Thursday, May 6, 2010

Spotlight on: Every Last One

Dear blog, you've been neglected. The bookishness around here has been kind of lacking lately due to lack of time, food poisoning, and dull books. Just as I was a few months back, I've been setting books aside right and left. I'll read half the book and think 'Whatever. I'm so done with this.' and never go back. It's freeing, but leaves me little to say here.

This all leads me to a book that I plowed through last week, Every Last One: A Novelby Anna Quindlen. I even cried during the last 20 pages. I have to be honest here, I was already feeling weepy having just watched the film My Sister's Keeper (why oh why did they change the ending??) but still, I rarely cry at books. I go way back with Anna Quindlen, back to another film, One True Thing and the book it was based on by Quindlen. I cried then too. Over the years I'm pretty sure I've read all of Quindlen's novels, her essays in Newsweek and her excellent non-fiction book about her love of reading. Until now, none of her novels have resonated with me in the way One True Thing did.

Every Last One is the story of Mary Beth and her family, husband Glen, daughter Ruby, and twin sons Max and Alex. Mary Beth lives the good-kind-of-ordinary life. It's stable and centered on her family, a little bit dull and ordinary though this family has had their problems and they are serious ones. Thus the first half of the novel passes, as we get to know this family, yet all the time we wait because we know that Something is going to happen. Something does happen and it's utterly horrifying and life-changing. The rest of the novel deals with the aftermath and how Mary Beth finds a way to go on. Brilliant writing aside, Quindlen is able to evoke human emotions in a very true and honest way. Every Last One is a devastating but excellent read.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Spotlight on: Hearts and Minds

Ohhh, it's a busy week here at Chez Books and Cooks. Did you know my daughter is a performance artist? It's true. She's performing 5 times this week complete with hair, makeup, and costume in front of hundreds of people. That makes me chauffeur extraordinaire leaving me with little free time.

Back to the books. Once Amanda Craig's Hearts and Minds was longlisted for the Orange Prize I started seeing it around. And around. I'd read a couple of Craig's books in the past and remembered them as likable but not especially memorable. I thought this might be her Big Book, so I ordered it and began reading it approximately 3 minutes after it arrived. It's really something.

Hearts and Minds is a book about immigration in present day London. Craig focuses on 5 characters whose lives intertwine in various ways. British Born Polly is a human rights lawyer. Job is a taxi driver from Zimbabwe. Anna has arrived from the Ukraine to work as a chambermaid. Katie is an American, living on the cheap and working for a magazine. Ian is a teacher from South Africa, trying to figure out if this life is better than the one he left. Some of these people are legal, others are not. Some are being exploited and live in fear. They are all trying to make a better life for themselves yet the life they are living is not what any of them expected.

Hearts and Minds is not a happy book, in fact it's quite a heartbreaker, but it tells a very real story. While this book is set in London and feels very British, this story is taking place all over the world. These same characters could be in New York, Los Angeles, or even the Twin Cities. Craig tells her story boldly, sympathetically. She includes a body and a murder, thought this is not a murder mystery. She cleverly ends each chapter with a zinger, turning what could have been an ordinary book into a page turner. I thought it was excellent. Sadly, it didn't make the Orange shortlist and who knows if it will ever be published on this side of the pond. Either way, I encourage you to seek it out.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Worth the Wait

My husband didn't believe me last night when I told him to "Be quiet! I want to finish this book! It's a mystery! And I've been waiting for it for nearly a year!"

But it is true. I finished the fourth book in Susan Hill's Simon Serrailler crime series last May and have been waiting expectantly for book five, The Shadows in the Street ever since. I'd had it pre-ordered since October for crying out loud, and it finally arrived in the past couple of weeks. I actually tried to hold off reading it, but it didn't work.

I've written about his series before, here, here, here and here. This is not your typical mystery series. A lot of the story focuses on the people we've come to know over time and about the town they live in. Simon sometimes seems to be a secondary character in his own story! What stands out to me about these books is that the reader usually gets to know the victim before they become a victim. They are never just a nameless, faceless, victim, but a person, sometimes struggling, with a family and job and home and suddenly everything changes.

In this, the fifth installment in the series, someone is murdering prostitutes, but then the pattern changes and other women begin to disappear as well. There are a lot of other things going on, Simon's sister and father have had big changes in their lives, and a new clergyman has arrived at the cathedral who wants to make big changes not appreciated by all.

I cannot put my finger on why I enjoy this series so much. While I enjoy mysteries, it's never just about the mystery for me. I'm much more interested in the people and the setting. Being an anglophile this setting appeals to me particularly. Sadly, I have another wait ahead of me - who knows when or if another book will be forthcoming? I'll be there, ready to read it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Big Books

You know the sort. Not just big in size, but big in breadth and depth and meaning. The sort of books referred to in this way:

This (insert name of book) is so-and-so's (insert author's name) Big Book.

I've read a couple of books like this lately. Here is what I thought of them.

Cutting for Stone (Vintage)by Abraham Verghese

It seemed like everyone in blogland was reading this in 2009 and everyone was loving it. It appeared on 'best of' lists left and right, so of course I thought I'd read it too. I couldn't possibly give you a decent summary of this book except to say: a saga of conjoined twins, born in Ethiopia and separated at birth, they are orphans and raised by physicians thus they become involved in the medical field themselves.

Cutting for Stone ticks all the boxes. Well written. Check. Political upheaval. Check. Coming of age. Check. Love triangle. Check. Detailed medical scenes. Check.

This is a book that I thought was very, very, good but it never hit that sweet spot for me. That perfect reading experience/can't put it down/totally blissed out experience that I crave and only comes along a few times a year and I was sort of expecting with this. I never felt completely emotionally invested until the very end and it wasn't enough. 4.5 stars out of 5 if you know what I mean.

Small Island: A Novelby Andrea Levy

This book won some big prizes and was recommended to me by a few people so I finally gave it a whirl. This is the story of 4 people, 2 married couples, whose lives become intertwined. The time is post-war London in 1948. Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican immigrants. They are confounded by the fact that everyone seems to think that Jamaica is in Africa. They have come from a country where they look like everyone else to one where they can't help but stand out. Queenie is their landlord and is married to Bernard. He still hasn't come home from the war and while Queenie wonders where he is, she doesn't seem all that concerned about it. We go back in time to get to know these four souls to discover how they came to be where they are now.

Small Island grew on me. I was feeling iffy about it at the beginning, there was a fair amount of dialect/slang/improper English (sorry cannot come up with the right word here!) that I am really not a fan of reading. I worried that it would carry through the entire book but it wound up being an amount that wasn't too distracting. As I got to know the characters I liked this book more and more. I was most moved by Gilbert's story of joining the British war effort as an airman. The surprise and dismay he felt at the discrimination he experienced made my heart ache.

I thought the story flowed really well until we got to Bernard's back story. His experience of war was so jarring compared to the other stories and he was a harder character to feel warmly towards. The end of the book came together so well. It was surprising and heartbreaking, tender at times and even a bit karmically mysterious. It was a good solid read. Like Cutting for Stone, it wasn't perfect for me but still highly recommended.

In other bookish news, have you seen this?? Frightening times indeed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Moment

Last week I was having one of those good reading weeks. You know, when you have a few books going, and you don't even know which to pick up because they are all good and appealing and satisfying. Unlike this week, when everything I start is just so-so. Here's what I was reading last week.

Learning to Swimby Clare Chambers

Danielle has written about Clare Chambers several times and about this book in particular once or twice. My sense from Danielle was that Clare Chambers was one of those rare authors, who combines comfort reading with real intelligence and poignancy. Knowing that my tastes are often so in line with Danielle's, I knew I had to try this author.

Learning to Swim is a coming of age story in retrospect. Cellist Abigail runs into Rad, a man she used to know years ago when she was a teenager. It's obvious they have some sort of past together and thus we go back to Abigail's girlhood. She was a lonely child and her only real friend growing up was Rad's sister Frances. Abigail loved the eccentricity and seemingly romantic life Frances' family led, so different from her own middle class existence. As we read, we get to know everyone better and then there is a turning point, Something happens, relationships are shattered, everyone moves on, eventually coming to present day and this acquaintance of Abigail and Rad.

Learning to Swim was everything I expected. Easy yet smart. Satisfying and thoughtful. I'm looking forward to reading more Clare Chambers and have already procured two more of her books.

Bleeding Heart Squareby Andrew Taylor

I won this book in Librarything's Early Reviwer's program in February of 2009. It arrived in January of 2010! Sheesh. But in this case I say, better late than never! Bleeding Heart Square is just the sort of book I like. Set in London in the 30s, it is packed with eccentric characters that are difficult to read. No one is exactly what they seem.

Lydia Langstone has left her abusive well-to-do husband to live with her down-and-out father in Bleeding Heart Square. It is definitely a step down for a lady such as herself. We also hear from another gentlewoman, Miss Philippa May Penhow, though it seems she is no longer among the living. How she and Lydia and the various characters living at Bleeding Heart Square all tie together is the heart of this tale. It's a mystery but not of the usual sort. It's much more about the characters, the setting, the relationships and how everything is connected than it is about who-done-it, though we think we know, but are we correct?? It's the sort of mystery which mystery lovers probably get annoyed with, the sort of mystery that might actually be better placed in the Literature section of the store, the sort of mystery that I actually like quite a lot.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dutch Baby Pancake

5:30 Thursday - "I don't want to share a GIANT pancake! I just want regular pancakes! UGH!!"

6:15 Thursday - "This is gooooood! I don't like it - I love it! There isn't any more? UGH!!"

Thursday, April 8, 2010


Congratulations to JoAnn, Winner of The Season of Second Chances!

I hope you enjoy the book!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ah, the Foodie Memoir

Thanks for all your comments and support last week. That was a low point for me and I actually thought about deleting the personal part of the post but decided in the end to let me be me. Starting on Friday I had backup - Daddy - and we all went to Iowa where I was able to see how a holiday meal for guests can be prepared entirely from processed food. Three varieties of canned soup were involved.

Speaking of food, if you know me, you know I love food, I love cooking, and I love reading about it. The food memoir is one of my favorite genres and I'm always on the lookout for what's new.

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard

This is the story of an American Woman who has married a Frenchman and how she acclimates to France and her new family. This is one of those books that is easy and breezy to read, fun, cute at times, yet in the end sort of forgettable. It was fine, if you know what I mean. Throughout the book the author muses about her lack of clear career goals for herself, and it seemed as though someone suggested to her 'hey, food memoirs are popular, Americans in Paris stories are popular, you should write a memoir!', thus a career in writing blossomed. The food is not necessarily central to the book and there weren't any recipes that I was drawn to make. Reading over this, it seems like I'm being pretty critical of this book. It's more that I feel ambivalent about it, and you might love it whereas I thought it was okay.

The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove

Cathy Erway has taken a different direction with her food memoir. Erway was in her early 20's and living in Brooklyn when she wanted to start a blog. She came up with the idea of eating only food prepared at home - a huge anomaly in New York City - for an extended period of time. This book is based on that time and on her blog as well, though from looking at her blog my sense is that this book is not just reprinted posts, but a new way of looking at this period in time.

The Good: I found the subject matter of this book interesting and Erway's voice is appealing. She's intelligent and curious, and I appreciated how involved she became with the local food scene. She cooks both off the cuff yet still enjoys much more involved preparations and techniques.

The Not as Good: I felt old when I was reading this book! Erway's youth really shows in her lifestyle and behavior. There are several instances that involve heavy drinking and getting 'wasted'. She writes about the trials and tribulations of dating. Erway sometimes finds herself in situations in which she was perhaps over-extended. Dinner parties where dinner was not served until 10pm. Preparing food for hundreds of people yet not testing your recipes or picking up ingredients until the morning of. It's crazy, but I was actually getting stressed out reading these accounts.

Overall, this was a fun and good read, but I'm left wondering if I'm not the target audience for this book. (And folks, I'm under 40.) There were a couple recipes I've flagged to try and I was curious enough about Erway to check out her blog.

P.S. Don't forget to sign up for my giveaway - see below!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spotlight on: Elizabeth Cadell


Before we get to that, can we talk?

We are on Spring Break here, otherwise known around this house as Spring-drive-your-mother-up-a-wall-because-you-have-opposite-temperaments-week. Oh, my goodness friends, I am feeling like A Terrible Mother.

I, a tried and true introvert, gave birth to one of the strongest extroverts I've ever met. As a baby she cried and cried when I turned my back to cook something and as a toddler stood next to me and screamed for about a year and half while I blew my hair dry. Now it's mom?...Mom?....MOM??....MOOOOOOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! about every 4 minutes. She talks unceasingly. She climbs on me and touches and pokes me and talks in my face and tries to lick me (sorry). She cries and pouts and whines when she's not winning a game. She badgers me and argues about anything and everything. I faced an hour-long onslaught on why I wouldn't take her to dairy queen for lunch. She even hand copied text from their website about how delicious their food is.

"Mom they have wraps! And sandwiches that use waffles instead of bread!!"

"Someday you will understand why that is not a good thing."


When I took the car to Tires Plus:

"Bring a book in case they ask us to wait."

"What do I need a book for? If we have to wait I'll just talk to YOU!!!!"

God help me. I love her more than anything, I'd lay down right now and give up every organ or drop of blood for her. But I wish she would just 'find something to do!' that didn't always involve me. Thanks for listening. She's now on a play-date so I am thrilled to be able to string two thoughts together without interruption.

Back to the books!

So, Elizabeth Cadell. Have you heard of her? This is the author I teased you with a couple posts back whose vintagey looking books I came across at the library. As you can see, I chose The Corner Shop written in 1966. This book definitely fits into that same sort of category as D.E. Stevenson though this book in particular is a little edgier, more mysterious, funnier, and rather a farcical comedy of manners.

Take for example our first meeting with our heroine, Mrs. Lucille Abbey, on a train:

'she had her own method of dealing with burly gentlemen who pushed; her capacious handbag....could in cases like this become a lethal weapon. One jab from the brass-bound end, and the gentleman, like all his pushing predecessors, gave way. As always, her quiet, deceptively mild air lulled the victim's suspicions and led him to conclude that it had been an accident.'

'She was aware that she was slim, blonde, and beautiful-but her looks, though they might be alluring, were also misleading and raised hopes which she was constantly constrained to crush. She had a clear brain, sound common sense and a capacity for hard work; why these sober attributes had been encased in so fancy a package she had never been able to understand; she knew only that she looked far warmer than she felt.'

Funny stuff! Lucille runs a business that sends secretaries out on jobs and when one client goes through three perfectly good secretaries in odd circumstances Lucille decides to find out whatever is the matter. She finds herself in the country where the rather odd 'professor' is sorting through his deceased father's papers and mother's things. A series of events puts Lucille in the middle of an art heist after which she travels to Paris to help her aunt and meets a bunch of quirky people. There's a lot of running around in Paris then and the plots become briefly complicated and intertwined and eventually we see how all the pieces and characters come together. It's really well done for a humorous book that reads quickly, and I told my husband that if I were move clever I would try to write a screen play based on this material.

I still don't know much about Elizabeth Cadell, thought I did find this fan site. She was writing books from the 40s to the 80s! I'm definitely going to be reading her again.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Season of Second Chances (Giveaway Below!!)

Joy Harkness moved to New York City to teach at Columbia years ago. The life she expected she'd have in New York - the one with a social life and excitement - never really materialized. At age 48, Joy is given an opportunity to teach at a small college in Massachusetts and participate in an exciting new project. Joy makes this huge life change, complete with an old Victorian fixer-upper. She feels a bit like a fish out of water in her new life. She is unused to dating, or even cultivating friendships yet as she is drawn out of herself, into new situations, she slowly finds her place.

Diane Meier'sThe Season of Second Chances: A Novel
is the sort of fiction I don't find myself reading a lot of. So many books that are geared towards women today and set in the present seem to have the same few story lines that often don't appeal to me. The Season of Second Chances felt different. A smart female protagonist that is an educator and teaches literature can only be a good thing. Diane Meier's career up until now has been one full of style and creating beautiful things. That is apparent in this book as she writes about the makeover of Joy's home and all the bits and pieces that go into it. She writes about personal style and the delicious food being cooked and eaten. I liked the cozy feeling of this book and experiencing Joy's house becoming a home.

I really enjoyed reading this book and was drawn into it right away. I found Joy to be a compelling character, though at times I wanted to yell at her! For such an intelligent woman she sometimes made really bad decisions, particularly about men. I thought about this and realized that was probably because she had kept inside of herself for so long. Dealing with adult emotions and motivations was something she needed practice with.

The Season of Second Chances is being released today. If you are interested in learning more about the author, Diane Meier, here is a link to her blog. It's interesting reading what she has written lately about her upcoming book release. I can only imagine how nerve-wracking that would be.

Now for the good news: Interpersonal Frequency LLC has kindly offered to send a signed copy of The Season of Second Chances to one lucky reader! Not only is this book a really a good read, it's also a gorgeous book. I saw a finished copy today and am in love with the endpapers. To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post telling me what your favorite book of 2010 is so far, and make sure I have your email address. I will draw the winning name on April 7.

Many thanks to Interpersonal Frequency LLC for providing this review copy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More and More

Still reading D.E. Stevenson here, though I think I'm going to take a break for awhile. I may try another older and seemingly similar author whose books I came across at the library the other day. This female author wrote from the 40s to the early 80s and was very prolific. The library had a whole shelf of these books with their vintage looking covers. Anyone want to take a guess at the author's name?

The Baker's Daughter, written in 1938, was my least favorite Stevenson book so far, so let's get it out of the way here. This is the story of Sue Pringle, daughter of the baker in a small village/town in Scotland. She is trying to get out from being underfoot at the home of her father and stepmother so takes a job as housekeeper to an artist and his outgoing wife. Sue arrives and the wife vanishes - she wants to be in London, not the wilds of Scotland! Sue gets close to the artist, people think it's not appropriate and try to encourage her to take an interest in the local young men and on and on it goes. I thought the story was a bit flat, and there were a bunch of side stories (too many) that weren't any more interesting. Next!

Listening Valley (1944)is sort of a companion book to Celia's House which I read and enjoyed. It's not a sequel, but many characters from Celia's House make an appearance here. There are many themes in Stevenson's writing and that was very apparent here. This tale begins in a similar fashion to Amberwell (1955), complete with little girls being raised by negligent parents. As in Amberwell, the more socially challenged sibling is left at home when the other marries. This is Antonia, and she becomes friendly with a much older man, older even than her father, who happens to be a wealthy business associate of her father. They marry. I'm not a big fan of this storyline, the young girl of 17 or 18 marrying the 60 something older gentleman. I find it rather creepy. Anyway, they are very happy and move to London and work in the war effort which invigorates him and makes a woman out of her. Eventually he becomes sick, passes away, Antonia moves back to Scotland to live in a house left to her by a distant relative, and she finds a more age appropriate love interest. Antonia becomes friendly with some airmen who are flying on nightly missions to Germany. There is really quite a lot of talk about the war and the reality of these missions so if you're interested in how the war was handled in a very domestic 1944 novel, this might interest you. Overall I wound up really liking this book, all the sorts of things I like about Stevenson are here.

The Blue Sapphire, written in 1963, is one of Stevenson's last 10 books. It's so interesting to see how as time passes Stevenson's writing changes and the landscape of course changes as well. This is the story of Julia Harburn, she is engaged to an overbearing man, Morland, yet somehow finds herself suddenly friends with young Stephen who has just come back from Africa bearing - guess what? - a blue sapphire. Julia wants to get out of house for just the same reasons as Sue in The Baker's Daughter. She takes a room at a boarding house and a job at a hat shop which is quite humorous. There is an interesting flirtation with the stock market here which left me wondering if someone might be evil and the obligatory flight to Scotland where Julia nurses an elderly uncle. There was a little more angst than usual here, but all ends well.

Finally, we have Fletcher's End, the sequel to Bel Lamington.

I cannot say much about this one or it might spoil Bel Lamington for you! Bel has already found her true love and she and her fiance buy a run down house called Fletcher's End and make it their own. Much of the book is about Bel's life in the country and getting the house redone. The romantic part of the story involves Bel's friend Louise. I really liked this one!

Here is a blurb from the dust jacket about the photograph above:

The picture of Fletcher's End on the jacket is an actual drawing of the house owned by the author's son in the Cotswolds, which served as an inspiration for this book.

How about that?

Several people have written and asked me what Stevenson book to start with or what my favorites have been. Of the 10 or so that I've read, my favorites are, in order:

Bel Lamington
Fletcher's End
Celia's House
Vittoria Cottage

In nonbookish news, my new PC is on the truck for delivery today! We are so excited. This computer I am on has been a lemon since day one and I'll be so glad to see the last of it. Wheee!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Books and a Meal

It's been some time since I've shown any cooking photos. The truth is, the cooking around here has been pretty boring lately. I've been cooking a lot of my house 'standards' over and over and let's face it, they aren't' very interesting. Last night I decided to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with an Irish themed meal.

Sort of.

Here is 'Irish' stew and colcannon.

The stew could have been more Irish had I used Guiness, instead I used an English nut brown ale. This was yummy! Now that I've found out how easy it is, I'm wondering why I never made stew before. I practically just threw everything into the pot, cooked it for 3 hours and voila! Dinner. Gotta love that. I used Jamie Oliver's super easy technique from his latest US release, Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals. I think I've mentioned this book before, but I will again just because I think it is so good. I'm a pretty experienced cook and I like it, yet it's aim is people who are not used to cooking. Oh, and do you know what colcannon is? Cabbage combined with mashed potatoes. I sauteed the cabbage for a long time in butter, until it was soft and sweet. Want to guess what I'm having for lunch?

Here are a couple things I read recently:

Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth

The is the final book in Worth's trilogy about her experience as a midwife in the East End in the 1950s. I am sad there will not be any more installments. This book is very similar to the first in the series in that it focuses on specific experiences the midwives had. They are graphic birth stories, and the subject matter of many of them will surprise and shock you. There are also stories of Worth's life in the convent where she lived while working as a midwife. These stories I found not as compelling, but they do provide some comic relief from the intensity of the rest of the book. I recommend this series highly and while the first book is my favorite of the three, this is a close second.

The Spare Room: A Novelby Helen Garner


That's the main word that keeps coming to mind whenever I think about this book. The Spare Room is the story of two women who have been friends during their adult lives. One of them, Nicola, is ill, she had cancer, and she asks her friend Helen if she can stay with her for a few weeks while she undergoes therapy. I think I was expecting lots of heartfelt conversations and tears. Perhaps thoughts of end-of-life regrets and tender moments. That was not the shape this story took. These characters aren't any cookie-cutter depictions of people dealing with cancer. Cancer doesn't suddenly make everyone a saint. The story of Nicola and Helen is authentic. How difficult is it to care for someone with cancer? How does it affect the caregiver and the relationship? Recommended.
This book was provided by Librarything's Early Reviewers Program.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New To Me

The Kitchen House: A Novel
I heard great things about this one and no one around had it in stock. Thank goodness for amazon.

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival
A spontaneous purchase while I was reading Child 44. I want to know more.

George Gissing's The Odd Women (Oxford World's Classics)
Read about this one here (check out this blog, I'm in love). Also loving these Oxford editions in general.

The Joy of Eating: The Virago Book of Food
Not sure where I read about this one, but had to have it immediately. I thought it would be a book of essays. Instead, it's more a book of 'blurbs' arranged by topic. Good for dipping in and out of.

These arrived for review.

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novelwas a surprise.

Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman
Received this thanks to the Librarything Early Reviewer program. Sounds like just my sort of book.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Besides being the year of D.E. Stevenson, 2010 is quickly becoming the year of the books I can label DNF - Did Not Finish. I've been casting things aside left and right.

I just like this cactus picture I took.

My personal revelations and goals for this blog have carried over into my reading in a big way. The older I get, the more I read, the more I expect from my books and the less of a chance I am willing to give a book that I consider to be sub-par. I want to read great books, amazing and moving books, that entertain or give me insight or just plain take me away. Friends, I have lost patience.

In years past I would plod through a book that I wasn't thrilled with. I'd sigh and moan and by the end, look at it with loathing. At least I finished the darn thing. Now I know that is no way to read.

How do I decide what I'm going to finish and what I'm not? I like the idea of the 50 page rule I read somewhere: Give it 50 pages to see if you like it. If you're over 50, do some subtracting and give it less pages. Presumably, you have even less time available in this lifetime for bad books. Often though, I don't even need 50 pages. One chapter can be enough to know I don't want to spend 350 pages with this story.

Sometimes it takes longer. A month or so ago I whined that nothing I was reading was catching my fancy. Kay told me to cast them all aside. What good advice! I stopped reading a 600+ page book 250ish pages in. I gave up on a 400 page book 150 or so pages in. The library books, I don't so much care about, but I get annoyed by the ones I've spent money on. How could you sell me this lousy book!

It's easy to tell when you've made the right decision about giving up on a book. It's when you look at it after you've decided and you feel great relief. A sigh of calm. You don't ever have to go back to that if you don't want to. There's a great book, and it's just around the bend. Or in that pile in the corner.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bookclub Wrap-Up

Oh boy, was I ever down on book club yesterday. There were a whole bunch of things going against me yesterday that started with pretty much complete lack of sleep on Sunday night and working all day Monday. Being so tired I can barely string two thoughts together does not put me in the mood for chatty get-togethers. Half of the women stay home with their kids full time so they are all ready for adult interaction whereas I just want to discuss the book and go to sleep. Additionally, an old member recently rejoined our group, a person that I really like, but whose participation skews the conversation in curious ways. Towards camping and yearly trips to Disney World, extreme exercise routines, and long talks about dogs. We are cat people here.

Do I sound cranky? Boy was I ever cranky yesterday. I composed 10 different emails telling everyone that I'm Not Coming! but didn't send any of them. My husband finally convinced me to go and leave early. I'm glad I did. All my complaints melted away as I enjoyed the company of old friends.

The book we discussed last night was Child 44by Tom Rob Smith. It was universally liked my my book club in varying levels.

In a nutshell: Child 44 is set in Stalin-era Russia. Everyone is looking over their shoulder and trying not to draw attention to themselves, for if you are suspected, then you are guilty. And if your child is found dead, they weren't murdered, because there is no crime in the Soviet Union. Leo is a MGB agent and thinks he and his wife safe, until they aren't. On the sly, Leo begins investigating a series of child murders, which puts him family into even greater jeopardy. What he finds, is, well, surprising.

This is a thriller in every sense of the word. It felt like every time I turned the page, there were more twists and turns, and even knowing something was coming didn't damper my enthusiasm for finding out what it was. Setting this story in Stalin-era Russia was a brilliant decision. I found the entire setting so fascinating. I sort of knew that living under this regime wasn't a good thing, but didn't really have any idea of what went on behind the scenes, how citizens were brutalized and lived in fear. It was frightening, creepy, and disturbing. A great read, if you're into that sort of thing!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spotlight on: The Blue Orchard

{The subject matter of this book is not for everyone. I'm not looking to have a moral or political discussion here, I simply want to tell you about this book.}

Jackson Taylor had me at Hello.

But let me go back to the beginning. You browse in bookstores, right? And the people that work there often ask if they can help you. Here is what passes through my mind, but not my lips, when this happens:

1. Me? Need help in a bookstore?


2. Yes, perhaps you can show me a fabulous book, one that I'll love and adore, that I've Never Seen or Heard of Before.

Good luck with that.

It's pretty rare that I come across a book that I've never heard of or noticed but that's just what happened with The Blue Orchard: A Novel. There it was, on the new fiction table with its appealing cover and heaps of praise. As they say, There's an app for that (Snaptell in this case), so I used my dear friend and looked up this book. All signs pointed to me taking this book home, and that is just what happened.

From the very beginning, we know a few things. Middle aged nurse Verna Krone has been arrested for assisting with illegal surgery performed on a woman. It is the 1950s and the doctor she has been working for happens to be a widely respected, community serving, politically involved black man. How did Verna get to be this woman? That is what we are to find out.

Verna Krone grew up in poverty, removed from school to go out to work and support the family. Also to be abused. Life is rough, but Verna perseveres, working at this job and then that. Finally a little bit of luck comes to this long suffering woman and she is able to train to be a nurse. Verna loves being a nurse, she is conscientious and takes pride in her work. Along comes another opportunity, a chance to make what is to most people quite a lot of money. Verna begins assisting Dr Crampton with his surgeries on women. These woman come from near and far, some are strangers, others familiar. They are all looking for the same thing. Eventually, the arrests come.

Jackson Taylor has done a sublime job of telling this story, that of the life of his grandmother. This is the story of one woman's life but it is so much more. It's a picture of a time in history, when politics and race and the law collided, and Verna Krone just happened to have lived through it. This is storytelling, folks, in its purest form. This is a long and meaty book, one to take your time with and savor and one that I was sad to see come to an end.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Just For Me

I'm still gorging myself on D.E. Stevenson around here. These books are so perfect and simple at the end of the day when I'm tired. Here's what I've read lately:

Summerhills is the sequel to the very wonderful Amberwell, which remains my favorite Stevenson book so far. Summerhills was a good read and I enjoyed finding out what happened to all those familiar characters, as well as some new ones, but this book was not perfect in the way Amberwell was. Summerhills focuses on siblings Nell and Roger Ayrton. Roger decides to open a local school for boys, in part for his own son Stephen who Nell has been raising since the war. The Ayrtons are a few of the single people featured and we get to see how they sort themselves out and couple off. The most curious character in Summerhills is Miss Glassford, nanny to Stephen. Everyone is very surprised by her. She wears pants! And her favorite hobby is running! Early in the morning! They all think her very odd and cannot quite articulate why they simply do not like her or consider her romantically. She is obviously ahead of her time and I felt a little bit bad for her. All ends well for everyone else, though.

Celia's House was written in 1943; what is perhaps most curious about this book is that of course, the war was going on, and while it's definitely in the background here nobody knows what is going to happen. The first Celia is an elderly lady who aggravates her nephew when she decides to leave her estate to another relative, Humphrey Dunne, and his family. She does make a rather unusual stipulation though, as to the future owners of the home. I read this a few weeks ago so I am a little thin on details here. This nice family grows up in the house and the children become successful adults and their is romance and it is all quite nice and enjoyable.

Finally for today, we have Bel Lamington. Bel is slightly different from the usual Stevenson heroines as she begins with a rather sad and lonely existence. She is an orphan who lived with her aunt until adulthood when she died and now Bel is all alone in London, missing the country and working as a secretary to earn her keep. Lots of things happen to Bel in a short time: she meets an artist whom she cares for but who turns out to be a cad, her boss goes out of the country and Bel unexpectedly is fired from her job. This leaves Bel able to accept an invitation to Scotland to join her friend and Bel recuperates there, finds work, and finally true love comes calling.

If you're tired of these old books I've been reading, come back another day as I've read an excellent modern book.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

From the Reviewer's Stack

I've been quiet here but not here in real life. Busy with a long stretch at work, then getting the house back in order afterwords-still working on this, being the second in command for girl scout cookies sales...all this has made for a busy week. Speaking of cookies, those Samoas are like crack. Is there another cookie out there sold year round that approximates this? Please advise.

Well, I wrote late last year about how things are going to change around here, blah blah blah, and that I was going to greatly cut down on the number of review copies I accept and write about. I have been successful in this. There aren't exactly people banging down my door begging me to review their book, but I do get requests, perhaps a few a week and sure it's flattering, and nice to have such fun mail. Some of the requests are admittedly odd, for books outside any genre I read - self help, romance, etc. Then there was the illegible request that was formatted in some crazy way. I mean, AOL has a habit of making email look wonky by the time I receive it, but I could seriously not even read the text between the crazy http&^%$ stuff. And then the publicist contacted me again, saying 'how else can we get the word out' and I almost emailed back and said 'how bout start by sending me an email I can actually read!' but I didn't.

All this to say, that I'll be trying to keep my ARC reading to 12 books this year, that's one per month (I'm good at math too!) and here are the first two books of the year.

I actually received Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been: A Novellast year. I was drawn to this story primarily by the Victorian period in which it is set, and secondly to it's literary nature. Benjamin was inspired by a photograph of Alice Liddell - the girl who inspired Alice in Wonderful - and was moved to think and write about who she actually was.

Alice I Have Been is divided into three sections, in the first Alice is young girl and counts teacher Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll among her friends. There is a strong sense of unease in this section of the book, as we discover that Mr. Dodgson's favorite companions are young girls. When you think about the photograph above, that Dodgson took this photo of a child of a respectable Victorian family in such a state of undress -those couldn't have been her clothes, and with such an expression on her face, well it certainly seems that to an outsider something was Not.Quite.Right.

Something Happens.

Something really did happen to cause a break in the relationship between Dodgson and the Liddell family, but history does not tell us exactly what. The second section of the book deals features Alice as a young woman, having a romance with Prince Albert and meeting Mr. Dodgson again. It is uncomfortable. And finally, we see Alice as an older woman, somewhat surprised by the attention she still garners as Alice in Wonderland.

I liked Alice I Have Been very much. The period felt authentic to me and I thought the author used her imaginative powers very well here, conjuring up what Alice might have been like.

Next we have One Amazing Thingby Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. This woman really knows how the spin a sentence and I wanted to read this book after enjoying Sister of My Heart: A Noveland The Vine of Desire: A Novelso much.

One Amazing Thing takes place in a visa/passport office in the basement of a building in the US. San Francisco perhaps? There is an earthquake and the 9 people trapped inside this office must find a way to stay safe and survive until they can hopefully escape. One way they take their minds off their troubles is to each share 'one amazing thing' from their own lives and through this we see into each of their hearts and minds.

Despite the beautiful writing this was just an okay read for me. It was hard to get to know so many characters in so little time and really care about their stories. I was often mystified when the stories would go from first person to third person in one paragraph. Between stories, the survivors would deal with the immediate effects of the earthquake. I think the stories coming out of the earthquake in Haiti really lessened the impact of this part of the story.

Ultimately, what I got out of this book is being reminded that everyone has a story and a motivation that we'll probably never know nor understand. It is that story that makes each person who they are and may affect their daily life in ways we can never understand.

Many thanks to Delacorte Press and Hyperion Books for providing these books for review.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dying to Know

Well. Perhaps you've been dying to know what books were bugging me last week. Maybe not! In either case, here they are:

1939: The Last Season

I was expecting something different, I think, in this book by Anne De Courcy. I thought it would be about British 'Society', debutante balls, the last hurrah before WW2 intervened. It was sometimes about those things. I enjoyed chapters about what the process was to be presented at court, health and medical care at the time, the lives of servants and the upkeep of those enormous country estates. I did not so much enjoy chapters about particular parties, and who attended, and what they wore and what was served for dinner, all told in a dry journalistic tone. I suppose that is what bothered me about this book - it was very dry and almost too 'stick to the facts' in form. I wanted personal stories and anecdotes; that is what brings history to life, I think, and it was not really achieved here in my opinion. Certainly I learned some things, but reading this became a chore.

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me

It surprises even me that Ruth Rendell wrote a book that was at times yawn inducing. This is the story of several women whose boyfriends and husband have died or disappeared and how they are all connected. Then there are a series of murders (we know the culprit) that affect all of these women, and we peer over the shoulders of police as they discover who-done-it. This book feels like Rendell and if you've read her, you know what that means. It's suspenseful and mysterious, people are a little At first the reader is in the dark and is let in on the secret a few chapters in. Then we wait for things to come to a head. They do. Then I wondered what on earth is going to happen in the second half of this book. This is actually a good book and a decent read, it's just not up there with the other Rendell/Vine books I've read. It's much, much more psychological novel than it is a straight mystery/suspense/detective story. Published in 2001, I think it might be the most current Rendell/Vine book I've read and it's worth reading - it's just not her best or most typical book.

Friday, February 12, 2010


I pulled something in my back again and I'm on the third day of gingerly moving around the house. Standing is okay, so is laying down, but sitting is not so good. Computer = not good.

On the bright side I am in The Good Book Zone. I have a few deliciously good books on the nightstand and just in the past 24 hours have read what will likely wind up on my 'Best Reads of the Year' list. That book is Still Aliceby Lisa Genova.

I'd wanted to read Still Alice for some time and recommended it to my bookclub who chose The Help instead. Now that I've read it, I know that everyone who raved about it was right. It brought me to tears at least twice. I woke up a couple times last night and the first thought I had was about Alice, and what would happen to her in the last part of this book.

I'm sure you've read enough reviews of Still Alice to last you a lifetime, instead I will just share a few random thoughts I had while reading this amazing book about a 50 year old Harvard professor who is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's.

*First of all, I haven't had much exposure to anyone living with Alzheimer's disease so this book was really an eye opener for me in terms of how it is diagnosed and how quickly the disease can progress. That shocked me, actually.

*Alice really gave me cause for thought when she thought about the fact that she'd rather have cancer, something you can at least fight instead of something that just gets worse until you finally lose yourself. She thought about how having and fighting cancer would lead society to perceive her as a hero; having Alzheimer's just makes you an outcast. People are afraid of what is perceived to be mental illness.

*This is a terrifying book. Any one of us could get Alzheimer's and there is NOTHING WE CAN DO to stop it or make it better. That is so frightening to me. The idea of not being present inside my body is so scary as is being a complete burden on everyone around me.

Still Alice is beautifully written and completely heart wrenching. I recommend it to everyone.