Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Happy Olympics Everyone! Here are some sporty book recommendations for you!

Are you excited about the London 2012 Olympics? Here are a few Olympic-themed books you might enjoy!

This one is a straight-up MUST READ for the Olympics. It tells the true story of the 1908 Summer Olympics--which were held in LONDON--and the exciting, and even shocking, circumstances of the marathon event. How can a marathon be shocking and exciting? Well, it was a fairly new event, for one thing. Most countries didn't have athletes who had trained for that kind of distance, and the officials didn't even know how to judge such an event (at one point, one of the officials steps in to help a runner who collapses). Pretty much everything you think you know about marathons today owes its origins to this race. You won't want to miss this one!

Looking for some Olympic-themed fiction? You can't go wrong with Chris Cleave's Gold. The story revolves around two Olympic cyclists who are best friends and fierce rivals. They've spent their lives training and competing and are about to face their last Olympics against one another: the London 2012 games. It's a book that combines genuine human drama (one of the two athletes has a sick child) with face-paced competition. It sounds silly, but I really was "racing" through the book to find out what happened next!

Okay, this one's not strictly Olympic themed. It's actually about the Tour de France, but I thought it was close enough to satisfy your sports related reading urges! 

Have any Olympic reading recommendations? I'd love to hear them!

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good Book, by Wendy Welch

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As a voracious reader, I have spent my fair share of time in used bookstores. As a young woman, they were among my favourite places on earth. Small independent bookshops--of both new and used books--have been the loci of poetry circles, author readings, various committee meetings and hours of reading and writing. Bookshops factor heavily into many of my favourite cozy mystery novels (the Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block, for example).

But never, ever have I thought it would be a good idea to drop everything and open my own bookstore.

But that's precisely what Wendy Welch and her husband did. The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap recounts their tale of opening a used bookstore in the tiny community of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Reading it filled me with both vicarious glee (they get to spend their days surrounded by books!) and nervous dread (my goodness, in this economy?).

Get Fluffy: The Pampered Pets Mysteries, by Sparkle Abbey (Anita Carter & Mary Lee Woods)

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The second in The Pampered Pets series has Melinda Langston, infamous brooch-stealing cousin of Caro Lamont from Desperate Housedogs, embroiled in her own Laguna Beach murder mystery. The story opens at the Fur Ball, an event organized in part by Caro and alluded to throughout Housedogs. Mel’s rivalry with Mona Michaels, wealthy queen of Laguna’s dog-loving elite (and soon-to-be murder victim) is soon revealed. To be fair, it’s hardly Mel’s only rivalry. She and her cousin have a well-known “love-hate” relationship and, by her own admission, Mel’s “directness” can sometimes get her in trouble. So when she later discovers Mona’s dead body, it’s no surprise the police are suspicious. Unlike Caro in Housedogs, Mel’s desire to clear her name is justified. It’s obvious why she would be paranoid about being a suspect.

That’s not the only difference between Get Fluffy and Desperate Housedogs. The writing style in Get Fluffy is different as well. It’s more casual and heavier on dialogue, which usually bothers me, but the characters are written so much more sympathetically (Mel is hilarious) that I much preferred this book.

Desperate Housedogs: The Pampered Pets Mysteries, by Sparkle Abbey (Anita Carter & Mary Lee Woods)

Caro Lamont is a pet psychologist, a job that makes her difficult for this reviewer to relate to or sympathize with. What the heck is a pet psychologist? She’s not an obedience trainer, she asserts, but a trained psychologist (for people) who now works exclusively as a freelance therapist who tells rich Californians how their pets are feeling. Her office is in the same building as a psychic. Of course it is.

When Caro discovers that one of her clients, Kevin Blackstone, has been found dead shortly after her last visit to his house, her reaction furthers my skepticism of the character. Her sympathy seems reserved almost entirely for Kevin’s dogs rather than for Kevin himself. Perhaps this is not so unusual for a character whose job is to work with pets. Perhaps she would be more sympathetic to living animals than to dead people. What IS unusual, however, is that her actions after the murder betray her own self-interest. She lies to the police, breaks into the crime scene, removes items that she fears might incriminate her. In short, she behaves like a guilty person and not like an amateur sleuth for whom we should be cheering. 

Not to mention

The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives, by Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise (eds.)

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“I had as well be killed running as die standing.” –Frederick Douglass
The slave narratives contained in this collection cause me to marvel that, at the end of slavery, no one was held accountable for crimes against humanity, that the champions of slavery are not now reviled with the same collective embarrassment directed at the Nazis of WWII. When a member of the Royal family dressed as a Nazi for Halloween it caused an international stir (and rightly so, that was disgraceful), yet people routinely dress in Confederate uniforms as part of Civil War and antebellum re-enactments, proclaiming the glory of the South, and we are asked to collectively pretend that they are not also glorifying the days of the atrocities of slavery. Where is the collective sense of deep shame?

The Long Walk to Freedom confronts the ways in which history is revised to downplay the horrors of slavery. It’s one thing to claim that one generation cannot be held accountable for the sins of a previous generation (fair enough), but it is quite another to routinely hear the glorification of that generation, to speak of the founding fathers as practically infallible, to long for the days of the “Old South” without acknowledging that the society and culture of slavery-era North America was deeply broken. It allowed for the torture and enslavement of an entire group of people whose stories simply cannot be “wished away” or excised from our history.

The first hand accounts of runaway slaves in this volume are particularly gripping and vivid, as they refuse to allow us the comfort of imagining that slavery was “not that bad,”

Friday, July 27, 2012

UPDATE: Codley and the Sea Cave Adventure, by Lisl Fair and Michaela Grace (illustrations by Ismedy Prasetya)

I originally reviewed this book in June when the publisher sent me a digital copy of it for review. (You can read my original review after the jump.) Since that time the author has had it edited and reworked, at least a little. True, it's easier to differentiate which character is speaking (there are three characters--an octopus, a puffer fish and a saw fish) but it still probably has too many words per page to hold the attention of very young readers. It's aimed at younger preschoolers (2-3 year olds) but it could benefit from being much more succinct. And there are two story arcs (first the octopus and the puffer are scared of an unknown "shark" which turns out to be a friendly saw fish, then they are scared by the strong current) where one would probably be better.

Hit the jump for my original review:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, by Lois Banner

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Biographer Lois Banner herself admits that there is little we don't already know about Marilyn Monroe. The details of her childhood, her private and public affairs, and her death have captivated us all for decades. So the challenge for anyone writing a new book about her is not in finding enough source material, but in finding anything new to say. Does Lois Banner manage it? Yes and no.

She's certainly done her research. She makes clear which sources (which include previous biographies, personal interviews and Marilyn artifacts from the author's personal collection) she finds reliable and which she disregards as suspect. While I appreciate her strong points of view, often rooted in genuine if fanatical admiration for Marilyn (the author is the head of a Marilyn fan club), sometimes her conclusions seem to come out of thin air.

For example, when discussing Marilyn's childhood,

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

UPDATE: Lexi Fairheart and the Forbidden Door, by Lisl Fair (illustrated by Nina de Polonia)

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I originally reviewed this book on June 8, 2012, when the publisher sent me an email asking me if I would read a digital copy and give her some feedback. (You can read the original review here.) I thought the book needed a little work but definitely had potential. It had grammar mistakes, an unresolved ending and didn't distinguish between insects and spiders (which, sorry to give away the ending, is a plot point in the story). But the book has been reworked and re-edited and it looks better than ever. The illustrations are still the star, with rich and satisfying artwork on every page. The ending is much better than before, and my two-year-old certainly enjoyed the finished product (which I believe is still only available in digital format at this time). It's still a bit wordy for a picture book, and could maybe be condensed a bit. My daughter is younger than the target audience for the book (listed at 6-8 years), but she still enjoyed it. Her favourite part was "the cookies," the page in which it says that Lexi's curiosity has paid off in the past and shows her discovering a cookie jar. I think a lot of young children really enjoy solving "mysteries" within a text by looking at clues in the illustrations (which is part of the reason why picture books for young children usually don't have too many words, since the pictures tell the story as much as the text).

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang, by Chelsea Handler

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To say this book was disjointed would be an understatement. It’s downright schizophrenic. It jumps wildly from childhood memories to relationship stories to drunken ramblings with little to no connection form one to the next. I am not very familiar with Chelsea Handler except that I always feel like I should like her more than I do. Many of my friends like her and many other comics I enjoy seem to like her (such as Kathy Griffin). From time to time, I’ll try to watch her show, Chelsea Lately, only to remember that I’m not really a fan. After seeing her on Kathy Griffin’s show a few weeks ago, I decided once again that I should try to like Chelsea Handler, so I looked for some of her books at the library. This is the first one I came across.

Let me just say this. This is NOT the book for someone who doesn’t know that much about Chelsea Handler. It’s certainly not a bio, nor is it a collection of funny musings or celebrity gossip. It’s possibly a collection of half remembered antidotes stretched out to full chapters with a level of detail that makes me wonder if they’re mostly vodka assisted bullsh*t.

Then again, for fans of Ms. Handler, that might be a ringing endorsement, as I think that’s most of her shtick.

Happy Accidents, by Jane Lynch (audiobook read by the author)

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I highly recommend the audiobook of this book. It’s read by the author and though it may not be the funniest or most poignant or most revealing of the celebrity memoirs, Jane Lynch’s narration makes it one of the most endearing. In the foreword by Carol Burnett (read by Ms. Burnett herself) she describes Jane Lynch with the oft-quoted line: “Comedians say funny things and comics say things funny. Jane Lynch is that second kind of funny.” Amen to that.

Leonardo and the Last Supper, by Ross King

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I have always admired Leonardo da Vinci and have, over the years, read numerous books about him, or inspired by his work. I even enjoyed the escapist fantasy that was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (even though I recognized that its entire premise was based on the sensational and badly researched work found in The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail). In school I wrote no less than four essays about Leonardo, and when I saw some of his paintings at The Louvre (including the Mona Lisa) I was truly moved.

So when I first began reading Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper, I was enthusiastic but I didn’t expect to learn anything new. After all, didn’t I already know a lot about my favourite Renaissance master? Well...not only did I learn a lot, I think I have a new favourite book about Leonardo da Vinci!

Here are some of the things I learned from Ross King’s book (many of which are probably things that I had read before but had completely forgotten):

Murder In Mumbai: A Dutton Guilt Edged Mystery, by K.D. Calamur

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In a strange way, Murder in Mumbai reminds me of William X. Kienzle’s The Rosary Murders. A cop and a reporter compete—and at times co-operate—to solve a murder in their gritty city against a backdrop of changing religious hierarchy. Except in The Rosary Murders, the city is Detroit in the 1970’s, the religious hierarchy is the Catholic church, and the culture is reeling from the recent civil rights movement and Vatican reform. In Murder in Mumbai, the city is Mumbai, India, the hierarchy is the caste system, and the culture is shifting as it adjusts to the new Mumbai in what was once the old Bombay. The movie version might star Frieda Pinto rather than Donald Sutherland but I could definitely see it as a gritty police drama.

Friday, July 20, 2012

OMGqueer: Short Stories by Queer Youth, by Radclyffe and Katherine E. Lynch, PhD., eds.

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I was excited to read and review this collection because I love queer youth. Wait. THAT didn't come out right. I don't mean in a creepy way. I mean, I'm a fervent supporter of queer rights and of young people in general, particularly of young people who write. I was once a young person who wrote and it was nice to be supported and encouraged. That being said, I expected to read this book for the same reasons I occasionally go to youth poetry slams: to show how super supportive I am, to hear what the young people have to say, and to politely ignore any bad writing (because hey, I'm super supportive).

But holy sh*t, ya'll! (Sorry, I'm still recovering from the Jenny Lawson book. I'll try to tone down the cursing and "y'alls") A lot of these stories were good! Like, really good. Not just, I'm a super supportive queer ally who supports young people's writing, good. Granted, a few of them were that latter category of "good," but I revert back to my previously stated politeness and refuse to say which ones those were.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

For The Sender: Four Letters. Twelve Songs. One Story., by Alex Woodard

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I originally received an advanced digital copy of this book for review, but the publishers were kind enough to send me a printed copy along with a sample CD. I'm so glad they did. The book itself is small and delicate, filled with poetry and black and white photos like secret treasures. The feel of the book reflects perfectly the subject matter. Alex Woodard is a country musician who was inspired by a series of very personal letters he received, and used the inspiration to write a dozen songs. He is humble and empathetic. He treats each letter, each interaction, like a secret treasure.

I promised myself I wouldn't compare this book to Dave Carroll's book United Breaks Guitars, other than to say this book could not be more different than that one. Dave Carroll boldly proclaims that he changed the world. Alex Woodard humbly opens himself up to the world changing him.

I recommend getting this book .The actual book, not the ebook. Hold it in your hands and open up the pages, revealing the delicate treasures inside. It sounds like I'm overstating, but For the Sender is not just a story, it's an experience.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dying Echo: A Grim Reaper Mystery, by Judy Clemens

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Casey Maldonado is trying to clear her brother's name. He's been accused of brutally murdering his girlfriend, Alicia McManus, if that is her real name (hint: it's not), but Casey is sure he's innocent. All Casey has to help her is lawyer (Don) and her wits. Oh, and the Death. Death follows her around playing with his iPad and commenting on her every move, even if Casey is the only one who can see or hear him.

I liked this book. It was quirky but not stupid, like a Christopher Moore book except without all of the "Look at me! Look how quirky I'm being! I am so adorable! Validate me!" forced, sugary, twee quirkiness that is sometimes all through a Christopher Moore book.

Modern Art, by Evelyn Toynton

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Modern Art is the story of Belle Prokoff, an artist and widow of a much more famous and influential artist, Clay Madden. Though the story is fictional, it's heavily influenced by the real life relationship between Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner. Most people know the work of Jackson Pollack, but Lee Krasner's life and work is perpetually overshadowed by her famous husband, even long after his death. Modern Art is a novel that works well on its own--you don't need to know anything about Jackson Pollack or the art world to appreciate it--but for people who are familiar with the lives of Pollack and Krasner the book is a rare treat.

I have a special love for Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner and for any work inspired by them. I've been an Early Childhood Educator for many years and several years back I had a group of children who changed how I think about art. It was a small, multi-age group ranging from 1 1/2 to 5 years old. One day the kids were working on a mural using non-traditional brushes (I think I had given them straws or pine cones or something) and it resulted in some exciting, chaotic results. I mentioned that it reminded me of a Jackson Pollack painting and they wanted to know who that was. I told them, and then I brought in some book about him. Their interest continued. From there began nearly a year-long project. They were fascinated with the artist and wanted to know everything about him. We ended up working on "Jackson Pollack style" murals together, listening to frenetic jazz while we painted like he did, and even making collages of found art like his wife, Lee Krasner (the "found art" was often small pieces of other, discarded art works from the class). I've included some of the art work that we created that year below (hit the jump to see them).

Da Vinci's Ghost: Genius, Obsession, and How Leonardo Created the World in His Own Image (audiobook), by Toby Lester (narrated by Stephen Hoye)

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This week I'm reading three different books about Leonardo da Vinci (how did that even happen? It wasn't on purpose!). I'm reading the ebook Leonardo and the Last Supper, by Ross King, I'm listening to the audiobook Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa, by R.A. Scotti, and I just finished Da Vinci's Ghost, by Toby Lester, which is about the drawing of the Vitruvian Man. The interesting thing is that all three books claim (or suggest) that the subject of their book is Leonardo's "most famous work." I think the Mona Lisa wins that lotto, but they each do have legitimate claims. In the case of the Vitruvian Man, it's not just the impact of the drawing itself (which has been pervasive) but also its origins and what it represents. Toby Lester outlines how Vitruvian Man reflects the Classical and Renaissance ideas of ideal proportions and the relationship between Man's physical proportions and the cosmos. The subject matter is interesting enough, although most of it was things I already knew (despite his repeated claims that "nobody knows the story"). Still, that made me feel smart so everybody wins! My only complaint (and it's a minor one) is that the narration by Stephen Hoye was a little dry. In this case I think

Monday, July 16, 2012

Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze, by David Davis

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I knew the modern Olympics were a relatively new phenomenon (near the turn of the last century) but it never occurred to me that the sport of marathon racing didn't exist before 100 or so years ago. There was no such thing as an ancient competitive marathon race. Sure, there's the mythic story of the ancient courier racing from Marathon to Sparta and back and then from Sparta to Athens (about 25 miles) but that was never recreated as an athletic contest before the modern Olympics. As a matter of fact, the marathon almost didn't make it in to the first Olympic games since no athlete in the world had ever trained to run competitively for that distance. It's interesting that people only started showing off how fast we could run the distance from one town to another AFTER we had invented cars which could do it for us. Now there are marathons, half-marathons, wheelchair marathons and ultramarathons (sometimes a ridiculous 100 miles long), with events in nearly ever city. And we can trace it all back to the marathon mania that followed the 1908 London Olympics Marathon race. There was drama. There was national pride. There were allegations of cheating. There was even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I won't ruin the rest for you, because it's all in this book, but I don't blame you if you skip ahead to find out what happens (I did--I couldn't help it!). It's absolutely fascinating! 

Hit the jump for a video of the 1908 Olympic Marathon event in London!

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution, by Rebecca Stott

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Rebecca Stott was raised in a Creationist household. The name "Charles Darwin" was not only synonymous with "instrument of the devil," it was in fact so verboten that her grandfather had excised the entry on Darwin from the D section of the family encyclopedia with a razor. This created in young Rebecca Stott an illicit fascination with science, scientists and of course, evolution. She would grow up to write a book about Charles Darwin, concluding that he was a brave genius. Now, with Darwin's Ghosts, she has written a book about all the evolutionists who were contemporaries of Darwin and who came before him. Take that, Grandpa!

I loved this book and I especially loved Ms. Stott's reason for writing it. I myself am raising my daughter in an extremely pro-science household, but I will be careful not to make any knowledge forbidden lest she grow up to write a string of books on the very subject (which, let's be honest, would also be pretty cool).

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley.com. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

It's Not You, It's the Dishes: How to Minimize Conflict and Maximize Happiness in Your Relationship (originally published as Spousonomics), by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson

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Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson are economists-turned-relationship experts who are married, though not to each other (that would make an interesting book though). Their basic idea is that economic principles can be applied to relationship problems. So for example, housework is explained in terms of division of labour, trading partnerships and comparative advantage.

I tried to explain this housework analogy to my partner, Mike. You can read our whole conversation after the jump....

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Pigeon Pie Mystery, by Julia Stuart

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I'm not sure how author Julia Stuart is spending her time these days, but I sincerely hope it involves working on another Princess Mink and Pooki book. The Pigeon Pie Mystery is whimsical and cozy and lovely and I didn't want it to end. I mean, just look at the cover. It's FULL OF WHIMSY.

Princess Alexandria--aka Mink--is an Indian princess and daughter of the late Maharaja of Prindur who finds herself in dire straits after her father's death in 1897. Luckily she and her trusty Indian maid, Pooki, are invited to move into the grace-and-favour housing of the Hampton Court Palace. After dispatching with her father's menagerie of exotic pets--including porcupines, flamingos that have turned yellow from eating goldfish, and a red-trousered monkey named Albert--the pair move into their new home, surrounded by other down-and-out aristocrats. Before long they find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery (involving, yes, a pigeon pie) that threatens to land Pooki in hot water. Fortunately, Mink is on the case and is determined to find the real culprit.

I can't say for certain how historically accurate the world of The Pigeon Pie Mystery is.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained (audiobook), by Robert L. Wolke (narrated by Sean Runnette)

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The concept behind this book is exactly the sort of thing that usually appeals to me. It's about the science of the kitchen. Things like "Why does meat turn brown when you cook it?" (Answer: The Maillard reaction. I totally knew that, y'all! Food Network FTW! Also, I just listened to Jenny Lawson's audiobook so I'll be saying y'all a lot. If you've listened to her book you'd know that my new word tick could have been much, much worse.) So I expected that this audiobook would be great for a nerdy foodie wannabe like me. I expected it to be kind of science-y but also interesting and mouth watering. I mean, it comes with a PDF of recipes. I was all set to LOVE it. 


Somewhere around what felt like the third hour of the section on sugars, I thought, "Should learning about candy be so painful?!" I don't know whether it was Sean Runnette's narration, which is a combination of fussy NPR voice and computerized robot informing me of the time after the beep, or whether it was the fact that a lot of the "science" sounded a lot more like cranky Andy Rooney rants (why do we call so many things "salt" when we're referring to a lot of different kinds of chemicals?), or whether it was the fact that the author uses the term "tech speak" after every fifty words, but this book was....oh, what's the word? Boring. Yeah, it was boring. I can't tell you how much it pains me to say that because I LOVE kitchen science. Like, LOVE it, as in I already knew about the Maillard reaction and I'm neither a cook nor a chemist. So yeah, I'm pretty easy to please in this genre. But this audiobook isn't a fun listening experience. Maybe stick to the actual book?

Again, it's not that the subject matter is boring. I really do find it interesting. But...not in this book.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir), by Jenny Lawson (narrated by the author)

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If you haven't read the funniest blog ever, The Bloggess, then you've been missing out on the funniest blog ever and why are you even using the Internet? Go look it up. No wait, don't. Because then you'll just spend the rest of the day reading Jenny Lawson's hilarious blog instead of this one because The Bloggess is way funnier than anything I write. I'll just include a link at the end of this review and you'll just have to wait. Until then, you'll have to just imagine what it would be like to have a giant metal chicken named Beyonce living in your yard (when you finally do go to The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson will explain exactly what it's like. Awesome, that's what.)

Anyway, Jenny Lawson has branched out from amazingly funny blogger to amazingly funny memoir writer AND pretty damn terrific audiobook narrator. I admit that I almost didn't stick with the audiobook because I usually like to read the actual book first, but the audiobook was available from the library first and I only had three weeks to listen to it, so I wouldn't have time to read the book unless I went out and bought it, and I've gotten pretty comfortable with never paying for books (by only using libraries, getting free review copies from publishers, or just stealing books from my friends' bookshelves when they're not looking because what are they going to do, accuse me of stealing? I doubt it. Most likely they'd just think they'd misplaced the book or else not even notice. Most of my friends are like me and have thousands of books so a few missing ones here and there are pretty easy to write off. Besides, then it gives me another excuse to go visit them again so I can sneak the books that I've read back on to their shelves when they're not looking. It's a whole system. It's called being a social person.) 

Also, the first few chapters of the audiobook aren't perfect. Jenny Lawson is adorable, but narrating an audiobook is hard. You can't cough or say "uhm" too many times and you're supposed to say the words exactly as they're written. Plus you're supposed to sound natural even though you're telling your whole life story to a microphone. So in the first few chapters she sounds a little awkward and self-conscious. Also, she doesn't seem to know that it would have been okay for her to ask for a glass of water.

I'm glad I stuck with it though. Once she stopped being self-conscious and found her rhythm, the audiobook of Jenny Lawson's Let's Pretend This Never Happened is the funniest audiobook EVER. I learned, for example, the time and care it takes somebody with an anxiety disorder to write a simple email to a coworker without inadvertently mentioning penises about a thousand times. I learned what it's like to have a father who dumps a variety of live and dead animals on your bed in the middle of the night while bursting with excitement and giggles (sort of explains the anxiety disorder, huh?). I learned why Jenny Lawson doesn't go to many parties (a tendency to talk about necrophilia and imaginary serial killer attacks) but should totally go to all my parties. And I even cried about (I'm not even joking, I really did) when she shared some of the most painful memories with humour and sincerity. 

In short, Jenny Lawson is freakin' awesome. And, even though she sounds completely crazy most of the time, she also reminds me A LOT of one of my favourite people in the whole world, my friend Rachel in Ottawa. Does that mean I like crazy people? Of course it does. But only the freakin' awesome ones. Who would let me buy giant metal chickens.

Hit the jump for more about giant metal chickens and The Bloggess:

UPDATE: Fifty Shames of Earl Grey: A Parody (audiobook), by Fanny Merkin (aka Andrew Shaffer) (audiobook narrated by Allyson Ryan)

Fifty Shames of Earl Grey: A Parody
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UPDATE: I received a copy of the audiobook for review (thanks Edelweiss!). It's actually pretty awesome. Not every audiobook narrator is great, and getting the tone of a comedy book can be tricky, especially when the joke is that the main character is a total idiot. But Allyson Ryan nails it (ah, see that sounds like a double entendre, given the subject matter). She's clear, doesn't have strange voice ticks (a surprising number of audiobook narrators do), does character voices without being ridiculous, and uses just the right amount of emotion (a lot of narrators use far too much). If you like a book, you may read more from that author, but if you like an audiobook recording it's definitely worth it to look up the work of the narrator. 

Hit the jump for a list of some of Allyson Ryan's other audiobook recordings and my original review of this book....

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from Edelweiss (Above the Tree Line). I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sh*tty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us, by Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo, and Mary Ann Zoellner

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Hahahahahaha! What's better than an hilarious book about parenting written by four comediennes (one of whom is the fabulous Laurie Kilmartin from Last Comic Standing and Conan)? One that is hilarious AND full of helpful tips. Like, "How to Sleep Until Nine A.M. Every Weekend" (Answer: leave breakfast on the table the night before and the TV already turned on to cartoons. Sh*tty? Maybe, but it's also really nice to sleep until nine a.m. once in a while). With chapters like "Stop Not Taking the Easy Way Out" and "How to React if You Think Your Child Might be Gay (Hint: Celebrate)," Sh*tty Mom is a giant love letter to moms who are exhausted from trying too hard not to be sh*tty. I read the entire book while locked in my bedroom while my child screamed at her father that it was definitely not her bedtime yet. Sh*tty? Yeah, a little. But I think it's exactly how the authors would have intended their book be read.

UPDATE: A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (audiobook), by Suzanne Joinson (narrated by Susan Duerden)

UPDATE: I just listened to the audiobook of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. It is narrated by  Susan Duerden and it is just awful. Susan Duerden manages to over pronounce every single word. Every. Single. Syllable. And she manages to sound pretentious and uncertain at the same time, like every sentence she says is an implied question to a house servant. It's awful. Just painful. DEFINITELY STICK WITH THE BOOK!!!

Disclaimer: I received the audio file of this title free from Edelweiss for review purposes. I was not obliged to write a favourable review--obviously. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.

Here's my review of the actual book (which I published on June 16, 2012): 

My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family, by Zach Wahls and Bruce Littlefield (audiobook narrated by Kris Koscheski)

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Zach Wahls skyrocketed to fame in 2011 when, at the age of 19, he testified before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee regarding a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He stood up in defence of his family, of his two lesbian moms, and of himself as a child of gay parents who turned out just fine after all. "If I was your son, Mr. Chairman," he said. "I believe I'd make you very proud." His testimony was uploaded to YouTube and went viral almost instantly.

My Two Moms is about Zach Wahls' family. It's about what led up to his testimony in Iowa. But mostly it's about Zach Wahls, a twenty-year-old who has had, for the most part, an incredibly easy life. Yes, he's had some instances of embarrassment over having gay parents (my mom's not gay and I spent half my childhood being embarrassed by her for one reason or another--that's what kids do) and he's experienced the incredible pain of seeing one of his parents battle a serious illness (his mom Terri has MS, which is definitely painful for the whole family, but this kind of hardship is certainly not exclusive to gay parents). In fact, if you were to describe Zach Wahls based on the characteristics that are most important to who he is, you'd probably say he's a twenty-year-old student, an Eagle Scout (he mentions that on nearly every page of the book), a giant nerd (he comes by it honestly--his parents walked down the aisle to the theme from Star Trek Voyager), a child of loving parents, a debate champion, a minor internet celebrity and budding entrepreneur, and oh yeah, his moms are gay.

Hit the jump to see Zach Wahls' testimony before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Death Makes the Cut, by Janice Hamrick

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High school history teacher Jocelyn Shore finds herself in the midst of a murder investigation when her coworker, the beloved Coach Fred, coach of the school's tennis team (that's apparently a thing), is found dead in his equipment shed. Just the day before Jocelyn had overheard the coach arguing with a parent who was irate that his son didn't make captain (captain of the high school tennis team is also a thing, apparently). Could that be related to Coach Fred's untimely death?

Our plucky though sometimes impossibly naive heroine can't help but to try to solve the mystery, while balancing a charming yet arrogant homicide detective, a long distance romance with her hunky boyfriend (for more information on these, see every cozy mystery with a female amateur sleuth ever written), overbearing coworkers, and her role as the new tennis coach which has her promising to take the team to State (What? Your high school tennis team didn't go to State? You probably had the wrong captain).

I enjoyed this book, albeit ironically at times.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Paris Directive: An Inspector Mazarelle Novel, by Gerald Jay

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I was going to write a review based on how disappointed I was that this title wasn't The Paris Detective, like I originally thought when I ordered this book. I pictured a sort of Sherlock Holmes in Paris kind of thing, or maybe a Hercule Poirot in England type (okay, maybe not Hercule Poirot, he's so fussy). I was picturing a period piece set in turn of the century London or Paris, with a string of unsolved murders that can only be solved by our hero, the Paris Detective. Or maybe there is murder in the sleepy town of Dijon and they need the help of a big city detective with his strange ways and modern new techniques. I mean, it even says "An Inspector Mazarelle Novel" for goodness sakes, I really thought it was going to be a cozy mystery!

But I can't write a whole review about my mistaken reading of the title. I had to actually read the book. Turns out it's one of those spy thrillers (The Paris Directive) that I'm so bad at reviewing. As soon as the CIA is involved in any way or someone says the word "operative," I just glaze over. I get confused, constantly lose the plot, and think about how much I dislike Matt Damon. My mind wanders and I vow to never order another spy thriller book again, because clearly it's the genre in my blind spot.

But here goes:

Fifty Shames of Earl Grey: A Parody, by Fanny Merkin (aka Andrew Shaffer)

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Full Disclosure: I'm a mom in my thirties who likes to read and I have not yet read Fifty Shades of Grey. Seems unlikely, I know. So take my review of the parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, for what it's worth.

Why did I agree to review a parody of a book I haven't read, you may ask? Well, I was curious. I figured even the parody would tell me a few things about the original book (it did) and help me decide if I should read it or not. Plus, I though it might be about tea (it wasn't). But it was cute.

The premise is that impossibly naive Anna Steal agrees to interview sexy CEO Earl Grey as a favour to her journalist roommate. From what I understand, this is very similar to the original, though I do hope Anna's naivete is exaggerated. Some things Anna does not know include: 

  • how an elevator works
  • that Hawaii is in the United States
  • that a Hotmail account doesn't cost money
  • that her "ethnic friend" Jin, who wears hot pants and collects My Little Ponies, might be gay

Hit the jump to find your inner goddess, I mean, inner guidette...

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Water Man's Daughter, by Emma Ruby-Sachs

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Set against the backdrop of post Apartheid South Africa, The Water Man's Daughter tells the story of a murdered Canadian water company employee whose death sparks a high profile investigation and a visit from his daughter, demanding answers. The genius of this novel is that there are no answers, at least not easy ones. Everyone is a hero and a villain in some way. The dead man was responsible for privatizing the water supply of the poorest regions of Johannesburg, cutting hundreds of families off from a clean water source. He was much despised and feared. He was also a loving father who is deeply mourned by his daughter. Although we do eventually understand the circumstances that led up to his death, this is by no means a traditional whodunnit. It's a complicated story told in simple prose (which I think makes it all the more powerful) that is as emotionally provocative as it is fascinating. 

I'm glad I stuck with this novel. There was something about the beginning of it that I found difficult to grasp on to (it was probably just me, since the story itself is definitely interesting). Maybe it was the quietness of the prose. Perhaps I was expecting explosions, dialogue filled with gasping and shouting, long descriptions of dying animals in the street that are meant to act as not-so-subtle parallels to the violence of the setting, a young author's enthusiastic attempts to get the dialect of the black characters just right and then showing off her cleverness on every page. There was none of that. Instead Emma Ruby-Sachs let her story unfold quietly, evenly and simply, even when the story itself was graphic or tense. She never showed off how good she is at being a novelist, she simply wrote a good novel. The tone was like listening at the feet of a storyteller, which I think was just right.

I wouldn't be surprised if The Water Man's Daughter finds its way on to high school syllabi

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Old MacDonald Had Her Farm, by JonArno Lawson (illustrated by Tina Holdcroft)

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I love this book for quite a few reasons. One, Old MacDonald is a female farmer. It's a little thing, I know, but I like it. Second, the illustrations are hilarious and practically cry out for multiple perusals. And third, the concept of the book is fantastic. Instead of animals, the set up is "Old MacDonald had her farm A-E-I-O-U. And when she came across an A, this is what she'd do:" and then lists a whole bunch of action words that feature the letter "A" (repeat for E, I, etc., and then "sometimes Y"). It's the sort of book that I think two-year-olds would like (my own personal focus group of one, Magda, calls it "pretty wondaful") because it's cute and funny. But I also think that elementary school kids who are learning about vowel sounds would enjoy it because the pictures are so hilarious, even if it looks like a preschool book. 

One word of caution to educators and parents

The Fire Station, by Robert Munsch (illustrated by Michael Martchenko)

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I love Robert Munsch! I saw this title on NetGalley.com so I guess it's been re-released, but originally it was published twenty years ago. Like all Robert Munsch books, it holds up beautifully. It's also one of my daughter's favourite types of Robert Munsch stories, namely the little-kid-with-a-fast-vehicle (her other favourites are Angela's Airplane and Zoom!). Of course, one of the best thing about Robert Munsch books is Robert Munsch himself, his storytelling is beyond compare. If you ever have a chance to take your child to see him in person, it's definitely worth it. In the meantime, check out his website. You can download audio files of him reading almost all of his books. (It's fantastic for long car rides for those of us who don't have video games and DVD players in our cars.)

Thirst, by Shree Ghatage

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Thirst promises a story of longing, veiled passions and doomed international love affairs set against the backdrop of World War II. Sound good? Calm down, it's not. 

It starts with a love letter written by Baba, a young Indian man who has (inexplicably) moved to London in the summer of 1942 to continue his schooling, to his wife Vasanti who is still in India. Cut immediately to a seemingly endless fifty plus pages of Baba wandering around Wales with the a case of The Worst Amnesia in the World (more on that later). During this time he is a boring non-entity of a character, an unreliable narrator who has no cause to be (he has amnesia, but he can still see and hear--why isn't he describing things better?). Then, when he finally remembers who he is, we cut back to India a few months earlier to learn about his relationship with his wife, Vasanti. 

This section proves to be no more interesting or satisfying. The couple's arranged marriage is unpleasant to read about, not because the concept of arranged marriages is a foreign one to me as a Westerner or anything, but because they seem to be rather unpleasant people. Baba is cold to his wife and consumed with his own angry judgement of his father. Vasanti is so passive that it's hard to get to know her or sympathize with her as a character. When Baba leaves for England it's hard for me, as a reader, to summon the enthusiasm to care.

The conclusion is equally passionless and annoying. I don't want to ruin it but my honest reaction was "Oh for #$%#'s sake!? Are you kidding me with this?" It's not sad or tragic or filled with "thirst-like" longing or any of that $@&*. It's just further proof that our hero Baba is a jerk-faced jerk I don't care about.

Oh, I promised more on The Worst Amnesia in the World! Yes! Hit the jump for the story...

Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend, by Matthew Dicks

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Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is, in a word, brilliant. It's one of my favourite books of the year and that's saying something because I have read a truly insane number of books this year. I'm sure there are lots of you out there who have read far more than I have, but I've gone from an average of 1-2 books a week in 2011 to about 3-4 a week so far in 2012, so for me that's a lot. And this one stands out as phenomenal. 

The premise is simple but powerful. The novel is told entirely from the first person perspective of Budo, the imaginary friend of an Autistic boy named Max. Well, he's not labelled as Autistic, but the author makes it clear. In Budo's world, imaginary friends are very real and can interact with each other, even if the only humans who can see them are the children who first imagined them. And once that child stops believing in his or her imaginary friend, the friend disappears. Since Max spends so much time inside his own head, his imaginary friend has survived longer than most. Budo is nearly six years old and in that time he has learned a lot about the world and the dangers it presents, both for Max and for him. Budo is worried about disappearing, worried about what will happen if Max stops believing in him. But more than that, he's worried about Max. Max sometimes forgets to look for cars before crossing the street. Max is being bullied by a mean kid at school. And, most worrisome of all, Max has been befriended by a teacher whom Budo does not trust. At all.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, by Bee Wilson

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Consider the Fork is brilliant. It is not a history of what we eat but how we eat, which I found absolutely fascinating. Bee Wilson makes a strong argument that the utensils, cooking methods and table etiquette that we've developed over the millennia have shaped--and been shaped by--our individual cultures and have direct links to our food itself. 
          For instance, which came first--the Chinese stir-fry or the wok? The answer is both. Woks were developed to address a shortage of firewood and fuel. Cutting food into small, even pieces helps them cook faster and conserve energy. But the stir-fry and the wok are so linked to Chinese food culture it's hard to imagine Chinese food without them. And the other impact of wok cooking was that all knife work was done in the kitchen, not at the table, thus solving the age old question of how to make sure no one pulls a knife on you at dinner (one of the main concerns behind most British table etiquette). The British, on the other hand, had no such fuel shortage and were therefore able to slow roast meats for hours at a time, giving rise to one of England's most beloved culinary traditions--roast beef. 
          Bee Wilson gives a history of various aspects of food preparation, cooking and food storage that is so fascinating and detailed that it should be required reading for anyone writing historical fiction. Reading about typical late Victorian London kitchens had me thinking back to all of the novels I'd read from that time period (which is a lot) and reassessing how accurate they'd been.