Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reading Habits Meme and a couple photos

I'm recuperating from a full week and weekend, which has included Kiddo's high school graduation, gardening, housework, helping husband put down flooring and spending time with Eldest. Boy, have we been busy. I'll post photos of some of the pretties blooming at our house, in the coming days.

When I saw this meme at Gentle Reader's Shelf Life, I thought it would be the perfect filler while I recover from a long week. Normality should resume by Tuesday. Huzzybuns and Kiddo are off work, tomorrow, so I have a feeling blogging won't be on the agenda. Join in on this meme if you feel the urge!

Reading Habits Meme

Do you snack while reading? No, but I always read while snacking!

What is your favourite drink while reading? Water and coffee. I always, always have a drink nearby when I'm reading.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? I don't even dog-ear unless I think book is so awful it's not worth wasting the time to fetch Post-its, my marking method of choice. If I feel there's a note I must make, I write on my Post-it.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat?Bookmark. If I can't find a bookmark, I'll grab a receipt or other piece of paper that's flat. There are always receipts nearby. My husband sheds them. I think it's an illness; he can't throw a receipt away.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? Both. I have a mix of both fiction and non-fiction reads balanced almost continuously.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? I can stop anywhere. I don't usually have any trouble remembering what was going on, although if I fall asleep reading I'll sometimes backtrack by a page or two to re-entrench myself in the story, so to speak.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? I mentally throw books, but I've only once physically tossed a book because it made me angry. The author was Nicholas Sparks, if that tells you anything.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? Sometimes, but I don't do so if I can understand the meaning of the word in its context. Instead, I'll go ahead and mark an unfamiliar word and look it up later. I used to keep vocabulary notebooks in which I wrote the word, the book in which I found it, the sentence from the book (to show context) and a definition. Maybe becoming an empty nester will open up time to return to that old habit.

What are you currently reading? I'm reading A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo (a Vietnam soldier's memoir) and A Place for Delta by Melissa Walker (children's). This weekend I put both of those books aside to focus on finishing The Making of a Duchess by Shana Galen (an action-packed historical romance).

What is the last book you bought? Oh, hmm. Actually, I have no idea! I haven't purchased a book in several weeks, although the last book that arrived at my house was Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. I got it from Paperback Swap.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? I must read before bed to "wind down" or I can't sleep. Otherwise, I'll read any time I can get away with it, but most of my reading is done at bedtime.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? I prefer stand-alone novels. I do occasionally read series books, but I'm not what you could call either faithful or easily addicted to a series.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? Haha! You'll know it before I say it, right? Simon Van Booy!! I recommend him so often I'm like a broken record. I also frequently recommend The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, Rebecca, Stand Before Your God (a memoir by Paul Watkins), The Book Thief and Lottery by Pat Wood. Some recent favorites are A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, and Postcards from a Dead Girl by Kirk Farber. You should read them, if you haven't.

How do you organise your books? I am not the most organized person on the planet, but favorites and classics go on the "good shelves" and I have a specific shelf for advanced readers (but I don't have many ARCs left and they keep falling over). Whatever I hope to read next -- and I say "hope" because I'm fickle -- goes in a pile beside the bed. Recently, those bedside books have been moving farther away because I keep spilling drinks. Sigh. I need to work on that.

Barbara's additional question: background noise or silence? Silence is preferable and probably one of the reasons I end up reading mostly at bedtime.
Since New Orleans Chris is enjoying his garden and photos of other folks' gardens so much, this photo is mostly for him -- a shot of some of the Roma tomatoes in one of our topsy turvy planters (they're hanging down into the rosemary, as you can see):

Okay. That's it, for now. See you in a day or two! If I can squeeze in the time, I'll write a review on Monday. If not, Tuesday it is. Happy Memorial Day to the Americans!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Brief Pause and an Early Fiona Friday

Miss Fiona will hold down the fort while I'm taking a few days away from the computer to regroup and see my son walk across the grass to pick up a little piece of paper saying he is done with the local school system, forever. I tried to pose Fi with Kiddo's mortar board but she strongly objected -- as in "ran away, quickly, thus reaffirming the suspicion that her inner Energizer Bunny is alive and well."

Fiona thought you might like to sit and enjoy the view in our back jungle, while you wait for our return. Happy Weekend!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Armchair BEA - Blast from the Past

Since I'm stuck at home during the week of Book Expo America, when Bookblogville becomes eerily quiet, I figured it would be fun to participate in the Armchair BEA adventure. Do not ask me why the above image is so large. I can't figure it out. Must be a Blogial Anomaly.

Blast from the Past, aka "Books I Fell in Love With, Way Back in the Time of Dinosaurs":

Jiggers by Joy Muchmore Lacey is the first book I remember falling in love with, the story of a cute little puppy who goes missing. I remember the puppy bounding happily through the snow and into the little girl's arms at the end. I thought that little girl looked a lot like me (substitute bright blonde hair for the reddish-blonde) at the time. 1963 is the date of publication. Wow, that was a long time ago. My original copy probably went into one of my mother's infamous bi-annual garage sales, but Huzzybuns bought me a copy off eBay, a few years ago. He got something on the order of 50,000 brownie points for buying that little gem. It's still in the plastic bag. It's so special I haven't yet touched it, apart from a single reading when it arrived.

In The Trouble with Jenny's Ear by Oliver Butterworth, young Jenny develops the ability to overhear the thoughts of people around her. I don't actually remember this book as well as I used to, but I happened across a copy of it in the library sale, a couple years ago, and snapped it up. I remember thinking it was funny and trying to will myself to hear the thoughts of the people around me (#fail). I'm almost positive I checked the book out from my library more than once, but other than that . . . . I really don't remember much. It seems like Jenny is due for a reread.

Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

When I was in my early twenties, it occurred to me that it was about time I caught up on all the classics I'd missed out on reading because I chose to substitute other courses in high school and college for the typical lit courses (Journalism, Writing About Film and The Geography of Music . . . all were valid substitutes for English Lit, which I'm pretty sure I feared). To that end, I went shopping at a small local store and found this "classic tale of romantic suspense". I recall sitting on the porch outside our apartment, practically inhaling the book while my eldest son was in kindergarten. Could. Not. Put. Down. Is it a true "classic" of literature? I'm not certain. But, Rebecca was most definitely an excellent starting point for leaping into the classics.

Désirée by Anne-Marie Selinko is a book I snitched off my mother's shelves when I was in junior high. Désirée is the story of Désirée Eugenie Clary, Napoleon's first love. I'm not certain, but I think Désirée may have been my first foray into historical fiction and I loved it so much that I eventually walked off with my mother's copy, bought three more copies and gave two to friends. My mother eventually said she didn't mind that I'd kept her copy. I assume that's because I read it repeatedly (had it not been read regularly by someone, it likely would have gone into one of the infamous bi-annual garage sales). Désirée is one of the most re-read books I own.

A few other books that encouraged my early love of reading (in no particular order):

The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (père)

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster, Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins-Clark, and A Separate Peace by John Knowles (all borrowed from my sister's shelf during our school years)

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett - Also due for a reread. I'm careful with my books, but I've nearly read my childhood copy of A Little Princess to tattered shreds.

My thanks to Book-a-rama Chris (whom I mentally call "Chris-a-rama") for drawing my attention to the Armchair BEA posts with her hilarious fantasy panel post, "I See Dead People".

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper

A Hundred Feet Over Hell: Flying With the Men of the 220th Recon Airplane Company Over I Corps and the DMZ, Vietnam 1968-1969
Copyright 2009
Zenith Press - Nonfiction/Vietnam/History
258 pages, incl. appendix, glossary and index

That night I was at Marble Mountain having a cold beer with pilots of the Black Cats helicopter company, listening to some loud rock and roll, when someone stuck his head in the club and yelled, "INCOMING!" The place suddenly emptied around me. I'd never heard of "incoming" before, so I walked outside and saw them diving into a bunker. I looked around at all the excitement and thought, "Wow, this is just like being on a movie set." About then--kaBAM!--a 122mm rocket hit, and I could not get into that bunker fast enough.

I was there another day, and they said, "You're going to Phu Bai." Well, I was as far north as I could go and on the coast, so I asked, "How far west is that?" and they said, "It's as far north as you can go." So back on a C-130 to Phu Bai, still on the coast. When I got to the Catkillers, they told me I was assigned to the 1st Platoon at Dong Ha. "How far west is that?" And they said, "As far north as you can go. Hell, you can see North Vietnam from there." That's when I knew I was in a world of shit.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell is about a group of men who flew Bird Dogs (a type of Cessna plane that flew no faster than 130 mph -- low and slow) in and near the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, between North and South Vietnam from 1968-69. I got my copy specifically to read for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge, and it is my favorite Vietnam read, so far. Seriously, I'm ranking it above The Things They Carried. Can you believe that? I can't even believe that.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell is nonfiction and I'm sure that will keep a few people from reading it, but if you're one of those . . . reconsider, please. It's amazing. The author's brother was one of the pilots who flew a Bird Dog and he survived a serious injury, so he is among those who tell their stories within the pages of the book. The way it's written, there is some description by the author but the vast majority of the book is written in first-person accounts of the pilots' experiences. Sometimes they overlap, so that you get to hear the same story from more than one viewpoint. In one case, one of the soldiers on the ground told his viewpoint along with at least one of the pilots who helped save him from certain death when he and his brothers in arms were surrounded.

The Catkillers were constantly under fire because of the way they flew and their low speed. Their job was to pinpoint targets, call in planes with specific artillery, mark targets with white phosphorous rockets and then report on the success of hits, often repeatedly, until the target was hit. Sometimes a pilot on his own or (more typically) a pilot and an "observer" flew over or near the DMZ on a general reconnaissance mission, in order to search for signs of the enemy to determine targets to hit for preventive measures. But, a good portion of the time they flew missions to cover soldiers on the ground or to help locate the enemy so that helicopters could extract the injured and any remaining uninjured soldiers could escape dangerous situations. They went into some very scary, very tense situations under heavy fire. These guys were courageous.

And, the real kicker is that they didn't carry weapons. Apart from a hand-held automatic weapon which they occasionally fired out of a window (and those were carried by choice, not by design), there was no weaponry on board the planes. None.

Besides being action-packed, I found that the book was very readable, although there is plenty of terminology that the novice will have to learn by flipping to the glossary and not absolutely every strange word or weapon designation is defined. Because the book is focused on a single year, you get a pretty well-rounded view of what it was like for a pilot to live through a tour of duty, including the crazy things they did to unwind. There are a few really sad moments when pilots were killed, wounded or went missing. Because of the way the book is told, the reader gets to know the individual personalities quite well and in combination with a photograph section, it's really gut-wrenching when someone you've become acquainted with is killed or injured.

5++++++++/5 - Wow. I just can't say enough good things about this book. Well-written text combined with personal accounts so emotional, tense, frightening, moving, funny, sad and shocking that I went from holding my breath to sighing in relief to laughing to wiping away tears. This is absolutely one of the best books I've read all year.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell is not necessarily an easy read because of the technical aspect and I found that I enjoyed it most when I finally decided I was going to sit down and read the entire book through, but it can be read in little bits. Reading the majority in a single sitting meant details (terminology, characters, etc.) stayed fresh and made for a read with more impact.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Life in Spite of Me by Kristen Jane Anderson with Tricia Goyer

Life in Spite of Me: Extraordinary Hope After a Fatal Choice
By Kristen Jane Anderson with Tricia Goyer
Copyright 2010
Multnomah Books - Nonfiction/Memoir
209 pages
Author's "Reaching You" website

Kristen Anderson was a well-adjusted teenager, happy and athletic, with lots of friends . . . until loss threw her into a deep dark depression. Within two years, three of her friends and her grandmother died. And, then she was raped. Threatened by the boy who raped her, she chose to keep the pain to herself but eventually it become too much for her to handle.

One night, she walked to the park near her home. In the distance, she heard the sound of a train. The train tracks ran next to the park and in a moment of despair she decided to end her life. She lay across the train tracks and waited to die. Instead, Kristen's legs were severed. The train sucked her up, but some other force shoved her back down and when the train stopped, she saw her legs lying 10 feet away from her body. She was alive, but barely. And, she would never be the same.

Talk about a good reason not to attempt suicide. When I read the description of Life in Spite of Me, I couldn't decide whether or not I wanted to read it. It sounded so horrifying -- to have one's legs chopped off because of a really bad decision and then have to live with the reality of that moment forever. Horrible. But, a part of me was curious about what drove the author to try to end her life and why, of all things, her book claims that she's living a happy and productive life.

Life in Spite of Me tells about Kristen's descent into depression and it is definitely tough reading about her pain. Most of the book is very emotional. After failing to kill herself, she had to go through numerous surgeries and deal with the depression that led her to attempt suicide in the first place. Her battle was lengthy and rough; she was in constant pain. Doctors told her she would have to remain on anti-depressants for life.

So, what led to the change in her life? It was a discovery of faith. She was a church-going Christian but had not been "saved" in the scriptural sense. Her newfound faith, study of the Bible, and the decision to help others eventually helped Kristen to develop the courage to stop taking anti-depressants.

Life in Spite of Me is a very quick read and it's written in simple language. In a lot of "recovery from disaster" books, you end up reading about the medical aspect in great detail. That's not the focus in this particular book. Instead, the author zones in on emotion and healing, faith and hope. I'm so accustomed to reading gory details of disaster recovery that I found the lack of medical detail a little surprising, but actually it was rather nice not to slog through the whole medical end of the recovery. The author's objective is straightforward: she doesn't want anyone to go through what she's experienced and she feels compelled to share her story about how her faith has made her life better than it was before.

4/5 - A fascinating, awful, eventually-uplifting story of how one young lady turned her personal tragedy into something positive.

Kristen Anderson has been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and I've watched the video clip. She seems stunningly happy and light-hearted. I highly recommend it. You can view the video clip via Kristen's website, by clicking on the photo of her shaking hands with Oprah.

Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden

Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
by Wendy Burden
Copyright 2010
Gotham Books (a division of Penguin)
279 pages

I reluctantly agreed to go swimming. I loathe swimming in the ocean. It takes the poison of a black widow spider a full hour to take effect, that of a Gila monster fifty minutes, a rattlesnake fifteen, a cobra five. But run into a stingray, a Portuguese man-o'-war, a scorpion fish, a blue-ringed octopus, or a box jellyfish (something you can't even see whooshing your way), and you start to croak immediately. And, if the flora and fauna don't kill you, the undertow will.

I always knew there was a reason I hesitated when everyone else jumped into various large bodies of water I've visited (except in Hawaii; I did actually snorkel in the Pacific -- points to me). Thanks to Wendy Burden, I now know I was justified in staying out of the ocean and I've also learned a bit more about the fascinating Vanderbilt family. Wendy Burden's great-great-great-great grandfather was Cornelius Vanderbilt and her tongue-in-cheek memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, tells about growing up in the days when sprawling mansions were slowly sold off as the family sank into alcoholic and possession-crazed dissipation.

Dead End Gene Pool begins with a little background about the Vanderbilts and the Burdens' place within the family tree then jumps into the tale of a harrowing plane ride. There's a great quote I'm not willing to copy because my husband's on an airplane to San Diego and I just don't like thinking about such things when he's in transit. The point of the story, though, is not the fact that the author could very well have gone splat in a field. Rather, the objective appears to be a glimpse of what's to come.

When the plane ride occurred, Wendy and her brother were en route to one of her grandparents' many homes. Their mother was too busy hopping the globe to mother her children, so Burden and her siblings spent a great deal of time being shuffled from one home to another. When not entertained by their alcoholic grandparents, "the help" served as their surrogate family. That is pretty much her childhood in a nutshell -- being shuffled back and forth in style, at least until their mother remarried.

You can look at Dead End Gene Pool from several different angles. The difficulty of the author's life is obvious and there's definitely an undercurrent of sadness. The author's father committed suicide when she was quite young. Her mother had little interest in her offspring and her grandparents weren't particularly cuddlesome, either. Occasionally, the male help could be known to fondle and since Wendy was female, nobody really cared. She was the invisible one; only male heirs were important.

But, in spite of the fact that Burden's memoir describes a truly deplorable set of relatives and ancestors surrounding a rather sad little girl, the author does her best to make the book humorous and there are moments that she succeeds. The book is also a fascinating set of tales that give readers a decent glimpse into the lifestyle and clearly illuminate how and why people of such fabulous wealth managed to drain the ancestral funds.

I participated in the chat with the author at Books on the Brain (the entire chat is still visible within the comments section) and enjoyed it very much. In that chat and an interview of the author (for which I didn't bother to save a link, sorry), she was cordial and positive. Although she was shuffled about, Wendy Burden is well aware that she had a privileged childhood and that her inheritance gave her a better start in the world than that of most people. The book sounds a little bitter, as if the humor is an attempt to cover pain. But, I didn't get that impression from the author at all. She seems quite happy and settled.

The one thing I really wanted to ask the author about was that cover. Who is on the cover and what was going on? Wendy's answer: "The woman is my grandmother and she is The Spirit of Aviation; the Sea Monster is my Grandfather. I actually still have the costumes…they were at a fancy dress ball. I LOVE this picture!"

Me, too. Great photo. Several people were curious about the detail in the book and the author said she came from a family of diary keepers. The detail is, in fact, so startling that it's natural for readers to wonder how on earth she could remember the meals, the china, the scenery, the names of the help, etc. Well, she didn't have to remember everything; apparently, she has plenty of records for reference and that certainly gives the book a unique depth.

3.5/5 - A witty but sad account of a privileged childhood lacking in affection, rendered with stunning detail. I enjoyed this book, but I did find that the humor felt a little forced. The author has suitably convinced me that she has ample resources from which she was able to mine the detail and the book is interesting particularly for that glimpse into the entitled and frivolous lifestyle of a prominent American family.

Fireworks Over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff

Fireworks Over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Copyright 2010
Thomas Dunne Books - Fiction/Historical
260 pages

I just finished Fireworks Over Toccoa and, since I'm still well and truly "behind" on my reviewing, I figure I should go ahead and knock this review out while the story is fresh in my mind.

In Toccoa, Georgia, Colleen is preparing to marry. But, she feels that something is missing. How can she not feel excited about marrying Drew? He's practically perfect and he has just bought the two of them a stunning dream house that fits her desires for a home so completely it's almost creepy.

Across town, Colleen's grandmother Lily has just seen something shocking in the newspaper -- a remnant from her past. She asks Colleen to take her to see the new display in the museum at the old railroad station. There, Lily surprises the curator and Colleen by describing the meaning of two artifacts behind glass. Lily tells Colleen and the curator the story of how she came to own a crumpled piece of paper, now framed, in the first place . . . about the two days of stolen love while she waited for her husband to come home from WWII and how the crumpled paper was lost.

I won't spoil the ending by telling what happened and why, but I will say the book reminded me of The Bridges of Madison County, just a bit. And, in that way, I must say I wasn't thrilled; the whole "passion while the husband is away" thing kind of makes my skin crawl. An affair is not something I can swallow as beautiful and heart-tugging, no matter how pretty you paint it. I find the whole idea more sad than moving. And, yet, I enjoyed the book, simply because I was in the mood for an easily digestible read and Fireworks Over Toccoa fit the bill.

In general, the writing is nothing outstanding. No Post-its were used to mark lovely passages and there was nothing overly special or memorable about the story but I liked it and I don't regret reading the book, although I would not ever read it again.

3/5 - An average but palatable story of a brief love affair at the end of WWII, with a nice theme of following your heart. Unremarkable but pleasantly light reading. I would rate it PG-13 to R for some sex scenes that are only mildly graphic.

I'm going to attempt to crank out a few more reviews, while it's quiet in the house. Then, since most of the blogging world seems to have vamoosed to New York City for Book Expo America, I'm hoping that I'll find the time to visit with those who were left behind, this week. Happy Sunday!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Fiona Friday

In which Fiona becomes a raving lunatic over paper towels:

Pardon the messy floor and wall. We're preparing to put down new kitchen flooring so nobody cares if the floor gets paint-dribbled. It'll be covered by new flooring, soon enough.

The Brothers of Gwynedd by Edith Pargeter - Book 1: Sunrise in the West

The Brothers of Gwynedd by Edith Pargeter
Book 1: Sunrise in the West
Copyright 2010/First Published 1974
Sourcebooks - Historical Fiction
185 pages (Full Edition including all 4 books contains 760 pages)

I requested The Brothers of Gwynedd from Sourcebooks because I've read very little about Welsh history and felt I needed to amend that, in part because I've been to Wales briefly and have always wanted to return. The book contains a quartet of stories about the descendents of Llewelyn the Great, beginning in the 13th century and progressing forward.

The first book is entitled Sunrise in the West and takes up only 185 of the 760-page volume of all 4 books, but those are some whopping dense pages. When I first opened the book, I had a migraine and couldn't make heads or tails of the writing. It took something on the order of 5 attempts on different days to get through the first paragraph -- a lengthy paragraph which only tells who is narrating the story and his relationship to the characters.

After I managed to slog through the first page, though, things improved dramatically. The Brothers of Gynedd may be a rough read, but it's worth the effort. Samson is the narrator of the story and he is the son of a waiting-maid for the Lady Senena. Senena's husband, the Lord Griffith, is the eldest of Llewelyn the Great's sons and the rightful heir but in the 13th century, England and Wales are tentatively allied. If you know anything at all about Medieval England, you know that alliances were tricky. One never could tell whether a brother or some other ally was going to turn coat and have you slaughtered or tossed in a dungeon; but, at any rate, the Lord Griffith was illegitimate and while the Welsh considered all sons legit, the English didn't recognize "bastards" and that meant the Lord Griffith was basically shafted.

After learning the background and first twelve years of Samson's life and how it blended with that of the royals, the reader is returned to the heart of the story to find that Llewelyn has done plenty of damage, snatching up land from everyone of any consequence. When Llewelyn becomes ill and then dies, the Lord Griffith and his eldest son are considered threats to the legitimate heir and they are both imprisoned because it's the easiest way to keep them from causing trouble (not the first imprisonment for Griffith).

I've been reading historical fiction since I discovered my mother's copy of Desiree by Anne-Marie Selinko in my early teens, but only recently have begun to dip my toes into the waters of Medieval history. It is absolutely fascinating. From what little I've read, it appears that the men spent so much time either in battle or in dungeons (or, even more inconveniently, dying) that the ladies were forced to use their wits, prepare and protect their sons, make political gestures for the sake of the men and forge alliances through marriage, etc. The Lady Senena is, in this case, the mother and wife who must work to protect her family's interests at the beginning of the first tale.

I won't go any further to avoid spoilers, but what I think is important to mention is that the book becomes less difficult as one adjusts to the author's style. I'm a part of the tour and reading group that is reading the four stories together and I can hardly wait for the first discussion (hosted by Amy at Passages to the Past on Monday, May 24) to hear other impressions. The writing is deliberately "of the time" -- that's a part of what makes it difficult to read, much like Georgette Heyer's "Regency-speak" -- but it's also, at times, lyrical and breathtaking.

All the grass was thick and creaking with rime, the bushes that stood silent and motionless in the stillness rang like bells when I brushed too close, and shed great fronds of feathery ice on my hose and shoes. I drew closer, circling the rim of the ditch and avoiding the main face where the great doorway was, and the ditch was spanned. There was such a silence and stillness that I should have heard if another foot had stirred in the crisp snow, but there was nothing to hear. I was the only creature abroad.

Isn't that lovely? Sunrise in the West is dense but definitely worth the time spent reading and highly recommended. I'll continue to read this book throughout the coming months, as each of the 4 books in The Brothers of Gwynedd is read, reviewed and discussed. I'm sure anyone is welcome to the discussion, so mark your calendars and grab a copy if you'd like to join in.

A few other reviews:

Passages to the Past
Stiletto Storytime (a full list of all reviewers can be found, here, complete with links)
The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader (also contains a complete list of reviewers, with links)

Fiona Friday will be late, today, but believe me -- she will not let me forget. Nor is she going to allow me to conveniently forget the fact that we've just run out of canned cat food. I had to share my scrambled eggs with Fiona, this morning. If I hadn't, I would have left the kitchen with a kitty awkwardly attached to my pajamas (Her way of saying, "Hey! Don't forget the cat!" is to launch herself at a leg and wrap all four legs around it . . . with claws). Happy Friday!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Starlighter by Bryan Davis (sneak peek)

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:


Zondervan (March 19, 2010)

***Special thanks to Pam Mettler, Associate Director of Public Relations, ZonderKidz for sending me a review copy.***


Bryan Davis is the author of the bestselling fantasy series Dragons in Our Midst, Oracles of Fire and Echoes from the Edge. He and his wife, Susie, have seven children and live in western Tennessee where he continues to cook up his imaginative blend of fantasy and inspiration.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $9.99
Reading level: Young Adult
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (March 19, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0310718368
ISBN-13: 978-0310718369


Browse Inside

Note: I have not even cracked the cover of this book as I neglected to write the review date down on my calendar (my bad). I will review it when I've read it, of course. I have a feeling this is a book my youngest son will enjoy, so if he's read it by then, I'll also mention his thoughts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain - unabridged classic, illustrated by Robert Ingpen - Book #5 for Children's Day

I haven't managed to read Tom Sawyer, yet, but since this gorgeous new copy illustrated by Robert Ingpen is available and I adore Ingpen's illustrations, I think it's worth going ahead and mentioning it.

Sterling Publishing has a series of unabridged classics illustrated by Ingpen and they are just breathtaking. Ingpen's soft, gloriously detailed illustrations make the book inviting and the books are unabridged, so there's no skimping on the story.

You can find the book at Sterling's website (also a good excuse to peruse their catalog) and I'm sure it's available via Amazon and the other online biggies. I plan to read the book as soon as possible and, hopefully, I'll acquire some more images of the illustrations before I do. In the meantime, I can tell you I think this series is so beautifully illustrated that they're worth collecting.

This is Book #5 for Children's Day. I think I've had enough of sitting, for now, so I'll stop here. Happy Monday!

Spaceheadz by Scieszka and Prigmore - Book 4 for Children's Day

Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka
Illustrated by Shane Prigmore
Copyright 2010
Simon & Schuster - Children's (Ages 9-12)

Michael K. is new at P. S. 858, and so are two other children, so they're all stuck at the same table. Michael K. is nervous enough, just being new. But, the new kids are really, really weird. They're aliens and their job is to convince 3,400,001 children to be SPHDZ. If they don't succeed, Earth will be "turned off".

Michael K. resists. He doesn't want to be associated with those two weirdos and their hamster, but he's eventually convinced that they are, in fact, aliens. They've received TV signals from earth and, as such, communicate by spouting out advertisements.

Meanwhile, Agent Umber of the Anti-Alien Agency has been alerted to the detection of an Alien Energy Wave and is sent to investigate. Maybe if he catches an alien, he'll get to change his code name to a better color, like black or gray or tangerine.

Spaceheadz is the first in a series, so Agent Umber will undoubtedly keep bumbling along for a while, trying to catch the elusive aliens. It's possible I'm a little too old for this kind of book, but it's funny and I enjoyed it. The only thing I disliked about it (besides the fact that Spaceheadz is frequently abbreviated to texting form: SPHDZ) was the sentence fragments. There are lots and lots of fragments --to the point that they totally lose impact and become simply annoying and, at times, confusing. Again, I think that just might be because I'm getting old. I don't even text, so I'm annoyed by fragments and abbreviations.

But, I doubt that would bother most children and I am certain both of my sons would have really enjoyed this book when they were the right age.

4/5 - A nutty beginning to a series that youngsters will love, with terrific, goofy illustrations.

Spaceheadz is scheduled for release on June 22. I'm jumping the gun a bit because I still have quite a large catch-up stack to review.

This is Book #4 for Children's Day. One more to mention and then I'll stop for the day.

Diamond Jim Dandy and the Sheriff by Burell & Langdo - Book 3 for Children's Day

Diamond Jim Dandy and the Sheriff by Sarah Burell
Illustrated by Bryan Langdo
Copyright 2010
Sterling Publishing - Children's (Ages 4-8)
32 pages

Nothing exciting ever happened in Dustpan, Texas.
The Menfolk snoozed at Earl's Feed Store.
The ladies dozed at their sewing circle.
The kids drifted off in school and drooled all over their books.
The town sheriff took up babysitting just to pass the time.

So begins Diamond Jim Dandy and the Sheriff. With adorable, expressive illustrations, the town's bored inhabitants are shown snoozing. The sheriff is rocking little Idie Mae Tumbleweed when, "Holey Buckets!", along comes a rattlesnake. The sheriff tells the snake he looks friendly enough but he's not welcome in Dustpan and points the way out of town.

But, the snake is determined to stay. In the feed store, he ties himself into knots to entertain customers. The sheriff tells Idie Mae to stay put while he goes after the snake. But, the snake has moved on to the Town Meeting Hall where the ladies of the sewing circle are admiring the diamond pattern on his back and Odette Hicks has sewn a diamond onto her bloomers. The sheriff is reminded that he needs to change Idie Mae's diaper.

After the snake is found playing with children at the schoolhouse, the sheriff holds a town meeting and discovers that everyone finds the rattler entertaining. But, he still must go. Then, suddenly, someone realizes that Idie Mae has disappeared. Everyone searches for her and Mrs. Tumbleweed faints when one of them suggests that she may have crawled over to Deadman's Gulch. The entire town rushes to the gulch, where they hear rattling. Idie Mae is sitting on a ledge. Then, she begins to fall, grabs the snake's tail, and he starts to plummet with her.

The quick-thinking snake digs his fangs into a crevice in the rocks and swings Idie Mae out of the gulch and into her mother's arms. Awww. So sweet. Of course, the rattlesnake is now a hero, so the citizens name him Diamond Jim Dandy and the sheriff makes him a deputy. He's especially loved by the children.

5/5 - Adorable story, wonderful illustrations and a nice ending make this story a winner. Both my husband and I thought it was strange that the authors chose a rattlesnake to use as a hero because children need to be taught to stay away from rattlers, not cozy up to them. But, it's simple enough to repeat that lesson, each time one reads to a child and I like the book too much to take off even a tiny chunk of a point.

This is Book 3 for Children's Day. I have at least one more book to review and one that I just want to mention, for now, because it may be a few weeks before I get around to reading the book.

Little Critter: Where is My Frog by Mercer Mayer - Book 2 for Children's Day

Little Critter: Where is My Frog? (A lift-the-flap book)
by Mercer Mayer
Copyright 2010
Sterling Books - Children's (ages 4 and up)

Sterling Books sent me an unsolicited copy of Where is My Frog? and I can't even begin to tell you how excited I was to receive it! Although I no longer have small children, we still have stacks of Little Critter books from my boys' younger days. We're not willing to part with them; all of our Little Critter books are stored in the "save for future grandchildren and visitors" boxes.

In Where is My Frog, Little Critter goes on a fishing trip with his father, his dog and his frog (although Dad "didn't think taking frog was a good idea"). The moment they hop out of the car, the frog hops away and the rest of the book is devoted to a search for the missing frog. Because the book is a lift-the-flap book, the reader gets to lift the flaps to look for the frog -- inside a basket and a log, behind the leaves of a tree, under a rock, and so forth.

There are very few words, so the book would be great to read to small children who are still wiggly. I think you can go younger than a 4-year-old -- it just depends on whether or not a child has graduated from the ripping stage. Behind one of the flaps, Little Critter himself sits, giggling, while his father searches.

5/5 - A fun addition to the lovely, happy Little Critter series; highly recommended.

This is Book 2 for Children's Day! More to come . . .

Reach for the Stars by Serge Bloch - Book 1 for Children's Day

Reach for the Stars and Other Advice for Life's Journey by Serge Bloch
Copyright 2010
Sterling - Children's (ages 4 and up)
32 pages

Reach for the Stars is a lovely little inspirational book that's been released by Sterling Children's Books (and is therefore directed at youngsters) but is suitable to tuck into a gift basket or to wrap and send with a card for people in need of an upper at any time in life. I didn't realize the author has written another book with the same characters -- a very simple male figure and his dog, Roger -- until I looked up information about the book and read about Butterflies in My Stomach and Other School Hazards. I haven't seen a copy of Butterflies, etc., in person, but I'm sure it's equally fun.

In Reach for the Stars, the boy (age is indeterminate, but we'll just call him a "boy") and his dog appear as simple line drawings around or on a photographed object. Let's take the second- and third-page spread as an example. "Sometimes it will be smooth sailing," is written on the second page. There's a photo of a paper boat made from newspaper, which the boy and his dog are sitting inside, sailing on little streaks of water. A bird perches on the folded "sail" and three fish peer out from the water. On the third page, it continues with, "but other times it'll be a bumpy ride, with many forks in the road." There, the boy is driving a car down the curved tines of a fork, while his dog bounces off the roof, looking surprised but happy.

Each photograph represents a different figure of speech and the book ends with the thought that, "When you have all your ducks in a row" (yes, with ducks lined up in a row behind five little people), ". . . you'll spread your wings and fly!" The people and dog on the last page spread have bodies shaped like airplanes with feet and heads.

Reach for the Stars was released in April and I'm sorry I didn't manage to read and review it sooner because it would definitely be a cute gift to send to a new graduate, along with that boring old check most people mail to grads.

4/5 - A clever book for all ages, with an upbeat message and cute illustrations.

I have a lot of children's books I've meant to review for a while, so I'm making today a "Children's Day". This is Book 1 for Children's Day. More reviews will follow.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Fiona Friday - Strange Things That Lure Kitties (plus some random babble)

I don't believe I've ever had a cat who wrestled cereal boxes, before.

In addition to wrestling unique objects, Fiona has brought our attention to the fact that we never actually finished removing the wallpaper in our bedroom. Don't ask why we never finished and have one painted wall, one stripped and two partially stripped. Okay, you can ask, but it's a lousy story.

Now and then, Fi climbs up the guitar case and onto a cabinet, from which she reaches out and takes a bite of loose wallpaper. I'll be reading away and hear a rrrrrriiiiiip noise and there's Little Fi with a strip of wallpaper in her mouth. I think I know what our next project is going to be (after the kitchen painting and flooring, which is taking us for-freaking-ever because things like broken appliances, backed-up pipes and electrical issues kind of get in the way).

In other news: After whipping out those 5 reviews, earlier in the week, I stalled out. But, that may not be a bad thing because posting 5 reviews at once and then not posting again means I averaged out to less than 1 post per day, this week. I'll continue to do mass posting if that's what works, but I'll try to always leave some break time in between, if I do so. It's just what's working for me, these days.

Just finished reading:

A Hundred Feet Over Hell by Jim Hooper - for the Vietnam Reading Challenge. It was so good I've been reading bits aloud to my husband. It's about a group of men who flew Bird Dogs (a type of Cessna plane that flew no faster than 130 mph -- low and slow) in and near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam from 1968-69. There is a lot of exciting action and there are a few tear-inducing moments when pilots were lost, along with funny anecdotes about the goofball things the pilots did to unwind. One Hundred Feet Over Hell is just an all-around terrific read.

Recently Arrived:

Return to Paris by Colette Rossant
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert (Nick Hornby's fault - he mentioned it in Shakespeare Wrote for Money, which I will review soon) and
Ghost Hunting by Jason Hawes & Grant Wilson

All of those were acquired via Paperback Swap. Field Notes from a Catastrophe is about global warming and how it's affecting our world; you can see from my sidebar that I couldn't stand to wait and began reading it, immediately.

I also checked out a nice little stack of YA books from the library and one Christian book about how to stop being a worry wart. I'm reading one of the YA books, right now: Ruined by Paula Morris

I have not received any ARCs at all, lately. At the moment, I'm not accepting anything that will need to be reviewed before September, apart from one or two rare books I've requested that may or may not show up because I think they're first-come, first-serve and I'm poky. Kiddo is going off to college in the fall and I'm figuring I'll need some adjustment time to figure out what I'm going to do with myself, now that my stay-at-home mothering days will be over. Get a job? Travel? Go back to school? Return to painting, sewing and crafting? Spend time taking pictures of my newest baby (as if I don't do that enough, already)?

Just in front of that paw is a caterpillar. Smartyfurrypants tried to figure out how to get out the window, so I may have to share some of the other pics of Fi and the caterpillar, another time. It's been a few weeks; you can see the trees were still budding. We're in full leaf, now, and looking like a jungle.

Anyway, back to autumn. It'll be interesting, I think, to see what happens. Maybe I'll take dancing lessons. Or make daisy chains. Who knows? What do you think I should do?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice by Abigail Reynolds

The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice by Abigail Reynolds
Copyright 2010 - Originally publ'd as Pemberley by the Sea in 2008
Sourcebooks Casablanca - Romance
426 pages

"Now, before we conclude today, I'd like to take a few minutes to review common errors in experiment design and write-ups. Not only do these occur in our lab," she clicked to display the cover of a lab notebook on the overhead screen "but also in some of our finer scientific journals." She replaced it with an image of the tabloid's front page.

The class was accustomed to her tongue-in-cheek humor, so it took a moment before any of them looked closely enough to recognize her picture. She spoke over the first gasps and whispered comments. "The scientific method requires following a particular series of steps. First, you make an observation, and then you formulate the hypothesis, a possible explanation for your observation."

She clicked to show the headline of the article, "Calder Westing in Love Nest with Sexy Scientist." "Your observation must be a neutral one that avoids bias. A good scientist will, of course, define any terms that might cause confusion." She used her laser pointer to circle the words "love nest" and "sexy". "And, then there is the most fundamental error, which is to mistake the hypothesis for an explanation of a phenomenon, without performing experimental tests."

She had to raise her voice to be heard over the laughter. She flashed up the first paragraph of the story. "It simply will not do to formulate your hypothesis without a thorough review of the literature. In this case, the researcher states that the two subjects under observation have just met, whereas a quick check of a book written by Calder Westing makes mention of their acquaintance well before this date." The acknowledgments page from Pride & Presumption appeared on the screen.

--excerpt from Advanced Reader Copy of The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice (changes may have been made to the final edition).

My brother-in-law has asked me why I torment myself by reading offshoots, spin-offs, and adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and I think I can answer him, now. Because you never know when some fabulous writer like Abigail Reynolds is going to come along and turn the story on its head, alter it enough to make it her own original and you'll end up closing a book thinking, "Wow. That was really satisfying."

The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice is that kind of book. Cassie Boulton is the modern version of Elizabeth Bennet and Calder Westing III is her Mr. Darcy. But, apart from his reticence and her brisk offense at his perceived arrogance, plus the eventual happily-ever-after, the two stories are really quite different. Cassie is a marine biologist with a particular affection for salt marshes. She's intelligent, driven and not overly interested in bothering with relationships. Her past was rough and must remain hidden. The most important thing in her life is tenure at the university where she teaches, but her biggest love is her summer job researching life in the salt marshes of Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Calder Westing III is quiet and aloof. He doesn't seem to have much personality at all and, even worse, he comes from a famous political family. If there's one thing Cassie doesn't need it's a famous Republican family breathing down her liberal neck.

But, as Cassie gets to know Calder, she finds that she's strongly, almost unbearably attracted to him. "Pheremones", she tells herself. It's just an animal attraction and she, as a scientist, certainly knows better than to let hormones get the best of her. But, then they spend a passionate evening by the sea. Actually in the sea, but that's neither here nor there. After Cassie brushes Calder off, he writes a story about their short time together and eventually she realizes there's more to Calder than meets the eye.

What I loved about this book is that the author did not bind herself to the Jane Austen story. She used pieces of plot and characteristics, but in Cassie and Calder she created two distinctive characters. It's not simply an updated P & P. The characters are smart and interesting and the storyline is unique enough to not reek of "knock-off". It's a tremendously satisfying book. The only thing I might complain about is the length, but let's face it . . . I'm not a chunkster-loving type of gal. I'd chop at least 50 pages out of anything that reaches 400+. When I closed the book, I recall thinking that there really wasn't much tightening that could have been done.

Since the book is classified as romance there are some graphic sex scenes. Otherwise . . . no complaints. I loved this book and will look for more by the author. I'm not the typical romance fan, but I like the occasional reliable happily-ever-after.

4.5/5 - Only the barest skeleton of Pride & Prejudice is used as the basis of this remarkably original modern romance. Smart characters, lovely setting, excellent dialogue and rocking fine writing make this juicy romance a winner.

Whew! 5 reviews in . . . uh, 3 or 4 hours. My butt is numb. I think I'll get up and do some laundry, now. One can only stand so much time on the hindquarters.

She's So Dead to Us by Kieran Scott

She's So Dead to Us by Kieran Scott
Copyright 2010
Simon & Schuster Young Readers
275 pages

Ally Ryan's mother has no idea what she's about to put her daughter through. Orchard Hill, the home Ally grew up in until her father's hedge fund disaster, is in her past. Or, it should be. Most of the families on the Crest invested in the fund and the Ryans left in disgrace; some of Ally's lifelong friends experienced major losses and she's understandably embarrassed.

But, those who are left behind have no idea just how bad the disaster was for Ally and her family. Not only did they lose all of their own money and possessions, but Ally's father abandoned the family. Where did he go? Is he even alive? Ally has no idea where to even begin to look.

Now, back in Orchard Hill, she and her mother have moved into a condominium on the "normal" side of town. Although some of them have truly suffered, Ally's friends are still living on the Crest. Some of them still have second homes. They still eat Sunday dinners together, hang out at the country club and scoff at the "Norms". Ally's mother is a teacher at Ally's high school and she hopes she and Ally will be able to resume their friendships if not exactly the same old life. She has no idea . . .

When Ally meets Jake Graydon -- the boy who lives in her old room in the house they used to own -- and plays a quick game of basketball with him on the court her father built for her, there's definitely something magnetic going on. Jake likes her relaxed athleticism and manner. But, he's become a part of the clique to which Ally used to belong. Will he risk losing his place amongst the Cresties to date Ally? Or will her angry friends drive Ally and her mother out of town?

Oh, boy, where to begin? This book really grabbed me. As young adult books go, I thought the storyline was excellent -- a great conflict, interesting setting, good set-up for potential disaster or romantic resolution and solid writing. The pages flew. The characters are believable. Ally is a very likable character. She's athletic but not a braggart. She knows exactly how big the mess is that she's getting into, but she absolutely, utterly refuses to let people stop her from being who she is, doing what she wants to do in school and, as much as possible, she resists taking on the humiliation that justifiably belongs to her father. Most of her old friends simply assume that her father ran off with the money, at least for a time.

What I didn't like about the book has become a common complaint for me. There's an awful lot of horrendous language. I know the so-called "f-word" is not considered as taboo amongst the younger generation as it is amongst mine, but still . . . it grates. I've read plenty of excellent young adult books in which the swearing is kept to a decent minimum, if not totally absent. So, I didn't personally care for the language.

Otherwise, there was only one thing I disliked about the book -- and it's a biggie. There is no resolution, whatsoever. None. In the end, you do find out what happened to Ally's father. But, that's it. You know what happened, but nothing has been resolved. Ally's relationships are iffy, although I'm sure most people will have developed a preference amongst her love interests. The book simply ends . . . just ends.

I received the book from Simon & Schuster and happened to have a card that was tucked inside the book, so I wrote to the director of marketing of the Children's Publishing Division and asked her if the abrupt ending meant the book was the beginning of a series. She politely responded that She's So Dead to Us is the first in a trilogy. [relieved sigh]

In general, I simply do not understand this kind of no-resolution ending, but at least it's nice to know that the story will be continued, which hints that there will be a resolution to the various threads of Ally's tale, somewhere down the line. However, if I was buying the book I would honestly just wait until the entire trilogy had been released before buying or checking out. If I'd known in advance that the book simply cannot stand alone because it doesn't end, I wouldn't have even read it. On the other hand, it's a grabber with great characters and a terrific storyline. I certainly don't regret reading the book and I'd like to read the rest.

Wow, dilemmas, eh? My son's long-time friend, Alexandra, has borrowed quite a few books from me and we've talked about endings. I think we're pretty much in agreement. Each book should have some sort of resolution, but it's okay for some things to be left unresolved if there will be more books in the series. To have nothing resolved at all is unnecessarily annoying.

But, darned if we don't both end up rushing out for the next book in a series, if it's good enough. And, She's So Dead to Us is, I must say, awfully good. I was particularly fond of Ally's nutty friends, the Idiot Twins, and their crazy antics. And, as the book progresses, things happen in a realistic manner. Some of her friends soften up a bit and the Idiot Twins totally lack the angry judgmental feelings that her other friends express, early on. There's an awful lot to like about the book. I just wish authors would realize that it's not necessary to leave absolutely everything unresolved in order to tempt people into buying another book. In fact, at times a cliffhanger ending makes me so angry that I refuse to read on. I don't want to get sucked into that ploy.

A compelling enough book will still manage to lure me to the library, at the very least. In this case, I will read on.

4/5 - An excellent piece of young adult writing that suffers from the unfortunate Cliffhanger Syndrome. But, the story, writing, characters, setting and situation are all so beautifully set up that it's hard to criticize too fiercely and I hope to read the next two books in the series. This was a "can't put down" type of book.

Addendum: I neglected to look at the release date on the spine of this book and jumped the gun a tiny bit. The official release date is 5/25/10.

The Queen of Palymra by Minrose Gwin - A DNF post

The Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin
Copyright 2010
HarperPerennial - Fiction

The Queen of Palmyra is a book set in Mississippi. Often, I'm totally unable to get myself to read books set in the Deep South, simply because I can't bear to read about the heat when I'm living through it. This year has been a really cold year for us, though, so when I read a blurb about the book I thought it sounded like a good story and I figured I could handle reading about Mississippi, for once.

Here I defer to the cover blurb because I didn't get far; I'll tell you why, in a minute:

Florence Irene Forrest lives in Millwood, a segretated town like any other in the South in 1963. Florence's father is a burial insurance salesman with dark secrets. Her mother is stuck in a marriage far from her educated, liberal upbringing and makes secret trips to the local bootlegger.

This leaves Florence with her grandparents' longtime maid, Zenie, named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. As Florence spends time in Zenie's home, she sees how race truly divides her town, but nothing prepares her for what happens with the arrival of Zenie's niece, the vibrant college student Eva Greene. Soon Florence, who has moved fluidly between two families, between two races, finds herself stuck in the middle, a witness to the brutality and the truth of her times, in Minrose Gwin's astonishing and moving novel.

Okay, so . . . I made it to page 38. At that point, Florence was still at home. We'd been introduced to her mother's interesting bootlegging habit and her father's dark secrets, which center around a mahogany box crafted by his grandfather. What's inside the box? Doggone it. I may never know. I was finding the book engaging in many ways and the dialogue is absolutely spot-on. There's no doubt Minrose Gwin is familiar with Mississippi.

So, what was the problem? In one word: roaches. I can't stand to look at the word, so just highlight it to see what I said, okay? The author's writing is heavy on similes and I must admit it is a bit overdone, but I was fine with it except for the fact that she kept mentioning roaches -- both the reality of them (and, believe me, they're just a fact of life in Mississippi) and nasty bug similes.

We call them "monsters" in this house because even uttering the word can give me nightmares, so that's what I'm going to call them, from now on. At one point, I told myself that I was going to quit if the author mentioned "monsters" one more time, before page 50. She'd mentioned them 3 times, by that point. I overruled myself because I was enjoying the story, but when I hit 6 mentions in 38 pages, I said, "That's it," and closed the book.

I hated to quit, but that's one thing I just cannot read about. Two or three mentions are pretty much the limit. Seriously, nightmares aren't worth it. I asked around to see what other people thought and Softdrink said there is a graphic scene "with monsters" (she nicely took up my wording) later in the book. If you can handle reading repeated similes and references to "monsters" and like reading about the Deep South in the 1960s, this might be the book for you. I really did hate to give up on it because I liked the atmosphere and I was curious what was going to happen, what was in that mahogany box, etc. But, I work hard to keep bugs out of my life; that's what the bug guy is for. I won't be giving this book a second go.

Faustine by Emma Tennant

Faustine by Emma Tennant
Copyright 1992
Faber & Faber - Fiction
140 pages

The night I arrived in England - the night of 20 June - was as unexpected in its outcome as the afternoon had been, my early half-acknowledged memories of the place becoming quickly overlaid by the contrived memories of a woman who was a monster, whether she was alive or dead. And so this tentative sense of déjà vu was cancelled, making a mockery of my journey, reminding me yet again, if I needed reminding, that my childhood was well and truly buried and that wherever I might choose to look for myself, I would find only evidence of another life.

--p. 27 of Faustine (a randomly chosen paragraph)

That's a partial photo of my battered copy of Faustine, at right. I bought my copy at a salvage store and, in case you're interested, the book stock that arrived at the salvage store, that year in the 1990's, was chiefly responsible for the beginnings of my sizable personal library. When the healthiest books salvaged from a fire in a bookstore arrived, they were marked 60% off the retail price. They then went to 70%, 80%, 90%, 95% and finally . . . 10 cents per book or $1.00 per bag. I probably ended up buying 4-500 books. Many of them have been sitting unread for years. Plenty of others have introduced me to some very fine writers, including Roddy Doyle and Paul Auster.

A discussion with Mark on Twitter (<----That's a link to his blog) about Robert Nye's version of Faust and various other topics, including sheep, scenery, and the dangers of used-book warehouses led me to pull Faustine off my shelf.

I haven't read Faust in any other form, but after finishing the book I did dash over to Wikipedia to compare notes and Faustine is similar to the German legend but instead involves a female who sold her soul to the devil. There is no character named "Faustine". Instead, the book begins with Ella, who is living in Melbourne, Australia, with her aunt and uncle. Ella's lived in Melbourne for many years. Her mother has ceased to visit her and her grandmother has stopped sending gifts. Ella has flashbacks from her childhood in England and seeks to know what happened. Why did her mother, Anna, leave her? Who was the man she recalls pushing her pram? What happened to her grandmother, Muriel?

After Aunt Maureen lets it slip where her grandmother might be living, Ella packs up and travels to England to search for answers. She ends up at an estate that is as much a shrine to the legendary Lisa Crane (entrepreneur and beauty who used to hang out with such famous people as Andy Warhol) and a lady by the name of Jasmine -- formerly Grandmother Muriel's best friend.

I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just stop right there and not reveal anything more about who sold her soul and why. At only 140 pages, Faustine is a quick but very involving read. The author skilfully revealed the story of Ella's mother and grandmother and their encounter with the devil (whose name I won't reveal), little by little. Had it been much longer, I think Faustine would have been the kind of book that makes you pull your hair and scream, "Just tell us what happened!" but it's not. Faustine is really pretty amazing in its pacing -- just enough is revealed that you don't want to slug the author. I closed the book feeling satisfied.

4/5 - A beautifully-written retelling of the German legend with generally yucky characters. It's hard to like anyone at all in the book, but I thought the writing was so engrossing and the craftsmanship so awesome that it would be wrong to take more than a point off for a bunch of icky characters. It's a very sad story about someone selling her soul to the devil, after all, so I suppose you have to expect a good bit of negativity.

Still more to come. I'll keep attempting to crank out reviews until I lose my steam.

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous
Copyright 2010
HarperPerennial - Fiction/General
356 pages + 16 pages of extra material about the author and her experiences in Japan

From the beginning, loyalties have been clear. We both love Amana but she belongs to Carolyn, who knows just how to pet her, how to play with her, when to pick her up, and when to leave her alone. She honors her feline whims and is rewarded with canine loyalty. [. . . ]

"The gomi froze," Carolyn says, as she sets the cat down and peers into the garbage can in front of our house. Sure enough, water has dripped from the roof and filled the can, melted and frozen solid, forming a giant cube of ice sealing in the garbage. She pushes the can onto its side and the cube slides heavily to the pavement. The setting sun, faint as a headlight pushing through fog, illuminates the cylinder of yellow-veined ice. Like scraps of insects trapped in amber, I see a wine bottle, a milk carton, kibble, and cigarette butts.

"It's a trashsicle," I say.

"An unsorted trashsicle," she says, looking at me from beneath one arched brow.

If You Follow Me is the story of a 22-year-old named Marina. After her father's suicide, Marina found comfort from a college friend named Carolyn and ended up falling for her (Oh, yeah - WARNING: Lesbian characters). Both are seeking escape in some form and Carolyn comes up with the solution. She applies to teach English in Japan for a year. Marina decides to do the same and they end up in Shika, a very small town on the Noto Peninsula. They move into a traditional Japanese home and immediately begin having difficulties -- with trash, also known as "gomi", which must be sorted to very specific rules and deposited at the correct place on the right day or the neighbors become very irritable, and with their relationship.

While Carolyn and their relationship is important to the story, If You Follow Me is really Marina's story. It's about the pain that she still hasn't figured out how to face and her frustrated attempts to forge an identity.

I read just one review (and the comments that followed) when I was seeking out an image and I found that a lot of people found the book negative because of suicide, the not-so-harmonious lesbian relationship, the heavy emphasis on trash and frustrating characters.

Fortunately, while I think all of those are valid concerns, none of that bothered me. What really bothered me was the attitude toward the relationship; Carolyn wanted to keep it open and had no interest in settling down permanently with one life partner. That's something I simply can't understand or relate to, a very negative way to go into a relationship of any kind. It's like saying, "We're doomed," from the outset.

The trash was, as I saw it, an illustration of conformity. Marina is a person who fights rules so she has to fight her own yearning to break the rules, to just toss out her trash as she pleases in the same way she fights conforming to certain societal standards -- and, then, has to fight to fit in when she needs to. Internally, there's a big wrestling match going on. Marina has absolutely no idea how to handle her father's death and running far away is at least partially symbolic of her fear to face his death and just walk through the grief.

What I liked about the book was that there was a hint of heterosexual romance with both women. I guess they weren't really homo- so much as bi-sexual. Seriously, much as I try to be accepting, I just don't like to read about gay romance; and, I don't like graphic sex, period. I do not believe sex scenes forward a plot. But, I kept reading at least in part because I was hoping Marina would end up with Miyoshi-sensei, her male supervisor and by far my favorite character. I found that I was very fond of several of the secondary characters.

I loved the setting. I like learning from a book and I thought I learned a little bit about the Japanese way of life. The fact that Marina's father committed suicide didn't bother me, but I can see why people who've experienced the suicide of someone close might want to avoid the book and the replaying of emotions. I have the same problem when cancer heavily figures into a book's plot. I don't want to read about it, period. I've been through it too much, already. It's not entertaining.

What I disliked was the fact that Marina and Carolyn were pretty negative people and they have a problem with a really nasty young neighbor. I would have liked some funny, upbeat scenes that didn't involve trash -- although, admittedly, I got a little bit of a kick out of the picky trash-sorting rules and I absolutely loved the letters Miyoshi wrote to Marina whenever she did something wrong.

3/5 - I liked this book, but I didn't love it. The ending is upbeat and pleasant, but you have to wade through a lot of pain, difficulty with students (including some way-too-graphic instruction about sex education) and a very uncomfortable relationship. There is also one terribly gross roach-invasion scene that I think could have been left out entirely. The author's writing --purely looking at it from a standpoint of skill-- is excellent, but I'd like to see a cleaner, more positive book from her. If you can't bear reading about suicide and the emotional fallout, you might want to avoid this book.

More reviews are coming . . . wish I could think faster. I spend an awful lot of time crafting reviews. "Hammering them out" is a bit of a misnomer.