Sunday, December 26, 2010

I did it!

According to my "read" list on http://www.shelfari.com/, I have achieved my goal of reading as many books this year as I did last year. And just what is the magic number? (drum roll please.....)

86.

Yep, that's right - I've read eighty-six books this year. YES! I am very impressed with myself. That averages out to 1.65 books every week of the 52 weeks this year. And I still have a few days left, meaning I could possibly surpass my goal.

Why get so excited about this? Well, there are a lot of studies/articles out there stating that people don't read nearly as much as they used to, especially with all the technology taking up our time (computers, cell phones, gaming, etc). And let's face it, since I do work in a library, it's good publicity for the employees to be reading. I also think it's good to have goals, and while I do try to set other goals each year, this is the one that I seem to excel at (probably because I love to read so much).

At one point, I was hoping to read 200 books in a single year, which of course, I never did. Once I started crunching the numbers, I realized that's probably never going to happen; that's almost 4 books a week, every week, for 52 weeks. WOW! If I was retired, I might be able to do it, but since I do still have to work for a living (and since I'm lucky enough to have a job paying my bills), I guess my current speed isn't too bad. Maybe next year I'll shoot for an even 100 titles.

Happy Reading in 2011!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"The Heart of Christmas" by Mary Balough, Nicola Cornick, and Courtney Milan

'Tis The Season for Falling in Love...

A Handful of Gold: a love story from "New York Times" bestselling author Mary Balough
Not only is Julian Dare dashing and wealthy, but he's the heir to an earldom. So what do you get a man who has everything? Innocent and comely Verity Ewing plans on giving Julian her heart - the most precious gift of all.

The Season For Suitors: a captivating romance from Nicola Cornick
After some close encounters with rakes in which she was nearly compromised, heiress Clara Davenport realizes that she needs some expert advice. And who better for the job than Sebastian Fleet, the most notorious rake in town? But the tutelage doesn't go quite as planned, as both Sebastian and Clara find it difficult to remain objective when it comes to lessons of the heart!

This Wicked Gift: an original romance from Courtney Milan
Lavinia Spencer has been saving her hard-earned pennies to provide her family with Christmas dinner. Days before the holiday, her brother is swindled, leaving them owing more than they can ever repay. Until a mysterious benefactor offers to settle the debt. Innocent Lavinia is stunned by what the dashing William White wants in return. Will she exchange a wicked gift for her family's fortune?

OK, I can hear the questions already.... "She read this crap?" "Is she on drugs?" "What was she thinking?" why would I assume that my loyal readers would think I've lost my mind? Well, this is not the sort of book I normally read, I'll grant you that. This is classified as "historical romance" - not usually my cup of tea. No, I'm not on drugs, although this sort of acted like one (and I mean that in the best possible way). And what I was thinking was this: I needed a break from my usual bibliographic fare, and this seemed to be just the thing. A collection of three short stories, all romances set in 17th century England, and all pretty much pure fluff. Consider it a palate cleanser of sorts....

I've never read anything by any of the authors, although I have quite a few library patrons who love Mary Balogh. Her story was all right, nothing new, and when the overturned coach produces not only a Reverend with two boys but his very, very pregnant wife, I knew pretty much exactly where the tale was headed. Still, it's a nice little romance. Nicola Cornick's story was also OK, again a nice romance, although it turns out the two main characters have a bit of history that wasn't alluded to in the blurb on the back of the book.

That brings us to Courtney Milan's story, which was quite a surprise. I think I enjoyed this one the most because none of the characters was a Lord or a Lady; the beautiful heroine works in her family's "lending library" after the death of her mother and grave illness of her father, while the handsome hero works as an accountant at a local firm. Lavinia struck me as more of a modern heroine, in control of her future, while William is the more distraught character, having been "robbed" of a promised inheritance from an old business partner of his father's. It was a wonderful story, and I might actually look for something else by the author.

So why would I read this sort of thing? Call it the spirit of the season, but I just wanted a little Christmas romance to take my mind off the incredibly cold weather we're having here in North Carolina. Plus it was the only thing that seemed to fit the bill at the last minute and was sitting on the shelves of my branch!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Work = Fun?

I had a conversation while at work yesterday that I just can't get out of my head. Thought I'd post an entry about it and ask all of you for your opinions (thus the cute little sign to the left).

The topic turned to work, and we were discussing how many people are out of work right now, how people are getting by, etc. Eventually the conversation turned to a mutual friend who will potentially be downsized out of an existing position and what we would do in such a situation. I said it would be a good opportunity to look at all the plusses and minuses of the current position, and that I knew that quite often, this person wasn't happy in that current position, so maybe this was a sign to look for something somewhere else. The other person in this conversation immediately responded "So what if they're not happy? Work isn't about having fun, it's about collecting a paycheck".

Wow.

Since that talk, I've been thinking about it off and on. Why? Well, I'm one of those people that truly believes that if you have the chance, do something you love when it comes to "work"; you spend way too many hours in your lifetime working to be miserable at your job. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that work should be fun, but I think it's certainly a good idea to try to pick a job where work can be fun.

I know, it's "work" - not "leisure" (or "play" or whatever else you want to call it). But should it really just be all about collecting a paycheck, about being able to pay your bills? Am I missing something by looking at it the way I do? No, I don't always have fun at my job - I'll be the first to admit it. But I do enjoy my work the majority of the time that I'm doing it, and I think that's important. Now, having said all this, let me be clear about something else: I believe that any job is what you make of it. What I mean by that is that if you're determined to find things about your job to like, you're going to do just fine. If all you can do is concentrate on all the things you hate about your job, well..... yeah, you're going to be the person that I don't want to work with!

It's definitely been food for thought, this idea of what work is. So now I pass the question along to you. Is work really just about the money? Or is it something more? What is it to you personally, and what do you think others think?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Full Dark, No Stars" by Stephen King

"I believe there is another man inside every man, a stranger..." writes Wilfred Leland James in the early pages of the riveting confession that makes up "1922", the first in this pitch-black quartet of mesmerizing tales from Stephen King. For James, that stranger is awakened when his wife, Arlette, proposes selling off the family homestead and moving to Omaha, setting in motion a gruesome train of murder and madness. In "Big Driver", a cozy-mystery writer names Tess encounters the stranger along a back road in Massachusetts when she takes a shortcut home after a book-club engagement. Violated and left for dead, Tess plots a revenge that will bring her face-to-face with another stranger: the one inside herself. "Fair Extension", the shortest of these tales, is perhaps the nastiest and certainly the funniest. Making a deal with the devil not only saves Dave Streeter from a fatal cancer, but provides rich recompense for a lifetime of resentment. When her husband of more than twenty years is away on one of his business trips, Darcy Anderson looks for batteries in the garage. Her toe knocks up against a box under a worktable and she discovers the stranger inside her husband. It's a horrifying discovery, rendered with bristling intensity, and it definitively ends a good marriage.

It's always good news when King puts out short fiction; my husband and I agree that there's probably not another author currently writing that does the short stuff better than King. But when he writes novellas - that's when you're really in for a treat. The novella form seems to give him the best of both worlds - long enough to really flesh out his characters but short enough to keep the writing nice and tight (and making it impossible to get long-winded, a common complaint from some about his works).

My feelings on this book are mixed. All four stories are good, but I was a bit dismayed at how dark two of them are. Even worse, I skipped around and read those two tales back-to-back, which left me wondering if I would actually finish this book. And trust me, readers, when I say "dark", I mean exactly that: gut-wrenching, dismal, no light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, depressing as hell sort of dark. "1922" starts off the collection, and that's the first story I tackled. "Wilf" James has been married to Arlette for 14 years or so, producing one son, Henry "Hank" Freeman James. They own a small family farm that has been in Wilf's family for generations, around 80 acres or so. When her father dies, Arlette is left 100 acres of good farmland; however, being the sort of woman she is (not a farmer's wife, that's for sure), Arlette wants to sell the land to a hog farm and move to "the big city" - forever leaving behind the dirty work that makes up the backbone Wilf's days. He doesn't want to sell it, of course, but it's not his decision to make; the land was left to Arlette and her only. Wilf sees only one way out of this predicament, and it means no more Arlette in his life. But getting what he wants will be messy, and tragic, and will ultimately drive him mad.

Hoping for something a bit lighter, I turned to the shortest of the four works, "Fair Extension". My husband said he really liked this story, so I thought I would, too. Well, you can't agree on everything, can you? Dave Streeter has cancer and not long to live. Late one evening, when the road is empty of traffic, he sees one last vendor on the Extension, a stretch of road typically brimming with roadside deals. Not so much during the dinner hour, though. Streeter makes a deal with Mr. Elvid (knowing full well who he's really talking to) and gets a "fair extension" on his life, 15 years for sure, possibly even 20. But as it has to be a "fair" swap, the bad luck/mojo/juju has to go somewhere, or more exactly, to someone. Dave picks his best friend from grade school, the guy who stole his girl years ago, and the deal is done. I had a hard time with this one because the two now-grown men are supposed to still be friends, and what happens to Dave's "friend" is worse than just bad luck. The fact that Dave gets happier and happier as his friend's life spirals further and further out of control.... well, that's just hard to read about. I wondered what my husband saw in this story that he liked so much (and worried about that same thing a bit, if I can be honest), as well as why the book jacket blurb called it "the funniest". I certainly didn't find it funny, and I wondered which of the remaining two to tackle next, fearing that I might just want to leave the book alone after these two grim tales.

Luckily, I opted for "Big Driver". Yes, it's a grim tale, but it's the sort of grimness that I expect from King, and it has a point. Tess is a meek, mild-mannered 30-something writer of cozy mysteries starring a group of little old ladies; the series is enjoyed by pretty much the same demographic. She'll never get rich from her books, but they do sell enough to let her live comfortably. Her real money, her "retirement" fund, comes from the 12 speaking engagements she does every year, never more than driving distance from her cozy home where she lives with her cat Fritzy. She'll travel far enough to occasionally need a hotel for the evening, but never enough that she's away more than one night. One day she receives an last-minute invitation for one of these engagements; their original guest, Janet Evanovich, had to cancel and would she be so kind as to fill in, and they can offer her a bit more than her usual fee, and they'd be ever so grateful if she'd say yes. The gig is fairly close by, and she says yes. When she's done her job, Ramona Norville, the local librarian and head of the book club, suggests a shortcut to Tess, one that will save her at least 10 miles and some time. Tess loves a good shortcut, and programs the new route into Tom, her TomTom GPS. Little does she know what lies in wait for her down the road.... This is a female-empowerment story, done King's way, and yes, this one more than made up for the first two stories.

King finishes things off with "A Good Marriage" and so did I. Darcy and Bob Anderson have been married for 27 years. It hasn't been an exciting coupling, but it's been a good, solid union. Bob is an accountant and coin-collector; Darcy is a home-maker. They met when Bob's accounting firm was hired to do the books for the auto dealership where Darcy worked as a secretary. A comfortable existence with two children, a son and a daughter. A loving relationship built on the little details of every-day married life. A marriage built on a lie, as it turns out, one that Darcy literally stumbles upon when she heads out to get some batteries for the TV remote control during one of Bob's business trips. A gruesome lie, a lie of such staggering proportions that a wife will question everything she's ever known, about her life, her husband.... and herself. This one was a doozie, but gosh, it was good. It certainly does bring up the question can you ever really know the one you love? Really?

Overall, I still liked this offering from King. It might have gone better if I'd read the stories in order, thus having dark, less-dark, dark, less-dark. I see where King gets the title, too - there's not much light here. But it's still a treat for the Constant Reader, and King promises in his afterward to take us back into the sunshine next time.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Twin Peaks homage

The TV show "Psych" just did an episode that was an homage to "Twin Peaks", David Lynch's wild and wonderful show back from the early 90s. I watched it not because I'm a fan of "Psych" (I'm not) but because I absolutely loved Twin Peaks and was one of the handful of faithful watchers. Sadly, Lynch's vision was just a bit too weird for "normal" prime-time programming, and only ran two years. There was a movie, eventually, although I wasn't impressed with it, and there was some merchandise, and yes, there was a book that went with the series: "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer", written by Jennifer Lynch, David's daughter. A TV tie-in book is nothing new but this was the first time I'd ever experienced anything like it. And Jennifer's book did offer a few insights, but really, it just added to the whole Peaks vibe.

Peaks used to be on Thursday nights (probably at 9 pm, but honestly, I can't remember that far back), and I loved to get into the show. I didn't go to a bar or a TP party, but I did have cherry pie at least one episode a month, and if one of my friends was coming over to watch, I'd even make coffee (I'm a tea drinker myself). All the lights would be off, and we'd dissect the episode after it aired, trying to figure out who Bob was, who was going to go off the deep end next, who would sleep with whom, etc. It's funny now to think about how involved I was with such a short-lived series, but obviously it can and does happen; look at all the rabid fans of shows like "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives".

So how did the producers/director of "Psych" do? I'd say they were spot-on, and there were quite a few things that helped them out. First, they were able to snag a good handful of the original cast members of Twin Peaks for their episode, including such biggies as Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Dana Ashbrook (who has gone almost completely gray, but is still uber-handsome!), Robin Lively, Lenny von Dohlen and Ray Wise. They also had a lot of the original character types, including the strange guy who also loved Laura... I mean, Paula...the Native American deputy, the odd townsfolk, even The Log Lady. And after doing a bit of digging on Internet Movie Database, it turns out the actress who played The Log Lady on TP played the same character on this episode, although now she's billed as "Woman with Wood". How funny is that? There wasn't anything like Bob in this episode, which I think was smart of them - stay away from the elements that caused the downfall of the original series. But there was pie - cinnamon pie this time - and a hot beverage to go with it, cider (no coffee). They had a diner, a library (loved Sherilyn Fenn as the "hot" librarian!), and of course, the scenery that Peaks used to perfection. Overall, I thought it was nicely done, and it brought back a lot of fond memories.

So here's my question to you fans: how do you feel about such TV shows? Do you prefer to remember the original and leave the "new" stuff for others? Do you watch and compare? Do you watch the homage and just enjoy it for what it is? And how about those TV tie-in books - how do you feel about those? Are they worth picking up? Or do you think they blur the lines between the arts too much? Should there be more interactive options for books? Let me know what you think!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Changes

If you've just tuned in today to my blog, you'll notice it looks a bit different. I'd been thinking about changing the template for a while, and my little sis has been thinking along the same lines. When I checked in on her blog last night, she'd been playing around with her background/template too! I took it as a sign from above that it was time for a change....

And as always, I plan to change the content of the blog a bit, too. I know I haven't been providing reviews nearly as often as you would like, for which I apologize. Nor did I keep up on my intent to let you know what was going to be available each month. Bad blogger!

In an attempt to at least keep you entertained, I do plan to try to blog every day. It might not be a review or news about a new work, but it will still (hopefully) pertain to books and the world of reading. Might be very, very short, but I suppose a new entry every day, no matter how small, would be better than waiting a month or longer to hear from yours truly!

Please let me know what you think of the new look, and what you would like to see in the content. After all, I write this for you, not for myself. Keep on reading!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"How to Die in the Outdoors: 110 Grisly Ways to Croak" by Buck Tilton

By living a normal, boring life, you have an excellent chance of becoming yet another statistic on the list of leading causes of death. Of course, the process can be accelerated by forgoing exercise, eating lots of fat, smoking, drinking heavily (not water), and worrying. Buck Tilton prefers to ponder the alternatives. In How to Die in the Outdoors, he presents 110 far more interesting and unique ways to perish, from such intriguing scenarios as snake bite, elephant foot, walrus tusk, and rhino horn. In a straightforward style, with easy-to-understand terms and all laced with his trademark wit, Tilton describes not only the details of how you can die - some intriguingly gory, yet all based (more or less) on facts - but also ways to avoid death should a life-threatening situation arise before you're ready to leave this world for whatever afterlife there might be.

This book reminds me of the "Worst-Case Scenario Survival" series written by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. Those brilliant little books gave us all sorts of ways to survive different "worst-case" scenarios, such as "life", "college", "travel", etc. This book by Tilton isn't quite as humorous as that series, but it's got some interesting information.

The blurb on the back of the book is correct in that the information is presented in a very-easy-to-understand formula. In fact, I found myself skipping over some of the beginning basic info on each of the critters/poisons/etc that can kill you and just getting into the meat of the thing, also known as the "Why You Die" section. The descriptions in some cases are very grisly (such as being stomped by an elephant), while others proved to be quite informative. For example, in the section "Fooled by Frozen Water", Tilton explains that most people think you die from hypothermia after falling through thin ice, such as the type found on a lake or river during early winter. But that's not how you meet your end - you die by drowning. What happens is the sudden fall catches you off guard, and as you fall into the frigid water, you inhale... a mouthful of water. And it doesn't take much water to drown. Hypothermia would typically take almost thirty minutes to kill a person, and most of the people who choose to walk out on a not-fully-frozen-lake drown minutes after they fall through the thin ice. Good to know!

I also like the small ending codas on each section, also known as "How to Live". Most of the scenarios involve getting immediate medical attention, especially for the venomous bites of snakes, spiders, scorpions and other such creepy-crawlies. Tilton often advises the reader to stay away from the danger, such as raging rhinos and cranky crocodiles. But if you can't stay away, sometimes you just need to stand still; a lot of the bigger animals have poor eyesight and might not realize you're "food" if you stand statue-still. And don't run away - a lot of the animals find that very enticing and will give chase.

It's a fun little book, and it certainly gives one food for thought, if you'll pardon the pun. I recommend it for light weekend reading.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Blockade Billy" by Stephen King

Even the most diehard baseball fans don't know the true story of William "Blockade Billy" Blakely. He may have been the greatest player the game has ever seen, but today no one remembers his name. He was the first - and only - player to have his existence completely removed from the record books. Even his team is long forgotten, barely a footnote in the game's history. Every effort was made to erase any evidence that William Blakely played professional baseball, and with good reason. Blockade Billy had a secret darker than any pill or injection that might cause a scandal in sports today. His secret was much, much worse... and only Stephen King, the most gifted storyteller of our age, will be able to reveal the truth to the world, once and for all.

This is a special hardcover edition by Cemetery Dance of this never-before-published novella by King. Now, normally I really enjoy King's short works. This wasn't my favorite, though, and I think it's simply because of the subject matter - baseball. Not a sport I personally play or enjoy.

The style is nice, though, with the former equipment manager of the New Jersey Titans narrating to "Mr. King" as if King is a reporter. George Grantham ("Granny" to the players) has seen a lot in his time, but nothing like that summer in the 1950s when William Blockade was called up from the Iowa Cornhuskers after two accidents take the Titans' catchers out the game. Billy is a bit of an odd duck, talking to himself under his breath and parroting back whatever he's told. But the kid can catch, and he can hit - making him a double threat. Billy becomes good friends with Danny Dusen, the Titans' pitcher who is nearing 200 home runs. But there's definitely something not right about Billy, something spooky....

As I said, this is a well-written novella, but just not my cup of tea due to the fact that it's about baseball. I'm not very schooled on all the rules, and some of the lingo didn't make much sense to me. I got the gist of the story, though, and thankfully, it's pretty short. I did like the end, the King twist that explains what's off about Billy - classic King. My real beef with this is the price. If you run out and purchase this very small 112 page book, it will cost you $25 retail. Um, excuse me? That's the typical price for a full novel! Instead, look for it at your local library or search for the 144 page edition that's about $10 less. Unless you're a collector of Stephen King's work, in which case you'll probably want this particular Cemetery Dance version.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Silver Borne" by Patricia Briggs

Mercy Thompson, car mechanic and shape-shifter, never knows what the day - or night - may bring in a world where "witches, vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters live beside ordinary people" (Booklist). But she is about to learn that while some secrets are dangerous, those who seek them are just plain deadly... Mercy is smart enough to realize that when it comes to the magical fae, the less you know, the better. But you can't always get what you want. When she attempts to return a powerful fae book she previously borrowed in an act of desperation, she finds the bookstore locked up and closed down. It seems the book contains secrets - and the fae will do just about anything to keep it out of the wrong hands. And if that doesn't take enough of Mercy's attention, her friend Samuel is struggling with his wolf side - leaving Mercy to cover for him lest his own father declare Samuel's life forfeit. All in all, Mercy has had better days. And if she isn't careful, she may not have many more...

There's not much I can say about this that won't start giving things away, so I'll try to stay away from the plot. The blurb on the jacket pretty much does my work for me, anyway. Here's what I will tell you: Briggs scores again with this installment of her Mercy Thompson series. I've loved these from the start, and I still love them now. If you keep up with my reviews, you know that I read a lot of series in this vein, so for an author to keep me wanting them, that's saying a lot.

Briggs consistently provides excellent character development, well-written plots, and great action. There's just enough romance/sexual tension to keep one happy, and I've gotten to the point where I appreciate the subtle touch that one can find in "urban fantasy" or whatever you want to call it. I used to have find my wolves and vamps in the Romance section, but those are a dime a dozen now (and honestly, a lot of the books are just plain awful). It's so nice to have good - no, great - authors writing what I like to read without all the bodice-ripping fanfare!

If you enjoy a good story about a woman finding her way in the world, falling in love with a handsome man, and getting comfortable in a profession of her choosing, then Briggs and Mercy are a good bet. Yes, Mercy is a shape-shifter, and yes, her man is the Alpha of a werewolf pack, and yes, she just happens to be a mechanic, but no one said life is perfect.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"Grave Humor" by M. T. Coffin

It's almost embarrassing to say I "read" this book; it took me all of about 10 minutes to flip through the whole thing. But it provided me with some awesome laughs, and with the world the way it is these days, one needs to laugh as often as one can.

The book operates on a very simple principle. On the left page you see a photo of a tombstone with the name of the dearly departed. On the right page is some sort of humorous comment about said tombstone. Sometimes there's only one headstone and the comment is about the name, or the epitaph if the deceased chose to have one done. Other times there's more than one headstone and the comment page points out how well they go together, such as the two headstones in the same cemetery mere feet apart that read "Maxwell" and "House". The comment page? "Dead to the last drop".

Hey, I never said it was intellectual humor!

There are the odd headstones, too, the ones that are shaped like something from the person's occupation during life and some "infamous" last words. Overall, it's a funny and cute book, but I'm not sure I'd actually pay the almost $11 retail suggested on the back. It would make a great gift for the person in your life with a warped sense of humor, or perhaps if you exchange Halloween gifts...

Monday, November 15, 2010

"I'm Dreaming of a Black Christmas" by Lewis Black

Let's get one thing clear from the very start: Lewis Black is Jewish. That's right, the man is a Jew. Black points out this very fact during a lunch with his editor when the man starts asking about plans for Black's next book. His editor suggests a Christmas book, since they're all the rage now. Black spouts off his history (Jewish, never celebrated Christmas, etc), only to have his editor pull out the big guns; Glenn Beck wrote a Christmas book. Oh Lord, that's like waving a red flag in front of the proverbial bull.

Let the festivities begin!

The book follows Black and his angst as the holiday approaches; we start at Thanksgiving. Lewis is snug on the beach in a nice foreign locale, only to have his bliss interrupted by a screaming child (and then many screaming children). He rants a bit about the fact that he travels out of the country to escape the familial insanity of Turkey Day, only to have it now intrude upon him; he also complains about people that insist on bringing small children, those really too young to understand/enjoy the trip, on such a foreign holiday. (Couldn't agree with him more, like taking very tiny tots to Disney World - they'll just get scared by the "characters" and tired way too fast - wait until they're at least 5 yrs old or so)

After giving up on his blissful beach bask, Black arrives back in the U.S.A. to the full onslaught of Christmas craziness - the sales, the carols, the crass commercialism, etc. Then the big day itself arrives - Christmas. Lewis travels to two different friends houses for dinner and realizes what the "true" meaning of Christmas is (or should be): love, the love of your family and friends (and no, those two categories are not always interchangeable). Of course he eats way too much, and he doesn't buy presents for the children as he's never sure what to get them (earning him some nasty sighs); he finally piles himself into a cab late in the evening after much good food and even better red wine and takes his bloated self home, only 365-ish days left before he'll have to do it all over again.

This is not your typical holiday fare. It's an irreverent look at a holiday that has been grossly commercialized in our time. But for someone who isn't Christian, who doesn't believe in "the reason for the season", I think Black actually gets it better than most. For example, he goes on a small tirade about the phrase "Merry Christmas", asking when it became such a horrible thing to utter to one another, why it's so offensive to some this time of year. I couldn't agree with him more! I'm not what one would call a person of great faith, but I say "Merry Christmas" to people anyway - and I'm not offended when they say it to me.

Black also reflects very seriously on the idea of family, or rather, his lack of one. He was very briefly married, has never had children (definitely need to read this to get the full scoop), and at this "wonderful" time of the year, he finds himself questioning his life - should he have found someone to spend his life with? Should he have had children (it's too late now, he claims, as he doesn't want to be the "grandpa" watching his kid play ball). Does he donate enough to charity, does he donate to the right charities, and can he donate enough to offset his behavior (drinking, gluttony, etc)? Can a bitter, neurotic, possibly crazy Jew play Santa Claus convincingly? Better yet, should he? There are lots of laughs here, but Black also does some serious reflection on his life, and how we should be living our own.

The book closes with a sort of postscript chapter about Black's invitation to tour with the USO, entertaining our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a beautiful way to end the book, even though it has nothing to do with Christmas. Yes, Virginia, a Jew really can teach us a lot about the holiday. Pick this up for a break from the saccharine offerings that are usually found in your local bookstore/library during the holiday - you need a good laugh to get you through the season!

Friday, November 12, 2010

"Buy Back" by Brian Wiprud

I do believe Wiprud just keeps getting better. I was very impressed with his previous book, "Feelers", and "Buy Back" is another gem. This time we get an inside track on the world of art theft and forgery, including lots of insider terms (nicely described and worked into the story by the author).

Tommy Davin certainly looks like he could be a criminal: standing six-foot-six and weighing in at 270 lbs, he's an imposing figure. And while he bills himself as an "insurance investigator", he's really working on the fringes of what could be considered legal; his job is more recovery of the stolen works so that the insurance company doesn't have to pay out the claim, and he's given fairly free rein to get the art back in any manner he sees fit to use. Despite his vocation, he's actually a pretty nice guy, one who refuses to carry a gun and uses tantric breathing to calm himself during stressful moments.

Unfortunately for Tommy, he's also a sucker for the wrong woman. His ex-girlfriend has flown the coop, leaving him with her $15,000 debt to a local loan shark - and her four cats, dubbed the Fuzz Face Four by Davin. Poor Tommy. He's saddled with Snuggles, the cat who "vomit(s)... like a fire hose", Lady Fuzz who has serious litter box issues, Tigsy the diabetic kittie, and Herman, the cat who wouldn't eat. He complains about them but you can tell that he also cares about them, especially after realizing that they've been kidnapped (he says more than once that he hopes whoever took the felines is giving Tigsy his insulin... awww...). Then the threatening notes start showing up under his front door. Only problem is the notes are written in Russian, and Tommy doesn't read Russian. But he has bigger problems...

In an attempt to pay off the loan shark, Tommy sets up his own art theft using a couple guys from the neighborhood that are known in the industry. His luck keeps getting worse when the crew inform him that the paintings they stole...were stolen from them. Adding insult to injury, Tommy's "employer" contacts him and asks him to investigate the theft, putting him in an awkward position. As he starts his "investigation", those around him start losing their lives in the most horrible fashion - shot to death by a sniper. And Davin is fairly certain that the sniper has missed each time - because he's been standing right next to the recently deceased during each incident. The police think Tommy is responsible for the shootings, even though he keeps telling them that he was the intended target. And that loan shark isn't getting any more patient about his money.

It's a wonderful little crime drama with the usual quirky Wiprud characters. The Brooklyn setting totally works, and the character development is excellent. If you like action, this book also has plenty of that, including the sniper scenes - very descriptive and actually pretty gruesome. Tommy Davin is a fabulous protagonist, and I hope that Wiprud revisits the neighborhood, and Tommy, sometime down the road.

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Demon from the Dark" by Kresley Cole

Malkom Slaine: tormented by his sordid past and racked by vampiric hungers, he's pushed to the brink by the green-eyed beauty under his guard. Carrow Graie: hiding her own sorrows, she lives only for the next party or prank. Until she meets a tortured warrior worth saving. In order for Malkom and Carrow to survive, he must unleash both the demon and vampire inside him. When Malkom becomes the nightmare his own people feared, will he lose the woman he craves body and soul?

Cole has returned to form with her eighth entry in her Immortals After Dark series. I liked the last few books well enough, but they lacked the oomph of the first entries. Luckily, this romance between Malkom and Carrow shows that Cole still has it.

The story is pretty much the same as all the other books, except that now we know where beings from the Lore have been vanishing to - a secret facility run by humans who think the creatures of the Lore threaten all humans' existence (think the old torch and pitchfork townsfolk, only with much better equipment). Carrow is trapped there, forced to wear a collar that prevents her from using her witchy powers, and desperate to escape. She's offered a "deal" - travel to the plane of Oblivion and lure Malkom, half-demon/half-vampire, back to the portal so that the humans can trap him, too. In return for her "help", she'll be released - with her niece Ruby. Of course Carrow agrees, especially when she learns that Ruby's mother has been killed. And of course Carrow is about 99% sure that she's going to get screwed by the humans. But what's a witch to do?

Malkom is the classic tortured soul, made a vampire against his will. Born to a hussy of a mother, he was sold/turned out by her to the vampires as a sex/blood slave, only to be tossed aside into the cruel streets when he became too old to satisfy (our "vemon" reminded me a lot of LKH's Acheron...) Malkom is befriended by the leader of the demons, who becomes his best friend. Unfortunately, the vampires invade Oblivion and pretty much try to take over the place; they are almost run out until Malkom and his king are caught and turned by the Viceroy (head vamp). Malkom believes his best friend betrays him (you'll have to read the book to find out what happens)... and he kills him, making him even more of a pariah among his people.

Carrow and Malkom are so obviously meant for each other it's not funny. And yet, it is - Carrow is an awesome character with a very smart mouth on her. I really enjoyed Cole's strong female character this time: the right amount of sass and spunk without too much drama. The only thing I wasn't too sure about was her insistence that Malkom and her not have sex; I think she was worried about getting pregnant, but I'm not entirely sure. However, I will admit that the scenes where Carrow tries to explain that they can't, well, you know.... hysterical!

This book has restored my faith in Cole as a writer, and I've already put the next installment on my Amazon Wishlist. A great story, awesome action, a well-developed romance (and the relationship with Ruby is much appreciated, too), it all comes together and makes for a very satisfying read.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Perfect Fifths" by Megan McCafferty

Captivated readers have followed Jessica through every step and misstep: from her life as a tormented, tart-tongued teenager to her years as a college grad stumbling toward adulthood. Now a young professional in her mid-twenties, Jess is off to a Caribbean wedding. As she rushes to her gate at the airport, she literally runs into her former boyfriend, Marcus Flutie. It's the first time she's seen him since she reluctantly turned down his marriage proposal three years earlier - and emotions run high. Marcus and Jessica have both changed dramatically, yet their connection feels as familiar as ever. Is their reunion just a fluke or has fate orchestrated this collision of their lives once again? Told partly from Marcus's point of view, Perfect Fifths finally lets readers inside the mind of the one person who's both troubled and titillated Jessica Darling for years. Expect nothing less than the satisfying conclusion fans have been waiting for, one perfect in its imperfection...

I'd read the first four books about Jessica Darling and her life in high school/college, and while I enjoyed them, I wasn't really sure I wanted to read this last book. It's been quite a while since I read the fourth book, and if my memory serves correctly, I wasn't all that into it; it felt a bit tired, like we'd been there and done that. However, I thought I owed it to myself to at least attempt to finish the series, as so many authors these days seem to keep them going and going and going... sort of like the Energizer Bunny, and not always in a good way.

Imagine my very pleasant surprise at finding a much more mature Jessica literally running into the love of her life, Marcus Flutie - in the middle of an airport no less. Jessica has been working almost nonstop with her teen girls writing project, and while she still finds the work rewarding, she's grown very, very tired of life on the road. Adding to her stress is the medical crisis of one of her former proteges, one of the only ones she really got to know. Sick to death with worry, weary beyond her years, and trying to make her flight to officiate at her best friend's wedding, she slams right into Marcus, knocking them both for the proverbial loop.

Marcus has realized how much he is not over Jessica, something he knows the minute he hears her name on the intercom. After all, it doesn't necessarily have to be his Jessica; there's the porn star that shares her name, after all. He's done his best to get on with his life, but it hasn't been easy. And then Jessica runs smack into him, and all those old feelings come back to the surface - and fast.

This is a very different book than the others in the series, as all the action takes place in about 24 hours. And it was fun to read about the old "gang" from the series, too, almost like hitting a high school reunion (but in a good way, with me not having to worry about what they'll think of me, of what I look like now, etc). This entry is also much more mature than the others. Both Jessica and Marcus actually seem like adults now, and they both show their vulnerable side, a very adult thing to do. I liked the repartee between them, and I loved that we finally got to see into Marcus's mind this time; he's a lot more "normal" than he lets on, and it turns out he's a lot more sensitive, too.

Of course I was hoping for a happy ending, but what kind of reviewer would I be if I told you what happens? (the very worst kind, I think!) If you've been following the saga that is Jessica Darling's life, you'll be glad you picked this up. Even better is that this book can stand on its own; it's very universal in its themes of love and friendship and regret and hope. A most satisfying conclusion to this teen series.

"My Abandonment" by Peter Rock

"About five years ago, I read a short mention of a thirteen-year-old girl and her father discovered living in Forest Park, a rugged wilderness that borders downtown Portland. They had been living there for four years in a carefully camouflaged camp, ingeniously escaping detection, venturing into the city to collect his disability checks and to shop for the groceries they couldn't grow. He had been homeschooling the girl, who tested beyond her age group. A second newspaper article described how the two had been relocated to a horse farm; the father had been given a job, and the girl was to start middle school in the fall. I thought the situation was resolved, and filed the story away; then a third brief newspaper mention described how the two had disappeared one night. I waited and waited, searched the Web, but months passed and there was no more information. The two had truly disappeared. Unable to find out more information about how they lived or what became of them, my mind began to spin out possibilities. I realized I had to tell the story myself in order to satisfy my curiosity."

So Peter Rock wrote about real events, but he wrote them as fiction because there wasn't enough detail to do a non-fiction piece. And according to the interview he gave Amazon, he wouldn't have been interested in doing it if he could have written a true work about it. I found that very interesting. And when I went back and read this quote again about the real-life events, I realized why I didn't enjoy this book as much as I could have - my curiosity was not satisfied.

Caroline has been living with Father in the park for a while now. He came and "rescued" her from her foster family when she was ten and has been teaching her how to live off the grid ever since. He receives checks at PO Boxes in the city, so they do have some money; they eke out their existence by liberating certain goods from nearby businesses (but the never "steal" - they straighten up messes, throw away trash, repair fencing, etc, in order to "pay" for what they take), buying from stores, and occasionally trading with the homeless in the men's camp. Caroline has even begun a small garden but must be extra careful - they can't do anything that will leave traces of them in the park, leading the "followers" to them.

Their undoing is, of course, puberty. One day during "alone time", Caroline climbs into one of the lookouts and starts disrobing, all the better to examine the changes in her 13-year-old body. Unfortunately, a jogger happens to come along right about that moment, stops to catch his breath, and sees her white overshirt hanging in the trees. He finds their "home" as well, and ends up reporting his find to the authorities, who show up in no time to "rescue" her from her squalid living conditions. Plus she's not going to school - the horror! What had been an idyllic if unusual life is turned upside down by well-meaning people, and there are tragic consequences.

This story is interesting, I'll give the author that much. It's hard to believe that with all our modern conveniences, there are still those out there who would choose to live on the streets (or in the parks, or however you want to phrase it). Then again, if you're trying to hide your existence from the authorities, it's not a bad idea. It's obvious that Father suffers from some sort of mental disorder, possibly related to a war at some point (he has nightmares about helicopters almost every night). Then there's the matter of Caroline herself; you know from the beginning that she's probably not his real daughter, yet she doesn't act like she was kidnapped. Thankfully, there's no sexual component here, at least, not one that's overt; I kept waiting for "Father" to put the moves on the budding young girl.

The end is where this book fell apart for me. I was never entirely clear on what happened to Father (the logistics, not the ultimate "what happened?"), nor was I convinced that Caroline would just walk away to a new life as she did. Yes, some time has passed, but she's still not even 17 yet in the last chapter; she seemed too mature, too calm. And I found her interactions with some girls at a nearby high school downright creepy, wondering if the author was trying to say that once someone has lived that sort of life, they will continue to bring others into it, or if he was trying to write about some sort of female empowerment. Either way, it didn't work for me. The author starts to explain how Caroline and Father started their adventures together, but then he drops that before he tells us who Caroline was - and who Father was. Those are the sort of things I would have preferred to read about. Instead, the book just sort of fizzled out.

Overall, I guess I would recommend it. There were a lot of people on Amazon who seemed to think it was just brilliant, and a few like myself who were less than impressed.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdam

...nine connected stories set in a not-too-distant dystopian future in a landscape at once utterly fantastic and disturbingly familiar. Richly imagined, dark, and darkly comic, the stories follow the narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold one after another. In the first story, "What We Know Now" - set on the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable - we meet the then-nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. The remaining stories capture the strange - sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny - circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival: trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor who has access to his thoughts, taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that, despite the violence and brutality of his days, the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity - and humor. Things We Didn't See Coming is haunting, restrained, and beautifully crafted - a stunning debut.

In an attempt to take a break from my normal reading fare (i.e., more paranormal stuff), I decided to run through my I-want-to-read-this-someday-down-the-road list and see if anything looked good. This seemed to fit the bill - definitely not supernatural, and short to boot. I placed my reserve and when it came, I checked it out thinking I might eventually get around to it.

It didn't take long to start reading it, and once I started, I found I couldn't stop. There's something about this book, something that compelled me to keep reading. It's an odd format - nine "stories" that are more like snapshots of the narrator's life at different times over 30 years. Luckily, the stories appear sequentially, so there's no jumping around in time. But it's still strange to read about someones life like this; I found myself wondering how he got to where he was in each story. It's stories without background, if you will. And you never do learn the name of the narrator, so he could be just about anyone.

The scenes follow the narrator after the world takes a complete nose-dive on New Year's Eve, 1999. Remember the whole Y2K fiasco? Well, in this book, the fearful were absolutely right to worry - the planet evidently cannot survive the transition to the year 2000. The narrator is taken to his grandparents house by his parents, his mother being a naysayer and his father being a true believer. Obviously, this will cause problems down the road for his parents, and indeed, when he visits them in later stories, they are no longer together. His grandparents make an appearance again in one of the stories (one of the more touching entries), along with crazy weather, the flu-like plague (which reminded me quite of bit of Stephen King's Captain Trips illness from "The Stand"), and other challenges the narrator faces.

It's a strange work, but the point is, it works. I thought the character development was quite good considering that it's not done in the typical fashion; I wanted to find out if the narrator was going to survive. I also thought some of the peripheral characters were interesting and well-done, too, no small feat when they make such short appearances. It's a good little book, and I truly believed that some of this gloom-and-doom world could happen. I'm curious to see what Amsterdam does next.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

"The New York Regional Momon Singles Halloween Dance" by Elna Baker

It's lonely being a Mormon in New York City. So once again, Elna Baker attends the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance - a virgin in a room full of virgins doing the Macarena. Her Queen Bee costume, which involves a black funnel stuck to her butt for a stinger, isn't attracting the attention she'd anticipated. So once again, Elna is alone at the punch bowl, stocking up on generic Oreos, exactly where you'd expect to find a single Mormon who's also a Big Girl. But loneliness is nothing compared to what happens when Elna loses eighty pounds, finds herself suddenly beautiful...and in love with an atheist.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a memoir about a girl who's as paradoxical as the city she's coming-of-age in: a girl who distresses her family when she chooses NYU over BYU; a girl who's cultivating an oxymoronic identity as a bold, educated, modern, funny, proper, abstinent, religious stand-up comic - equal parts wholesome and hot. As Elna test-drives her identity, she finds herself in the strangest scenarios: selling creepy, overpriced dolls to petulant children at FAO Schwarz; making out with the rich and famous; nearly getting married in Utah; and arriving at the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance in an obscene costume.

It all boils down to a young woman wondering where love comes from and what will make her feel the least alone in a city full of strangers. Brazenly honest, this is Elna's hilarious and heartfelt chronicle of her attempt to steer clear of temptation and find out if she can just get by on God.

Again, this is one of those little gems that appeared in our outside book drop one morning. See why I love working at the library? Anyway, the title caught my eye, as well as the cover art. I read the inside blurb, and even though I'm not really interested in the Mormon religion, or anyone struggling with it (think all those books that have come out lately by women escaping the more fanatic sects of said religion), I decided there might be something to this book. It looked like it would be funny, and funny is always good in my world.

Well, the book is funny, but it's also quite serious at times, too, which caught me off guard. Elna is a perfect example of the new modern religious dilemma - can you be true to your religious upbringing (especially one that isn't considered "normal" by a lot of the free world) and also true to yourself? I was very moved by her plight; once she moves to New York, she finds herself drawn to all the wonderful people and places that she wants to be a part of: the acting community, the stand-up community, the famous that wine and dine at a the restaurant where she hosts, etc. But there are so many things that she can't/shouldn't do as a good Mormon - and she does consider herself a good Mormon. So no drinking, no smoking, and when she goes out with a guy, nothing other than kissing. No easy task in the Big Apple! And definitely no easy task when you'd really like to be doing some of those things, especially the "more than kissing" part. Elna makes it very obvious that while she remains true to her faith, she's also very much a woman, one with feelings, and yes, needs.

What I found very interesting were her parents. They sounded very much like my own, and no, we're not Mormon, not really any particular denomination at all. Her parents had five children and attempted to show them the world, even while remaining true to their faith. Indeed, at one point in the book, Elna overhears her parents discussing her unmarried status (being single and in her 20s equates spinsterhood in the Mormon faith); they worry that perhaps they were bad parents by exposing their children to so many things when they were young. A very normal concern, I think, for any parents of any faith. I thought her parents were so cool! I really liked the way her dad would let them choose where they went on vacations; he didn't use any method I'd ever heard of before, but it was really neat.

And yes, there's true heartbreak here as well. It's very obvious that Elna truly loved her boyfriend the atheist, but like many couples, they couldn't overcome their religious differences. What's worse is that while I read her account of the relationship, it became clear that he really loved her too. How sad is that - two people that are truly in love, but cannot stay together because of their religions? The boyfriend issue isn't the only thing Elna struggles with - she's always asked questions of her faith, and she finds herself asking even more after the failed relationship with the atheist. I found that heartbreaking, too, that Elna might have to choose to leave her religion because she starts to find herself at such odds with its dogma. When you've been raised one way, and then start to realize that it may not be the way you want/can live your life, that's a very scary time. I just wanted to find her, give her a huge hug, and tell her that everything will be OK.

I think what surprised me the most was her weight issue. I wasn't shocked that she was a woman wanting to lose weight - half or more of the world's female population believes they're "fat" at any given moment of any given day. What surprised me was that it didn't play as big a part in the book as I thought it would. Or maybe I just didn't notice it all that much. However, how she does finally lose the weight plays a big part in her questioning her faith, and that really struck me.

This was a wonderful find for me, and I would definitely recommend you find a copy for yourself. It's not a very big book, so consider it a short read. I think it's a very interesting story, that of Elna's life, one full of humor, angst, and a girl just trying to find her way in the world.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Nightlight" by The Harvard Lampoon

"About three things I was absolutely certain. First, Edwart was most likely my soul mate, maybe. Second, there was a vampire part of him - which I assumed was wildly out of his control - that wanted me dead. And third, I unconditionally, irrevocably, impenetrably, heterogenously, gynecologically, and disreputably wished he had kissed me."

And thus Belle Goose falls in love with the mysterious and sparkly Edwart Mullen in the Harvard Lampoon's hilarious send-up.  Pale and klutzy, Belle arrives in Switchblade, Oregon, looking for adventure, or at least an undead classmate. She soon discovers Edwart, a super-hot computer nerd with zero interest in girls. After witnessing a number of strange events - Edwart leaves his Tater Tots untouched at lunch! Edwart saves her from a flying snowball! - Belle has a dramatic revelation: Edwart is a vampire. But how can she convince Edwart to bite her and transform her into his eternal bride, especially when he seems to find girls so repulsive? Complete with romance, danger, insufficient parental guardianship, creepy stalkerlike behavior, and a vampire prom, Nightlight is the uproarious tale of a vampire-obsessed girl, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I was a huge fan of the Twilight saga - about two years or so ago. I read the first three books with utter delight, and I recommended them to several library patrons (and not just teenagers, I might add). Unfortunately, I feel like the almighty SM jumped the shark with the fourth installment, a book so heinous to me that I stopped reading it just a tad after 100 pages; my feelings about Bella and Edward have been tainted every since. And after rereading "Twilight" last summer (brushing up on it before a library program I did), I realized that SM wasn't nearly so wonderful a writer as I had originally thought. Call it a bad case of reader's rose-colored glasses.

Anyway, having once loved the series, and now being a bit of a hater, I thought I'd give this satire a shot. After all, it isn't easy to do good satire - just ask Weird Al Yankovic. A little goes a long way, and the people at Harvard Lampoon wisely keep this offering very, very short, not even reaching 200 pages. The book isn't really laugh-out-loud funny, but for those who can recognize the flaws of SM, it will make you smirk. The writing is deliberately over-the-top, and Belle is so self-absorbed as to completely ignore those around her, not only their actions but even when they speak to her. Unlike the heroine of "Twilight", this girl is convinced that she's the greatest thing on Earth since sliced bread and beautiful to boot, so it's no wonder to her that all the boys have massive crushes on her. All except Edwart, of course!

It's a wonderful lampoon of the uber-popular teen paranormal romance series, and my hat is off to the writers at Harvard Lampoon. What's even more amazing is that they've managed to drop little kernels of truth in their story, things that those reading the original should be thinking about. My favorite is one of the "regular" kids responding to Belle's completely unreal response to someone asking her "what's new?" The mere mortal derides her about her response, then goes on to say, "Besides, isn't it a little soon to cut yourself off from the rest of your peers, depending on a boyfriend to satisfy your social needs as opposed to making friends?" A sentiment that I truly wish more teen girls would hear and take to heart.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay" by John Lanchester

For most people, the reasons for the sudden collapse of our economy remain obscure. I.O.U. is the story of how we came to experience such a complete and devastating financial implosion, and how the decisions and actions of a select group of individuals had profound consequences for America, Europe, and the global economy overall. John Lanchester begins with "The ATM Moment," that seemingly magical proliferation of cheap credit that led to an explosion of lending, and then deftly outlines the global and local landscapes of banking and finance. Viewing the crisis through the lens of politics, culture, and contemporary history - from the invention and widespread misuse of financial instruments to the culpability of subprime mortgages - Lanchester draws perceptive conclusions on the limitations of financial and governmental regulation, capitalism's deepest flaw, and , most important, on the plain and simple facts of human nature where cash is concerned. Weaving together firsthand research and superbly written reportage, Lanchester delivers a shrewd perspective and a digestible, comprehensive analysis that connects the dots for the expert and casual reader alike. I.O.U. is an eye-opener of a book - it may well provoke anger, amazement, or rueful disbelief - and, as the author clearly reveals, we've only just begun to get ourselves back on track.

I never thought I'd really want to read a book about the recent financial meltdown that most of the world has recently experienced. Why bother reading about it when I've been living it for the last two years? But this book looked a bit different. It purported to show the "how it all happened" on a fairly grand scale without necessarily pointing fingers at political parties. And some of the bits and pieces I read seemed slanted to the funny side, which would be a welcome relief - a book that didn't take everything super-seriously. I think the author really had me though when he quoted someone saying "we're rubbish at thinking about risk". Because we really are - we always want something for nothing. And a big something for nothing is even better.
The book turned out to be very well written and very informative. I learned a great deal about the financial world, including how a select few put together the now-infamous sort of loans that really sunk everything. Loans that were so complicated that a lot of bankers didn't even understand what it was they were selling. And Lanchester very wisely points fingers at everyone - including us. Many of us wanted these loans that seemed to hold no risk, even though we knew they were too good to be true. Regulators relaxed rules because they wanted the economy to keep growing. Basically, we stuck our collective heads in the sand and hoped that if we didn't see anything, then nothing bad could ever happen.

We all know how well that strategy worked, don't we?

I would definitely recommend this book, and not just to people that have been affected by the economic downturn of the last two years or so. I think everyone could benefit from reading it; it makes a great lesson in history, and as Winston Churchill said "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it". I don't know about you, but I don't want to repeat this financial fiasco - ever.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Box: Uncanny Stories" by Richard Matheson

Matheson is one of the granddaddies of horror, having written a little book called "I Am Legend" that was made into no less than three movies that I know of. He's written numerous books, screenplays, and short stories, and is still with us at the wonderful age of 84. I saw this in our collection and thought it would be worth picking up, plus I remembered that they'd just put out the movie "The Box" not too long ago (not to very good reviews, if memory serves me correctly).

Well, having read "Button, Button", I gotta say I'm not surprised the movie tanked. This is not one of Matheson's best: incredibly short and I saw the "shock" ending coming a mile away. Then again, it was first published back in 1970, and perhaps it was shocking at the time. But there have been too many other similar stories since then for it to hold up.

There were several stories that I read but didn't really feel were all that wonderful. "Girl of my Dreams" had a real nasty husband taking advantage of his wife's visions of the future; the slimeball gets his just desserts."Dying Room Only" was a strange story about a couple stopping at a diner in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me of that movie with Kurt Russell where his wife is kidnapped (think it was called "Breakdown" or something like that...); the ending of "Dying Room" was anticlimatic at best. "A Flourish of Strumpets" asks what would you do if the hookers started coming directly to your door? Gives new meaning to an interesting proposition, I think. "Pattern for Survival" was just odd, and if I read it correctly, there was only one character in the whole thing. I think....

The story I liked the least was probably "The Jazz Machine". It's written in verse form, perhaps trying to catch the feel of the music. In any case, a black musician is approached by a white man (keep in mind this is back in the 40s or 50s); the white man tells him he has a machine that can translate the black man's music into words so that the white man can better understand it. The black man goes along with the idea, until he realizes that the machine actually works - then he destroys it, saying that the "we" need to keep something for ourselves. Obviously supposed to be a commentary on race relations, but still not a story I got into.
I think the best story is also the longest. "Mute" is about a boy who was part of an experiment by four couples trying to raise/nurture their children's skills at telepathy. Paal, the boy, lives in the USA and when he's seven, his parents die horribly in a fire. He's found wandering in the woods with nary a scratch on him and appears to be mute, whether by shock or some medical problem, they don't know. He's taken in by the sheriff and his wife (their own boy drowned in a lake a few years earlier), and they try to figure out why he can't/won't talk. They also finally enroll him in school, something that traumatizes him. Then one of the other parents shows up searching for the reason they haven't heard from the boy's parents in over two years.... A very good story, good character development, etc. This was definitely the jewel of the works.

Overall, I still like Matheson, but boy - the short stories really do show their age.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"The Gone-Away World" by Nick Harkaway

This will be short and sweet. I didn't finish this book - got to page 55 and just gave up. It took me two weeks to make it that far, mostly because I kept falling asleep or got confused enough that I had to go back and reread the previous section (although come to think of it, some of that could be from the falling asleep....) Rather than my own review, let me show you what Publisher's Weekly said, then we'll discuss, OK?

"This unclassifiable debut from the son of legendary thriller author John le Carré is simultaneously a cautionary tale about the absurdity of war; a sardonic science fiction romp through Armageddon; a conspiracy-fueled mystery replete with ninjas, mimes and cannibal dogs; and a horrifying glimpse of a Lovecraftian near-future. Go Away bombs have erased entire sections of reality from the face of the Earth. A nameless soldier and his heroic best friend witness firsthand the unimaginable aftermath outside the Livable Zone, finding that the world has unraveled and is home to an assortment of nightmarish mutations. With the fate of humankind in the balance, the pair become involved in an unlikely and potentially catastrophic love triangle. Readers who prefer linear, conventional plotlines may find Harkaway overly verbose and frustratingly tangential, but those intrigued by works that blur genre boundaries will find this wildly original hybrid a challenging and entertaining entry in the post-apocalyptic canon. (Sept.)"

As I said before, the only challenge I found was staying awake and comprehending this book. And can I just tell you how disappointed I am? From the jacket blurb and some of the Amazon reviews, this really sounded like my cup of tea: weird, very out-there, full of just crazy stuff. And yet, I never did warm up to it. I don't know if the author was trying to be too.... hmmm, not really sure what word to use here, so let's just go with "whatever".... or if the editing was bad, or what the problem was. I can't really say it's a bad book since I didn't get very far into it. What I can say is that I knew after struggling with it for said two weeks, I got past the Nancy Pearl-librarian-extraordinnaire rule to read at least 50 pages before you give up - and I gave up. I just was not loving this work, and I have way too many other titles waiting to be read before I give up. LOL!

If anyone out there has read this book or is reading it and enjoying it, I'd like to hear from you!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"The Devil You Know" by Mike Carey

Felix Castor is a freelance exorcist, and London is his stomping ground. It may seem like a good ghostbuster can charge what he likes and enjoy a hell of a lifestyle - but there's a risk. Sooner or later he's going to take on a spirit that's too strong for him, and he'll be lucky if he only ends up dead. So Castor plans to get out of the game - right after he pays the bills with one last case in an old museum. But instead of driving out the ghost, Castor stirs up a life-leeching demon, a were-beast, and a ruthless East End gang boss, all of whom want to stop him from getting too close to an unpleasant truth. Stop him cold... 

I had read somewhere (probably in a review) that while Jim Butcher is good, Mike Carey is better; Harry Dresden is entertaining, but Felix "Fix" Castor is the real deal. Well, now I've read books by both authors, books in both series, and I have to say.... I like them both, just in different ways.

Felix is not a wizard, just an exorcist. He uses music, usually provided by a tin whistle (and for reasons I don't entirely fathom, the tin whistle works best and invokes the most fear in the spirits), to trap the ghost/spirits and send them on their way. Unlike Harry, he's only got one trick up his sleeve. Like Harry, he finds himself taking cases that he doesn't want to, thus resulting in lots of mayhem and danger. Harry works in Chicago; Fix is in London. Etc, etc.

This book is the first in the Felix Castor series, so there's a lot of set-up and expostion. It doesn't always move at the best pace, but I can forgive that in the first book. I thought the character development was interesting, and I really liked Felix. His roommate was cool, too, and there's obviously a bigger story there (which will hopefully be revealed in time). I won't say too much else about the book, but yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit and have already put the second title on a list of "to-be-read-in-the-not-so-distant-future" titles. Check it out if you've done the Dresden series; it's interesting to compare the two. Check it out if you just like a good read, too!

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Pandemonium" by Daryl Gregory

It is a world like our own in every respect... save one. In the 1950s, random acts of possession begin to occur. Ordinary men, women, and children are the targets of entities that seem to spring from the depths of the collective unconscious, pop-cultural avatars some call demons. There's the Truth, implacable avenger of falsehood. The Captain, brave and self-sacrificing soldier. The Little Angel, whose kiss brings death, whether desired or not. And a string of others, ranging from the bizarre to the benign to the horrific. As a boy, Del Pierce is possessed by the Hellion, an entity whose mischief-making can be deadly. With the help of Del's family and a caring psychiatrist, the demon is exorcised...or is it? Years later, following a car accident, the Hellion is back, trapped inside Del's head and clamoring to get out. Del's quest for help leads him to Valis, an entity possessing the science fiction writer formerly known as Philip K. Dick; to Mother Mariette, a nun who inspires decidedly unchaste feelings; and to the Human League, a secret society devoted to the extermination of demons. All believe that Del holds the key to the plague of possession - and its solution. But for Del, the cure may be worse than the disease.

I don't really know what to say about this book, except that I found myself very involved in a very short time. It seems to be one thing when you start, and then you get an inkling that things are not as they seem, and then you figure it out - and yet, you still keep reading, mostly due to the fact that you're heavily invested in the lead character, Del.

I thought it was an interesting take on what could possibly be some sort of mental illness, the idea that these people are actually possessed by certain demons. And the demons are always the same ones, leading the psychologists who do believe the possession theory to state that these are classic Archetypes. What's strange is that when talking about demons, you usually get the whole Heaven/Hell aspect - but not in this book. There's nothing to indicate that the "demons" are on any side.... indeed, some such as the Captain would seem to be on the side of "good", while the Little Angel could potentially be seen as the Angel of Death (and most people feel that's the side of "evil").

Del is quite the enigma, and I really enjoyed the interaction of him with his family. You felt for him, a man who suffered as a boy, and having had a traumatic experience, finds himself struggling not to suffer again. The question is why Del, possessed by the Hellion as a child, was able to control/contain his demon so many years ago, and can he do it again? The answer isn't as simple as you think...

I would classify this as a sci-fi/fantasy, rather than general fiction, which is were my library system had it for lack of a better place. I can see why we left it in gen fic - it's not an easily classified work. There are certainly fantastical elements in it, and yet, the core story IMHO is really about family - the love of family for each other, the strength and length they'll go to for each other, and how one becomes part of a family. Very interesting characters, good writing... I'll be looking for something from Gregory again.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"What a Demon Wants" by Kathy Love

A bodyguard? Why in the world would a demon need a bodyguard? Yes, it's true Ellina Kostova is only half demon...and an author with a cult following, but that just means strange stuff happens. She isn't in real danger. Heck, she's in more danger from Jude Anthony, the guy her brother has hired to protect her. In big danger, actually. Because she just cannot be attracted to...well, anyone. She's too much of a demon in bed. No, really.... Jude has grown accustomed to being an outcast, adrift in both the mortal and preternatural worlds. Being a paid fighting machine isn't glamorous, but he does it - and many other things - spectacularly well. And man does Ellina Kostova need a lot of protection. But he needs protection, too. She's making him remember what it feels like to be human. And he's already learned no good can come of that. Especially when he's been hired not only to protect her - but also kill her....

I usually enjoy a book by Kathy Love; a quick romantic supernatural read for a weekend. This one fit the quick and romantic, but somehow fell short in the enjoyment department. After finishing, I think I've been able to pinpoint the problem - not enough danger (and honestly, not a very good plot, either).

In any Love book, there's the meeting between the two romantic leads, the growing attraction that both leads try to fight, and a threat to the female that causes the male to go beyond his typical comfort level, thus proving his love for the girl. There's always a supernatural element, too, usually the guy - either a vampire or some such entity. Nothing too difficult to read, but cute and fun and romantic as all get out.

Well, this book has the romantic covered I suppose. Jude is the handsome stranger, half werewolf, half vampire, all male. Ellina is the damsel in distress - except that she's not, not really. The girl is half-demon, so it's not as if she's completely helpless, and I found it difficult to believe that she was really in that much danger. Their growing attraction is supposed to be complicated by Ellina's reaction to lust, one that has turned off every human she's ever tried to be with - her demon side comes out, resulting in a rather unusual skin condition. Again, I didn't buy this so much as a true problem because Jude isn't human. Sigh.

My biggest complaint is the stalker/killer, mostly that the writing wasn't good enough to prevent me from figuring out his/her identity half-way through the book. Not to mention the fact that it's not as if the stalker/killer is truly a villain, something that when revealed felt like a cop-out to me. True, this isn't great literature, but I would like my authors to remember that I do have a brain (even though at times I don't want to tax it!)

I'm hoping the next Love book I pick up will be better than this one. Overall, it felt like a middling C-type work. Not one of her best, I'm afraid.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Curing the Blues with a New Pair of Shoes" by Dixie Cash

No holiday in tiny Salt Lick, Texas, is more revered than January 8th - Elvis's birthday! To commemorate the grand occasion, Hogg's Drive-In - where the King enjoyed many a burger on the road to fame and fortune - is displaying an "actual" pair of Elvis's blue suede shoes. That is, until some heel without a soul swipes them right out of their display case. Debbie Sue Overstreet and Edwina Perkins-Martin - the shoe-loving Domestic Equalizers - are shocked that someone would perpetrate such a dastardly crime. So the plucky detecting duo agrees to help the town's inept sheriff track down the royal blue loafers. And being majestic multitaskers, the ladies might even be able to squeeze in some matchmaking as well. Mix-ups, mayhem, the threat of gunplay, and shocking octogenarian secrets revealed - it's all in a day's work for the Domestic Equalizers, the two best friends whose motto is: Don't get mad...get evidence!

"Dixie Cash" is actually the writing team of sisters Pam Cumbie and Jeffery McClanahan (yes, you read that right, her name is Jeffery!). They started out a few years back and I've enjoyed all their books, so when I saw they had this one out, I knew I had to pick it up. Before you start any of their Domestic Equalizer series, be warned - these are NOT high-brow literature. If you enjoy a cute, quick, slightly romantic read, however, they'll be right up your alley.

The "case" this time is a bit on the thin side, though, barely taking up any time. Debbie Sue and Edwina are rather more involved in setting up two reporters who have hit town for the Elvis festivities. Young Avery Deaton is looking to move into more serious reporting, and she's hoping this Elvis gig will be her ticket to the big leagues. Sam Carter, a rookie sports reporter (but a seasoned veteran from another market in another state), has also been assigned to Salt Lick; he's hoping to get a killer story out of Caleb Crawford's family (Caleb being a football wunderkind). As soon as the Domestic Duo meet both of these journalists, they just know they have to hook them up.

The book is cute as usual, and the sisters certainly have a flair for capturing all thing Texan. The romance moves along nicely, although it is pretty cliche. Perhaps my biggest complaint about this entry is the lack of the significant others: Buddy Overstreet, Debbie Sue's hubby, isn't seen at all, only making the occasional phone appearance (he's on a case for the Texas Rangers). And Edwina's hubby isn't seen much either. Their absence is a real loss because while the crazy investigators are fun together doing their thing, they really shine in the presence of their men. Hopefully D.C. will "fix" this oversight in their next book.

Good fun fairly clean reading, nothing too taxing - a definite hammock or beach-side book!

"The Fortune Quilt" by Lani Diane Rich

Carly McKay's life is going just fine until she produces a television piece on psychic quilt maker Brandywine Seaver and receives a quilt with an enigmatic reading telling her that everything is about to change. Carly blows off the reading until it comes true: Her boss runs off with all the station's assets, leaving her jobless; her best friend, Christopher, proclaims his (unrequited) love for her, leaving her friendless; and her mother, who deserted the family seventeen years ago, returns, sending Carly into a serious tilt...Convinced it's the quilt's fault, Carly races down to the small artists' community of Bilby, Arizona, to confront its maker, and ends up with an unexpected friend in Brandy - and in Will, the laid-back painter who rents the cabin next door. With quirky new buddies and no more deadlines, Carly starts to enjoy her reimagined life - until her old one comes calling. Now Carly has to decide what parts of each world she wants to patchwork in...and how much she's willing to leave to fate.

This is not the sort of book I would just pick up off the shelf, and if you follow this blog at all, I think you already know that. This was returned by a patron quite a while back, and there was just something about it that made me turn it over and read the back cover. I still didn't think it sounded like "my" kind of novel, but again, something made me put it on a list for possible perusal at a later date.

As they say, don't judge a book by its cover!

Yes, this is teetering on the edge of chick lit, and yes, some of it is quite funny. But there's a lot of serious soul-searching here, too, and Rich strikes the right balance between the two genres to bring the reader a fine novel. I really liked Carly, and could very much relate to her getting "Towered" as Brandy calls it (the phrase coming from the Tarot card "the Tower", which indicates change). I was very impressed that when Carly's mother shows up after all these years, she's brutally honest about her feelings, leading to her abrupt departure from Tuscon. And yes, maybe it's a little corny that she blames the quilt, but when the you-know-what hits the fan, don't you look for anything that might make it right again?

The characters are well-developed, and there were some genuine surprises along the way. I thought the romance between Carly and Will built at a nice pace, and the "split" wasn't due to any contrived misunderstanding but to Carly's very real fears of commitment, perfectly understandable given her own upbringing. Rich also does an outstanding job of describing the beauty of Arizona, really making the reader feel the desert heat, the cacti, etc.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised (and impressed) by this book, and from what I understand, the author has more available. I plan to check them out soon!

Friday, August 27, 2010

"1001 Ways to be Romantic: Now Completely Revised and More Romantic than Ever" by Gregory Godek

Ever hear the phrase "less is more"? Well, I think Mr. Godek should follow that sage advice, because my biggest problem with this book is its size - it is way too big! I get that he wants to give the reader a wide range of choices as far as how to be romantic, but please! There are so many "suggestions" that after getting about half-way through this tome, I realized he was repeating himself. Or it was so close to something he'd already said that I read it as exactly the same.

In either case, I got tired of the romance and quit.

In addition, some of the "advice" sounded more like advertising. Between all the hotels/motels/B&Bs, the lingerie companies, the chocolate companies, and the like, I suspect that Godek has pocketed a good amount of change for mentioning their names. And for someone who keeps saying "you don't need to spend a lot of money to be romantic", he would have you shelling out some serious dough to impress your sweetie.

Before you think I'm completely writing this guy (and book) off, not all the advice is bad. Some of it is quite good, such as putting forth 100% in your relationship, rather than the old 50-50 split (if you've only willing to meet your partner half-way, good luck when the going gets tough). He also advises not to take your significant other for granted, which is always good advice - you never know what can happen when you least expect it. Little romantic gestures, such as leaving love notes in his/her car, or doing a chore that your partner hates to do, are also good, and in fact, we've done that in our own marriage. But the amount of dreck you have to skim through to get to the good stuff is not worth the time or the trouble.

My advice is to treat your partner the way you want to be treated, tell him/her that you love him/her every day, and kiss a lot!

"The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death" by Laurie Notaro


Laurie Notaro has an uncanny ability to attract insanity - and leave readers doubled over with laughter. In The Idiot Girl and the Flaming Tantrum of Death, she experiences the popular phenomenon of laser hair removal (because at least one of her chins should be stubble-free); bemoans the scourge of the Open Mouth Coughers on America's airplanes; welcomes the newest ex-con (yay, a sex offender!) to her neighborhood; and watches, against her own better judgment, every Discovery Health Channel special on parasites and tapeworms that has ever aired - resulting in an overwhelming fear that a worm the size of a python will soon come a-knocking on her back door. The Cleveland Plain Dealer says that Laurie Notaro is "a scream, the freak-magnet of a girlfriend you can't wiat to meet for a drink to hear her latest story." ....Notaro proves she's not only funny but resigned to the fact that you can't look bad ass in a Prius. Don't even try.

I absolutely adore Laurie Notaro, and I would totally be friends with her if I ever met her (and she'd let me, that is). My good friend Wendy sent me a copy of her first book a few years back and I've been hooked every since. This installment finds Notaro doing such fun things as going dealing with naughty neighbors, extended warranties, and other strange oddities in her life - including her relocation from her beloved Phoenix to the much-moister-climbed Oregon. For anyone who has ever moved, especially if you've moved from a long-term location, you'll know exactly how she feels about moving.

Probably my favorite entry in this book is one of the most serious: the death of Notaro's dog, Bella. I found myself flying back in time to 1986, when my own beloved black Lab, Daisy, was rushed off to the vet in severe distress after a week of lethargy and non-eating. I was bawling like the proverbial baby as Laurie wrote about taking Bella to the vet, the long hours of waiting, and the dog rallying, only to fade quickly just hours later. Anyone who has ever loved and lost a pet will need a huge box of tissues when they read "Ready or Not" - you just can't help yourself.

But the rest of the book is hilarious, and in these trying times, we all need a good laugh!

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Freak Magnet" by Andrew Auseon

A novel about freaks, geeks, crushes, and friends - and how sometimes you can be all of them at once.

Charlie is the freak. Gloria is the freak magnet. They're pretty much destined to meet. And when they do, sparks fly... for Charlie. Gloria, well, she just thinks he's like every other freak who feels compelled to talk to her, although a little better-looking than most. While Charlie has his head in the clouds, Gloria's got hers in a book: her Freak Folio - a record of every weirdo who's talked to her in the last year (it's a big book). But never before has she felt the pull to get to know one of them better. Until now.

In this he-said-she-said tale of love, loss, and lucky signs ...... two young strangers at a crossroads in their lives become friends by happy accident (okay, maybe some harmless stalking is involved - and not by the person you'd think!) - and forever change each other.

As one of the members of our library system's Collection Development team, I was excited to read a synopsis of this book. It sounded like just the thing for our young adult readers, a group that I've been trying to increase in numbers and frequency. It's a "normal" book, too, not a vampire or werewolf in sight, something that I really wanted us to have. Not that I don't like the supernatural stuff - just been seeing an awful lot of it lately and wanted to have a more balanced collection.

The other reason I wanted us to have this book is nostalgia; I myself was a freak magnet during my high school days. My best friend at the time (and she knows who she is!) felt the same way, and we'd often sit at our local Dairy Queen lamenting the fact that the only boys who seemed to want to talk to us were geeks, freaks, and general weirdos. We were worried that we were sporting some sort of invisible tattoos on our foreheads that could only be read by the strange boys in our town. None of the "cool" or "cute" guys gave us the time of day, just the ones that embarassed the hell out of us. So when a book comes along about two kids in high school, a love story of sorts, and the title is "Freak Magnet" - well, it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick this up for my branch.

The character development is good, and I liked the way Auseon bounced between Charlie's and Gloria's viewpoints. (Charlie's chapters are all titles "Freak", and of course, Gloria's are all titles "Magnet"). The story isn't half bad either, and I felt like the author was paying homage to the classic John Hughes movie "Pretty in Pink" with his ending. My biggest complaint with this novel is all the extremely serious drama going on in each teen's life: Charlie's mom has a debilitating fatal illness, Gloria's brother was killed in Afghanistan, Charlie's best friend Edison was in a horrible accident and permanently lost the use of his legs, etc. I realize the author wants to show that both of these kids aren't as different as they think they are, but at times it just seemed like too much. I sort of felt like I do when watching the Olympics now - everyone has a sob story. Doesn't anyone have the right to a happy childhood? I think it would have been more interesting if Gloria had been more "normal", as it would truly take a special person to see past Charlie's "freakdom".

But that's just my opinion. And trust me, it's not so morbid that I wasn't rooting for these two to realize they really love each other - I was the whole time I was reading this book! I'm a sucker for a happy ending, after all. However, I'm not entirely sure Auseon gave them one....