

Firelight is the story of Jacelyn; she's a draki, a race descended from dragons, who can take human form to hide from the hunters that are a constant threat. Jacelyn is encouraged to do a lot of hiding, because she's the first draki in centuries to be able to breathe fire, and her people want her kept around as long as possible. Of course, none of that sits too well with a headstrong teenage girl, and it isn't long before Jacelyn, her mother, and her twin sister Tamra find themselves fleeing the wrath of the other draki in her pride. They take refuge in a small desert town, hoping the heat and dryness will kill off the dragon part of Jace's nature, while Jace desperately searches for a way to keep her draki side alive in the barren environment. She finds it in Will, a boy at her school with whom she shares a strange connection, and who seems to make her draki side come alive--so alive that Jace can barely keep her human disguise around him. The only problem is that Will comes from a family of hunters, and they cannot know about her people's ability to change form...

This book had a very Twilight-y feel to it, with the star-crossed lovers, love-at-first-sight theme that runs SO strongly throughout. In fact, the breathless romance tended to overwhelm most of the other story elements, until it felt like the only thing going on. That's not to say it wasn't a compelling read--I tore through it in about two days--but it's definitely more about the characters and emotions, not the plot. In fact, I advise that you not think about the plot too hard while reading--it doesn't hold up to scrutiny very well. Overall, this is a fun, light read, clearly intended to be the first in a series. Just make sure you're looking for a romance, not a detailed fantasy novel.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Fig Eater by Jody Shields 311pages

In 1910 Vienna, a police inspector and his Hungarian wife independently investigate the mysterious murder of a young woman, whose "last meal" consisted of a single fig. Dora was a bit of a hypochondriac and a member of a dysfunctional bourgeois family. He uses cutting edge scientific and forensic techniques from the period which obviously seem archaic if not rather ridiculous to today's viewers of C.S.I.. His Hungarian wife, Erszebet, applies otherworldly techniques, gypsy lore and undercover sleuthing to achieve the same end.The exotic locale and historical perspective make this mystery richly textured and unlike the cookie cutter plots of many popular mystery series. I would recommend this highly to fans of the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson who enjoy a sophisticated, thought provoking crime novel.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool 351 pages Juvenile Fiction

Twelve-year-old Abilene Tucker, the daughter of a drifter, jumps a train at Manifest, Missouri in the summer of 1936. She does not know why her father sent her to stay with Pastor Shady Howard except that it was the town that he left years earlier. Over the summer she pieces together his story and discovers a local mystery. Vanderpool weaves humor and sorrow into a complex tale involving murders, orphans, miners, and bootlegging. The author struck gold with her first novel for children, but I don't believe that it is destined to live on as a favorite medal winner. This dense historical fiction novel drags a bit and will require a dedicated reader to stick with it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog

Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog: the amazing adventures of an ordinary woman by Lisa Scottoline  288 pp.

I've never read any of Scottoline's thrillers and this certainly isn't one of them. This is a collection of her columns from the Philadelphia Inquirer. (To be honest, I was attracted to this book by the title because for years I've said that if anything ever happens to my husband I'll replace him with a Newfoundland dog--it will cost as much to feed, shed black hair around the house, and I'll teach it to warm up the bed for me.) Scottoline covers such intriguing and funny topics as ending up in the ER braless, her household of dogs, cats, and chickens, battles with her elderly mother over hearing aids, skin care products, and much more. It's light reading and quite entertaining.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland/ Patton Oswalt

Zombie, Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt. 189 pages. Comedy, Nerd-Humor

I have always been a huge fan of stand-up comedy, and I used to think that any stand-up comic who was even remotely educated could write a decent book if they really put their mind to it. Patton Oswalt (if the name doesn't ring a bell, look him up on google or imdb--- you'll recognize him) is an example of a college educated comic who I thought could write an amazing book since he is an avid reader himself....Unfortunately, I couldn't have been more wrong.

Oswalt's book is a compilation of stories from his childhood, tales from the beginning of his stand-up career, and random entries that Oswalt believes will be funny. Oswalt is a nerdy comedian, which I really appreciate, because I also come from that strain of human that transformed nerdy awkwardness into insightful humor. Unfortunately, Oswalt's humor doesn't transfer from stage-to-page. One of the most annoying devices Oswalt constantly uses is the footnote**. There is a footnote at least every three pages or so, and by the end of the book, I was questioning whether these footnotes were an annoying habit or Oswalt's attempt at a joke to bother his readers.

My final issue with the book was that it wasn't that funny... Patton Oswalt's comedy is usually upbeat with the occasional depressing comic thrown in. With his book, Oswalt seemed like he was trying more to comment on humanity and his own journey in a sentimental way instead of a funny one. At the beginning of the chapter for which the book is named, (Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland) Oswalt says "maybe this chapter wasn't written as much for you as it was for me". I would argue that this is actually the case for the whole book.

I must admit, though that there is occasionally a funny moment, and if you have the patience to sort through all the pseudo-intellectual trash, you will find the occasional diamond in the rough. Otherwise, this book really isn't worth your time.


**While I have no problem with the occasional footnote, some of his footnotes take up half the page and break up the story in a really awkward way that leaves the reader asking "Was that really necessary?"

Indulgence in Death by J. D. Robb - 373 pages

This is the most recent book in the Lieutenant Eve Dallas series by Robb. Eve and husband Roarke take a much need vacation in Ireland to visit Roarke's rediscovered family and to recover from their previous adventures. A body is found and Eve assists the local authorities. They continue on their vacation and return to New York where Eve then Roarke are involved in investigating a series of murders. The murders do not seem to be related but Eve and her team of cops pull tiny threads of evidence to uncover some bizzare motives for murder. As usual, the story is fast-paced. The "evidence" is revealed slowly giving the reader time to use her own deductive reasoning and find the killer. Weather it's the tools the cops use to do their jobs or just the everyday living appliances, the technology is awsome and only 50 or so years into the future.

Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told


Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told, by various authors; graphic novel; 192 pages

For all that I profess my love of Batman to any and all who will listen, I admit that I haven't read much predating the 1980s story arcs. Reading this was an attempt to correct that, and it had mixed results. On the one hand, it was fascinating to see not just how the character has changed over the years, but the format of comics as well. I hadn't known, for instance, the 1930s comics crammed several tiny stories into a single issue, or that Batman's origin story was so minor in the original series. On the other hand, I have to be up front and say that some of these stories, however "classic" they may be, were really, really hard to get through. Some of the original Bob Kane stories are included here and, while this may permanently revoke my nerd cred, I have to say I wasn't impressed. Was it really necessary to remind us that Selina Kyle is Catwoman every other panel?? To be fair, there were some good entries here, too, but most of them are later additions to the series. I can't say I enjoyed any of the golden- or silver-age material. On the up side, I do have a better understanding of my comics history, and I can appreciate just how much the genre (and the readers?) have changed over the last few decades.

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Dewey's Nine Lives

Dewey's Nine Lives: the legacy of the small-town library cat who inspired millions by Vicki Myron  306 pp.

This is not really a sequel to the story of Dewey, the kitten found in a library book drop, who lived out his life in the library and befriended the patrons & staff. There are some anecdotes about Dewey. Most of the stories are about others who had their lives affected and/or changed by a cat or cats in their lives. Most of the stories are sweet, many sad, and many amusing. Some of the cats, like Ninja, were real characters. Others were just cute & cuddly and gave their owners the love they needed at just the right time. Cat lovers will enjoy this book.

One thing the book made me realize was how much the ruler of my house, Maddie Cat, did many of the same things for our family when I was going through cancer treatment.

The Attenbury Emeralds / Jill Paton Walsh

The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh. 338 p.

The newest book by Paton Walsh featuring Dorothy L. Sayers' sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, his wife Harriet Vane the mystery writer, and their assorted family and friends. This one is set several years after the end of World War II, and is as much about the changing social mores and expectations as it is about any mysteries to be solved. We start off with a quite lengthy flashback to Peter's first case, which coincidentally ends up tying into a current problem. As with the previous book that Paton Walsh did with these characters, I enjoy the historical setting greatly, and find the idea of how these particular characters would cope with post-war situations interesting--but the characters end up a bit flat, which just makes me want to go re-read the original Sayers books. The characters aren't badly done, by any means, but they lack the spark that was present when Sayers wrote them.

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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bathtub Admirals

Bathtub Admirals by Jeff Huber 311 pgs.

Jack Hogan and Buzz Rucci are in the Navy...Jack is climbing the ladder quickly, Buzz at a more realistic pace. You get the feeling Jack is destined for great things...until the politics of the military starts in on Jack and derails his career. This brief summary sounds so serious and yet this book is closer to hilarious. The way things work and the way people talk will make you feel like you are on the carrier with them. I took a look at the customer reviews on Amazon.com and the quantity of retired military who LOVED this book is a testament to the realistic way the odd reality of the military (really a problem in so many large organizations) works/does not work. I would love to read more by this author but this is his only book so far. - Christa

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Zombies vs. Unicorns/Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier; short stories; 432 pages (about 12 hours on CD)

Once, long ago, someone asked the question of which was cooler: zombies, or unicorns? Out of that heated debate sprang this anthology, a collection of horror, fantasy, and adventure stories from some of the hottest writers of young adult fantasy. Each story is prefaced by Black and Larbalestier, who argue for their respective teams (Holly Black heads up Team Unicorn, while Justine Larbalestier captains Team Zombie). While I don't normally like short stories (or unicorns), I have to admit that this collection had me loving almost every entry. In fact, I might have come away from this thinking unicorns are the winners (though, to be fair, I might be getting burned out on zombies). But the unicorns here aren't the glittering Lisa Frank models I was expecting (okay, one of them is, but only one!). Garth Nix's "The Highest Justice" has a unicorn actually creating zombies; Kathleen Duey's "The Third Virgin" has a unicorn who's a serial killer; I burst into tears during Diana Peterfreund's "Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn;" and let's not even go into what was going on in Margo Lanagan's "A Thousand Flowers" (side note: this is the first time I've successfully made it through a Lanagan story. I might be starting to see why so many people like her writing). That's not to say that Team Zombie didn't put in a good showing: stories from Carrie Ryan, Cassandra Clare, Scott Westerfeld, and Libba Bray were compelling reads. I did wonder why neither of the editors contributed a stories to the collection, but I felt like there was a great mix. I know I'll soon be adding the few authors who aren't already on my regular reading list to the top of the To Be Read stack. If you get the chance, check out the audio edition: each story is read by a different narrator, Black and Larbalestier read their own parts, and each story is marked with either a zombie or a unicorn sound effect, for easy skimming.

Unicorns: the next cool thing, apparently. Disagree with me? Let's hear it in the comments!

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Friday, January 21, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Live of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, 384 p.
I'm sure others have written about this amazing book, and since it's our UC Book Club selection currently, there are likely others out there reading it right now. But, as for me, first let me ask, "Where was Rebecca Skloot when I was struggling with freshman biology in college?" Perhaps it's the way the researcher's side of the story and the scientific background is braided with the story of Henrietta and her family, but I think it's also Skloots clear, concise, and passionate voice that makes this story impossible to leave unfinished or ever forget. I kept asking myself throughout why children aren't learning about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa cells in grade school science. Maybe now that Rebecca Skloot has done such a brilliant job of calling this to our attention, they will. In the meantime, should be required reading for everyone!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sunshine/Robin McKinley

Sunshine, by Robin McKinley; horror, fantasy; 405 pages

I'm taking advantage of our snow day to finish rereading one of my favorite books of all time. Sunshine is a vampire novel, but it's not another Twilight rip-off, or even really a romance. In McKinley's world, vampires really are the bad guys, and it's only a matter of time before they take over, and drive the humans (and the less threatening Others, like Weres and half-demons and magic handlers) to extinction or slavery. Sunshine, our main character, doesn't dwell on this too much. She's the baker at her family's coffeehouse, and so she spends most of her time worrying about dough consistencies and dreaming up new recipes for cinnamon rolls. Until one night, when she's captured by vampires, and imprisoned with another of their kind...

I won't go into too many details from there, because this book isn't as much about the plot as it is about the strange relationship Sunshine finds herself in, and the fascinating world McKinley has created. Sunshine narrates, and her voice is very unique; while she occasionally goes on tangents, it all feels relevant, like someone dishing out the latest gossip and slipping in her own commentary. It should be read slowly, and it's best read on a full stomach (Sunshine tends to go into graphic detail of the food she makes in her bakery).

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Breathless by Jessica Warman 311 pages

Katie leaves for boarding school when her older brother Will is institutionalized for his increasingly psychotic actions and attempted suicide. Although their father is a noted psychiatrist, he seems unable to help his son's struggles with schizophrenia. Their mother, a successful artist had created a nurturing, idyllic childhood for her two children that ended when they moved from their secluded cottage to the richest mansion in a small blue collar town in Pennsylvania. Mom turns to alcohol and seems unable to relate to either child. Katie's only talent and ticket to Yale is her gift at swimming. She effortlessly seems to beat all competitions despite smoking, drugs and alcohol.
At the exclusive new school, Katie finds a soul mate, Massie, her mysterious roommate as well as easy acceptance by the in-crowd. Everyone has some kind of mental baggage and none of the adults are helpful. This is rather bleak stuff, but the characters are interesting and the ending is not sugar coated.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger 141 pages

Move over Jeff Kinney. There is a new kid in town. His name is Tom Angleberger and he has created a most unusual book that should appeal to the middle kid reader. The class weirdo, Dwight has created an origami finger puppet, Yoda that seems to predict answers to everyday problems at school. Sixth grader Tommy collects the stories of his classmates in a case file to try to determine whether clueless Dwight is manipulating the kids or is merely the channel for the amazing Yoda. The tone is spot on; perhaps one grade higher than the Wayside School kids (Louis Sachar). Demand is already building for this debut novel. The force is definitely with Angleberger.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Letters to My Daughter-Maya Angelou

I couldn't not read it. My mom gave it to me. And while I have nothing against Maya Angelou, she's not my favorite. However, it was actually a really comforting read, the kind of thing you take to bed with you along with a cup of cocoa or some chicken soup. Maybe the sort you suggest to your girlfriends who are going through rough times. Needless to say, very female oriented. Probably not the greatest guy read ever. Inspirational, and surprisingly genuine and relatable. Not that Angelou isn't generally genuine and relatable. It's just that usually when someone gives me advice, it doesn't really feel applicable, whereas this did.

Practical Demonkeeping-Christopher Moore

As always, Christopher Moore provides a ready escape from reality. In other words, it was the perfect read for me over winter break. "Practical Demonkeeping" tells the story of Travis, who has been cursed with authority over the not-so-amazing demon Catch, whose only notable superpower is eating people and being generally evil. Through an intricate plot and his signiture humor, Moore keeps it fun and interesting. Overall, a great read. A romance novel, if by romance you mean hilarious supernatural fiction.

Raiders' Ransom by Emily Daimand 334 pages

Set in the 23rd century when much of what was once England is now underwater, this relates the piratical adventures of a feisty 13 year old fishergirl, Lily. Returning from a boat trip, she discovers her village in ruins. Her grandmother, her only living relative has been murdered. She concocts a far-fetched plan to rescue the kidnapped daughter of the prime minister from a band of greedy raiders to save her boy friend and her village. She cuts her hair to create a male disguise. Her secret weapon is a talking jewel, a remnant from a past computer age which she hopes to use as ransom for the kidnap victim and a rather resourceful cat. She meets Zeph, the 13 year old son of the leader of the raiders. He wants to prove himself as a competent raider, but hates his brutish, cruel half-brother Roba. This has the swashbuckling tension of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel with science fiction flourishes. There are many plot twists and the ending leaves the door open for a sequel (due out in June).

The Space between Trees, by Katie Williams 274 pages

Loner 16 year old Evie is on her paper route spying on her crush, Jonah. It is her favorite day of the week because she gets to accidentally "bump" into him on his job, clearing the small suburban wooded area of dead animals, rabbits, squirrels, and the occasionally poisoned deer. From her hiding spot, she sees him leave the woods and pound on the nearest door. Moments later, the ambulance arrives and a plastic covered body is removed. The body turns out to be a classmate and former friend of hers, Elizabeth McCabe. Evie joins with Elizabeth's best friend, Hadley to try to solve the murder. Hadley, is a rather troubled teen, who introduces Evie to a new wilder side of high school. They create a long list of possible suspects. It is not entirely clear why Evie was such an unsocial teen -- perhaps to contrast her metamorphosis once she takes up with Hadley. The solution to the mystery is a huge let down, as is the way her relationship with Jonah deconstructs.

Prophecy of the Sisters by Michelle Zink 339 p.

Very atmospheric, gothic tale of twin sisters for teen readers doesn't quite live up to its potential. Lia and Alice Milthorpe have just become orphans and have very different ways of dealing with their grief. They find themselves on opposite sides of an ancient prophecy -- the old battle of good versus evil set in nineteenth century New York. Lia, the "good girl" discovers a strange tattoo on her wrist shortly after her father's death. She finds new friends to help in the battle against her selfish sister, Alice.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Our World

Our World (the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, vol. 2). 262 p.

This is the gamemaster-oriented book for the Dresden Files rpg. It discusses various factions that characters might belong to and describes the setting of the novels--Chicago--in game terms. The bulk of the book, however, is given over to write-ups of most of the characters from the novels, translated into game terms. There's nothing like reading lots of stat-blocks to teach you a system's rules for character building! And since I'm pretty familiar with the novels, it's also intersting to see how a particular character translates into stats. As a side effect, it's making me want to re-read a lot of the novels, especially the earlier ones.

Population: 485

Population: 485: Meeting your neighbor one siren at a time /Michael Perry 234 pgs.

Michael Perry has such a way with words...who else can make you laugh, cry and think about vomiting all in the same essay. Seriously, he is amazing. I've read a couple of his other books and now need to catch up and read them all because the topics are so real and so wonderful. These selections have mostly to do with his role as a volunteer firefighter/EMT in his home town...population 485...New Auburn, WI. There are thrills and chills and the "hard" topics are dealt with so honestly and straight forward. I really can't say enough good about Michael Perry. Oprah, why haven't you featured him yet? - Christa

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Confessor

The Confessor by Daniel Silva  401 pp.

This is an earlier novel in the series about art restorer and part-time Mossad agent/assassin Gabriel Allon. Allon is called away from an important art restoration job in Venice to investigate the murder of his friend and one-time partner, Professor Benjamin Stern. Stern was murdered and the book he was working on was stolen. Allon must find out what was in the book that caused Stern's death and find the killer. What he uncovers is a secret hidden by the Vatican since World War II, a plot to assassinate the pope and a secret society called Crux Vera. In the process Allon must outwit a notorious assassin known as "The Leopard."

While the plot of this thriller is good, it is not as tightly written as others in the Gabriel Allon series. I was disappointed in the author having his highly skilled operative make an uncharacteristic stupid mistake in order to get the story where he wanted it to go. It is interesting that Silva's book about a secret Roman Catholic society came out around the same time as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Even more interesting than that coincidence was the note in the Acknowledgments about an altercation between an ABC reporter and then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). This kind of stuff could almost make one believe in conspiracy theories.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Sh*t My Dad Says/Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern, 158 pages, humor, father-son

When I picked up Justin Halpern's Sh*t My Dad Says, I can admit that I didn't believe that I was going to finish it. I have been a fan of the popular Twitter account from which the book was spawned since its rise to fame in the fall of 2009, but I didn't believe that the crude, surly, albeit clever one-liners of Halpern's 73 year old father could expand into a whole book (even a short one). I can now say that I was pleasantly surprised.

For those unfamiliar with the Twitter site, some background information must be provided. The author, Justin Halpern, a 26-year old writer moves to San Diego to take a new job writing for Maxim magazine and move in with his girlfriend. Immediately upon arrival in San Diego, Halpern's girlfriend dumps him, leaving him with no place to stay except with his parents who are both in their 70's. Halpern's mother is normal enough but his father, a retired radiologist is quite the character. The elder Halpern provides sage-like advice to his son in the form of crude one-liners such as:

"That woman was sexy...Out of your league? Son, let women figure out why they won't screw you. Don't do it for them!"

"The worst thing you can be is a liar. . . . Okay, fine, yes, the worst thing you can be is a Nazi, but then number two is liar. Nazi one, liar two."

These and other hilarious quotes paint a vivid picture of a relationship between father and son that will not only make you laugh your ass off, but also extract a few "awwwwww"s from even the toughest of guys (myself included). The format of Halpern's book works perfectly considering the material he has to work with. Some quotes require that a short story accompany them to explain the quote, so Halpern alternates between telling a story about his father and then listing 2-3 pages of quotes that require no explanation, a format that works extremely well and breaks up the material in a way that makes for excellent short-burst reading (perfect for someone who only gets to read for small periods between errands or...hypothetically, of course, a library employee who reads in between helping patrons at the circulation desk). While I wouldn't pick this book up if you are expecting anything deep or extremely involving, it is an excellent book to have on the side to pick up every once in awhile.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Running scared by Lisa Jackson 389 pages

"Running Scared" is about a newborn baby boy who is not wanted by his unwed mother. Add in a wealthy family that is part of the social elite of Boston, illegitimate children, spoiled legitimate children and peripheral characters. Pull the characters together and the story of the baby, his father and adoptive mother unfolds. As a teenager, Jon is able to see into the future on occasion. In a dream he sees himself running from danger in a strange city that is decorated with Christmas lights. After Jon dreams of danger during the Christmas holidays, he battles the high school bully and tries to assess events in his live that could lead to fulfulling the prophecy of his dream. This book was originally released as "Wishes". In this new version, Lisa Jackson kept the characters and the story but added some scenes then "notched up" the suspense.

Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby   406 pp.

Hornby's latest is not his best. It's okay. It has amusing, touching, and entertaining moments--not all at the same time but I kept thinking there could have been more. Annie & Duncan live in a small English seaside town and have been a couple for 15 years. During the entire time a third person has been an integral part of the relationship. The third person is Tucker Crowe, a Dylan-like musician with a cult following who disappeared 20 years before. Duncan lives and breathes all things Tucker Crowe, running a website for other rabid fans and embarking on pilgrimages to locations supposedly important in the musicians life and career.  Annie & Duncan split and Annie finds herself in an on-line friendship with non other than the missing musician who has lived the past 20 years in multiple marriages & relationships and fathering children by a string of different women. When Tucker arrives in England, Duncan must learn to deal with the truth about the man he has been fanatical about for so many years.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Quest of the Spider / Kenneth Robeson

Quest of the Spider by Kenneth Robeson (Doc Savage #3, May 1933). 150 p.

This entry has a particularly lame plot, so I'll skip recapping it--except to mention that at one point it involves a character crawling around the swamp in a stuffed alligator suit. With a zipper. When I can't enjoy the action or the plot, I focus on the cultural details of the story. In this one there's a fair amount of airplane travel. I wish I knew more about 1930's commercial airline standards, because a plane some minor characters take is described as having wicker seats and a parachute provided for each passenger! At another point they're driving fast--60 mph--in a car with the windscreen down, and since the passengers don't have goggles they have difficulty seeing due to the wind (except for Doc, of course). Why on earth wouldn't you put the windscreen up, then? Am I missing some significance here?

First appearance of: Doc's thin-walled capsules of anesthetic gas, scattered about for bad guys to step on. "Brain operations" as part of the treatment turning criminals into upright citizens.

How I Killed Pluto / Mike Brown

How I Killed Pluto (and why it had it coming) by Mike Brown. 267 p.

Brown is the discoverer of Eris, the Kuiper belt object whose size caused the discussion that led to the vote "demoting" Pluto from its planetary status. He's a charming narrator, which makes this book a lot of fun to read. His scientific explanations are always quite clear; no reader should be intimidated by any perceived difficulty of the topic. I was particularly interested by the section where he describes the controversy over who discovered the object later named Haumea. His discussion of how scientists--at least, those in his area of study--determine when to announce discoveries, and the factors that go into deciding why, how, and when to make those announcements, is fascinating. Also, many of the bits he discusses about his personal life are hilarious. My favorite is his description of trying to determine whether his wife was actually in labor or just "cramping" (her vote was for cramps): "I plotted some graphs."

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A little history of the world

A little history of the world/E. H. Gombrich (translated by Caroline Mustill) 284 pgs.

This should have been "my kind of book". Truly a little history that starts way before man shows up on earth. Each chapter is short and sweet and takes into account a major era or personality in history. However, I had a very hard time getting through this book. I got stuck on Charlemagne's rule at the new year and just didn't get back to it for awhile. I am glad that I finished the book. It has a refreshing perspective...very little American history here...this is really about the WORLD. In the end, I'm really glad that I finished the book just to get a better idea of the relationship in time of some of the major world events. Maybe my hesitancy to get back to this one has more to do with the lack of a "plot" driven narrative. Each chapter really sort of stands alone. - Christa

The Passage/Justin Cronin

The Passage by Justin Cronin; post-apocalyptic 766 pages

Before I say anything else, let's just get this out of the way...Justin Cronin's The Passage has vampires in it. Now before you ignore the rest of this post because you are as sick of vampires as I am, let me say a few things on the subject: None of the vampires in Cronin's post-apocalyptic epic sparkle in the sunlight or fall in love or conscientiously object to the drinking of human blood. Cronin's vampires are brutal, feral, and 100% deadly. Although Cronin's undead antagonists are constantly referred to as vampires (as well as jumps, smokes, dracs, virals and many other nicknames) they seem a lot more like zombies (a genre that still has quite a bit of life left in it, no pun intended). I don't think Cronin's intention was to hop on the Twilight bandwagon, because he doesn't even mention vampires in the blurb on the jacket (a fact I am happy about, because I probably would've thought of the book as another lame Twilight ripoff if he had).

Cronin's The Passage is the a brilliant epic spanning a hundred years that paints a very vivid picture of humankind in its struggle against the overwhelming odds of a vampire infestation. The first 200 pages deal with the cause of the infestation (a virus that is released from a government facility) and the origins of one of the story's protagonists, Amy, a young orphan girl with a mysterious past.

Suddenly, the story completely changes pace and the timeline shifts almost 100 years into the future after the vampires have eliminated or turned most of humankind. The story after this point reads the same as many post-apocalyptice dystopian novels that have come out before it. The narrative changes to a story about a misfit band of survivors on a journey to save humanity from the dangers of the vampires and the virus that spawned them. Although this type of story may seem overused, I believe that it is Cronin's storytelling that truly sets this epic tale apart. Plenty of end-of-chapter cliffhangers and flashbacks that act as exposition for a variety of Cronin's very detailed characters (which fans of the TV show Lost will definitely enjoy) contribute to making this the best story I've read in a long time, if not ever.

For those of you who haven't read it yet, pick up a copy. The book is excellent, and although it is extremely long, the gripping prose will keep you reading and screaming for more when you read the last page. Luckily, there will be more, because Cronin has said that The Passage is only the first in a trilogy, the second, The Twelve is scheduled to be released in 2012.

The Bards of Bone Plain/Patricia A. McKillip


The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia A. McKillip; fantasy; 336 pages

I love all things Patricia McKillip. Her writing style is very dreamlike and figurative--so much so that it's sometimes possible to lose track of the action, but at that point I'm so lost in the poetry of her prose that I don't care anymore.

I've read most of McKillip's books, and this one was heavily reminiscent of my favorite, The Alphabet of Thorn. Bards is two linked stories: In one, a student researches ancient legends for his final paper, and slowly becomes obsessed with Nairn, the mythic bard who cannot die. In alternating chapters, Nairn's real story is laid out--his rise to fame, his obsession with a forgotten language, and the epic contest whose loss cursed him forever. The story isn't something to be read quickly, but savored in small portions--a chapter or two at a time. The prose is beautiful, as always.

If you love Robin McKinley's books, or C. J. Cherryh's fantasy novels, give McKillip a try.

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Salem Brownstone

Salem Brownstone: All along the Watchtowers by John Harris Dunning & Nikhil Singh 96 pp.

I stumbled across this graphic novel in the library catalog while looking up a different author named John Dunning (The Bookman's Wake, etc.). The premise was intriguing--a laundromat manager receives word that his estranged father has died and he must come claim his inheritance, a spooky old house. He arrives and the creepy stuff starts happening involving a crystal ball & a bunch of sideshow freaks from a carnival. The artwork is suitably dark and spooky and well suited to the story. The large format resembles a rather dark picture book. The problem with it is there is so much more that could have been done with the story. Too many details were introduced and not expanded on. I was left with the feeling that the authors just got tired of working on it and decided not to flesh it out.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How to beat up anybody

How to beat up anybody: an instructional and inspirational karate book by Judah Friedlander 208 pgs.

I've been thinking about some personal defense training lately and so was happy to see this instructional book on the cart. There is a pretty good chance that Judah Friedlander is completely nuts but really, who am I to judge? I did appreciate the defense and offense lessons in the book. I now know how to beat up 4 people at once on a rooftop, how to beat up a gang member, how to beat up someone on a unicycle, and defend myself against a home ninja attack. Even though that covers a lot, there is also a chapter on staving off a backyard Bigfoot attack. But most important for me, there is a chapter dedicated to the self defense needs of women. Here, the world champion reveals how to take back the streets from male scum...an he does it in drag. I admit, I'm feeling pretty invincible now that I've studied this book so be careful around me. - Christa

The forgotten garden, by Kate Morton

I'm not quite sure why I reserved this book, but did enjoy it in a guilty sort of way. It was a bit like A. S. Byatt Lite crossed with Rebecca. In 1913 a very young girl is found on an Australian wharf knowing neither her name nor where she is from. Raised by the wharf master and his wife as "Nell," ultimately her history leads her granddaughter, Cassandra, back to the girl's real family in England where they live in a great house in Cornwall. There are mazes and secret gardens; Dickensian orphans; changelings; and interspersed throughout the story are fairy tales written by "the authoress" who abandoned Nell on the ship bound for Australia. Charming in an old-fashioned kind of way and a pleasant way to spend a couple of cold winter nights. 559 pp.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett 355 pages

I was deep into this book when I heard that the author, Sir Terry Pratchett, is this year's winner of the Margaret A. Edwards Award. He is honored by the Young Adult division of the American Library Association for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. This is just the most recent in a long stream of major awards including England's Carnegie Medal, LA Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, etc. He is most well-known for the Discworld Series, 40 books about a planet created by Pratchett. This book is about one of his reoccurring characters, Tiffany Aching. Tiffany is a young witch who is trying to live on her own. Her brand of witchcraft which is taking care of the poor and downtrodden keeps her very busy and unappreciated. Her good actions are easily misunderstood when she helps the Baron in his hour of need achieve a "good death". A mysterious evil force begins stalking her. The stakes are high, the action robust and the characters are lively. Recommended

Running the books: the adventures of an accidental prison librarian, by Avi Steinberg

Having fallen away, far, far away, from his roots as an Orthodox Jew and over-achieving Yeshiva scholar, Avi Steinberg finds himself at loose ends after finishing Harvard. He answers an ad for an opening for a librarian in a prison and soon is checking out books and answering questions from the male and female inmates (separately, of course) of a tough Boston prison. Some of the stories he tells are funny; some frightening; and many sad. There's the inmate who longs to have his own TV cooking show someday, tentatively called "Thug Sizzle;" the woman who joins his creative writing class primarily so she can sit by a window that looks down on the prison yard where her son, who she gave up as a very young child, is exercising, having become an inmate as well; and the stories told by the "kites," scribbled notes concealed in books for other inmates to find. Although the book is a bit self-involved, the tales of the inmates are well done and affecting and his meditations on prisons are thoughtful. 399 pp.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

OK, this is cheating a bit, but I did have to reread this book for our book group having last read it almost a year ago. I still love it. Here's what I said before: An unexpected delight, like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, with the added benefit that this first time author is still very much alive and may have more novels ahead of her. Although the setting is familiar from “cozy” mysteries set in an England that is passing, if it ever existed, and the characters could have been stock figures, somehow there is a richness and nuance in this book that raises it well above others. Yes, it’s a small village, and the main character is a widowed retired Major, but other characters reflect the changing times: the English-born Pakistani shopkeeper, who is still treated as an “immigrant;” her angry nephew, who has a secret; and the Major’s social-climbing materialistic son. It’s a love story, a novel of manners (or lack thereof), and an exploration of race relations in twenty-first century England. 358 pp.

Jack wakes up

Jack wakes up/Seth Harwood 295 pg.

This is a book I picked up judging solely by the cover. It is a pretty cool cover, don't you think? The book itself is not quite as good. Jack is a recovering washed up movie actor who is getting his life back together after a serious heroin addiction and other "PR" problems. He starred in a decent action film a couple of years ago and now the money is running out. His "friend" Ralph has offered to let him in on a big drug deal he has in the works. Jack would hopefully make enough money to pay his mortgage for awhile. Ralph ends up dead so Jack decides to take over the deal. Enter ex-KGB, crazy drug suppliers and a hot bartender who shows interest in nursing Jack's wounds that he gets after being beaten up a couple of times. Things just keep getting rougher until Jack's beloved pristine '66 Mustang gets shot up and then he decides revenge is in order. The only problem I have with this book is nobody in it seems to know what is going on. Jack figured out there is conflict between the major drug players but none of them seem to realize it. No offense, but Jack doesn't strike me as the smartest guy to begin with and really, the major drug players don't realize their competition might be trying to cut them out? Overall the action is pretty good, the cover is great and Jack's obsession with his car seems possible. - Christa

Monday, January 10, 2011

On the Blue Comet by Rosemary Wells 329 pages

We get a lot of requests for good train books. One of my all-time favorite Christmas books is van Allsburg's Polar Express. In Cairo, Illinois, 11 year old Oscar Ogilvey lives just with his dad since his mom died. A bright spot in his rather ordinary life is his model train set -- a fabulous set with an elaborate lay out of track and scenery that he and his dad spend their free time working on. After the great stock market crash, his father loses not just his job, but their house and their train set. Oscar is sent to live with his disapproving aunt, while his father leaves for California in search of a job. Oscar's life turns upside down when he witnesses a cruel bank robbery and begins his own surreal cross country and cross time train trip. Real Hollywood stars, famous politicians and fascinating characters make cameo appearances in this book. Rosemary Wells, most widely known for her popular picture books, also has written a few historic fiction chapter books but none about trains. Wells captures the feeling of loss and despair so prevalent during the Great Depression. This is an amazing space and time action fantasy yarn that begs to be read aloud.You don't have to be a train buff to enjoy this book.