Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Always the Baker, Never the Bride

Author: Sandra D. Bricker

Title: Always the Baker, Never the Bride

Description (source): Thirty-six-year-old Emma Rae Travis has been baking specialty cakes and melt-in-your-mouth pastries at The Backstreet Bakery in historic Roswell, just outside of Atlanta, for the last six years. But here s the rub about her job as a baker ... Emma is diabetic. When she tastes her creations, it can only be in the most minute portions. Emma is considered an artisan for the stunning creme brulee wedding cake that won her the Passionate Palette Award last year, but she s never even had one full slice of it. 

When Jackson Drake hears about this local baker who has won a prestigious award for her wedding cake artistry, he tells his assistant to be sure and include her in the pastry tastings scheduled at his new wedding destination hotel the following week. And for Jackson, that particular day has started out badly with two workmen trapped in a broken elevator and a delivery of several dozen 300-thread-count bed linens in the wrong size abandoned in the lobby. But when the arrogant baker he met a week prior in Roswell stumbles into the dining room with a platter of pastries and a bucketful of orders, he knows for certain: It s going to be a really rotten day. 

Can these two ill-suited players master the high-wire act and make a go of their new business venture? Or will they take each other crashing downward, without a net? And will the surprise wedding at The Tanglewood be theirs? (product description)

Review source: Free kindle book.

Plot: A mixed bag here. There were a lot of subplots, some more successful than others. The one about Emma’s aunt gets way too much play time (it’s like the author would pull her out whenever she couldn’t think of anything else to advance the action). Also, read the description… does it sound like a Christian romance? Nor does it begin like one. About halfway through the book, though, all of a sudden, everyone starts praying, worrying about their relationship with God—I don’t mind Christian romance, but it just hit me weird in this book because it was so abrupt.

Characters: The main characters suffer from the “I’m boring because I have to be normal because everyone I know is so eccentric” syndrome. This syndrome seems to only occur in books.

Writing style: I think the novel was at least one-third too long. So some of the things that bugged me would have been taken care of if it had been shorter. There were details that seemed thrown in that never advanced the story. Who cares if she’s diabetic? It didn’t make much difference (except we got to hear how much she wanted sugar all the time). At one point, she was a mechanical whiz, but that was just dropped…

Audience: Christian romance readers. Not me so much.

Wrap-up: The book was readable, but I started to get pretty tired of it. I wouldn’t seek out more books by Ms. Bricker. 2.5/5*

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Review: The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace

Author: Gary Chapman and Paul White  

Title: The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace

Description (source): The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace applies the love language concept to the workplace. This book helps supervisors and managers effectively communicate appreciation and encouragement to their employees, resulting in higher levels of job satisfaction, healthier relationships between managers and employees, and decreased cases of burnout. Ideal for both the profit and non-profit sectors, the principles presented in this book have a proven history of success in businesses, schools, medical offices, churches, and industry. Each book contains an access code for the reader to take a comprehensive online MBA Inventory (Motivating By Appreciation).

The inventory is designed to provide a clearer picture of an individual's primary language of appreciation and motivation as experienced in a work-related setting. It identifies individuals' preference in the languages of appreciation. Understanding an individual's primary and secondary languages of appreciation can assist managers and supervisors in communicating effectively to their team members.

ARC source: netgalley

Writing style: The authors are annoyingly redundant. If a concept is clearly explained for one “language,” it doesn’t need to be explained in similar detail for the other four. Likewise, the reader tends not to forget from chapter to chapter, so we don’t need an entire recap. I think this book was at least three times longer than it needed to be.

Audience: Business people who like this kind of flavor-of-the-month management self-help. Love languages fans. Neither one is me.

Major ideas: The “love languages” idea has made Chapman a household name (and rich) over the last few years, and most denizens of evangelical bookstores are at least familiar with the concept. Signals can get crossed when we don’t communicate our regard to people in the way that they most want to hear it. This book adapts that concept for the workplace, with mixed results. The languages are words of appreciation, acts of service, tangible gifts, and quality time. Physical touch is listed as a parenthetical addition; for obvious reasons, many people are uncomfortable with physical touch in the workplace.

Wrap-up: In addition to the problems I had with this book that I’ve mentioned above, there were some other 
problems with the kindle ARC from netgalley. There was no code to take the assessment, so no way to judge this tool that’s referred to on at least every other page. Then the text was so badly arranged that the book was just a headache to read. Here’s a typical bit:
Staff doesn’t feel appreciated bysu
They couldn’t pay me enough to stay here. The lack of support is deafening.”
                Pervisors and coworkers. Most supervisors are not aware of this factand thus,
Theyfocusmoreonthepowerof financial benefits
Etc. etc. Yuck! An ARC with a few typos is one thing, but this thing literally had lines with no spaces, dozens of times. I’d recommend this book if you really need to affirm your co-workers and you’re sort of slow to get the idea. Otherwise, read the synopsis and go find something more worth your time. 1/5

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Book Review: Naomi and her Daughters

Author: Walter Wangerin

Title: Naomi and Her Daughters

Description (source): From master storyteller Walter Wangerin, Jr. comes this familiar biblical saga told in a fresh, transfixing way. You'll feel you've never heard it before! Melding historical accuracy with imaginative detail, Wangerin uses the biblical books of Judges and Ruth to explore themes of love, faith, grief and community set against a backdrop of war and political instability. The widow Naomi grieves the deaths of her two adult sons after the shocking murder of a beloved adopted daughter, while pondering her responsibilities toward her Moabite daughters-in-law. Ancient Israel is in chaos. When her daughter-in-law, Ruth, begs to return to Israel with Naomi, events are set in motion that will change the course of history. But wait...this isn't the tame, flannel graph story you heard in Sunday School. In the tradition of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent and Elissa Elliott's Eve: A Novel of the First Woman, Wangerin imbues his tale with strong female characters and an earthy realism that gives the timeless Old Testament narrative so much power. You'll find echoes of contemporary issues throughout: deceit, heartbreak, loss, war, and, of course, the power of love. Naomi's combined strength and tenderness becomes the pivot upon which a nation turns; her decisions ultimately lead to the founding of the family lineage of Jesus Christ. Breathtaking descriptions, shocking violence, and inspirational courage make this spellbinding novel by a beloved award-winning author a story you won't soon forget. It's the perfect novel for your book group, and a satisfying read for those who love thoughtful biblical fiction. (Amazon)

Review source: I downloaded on kindle for free.

Plot: Wangerin imagines that the horrific story from Judges of the Levite’s concubine is also a part of Naomi’s story; in fact this woman is Naomi’s first “daughter.” This story makes up the first part of the book; subsequent parts deal with Boaz, and Naomi’s sojourn in Moab, with only the last section dealing with the familiar story of Ruth.

Characters: Naomi and Boaz are the two characters who appear throughout the book; Ruth appears only toward the end. I never felt like I really understood these characters, especially Boaz, who is borderline crazy and pretty scary in the first part of the book. Naomi is the best-realized character, but even with her, there is a remove. Perhaps it is a result of Wangerin reporting actions, but not entering the thoughts of the characters?

Writing style: Wangerin is one of those people who writes “literary” Christian fiction, and as such, I should like him, but I’ve never really warmed up to him. I really tried to read his best-known book, The Book of the Dun Cow, but just couldn’t get interested. I did read a non-fiction book of his on marriage, but that one and this one are the only two books of his that I’ve read. His style is spare and feels to me like it’s at an emotional remove (for the horrible events in this book, that may be a good thing). He intersperses Scripture regularly, so the style has to work with the biblical poetry, which it mostly does, though Wangerin does adapt some modern-sounding slang.

Audience: The description pretty much nails it: women who read novels based on biblical stories. Christian men would probably also enjoy the book, if they ever picked it up, since it’s anything but “mushy.” The problem with getting an audience for this kind of book is getting people to read it in the first place, since it’s based on the Bible. This isn’t the kind of book I typically read, so any rating I give is probably lower than someone who is in the target audience would give it.

Wrap-up: This isn’t the kind of book that one “enjoys.” Nonetheless, I did stay interested in it and want to finish it. I’m still not a huge Wangerin fan, but I know that there are plenty of them without me. 3.5/5*

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book Review: Shadow Castle (Expanded ed.)

Author: Marian Cockrell

Title: Shadow Castle expanded ed.

Description (source): In the middle of a deep forest is an enchanted valley and a castle where only shadows live, shadows of kings and queens who have waited for hundreds of years for the spell cast upon them to be broken. One day, a girl named Lucy follows a little dog through a tunnel into the valley and meets the mysterious red-haired Michael, who takes her into the shadow world to meet Prince Mika and his mortal wife Gloria, their children and their children's children, and learn the magic that will lift the spell. This new expanded Author's Edition contains additional chapters never published before! (Amazon)

Review source: purchased

Plot: Some basic information: this was my favorite, favorite book when I was a child. I would read it at least once a year, sometimes more. I never knew anyone else who had even heard of the book or the author. As an adult, I’ve found that there’s a small group of us who love this book—apparently enough to produce a reissue, with two additional stories. So, the review is mostly about the two new stories, since it’s a given that the rest of the book is 5*.

Characters: One of the new stories is about Robin and Mika when Robin was a toddler. It gives a little more backstory to Robin’s interest in goblins, as he is abducted by them, and Mika has to go to the rescue.  The second new story is about a descendant of Meira and Julian, Princess Flame, and her recalcitrant genie, and a fire fairy we meet in the Robin/Mika story.  The first story is mostly action; the second is mostly romance, although the second story does introduce witches and genies, who have been absent from the book until now.

Writing style: There are some phrases in this book that are so familiar to me that when I read them, they just echo, because I’m repeating them as I read them. The new writing is similar, but of course, it’s new and not so well-known, so doesn’t have that same reverberation. Nonetheless, the new segments aren’t a let-down.

Audience: Me. Other than me, girls from the age of five on up (though the younger ones might have to have some help with the reading. If they can sound out Flumpdoria, they’re good). My son liked the book as well when he was a preteen, though he would never admit it.

Wrap-up: I think one reason I loved the book as a youngster was the beautiful illustrations. They are still there in this edition, for which I’m grateful. The pictures of Mika and Gloria at their wedding and Robin and Bluebell alone are worth the price of the book. I still have my old copy; now the new one sits next to it. 5/5*

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Review: The Pawn

Author: Steven James

Title: The Pawn (Book 1 of the Patrick Bowers files)

Description (source): As an environmental criminologist, Patrick Bowers uses 21st-century geospatial technology to analyze the time and space in which a crime takes place. Using an array of factors, Bowers can pinpoint clues to solve the toughest of cases. Bowers's skills have made him one of the FBI's top agents-until now. 

Called to the mountains of North Carolina to consult on a gruesome murder, Bowers finds himself in a deadly duel with a serial killer who seems to transcend Patrick's analytical powers. Forced to track the killer's horrific murders one by one, Bowers finds his techniques and instincts are put to the ultimate test... (Amazon)

Review source: not a review copy; free on kindle

Plot: The book definitely held my interest and there were several plot twists that caught me by surprise (which is hard to do). The aspect that sets this book apart from other mysteries would be the detective's specialty as an environmental detective; the book introduces the specialty and its methods over the course of solving the case.

Characters: A book like this has two main characters that matter: the detective and the villain. Both are well-done in this novel. The detective (Bowers) is really smart, but not infallible, and his personal issues affect, but don’t overwhelm, the thriller plot. The (suspected) villains are well-written (i.e. chilling!) as well. There are several good supporting characters: Bowers’ stepdaughter is especially affecting, and the team of investigators has several individuals with distinct personalities.

Writing style: Bowers has a quick-paced writing style that alternates points of view. Lots of short chapters—typical of the thriller genre. This book had way more character development than the thrillers I usually read, and that’s a good thing.

Audience: People who like thrillers, serial killer mysteries, detective stories.

Wrap-up: This isn’t the type of book I usually read, but it was free on kindle, so I picked it up. It surprised me with its depth, and I raced to get it finished. I would read the next in the series. 4/5*

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Review: A Small Hotel

Author: Robert Olen Butler  

Title: A Small Hotel

Description (source): Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler has written fiction about far-ranging topics including hell, extraterrestrials, and the Vietnam War. With A Small Hotel, his twelfth novel, he has turned his attention to a new topic—the complexities of a male-female relationship—and delivers a beautifully told story of love, loss, and redemption.

Set in contemporary New Orleans but working its way back in time, A Small Hotel chronicles the relationship between Michael and Kelly Hayes, who have decided to separate after twenty years of marriage. The book begins on the day that the Hays are to finalize their divorce. Kelly is due to be in court, but instead she drives from her home in Pensacola, Florida, across the panhandle to New Orleans and checks into Room 303 at the Olivier House in the city’s French Quarter—the hotel where she and Michael fell in love some twenty years earlier and where she now finds herself about to make a decision that will forever affect her, Michael, and their nineteen-year-old daughter, Samantha.

Butler masterfully weaves scenes of the present with memories from both the viewpoint of Michael and Kelly—scenes that span twenty years, taking the reader back to critical moments in the couple’s relationship and showing two people deeply in love but also struggling with their own insecurities and inabilities to express this love.

An intelligent, deeply moving, and remarkably written portrait of a relationship that reads as a cross between a romance novel and a literary page turner, A Small Hotel is a masterful story that will remind readers once again why Robert Olen Butler has been called the “best living American writer” (Jeff Guinn, Fort Worth Star-Telegram). (Marketing copy)

Review source: netgalley

Plot: There’s nothing extraneous in the plot of this book, which I read in an evening. The novel centers tightly around the two protagonists; even their daughter only appears in a couple of scenes. Nonetheless, once I realized what Kelly was up to, I couldn’t put the book down.

Characters: Michael and Kelly are the married/divorcing couple. The only other characters are their daughter and their extramarital love interests—Michael’s new girlfriend is a fairly prominent character. Both Michael and Kelly are sympathetic and I was rooting for both of them. Nonetheless, I found it difficult to believe that any man could really be as clueless/messed up as Michael.

Writing style: This is my first novel by Butler. He tells the story from both Kelly’s and Michael’s points of view, and there are lots of flashbacks (note: in my galley copy on kindle, flashbacks sometimes occurred without even a paragraph break, making it a little hard to follow sometimes. I hope that will be fixed in the final copy!)

Audience: I would call this literary fiction, though I would think it would be less likely that a man would pick it up (or enjoy it).

Wrap-up: Much of the book is set in the French Quarter and around New Orleans; since I was just there a week ago, I really enjoyed the setting; Butler captured the French Quarter very well. I had to read this book in one sitting, which is unusual for me, so that gives it extra points. 4/5*

Friday, July 8, 2011

Book Review: The Rose and the Beast

Author: Francesca Lia Block
Title: The Rose and the Beast: Fairy tales retold 
Description: This book is a selection of nine retellings of fairy tales, all set in contemporary  United States.
Review source: nope, this one I wanted and purchased on my own (I know, you didn’t think I did that…)
Plot: The short stories are not connected, other than stylistically and by the fact that they are fairy tales.
Characters: Block’s most memorable characters are her heroines. A book like this one really brings it home how victimized women were and are. Fairy tale has to be one of the most misogynistic, brutal genres around. It’s a wonder more children aren’t traumatized by them (though I have to admit that I was pretty traumatized for awhile as a youngster, worried about wolves getting in to my house).
Writing style: Just beautiful. Vivid imagery, unique metaphors. Normally when I think about someone updating folk tales, it means that they are made less archetypal and at the same time less poetic, since modern life strikes me as prosaic and grungy. This book, though, defies that characterization.
Audience: me! I have to admit I do love retellings of fairy tales, and these are lovely. I think the book is characterized as YA, but there is some pretty grim (ha!) subject matter (though not graphic depictions of sex or violence).
Wrap-up: When I opened this book, I was disappointed, because the type is pretty large, and margins on all sides of the page were generous (to put it nicely). I wondered how such an insubstantial book could be fulfilling. By the time I finished it, though, I had completely forgotten that criticism. Writing as dense as Block’s doesn’t need dozens of words to convey its message, and as emotionally gripping as these stories are, too much more of each story would have been overkill. I give it a rare 5/5*

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Reading Meme Part 2

Most inspirational book read this year – again, I’d say Unfinished Business. It makes you think about who you need to reconcile with; what you need to fix; who you need to thank or encourage.

Favorite reading snack – if I’m being indulgent, it would be chips & soda. But I rarely get to do that.

How often do you agree with critics – I read book reviews to generate a to-read list. And I usually like the books on my to-read list, so I guess I generally agree with them.

How do you feel about giving negative reviews – I rarely finish a book that I would give one or two stars (out of five), unless I’m reviewing it (with a free copy, which I feel sort of obligated). So the reviews I write on my own are generally of books I like. I don't mind giving a negative review if it's warranted. 

If you could read in a foreign language which would you choose – Spanish. I love magic realism.

Most intimidating book you've ever read – Name of the Rose. Next time, I’ll actually try to figure out the Latin.

Most intimidating book you're too nervous to begin – War and Peace

Favorite poet – Charles Williams

Favorite fictional character –  Mary Russell (Laurie R. King)

Books most likely to bring on vacation – whatever’s on my kindle

Name a book you could not finish- really, there’s no book I “could not finish.” Unless the last few pages are missing. There are books I choose not to finish, but that’s not the same thing. I chose not to finish Sandman by Neil Gaiman-- the combination of sex and violence makes my skin crawl and my stomach churn.
What distracts you when reading – TV, even if I don’t want it to.

Favorite film adaptation of a novel – got to be Lord of the Rings!

Most disappointing film adaptation – I hate reading books AFTER I’ve seen the movie. Don’t know why. And that’s not really answering this question. I guess I’d say I’ve never seen a really good version of The Scarlet Letter.

Most money spent at once in a bookstore – I rarely splurge. It was probably for some class! And that would be an online bookstore. I almost never visit or purchase from bricks and mortar bookstores.

How often do you skim a book before reading – I don’t—it’s reviews or cover blurb to get me started, then I read it.

Do you like to keep your books organized – um yes. I’m a librarian. However, it’s not in Dewey or LC order, and no one can understand it but me.

Do you prefer to keep books or give them away – I keep books I think I might read again. Ha ha.

Any books you've been avoiding? – I recently finished Wind in the Willows, which I had avoided for a long time. I can’t think of any others. Maybe War and Peace which is on my kindle, but hasn’t been opened…
Name a book that made you angry – On the Road

Book you didn't expect to like but did – Wind in the Willows, Woman in White

A book you expected to like but didn't –  On the Road, The Road

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Reading Meme Part 1

Stolen from Alison J. and Amy R. who got it from several at Librarything  

Favorite childhood book – Shadow Castle, The Secret Garden

What are you reading right now – about 30 books; some for school, some for fun, some because they’re there. Last night, I read for about an hour on Collapse by Jared Diamond.

Bad book habit – reading too many books at once

Do you have an ereader? – I love my kindle

One book at a time or several – many

Least favorite book this year – Five languages of appreciation in the workplace

Favorite book this year – there have been several; how about Woman in White

How often do you read out of your comfort zone? Hmmm, reading itself is my comfort zone. I guess there are certain types of books I’d choose to read less frequently because of time limitations and I just can’t read them all, but that doesn’t mean that they would make me “uncomfortable.” I guess there are topics that would make me squirm. I won’t read graphic violence, for example.

Can you read on a bus – uh-huh. Where can’t I read? In the dark…

Favorite place to read? On the beach, in the shade

Policy on book lending – no, sorry. If I give it to you, it’s for keeps. Otherwise, it’s mine. (exception: my mom, because she always returns them!)

Do you ever dog ear books – Nope. I have a marvelous bookmark collection from RWA!

Do you ever write in the margins of your books – only for school.

Favorite language to read in – English. Duh.

What makes you love a book – characters. A well-done puzzle plot. Beautiful writing.

What will inspire you to recommend a book – anyone brings it (reading, books, basically anything) up, I’m off on a tear.

Favorite genre – I like all kinds of genres, but my go-to for fun is Regency romance.

Genre you rarely read but wish you did – I like memoirs, but there aren’t enough that really catch my attention. Also, I like books about competitions, preferably non-fiction. Don't know what that genre is called.

Favorite biography – Girl Meets God

Have you ever read a self help book – I just read Unfinished Business which is sort of self-help/memoir.