Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holidays 2010 - Goal for 2011

Some emails:

"Where did you go?" "Are you reading anymore?" "Did you finish your book?" "Why don't you post?"

2010 has been a challenging year, so my book reviews (and Books for Breakfast) were swept under the bed to mix with dog hair and dust bunnies. However, how could I completely neglect my baby?

Books for Breakfast is coming back with even more craziness for 2011. But, first, a recap:

2006 - read 150 books in one year

2007 - read 90 of the top 100 books to read, as well as focused on banned books

2008 - read from the 1001 books to read before you die list

2009 - read whatever I wanted

2010 - read recommendations from blog readers

For 2011, I'm expanding upon the idea for 2010. You tell me what to read - email, post here, or send something to the Facebook group. I am only going to read recommendations and Nook books.

Using the "share" option, you can email your library recommendations to me (if you have a nook, too). Or, send an idea to me, and I will put it on my to-do list. However, Nook requests will take priority. ;-)

Goal: 175 books. I will beat my former record with everyone's help.

Cheers! Thanks for sticking with me through the past few months... I am grateful!

Thursday, September 02, 2010

24. THE ISLAND - Victoria Hislop



Spanning four generations in a small Greek village, this book is a fascinating look at guilt, secrets, and isolation.

Alexis, while reflecting on her own path in life, decides to visit her secretive mother's friend, and learns that the beautiful island, Spinalonka, in the distance off of Crete was once a leper colony. Anyone who had signs of the disease, including Alexis's great-grandmother, were immediately shipped off to avoid contaminating others.

The Island shows the devastation of leprosy, but Spinalonka became a place of hope. There was decent housing, medical care, and even a bar for the men.

However, most of the details of this novel take place off "the island" in the village. The stories of Alexis's relatives chase away the more interesting story of the island and its characters. At one point, I became irritated because there seemed to be no emotion shown when one character met the boy who gave her mother leprosy. Really? And, how did they feel about relationships or seeing their "home" across the bay?

These issues are oversimplified, which made me not invested in the characters. What kept me reading were the interesting stories about leprosy and the island, which is based on a historical time in Greece.

2.4 out of 5.0 TKOs.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

23. THE THIRTEENTH TALE - Diane Setterfield



Oh, to have thought of this concept. A biographer meets with the famous author, Vida Winter, to hear her life story, including that of the unwritten "Thirteenth Tale." However, is Margaret going to believe a woman who has told reporters several different stories of her life?

Rather than be misled, Margaret investigates Vida's past. As she peels back the layers, she realizes that truth can be stranger than fiction.

I'll admit it... I thought it would be overrated. However, I was charmed. Though there are enough coincidences to make one's frown begin to pucker, it is still a fascinating story that engrosses the reader.

3.75 out of 5.0 Drinks without a Name.

Friday, August 27, 2010

22. STAR ISLAND - Carl Hiaasen


Cherry Pye is Hiaasen's latest in a long list of crazy characters. Cherry, formerly Cheryl Bunterman, will remind readers of Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus: spoiled, slutty rock princess. So, being such a hot commodity, is there any wonder that she has a double to cover for her?

No, but Cherry doesn't know (she's too out of it). When her double, Ann, decides to take a vacay and ends up in the Florida swamps with Skink (yes, fans, he is back) and then kidnapped by a raging lunatic-paparazzo, Cherry's mom, manager, and publicists only care enough to keep a lid on the incidents.

As with all of his books, Carl Hiassen is over-the-top in his writing with descriptions that make you cringe or laugh. This look at pop culture is a wicked-fast read.

4.0 out of 5.0 Pop the Cherries.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

21. PROMISED LANDS - Jane Rogers

A novel meticulous in its research about the colonization of Sydney with convicts and their military watchers, including William Dawes, included with the Royal Navy to provide information on the upcoming Halley's comet. Instead, he becomes the primary engineer in building the colony with little wood and a lot of resistance.



Meanwhile, this is a story within a story. The author, Stephen, is writing this book, and jars the reader out of the lovely bubble of early Australia with his notes. It's similar to reading an author's manuscript. At the same time, there are long, strange chapters of his wife, Olla's, thoughts - of Stephen, of their new son (born with cerebral palsy), and of her own delusional beliefs.



Two points of view are interesting: William Dawes and Olla's. They are also parallel. What do you do when you have faith, but those around you do not see your vision? Stephen, however, seems to be the mosquito that finds you after you turn off the lights, whining and buzzing. It's too bad that we couldn't simply find out about him through his novel and Olla's POV.



It's an odd book, and in some ways, I would have preferred to simply read about the convict camp in Australia. However, the author's comparisons and contrasts are brilliant. If you have read it, I'd love to see your opinion about the ending... in the comments, of course.



3.25 out of 5.0 Kangaroos.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"...people like me, who sit in small rooms and type all day, aren't particularly intriguing, even to their own families." - Carl Hiaasen

This post is for my MFA friends and Terry Davis, author of Mysterious Ways and Vision Quest. During dear Terry's class, I tried to contact Mr. Carl Hiaasen and was cock-blocked by his assistant.



I wouldn't do that to you, Kristin!


Of course, as his "number one fan" a la creepy Annie from Misery, I have read all of his books. I knew why his writing worked and wanted to get in touch with him for an interview to impress my classmates. Cock-blocked. Completely shut down like a closeted lesbian's date on prom.


So, almost ten years later, I really hope that Bridget Fitzgerald happens to google herself and read this silly blog. Bridget sent me an advance copy of Carl Hiaasen's book, Star Island. I receive a lot of books to be reviewed, but when I opened this package, three things may have occurred:

a. Squealing;
b. Jumping up and down;
c. Random calls to people who just did not understand the importance of this event.
Perhaps all three. I am not telling.

Meanwhile, I am going to race-read through this book because I "lurve" Carl Hiaasen. Then, I am going to catch up on the blog with all of the summer reading. There is a pile with "to review" on it. We'll take it slow, shall we?


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

20. THE SURVIVORS CLUB - Ben Sherwood


If you want to learn "the secrets and science that could save your life," just turn the pages and enjoy.

Mixed with examples (the Central Park jogger, mountain lion attack survivors, and more) plus scientific research, Sherwood attempts to find the secret to why some people survive and others - don't.

Some of the answers are easy. For instance, you only have a limited time to get out of a downed plane, but you may have been listening to your iPod or playing with your kids during the emergency landing speech. So, you don't know where the nearest exits are located. Would you climb over the seats to get to them?

Other answers are not. U.S. armed forces are asked about survival techniques, and one man says you need a belief in God. What if you lack this? Several of the stories also indicate the arrival of a supreme being who helped or saved them. Does this mean my atheist friends are dead in similar situations?

What makes this book even more fun is the test: there is a link online to determine your own survivor skills and nurture them. Is there one answer? No, but there are several, and I found the entire book motivational and touching, especially when he says that he and his wife named their son, "Will" on purpose.

4.5 out of 5.0 Corpse Reviver>.

19. THE ASH GARDEN - Dennis Bock


As Emiko draws in mud upon her brother's back, the work of Anton is rushing in a silver bullet down from an airplane toward Hiroshima, about to change the world.

Anton and his colleagues created the atom bomb, stopping World War II. However, when the bomb hit, it not only killed Emiko's friends and family, it severed the emotional tie between Anton and his wife, Sophie.

Nearly fifty years later, after reconstructive surgeries on her burned face, Emiko approaches Anton at a conference where he continues to explain the correctness of this act. She asks to speak with him on tape. Through their discussions, the reader learns far more about the connections between the three characters.

What started as an amazing premise with lyrical prose ended abruptly for me. I will allow you to discover and interpret the final pages for yourself, but it was a book-throwing moment for me. I felt let down, as if so much momentum had been built for... what? Bah.

2.75 out of 5.0 Dirty Pashes.

18. CATHERINE DE MEDICI: RENAISSANCE QUEEN OF FRANCE - Leonie Frieda


When my friend, Becky, showed me photos of a trip to Italy, I didn't fully understand the role of the Medici family and took her advice on reading material. This lead me to Catherine, who became queen of France and is one of the most fascinating of the Medicis.

Frieda writes non-fiction like fiction, telling history with warmth and deep descriptions. From the flowers in the gardens to the weather, the divine detail made me forget I was reading a biography.

Catherine de Medici was best known for using sorcery, astrology, and necromancy to bring down her enemies and raise her husband, King Henri, and her sons. However, many of the tales about Catherine are tamed in this biography with explanations using her background, health, and examples from the era.

Overall, it was a fascinating look at a powerful woman whom I had only known as Diane de Poitiers enemy in prior books. The drawings of the "real" Diane were enough to satisfy my royal history urges for a few weeks.


4.0 out of 5.0 French Connections.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

17. MARY CALLED MAGDALENE - Margaret George


While the Bible barely mentions Mary Magdalene, the "prostitute" who followed Jesus (there is no evidence that proves that was her profession), there are many churches devoted to her teachings as one of the prophets. She walked with Jesus and earned the title, "Apostle of the Apostles" by seeing visions of his fall and being the first to witness his rising from the dead through her faith.

However, who was Mary? The author uses carefully researched details to piece together a fictional account of a woman. Like Helen of Troy or other mythological women, it is fictional, but she brings much of it to life through Mary's actions.

How is this book different from Margaret George's other books? There is no man involved, other than Jesus. Without a romantic love conflict, there is no source of weakness for her main character, which I found absolutely refreshing. I've read several of George's books, and my main complaint has been that each character could be substituted for each other: Cleopatra for Helen for Mary of Scots. This Mary is bold when she should be floored with self-pity. This Mary leads rather than follows.

I liked the change in characterization, just as I liked the new approach of characterizing Jesus. He is not romanticized. In fact, he seems to go mad at times. Wouldn't you? It seemed to be a modern, realistic way of looking at how the Romans ruled, as well as how people treat one another.

Whether you are Christian or not, it is a fascinating look at a character in history, and I am not referring to the one who will judge the living and the dead.

4.0 out of 5.0 Simple Mary.

Comments from readers

"If u r goin to rite a blog, rite a blog."

"Are you OK? Because I already mailed the ARC." (You know who you are... this made me laugh. Writers are so cheap! We covet our measly allowance of books for personal marketing purposes. What, you think the publishers just give these books away like hot cakes? Please.)

"I never received my book, and you have not updated your Facebook group. Is this for real?"

"Why do you ignore me? Read Sookie. Enough of the historical fiction. Whose [sic] telling you to read that??"

I thank you for your concern. It has been a surreal few months, but I finished my first draft of my book and am letting her sit for a little while and rest. She and I will meet again soon, I'm sure.

Meanwhile, I hope to have more time to read this summer, whether on porches or in hammocks, in cars or by soccer fields ("Go team!"). Please forgive me while I catch up on the reading requests... you have not been forgotten. In fact, this has been such a positive experience that I plan to expand it and make it even more interactive next year... but you will have to wait for that.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

16. THE ISLAND UNDER THE SEA - Isabel Allende


Published first in Spanish, this book's English release was pushed back after the earthquake in Haiti. However, now is the perfect time to read about the beginning of the Haitian culture with its mix of freedom and oppression. Seeing the poverty during the telethons did not share its historical grace and pride: this was the first country to be recognized as a free black union during a time when Marie Antoinette and her prince lost their heads during the revolution. What an amazing historical time to write about.

However, the state of "French" life in Haiti, known as Saint-Domingue, was quite different in the late 1790s. Life revolved around the sugar and rum plantations. You were a white planter or businessman, a mulatto soldier or madame, or a black slave. According to Allende, at one point, there were only about 30,000 free souls compared to half a million slaves on the small island.

All of this is background to the story of Tete, who is sold to Toulouse Valmorain as a maid to his wife. Later, Tete becomes the backbone of the inner workings of the plantation, and Valmorain relies on her as he would a mistress.

But Tete's heart does not beat hard for her master; instead, she falls for one of the revolutionaries. In typical Allende style, all of the intertwinings of plot bob and weave until a somewhat predictable ending. This time, however, I was not convinced, as I had been when I read Daughter of Fortune. This time, I thought the ending was rushed, and many of the the braids loosened.

Still, for a spring/summer read, this is a fascinating look at history in both Haiti and New Orleans, where many of the refugees relocated after the revolution. I always love a brainy, sexy read.

3.75 out of 5.0 Island Martinis.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

15. THE CREATION OF EVE - Lynn Cullen


Sofonisba Anguissola was one of Michelangelo's only female students during his lifetime. While this novel provides the fictional stories of this time of "Sofi"'s life, it should not underestimate the amazing skill and talent of a female artist during the Renaissance.

This book is why I adore historical fiction.

Sofi must flee Rome and the tutorials of Michelangelo after falling in love with one of the male students. She becomes the drawing instructor for Elisabeth de Valois, the French queen of Spain's King Felipe II. He holds almost all of the power in Europe at this time, yet even he cannot impregnate his young bride.

Soon, Sofi becomes the queen's favorite, and she is drawn into both silly and dangerous adventures. The king's power is demonstrated when it appears that his knowledge of plants, and their properties to kill, assist in the murder of his mistress's husband.

Between fear of the king and the Inquisition, Sofi tries to remain silent and protective of her queen. However, can she save her from her fate? And, can Sofi find the part of herself that can paint again?

It is a truly wonderful story, and the author's explanations for her translation of events in the last chapter made me keel over with admiration.

4.0 out of 5.0 Parson's Passions.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

14. THE LUNATIC, THE LOVER, AND THE POET - Myrlin A. Hermes


Into metafiction? Have I found a book for you.
Horatio casts Hamlet, a student at Wittenberg University, in a play for the wealthy merchant Baron de Maricourt. Soon, the baron's wife, Lady Adriane, becomes entangled in the affair, and not long after the arrival of a certain Will Shake-spear further complicates matters in the play and in love affairs.
Some of the Shakespearean references may fly completely over the reader's head; in fact, some of the references make it difficult to understand the novel unless you know your Shakespeare upside-down and sideways.
But, if you like this, and you like metafiction, and you like threeways and a bit of unique writing, give it a go. Though not my cuppa, it might fill you to the brim.

Friday, March 26, 2010

XX. THE GINGER MAN - J.P. Donleavy


I was fascinated in this book and its recommendation because The Ginger Man was banned from the United States in the 1950s. My greatest dream is to write a banned book; of course, I had to read this.

However, after twenty pages, it was rather easy to figure out why it was banned. After forty pages, I lost interest in the story, though I would like to revisit it in the future... especially if enough people tell me I *must*.

13. WENCH - Dolen Perkins-Valdez


My father-in-law has a saying; when asked how he is doing, he replies, "I'm white, I'm male, I was born in the United States at the ideal time, and I am educated."

The women of Wench would answer a bit differently. As the mistresses of southern slave owners, they are brought to an Ohio resort during the mid 1850s that caters to men who can "love" them more openly. Under the ruse of a personal slave who washes, cooks, cleans, sweeps, and cares for the man, each woman has a different personal relationship with her master. While some, like Sweet, have borne several children and feel love for her man, others, like Mawu, despises her master and begins the talk that changes their lives.

Ohio was free territory, but until Mawu began talking of being a "free black," like the hotel's servants, none of the others considered other options for their lives or their children's lives. Their choices would eventually reunite them or divide them forever from their families.

The most powerful part of the novel was the characterization in its short 300 pages. Four women with different beliefs and relationships psychologically stand together with the strength of Stonehenge. A shift of the hip or a glance tells much more than an entire page.

Like The Help, this is a peek at a world I would never know or understand. How are you doing today, Kristin? I am white, I'm a strong woman, I was born in the United States at the ideal time, and I am educated. I am a lucky, lucky woman.

4.25 out of 5.0 Code Limons.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

12. DAUGHTER OF FORTUNE - Isabel Allende


I think I found a new favorite author. And, dear readers, if you recommended this book, step forth into my circle of adoration.

Beginning in Chile, a newborn baby is found at the back door of a moderately wealthy family. Rose insists on adopting the child into the family, and Eliza Sommers life begins. As a child, she is split between the "how to be a lady" lessons from Rose and the cooking and healing recipes of her nana, a native Chilean Indian.

As she grows up, she falls in love with Joaquin. Rose disapproves of the match, but Eliza is so secretive and sneaky that she is never caught with the young man. However, the gold fever of 1848-49 California reaches the coast of Chile, and Joaquin catches the illness along with half of the world. Of course, Eliza follows him, and I will not summarize any more details because you must enjoy this epic work yourselves.

Allende has such an enormous grasp of historical events, places, and people, and she blends them seamlessly into her narrative. A character in one chapter will have significance in a much later chapter, a small image will have tremendous meaning. This is the type of writing that I can embrace.

Small quibble - it's an Oprah book, and y'all know how I feel about that. However, if any of her other books are half as good as this one, I will read them. Suggestions?

4.75 out of 5.0 Picante Lemons.

Monday, March 01, 2010

11. THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS - John Connolly


David's mother is dying, but he counts the numbers of steps and ritualizes his mornings in an attempt to keep her alive. After her death, and his father's subsequent remarriage, he finds new rituals: books. Especially, listening to the books who talk to him.

This fantasy-filled novel, set in World War II Britain, promises to prompt memories of Grimm fairy tales and ideas of "truth" versus "story." I found that I liked this book much more after I finished it and could begin the rehashing of its meaning.

David finds a hole in the garden, and he hears his mother's voice calling for help. One night, he sees a German plane falling from the sky, and to escape from a fiery death, he crawls through the hole into a fairytale woods. From there, the story follows familiar and strange tales, the stories that we do not tell children, but we probably should. Death comes to those who make idiotic choices, for example, or are not honorable in their actions.

In order to return to the "real world," David must find the king and his "Book of Lost Things." However, is his awakening due to finding a way home, or had this been his imagination all along?

The author threw in enough irony and twists on typical children's fare to keep my attention. More thrilling is the discussions post-reading. Does this other-world exist? As the author states, he has received a unique answer from everyone he has met. A book to make one think - I'll put down my drink for this.

4.0 out of 5.0 Red Witches.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

10. THE HISTORIAN - Elizabeth Kostova


We have our first thrown book of 2010!

A "packet of letters" (please tell me what this brings to mind - an envelope? A folder?) sends a daughter racing after her father, a historian scholar whose life has become entrapped in the tales of Vlad Tepes, or Dracula. Paul has spent his entire life trying to find his missing wife and mentor, fearful that they are part of Dracula's ever-increasing group of minions.
The story is meant to be written in the Victorian style, but this proved to be elusive and annoying. For example, this "packet" of letters proves to take up half of the 600-page novel. The narrator of the letters (Rossi, the missing mentor) and Paul's letters are written in the same voice.
Don't get me started on the ridiculous coincidences. (SPOILER: the mother throws herself off a cliff, leaves a blood stain on a rock, yet manages to survive by rolling onto a grassy portion?! WTFlippin'Hell?!) I truly believe in the suspension of dis/belief in a novel, but this one pushed me past my boundaries.

Door, meet The Historian, traveling at high velocity.
Lucky for you, it is a good basic story, so you will get to see it in theatres within the next four years. I will stay home with a vodka seven and grind my teeth.
1.0 out of 5.0 Vampires.

9. THE MISTS OF AVALON - Marion Zimmer Bradley


As many of you wonderful Books for Breakfast readers know (because this has been recommended for three years), this book is about the Arthurian legend. However, the twist is the old Celtic/Druid tales, as well as the legend told entirely from the women's point of view.
I have studied the lost Druid training of the "Isle of Mona," and I wonder how much could be truth. Or, is it a form of truth that cannot be proven other than in faith? Either way, I was hypnotized by this epic book. At times, the actions of the characters angered me, but this was the purpose of the novel. Such strangely beautiful writing, as well.
Are the other books in the series (and written with her sister-in-law) comparable? How odd that I felt a sense of loss when I read the epilogue and learned that Marion Zimmer Bradley had died two decades ago. It had been like finding a new friend.
4.5 out of 5.0 Green Mists.

Monday, February 22, 2010

8. THE USED WORLD - Haven Kimmel


Three women work at "The Used World," and their lives become so intertwined and messy that one cannot help but continue to read.

However, for me, I was frustrated by a number of points in this novel. If you are not afraid of spoilers, see the comments section.

2.5 out of 5.0 June Bugs.

7. THE STONE CARVERS - Jane Urquhart


With the Winter Olympics held in Toronto, there is an increased interest in all things Canadian. I, of course, turn toward books, and I am fortunate to have a Canadian teacher-friend who has recommended so many great books over the years (thanks, Paul!).

This novel is about the taming of Canadian wilderness. The back story is about her grandfather, who helped build the church in Shoneval. His wood-carving skills created wonder among those who saw his work, and he passed down these lessons and materials to his granddaughter, Klara, and grandson, Tilman.

As adolescents, Klara is typical of the time. She wants to do more than women were "allowed" to do, like carve an enormous statue for the church. Instead, she settles for creating other things as the best tailor in the area. She falls for an Irish farmer who leaves to serve in the war.

Tilman, however, cannot bear to stay home. When he hears the call of the geese, he wants to follow them. This leads to a decades-long separation from his sister. But, when they are reunited, he agrees to go to France with Klara and work on the monument dedicated to the soldiers from the Great World War.

The writing is beautiful and spare, but the characters felt forced into their roles. Klara is bitter and stubborn to the point where I could not comprehend her choices. The end is predictable. If the writing were not so lovely, it would have been painful to read, but I liked the different tales of Canadian history.

2.75 out of 5.0 Canadian Car Bombs.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

6. FOLLOW THE RIVER - James Alexander Thom


The cheesy cover. The almost-romance lift of her skirt. Oh, friend of mine, if I had seen the book when you recommended it, I would never have read it.

However, as this site shows, there are just some bad book covers. Or, it is from a genre writer, so it gets a genre cover. Or, we can blame the 80s. I do it all of the time.

Mary Ingles (not to be confused with Mary Ingalls of Laura Ingalls Wilder fame) is kidnapped by Shawnee Indians after a massacre in her small Virginia settlement. She is nine months pregnant with two sons, but she takes charge of the other prisoners and gets kick-ass respect from her captors.

After plotting her escape, she finally makes a run for it with a Dutch woman, knowing only that she must follow the river to get home to her husband.

Super quick read, fascinating tale that is based on a true story. It made me ask myself, "What if I had to make the same choices?" which is always a sign of a good read in my view.

3.0 out of 5.0 Vodka Chillers.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

5. THE FORGOTTEN LEGION - Ben Kane


As a writer who lives in the world where Romans are enemies and fables become truths, this book spoke to my spirit. Kane has written the first in a series of epic tales about the lost history of the conquered - though definitely not forgotten.

Twins are born to a Roman slave; one becomes a gladiator, while his sister is sold into prostitution. Brennus is the mentor to Romulus, teaching him how to do battle in the arena. When forced to flee, the two join Tarquinius, one of the last Etruscan tribe, who is not only a warrior but a "haruspex," someone who knows the lost arts of divination in the tribe.

The three join the army and fight the Parthians, setting the tone for the future books where they will fight their way to Margiana and become the historically known "Forgotten Legion." Meanwhile, Fabiola, the twin left for death at the whorehouse, is wooed and won by the powerful Brutus. Her fortune also awaits us in the next volume.

While the book may seem like back story for a longer novel, it is full of ancient myths and battles. For example, one greedy general's quest for gold is used to parallel another myth about "beware of what you wish for" (and, strangely enough, appeared in another recent book, as well, but more on that in future posts).

I found myself flipping through the pages like eating potato chips. If kids could read this, history would be ever-so-much-more interesting. However, I don't think I'll feel quite full until I know more about the characters' fates. Please, Mr. Kane, follow the horrible examples of the trilogies turned into six-seven-eight-infinity books, and provide your readers these wonderful stories without dipping into irrational red herrings and plot twists. Diana Gabaldon, I am looking at you.

3.8 out of 5.0 Roman Riots.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

January Free Book Contest: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES

Congratulations to Renee from St. Louis, Missouri, for having the winning entry for this free book give-away!

Check out the February free book contest at the Facebook page (see link at right) on Friday.

What the - ?

Between blizzards and writing and work, I have been a poor blogger, indeed. However, I have a stack of books that need to be reviewed, and a new announcement for a free book.

So, forgive the sudden burst of activity as I try to get caught up over the next week or so.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

XX? - THE HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES - Nathaniel Hawthorne

Am I just not getting it? By the third chapter, I felt like I had spent a weekend at a family reunion, but it wasn't my own family. Strangers converged upon me like ants on spilled soda. Names engulfed my thoughts. A chronic feeling of "What the?" fell over me.

Try, try again? Or pitch across the room (again)?

4. 1776 - David McCullough


Did I want to revisit 8th grade history class? Didn't I know everything about the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Paine's "Common Sense"?

Obviously not.

And many told me that I did not understand the true meanings behind the words, though I had memorized them to impress my high school government teacher. They were right. Reading 1776 is like quoting the Bible or the Torah, but not knowing the other stories about how Noah tried to make babies with his sons' wives. It is learning that you do not know as much as you think you do.

I have a problem with that, though I will often admit to it.

George Washington, portrayed as a faultless leader, didn't like the New England armies and bemoaned the lackluster performances of his soldiers. It wasn't difficult to agree; many of them turned tail and ran when the Hessians (what? I thought this war was between the United Colonies and England?) approached their battle lines.

Like many books about history, this one is meticulously researched. Unlike many books about history, it is written from the viewpoint of all involved, whether a wife of one of the "rebels," an English ship captain, or the "best friend" of George Washington. One woman, whose husband died during an attack on Fort Washington, took his place at the cannon. These are the stories that we need to share, read, and understand.

4.0 out of 5.0 Washington Martini.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

3. OF HUMAN BONDAGE - W. Somerset Maugham


I owe an apology to the readers of this blog. You have recommended this book for years, and I have ignored your advice. Thank Thor that I have agreed to read according to your whims this year because, if you keep sending me to places like those found in Of Human Bondage, I shall have a delightful year.

This "semi-autobiographical fiction" tome begins with the childhood of Philip Carey, an orphaned, sensitive lad whose clubfoot and reliance on the charity of distant relatives causes every chaff or whistle to feel like sandpaper against his fragile soul.

The reader watches Philip's ventures through life, from a student in Germany to art school in Paris, then back to London for medical school. Throughout it all, his views on love, politics, religion, and beauty meld and waver. It is as if watching yourself repeat high school through an ancient, bubbled window.

However, it is his love/hate relationship with Mildred that causes the most pain and passion in his life. Maeve Binchy, whose writing I adore, wrote it best when she stated that she wanted to send an anonymous letter to this character to warn him of Mildred's evil intentions. This character is the symbol of all: the hope and luster of youth, the despair of broken dreams, and the realization of the self.

Knowing that this book was published in 1915 makes the stories and messages even more astounding. The only subject that is not referred to is homosexuality, which I found surprising considering Maughan was "a raging homosexual," according to his biography by Ted Morgan. But to think of others reading about premarital sex, prostitution, strippers, or atheism must have been shocking at the time.

Perhaps because I could identify with his journey in religious thought or his ability to find beauty in the most common of situations (the charm of an impoverished couple who were delighted that he - a "gentleman" - shared dinner with them), I relished every word. Now, I wish there was a sequel. Tell me, dear Philip, what I will experience in the next decades of my life! You have plainly read my thoughts on the past two decades; please tell me more.

4.75 out of 5.0 Pusser's Pain Killers.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Books for Breakfast - Now with prizes and other vodka-laced mayhem

I have too many books.

There is no such thing? Bah, I say. I cannot see above my desk, and my shelves are packed tighter than Kirstie Alley in a bikini.

So, for fun and fabulous prizes, please join the new Facebook Books for Breakfast group:

http://www.facebook.com/groups/edit.php?customize&gid=263460624251#/group.php?gid=263460624251

...or look for Books for Breakfast under group names.

The first freebie will be posted next week, so sign up soon!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

2. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES - Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith


Jane Austen must have rolled over in her grave so many times that she is nothing but dust.

I'll admit that I was ashamed to read this book. As an admirer of Jane Austen, I thought that this book was a cruel attempt to solicit laughs and publication ("now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem!"). However, it was recommended to me by several people, and since that is the 2010 goal, it was first on my list.

Yes, this book follows the original tale, but with many more 21st century twists. For example, at the end in the clever reader's discussion guide, it asks, "Does Mrs. Bennett have any redeeming qualities?" Tee-hee.

So, upon reading this, I found myself split in half:
English Professor: This is horrible! Poor Jane Austen.
Naughty Self: (while laughing out loud) This is how I pictured Mrs. Bennett in my head! "... I am sure my dinners are good enough for her, since she is an unmarried woman of seven-and-twenty, and as such should expect little more than a crust of bread washed down with a cup of loneliness."
English Professor: No one will read Austen now, and my students will quote from this book as if it were the original; however, more students will understand references to Mr. Darcy.
Naughty Self: Another "balls" joke. (more laughing out loud)

I suppose if I have to combine the two reactions, I believe in the "imitation is flattery" argument. If anyone dares touch To Kill a Mockingbird in such a way, I shall have to suffer the seven cuts of shame and use my blade to smite all involved.

2.85 out of 5.0 Zombies.

P.S. Natalie Portman purchased the rights to produce and star in the movie version. And I thought her colon was made of cement.

Friday, January 01, 2010

1. HELEN OF TROY - Margaret George


Jinx, don't read this until you have finished the book. I want another opinion.

Off topic: Margaret George lives five hours away from me. How do I know this? A friend of a friend told me, and she said that I should talk to Ms. George about researching historical figures for my own novel. A bit late, but very kind, nonetheless.

Though I am not sure if Ms. George would receive me. You see, while I admire her imaginative characters, drawing them from a word on a papyrus or the dried out pages of old parchment, her heroines sound exactly the same from book to book. Whether it is Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, or Mary of Scots, they are commanding, bitter, and bold. While we should expect this from leaders, I was disappointed to read the same character, once again.

However, the details of the Trojan War makes up for it. If you saw the movie, Troy, you know the characters, but the war actually lasted for almost a decade (or seven years, depending on the source). While the thrust of the war effort is to take back Helen, there are other reasons, as well. The Iliad and the Odyssey (another book on my "you should read" list) only tells of the fall of Achilles, I am told. This version shows the slow flush of anger as people are killed for Paris's love of Helen, and its effects on the royal family, as well as the couple.

Overall, I enjoyed reading about this woman who may never have existed, but whose fame has lasted for centuries.

3.75 out of 5.0 T-ROY Green Tea Vodkas.