Saturday, April 27, 2013

Author: Ruth Reichl
Title: Comfort me with Apples

Description: Reichl is the master of the food memoir. She recalls her life through meals she had at different times with different people—though that’s really putting it a bit simply. She remembers events and food events at the same level, and excels at describing both to the reader.   
Source: This was my choice for our book group read.
Writing style: Oh, she is so sensuous. She can describe the taste, the experience of food like no one else; she uses all her senses to encounter a meal and then replays it for us.
Audience: foodies, memoir readers
Major ideas: The book is about a difficult time in Reichl’s life: the breakup of a marriage and a romance and her experiences with infertility. She’s pretty honest with the reader about her own failings, but we forgive her because she writes so beautifully.
Wrap-up: I’m a fan, and gobbled this book up. I just wish I had someone to cook the recipes at the end of each chapter for me! 5/5*

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Review: The Mine

Author: John A. Heidt
Title: The Mine
Description: Joel Smith enters an abandoned mine and comes out in 1941. When he realizes that he won’t be heading back, he begins to make a life in a new time period. He gets a job, falls in love, and even meets people he knew in his old life. But what will happen when he gets the chance to return to his own time?
Review source: I received a review copy from the author.
Plot: I enjoyed this book, and couldn’t guess where it was going. I think part of that was that the title implied that the book was about the mine, but the mine was just the time travel mechanism.
Characters: Joel seemed almost too good to be true, as did Grace, his love interest. There were some interesting side characters, but I wouldn’t say that character development is a strength of the book.
Writing style: I find it sort of interesting that authors always have to have some “mechanism” of time travel. There should be a genre that just accepts time travel and starts with the story.
Audience: Time travel.
Wrap-up: This book is part of a series called Northwest Passage that is connected by the conceit of time travel. It has a sequel entitled The Show (maybe Grace performs in a show that transports her across time). The Mine is available for Kindle right now for .99-- at that price, it's worth taking a look! 3.5/5*

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: In The Woods

Author: Tana French

Title: In the Woods
Description: When he was twelve, Adam Ryan and two friends went into the woods for an afternoon of adventure. All three disappeared, but Adam was later found, shoes covered in blood, and completely unable to remember anything that happened. After changing his name and leaving the area, Ryan is back some twenty years later as a homicide detective investigating another murder of a twelve year old in the same woods.  
Review source: Penguin
Plot: The parallel mystery convention works well here.
Characters: Adam/Rob is the narrator and main character. He tells us up front that he lies, so it’s up to the reader to out what is going on with Rob and his relationships. The center of the book is Rob’s relationship with his partner, Cassie, but his other past and present relationships affect the unfolding of events as well.
Writing style: I was entranced by this book; French weaves a tapestry of clues and hints that left me eager to get to the bottom of the mystery.
Audience: It’s ostensibly a mystery, but French has been very well-received by critics and most readers of literary fiction would probably enjoy it as well.
Wrap-up: I was really frustrated with the ending of the book in several different ways. It was one of those reads that keeps you totally involved for 80%, then lets you down and stomps on your fingers. I was pretty mad after I turned that last page, but I’m still giving it 4/5* for the first 80%.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: Stealing the Preacher

Title: Stealing the Preacher
Description:  Joanna has only one birthday wish—a preacher for the abandoned church in her small Texas town. Her outlaw father has been reformed, but plans one more train heist, and successfully makes off with preacher Crockett Archer.  
Review source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Plot: The plot was very cute, though a little melodramatic especially at the end.
Characters: Crockett is a pretty cool cowboy/preacher. Joanna was a little sappy. The ranch hands, Joanna’s father, the little boy who hero worships Joanna, and the various supporting characters are all nicely drawn.
Writing style: Mostly entertaining, sometimes funny. I usually avoid this kind of book (western Christian romance), but really enjoyed this one, in spite of the sometimes over-the-top Christian message.
Audience: It’s Christian fiction.
Wrap-up:  A lighthearted change of pace. It reminded me of the Mitford books in that there are some appealing secondary characters and the perfect Christian world that’s created makes for a nice fantasy. 4/5*

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Review: Trial of Fallen Angels

Author: James Kimmel Jr.

Description: Lawyer Brek Cuttler arrives in the afterlife bloodied but unable to remember what happened or how she got there. While her great-grandmother acts as a guide to familiarize her with the ways of the dead, she is recruited to act as advocate for the souls coming to be judged. As she goes through training for this responsibility, she learns that patterns of connection between individuals run deep, and that everyone’s story has two sides.  
Plot: The plot works on many levels. The way the afterlife works is really interesting just in itself; add to that the mystery of Brek’s death and the lives of the various souls that Brek encounters, and you’ve got a plot that weaves threads together in a way that keeps the reader surprised until the end.
Characters: Part of Kimmel’s purpose is to present characters that are more than one dimensional, and he does this very well, revealing small aspects of each character’s personality until we see that no one is all good or all bad.
Writing style: He just keeps you turning the pages, eager to find out where the story is going.
Audience: It’s literary fiction, but I gave it to Steve, who only reads science fiction and fantasy, and he is loving it.
Wrap-up: My first gem of this year. Loved, loved it. The last 20 pages are one of the best payoffs ever. 5/5*

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: Notes from a Small Island

Author: Bill Bryson

Title: Notes from a Small Island
Description: Bill Bryson was an Iowan who took a trip to England, met a girl, married her, and stayed. After quite a few years there, the family decided to move to the United States. Bryson decided to take a trip around Britain, sort of by way of saying good bye.   
Writing style: Bryson has become quite a well-known author since he wrote this book, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his other books (A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country). He is sort of a humorist, but not a laff-a-minute guy like Dave Barry. One thing I didn’t enjoy about this book is that Bryson made lots of in-jokes and references that only British folks would get.  The book has also become dated.
Audience: English people.
Major ideas: England is a small island with some very polite people, but it is being destroyed by commercial development.
Wrap-up: I was disappointed with this book, but looking back, I probably expected it to be as good as the others that I mentioned. As an earlier effort, and maybe with a very specialized intended audience, it just didn’t live up to the others. 2/5*

Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Your Money or Your Life

Author: Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez

Description: This book claims to give a step-by-step plan for achieving financial independence.  
Source: yep, Penguin
Writing style: Pretty readable. It’s a self-help finance book, so it alternates between giving advice and stories of people who have taken the advice to their own great advantage.
Audience: People who want to do better with managing their finances.
Major ideas: The book instructs the reader to calculate how much life energy any expenditure consumes (determined by figuring out how many hours of one’s life are spent working to achieve that amount of money). This is then used to decide whether a given expenditure is worth it or not (so if it takes me four hours of work to make enough for a nice meal out, was the meal worth those four hours of my life?) After realigning spending to match priorities, the reader can work towards decreasing expenditures and increasing income until financial independence is achieved.
Wrap-up: The book makes sense, at least to a point. I’m not sure that the ultimate goal of financial independence is within everyone’s reach, though I do think that even if people don’t attain that level, following the advice in the book would put them in better financial standing. 4/5*  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: The World from Rough Stones

Title: The World from Rough Stones

Description: Nora is running for her life when she encounters John Stevenson who is working on building one of the first railroads in England. He quickly realizes that her quick mind and head for figures will benefit him, and decides to marry her. This is the story of how they build a mile-long tunnel, handle strikers, interact with their employees and their employers, and raise themselves from desperate poverty to comfortable middle-class prosperity.
Review source: it was free on kindle
Plot: Normally I would have no interest in a book about building a railroad, but this one captivated me. I appreciated the depth of research the author must have done in order to have the familiarity with detail that he did.
Characters: John and Nora were extremely sympathetic protagonists who I found myself rooting for. Their friends Walter and Arabella Thornton provided a look at what their lives might have been like if they had weaker characters.
Writing style: MacDonald uses quite a lot of dialect, which didn’t bother me but might bother some people. He balanced character development with historical detail in a way that I found just about ideal. This was a book that I found myself surprised to be impatient to get back to every day.
Audience:  Historical fiction buffs, especially those interested in nineteenth-century Britain, railroads, or industry.
Wrap-up: An unexpected delight. 5/5*

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Review: Nudge

Author: Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Title: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
Description:  This book is about choice architecture: engineering decisions so people make the choice you want them to. While this can be done to commercial ends, Thaler and Sunstein argue for what they call libertarian paternalism: complete freedom of choice that is structured so that the largest amount of people will make the best decisions.  
Source: thanks, Penguin
Writing style: definitely engaging. This was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in the past few months.
Audience: The book would be useful for anyone who designs choices for people—website designers, store (or library) personnel, investment counselors, etc. etc.
Major ideas: People often procrastinate (or try to completely avoid) making choices, and are easily overwhelmed by the glut of information accompanying many of the (even unimportant) choices they are forced to make. Those who design the choices therefore have considerable power to choose defaults or select which information is highlighted; it is up to them to wield this power to benefit the consumer rather than to increase their own profit.
Wrap-up: Interesting, thought-provoking, and highly recommended. 4.5/5*

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Review: Generosity

Author: Richard Powers
Title: Generosity: An Enhancement
Description: An adjunct writing professor discovers a student who is happy all the time. His curiosity about how this is possible leads to the student (an Algerian immigrant) being studied for a possible “happiness gene.”
Review source: This was a book group read.
Plot: What plot there is revolves around Thassa (happy girl) as she becomes famous for her happiness. There is a subsidiary love story plot and a bunch of narrative about two other characters that do nothing.
Characters: They are all lacking. The writing teacher is (probably intended to be) boring, timid, and utterly forgettable. Thassa is always observed from the outside, so she always appears to be happy. Whether she always is happy or not is a question. The scientist and the journalist are ciphers and in my opinion the book would have been better without them.
Writing style: There’s some metafiction going on here. There’s an “I” that keeps popping up, that I can’t quite believe is the author, but isn’t the narrator either. The “I” tells us how “he” “sees” the characters. This intrusive, not especially interesting voice is one of the irritating aspects of the book.
Audience: Powers writes about science in novels. But it’s certainly not what you would call science fiction! Probably literary fiction. I imagine people who are interested in science studies/rhetoric of science might want to pick it up.
Wrap-up: This one wasn’t for me. 2/5*

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Review: When She Woke

Title: When She Woke
Description: The main thing to know about this novel is that it is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter. It’s not hidden: the main character’s initials are HP, her baby is Pearl, the lover is Aidan Dale. The differences: the story takes place in a future United States where there is a Cabinet post called Minister of Faith and SOL (Sanctity of Life) laws make abortion legally equivalent to murder. In this book, then, Hannah’s sin is not adultery, but abortion, and her punishment is melachroming, a process by which her entire body is turned red.
Review source: ALA
Plot: Hannah has to learn how to live on her own in multiple ways. Although she is in her mid-twenties, she has always lived with her parents and has adopted their conservative Christian beliefs as her own. Her sin and punishment alienate her from her family and from society at large, and she has to discover what she believes and learn to make her own choices.
Characters: Hannah is a sympathetic main character. Secondary characters are well-drawn and interesting. To me, the main flaw was Hannah’s continued infatuation with the man who ruined her life (while his got better and better). Although that frustrated me, I suppose that it’s realistic. Women often make bad choices about who to love (and when to stop).
Writing style: The book was well-written and held my interest. I would definitely read others by Jordan. I should probably say something about her handling of Christianity. The United States she envisions is something that could come to pass; I can easily see it happening, and many churches rejoicing. In other words, it’s not that far from where we are now. Jordan does ask what it means to live as a Christian, as opposed to bearing the label of “Christian” in isolation from one’s actions and values. Hannah’s father, for example, is a character who buys in to the whole program, and lives it. Hannah moves, during the course of the story, from blind acceptance of her parents’ (and lover’s) faith to agnosticism, then to a more nuanced faith. So I don’t think that Jordan is condemning Christianity, so much as condemning legislated morality. That’s not to say that I buy into the faith that Hannah ends up with, but at least Jordan doesn’t fall into that easy trap of demonizing all Christians.
Audience: It’s literary fiction. Anyone who is interested in fiction and Christianity, or anyone who wants to see what Jordan does with The Scarlet Letter. I think YA readers would like this book (Hannah comes across to me more as a teenager than as a young woman in her twenties), but there are some scenes in it that their (conservative) parents would probably object to.
Wrap-up: For folks who want to be challenged. Not for the easily offended. 4/5*

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Review: The Other Side

Author: Starr Reina
Title: The Other Side: Melinda’s Story
Description: Melinda, 22, has been in a mental hospital since she was 13. The authorities didn’t believe her story that she could speak to her father and best friend after they died. On top of that, her mother and brother disappeared, and there were no other suspects. In this book, Melinda tells her story in a last-ditch effort to get released from the hospital.
Review source: galley from the author
Plot: Completely unbelievable. Nothing fit together.
Characters: Part of the problem was that there was a gap of time. So the 22 year old Melinda telling the story and acting in present day acts exactly like the 13 year old Melinda. And when Melinda’s brother and best friend appear to her from beyond the grave, are they supposed to be the age they were when they died? Or have they aged along with Melinda? If not, why does 22 year old Melinda want to hang out with a 13 year old girl?
Writing style: There were lots of problems with tense because of the flashback / present day structure. And, typical of this type of book, there are many phrases, especially of dialogue, that just don’t ring true.
Audience: definitely YA.
Wrap-up: The blurb the author sent sounded interesting so I gave it a shot, but unfortunately, I can’t recommend it. 2/5*