Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hot Books for the Hottest Month

I love it when Barnes and Noble has its dollar days. Thick, fresh-smelling hardcover books for $1.99, woody paperbacks for a buck. Of course, I need to spend $20 for free shipping, but that is the price I must pay.

I have always dreamed of this: a child pulling apart the packing tape with small fingers, hacking at cardboard with dull scissors. He shuffles through the books until he sees the blazing titles and crazy cartoonish fonts that indicate a book Mom does not want. He flings himself at his mother in gratitude. "You know me so well," he cries out. "You knew exactly what I would want to read!"

That moment filled my cup for days.

I begin my new job on July 21 as assistant professor of English. It is a reward after several years of hard work, but I will miss two things - my time for writing and reading. I expect that I will have to change some habits (10 hours of sleep per day? really?) in order to finish writing my novel, but I know I will always find time for a quick read (burned chicken for dinner, anyone?).

Meanwhile, packages are still arriving from B&N, along with more envelopes with new, exciting books, like Tears in the Darkness (wow, I have to take it slow because it is so heart-wrenching), Josef Jaeger (YA historical with gay heroes - where were you when I was a teen?), and Hume's Fork (I don't even know how to describe this book yet, but I can't wait to try). Books piled into a three-foot tall tower, books tucked under my journals and planner, books hidden in magazine racks and bathrooms.

I may rinse my mind with some easy reads as I wade through the next weeks, full of family plans and commitments. Or I may tackle a tough tome during vacation, something to lug on planes and boats... something to read to appear intelligent and distinguished. Or I may just plunge in, like the old Nestea pool commercials: sip and fall back into the coolness of pulped pages.

37. OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS - Malcolm Gladwell


For decades, there is always at least one how-to book that crops up like a dandelion in a strawberry patch. You know the names, even if you never read past the title: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus or Dianetics. I remember "the Secret," as well as "the Word."

Still, Outliers is different. It shows the correlation between success and behaviors, situations, and just plain luck. For example, most Canadian professional hockey players are born in January, February, and March. Do you think that parents plan that? They might start thinking about it, now.

With fantastic interviews that build on basic principals, it is a book that encourages more discussion - even prompting a huge talk about how many hours one must read and write to become a successful author (with my 10-year-old).

4.5 out of 5.0 Knock-Outs.

Monday, June 29, 2009

36. THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO - Stieg Larsson


Originally titled, "Men Who Hate Women," this is the first of a series of three (or four - there are rumors abound) books by author Stieg Larsson, a talented plotter who died from a heart attack before the books were published.

"The Girl," in this case, is Lisbeth Salander, a punkish, asocial 20-something with a knack for finding anyone's secrets. She is called in to help Mikhael Blomkvist, a journalist who is hired to find answers to a 50-year-old mystery: what happened to Harriet Vanger, niece to the powerhouse Henrik Vanger.

The mystery is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Indians" (I forgot the politically correct version of the title), where everyone is on an island and no one escaped. Therefore, did Harriet die? Was she murdered?

This book is not just a mystery. The author has statistics about sexual abuse, rape, and assault of Swedish women at the beginning of each major section. Half of the book involves Lisbeth's backstory before meeting up with Mikhael. The end is not the triumphant answer to the mystery.

I know I am a bit late to this party, but the unique style and anti-formulaic approach fascinated me, as it has for many readers and critics. It is just a shame that the author did not live longer to share his gift through other stories.

4.0 out of 5.0 Dragon Breaths.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

35. THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE - Katherine Howe


As I adore asking the question, "What if?" this book was a wonderful treat. What if one of those accused during the Salem Witch trials was, in fact, a witch? I use the term loosely because, as in the novel, there is the current fads of reiki healing, energy work, and aura readings that account for helpful modern "physicks."

This debut novel explores the possibility of a true physick/magic-healer named Deliverance Dane. As 1990s student, Connie Goodwin, a doctoral student of colonial history at Harvard, begins to empty out her grandmother's New England home, she finds clues that lead her on an academic adventure. Her mother, a "healer" who moved to be near energy centers in the southwest United States, makes Connie roll her eyes in frustration. Therefore, the deeper Connie is involved in the mystery, the more she must give up her preconceived notions.

Fascinating premise; however, the book is best for light summer reading due to a sub-plot about a crazed professor and the forced romance between Connie and a local. Still, it held my interest enough to keep me reading late into the night.

3.0 out of 5.0 Salem Witches.

34. THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN - Kate Morton


A toddler is left on the wharf in Brisbane, Australia, in the early 1900s. A dock worker takes her home, and when no family searches for her, he and his wife move and pretend that Nell is their own daughter. Still, Nell remembers something about "The Authoress," and a book of fairy tales is all that remains from her voyage.

The narrative switches from Nell's childhood memories to her search for her "real" parents in the 1970s to her granddaughter's attempt to solve every snippet of the mystery.

Personally, this whiplash storytelling became frustrating, and too many coincidences (a clue falls out of a book... not once, but twice!) had me skimming to the end.

1.75 out of 5.0 Adios Cabachos.

XX. THE EMBERS - Hyatt Bass


Death, family tragedy, dysfunctional relationships - all of the makings of a great Russian novel. Unfortunately, this is the debut fiction of Hyatt Bass, a book that has been glorified by many reviewers.

Not this one.

After 63 pages, I grew exhausted by the whiny, self-absorbed characters. The plot could have pulled me deeper into this tornado, but a quick flip proved that there would be no redemption, just frustration. My wall has enough dents from past clunkers.

Friday, June 12, 2009

32. IN THE WAKE OF THE BOATMAN - Jonathon Scott Fuqua


The relationship between fathers and sons is rocky, precarious, tenuous at times, as I watch my boys, as I watch my friends' families. I wonder at adult males who like their fathers.

IN THE WAKE OF THE BOATMAN explores this relationship from before the main character, Puttnam Steward, is born until a crumbling mid-life crisis that makes him reassess everything about himself. Not to be coy, but all that he learned, he learned as a kindergartner - rough lessons from a damaged, pathetic father.

As Putt tries to figure out himself as a teen and young adult, he ends up putting himself in situations where he is in danger, yet he comes out as a hero each time. This further enrages him because he cannot connect the person he is with the one others see. The person he is wants to wear dresses and be pretty.

The descriptions are so vivid and consuming that one feels itchy within Putt's skin, just as he did. It is lovely writing regarding a fascinating subject.

4.25 out of 5.0 Boat Drinks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

31. "The Secret Keeper" - Paul Harris


This debut novel about British journalist Danny Kellerman puts a new spin on the world of Sierra Leone. As he covers the war, he meets a children's aid worker named Maria, who seems to be out to save the world. After receiving a letter from her four years later, pleading for help, Danny finds out that Maria had been killed in a roadside burglary. Using journalism as an excuse, he flies back to Freetown to determine the true cause of Maria's death.

I have read many books about the occurrences during the war, Mosquito, and the RUF (child army). If this had been just another book about this horrible part of history, I would have put it down. Instead, Harris uses the history as a backdrop for a mystery. Especially for people who are not familiar with the war, it is a good introduction to the misery and hopelessness of the Africans involved.

My only gripe is that the viewpoint switched from third person, limited to omniscience - and at the strangest times in the story. It popped me right out of the groove. Instead of viewing this as a mystery through Danny's eyes, I was suddenly with a man on a porch? Outside of that quibble, this is a great beach read for mystery lovers.

3.25 out of 5.0 Gin and Sins.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

30. "Bones" - Jonathan Kellerman


I try to write in the mystery genre, but I do not read a lot of the popular mystery authors. Jonathan Kellerman turned me *off* with a prior book, but I picked this one up for less than a dollar.

Dead bodies in various states of decomposition are found in a suburban Los Angeles protected marsh. Alex Delaware is - dun, dun, dun, dun! - the psychologist who provides insights into the minds of criminals and their behaviors.

Did I learn anything? No, this was a quickie read to satisfy an overwhelmed mind. This psychologist was too HelLA for me, though the chief investigator has some snappy dialogue. There is a lot of backstory that I didn't understand, but I was not compelled to read more of his books to find out why someone ignored someone else and why it wasn't resolved in this book.

Besides, my own psychologist from the realm of *amazing* (near the planet of Rockstar) has provided more forensic information before coffee this morning than a few days spent with this book.

If you like mysteries, supposedly this is a better Alex Delaware novel in the series. If not, you will like mysteries after my books are published. The end.

2.25 out of 5.0 Fruity Bone.