Sunday, June 30, 2013

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

A literary who-done-it that sweeps across two world wars, this novel in letter format encompasses both a transcontinental pen-pal relationship during the first World War and a young woman's journey of self-discovery during WWII.

We know right away these two stories are connected; early on it's clear that the end of the first war story is going to illuminate the beginning of the second - and the getting there is truly the good part.

These are wonderful letters, the kind we don't write any more: back then friendships and entire relationships were sustained on paper and moved only at the speed of postage. And Brockmole does an amazing job fleshing out these characters into completely realized people only through their correspondence.

Book clubs will love this one as much as they did the similarly structured The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. But it's not a simple knock-off; this book stands on its own merit as an exciting read with fantastic storytelling.

Shut Up, You're Welcome: Thoughts on Life, Death, and Other Inconveniences by Annie Choi

Annie's made a name by being crabby - but in a fun, funny, and rather endearing way. She's exasperated by her huge, traditional Korean family, yet she loves them to death - and you will too, reading these essays.

Each chapter begins with a letter to a place or thing (not really to a person) with whom Annie takes issue. In the letter she explains her feelings. Then, the stories told in the following chapter give you the background on why or how Annie formed her opinion of the DMV, or her curtain-less neighbor, or Caesars Palace ... just to name a few.

The stories are a riot. Whether she's trying to get rid of her parents' kitchen table during their move or describing the quintessential American road trip in a station wagon full of Korean immigrants, the stories are highly relatable and downright hilarious. You want to be a part of her family just as much as you're delighted they're NOT your family.

This is one of the funniest books I've read in a while. Loved it, and I highly recommend you give it a try too.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd

It's hard to concentrate on your studies when there's so much going on, but Fergus McCann is determined to make the three B's he needs to get into medical school and out of Northern Ireland. In one brief season Fergus experiences love and loss, finds a body in the bog, and takes the first steps into his own future. There's the ever-present danger of the political unrest (the book takes place during the 1980s) and the moral dilemmas and soul-searching the unease provoke in the young man's life.

But it's also a quaint look at families and coming of age: crushes, bullies, beer, and prying little sisters are all part of Fergus' story. In flashbacks and dreams, we get the story of Mel, the ancient girl found under the peat.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Sile Bermingham, which was an interesting casting choice - a boy's story, with a female reader - but her delivery was wonderful.

Monday, June 24, 2013

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

This is an author who understands he's only doing half the work, writing the book - you're an equal partner, as you bring the narrative to life in your imagination. And in this case, it's especially horrific because the bad guy's grabbing kids.

True conversation:
Me: This book is ripping my guts out. Yesterday I couldn't put it down, but I almost don't even want to pick it up again. It's awful and it's dark and it's making me sick. 
Husband: So you won't be giving it a good review, then.
 Me: Are you KIDDING ME?!? I'm giving it a STELLAR review! But with a cautionary warning: pansies need not apply.
This book is the epitome of modern horror in my book: twisted and dark, but not unnecessarily gory or explicit. He's sketching it out for you, but you get to add the color yourself. I've read Hill's other books (and loved them) and he's just getting better.

I haven't told you anything about the book. Do I have to? You're either in already, or you're not. :)

Monday, June 17, 2013

The wonderful wizard of Oz

by L. Frank Baum

You think you know the story, but have you actually taken the time to read the book?  I don't remember finishing it as a child, so last week I ordered the audio version at the library.  I got the one narrated by Brooke Shields, and she does an amazing job.  Kids will be engaged by all the voices she does for the vast array of characters, especially the ones not in the movie.  Check out this version for your summer road trips.

First, this is a children's story.  The conflicts are just enough to keep things interesting without leaving little ones trembling in the overnight hours.  Baum's story is a captivating tale of a, seemingly, very young girl unwillingly having an adventure in a strange land.  While some vicious events do occur, the story quickly moves beyond them. 

Second, adults should give it a shot.  If the written version escaped you in childhood, you will likely find this to be far superior to your memories of the 1939 film.  Additionally, if you have become enamored of Gregory Maguire's version of events, either in print, or on stage, this will give you added background.  It is fun to see just how much room Mr. Baum left for expanded ideas when writing the original story.

How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession by Daniel Duane

Duane dealt with the birth of his first child in a unique way: he took over the dinner preparation for his family, but rather than focusing on simple food preparation and nutrition or sustenance he went off the deep-end into obsessive cookbook mania (never repeating the same recipe twice, checking recipes off toward an epic unattainable goal).

This isn't a cookbook - you'll have to find the books Dan's reading to replicate his progress. More, it's a story about his obsessive-compulsive cooking saga and the ups and downs of his life that drive it.

The book's entertaining, and Duane is a smooth, talented writer who blends the cooking mania and food preparation stories into the tale of his personal growth and family life. He twines things together in a rare way: one paragraph of biography on a famous chef may also somehow tell you about the progress of the remodeling of the Duane family home.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and both envied and pitied his wife throughout. Early on in the book (and in their relationship) Liz explains her preference for simple, uncomplicated food - which Dan resolutely and dramatically ignores for years.

Inferno by Dan Brown

Professor Langdon's back, puzzling through his next cryptic treasure hunt to save the world; this time, he's trying to prevent a plague inspired by the 14th century epic poem by Dante Alighieri.

I'm a sucker for these books - they're the perfect mix of contemporary issues with geeky art and history knowledge that strikes a chord with me. Plus, I can't ever seem to set the book down because Brown ends even the shortest, two-page chapters with some kind of cliff-hanger that keeps you going.

To admit that I read this book over 4 days doesn't mean that it isn't read-it-in-one-sitting material - only that it's 460 pages long. Over those 4 days, I was totally sleep-deprived due to late-night reading binges - I just didn't have the time to stay up and binge.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll by Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson with Charles R. Cross

Behind-the-scenes rock-and-roll memoirs always fascinate to me if they're done honestly, and the Wilson sisters keep one another true in this double autobiography of their lives and careers (especially their band Heart, but also solo, as the Lovemongers, movie soundtracks and scoring, and more). The book spans 40 years in rock and roll history, along with background on the globe-trotting Marine Wilson family, their early music influences, romances, marriages, and family.

Rock's not always pretty, even for two gorgeous women: they were constantly questioned and belittled by the music machine, rarely taken seriously as musicians and songwriters, and frequently bullied about their appearance. Rumor and innuendo follow them (incest! sluts! fakers!) and while they didn't necessarily intend to pioneer, they truly blazed a new path for all who have followed.

The audiobook was interesting because the sisters read it themselves (with a bit of assist, but I can't find credits for other minor narrators anywhere). Ann's a natural storyteller and I felt like she was simply telling her tales - Nancy on the other hand is a bit stilted and often her reading felt mechanical and nervous.

Overall I was very happy with the book - they cover their story warts and all, and that always provides the best stories.

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

It's a familiar setup: a wily con man with a true talent for the big score and an FBI agent who will stake her career and go to any lengths to capture him. There's a bit of professional teasing and sexual tension that drives their cat-and-mouse game, but midway through the book things shift and the game changes when they're asked to work together, playing for the same side to bring down an even worse bad guy.

This is a great, funny book that moves at lightning speed. The combination of these two writers brought out the best in both: Evanovich's comedic female lead is wittier, faster, and more competent with Goldberg's lift.

You can tell this will be a new series (and this book introduces us to a great cast of characters I'm anxious to explore) yet this book feels whole - it's not simply a lead-in setting the platform for something bigger. The story's complete and satisfying, but I guarantee it will leave you wanting more.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

I often wonder how much world knowledge is lost when the only "knower" dies without passing along their story. Somebody knows what really happened in every conspiracy, murder, tragedy or drama - but we may never know the truth if it's never spoken.

And that's the core of this story, too: Noa never took the stand in her own defense, and the mother of the victim wants to know the true story of what happened on New Year's Day. But it's a tangled web of deceit and lies (and goes much deeper than that one day). Awaiting her inevitable execution, this story is really all Noa has left to hold onto and she's not giving it up easily.

I loved that this book unspooled gradually. The book just dips you into the pool and you figure things out once you're already wet. At first you don't know who's dead - then you learn it's Sarah. But who was Sarah to Noa? Clue by clue you learn more and the story Noa's holding reveals itself. But it's probably not the story anybody really wants to hear.

This is an excellent book, and I devoured the last 100 pages way too late after my bedtime because I could not put it down.

Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

Have I mentioned how much I love Carl Hiaasen?

This time, two guys each fight "progress" that is destroying their little corners of paradise - one a former cop in Florida with an illegal, unfinished McMansion next door, the other a Bahamian whose beach is sold out from under him and developed.

Stir that together with a sexy coroner, lots of hungry sharks, a scary voodoo queen, an angry monkey (who was in Pirates of the Caribbean with Johnny Depp), bad seafood, and a little Medicare fraud and you've got another fantastic, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction Hiaasen novel.

The action is fast-paced, the dialog snappy, and the hurricane imminent. Hiaasen's books are always full of pop culture references, and this one's par for the course; you might argue that Hiaasen's not really breaking any new ground here, but I've yet to bog down in a dull moment or yawn at the antics. He keeps the story moving, twisting in the wind, and I still find myself barking out unexpected laughter.

Highly recommended!