Saturday, August 25, 2012

Three Weeks with My Brother or: I can't believe it: I liked a Nicholas Sparks book

To any of my reading buddies, it's no secret that I pretty much loathe the novels of Nicholas Sparks. I have tried them, and nope, not for me.  There's a history and a story there, which I've recorded elsewhere, but the main part of that story is that I do have personal respect for the man, after a chance encounter with him at a Books-A-Million years ago.

A huge crowd of women were fluttering around an author.  He was a clean cut, preppie-ish kind of guy (I remember that his blue shirt had an unfortunate white collar.) Normally, I like to meet authors, but when I found out it was Nicholas Sparks, doing a book-signing, I tried to skirt around the crowd.  His handler stopped me.

"Don't you want to meet the author?"

"No thanks," I replied.

"But he's rather good.  Have you read his books?"

"Umm.  Yes, but I'd rather not meet him."

"You've read his books and don't want to meet him?  Why not???"

"I'd rather not say," I said, trying to break the iron grip she had on my arm.

"He'll sign one for you."

"No thank you."

At this point, my struggling to get free caught the author's attention.  He rose from his signing table, the red sea of women clustering around him parted and he came over to me.  He was quite polite, and attentive, and inquired why I was so adamant about not participating in the book signing.  Again, I demurred. He insisted.  Did I like his book? Well-- no, not exactly.  He pushed for details.  I'd had enough and let loose with what I thought.

To give him credit, he didn't blanch though his handler did, and I actually heard a hiss from one of the ladies in the crowd.  He thanked me for my opinion, and said he would rather have someone who vehemently disliked his book that someone who said it was so-so.  At least he'd stirred a strong emotion in me. For a long time, that was the only thing I liked about Nicholas Sparks.  Now, there's this book.

Three Weeks With My Brother
tells more than the story of two brothers on what would, by any counts, be a fabulous trip.  Mr Sparks takes the reader back to the beginning, invites us into his home, warts and all. The Sparks children had a unique upbringing:  laissez-faire in some senses, but with certain iron-clad principles and a lot of love, that held the structure together. That the family was financially strapped is somewhat of an understatement. That they were resourceful, is another. In some senses, I was reminded of my husband's childhood in upstate New York. But the bonds in the family were strong, as became apparent when tragedy struck, again and again.

This story, of the Sparks family, interwoven with the brother's story of a round-the-world trip fascinated me.  I thought so much of my two brothers finding both similarities and disparities. There's a lot of humor  and honesty in the telling. Sparks' faith is evident, as is his strong love for his family. Clearly it was what has carried him through the deaths of the rest of the family and other obstacles that would have felled many others. I can relate to that handing on that combination of love and faith, because it got me through my own periods of grief. And now, like Nicholas Sparks, I am grateful for the love of a phenomenal spouse and the love of the only remaining member of my family, my older brother.  I'll probably never take a round the world trip with him, but thanks to this book, I can read of one.

Though it's hard for me to believe, I really liked this book. I still won't read his fiction, even knowing from this narrative where the inspirations were. But remember that respect I felt after our brief encounter in that Books-A-Million? It's skyrocketed. I hope some day to have the chance to tell him that in person -- just as long as I don't have to read The Notebook again to do so.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas (and a little about the ways and whys of how I review books)

I've been waiting to read this novel for years. A copy finally came my way via a BookCrossing RABCK, for which I am sincerely grateful. I brought it with me on a trip to our mountain cabin, where I knew I could read it uninterrupted . And I did-- except for the interruptions I fell into all on my own, many having to do with frustration of plot and pace.

A book about a book -- with bits of that missing book, which is said to carry the curse of death for anyone who reads "The End of Mr Y" (which is the title of the cursed book in the story) surely should be as fascinating as the recursiveness of it's title. But I'm alive and well, and, though I hate to say it, less than enthralled. It's not that the writing or plot was bad, for it wasn't exactly. Scarlett Thomas manages to mix a bit of philosophy, science, spirituality, time travel, lust, and even homeopathy together, but the potency, for me was not diluted enough, coming out weak (a bit of homeopathic humor there-- the more dilute a homeopathic remedy is, the stronger it's said to be.) I just didn't find myself engaged enough in any of the story (both the present day or the book within a book) to care about the outcome. The pace did puck up toward the end, scurrying to an abrupt end, leaving me feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as if I had skim read a hunk of the book and jumped to the end to find out what happened.

Whenever I read a book that leaves me feeling lukewarm, and then write a review that reflects that, I feel a little guilty. After all, though I have written a number of things, manuscripts included, I've yet to have more than professional journal articles/ textbook chapters (and some news/magazine articles of a lighter nature) published. Who am I to criticize? My reviews tend to be more about how I reacted to a book, or what I found myself thinking about while reading. (After all, I figure any idiot can read a publisher blurb on a book. I don't need to do a book report -- just what I thought.) The bottom line is, I'm a reader, one of those illusive fish authors set their hooks for, hoping to catch. In this case, I nibbled the bait, but did not take the hook. Maybe Scarlett Thomas will catch me next time she goes fishing. Until then, I'll just keep swimming.

2.5 stars, rounded up because of some of the details used and the fact that I really liked the mouse god, Apollo Smintheus. Ithink everyone should be able to play that card at least once in a lifetime. Hooray for Hav-a-heart traps.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Gateway by Lee Robinson

This summer, I was talking to Harriet McDougal Rigney, who is not only a friend, but an editor I respect a great deal.  The subject was novels set in Charleston, written for a middle school/YA crowd.  Harriet asked if I'd read this book, which had somehow gone completely beneath my radar. I found a copy, and curled up on this rainy Sunday to read a book set in my beloved Charleston.

The author used her experience and familiarity with the Charleston legal system (she was a public defender here for many years, and very active in the legal aid program) and a keen eye for both the beauty and quirks of Charleston to good use. The book is the story of a custody battle told from a teenager's point of view. There is wisdom in these pages, and a true sense of Charleston. Part of the story (including the title) takes place in one of my favorite spots in all of Charleston: the gateway garden walk leading from King Street, behind the apartments and houses I have longed to live in, to the gloriously overgrown, ramshackle garden/graveyard of the Unitarian church.  Anyone I've taken on a walk around Charleston can testify to my love of that walk and graveyard. It's a must see on the private czukie tour, and a place where I can often be found on Sundays, curled up on a bench, reading before choir practice starts at the church I attend.

I particularly liked the end solution of this book.  Mac's experience of being shuttled between the homes of two warring parents is one I saw happen to friends whose parents divorced. I always thought custody considerations particularly unfair to kids, what with all the too-ing and fro-ing. I liked the way this worked out.

Forged in Fire by J.A. Pitts

Sarah Beauhall: blacksmith, dragon slayer. Makes a nice calling card for a character I've developed a liking for over the three books of this series.  The writing in Forged in Fire has tightened up, allowing the author to display growth in his craft, and Sarah to display growth in her own skin/sense of self. 

I first learned of this series through Mary Robinette Kowal, and was forewarned that this was really the best of the three books out there in the series.  I loved the raw energy of the first book (Black Blade Blues, which just made me smile with the mix of a lesbian blacksmith reforging a sword meant for dragon-slaying, with the story set in Seattle. And the icing on the cake for me in that first book was the notion that dragons in today's world could shape-shift, and one was an investment banker. Perfect.  Though I found book two to suffer from middle-book syndrome, this current book, snapped my attention firmly back in place. Characters continue to sharpen and refine. Some story arcs complete, while there is firm evidence that the author likes these characters enough to continue the adventures. Plus, there's humor. 

One added bonus for me reading this book was that after my last two reviews, I got a very nice note from the author via GoodReads.  (Especially nice, since I was honest that I was less than enamored with book 2). The end result was he took my growls about the evilness of killing off a barista who could pull a good shot the right way. If we ever meet, I'll treat him to a cuppa (or if he's not a coffee drinker, a shot of whatever might be his beverage of choice, caffeinated, malted, or whatever his poison.)

I'm curious to see where this series goes and how a couple of the threads play out.  Will keep an eye out for the next book.

(3.5 out of 5 stars)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

When Creativity and Housekeeping collide

My home will never be minimalist. I just don't do Spartan. While I yearn for clean lines and open spaces, what I excel in is comfy clutter.  But at the same time, the urge to organize always emerges, triumphantly creating systems where piles and chaos try to reign. I'd never given this much thought, until the other day when a friend assured me it's one of those "wow! why didn't I think of that? " ideas.

Take my pantry stocking habits -- Virgo meets domovoi-in-trickster-mode (minus the grey beard, tails little horns, and male part). When cans, bottles, or little packets of stuff come into the house, I use a permanent marker to write the expiration date on the top.  Saves me making the dreaded last-in-first-out mistake when I open a can of coconut milk.  It's also handy when I do buy sauces or condiments. Sometimes I get all set to try a new recipe, knowing I do have this one specific ingredient tucked away, because I made something with it not long ago.  When I finally do locate the jar and  pull it out it's easy to see that the lid says 08/08 on it, letting me know that 1) maybe I don't use this particular substance that often and 2) maybe I don't want to be using it right now.  It's also really a really helpful guide if one ever does clean the pantry.

I do buy bulk for grains, beans and nuts.  For a long time, I just put a piece of tape across the the container lid and let my sharpie do the work writing information there.  For beans etc, it wasn't so much an expiration date; more what the little legume was, since some of those suckers look remarkably similar. But then I discovered chalk board paint.  When painted on the top of the glass jars I use in my pantry and refrigerator, I can do all sorts of things besides telling mung beans from pigeon peas. And for the jars for the nuts I keep refrigerated? It helps me remember when I restocked the jars for freshness, especially when something gets pushed to the back of the fridge into the Science Project zone.

I have little tins for my spices -- those are falling to the brush the next rainy day we have.  As to how I plan to (once again) organize all the recipes I've saved?  Look out world!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Honeyed Words by J. A. Pitts (second in the Black Blade/Sarah Beauhall series)

The Black Blade Blues series continues, but not without some problems, both for Sarah, the warrior dragon-fighting blacksmith of Seattle, and the book itself. It suffers a bit of middle-book syndrome, combined with some editing problems. It wasn't the fun read the first had been, and I sort of slogged through because I've been promised that the next book is really good. It is because I still want to read the next book in the series that I bumped this one up to the 3 star level.  Otherwise it would have been a solid 2.5

The good vs evil saga continues, with new characters and creatures thrown into the mix (and some old ones, too.) Sarah, though still not receiving help to get her head on right or to get comfortable in her own skin, is less angst driven about her relationship with Katie, and seems to be actually learning to love.  There are a lot of loose ends (had these appeared in the final book, I'd say "holes", but they still have time to tie together) and odd references that make me try to guess what other fantasy worlds the author has been reading in his spare time.  (Some of his phraseology/word choice is so like another author that at first javaczuk and I speculated if J. A. Pitts was a pseudonym for the other author, writing outside his comfort zone. But battle scenes are too clear, and I did some internet sleuthing.  Not the same, unless he's created a really good alter-ego.)

So as for this book: Sarah battles; Sarah protects; Sarah seeks work. Sarah meets elves.  Sarah loves Katie. Sarah gets a hot ride. Sarah learns about friendship and loyalty.

On to Forged in Fire. I hope it's as good as I've been promised. It's why I picked up the series.

A couple of favorite lines:
"Get up, already. Somebody's murdered a dwarf."

"It (the motorcycle) looked like I remembered -- long and sleek, with unexpected power and raw energy. Kinda like sex, only in red, black and chrome."

(And Katie shows both strength of character and humor:)

"It's just not that simple" he said. "It's all muddled together -- dragons and witches and all the rest." He looked up, peering into her face. "And Sarah, dear god. She's off the charts, Katie. I've talked it through with the twins; we can't figure out why she's here or who she represents."

"Who she represents?" Katie let her voice grow louder. "She's not one of your projects, Jim.  Not something for you to catalog and hide from the world.  She's a caring person, broken and beautiful. And whether you approve or not, someone I happen to love. How dare you try and categorize her?"
"I didn't mean... she's not... I know she's special."
"Special? Like short-bus special, Jim? One of those flawed heroines who can't get past her own baggage to save herself at the end of the movie?"

Sunday, August 12, 2012

I rest my case

I've been reorganizing my life of late. This includes both banishing the clutter, or finding new spots for treasures to call home, but organizing the flow of my electronic mail. I have far too many email addresses, but with a little structure, I can make that work in my favor instead of becoming a slave to forwarding or to checking each box daily.

Early last month, I contacted one of the sites that sends a regular newsletter, asking their help in changing my email address for the newsletter. I could edit my profile, change my real name, even, but not my email.  Eventually, I reached someone who let me know that someone from their support team would have to do that.  Apparently, it was not something customers could be trusted to do. Go figure. But, I supplied the address I wished used instead of the one listed, and waited.

I'm sure no one is surprised here to learn that I began receiving the newsletter at both emails. I now had two accounts. After much back and forthing the following emerged:

  1. Even support could not change emails 
  2. A new account had to be created (without informing me, which they didn't thing necessary, and were surprised when I was miffed it had been done.
  3. The new account couldn't pull the user info already stored in my old account, so I would have to re-enter everything in the new account, and have two identical accounts, except for the email, and for the fact that the second account would need a new user name
  4. They'd make the original (with the original user name) dormant so the new account was the only one I received mail from.
  5. This all seemed perfectly reasonable to them. After all, they didn't have to do the work of filling in the profile and creating a new user identity. It wasn't their old identity that was put out to pasture.
Bottom line: I was annoyed enough at their customer service, that now, instead of wanting my email name changed, I wanted all my personal info removed, and both accounts not only made dormant, but deleted.

Apparently that was hard for them to do, too. Nearly two months into the process, I finally got someone who understood why I was upset and what I wanted. She assured me that the accounts would both be deleted, though it may take "a little time" as they did not have a procedure for this. But my personal information was no longer stored on site.

As of today, one account has been eliminated, though the original account still exists, with some of my original info still visible. And yesterday, I received via the US mail, a book from the company -- signed by the founder of the site. Good thing they didn't have my address or personal information any more, huh? Not epic, but still a fail.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul, by Deborah Rodriguez

Several years ago, I read Kabul Beauty School and somehow had it in my head that this book was a follow-up story of Deborah Rodriquez's life after the end of that one. Instead, it is a novel, which combines many of the observations and experiences of the author into a story that revolves around five women (primarily), from varied backgrounds, who find a common point in the little coffee shop one of them started in Kabul.

While reading this, there were reports almost daily of bombings and violence in and near Kabul. It brought the conflict and war conditions in Afghanistan so clearly into the picture. I'd fall asleep after reading of Sunny's worries of how to protect the cafe from suicide bombings, or of how Ahmet guarded the front gates, relying not on a metal detector to help weed out dangers, instead looking into the eyes of a person to see their character, and then wake to hear that a remote-controlled bomb struck a bus travelling northwest of Kabul, killing at least nine passengers. Or that three foreign soldiers were shot dead at a police station in southern Afghan province of Helmand when a 13-year-old student who also worked for police opened fire at the foreign soldiers.

We have terrible, unexpected violence here (indeed, this summer brought the murders at the movie theater in Colorado and the slayings at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin), which shocked our nation into stunned horror.  But for parts of the world, this inhumanity to other people has become a way of life, both for the perpetrators and the victims. Day to day routines include ways to stay safe, stay alive.

This, perhaps, was the lesson of The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul for me. I might have a bad day because traffic was heavy and I was late for my dance class, or the grocery store was out of all my favorite brands, or even that I fell and broke my foot.  But I didn't have to worry, really, about my survival -- about being gunned down, blown up, arrested, or beaten. And though my family has experienced awful violence, we are generally all safe. We do not live in a war zone, or in religious strife (despite what some politicos say.) In the world of this book, people face the unimaginable and do not let it defeat them. The characters of this story are all so very different, but they all hunker down, and find their inner strength.  It may not lead them to the outcome the hope, but not for lack of determination. And though I said it's a book about five women, the men in this story are equally compelling, especially given their different approaches to life.

Two things disappointed me about the book. One is that our household is fascinated by coffee and coffee preparation. I would have liked more of a sense of the coffee house as a coffee house.  But that's just me being silly. The other point is one I struggle with in my own fiction: moving from telling the story to letting the story tell itself. The first keeps the reader at a passive distance; the second invites the reader in as an active participant. And really, since this story had so much to share with readers, maybe a little telling is okay.

In the story, Sunny (the American owner of the cafe) goes to Mazar-e-Sharif, where the famous Blue Mosque is. There she learns the legend which says every seventh dove at the shrine of Sher Ali Khan contains a spirit. It is said that the  place is so holy that if a grey pigeon flies there it turns white within 40 days.  This bit of lore captured something inside my own soul. If I could travel, I would love to go there to see those doves flying. Luckily, I was allowed a brief and safe trip there through this book.

I received this book courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program and the kindness of Ballentine Books. Thank you very much. Rating 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, August 10, 2012

This ain't yo' mama's yoga mat. It's MY mama's.

Though she was disabled, my mother made sure exercise was a regular part of her daily routine. It's easy to recall the time I walked in on her while she was making her bed.  She was unaware I was there, her back to me as she straightened the sheets and blanket on one side. Then, she sat on the mattress, tucked, and rolled across to the other side, where she fixed the linens there.  Glancing up, she saw me. Her face lit up with a mischievous grin. "Making beds is boring.  At least this way, I get some exercise, too!".

Bumma was not one for going out to a class, but instead relied on books, and the occasional PBS program for learning. At some point, she decided to try yoga.  I don't think the experiment was successful, but she liked stretching on the floor enough to buy herself a yoga mat. (We had a quick flurry of worry, because by that time, we were sharing a living space, and she hadn't thought to check to see if the mat had latex in it -- but it didn't, thankfully.) So, what does an woman over the age of 76 pick for a mat?  A bright orange one, with big Polynesian style flowers on it.  It made my eyes hurt every time I saw her on it, mostly because the vibrant floral prints she favored clashed gloriously with the orange.  She was like a spring bouquet from a Tim Burton film.

Eventually, when my darling little mother began to decline, the mat got rolled up and pushed to the side of the room.  It was pulled out again, but as a sleeping mat for me, as I slept by her bedside when she was on her final journey. (I found I could sleep on it, because I could keep my eyes closed, and not be kept awake by the color.)  That last week or so of her life, in one of our times for talking, she told me she hoped that when I had more time on my hands, I'd be sure to take care of myself and try some new activities.  She passed on the orange yoga mat to me.

And indeed, I did try yoga. I'm not a natural, nor does finding stillness come easily for my chattering brain.  But I have built meditation, stretching, and some simple asnas into my routines. And I most often use the orange mat, which still is way too bright for my comfort, but reminds me of her special spirit. In fact, I recently started taking an exercise class to help in strength and flexibility, but since the mats provided in the class have latex, I bring my own.  And my own is my orange mat. It now looks a little different, because I've, of course, added my own czukie twist to it. But the new designs and decorations bear the inscription "In loving memory of Ruthe Nadel".  (That's the little line of print below the bold line you see in the picture above.)

Cat. Cow. Tadasana/Mountain pose. And my own personal asana: resting in the mother's arms.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Other Woman, by Hank Phillippi Ryan (September 4 2012 release date)

This was my first time reading anything by Hank Phillippi Ryan (a name which greatly intrigues me, by the way) and was interested to see how the author's background in politics, media, and reporting entered into a novel that promised to be about all of the above. The copy I read was an Advanced Reader copy of the book from Tor (thank you very much, by the way.)

It took me a little while to get into the rhythm of the book and sort the characters all out. Once I found the rhythm of the story, I could begin to appreciate the conflicts and drive that fills the main character Jane.  She'd been a rising star reporter for a Boston TV station, until her unwillingness to reveal a source lost a huge court case, and cost the station a passel of money and Jane her job. (Darn that integrity. It can turn around and kick you in the arse. But at least you've kept your integrity.)

Jane ends up working at a city tabloid, where instead of chasing the big story of the day (is there a serial killer loose in Boston, slaying women and leaving them near bridges), she's sent off to do a fluff piece on the wife of one of the candidates running for office. Except Jane may have stumbled on a bigger story -- does this same candidate have another woman in the background?

To complicate matters, for both Jane's emotional heart, and a few other things, the cop working on the "there is no bridge killer say the police" case is Jake, Jane's forbidden heartthrob.  Forbidden, because even though they both lust after each other and know it, to be involved could and would compromise their jobs. (Darn that integrity again!)

There are more twists, people who aren't what they seem, and several very attractive blonde young women who seem to be making a play for the candidate (who coincidentally is the ex-Governor.)

I followed those twists and turns, anticipated a few, got annoyed that one of the main characters seemed to be mobile phones ringing and texts pinging -- what did we do in the age before all this electronic communication? I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about the romantic aspects of the story -- those rang less true to me than other parts. I wasn't quite sure if I should be rooting for Jake (aka Jakey when she's mooning about him) or Alex (her new boss that her friend calls "Sexy Alex") or someone entirely else. 

All in all, I did learn a some interesting things about media and politics, as well as a bit more about dysfunctional relationships, unstable, unscrupulous people, and some of the more seedy aspects of our society. I'm glad I read this book, and will look for more by this author with a name that fascinates me. She's apparently got an award-winning series under her pen already, which I will have to explore.  I expect this book is the first in a new series featuring Jane and friends.

(3 out of 5 stars)

Fire by Kristin Cashore

I stumbled upon Kristin Cashore via Graceling. This book, the second in the Graceling Realm series, has a bit of backstory, but not the same charm, for me, as Graceling did. I had a hard time reconciling that Fire's world and the world of Katsa were one and the same. There had been no mention of the same sort of monsters in the latter that inhabit the former.

What intrigued me about this book was that Cashore, yet again, works with a late adolescent female, and carves out a character that has both strengths and weaknesses, experiences bigotry and prejudice, yet inspires tremendous loyalty and devotion in those who break through her shell. There is, again, a non-traditional view of love, sex, and marriage, but I've long ago learned that how I have lived my life might not be the norm for others. I wonder how the younger end of the YA reading spectrum might relate to some of this, as well as the prominence of the problems Fire's umm... monthly monster week (aka that time of month).

I didn't feel as drawn to this book as the first, but it still was well written.  Use of some terms distracted me -- odd that they'd have the same month names in that world as our.  August, huh? There must have been a Caesar back in the history of the Dells.  I do recognize how hard it is to escape using words that time date or location date you in a fantasy world, but for some reason, this was particularly jarring for me.  Not enough to keep me from passing this on to my granddaughter, who is chaffing at the bit for it, and not enough to keep me from reading the next in this series, but enough to keep me from giving it higher stars (3 out of 5).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Black Blade Blues, by JA Pitts

When javaczuk asked me what I was reading, I mumbled something about urban fantasy, blacksmiths, lesbians, Seattle, and a dragon who was a shape-shifter and currently in the form of an investment banker. That caught his attention. And the book caught mine, too. I can see it that it is the start for what may be a really interesting series. Loved that it was set in an area of the country where we long to go, dragons or not, and really like that the author stepped outside of his gender comfort zone to have his main character be a physically strong, yet emotionally vulnerable woman, who was just coming to terms with her sexuality.  There are enough characters in this opening foray who caught my attention, and made it through the story, to interest me in the next.  I also liked how the SCA folks in the story adopted Tolkienisms, and in this book must blend with Norse mythology to make sense of what's happening in their world. Sarah is probably in serious need of professional help, but she still can kick arse on the battle field. My biggest question though, is what the hell was Tor thinking with that cover? It may sell books, but a battle-fighting blacksmith in a crop top? Yeah, right. (What does it say that I can accept the whole fantasy element, but I can't accept that?)